Friday, February 27, 2015

The Thugocracy That Is Russia

Russians who criticize Putin have a way of dying violently.

Boris Nemtsov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal and visible opponents was shot and killed near Moscow’s Red Square today, a member of his political party told ABC News.

Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader, was shot multiple times in the back as he walked by a bridge near the Kremlin late Friday night, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee.

Russian news reports said that Nemtsov was walking with a female companion when a white car pulled up and fired on him before fleeing the scene.

Don't expect this to discourage the enthusiasm of his fan club.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Contrarians, Crackpots, and Crooks

Contrarians play a significant role in science. Sometimes those who are willing to take an unpopular point of view have a point that's needed to wake up everybody else. Of course they are often completely wrong and even a bit nuts. Crackpots, on the other hand, are people of strong opinions who really have no idea what they are talking about, and contribute only noise to any discussion. At the rotten end of contrarian opinion are those who dishonestly present phony science in exchange for money. I just call them crooks. It's not necessarily easy to always tell the flavors apart.

The saga of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon fits somewhere along this spectrum, and recent revelations have not been kind. Soon is one of the favorite scientists of various climate denialists, speaking frequently to conservative groups, Congress, and other crackpots. He is now accused of failing to disclose conflicts of interest in various papers despite journal rules and ethical standards requiring such disclosure. Harvard-Smithsonian is charged with accepting money from energy industry interests which comes with unethical non-disclosure and prior review agreements.

Some details from the NYT here, the Washington Post here, and the Guardian here, plus an NPR story here. Naturally the right-wing wind machine has entered the lists as well.

From the NYT:

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

That "deliverables" word would seem to make clear that the work in question was a clear quid pro quo, rather than a considered scientific judgement.

From the Guardian:

A prominent academic and climate change denier’s work was funded almost entirely by the energy industry, receiving more than $1.2m from companies, lobby groups and oil billionaires over more than a decade, newly released documents show.

Over the last 14 years Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, received a total of $1.25m from Exxon Mobil, Southern Company, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and a foundation run by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the documents obtained by Greenpeace through freedom of information filings show.

According to the documents, the biggest single funder was Southern Company, one of the country’s biggest electricity providers that relies heavily on coal.

The documents draw new attention to the industry’s efforts to block action against climate change – including President Barack Obama’s power-plant rules.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Krugman on Music/Bankers

PK for today:

Basically, musicians are just like bankers, except for the business about saving our souls versus destroying them.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Business and Islamist Politics

Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, this paper suggesting that one reason for the success of Islamist parties in regions of social upheaval and civil war is their effects on the business class. The un-gated abstract:

In civil wars across the world, certain Islamist groups have competed exceptionally well against their rivals. The conventional wisdom points to either religion or ethnic politics to explain Islamist success. These ideological and identity-based explanations, however, tend to overlook the powerful economic influence that the local business class has over civil war outcomes. Civil war can be modeled as a market for security, wherein protection must be purchased from multiple substate rackets. Using this market model, a close investigation of the Somali case reveals why and under what conditions the interests of the profit-driven business class align with those of ideologically motivated Islamist groups. Security costs are of critical importance to businesses in a civil war, and Islamists are uniquely competitive in lowering these costs. The business-Islamist alliance is therefore driven by rational, economic considerations, which can contribute to the rise of Islamist power.

NFL vs. Second Law of Thermodynamics

Jason Lisk, whoever that may be, takes some anonymous NFL scout to task for bad thermodynamics. The alleged misuse, re Jemais Winston, Florida State QB and 2013 Heisman winner with a checkered past:

“Someone will take him in the first round, but how could you even let that guy in the building?” another scout said. “The second law of thermodynamics basically is the more ways something can happen, the more likely it is to happen. That’s true of players. The more ways they can (expletive) up, the more chances they (expletive) up. This guy’s got a lot of stuff that would lean him more likely to be a bust than a good player.”

Mr. Lisk seems pretty sure that:

Yeah, that’s not what the second law of thermodynamics basically says, but this scout’s take on entropy is quite refreshing.

Actually, for a non-technical summary, I think the scout's version is pretty good. The second law really can be interpreted in terms of the tendency of systems to occupy all of the available (coarse-grained) phase space.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bush World III

Maureen Dowd reminds us what happened last time we let the Bushies take us to the dance, and points out the Jeb Bush's pool of advisors is filled with the same rotten apples that led us to war and disaster last time around.

WASHINGTON — I had been keeping an open mind on Jeb Bush.

I mean, sure, as Florida governor, he helped his brother snatch the 2000 election. And that led to two decade-long botched wars that cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The nation will be dealing for a long time with struggling veterans and the loss of American prestige. Not to mention that W. let Wall Street gamble away the economy, which is only now finally creeping back.

Dowd is no friend of Hillary, but her enthusiasm for the Bushes is no greater.

Like the Clintons, the Bushes drag the country through national traumas that spring from their convoluted family dynamic and then disingenuously wonder why we concern ourselves with their family dynamic.

So who is advising Bush III?

W. was a boy king, propped up by regents supplied by his father. Since he knew nothing about foreign affairs, his father surrounded him with his own advisers: Colin Powell, Condi Rice and Dick Cheney, who joined up with his pal Donald Rumsfeld and absconded with W.’s presidency.

Jeb, too, wanted to bolster his negligible foreign policy cred, so the day of his speech, his aide released a list of 21 advisers, 19 of whom had worked in the administrations of his father and his brother. The list starts with the estimable James Baker. But then it shockingly veers into warmongers.

It’s mind-boggling, but there’s Paul Wolfowitz, the unapologetic designer of the doctrine of unilateralism and pre-emption, the naïve cheerleader for the Iraq invasion and the man who assured Congress that Iraqi oil would pay for the country’s reconstruction and that it was ridiculous to think we would need as many troops to control the country as Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, suggested.

There’s John Hannah, Cheney’s national security adviser (cultivated by the scheming Ahmed Chalabi), who tried to stuff hyped-up junk on Saddam into Powell’s U.N. speech and who harbored bellicose ambitions about Iran; Stephen Hadley, who let the false 16-word assertion about Saddam trying to buy yellowcake in Niger into W.’s 2003 State of the Union; Porter Goss, the former C.I.A. director who defended waterboarding.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

If Putin Moves on NATO

Germany is ready - to sweep up after.

On Tuesday, German broadcaster ARD revealed that German soldiers tried to hide the lack of arms by replacing heavy machine guns with broomsticks during a NATO exercise last year. After painting the wooden sticks black, the German soldiers swiftly attached them to the top of armored vehicles, according to a confidential army report which was leaked to ARD.

…To make matters worse, the broom-equipped German soldiers belong to a crucial, joint NATO task force and would be the first to be deployed in case of an attack.

- See more at:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: The Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu.

The three body problem is a famous problem of classical mechanics, and Poincare's researches into it led to some of the first deep insights into chaotic dynamics. Cixin Liu is the most famous science fiction writer in China, and a writer who deserves to be better known to the English speaking world. That classical physics problem forms the centerpiece of his novel of the same name, but to tell too much would be too many spoilers.

The novel opens with two harrowing scenes from the Great Cultural Revolution of the middle sixties. In the first, two rival bands of Red Guards fight a bloody but meaningless battle. In the second, an older physics professor is brutally persecuted for, among other crimes, teaching relativity. These events, pitting husband against wife, children against parents, and students against teachers shape the pivotal character of the novel, a then young astrophysicist, and echo in the science fiction tale to come, but most of the novel is set in the China of the present or near future.

I have a tough time classifying this novel. Sometimes I think it's a little like Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest, minus 600 pages of self-indulgent crap. But that's probably not fair to any of the authors.

I found it gripping and loaded with insights into an unfamiliar world - and I'm talking more about China than the interstellar civilization also featured.

I also suspect that the hysteria of the Great Cultural Revolution has plenty of elements homomorphic to current Jihadist fanaticism.