Sep 28

The dream is real

Elon Musk’s new Starship is not the tall skinny pressurized-aluminum cylinder we’re used to thinking of a real rocket, but a fat cigar-shaped thing made of stainless steel, with tail fins.

I just listened to an elaborate economic and engineering rationale for this. And I don’t believe a word of it.

It had to be that way because Elon Musk grew up on the same Golden Age science fiction magazine cover illustrations I did, and it looks exactly like those.

Has tailfins. Freaking tailfins. And lands on a pillar of fire just like God and Robert Heinlein (PBUH) intended.

The dream is real.

May 28

The new science of Indo-European origins

I’ve had a strong amateur interest in historical linguistics since my teens in the early 1970s.

Then, as today, a lot of the energy in that field was focused in the origins and taxonomy of the Indo-European family – the one that includes English and the Latin-derived and Germanic languages and Greek and also a large group of languages in northern India and Persia. This is not only because most linguists are Europeans, it’s because there’s a massively larger volume of ancient literature in this family than can be found anywhere else in the world – there’s more to go on.

People have been trying to pin down the origin of the Indo-European language family and identify the people who spoke its root language for literally centuries. Speculations that turn out not to have been far wrong go back to the 1600s(!) and serious work on the problem, some of which is still considered relevant, began in the late 1700s.

However, until very recently theory about Indo-European origins really had to be classed as plausible guesses rather than anything one could call well-confirmed. There were actually several contending theories, because linguistic reconstruction of the root PIE (Proto-Indo-European) language was sort of floating in midair without solid enough connections to archaeological and genetic evidence to be grounded.

This has changed – dramatically – in the last five years. But there isn’t yet any one place you can go to read about all the lines of evidence yet; nobody has written that book as of mid-2018. This post is intended to point readers at a couple of sources for the new science, simply because I find it fascinating and I think my audience will too.

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Feb 03

The Roche motel

One of the staples of SF art is images of alien worlds with satellites or planetary twins hanging low and huge in the daylight sky. This blog post brings he trope home by simulating what the Earth’s Moon would look like if it orbited the Earth at the distance of the International Space Station.

The author correctly notes that a Moon that close would play hell with the Earth’s tides. I can’t be the only SF fan who looks at images like that and thinks “But what about Roche’s limit”…in fact I know I’m not because Instapundit linked to it with the line “Calling Mr. Roche! Mr. Roche to the white courtesy phone!”

Roche’s limit is a constraint on how close a primary and satellite can be before the satellite is actually torn apart by tidal forces. The rigid-body version, applying to planets and moons but not rubble piles like comets, is

d = 1.26 * R1 * (d1 / d2)**(1/3)

where R1 is the radius of the primary (larger) body, d1 is its density, and d2 is the secondary’s density (derivation at Wikipedia).

And, in fact, the 254-mile orbit of the ISS is well inside the Roche limit for the Earth-moon system, which is 5932.5 miles.

The question for today is: just how large can your satellite loom in the sky before either your viewpoint planet or the satellite goes kablooie? To put it more precisely, what is the maximum angle a satellite can reasonably subtend?

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Feb 02

Rethinking housecat ethology

There’s a common folk model of how housecats relate to humans that says their relationships with us recruit instincts originally for maternal bonding – that is, your cat relates to you as though you’re its mother or (sometimes) its kitten that needs protecting.

I don’t think this account is entirely wrong; it is a fact that even adult cats knead humans, a behavior believed to stimulate milk production in a nursing mother cat. However, through long observation of cats closely bonded to humans I think the maternalization theory is insufficient. There’s something else going on, and I think I know what it is.

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Nov 02

Against modesty, and for the Fischer set

Over at Slate Star Codex, I learned that Eliezer Yudkowsky is writing a book on, as Scott puts it, “low-hanging fruit vs. the argument from humility”. He’s examining the question of when we are, or can be, justified in believing we have spotted something important that the experts have missed.

I read Eliezer’s first chapter, and I read two responses to it, and I was gobsmacked. Not so much by Eliezer’s take; I think his microeconomic analysis looks pretty promising, though incomplete. But the first response, by one Thrasymachus, felt to me like dangerous nonsense: “This piece defends a strong form of epistemic modesty: that, in most cases, one should pay scarcely any attention to what you find the most persuasive view on an issue, hewing instead to an idealized consensus of experts.”

Motherfucker. If that’s what we think is right conduct, how in hell are we (in the most general sense, our civilization and species) going to unlearn our most sophisticated and dangerous mistakes, the ones that damage us more by the weight of expert consensus?

Somebody has to be “immodest”, and to believe they’re justified in immodesty. It’s necessary. But Eliezer only provides very weak guidance towards that justification; he says, in effect, that you’d better be modest when there are large rewards for someone else to have spotted the obvious before you. He implies that immodesty might be a better stance when incentives are weak.

I believe I have something more positive to contribute. I’m going to tell some stories about when I have spotted the obvious that the experts have missed. Then I’m going to point out a commonality in these occurrences that suggests an exploitable pattern – in effect, a method for successful immodesty.

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Mar 09

Bravery and biology

I just read a very well-intentioned, heartwarming talk about girls who code that, sadly, I think, is missing the biological forest for the cultural trees.

It’s this: Teach girls bravery, not perfection. Read it, It’s short

I like the woman who voiced those thoughts in that way. Well, except for the part about growing up to be Hillary Clinton; do we really want to encourage girls to sleep their way to power and then cover up for their husband’s serial rapes?

That’s not the big problem with teaching girls to be brave rather than seeking perfection, though. That’d be nice if it could be done, but I think it will run smack into an evo-bio buzzsaw.

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Dec 19

Comparative language difficulty for English speakers

This morning I found a copy of the chart the Foreign Services Institute uses to grade the comparative difficulty of world languages for acquisition by an adult monoglot English speaker.

I have an unusual perspective on this list for an American. I’m a low-grade polyglot; I have spoken three languages other than my birth English and can read a couple others with Google Translate. I have studied comparative linguistics; I know a bit about the morphology and phonology of many of these languages. I have received street-level exposure to over a dozen of them in my extensive travels, and I have a good ear.

So, I’m going to try to add some value to the list with additional notes and comments.

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Nov 08

Status signaling and cruelty to betas

I find myself in the embarrassing position of having generated a theoretical insight for a movement I don’t respect very much.

My feelings about the “Red Pill” movement are a lot like my feelings about feminism. Both started out asking important questions about why men and women treat each other badly. Early on, both began to develop some answers that made sense. Later, both movements degenerated – hijacked by whiny, broken, hating people who first edged into outright craziness and then increasingly crossed that line.

But the basic question that motivated the earliest Red-Pill/PUA analysis remains: why do so many women say they want nice guys and then sexually reward arrogant jerks? And the answer has a lot of staying power. Women are instinctive hypergamists who home in on dominance signaling the way men home in on physical pulchritude. And: they’re self-deceivers – their optimal mating strategy is to sincerely promise fidelity to hook a good-provider type while actually being willing to (a) covertly screw any sexy beast who wanders by in order to capture genetic diversity for their offspring, and (b) overtly trade up to a more dominant male when possible.

(This is really complicated compared to the optimal male strategy, which is basically to both find a fertile hottie you think you can keep faithful and screw every other female you can tap without getting killed in hopes of having offspring at the expense of other men.)

What I’ve figured out recently is that there’s another turn of the vise. Sorry, nice-guy betas; you’re even more doomed than the basic theory predicts.

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Sep 08

On open-source pharma

(This copies a comment I left on Derek Lowe’s blog at Science Magazine.)

I was the foundational theorist of open-source software development back in the 1990s, and have received a request to respond to your post on open-source pharma.

Is there misplaced idealism and a certain amount of wishful thinking in the open-source pharma movement? Probably. Something I often find myself pointing out to my more eager followers is that atoms are not bits; atoms are heavy, which means there are significant limiting factors of production other than human attention, and a corresponding problem of capital costs that is difficult to make go away. And I do find people who get all enthusiastic and ignore economics rather embarrassing.

On the other hand, even when that idealism is irrational it is often a useful corrective against equally irrational territoriality. I have observed that corporations have a strong, systemic hunker-down tendency to overprotect their IP, overestimating the amount of secrecy rent they can collect and underestimating the cost savings and additional options generated by going open.

I doubt pharma companies are any exception to this; when you say “the people who are actually spending their own cash to do it have somehow failed to realize any of these savings, because Proprietary” as if it’s credulous nonsense, my answer is “Yes. Yes, in fact, this actually happens everywhere”.

Thus, when I have influence I try to moderate the zeal but not suppress it, hoping that the naive idealists and the reflexive hunker-downers will more or less neutralize each other. It would be better if everybody just did sound praxeology, but human beings are not in general very good at that. Semi-tribalized meme wars fueled by emotional idealism seem to be how we roll as a species. People who want to change the world have to learn to work with human beings as they are, not as we’d like them to be.

If you’re not inclined to sign up with either side, I suggest pragmatically keeping your eye on the things the open-source culture does well and asking if those technologies and habits of thought can be useful in drug discovery. Myself, I think the long-term impact of open data interchange formats and public, cooperatively-maintained registries of pre-competitive data could be huge and is certainly worth serious investment and exploration even in the most selfish ROI terms of every party involved.

The idealists may sound a little woolly at times, but at least they understand this possibility and have the cultural capital to realize it – that part really is software.

Then…we see what we can learn. Once that part of the process has been de-territorialized, options to do analogous things at other places in the pipeline may become more obvious,

P.S: I’ve been a huge fan of your “Things I Won’t Work With” posts. More, please?

Jan 15

Love is the simplest thing

There’s an idea circulating that two people who want to be in romantic love can get there by performing a simple procedure that steps them through asking and answring 35 questions and ends with staring into each others’ eyes for 4 minutes.

I don’t know if these reports are true or not. But I’m writing to oppose the gut reaction I think most people have on hearing them, which is that it can’t possibly be that easy because romantic love is this tremendously complex mysterious mystery thing. And if it is that simple, it’s wrong.

I don’t think so. Even if this procedure doesn’t actually have a high success rate, there will be one that does, given certain basics. The basics are: the participants must be of mutually compatible sexual orientations and must smell good to each other.

Why do I believe this? Because of what romantic love is for.

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Dec 27

Pave the rainforests!

For decades – and I do mean decades – I’ve been saying that any environmentalist who is really serious about reducing fossil-fuel use and CO2 emission should be agitating to switch the power infrastructure to using nuclear plants for the baseload as fast as possible.

But when the facts change, I change my mind. I was wrong. There is new, direct, observational evidence that the most effective thing we could do to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere is pave over the tropical rainforests.

Don’t believe me? Look at this map of CO2 emissions by region. It’s brand-new data from NASA’s just-lofted Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

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Sep 03

Reality is viciously sexist

Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female insists an article at tor.com. It’s complete bullshit.

What you find when you read the linked article is an obvious, though as it turns out a superficial problem. The linked research doesn’t say what the article claims. What it establishes is that a hair less than half of Viking migrants were female, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The leap from that to “half the warriors were female” is unjustified and quite large.

There’s a deeper problem the article is trying to ignore or gaslight out of existence: reality is, at least where pre-gunpowder weapons are involved, viciously sexist.

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Aug 15

Alien cat is alien

One of the reasons I like cats is because I find it enjoyable to try to model their thought processes by observing their behavior. They’re like furry aliens, just enough like us that a limited degree of communication (mostly emotional) is possible.

Just now I’m contemplating a recent change in the behavior of our new cat, Zola. Recent as in the last couple of days. Some kind of switch has flipped.

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Jun 23

How to train a cat for companionship

Some people with cats seem to regard them as a sort of mobile item of decor that occasionally deigns to be interacted with; they’re OK with aloofness. My wife and I, on the other hand, like to have cats who are genuinely companionable, follow us around when they’re not doing anything important like eating or sleeping, purr at the sight of us, and greet us at the door when we come home.

My wife and I had a cat like that for nearly twenty years. Sugar died in April, and we’ve been developing an understanding with a new cat for a bit over two weeks. We’re doing the same things to establish trust with Zola that we did with Sugar. They seem to be working; Zola gets a little more present and interactive and nicer to us every day.

Accordingly, here are our rules for training a cat to be companionable. You may find some of these obvious, but I suspect that the ‘obvious’ set is widely variable between people, so they’re all worth writing down.

A general point is that cats respond as well as people do to (a) being treated affectionately, and (b) having a clear sense of what people expect from them. Kindness and consistent signaling make for a friendly and well-mannered cat.

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Jun 06

Hoping for the crazy

The biggest non-story that should be in the news right now, but isn’t, is the collapse of anthropogenic-global-warming “science” into rubble. Global average temperature has been flat for between 15 and 17 years, depending on how you interpret the 1997-1998 El Nino event. Recently GAT, perking along its merry level way, has fallen out of the bottom of the range of predictions made by the climate modelers at the IPCC. By the normal 95%-confidence standards of scientific confirmation, the IPCC’s disaster scenarios – the basis for, among other things, carbon taxes and the EPA’s coming shutdown-by-impossible-regulation of U.S. coal power – are now busted.

AGW alarmists have responded by actually hoping in public view that a strong El Niño event later this year will shove GAT back up into consistency with the IPCC models, rescuing their narrative.

This…this is hoping for the crazy. Let me count the ways:

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May 15

Evaporative cooling and AGW

Earlier this evening an Instapundit reference reminded me of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s insightful essay Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs, in which he uses a clever physics analogy to explain why cult-like groups often respond to strong evidence against their core beliefs by becoming more fanatical.

Glen Reynolds used the reference to take a swipe at what political feminism has become, but a more interesting example occurred to me. I think AGW (anthropogenic global warming) alarmism is beginning to undergo some serious evaporative cooling. Let’s examine the evidence, how it might fit Yudkowsky’s model, and what predictions it implies.

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Mar 08

Which way is north on your new planet?

So, here you are in your starship, happily settling into orbit around an Earthlike world you intend to survey for colonization. You start mapping, and are immediately presented with a small but vexing question: which rotational pole should you designate as ‘North’?

There are a surprisingly large number of ways one could answer this question. I shall wander through them in this essay, which is really about the linguistic and emotive significance of compass-direction words as humans use them. Then I shall suggest a pragmatic resolution.

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Mar 06

Causes and implications of the pause

That is the title of a paper attempting to explain (away) the 17-year nothing that happened while CAGW models were predicting warming driven by increasing CO2. CO2 increased. Measured GAT did not.

Here’s the money quote: “The most recent climate model simulations used in the AR5 indicate that the warming stagnation since 1998 is no longer consistent with model projections even at the 2% confidence level.”

That is an establishment climatologist’s cautious scientist-speak for “The IPCC’s anthropogenic-global-warming models are fatally broken. Kaput. Busted.”

I told you so. I told you so. I told you so!

I even predicted it would happen this year, yesterday on my Ask Me Anything on Slashdot. This wasn’t actually brave of me: the Economist noticed that the GAT trend was about to fall to worse than 5% fit to the IPCC models six months ago.

Here is my next prediction – and remember, I have been consistently right about these. The next phase of the comedy will feature increasingly frantic attempts to bolt epicycles onto the models. These epicycles will have names like “ENSO”, “standing wave” and “Atlantic Oscillation”.

All these attempts will fail, both predictively and retrodictively. It’s junk science all the way down.