Category Archives: Uncategorized

Descent with Random Modification … Until Now


In line with my self-appointed mission of cleaning up the language of evolutionary science, I offer this.

The current issue of the Skeptic contains a chapter of a book about evolution. The author writes of “[Darwin’s] discovery of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection”. I submit that the correct description is “the theory of evolution by means of descent with random modification”.

I see the concept of “natural selection” as a purely physical layer atop something more fundamental and more important to the theory. Every inanimate and animate thing changes all the time (time == change). Some living individual things prosper more than others in their current environment. The physical earth-water-air-light environment of an individual living thing usually changes relatively slowly, but the living food-family-competitors environment of an individual living thing often changes quickly. Because an individual living thing’s DNA cannot change, individuals must die. These facts drive why living things must evolve or else disappear, but they are mostly independent of how living things evolve. Living lineages evolve (change) only through descent with modification, which Darwin saw and described clearly although without knowing the mechanisms.

Descent with modification has been completely random for billions of years: random flaws in protein replication, and random recombination of genes in sexual reproduction.

But humans can now carry out purposeful, directed evolution, for example by using CRISPR to wipe out malaria by genetically engineering the mosquitoes through which it spreads, or to wipe out Lyme disease by genetically engineering the rodents through which it spreads.

We are at a singularity. Now.


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Trump and the North Koreans: A lesson in profound ignorance


I’m a physicist, not a diplomat. I’m an amateur student of current affairs and of history.

Physicists have circulated in the halls of power since creating nuclear weapons during WW II, and worked with military people, statesmen, and political leaders to deal with the catastrophic consequences of the detonation of even one nuclear weapon on a nation’s territory and people. These catastrophic consequences must be borne no matter the outcome of any subsequent international struggle.

The Trump administration, like all previous US governments, is concerned with the armed truce dividing North and South Korea, and the often bizarre and threatening behavior of the northern governments.

To understand present circumstances in Korea and with the United States, its allies, and Korea’s neighbors, and to understand what Donald Trump is doing and thinking, I have found a reliable starting point with the proposition that Donald Trump is profoundly ignorant, a malignant narcissist, and a Mafia-style bully. Indeed, Trump is worse than profoundly ignorant. He strongly believes falsehoods, including that he is smarter than others, and that he is knowledgeable. He is delusional. All these traits appear in today’s situation.

All Koreans agree that they are one nation, now divided, and that they should have but one state. Their division dates to the end of WW II. Japan had ruled Korea for 50 years as a harsh colonial master, and their army in Korea collapsed in the face of a massive, violent attack by the Soviet Red Army. By agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, their forces occupied southern and northern regions. Eventually Korean governments arose in each of these regions and then fell into conflict during the Korean War. The armed invasion by the North Korean army nearly won with their initial attack that pushed the South’s army and US forces to a small pocket on the southern coast. The United States, working through the United Nations, organized the defense of the South, and eventually pushed the Northern army backward past its starting point all the way to the Yalu River, Korea’s border with China. Then the Chinese army counterattacked the UN forces with a massive invasion of Korea and pushed the UN forces back to the original boundary between the Koreas. This led to an armistice, a stand-in-place by the armies, creation of a demilitarized zone, and 70 years of tense armed hostility.

The US does not recognize the North Korean government, and they have no ambassador to the United States either. Talks, such as they are, occur at the demilitarized zone between military people, or in New York city between US diplomats and North Korea’s UN people. Over the 70 years of tension, no US president has ever talked directly, by phone or in person, with any North Korean leader. All previous US governments have taken the point of view that the two Koreas must negotiate a peace, and when we have participated in talks we have worked hard to include the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Russians. Originally, I might add, the Communist nations sat on one side of the table, and we and our allies sat on the other. In recent decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic transformation of China, North Korea’s behavior has been weird enough, that everyone sits on our side of the table facing them, or at least on the left or right side.

The North Koreans, on the other hand, profess to believe that the US, their main military antagonist during the Korean War, is still a great threat to them. They wish to talk to us, face to face, without bothering with the US lackeys who rule South Korea. Thus, when Donald Trump tweeted his agreement to meet with Kim Jung-Un, without bothering to discuss the matter with his professional diplomats and military people, he conceded to the North Koreans a major point without receiving anything in return.

There are reasons why normal, non-delusional, world leaders make sure that there are lengthy preparations for any meeting between them, particularly between adversaries. In diplomacy, summit meetings are carefully scripted. Each leader knows what he or she will say and has a good idea about what the other leader will say. This is not at all like negotiations between a couple of real estate or golf course moguls. If one of the Wall Street Masters of the Universe wants to demand that the other guy paint the lobby of his hotel blue or the deal is off, well no problem. That’s not the way it works when the survivals of nations is at stake.

Trump is notoriously unwilling to follow a script. He is unable or unwilling to develop a plan and strategy with knowledgeable people, since he believes that he already knows more than they, on any subject. He is unwilling to prepare for this same reason. This Time magazine report says that Trump believes he is ready for the talks and doesn’t plan to spend much time, if any, in further preparation. Here’s the headline of that story: “President Trump ‘Doesn’t Think He Needs’ to Prepare Much for His Meeting With North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.”

I’ll just say that these traits and his inability to distinguish facts from falsehoods are the reasons why his lawyers are so concerned about an interview with Mueller’s investigators.

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What’s Wrong with this Cartoon?

From the New Yorker issue of April 23, 2018, this nicely done cartoon brings a chuckle. But it’s nearly all wrong.

The sun began “working” billions of years ago. The sun would emit the same energy whether or not any planets revolved or revolve around it. The sun’s energy is pure physics, a chance result of the Big Bang.

The sun’s emitted energy slams into this planet, which is a mote or speck in its neighborhood. This planet is a hot coal on the inside, a cold coal at the surface except where the sun beats down on it. Outside of gravity, nearly everything we see and feel on the planet is powered by the sun’s energy. In the background the planet grinds away, floating continents and spewing relatively small amounts of energy out of volcanoes and underwater vents. Life on this planet might have started around those underwater vents, but today it’s driven almost completely by sunlight – i.e. by starlight from the local star.

Our sun relentlessly presses life along. The sun doesn’t know it presses life along and it cannot care that it does. The sun does not support life! Its energy sparks and powers life, crashing into rock and dirt and water and air and other existing life, spiraling up more and more complex life forms, dancing, spinning, pushing – but always blindly, without purpose. One asteroid hit could all but destroy life on this planet. The sun could never notice.

We daily give free ammunition to creationists and intelligent-design advocates by anthropomorphizing our environment and unfolding existence. The sooner we start using accurate, unsentimental language and images to describe and discuss life on this planet, the sooner we will mature as a species and recognize our actual origin and place in the universe – as an unplanned and un-designed means by which this planet and this solar system have happened to emerge into self-awareness. I hope you’ll join me in making that happen.

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What Is

Your own personal forever-unique DNA has been billions of years in the making.
The probability that your exact DNA could happen to come into existence is all but zero.
The probability that it does exist is 100%. Here you are!
There is a direct unbroken connection from you back to the very first sparks of life on earth.
Contemplate your navel, and its navel, and its navel, …
Contemplate yourself contemplating yourself contemplating…

You are a process, not a thing.
You could not exist unless other humans existed.
Humans could not have existed unless plants existed.
Plants could not have existed unless single-celled photosynthesis existed amidst water and dirt.
You are an unplanned side effect of starlight pushing around sea water and dirt on this planet.

Wind and water and dirt are all unplanned side effects of starlight – sunlight – pouring onto the earth.
You are unable to live on water and dirt. You can live only by consuming other life and oxygen.
You are able to convert other life to energy only through the bacteria in your gut.
You could be seen as bacteria’s way of moving around, a bus for microorganisms.
Microorganism cells comprise 60-90% of the cells in your body and up to 3% of your weight.
Your immune system, outsourced to microorganisms, does not belong to you.
You are a vibrant community of many life forms.

Continue reading

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Book reviews: Two computer science books


I’m sure that you remember the two books by Charles Petzold that Brad DeLong showed on his Recommended Reading part of his blog. You told me that you had worked with Petzold.

As I’ve gotten some excellent recommendations for economics books from DeLong, I bought and read the two Petzold books.

The first, Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software is a pretty, clear, and simple book. You certainly know all of the material in this book, which starts with a battery, a light, and a switch, and ends with diagrams on the internal works of an Intel processor, and about the instructions it knows. He tells a little about the people who made the key advances along the way. You will enjoy looking at this book to see a lucid explanation of these elementary matters, but probably not to learn new things.

The second, The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour through Alan Turing’s Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine is a different matter. It’s lucid, but more advanced. After a couple of introductory chapters, the book alternates paragraphs, even individual sentences, from Turing’s famous paper and remarks by Petzold. Of course, you may well have read Turning’s papers in your academic study, probably did. Petzold puts them in their mathematical context, which why I was reading this book, but he also gets into the nitty-gritty of “programming” a Turing machine, which might intrigue you. Petzold sometimes corrects evident typos, but he shows that he has read and knows the subsequent literature criticizing or expanding upon Turning’s paper and ideas. As with the first book, I was impressed with the profound understanding of the material (so it seemed to me) that made it possible for him to explain things, some complex and deep, with such clarity.

If you are familiar with Godel’s amazing incompleteness theorem, you know that the astonishing “trick” has to do with inventing a way to give any possible theorem, or even proposed theorem, proven true, false, or as yet unproven, a unique number, and then to use number theory to prove theorems about those theorems. That’s the metamathematics part. Turning figured out a way to give one of his Turing machines a unique number that his Universal Turning Machine could process and reproduce the operation of the enumerated Turing machine. Well, it would be slow, so no one would actually do this. But the idea was that since the Universal Machine could do what any other Turning machine could do, if you could prove theorems about the Universal Machine, which you, Turing I mean, could, then you’d be proving theorems about any possible machine, including all of our modern computers.


I’ve read other books on these topics, so Petzold’s book was not entirely new to me, and I wasn’t reading to learn the details of how to instruct a Turning machine, but I thought it was worth reading. As you are a computer professional, and I’m but an amateur, you will enjoy learning about “programming” a Turing machine, which is not at all like programming today’s computers.


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Go-ing: Gone


In March 2016 Google’s AlphaGo program defeated one of the top Go players in the world, a breakthrough for so-called artificial intelligence. AlphaGo learned the game starting from records of thousands of Go games played by masters around the world – mostly in Japan, Korea and China – for the past few hundred years.

The latest version of AlphaGo, named AlphaGo Zero, started learning last year with only the rules of Go and no input whatsoever from humanity’s history of the game. Zero learned by playing millions of Go games against another instance of itself, remembering what worked well and what did not. Then it played one hundred games against last year’s AlphaGo. Score: Zero 100 wins, AlphaGo none.

From an article in the MIT Technology Review: “The most striking thing is we don’t need any human data anymore … By not using human data or human expertise, we’ve actually removed the constraints of human knowledge…” [italics added].

Game over, for humans.


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Trump, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, and a WSJ editorial


You called my attention to a Wall Street Journal editorial that considered Trump’s speech on Friday about the Iranian nuclear deal, and his decision, both foolish, incoherent, and delusional, to not certify that Iran was complying with that deal. Of course, the WSJ editorial writers didn’t characterize Trump’s speech as I do. Readers can find the text of the editorial below with my comments interspersed in italics.

You wrote:

What’s this about “European leaders who like the deal”? More than like, several signed it along with the US. Reading this editorial, you’d never guess that “the deal” is a joint US-Europe measure, not just the US by itself. The editorial seems to say, it’s all about the US and only the US. Yeah, some Europeans have emotional connections, but so what. And the US can and will by itself slap sanctions on Iran if Congress decides it’s in our interest, and screw the rest of the signatories.

I have some comments too. I teach my U of Tampa students about the Iranian nuclear deal in a couple of my Science in the News segments during our consideration of radioactivity and nuclear physics, and of reactors and bombs.

The deal is under the aegis of the IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN group) and is part of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty from the 1960s. The final deal itself is embodied in a UN Security Council Resolution. Separately and as a part of US internal considerations, Congress passed a law, and Obama signed it, that requires the president to certify every 90 days that Iran is complying with the deal. If he does not, then the act has expedited procedures for Congress to re-impose the sanctions US part of the international sanctions that brought Iran to negotiate the deal. No filibuster, for example.

Trump has loudly proclaimed that this deal, a brilliant feat of diplomacy but not solely the work of the United States, is the worst deal ever, and he promised to withdraw the US from the deal on his first day in office.

There is no way to un-vote a vote cast in the UN Security Council. In that sense, there is no way to withdraw the US from the deal. Unless, that is, the United States just decides to refuse its obligations under the deal. That is, if the US violates the deal, then Iran could, with justification, also stop adhering to the deal. Unfortunately for this method, Iran’s obligations are from the beginning and continue, but the major powers who negotiated the deal have already carried out their side of the deal by removing the sanctions imposed relative to the deal itself. What I call a brilliant feat of diplomacy is that the US and its European partners, and the IAEA, managed to persuade the Russians and the Chinese to participate in the sanctions. They have a long-standing dislike of international sanctions because they believe that the world should mind its own business about their domestic affairs.

What Trump has done is to state that he cannot certify that Iran is complying with the deal. This is a problem because the IAEA has carried out many inspections, and those experts assert that Iran is complying. Our European allies believe this too, and the Russians and the Chinese. Indeed, every informed and non-delusional person in the world believes this. I don’t want to say, in this case, that Trump is lying, but that he is delusional and is speaking without regard to the truth or falsity of what he says. He has not, however, carried out, belatedly, his campaign promise. All he has done is begin a 60-day period during which Congress can re-impose sanctions if it wishes. He hasn’t done a thing about the deal itself, which is what he, ignorantly promised to smash on day 1 of his presidency.

I’d like to add that the IAEA inspectors were the very same group who repeatedly and correctly certified that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program and continued to do so until the Bush administration drove them out of Iraq before they invaded Iraq. The Bushies spent a lot of energy insulting these international professionals.

I’ve also put some comments into the WSJ editorial.


Trump’s Iran Strategy

A nuclear fudge in the service of a larger containment policy.


By The Editorial Board

The Wall Street Journal

Oct. 13, 2017 6:48 p.m. ET


Donald Trump announced Friday that he won’t “certify” his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran, but he won’t walk away from it either. This is something of a political fudge to satisfy a campaign promise, but it is also part of a larger and welcome strategic shift from Barack Obama’s illusions about arms control and the Islamic Republic.


The WSJ cannot find a single thing that Obama ever did of which they can approve. President Obama did not have illusions about Iran, which the WSJ editor refers to as “Islamic” to connote untrustworthiness.


Mr. Trump chose not to withdraw from the nuclear deal despite his ferocious criticism during the campaign and again on Friday. The deal itself is a piece of paper that Mr. Obama signed at the United Nations but never submitted to Congress as a treaty. The certification is an obligation of American law, the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015, that requires a President to report every 90 days whether Iran is complying with the deal. Mr. Trump said Iran isn’t “living up to the spirit of the deal” and he listed “multiple violations.”


Obama signed the deal, and the United States voted for the Security Council resolution. Notice that the WSJ refers to it as an insignificant “piece of paper.” Obama didn’t submit it as a treaty because it is not a treaty. (It probably wouldn’t have gotten the 2/3rds vote in a Republican-controlled Senate anyway.)


The President can thus say he’s honoring his campaign opposition to the pact, without taking responsibility for blowing it up. This partial punt is a bow to the Europeans and some of his own advisers who fear the consequences if the U.S. withdraws. The worry is that Iran could use that as an excuse to walk away itself, and sprint to build a bomb, while the U.S. would be unable to reimpose the global sanctions that drove Iran to negotiate.


But Trump promised to blow up this deal. He didn’t promise to oppose it. “The Europeans” are the British, the French, the Germans, also the Russians. “[S]ome of his own advisers” include Defense Secretary and retired Lt. Gen. Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. McMaster, and all other high-level administration officials with knowledge and formal responsibility in international affairs and national security. The men I cited have stated in public and open testimony that remaining in this deal is in the national interest of the United States. Now, Iran’s Supreme Leader has stated that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic (because they must kill many innocents), and has said that, therefore, Iran will not develop nuclear weapons. If you do not believe this, and a reasonable person may well doubt it, what the WSJ calls a “worry” to minimize it, is just what Iran would do, and be free from sanctions, and our European partners, the Russians, and the Chinese would certainly refuse to reimpose their own sanctions.


This is unlikely because the deal is so advantageous for Iran. The ruling mullahs need the foreign investment the deal allows, and there are enough holes to let Iran do research and break out once the deal begins phasing out in 2025. Iran will huff and puff about Mr. Trump’s decertification, but it wants the deal intact.


The deal is a win-win, advantageous for both sides. The Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty allows non-nuclear weapon states to conduct peaceful nuclear research, and the nuclear weapons states are committed to helping them if they wish to do this research. This treaty has been in force for 50 years and has proven effective if not perfect.


Yet we can understand why Mr. Trump wants to avoid an immediate break with European leaders who like the deal. This gives the U.S. time to persuade Europe of ways to strengthen the accord. French President Emmanuel Macron has talked publicly about dealing with Iran’s ballistic missile threat, and a joint statement by British, German and French leaders Friday left room to address Iranian aggression.


The United Nations already has sanctions against Iran that deal with its missile program, and the nuclear deal has nothing to do with them. Dealing with Iran’s missiles or its “aggression” doesn’t require smashing the nuclear deal. Indeed, smashing the nuclear deal will make arriving at other deals harder.


Meanwhile, Mr. Trump is asking Congress to rewrite the Nuclear Review Act to set new “red lines” on Iranian behavior. The Administration has been working for months with GOP Senators Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) on legislation they’ll unveil as early as next week. This will include markers such as limits on ballistic missiles and centrifuges and ending the deal’s sunset provisions. If Iran crosses those lines, the pre-deal sanctions would snap back on.


Senator Corker is the guy who says that the White House is like an adult day care center, and who Trump responded to with a flurry of Twitter insults. One way that Corker came to his conclusions must be from his discussions with the White House about this deal. Senator Cotton (as far as I know) is a smart guy with extremist twisted ideas about international relations. He’s been an opponent of this deal. Indeed, he was behind the letter from Senate Republicans to the leader of Iran during the negotiations. This letter purported to instruct that leader about American Constitutional rules and urged him not to trust the word of the American president. In other words, Cotton and his Republican colleagues, a few of whom should have known better, tried to undermine their own president’s Constitutional responsibility to determine and carry out foreign policy in the interests of the United States. How do you think White House negotiations with Sen. Corker, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will go?


There’s no guarantee this can get 60 Senate votes. But making Iran’s behavior the trigger for snap-back sanctions is what Mr. Obama also said he favored while he was selling the deal in 2015. The difference is that once he signed the deal his Administration had no incentive to enforce it lest he concede a mistake. The Senate legislation would make snap-back sanctions a more realistic discipline. Senators may also want to act to deter Mr. Trump from totally withdrawing sometime in the future—as he threatened Friday if Congress fails.


Not only is there no guarantee that any legislation proposed by the Trump Administration will get 60 Senate votes, I’d hazard a guess that this proposal will not emerge from Corker’s Foreign Relations Committee.


The most promising part of Mr. Trump’s strategy is its vow to deter Iranian imperialism in the Middle East. The President laid out a long history of Iran’s depredations—such as backing for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and rebels in Yemen, cyber attacks on the U.S., hostility to Israel, and support for terrorism. Notably, Mr. Trump singled out the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s military vanguard, for new U.S. financial sanctions.


The Russians are backing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The Iranians support him too, both directly with aid and indirectly through Hezbollah. In Yemen, the Saudis are creating a humanitarian disaster by wildly bombing Yemeni civilians with American weapons. There is, for example, a massive cholera epidemic there as public works have been bombed. The Russians are the ones who carried out important cyber-attacks on the US, and everyone thinks that Israel and the US infiltrated Iran’s uranium enrichment facility with malware that destroyed or damaged the centrifuges. This malware became known to the world when it escaped from captivity and infected similar control computers around the world. Indeed, Iran is surrounded by US troops and bases. We have soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and major facilities in Persian Gulf states. The US labeled Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil,” and promptly invaded and overthrew the Iraqi regime. The Iranian government and the North Korean government noticed this. In Iraq, the Iranians, including the Revolutionary Guard, are fighting on our side in support of the Iraqi government (but we won’t talk with them). Why do you suppose that the North Koreans restarted their nuclear weapons program during the Bush administration?


This is a welcome change from President Obama, who was so preoccupied with getting his nuclear deal that he ignored Iran’s efforts to expand the Shiite Islamic revolution. Mr. Trump is putting the nuclear issue in the proper strategic context as merely one part of the larger Iranian attempt to dominate the region. This will go down well with Israel and the Sunni Arab states that were horrified by Mr. Obama’s tilt toward Tehran.


The Iranian nuclear deal is not President Obama’s deal, although he and his diplomacy had a lot to do with it. He did not ignore Iran’s efforts to support its friends in other nations. Trump is not putting the nuclear issue in proper strategic context, and apparently the Journal believes that the US should take sides in the Sunni-Shia dispute within Islam. Israel, for its own purposes, wants to bomb Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been warning for more than 20 years that Iran would have a nuclear bomb in 2 years, and I could readily find his many statements on this issue. The Iranians don’t go around talking about bombing Israel, although they don’t like the Israelis and wish them misfortune. But the Israelis have often discussed bombing Iran, in public. This stupid talk (I don’t know why such smart people would behave this way except to guess that it has to do with Israeli politics.) led the Iranians to bury their nuclear enrichment facilities where only the United States would have the proper bombs to destroy them. This led the Israelis to begin calling upon the Americans to bomb the Iranians. What the WSJ, and the Israelis, call “Mr. Obama’s tilt toward Tehran” is his considered and sensible view that it is not in the interest of the United States to go to war with Iran. That is, while US national interests overlap Israel’s they are not identical.


One question is how this squares with Mr. Trump’s cease-fire deal with Russia in southern Syria. Russia is allied with Iran in Syria, and the cease-fire is serving as protection for Revolutionary Guard attempts to control the border region with Israel, which has had to bomb the area repeatedly. Mr. Trump still hasn’t figured out a strategy for Syria or Russia, and that could undermine his effort to contain Iran.


Yep. Trump is incompetent, and he has no coherent view of American interests. The North Koreans are watching carefully what Trump does with respect to Iran, as they noted what happened to Kaddafi after he gave up his nuclear program, and what happened to Saddam Hussein who had abandoned his.


Barack Obama left his successor a world in turmoil, with authoritarians on the march in China, North Korea, Russia and Iran. Mr. Trump needs a strategy for each, and the steps he took Friday are crucial in containing Iran.


Authoritarians are not on the march in North Korea and China. They are staying put. But they are in Russia, which Trump says we should be friends with. He can’t figure out why the US has been in conflict with them. The nuclear deal is a key step to containing Iran, and Trump’s confused and confusing actions Friday set back the efforts to contain it.



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