Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for February 2nd, 2018

When Two Tribes Go to War

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Andrew Sullivan writes in New York magazine:

The problem with tribalism is that it knows no real limiting principle.

It triggers a deep and visceral response: a defense of the tribe before all other considerations. That means, in its modern manifestation, that the tribe comes before the country as a whole, before any neutral institutions that get in its way, before reason and empiricism, and before the rule of law. It means loyalty to the tribe — and its current chief — is enforced relentlessly. And this, it seems to me, is the underlying reason why the investigation into Russian interference in the last election is now under such attack and in such trouble. In a tribalized society, there can be no legitimacy for an independent inquiry, indifferent to tribal politics. In this fray, no one is allowed to be above it.

On the face of it, of course, no one even faintly patriotic should object to investigating how a foreign power tried to manipulate American democracy, as our intelligence agencies have reported. And yet one party is quite obviously doing all it can to undermine such a project — even when it is led by a Republican of previously unimpeachable integrity, Robert Mueller. Tribalism does not spare the FBI; it cannot tolerate an independent Department of Justice; it sees even a Republican like Mueller as suspect; and it sees members of another tribe as incapable of performing their jobs without bias.

The release of the Nunes memo is just the latest, deeply dangerous manifestation of this. Congressman Nunes saw his task, from the get-go, not as investigating the underlying issue as a congressman concerned with the integrity of elections, but as finding a way to protect his tribal chieftain, Donald Trump, from suspicions that his own campaign might have invited such intervention, or that he might have obstructed justice to stymie Mueller’s inquiry. The entire concept of digging fairly into the facts to discover exactly what relationship, if any, the Trump campaign had with agents of the Russian government is close to meaningless to Nunes. So is any cooperation with Democrats or waiting until the full investigation is finished. More to the point, all this is meaningless to the Republican base as well. Their tribal chief has said there was no Russian interference and no collusion, and that’s all they need to know.

And since they already know the truth, the only point of such an investigation must be an Establishment attack on their own tribe, right? Before too long, even Jeff Sessions was regarded as a traitor, by recusing himself from intervention in the matter. Ditto Rod Rosenstein, another Republican pressured to give Trump personal, and not institutional, loyalty at the DOJ. Mueller himself, of course, is now described by his fellow Republicans as an agent of the deep state, mired in liberal sabotage. James Comey was summarily fired, and even Trump’s handpicked FBI chief, Christopher Wray, is now suspect, because he believes the Nunes memo is deeply misleading and may even compromise national security. The FBI had to be intending to frame Trump, after all, when it surveilled Carter Page’s troubling contacts with Moscow. What other reason could there be? And the media’s reporting of any of these developments is, of course, “fake news” born out of a conspiracy so vast that, well, take it away, Newt: “The elite media group has survived by being in collusion with the senior bureaucracy, the city of Washington, the senior reporters, the senior bureaucrats, the senior lobbyists, they all hang out together, they all talk to each other, they all compare notes.”

Note the C-word. If Trump is accused of collusion, the gambit is to accuse the FBI, the media, and the DOJ of some sort of “collusion” as well. If Trump is exposed as evading the rule of law, so now must the Justice Department and the FBI be seen as undermining it. The logic here is pure Roy Cohn. Bret Stephens made a devastating and completely unanswerable point this week about how differently the GOP would react if these attempts to evade or obstruct justice had been made by a President Hillary Clinton — but to the tribal mind, none of that matters. And the tactics Cohn once deployed are now all around us: throw back the exact same charges you’re facing against those investigating you. Invent a conspiracy theory to rival a collusion theory. Throw sand in everyone’s eyes. Get your allegations out first, in as inflammatory and scandalous a way as possible. Ransack people’s private lives and communications to more effectively demonize them.

Dominate the news cycles. Do anything to muddy the conflict and to sow suspicion. Lie, if you have to. Exercise not the slightest concern for the stability of the system as a whole — because tribe comes first. Trump, to make things worse, sees no distinction between the tactics he deployed as a private citizen in lawsuits for decades and the tactics he is deploying as president, because he has no conception of a presidency committed first of all to the long-term maintenance of the system rather than the short-term pursuit of personal interest. He simply cannot see the value of institutions that might endure through time, under both parties, as a way to preserve objective fact-finding and the neutral enforcement of justice. All he sees is his own immediate interest, as filtered through his malignant narcissism. Some thought this might change when he became president and realized the gravity of the office. We know now how delusional that idea was.

Many commentators, of course, see all these various gambits at obstructing justice as endangering Trump, as Mueller closes in. Some believe that the public reaction to this overreach will be punishing, especially if serious wrongdoing emerges, and that impeachment could follow. I’m afraid I don’t see this. In fact, I see tribalism deepening and the constitutional crisis intensifying. It’s quite clear now that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 February 2018 at 12:39 pm

An Updated Lead-Crime Roundup for 2018

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Kevin Drum blogs in Mother Jones:

A few weeks ago I promised an updated roundup of evidence about the link between lead poisoning and violent crime. Here it is.

It’s in three parts. Part 1 is the basic story. Part 2 is various bits of commentary explaining different details and predictions of the hypothesis. Part 3 is a roundup of all the lead-crime studies that have been done since 2012 that I’m aware of.

1. A Brief Summary of Lead and Crime

The lead-crime hypothesis is pretty simple: lead poisoning degrades the development of childhood brains in ways that increase aggression, reduce impulse control, and impair the executive functions that allow people to understand the consequences of their actions. Because of this, infants who are exposed to high levels of lead are more likely to commit violent crimes later in life. There are three types of research that confirm the connection between lead and crime:

  • Brain studies. Neurologists have performed MRI scans of adults who were exposed to lead as children. They’ve found that because lead is chemically similar to calcium, it displaces the calcium needed for normal brain development.
  • Prospective studies. These are studies that begin in childhood and follow a group of children through adulthood. The children are measured along the way and their adult outcomes are catalogued. Several prospective studies have shown that children who are exposed to high levels of lead are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for violent crimes later in life.
  • Population studies. These are studies that depend on statistical analysis of groups, rather than individuals. Dozens of population studies have found strong correlations between the exposure of a group to lead and the level of violent crime committed by the group later in life. These groups can be neighborhoods, cities, states, or countries. For the USA, the correlation between lead and crime looks like this:

No single study is proof of the lead-crime hypothesis. However, the accumulated evidence for the hypothesis is pretty overwhelming. I outlined the case for the lead-crime hypothesis in 2012 in a magazine piece called: Lead: America’s Real Criminal Element.

In a nutshell, this article argues that atmospheric lead from gasoline tailpipes rose steadily after World War II, affecting babies born in the late 40s and beyond. The leading edge of this generation became teenagers in the late 60s and was more prone than previous generations to committing violent crime. Every year the population of teenagers with lead poisoning increased, and violent crime increased with it. This is why the 70s and 80s were eras in which crime skyrocketed.

In the early 70s the United States began to phase out leaded gasoline and newborns became steadily less lead poisoned. Like clockwork, as the leading edge of this generation became teenagers in the early 90s, the crime wave started to recede. By 2010, an entire generation of teenagers and young adults—the age group responsible for most crime—had grown up nearly lead free, and the violent crime rate had plummeted to half or less of its high point. This happened across the board: in big and small cities; among blacks and whites; in every state; in every city; and, as it turns out, in every other country that also phased out leaded gasoline.

It’s important to emphasize that the lead-crime hypothesis doesn’t claim that lead is solely responsible for crime. It primarily explains only one thing: the huge rise in crime of the 70s and 80s and the equally huge—and completely unexpected—decline in crime of the 90s and aughts. The lead-crime hypothesis is the answer to the question mark in the stylized chart below: . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more, including more charts.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 February 2018 at 10:17 am

Bill Gates names his new favorite book of all time

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Bill Gates writes:

For years, I’ve been saying Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature was the best book I’d read in a decade. If I could recommend just one book for anyone to pick up, that was it. Pinker uses meticulous research to argue that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. I’d never seen such a clear explanation of progress.

I’m going to stop talking up Better Angels so much, because Pinker has managed to top himself. His new book, Enlightenment Now, is even better.

Enlightenment Now takes the approach he uses in Better Angels to track violence throughout history and applies it to 15 different measures of progress (like quality of life, knowledge, and safety). The result is a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better. It’s like Better Angels on steroids.

Pinker was generous enough to send me an early copy, even though Enlightenment Now won’t be released until the end of February. I read the book slowly since I loved it so much, but I think most people will find it a quick and accessible read. He manages to share a ton of information in a way that’s compelling, memorable, and easy to digest.

It opens with an argument in favor of returning to the ideals of the Enlightenment—an era when reason, science, and humanism were touted as the highest virtues. (Gates Notes Insiders can get a preview of this section of the book.)

I’m all for more reason, science, and humanism, but what I found most interesting were the 15 chapters exploring each measure of progress. Pinker is at his best when he analyzes historic trends and uses data to put the past into context. I was already familiar with a lot of the information he shares—especially about health and energy—but he understands each subject so deeply that he’s able to articulate his case in a way that feels fresh and new.

I love how he’s willing to dive deep into primary data sources and pull out unexpected signs of progress. I tend to point to things like dramatic reductions in poverty and childhood deaths, because I think they’re such a good measure of how we’re doing as a society. Pinker covers those areas, but he also looks at more obscure topics.

Here are five of my favorite facts from the book that show how the world is improving:

  1. You’re 37 times less likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than you were at the turn of the century—and that’s not because there are fewer thunderstorms today. It’s because we have better weather prediction capabilities, improved safety education, and more people living in cities.
  2. Time spent doing laundry fell from 11.5 hours a week in 1920 to an hour and a half in 2014.This might sound trivial in the grand scheme of progress. But the rise of the washing machine has improved quality of life by freeing up time for people—mostly women—to enjoy other pursuits. That time represents nearly half a day every week that could be used for everything from binge-watching Ozark or reading a book to starting a new business.
  3. You’re way less likely to die on the job. Every year, 5,000 people die from occupational accidents in the U.S. But in 1929—when our population was less than two-fifths the size it is today—20,000 people died on the job. People back then viewed deadly workplace accidents as part of the cost of doing business. Today, we know better, and we’ve engineered ways to build things without putting nearly as many lives at risk.
  4. The global average IQ score is rising by about 3 IQ points every decade. Kids’ brains are developing more fully thanks to improved nutrition and a cleaner environment. Pinker also credits more analytical thinking in and out of the classroom. Think about how many symbols you interpret every time you check your phone’s home screen or look at a subway map. Our world today encourages abstract thought from a young age, and it’s making us smarter.
  5.  . . .

Continue reading.


Pinker also tackles the disconnect between actual progress and the perception of progress—something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. People all over the world are living longer, healthier, and happier lives, so why do so many think things are getting worse? Why do we gloss over positive news stories and fixate on the negative ones?

Written by LeisureGuy

2 February 2018 at 10:08 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Mechanical gears evolved in jumping insects

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University of Cambridge research has shown mechanical gears—that work like gears—in a jumping insect. Their report begins:

Previously believed to be only man-made, a natural example of a functioning gear mechanism has been discovered in a common insect – showing that evolution developed interlocking cogs long before we did.

The juvenile Issus – a plant-hopping insect found in gardens across Europe – has hind-leg joints with curved cog-like strips of opposing ‘teeth’ that intermesh, rotating like mechanical gears to synchronise the animal’s legs when it launches into a jump.

The finding demonstrates that gear mechanisms previously thought to be solely man-made have an evolutionary precedent. Scientists say this is the “first observation of mechanical gearing in a biological structure”.

Through a combination of anatomical analysis and high-speed video capture of normal Issus movements, scientists from the University of Cambridge have been able to reveal these functioning natural gears for the first time. The findings are reported in the latest issue of the journal Science.

The gears in the Issus hind-leg bear remarkable engineering resemblance to those found on every bicycle and inside every car gear-box. Each gear tooth has a rounded corner at the point it connects to the gear strip; a feature identical to man-made gears such as bike gears – essentially a shock-absorbing mechanism to stop teeth from shearing off.

The gear teeth on the opposing hind-legs lock together like those in a car gear-box, ensuring almost complete synchronicity in leg movement – the legs always move within 30 ‘microseconds’ of each other, with one microsecond equal to a millionth of a second.

This is critical for the powerful jumps that are this insect’s primary mode of transport, as even miniscule discrepancies in synchronisation between the velocities of its legs at the point of propulsion would result in “yaw rotation” – causing the Issus to spin hopelessly out of control.

“This precise synchronisation would be impossible to achieve through a nervous system, as neural impulses would take far too long for the extraordinarily tight coordination required,” said lead author Professor Malcolm Burrows, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“By developing mechanical gears, the Issus can just send nerve signals to its muscles to produce roughly the same amount of force – then if one leg starts to propel the jump the gears will interlock, creating absolute synchrony.

“In Issus, the skeleton is used to solve a complex problem that the brain and nervous system can’t,” said Burrows. “This emphasises the importance of considering the properties of the skeleton in how movement is produced.”

“We usually think of gears as something that we see in human designed machinery, but we’ve found that that is only because we didn’t look hard enough,” added co-author Gregory Sutton, now at the University of Bristol.

“These gears are not designed; they are evolved – representing high speed and precision machinery evolved for synchronisation in the animal world.”

Interestingly, the mechanistic gears are only found in the insect’s juvenile – or ‘nymph’ – stages, and are lost in the final transition to adulthood. These transitions, called ‘molts’, are when animals cast off rigid skin at key points in their development in order to grow. . .

Continue reading.

There’s a video at the link.


Written by LeisureGuy

2 February 2018 at 10:02 am

Posted in Evolution, Science

Graham’s Number Is Too Big to Tell You How Big It Is

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An amazingly large number (though of course as nothing compared to infinity). From a Scientific American article by Evelyn Lamb:

Sometimes when we talk about big numbers, we talk about how many digits they have or, basically equivalently, write them in scientific notation involving some power of 10. A googol, for example, is 10^100, which has 101 digits. The largest known prime number has over 17 million digits. A googolplex is 10 raised to the googol power, so it has approximately a googol digits. It takes a while to write down a 1 followed by 100 zeroes, but we can do it.

But Graham’s number is different. I can’t tell you how many digits it has. I also can’t tell you how many digits its number of digits has, or how many digits the number of digits of its number of digits has. They’re all too big. . .

The origin of Graham’s number is one of those slightly legendary math stories. In 1977, Martin Gardner wrote, “In an unpublished proof, [mathematician Ronald] Graham has recently established … a bound so vast that it holds the record for the largest number ever used in a serious mathematical proof.” Graham had worked on a fairly complicated question about combinatorics. But Graham’s number doesn’t actually appear in the published proof of his result. The number he used was quite a bit smaller. In a Google+ post, John Baez describes both the combinatorics problem Graham was working on and where the number came from. He writes,

“I asked Graham. And the answer was interesting. He said he made up Graham’s number when talking to Martin Gardner! Why? Because it was simpler to explain than his actual upper bound – and bigger, so it’s still an upper bound!”

Read the whole thing. Here’s one attempt at any explanation:

Written by LeisureGuy

2 February 2018 at 9:55 am

Posted in Math

Leviathan and the Baili BR171: Great shave

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I got a really good—D.R. Harris quality—lather from Leviathan. Leviathan lather is always good, but this morning I was careful to shake the brush well, and then after brushing the puck to start the loading, I added just a small amount of water and worked that into the brush, along with more of the soap. The result was a creamy, slick, thick lather—with the wonderful Leviathan fragrance.

The Baili BR171 is incredible value for the money: about $6 and a razor that’s a delight to use: three comfortable passes, no nicks, and a totally smooth finish.

A splash of Leviathan aftershave (after shaking the bottle well: my habit with aftershaves) provided a fine finish. And The Wife is back from her trip today. Yay!

Written by LeisureGuy

2 February 2018 at 9:31 am

Posted in Shaving

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