Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Roads to Serfdom

Economics Nobelist Friedrich Hayek's book The Road to Serfdom is one of the sacred texts of modern conservatism and libertarianism. If you are too cheap to buy the Amazon edition above, or check it out of the library there is a free Reader's Digest condensed version here or you can get a cartoon version from the freepers here.

Hayek was annoyed with the totalitarian Communism of the Soviet Union, and concerned with the potential of wartime controls in Britain to morph into a Communist or Nazi style totalitarianism. He also feared that socialism or government planning would have the same effect.

The sixty odd years since its publication revealed some ironies in his thesis, though. For one thing, neither the Soviet Union nor the Nazi regime arose through the kind of socialist transformation of a republic that he envisioned. Neither does his book concern itself with how actual medieval and modern serf based economies arose - essentially through debt peonage and the increasing power of an oligarchy. Since the war, numerous Western democracies have experimented with socialism (largely unsuccessfully), but none has yet led to serfdom. Finally, the methods Hayek show totalitarian governments use to establish their power have been much in use lately by that Neocon saint and posterboy, George Bush.

Monday, February 27, 2006


Perhaps Americans are really awakening from their long opium stupor. The latest CBS poll has Bush at 34%. That's approaching Nixonville.

Now if only the Democrats could come up with a good program (and people) to retake Congress.

Karl Rove is probably wondering right now if he needs to gin up some kind of terrorist attack to firm up support.

Sunday, February 26, 2006


My post on "Ecological Suicide" (soon to be a popular series) drew a comment from Alberich, who thought that everything would be dandy:

If we can maintain our property rights or god-forbid make them more robust, we will be fine.

I wasn't too impressed by his single factor analysis - after all, if the bluebird of happiness *does* fly up your nose, you *will be* ecstatic - but decided to deal with the question anyway - so Mr. A, if you have a case to make, here is your chance to be on topic.

As it happens, Jared Diamond does mention the question of property rights in his discussion of Tokugawa Japan's successfull effort to deal with its own deforestation crisis. He argues that the isolation and political stability of Japan meant that Shogun, daimyo, and peasant could all expect not only to control their lands during their lifetimes, but pass it on to their children. This fact gave them an incentive to practice siliculture and other conservation measures that could only provide benefits many years or even decades later. Conversely, the instability of Maya, Rwandan, and Haitian societies made any such expections impossible, and may well have contributed to their respective collapses.

Studies of societies of humans (or East African Plains Apes) and our close relatives, the chimpanzees, show that the notion of possession and property is firmly embedded in our instinctive behavior. One of the reasons socialism doesn't work is its tendency to ignore this instinct.

For primitive man, the hunter gatherers whose brains we inherited, property is limited to what one can take along - family and a few tools. Once agriculture was developed, land became the cardinal element of property. The productivity of agriculture, and the storable food it produces, permits and requires organization into larger political entities which Diamond calls Tribes, Chiefdoms, and Nations. These political entities become the guaranters of property rights and the means for an elite to acquire and maintain the lion's share of the property.

Political entities typically put some restrictions on property rights. For example, we don't permit private citizens to own nuclear weapons or other people. The Tokugawa success story involved rigorous top-down management (micro-management, actually) of forest resources as well as limiting population growth through a variety of means including contraception, abortion and infanticide.

I intend another post on how this relates to Social Security, pensions, bankruptcy, and deficit spending by the government.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Ecological Suicide

Many a past and present society has imperiled itself through inadvertant destruction of its habitat. In the worst cases whole civilizations have collapsed, leaving behind decaying and abandoned monuments. Jared Diamond's Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed examines several examples. He uses Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous sonnet Ozymandias as an epigraph:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

One of the few examples I have visited is the Chaco Canyon site in Northern New Mexico where a busy urban culture thrived a thousand years ago. Their stone buildings were the tallest built in North American until the advent of the steel skyscraper in the late nineteenth century. Looking over this barren and treeless desert today, one marvels at how a civilization of thousands could have lived here.

Diamond tells the story, the main points of which are now known. The Native Americans who settled in this canyon a little more than a millenium ago found a forest containing abundant game and a high water table in the valley where corn and other crops could grow. Their population expanded and technological solutions were found to permit irrigation and larger areas of cultivation. The forests were cut down for firewood and to build their stone and log monuments. Poltical and economic organization increased, permitting importation of timber from considerable distances, and of luxury goods from as far away as Mexico.

The end fits a pattern with much in common with other collapses. Deforestation led to erosion, arroyo cutting and consequent drop in the water table, and exhaustion of the soil. As the population reached a maximum, the fragility of the environment neared the critical point. The coupe de grace was probably delivered by a period of draughtought, a draought no worse than others that the culture had survived handily. At this point though, the forests and game were gone, the soil exhausted, and the wealthy and unproductive (agriculturally speaking) elite was large. Famine and starvation led to war, cannibalism, and the destruction of the political and economic system.

The site was abandoned, and 900 years later remains treeless. Crawling through the remains of the huge stone structures, it's easy to start thinking about what the priests and chiefs must have thought as the hordes of starving peasants gathered outside for the final assaults. It's only a slight stretch to imagine something vaguely similar happening to the gated communities of the modern elite when gasoline hits $12/gallon and the economy collapses.


Arun has a nice post on the varieties of dialog. It seems that Swami Dayananda Saraswati has classified the possibilities. The good:

Vaada: ".... a discussion involving two or more people who are interested in finding out the facts about a certain subject matter. They are all exploring. In this type of discussion, there is no teacher-student relationship. Each person is equally placed, even though one person may [k]now a little more than the others about the subject matter. They are all interested in understanding. This kind of discussion among equals, any collective study among students, for example, is called "vaada" and is naturally healthy."
The bad:
One is the dialogue that takes place between two people who are already committed to different beliefs. Such a discussion, called "jalpa", is governed purely by each person's wit. Any discussion between two fanatics falls into this category . . .
Or any discussion on the Fox News Network.

And the ugly:
He then mentions "vitandaa" where one person makes a statement and the other person always disagrees, merely because the other person said it. Such a discussion is also useless.
Which is what John Stewart was complaining about on CNN's Crossfire.

In any case Arun, when I say something here, try to think of it as samvaada ;)

Friday, February 24, 2006


When I was about 12, my family took a roadtrip that took us through Eastern Canada. One town in Southern Ontario made a particular impression. In the midst of green and growing lands was a moonscape city of blasted land where no leaf of tree or blade of grass could grow. A few dead trunks of trees still stood, victims of some infernal process - my parents explained that it was the mining and refining of nickel, copper, arsenic and other materials that made these dead lands. I can't really be sure, but I think that city was Sudbury.

Not completely coincidentally, one of those deep nickel mines was the site of quite likely the most important discovery in fundamental physics in the last quarter of a century. That was the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which in turn imply that neutrinos have mass. Neutrinos were formerly thought to be massless, and the discovery of their mass is the first real crack in the "Standard Model" which has ruled particle physics for decades.

As often happens in physics, that discovery cleared up one mystery but posed several more. The mystery solved was the mystery of what happened to the solar neutrinos. The theory of stellar interiors makes quite precise predictions about the production of one of the three types of known neutrinos in the center of the Sun. These ghostly particles aren't impeded by the mass of the Sun and propagate out to the Earth in about eight minutes, unlike photons, the particles of light, which take about a million years to propagate to the surface of the Sun, and then another eight minutes to make the trip to Earth.

As one might expect, particles unimpeded by a few hundred thousand miles of Sun (or indeed, a light year of lead) are not so easy to arrest. The central detector in the Sudbury mine is a thousand tons of ultra pure heavy water. Trillions of neutrinos pass through it every second, but only a thousand or so a year are stopped and detected. Sudbury is just the most recent (or at any rate, one of the most recent) neutrino detectors built. The others had shown that there did not seem to be enough of the neutrinos produced by the Sun being detected.

In addition to the types of neutrinos produced in the Sun, experiments have shown that there are (at least) two other types of neutrinos. Eventually some clever people thought that it might be possible that the Solar neutrinos might be transforming into the other types of neutrino, something that couldn't happen unless the neutrinos had mass. The Sudbury detector was able to detect another neutrino type, and showed that just that must have been happening.

So why do the neutrinos have mass? And so what? The answers aren't known, but this new paper suggests that massive neutrinos might even account for the mysterious "dark energy" that appears to pervade the universe:


This post started out being about human caused environmental degradation, and I intend to say more on that subject some other time. Recent photos of Sudbury show that the moonscape is green and growing again - an apparent success story for environmental reclamation.

Summers Time

James Traub has a nice article up on Slate about how Larry Summers came a cropper. Traub portrays Summers as a hard charging reformer.

And at first, Summers looked like an inspired choice. Besides being brilliant even by the Harvard standard of brilliance, he was willing to make tough decisions, and he was fundamentally forward-looking. He pointed out, for example, that while it was socially unacceptable at a great university to admit that one hadn't read a play by Shakespeare, you could safely joke about not knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome. Summers instigated a review of Harvard's "core curriculum" with a view to raising the status of science and of quantitative thinking generally, as well as to answer perennial complaints from freshmen that they had little or no contact with senior faculty. Even before Summers' departure, faculty opposition appears to have worn him down on the subject. On the other hand, Summers' decision to reshape the physical campus by moving the sciences to a vast plot of land Harvard owns in the Boston neighborhood of Allston* will presumably constitute his permanent legacy.
Unfortunately, he was a bit lacking in that crucial ingredient of leadership known as people skills. Oddly enough, Harvard man that he was, he failed to appreciate that he was dealing with intellectual Prima donnas.
Harvard professors appear to be accustomed to a level of deference that few of us on the other side of those Ivy walls could ever expect. Clearly this had much to do with the fabled Cornel West affair, when the president grievously offended this overhyped superstar by tendering what Summers apparently regarded as delicate hints on matters such as grade inflation and the production of serious academic work. Summers was right, as he generally was. But he never intended to insult West. In fact, he had no idea that he had insulted West. Summers himself wouldn't have been offended, and it never crossed his mind that Cornel West might be made of different material than Larry Summers, or that West might need to hear some malarkey along the lines of, "I love your work so much that I don't want to accept anything less than the best." Larry Summers didn't do malarkey; he did "the merits." The professors under his charge, alas, were not made of such stern stuff as he, and it ought not have been beyond Summers' ken to figure this out.
That last clause has a lot of bite - the brilliant genius undone by a little island of personal stupidity.

Traub sums up:
I, for one, will miss Summers, since university presidents who have something to say that is worth hearing are as rare as hen's teeth. And I worry that an emboldened faculty will push the Harvard Corporation to choose as his successor the reincarnation of Neil Rudenstine. Summers had a worthy cause; I hope he hasn't wound up discrediting it.

Update: Harvard Prof Lubos Motl has a collection of mainly conservative reactions to the resignation here.


My powers of concentration seem to be in decline like the rest of me. On my recent travels I took along some good books plus the first few chapter's of Mark Srednicki's new Quantum Field Theory, but much of the time was too distracted by the irrepressible and loud chatterboxes around me.

One guy sitting behind me was so intent on telling a no doubt lavishly embroidered account of his life to his hapless female seat companion, at engine noise drowning volume, that I finally gave up and just listened. His story had some entertainment value. Any subject his fellow passenger mentioned, he was an expert and a pro. He was retired, self-employed, a nurse, a computer expert, a horse trainer, a cross country motorcyclist, a musician and conductor, a former pro footballer, a professor and master wildlife tracker. I was tempted to ask his opinions on string theory, but didn't feel like turning around and trying to interrupt.

Those noise cancelling headphones are starting to look like a good deal even at $300. I could put on some Mozart, or maybe ABBA's greatest hits sung by, say, Lubos.

Blame Canada

I have spent an unreasonable amount of time lately being tortured in a fiendish contraption called a "Canadair Regional Jet." It's a lot like an airplane, only one designed to be comfortable only for a rare species of dwarf Frenchman that grows only above the Arctic Circle. Not fitting into the seats and not being able to stand up in the aisles are relatively minor torments. And I suppose it's partly my own fault that when I crawl out into the aisle I always crack my head on the opposite side luggage bins. The rest room offers a little comic relief, since using it requires positions I had only previously seen assumed by circus contortionists.

What really annoys me though is that as I try to stumble out, bent so low that I can only see my feet, the pilot invariably distracts me with some fatuous comment, causing me to put yet another dent in my head by colliding with the sharp edge of the top of the door, which is mounted about 3.5 feet above the floor level.

Lynch Mob

So the totalitarian lynch mob got Summers after all. What a shame. And what an irony that Harvard should become such a symbol of anti-liberal thought.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Signing Off

I will be off the grid for a week or so. If anybody is interested, I should be back weekend after next.

More Coverups

The NYT today has an article suggesting that the information being released by the Texas hospital treating Harry Whittington continues to be more propaganda than truth. In particular, the suggested scenario of the the shot "moving" to his heart looks improbable. Dead-eye Dick seems to have shot him in the heart from the start.

The account given yesterday by doctors caring for the Texas lawyer accidentally shot by Vice President Dick Cheney last weekend raises serious questions about how and when a pellet entered his heart and what tests were done to establish where the pellet was lodged, doctors not connected with his case said.

Although the public was told for the first time yesterday that a shotgun pellet from a hunting accident had lodged in the lawyer's heart, one of his doctors said that "we knew that he had some birdshot very close to the heart from the get-go," but not its precise location.

The local Texas sheriff is now suggesting that "if he dies" there will be an investigation. That should give all concerned some time to get their cover stories straight.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


[By the way, forget the wild notions you've heard bandied about the Internet that Cheney might have been drinking heavily when he blasted his buddy. He talked to the Sheriff's Office just 18 hours after the shooting incident, and he would still have been measurably intoxicated at that point if he'd had, for example, 24 beers.]

- Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post.



"They tried to pierce your heart with a Morghul-knife which remains in the wound. If they had succeeded, you would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command. You would have become a wraith under the Dark Lord..."
JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

What Texas Republican could wish for more?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Foul is Fair and Fish is Foul

Brad Delong takes exception to Stanley Fish's NYT Op Ed on the Muslim cartoon controversy. Though Brad is the best of bloggers and most acute of critics, I think he overdoes it in his assault on Fish. So what has Brad in such a snit? (he actually nominated Fish for the Stupidiest Man Alive award, the award to which Don Luskin has a lifetime hall of fame claim.) Well Fish didn't think much of the rationale of the Danish paper that commissioned the blasphemous cartoons, and said this:

This is itself a morality — the morality of a withdrawal from morality... different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil... the difference... is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors....

Brad's rejoinder consists of some rather amusing cartoons, plus:

Note that to Fish the problem with those he calls "liberals" is not that they are unwilling to die for their faith: it is that they are not willing enough to kill others--to "fight" for their faith, and to fight "to the death" for it. Fish admires rather than laughs at those whose theology is "Believe in a loving God, or die!" That's sad. That's perverted. That's funny.

It's not clear to me that Fish is really saying anything very much like that. For one thing, the next thing Fish says, and which Brad omits from his quote is:

The argument from reciprocity — you do it to us, so how can you complain if we do it to you? — will have force only if the moral equivalence of "us" and "you" is presupposed. But the relativizing of ideologies and religions belongs to the liberal theology, and would hardly be persuasive to a Muslim.

I happen to think Fish is mainly wrong in this, and that the idea of "do onto others as you would have them do onto you" is not utterly strange to them.

Brad seems to think that Fish is arguing for some sort of Nietschean war of all against all, though. I thinks it is just possible that his argument is more that delivering a mortal insult to prove a point about the freedom of the press is fatuous hypocrisy.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Annoyed by Amazon

The trouble with Amazon's recommended books is that they have no imagination or variety. I recently bought two or three books on geometry (algebraic and differential) and now they bombard me with nothing else. I could delete them, but maybe I might want some of those books in a few months. Can't they design an algorithm that would show me Hartshorne's Algebraic Geometry a couple or three times and then shuffle it to the bottom of the list for a few weeks?

Cheney Again

Joel Achenbach outdoes himself on this Achenbolg.

As you know, quail hunting is what passes for military service in the upper ranks of the Bush Administration. Dick Cheney knows what it is like to fire a weapon in anger, particularly when the birds flush from the bracken unexpectedly. George W. Bush has flown airplanes, many of them folded from his personal stationery. Donald Rumsfeld has piloted boats and submarines through seemingly impenetrable mounds of suds. And so on.
Now, as you have surely heard by now, the Vice President this weekend had a slight mishap while hunting, in that he committed the faux pas of pointing his shotgun in the direction of a friend of his. Also he pulled the trigger. Sort of, you know, shot the guy. In the face. "Peppered" him, in the quaint vernacular of the sport. The fellow is doing fine [maybe: CIP] at the hospital. But right here's what's wrong with the mainstream media: The stories don't tell us whether Cheney managed, in the process, to bag the bird. Seems to me that our sense of the man's overall competence pivots on that crucial unreported factoid. Who cares about his friend, did he hit the target???

I find the story reassuring. Cheney is a man who doesn't just talk the talk. No, if he's going to send American soldiers into harm's way, where they might be shot at any moment by a deranged fanatic, he's also going to do the same thing to his close personal friends. He's giving his hunting buddies a taste of life in the Cheney Era, when you count yourself lucky just to get out alive.

Collateral Damage

It sounds like the collateral damage from Cheney's bird hunting might be a bit more serious than the VP's office is letting on. The way Cheney's office is telling it, the shot barely broke the skin, so why is the guy still in ICU a day later?

And where was Scalia when we really needed him?

The Madness of George III

The man who would be King was wroth. His good friends Vladamir and Abdullah, despite ruling piss-ant countries with little going for them but much of the World's supply of oil and gas, had too many powers that he lacked. He didn't envy Vlad's Villa's or Abdullah's thirty wives, he envied something important, their untrammelled power. It was humiliating, seeing Tim Russert put up tape showing that funny little look he still got on his face when he had to tell a lie about "every wiretap requiring a warrant."

"Dog!" said the King (wb).

"Yes Sir!", barked the hordes of GOP congressmen.

"Dog," he said again, pointing this time to Pat Roberts, "Go on Tim Russert and tell him I can do any God Damned thing I want to if I want to!"

"Yes Mr. President," woofed Roberts, "should I tell them the Constitution says you can do anything you like in defence of the country, even stuff the Constitution explicitly forbids, like warrantless searches and seizures?"

"Whatever," replied the King (wb), "and take one of these House dogs with you, for comic relief."

Wagging his tail (and tale), Roberts complied.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Curse You, Yahoo!

I more or less accidentally let Yahoo install a toolbar on my web browser, and now my browser has developed a truly evil behavior - the top window won't get out of the way of other windows unless I force it to minimize itself. Anybody know a good simple way to fix this?

1940 - 1980: Why No Warming?

Wolfgang asks a question which really deserves an answer from James, William, or some other smart guy:

The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has steadily increased during the last century.
But the average surface temperature did not and shows three distinct phases.
An (almost) linear increase in temperature from 1910 to 1940, a flat to slightly falling temperature from 1940 to 1980 and then again an (almost) linear increase until now.
I found this page which argues:
An argument against the idea that global warming is due to mankind's emissions of carbon dioxide goes as follows: the warming this century occurred mostly between 1910 and 1940, when the carbon dioxide concentration grew slowly from 293 to 300 ppm. On the other hand, the temperature remained steady between 1940-1980, while the carbon dioxide concentration increased from 300 to 335 ppm. The most likely answer to this inconsistency is atmospheric aerosol. Aerosols are emitted by industrial processes, transport, etc, and their increased concentration offset simultaneous warming due to increasing greenhouse gases. However the warming overtook the cooling by mid 1970's (8).

Tropospheric aerosols reduced solar radiation to the ground by about 0.5 W/m2, as a global average, between 1940-1992 (5). Unlike greenhouse gases, which are generally long-lived, aerosols fall out of the atmosphere fairly rapidly, either dry ('sedimentation') or within rain (as condensation nuclei). Therefore aerosol concentrations are not uniformly mixed across the globe. They have been so high in some regions that the cooling effect may have exceeded the warming due to greenhouse gases. In fact the lack of warming between 1940-1980 is only found in the northern hemisphere, where most manmade aerosols are emitted.
The Northern Hemisphere point looks good, but I would like the opinion of some guys with climate smarts.

Why RealClimate Drives Me Nuts

The guys over at real climate presumeably are experts, and know what they are doing, but I can tell you what they aren't doing: running a site that explains climate to the layman. Gavin has recently posted this article which is so arch that it looks like it is arguing that global warming is a myth:

In another forum (on a planet far, far away), the following quote recently came up:

....the combined effect of these greenhouse gases is to warm Earth's atmosphere by about 33 ºC, from a chilly -18 ºC in their absence to a pleasant +15 ºC in their presence. 95% (31.35 ºC) of this warming is produced by water vapour, which is far and away the most important greenhouse gas. The other trace gases contribute 5% (1.65 ºC) of the greenhouse warming, amongst which carbon dioxide corresponds to 3.65% (1.19 ºC). The human-caused contribution corresponds to about 3% of the total carbon dioxide in the present atmosphere, the great majority of which is derived from natural sources. Therefore, the probable effect of human-injected carbon dioxide is a miniscule 0.12% of the greenhouse warming, that is a temperature rise of 0.036 ºC. Put another way, 99.88% of the greenhouse effect has nothing to do with carbon dioxide emissions from human activity8.

We've discussed the magnitude of the greenhouse effect before, but it might be helpful to step through this 'back-of-the-agenda' calculation and see what the numbers really give. (Deltoid has also had a go at some of these mis-statements)...
There is a refutation, of course, but the boys at RC cleverly put that "below the fold", so that it's totally invisible to the casual observer. The failure to cite the source of the quote up front is another annoying feature. Finally, core flaws in the argument aren't exposed until deep within the below the fold text, and still lack clarity and directness. Try leading off (above the fold!)with something like this:
The skeptics numbers are wrong, and his logic is wrong, and he even screwed up the arithmetic, see below for the details.


Arun has been dithering about renewing his study of Quantum Field Theory, after a dozen or so years on the sidelines. For me, it has been more like several decades, so not only have I forgotten a lot, but most of the new ideas hadn't even been developed back in those stone ages. Anyway, I've started furtively glancing into Peskin and Schroeder from time to time, and really think I ought to learn a little. Arun, however, is considering the online text Fields by W. Siegel.

Has anybody else read/used it? Have an opinion?


Does it bother anyone else that the Google Earth icon appears to be a picture of Venus?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Brad Delong Fires Robert Samuelson

Brad Delong isn't happy with the Washington Post:

People at the Washington Post periodically ask me why I don't presume that the employees of the Washington Post are people of good will, trying hard, who occasionally make mistakes.

Here's one reason why: Robert Samuelson this morning regurgitates a piece of mendacious Republican spin that I'm tired of. I've finally had enough.

He needs to be retired, and the sooner the better:

I think he means fired.

Brad supplies a detailed analysis of Samuelson's distortions and omissions, for which I refer you to the link. He concludes:
Why? I don't know why he wants to misrepresent fiscal policy in the 1990s. I can't even call Robert Samuelson a right-wing hack. The real right-wingers I know openly and aggressively say that Clinton's fiscal policies were vastly, vastly preferable to Bush's. Republican hack? Establishment hack? Tell me what I should call Samuelson, and why he is doing what he is doing.

I do know that if the Washington Post wants to reduce its reputation as a swamp of mendacious Republican-biased spin, retiring Robert Samuelson would be a good start.

He means firing.

Social Security Shutdown

Bush is still trying to destroy Social Security. Allan Sloan of the Washington Post finds the details in Bush's budget.

Last year, even though Bush talked endlessly about the supposed joys of private accounts, he never proposed a specific plan to Congress and never put privatization costs in the budget. But this year, with no fanfare whatsoever, Bush stuck a big Social Security privatization plan in the federal budget proposal, which he sent to Congress on Monday.

President Bush didn't mention a new proposal for privatizing Social Security in the State of the Union, but it's in his budget. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

His plan would let people set up private accounts starting in 2010 and would divert more than $700 billion of Social Security tax revenues to pay for them over the first seven years.

If this comes as a surprise to you, have no fear. You're not alone. Bush didn't pitch private Social Security accounts in his State of the Union message last week.
"The Democrats were laughing all the way to the funeral of Social Security modernization," White House spokesman Trent Duffy told me in an interview Tuesday, but "the president still cares deeply about this. "
And how much it will cost us:
On page 321 of the budget proposal, you see the privatization costs: $24.182 billion in fiscal 2010, $57.429 billion in fiscal 2011 and another $630.533 billion for the five years after that, for a seven-year total of $712.144 billion.
Of course that's just for a start.

More Outrage

Lumo was outraged recently when angry feminists torched the Czech Embassy.

Advice from the Right

Andrew Sullivan, conservative and former Bush worshipper, after prefacing his comments with

I'm not a Democrat and don't think I ever could be, but here's what I'd say if I were in opposition right now.

These guys are corrupt and incompetent. They have screwed up the Iraq war, turned FEMA into a joke and landed the next generation with a mountain of debt. We're for making the homeland safer, winning back our allies, and taking on the Iranian dictatorship. We're for energy independence, universal healthcare and balancing the budget again.
I'd quibble a bit on the anti-Iranian posturing - the Iranian President was elected - but how much do you lose by just changing that to "preventing the spread of nuclear weapons."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Neutrinos Anyone?

Neutrino Physics by Kai Zuber boasts an intimidating price tag of $149.95, but at 1480 pages delivers a fair page value of about $0.10 per.

Anybody know anything about this book? Is it any good? Is there really that much to say about neutrinos?

UPDATE: What a ripoff! Independent evidence indicates that contrary to the info on Amazon and the publisher's web site, this book has a paltry 432 pages! Now that's ridiculous. Can I sue for false advertising if I didn't buy the book?

Pants On Fire

Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post takes a look at reactions to the President's budget. The unsurprising concensus - it's not really a budget, just a bit of political theatre. Like everything else from Bush, it's just another lie.

In the coverage of President Bush's proposed $2.77 trillion budget this morning, reporters are making no bones about the fact that it bears little relationship to reality.

For one, the budget is based on absurd assumptions and intentional oversights. For another, few if any of its most controversial provisions have any realistic chance of survival.

Naturally, it completely omits the cost of the war.

Edmund L Andrews in the NYT says:
"But in practice, the budget is much less realistic than it appears because it omits nearly a half-trillion dollars in costs that are likely to be incurred over the next five years.

"The omissions include any costs for the war in Iraq after 2007, any additional reconstruction costs for New Orleans after 2006 and any plan for preventing a huge expansion in the alternative minimum tax after the end of this year."

There is plenty more in Dan's post.

Cartoon Violence II

The furious violence around the Islamic world is not an accident. I've already said that I thought the wide reprinting of the offensive cartoons was a mistake, but the real culprit are those who used this to whip up violence around the world. Unfortunately, the principal villains in this include not only our enemies and unfriendly rivals, but our supposed friends. Juan Cole has this long post based on the CIA's translation service accounts. After a certain amount of mainly local protest:

The issue became quickly internationalized, with the embassies of Muslim countries demanding a retraction. by mid-October. PM Fogh-Rasmussen continues to refuse to entertain the complaints. Indeed, he went on the offensive, threatening Danish Muslims with heightened penalites for harassing persons who wrote on religion.
A Turkish newspaper wrote a concerned editorial which was pretty moderate in tone. Then the Egyptian government got involved:
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit rejected anti-Islam approaches in Denmark, branding them as a scandal.

The foreign minister said that Egypt had confronted this disgraceful act and will continue to confront such insults.
Cole's conclusion is that:
Anyway, the allegation that this thing was fanned by Saudi Arabia does not seem to be substantiated by the FBIS record, which shows Egypt's secular foreign minister to have been among the main fanners of the flame. Minor members of youth wings of Islamist parties in places like Pakistan then got into the action.

So what about Saudi Arabia's role? This Daily Kos Post has the story. Juan has deprecated it, but has not actually challenged any of the evidence - it's just not mentioned in the CIA's version:
While it was a minor side story in the western press, the most important of Muslim religious festivals recently took place in Saudi Arabia - called the Hajj. Every able-bodied Muslim is obligated to make a pilgrimage once in their lifetime to Mecca, which is in modern-day Saudi Arabia. This pilgrimage can be done at any time of the year but most pilgrims arrive during the Muslim month known as Dhu al-Hijjah, which follows a lunar calendar that does not exactly match the western Gregorian calendar.

The most recent Hajj occurred during the first half of January 2006, precisely when the "outrage" over the Danish cartoons began in earnest. There were a number of stampedes, called "tragedies" in the press, during the Hajj which killed several hundred pilgrims. I say "tragedies" in quotation marks because there have been similar "tragedies" during the Hajj and each time, the Saudi government promises to improve security and facilitation of movement to avoid these. Over 251 pilgrims were killed during the 2004 Hajj alone in the same area as the one that killed 350 pilgrims in 2006. These were not unavoidable accidents, they were the results of poor planning by the Saudi government.

And while the deaths of these pilgrims was a mere blip on the traditional western media's radar, it was a huge story in the Muslim world. Most of the pilgrims who were killed came from poorer countries such as Pakistan, where the Hajj is a very big story. Even the most objective news stories were suddenly casting Saudi Arabia in a very bad light and they decided to do something about it.

Their plan was to go on a major offensive against the Danish cartoons. The 350 pilgrims were killed on January 12 and soon after, Saudi newspapers (which are all controlled by the state) began running up to 4 articles per day condemning the Danish cartoons. The Saudi government asked for a formal apology from Denmark. When that was not forthcoming, they began calling for world-wide protests. After two weeks of this, the Libyans decided to close their embassy in Denmark. Then there was an attack on the Danish embassy in Indonesia. And that was followed by attacks on the embassies in Syria and then Lebanon.

Many European papers, including the right-wing German Springer media group, fanned the flames by reprinting the cartoons. And now you have the situation we are in today, with lots of video footage of angry crowds and the storming of embassies and calls for boycotts of Danish and European products.

Saudi Arabia's influence on the Sunni Muslim world is incalculable. The sermons from high-ranking Muslim clerics are read and studied by Muslims around the world, who in turn give sermons to their local congregations. While the Saudis do not have direct control of the world's Sunni flocks, their influence is similar somewhat to the Pope's pronouncements and the sermons that Catholic priests give to their flocks the following Sundays. Saudi Arabia also finances a number of Muslim "study centers", where all the literature and material is provided by the Saudi government, filled with hatred for Jews and other extremely racist material. For them to promote an idea based on religion, including "outrage" at some cartoons published months earlier, is standard operating procedure.

Of course there is more than Saudi Arabia's hand at play here. The issue has metamorphed from religious outrage at a dozen cartoons to a clash of those who feel they are oppressed and downtrodded by the Christian world and those they consider their oppressors. That's why there was anti-Christian rioting in Lebanon, where the two religious groups have a long and tumultous co-existance.

As I sat there watching CNN (International) with my friend today, I could not help but note the number of Saudi flags that the various rioters were waving in Lebanon and Syria. Coincidence? I think not. Look for yourself - they are green with a large expanse of Arabic writing in white above a sword.
I can't judge the accuracy of either account, but it's at least somewhat interesting that Cole does not directly confront the supposed evidence.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Denial is a River on the Bayesian Plains

Shankar Vedantam had this article in the WaPo about bias and our evaluation of information:

Emory University psychologist Drew Westen put self-identified Democratic and Republican partisans in brain scanners and asked them to evaluate negative information about various candidates. Both groups were quick to spot inconsistency and hypocrisy -- but only in candidates they opposed.

When presented with negative information about the candidates they liked, partisans of all stripes found ways to discount it, Westen said. When the unpalatable information was rejected, furthermore, the brain scans showed that volunteers gave themselves feel-good pats -- the scans showed that "reward centers" in volunteers' brains were activated. The psychologist observed that the way these subjects dealt with unwelcome information had curious parallels with drug addiction as addicts also reward themselves for wrong-headed behavior.

Not too surprising to anyone, I guess, but I think it goes a long way toward explaining why the word "subjective" leaves a bad taste in most scientists mouths. Another unsurprising conclusion reported was that:
That study found that supporters of President Bush and other conservatives had stronger self-admitted and implicit biases against blacks than liberals did.
Oddly enough, the Republican Party claims to be unimpressed.

Everybody has prejudices, but I always felt that scientists had an obligation to try to get beyond these. Evidently, not everyone agrees.

SOTU - Preview

Lubos challenged us to prepare a better State of the Union speech than the Prez and his hacks. I'm working on it, but lacking the large WH staff, it's taking a while, so here is a preview:

Fellow citizens, the state of our Union is strong but imperiled. The strength lies in the vitality of our democratic institutions, the vigor of our economy, and the unmatched power of our military. Unlike most nations of the world, we hold our destiny mainly in our own hands. We live in a world of peril, nonetheless. The peril comes not mainly from our enemies, dastardly though they be, because they are few and weak. I believe the main perils we face are the common perils of the world and the those mainly internal to our government.

Those internal threats consist of corruption, incompetence, and, above all, the sorry state of our nation's finances. The United States is currently committed to pay not only very large debts, but very large sums in Social Security, military retirement, and other benefits provided by law. There are currently estimated to be more than 30 trillion dollars in such unfunded liabilities over the next 50 years, and the nation's future finances are seriously threatened by our current practice of spending far more than we collect in taxes. I shall propose programs to secure a sound financial future for ourselves and our children.

Corruption is a cancer on the body politic that erodes and distorts every aspect of civic life. It is with regret that I say that the current Congress sitting at this speech has been deeply marred by such corruption, and the excecutive branch has also been affected. Financial corruption strikes at the very heart of the system of free market capitalism upon which this nation is built, because it distorts markets, hinders competition, and destroys the transparency necessary to efficient commerce. There is another kind of corruption, the corruption of power, that is even more invidious. This corruption occurs when those who control the government manipulate it to maintain their power. The corruption of power destroys citizens faith in government, and their ability to make it serve their will. Left unchecked, it leads to tyranny and slavery. I shall propose programs to attack these two corruptions at their sources.

The third internal disease of government I intend to attack is incompetence. We have seen striking examples of that incompetence in our failure to recognize and prevent the 9/11 attacks, in inept misanalysis of the threat posed by Iraq, and the feckless response to Hurrican Katrina. Again, I will propose a program to eliminate the chief sources of that incompetence.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Cartoon Violence

It is no secret that the lessons of tolerance have yet to be learned in most of the Muslim world. Nonetheless, the acts of the newspaper editors who published the cartoons that have enraged so much of the Muslim world were egregious in the extreme. These publications were particularly offensive because the editors chose to publish them in full knowledge that they were deeply insulting and offensive to a large segment of the world's population - a population already inflamed by war, sectarian strife and the inumerable assaults of the modern world.

I believe strongly in free speech and freedom of the press, but yelling fire in a crowded theatre is justly punished as a crime. The fury, hatred, and violence aroused was a predictable consequence in the world we live in. So why did they do it? To defend freedom of the press? Hardly. It was a pure gesture of contempt from smug bigots in their comfortable democracies.

That said, Islam had better face up to the fact that it is but one player in a world of many religions, and that it must give tolerance before it will deserve it. Moreover, it is a very weak player in that world, and their are many inside and outside the religion who wish to provoke a battle that it can only lose disastrously.

Our Pro Science President

PZ Myers looks at political science in NASA:

So, the Bush administration is going to try and be pro-science. Here we go.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

Deutsch is 24 years old, having just graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism a few years ago. As a reward for being a loyal Republican party apparatchik, he has been generously appointed to be a Political Officer enforcing doctrine over a bunch of high-falutin' rocket scientists. Shades of Lysenko!

It must have been a heady feeling to have the power to dictate ideology to a lot of scientists with Ph.D.s.

I imagine the US is starting to feel like home to some of those scientists who emigrated from the old Soviet Union.


So how likely is war with Iran? Despite the risks, the odds are looking a little shorter. Kevin Drum has up HOW LIKELY IS A MILITARY STRIKE AGAINST IRAN? An excerpt:

I was up in Los Angeles today, and along with a dozen other bloggers I spent about an hour chatting with Wes Clark, who was in town for a political rally. Clark had some provocative things to say about Iran and its nuclear program, especially in light of today's news that the IAEA has reported Iran to the UN Security Council because of concerns that they're developing nuclear weapons.

Here's what he said. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which suggests that Iran's research sites are too widespread to be destroyed via bombing, Clark believes that a military strike on Iran could wipe out its nuclear program very effectively indeed. He figures that a 14-day bombing campaign plus a few special-ops missions — which he described in some detail — would pretty much put them out of business. What's more, he also seems to believe that an operation like this is very much under active consideration within the White House and the Pentagon.

Pretty clearly there is a game of nuclear chicken going on here, with some posturing on each side, but Iranian President Ahmadinejad is crazy if he doesn't take into account President Bush's proven recklessness. He also crazy if he thinks that the American military is so tied down in Iraq that they couldn't attack Iran. Of course, it could well be that Ahmadinejad *is* crazy.

My guess is that almost everybody in the military would love to get the hell out of Iraq and start fighting real battles where you get to slaughter everybody in your way. Iran is likely much stronger militarily than Iraq, but still unlikely to provide very prolonged resistance.

The problem is what do you do for an encore. The nuclear threat (if any) from Iran might be destroyed, but much of the world's oil supply could be lost as well. Iran would also be far more difficult to pacify than Iraq, though an attack on Iran would probably turn Iraq's Shia into insurgents too.

As Kevin notes:
What would be the Democratic response if (a) Bush asked for an authorization of force against Iran or (b) simply launched an assault without asking Congress? The chances of this coming up as an issue this year are strong enough that it would be foolish not to be prepared to deal with it.

At the very least, I would hope, they would demand a lot of investigation before signing on.

Bayes, Theory, and Frequency

James Annan has another post on Bayesian inference, so, impressed by the underwhelming appreciation of my little joke, I will try a more explicit description of my current understanding of the issues. Here is James's example:

I have a max-min thermometer in my garden, which I reset each day. It measures the max and min, and let's assume that I know that the error on each day's measurement is well-characterised as a standard gaussian deviate - ie a sample from N(0,1). This morning I went out and saw that the min from the last night was -5C. What is the probability that the actual minimum was below -5C?

Most people will instinctively answer that the probability is 50%, reasoning that the error is just as likely to be positive as negative. Most people would be wrong. The probability depends on the prior distribution before you looked at the thermometer! This is an unavoidable consequence of how Bayes' Theorem works. The posterior is equal to the prior multiplied by the likelihood of the true temperature given the observation. Those who do not understand this will repeatedly get themselves into trouble when discussing probabilistic estimation.

To those who insist that 50% is the right answer, consider this situation: Say I know that the record low temperature ever recorded in my town (of which my garden is representative) is -4C. Will I still believe that there is a 50% chance that last night's temperature was below -5C? Of course not. Temperature records are virtually never broken by such a large margin. In this case, my prior probability density function has its mean (and the bulk of its support) above -5C, so even after measuring -5C, the posterior mean is above -5C. Even with a less extreme example - say the record low is -6C, but the typical February daily minimum temperature is -1C - a rational Bayesian will still (probably, based on the info supplied) conclude that the temperature was probably warmer than -5C.

OK, so James is applying Bayes Theorem.

Let us assume that we can consider some actual "real minimum temperature" t in his garden during the night, and lets call T the minimum temperature his thermometer measures. So what is the probability P(t|T) of t, given the measurement T? According to Bayes Theorem, it is given by:
P(t|T) = P(T|t)P(t)/Int(P(T|t')P(t'),t')
The ingredients of JA's deduction are the probability distribution P(T|t) for the measurement to be T, given that the real temperature is t, and the probability distribution P(t) of t. He has assumed that he knows P(T|t). He also knows that t = -4C was the previous record for low temperature and takes that as an indication that P(t=-5) is quite improbable.

Now, back to our dispute. I argued that when you can use Bayes theorem in this way, there is a theory and an at least implicit frequentist interpretation involved. What is P(t) but the frequentist interpretation of the local history? The theory comes from the idea that today's temperature resembles those of the past.

If we added another fact - say that all the surrounding communities had experienced record low tempertures that night, his story would change, and a different theory - approximate spatial continuity of temperature - would come into play, but it still look to me like there is a frequentist interpretation at bottom, and it doesn't look subjective to me.

Friday, February 03, 2006

So, a Bayesian and a Frequentist go into a Bar...

James Annan has another probability post up in which he explains a bit about Bayesian probability and also claims that I make odd noises. This latter claim I can believe, since my wife says the same - but let me see if I understand the Bayesian bit with the following parable.

So, this Bayesian and this frequentist go into a bar, where, naturally, they start arguing about probability. Their wives, who had accompanied them, quickly tire of this, and go home. After a couple of hours and a few beers, the debate degenerates into name calling and insults. The bartender calls the bouncer, and this big guy with enormous shoulders and two heads grabs each one under a thickly muscled arm, carts them out, and dumps them in the street. As they stare at the backs of his retreating heads, each pulls out a notebook and scribbles something down. They head home, still a bit dazed.

The frequentist gets to his apartment, where his spouse asks him if anything interesting happened after she left. He checks his notes and tells the story in some detail, finishing with "that's got to be a one-in-a-million occurence!"

Meanwhile the Bayesian gets home, and is asked the same question. He consults his notes for a while, and finally says: "probably not."

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Short Listed

William Saletan in Slate has this story:

A Swedish study suggests taller boys get longer educations. Height was measured at age 18; additional years of education were measured afterward. Findings: 1) "The probability of achieving higher education in later life increases linearly with height." 2) "Men taller than 194 cm (6 ft 4 in) were two to three times more likely to obtain a higher education when compared with men shorter than 165 cm." The correlation persisted when IQ and social background were factored out. Researchers' speculation: We discriminate against short kids by expecting less of them.
He links to this longer article at Yahoo.

It seems to me there could be some alternate theories. Maybe tall boys got better nutrition, more sleep, and better parental care - or maybe their brains are taller too.

I can't imagine it that it would work out quite the same in the US. Our most educated groups are Asians and Jews, both traditionally a bit shorter than your average Northern European.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Shining

I think maybe I'm beginning to understand the meaning of Lubos's phrase "politically immature."