Friday, September 30, 2016

Targeting Civilians

Putin and Assad have increased their targeting of civilians in Aleppo since the Kerry's farcical cease fire. Why? One theory is that they want to force the rebels in Aleppo to ally with ISIS and the other Islamic militants. Another is that they intend to kill everybody in a Grozny style slaughter.

Obama is famously non-confrontational, and he probably doesn't want to leave his successor with yet another Middle East mess, but his handling of Syria is probably his biggest foreign policy blackmark. He has two options to prevent Putin and Assad from winning, both highly dangerous:

(1)Afghanistan II: give the rebels the kind of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons needed to shoot down the Russian and Syrian planes. Aside from the risks of escalation or retaliation elsewhere, this risks these weapons ultimately being used against us.

(2)A no-fly zone, at least for Syrian planes. Risks escalation big time!

Putin has proved pretty adroit, so far, at exploiting Obama's weaknesses. History says such situations are damn dangerous.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

More Stoner Foreign Policy Smarts

Former NM Governor Gary Johnson:

It was, in Gary Johnson’s own words, another “Aleppo moment.”

During a town hall-style interview on MSNBC on Wednesday night, Mr. Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, was asked by the host Chris Matthews to name his favorite foreign leader.

Mr. Johnson, appearing flustered, was at a loss to come up with a name.

He grasped at a former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, who has been critical of Donald J. Trump, but was unable to remember his name without help — or the name of any sitting leader of a foreign country.

Of course, even though I can name a few foreign leaders, coming up with one I like, much less a favorite, is tough. Justin Trudeau, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Pope Francis? But in my case, these are senior moments. Johnson is a lot younger, and running for President. But I can name a bunch that I really don't like.

If Johnson's brain had been a bit less addled he might have changed the subject to those he didn't like. If he could remember any of them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Volker Ullrich's Hitler

Michiko Kakutani reviews the first volume of Ullrich's new Hitler biography in the New York Times. That first volume focuses on his rise to power.

How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool,” a “big mouth” — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this “most unlikely pretender to high state office” achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?

Ullrich is apparently more concerned with the man than some previous biographers who focused on sociopolitical matters, and that focus humanizes him. This strikes me as a good idea. Consigning great historical villains to the "monster" category is a good way of deflecting our attention from the monstrous tendencies lurking somewhere in all.

Certain themes with contemporary resonance come up in Kakutani's review.

• Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But Mr. Ullrich underscores Hitler’s shrewdness as a politician — with a “keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people” and an ability to “instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.”

• Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message. A former finance minister wrote that Hitler “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” and editors of one edition of “Mein Kampf” described it as a “swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.”

• Hitler was an effective orator and actor, Mr. Ullrich reminds readers, adept at assuming various masks and feeding off the energy of his audiences. Although he concealed his anti-Semitism beneath a “mask of moderation” when trying to win the support of the socially liberal middle classes, he specialized in big, theatrical rallies staged with spectacular elements borrowed from the circus. Here, “Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners,” Mr. Ullrich writes. He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order.

• Hitler increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising “to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,” though he was typically vague about his actual plans. He often harked back to a golden age for the country, Mr. Ullrich says, the better “to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay.”

There is more, of course, and I recommend the review to both potential readers and those who won't read it. Any resemblance to other politicians, living or dead, may well fail to be coincidental.

Monday, September 26, 2016


Trump was evasive, narcissistic, bombastic and seemingly incapable of speaking in anything other than superalatives. Just the candidate his partisans seem to love.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Whatever Happened to the Rakhigarhi DNA?

There was a lot of excitement last year when it was learned that excavations at Rakhigarhi, now a small village in Northern India, but once a major city of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) had yielded ancient bones which seemed to contain recoverable DNA. These bones had the potential not only to reveal a bit more about the people of this lost civilization, but also to clarify the ancient question of the origin of the Indo-Europeans and their languages, now spoken by about half the world's population.

Mainstream archaeology strongly favors Central Asia as the IE homeland, but significant support also exists for an origin in Iran or Asia Minor. Others, mostly Indian nationalists with little background in archaelogy, support the so called Out-of-India theory, in which the Indo Europeans were survivors of the IVC. The genetics of the IVC people should shed a lot of light on these questions.

The months have rolled on, and other results of the excavation have been reported, but no DNA results. Why not? Here are three unsupported theories:

(1)The DNA has not survived well enough to be decoded. The heat and humidity of India are bad for DNA, and technology couldn't extract anything useful. A variant says that they haven't given up yet, but neither have they yet been able to yet succeed in decoding it.

(2)First conspiracy theory. The DNA definitively refutes the Out of India Theory, but this result is so unwlcome to the Indian government, which seems to think that their official patriotic mythology is at risk, is repressing it.

(3)Second Conspiracy theory: The DNA strongly supports the Out of India origin of PIE, but mainstream archaeology is outraged and refuses to believe it.

Other options?

Russians Bombed Humanitarian Aid Convoy to Aleppo. Why?

The convoy was clearly marked and had been identified to the Russian command. So why did they bomb it?

My theory is that it was a Putin gesture of contempt. Putin believes that the West is weak and incapable of the resolve to resist. He cares nothing for the kinds of humanitarian considerations that are important to Obama and Kerry. He is testing the West, perhaps in preparation for his next military adventure - perhaps against the Baltics.

Of course if the Siberian candidate is elected, we can kiss them (and NATO) goodbye.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


The Clinton Foundation has a long list of exemplary accomplishments, while The Trump Foundation seems to be a nearly pure scam, with a long list of dubious claims and practices.

So which one do we hear about? Mostly Clinton, and almost always negatively.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Planned Breakthrough

Ever since I found out that blankets can violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics I have been devoting full time to developing blanket based perpetual motion machines. Excuse me while I put my head back under the blanket.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Was Columbus Right?

Columbus insisted until his death that he had reached India. Not so, of course, but according to the cladogram in the latest Nature, the closest neighbors to the South Asian Indians seem to be Aleuts and American Indians.

UPDATE: I should point out that my little joke is somewhat misleading. Asian Indians are parallel to the Saami, who in turn are parallel to a group that contains the American Indian group and the East Asian/Oceania group. These last are actually the closest relatives to the Amerindian/Aleut group.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Our Own Hugo Chavez?

ALBERTO BARRERA TYSZKA, writing in the NYT, points out some parallels:

MEXICO CITY — Long before becoming president, when he was a soldier, Hugo Chávez organized cultural activities, most notably beauty pageants. On a stage, microphone in hand, Mr. Chávez served as host, pumping up the audience and announcing the winner. The showman in him already struggled to emerge from under the uniform. Mr. Chávez said he imitated the proceedings he had seen on television in these improvised contests. This is how he learned to play to an audience.

When he tried to seize power through a coup d’état years later, in 1992, the resulting media frenzy sent him another sign. His military failure turned into a political victory: When Mr. Chávez appeared on TV to call for his colleagues to give up, he won over the audience. One minute on the screen was more effective than tanks, machine guns and bullets.

That was the start of his political career. He didn’t rise to power through social struggles. He became president without ever holding public office or a representative position that would have required him to negotiate or compromise. From his first election as president, in 1998, to his last one, in 2012 — shortly before his death at age 58 in March 2013 — Mr. Chávez became an expert in using television as a form of government.

Now Donald J. Trump is proposing the same thing to the United States.

Beyond their ideological differences, Mr. Trump, a populist right-winger, and Mr. Chávez, a leftist strongman, share the same telegenic vocation. They both built a career via television spectacle. Every Sunday, Mr. Chávez appeared on a program called “Aló Presidente,” in which he would sing, talk about current events or appoint and dismiss ministers — reminiscent of Mr. Trump’s television catchphrase “You’re fired!” There was no time limit for “Aló Presidente.” The longest episode lasted eight hours and seven minutes

College Entrance Exam

You say you would like your infant to be considered for the Harvard class of 2036? Please send a a blank check and cheek swab to our admissions office.

Steve Hsu claims significant correlation between identified Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) and adult education and life outcome. No doubt this technology will improve before the Harvard admissions officers make their final cut in 2031.

Another New Mexico Hurricane

Which is to say, a rare cloudy day, this one due to Pacific Hurricane Paine, now churning off Baja California. Haven't seen any rain yet, but our rare heavy rain events out here in the desert are often associated with hurricane remnants that cross the border into New Mexico or Arizona.

GOES West H2O Vapor Video.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


I just received my first DSLR, so naturally Slate runs this story:

Apple’s Aim Is on the Camera Market

Tech pundits think the iPhone 7 Plus could kill off high-end DSLRs. Are they right?

By Jordan G. Teicher

Despite momentary panic, I very much doubt it. Cell phones have small lenses, and are thin, so the sensor is very small. Unless the rules of optics change, I think the cell phone camera will remain limited, though point and shoots are a bit more endangered.

Comments from those who know more?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Another One Percent

Last week's Nature News Alert had an article misleadingly entitled: How to raise a genius: lessons from a 45-year study of super-smart children. The capsule sentence was just as far off:

A long-running investigation of exceptional children reveals what it takes to produce the scientists who will lead the twenty-first century.

The study in question, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) had nearly nothing to do with either of these things. Instead it identified gifted youngsters based on giving them the Math SAT at age 13 (the SAT is usually taken by university bound high school juniors and seniors). Those who scored in the top 1% were included in the study, and followed for the past 45 years. Some of the names will be familiar:

At the start, both the study and the centre were open to young adolescents who scored in the top 1% on university entrance exams. Pioneering mathematicians Terence Tao and Lenhard Ng were one-percenters, as were Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and musician Stefani Germanotta ...

If that last name doesn't jump out at you, you are probably not a pop culture geek, but you may be more familiar with her performing name: Lady Gaga.

The results of the study show that these students go on to be much more likely than the general students to get doctorates, STEM doctorates, and publish scientific papers.

The tests given to these kids are not true IQ tests because they focus on math ability and spatial reasoning. Getting high math scores at age 13 means that they can usually solve many types of math problems that they have never seen in their class work.

The study speaks approvingly of accelerating students by having them skip grades. I declined to let my kids be skipped, partly because I had read Murray Gell-Mann's comments on his experiences with being skipped far beyond his age cohort, but mostly because they thought it was a horrible idea. One thing that I thought worked better was letting them take high school classes while in middle school and university classes in high school, while remaining for most classes with their age cohorts.

The comments in Nature online were nearly uniformly disapproving of the story, but substantive critiques were hard to find. Of course the Nature readership is also likely to be a very scientifically literate group.

The study is now taking a closer look at the elite of the elite, the top 0.01 %, or roughly four standard deviations above the mean.

Vsauce for the Math Fan

Banach-Tarski - a non technical explanation.

It's like Hilbert's Grand Hotel.

The Hotel is a sixty second video, but Banach-Tarski takes a bit longer.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls tolls for thee, Uber drivers and all who make their living guiding vehicles. The latest sign that the future doesn't need us is Uber's experiment with self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. From Mike Isaac's NYT story:

In many ways, Pittsburgh is the perfect test environment for the company. The city, in essence a peninsula surrounded by mountains, is laid out in a giant triangle, replete with sharp turns, steep grades, sudden speed limit changes and dozens of tunnels. There are 446 bridges, more than in Venice. Residents are known for the “Pittsburgh left,” a risky intersection turn.

Raffi Krikorian, engineering director of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, located in the city’s industrial Strip District, put it this way: “Pittsburgh is the double-black diamond of driving.”

The displacement of human drivers over the next decade or so will be comparable to those of factory workers by automation from 1960 - 2010 and farm workers from 1900 - 1970.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Quite often, it seems, some professor of literature or philosophy shows up on the pages of the New York Times to bewail the neglect of the liberal arts, or sometimes the arts generally. Wells Fargo, or somebody, was pressured into taking down some ads pushing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. Education, ever a fashion industry, has been quick to ditch STEM for STEAM, the 'A' representing Art.

I'm not sure how many Art History majors there are in the US, but if it's more than 20, it's probably too many. I have similarly jaundiced views of many of the liberal and fine arts majors offered in American universities. We do need high school English and History teachers, it's true, and foreign language teachers too, but much of the rest is a waste.

Of course colleges should teach literature, art, history and philosophy, but we really don't need many majors in such subjects. A dozen or two universities could probably comfortably supply the nation.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Dear Amazon

Yes, it's true. I did put a Canon zoom lens in my cart. And I have spent roughly 7 kazillion bucks buying stuff from you. But you can stop putting 943 ads for Canon lenses in every web page I access. I am not going to buy the big lens that costs more than my annual Social Security income. I probably won't buy any of the full frame EF lenses because I have an APS-C camera. I am not going to buy any lens in the near future, with the possible exception of the one in my cart already.

I liked it better when you bombarded me with ads for books, some (way too many) of which I actually bought.

Age of Course is a Fever Chill...

...that every Physicist must Fear. He's better Dead than Living Still, Once Past his Thirtieth Year...............P.A.M. Dirac.

Dirac probably exaggerated, but the sentiment applies to others as well. Most athletes are in decline by age thirty, and we all start to slow down. Lots of professions have age limits, implicit or explicit. These ought to apply to certain public officials. Hillary Clinton developed pneumonia, and decided hide it and to just "push through it." This led directly to her embarrassing near collapse at the 9/11 ceremony. Once more her penchant for secretiveness rose up to bite her. A friend of mine, a year or so younger than her, made the same choice, and died suddenly as a result.

Hillary is 68, which, in my opinion, is too old to become President. Her principal opponent, Donald Trump, is two years older, and given the greater fragility of males with age, probably the longevity equivalent of five years older. If it was up to me, 64 or 65 would be the maximum age for eligibility to be inaugurated as President and Supreme Court Justices would face mandatory retirement at age 70. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate is 66, also over my age limit. Gary Johnson is 63, so narrowly under it.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

North Korea

North Korea is on the verge of getting nuclear weapons that can reach Japan, the US, and much of the rest of the world, despite repeated pledges not to. Sanctions have proven ineffective, and the US has no capability of cutting off Korean trade with China. Options are few and grim:

(1)An all-out surprise attack on N. Korea's nuclear and missile facilities and military. This would undoubtedly provoke a violent response, which possibly could include nuclear weapons reaching South Korea and possibly Japan. On the positive side, it might encourage Iran to strictly adhere to its treaty with the US. The reaction of China and Russia is unpredictable.

(2)An ultimatum to N. Korea, threatening utter destruction. This would be impossible unless China and Russia agree.

(3)Magically assassinate Kim. Problem: magic likely required. Even if successful, results completely unpredictable.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

"What is Aleppo**?

Not a Jeopardy answer, but the stoner candidate* for president displaying his foreign policy chops, or lack thereof.

More about Aleppo and its 7000 + years of occupation here.

*And former NM Governor Gary Johnson.

**Spelling repaired to (what I assume are) Oxbridge standards.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Quantitative Evolution

Lee has been bugging me about the quantitative character of evolution. On further thought, evolution is very quantitative in its predictions. Most of the answers are either 1 or 0, or, more familiarly, yes or no. Did evolution predict a physical basis for inheritance? Yes. Prediction confirmed. Does evolution predict a continuity and homology of forms? Yes. Prediction confirmed.

There are, of course, millions of such predictions and confirmations. Some, like certain homologies, were already known to Darwin, so count as postdictions, but for every such there are a thousand others that confirm the theory and would likely have gratified Darwin though not likely would have surprised him.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Revolution is Hard

I asked earlier why Cuba was still Communist, despite it's widespread global collapse. Most of the big transitions happened because those at the top changed their minds, in Russia and in China. Without the Russian threat, almost all of Communist Europe quickly dumped Communism. In Cuba, where the Castros still rule that is unlikely to happen, at least until they finally shuffle off the stage.

Venezuela is an interesting case. A highly repressive, semi-Communist leadership has produced a catastrophic economic collapse. Will raw public anger be enough to overthrow Maduro? Stay tuned.

Cursing and Recursing

Daniel Everett, the guy whose work inspired Wolfe's attack on Chomsky and Darwin, talks about his work and ideas here. The core of Everett's beef with Chomsky is whether or not recursion is central to language.

If there were a finite language, because of the lack of recursion, that wouldn't mean that it wasn't spoken by normal humans, nor would it mean that it wasn't a very rich source of communication. But if you lived in an environment in which culture restricted the topics that you talked about, and not only just your general environmental limitations on the topics you talked about, but if there were a value in the culture that said, don't talk about topics that go beyond, say, immediate experience—in other words, don't talk about anything that you haven't seen or that hasn't been told to you by an eyewitness—this would severely limit what you could talk about. If that's the case, then that language might be finite, but it wouldn't be a poor language; it could be a very rich language. The fact that it's finite doesn't mean it's not a very rich language. And if that's the case, then you would look for evidence that this language lacked recursion.

So in the case of Pirahã, the language I've worked with the longest of the 24 languages I've worked with in the Amazon, for about 30 years, Pirahã doesn't have expressions like "John's brother's house." You can say "John's house," you can say "John's brother," but if you want to say "John's brother's house," you have to say "John has a brother. This brother has a house." They have to say it in separate sentences.

As I look through the structure of the words and the structure of the sentences, it just becomes clear that they don't have recursion. If recursion is what Chomsky and Mark Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch have called "the essential property of language," the essential building block—in fact they've gone so far as to claim that that might be all there really is to human language that makes it different from other kinds of systems—then, the fact that recursion is absent in a language—Pirahã—means that this language is fundamentally different from their predictions.


If you go back to the Pirahã language, and you look at the stories that they tell, you do find recursion. You find that ideas are built inside of other ideas, and one part of the story is subordinate to another part of the story. That's not part of the grammar per se, that's part of the way that they tell their stories. So my idea is that recursion is absolutely essential to the human brain, and it's a part of the fact that humans have larger brains than other species. In fact, one of the papers at the recursion conference was on recursion in other species, and it talked about how when deer look for food in the forest, they often use recursive strategies to map their way across the forest and back, and take little side paths that can be analyzed as recursive paths. So it's not clear, first of all that recursion is unique to humans, and it's certainly not clear that recursion is part of language as opposed to part of the brain's general processing.