Sunday, January 31, 2016

A review of an interesting sounding book

Paul Krugman Reviews ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert J. Gordon - The New York Times

Here's what it's about:
Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macro­economist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we’re in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy, he has repeatedly called for perspective.  Developments in information and communication technology, he has
insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.
In “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” Gordon doubles down on that theme, declaring that the kind of rapid economic growth we still consider our due, and expect to continue forever, was in fact a one-time-only event. First came the Great Inventions, almost all dating from the late 19th century. Then came refinement and exploitation of
those inventions — a process that took time, and exerted its peak effect on economic growth between 1920 and 1970. Everything since has at best been a faint echo of that great wave, and Gordon doesn’t expect us ever to see anything similar.

Over him, at last

About time the public got over Tarantino, the most undeservedly praised director/writer of my lifetime, I reckon.  

Too hot for Interstellar?

OK, I still haven't seen Interstellar (I've read too much about it that puts me off, but I'll get around to it one day), but it seems that the whole physics set up (giant planet around a black hole "star") gets the details wrong, after all.  (Not sure what Kip Thorne, the physicist who came up with the movie scenario, thinks of this.)

From New Scientist:
Wondering if any more power might be available, the team turned to the film Interstellar, in which a world called Miller’s planet orbits very close to a massive, spinning black hole called Gargantua. General relativity means the black hole’s gravitational pull slows time on the planet so that 1 hour is equal to seven years off-world, a factor of around 60,000.
“We saw the movie, it was a very interesting idea, but then we started thinking about the problems,” says Opatrný.
The energy of light is proportional to its frequency. This means that when light from the CMB hits Miller’s planet, and its frequency is increased by this time dilation, its energy increases. With a time-dilation factor of around 60,000, Miller’s planet would be heated to nearly 900 ˚C.
In the film, the planet is swept by huge tidal waves of water, but Opatrný says his calculations mean molten aluminium would be more likely. Conditions would be cooler if the planet were slightly further out from the black hole, lessening the effects of time dilation and making it more hospitable to life. “It’s interesting that [the analysis] suggests the microwave background would be disastrous for observers on the planet, making the movie once again less realistic,” says Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University.

Friday, January 29, 2016

For those who like reading about Scruton

A Very British Hatchet Job - The Los Angeles Review of Books

Here's another review of Roger Scruton's recent book, which I have noted previously.  

Toilet espionage

Stalin 'used secret laboratory to analyse Mao's excrement' - BBC News

Remarkable (if true):
Mr Atamanenko claims that in December 1949, Soviet spies used this system to evaluate the Chinese leader Mao Zedong who was on a visit to Moscow. They had allegedly installed special toilets for Mao, which were connected not to sewers, but to secret boxes.

For 10 days Mao was plied with food and drink and his waste products whisked off for
analysis. Once Mao's stools had been scrutinised and studied, Stalin reportedly poo poo-ed the idea of signing an agreement with him.

Bad HIV news

HIV becoming resistant to key drug, study finds - BBC News
Splitting the sample size roughly into two groups the study found that in Africa 60% of patients were resistant to Tenofovir, whereas in Europe the figure was only 20%.

The paper, which has been published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal,
said poor administration of the drug, in terms of regularly taking the right levels of Tenofovir could be explanation for the discrepancy.

"If the right levels of the drug are not taken, as in they are too low or not regularly maintained, the virus can overcome the drug and become resistant," Dr Gupta told the BBC News website.

"Tenofovir is a critical part of our armamentarium against HIV, so it is extremely concerning to see such a high level of resistance to this drug," he added.

The paper also suggested that Tenofovir-resistant strains of HIV could be passed on from person to person.

"We certainly cannot dismiss the possibility that resistant strains can spread between people and should not be complacent. We are now conducting further studies to get a more detailed picture of how Tenofovir-resistant viruses develop and spread," Dr Gupta said.

So that's what a physics professor's whiteboard looks like?

Bringing time and space together for universal symmetry

Go on:  have a read of the article, but also look at the whiteboard.  

The lonely professor

Was it mere co-incidence that the day after there were several news reports about the record low rate of smoking amongst Australian youth (something that the stories noted might be at least partially attributed to plain packaging - but the claims was cautiously made) that Sinclair Davidson posted a long critique of another paper that looked at whether plain packaging was making adults more likely to quit.

For those who could even bother following the highly technical argument, the bottom line is that the evidence from the study isn't that overwhelming.   M'eh.

Seems a bit beside the point, when before its introduction, I believe the main hoped for effect of plain packaging was to be to discourage young people taking up the habit, and the study wasn't even looking at that.  The survey evidence which did get publicity does indicate that it may be having that effect.  

So the Professor's attempts to deride plain packaging as possibly being effective are being seen, even by some who comment at his blog, as rather obsessive (and, I would add, desperate).  As someone in comments said:
Sinc: wish you would drop this embarrassing obsession
Every time I see Simon Chapman on the TV talking up dropping smoking rates, I imagine a blood pressure spike happening in a certain office at RMIT.  And then a scurry to look at some anti tobacco research or other to see what pointless nitpicking can be made of it.

Update:  if you want to read (or at least glance at) evidence for a truly obsessive personality disorder, you need only read the extremely lengthy comments that commenter "Some History" comes up with at every single post where the Prof whines about plain packaging not being proved to be effective.  

Update 2:  Oh!  A new post by SD  seems to be correct in saying that the paper discussed in the news (linked above) may have mis-spoke when saying that youth smoking was at "record lows".   Although, truth be told, how much weight one should put on the difference between 2.5 and 3.2% in voluntary responses on surveys by teenagers is debatable.

Still, as usual, the overall picture remains a matter of not seeing the wood for the trees.  Just like with climate change.

Mosquito borne diseases and climate change

While it seems that a feared expansion of malaria due to a warming climate hasn't happened (and the reasons why are a matter of much debate), there is renewed concern with the zika virus outbreak that other mosquito borne diseases are spreading faster because of the increased range (and life span?) of mosquitoes.  As explained in this Vox article, there are pretty good reasons to suspect a warming, wetter climate is already playing a role:
The spread of Zika is part of an unnerving trend: Several mosquito-borne tropical illnesses have lately been spreading into regions of the world that have never experienced them.

A viral disease called chikungunya — which had never appeared in the Western Hemisphere until 2013 — has lately affected Central and South America, even making an appearance in Florida last year. (Its name comes from the Makonde language of Tanzania, where it was discovered in 1952; it means "that which bends up," referring to the contorted physique of a person afflicted by the virus.)

Dengue fever, known as "breakbone fever," has also seen new outbreaks in Puerto Rico, Florida, Gulf Coast states, and Hawaii — all places that hadn't usually been affected. In 2015, Brazil reported nearly 1.6 million dengue cases, a big increase from 569,000 in 2014.

Zika, dengue, and chikungunya are all spread by a species of mosquito called Aedes (in particular the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes). For reasons researchers don't understand, these mosquitoes have been more effective at bringing diseases to new places lately, affecting fresh populations that don't yet have the antibodies to fight off the viruses.

Heidi Brown, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Arizona, explained there are at least three factors that help these illnesses spread: the number of mosquitoes out there, the number that are biting humans infected with the virus, and the number that are surviving long enough to infect other humans.

"The survival of the mosquito is driven a lot by temperature," she added. Mosquitoes thrive in warm and moist environments. "So people go to the idea of global warming — that climate change and changes in precipitation patterns and temperature are helping mosquitoes survive in different areas." In other words, warming is helping expand the range of places that are habitable to mosquitoes.

There are other factors that may be driving the trend, too: People are traveling more than ever, bringing diseases to new locales. More and more people live in crowded cities, where it's easy for viruses to jump from person to person and for mosquitoes to find large concentrations of humans to feast on.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Eye maintenance is more complicated that I thought

BBC - Future - Why do we get sleep in our eyes?

I didn't know this:
It all begins with tears – or more precisely the tear film that coats our eyes. Mammalian eyes of the terrestrial variety, whether they're found on the faces of humans, dogs, hedgehogs, or elephants, are coated in a three-layered tear film that allows the eyes to function properly.
(Tears work somewhat differently in marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions.)

Closest to the eye is the glycocalyx layer – a layer made mostly of mucus. It coats the cornea and attracts water, which allows for the even distribution of the second layer: the water-based tear solution. It might be just four micrometres thick – about as thick as a single strand of spider silk – but this layer is very important. It keeps our eyes lubricated and washes away potential infections. Finally, there is an outer layer composed of an oily substance called meibum, which is composed of lipids like fatty acids and cholesterol.

Meibum has evolved to be exquisitely tuned to the mammalian body. At normal human body temperature, it is a clear oily fluid. At just one degree cooler, though, it becomes a white, waxy solid – the familiar eye gunk.

Large flakes of this solid can form during sleep for a couple of reasons. First, the body cools down a bit at night in general, so some of the meibum becomes cool enough that it moves below the melting point and turns solid. Second, according to Australian ophthalmologist Robert G. Linton and colleagues, "sleep relaxes the [muscular] action on the [meibomian] gland
ducts…[which] is sufficient to cause far in excess of the normal to exude onto the lids and eyelash roots during sleep". In other words, our eyes are coated with more meibum than usual at night – and so when that meibum cools we can end up with appreciable amounts of eye gunk.

Media notes

*   ABC has been running the BBC quiz show Pointless before the 7pm news; hence I sometimes catch the last 5 or 10 minutes of it.

I assume there are people who will disagree, but I think it's the most stupendously stupid quiz show idea ever conceived, and it's as boring as hell too.   Could the host possibly be any duller?

Vox has a lengthy piece on the woeful prospect of Hollywood being stuck for the next 20 years in "expanded movie universes".  The worst news in the article: 
The Transformers films, for example, are no longer being treated as a single series but as a larger world to explore.

Last summer, Paramount hired a gaggle of writers to spend a few weeks brainstorming ideas to broaden the series, an effort that apparently produced at least nine different movie ideas — and producers have said that five of those ideas look viable.
*  To my surprise (as I didn't care much for the second one), Kung Fu Panda 3 is actually getting good reviews.   It may be maintaining its popularity better than Shrek.  

Depressed about physics

The problem that some physicists warned about - what if the Large Hadron Collider finds Higgs, but nothing else very interesting - seems in danger of becoming a reality; and given that there's a more widespread acknowledgement than ever that string theory is an untestable waste of time (well, this is my impression, anyway), it seems that the physics community has fallen into a bit of a depression recently.

Here are a few pieces to back this up:

a.  John Horgan wrote a great piece this month "How Physics Lost its Fizz", and his explanation of why he (used to) find physics so fascinating mirrors a lot of my own interests.    But whether it deserves this full amount of pessimism still seems a bit unclear to me - the problem being that you never know what is just around the corner in both theory and experiment, although it certainly seems true that the era of building ever larger particle colliders is over. 

b.  Starts with a Bang notes that early inflation of the universe sets a natural limit on how far back you can see, as explained in the post "Physicists Must Accept That Some Things are Unknowable".   Not a new idea, perhaps, but good to be reminded.   (And by the way - I really don't quite understand the way inflation is so widely accepted when, at the same time, as far as I know, there is no clear understanding of what caused it.  It has always seemed to me to have more than a touch of the Deus ex machina about it.)

c.  You can also watch a Downfall parody video with a difference:  Hitler doesn't get a postdoc in High Energy Theory.  Somewhat amusing, and realistic, apparently.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Against against the stimulus

Idiotic Anti-Stimulus Talking Point Won’t Die -- NYMag

Heh.  Jonathan Chait writes of the chart that I am sure I have seen at Catallaxy (I think posted by S Davidson himself?):
As I noted before, we can’t prove that the stimulus reduced unemployment because we can’t
measure exactly what unemployment would have looked like otherwise. But the talking point that the stimulus failed because unemployment exceeded the forecasted level is not a serious argument. No reasonably informed person could take it seriously. And yet this blunt and easily refuted bit of propaganda continues to circulate seven years later within the airless bubble of the conservative echo chamber.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why so many awards?

I'm honestly interested in the question "how many Australians understand our awards system in any detail?", because unless I'm doing some unfair extrapolation from my own ignorance, I would say that there are very, very few.   (And most of those being "establishment" types who have been around a while and keep an eye on which of their colleagues have got a gong when they haven't yet.  In fact, it may only be those Australians who have a clue about the difference between an AO, AM and an OAM.)

And looking at the list of award recipients this year:   aren't we starting to run out of people worth congratulating when there are so many each year?   Patsy Biscoe may have done a lot for the community of the Barossa, and I know nothing of the charitable efforts of Liza Wilkinson, but this type of work is its own reward, surely?

And, of course, how can I overlook the award given to "Groucho" Henry Ergas?   Here's what he wrote in a piece kept at the IPA website since 2009:
The myth is that evidence-based policy is good policy: nothing could be further from the truth. The value of public policy does not depend on whether it rests on evidence, but on whether it seeks goals that are worth pursuing.
Well, talk about your succinct summary of all that gone wrong in Right wing politics and policy over the last decade or so, particularly in the US! 

To be fair to Ergas, even though he doesn't deserve it because those lines are such a poor explanation of what he is trying to say, his article is actually arguing more that statistics and "evidence" is malleable, depending on the end result desired.   In the article, he later clarifies his position to:
Evidence is perhaps a necessary condition for sound policy, but it is far from being sufficient. 
"Perhaps"!   How generous of him to allow evidence to reach the heights of "perhaps" being important to policy.

And, strangely, the citation in the SMH says he is getting his OA partly for distinguished service to "higher education".   Yet in 2014 he wrote a column in The Australian that complained:
That is not to deride our institutions of higher learning. But a stroll down the corridors of even highly rated universities would shock the most hardened of ­troopers. Entire buildings seem to have been struck by specially ­developed neutron bombs: the structures are intact, but the ­academics are nowhere to be seen.

What teachers there are tend to be tutors, all too often foreign postgraduates struggling with the ­mysteries of the English language, and part-timers on short-term contracts.

No doubt many academics take their vocation seriously, but they are swamped by those too intellectually feeble to get employment elsewhere, too satisfied ever to leave and too young to retire.
This prompted actual teaching academic Harry Clarke to write:
Your views on inactivity in the universities are just wrong and outdated. Education and teaching are central priorities and have been for several decades. But that is just my claim just as your views are a claim. You provide no evidence to justify your impressions.  Why do Australian universities do so well in international rankings if they are so poor? Why do we attract so many international students? Is this  export success story based on wrong information? Your judgement about academics being intellectually feeble likewise reflects pure prejudice partly because many of them don’t take you very seriously. Most academics regard your politics (and your propensity to dominate verbal exchanges with long rambling monologues) with well-deserved disgust.  You are wrong about professors regarding teaching undergraduates as only a burden.  It is simply untrue – good researchers are invariably good teachers since the two things go together.
Now, I don't know much about Ergas' contribution to infrastructure economics, and (to my surprise) economics journalist Peter Martin seems to think Ergas is a worthy recipient, but I'm pretty convinced that his getting this award makes for a great case that the country is giving out too many. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Short version: "With low expectations, you'll probably enjoy it"

TV Review: Mulder and Scully Return in a New 'X-Files,' Conspiracy Theories Abound - The Atlantic

And you thought the Freemasons were bad

Australian politics is pretty boring at the moment:   Malcolm Turnbull would easily win the election if only he could continue doing nothing before it has to be called.   Just like the Queensland Premiership, where Annastacia Palaszczuk maintains popularity by simply keeping a pretty low profile, the non-scary leaders who get to follow those who do scare the public have a pretty easy run for quite a while.   

Of course, there is the bizarre spectacle of Kevin Rudd thinking he would be good for the United Nations - but surely that is more of a matter of entertainment than a serious possibility.   Why would Julie Bishop say the government would even consider it, though?   (Kevin doesn't look all that well to me in recent photos I've noticed, too, although they might be old file ones I suppose.)

So without politics to worry about at the moment, I wandered over to Arts & Letters Daily, to read a scathing review of book about Augustine.    It's lengthy, but this episode is noteworthy for its insight into ancient rumour mill:
The story begins when Augustine, as a Manichee, may have heard (must have heard according Lane Fox) an anti-Manichaean slander that the cult’s Elect, at their secret meals, had sex on top of flour spread on the floor. Their joint juices were spilled on the flour, and the male like some unknown Onan spilled his seed upon the ground, making the flour a carrier of the particles of light from the Elect, as the members of the Manichee sect were called. Bread was then made of the flour for the Elect to consume. Like most attacks of bigotry, this slur was illogical. What good would it do for the Elect to recycle light out into bread and then back into the source of the light in the first place? There is no way to know how widely this crude attack was known to people, much less to know how many credited its nonsense. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Down the black hole to a new universe

An abstract on arXiv:
 We investigate the effect of a black hole as a nucleation cite of a false vacuum bubble based on the Euclidean actions of relevant configurations. As a result we find a wormhole-like configuration may be spontaneously nucleated once the black hole mass falls below a critical value of order of the Hubble parameter corresponding to the false vacuum energy density. As the space beyond the wormhole throat can expand exponentially, this may be interpreted as creation of another inflationary universe in the final stage of the black hole evaporation.
I'm pretty sure I saw another paper making the same argument on arXiv last month, but I forgot to note it.  (I think Sabine H saw it too.)   Should try to find it...

Friday, January 22, 2016

Maybe this will help...

OK, if you don't understand, listen to this.

(It appears Nesmith has required all YouTube's of Elephant Parts to be taken down from YouTube, which is fair enough I guess.)

How good a debater is Cruz? (A short, funny Colbert piece)

Surely even Republicans would find this funny:

And while you are on the Colbert channel, you may as well look at this clip just to see how extraordinarily similar Colin Hanks talks, looks, and acts like his father Tom.   As many people say in comments after, it's almost spooky.

Ross Douthat confesses

My Sarah Palin Romance - The New York Times

It was, however, a very brief romance.

And look, if one looks back at this very blog (no, I'm not going to help you find it), one will see that I too thought that her very first appearance on the national stage showed an impressive and natural confidence that might work well.   But then, as Douthat says, she had to talk national policy to the media, and it all fell apart.

So I actually have a bit of sympathy here for Ross.   But I still don't think he knows the way forward for the Republicans.   No one on the Right has a proper grip on what has happened to the American Right, if you ask me.

The Gaia bottleneck?

The aliens are silent because they're dead

Interesting idea, I guess...

Don't worry, Catallaxy, we already know you don't "do" science

That’s a silly number | Catallaxy Files

Being ideologically dedicated to as tiny a government as possible because - well, just because! - the economists of Catallaxy don't like the idea of government funding science.   Which is consistent with the blog being deeply devoted to climate change denial.

The blog would be better served by just not discussing science at all.  Crank economics is enough of a burden, let alone taking on crank science.

Trend change discussed

Changes | Open Mind

Tamino notes that, for most climate change indicators, it's not yet clear whether the trend rates are changing (that is, accelerating.)  But, of course, the actual current trends are worrying enough.

Furry empathy, re-visited

Consoling Voles Hint at Animal Empathy - The Atlantic

I like research into niceness, but I see that people were doubting that rats saving other rats were displaying empathy.  But perhaps this study into prairie voles makes a stronger case.  (I'm still generous in my interpretation of the rat study, too.)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Seems a significant graph

Just noticed on twitter:

They have their standards

Once again (and there are a million other examples), I am bemused by the Catallaxy outrage at how leftists "hate" (someone said something mean about the late Bob Carter, and Sinclair Davidson thinks its worth noting), while over at another thread a "leftist" ABC journalist is called (for no apparent reason relevant that I can see) a "$20 a trick hooker", and no one else in the thread bats an eyelid.

(Incidentally, that Riccardo Bosi is one of the nuttiest of any commenter on the Australian blogosphere.  Here's his follow up to the "hookers" comment:
There’s a very good reason why I went public with my name, and I’m just getting warmed up. The hookers at the ABC are just one group who will eventually be taking a long walk off a short pier.
He's ex-Army, rabidly Christian and anti-abortion, hates Islam with a passion, and has said he's going to be undertaking some speaking tour of Australia to convince everyone of God knows what.)

More about the geologist to the "lay person"

I see a common theme that runs through the many Bob Carter condolence comments made at climate change denying sites such as Catallaxy and Jonova is that many felt he was great at explaining clearly to the non scientist "lay person" why AGW was a nonsense.

Just as anti-vaxxers should realise that the fact that the mere handful of anti-vax doctors always seem to be talking to groups of "lay people" instead of other doctors might be a clue as to the real quality of their advocacy, those who refuse to believe in AGW are oblivious to their own gullibility.

Yesterday, in Alan Moran's post at Catallaxy, for example, he linked to a video of a recent (little noticed) talk Carter was giving at Paris last year on behalf of the Heartland Institute.  (It's the 5th video down.)

I started watching it, and was surprised to hear him claim within the first few minutes that it was "irrelevant" climatically as to whether there has been a 16 or 18 year "pause" in the warming.  You have to look at climate change on the longer scale of 30 years (he says that the last 150 years only has 5 climate data points.)

Well, that's interesting, because here's what he was saying in The Age a mere 5 years ago at the height of the argument about an Australian carbon tax:
Fact 1. A mild warming of about 0.5 degrees Celsius (well within previous natural temperature variations) occurred between 1979 and 1998, and has been followed by slight global cooling over the past 10 years. Ergo, dangerous global warming is not occurring.
Fact 2. Between 2001 and 2010 global average temperature decreased by 0.05 degrees, over the same time that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increased by 5 per cent. Ergo, carbon dioxide emissions are not driving dangerous warming.
Seems strangely like he is encouraging his readers in 2011 to believe that the "pause" is indeed climatically significant, but apparently it's not unless you look at the 30 year period.   Which, a few days after his death, looks like this:

The appeal to, and deliberate confusion of , the "lay person" is not something we have much sympathy for when it comes to anti-vaxers.  The only reason people might be less harsh towards climate change deniers and advocates to the gullible like Carter is probably because with climate change there is not such an easy present day attribution to death, as there is with a baby who dies of whooping cough, for example.

But long term, the problems Carter was trying to deliver to humanity on ideological grounds were, of course, worse.  (Even if you want to argue that stopping all vaccinations might kill just as many people as climate change, the realisation of a mistake with that policy would be quickly reversible.   Carter and his ilk always skipped over the fact that their advocacy for delay makes the problem - if they are wrong - essentially  irreversible.) 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The irony meter will never recover

Anthony Watts writes this at WUWT about the sudden death of one of the two Australian geologist global warming star "skeptics", Bob Carter:

Anthony Watts, whose blog is the home for the wilfully and gullibly ignorant of the United States, bemoaning the "cult of ignorance" in his country.  Wow.

Regardless of his personal qualities (of which we pretty routinely give the recently deceased the benefit of any doubt), if people cannot work out that Carter was intellectually leading them up the garden path with misdirection and science-y sounding argument about climate that actually did not bear even moderate scrutiny, then they're too silly to continue arguing with.

And that's probably why Watts sounds sort of depressed these days - actual climate scientists are (rightly) more than ever just ignoring his beloved "work" of spreading disinformation.  Even he is started to get that it has been for nought. 

A bit of insight into the ways Americans think about slavery

I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery. - Vox

It's a good essay, and sheds some light on the change in thinking that I think has become much more prevalent in the US since the rise of the ideological, "evidence, what evidence?" American Right over the last decade or so.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Playing around

A lengthy holiday report

Good for the astronomers

Star wars: Lights set to be dimmed in NSW country towns to allow for space research | DailyTelegraph

I see it's only a proposed plan at the moment, but good to see that the politicians are taking seriously the need to limit light pollution around the Siding Spring Observatory outside Coonabarabran.  (Which is where the photo that graces the top of this blog was taken from.)

Physics mysteries, continued

Tiny black holes could trigger collapse of universe—except that they don't | Science | AAAS

I missed this story from August last year.  How slack of me.

Seems that a paper last year argued that mini black holes in theory could cause the collapse of the universe's vacuum state (thereby ending the universe), but for some reason, they don't.   (And we know that because it should have happened long ago, if it could.)


Easier said than done

Let's Measure Consciousness!   Max Tegmark

Max Tegmark likes big ideas, and here he's suggesting that he's come up with a (possible) way of testing for consciousness.

You ought to follow the link in the article to his paper on arXiv:  even by the standards of what you routinely find there, it's absolutely chock full of maths.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Other things watched

Short movie notes from recent viewings:

Paper Planes:   the Australian kids' movie that was apparently a commercial success is simply ridiculous in its improbable details.   Even my daughter, who is pretty much in the target market, thought it silly.  At least it helps confirm my biases against Australian made films, which currently have a hit rate with me of about 1 out of 100 viewed (and I've probably only seen 35.)

The Cave of the Yellow Dog:  being a film that heavily features yurts, I was probably destined to like it.  And yes, this great looking, naturalistically acted film set on the plains of Mongolia is pleasant and engaging.  Oddly, though, it is very neutral in its depiction of the dog.   Some would say this is a good thing, I suppose (certainly, the people who harp on about Spielberg and sentimentality); but really, I felt the movie could have been better by making at least a bit of effort to make the dog look cuter and more engaged with the girl.

Safety Not Guaranteed: an example of a low budget ($750,000 [!] according to IMDB), independent American film that blows low cost Australian film making out of the water.   Looks great; some charming acting;  good script (although I would have preferred the unpleasant male to be less sweary); and an  intriguing story with a pleasing enough ending.  Confirms my biases against Australian films.  

Deep sea

I've been wondering for a long time if the documentary film about James Cameron's trip to the deepest part of the ocean would ever surface (ha!) on TV, and last night it did, with little fanfare, turn up on SBS.

It was very interesting, even though I was a bit surprised to find that it was completely devoid of tension in the sequences where he drops down, down, down.   It just appeared to be such a mundane, workday thing for him to be doing.

Obviously suffering from not the smallest, tiniest bit of claustrophobia, he also seemed to be always in control of his famous temper, and nary a swear word was to be heard.

In any event, it is well worth watching if you missed it. It's on the SBS on demand service, for now anyway.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

An unfortunate typo

My Google Alert for all things Celine Dion must have failed me*, because I see from Time magazine that her older husband has passed away, the report perhaps needing clarification in one respect:
Daniel Dion, the older brother of pop singer Celine Dion, died Saturday, just two days after the death of the entertainer’s husband, Rene Angelil....

The announcement follows the death on Thursday of the 73-year-old Angelil in suburban Las Vegas after a long ballet with throat cancer.
* a joke, dear reader.  And for her fans:  sorry for finding something a bit funny in a sad start to a year for the singer.

A seriously strange star

Comets can't explain weird 'alien megastructure' star after all | New Scientist

I think I have resisted, until now,  posting about the star that might have alien megastructures around it, as I always thought a mundane explanation would be established soon enough.

But with this news, of the star dimming 20% over a century, it is time to me to admit that this is a seriously strange star with something very odd about it:
To confirm the fade was real, Schaefer went to Harvard to look at the
original photographic plates and inspected them by eye for changes, a
skill few astronomers possess these days. “Since no one uses
photographic plates any more, it’s basically a lost art,” says Wright.
“Schaefer is an expert at this stuff.”

Schaefer saw the same century-long dimming in his manual readings,
and calculated that it would require 648,000 comets, each 200 kilometres
wide, to have passed by the star – completely implausible, he says.
“The comet-family idea was reasonably put forth as the best of the
proposals, even while acknowledging that they all were a poor lot,” he
says. “But now we have a refutation of the idea, and indeed, of all
published ideas.”

“This presents some trouble for the comet hypothesis,” says Boyajian.
“We need more data through continuous monitoring to figure out what is
going on.”

What about those alien megastructures? Schafer is unconvinced. “The
alien-megastructure idea runs wrong with my new observations,” he says,
as he thinks even advanced aliens wouldn’t be able to build something
capable of covering a fifth of a star in just a century. What’s more,
such an object should radiate light absorbed from the star as heat, but
the infrared signal from Tabby’s star appears normal, he says.

“I don’t know how the dimming affects the megastructure hypothesis,
except that it would seem to exclude a lot of natural explanations,
including comets,” says Wright. “It could be that there were just more
dimming events in the past, or that astronomers were less lucky in the
past and caught more dimming events in the 1980s than in the 1900s. But
that seems unlikely.”

There’s no doubt KIC 8462852 is behaving strangely, so something must
be responsible, says Schaefer. “Either one of our refutations has some
hidden loophole, or some theorist needs to come up with some other

Friday, January 15, 2016

Free will, top down

I've been pretty busy, and so haven't had that much time to refresh myself on the recent history of "free will" debates in light of the recent post at Backreaction.

I do see, though, that there was recent pretty acrimonious debate between Sam Harris (no free will) and Daniel Dennett (there is free will, in a more limited way than most people might think, but it still exists in a useful and meaningful sense) which really covers much the same ground as Sabine Hossenfelder did at Backreaction.    I haven't had time to read up on all of that.   I would say, though, that atheists seem unusually touchy about their determinism being questioned.  

Of the many things I thought questionable about the Backreaction post, I think I can immediately note the following:

a.  given that physicists know that there is quite a way to go to understanding quantum physics and things like non-locality, possible retro-causation, and the nature and fate of information in the universe (black holes and information loss, for example), it seems pretty presumptuous to think that the state of play as currently understood is enough to write the final word on determinism and free will.  (I know that Hossenfelder disputes this line of argument.)

b.  Sabine writes (my emphasis): 
It doesn’t matter if you start talking about chaos (which is deterministic), top-down causation (which doesn’t exist), or insist that we don’t know how consciousness really works (true but irrelevant).
There's probably a definitional argument to be had here, but when I think of top-down causation I think of the matter of how peculiar it is that ideas that get transmitted between humans affect their decisions and moods.   This seems pretty important when talking about free will and what it means, and I see that there have been recent symposiums devoted to the topic.  (This one sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, who atheists dislike because they think it promotes mystery as a door to maintaining grounds for religion.   I don't like it so much because it also turns out they give awards to crappy libertarian ideas such as opposing a carbon tax.)

Let's just say that I'm not convinced that dismissal of the concept of "top down causation" isn't, again,  premature.

c.  Sabine's criticism of psychological studies that look at the effect of not believing in free will may have some good points, but I still doubt that this is grounds for dismissing all study of the effects of this belief.

That's all, for now.

Swearing at work

Laurentian University professor removed for asking students to agree to profane language - Sudbury - CBC News

The professor in question, Michael Persinger, is (relatively) well known for his work on the "God helmet".

All seems a bit of a university storm in a teacup.

The latest resurrection of political correctness in universities (particularly the extreme cases in the US) always put me in mind of that that very enjoyable 1980's UK series A Very Peculiar Practice.   Seems to me a similar show is ripe for the writing.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

So much for ice ages

Greenhouse gas rise will delay next ice age by as much as 100,000 years, scientists say

Ill informed climate change denialists will sometimes try on an argument along the lines of "well, warming is better than an ice age, and as one of those may be just around the corner, we shouldn't worry about pre-empting it by warming the planet now." 

They conveniently forget Hansen's long standing rebuttal that  "..a single chlorofluorocarbon factory would be more than sufficient to overcome any natural tendency toward an ice age. Ice sheets will not descend over North America and Europe as long as we are around to stop them."

And in any event, latest estimates of an ice age were for the next being millennia away, as this article explains.

So, this is what "global warming isn't happening" looks like...

The full press release (as a .pdf) from the BEST  team can be found via this link. 

Tamino does his own graphing of their results here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

An interesting article on boredom

Why boredom is anything but boring : Nature News & Comment

Boring turns out to be neuroscientifically fascinating. 

I'm thinking of sending them a link to some of Club Troppo's posts (particularly, though not exclusively, some of Nicholas' old "great chess games of history" posts) for further research fodder....

(I do seem to be in a bitchy mood today.  Sorry.)

While we are talking about the Right being Wrong...

....I did quite like this recent Krugman column on the matter of the American economic recovery under Obama, and the wrongology of Republican warnings.

In which I am mean to an academic, again

Now, given that I have no inherent interest in AFL football, and have barely understood the saga of the Essendon drug supplements, it is possible that I am reading this wrong.  But as far as I can tell, and even though monty is too polite to say so openly over at his blog, I think it is fair to say that Sinclair Davidson appears to have been about as wrong on that matter as he was on the great stagflation warning of 2011, which I like to bring up every 6 to 12 months.   He also put much weight on the global warming "pause" as a good reason why people should think nothing should be done about AGW.   Given that even lukewarmer Steve MacIntyre (beloved "climate auditor" whose nitpicking role seems to be to convince people that it is really is correct to not see the wood for the trees) now has a post that shows this model to temperature graph:

you have to wonder when he'll admit a misreading of that matter, too.

People who understand more may correct me, at least on the Essendon matter, although truth be told, I'm not that interested. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bee on free will (again)

Backreaction: Free will is dead, let’s bury it.

As much as I like Sabine H's blog, I still have trouble getting my head around her arguments about the (lack of) free will.  And she seems to get cranky when people disagree with her.

I should read her post more carefully and come back to explain why I have a problem with it.

Re: David Bowie

I think it fair to say that I sort of get the appeal of David Bowie, but am perhaps just a bit too young to fully get it.  I think his biggest fans are those who started following him from the start, and at that time as a pre-teen I was certainly much more interested in the actual space program than in a sexually ambiguous, psychedelic tinged pop musician's introverted way of looking at it.   (That really was the most annoying thing about the 60's and early 70's:  just at a time the world could be celebrating and extending a stunning  outreaching milestone in the history of humanity, youth culture in the nations that had achieved it went instead down the rabbit hole of sex and druggie self indulgence.)

But sure, he had many good and catchy songs and an eclectic style; and later came to make enough anti-drug comments that he was once quoted by my local parish priest!   I also saw him in self-mocking mode in Zoolander just on Sunday night - the first time I have ever watched it.  Yeah, he seems to have a been a pretty nice guy in his private life (once he cleaned his act up, at least), and it is sad that he's died relatively young.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Probably good news for the germ phobic

You're Probably Not Mostly Microbes - The Atlantic

Seems to have taken a long time for this correction to be made.

Some startling implications for the legal system

Why too much evidence can be a bad thing

I had never heard of this point made in the opening paragraph:

Under ancient Jewish law, if a suspect on trial was unanimously found guilty by all judges, then the suspect was acquitted. This reasoning sounds counterintuitive, but the legislators of the time had noticed that unanimous agreement often indicates the presence of systemic error in the judicial process, even if the exact nature of the error is yet to be discovered. They intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, most likely a mistake was made.
Then what they actually tested:
The researchers demonstrated the paradox in the case of a modern-day police line-up, in
which witnesses try to identify the suspect out of a line-up of several people. The researchers showed that, as the group of unanimously agreeing witnesses increases, the chance of them being correct decreases until it is no better than a random guess.

In police line-ups, the systemic error may be any kind of bias, such as how the line-up is presented to the witnesses or a personal bias held by the witnesses themselves. Importantly, the researchers showed that even a tiny bit of bias can have a very large impact on the results overall. Specifically, they show that when only 1% of the line-ups
exhibit a bias toward a particular suspect, the probability that the witnesses are correct begins to decrease after only three unanimous identifications. Counterintuitively, if one of the many witnesses were to identify a different suspect, then the probability that the other witnesses were correct would substantially increase.

The mathematical reason for why this happens is found using Bayesian analysis, which can be understood in a simplistic way by looking at a biased coin. If a biased coin is designed to land on heads 55% of the time, then you would be able to tell after recording enough coin tosses that heads comes up more often than tails. The results would not
indicate that the laws of probability for a binary system have changed, but that this particular system has failed. In a similar way, getting a large group of unanimous witnesses is so unlikely, according to the laws of probability, that it's more likely that the system is unreliable.

Back to the KKK and the history of American lynchings

It was only back in 2009 that I learnt something about the incredible openness with which American racial lynchings had taken place in the late 19th and early 20th century.  (See my post here, although it would appear that the BBC documentary link no longer works.  There are short extracts of it on Youbtube, though.   Here and here.)

This was all brought to mind by this article at New Republic that first sounds a bit light weight:  How the Klan Got Its Hood - but in the course of the explanation, it looks at this matter of the openness with which people could support the movement.

It is very startling to read things like this:
Lynchings were not spontaneous outbursts of “mob” violence, but the predictable result of institutional support and the outright participation of political elites. The lynchers of Leo Frank, in Marietta, Georgia in 1915, included a former governor, judge, mayor and state legislator, sheriff, county prosecutor, lawyer and banker, business owner, U.S. senator’s son, and the founders of the Marietta Country Club. Frank’s atypical case—he was white and Jewish—attracted media attention that thousands of black victims never received, yet it exposed the ways that elites and authorities exonerated themselves by blaming mob violence on so-called “crackers.” Meanwhile, Mississippi governor, later U.S. senator James K. Vardaman said in 1907, “If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”
Vardaman didn’t wear a white hood. Neither did the first woman U.S. senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, who said in 1897, “If it takes lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week if it becomes necessary.” They were cloaked, instead, in state power and popular support, and what their platforms concealed was the truth: Wells-Barnett’s reporting and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) research had disproved the “thread bare lie” of the lynch mob as honorable defenders of white women. Besides the fact that the myth of the black rapist was a white supremacist fantasy, 70 percent of lynchers didn’t even bother to invoke it to justify their violence. Lynchers killed for such alleged offenses as “sassing,” wanting a drink of water, being “troublesome,” “conjuring,” and often, as in the murders of Mrs. Jake Cebrose and an eight-year-old child named Parks, no excuse at all.
And to read the horrifying details of some lynchings:
In 1918, Georgia governor Hugh M. Dorsey wrote to the NAACP, “I believe that if the negroes would exert their ultimate influence with the criminal element of their race and stop rapes that it would go a long way towards stopping lynchings.” The “criminal element” he was referring to was Mary Turner, who had threatened to press charges against the lynchers of her husband, Hayes Turner, and of nine other men. The lynchers, as reported by the Savannah Morning News, “took exceptions [sic] to her remarks as well as her attitude.” They lynched Mary, who was eight months pregnant. Journalist Walter White, whose ability to pass as white enabled him to interview the murderers themselves, reported that they had hung Mary upside-down, set her on fire, cut out her fetus and stomped it, then shot Mary’s body multiple times. The Brooks County coroner’s jury ruled that all the victims had died “at the hands of parties unknown” and closed their cases; a lyncher served as jury foreman.
 But back to the question in the title of the New Republic article:  it appears Hollywood, in the form of Birth of a Nation, as well an enterprising mail order business, gave the Klan its "classic" look.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Not even just a border skirmish?

Saudi Arabia rules out war with Iran |

Sorry, I shouldn't make light of it, but the Middle East is such a basketcase.  Or does North Korea deserve the top title for that?

Well handled by Obama

'American Sniper' widow confronts Barack Obama over gun control | US news | The Guardian

Seems very odd indeed that she should be taking the line "let's look on the bright side" when her fellow pro gun ownership lobby is always focusing on the need to arm themselves for self protection.

Seems a bit like the hydra-headed aspect of climate change denialism:  any line of argument will be used with complete disregard for consistency.

Encouraging information

I see that Bryan Appleyard liked Bridge of Spies quite a lot, and he did an appreciative interview with Spielberg and Hanks in which this information is found:
Spielberg is now 68, but as his mother is 95 and still running her Milky Way kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, and his dad is 99, we can take it he has a few decades of film-making left. 

Friday, January 08, 2016

Star hopping

Alien life could thrive in ancient star clusters : Nature News & Comment

Until now, scientists have largely discounted the idea of finding
extraterrestrial civilizations in globular clusters, which each contain
thousands to millions of stars. Out of the thousands of known extrasolar planets,
only one has been found in such a cluster, and many astronomers think
that the gravitational interactions among tightly packed stars would
have long ago hurled any accompanying planets into deep space.

But the proximity of all those stars may actually be an advantage for
supporting life, says Rosanne Di Stefano, a theoretical astrophysicist
at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. Lots of closely packed stars could also mean lots of
planetary systems within easy travelling distance. “If there is an
advanced society in an environment like that, it could set up outposts
relatively easily, because we’re dealing with distances that are so much
shorter,” she says.

With such networking, civilizations in a globular cluster might endure
for billions of years, and thus be around for humans to communicate with
today or in the future.


Blog: Obama's fake tears?

The stupid thing is, after reading this latest evidence of, what? some sort of deranging brain damage afflicting the Right of American politics?, I actually re-watched the video to see if some of the "analysis" had the details right.  They don't.  (Surprise, hey?)

Krugman forgets to mention light bulbs - energy saving light bulbs - drives them nuts

Deadly Snits - The New York Times

Market breaks, and the coming crisis (allegedly)

Interesting bit of history here on the market of built in stock market trading breaks.

I see that Soros is going on about a potential financial crisis again, even though it would seem that it would not be based on anything too closely resembling what happened in 2008.  I get the feeling Soros is crying "crisis" too often now.   How old is he?  85?

I'm sorry, but this is pretty much the age at which my rule of thumb about being able to safely ignore the warnings of older men kicks in. Look at Rupert Murdoch's (84) peculiar recent tweet:

Mind you, this rule can be subject to modifications:   if libertarian, subtract at least 45 years, for example. 

Good point

Why the opioid epidemic is making a libertarian rethink drug legalization - Vox

Haven't I made the same point last year?  Yes; yes I have.

See, sometimes even a libertarian moves closer to my (always reasonable) opinion!

Rand doesn't do "chat" well

Gee.  Rand Paul has appeared on Colbert, and doesn't he come across (for the most part) as uncomfortable and awkward in that format?   I don't know that any of his attempts at humour work, although (as usual) Colbert has some good moments.

However, Rand's point about the lack of knowledge and gravitas on the part of Trump on minor matters such as, you know, potentially being in charge of the world's second largest thermonuclear stockpile, is well made.  

And it's also interesting to note that it appears Paul thinks it is trivialising him if interviewers always  want to talk to him about marijuana.  He appears genuinely annoyed that the topic has been broached, apparently breaking a pre-appearance deal.

I also learn that I am not the only person who think his hair is odd.

Watch the whole thing:

Thursday, January 07, 2016

At last, the critics are catching up with me

While still getting not so bad aggregate scores on the likes of Metacritic, I have read enough mainstream critics' poor reviews of Tarantino's Hateful Eight to consider that they are (finally) really starting to turn against him and his oeuvre.   For example, Anthony Lane ends on this note:
Above all, we get confirmation of the director’s preëminent perversity: patient and elaborate in his racking up of tension, he knows only one way to resolve it, and that is through carnage, displayed in unmerciful detail.To be fair, the more blood is spilled, the more some people lap it up; the audience at my screening howled with glee as Daisy’s face was showered with the contents of someone else’s head. Chacun à son goût. By the end of “The Hateful Eight,” its status as a tale of mystery and its deference to classic Westerns have all but disappeared, worn down by the grind of its sadistic vision. That is the Tarantino deal: by blowing out folks’ brains, he wants to blow our minds.
David Edelstein:
You wonder what he has up his sleeve in The Hateful Eight, but gorgeous as that sleeve might be, what’s up it is crap. The movie is a lot of gore over a lot of nothing.
Dana Stevens in Slate:
What is Quentin Tarantino’s game these days? Who is he making movies for? Is it only my fun-hating prudishness that makes me regard this historical-revenge-fantasy bender he’s been on since Inglourious Basterds as ineffably evil?

Cool design, even if ridiculously risky.

Chinese drone maker unveils human-carrying drone

Just in case you needed reminding..

here's Sabine Hossenfelder (sounding very serious and, well, very German) explaining the correct answer to whether light is a particle or a wave:

Readers might also be interested in her speculating on how a lightsaber might work.  Or should that be "lightsabre"?

Colbert too smart for the times

Stephen Colbert is fantastically talented at comedy acting: energetic, sharp as a tack, probably the only chat show host in the history of television who also happens to be serious enough about religion to teach Sunday School at his Catholic Church, and he has a crack team of writers behind him.

He's also moderately liberal, which means a large slab of the American public (the part that thinks Obama really is a Muslim, and that Trump is the best thing to happen to politics) cannot stand him.

So it doesn't really surprise me that after a strong start, his chat show is now running third in the ratings.

But get this:  the lightweight, dumb comedy of Jimmy Fallon is number one.  I don't find Fallon offensive, but I fail to see that he has any great talent; and I just don't think his writers come up with great lines.  He is, at least, slightly hip with da kids in a way the daggy Jay Leno never was.  (I mean, who could believe that he routinely out-rated David Letterman, even when DL was at his peak.)

Yes, it's not just Colbert:  late night America doesn't tend to like its chat show hosts to be too smart.  But especially at this extremely peculiar time of distressing, spreading stupidity amongst much of the American public, Colbert was always going to have a hard time being the ratings leader.

So that's all by way of preamble to a couple of recent clips from his show that I found amusing:


Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Peter Martin on how the net didn't quite change things as expected

Why the blockbuster is far from dead

I liked this column from Peter Martin.

On the subject to the net and movies, as I have written before, I also find it curious that the change to digital projection, and therefore digital distribution, of movies has not seemed to have had the cost cutting benefits to movie making that would have seemed to be a natural consequence.  (Or maybe it has, but just other movie making costs have increased anyway to "compensate".)   

By way of comparison

1.  David Leyonhjelm, in 2016, when it is a matter of female journalists being made to feel uncomfortable at work:

2.  David Leyonhjelm, in 2014, when the issue was how he felt about John Howard's gun laws:
"All the people at [Sale that day] were the same as me," Leyonhjelm tells me, his light-blue eyes blazing. "Everyone of those people in that audience hated [Howard's] guts. Every one of them would have agreed he deserved to be shot. But not one of them would have shot him. Not one." He found it offensive, he adds, that Howard "genuinely thought he couldn't tell the difference between people who use guns for criminal purposes, and people like me".

Why around 3 degrees is still likely

I see that in the pre-Christmas rush, I overlooked the significance of a recent paper that showed why it was very likely that the "observational constraint" based studies (like the work of Nic Lewis) that had recently been suggesting that climate sensitivity was as low as 1.3 or 1.5 degrees are biased too low.

The explanation is at two posts at Real Climate. 

Conservatives and solar subsidies

As you might suspect, I quite liked this article in the New York Times:  The Conservative Case for Solar Subsidies.  

It's particularly worth following the link therein to the report from the Congressional Research Service that tallies up the government R&D funding for oil, gas and nuclear over the years. 

I'm also presuming that Judith Sloan, if she could tear herself away from reading the Wall Street Journal over her tea and scones, would splutter while reading this:
And there’s nothing in free-market economic theory that precludes government support. Markets tend to underproduce what economists call positive externalities — that is, the broad social benefits, like a cleaner environment, that aren’t captured on a company’s balance sheet.

Solar panels, and the companies that make them, are replete with such benefits: They eliminate redundant power plants that otherwise lie idle, empower consumer choice and have fewer negative consequences than most other forms of energy. But markets don’t always reflect these, which is why it makes sense for subsidies to enter the picture.

The kerfuffle over the Solyndra collapse aside, many conservatives already agree, and have for years. When I was at the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, we believed that an across-the-board energy policy was by far the best approach — and that included solar. From both a market and an environmental point of view, supporting the solar industry should make sense, no matter which side of the aisle you come from.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

America's paranoid, nutty militia

Two pieces about the nut based militia movements of America - one at Vox, looking at their history since the 1990's (and pointing out how they re-emerged when it appeared that a black man may become President.  What a co-incidence, hey?)   The other is from LGF, and you should watch the video of one of the guys now in Oregon and his recreational interest in shooting arrows into effigies of politicians he considers "traitors".  Not that he's advocating violence or anything, although he does share with us that he'd like to line up and shoot them all in the back of the head. 

The only support in Australia that I've seen for the armed nutters like him currently holed up in the Oregon Wildlife Refuge building:  from some in the threads of (you guessed it) Catallaxy Files, which should just be renamed Right Wing Ratbag Central and be done with.  (Trump's pretty popular there too because - Muslims.)

Yay for free will

It indeed seems that those who interpreted the original Libet experiments as having effectively rendered all humans (and animals) into deterministically driven, quasi automatons were doing some unwarranted extrapolation.   (The Wiki article on Libet says that he himself did not discount the "veto" role of consciousness.)  But here's the latest experiment:
Using state-of-the-art measurement techniques, the researchers tested whether people are able to stop planned movements once the readiness potential for a movement has been triggered.

"The aim of our research was to find out whether the presence of early brain waves means that further decision-making is automatic and not under conscious control, or whether the person can still cancel the decision, i.e. use a 'veto'," explains Prof. Haynes. As part of this study, researchers asked to enter into a 'duel' with a computer, and then monitored their brain waves throughout the duration of the game using electroencephalography (EEG). A specially-trained computer was then tasked with using these EEG data to predict when a subject would move, the aim being to out-maneuver the player. This was achieved by manipulating the game in favor of the computer as soon as brain wave measurements indicated that the player was about to move.

If subjects are able to evade being predicted based on their own brain processes this would be evidence that control over their actions can be retained for much longer than previously thought, which is exactly what the researchers were able to demonstrate. "A person's decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early . They are able to actively intervene in the decision-making process and interrupt a movement," says Prof. Haynes. "Previously people have used the preparatory brain signals to argue against free will. Our study now shows that the freedom is much less limited than previously thought. However, there is a 'point of no return' in the decision-making process, after which cancellation of movement is no longer possible." Further studies are planned in which the will investigate more complex decision-making

The questionable utility of "born this way"

A bit of an interesting take on the matter of sexuality and being "born this way" in this research:
Patrick Grzanka and Joe Miles, both UT assistant professors of psychology, recently published a study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology challenging the notion that the belief that people are born with their sexual orientation—a belief that has proliferated in the past 20 to 30 years, particularly among social and biological scientists—is the key to improving attitudes toward lesbian, gay and bisexual people....

For the study, Grzanka, Miles and co-author Katharine Zeiders of the University of Missouri surveyed two groups of college students. They used their previously developed sexual orientation beliefs scale, which attempts to capture a wide variety of beliefs such as the idea that sexual minorities are fundamentally different from straight people or that sexuality is based in biology. Most respondents believed sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable, but it's what else they believed about sexual orientation that distinguishes them.

For example, the researchers looked more closely at respondents who had negative attitudes about gay men. Even among those who believed gay men are "born that way," those who also believed gay men are "all the same and act the same way" were more likely to hold prejudicial attitudes toward , Grzanka said.

"We suggest that this demonstrates the limited capacity of 'born this way' arguments to reduce homophobia," he said.
Kind of makes sense.  And, perhaps counterintuitively in that "born this way and this is who I am" has helped in some legal fights, suggests that not insisting that their sexual orientation defines them as a person could be helpful in its own way.

Important science news of 2015

I have to thank Jason Soon for the link to this long, long list of (mostly) famous scientists and commentators talking at Edge about the big science stories of 2015.

Unfortunately, the format makes reading it a bit of a slog, so I'll just link to the ones that I think are particularly interesting:

1.   Frank Tipler:   I haven't read anything from him for a good few years, I reckon.  I had assumed he had retired, and perhaps he has; but here he is, still holding out in his somewhat peculiar reasoning style on the matter of what problems associated with black holes would be solved if the universe will stop expanding and head back into a Big Crunch (an essential part of his long standing "Omega Point" theory, which few people pay attention to anymore ever since it appeared the expansion of the universe is accelerating.)    Frank has always had trouble convincing other physicists he was onto something; probably because he always seems to be working backwards from the end result he wants, rather than the more routine way of dealing with evidence.   But it is true, some physicists have argued that the poorly understood dark energy might do a switch around in future.  (I'm sure I've posted to some arxiv papers along those lines, years ago, for those who can search this blog successfully.)   It's hard to know who's right until the nature of dark energy is understood, I guess....

2.  Jim Holt:  a good science writer whose books I have always intended to buy but keep forgetting to.   Here's he's writing about the somewhat amusing matter of a Japanese mathematician who thinks he has come up with a profound proof of something important, but hardly any other mathematician in the world can work out whether he really has, or not.  Lectures on the topic apparently mystify most of the mathematician audiences.  (I posted about this before, but it's such an odd and amusing story it's worth noting again.)

3.  Richard Muller:   the grandstanding physicist who said he was skeptical about global warming, but then did his own BEST re-analysis of temperature records and decided climate scientists were right after all, is here again hedging a bit by not saying that the risk of AGW is the reason why coal burning has to stop, but rather arguing that the millions of Chinese and Indians already dying from air pollution gives an immediate incentive to move to gas or nuclear.   I think he sounds unduly "down" on renewables, but the figures he cites for the health effects of current pollution are startling, if accurate.

4.  Joel Gold:  never heard of this psychiatrist before, but he talks here about how Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (which I knew was considered good for mood disorders and depression) actually works rather well for psychosis too.   That's a counterintuitive idea, and the first I have heard of it, but very interesting.

5.  Michael McCullough:  again, someone I haven't heard of, and talking of social research I haven't much heard of.  Apparently, religion is mostly "below the belt".   I'm not entirely convinced, but its worth more reading, I guess.

In other articles, lots of things I have written about over recent years get a mention:  fecal transplants (yay), gut microbiome (poo related again); but yes, the single weirdest entry in the post is the one by a South Korean guy fancifully suggesting an economy based on powdered poo.

Perhaps he trips out after eating kimchi?

Not abominable at all

Watched via Stan last night the one off Sherlock special episode The Abominable Bride, and, as much as I intensely dislike Steven Moffat's work on Doctor Who, I have to say I thought it was pretty terrific.

The episode is copping much criticism, and I don't really understand why.  Even a significant proportion of commenters at The Guardian (home for all Moffat fanboys and girls) had trouble with it, yet I think part of the problem may be that some did not think hard enough about what the episode was doing.   (Which is a little odd, because some of the criticism is along the lines that it was being "too clever by half".)   Maybe it is just attracting  too much over-analysis:  can't people simply enjoy it for its fast and witty dialogue, effective spooky scenes, and fine direction?  Or - another theory - it rated very highly in England (unlike the badly declining Dr Who ratings) and some might have been viewing the show for the first time, in which case, yes, it would make little sense.

But if you are going to go the "analyse it to bits" route, I think one person at The Guardian probably had it right.  I'll link to his or her post once I can find it again!

Monday, January 04, 2016

First post

And a Happy New Year to all.  Except anyone in ISIS.  Speaking of which, does anyone really have a good idea what the final outcome of the current diplomatic spat between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be?  From the point of view of the West, I suppose that any intensification of the centuries old dispute between branches of Islam that involves keeping it within the boundaries of a few countries in the Middle East is not entirely a bad thing, working on the principle that while they're busy killing each other over there, they're not plotting new ways to kill the innocent in our countries.  But it is, of course, even better if no one is killing anyone anywhere, especially over religion.

I've been on another beach holiday to our favourite seaside area.  More about that later. 

In the meantime, I didn't mind this article about the idea that all stories are the same.   (Even if you have heard this discussed before, and you probably have, you should read it for the somewhat startling quote by director Guillermo Del Toro.)

Lately I've been feeling mildly interested in trying to be creative again.  This is usually prompted by the fact that I can't find science fiction that interests me much anymore, or when I feel that movies are stuck in a bit of a creative rut, even while I enjoy them.   (By the way, Christopher Orr   notes that some critics - including him - have been revising their initial enthusiasm for Force Awakens.)

But, as always, whenever I start vaguely thinking of stories I would like to attempt to write up, my mind drifts back to what other books or movies they resemble.   As the article about stories says, there are a million books out there explaining how to write a novel (or script), but I am not sure that there is any that can stop this defeatist feeling before I even properly start getting ideas down.  Dreams often feel novel, but it is rare that one makes a compelling idea for a lengthy story.

Anyway, sadly, it's off to work...