Monday, March 31, 2008

DH0

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I like to argue - I believe that Socratic dialog is the best route to enlightenment. Brad DeLong links to Paul Graham's handy dandy guide to internet (or other) argumentation.

The Lowerarchy:

DH0. Name-calling....
DH1. Ad Hominem....
DH2. Responding to Tone....
DH3. Contradiction....
DH4. Counterargument....
DH5. Refutation....
DH6. Refuting the Central Point....

Sadly enough, many, including our occasional critic LM and most of the wingnut blahgosphere, are unable to get beyond DH0 with occasional excursions to DH1. Boring and useless.

It's a puzzle to me how a seemingly intelligent person can be so obtuse about the uses of rhetoric.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Literary Taste

What shapes our literary tastes? I don't know the answer, of course, but I recall that my high school senior English teacher believed that the three great novels were Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, and War and Peace, in that order. I made a point of reading each, and they did not disappoint, though I would put Tolstoy at the head of the class. I have since read a scattering of the classics, and almost never been disappointed, but I'm not much a reader of literature. Modern literature I find a much more uncertain quantity. Some I have really liked, but there are a lot like Gravity's Rainbow out there - long, fitfully amusing and frequently appalling, but ultimately tedious and unpleasant.

What literature I do read is mainly middle to low brow. I didn't learn to read until I was about eight, and the first books I read were Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels. I can't say that at any fundamental level my tastes have evolved beyond that.

By the Book

The number one most popular New York Times article at the moment is It’s Not You, It’s Your Books by Rachel Donadio.

Some years ago, I was awakened early one morning by a phone call from a friend. She had just broken up with a boyfriend she still loved and was desperate to justify her decision. “Can you believe it!” she shouted into the phone. “He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”

We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. These days, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, listing your favorite books and authors is a crucial, if risky, part of self-branding. When it comes to online dating, even casual references can turn into deal breakers. Sussing out a date’s taste in books is “actually a pretty good way — as a sort of first pass — of getting a sense of someone,” said Anna Fels, a Manhattan psychiatrist and the author of “Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.” “It’s a bit of a Rorschach test.” To Fels (who happens to be married to the literary publisher and writer James Atlas), reading habits can be a rough indicator of other qualities. “It tells something about ... their level of intellectual curiosity, what their style is,” Fels said. “It speaks to class, educational level.”

Pity the would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes: sometimes, it’s the Howard Roark problem as much as the Pushkin one. “I did have to break up with one guy because he was very keen on Ayn Rand,” said Laura Miller, a book critic for Salon. “He was sweet and incredibly decent despite all the grandiosely heartless ‘philosophy’ he espoused, but it wasn’t even the ideology that did it. I just thought Rand was a hilariously bad writer, and past a certain point I couldn’t hide my amusement.”

It has its amusing moments, as does the author's elaboration of the theme in the Paper Cuts blog.

So what's going on here, anyway? More than one kind of thing, I suspect. People naturally seek out some kind of commonality, but isn't demanding that a prospective date like exactly the same kind of trendy current authors a bit much? One aspect, I imagine, is the same kind of search for tribal affiliation that splits high schools into stereotypical cliques. There is also a very strong element of pretentious one upmanship involved. Finally, and especially for women, it is a search for badges of social status in the chosen tribe. If you are a young editoral apprentice in a literary publisher, how would it look if you took somebody who never heard of Pushkin to a book promotion party?

That said, the first thing I look at when I visit somebody's house is their bookshelf - if I see one. For one thing it's a good conversation starter. If my host has 500 books on trains model and real, I can hope to learn something about the subject. If all they have is the complete works of Ayn Rand bound in gold embossed leather, that's not a dead loss either, unless I really don't want to fight the host.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Flat

An AGW doubter well known to many of us notes that his point of view is not much shared:

...We are so tiny, in fact, that we are almost like those who believe that the Moon landing was shot in Arizona and the world is flat...

but fails to draw the obvious lesson.

More interesting to me was his reproduction of a denialist bumper sticker making much of the so-called global ice anomaly. This is an amusingly obtuse combining of the Arctic and Antarctic ice anomalies, which river dwellers love because it has recently been in positive territory. Cherry pickers must pick cherries while they may, of course, but the dynamics of the North polar sea ice and that of the South are so different that the conflation is quite preposterous.

I guess that it may impress those who aren't aware that the Antarctic is mainly occupied by a continent, whereas the North pole sits in an ocean.

Advice From On High

It is said that if you climb the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán at the Vernal Equinox, you can tap into ancient sources of cosmic energy. I can't testify as to that, but I will say that when I was climbing that pyramid, on or about the Vernal Equinox, the Sun God did speak to me.

He said:

You really need to add some stepper work to your routine at the gym.

Also: lose some of that lard.

Noted.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

OTG

I will be off the grid for a bit, but should be back in time for April fool's day.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hillary's Path

I alternate between considering Hillary a moderately qualified candidate who is being crushed by a phenomenon and evil incarnate. Mostly I lean toward the latter when she pulls some of her dishonest crap. Her dilemma is that the only issue getting her any traction is race, and that issue threatens to shatter the party. She deserves a lot of blame for injecting race, via Bill and Geraldine F., but the issue is now out of her hands.

The Limbaughs and Faux News bottom feeders have now decided that Hillary is a minor threat and are going all out to run racist stuff against Obama. For them it's all profit - if it works, a badly damaged Hillary will be nominated and many Democrats will sit on their hands. If it doesn't work, well, they were going to lose anyway, so why not rally the scumbag base.

Note to self: Never read The Corner unless hot soapy water is handy.

Chronicle of Doom: Prologue

Bad things sometimes happen to good Presidents. The bad things that have happened during George Bush's time in office aren't like that. They are distinguished by their large number and by the fact that none of them was remotely surprising. Bush's catastrophes seem to all have been predicted, sometimes in considerable detail and he walked into each with eyes and mind wide shut. Consider a few of the biggies:

9/11 - Bush was briefed on the threat of bin Laden, but chose to ignore him. The terror threat was so low on his priority list that Cheney's committee on same had its first meeting on Sept 10. It was known that the WTC was an al Qaeda target, and the Presidential daily briefings had explicitly mentioned attacks using hijacked planes.

bin Laden's escape - Predicted again, and allowed to happen.

Iraq - Advice of professionals was systematically ignored, concealed, and distorted. The only thing unpredicted was how the catastrophe would be magnified by Bush's implausible incompetence.

Katrina - This one was seen years away. There were clear portents a week before. Once again, Bush and his minions slept while catastrophe unwound.

Panic of '08 - This one has been seen coming for years. Once again, nothing was done.

When I go through the list, it seems impossible that incompetence could account for all. A malicious enemy could hardly have done the country more damage.

Asleep at the Wheel

As the wheels come off the economy, Dan Froomkin wonders if Bush is again asleep at the wheel.

As the storm clouds gathered, was President Bush once again asleep at the wheel?

A consistent theme in today's political and economic coverage is that Bush's failure to recognize the severity of the ongoing financial crisis and act accordingly is reminiscent of his disastrously slow and inept response to Hurricane Katrina.

I think that metaphor needs to be retired Dan. Asleep at the wheel implies that he was formerly in control. Bush is stoned and passed out in the back seat. Always has been.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

RIP Arthur C Clarke

Visionary science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke is dead at age 90. I greatly admired some of his science fiction. Some of my favorites: Childhood's End, Tales from the White Hart, and Rescue Party.

Clarke envisioned the communication satellite and the PDA (among other things) decades before they were realized. Like many of the other giants of the golden age of SF (Asimov, Heinlein) he had some training in science, and knew how to use it in his stories.

We won't see his like again.

How to Bank

Captain I explains it all:

Borrow cheap, and lend dear.

But if you borrow cheap short, and lend long dear, don't forget to worry that you are going to have to borrow short again - and it might not be quite so cheap, especially if those lent to dear look like they might not pay.

The Speech

Honest, eloquent, nuanced and thoughtful. It might cost him, especially with the stupidocracy.

Senile or Clueless?

John McCain in Iraq:

Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back."
Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was "common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that's well known. And it's unfortunate." A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate's ear. McCain then said: "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda."

Five years into this thing and McCain doesn't understand element one: Sunni vs. Shia. What a clueless dope. And war is supposed to be his forte.

The fact that Hillary thinks this bozo passes the commander-in-chief test is proof positive that she doesn't.

Moieties

There are said to be two kinds of people - those who divide people into two kinds and those who don't. The movie Zoolander is an elegant splitter. Many regard this as one of the dumbest movies ever made while an even larger number consider it a great comedy classic. Both groups, of course, are entirely correct, but I will go with the second.

If you haven't seen it, or even if you have, you can probably get a good idea of which group you belong to by considering your reaction to the phrase "tragic freak gasoline fight accident."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Never in Doubt

Christopher Hitchens is erudite, witty, and an acute critic of almost everything except his own muddled thinking.

Only the last quality is much in evidence in his defense of his Iraq war advocacy. That defense consists mainly of inaccuracies and absurdities (we were always at war with Saddam/Westasia; an implausible list of supposed benefits accruing; the argument that the bad things that happened would have happened anyway if we had stayed out).

There is some quintessential pathos in his final argument: we meant well.

This must, and still does, count for something.

Pavement. It counts for pavement. That is the traditional valuation, I think.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Guess Who is Paying

The Bear Stearns bailout, says Paul Krugman is just a beginning. Among many investment banks, Bear Stearns stands out as an example of the undeserving rich:

Bear was a major promoter of the most questionable subprime lenders. It lured customers into two of its own hedge funds that were among the first to go bust in the current crisis. And it’s a bad financial citizen: the last time the Fed tried to contain a financial crisis, after the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, Bear refused to participate in the rescue operation.

Bear, in other words, deserved to be allowed to fail — both on the merits and to teach Wall Street not to expect someone else to clean up its messes.

But the Fed rode to Bear’s rescue anyway, fearing that the collapse of a major investment bank would cause panic in the markets and wreak havoc with the wider economy. Fed officials knew that they were doing a bad thing, but believed that the alternative would be even worse.

As Bear goes, so will go the rest of the financial system. And if history is any guide, the coming taxpayer-financed bailout will end up costing a lot of money.


You might want to think in terms of thousands of dollars per American, perhaps much more.

Krugman says that given the inevitability of bailout, we ought to make sure that its managed well.

As I said, the important thing is to bail out the system, not the people who got us into this mess. That means cleaning out the shareholders in failed institutions, making bondholders take a haircut, and canceling the stock options of executives who got rich playing heads I win, tails you lose.


Given the President we still have, and the type of people he has appointed, how likely will that be?

$85 --> $1

If you were a long-time, successful Bear Stearns employee last year, times might have been pretty good. Chances are that you had accumulated several tens or hundreds of million dollars in stock. If you were clever enough to sell your stock back then, you might be even happier right now. If you hung on to the bitter end though, you got $2 for each of those shares that was worth $170 last year. Still, the firesale to J P Morgan was better than nothing, I suppose.

How likely is this scenario to repeat? I don't know, but there are a heck of a lot of nervous bankers out there, staring up river and down, seeing black swans everywhere.

I just hope everybody remembers that George Bush and Alan Greenspan made this cake and that the Republican congress baked it.

Another Lefty Preacher

Devil's Tower at Daily Kos points out yet another lefty preacher whom Obama is said to be close to:

Damn you rich! You already have your compensation.

Damn you who are well-fed! You will know hunger.

Damn you who laugh now! You will weep and grieve.

Damn you when everybody speaks well of you

Why Obama

Andrew Sullivan links to a powerful testimonial to Obama from a long time colleague.

Among the best points:

This was a pretty amazing conversation, not only because of Obama's mastery of the legal details, but also because many prominent Democratic leaders had already blasted the Bush initiative as blatantly illegal. He did not want to take a public position until he had listened to, and explored, what might be said on the other side.

This is the Barack Obama I have known for nearly 15 years -- a careful and evenhanded analyst of law and policy, unusually attentive to multiple points of view.

The University of Chicago Law School is by far the most conservative of the great American law schools. It helped to provide the academic foundations for many positions of the Reagan administration.

But at the University of Chicago, Obama is liked and admired by both Republicans and Democrats. Some local Reagan enthusiasts are Obama supporters. Why? It doesn't hurt that he's a great guy, with a personal touch and a lot of warmth. It certainly helps that he is exceptionally able.

But niceness and ability are only part of the story. Obama has a genuinely independent mind, he's a terrific listener and he goes wherever reason takes him.

The thing that I find most impressive about Obama's rhetoric is the evident thought and intelligence behind it. He speaks well, but the gold is not in the throat but in the mind behind it.

Hillary has a good command of policy minutia - she is smart - but I don't see much vision behind it. When evil Hill-Billary attacks, expecially as in the recent racist bullshit she has been pulling, all I can see is a naked lust for power.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bizarro President

The dollar is crumbling, financial markets are in terror, and our wars are going so well either, but our President just seems to get more and more cheerful. His laughing, giggling, joking and singing performances are reminiscent of those movie scenes where the giggling psychopath prepares to blow up the city/world/universe.

More disturbing to me is the fact that about one third of our fellow citizens still have faith in this nut.

Book Envy

Lee talked me into cataloging some of my books on Library Thing, and I put their widget on the blog. I'm thinking now that latter step was a mistake. The problem is that whenever I look at one of the little icons I get reminded of how much smarter the books are than I am.

It's depressing.

Yet Another Chapter from the Chronicle of Doom Foretold, and Prophets Ignored

"No one could have foreseen . . ." is the familiar refrain of idiots who ignored warning signs apparent to many. Brad DeLong takes a look at the Panic of 2008, and those who could not see that train coming:

Paul Krugman comments on Dean Baker's ire:

The few, the proud, the ignored: Dean Baker is mad at Robert Rubin for suggesting that "few, if any" people saw the financial meltdown coming.

I'd say that there are two levels to this. First, a lot of people -- including Dean, me, Calculated Risk, and others -- saw that there was a huge housing bubble. It remains amazing that so many alleged experts failed to see the obvious.


Krugman and DeLong have a nice analysis, but I wonder if it's really to the point. The whole idea of a Ponzi scheme is not that nobody can see where it ends, it's that some are getting rich before it does.

We are in such a state because:

Quantitatively- and analytically-sophisticated Wall Street teams greatly overestimated their capability to assess and manage risk.
Institutions greatly overestimated the extent to which the QaASWSTs were assessing risk as opposed to simply writing out-of-the-money puts they could not value and claiming they had lots of alpha.
Investors greatly overestimated the extent to which institutions understood what their teams were doing.

Again, did they really fail to correctly assess risk, or did they just ride the cash train while it was going their direction?

Chilling on the River

Our friends along that river in Egypt (dee Nile) are all hot and bothered about the imminent prospect of global cooling. The Winter of 2007-2008 has indeed been a cool one, and January of 2008 had the smallest global temperature anomaly since February of 1994. February of '08 was also chill - aside from 1/09, you need to journey through deep time all the way back to 2000 to find another month so relatively cold. The people who found the evidence of global warming to be wanting have been quick to sieze on this as proof of whatever alternative theories they like - sunspots, cosmic rays, aliens.

The more conventional climate scientists note that temperature statistics are noisy and that the 2007-2008 la Nina now appears to be quite strong, with the current value of the multivariate ENSO index the lowest since the 1980's. A look at the graphs of the Hadley monthly temperatures shows that the monthly data is indeed noisy and that while current temperature are low by the standards of the current decade, they are still rather high compared to the 160 year temperature record. Determining who is more correct may need to wait until after the current la Nina (or longer), but I know which way I am betting.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Danger Will Robinson!

Is economics bullshit?

Micro economists, besides being very small, are people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. One type of question that I find particularly annoying goes something like this: How much does someone value their life? From Tim Harford's Slate column.

World Bank economist Paul Gertler and his colleagues reckoned that Mexican prostitutes valued their lives at about $50,000 per year, based on willingness to take money not to use condoms. At five times their annual earnings, that's a similar figure to workers accepting risky jobs in rich countries.


So how do they reach that kind of a conclusion? The basic idea is that in exchange for accepting additional risk, a person gets more money. A paradigmatic example might be a variant of Russian Roulette. Flip a coin, call it right, and you win $x. Call it wrong and you die. How much money would have to be on the table to make it worthwhile to play? If a 50% probability of winning $x is worth a 50% probability of losing your life, then you value your life at $x.

Having numbers like this make any sense depends on the bettor being able to properly evaluate the odds. If the bettor lacks a realistic grasp of the odds, the price/risk ratio tells you nothing.

In fact we all come with built in computers that are constantly making that kind of judgement - that's what evolution made brains for. There is a problem, though. Those brains were designed for a life very different from that people live today - a life where the big threats were starvation, murder and large predators - not AIDS.

This means that our attempts to value things like life, sex, or that possibly hazardous donut with our coffee are confounded by our built in systems which do the arithmetic rather differently than the accountants at the life insurance company.

This was actually noticed by Adam Smith. Soldiers, he noted, get maximal risk for crappy pay, so why do they do it?

There is another complication. Everything about life is uncertain except one: it is temporary. As far as I can tell, economists quite studiously avoid absorbing Darwin's insight. A famous biologist said: "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." The same is true, I'm sure, for that minor branch of biology called economics. Economists (mostly) just don't realize it.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

The media, and its audience, love the Spitzer disaster. From a certain point of view it is deplorable that the human race is so fascinated by the tawdry and criminal, but it's an irresistable story. Power, hubris, the downfall of the mighty, hypocrisy on a cosmic scale, and sex - what drama could ask for more?

There is also a completely natural curiosity about an aspect of human behavior outside the experience of most. Questions like "what do sex workers do" and "how much do they get paid" and "who hires them" are usually not quite considered subjects quite appropriate for polite discourse. Clinton, Spitzer, Larry Craig, and all those other political perverts thus serve as part of a national sex education program for the country.

After all, most of what we learn about those subjects is heavily filtered through the ideological lenses of various crusaders. Pimps, madams, and call girls on the Larry King show are at least as interesting as his usual crap.

Oh well.

Can't Do the Math

Yet another commission concludes that American kids suck at math. This one sounds more sensible than most:

The sharp falloff in mathematics achievement in the U.S. begins as students reach late middle school, where, for more and more students, algebra course work begins,” said the report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, appointed two years ago by President Bush. “Students who complete Algebra II are more than twice as likely to graduate from college compared to students with less mathematical preparation.”

The report, adopted unanimously by the panel on Thursday and presented to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, said that prekindergarten-to-eighth-grade math curriculums should be streamlined and put focused attention on skills like the handling of whole numbers and fractions and certain aspects of geometry and measurement.

They seem to be trying to steer a middle ground between the currently popular "discovery" math ideas and old fashioned computation:

The report tries to put to rest the long, heated debate over math teaching methods. Parents and teachers have fought passionately in school districts around the country over the relative merits of traditional, or teacher-directed, instruction, in which students are told how to do problems and then drilled on them, versus reform or child-centered instruction, emphasizing student exploration and conceptual understanding. It said both methods had a role.

I like the following:

For example, the report found it is important for students to master their basic math facts well enough that their recall becomes automatic, stored in their long-term memory, leaving room in their working memory to take in new math processes.

“For all content areas, practice allows students to achieve automaticity of basic skills — the fast, accurate and effortless processing of content information — which frees up working memory for more complex aspects of problem solving,” the report said.

They recommend concentration on fewer topics, and on mastery of those. I'm not terribly impressed with the suggested pace, though:

It offers specific goals for students in different grades. For example, it said that by the end of the third grade, students should be proficient in adding and subtracting whole numbers. Two years later, they should be proficient in multiplying and dividing them. By the end of the sixth grade, the report said, students should have mastered the multiplication and division of fractions and decimals.

I can't think of any reason kids shouldn't know at least the multiplication tables by the end of second grade. Japanese pre-schoolers learn that, I thought.

I also believe that most aspects of curriculum should be taken out of the hands of publishers and State and local school boards. Mississipi doesn't need different mathematics than North Dakota or New Jersey. There ought to be a common core national curriculum, which would permit real national testing.

The commission also called for the scientific study of the effectiveness of various teaching programs. About time that education stops being a blankety-blank fashion industry.

Most of math is putting funny little marks on paper and translating those marks into other funny marks on the paper. Kids need to learn that. They also need to know the secrets of translating thoughts and questions into those funny little marks.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

John McCain

Sean Carroll notes John McCain's strategy for getting the stupidity vote.

Shorter strategy capsule: make fun of science and scientists.

Comedy Secret #9

NYT headline: "Felled by Scandal, Spitzer Says Focus Is on His Family"

Timing, so they say, Eliot, is everything. You might want to work on that.

The Convert

David Mamet is an acute dramatist, but political analyst, not so much. He has this article in the Village Voice (the web site of which appears to run on a 20 MHz PC AT), in which he describes his conversion from "brain dead" liberal to merely brain dead - or as I guess he calls it, conservative.

He traces his epiphany to an auto trip:

I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.

As a child of the '60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.

These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life. How do I know? My wife informed me. We were riding along and listening to NPR. I felt my facial muscles tightening, and the words beginning to form in my mind: Shut the fuck up. "?" she prompted. And her terse, elegant summation, as always, awakened me to a deeper truth: I had been listening to NPR and reading various organs of national opinion for years, wonder and rage contending for pride of place. Further: I found I had been—rather charmingly, I thought—referring to myself for years as "a brain-dead liberal," and to NPR as "National Palestinian Radio."


Perhaps we can see the genesis of his disease already. Clearly he is one of those "Israel uber alles" types who feels that any attempt to suggest that those close genetic relatives of the Jews, the Palestinians, might be human rather than vermin is a deadly affront.

The caricature of liberalism he portrays, of course, is indeed quite absurd: corporations are evil, the military is evil, government is the answer. The countervailing conservative caricature he apparently subscribes to is equally vacuous:

But if the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out?

I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own—take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.

The director, generally, does not cause strife, but his or her presence impels the actors to direct (and manufacture) claims designed to appeal to Authority—that is, to set aside the original goal (staging a play for the audience) and indulge in politics, the purpose of which may be to gain status and influence outside the ostensible goal of the endeavor.

Strand unacquainted bus travelers in the middle of the night, and what do you get? A lot of bad drama, and a shake-and-bake Mayflower Compact. Each, instantly, adds what he or she can to the solution. Why? Each wants, and in fact needs, to contribute—to throw into the pot what gifts each has in order to achieve the overall goal, as well as status in the new-formed community. And so they work it out.

See also that most magnificent of schools, the jury system, where, again, each brings nothing into the room save his or her own prejudices, and, through the course of deliberation, comes not to a perfect solution, but a solution acceptable to the community—a solution the community can live with.

Oddly enough, his own plays and movies usually seem to have directors - and he directs quite a bit himself.

Juries, of course, are an example of government intervention. Spontaneous community action is actually more precisely known as lynching.

"And so they work it out." The clearest example of this bit of conservative philosophy in action is Iraq. Dim witted idealogues convinced themselves that if the tyrant were removed, the Iraqis would "work it out."

How much folly do you need to see before you learn? In Mamet's case, it is apparently unbounded. He probably doesn't even realize that the real reason he is a conservative is that he is old, rich, and a Likudnik.

One Hell of a Conversation

Sudhir Venkatesh, last seen here as University of Chicago graduate student in Gang Leader for a Day, has been spending a lot of time talking to sex workers. There is a hierarchy, he says, and one of Spitzer's mistakes may have been not spending enough on his "dates."

In fact, $4,300 is not an altogether alarming sum of money in the high-end sex market. Spitzer got a bargain—and that may have been his downfall.

In many so-called global cities, like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, sex is part of a lucrative service sector that has developed for those with expendable income. Soliciting a prostitute can be as pricey as hiring a personal chef or finding a private school for your kids. In New York, it's not hard to find sex workers who charge $10,000 per "session," which can last for 15 minutes or two hours (jokes aside)...

At the lucrative end of the market, I have found it useful to think of three tiers of women (men constitute only about 10 percent of high-end prostitutes). Spitzer was paying for "Tier 1" sex workers: Fees usually range from $2,000 to $5,000 per session; women come in all ages and ethnic stripes; they rigorously guard their health and watch for STDs; and most have a high-school degree but have limited work experience. They can promise you discretion, but most work through escort services that are routinely under surveillance. In practice, this means buyer beware.

The highest end sex workers, says Venkatesh, are independent contractors, unlike the agency employees used by Spitzer, and typically have small and select client lists. They get a lot less scrutiny from the law.

What high-end clients pay for may surprise you. For example, according to my ongoing interviews of several hundred sex workers, approximately 40 percent of trades in New York's sex economy fail to include a physical act beyond light petting or kissing. No intercourse, no oral stimulation, etc. That's one helluva conversation. But it's what many clients want. Flush with cash, these elite men routinely turn their prostitute into a second partner or spouse. Over the course of a year, they will sometimes persuade the woman to take on a new identity, replete with a fake name, a fake job, a fake life history, and so on. They may want to have sex or they may simply want to be treated like King for a Day.

I sometimes wonder what Venkatesh's evening conversations with his wife sound like.

"How was your day dear?"

"Same old, same old. Chatting up $10,000/hr prostitutes all day."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Victimless Crime?

I am not arguing for legalizing prostitution, but I think there is something wrong with this NYT Op Ed claiming that it isn't a victimless crime.

Whose theory is it that prostitution is victimless? It’s the men who buy prostitutes who spew the myths that women choose prostitution, that they get rich, that it’s glamorous and that it turns women on.

But most women in prostitution, including those working for escort services, have been sexually abused as children, studies show. Incest sets young women up for prostitution — by letting them know what they’re worth and what’s expected of them. Other forces that channel women into escort prostitution are economic hardship and racism.


OK, a lot of that seems plausible, at least for some sex workers. Usually though, there is an addiction connection. Most importantly, who is it that gets punished by anti-prostitution laws? Mainly it is the sex workers themselves.

The authors, Melissa Farley and Victor Malarek don't discuss exactly how they plan to deal with that complication.

What do We Know and How do We Know It

One of my favorite jobs was as a planetarium director. I got to meet a good fraction of the fifth graders, and smaller fractions of other ages of students from a major metropolitan area. The best part, for me, was the free form question period at the end when the students got to ask anything about astronomy or physics.

A fundamental test of your scientific mojo is to ask yourself, or have someone else ask you, what do you know and how do you know it. I few good ones at the very fundamental level:

1)Everything is made of atoms (Feynman's nomination for the most important scientific fact). How do we know?

2)Every living thing is made of cells (easy) and all those cells are built on extremely similar designs (harder) and all almost certainly derive from a common ancestor (hard).

3)The Sun is a star, and the other stars are very far away.

4)The Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun under the influence of gravity.(easy for physicists, I hope!)

5)The Americas used to be connected to Europe and Africa. India and Australia used to be near the South Pole.

6)Carbon usually forms covalent bonds with up to four other atoms. When it forms covalent bonds with four other atoms they wind up at the vertices of a tetrahedron centered on the carbon atom.

(7)Exp[i*theta] = cos(theta) + i* sin (theta)

More nominations welcomed, preferably not too esoteric.

Because I like this type of question, I always thought parenthood would be a perfect job in answering how and why questions. Unfortunately for this theory, my kids were so clever that they usually figured out nearly everything for themselves - at least that's the way the proud parent remembers it.

Redundancy Redundancy Again

One somewhat puzzling fact of quantum mechanics is the apparent necessity for some redundancies in its description of nature. Physical states are believed to correspond to rays in Hilbert space (all the vectors differing from a given vector by a phase), but the most natural objects to work with are vectors.

In quantum field theory, all our fundamental interactions are described in terms of gauge theories, theories that respect gauge symmetries. This, says Anthony Zee, introduces a layer of redundancy, since the gauge invariances are essentially redundancies in our description of nature - but redundancies that we don't know how to live without.

Covariant Economics

One thing that physicists know is that any good theory should respect some fundamental symmetries. None of these is more sacred than Lorentz covariance - obedience to the special theory of relativity. Perhaps that's one reason physicists have historically been suspicious of economics - it just doesn't look Lorentz covariant.

It's less appreciated, I suspect, that thirty years ago a then little known economics professor took the crucial first steps toward Lorentz covariant economics. This epochal but little known paper by Paul Krugman clearly deserves more attention from economists, physicists and interstellar traders.

The paper: The Theory of Interstellar Trade

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ominous and Foreboding

The resignation/forcing out of Admiral Fallon is a very ominous sign that Cheney and the Neocon/Oil/Israel lobby may be back in charge, and spoiling for a fight with Iran. We should have impeached these dumb bastards years ago.

We may hope that the lunatics are not fully in charge of the asylum, but the portents are not good.

The Slime Machine

Geraldine Ferraro is outraged, just outraged, that anyone would consider her a racist. And only because she said that the only reason Obama was considered for the Presidency was because he was Black. How could anyone possibly make that connection?

The Clinton slime machine makes me want to puke. If she does get nominated, I doubt that I will be able to swallow enough of my disgust to vote for her. Ralph? Oh my gosh, I think I may.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Libertarian Economics

Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
..............Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll


Libertarians mostly seem to believe that the government shouldn't manage the economy. They also tend to believe in the gold standard.

No actual governments practice these theories, for a rather quaint historical reason: they don't work.

Of course libertarians have a lot of practice.

Inner Sinner

It's a very familiar story: crusading moralist busted, revealing inner sinner. There are more than a few oddities here - why, for example, was this the subject of a federal anti-corruption probe?

A 47-page federal affidavit from an F.B.I. agent investigating a prostitution ring lists the man at the hotel as “Client 9,” and includes considerable details about him, the prostitutes and his methods of paying for them. A law enforcement official and another person briefed on the prostitution case have identified Client 9 as Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York.


As it happens, the guy with the perfect LSAT seems to have managed to commit a federal crime in order to achieve his expensive assignation. Is it just another example of the smart guy assuming tthe laws were too dumb for somebody as smart as him?

Now I don't happen to think that his behavior should be considered that criminal. Aside from his wife, who is the victim here? The law, however, reads differently, and from the standpoint of the Republican Party, Eliot Spitzer was a very high value target.

I doubt that his apology to his family and the public will save his electoral scalp. In this country, getting caught with a prostitute is more serious than lying the country into a war that costs thousands of American lives and trillions of American dollars.

Wall Street scam artists (one of Spitzer the crusader's favorite targets) took the news pretty well. They cheered at the stock exchange.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be . . .

James Fallows has a very good Atlantic Monthly article on the peculiar financial relationship that has arisen between China and the United States. Americans spend everything they make and save nothing, lately, but the far poorer Chinese consume only about half of what they produce.

This is not solely or mainly due to the special virtue of the Chinese or the recklessness of individual Americans but to the policies of their governments. China is still an authoritarian state, and it uses government power to keep most of the wealth its rapid growth is producing out of the hands of the people. Under George Bush and the Republicans, the American government has spent recklessly while borrowing immense amounts from abroad. Meanwhile, the lax regulations and misguided ideology of Bush and Greenspan encouraged similarly reckless behavior by American banks and consumers.

It is a very unnatural event for the world's richest nation to be the world's biggest debtor, but that's what has happened. Smaller and poorer nations routinely make the mistake of living beyond their means and the consequences are usually dire.

Through the quarter-century in which China has been opening to world trade, Chinese leaders have deliberately held down living standards for their own people and propped them up in the United States. This is the real meaning of the vast trade surplus—$1.4 trillion and counting, going up by about $1 billion per day—that the Chinese government has mostly parked in U.S. Treasury notes. In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People’s Republic of China. Like so many imbalances in economics, this one can’t go on indefinitely, and therefore won’t. But the way it ends—suddenly versus gradually, for predictable reasons versus during a panic—will make an enormous difference to the U.S. and Chinese economies over the next few years, to say nothing of bystanders in Europe and elsewhere.

Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.

The Chinese government no doubt has its own reasons, but central to them must be the desire to keep going the growth that has made them a great industrial power even while US industry declines and withers. It's hard to explain the American governments actions except in terms of the stupidity and venality of Bush and his allies.

China is our biggest creditor, but far from the only one. The Gulf states, Japan, Russia, and India are owed big pieces of our hide as well.

For now, the US has one vital advantage over the ordinary person who owes the bank a fortune: it controls the currency in which the debts are denominated, and can, if necessary, print the money to pay them. That's another scenario with a history of ending badly, but it's one that Bernanke has already been forced to dabble in.

For the moment all parties to this arrangement are stuck in the rut of a "balance of financial terror." Those who might want to cut loose from the dollar dare not for fear that their attempt will trigger a collapse in value of their dollar assets. With the dollar already in slow motion free fall, their assets are already losing a lot of value, and it probably takes only one big player's panic to bring the whole thing down.

No one can clearly see how this will all end, but it seems increasingly likely that Americans are going to get a whole lot poorer.

Book Review: Gang Leader For a Day

Sudhir Venkatesh was a sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago when he set out for the Lake Park projects to observe the urban poor, armed only with a questionaire that asked questions like "how does it feel to be black and poor?" His first encounter was with a group of young members of the Black Kings gang who suspected him of being a spy for the rival Latin Kings and debated whether to kill him.

The gang leader came over, interviewed him, made fun of his questionaire, and decided that he wasn't a threat. If you want to learn, the gang leader told him, you need to come over again and hang with us. He spent much of the next five years doing just that.

Venkatesh has a great story to tell, and he tells it very well. He gradually learned a lot about the economics, politics, and society of the projects and the crack gang, and was let into the confidence of many of them. Crack gang leaders, street hustlers, and prostitutes, it seems, are as eager as anybody else to have their story told.

His combination of naivete and fearlessness led to a number of adventures, including pulling a wounded gang leader to safety while under fire from another gang. The most interesting part for me, though, was what he learned about how ordinary people survived in that environment, and the network of relationships among gangs, building leaders, police, and politicians.

This is the best book I've read all year. I heartily recommend it.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Scary Movie 2008/Black Helicopters

If worst comes to worst, Milton Friedman apparently said, you can end liquidity crises by throwing money out of helicopters. This is pretty much what Ben Bernanke has been forced to do. Is it working?

Paul Krugman is not especially optimistic. Sometimes a liquidity crisis isn't just a liquidity crisis - it can be a solvency crisis too. If all those banks owe more than they can pay, who should - who can - bail them out?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Proportionate Response

It is a grimly familiar ritual: Israel and the Palestinian Authority announce peace talks, some Palestinians commit an atrocity, Israel responds by slaughtering a larger number of Palestinians, and various figures, like the UN Sec Gen complain of a "disproportionate response." Since I have been very critical of Israel, some assume I agree with that last sentiment, but I don't.

The mistake I believe Israel makes is failure to offer a clear choice. The Palestinians see their choices as misery and squalor versus misery and squalor plus occasional slaughters. The difference between carrot and stick is so small as to be imperceptible.

The choice I believe Israel needs to offer needs to be much more stark: a peace agreement with very generous terms and strong guarantees, incorporating a solid plan for suppression of terror versus a war in which Israel promises to crush the Palestinians, kill all who resist, and rule the survivors the way the US ruled Japan after WWII - controlling the press, deposing hostile preachers, and making all the laws.

Israel has a right to defend itself. It does not have the right to crush the Palestinians into total misery and steal their land and water. If it fights such a war, it has a clear responsibility to build a functional Palestinian society for the survivors.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Freedom Tankers?

There is a lot of distress in Boeing world over the Air Force's decision to replace it's ageing tanker fleet with European built Airbus-Northrup/Grumman planes rather than the Boeing design. The Air Force claims that the French built Air Bus design is just a better Aircraft.

Could we all be happy if we just agreed to call them "Freedom Tankers?"

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Amateur Scientist: Supersymmetry

One early obstacle for the amateur scientist trying to understand supersymmetry is notation. When our humble A.S., aka, CIP, opened up Wess and Bagger's Supersymmetry and Supergravity for example, he was met with some unfamiliar notation, indices, indices, indices, dotted and un-. What to make of it? Well, W&B are kind enough to include some notational information in Appendix A, but that, alas, revealed yet more lacunae in the pig's comprehension - or perhaps I should say yet more oceans of ignorance between the occasional islands of his knowledge. Representations of the Lorentz group - I'm sure I must have encountered that somewhere in a QFT course or study, but for some reason it's pretty fuzzy.

Lots of QFT books talk about this stuff of course, but notation, er, varies. Let me just mention two books I have found that explain this stuff very clearly and simply, and in modern, or at least W&B, notation: Mark Srednicki's Quantum Field Theory and Ian Aitchison's Supersymmetry.

The Marginal Burglar

There is always a danger that an argument made metaphorically might be misunderstood - unintentionally or otherwise. Let me then make this metaphoric argument more explicit. Professor Landsburg argued that foreclosure is for one very sensible reason, hidden deep in his article, that contracts need to be enforceable, and for another reason that I mocked: that the benefit to those who subsequently bought the foreclosed house compensated for any harm to those who lost a house.

My parody suggested a similar principle at work for a burglar who robbed a house. Prof L. suggested that the burglar derived no net benefit from his burglary because the effort of burglary was exactly compensated by the by the benefit he derived from it. He also suggested that I probably didn't appreciate this point and that I ought to consult his textbook for illumination.

Well, I didn't, but I'm pretty sure I know what he means. In an economy consisting of rational agents, the burglar robs the house when he decides that the various efforts and risks involved - getting shot by a homeowner, getting sent to prison, being unable to get warranty service on the stolen HDTV, balance the benefit of getting the loot. If the costs are less, so goes the theory, more homes will be burgled and more individuals will be attracted to the profession. The "marginal burglar", Landburg's phrase, is in the situation of exact balance, with costs precisely balancing benefits, hence, says the Prof, he gets no net benefit from the burglary (on average, I presume). Of course the same applies to the home buyer, whether the home is newly built or foreclosed, so his claim is actually a red herring, irrelevant to the basic argument.

Let's take his rational pricing theory one step further. The guy who bought the HDTV that got burgled similarly should have priced the risk of loss to burglary, and incidental damage to his doors or windows, into his decision to lay out a couple of grand for the idiot box in the first place. Hence, for the "marginal HDTV owner" nothing was lost either. Most victims of burglary are going to suspect that the Prof's rational pricing theory is failing to capture some interesting aspects of reality. There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Steve, than are dreamt of in your theory.

So is there any point to his story at all? Yes, a small one: if buyers of foreclosed homes get a better deal on price than they otherwise would, then yes, they do accrue some benefit. This calculation ignores many other things that make foreclosure a nuisance for all concerned: the cost of the procedure, the long typical time the house is unoccupied, the risk that an unoccupied house will be vandalized or otherwise damaged.

Prof L likes to turn counter intuitive aspects of economics into SLATE columns. This time he packaged a very small truth in econospeak and tried to sell it as something deep.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Major Depression

What a rotten prospect - Mr. Senility versus another crooked dynasty back in the White House.

Hillary Comeback

If polls are any guide, and they have certainly been iffy this year, Hillary is poised for a comeback tomorrow. Rush Limbaugh and the Canadian government are promoting her candidacy, and the press is collaborating in a Hillary-McCain double team.

Andrew Sullivan is frequently a crazy person, especially on the subject of Clintons, but he has the insight that the Clintons are like zombies. You can pour any kind of damage on them but they just keep coming. You have to cut off the head and bury it under a full moon, or something.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Case for Burglary

One family's sorrow is another's joy.

If you're facing burglary, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wants to help. "If someone is willing to make a call to reach out," says Paulson, "there's a chance we can save their property." But Paulson can't save this property because the property is not endangered in the first place. It stands to change hands, not to vanish.

None of this stolen property is going to disappear. After a burglary, one family loses out, and another gains. We see the sad faces of the people losing out, but we don't as often see the happy faces of the new property owners grinning proudly. Nevertheless, those happy faces are out there, and we should not discount them.

That's important, and it's important in a larger context. Often when it comes to economic policy, some effects—in this case, the genuinely moving stories of good people who can't afford HD TV are highly visible, while others—the genuinely moving stories of good people who can now achieve their HD TV ownership—are less well-publicized. That doesn't make them any less real.

I predict with great confidence that when I say that burglaries create new HD TV owners, a sizable chunk of my readers will scoff that "the people who can afford them would have been able to afford nice HD TVs anyway." I could use economics to explain why those readers are mistaken (a glut of HD TVs on the market leads to falling prices, etc.), but that's unnecessarily complicated. All it takes is the simple observation that there cannot be more HD TV owners than there are HD TVs, and if one HD TV gets stolen, then there can be one new HD TV owner. Call it the law of conservation of HD TVs.

That's one reason to temper your distress over strangers suffering burglary. Here's another: If you get to have a nice HD TV for a few weeks and then lose it to burglary, you are not worse off than someone who never got to have an HD TV in the first place. If the Treasury Department is looking for ways to help people, it would be nice to focus on the people who are most in need of help.

I predict with equal confidence that a sizable chunk of readers will attribute my observations to a failure of compassion. But which is more compassionate: to care about the fortunes of the people who happen to be in your field of vision or also to include those whom you cannot see? The HD TV less are out there. The starving children in Africa are out there. The would-be new HD TV owners are out there. Each of them, in different ways, stands to gain or to lose from the policy choices we make. To exclude them from consideration—just because they happen to be absent from the front page of this morning's newspaper—is not a compassionate enterprise.

The above was adapted with only minor changes from economist Steven Landsburg's column in Slate: The Case for Foreclosures: One family's sorrow is another's joy.

I'm looking forward to future columns on the case for blackmail and the case for rape. Somebody's pain is usually somebody else's gain. Can we get this bozo a "Stupidest Man Alive" nomination?

Krugman's Vendetta

I generally consider Paul Krugman our smartest columnist, so I'm bothered by his persistent vendetta against Barack Obama. His latest attack accuses Obama of not being tough enough on the Republicans:

After their victory in the 2006 Congressional elections, it seemed a given that Democrats would try to make this year’s presidential campaign another referendum on Republican policies. After all, the public appears fed up not just with President Bush, but with his party. For example, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows Democrats are preferred on every issue except terrorism. They even have a 10-point advantage on “morality.”

Add to this the fact that perceptions about the economy are worsening week by week, and one might have expected the central theme of the Democratic campaign to be “throw the bums out.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 2008 election.

Unless Hillary Clinton wins big on Tuesday, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. And he’s not at all the kind of candidate one might have expected to emerge out of the backlash against Republican governance.

Many aspects of this scenario have yet to be staged, but I think Krugman misjudges both Obama's approach and the mood of the country. Krugman thinks that Obama has made the campaign about "personality."

The 2008 campaign, it seems, will be waged on the basis of personality, not political philosophy.

Are character and judgement just "personality?" Maybe so, but I think they are more important than experience or allegiance to ideological goals.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Race, Religion, and the Modern State

My own view is that Western civilization made rapid advances only after it freed itself from the domination of dogmatic religion. Gershom Gorenberg, writing in the NYT, has a long article featuring one of the inconveniences of living in a state which tries to combine democracy with religious and racial tests of citizenship.

Weather: Opening Up a Cold One

Andrew C Revkin, writing in the New York Times, has a well balanced piece on the recent global cold spell. January was a cold month by recent standards, and the whole winter saw some unusual cold outbreaks. The climate skeptics who think every snowstorm disproves global warming were quick to sieze on this:

“Earth’s ‘Fever’ Breaks: Global COOLING Currently Under Way,” read a blog post and news release on Wednesday from Marc Morano, the communications director for the Republican minority on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Some of the same propagandists are trying to use the moment to promote their own theories of climate: solar cycles, cosmic rays, whatever.

Cooler heads, including some skeptics, say it's too early to say. One robin doesn't make a summer, and one snowstorm (or even a few cold months) don't make a climate trend.

Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist and commentator with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, has long chided environmentalists and the media for overstating connections between extreme weather and human-caused warming. (He is on the program at the skeptics’ conference.)

But Dr. Michaels said that those now trumpeting global cooling should beware of doing the same thing, saying that the “predictable distortion” of extreme weather “goes in both directions.”

Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan who has spoken out about the need to reduce greenhouse gases, disagrees with Dr. Michaels on many issues, but concurred on this point.

“When I get called by CNN to comment on a big summer storm or a drought or something, I give the same answer I give a guy who asks about a blizzard,” Dr. Schmidt said. “It’s all in the long-term trends. Weather isn’t going to go away because of climate change. There is this desire to explain everything that we see in terms of something you think you understand, whether that’s the next ice age coming or global warming.”

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Gaza and Israel

Hamas fires a few badly aimed rockets into Israel and Israel responds with more powerful and precise weaponry. It's a contest Hamas cannot win, but Israel isn't making any progress either. I'm not sure whether Israel's strategy is to intimidate with terror or just to satisfy the Israeli public's demand that something be done, but it's not very effective.

It's actually likely that Hamas will gradually get better weapons and unlikely that the population will turn against Hamas.

So what alternative does Israel have? They can make peace with the Palestinians - desireable but very difficult and painful as well as impossible without a coherent Palestinian state. Alternatively, they can crush the Palestinians, occupy Gaza, and accept responsibility for governing them - difficult, expensive, and perilous.

Genocide, said the cynic, is God's way of settling territorial disputes, but slightly less drastic solutions have also been accomplished. The Roman and Islamic empires incorporated conquered peoples into their fabric rather effectively. The allies were able to domesticate Germany, Japan, and Italy after World War II.

These solutions don't work unless you have a plan for either assimilating the conquered peoples or giving them a profitable role as allies.

Can Israel continue to dominate it's neighbors for the long run? Perhaps, as long as they continue to be weak and primitive states stuck in the 13th century.