Friday, December 19, 2014

More Krugman on Putin/Ruble/Russia

The Ruble has recovered a lot of lost ground since Tuesday: Bloomberg It's still worth only about half as much as last year, though, and the future is unclear.

Paul Krugman offers his perspective in the NYT:

If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.

But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.

For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

Unlike most other currency crisis countries, Russia has regularly run large trade surpluses, and has a big stash of foreign currency reserves. So what could the problem be, aside from the fact that Putin has frightened the West into some probably not very effective financial sanctions?

Krugman again:

... Usually, the way a country ends up with a lot of foreign debt is by running trade deficits, using borrowed funds to pay for imports. But Russia hasn’t run trade deficits. On the contrary, it has consistently run large trade surpluses, thanks to high oil prices. So why did it borrow so much money, and where did the money go?

Well, you can answer the second question by walking around Mayfair in London, or (to a lesser extent) Manhattan’s Upper East Side, especially in the evening, and observing the long rows of luxury residences with no lights on — residences owned, as the line goes, by Chinese princelings, Middle Eastern sheikhs, and Russian oligarchs. Basically, Russia’s elite has been accumulating assets outside the country — luxury real estate is only the most visible example — and the flip side of that accumulation has been rising debt at home.

Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.

In principle, that money could go back home. But do Russia's oligarchs trust Putin and the country enough to do that?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Krugman on Russian Debt

One area where Paul Krugman is a genuine expert is currency crises - he claims with some justification to have invented the field of study in economics. Here he takes a look at the Russian debt situation.

He recalls the textbook responses:

At this point the approved move is either (a) go to the IMF or (b) invade the Malvinas. Somehow, (a) doesn’t seem likely — and Putin did (b) in advance.

Cuba Si, Ted Cruz No!

For fifty years, the fanatics of the Cuban exile community told us that Castroism in Cuba was on the brink of collapse, and that if we just kept punishing the Cuban people a bit longer, the whole mess would collapse, allowing them to restore Batista or whomever. Well, it never worked, and Obama finally managed to bring the whole farce to a halt.

Yes, Cuba is still a repressive, undemocratic Communist regime. We have long had diplomatic relations with lots of similar places, and on the whole, such relations have worked to reform those places - usually accompanied by the disappearance of Communism.

Goodbye Ruble Tuesday?

Well, it did briefly look like it. Nonetheless, Russia has a bunch of foreign currency and all that oil and gas, so it does have resources to defend the currency. Will it be enough? TBD.

Bloomberg Ruble vs Dollar.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Man On Horseback

Yeah, that's him, the guy who forgot to put his shirt on.

Putin, of course, is an old KGB Commie whose dearest wish is to restore the evil empire. So why are assorted allegedly right-wing nut jobs so drawn to him? See Lumo here and his commenters for examples. It's the horse, of course. The inner fascist just can't resist the man on horseback - real or virtual. Though a commenter on Stoat pointed out that Putin's concerns right now line up pretty well with those of our own Oiligarchy.

Right now falling oil prices, with a boost from Western sanctions, have got El Puto in a tight spot. Like Gorbachev's Soviet Union of 1989, Russia is highly dependent on oil. Vlad has a bunch of cash stockpiled, but the Ruble is looking really ugly right now and the central bank had to push up interest rates to recession producing levels - with no guarantee that that will work to stem the flight from the Ruble. Putin's oligarchical friends must be getting a bit nervous, and that may be why Russia has so far resisted capital controls which might make it harder for them to fly to dollars.

The Russkies, who still drink up nationalistic propaganda like it was vodka, still love him. How long he can get away with that if the economy tanks, big time, is hard to guess.

What's really scary, though, is what he might do if he's really trapped like a rat. He still has a big army, and there is a lot of Europe that is poorly prepared to defend itself.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Climate Doomsaying

Eli links to an Aaron Sorkin bit of laconic climate doomsaying. Even though I largely agree with the climate scientist characters's matter of fact predictions of bad stuff to come, I have to say that I doubt its effectiveness. People are bombarded almost daily with predictions of doom of one sort or another, by preachers, cable news, random nut jobs, and politicians - hope that's not redundant.

More to the point, we all know that our own personal doom is not that far in the future. All these things make it hard to get to worked up about sea levels being 80 feet higher in the next millenium. For most people, thinking about the future means dealing with the next hour, the next day, and if they are really well off, maybe the next decade or two.

Our species evolved in the Pleistocene, a time of climate hazards considerably more tumultuous than today. Catastrophes wiping out big chunks of the species were a regular occurrence. That might have kept us from evolving the kind of minds that were comfortable with not planning too far ahead.

Another factor has been the tendency of some climate scientists to blame any bit of bad weather - a bunch of hurricanes striking the US, a major tornado outbreak, a drought in California - on climate change. Even if they ultimately turn out to be sort of right, a decade without a major hurricane strike, a quiet tornado year, or a rash of flooding rains in California makes people forget, or worse, remember and disbelieve.

Call me a pessimist, but my guess is that people in Miami will believe climate change when the water reaches their knees. Oklahoma and Kansas might be harder sells.

In any case, I personally find it hard to get to worked up about our impending collision with the Andromeda galaxy, four billion or so years hence. Though I am a bit sorry than neither I nor our planet will be here to see it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Astro FOTD: M 15

Messier 15, or M 15 among friends, is a globular cluster located 10 kiloparsecs or so from us, one of the 150 or so globular cluster associate with the Milky Way galaxy.

In addition to being very pretty, it's very old, about 12 billion years, nearly as old as the Universe itself (13.6 billion, or so). All the 100,000 stars in it are thought to have formed at about the same time from a single large gas cloud. Blue stars, you may recall, are all very young - they burn themselves out quickly. So how does M 15 have some blues? It's thought that they may have formed from collisions or mergers of smaller stars, perhaps those that formed as close binaries.

M 15 is also thought to harbor an intermediate mass black hole (IMBH), a black hole larger than those formed in Supernovae of a few solar masses, but smaller than the million and billion solar mass monster than inhabit the center of galaxies - perhaps a few thousand solar masses.

It also has a planetary nebula, the blue patch above and to the left of center, the only one known in a globular cluster.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Astro FOTD: Parker Instability

M 51 in infrared. Notice how the bright clumps of star formation are strung like beads along the dusty lanes of the spiral arms and other spider web like features. It is thought that much of the clumpyness is due to Parker Instability. According to Choudhuri in Astrophysics for Physicists, magnetic pressure causes regions of stronger field to be less dense than nearby region of lesser field strength, giving rise to magnetic buoyancy. In the disc the local gravitational field has a component toward the plane of the disc, so that regions of slightly lesser field rise out of it like magnetic bubbles. The plasma in these bubbles, however, can stream down the magnetic field lines towards the disc, amplifying any small initial mass concentrations. The resulting mass concentrations can become dense enough to promote star formation.

The same buoyancy instability is involved in sunspots and solar flares.

Walter Lewin

From Scott Aaronson's blog:

Yesterday I heard the sad news that Prof. Walter Lewin, age 78—perhaps the most celebrated physics teacher in MIT’s history—has been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus, and all of his physics lectures removed from OpenCourseWare, because an internal investigation found that he had been sexually harassing students online. I don’t know anything about what happened beyond the terse public announcements, but those who do know tell me that the charges were extremely serious, and that “this wasn’t a borderline case.”

I’m someone who feels that sexual harassment must never be tolerated, neither here nor anywhere else. But I also feel that, if a public figure is going to be publicly brought down like this (yes, even by a private university), then the detailed findings of the investigation should likewise be made public, regardless of how embarrassing they are. I know others differ, but I think the need of the world to see that justice was done overrides MIT’s internal administrative needs, and even Prof. Lewin’s privacy (the names of any victims could, of course, be kept secret).

More importantly, I wish to register that I disagree in the strongest possible terms with MIT’s decision to remove Prof. Lewin’s lectures from OpenCourseWare—thereby forcing the tens of thousands of students around the world who were watching these legendary lectures to hunt for ripped copies on BitTorrent. (Imagine that: physics lectures as prized contraband!) By all means, punish Prof. Lewin as harshly as he deserves, but—as students have been pleading on Reddit, in the MIT Tech comments section, and elsewhere—don’t also punish the countless students of both sexes who continue to benefit from his work. (For godsakes, I’d regard taking down the lectures as a tough call if Prof. Lewin had gone on a murder spree.) Doing this sends the wrong message about MIT’s values, and is a gift to those who like to compare modern American college campuses to the Soviet Union.

I agree about the lectures, but see comments on Scott's blog.

Another icon bites the dust through sexual misbehavior. My guess is that we are genetically programmed to have tendencies toward such behaviors. If so, we probably only see the tip of the iceberg of powerful men behaving badly.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

IQ Upgrade?

Remember Daniel Keyes fabulous short story/novel/play/movie Flowers for Algernon? The title character was a mouse with surgically enhanced intelligence.

It seems that this part of the future has already arrived.

What would Stuart Little make of it? Mice have been created whose brains are half human. As a result, the animals are smarter than their siblings.


Goldman's team extracted immature glial cells from donated human fetuses. They injected them into mouse pups where they developed into astrocytes, a star-shaped type of glial cell.

Within a year, the mouse glial cells had been completely usurped by the human interlopers. The 300,000 human cells each mouse received multiplied until they numbered 12 million, displacing the native cells.

"We could see the human cells taking over the whole space," says Goldman. "It seemed like the mouse counterparts were fleeing to the margins."

Astrocytes are vital for conscious thought, because they help to strengthen the connections between neurons, called synapses. Their tendrils (see image) are involved in coordinating the transmission of electrical signals across synapses.

Human astrocytes are 10 to 20 times the size of mouse astrocytes and carry 100 times as many tendrils. This means they can coordinate all the neural signals in an area far more adeptly than mouse astrocytes can. "It's like ramping up the power of your computer," says Goldman.

Intelligence leap

A battery of standard tests for mouse memory and cognition showed that the mice with human astrocytes are much smarter than their mousy peers.

Although creepy, the work has some obvious implications for understanding some kinds of metal retardation, and, conceivably, treatments.

According to the lead investigator, Steve Goldman of Rochester University:

"This does not provide the animals with additional capabilities that could in any way be ascribed or perceived as specifically human," he says. "Rather, the human cells are simply improving the efficiency of the mouse's own neural networks. It's still a mouse."

However, the team decided not to try putting human cells into monkeys. "We briefly considered it but decided not to because of all the potential ethical issues," Goldman says.