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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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“Sons of bitches” or “very fine people” I report. You decide.

In a speech in Alabama, Donald Trump said of these dignified, kneeling men:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!”

Trump and his spokespeople later asserted that comparing black men and their mothers to animals had nothing to do with racism. It was only criticizing anyone who disrespects the American flag.

Here are a couple of photos of marchers at the recent Charlottesville fracas:


Donald Trump had some things to say about the people in these photographs, and here I’m citing ABCNews for his widely reported remarks:

Asked about his immediate response Saturday, Trump quickly blamed both sides for the conflict, adding that there were “very fine people” among both the protesters — which included white supremacists and white nationalists — and the counterprotesters.

“I think there is blame on both sides. You look at both sides. I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said today.

“You had some very bad people in that group. You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he added.

Those people, and I don’t want to refer to men in white robes, conical hats, and red belts as dignified, were waving the battle flag of the Confederate Army.

The actual battle flag was square, like this:

The one those demonstrators are waving was the Confederate Navy’s flag, widely displayed by today’s neo-Confederates:

Be that as it may, they are waving flags of a massive armed insurrection against the people and government of the United States.

Donald Trump says that among those waving these treasonous flags are “very fine people.” He didn’t see any “sons of bitches” among them. He didn’t see anyone disrespecting the flag of the United States.

I wonder why Donald Trump is not outraged that these people are dishonoring the United States flag, as did their ancestors of 150 years ago.

Here’s what someone who is not a racist has to say about racism in the United States:


‘You Should Be Outraged,’ Air Force Academy Head Tells Cadets About Racism On Campus

September 29, 20179:18 AM ET

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Arctic Sea Ice Extent: Sprucing up a Chart


This important and useful chart was on the National Snow and Ice Data Center site on August 8, 2017:

But I found it unusually hard to read. Here is my spruced-up version:

No more hard-to-read vertical text. Zero-based, thus enabling one immediately to see how much lower the extent was in 2012 and is projected to be in 2017. Date of measurement prominent in the title area. Labels close to their items, so the eye doesn’t have to travel back and forth to interpret. Percentage of total ocean area on the left axis, as opposed to square km values in the original, for which one would have to know that the Arctic Ocean’s total area is 14m+ square km in order to realize that the ice extent remains nearly 100% at the start of May.

To me, the original’s main errors were 1) not being zero-based, which forces you to imagine the full picture in order to grasp the real meaning, and 2) expressing measured ice area on the left axis instead of % of total Arctic Ocean area, forcing you to look elsewhere to find out how full or empty the Arctic Ocean actually was/is of sea ice. A basic rule of user interface design is, “Don’t Make Me Think!” unnecessarily. That’s the title of my favorite user-interface book, written lightly and gracefully by Steve Krug and well worth a read.


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Bret Stephens’s NY Times Op-Ed on Climate Change: Wrong, Wrong, Wrong


This April 28 Bret Stephens op-ed debut is way off the mark every inch of the way.

First, what Old Jew Of Galicia? Milocz wrote that epigraph and hundreds or thousands have cited it as if it’s ancient and real wisdom that transcends the folly of whomever you want to lambaste. But what Old Jew of central or western Europe would use precise figures like 55% as opposed to 60% to describe degrees of being sure that one is right? And right about what? Everything? It seems to me that’s the only possibility of the quote, given no other information than the “quote” itself. It seems to be about totalitarian regimes that rewrite truth and history to their liking and allow no dissent. But that’s a whole different world! Climate scientists are not claiming they’re 100% right about everything, only 97% right about something very important that they’ve looked at from dozens or hundreds of different angles and almost always come up with the same conclusion, which is that warming will with high likelihood accelerate and all of humanity with high likelihood will be in a peck of trouble therefrom.

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“For you always have the poor with you…”


Here’s an essay by Christian blogger, Fred Clark, that discusses one of Jesus’ sayings quoted by a Republican Congressman from Kansas, “the poor you will always have with you.” Politically conservative Christians and politicians often cite this verse to express the idea that we can do nothing to help the poor.

Here’s Jesus’ full sentence from Mark 14: “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”

Here’s the Congressman’s quotation from this Stat story: “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” he said. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

Clark shows us Jesus’ complete sentence, not just the clause before the comma. This shows us that his meaning is opposite from that intended by these conservatives. Jesus is scolding some of his apparently pious followers. Jesus tells them that if they persist in false or misdirected piety, instead of helping those less fortunate than themselves, “the poor you will always have with you.” Clark recognizes that Jesus is citing verses from Deuteronomy, “the Scriptures.” Clark displays the relevant verses from Deuteronomy, instructions from the Lord to Jews to care for the widow, the orphan, the sick, the poor, and the outcast, even the alien in your midst, to prove what Jesus had in mind. It’s worth reading Clark’s essay. There is more to it than I’m mentioning here.

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