Quickly breach without heat or sparks

Monday, August 20th, 2018

I feel like I need a PyroLance now:

The historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

Travis Corcoran’s The Powers of the Earth recently won the Prometheus Award (for best libertarian sci-fi novel of the year), and he penned this acceptance speech:

I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I live on a farm and it’s harvest season in the Granite State. Live free or die!

I first heard of the Prometheus Award a quarter century ago and put “writing a novel worthy of winning it” on my bucket list. It was an amazing honor to be nominated alongside so many other worthy authors, and I can still barely wrap my head around having won.

Eric S Raymond said it best: “Hard SF is the vital heart of the field”. The core of hard science fiction is libertarianism: “ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering”.

I agree; science fiction is best when it tells stories about free people using intelligence, skills and hard work to overcome challenges.


The Powers of the Earth is a novel about many things.

It’s a war story about ancaps, uplifted dogs, and AI fighting against government using combat robots, large guns, and kinetic energy weapons.

It’s an engineering story about space travel, open source software, tunnel boring machines, and fintech.

It’s a cyberpunk story about prediction markets, CNC guns, and illegal ROMs.

It’s a story about competent men who build machines, competent women who pilot spaceships, and competent dogs who write code.

It’s a novel that pays homage to Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which in turn pays homage to the American Revolution.

…But the historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution. It’s the founding of the Icelandic Free State almost a thousand years earlier. The difference is subtle, but important.

The American Revolution was an act of secession: one part of a government declaring itself independent and co-equal, and continuing to act as a government. The establishment of the Icelandic Free State is different in two important particulars. First, it did not consist of people challenging an existing government, but of people physically leaving a region governed by a tyrant. And second, the men and women who expatriated themselves from the reign of Harald Fairhair did not create a government — they wanted to flee authoritarianism, not establish their own branch of it!

(The Kindle edition is currently 99 cents.)

Highlights from James Gleick’s Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

I was recently reminded of Feynman’s anecdote about an early wartime engineering job he had, recounted in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and that nudged me to move James Gleick’s biography, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, to the front of my reading queue.

Since I had the Kindle version, I was able to export my “highlights” — although that required a third-party tool called Bookcision:

  • The adult Feynman asked: If all scientific knowledge were lost in a cataclysm, what single statement would preserve the most information for the next generations of creatures? Location: 705
  • “All things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another,” Location: 707
  • Heat had seemed to flow from one place to another as an invisible fluid—“phlogiston” or “caloric.” But a succession of natural philosophers hit on a less intuitive idea—that heat was motion. Location: 725
  • In Switzerland Daniel Bernoulli derived Boyle’s law by supposing that pressure was precisely the force of repeated impacts of spherical corpuscles, and in the same way, assuming that heat was an intensification of the motion hither and thither, he derived a link between temperature and density. Location: 728
  • Visitors less interested in science could pay to see an unemployed actress named Sally Rand dance with ostrich-feather fans. Location: 781
  • When there are a dozen Babe Ruths, there are none. Location: 809
  • They went to the Egyptian section, first studying glyphs in the encyclopedia so that they could stand and decode bits of the chiseled artifacts, a sight that made people stare. Location: 869
  • In just over a decade of full-scale commercial production, the radio had penetrated nearly half of American households. Location: 872
  • If a boy named Morrie Jacobs told him that the cosine of 20 degrees multiplied by the cosine of 40 degrees multiplied by the cosine of 80 degrees equaled exactly one-eighth, he would remember that curiosity for the rest of his life, and he would remember that he was standing in Morrie’s father’s leather shop when he learned it. Location: 892
  • For now, knowledge was scarce and therefore dear. Location: 896
  • Richard spent fifteen dollars on a special entrance examination for Columbia University, and after he was turned down he long resented the loss of the fifteen dollars. MIT accepted him. Location: 939
  • Mathematics is always where they begin, for no other school course shows off their gifts so clearly. Location: 958
  • The theories must make reasonably good predictions about experiments. That is all. Location: 999
  • It follows the path of least time. (Fermat, reasoning backward, surmised that light must travel more slowly in denser media. Later Newton and his followers thought they had proved the opposite: that light, like sound, travels faster through water than through air. Fermat, with his faith in a principle of simplicity, was right.) Location: 1057
  • “Our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is ‘There is no God and Dirac is His prophet.’” Location: 1067
  • Having chosen a fraternity, one instantly underwent a status reversal, from an object of desire to an object of contempt. Location: 1147
  • Fortunately they had calculators, a new kind that replaced the old hand cranks with electric motors. Location: 1432
  • In Germany a young would-be theorist could spend his days hiking around alpine lakes in small groups, playing chamber music and arguing philosophy with an earnest Magic Mountain volubility. Location: 1449
  • Feynman had developed an appetite for new problems—any problems. He would stop people he knew in the corridor of the physics building and ask what they were working on. Location: 1535
  • The committee had seen its share of one-sided applicants but had never before admitted a student with such low scores in history and English on the Graduate Record Examination. Feynman’s history score was in the bottom fifth, his literature score in the bottom sixth; and 93 percent of those who took the test had given better answers about fine arts. Location: 1565
  • We have no definite rule against Jews but have to keep their proportion in our department reasonably small because of the difficulty of placing them. Location: 1570
  • In the close, homogenous university communities, code words were attractive or nice. Location: 1592
  • “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” Location: 1798
  • Feynman quietly nursed an attachment to a solution so radical and straightforward that it could only have appealed to someone ignorant of the literature. Location: 1851
  • Implicit in Feynman’s attitude was a sense that the laws of nature were not to be discovered so much as constructed. Location: 1860
  • They assured their readers that these were analogies, though analogies with the newly formidable weight of mathematical rectitude. Location: 1868
  • Another was John Tukey, who later became one of the world’s leading statisticians. Location: 1898
  • Seventeen years later, in 1956, the flexagons reached Scientific American in an article under the byline of Martin Gardner. “Flexagons” launched Gardner’s career as a minister to the nation’s recreational-mathematics underground, through twenty-five years of “Mathematical Games” columns and more than forty books. Location: 1917
  • They discovered that Feynman could read to himself silently and still keep track of time but that if he spoke he would lose his place. Tukey, on the other hand, could keep track of the time while reciting poetry aloud but not while reading. Location: 1934
  • But in the inverse case, when water is sucked in, there are no jets. The water is not organized. It enters the nozzle from all directions and therefore applies no force at all. Location: 1989
  • If there is a disease whose symptom is the belief in the ability of logic to control vagarious life, it afflicted Feynman, along with his chronic digestive troubles. Even Arline Greenbaum, sensible as she was, could spark flights of reason in him. Location: 2122
  • A movie showing a drop of ink diffusing in a glass of water looks wrong when run backward. Yet a movie showing the microscopic motion of any one ink molecule would look the same backward or forward. Location: 2181
  • “You Americans!” he said. “Always trying to find a use for something.” Location: 2379
  • In preparing for his oral qualifying examination, a rite of passage for every graduate student, he chose not to study the outlines of known physics. Instead he went up to MIT, where he could be alone, and opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About. Location: 2392
  • When he told a university dean that his fiancée was dying and that he wanted to marry her, the dean refused to permit it and warned him that his fellowship would be revoked. Location: 2493
  • Not so much as a grain of uranium 235 existed in pure form. Location: 2510
  • In one way or another, by the time the United States entered the war in December, one-fourth of the nation’s seven-thousand-odd physicists had joined a diffuse but rapidly solidifying military-research establishment. Location: 2537
  • Graduate students were being pressed into service with the help of a simple expedient—Princeton called a halt to most degree work. Location: 2585
  • To physicists Oppenheimer’s command of Sanskrit seemed a curiosity; to General Groves it was another sign of genius. Location: 2908
  • If Feynman says it three times, it’s right. Location: 3029
  • the Bethe Bible, the three famous review articles on nuclear physics, had provided the entire content of MIT’s course. Location: 3061
  • Cosmic rays alone sparked enough fission to make uranium 235 noticeably hotter in the high altitudes of Los Alamos than in sea-level laboratories. Location: 3075
  • He told them he could spot wrong results even when he had no idea what was right—something about the smoothness of the numbers or the relationships between them. Location: 3223
  • “It’s twenty-three hundred and four. Don’t you know how to take squares of numbers near fifty?” Location: 3240
  • Bethe knew instinctively, as did Feynman, that the difference between two successive squares is always an odd number, the sum of the numbers being squared. Location: 3245
  • He had simply added the first four terms in his head—that was enough for two decimal places. Location: 3259
  • The manufacturers of such equipment—the International Business Machines Corporation already preeminent among them—considered the scientific market to be negligible. Location: 3286
  • “He is a second Dirac,” Wigner said, “only this time human.” Location: 3385
  • People are predictable. They tend to leave safes unlocked. They tend to leave their combinations at factory settings such as 25-0-25. They tend to write down the combinations, often on the edge of their desk drawers. They tend to choose birthdays and other easily remembered numbers. Location: 3482
  • Experimentalists assembled perfect shining cubes of uranium into near-critical masses by hand. Location: 3618
  • Feynman’s first visit to Oak Ridge was his first ride on an airplane, and the thrill was heightened by his special-priority military status on the flight, with a satchel of secret documents actually strapped to his back under his shirt. Location: 3674
  • When he comes in, tell him Johnny von Neumann called.) Location: 3726
  • He estimated that a Hiroshima bomb in mass production would cost as much as one B-29 superfortress bomber. Its destructive force surpassed the power of one thousand airplanes carrying ten-ton loads of conventional bombs. Location: 3747
  • Before the war the government had paid for only a sixth of all scientific research. By the war’s end the proportions had flipped: only a sixth was financed by all nongovernment sources combined. Location: 3811
  • To have worked on the bomb gave a scientist a stature matched only by the Nobel Prize. By comparison it was nothing to have created radar at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, though by a plausible calculus radar had done more to win the war. Location: 3816
  • Unlike most of the Ivy League universities, Cornell had accepted women as undergraduates since its founding, after the Civil War, though they automatically matriculated in the College of Home Economics. Location: 3870
  • Feynman’s spacecraft would use the outer edges of the earth’s atmosphere as a sort of warm-up track and accelerate as it circled the earth. Location: 3983
  • Cornell’s 1946 fall-term enrollment was its largest ever, nearly double prewar levels. Location: 4022
  • Dyson’s war could hardly have been more different from Feynman’s. The British war organization wasted his talents prodigiously, assigning him to the Royal Air Force bomber command in a Buckinghamshire forest, where he researched statistical studies that were doomed, when they countered the official wisdom, to be ignored. The futility of this work impressed him. He and others in the operational research section learned—contrary to the essential bomber command dogma—that the safety of bomber crews did not increase with experience; that escape hatches were too narrow for airmen to use in emergencies; that gun turrets slowed the aircraft and bloated the crew sizes without increasing the chances of surviving enemy fighters; and that the entire British strategic bombing campaign was a failure. Location: 4293
  • Dyson saw the scattershot bomb patterns in postmission photographs, saw the Germans’ ability to keep factories operating amid the rubble of civilian neighborhoods, worked through the firestorms of Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945, and felt himself descending into a moral hell. Location: 4300
  • “Other people publish to show how to do it, but Julian Schwinger publishes to show you that only he can do it.” Location: 4750
  • Caltech made itself the American center of systematic earthquake science; one of its young graduates, Charles Richter, devised the ubiquitous measurement scale that carries his name. Location: 5094
  • The school moved quickly into aeronautic science, and a group of enthusiastic amateurs firing off rockets in the hills about the Rose Bowl became, by 1944, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Location: 5096
  • You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. Location: 5140
  • Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show. Location: 5154
  • susurrus Location: 5247
  • The main rule is to treat the women with disrespect. Location: 5258
  • noetic Location: 5264
  • The year before, Schrieffer had listened intently as Feynman delivered a pellucid talk on the two phenomena: the problem he had solved, and the problem that had defeated him. Schrieffer had never heard a scientist outline in such loving detail a sequence leading to failure. Location: 5502
  • It fell to Schrieffer to transcribe Feynman’s talk for journal publication. He did not quite know what to do with the incomplete sentences and the frank confessions. He had never read a journal article so obviously spoken aloud. So he edited it. But Feynman made him change it all back. Location: 5510
  • a Caltech experimenter told Feynman about a result reached after a complex process of correcting data, Feynman was sure to ask how the experimenter had decided when to stop correcting, and whether that decision had been made before the experimenter could see what effect it would have on the outcome. Location: 5561
  • Sometimes it was not clear whether Feynman’s lightning answers came from instantaneous calculation or from a storehouse of previously worked-out—and unpublished—knowledge. Location: 5753
  • The Chicago astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar independently produced Feynman’s result—it was part of the work for which he won a Nobel Prize twenty years later. Feynman himself never bothered to publish. Location: 5759
  • “I am suggesting that anyone who is transcendentally great as a scientist is likely also to have personal qualities that ordinary people would consider in some sense superhuman.” Location: 5780
  • So many of his witnesses observed the utter freedom of his flights of thought, yet when Feynman talked about his own methods he emphasized not freedom but constraints. Location: 5912
  • “The gravitational force is weak,” he said at one conference, introducing his work on quantizing gravity. “In fact, it’s damned weak.” At that instant a loudspeaker demonically broke loose from the ceiling and crashed to the floor. Feynman barely hesitated: “Weak—but not negligible.” Location: 6435
  • There is a great deal of “activity in the field” these days, but this “activity” is mainly in showing that the previous “activity” of somebody else resulted in an error or in nothing useful or in something promising. Location: 6469
  • He talked about DNA (fifty atoms per bit of information) and about the capacity of living organisms to build tiny machinery, not just for information storage but for manipulation and manufacturing. Location: 6498
  • He concluded by offering a pair of one-thousand-dollar prizes: one for the first microscope-readable book page shrunk 25,000 times in each direction, and one for the first operating electric motor no larger than a 1/64th-inch cube. Location: 6505
  • Learn by trying to understand simple things in terms of other ideas—always honestly and directly. Location: 6533
  • Then when you have learned what an explanation really is, you can then go on to more subtle questions. Location: 6535
  • If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. Location: 6557
  • What we really cannot do is deal with actual, wet water running through a pipe. That is the central problem which we ought to solve some day. Location: 6593
  • “I’ve spoken to some of those students in recent times, and in the gentle glow of dim memory, each has told me that having two years of physics from Feynman himself was the experience of a lifetime.” Location: 6643
  • As the course wore on, attendance by the kids at the lectures started dropping alarmingly, but at the same time, more and more faculty and graduate students started attending, so the room stayed full, and Feynman may never have known he was losing his intended audience. Location: 6645
  • Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her pattern, so each small piece of the fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry. Location: 6689
  • “None of the entities that appear in fundamental physical theory today are accessible to the senses. Even more … there are phenomena that apparently are not in any way amenable to explanation in terms of things, even invisible things, that move in the space and time defined by the laboratory.” Location: 6700
  • “Questions about a theory which do not affect its ability to predict experimental results correctly seem to me quibbles about words.” Location: 6707
  • What can you explain that you didn’t set out to explain? Location: 6752
  • I’m not answering your question, but I’m telling you how difficult a why question is. You have to know what it is that you’re permitted to understand … and what it is you’re not. Location: 6779
  • I really can’t do a good job—any job—of explaining the electromagnetic force in terms of something you’re more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with. Location: 6792
  • He told reporters that he planned to spend his third of the $55,000 prize money to pay his taxes on his other income (actually he used it to buy a beach house in Mexico). Location: 6952
  • “If you give more money to theoretical physics,” he added, “it doesn’t do any good if it just increases the number of guys following the comet head. So it’s necessary to increase the amount of variety … and the only way to do it is to implore you few guys to take a risk with your lives that you will never be heard of again, and go off in the wild blue yonder and see if you can figure it out.” Location: 7004
  • Dr. Crick thanks you for your letter but regrets that he is unable to accept your kind invitation to:
    ☐ send an autograph
    ☐ help you in your project
    ☐ provide a photograph
    ☐ read your manuscript
    ☐ cure your disease
    ☐ deliver a lecture
    ☐ be interviewed
    ☐ attend a conference
    ☐ talk on the radio
    ☐ act as chairman
    ☐ appear on TV
    ☐ become an editor
    ☐ speak after dinner
    ☐ write a book
    ☐ give a testimonial
    ☐ accept an honorary degree
    Location: 7011
  • I. I. Rabi once said that physicists are the Peter Pans of the human race. Feynman clutched at irresponsibility and childishness. He kept a quotation from Einstein in his files about the “holy curiosity of inquiry”: “this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail.” Location: 7077

Self-consciously tall young men who went on to study at Cambridge

Saturday, August 18th, 2018

While listening to the audiobook version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I started thinking about the writing style, and I was immediately reminded of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

I did a little digging, and it turns out that Douglas Adams was a self-consciously tall young man who went on to study at Cambridge — just like John Cleese, whose autobiography, So, Anyway…, I very much enjoyed, especially as an audiobook, with Cleese himself narrating.

Adams went on to be discovered by Graham Chapman — tall, Cambridge grad — and co-wrote a Monty Python sketch with him:

Adams is one of only two people other than the original Python members to get a writing credit (the other being Neil Innes).

Adams had two brief appearances in the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. At the beginning of episode 42, “The Light Entertainment War”, Adams is in a surgeon’s mask (as Dr. Emile Koning, according to on-screen captions), pulling on gloves, while Michael Palin narrates a sketch that introduces one person after another but never gets started. At the beginning of episode 44, “Mr. Neutron”, Adams is dressed in a pepper-pot outfit and loads a missile onto a cart driven by Terry Jones, who is calling for scrap metal (“Any old iron…”). The two episodes were broadcast in November 1974.

Anyway, I found Adams’ style very, very English, and thus Stephen Fry‘s narration fit it very, very well. What’s that? Why, yes, Stephen Fry is conspicuously tall, isn’t he? I wonder where he went to… Oh! Cambridge! Fancy that.

When the west started losing wars

Saturday, August 18th, 2018

When the West took up the “White Man’s Burden” is when the west started losing wars:

It led the British general who was invading Afghanistan to believe he was doing Afghans a favor, and if he was sufficiently nice to them they would throw flowers at his troops. So he forbade his troops to take necessary measures for self defense, and, as a result, he and his troops died.

The white man’s burden was profoundly counterproductive to social cohesion, because it led to them sacrificing near (British officers and troops) for far (afghan officers and troops)

If it is a burden, then you proceed to conspicuously display your holiness by burden carrying — which is apt to mean making your troops carry burdens.

Before the British intervened in Afghanistan, the most recent news that most people had of it was records of Alexander’s army passing through two millenia ago.

The empire of the East India company was expanding, and the empire of the Russias was expanding, and it was inevitable that the two would meet. And so it came to pass that the Kings of Afghanistan encountered both, and played each against the other.

When the British became aware of Afghanistan, they interpreted its inhabitants as predominantly white or whitish – as descendants of Alexander’s troops and camp followers and/or descendants of Jews converted to Islam at swordpoint.

Afghanistan was, and arguably still is, an elective monarchy, and the fractious electors tended to fight each other and elect weak kings who could scarcely control their followers, and so it has been ever since Alexander’s troops lost Alexander.

Mister Mountstuart Elphinstone, in his account of is mission to Kabul in 1809, says he once urged upon a very intelligent old man of the tribe of Meankheile, the superiority of a quiet life under a powerful monarch, over the state of chaotic anarchy that so frequently prevailed.

The reply was “We are content with alarms, we are content with discord, we are content with blood, but we will never be content with a master!”

As Machiavelli observed, such places are easy to conquer, but hard to hold, and so it proved.

To conquer and hold such places, one must massacre, castrate, or enslave all of the ruling elite that seems fractious, which is pretty much all of them, and replace them with your own people, speaking your own language, and practicing your own customs, as the Normans did in England, and the French did in Algeria, starting 1830. The British of 1840, however, had no stomach for French methods, and were already starting to fall short of the population growth necessary for such methods.

So what the British could have done is paid the occasional visit to kill any king that they found obnoxious, kill his friends, family, his children, and leading supporters, install a replacement king, and leave. The replacement king would have found his throne shaky, because Afghan Kings have usually found their thrones shaky, but the British did not need to view that as their problem, knowing the solution to that problem to be drastic and extreme. If the throne has been shaky for two thousand years, it is apt to be difficult to stop it from rocking.

After a long period of disorderly violence, where brother savagely tortured brother to death, and all sorts of utterly horrifying crimes were committed, King Dost Mahomed Khan took power in Kabul in 1826, and proceeded to rule well, creating order, peace, and prosperity, and receiving near universal support from the fractious and quarreling clans of Afghanistan.

The only tax under his rule was a tariff of one fortieth on goods entering and leaving the country. This and the Jizya poll tax are the only taxes allowed by the Koran, at least as Islamic law is interpreted in this rebellious country which has historically been disinclined to pay taxes, and because this tax was actually paid, it brought him unprecedented revenues. On paying this tax “the merchant may travel without guard or protection from one border to the other, an unheard of circumstance”

However he did not rule Herat, which was controlled by one of his enemies, who been King before and had ambitions to be King again. He therefore offered Herat to the Shah of Persia in return for the Shah’s support against another of his enemies, Runjeet Singh. He was probably scarcely aware that Runjeet Singh was allied to the British, and the Shah was allied to the Tsar of all the Russias.

Notice that this deal was remarkably tight fisted, as was infamously typical of deals made by Dost Mahomed Khan. He would give the Persians that which he did not possess, in return for them taking care of one of his enemies and helping him against another.

The British East India Company, however, saw this as Afghanistan moving into Russian empire, though I am pretty sure that neither the Shah of Persia nor the King of Aghanistan thought they were part of anyone’s empire.

So Russia and the East India Company sent ambassadors to the King of Afghanistan, who held a bidding contest asking which of them could best protect him against Runjeet Singh. He then duplicitously accepted both bids from both empires, which was a little too clever by half, though absolutely typical of the deals he made with his neighbors.

Dost Mahomed Khan was a very clever king, but double crossing the East India Company was never very clever at all. No one ever got ahead double crossing the East India Company. It is like borrowing money from the Mafia and forgetting to pay them back.

Russia and England then agreed to not get overly agitated over the doings of unreliable and duplicitous proxies that they could scarcely control – which agreement the East India Company took as permission to hold a gun to the head of the Shah of Persia. The East India company seized control of the Persian Gulf, an implicit threat to invade if the Shah intervened in Afghanistan to protect Dost Mahomed Khan. It then let Runjeet Singh off the leash, and promised to support his invasion of Afghanistan.

So far, so sane. Someone double crosses you, then you make an horrible example of him, and no one will do it again. Then get out, and whoever rules in Afghanistan, if anyone does manage to rule, will refrain from pissing you off a second time.

The British decided to give a large part of Afghanistan to Runjeet Singh, and install Shah Shoudjah-ool-Moolk, a Kinglet with somewhat plausible pretensions to the Afghan throne, in place of Dost Mahomet Khan.

Up to this point everything the East India Company is doing is sane, honorable, competent, just, and wonderfully eighteenth century.

Unfortunately, it is the nineteenth century. And the nineteenth century is when the rot set in.

His Majesty Shah Shoudjah-ool-Moolk will enter Afghanistan, surrounded by his own troops, and will be supported against foreign interference, and factious opposition, by the British Army. The Governor-general confidently hopes, that the Shah will be speedily replaced on his throne by his own subjects and adherents, and that the independence and integrity of Afghanistan established, the British army will be withdrawn. The Governor-general has been led to these acts by the duty which is imposed upon him, of providing for the security of the possessions of the British crown, but he rejoices, that, in the discharge of this duty, he will be enabled to assist in restoring the union and prosperity of the Afghan people.

So: The English tell themselves and each other: We not smacking Afghans against a wall to teach them not to play games with the East India Company. On the contrary, we are doing them a favor. A really big favor. Because we love everyone. We even love total strangers in far away places very different from ourselves. We are defending the independence of Afghanistan by removing the strongest King it has had in centuries and installing our puppet, and defending its integrity by arranging for invasion, conquest, rape and pillage by its ancient enemies the Sikhs, in particular Runjeet Singh. Because we love far away strangers who speak a language different from our own and live in places we cannot find on the map. We just love them to pieces. And when we invade, we will doubtless be greeted by people throwing flowers at us.

You might ask who would believe such guff? Obviously not the Afghans, who are being smacked against the wall. Obviously not the Russians. Obviously not the Persians. Obviously not the British troops who are apt to notice they are not being pelted with flowers.

The answer is, the commanding officer believed this guff. And not long thereafter, he and his troops died of it, the first great defeat of British colonialism. And, of course, the same causes are today leading to our current defeat in Afghanistan.

The commanding officer of the British expedition made a long series of horrifyingly evil and stupid decisions, which decisions only made sense if he was doing the Afghans a big favor, if the Afghans were likely to appreciate the big favor he was doing them, and his troops were being pelted with flowers, or Afghans were likely to start pelting them with flowers real soon now. The East India company was no stranger to evil acts, being in the business of piracy, brigandry, conquest, and extortion, but people tend to forgive evil acts that lead to success, prosperity, good roads, safe roads, and strong government. These evil acts, the evil acts committed by the British expedition to Afghanistan, are long remembered because they led to failure, defeat, lawlessness, disorder, and weak government.

As a result, he, his men, and their camp followers, were all killed.

It is their pleasure to open for you

Friday, August 17th, 2018

Netflix has a new animated animated show coming out, called Next Gen, which features lots of robots:

What caught my attention though was the self-satisfied door at the end of the trailer, since I had just listened to this passage, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“All the doors in this spaceship have a cheerful and sunny disposition. It is their pleasure to open for you, and their satisfaction to close again with the knowledge of a job well done.”

Psychological stress induces neural inflammation and thus depression

Friday, August 17th, 2018

A group of Japanese researchers has discovered that neural inflammation caused by our innate immune system plays an unexpectedly important role in stress-induced depression:

A group of Japanese researchers has discovered that neural inflammation caused by our innate immune system plays an unexpectedly important role in stress-induced depression:

Previous research had already hinted at the link between inflammation and depression: increased levels of inflammation-related cytokines in the blood of patients suffering from depression, activation of microglia (inflammation-related cells in the brain) in depressive patients, and a high percentage of depression outbreaks in patients suffering from chronic inflammatory disease. However, the exact relationship between depression and inflammation still contains many unknowns. Psychological stress caused by social and environmental factors can trigger a variety of changes in both mind and body. Moderate levels of stress will provoke a defensive response, while extreme stress can lower our cognitive functions, cause depression and elevated anxiety, and is a risk factor for mental illnesses. The research team focused on repeated social defeat stress (a type of environmental stress) with the aim of clarifying the mechanism that causes an emotional response to repeated stress.


First, they looked at changes of gene expression in the brain caused by repeated social defeat stress and found that repeated stress increased a putative ligand for the innate immune receptors TLR2 and TLR4 (TLR2/4) in the brain. Their next step was to investigate the role of TLR2/4 in repeated stress using a mouse with the TLR2/4 genes deleted. They found that TLR2/4-deficient mice did not show social avoidance or extreme anxiety when exposed to repeated stress. Repeated stress usually triggers microglial activation in specific areas of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex, causing impaired response and atrophy of neurons, but these responses were not present in the TLR2/4-deficient mice. The research team then developed a method to selectively block the expression of TLR2/4 in the microglia of specific areas of the brain. By blocking the expression of TLR2/4 in the microglia of the medial prefrontal cortex, they managed to suppress depressive behavior in response to repeated social defeat stress. They found that repeated stress induced the expression of inflammation-related cytokines IL-1a and TNFa in the microglia of the medial prefrontal cortex via TLR2/4. The depressive behavior was suppressed by treating the medial prefrontal cortex with neutralizing antibodies for the inflammation-related cytokines. These results show that repeated social defeat stress activates microglia in the medial prefrontal cortex via the innate immune receptors TLR2/4. This triggers the expression of inflammation-related cytokines IL-1a and TNFa, leading to the atrophy and impaired response of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex, and causing depressive behavior.

Removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

I still enjoy the Babel Fish segment from the old BBC version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

That last witty bit seems more darkly humorous than I remembered:

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

From Terman to Today

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

David Lubinski of Vanderbilt University reviews a century of findings on intellectual precocity:

As Terman launched his longitudinal study in 1921, Hollingworth, Pressey, Thorndike, and others advocated for the special educational needs and the importance of studying intellectually precocious students (Witty, 1951). In a compelling publication in Science, “The Gifted Student and Research,” Seashore (1922) argued that for every 100 incoming college freshman chosen at random, the top five assimilate five times as much information as the bottom five and stressed that these differences necessitate different opportunities for meeting their respective needs. He emphasized that optimal learning environments for all students avoided the undesirable extremes of frustration and boredom destined for appreciable numbers of students when inflexible, lock-step learning environments were enforced upon all.

Adjusting the depth and pace of the curriculum to the rate at which each student learned would “keep each student busy at his highest level of achievement in order that he may be successful, happy, and good” (italics in original, Seashore, 1922, p. 644). For the gifted, Seashore recommended that instead of whipping them into line, we “whip them out of line.” Seashore (1930, 1942) leveraged this idea when he marshaled his campaign for establishing honors colleges throughout major U.S. universities. Although his name does not always surface in historical treatments of the gifted movement, Seashore’s impact was profound (Miles, 1956). He traveled to 46 of the contiguous states within the United States meeting with university officials to discuss the importance of honors colleges and more challenging curricula and opportunities for the most talented university students.

Large-scale empirical evidence for these considerations was introduced a few years later by the extensive longitudinal findings of Learned and Wood (1928, 1938). Figure 1 is reproduced from their extensive analysis of tens of thousands of high school and college students, many of whom were tracked for years and systematically assessed on academic knowledge. For decades, major textbooks on individual differences (Anastasi, 1958; Tyler, 1965; Willerman, 1979) and policy recommendations for restructuring classrooms (Benbow & Stanley, 1996; Pressey, 1949; Terman, 1954a) cited this important study. It was cited as empirical evidence for why instruction needs to be adjusted to the individual learning needs of each student — and intellectually precocious students, in particular.

From Terman to Today Figure 1

When Terman (1939) reviewed Learned and Wood (1938) for the Journal of Higher Education, he regarded it as the most relevant research contribution that addressed higher education problems in the United States. Terman (1939, p. 111) maintained it “warrants a thorough overhauling of our educational procedures,” because it documented the extent to which vast knowledge differentials exist among students in lock-step systems. It demonstrated that the range of individual differences in knowledge among high school seniors, college sophomores, and college seniors, across wide varieties of professionally developed achievement tests, was vast. For example, about 10% of 12th-grade students younger than 18 years of age had more scientific knowledge than the average college senior. Within all grade levels, younger students were more knowledgeable than the older students. And, if graduation from college were based on demonstrated knowledge rather than time in the educational system, a full 15% of the entering freshmen class would be deemed ready to graduate. Indeed, they would make the top 20% cut on the broad-spectrum 1,200-item achievement test in the combined (Freshman + Sophomore + Junior + Senior) college sample.

(Hat tip to Eric Raymond.)

His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

The newish Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie (which is on HBO Now through the end of the month) didn’t catch my fancy, but the audiobook (narrated by Stephen Fry) did, and this prescient passage caught my attention:

The President in particular is very much a figurehead — he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. On those criteria Zaphod Beeblebrox is one of the most successful Presidents the Galaxy has ever had — he has already spent two of his ten presidential years in prison for fraud.

Has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

How, when, and why, Victor Davis Hanson asks, has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?


Globalization had an unfortunate effect of undermining national unity. It created new iconic billionaires in high tech and finance, and their subsidiaries of coastal elites, while hollowing out the muscular jobs largely in the American interior.

Ideologies and apologies accumulated to justify the new divide. In a reversal of cause and effect, losers, crazies, clingers, American “East Germans,” and deplorables themselves were blamed for driving industries out of their neighborhoods (as if the characters out of Duck Dynasty or Ax Men turned off potential employers). Or, more charitably to the elites, the muscular classes were too racist, xenophobic, or dense to get with the globalist agenda, and deserved the ostracism and isolation they suffered from the new “world is flat” community. London and New York shared far more cultural affinities than did New York and Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, the naturally progressive, more enlightened, and certainly cooler and hipper transcended their parents’ parochialism and therefore plugged in properly to the global project. And they felt that they were rightly compensated for both their talent and their ideological commitment to building a better post-American, globalized world.

One cultural artifact was that as our techies and financiers became rich, as did those who engaged in electric paper across time and space (lawyers, academics, insurers, investors, bankers, bureaucratic managers), the value of muscularity and the trades was deprecated. That was a strange development. After all, prestige cars, kitchen upgrades, gentrified home remodels, and niche food were never more in demand by the new elite. But who exactly laid the tile, put the engine inside the cars, grew the arugula, or put slate on the new hip roof?

In this same era, a series of global financial shocks, from the dot-com bust to the more radical 2008 near–financial meltdown, reflected a radical ongoing restructuring in American middle-class life, characterized by stagnant net income, family disintegration, and eroding consumer confidence. No longer were youth so ready to marry in their early twenties, buy a home, and raise a family of four or five. Compensatory ideology made the necessary adjustments to explain the economic doldrums and began to characterize what was impossible first as undesirable and later as near toxic. Pajama Boy sipping hot chocolate in his jammies, and the government-subsidized Life of Julia profile, became our new American Gothic.

High Tech

The mass production of cheap consumer goods, most assembled abroad, redefined wealth or, rather, disguised poverty. Suddenly the lower middle classes and the poor had in their palms the telecommunications power of the Pentagon of the 1970s, the computing force of IBM in the 1980s, and the entertainment diversity of the rich of the 1990s. They could purchase big screens for a fraction of what their grandparents paid for black-and-white televisions and with a computer be entertained just as well cocooning in their basement as by going out to a concert, movie, or football game.

The Campus

Higher education surely helped split the country in two. In the 1980s, the universities embraced two antithetical agendas, both costly and reliant on borrowed money. On the one hand, campuses competed for scarcer students by styling themselves as Club Med–type resorts with costly upscale dorms, tony student-union centers, lavish gyms, and an array of in loco parentis social services. The net effect was to make colleges responsible not so much for education, but more for shielding now-fragile youth from the supposed reactionary forces that would buffet them after graduation.

An entire generation of students left college with record debt, mostly ignorant of the skills necessary to read, write, and argue effectively, lacking a general body of shared knowledge — and angry. They were often arrogant in their determination to actualize the ideologies of their professors in the real world. A generation ignorant, arrogant, and poor is a prescription for social volatility.

Illegal Immigration

Immigration was recalibrated hand-in-glove by progressives who wanted a new demographic to vote for leftist politicians and by Chamber of Commerce conservatives who wished an unlimited pool of cheap unskilled labor. The result was waves of illegal, non-diverse immigrants who arrived at precisely the moment when the old melting pot was under cultural assault.

The Obama Project

We forget especially the role of Barack Obama. He ran as a Biden Democrat renouncing gay marriage, saying, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” Then he “evolved” on the question and created a climate in which to agree with this position could get one fired. He promised to close the border and reduce illegal immigration: “We will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace. We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws.” Then he institutionalized the idea that to agree with that now-abandoned agenda was a career-ender.

Read the whole thing. (I edited down each point.)

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is free to read via Prime Reading

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

If you recently enjoyed Feynman’s anecdote about an early wartime engineering job he had, you should know that Amazon’s Prime Reading program just added Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! to its list of free Kindle reads.

Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

Like many folks recently, Robin Hanson decided to learn more about Jordan Peterson, so he read Maps of Meaning:

He doesn’t offer readers any degree of certainty in his claims, nor distinguish in which claims he’s more confident. He doesn’t say how widely others agree with him, he doesn’t mention any competing accounts to his own, and he doesn’t consider examples that might go against his account. He seems to presume that the common underlying structures of past cultures embody great wisdom for human behavior today, yet he doesn’t argue for that explicitly, he doesn’t consider any other forces that might shape such structures, and he doesn’t consider how fast their relevance declines as the world changes. The book isn’t easy to read, with overly long and obscure words, and way too much repetition. He shouldn’t have used his own voice for his audiobook.

In sum, Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware. But on the one key criteria by which such a book should most be judged, I have to give it to him: the book offers insight. The first third of the book felt solid, almost self-evident: yes such structures make sense and do underlie many cultural patterns. From then on the book slowly became more speculative, until at the end I was less nodding and more rolling my eyes. Not that most things he said even then were obviously wrong, just that it felt too hard to tell if they were right. (And alas, I have no idea how original is this book’s insight.)

Hanson shares one of his own insights that he had while reading the book:

It occurs to me that this [evolvability] is also an advantage of traditional ways of encoding cultural values. An explicit formal encoding of values, such as found in modern legal codes, is far less redundant. Most random changes to such an abstract formal encoding create big bad changes to behavior. But when values are encoded in many stories, histories, rituals, etc., a change to any one of them needn’t much change overall behavior. So the genotype can drift until it is near a one-step change to a better phenotype. This allows culture to evolve more incrementally, and avoid local maxima.

Implicit culture seems more evolvable, at least to the extent slow evolution is acceptable. We today are changing culture quite rapidly, and often based on pretty abstract and explicit arguments. We should worry more about getting stuck in local maxima.

See if you detect any testiness, confusion, or exasperation

Monday, August 13th, 2018

James Fallows — who trained for and got his instrument rating at Boeing Field in Seattle in 1999, and flew frequently in Seattle airspace when he lived there in 1999 and 2000 — reviews the Seattle plane crash:

The specifics: The most useful overall summary I’ve seen is in The Aviationist. It gives details about the plane (a Horizon Air Bombardier Dash 8, with no passengers aboard but capable of carrying more than 70); the route of flight; the response of air traffic control; and the dispatch of two F-15 fighter jets from the Oregon Air National Guard’s base, in Portland, which broke the sound barrier en route toward Seattle and were prepared if necessary to shoot down the errant plane.

The real-time drama: A video of the plane’s barrel rolls and other maneuvers, plus the F-15 interception, from John Waldon of KIRO, is here.The recordings of the pilot’s discussions with air traffic control (ATC) are absolutely riveting. A 10-minute summary, featuring the pilot’s loopy-sounding stream-of-consciousness observations in what were his final moments of life, is here. A 25-minute version, which includes the other business the Seattle controllers were doing at the same time, is here. The pilot makes his final comments at around time 19:00 of this longer version. A few minutes later, you hear the controllers telling other waiting airline pilots that the “ground hold” has been lifted and normal operations have resumed. In between, the controllers have learned that the pilot they were talking to has flown his plane into the ground.

How did he do it? Part 1: The Dash 8, which most airline passengers would think of as a “commuter” or even a “puddle jumper” aircraft, differs from familiar Boeing or Airbus longer-haul planes in having a built-in staircase. When the cabin door opens, a set of stairs comes out, and you can walk right onto the plane. This is a very basic difference from larger jets. The big Boeing and Airbus planes require a “Jetway” connection with the terminal, which is the normal way that passengers, flight crew, and maintenance staff get on and off, or an external set of stairs. Also, big jets usually require an external tug to pull or push them away from the Jetway and the terminal, before they can taxi to the runway. They cannot just start up and drive away, as the Dash 8 did. Was the Dash 8’s door already open, and the stairs down, so a ground-staff member could just walk on? Did he have to open the door himself? I don’t know. But either way, anyone who has been to a busy airport knows that it’s normal rather than odd to see ground-crew members getting into planes.

How did he do it? Part 2: However the pilot started the plane (switches? spare set of keys?), the available ATC recordings suggest he didn’t fool the Seattle controllers into giving him permission to taxi to the runway or take off. He just started taxiing, rolled onto the runway, accelerated, and left. As you can hear from the 25-minute recording, ATC at big, busy airports is an elaborately choreographed set of permissions—to push back from the gate, to taxi to a specific runway, to move onto the runway, to take off. For safety reasons (avoiding collisions on the runway), in this case the Seattle controllers had to tell normal traffic to freeze in position, as the unknown rogue plane barged through.

How did he do it? Part 3: In the 10-minute ATC version, you can hear the pilot asking what different dials mean, saying that he knows about airplanes only from flight simulators, and generally acting surprised about where he finds himself. But the video shows him performing maneuvers that usually require careful training—for instance, leveling off the plane after completing a barrel roll. Was this just blind luck? The equivalent of movie scenes of a child at the wheel of a speeding car, accidentally steering it past danger? Was his simulator training more effective than he thought? Did he have more flying background than he let on? At the moment I’ve seen no explanation of this discrepancy.

How everyone else did: I challenge anyone to listen to the ATC tapes, either the condensed or (especially) the extended version, and not come away impressed by the calm, humane, sophisticated, utterly unflappable competence of the men and women who talked with the pilot while handling this emergency. My wife, Deb, has written often about the respect she’s gained for controllers by talking with them in our travels over the years. These are public employees, faced with a wholly unprecedented life-and-death challenge, and comporting themselves in a way that does enormous credit to them as individuals and to the system in which they work. In addition to talking to the hijacker pilot, Seattle ATC was talking with the scores of other airline pilots whose flights were affected by the emergency. See if you detect any testiness, confusion, or exasperation in those pilots’ replies.

We all know that the voice of the airline pilot is calm, not testy.

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Robertson’s The Last Utopians is instructive and touching, if sometimes inadvertently funny

Monday, August 13th, 2018

Michael Robertson’s The Last Utopians: Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and Their Legacy is instructive and touching, Adam Gopnik says, if sometimes inadvertently funny:

The instructive parts rise from Robertson’s evocation and analysis of a series of authors who aren’t likely to be well known to American readers, even those of a radical turn of mind. All four wrote books and imagined ideal societies with far more of an effect on their time than we now remember. The touching parts flow from the quixotic and earnest imaginations of his heroes and heroine: the pundit Edward Bellamy, the designer William Morris, the pioneering gay writer Edward Carpenter, and the feminist social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. His utopians showed enormous courage in imagining and, to one degree or another, trying to create new worlds against the grain of the one they had inherited. They made blueprints of a better place, detailed right down to the wallpaper, and a pleasing aura of pious intent rises from these pages.

The comedy, which is inadvertent, springs from Robertson’s absence of common sense about these utopian projects, pious intent being very different from pragmatic achievement. Hugely sympathetic to his subjects, he discovers again and again as he inspects their projects that, for all the commendable bits that anticipate exactly the kinds of thing we like now, there are disagreeable bits right alongside, of exactly the kinds that we don’t like now. The utopian feminists are also eugenicists and anti-Semites; the men who dream of a perfect world where same-sex attraction is privileged also unconsciously mimic the hierarchy of patriarchy, putting effeminate or cross-dressing “Uranians” at the bottom of their ladder. The socialists are also sexists, and the far-seeing anarchists are also muddle-headed, mixed-up mystics.

The sensible lesson one might draw from this is that the human condition is one in which the distribution of bad and good is forever in flux, and so any blueprint of perfection is doomed to failure. Instead, Robertson assumes that if we can just add to the utopian visions of 1918 the progressive pieties of 2018 — if we reform their gender essentialism and their implicit hierarchism and several other nasty isms — then we will at last arrive at the right utopia.

Read the whole thing.