Thursday, June 30, 2005

Problems Problems

Commenter Lee is convinced that energy is the world's number one problem and he makes a good case here. He recommends lectures by David Goodstein, Nathan Lewis, and Steven Koonin. The main purpose of the present post is to provide those links.

The Goodstein and Lewis lectures were Caltech Watson lectures and can be viewed online at the Caltech Today Streaming Theater. Koonin's Fermilab colloquium is on streaming video here.

Goodstein is Professor of Physics and Vice Provost at Caltech, and has taught Caltech's hallmark Physics 1a course forever (The capacity of the Ph 1a lecture hall determines how many Freshman are admitted each year - about 215). Lewis and Koonin took a major role in debunking cold fusion, though that's probably the least of their accomplishments. Lewis plays a parallel role with Goodstein in teaching Ch 1a, another course every Tech Freshman takes. Koonin was Provost at Caltech till 2004 and is now chief scientist of B.P. International.

Lee's comments are always on the mark, but I want to take slight exception here. The world's biggest problem to me is resource exhaustion and environmental destruction generally, and the underlying cause is overpopulation. Energy, especially oil, is a crucial component of the resource depletion, but not the only one. Humans now consume something like 50% of the world's net biological production, and that net biological production is unlikely to be changed much by anything we do.

We are now marching on a global scale off an enviromental cliff that has been the fate of many a culture. Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed tells the story of many smaller scale cultures and has some lessons for our global society.

Lee makes the further valid point that neither the Republican nor Democratic party has any real plan for dealing with the coming energy problems - or, I would add, for the more general environmental crisis already underway.

Vietnamization

Be sure to catch Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen today .

About two years ago I sat down with a colleague and explained why Iraq was not going to be Vietnam. ... On Tuesday President Bush proved me wrong. Iraq is beginning to look like Vietnam.
Read it. He has lots of dispiriting specifics.
unless Bush rethinks his strategy, fires some people who long ago earned dismissal, examines his own assumptions (what's the point of continuing to isolate Iran and Syria when we need them both to seal Iraq's borders?) and talks turkey to the American people, he will lose everything good he set out to do, including the example Iraq could set for the rest of the Middle East.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Jailing Judy

The New York Times has brought William Safire back from the undead to make a pretty weak case for Judith Miller. If they could jail journalists for lying, Safire would never get out of the slammer. A few of his whoppers and laughers:

The Supreme Court has just flinched from its responsibility to stop the unjust jailing of two journalists - not charged with any wrongdoing
Actually Bill, contempt of court *is* wrongdoing, even in New York.
The case was about the "outing" of an agent - supposedly covert, but working openly at C.I.A. headquarters
Damn, as open as that - right in CIA Headquarters. That's sort of like putting up a billboard in Times Square, huh?

His next absurdity is so ironically wrongheaded that I almost laughed and cried at the same time.
After spending two years and thousands of F.B.I. agent-hours and millions of dollars that could better have been directed against terrorism and identity theft, the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, admits his investigation has been stalled since last October.
Er, yeah, he said it was stalled because these two witnesses, held in contempt for refusal to testify, were busy clogging up the federal courts with their appeals.
That privilege not to testify - held by lawyers, members of the clergy, spouses and others - gives assurance to whistleblowers that information confided to a reporter revealing corruption or malfeasance in government will not result in loss of job or more severe retaliation from on high.
Only thing is, Bill, the persons being protected here are the ones guilty of the corruption and malfeasance.
The contempt epidemic is spreading fast. Yesterday, a federal appeals panel in the District of Columbia followed up the Supreme Court flinch by forcing a New York Times reporter and three other journalists in a different case to burn their sources or be sentenced
And all they did was help corrupt public officials ruin the life of an innocent scientist.

OK, I dropped another insult to Safire to make room for an acknowledgement of one honestly useful (but unlikely to be implemented) suggestion:
3. Mr. Novak should finally write the column he owes readers and colleagues perhaps explaining how his two sources - who may have truthfully revealed themselves to investigators - managed to get the prosecutor off his back.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Poll Numbers

Via Kevin Drum I linked to this CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll showing the President's poll numbers sinking, especially on the war. The commenters on Kevin's post were mostly celebrating like they had won the World Series.

If you are a Democrat doing a victory dance right now, you are probably nuts. The President still has a very unified party, all three brances of Government including an ever strengthening grip on the judiciary, and the vast majority of the corporate media. Any number of things could occur which would greatly strengthen the President without helping the country much in the long run: Oil could drop to $35/bll for a couple of years, the economy could continue slow growth, political progress may occur in Iraq (this would help the country a lot), or terrorists could strike again in the US (and this would hurt the country a lot but help the President - at least for a while).

Democrats need to think hard and come up with good candidates and issues for 2006. We had abominable strategy in the last three elections, and got the crap beaten out of us. In 2000 we thought "peace and prosperity" would win for us, in 2002 we tried craven me-tooism, and in 2004 thought the economy would let us cruise.

Maybe we should try ideas and passion next time.

Blah Blah Blah

The President gave a nice but largely content free speech to a bunch of American Soldiers wearing French hats. There was nothing new in it - stay the course, build freedom in the Middle East, train the Iraqis. He was certainly more coherent and articulate than usual - his teleprompter skills have clearly improved. David Gergen on CNN thinks the speech will stop the hemorrhaging - for a while.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Inconvenient Science

Science has often been inconvenient for those in power. Knowlege *is* power, and those in power like a monopoly so as to enhance their power. The most inconvenient science is that which exposes power built on lies. Bruno and Galileo were famous victims, but in many small ways, the war continues. The continuing guerrilla war of fundamentalists vs. Darwin is the most famous example, but probably the more serious problem for society is the disinformation campaign conducted by corporate interests and their mainly Republican flunkies.

Tobacco was the model for most subsequent propaganda wars. The tactics are well developed: lie, obfuscate, buy a few scientists to give your lies some credibility, and above all, hide all the truth you know. Recently exposed big-lies concern the safety of several prominent drug types: cox-2 inhibiting non-steroidal anti-inflamatories (Celebrex, Bextra, Vioxx, for example), menopausal homone replacement therapy, and the cholesterol lowering statins. Probably the most egregious example, because it went on so long involves the hormone replacement therapies. Probably hundreds of millions of women took these, partly because they and their doctors were told that the hormones helped prevent heart disease and strokes - when in fact the opposite was the case.

The global warming battle is another excellent example. It's true that some qualified experts are still among the doubters, and not all of them are on energy company payrolls (at least as far as I know). However, most of the noise is coming from bought-and-paid for politicians, certified idiot hacks like the WSJ editorial page, and pollution industry flacks. There are also economists with books to sell (Bjorn Lomborg), grand-standing science fiction writers with books to sell (Michael Crichton), and even one excellent string-theorist, blogger extraordinaire, and deluded amateur climatologist Lubos M.

Their tactics say more than their science. Some years back, when the case for global warming was much less convincing, I, and I'm guessing every other member of the American Geophysical Society or the American Meteorological Society who had ever evinced any interest in climatology, received a mailing containing a Wall Street Journal editorial and a letter by one-time scientist and current defender of polluters S. Fred Singer. I was amused that anybody could consider this an argument that would influence a scientist, but now, a decade or so down the pike, their tactics are more sinister.

Phillip Cooney...

A former White House official and one-time oil industry lobbyist whose editing of government reports on climate change prompted criticism from environmentalists will join Exxon Mobil Corp., the oil company said Tuesday.

...White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Cooney's departure was ``completely unrelated'' to the disclosure two days earlier that he had made changes in several government climate change reports that were issued in 2002 and 2003.
Obscure, hide, delete, and lie. And don't forget to collect your check.

Kevin Drum has this post on the latest WSJ nonsense.

Shield Laws

Well, the supers declined to issue Judith Miller and Matt Cooper get out of jail free cards. I don't know if this will further the investigation of the Plame affair, but nobody but the press seems very sympathetic. I know I'm not.

Washington Monthly founding editor Charlie Peters issued a plea for Cooper on Kevin Drum's Political Animal. His plea was met with an almost unanimous storm of protest in the comments section, which I recommend. Not only did he argue an unpopular cause, he also argued it very badly, e.g.

Matt is not only a fine reporter, he is a caring husband and father, a kind and thoughtful friend, and an all-round good citizen. And he has a marvelous sense of humor.

...If you agree, please write Judge Thomas Hogan appealing for a merciful sentence. Do not tell the judge he’s wrong about the law. Just concentrate on Matt’s personal character and family situations, explaining why he should not be put in jail.
There may or may not be good reasons not to jail Cooper, but these not only aren't them, they strike at the foundation of the idea of the rule of law. Peters also caught a bit of flack for ignoring Judith Miller, presumeably because she lacks Matt's self-deprecating sense of humor.

I lean toward the lock-them-up in GITMO till they squeal theory, myself.

If we ever should pass shield law for the press, I strongly believe it should be very clearly delimited, protecting only those who are exposing governmental or other mischief - and especially not those who are committing the mischief.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Lost in Translation?

Kerry Sieh and Siman LeVay have written a widely (and justly) praised book on earthquakes and volcanoes called The Earth in Turmoil. It's a fine book and I recommend it highly, but I found this little oddity on pages 82 and 83:

How many ruptures of the fault did it take to produce the 420 foot offset? If every rupture produced an offset of 30 feet, as the 1857 rupture did, then it would take a total of about 13 ruptures.
Well, Kerry Sieh is the Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology at Caltech, and I would think that some at that institution might find the math a bit funky. I suppose that it's true that 420/30 is "about" 13, since it's exactly 14, but what's going on here?

My best guess is that the original computations were done in meters, and that something was lost in translation in the round off in one unit system or both.

Swampwater

Since civilization was already over (see below) I waded into the fetid waters of Fox News Sunday this morning. Rumsfeld was the guest and, to my surprise, was fairly aggressively questioned - aggressively by the dismal standards of the modern corporate media anyway. Since he also appeared on Meet the Press, giving similar answers, I may conflate a few of his anwers in the following, but here are some lowlights:

...I don't make those decisions.
Said specifically about troop levels in Iraq, but pretty much his answer to anything that might imply personal responsibility of any sort. Others: torture - Bush decided that, cost of the war - Wolfie must have been just freelancing, etc.

As usual he was bobbing and weaving with all the speed his seven-decade plus mind could manage. What a coward and what a liar!

When the subject turned to GITMO and the rest of the Bush Archipelago, his usual line of bull took a slightly comic turn:
... [the prisoners] are suicide bombers, terrorists... bad people...we are releasing hundreds of them...[some] have shown up on the battlefield [fighting against us again].
More interesting to me was the roundtable discussion. Juan Williams allowed that Karl Rove's statement that:
...liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.
might have been a bit over the top, and [Brent the] Bozo interrupted to dissent. At this point things got really interesting, when Bill Kristol (whom I usually think of as a dependably facist minion of Richard Mellon Scaife) quite correctly stated that the more objectionable Rove remark was:
...Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast[the foregoing does not appear to be true], certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.
and that this was well over the line. This clearly enraged Bozo, but I can't remember quite what imprecations he uttered.

The End

It's official. English speaking civilization is over in the United States.

Linguistic conservatives and right-thinking people everywhere have increasingly become concerned with the trend towards usings "begs the question" to mean "invites the question" rather than its correct, proper, and divinely ordained meaning of "presumes that which it purports to prove."

From Daniel Gross's New York Times (!) story this morning

That begs a question: When housing is the biggest single expenditure for most Americans, and when half of the nation is fretting about a housing bubble and the other half is logging on to CondoFlip.com, how can inflation remain tame?
I weep for our country.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Aid and Comfort

Michael Moss has a story in the NYT telling about one more way Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush have given aid and comfort to our enemies. When Rumsfeld went to Iraq

to tour the Abu Ghraib prison camp, military officials did not rely on a government-issued Humvee to transport him safely on the ground. Instead, they turned to Halliburton, the oil services contractor, which lent the Pentagon a rolling fortress of steel called the Rhino Runner.
Nothing wrong with that. The crime consists in the fact that Bush, Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld's careerist bureaucrat Generals have consistently dragged their feet on providing our troops comparable protection. The Army has known for 25 years that the Humvee is unsuited to the kind of operations we are now carrying out in Iraq. Moss gives example after example of how a slow moving bureaucracy and incompetence have slowed the delivery of adequate systems to the troops.

In addition to the deficiencies of the armored Humvee, procurement has been slowed by the fact that
The Defense Department continues to rely on just one small company in Ohio to armor Humvees. And the company, O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, has waged an aggressive campaign to hold onto its exclusive deal even as soaring rush orders from Iraq have been plagued by delays.
When Bush wanted torture camps, it took weeks or months to set them up. The fact that so little has happened on the armored vehicle front can only be the result of the fact that Bush and Rumsfeld don't care about our soldiers - especially if the alternative is inconveniencing a corporation that might make campaign contributions.

The procurement bureaucracy is slow, cumbersome and unresponsive, but if Bush or Rumsfeld went to Congress and said "I need this to protect our troops," I guarantee that Congress would remove any obstacles faster than you can say "Terry Schiavo." They have not. They don't care, and they are the ones who are stabbing America in the back (as Brad DeLong puts it).

Blame Canada?

The Rassmussen Report has a poll up showing that more Americans (49% to 44%) now blame Bush more than Saddam for starting the war. My first response was "Well Duh!" but I suppose there should be some joy over the return of the prodigals from stupidity.

I watched part of Total Recall on the tube today. Recall the point where the Doctor is trying to convince Arnie that he is living in a dream? Arnie asks him if shooting him would hurt him in that case. The Doc replies with some good BS but is betrayed by a little drop of sweat rolling down his face. James Wolcott blames the deterioration of Bush's poll numbers for Rove's shrill attack on Dick Durbin. Maybe little Rovian outbursts are his equivalent of the Doc's drop of sweat. Let's hope so anyway.

Bad Tasting Medicine

I was listening to one of those man-in-the-street interviews on energy policy yesteday, and it was a pretty disheatening experience. The people interviewed seemed rather better informed than most, but could not shift their attention beyond the ends of their noses. The overriding concern was about how can we get gasoline prices back down. Hello people - that ain't gonna happen. This is not the time to be thinking about short term palliatives - this is the time to start that painful therapy that might just save the nation and our children.

Brad Delong points us to some medicine prescribed by Rick Pelstein and quoted approvingly by Max Sawicky. We are headed off the cliff, or down the tube, and:

The U.S. has to get out of Iraq, ASAP.

The U.S. must have national health insurance.

The Federal Gov will need to increase taxes -- over the next 75 years -- by about ten percentage points of GDP.
The tsunami is coming, and everyone is rushing down to buy beachfront property with interest only loans.

No politician could get elected on a program like the above, of course. It might be nice if some would start saying that we face hard choices ahead. Politically speaking, there is little chance that anything can be done before the catastrophe strikes, but we need to start pointing the finger of blame at those who are responsible - maybe a few people will wake up and head for the hills.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Warrior King

Paul Krugman is a national treasure, one of the few redeeming lights in the generally sorry performance of the press. Writing his NYT column "The War President" from Vienna he opens with:

In this former imperial capital, every square seems to contain a giant statue of a Habsburg on horseback, posing as a conquering hero.

America's founders knew all too well how war appeals to the vanity of rulers and their thirst for glory. That's why they took care to deny presidents the kingly privilege of making war at their own discretion.
But after 9/11 President Bush, with obvious relish, declared himself a "war president."
Krugman doesn't talk about Congress, but it was clearly guilty of abdicating its constitutional duty to declare (or not declare) war.

His main point is that we can't afford not to figure out how we got into this mess:
Leading the nation wrongfully into war strikes at the heart of democracy. It would have been an unprecedented abuse of power even if the war hadn't turned into a military and moral quagmire. And we won't be able to get out of that quagmire until we face up to the reality of how we got in.
He looks at some of the evidence, and the sorry performance of the press is an important exhibit. He finds some consolation in the fact that the American people are starting to get fed up.

My fear is that al Quaeda will exploit Bush's incompetence and inattention to produce some new attack on American soil to bail him out.

I think this column should be a must read for anyone who cares about the country and prefers the truth to the slanders of Rove and Cheney.

Rocky II: We *still* don't need no stinkin' dark energy.

I have pretty much given up posting on physics. This is because I don't know jack-shit about physics. Lubos posted a question on the S-Matrix today and I had a momentary rush - hey I studied this in grad school. I even picked up Taylor's Scattering Theory and looked up why S-Matrix poles below the real axis don't matter - but I couldn't really follow his argument, I've forgotten too much, so NEVERMIND. So I try to follow Feynman's dictum to only talk about stuff nobody knows anything about. I still really care about physics, though, so here's an exception.

Kolb, Matarrese and Riotto, undismayed by the less than enthusiastic reception received by last month's paper (with Notari), have expanded on why cosmic acceleration doesn't really require dark energy:

astro-ph/0506534

The gist of the argument is

We elaborate on the proposal that the observed acceleration of the Universe is the result of the backreaction of cosmological perturbations, rather than the effect of a negative-pressure dark-energy fluid or a modification of general relativity. Through the effective Friedmann equations describing an inhomogeneous Universe after smoothing, we demonstrate that acceleration in our local Hubble patch is possible even if fluid elements do not individually undergo accelerated expansion... ... We show that an instability occurs in the perturbative expansion involving sub-Hubble modes, which indicates that acceleration in our Hubble patch may originate from the backreaction of cosmological perturbations on observable scales.
I look forward to the smart guys sorting this out. KMR promise a followup.

Obsolescence

My wife posted a long list of questions to be used in deciding what to throw out. A few highlights.

a) Would I pay to ship it to Australia?

b) Is it an irritant?

c) Is it old, outdated, rusty, inoperable, broken, replaced, unnattractive, out-of-style, unsafe?

On the positive side, I haven't been replaced. Yet.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

San Antonio

What a game! What a series! I love the way these two teams play basketball! The best NBA finals in a while.

Mr. Rove - your pants are on fire - again

Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo and Kevin Drum's Political Animal have posts up on the recent antics of Bush's chief slander monkey, Karl Rove. What a lying scumbag.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Bully Bully

Fred Becker at Wonkette has a post up to remind us why intellectuals hate Bush. It's the old high school Bully the Nerd play:

THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate the Secretary of Energy joining me today. He's a good man, he knows a lot about the subject, you'll be pleased to hear. I was teasing him -- he taught at MIT, and -- do you have a PhD?
SECRETARY BODMAN: Yes.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, a PhD. (Laughter.) Now I want you to pay careful attention to this -- he's the PhD, and I'm the C student, but notice who is the advisor and who is the President.
Good clean fun, but Wonkette suggest widening the domain of applicability
The Army should try this to get its recruitment numbers up: "Now I want you to pay careful attention to this -- he's the soldier, I'm the one who avoided active service, but look who's sending people to die?"

Volunteers

tacitus has been a pretty reliable pro-war rightie, but he's had a not-quite-epiphany too. He spent an evening talking to a friend who had just returned from aid-station duty in Iraq, and was now tending the maimed back in the US. She's had it and she's getting out:

My friend is lucky -- she's only been to war once. I know others who have been to war twice, and probably a third time before the year is out. It's not that these people have no sense of duty: to the contrary. But they don't see the sense in the open-ended mission, plagued by strategic incoherence, and chronically undermanned. It's impossible to blame them. "I've read about the recruiting problems," she said, "And I think, no joke."
Unfortunately, the lesson tacitus takes from this is
The volunteer soldiers have proven themselves fine warriors. But the volunteer Army has failed. This is its first war of any meaningful length, and its lessons are clear: it cannot sustain this effort, through no fault of its own, because, in the end, its discrete parts are rational actors. It is impossible to externally incentivize war. The choice is therefore between that Army's continuance and a draft...
Which just goes to show that a smart guy can know the facts and still delude himself. The fault is not with your volunteer Army, tacitus, it's with the stupid war Bush and his cheerleaders (like you) led us into. Brad DeLong looked at his argument and found it wanting. The volunteer Army is not designed for wars of imperial conquest and occupation. The failure was in trying to use it for those purposes.

George of Iraq

Now that Andrew Sullivan seems to be recovering from Bush infatuation, he keeps finding stuff that makes me regret some of the nasty things I've thought about him. One of his quotes of the day:

"[We] have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. [We] have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows... Our unfortunate troops,... under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad." - T.E. Lawrence, Sunday Times of London, August 22, 1920.
We pay a very high price for choosing stupid leaders. And another one for not learning history.

Linked via tacitus.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Condi for President?

Well, the Secretary of State seems to have at least one non-fan. Here is Riverbend on Condi from Bagdad:

She stood in the crowded room as her drove of minions stood around her... A huddling mass trying to draw closer to her aura of evil. The lights flashed against her fangs as her cruel lips curled into a grimace. It was meant to be a smile but it wouldn't reach her cold, lifeless eyes. It was a leer- the leer of the undead before a feeding...

The above was not a scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer- it was just Condi Rice in Iraq a day ago. At home, we fondly refer to her as The Vampire. She's such a contrast to Bush- he simply looks stupid. She, on the other hand, looks utterly evil.
She also talks about the bombs, theories about the culprits, and especially about the outrages at GITMO and Abu Graib. A summation:
By doing such things, this war is taken to another level- it is no longer a war against terror or terrorists- it is, quite simply, a war against Islam and even secular Muslims are being forced to take sides.
I greatly fear she may be right. The way this kind of war is lost is by converting every undecided bystander into an enemy.

Lying or Just Dumb?

E. J. Dionne speculates in today's Washington Post that the real problem with Bush/Cheney's approach to the war was less duplicity than stupidity in How Cheney fooled himself. The Downing Street Memos reveal a White House that couldn't be bothered with planning for the aftermath of conquest. A prewar Meet the Press interview with Cheney reveals all the self delusion:

Russert asked: "If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?"

Cheney would have none of it. "Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I've talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. . . . The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want [is to] get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that."
Reality has a way of obtruding itself, but unfortunately it's the American Soldiers and taxpayers who are paying the price. The American people mostly trusted their leaders, and that was a big mistake.
Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska says in the current issue of U.S. News & World Report that "the White House is completely disconnected from reality" and that "it's like they're just making it up as they go along." Unfortunately, the evidence of the past suggests that Hagel's acerbic formulation may be exactly right.
Thanks for that Chuck, but where were you and the rest of the Congress when you were supposed to be exercising your constitutional authority over declarations of War?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Curve

Kevin Drum has a post on Grade Inflation up today, but the data, and further commentary come from Alex Tabarok here. The interesting conclusions are that a)there was steep inflation 1967-72, probably associated with the Vietnam War and a second, more gradual inflation from 1987-lates data, and b)more junior faculty are easier graders. Tabarok, a self-described tough grader, also argues, on the basis of a to me only slightly related French experiment, that grade inflation isn't all bad.

In May of 1968 French students rioted, were suppressed by the police, but then joined by 10 million striking workers leading to a near revolutionary situation. To quiet things down many students that year were accepted to universities which in former and later years they would not have qualified for.
It seems that those students admitted under the looser standards did OK, in school and in life.

If you want to answer the question of whether grade inflation is bad, you have to first decide what grades are good for. Some possibilities: a)They promote competition among the students; b)They give prospective employers and graduate schools a basis for comparison; and c)They set standards for achievement.

In my own experiences with a & b, I recall vividly getting back my first exam in Advanced Calculus. It had been a tough enough exam that I had prepared myself by bringing a drop slip, but I was still shocked when I saw my score was only 37/90. I spent the rest of the class in a daze and filling out my drop slip. I didn't even notice that the professor had put up the list of scores and his grading curve. The 37 was actually the high score, and an A according to the prof's peculiar curve. that experience motivated me in a way that getting an 87/90 would not have, and I probably worked harder in that class than any other - I never got the 100% I wanted, but I did come a lot closer and I learned a lot.

There are problems with all three of the grade justifications I suggested. Competition makes the students enemies, to a degree, and encourages cheating. Standards for students, graduate schools, and employers are confused by the very different student bodies at different schools. We all know that the elite schools have much more selective student bodies, but how do we compare on the basis of grades? Is a C from Stanford as good as an A from Obscure City College? How does each compare with the B from Midrank State? Is it crazy that the 10 percentile student at Harvard has grades as good as a 90 percentile student at Nowhere State, especially when you know that the Harvard student probably had a better SAT?

There is a remedy for most of these ills, simple, painful, and extremely unlikely to be adopted: external examination. That is, have all students take the same final exams. I believe they do something like this in Britain. We even have a primitive, but very inadequate, version already, the GRE. The main reason schools will not like this system is that it will expose just how different the achievement levels of the students are.

The Last Refuge

Wars have always been popular with tin-pot dictators, regular-pot dictators, and politicians in trouble. The reason is pretty simple - when the nation is at war, any attack on the leader can be portrayed as an attack on the soldiers and an attack on the nation. This phenomenon was probably what Samuel Johnson had in mind when he defined patriotism as "The last refuge of the scoundrel." Bartleby.com offers riffs on this theme by Ambrose Bierce and H. L. Mencken:


“In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, at entry for patriotism, The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, p. 323 (1946, reprinted 1973).

H. L. Mencken added this to Johnson’s dictum: “But there is something even worse: it is the first, last, and middle range of fools.”—The World, New York City, November 7, 1926, p. 3E.
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin put his hand into this buzz-saw the other day when he said :
...after reading an FBI agent's report describing detainees at the Naval base in Guantanamo Bay as being chained to the floor without food or water in extreme temperatures.

``If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime - Pol Pot or others - that had no concern for human beings,'' Durbin said.
(from The Guardian Unlimited.)

While Durbin's remarks are an understandable reaction to the abuses reported, especially in the light of the fact that they were clearly the result of policy rather than individual excess, they were also foolish. They gave the Administration's well trained slander monkeys a perfect excuse to go into one of their well-practiced war dances. It's pretty easy to show that, whatever bad things have happened in GITMO and other islands of the Bush Achipelago, much worse happened to many more people in Stalin's Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Nazi Europe, and Saddam's Iraq. I don't find this fact very comforting, but it certainly gives the wingers a shouting point.

Bad things happen in wars, and that's why they should only be undertaken for the gravest reasons. Of all the catastrophic blunders Bush has made in this war, starting it was the worst, and 1700 Americans have already died for his folly. Those of us who hate the war but not the warrior should keep our focus on the leadership blunders that have gotten us to this sorry state.

Selling Out

David Brooks has a morality play of a column on Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist today. The theme is "earnest do-gooder goes to the Senate and loses his soul." Brooks likes the first Dr. Frist

Frist's motto in his high school yearbook was, "But I don't like to rest." He excelled at everything and noted, "Not surprisingly, with the family emphasis on self-worth, I longed to be first in everything, to be king of the hill, the grammar school capo di capo. I imagine I was quite insufferable."

And yet when I spent a week in Nashville a few years ago interviewing people who had known Frist, I found they all revered him. I came across story after story of Frist performing some act of personal kindness, ranging from saving lives in Africa to writing out a 40-page memo on the ecology and history of Nantucket for an acquaintance who was going to vacation there.
But life in the DC snakepit takes its toll:
Frist too appears to have been gradually altered. Many who've known him say it's hard to square the current on-message leader with the honest young man of "Transplant," the stiff, ideological politician with the beloved community leader who made such a mark on Nashville.
The Terry Shiavo fiasco was the tragic climax:
These days he seems not so much the leader of the Senate conservatives, but someone who is playing the role. And because he is behaving in ways that don't seem entirely authentic, he is often trying just a bit too hard, striking the notes more forcefully than they need to be struck.

That is what happened during the Terri Schiavo affair. It's not quite fair to say that Frist diagnosed Schiavo from a TV screen, but he did put himself on the wrong side of the autopsy that came out last week. He did betray his medical training, which is the core of his being, to please a key constituency group.

It's a sad story, and it's told well. This column doesn't feel like a politically orered hit - it seems more genuine than most of Brooks.

But even if it turns out that Rove or some other Bush capo had Brooks push the button on Frist, you can't help but admire the technique.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Love your enemies...

...says the Lord, as quoted in Luke 6:35 and Matthew 5:44. This is a moral duty for Christians, but it can also be a strategy - "keep your enemies close" (Sun Tzu in The Art of War and also Al Pacino in The Godfather II). Nobody has used that strategy better than Bill Clinton. Matt Drudge quotes Clinton on George H. W. from the CBS Late Show

Clinton, "I think we're good friends. I like him very much. I've always liked him. When he was vice president, I was still a governor. We worked together on a number of things. He hosted the governors, in 1983...at Kennebunkport."

When they made an announcement about raising funds for Tsunami relief in Houston former First Lady Barbara Bush "announced us. And she said she has started to call me son. I told the Republicans there, I said don't worry, every family has one, you know, the black sheep. I told them, this just shows you the lengths the Bushes would go to get another president in the family. I wish I could get them to adopt Hillary."
Clinton is still our wittiest politician.

However, it's pretty hard not to demonize your opponent when he is deploying the Swift Boat Liars, Ann Coulter, and all those other people with the 666 printed on their foreheads, but maybe we need to try.

So here's the question: How do you nicely point out that your opponents are 1)Stealing the country blind (e.g. Duke Cunningham, Tom Delay, CheneyBurton), 2)Getting a lot of American soldiers killed and maimed for nothing, 3)Trying to impose a police state here, 4)Wrecking the economy with huge deficits, 5)Embarrassing the nation with their inarticulate ignorance, 6)Lying about almost everything.

Any useful suggestions would be appreciated. XOXO to Bush, Cheney, Scalia, Rumsfeld, Bill O'Reilly, Rush, and the gang.

Friday, June 17, 2005

(Hat) Size Matters?

A researcher at Viginia Commonwealth has allegedly discovered that another popular stereotype is true. Yes, Virginia, size matters, at least brain size.

“For all age and sex groups, it is now very clear that brain volume and intelligence are related,” said lead researcher Michael A. McDaniel, Ph.D., an industrial and organizational psychologist who specializes in the study of intelligence and other predictors of job performance.
The study evidently collates MRI measured brain volume and IQ scores from 26 previous studies and finds a strong correlation.

The paper is here and the abstract is:
The relationship between brain volume and intelligence has been a topic of a scientific debate since at least the
1830s. To address the debate, a meta-analysis of the relationship between in vivo brain volume and intelligence was conducted. Based on 37 samples across 1530 people, the population correlation was estimated at 0.33. The correlation is higher for females than males. It is also higher for adults than children. For all age and sex groups, it is clear that brain volume is positively correlated with intelligence.
This result suggests radically simplified admissions criteria for our top universities. MRIs are probably just as burdensome as SATs, but for simplicity we could just go with hat size.

If the hat don't fit, you must admit.

Fragging?

Michele O'Donnell and Damien Cave of the NYT report what is possibly the second Iraq war related fragging in this story. One or two fraggings don't make an epidemic, but murder of superior officers is not a sign of good morale.

MTV killed the Radio Star?

David Brooks laments the decline and fall of middle class culture in his NYT column.

I was emptying some boxes in my basement the other day and I came across an essay somebody had clipped on Ernest Hemingway from the July 14, 1961, issue of Time magazine. The essay was outstanding. Over three pages of tightly packed prose, with just a few photos, the anonymous author performed the sort of high-toned but accessible literary analysis that would be much harder to find in a mass market magazine today.
Brooks sees the disappearance of a "middlebrow culture."
Back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America. There was still a sense that culture is good for your character, and that a respectable person should spend time absorbing the best that has been thought and said.
So what happened?
Middlebrow culture was killed in the late 50's and 60's, and the mortal blows came from opposite directions. The intellectuals launched assaults on what they took to be middlebrow institutions, attacks that are so vicious they take your breath away.

Clement Greenberg called the middlebrow an "insidious" force that was "devaluing the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest and stultifying the wise." Dwight Macdonald lambasted the "tepid ooze" of the Museum of Modern Art and the plays of Thornton Wilder. Basically, these intellectuals objected to the earnest and optimistic middle-class arrivistes who were tromping over everything and dumbing down their turf.
I was a college student in the 1960's, and I vividly remember the impression Macdonald's essay on "midcult" made on me - not the essay -just the impression. The pretentious snobbery of it both enraged and offended me. Somehow he managed to combine the upper class and Marxist distains for the middle class into one nasty sneer. Brooks also blames a change in popular culture for a blow from the other direction, though I can't really follow him there.

It seems to me that what really changed was that control of the artistic enterprise moved beyond an East Coast elite. American literature has never been an upper class Eastern preserve, and theaters, symphonies and opera companies have sprung up around the country. At the same time, easier travel means that people living in the sticks (like your humble correspondent) can travel to New York and Paris, erasing the pretentious distinction between the culture of the middle class and the wealthy. Macdonald would no doubt be horrified to see Mozart and Jeff Foxworthy on the same IPOD, but that's progress baby.

Time and Newsweek are definitely dumber, though.

Accountable?

E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post goes after Dr. Bill Frist, Tom "The Hammer" Delay, and some of their colleagues in Where's The Apology?
Bending the Facts on Schiavo
.

We are entitled to our moral, ethical and philosophical commitments. We are not entitled to our own facts.
More specifically:
The autopsy in the Terri Schiavo case provides a rare moment of political accountability. We should not "move on," as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist suggested. No, we cannot move on until those politicians who felt entitled to make up facts and toss around unwarranted conclusions about Schiavo's condition take responsibility for what they said -- and apologize.
Frist wasn't content to speak as a prolifer -- he offered an extensive opinion as a doctor, citing medical textbooks.
In the midst of his impressively detailed medical review, Frist declared flatly: "Terri's brother told me Terri laughs, smiles, and tries to speak. That doesn't sound like a woman in a persistent vegetative state."
Tom Delay agreed to the pulling of the plug on his own father, but he too knew better about Terry Shiavo.
"Mrs. Schiavo's condition, I believe, has been at times misrepresented by the media," DeLay said on March 20. "Terri Schiavo is not brain-dead; she talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort. Terri Schiavo is not on life-support."
E. J. is not content here with the usual journalistic cirumlocutions, he is willing to call the liars on their facts.
Right-to-life politicians have done terrible damage to a serious cause. They claimed to know what they did not, and could not, know. They were willing to imply, without proof, terrible things about a husband who was getting in their way. Instead of making the hard and morally challenging case for keeping Terri Schiavo on life support, they spun an emotional narrative that they thought would play well on cable TV and talk radio.

No, we should not move on. We should remember that some politicians will say whatever is necessary to advance their immediate purposes. Apologies, anyone?
And we should remember their names and what they said. E. J. Doesn't mention him, but let's not forget the part the President played in this drama, melodramatically flying back to the Capital to sign an unprecedented federal intrusion into this woman's trajedy.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Impeachment Now!

I have been watching a rump committee of House Democrats meeting on the Downing Street Memo on C-SPAN. Congressman John Conyers is leading it and Joe Wilson, Former CIA Analyst Ray McGovern and Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan are among the witnesses. I have rarely seen such spunk from Democrats.

The key question being asked is what did the President know and when did he know it? The Downing Street memo strongly implies that the President and his minions deliberately lied to the Congress in order to take the country to war. The Democratic Congressmen and Congresswomen do not appear to making that charge yet, but they are saying that there is probable cause for a formal investigation. If so, many have plainly stated that that would clearly be grounds for impeachment.

There is no prospect of actual impeachment, of course, and probably not even a chance of an investigation unless Democrats get control of one House of Congress in 2006. Perhaps this hearing will inspire our cowardly Press to pay attention - but I doubt it.

These witnesses call this the "smoking gun" that proves that Bush, Cheney, and Rice systematically lied. Colin Powell went along with it. He is at least an accomplice after the fact.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Commencement Pearls

The Governator at Santa Monica College (his Alma Mater)

Work, work, work! Study, study, study! Win, win, win!
His remarks were occasionally drowned out by protestors.

Anna Quindlen at Barnard College (hers) After truly malicious truncation by me.
None of what you've learned in college means anything...

Alan Greenspan at the Wharton School:
It seems clear that, if the CEO chooses, he or she can, by example and through oversight, induce corporate colleagues and outside auditors to behave ethically.
Or not.

Warren Beatty at Berkley:
My parents and grandparents were teachers, and I became rich and famous 46 years ago...[Deletia which utterly changes the context of the next sentence] ...Does that make me a "girly man"?
Of course not Warren - you were born that way.

Sandra Tsing Low at Caltech (her AM)
Dare to disappoint your father...
She added that this advice went double for Asian students. She explained that after graduating in physics, she had gone into the liberal arts, which
...for a Chinese father, was like becoming a pole dancer.


John Lithgow at Harvard (his AM) seems to have recited a poem about a mouse that went to Harvard. Affirmative action, I think.

Steve Jobs at Stanford:
Death is very likely the single best invention of life
Well thanks a lot for that, Steverino - that certainly made my day.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Motl & Smolin on Einstein

From Lubos Motl's comment I learned of Lee Smolin's Physics Today article Why no new Einstein?. Smolin thinks that physics departments in the US are not well structured to encourage the most creative and profound young physicists. Lubos offers tepid lip service to this notion and proceeds to prove that he misses the point entirely - not exactly unusual in his case. Along the way Lubos slams Einstein for knowing less differential geometry than is common among modern graduate students and for continuing to argue with orthodox quantum mechanics. He also throws in

Minkowski, his high school high teacher, certainly had a reason to call Einstein "the lazy dog". Einstein's poetry was mediocre and his violin skills were so-so.
I'm not quite sure whether Lubos is just creating a self-parody here or actually thinks he has said something interesting. More from Lubos
Later in his life, Einstein showed his inability to understand the new conceptual breakthroughs, especially those based on quantum mechanics. Because I believe that quantum mechanics represents the single most profound revolution in the 20th century physics, Einstein's misunderstanding of its inevitability was a pretty serious imperfection. Nevertheless, Einstein was able to transform his flawed opinions about quantum mechanics into something that led to great insights (about the entanglement) later.
So the point here is that Einstein's (deplorable to Lubos) stupidity led to EPR and Bell's Theorem, I guess. Read the rest of Lubos, if you like, but you will only find that his slavish devotion to (his conception of) orthodoxy is unbounded even by logical consistency. You might want to skip his 99 zillionth absurdly inappropriate invocation of "Cargo Cult Science."

Smolin's article, by contrast, has a lot of interesting suggestions. I don't know if they will help or hurt, or most likely, not even matter, but they might relieve some of the boredom in today's physics. Probably we will have to wait for the next breakthrough to be ready before the next Einstein, Dirac, or Feynman shows up.

ADDED: Lubos makes the valid (but fairly obvious) point that Einstein had a good knowledge of the physics of his time, and that that is a test for potential Crackpots. I don't think a mastery of superstring theory is included in the "physics of our time" category, but of course Lubos does. I suppose it's reasonable that anyone working in quantum gravity ought to know some strings at the level of Zwiebach, but not buying into the whole program is part of the point.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Pretender

One of my little tics at college campuses, or at least at cool campuses, is to buy a jacket, sweatshirt or T-shirt. I've never done this at a college where I've attended or taught, though. I was shopping at a college bookstore the other day and looking through the offerings when a student of my acquaintance asked: "Do you want one of these lame 'parent of' sweatshirts or would you rather pretend you actually went here?" I opted for the latter of course.

I think this quirk started one cold summer day in Oxford when my wife and I were freezing our butts off. I bought my wife an "Oxford University" sweater, and we set off, slightly warmer, only to be accosted by a rather belligerant limey who demanded to know if she was in fact a student. We were a little embarrassed, but I was a lot bigger than he was, and he eventually wandered off, no doubt to curse Americans, the decline of real cider, and the loss of empire.

Uh oh - I guess I lied. I did buy a jacket from a school where I not only taught but took a few theater courses. Of course it was a jacket that was only supposed to be sold (or perhaps given) to those who had contributed generously to the athletic program (not me), so I guess it's OK.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Country Mouse returns gratefully to the sticks

Four days on the LA freeway/parking lots - felt like a hundred. Knew that I had gotten back into the old Orange County when we stopped at the Holiday Inn and noticed we had just missed the weekly meeting of the Rush Limbaugh Society. Win some/lose some.

Ozymandias

One of my favorite activities is walking around college campuses, especially nice ones with good bookstores. I was perambulating about one of the prettier ones yesterday, admiring the lush lawns and perfect gardens. Along the way, I like to check out the monuments to the famous and famously wealthy - The Millikan Library, the Beckman Wedding Cake, the Moore laboratory, the Beckman this and Beckman that, and, of course, the No Dogs Allowed Lily Pond.

It's always a shock to notice that just steps away from this tribute to power and priviledge, there is a third world scene of unspeakable squalor. I'm writing, of course, about the undergraduate residence halls. Long ago, when I was a student, men's and women's residence halls were strictly separated. I guess the theory that having women among the men would lead to greater neatness didn't work out.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

You gotta have some jews...

...to succeed on Broadway, or so Spamalot would have it.

A few days ago I commented on a NYT story linking genetic diseases among Ashkenazi Jews with higher intelligence. I was pretty skeptical, but in the meantime have been reading the study, and I have to say that they make a better case than I expected. The basic logic is motive -> opportunity -> evidence (evolutionarily speaking).

Motive: Strong selective pressures existed in the period in question - rich people left a lot more descendants than poor people. Jews in Europe were confined to primarily intellectual occupations, like banking, trading, and tax farming. Smarter people had a lot more likelyhood of leaving descendants. Of course this part relies heavily on the heritability of IQ and the effectiveness of IQ as a predictor of academic and business success - both of which are controversial even though established indisputably, in the opinion of most experts.

Opportunity: Because there was relatively little gene flow between the general European population and the Ashkenazi - they estimate inward gene flow at less than 0.5% per generation - selection could lead to rapid evolution. This is a well know genetic effect in isolated populations.

Evidence: Ashkenazim show systematic advantages in IQ, but chiefly in the arithmetic and verbal components, together with visiospatial deficits. No other group has such a large discrepancy between components. Probably the most interesting evidence for me was the correlations of disease and high intelligence for a couple of the mutations. Some parts I found rather amusing, perhaps inappropriately.

Selection for IQ among the Ashkenazim then would have had associated costs. First, genetic changes that aided fitness in a urban environment where most jobs had high IQ elasticity almost certainly reduced fitness in more typical environments, simply because any such gene frequency change is change away from the optimum mix for a traditional environment. The expectation is that Ashkenazim would most likely suffer competitive disadvantage as peasant farmers or hunter-gatherers, for example.
I'm afraid that this called up in my mind an image of a fur-clad Woody Allen facing off against a charging Mammoth.

The authors assure us that nobody in the ancient world noted any special Jewish intellect. Of course the ancient Greeks did an awfully good job of distinguishing themselves artistically and culturally. Anybody got any good theories for them?

But read it and make up your own mind.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Dumb and almost as Dumb?

Michael Kranish reports Kerry's Yale grades in This Boston Globe Story. Suffice it to say that he was more George Bush than Bill Clinton academically. Not one A in four years, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't majoring in rocket science.

Grade inflation, yada yada, but Yale was more the social than the academic elite in those days. There were many moments during the campaign and debate when his lack of mental agility disappointed me, but I figured it was fatigue plus some senile degeneration of the reflexes (he's my age, approximately). It looks like he was actually never that smart - perhaps sort of a Gilderoy Lockhart one-talent (marrying rich) type.

Hey, we Democrats have enough problems - lets not nominate any more dummies. No nomination without a college transcript and SAT scores!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Fish or Fowl?

Via Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles, who linked to Mirriam Burstein of The Little Professor I read Stanley Fish's NYT Op-Ed piece on Teaching Freshman Composition. Burstein calls Fish the "...the worlds most famous English Professor," and I suppose it must be true, since I had heard of him, and he's the only English professor with whom I'm not personally acquainted that I have heard of.

It seems that Fish, who is dean emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has a new idea for how to teach Freshman Composition. Fish notes that

We are at that time of year when millions of American college and high school students will stride across the stage, take diploma in hand and set out to the wider world, most of them utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence.

So far this is pretty unsurprising to anyone who has, say, reviewed a technical paper. Fish's novelty is his diagnosis and proposed cure.
Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions - between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like - that English enables us to make.
The idea is interesting, and for the teacher, probably more interesting than grading a bunch of lousy compositions, but Fish presents no evidence that it works to solve the problem.

Of course I usually found that the problem was not at the sentence level, but rather at the paragraph level or higher - but then the papers I reviewed were mostly written by scientists with graduate degrees - come to think of it, their sentences were often screwed up too.

My basic problem with the idea is that kids really do know how to produce sentences, and even completely thought out ideas - they can talk, after all. The part they have trouble with is carefully structuring ideas on paper, remembering to put in the essential details for a reader who's not there to provide instant feedback, and checking to make sure they haven't shifted tense or something during the relatively long time it takes to put words on paper. Teaching grammar is useful - that's what Fish is really up to - but hardly sufficient.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Humility vs. Hypocrisy

In his first speech to the public, the then newly elected Pope Benedict XVI said:

Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the Cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord.
So was he a monk living in some cave for the past 50 years? Not exactly: he became a Cardinal 28 years ago and head of the Inquisition (OK, they don't actually still call it that) 25 years ago. This "simple and humble labourer" has spent his life in the church as professor, politician, and very senior bureaucrat. Does this kind of dissembling bother anybody else, or is it just me?

Snarktown Queen

Slate is the queen of the snarky headline. The headlines are also exceptionally dishonest. Queen for a Day: Why Danica Patrick is overrated has little to say about how or why Danica is or is not overated. It's actually about why Indy Car racing gets no respect, and not a bad story at that. A similar bait and switch strategy generates their Deep Throat headlines. Slate is not that far from being a good magazine, but it could be a lot closer.

At least it has Doonesbury, in color, unlike my local weekday paper.

Dinner time aboard the Titanic

The winners are still winning. Mainly because they are still making the rules. David Cay Johnston's latest NYT article, Richest Are Leaving Even the Rich Far Behind, tells how the US is seeing a virtually unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of the very richest. If you read only one thing on the US tax system, this should be it. The hyper-rich in his definition constitute only the top 0.1% of taxpayers. The minimum for membership in the club is an annual income of $1.6 million or more. A slightly larger group, say 0.2% has assets of $10 million or more.

This group has seen its inflation adjusted income increase by 250% since 1980, and its share of the national income has doubled. The rest of the top 10% got a much smaller share gain, while the other 90% lost ground.

The Bush administration tax cuts stand to widen the gap between the hyper-rich and the rest of America. The merely rich, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, will shoulder a disproportionate share of the tax burden.

President Bush said during the third election debate last October that most of the tax cuts went to low- and middle-income Americans. In fact, most - 53 percent - will go to people with incomes in the top 10 percent over the first 15 years of the cuts, which began in 2001 and would have to be reauthorized in 2010. And more than 15 percent will go just to the top 0.1 percent, those 145,000 taxpayers.
When people like Bush or George Will talk about the "rich" they usually manage to be talking about people in the top 20-40% - a ludicrous conflation of the middle class with the rich. They like to do this because these people pay most of the taxes. The really rich get off rather more lightly.
¶Under the Bush tax cuts, the 400 taxpayers with the highest incomes - a minimum of $87 million in 2000, the last year for which the government will release such data - now pay income, Medicare and Social Security taxes amounting to virtually the same percentage of their incomes as people making $50,000 to $75,000.

¶Those earning more than $10 million a year now pay a lesser share of their income in these taxes than those making $100,000 to $200,000.
The next joker in the deck is that the very rich have lots of ways to avoid even having their income counted, much less taxed.
The analysis examined only income reported on tax returns. The Treasury Department says that the very wealthiest find ways, legal and illegal, to shelter a lot of income from taxes. So the gap between the very richest and everyone else is almost certainly much larger.
The situation is even more egregious when we look even higher on the pyramid, comparing the to 0.01% (one in ten-thousand) with the bottom 90%.
One way to understand the growing gap is to compare earnings increases over time by the vast majority of taxpayers - say, everyone in the lower 90 percent - with those at the top, say, in the uppermost 0.01 percent (now about 14,000 households, each with $5.5 million or more in income last year).

From 1950 to 1970, for example, for every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent, those in the top 0.01 percent earned an additional $162, according to the Times analysis. From 1990 to 2002, for every extra dollar earned by those in the bottom 90 percent, each taxpayer at the top brought in an extra $18,000.
It probably won't surprise many of us that the Heritage Society and others think this trend is just dandy - all that money can buy plenty of sycophants. But there are wiser heads, even among the very richest.
But some of the wealthiest Americans, including Warren E. Buffett, George Soros and Ted Turner, have warned that such a concentration of wealth can turn a meritocracy into an aristocracy and ultimately stifle economic growth by putting too much of the nation's capital in the hands of inheritors rather than strivers and innovators.
This is a must read for anybody who cares about the future of the Republic.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Before these guys from Utah...

... published their studies of genetic diseases among Ashkenazic Jews you already knew that they were smarter than the rest of us, just like you knew that orientals worked harder, and blacks could run faster and jump higher - in short that we aren't really underachievers and it's not our fault that we got the short end of the genetic stick. Of course if you happen to be Ashkenazic, oriental, or black, you're out of luck - any failure to achieve is strictly your own fault.

The conclusion the University of Utah scientists came up with is that the cluster of genetic diseases restricted to Ashkenazis has some countervailing genetic advantage.

"Absolutely anything in human biology that is interesting is going to be controversial," said one of the report's authors, Dr. Henry Harpending, an anthropologist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

He and two colleagues at the University of Utah, Gregory Cochran and Jason Hardy, see the pattern of genetic disease among the Ashkenazi Jewish population as reminiscent of blood disorders like sickle cell anemia that occur in populations exposed to malaria, a disease that is only 5,000 years old.

In both cases, the Utah researchers argue, evolution has had to counter a sudden threat by favoring any mutation that protected against it, whatever the side effects. Ashkenazic diseases like Tay-Sachs, they say, are a side effect of genes that promote intelligence.
Amazingly enough, not everybody is enthusiastic about this idea.
"It would be hard to overstate how politically incorrect this paper is," said Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, noting that it argues for an inherited difference in intelligence between groups.
The basic idea is that because Jews in Europe were restricted to commercial and financial occupations in Europe, there was strong selective pressure to develop higher intelligence.
The Utah researchers have built on this idea, arguing that for some 900 years Jews in Europe were restricted to managerial occupations, which were intellectually demanding, that those who were more successful also left more offspring, and that there was time in this period for the intelligence of the Ashkenazi population as a whole to become appreciably enhanced.
The genetic diseases, which apparently all involve genes involved in neural development, were supposedly an unfortunate side effect of that evolution, much as sickle cell anemia is a side effect of resistance to malaria.
In describing what they see as the result of the Ashkenazic mutations, the researchers cite the fact that Ashkenazi Jews make up 3 percent of the American population but won 27 percent of its Nobel prizes, and account for more than half of world chess champions. They say that the reason for this unusual record may be that differences in Ashkenazic and northern European I.Q. are not large at the average, where most people fall, but become more noticeable at the extremes; for people with an I.Q. over 140, the proportion is 4 per 1,000 among northern Europeans but 23 per 1,000 with Ashkenazim.
I'm dubious personally, but I guess I should recheck those family rumors of Jewish heritage.

By the way, does anybody know what the Intelligent Design theorists think of the Designer's solution to malaria? If he was really intelligent, wouldn't you think he could come up with a solution that didn't involve approximately 1/4 of the population dying early of a miserable disease?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Gauleiters and Commissars

Reading Bob Woodward's fascinating account of how Mark Felt became Deep Throat, I was struck by a passage where Woodward was discussing the Nixon political operatives being dispatched to staunch the bleeding.

Felt, a much more learned man than most realized, later wrote that he considered Huston "a kind of White House gauleiter over the intelligence community." The word "gauleiter" is not in most dictionaries, but in the four-inch-thick Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language it is defined as "the leader or chief official of a political district under Nazi control."

There is little doubt Felt thought the Nixon team were Nazis. During this period, he had to stop efforts by others in the bureau to "identify every member of every hippie commune" in the Los Angeles area, for example, or to open a file on every member of Students for a Democratic Society.


Every President tries to put his people in key places, but this concentration of power in the hands of political commissars that was slowed by Nixon's fall has reached new extremes in the Bush administration. Because politics always comes first for the Commissar, getting the job done comes last. Thus the blunders of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bremer in Iraq, the 911 fiasco, and other outrages of the clown show.

The civil service system was intended to end the abuses of the spoils system, but the proliferation of political appointees - now 3000 or so, has circumvented that and facilitated the growth of the Commissariat. I would love to see Democrats, or anybody else, running on a program of reforming government corruption. Only two rules would be needed.

1)Congress would be made subject to the same ethical laws as the civil service, and

2)The number of political appointees would be limited to, say, 40.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Dangerous Ideas

Wonkette, Brad Delong, Sean Carroll, and much of the rest of the liberal blogosphere has been mixing outrage and amusement at Human Events Online's list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels
Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler
Quotations from Chairman Mao, Mao Zedong
The Kinsey Report, Alfred Kinsey
Democracy and Education, John Dewey
Das Kapital, Karl Marx
The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
The Course of Positive Philosophy, August Comte
Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes
And, like every good list, some honorable mentions
The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich
What Is To Be Done, V.I. Lenin
Authoritarian Personality, Theodor Adorno
On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner
Reflections on Violence, Georges Sorel
The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly
Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin
Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault
Soviet Communism: A New Civilization, Sidney and Beatrice Webb
Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead
Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader
Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon
Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud
The Greening of America, Charles Reich
The Limits to Growth, Club of Rome
Descent of Man, Charles Darwin
Much of the liberal commentary has focussed on what dumb shits conservatives insist on proving they are, but I'm not so sure. I'm a big believer in the power of the printed word. A book can do much more damage than a nuclear weapon. Now when you use the word "harmful," you invite the question "harmful to whom." A lot of us could probably agree that Hitler and Lenin did a lot of damage, but what about Kinsey and Betty Friedan or Auguste Compte for cripes sake?

As I said, I don't think these wingers are so crazy. If I were to pick the one book that did the most damage to the biblical Christian worldview, I'd go for Darwin for sure. As Daniel Dennet has pointed out in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, natural selection is a kind of "universal acid" eating through "just about every traditional concept."

Except for Hitler, Lenin, and a few other bomb throwers, most of the other books made the list because they offend somebody's prejudices and undermine someone's authority. Any important book is going to make some enemies. Physics and Astronomy did their damage in earlier centuries. Copernicus and Galileo shattered the medieval world view just as profoundly as Darwin did the 19th century's conventions. Marx and Freud may have been largely wrong, and I believe they were, but they also destroyed a lot of conventional nonsense.

So, inspired by the example of the conservatives I mock, I'd like to come up with a list of the ten most "dangerous*" books of all time. I will mention a few, but welcome nominations from readers (yeah, I know there are a *few* of you lurking out there - so how about a comment). My initial nominees: the Anabasis of Xenophon, The New Testament, The Koran, De Revolutionibus by Copernicus, The Origin of Species by Darwin. A separate list for those published in the las twenty years would also be nice. Nominations anyone?

* = important