Liquid fluorine is spectacular

Saturday, July 14th, 2018

There was a time when rocket designers felt comfortable proposing propellants that would be considered insane today:

One of these was fluorine, an oxidizer so powerful that it will oxidize oxygen. Liquified it is denser than LOX and provides a higher specific impulse than LOX when burned with the same fuels. On paper, liquid fluorine is spectacular. In reality, fluorine is toxic and just about all of the combustion compounds are toxic (burn it with hydrogen and you get hydrofluoric acid, which will eat your bones). Fluorine has the added bonus that it will merrily combust with a whole lot of structural materials, so you have to be careful in your design and preparation for tanks, pumps, lines, etc.

Consequently, it was important to know your stuff. To that end, Douglas Missile & Space Systems Division produced a Fluorine Systems Handbook.

Display invites attention

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

Heather E. Heying discusses toxic femininity:

Sex and gender roles have been formed over hundreds of thousands of years in human evolution, indeed, over hundreds of millions of years in our animal lineage. Aspects of those roles are in rapid flux, but ancient truths still exist. Historical appetites and desires persist. Straight men will look at beautiful women, especially if those women are a) young and hot and b) actively displaying. Display invites attention.

Hotness-amplifying femininity puts on a full display, advertising fertility and urgent sexuality. It invites male attention by, for instance, revealing flesh, or by painting on signals of sexual receptivity. This, I would argue, is inviting trouble. No, I did not just say that she was asking for it. I did, however, just say that she was displaying herself, and of course she was going to get looked at.

The amplification of hotness is not, in and of itself, toxic, although personally, I don’t respect it, and never have. Hotness fades, wisdom grows — wise young women will invest accordingly. Femininity becomes toxic when it cries foul, chastising men for responding to a provocative display.

Where we set our boundaries is a question about which reasonable people might disagree, but two bright-lines are widely agreed upon: Every woman has the right not to be touched if she does not wish to be; and coercive quid pro quo, in which sexual favors are demanded for the possibility of career advancement, is unacceptable. But when women doll themselves up in clothes that highlight sexually-selected anatomy, and put on make-up that hints at impending orgasm, it is toxic — yes, toxic — to demand that men do not look, do not approach, do not query.

Young women have vast sexual power. Everyone who is being honest with themselves knows this: Women in their sexual prime who are anywhere near the beauty-norms for their culture have a kind of power that nobody else has. They are also all but certain to lack the wisdom to manage it. Toxic femininity is an abuse of that power, in which hotness is maximized, and victim status is then claimed when straight men don’t treat them as peers.

Creating hunger in men by actively inviting the male gaze, then demanding that men have no such hunger — that is toxic femininity. Subjugating men, emasculating them when they display strength — physical, intellectual, or other — that is toxic femininity. Insisting that men, simply by virtue of being men, are toxic, and then acting surprised as relationships between men and women become more strained — that is toxic femininity. It is a game, the benefits of which go to a few while the costs are shared by all of us.

The best design uses gears from the middle of the list

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

I was recently reminded of Feynman’s anecdote about an early wartime engineering job he had, and I finally got around to pulling my copy of Surely You’re Joking off the shelf to transcribe it:

Near the end of the summer I was given my first real design job: a machine that would make a continuous curve out of a set of points — one point coming in every fifteen seconds — from a new invention developed in England for tracking airplanes, called “radar.” It was the first time I had ever done any mechanical designing, so I was a little bit frightened.

I went over to one of the other guys and said, “You’re a mechanical engineer; I don’t know how to do any mechanical engineering, and I just got this job…”

“There’s nothin’ to it,” he said. “Look, I’ll show you. There’s two rules you need to know to design these machines. First, the friction in every bearing is so-and-so much, and in every gear junction, so-and-so much. From that, you can figure out how much force you need to drive the thing. Second, when you have a gear ratio, say 2 to 1, and you are wondering whether you should make it 10 to 5 or 24 to 12 or 48 to 24, here’s how to decide: You look at the Boston Gear Catalogue, and select those gears that are in the middle of the list. The ones at the high end have so many teeth they’re hard to make. If they could make gears with even finer teeth, they’d have made the list go even higher. The gears at the low end of the list have so few teeth they break easy. So the best design uses gears from the middle of the list.”

I had a lot of fun designing that machine. By simply selecting the gears from the middle of the list and adding up the little torques with the two numbers he gave me, I could be a mechanical engineer!

Fine like powder, but sharp like glass

Saturday, July 7th, 2018

When the Apollo astronauts returned from the Moon, the dust that clung to their spacesuits made their throats sore and their eyes water:

The “lunar hay fever”, as NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt described it during the Apollo 17 mission created symptoms in all 12 people who have stepped on the Moon. From sneezing to nasal congestion, in some cases it took days for the reactions to fade. Inside the spacecraft, the dust smelt like burnt gunpowder.

[...]

Lunar dust has silicate in it, a material commonly found on planetary bodies with volcanic activity. Miners on Earth suffer from inflamed and scarred lungs from inhaling silicate. On the Moon, the dust is so abrasive that it ate away layers of spacesuit boots and destroyed the vacuum seals of Apollo sample containers.

Fine like powder, but sharp like glass. The low gravity of the Moon, one sixth of what we have on Earth, allows tiny particles to stay suspended for longer and penetrate more deeply into the lung.

“Particles 50 times smaller than a human hair can hang around for months inside your lungs. The longer the particle stays, the greater the chance for toxic effects,” explains Kim.

The potential damage from inhaling this dust is unknown but research shows that lunar soil simulants can destroy lung and brain cells after long-term exposure.

On Earth, fine particles tend to smoothen over years of erosion by wind and water, lunar dust however, is not round, but sharp and spiky.

In addition the Moon has no atmosphere and is constantly bombarded by radiation from the Sun that causes the soil to become electrostatically charged.

This charge can be so strong that the dust levitates above the lunar surface, making it even more likely to get inside equipment and people’s lungs.

I’m beginning to think the Moon might be inhospitable.

Absolute thinking predicts mental illness

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi explains absolute thinking:

The term cognitive miser, first introduced by the American psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor in 1984, describes how humans seek the simplest and least effortful ways of thinking. Nuance and complexity is expensive — it takes up precious time and energy — so wherever possible we try to cut corners. This is why we have biases and prejudices, and form habits. It’s why the study of heuristics (intuitive ‘gut-feeling’ judgments) is so useful in behavioural economics and political science.

[...]

In a recent research article in Clinical Psychological Science, I and my collaborator, the neuroscientist Tom Johnstone at the University of Reading in the UK, examined the prevalence of absolutist thinking in the natural language of more than 6,400 online members in various mental-health chat groups. From the outset, we predicted that those with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation would have a more absolutist outlook, and that this would manifest in their style of language. Compared with 19 different online control chat groups on topics from cancer to parenting, the prevalence of absolutist words was approximately 50 per cent greater in depression and anxiety groups, and approximately 80 per cent greater in the suicidal-ideation group.

Previously, the best-known linguistic markers for mental-health disorders had been an excessive use of first-person singular pronouns such as ‘me’, ‘myself’ and ‘I’, with a reduced use of second- and third-person pronouns. This pattern of pronoun use reflects the isolation and self-focus common in depression. Negative-emotion words are also a strong linguistic marker for mental-health disorders, however researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression. We find that the prevalence of absolutist words is a better marker than both pronouns and negative-emotion words.

Confrontational tension and fear make most violence incompetent

Saturday, June 2nd, 2018

Violence is difficult to carry out, Randall Collins reminds us:

This is the main finding of research on what happens when humans find themselves in situations threatening violence. It runs contrary to our cultural beliefs, and the way violence is depicted in the news and entertainment media. But the news reports violence that happens, not fights that abort, angry quarrels that fritter out, or guns that are pointed but not fired, or fired but miss. Films and TV shows make violence look dramatic, but if they showed what it actually looks like no one would want to watch it.

He summarizes his own Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory:

Confrontational tension and fear: In situations threatening violence, participants may start out with angry bluster, loud voices, and menacing gesture. But when it comes to bodily attack on their opponent, even the most aggressive show tension and fear on their faces. This tension makes most violence incompetent. Soldiers and cops who are proficient on a firing range often miss when their target is a live human being; gang-bangers are even more incompetent, firing wildly and quickly running or driving away.

Micro-sociology triggers physiology, and bodily reactions get in the way of conscious intentions. Face-to-face confrontations are socially tense, pumping adrenaline, the flight-or-fight hormone, an undifferentiated arousal that can go either way. Many soldiers in combat do not fire their guns. Like cops in shoot-outs, those who do fire often have perceptual distortions, time slowing to dream-like or speeding up to a blur, a sound-proof tunnel where shooters can’t hear their own guns. Some freeze; some hit their own side in friendly fire; some go into a frenzy where they can’t stop firing in an overkill of bullets until they have emptied their magazine. The same applies to fists, kicks, or knife-stabs. The common denominator is high adrenaline levels, which mobilize the large muscles of the body but desensitize fine motor control of hands and fingers.

What happens in a confrontation depends on the relative levels of adrenaline on both sides. If one side can stay in the zone of medium arousal while the other loses bodily control, the more competent performer at violence will beat the incompetent performer. Not that the better fighter at the moment has to be really competent, just less incompetent than the other. At the extreme, one side becomes paralyzed at very high adrenaline levels, making an easy target for the opponent still capable of attacking.

To be skilled in violence is to keep your own adrenaline level down to medium levels, while driving up your opponent’s to high levels that make them incompetent. If adrenaline levels are equal, neither side performs worse than the other, and the confrontation stalls out, the fight aborting or winding down by losing momentum. We see this also in sexual aggression.

Attacking the weak: Confrontational tension and fear (ct/f ) is a barrier that aggressors have to overcome if they are to deliver any violence. There are several ways around this barrier. The most common pattern is attacking a weak victim: someone who is physically much weaker; someone who is unarmed when you are armed; someone who is running away. Outnumbering the opponent is a major confidence-booster. In photos of riots and brawls, the most common pattern is a group of between 3 and 6 attackers hitting and kicking an isolated individual. Without this advantage, evenly matched fights usually are stalemates, coming to nothing or quickly aborting; Having even one supporter on the weaker side shifts the emotional balance.

The advantage is not so much physical but emotional domination. Robbers with guns are nevertheless wary of hold-ups where one is a lone individual outnumbered by victims and bystanders; most successful robberies consist of 2 or 3 robbers against an isolated shop-keeper. Back-up in robberies is confidence-building, and a way to establish emotional dominance over the victim. Even police act this way; the more police on the scene, the more likely they are to commit extensive violence in making arrests. Successful violence comes from establishing the mood and rhythm from the outset, driving the opponent into passivity.

Confrontation-minimizing tactics: Another way around the barrier of ct/f is to avoid the main source of tension: threatening the other person face-to-face. Eye contact makes the encounter tense. Robbers and muggers find it easiest to attack from behind, where the two sides cannot see each other’s eyes. Wearing masks and hoods emboldens the attacker and disconcerts victims by making the attacker appear un-human. And in the modern high-tech world, cyber attacks are psychologically easy, since they involve no human confrontation at all.

Audience support: Onlookers who encourage a fight help overcome ct/f and enable fighters to carry on much longer than they would if there were no one watching. How long and severe the fight is depends on the size and attitude of the audience: most destructive where a large audience is unified in cheering on a fight; shorter and less harmful when the audience is divided or unsure; when bystanders ignore a fight it soon peters out.

Violence as fun and entertainment: Fights are particularly likely on occasions of leisure and fun: parties, drinking places, holidays, crowds at games and concerts. These are carousing zones where normal routines are suspended and special excitement is expected. Violence on these occasions still requires overcoming ct/f, finding emotional domination over weak victims, and/or support of an audience.

With the recent scandals in the news, he goes on to ask, Do the conditions for successful violence apply also to sexual violence? and supplies some examples where confrontational tension and fear play a large role:

A young man in his late teens followed an attractive middle-aged woman into her apartment building, by hurrying through the security door behind her. No one else is in the lobby. In the elevator he pulls a knife and threatens to rape her. Although a small woman (5 foot 2 inches), she is a top executive in a non-profit organization, used to exercising authority. She says disapprovingly, what would your mother think if she knew what you are doing? When the elevator door opened, he runs off.

A tall (5 foot 9 inches), attractive woman in her mid-20s is running in an open area, when a man about her age runs up behind her and grabs her. She turns around and swings at him, knocking off his glasses and breaking them. (What did he look like?) About six feet tall, long hair and mustache, medium build. He immediately starts apologizing. She steps on his glasses, and glares at him as he retreats.

The tables turned when the rapist fails to establish emotional domination. In the previous case, the attacker has a knife, but as in hold-ups, a weapon is not enough to be successful unless the victim is intimidated.

Short of rape, milder forms of sexual aggression often fail, perhaps most of the time. David Grazian’s research on night clubs found that male patrons often engage in “the girl hunt,” seeking pickups. But these young men did more talking among themselves about the women they saw than actually making contact with them. Generally they lowered their sights to getting phone numbers, not too successfully at that; and groups of young women who went to clubs together often gave them fake numbers. In other words, even in venues explicitly themed for sexual encounters, most of the “girl hunters” stayed on the sidelines, did not approach aggressively, and were rarely successful.

Is this true across the spectrum of sexual aggression? Accounts in the news media focus on aggressions that succeed, but even here we find most aggressors do not get far.

He has much, much more to say on the topic, but here’s his bottom line:

The micro-sociology of violence in general suggests there are pathways by which women can deter sexual aggression. Perhaps surprisingly, such micro-deterrence may be more successful in preventing the extreme forms of sexual violence — bodily rape, than lesser forms like verbal aggression. But we just don’t know, since we have so little evidence covering situations where women silence men’s verbal advances. The common denominators are, extrapolating from violence generally: keep facing your opponent; looking him in the face, head up, as directly as possible; keep calm and strong-voiced as possible; repeat-repeat-repeat to the point of boredom. Even the arch casting-couch rapist, Weinstein, failed in the majority of his documented attempts; and this is consistent with other evidence.

We fight for status, and we fight for belonging

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Former British Army officer Mike Martin’s Why We Fight explores the evolutionary psychology of warfare:

When you dig into it and you look at the data, there’s only two things that are worth risking yourself in war for, as an individual. The first thing is an increase in social status. And the reason why that’s worth risking yourself for is as you rise up the status hierarchy, particularly as a man, and men do most of the fighting, you get more mates, more sexual mates. When you have more mates, you have more children. That’s a reason to risk fighting in war.

But there’s another reason why people fight in war. That’s to ensure that they have membership of an in-group. This in-group could be a tribe or a nation-state. It’s the same mechanism, it’s the thing that causes us as humans to feel belonging. It’s the thing that makes you feel homesick. It’s the thing that sends shivers down your spine when you’re at a political rally, or a football match, or you’re singing in a choir in church. These are the mechanisms in your brain causing you to seek to belong.

In evolutionary terms, we need to belong to groups because they’re safe. The main reason that groups exist in evolutionary terms is because they protect us from other humans who are trying to kill us. We fight for status and we fight for belonging. We’ve got these ideas that these two things, status and belonging, and humans seeking those things are what cause individuals to fight in wars.

Actually, this makes sense. Look around the world. We’ve got two global level politicians and the idea of them seeking status and having status disputes with each other is very obvious in their behaviour. Leaders seek to dominate their own groups and that’s what they do. Running for the presidency of the United States is a massive status contest, it’s gruelling.

These people are driven to succeed and they’re driven to achieve high status. The mechanism that guides this seeking status is basically testosterone. The way it works is that the more testosterone you get, the more you seek status, but it’s a feedback loop. It’s a positive feedback loop.

When you get to the top of your group, i.e. you become the leader of your country or perhaps you become the head of your tribe, it depends what scale we’re looking at, you then seek to dominate other leaders who are the leaders of other groups. This is where we see wars at a product of a status disputes between leaders playing out.

Belonging comes into play when those who aren’t leaders seek to take part in wars. We can see this played out and the rise of identity politics at the moment, particularly in the States, but also across Europe. If Why We Fight is correct and war is driven by status and belonging, we’re entering a very dangerous period of history.”

Martin has much more to say on his own site. You may recognize him from his appearance in Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake:

(Hat tip to Scott Adams.)

Human action is not the only relevant parameter in human history

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

Human action is not the only relevant parameter in human history, Razib Khan reminds us, as he reviews Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome:

The Fate of Rome is fundamentally a work of history, but it also takes ecology and evolution seriously. In fact, it foregrounds them. Kyle Harper makes the argument that the expansionary phase of the Roman Empire was not necessarily coincidental, or at least it was lucky indeed because there was a climatic optimum, similar to the one which preceded the demographic expansion of medieval Europe. In contrast, in the 6th century, the world went through some of the coldest years in the Holocene because of a combination of fluctuations in solar radiation and volcanic explosions. I assume that the likelihood of the latter is Poisson distributed, so the combination of decreased radiation and several successive volcanic events can be chalked up to randomness. But its consequences were not random at all.

The climatic changes can have demographic and social consequences obviously. Desperate armed pastoralists can overwhelm states, and change the course of history, just as peasants can rebel from taxes and subordination. And, pastoralists can also bring Yerisina pestis, the plague. Climate is an abiotic pressure which is to some extent an exogeneous shock which occurs randomly, and does not react to human feedback. [This is not totally true, but over the time-scales we’re talking about probably mostly true.] Disease though is a biotic pressure, and though it may relate to abiotic forces, human interaction and agency matter quite a bit.

The Fate of Rome clearly hinges on abiotic factors as initial drivers: a good harvest is good for the state. But the biotic factors, disease, are partly under the control of the state. The Romans did not have germ theory, and were under constant stress due to the high pathogen load, especially of the cities. Harper presents the evidence of high mortality within Roman society well. Because of the endemic ubiquity of disease even elites were impacted by it. But Rome was not just affected by endemic ailments, it was subject to pandemics and plagues.

[...]

One of the major insights that Kyle Harper reiterates is that these plagues, these pandemics, are a feature/bug of the Roman imperial system. They are not just the consequence of simply settled agricultural society. As described in books such as Pandora’s Seed, agriculture and settled society transformed the lifestyles of human groups, and many diseases which were rare in hunter-gatherer populations probably became common among farmers. But The Fate of Rome the author argues that pandemics were a novel outcome of complex imperial state-systems with long-distance trade-networks. Small-scale pre-state Neolithic chiefdoms did not have the scale and interconnections to foster plague.

Mass pandemics of smallpox, plague, and influenza are then aspects of civilized life, not, settled agricultural life. This puts the argument of Charles C. Mann in 1493 into greater focus. It wasn’t just more extensive and intensive agriculture in the Old World which left Amerindians vulnerable, it was also that the Old World had thrown up several massive imperial systems which had incubated pandemic producing pathogens (smallpox and influenza epidemics were a major issue in New World societies). These were unleashed at once upon New World societies.

It also suggests to us why adaptation seems to be occurring in the last few thousand years. Bouts of plague which persisted for generations may have driven immunological responses.

Kyle Harper also seems to agree with the general thesis in The Fall of Rome that this period in European civilization was in some ways proto-modern, with economic specialization resulting in a modicum of affluence in ways unimaginable in times before, or after. Trade and some level of mass production allowed British peasants to eat off tableware that was standardized, and not homemade. In contrast after Britain’s post-Roman regression a more local economy had to step in. The most curious fact from The Fall of Rome is that pollution in British ponds did not attain Roman levels until the early modern period, with the rise of industrialization. Again and again The Fate of Rome emphasizes that social and economic complexity achieved in the Roman Empire was not attained in Europe again to the same scale as the early modern period.

Roman wealth was fundamentally due to the returns on scale and specialization that are the hallmark of Smithian growth. Though the Romans did invent a few things, Roman prosperity was not fundamentally driven by innovation. Rather, the Roman peace was a framework for trade and exchange that took advantage of abiotic clement conditions (the Roman climatic optimum highlighted in The Fate of Rome).

But this political system had biotic costs, as well as being subject to biotic shocks. Though Romans may have been wealthier than their Iron Age predecessors in things, and also wealthier than their early medieval successors, they were also a smaller people. Using isotope data Harper suggests that this is not due to Malthusian immiseration as the imperial population pushed up against food supply. Apparently Romans did not subsist on gruel alone, but ate a fair amount of meat, especially pork. Rather it was the high pathogen load enabled by the advancement of Roman urban life and its scale. Rome was a world of intense morbidity.

No one else was familiar with both fields at the same time

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

The history of computers is best understood as a history of ideas:

The history of computers is often told as a history of objects, from the abacus to the Babbage engine up through the code-breaking machines of World War II. In fact, it is better understood as a history of ideas, mainly ideas that emerged from mathematical logic, an obscure and cult-like discipline that first developed in the 19th century. Mathematical logic was pioneered by philosopher-mathematicians, most notably George Boole and Gottlob Frege, who were themselves inspired by Leibniz’s dream of a universal “concept language,” and the ancient logical system of Aristotle.

Mathematical logic was initially considered a hopelessly abstract subject with no conceivable applications. As one computer scientist commented: “If, in 1901, a talented and sympathetic outsider had been called upon to survey the sciences and name the branch which would be least fruitful in [the] century ahead, his choice might well have settled upon mathematical logic.” And yet, it would provide the foundation for a field that would have more impact on the modern world than any other.

The evolution of computer science from mathematical logic culminated in the 1930s, with two landmark papers: Claude Shannon’s “A Symbolic Analysis of Switching and Relay Circuits,” and Alan Turing’s “On Computable Numbers, With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” In the history of computer science, Shannon and Turing are towering figures, but the importance of the philosophers and logicians who preceded them is frequently overlooked.

A well-known history of computer science describes Shannon’s paper as “possibly the most important, and also the most noted, master’s thesis of the century.” Shannon wrote it as an electrical engineering student at MIT. His adviser, Vannevar Bush, built a prototype computer known as the Differential Analyzer that could rapidly calculate differential equations. The device was mostly mechanical, with subsystems controlled by electrical relays, which were organized in an ad hoc manner as there was not yet a systematic theory underlying circuit design. Shannon’s thesis topic came about when Bush recommended he try to discover such a theory.

Shannon’s paper is in many ways a typical electrical-engineering paper, filled with equations and diagrams of electrical circuits. What is unusual is that the primary reference was a 90-year-old work of mathematical philosophy, George Boole’s The Laws of Thought.

Today, Boole’s name is well known to computer scientists (many programming languages have a basic data type called a Boolean), but in 1938 he was rarely read outside of philosophy departments. Shannon himself encountered Boole’s work in an undergraduate philosophy class. “It just happened that no one else was familiar with both fields at the same time,” he commented later.

I don’t think most computer science students learn even a fraction of this intellectual history.

An other order that ran the universe

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

The ESP or “psychic phenomena” movement began to grow very rapidly in the new religious atmosphere of the Me Decade:

ESP devotees had always believed that there was an other order that ran the universe, one that revealed itself occasionally through telepathy, déjà vu experiences, psychokinesis, dematerialization, and the like. It was but a small step from there to the assumption that all men possess a conscious energy paralleling the world of physical energy and that this mysterious energy can unite the universe (after the fashion of the light of God). A former astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, who has a doctor-of-science degree from MIT, founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in an attempt to channel the work of all the ESP groups. “Noetic” is an adjective derived from the same root as that of “the Noosphere” — the name that Teilhard de Chardin gave his dream of a cosmic union of all souls. Even the Flying Saucer cults began to reveal their essentially religious nature at about this time. The Flying Saucer folk quite literally believed in an other order: It was under the command of superior beings from other planets or solar systems who had spaceships. A physician named Andrija Puharich wrote a book (Uri) in which he published the name of the God of the UFO’s: Hoova. He said Hoova had a herald messenger named Spectra, and Hoova’s and Spectra’s agent on earth, the human connection, as it were, was Uri Geller, the famous Israeli psychic and showman. Geller’s powers were also of great interest to people in the ESP movement, and there were many who wished that Puharich and the UFO people would keep their hands off him.

You never hear about a tiger laughing

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from personality psychology?” Tyler Cowen asks Bryan Caplan:

At least one thing that might be a good answer is that cheerfulness loads on extroversion.

There’s something actually very social about happiness. When you read this, it makes so much sense — how little of happiness seems to be about material possessions and how much of it is about having good relationships with other people.

You can think about animals. When I read you something about animals, the animals that laugh, they’re all social animals. Dogs laugh, chimpanzees laugh, humans laugh. You never hear about a tiger laughing, these very asocial animals. At least that’s one that I often do think about, is this connection between social interaction and being happy.

Nonelite males routinely outperform the best elite females

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

A female Duke Law School professor who competed in track and field internationally in the 1980s discusses the International Association of Athletics Federations’ new rules limiting entry into women’s events to athletes who have testosterone levels that are capable of being produced solely by ovaries:

Understanding the rules and why they make sense is hard. They are based in biology people don’t know or don’t like to talk about and, let’s be honest, at least in some circles, they’re politically incorrect. They force us to talk about women’s bodies when it is increasingly taboo to do so, and they run counter to the movement that seeks to include transgender and intersex people in social institutions based on their gender identity rather than their biology.

She’s writing in the New York Times, in case you couldn’t tell:

Advocates for intersex athletes like to say that sex doesn’t divide neatly. This may be true in gender studies departments, but at least for competitive sports purposes, they are simply wrong. Sex in this context is easy to define and the lines are cleanly drawn: You either have testes and testosterone in the male range or you don’t. As the I.A.A.F.’s rules provide, a simple testosterone test establishes this fact one way or the other.

Testosterone throughout the life cycle, including puberty, is the reason the best elite females are not competitive in competition against elite males. This 10- to 12-percent sex-based performance gap is well documented by sports and exercise scientists alike. But it isn’t the most important performance gap. Rather, that’s the mundane fact that many nonelite males routinely outperform the best elite females.

Each year, the world’s best time in the women’s marathon is surpassed by hundreds of men. The women’s world records in all of the races on the track from 100 meters to 10,000 meters are also surpassed by many men each year, including by many high school boys. For example, in 2017, 36 boys ran faster than Florence Griffith Joyner’s seemingly unassailable 100-meter record of 10.49.

There is no characteristic that matters more than testes and testosterone. Pick your body part, your geography, and your socioeconomic status and do your comparative homework. Starting in puberty there will always be boys who can beat the best girls and men who can beat the best women.

Because of this, without a women’s category based on sex, or at least these sex-linked traits, girls and women would not have the chance they have now to develop their athletic talents and reap the many benefits of participating and winning in sports and competition. Eric Vilain, a geneticist who specializes in differences of sex development, has been blunt about it: removing sex from the eligibility rules would “be a disaster for women’s sport … a sad end to what feminists have wanted for so long.”

This may sound like hyperbole but it isn’t. In competitive sport, winning and room at the top are what ultimately matter, so relative numbers are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that there are 100 females and three males in a girls’ race if the three males win spots in the final or on the podium because they are males. The unusually high incidence of intersex athletes in the women’s middle distances and their reported 100 percent win share in the women’s 800 meters at the Olympic Games in Rio show their disproportionate power.

Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the press

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Bernard D. Davis looked at Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the press after Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man gained so much popular acclaim:

He personalizes his expository writing in a breezy, self-deprecating manner, and he comes across as warm-hearted, socially concerned, and commendably on the side of the underdog. Hence he is able to present scientific material effectively to a popular audience — a valuable contribution, and a public service, as long as his scientific message is sound.

It is therefore not surprising that Gould’s history of the efforts to measure human intelligence, The Mismeasure of Man, received many glowing reviews in the popular and literary press, and even a National Book Critics Circle award. Yet the reviews that have appeared in scientific journals, focusing on content rather than on style or on political appeal, have been highly critical of both the book’s version of history and its scientific arguments. The paradox is striking. If a scholar wrote a tendentious history of medicine that began with phlebotomy and purges, moved on to the Tuskegee experiment on syphilitic Negroes, and ended with the thalidomide disaster, he would convince few people that medicine is all bad, and he would ruin his reputation. So we must ask: Why did Gould write a book that fits this model all too closely? Why were most reviewers so uncritical? And how can non-scientific journals improve their reviews of books on scientific aspects of controversial political issues?

[...]

Unfortunately, the approach that Gould has used to combat racism has serious defects. Instead of recognizing the value of eliminating bias, his answer is to press for equal and opposite bias, in a virtuous direction — not recognizing the irony and the danger of thus subordinating science to fashions of the day. Moreover, as a student of evolution he might have been expected to build on a profound insight of modern genetics and evolutionary biology: that the human species, and each race within it, possesses a wide range of genetic diversity. But instead of emphasizing the importance of recognizing that diversity, Gould remains locked in combat with a prescientific, typological view of heredity, and this position leads him to oppose studies of behavioral genetics altogether. As the reviewer for Nature stated, The Mismeasure of Man is “a book which exemplifies its own thesis. It is a masterpiece of propaganda, researched in the service of a point of view rather than written from a fund of knowledge.”

In effect, we see here Lysenkoism risen again: an effort to outlaw a field of science because it conflicts with a political dogma. To be sure, the new version is more limited in scope, and it does not use the punitive powers of a totalitarian state, as Trofim Lysenko did in the Soviet Union to suppress all of genetics between 1935 and 1965. But that is not necessary in our system: A chilling atmosphere is quite sufficient to prevent funding agencies, investigators, and graduate students from exploring a taboo area. And such Neo-Lysenkoist politicization of science, from both the left and the right, is likely to grow, as biology increasingly affects our lives-probing the secrets of our genes and our brain, reshaping our image of our origins and our nature, and adding new dimensions to our understanding of social behavior. When ideologically committed scientists try to suppress this knowledge they jeopardize a great deal, for without the ideal of objectivity science loses its strength.

Because this feature of science is such a precious asset, the crucial lesson to be drawn from the case of Stephen Jay Gould is the danger of propagating political views under the guise of science. Moreover, this end was furthered, wittingly or not, by the many reviewers whose evaluations were virtually projective tests of their political convictions. For these reviews reflected enormous relief: A voice of scientific authority now assures us that biological diversity does not set serious limits to the goal of equality, and so we will not have to wrestle with the painful problem of refining what we mean by equality.

In scientific journals editors take pains to seek reviewers who can bring true expertise to the evaluation of a book. It is all the more important for editors of literary publications to do likewise, for when a book speaks with scientific authority on a controversial social issue, the innocent lay reader particularly needs protection from propaganda. Science can make a great contribution toward solving our social problems by helping us to base our policies and judgments upon reality, rather than upon wish or conjecture. Because this influence is so powerful it is essential for such contributions to be judged critically, by the standards of science.

Premodern and prenationalist

Friday, April 20th, 2018

India seems postmodern and postnationalist, Steve Sailer notes, but it might be more accurately called premodern and prenationalist:

India is the land of diversity, which is another word for inequality. India is kind of a subcontinental-scale version of a Democratic-ruled American city, such as Baltimore, where world-class talent such as Johns Hopkins resides side by side with intractable social problems.

India puts much of its effort into higher education, while allowing its mass schooling to be awful. Two Indian states tried the PISA test in 2009 and both scored at sub-Saharan levels, with the northern state doing even worse than the southern state. In math, Indian eighth graders performed at the level of South Korean third graders.

India’s ruling party at present is the strident Hindu nationalists under Prime Minister Modi, who are unfashionable in the West. They are trying to introduce the kind of old-fashioned patriotic indoctrination, such as playing the national anthem before movies, that Western countries adapted a century ago.

Good luck to them. You can see why they are trying so hard to instill the kind of national pride that the Chinese accomplished through violently throwing out the foreign devils. Indian infrastructure, for instance, remains shoddy, especially its shameful lack of sewage systems.

But that’s a small price to pay in the minds of American elite opinion for India rising above patriotism.

Another feature that makes our commentariat comfortable with India is that Indians don’t seem to be all that mechanically facile, perhaps especially not the priestly Brahmin caste, with whom Western intellectuals primarily interact.

And the Indians tend to be more verbally agile than the Chinese and more adept at the kind of high-level abstract thinking required by modern computer science, law, and soft major academia. Thousands of years of Brahmin speculations didn’t do much for India’s prosperity, but somehow have prepared Indians to make fortunes in 21st-century America.

[...]

Indians are made up of roughly three groups comparable to those who populated Europe since the last Ice Age. First came hunter-gatherers, then Dravidian-speaking farmers from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East (more Turkish for Europe, more Iranian for India). Finally, the Yamnaya steppe nomads, who were more or less the Aryans of 19th-century German racist legend, invaded both vast peninsulas.

[...]

In India, however, unlike Europe, the Aryan conquerors eventually imposed a stupendously elaborate caste system dividing the subcontinent into thousands of inbreeding jatis. While the medieval European system of Three Estates (clergy, nobility, and commoners) could conceivably have some deep Aryan ties to the four main castes of Hinduism, there’s little in Europe like the jatis.

Who are the Brahmins? They appear to be the descendants of Aryan conquerors who rigged Indian culture to keep their heirs on top for thousands of years. [...] In other words, some of the racist Aryan theories of European scholars have turned out to be partially correct.

Heat management is crucial

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

If you’re not already familiar with “hard” science fiction from Atomic Rockets and Tough SF, this “Because Science” video on the truth about space war serves as a light introduction: