Thursday, December 31, 2009

Another Thing I Didn't Know Yesterday

There is a difference between rowing and sculling. In the simplest version of rowing, the blade of the oar is perpendicular to the direction of movement of boat and oar and propulsive force is achieved by simply pushing the water backwards, with little net circulation about the oar - similar to the operation of a paddlewheel steamer.

There is a better way, exploited by birds, scullers, and propeller driven craft. That way is to fly the blade through the fluid at an angle to its direction of motion, inducing circulation about it and letting Mr. Bernoulli do the driving.

Courtesy again of Mr. Tennekes.

Minus 160

Current political divisions in Congress are bitter, but hardly unprecedented. It's interesting to compare divisions in the US today to those of 1850. Then, even more than now, an enraged minority was willing to tear the country apart to get its way. Tempers in the Senate ran high enough that pistols were drawn.

Somehow, though, the stakes today look incredibly smaller. In 1850, the whole economic system of the South was at stake, as was the freedom of a substantial portion of its population. What's at risk today? Relatively minor modifications in the health insurance system? Someone said that American Conservatism today was an inferiority complex masquerading as an ideology. I don't think that's far wrong. Conservative ideas were roundly rejected by reality and by the voters, and they are scrambling and praying for a sign from above. Not that I minimize the hazard of such feelings. One might similarly say that militant Islamic radicalism is an inferiority complex in religious disguise.

The Republican party didn't yet exist in 1850, but the elements that created it were antithetical to the modern Republican party in almost every way. Not entirely coincidentally, the geographic focus of the party was more or less the negative image of that today. The modern Republicans have decided to bet everything on the failure of the Obama administration. Given the challenges which disastrous Republican governance presented it with, that failure is hardly unlikely, but if Obama can fix the economy, or get lucky enough for the economy to fix itself, the Republican party might find itself going the way of the Whigs.

If the Republicans do come back to power, bringing their ideological crackpottery in full manic form, the Union might face its greatest challenge in a long time.

Bad Things/Bad People

I am not one to hope or pray for bad things to happen, even to bad people, but this comment at TPM regarding Rush's hospitalization in Hawaii caught my eye:

Barleymash December 31, 2009 1:08 PM

I really hope he recovers, but I am concerned that this happened in Hawaii. If, heaven forbid, Rush doesn't recover, I want to see the official long-form death certificate. Who knows? He could actually be in Kenya right now and I, for one, am not willing to accept anything less than the official documentation.

Sporting News

Sea Lions Leave San Francisco is the headline at The Daily Beast.

Officially there is no explanation, but they are rumored to be demanding that the City construct a new stadium, provide 100% tax abatement, and give them all revenue from Sky boxes and memorabilia

UPDATE: But they do say "and thanks for all the fish."


I'm happy to say that my Mac and I are getting along much better, thanks. I thank all of you who have sent me useful software suggestions, crackpip, Eli, jpd, Steve, and Arun. Especially Dr. Mac, of course.

Doughnuts: Or Why Quidditch Players Are Thin

We, which is to say, we the donut eaters of the world, like to think that we can work off the calories in a donut with a bit of exercise. True enough, but how much exercise? An elite athlete can generate something like 200 Watts of mechanical work for an hour. This mechanical work is generated at an efficiency of about 25%, i.e., by burning about 800 Watts worth of stored energy. That amounts to about one Calorie (i.e., 1 kilo calorie) every five seconds, which means that he could work off that donut in 20 minutes or so. Those of us who actually eat donuts are likely to take a lot longer.

Bar tailed godwits are a lot more impressive burners of calories. During their fall migration from Alaska to New Zealand (nonstop!) they burn off about 58% of their body weight, including all the fat, most of the muscle, and big parts of every organ except brain, bone and feather. So, how many Calories could I burn by flying to, say, Cozumel?

Bird arcana courtesy of The Simple Science of Flight, by Henk Tennekes.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Beautiful But Dumb

Have I mentioned that I hate computers? Well, I do. But I've never hated a computer - not even the Univac 1106 or the IBM 360 - more than I hate my new Macbook Pro at the moment. The reason I hate computers is that they never operate the way I think they should. Mostly I hate the Macbook because nothing seems to work. I had worked my way up to a mere extreme dislike before I made the mistake of installing Iwork.

At first I thought Pages was just a truly crappy 1980's word processor, but that was before I encountered it's truly obnoxious qualities, like the postage stamp it expects me to write in but mainly and most especially the f****** Registration Screen that won't let me register, won't go away, and won't let me go on to do anything else, or all the greyed out commands in all the menus that don't work.

It's really a shame the damnable thing is so pretty.

UPDATE: Well, as HAL 9000 might have said, it's usually human error. I have solved some of my Mac problems, but not the two finger exercise. And it is really pretty.

A One Finger Swipe at Steve Jobs

My new Mac has something called a Multi-Touch Trackpad (MTTp). This allows it to do various cool things with one finger (mouse stuff), two fingers (mouse & trackball stuff), three fingers, and four fingers (really). I only knew how to do the one and two finger swipe stuff, but that not very well.

I wondered why, for example, my expand and shrink functions (two finger swipes) only worked about 5% of the time. That's when I learned that Apple has learned how to write an even stupider help function than Microsoft. I tried typing in "touchpad". (I didn't know proper name of the MTTp yet). Nothing. "Pad" did get a hit though. I seemed to think I wanted to know about templates.

I asked my son, who was visiting for Christmas. "RTFM" he said. So I found this little booklet that came with the puter. It had the real name of the MTTp. It also had cool stuff about two, three, and four finger swipes. It doesn't, so far as I can tell, explain why my two finger pinch and expand works only 5% of the time.

Digitally Enhanced

In the future, only digitally enhanced humans will be permitted:

Via Marginal Revolution

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mac Shout Out

Especially to Dr Mac - but also any other Mac users.

Well, I finally bought myself a Mac Powerbook, so your proselytizing finally won another convert. So, if you get a chance, you might remind of a few of those Mac Daddy scientific software packages you used to show me.

The Foreign Student

It's no coincidence that the terrorist attacks and attempts keep on coming from westernized or partially westernized Muslims. The experience of being a student or worker in a richer and more technologically advanced country certainly has some opportunities for resentment breeding humiliations and rejections, but it seems to be almost only among the Muslim students that this has turned to terroristic violence. Chinese, Indian, and other developing country students of past decades no doubt had similar experiences, and quite likely some left with similar anger. Somehow, though, they almost univerally managed to channel whatever feelings into building societies competitve to the West rather than adopting the tactics of suicidal rage.

Sooner or later, another horrific terrorist attack is likely to succeed, and there will be understandable calls for drastic action. Many will call for launching more wars against the Islamic world. Only slightly less drastic would be to simply ban students and others from the affected nations from travelling to or living in our countries.

Good ideas are in short supply, though. Perhaps the most crucial problem is that Islam seems especially resistant to either assimilation or accomodation. That may be a temporary problem caused mainly by current circumstances and Saudi Wahabi propaganda, or it might be more

Thursday, December 24, 2009

AGW Ammunition

The Pig, who actually has real work to do, nonetheless gets bored pretty easily. Hence, he decided that he ought to challenge local members of the denio-sphere to one or more public debates. He remembers vaguely from his high school debate days that it's harder to defend a complex proposition than to challenge it, so that it's a pretty good idea to be well prepared, rather than just rely on native wit and making stuff up.

Consequently, he has been assembling some of the basics, and he remembers that there are some good internet resources around. Other than AR4 and Wikipedia, he forgets exactly what they are. Especially good was a source that considered specific critiques and answered them. Anybody remember that? Have any other special recommendations?

Example: despite big increases in CO2 during the period 1940-1980, the atmosphere cooled rather than warmed. The models don't predict that. Why should we believe them for the future?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Global Warming for Fun and Profit

Economists mostly love cap and trade. The idea is to put the incentives of the free market to work finding better energy efficiencies. An unfortunate side effect is that, in a government controlled process, the market also likes to work the government to set up scams. It tends to create a perfect environment for the most profitable way Warren Buffet claims to have found to make money - lobbying the government for special deals.

There is ample evidence that this is already at work, and I'm not just talking Al Gore's commercial empire. There are several different forms in which the scams are perpetrated, the following being a few. (a)Giving away (instead of auctioning) pollution permits to polluters. This directly rewards those who create the problem while penalizing everyone else. (b)So called offsets: Real offset are desirable but the trick is in the accounting. How do you ensure that the effect of the so-called offset is genuine, and not another scam like ethanol from corn? (c)Subsidies to third world and other countries: these are usually stolen and rarely put to any good use.

Meanwhile, the whole system is ripe for scandal and hysteria.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Do You Believe in Magic?

Not to worry, your friends at Tea Bag Central do:

Josh Marshall:

Teabagger calls into C-Span in tears, worried that his prayers for Sen. Byrd's death may have ricocheted through the prayer chamber and hit Sen. Inhofe instead.

Block Universe Blowdown

Ellis and Rothman have a new model with a seemingly more real distinction between past, present, and future. Relativity doesn't make any distinctions, but say E & R, adding QM makes a difference. I like the general idea:

The future is uncertain because it is not
yet determined: it does not yet exist in a physical sense.

The future is different because it doesn't exist yet. That suits my intuition just fine. An arrow of time, and, if you like, some version of free will, fit in quite nicely.

The abstract:

Time and Spacetime: The Crystallizing Block Universe
Authors: George F. R. Ellis, Tony Rothman
(Submitted on 4 Dec 2009)
Abstract: The nature of the future is completely different from the nature of the past. When quantum effects are significant, the future shows all the signs of quantum weirdness, including duality, uncertainty, and entanglement. With the passage of time, after the time-irreversible process of state-vector reduction has taken place, the past emerges, with the previous quantum uncertainty replaced by the classical certainty of definite particle identities and states. The present time is where this transition largely takes place, but the process does not take place uniformly: Evidence from delayed choice and related experiments shows that isolated patches of quantum indeterminacy remain, and that their transition from probability to certainty only takes place later. Thus, when quantum effects are significant, the picture of a classical Evolving Block Universe (`EBU') cedes place to one of a Crystallizing Block Universe (`CBU'), which reflects this quantum transition from indeterminacy to certainty, while nevertheless resembling the EBU on large enough scales.

Hat tip: Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tea With Harry

I went down to meet with my Congressman today. I wanted to complain about his failure to vote for the health care bill. Harry Teague got elected in a usually Republican district thanks to the Obama landslide and the fact that the incumbent tried to graduate to the Senate. My guess is that his attempts to mollify the angry right will backfire - he can't win them over and he has alienated his core Democratic constituency.

A few dozen people had gathered in his Las Cruces office, most of whom seemed to be vocal Tea Party enthusiasts. I put in a few contrary words and after a while the Congressman retreated to his inner office to deal with constituents one at a time.

Six or eight of the tea baggers were gathered in the parking lot, so I went over to engage them. They were mostly elderly, and like me, eligible for Medicare. One who wasn't was covered by a State subsidized insurance pool. None of them admitted voting for the Congressman. I wondered why they thought it was fair for them to be covered by socialized medicine, but not other people. I made a pitch for European style universal coverage, but many seemed to be still fighting the revolutionary war. We were actually having a pretty good chat, with me listening more than talking, when a tea party agitator came over to work the crowd. I hated to leave the discussion to him, but I had other business.

I found it pretty interesting, and I got the impression that a lot of the crowd was persuadable. They were angry, but not too sure what they were angry about (except illegal immigrants).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Of Marginal Utility

I used to read Marginal Revolution in the hope of learning a bit of economics. That doesn't seem to be happening, but I do get an occasional glimpse into a rather strange mind. Consider Tyler Cowen's post on the liquidity trap, a concept I'm pretty sure he doesn't believe in.

Here's another simple thought experiment. Let's say that, for reasons of technology, currency disappeared. All transactions would be made with POS or cell phones, backed by interest-bearing assets, in one form or another. You might think that's unlikely today but it's at least possible in the future. In any case, it's a thought experiment.

Economists of the Chicago faith seem to disbelieve in the reality of money. It presents certain problems for their neat mathematical models. I'm guessing that this is Cowen's attempt to banish it.

More Keynesian views, I gather, think that depressions happen when there is a flight to liquidity, and people decide that they would rather hold on to money than anything that they might buy with it. This condition leads to a collapse of trade, unemployment, and recession or depression. The idea offends Chicago, since their models assume that money only exists to spend.

I'm guessing (since I can't really make any sense out of the rest of Tyler's commentary), that he wants to eliminate the possibility (in his thought experiment) that people really might put money under the mattress when times are scary.

If that's the case, I think his thought experiment falls apart when one considers the nature of his interest-bearing assets. What is an interest-bearing asset (iba)? It's a loan! That's not too strange, because currency too can be considered a sort of loan - a token we accept from the government whose value is guaranteed by the taxing power of the state. So what about those ibas? Are they all of the same sort? Who get's the loan and who negotiates the interest rate? If it's a government, then it's just money by another name, and it will pay whatever interest it likes. If it's other people, then valuation becomes a challenge because the most fundamental characteristic of a loan is the risk that it might not be paid back.

The point is, that even in Tyler World, different kinds of ibas have different values, and in times of panic, funds flow out of risky loans and into the safest ones, choking the economy's potentially most productive opportunities. Then, when nobody want's to lend money to anyone who wants to borrow it, the supply of ibas will evaporate, and a deflationary spiral ensues.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dark Town

So two darkons* go into the CDMS - or at least that's what some scientists think they have seen. Two event "candidates" is a pretty weak signal - there is an expectation of 23% that they could be background events disguised as dark matter.

Still, that's two more than anybody had seen before.

*Dark Matter particles - or at least events that look like we should expect dark matter particles to look like. If so, they are the first really new particle physics discoveries in decades.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Somebody recently said that any reasonable theoretical physicist ought to have a good understanding of quantum field theory. No sooner does he say it and it saunters up to his doorstep and kicks his screen in.

Turbulence is the great unsolved problem of classical mechanics. Versions of the following apocryphal story are attributed to Heisenberg, Lamb, and other major figures in fluid mechanics: "when I die, I'm going to ask the Lord to explain two things. Quantum electrodynamics, and turbulence. I expect he will be able to answer the first.

Because turbulence depends exquistely on initial conditions and displays highly random characteristics, we want a statistical theory of turbulence. Unfortunately, when we write down statistical version of the equations of fluid dynamics, we find that the equations for the various statistical quantities are not closed. Each order of correlation depends on higher orders of correlation.

One of the few important constraints we have on the statistics of turbulence are Kolmogorov's scaling laws. It's based on Lewis Richardson's idea of the turbulent energy cascade.

Big whorls have little whorls
That feed on their velocity,
And little whorls have lesser whorls
And so on to viscosity.

-- Lewis F. Richardson

Kolmogorov theory works pretty well for many situations, but the theoretical foundations are a bit shaky.

So much for prolog. This morning, Lumo posted an article linking to a new ArXiv paper on String Theory and Turbulence. The abstract:

We propose a string theory of turbulence that explains the Kolmogorov scaling in 3+1 dimensions and the Kraichnan and Kolmogorov scalings in 2+1 dimensions. This string theory of turbulence should be understood in light of the AdS/CFT dictionary. Our argument is crucially based on the use of Migdal's loop variables and the self-consistent solutions of Migdal's loop equations for turbulence. In particular, there is an area law for turbulence in 2+1 dimensions related to the Kraichnan scaling.

I won't attempt to comment on the success of their program, but probing a bit further showed that their work had important predecessors in papers by Polykov,

The methods of conformal field theory are used to obtain the series of exact solutions of the fundamental equations of the theory of turbulence. ...

and Migdal. Here's Migdal:

The central problem of turbulence is to find the analog of the Gibbs distribution for the
energy cascade.

And it turns out that quantum field theory is the way to look, or so our authors claim.

It's just as I feared.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

QFT: Zee

Any good theoretical physicist needs to have a deep understanding of quantum field theory(QFT). It's not a sufficient condition, of course, but it is pretty close to being absolutely necessary. Knowledge of that fact is probably why I have some dozens of books on quantum field theory. Transfer of information from the printed page is not automatic, of course, which is why I have a distinctly shallow* understanding of QFT.

Tony Zee is a guy with a deep understanding of QFT, and he has written a somewhat unconventional but widely praised book on quantum field theory: Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell. I mention this because Peter Woit has pointed out that Zee is coming out with a new edition.

Looking over the promo page at PUP, I was surprised to see my old school among the major universities that had adopted the first edition as a textbook - not surprised that they had adopted the book but that they were a "major" university. In my day, the old school was notable mainly for baseball, parties, hot girls, and good football teams. These days, the good football teams have vanished - I hope there are still some hot girsls about.

I have the first edition, and quite like those parts I have read. It would be ridiculous for me to buy the second, since there is essentially no chance that it will inspire me towork hard enough to get a significantly deeper understanding of QFT. I probably will buy it, of course, but maybe I can wait until the preorder period is almost up.

*Even that may be a little overly generous. What I mean is that I took and passed a couple of courses in the subject, read parts of a number of books, and worked some of the easier problems. On the other hand, if I open a QFT book at random to a middle chapter, the odds are that I will have little clue as to what is going on. If I'm lucky, I will see an equation I remember.

A View of Our Opponents

Paul Krugman notes:

Ah, civility
Hoisted from comments on my eulogy for Paul Samuelson:

Samuelson was just another Eichmann. He is responsible for propagating a destructive economic dogma.

The scary thing is that there probably are a number of people in this country who believe that advocating Keynesian economics is a crime comparable to being complicit in mass murder.

Yet another example of how wacko the American right has become. These people have adopted all the worst intellectual and political qualities of fanatical religions and totalitarian politics. Reason is quite powerless with such.

Alex Tabarrok is Not An ****** Reporter

Alex Tabarrok reports:

John Tierney relays today what seems like a very sensible idea from economist Ross McKitrick, tie a carbon tax to the temperature. If the temperature rises the tax goes up, if the temperature does not rise (as McKitrick, a climate change skeptic thinks) the tax will stay at a low level. Temperature of the troposphere would be measured by satellite at the equator and averaged over a period of time.

After claiming that everyone ought to agree, he predicts that those concerned about anthropogenic global warming won't. After the comments accumulate he comes back with:

Addendum: As predicted most of the objections (in the comments) are from climate change proponents. In essence, they argue that the problem is so serious that we must act before the evidence is in. . .

I read every critical comment to that point (and made some) and that is not an honest reporting of the objections posted. The most frequent objections were that (a)Because climate lags CO2 waiting until temperature heats up a lot means you will be too late and (b) that the evidence decidely is in. You can't wait to act until the last flat Earth idiot concedes. Equally important, it was pointed out that the method McKittric suggests for measuring temperature change is puposely designed to be minimally sensitive to actual climate change. Warming overwhelmingly takes place in high latitudes, not at the equator, and satellites have proven themselves insensitive to warming at the surface.

UPDATE: Just as I might have predicted, Alex took offense at my description of his reporting style. He might have done better to consider why a diagnostic that doesn't diagnose well until the patient is dead is a poor choice when you want to prevent calamity.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Politics and Religion

Arun has a couple of recent posts on the theme that Western political thought and social science are manifestations (or at least echos of) the Christian religion.

I would just like to remind him that Christianity, like all the other popular religions, was invented in Asia.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Old Battles

Reading about William Seward in 1840, I am struck by how modern his progressive views still seem and how familiar looking the battles of 160 years ago still are. As governor of New York he campaigned for better treatment of immigrants (Germans and Irish in those days), better public schools, against imprisonement for debt, and against slavery and for Negro rights. His enemies look familiar too: Southern slavery advocates, anti-immigrant nativists, and protestants who thought only their religion had rights.

I can't imagine any modern politician doing what he did though; representing an insane black defendant who had murdered a local family in court while his whole town screamed for a lynching.

I also find it interesting that the modern Republican party now stands for almost everything this founding father despised: racism, nativism, and religious prejudice. He probably would have been bothered more by their contempt for logic and truth, though.

Central Economic Planning

Is wise central planning a substitute for the chaos of the marketplace? The twentieth century saw a multitude of experiments, and a multitude of colossal failures. It's mostly remembered how spectacularly those socialist and communist experiments failed in providing economic growth and a better standard of living for the people, but it's sometimes forgotten that they weren't total failures. In particular, those economies seem at least moderately effective for focussing on a single overriding goal, like military power.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, new models of the centrally planned economy emerged in Asia. These were based on some variation of state capitalism - a fundamentally capitalist system for the organization of production, but with a heavy dose of direction and management by the state. The modern state has an extensive set of tools for guiding and directing the work of businesses even when it isn't directly managing the economy.

It ought to bother advocates of democratic capitalism at least a bit that the world's most successful economy (in terms of progress) over the last thirty years is also one of the least democratic and most rigidly state controlled, China.

The United States, the world's largest and richest economy, has by contrast seen a pretty tough thirty years, culminating in the catastropic blunders of Bush and Greenspan. The fundamental question is whether a relatively free economy led by politicians elected by citizens who are neither very smart nor well-informed can compete with a slightly free one managed by unaccountable but seemingly cool-headed bureaucrats.

Worst Case Scenarios

As the brighter - using the term loosely - members of the denialist crowd like to point out, global warming is not exactly unprecedented. Our current athropogenic warming episode has many natural antecedents. So how bad is it likely to get?

The worst imaginable AGW crisis would be for the warming to trigger a Venusian style runaway greenhouse and exterminate all life on Earth. That will eventually happen as the Sun continues to warm up, but it seems extremely improbable in the short run. Some of the natural global warmings of the past have triggered, or at any rate, coincided with, major extinctions, however, including one which wiped out essentially all large animals. That one, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, is the scariest precedent.

In the PETM, some event seems to have led to a fairly rapid build up of carbon dioxide and a global warming by about 6 C (11 F) - perhaps a bit more than the most likely maximum increase from our current CO2 releases. The Earth remained hot for about 20,000 years. From the Wikipedia entry:

Other "hyperthermal" events can be recognised during this period of warming, including the Elmo event (ETM2). During these events – of which the PETM was by far the most severe – around 1,500 to 2,000 gigatons of carbon were released into the ocean/atmosphere system over the course of 1,000 years. This rate of carbon addition almost equals the rate at which carbon is being released into the atmosphere today through anthropogenic activity. [8]
(My emphasis)

So how does such a warming trigger a mass extinction? A (uniform) 3 C or even a 6 C warming might render most of Africa and portions of Asia and the Americas unihabitable, but England might even be more pleasant, right? Maybe not. The problem is that these kinds of warmings aren't uniform and are likely to strongly disrupt the global wind currents. Fertile lands may become arid. The excess CO2 in the atmosphere will change ocean chemistry. The PETM saw life disappear from large chunks of ocean, and major extinctions on land.

I personally doubt that humans are in much danger of extinction as a species due to AGW - we are too versatile. Randomly killing 99 out of every 100 tigers might extinguish the species - the survivors might not be able to find each other. Even 9999 out of every 10,000 casualties for humans would be unlikely to have the same effect.

If warming can be kept to 2-3 C (the current goal is 2), damages may be much less. The atoll nations, I fear, are doomed. There seems little prospect that they can be saved. Bangla Desh and The Netherlands are at extreme risk as well. In such "moderate" scenarios, one of the major risks will be resource and land wars as the displaced struggle to sieze habitable land from the less damaged.

There is one other respect that the denialist crew may have a point. They believe that actions taken to stave off global warming are likely to produce a global economic crisis. Maybe, maybe not, but the alternative might be far worse.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fat Boy in the Donut Shop

As usually happens on these ritual occasions, the press has produced a number of psychological analyses of Mr. Wood's behavior. It's pretty simple, really. They let the fat kid into the donut shop and left him unsupervised.

Personally, I like the analogy on a number of levels.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tax vs. Cap

Recent days have seen some low intensity warfare among those who are trying to enact some measures to control global warming. In each case, the idea is to control carbon emissions. One way to do this would be by enacting carbon taxes, with the idea of making emissions so expensive that people could not afford them. The so-called cap and trade system instead is based on the idea of providing a limited supply of emission permits that would be sold (traded) to the highest bidders. The tax idea has been pushed strongly by James Hansen and tends to be favored by lefty types like the authors of this show linked by commenter Cynthia: Cap and trade is a favorite of economists. I am trying here to assemble some of the pros and cons of each side, though I think it will become clear which idea I find more likely to succeed.

Pro Tax: The carbon tax avoids the complications of setting up markets and the risks that speculators would game those markets, create bubbles, and (oh horror!) make a profit. It provides one kind of predictability, in that you know how much the energy/carbon tax is going to cost, which facilitates planning. Also it provides a big stream of revenue that social engineers are itching to get their fingers on.

Anti Tax: Predictability in price is achieved at the cost of predictability of effect. You can't predict how much a given tax rate will affect the emission of CO2. Consumers may just suck it up and pay through the nose to go on emitting. The tax is a blunt instrument, limiting the options of consumers and industry to find innovative ways to save emissions. It provides no incentive for sequestering carbon. It provides a stream of revenue profligate politicians are certain to funnel to special interests. Finally, it is a very regressive tax. The poor will starve and freeze while the rich will still lead the same lifestyle. Finally, there is no way a big energy tax is going to be enacted in the US or many other countries.

Pro Cap and Trade: It provides predictability where you need it, in the total emissions. It provides more scope for ingenuity and enterprise since those who find ways to save emission can do more than just save a little money, they can make it, even big money. It can naturally accomodate sequestering carbon and other offsets as well as emissions. As an indirect tax, it is a smaller target for the anti-tax fanatics. If permits are auctioned, it too can provide a revenue stream (for good or ill). Prominent advocates are Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong:

Anti Cap and Trade. Regulation of emissions requires detailed monitoring. There will be opportunities to game the system. Profitteers are already gathering up emission permits with the aim of selling them at a big profit. We don't need another trillion dollar market for speculators to create bubbles in. Its revenue stream, if any, is unpredictable and less likely to be used to help victims of higher energy prices.

My comments: I find the arguments of the economists persuasive, and I'm especially skeptical of the idea that there is any political will to pass an energy tax. I like the idea that cap and trade seems to provide more scope for innovation. Too many on the left, I think, are motivated by a besetting fear that somebody, somewhere, might be making a profit.

That said, I am deeply skeptical of the likelyhood that any effective action will occur. Long term planners should be watching the predictions of where climate damge is likely to be concentrated and making plans to emigrate before everybody else tries to. (This advice doesn't apply to my generation, but to their children and grandchildren).

We're In The Dark

About the dark stuff.

News Next Week?

Dark rumors swirl:

and here:

and here Peter Woit slightly dampens the flames:

Jester seems to be the source:

If real, this is big. It probably isn't.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Two Boobs and a Blond

Gretchen Carlson is the blond in one of the Fox News Two Boobs and a Blond shows. Her job on the the alleged news show is being stupid - she has to look up the meaning of "czar", "ignoramus*" (and still gets it wrong), and "double dip" - even though she has them sitting on either side of her. Meanwhile the boobs put up and commented on a typical Fox News Rasstymussen poll with 120% participation.

Remember how the smart girls in high school played dumb so they could date the football players? It seems GC's lot in life is still to play this roll. The gang at The Daily Show tracked down her resume. It seems that she was high school valedictorian - think she had to look that one up -, graduated with honors from Stanford and studied at Oxford, and played a difficult classical violin piece for her talent when winning the Miss America contest. It didn't mention any lobotomies.

How humiliating has that got to be, pretending to be dumber than the two genuine rock-dumb boobs beside her? And how dumb - excuse me, how much of an ignoramus do you have to be to watch Fox?

Evidently Fox World and "The Base" are still places governed by high school rules. Anybody who actually knows anything is mocked and disdained. It explains a lot.

* She confused the definition with the context of the appearance in English

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Gaga at the Gogo

Popular art is always a challenge for the professional intellectual. Even if they like it, they might be afraid to admit it. If they don't they may catch Seth Colter Wall's disease and write a pretentious and fatuous article like this one in Newsweek.

French intellectual Claude Lévi-Strauss died at the age of 100 last month, before he could comment on the latest single from Lady Gaga. If you think this an absurd notion, note that Lévi-Strauss's major project—discovering the common aspects of myths from different eras and continents—has influenced many pop scholars, including Greil Marcus. In our American Idol-ized culture, few myths loom larger than pop fame, which is why the philosopher and anthropologist might have had something to say about Top 40's self-professed conceptual artist of the moment. In a way, he still does.

...The problem with Gaga is that she refuses to add any concrete value, while also wanting us to think she has something to say...

...Gaga may want to have it both ways, but that doesn't mean we should let her. Inscribing Rilke's question—"must I write?"—on your arm and then hiding behind a nihilist's superficiality amounts to a pretentious form of bulls--t. As the 20th century drew to a close, and postmodern critics of Lévi-Strauss gained clout, the idea of whether we can "know" anything about artistic texts became its own cliché. But Lévi-Strauss's death gives us a chance to remember what it's like for a writer to bear the risk of intending to mean something. Gaga shows no appetite for this. Instead, she is content to give us thesis and antithesis, because the contrast sparks commentary (and, yes, her fame). She writes strong melodies and gives us great photos, but unlike Madonna—who was willing to tie provocation to a discernible purpose in "Like a Prayer"—Gaga offers no synthesis. Of course, bubblegum music can get a pass from needing to say anything if it's philosophically modest: rocking all night and partying every day. But with due respect to the swear-word police, pop also becomes offensive when it puts on airs it has no intention of earning.

WTF. Does Levi-Strauss have any connection to this story beyond being the subject of a lecture the author once attended in a drug induced stupor? More to the point, why does the author insist on putting on airs he has no intention of earning?

By contrast, Shana Naomi Krochmal's NPR story is a small delight.

Lady Gaga is scary. She writes dangerously catchy songs that sound like nonsense but eat their way into your brain. She's always dressed in some combination of wigs, sunglasses and — if she wears much else — what looks like half a museum of modern art on her back. At the American Music Awards, she set her piano on fire and belted out a heart-wrenching ballad while smashing wine bottles on the keys.

... We're just not used to turning on the TV and seeing performance art. Pop stars tend to be very straightforward; that's what makes them so likable, how easily they fit into one box or another.

Gaga got her start in the college coffeehouses and underground bars where avant-garde performances are par for the course. But the more albums she's sold, the more she's pushed that artsy aesthetic on a popular audience. It's not just the look that's unexpectedly complex. Even the most dance-floor-friendly Gaga hit has a black hole of fear at its center.


At 23, she's already broken Billboard records and sold millions of albums. She writes all her own lyrics and music. She carefully curates her image along with a handpicked group of stylists and artists she's dubbed the Haus of Gaga. She's quite suddenly a very powerful woman in what's still a man's music industry. She's not just selling sex; she's selling art — which may be the most terrifying idea of all.

Skepticism and Denial

Skepticism is not only normal human behavior, its also crucial for science and any sort of analytical thinking. Given that, it's probably unsurprising that normal skepticism sometimes turn into cranky denial of that which has been well demonstrated. For a scientist, Feynman said, the most important thing to be skeptical about is your own theories. That's the step that so few of the hard core denialists can manage. Their skepticism is just another manifestation of their blind faith.

There is a continuum for denial, from total wacko to slightly overenthusiastic skeptic. There really are some who claim to believe the Earth is flat. In the US, a huge percentage of the population doubts evolution. There still are a few scientists who doubt relativity and a lot who find conventional quantum mechanics unacceptable.

At bottom, denial is usually the manifestation of unwillingness to doubt our own prejudices. For such people, evidence is almost beside the point. Does Darwin cast doubt on the Bible? Then Darwin must go, whatever the evidence for him and whatever lack of evidence there is for anything in the Bible.

I don't think that there is any industry for doubting the spherical character of the Earth or even relativity, but that's not the case for Darwin. Religious leaders were quick to see what a fundamental challenge natural selection posed to their sacred texts, and they have been counterattacking for most of the past 150 years. Their weapons are faith, religion, fake science of their own invention, and yes, good old skepticism - the kind that looks only outward.

When it became clear to big Tobacco that they were selling a product that killed millions, they were quick to get religion, or at least to adopt the tactics of delay and confusion that had worked for religion. Paid liars, some disguised as scientists, were there to spread the message. The same tactic was deployed again, with even the same cast of characters when it became clear that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer.

By the time the specter of anthropogenic global warming loomed, these battles had been lost, and the usual cast of characters was mostly out of work, so AGW was a perfect opportunity: some fairly difficult new science, some complicated measurement methods, computer models, and best of all, a huge, fabulously rich industry that didn't want it to be true. Add to these the idelogical conservatives who can't believe that there can be a threat that requires a collective response and the time religious who are convinced that god is driving their train, and the AGW denial industry was born.

It continues to thrive.

Tyger, Tyger, Burning a Bit Less Bright

Why is our malicious pleasure in the discomforture of the fallen idol so delicious? I suspect a few factors are at work. Human societies offer many chances for people to take advantage of others, and we've managed to move beyond the war of all against all mainly by depending on some rules intended to maintain a rough justice and equality. Some of these rules are written and some are un, but they can only work to the extent that transgressors are punished.

We have a powerful instinct to punish those who cheat and take advantage, whether they are Wall Street bankers or welfare cheats. To a first approximation, Tiger's "transgressions" as he styles them, would seem only to affect his family, so why are we so eager to join the offended? Part of it is envy. This SOB has everything: looks, talent, money, and a beautiful family and he still can't keep from being a greedy asshole. Part of it is anger at his hypocrisy: he sells himself as Mr. squeaky clean and protects his image with great diligence. And, to be sure, partly it's racial. He may be biracial, but to most Americans, black and white, he's a black man whose taste runs exclusively to white women.

It seems unlikely that he will suffer much from our annoyance. His profits may suffer for a bit, but he doesn't need the money. Unlike a Clinton, Spitzer, or Sanford, his job doesn't depend on our approval, just on his skill. His wife might high tail it to Sweden, but, as Charlie Harper put it, they haven't stopped making girls, and the girls won't stop flocking to the rich and celebrated.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Miky and the Rabbi

As a native, I have a soft spot for Montana stories, but this one cracked me up: Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana.

In Montana, a rabbi is an unusual sight. So when a Hasidic one walked into the State Capitol last December, with his long beard, black hat and long black coat, a police officer grabbed his bomb-sniffing German shepherd and went to ask the exotic visitor a few questions.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Troglodytic Cinderfellas

If this story is on the level, these guys not only improve their financials but are in line for a kick-ass reality show.

Gossip Boy

Jack Shafer takes a crack at explaining why gossip about Tiger is so popular. It isn't surprising that gossip is popular. Anthropological studies suggest that gossip is one of the most popular activities in every culture. Studying each other is a major survival skill in the small hunting band, giant corporation, or English department.

It's pretty depressing though, that that's the only thing television news seems able to figure out how to cover.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Another Stupidity

From a usually smart guy.

Remember too that when you have a progressive tax system, especially when there are surcharges on people making seven-figure incomes, you also have a system where for any given level of national income, the greater the inequality, the greater the government’s tax revenues. And indeed federal revenues have been rising faster than median wages for decades now, thanks to the rich getting ever richer.

Given the government’s insatiable appetite for cash, it’s only natural that it would prefer to tax plutocrats, spending some of that money on poorer Americans, rather than move to a world where poorer Americans earn more (but still don’t pay that much in taxes), and the plutocrats earn less, depriving the national fisc of untold billions in revenue.

This idea is so dumb that it succumbs to the most casual applications of logic or history. Progressive taxes are not good for plutocrats, which is why they always fight them, and why they got poorer when we had them, and why they are so rich since Reagan nearly abolished them. Naturally it was picked up by Andrew Sullivan and Tyler Cowen, two guys who are stupid only when they smoke to0 much wingnut crack - or about once per day.

The Madness of Crowds

Tyler Cowen post a thoroughly uninteresting note of climate science, and hordes of denialists descend on his comment thread like flies on ****. It's tedious enough to drive a climate scientist (and me, for that matter) nuts. The same old half-baked objections, misunderstandings, and lies ("CRU "cleaned" the data and has never revealed its methods. Would you ever release a paper without revealing your methods? This was known before, but now there are emails talking about "hiding" data and "tricks" to manipulate the data. If you trust their methods now, you would have to be crazy. " - a casual glance at Ar4 refutes that one). All of them refuted again and again.

The only thing I learned from the comments was what an absurdity RP jr. is. He feigned outrage at the scandal of climate data sets not being "independent" because, gosh, they almost all used the same global weather station data!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Obama's Strategy

The pivot of Obama's strategy is Pakistan. Only if Pakistan can summon both the will and the capability to defeat al Quaeda and its own Taliban can Obama achieve success. It won't be easy, but Obama at least understands the problem.

Millions and Millions

The thirty thousand additional soldiers being sent to Afghanistan will cost about one million dollars per year per soldier. For the cost of one soldier, you could probably hire 1000 Afghans.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Afghanistan Reaction

For the moment I'm outsourcing my reactions to Andrew Sullivan. He has a string of thoughtful reactions in the link and previous posts.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Through a Glass, Darkly

Paul Krugman has a vision of the future, and it's not exactly a rosy one.

...economic half-measures have landed the Obama administration in a trap: much of the political establishment now sees stimulus as having been discredited by events, so that it’s very hard to come back and scale the policy up to where it should have been in the first place. Also, with the apocalypse on hold, the deficit scolds have come back into their own, decrying any policy that actually involves spending money.

The result, then, will be high unemployment leading into the 2010 elections, and corresponding Democratic losses. These losses will be worse because Obama, by pursuing a uniformly pro-banker policy without even a gesture to popular anger over the bailouts, has ceded populist energy to the right and demoralized the movement that brought him to power.

Krugman is a pessimist, and I tend to like that in a practitioner of the Dismal Science. You need some kind of counter-balance to the hucksters and con men you see on CNBC.

History has presented Obama with some awful choices. The financial panic engineered in part by Bush, and the giant deficits engineered almost entirely by Bush and Rove combine for a trap that's hard to escape. Add in the hash Bush made of our foreign policy and its easy to see most timelike paths leading to doom or at least to gloom.

Can some kind of jobs program (a) pass the Congress, and (b) turn things around? Possibly.

Beastly Genius

Well my respect for MacArthur genius award winners just took a big hit. Tina Brown's Daily Beast claims to have gotten some people they thought were smart - who seemed to be mostly academic politicians and media celebrities - to nominate 100 plus people for the category of smartest of the decade. Next they found 40 MacA awardees who had nothing better to do than read their resumes and rank them, resulting in a list of the 25 supposedly smartest people of the decade. I think you can get an idea of the flavor of the result from the first five names you encounter on the list: Roger Ailes, David Chase, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Michael Bloomberg, and Karl Rove. Four terrorists and a rich guy.

The list is bottom up, Letterman style, but it doesn't get much better. There are a few people on the list I consider fairly smart, like Jobs and Chu, and others who have had at least one really good idea, like Brin, Page, and Bezos - all of whom had their good idea in the previous decade, btw. Mostly smart means rich on this list, but rich because they had a good idea. I guess Arianna Huffington's good idea was marrying a rich gay guy and getting him to go into politics.

Maybe the twenty-oughts weren't a good decade for doing anything important, but if anything important was done, it probably wasn't done by any of these people. A decade isn't really long enough to see the importance of a thought, of course, which is why all the people on the list for their smart ideas had them more than ten years ago, with the possible exception of one or two like Steve Jobs who have, or at least recognize, lots of good ideas.

But Karl f****ng Rove? Being on a list with him can't be much of an honor. Even for al-Zawahiri.

Afghanistan: Uh Oh

Andrew Sullivan doesn't like what he thinks he is going to hear from Obama on Afghanistan.

So instead of staying in neo-colonial occupation against an insurgency that now feeds off US intervention with no real strategy, we will stay in neo-colonial occupation against an insurgency that now feeds off US intervention with lots of super-smart defenses of the indefensible. Great.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

CRU: Sorry Cassandra

Climate scientists have gotten a good dose of the Cassandra syndrome lately. Cassandra, you may recall, was the Trojan seer who saw through the subterfuge of Odysseus and warned her city against the tricky Greeks. Her curse was to see the truth but not be believed. So lately it has been with those warning of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

A well-financed and politically connected group of professional doubters, liars and ideologically motivated crackpots have taken advantage of the public's short attention span and an apparent slowdown in the recent pace of warming to persuade much of the population that AGW isn't worth worrying about. A couple self-inflicted wounds by AGW Cassandras haven't helped either. First, Al Gore turns out to be pretty darn confused about basic geology and physics. Now, the CRU at the University of East Anglia lets a bunch of emails get hacked and is very slow-footed in responding.

What I have seen, mainly in the denialosphere, is hardly very incriminating, but it does give some plausibility to interpretations that some data was suppressed, that some researchers really don't like the lying snakes of the denialosphere, and that there is some concern about the limitations of the model predictions.

To me, none of this is remotely surprising. People say stuff in email that they shouldn't. Any decent scientist starts the day by doubting his favorite theories. Experimentalists like to keep their data under wraps until they are sure they understand it, especially if they have reason to doubt the conclusions. And a lot of us really do get angry at the professional shills, ideologues, and crackpots that dominate the legions of denial.

Despite this, I have seen nothing from them that seems to cast much doubt on the conclusions of the IPCC.

George Monbiot takes the imbroglio more seriously, and has called for at least one head to roll.

It’s no use pretending that this isn’t a major blow. The emails extracted by a hacker from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia could scarcely be more damaging(1). I am now convinced that they are genuine, and I’m dismayed and deeply shaken by them.

Yes, the messages were obtained illegally. Yes, all of us say things in emails that would be excruciating if made public. Yes, some of the comments have been taken out of context. But there are some messages that require no spin to make them look bad. There appears to be evidence here of attempts to prevent scientific data from being released(2,3), and even to destroy material that was subject to a freedom of information request(4).

Worse still, some of the emails suggest efforts to prevent the publication of work by climate sceptics(5,6), or to keep it out of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(7). I believe that the head of the unit, Phil Jones, should now resign. Some of the data discussed in the emails should be re-analysed.

Hiding data is bad, and destroying evidence is worse - and both are likely illegal. Trying to prevent the publication of faulty analysis and incorrect science, though, are quite reasonable. We don't want the literature cluttered with errors. The whole purpose of the peer review process is to do just that. On the other hand, the history of science is full of valid papers that were suppressed because of some referee's mistaken prejudices, but because so much hangs on our conclusions about climate science there is a special obligation to ensure that all reasonable points are aired in an open and aboveboard process.

Monbiot doesn't think that the actual scientific (as opposed to public relations) case for AGW has seen serious damage:

But do these revelations justify the sceptics’ claims that this is “the final nail in the coffin” of global warming theory?(8,9) Not at all. They damage the credibility of three or four scientists. They raise questions about the integrity of one or perhaps two out of several hundred lines of evidence. To bury manmade climate change, a far wider conspiracy would have to be revealed.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mac(ro) Daddies

Brad DeLong wonders, perhaps rhetorically, Why Are Good Macro Policies Political Losers? Brad argues that the bailout and the stimulus prevented much worse things from happening, and wonders:

So we have a big puzzle: Just what is going on in America? Good policies that are working to boost production and employment without causing inflation ought to be politically popular, right?

Brad conjures up some possible reasons - an incompetent press, Chicago crackpottery, and the systematic dishonesty of the Republican party, but he somehow misses the giant beam in his own eye: employment and production have not been "boosted." Employment has continued to decline. Desperate people aren't interested in theoretical economics, they want results. It's easy to be complacent if you have a nice sinecure, but not so easy if you are the one losing job, home, or business.

DeLong's dismissal of the bonuses paid to the criminals who engineered the disaster as "a rounding error" is an astounding feat of political obtuseness for somebody who thinks he is teaching economic history. Trade and the economy ultimately depend on us being able to trust that we aren't being cheated. Being obviously cheated is a dagger in the heart of that trust. A couple of DeLong's commenters sum up the key points:
albrt said...

Perhaps your "good macro" policies are political losers because your definition of "macro" assumes that it doesn't matter who actually receives the benefits and who actually pays the bills, so long as a sufficient quantity of money is inserted into the economy. The rest of us have noticed that, despite this carefully neutral economic theory, it's always the bankers who receive the benefits and always the rest of us who pay the bills.

It took us multiple trials to figure that out, but now that we have figured it out we are not OK with it.

And Maynard Handley adds some psychological and anthropological perspective:

...Are you unaware that groups punish individuals who cheat, even at a cost to themselves, and that this behavior is not foolish, it is, in the grand scheme of things, eminently sensible, a way to limit future cheating?...

It was, for example, a very serious blunder for Geithner to not even insist on symbolic haircuts for AIG's CDS customers.

At some point Obama, the great strategic thinker, thought it was more important to have the trust of Wall Street than Main Street. Picking Wall Street's boys, Geithner and Summers, may or may not have mollified Wall Street. Main Street is not happy.

To Jail

Tyler Cowen notes the irony in the fact that Dubai, which is currently shaking world financial markets because of its inability to pay its debts, imprisons debtors.

With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills). Some are said to have maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield.

Kinda makes one nostalgic for the good old days when a non-performing sovereign debtor would be disciplined by pulling up a few men-o-war to shell the capital city.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Abstract Art

I had missed Bee's beautiful post on causal diagrams. Highly recommended. A quote from the introduction:

I once witnessed a physicist explain the universe to an artist. The artist had approached the physicist to learn how to understand extra dimensions, a concept, so he explained, that would undoubtedly enhance the depth of his artwork, and be of great inspirational value for his quest to capture the contextuality of essence. Or maybe essence of contextuality. Or something like that. Either way, the physicist took a piece of chalk and drew a line on the blackboard. "That is our universe," he said...

The science part is even better.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Memory: Up is Down

George W Bush and his minions spent the first eight months of his Presidency mocking and ignoring urgent warnings of an imminent terrorist threat. When the most devastating terrorist attack in American or World history occurred, they used the occasion not to kill or capture the perpetrators, but to pursue another foreign war. The family of the ringleader was hustled out of the country in private jets, and the President continued to kiss up to the country that financed the attacks.

In a feat of historical revision worthy of 1984 or at least Joseph Stalin, it seems that memory of these events has now completely disappeared from the Republican mind. Josh Marshall's TPM catches Bush Spokesgirl Dana Perino claiming that no terrorist attacks on the United States occurred during W's term of office. Naturally the Faux News interviewer agreed.

In the up is down world of Republican politics, this is not an exception. I have heard the same absurd claim made on television by at least two other Republican flacks, and repeated by idiots of my acquaintance.

Jews and Palestinians

American Jews who go to Israel frequently get what I call the "propaganda tour" - a highly fictionalized account of the origin and construction of the Jewish state. In this version, Zionists came to an unpopulated land, turned it green with native ingenuity, and thereby attracted a nuisance crowd of Arabs eager to catch the crumbs that fell from their tables. The real story of how land and water was acquired from Palestinian farmers, sometimes by purchase, sometimes by the familiar connivance's of European political economy, and sometimes by force and fear gets lost. The final struggle, where the Palestinians were utterly defeated in war and slaughtered and expelled from their lands is told as an epic with heroes on only one side.

Americans have seen this western, of course. We acquired our own land by a longer, more brutal, and far more drastic genocide. The story itself is at least as old as civilization.

In our modern scientific age we like to try to peer beneath the legends to see the facts, but when the contenders are still both alive and swinging, that gets difficult. Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has dared to take a look and stir up the predictable hornets nest. His book
The Invention of the Jewish People
, a best seller in Israel for months, is now out in English. It's doubtful that a Jewish professor, or any professor at a major university in the US, would have dared to write such a book.

Patricia Cohen discusses the book and its story in The New York Times.

Despite the fragmented and incomplete historical record, experts pretty much agree that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70, for instance. What’s more, modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity.

Other theories, like the notion that many of today’s Palestinians can legitimately claim to be descended from the ancient Jews, are familiar and serious subjects of study, even if no definitive answer yet exists...

Professor Sand, a scholar of modern France, not Jewish history, candidly states his aim is to undercut the Jews’ claims to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute “a people,” with a shared racial or biological past. The book has been extravagantly denounced and praised, often on the basis of whether or not the reader agrees with his politics.

For me, most of this argument is beside the point. Every nation, except perhaps for a few isolated cultures, is an artificial construction. Jewish identity doesn't depend on literal descent from Abraham but on shared religious and cultural history. On the other hand, Palestinian's claim to Palestine doesn't depend on whether or not they are direct descendants of those who lived in Israel in 70 AD. What I do believe in is that the truth, if not freeing us, can at least make our choices clearer.

Of course the religious fanatics and fabulists, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, won't pay any attention anyway.

Number of the Beast?

Counting is one of those skills that was long thought to be uniquely human, though ravens are now reputed to be able to count to seven. It seems that this avian skill is eclipsed by that of some of the truly anciently civilized, though. It seems that in addition to celestial navigation, certain Saharan ants have mastered a specialized form of counting. NPR's Robert Krulwich has the story, a cartoon video, and a picture of an ant on stilts!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. In the interim, evidence for Darwin's theory has become overwhelming, but there has been little evidence of the human race evolving intelligence.

Some of the evidence can be found here and here and almost any place else that news is published. The empire of the ignorami marches on.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


The continuing dismal employment numbers are finally getting political attention. George Will advocated the Republican solution on ABC's Sunday morning yak today: cut unemployment benefits. My guess is that Democrats may lack enthusiasm for that idea.

I personally like the idea of a new version of the WPA, with a pre-1940 style emphasis on jobs training. From the cited Wikipedia article:

Until ended by Congress and war employment during 1943, the WPA was the largest employer in the country. Most people who needed a job were eligible for at least some of its jobs.[3] Hourly wages were the prevailing wages in each area; the rules said workers could not work more than 30 hours a week, but many projects included months in the field, with workers eating and sleeping on worksites. Before 1940, there was some training involved to teach new skills and the project's original legislation had a strong emphasis on training.

This would be anathema to conservatives, of course, but there would probably be push back from unions as well. They would prefer that all new jobs be union jobs, and would have strong support from the construction industry.

A conservative proposal with more intrinsic merit is the idea of a rebate or suspension of payroll taxes. This is a twofer for them since it would both undermine Social Security and promote their beloved anti-tax theme. I like another idea, embraced by some conservatives (those with positive IQs who are not running for office) is the idea of replacing payroll taxes with a carbon and/or
value added tax. A gradual transition to such a regime would tend to stimulate employment.

How about a WPA, combined with a temporary rebate on payroll taxes, with the replacement taxes to kick in gradually?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gravity X 3

Newton's theory of gravity is a darn good theory. If you want to calculate the trajectory of a projectile or the orbital path of an interplanetary vehicle, Newton's your man. Ditto if you want to calculate the pressure at the center of the Sun. Of course your answers might be ever so slightly off - which is where...

Einstein's theory gravity, AKA General Relativity, comes in. It's a bit unwieldy with a whole potfull of nonlinear partial differential equations, but it can fix up those orbits. It can even let you calculate the pressure at the center of a white dwarf or a neutron star. It also tells you how to fix up your clock times in the presence of strong gravitational fields. What it can't do is tell you what's happening at super strong fields at the Planck length, or at the center of a black hole.

Really good theories make nice testable predictions, usually with important practical consequences, like keeping your GPS satellites synchronized. String Theory is not that good yet. We can't test its gravitational implications, and, so far as I can tell, its descriptions of real black holes are still incomplete. So what can it do? Well there is one other virtue a good theory can have, and that's to serve as a fruitful source of ideas for other areas of physics. Sean Carroll says:

One of the reasons why string theory is so popular among people who have thought about it very carefully is that it really does lead to new things. It really is fruitful. It's not that you have make some guess like, oh, maybe space time is discrete or maybe the universe is made of little molecules or something like that, and then you say, okay, what do you get from that? By making this guess that instead of particles there are little strings, you are led to thinking if I put that into the framework of quantum mechanics I get 10 dimensions. Then, oh, it also needs to be supersymmetric. There are different kinds of particles that we actually observe in nature and if we try to compactify those extra dimensions and hide them, we begin to get things that look like the standard model. We are learning things that make us think that we are on the right track.

Sean has a lot of other stuff in his article, including a discussion of a question that has often vexed us - the entropy of the early universe, and why it's important. I recommend the link.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Free Trade

Steven Landsburg, having recently dissed Paul Krugman, tries to do a little penance by praising this essay Krugman wrote [some time ago] in defense of Ricardo and free trade.

Landsburg thinks the issue in question can be deduced from pure logic:

Take, for example his essay on the widespread failure of intellectuals to grasp Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage (the basis of the case for free trade). Instead of simply bemoaning the problem like the rest of us, Krugman makes a valiant and useful attempt to identify its root causes.

He starts with an analogy I’m also fond of (I’m not sure which of us has been using it longer): The theory of comparative advantage is like the theory of evolution by natural selection—to those who understand it, it is simple and compelling; yet non-experts can find it remarkably difficult to grasp.

In The Big Questions, I argue that this analogy ultimately breaks down: The theory of evolution is compelling largely because of the evidence that supports it, while Ricardo’s theory is compelling largely because of the logic that supports it. It’s not too surprising that a first-rate physicst or literary critic could be unfamiliar with a body of evidence, but it’s a little more unsettling when that same physicist or literary critic can’t follow a simple chain of logic.

I wrote the following comments:

Economists are always frustrated that others (even intellectuals) can’t accept the compelling logic of Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage: I find it ironic that Krugman would think comparison with natural selection is appropriate.

I am pretty sure that I do understand Ricardo’s argument, and I’m also pretty sure that I understand why most non-economists instinctively reject it. The essential logic of comparative advantage is that both trading parties do better if they specialize since they can thus each get more goods. The problem with this idea is that the logic of our evolution teaches us that the struggle for existence is a nearly zero sum game.

If the wolf and the coyote cooperate in the hunt [or trade rabbits for deer] then they may each get more game, but they also hasten the day when the supply of wolves and coyotes is larger than the available supply of game can feed. The wolf knows (at some instinctive level) that it’s better for his long term progeny for him to lose some game in order to deprive the coyote of the chance to compete with him.

Similarly, the trade between China and the US brought the US a great bundle of cheap stuff (TV’s etc) and built China from a backward, impoverished country into an economic superpower – good for both in the short run. It also turned China from a minor competitor to a formidable rival in the struggle for energy and, ultimately, existence. From the standpoint of strategic evolutionary competition, that tradeoff was a disaster for the US.

In practice, most economists seem to act as if Darwin had never existed. They don’t understand why most people are skeptical of comparative advantage because they aren’t taking into account that those people’s brains were wired by evolution. When we live in a world where the only way nations interact is through trade, or where the struggle for existence has been repealed, Ricardo will get pride of place. Until then, I’ll stick with Darwin.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Global Warming Indeed!

The Lumonator catches Al Gore displaying a curious misunderstanding of geothermal and geological fact. I guess there are some subjects not covered in a Harvard education.

Being even older than Gore, and well into semi-senility myself, I tend to be rather more forgiving of some kinds of brain farts, but this is a bit extreme for a guy who spends his life flacking this stuff.

Unfortunately, there do seem to be a lot of people running the country who don't really differentiate among "thousand", "million," "billion," and "trillion." Speaking of differentiation, I would support a constitutional amendment restricting national political office to those who can pass a fairly rigorous calculus test - say AP Calculus at the 4 level.


I caught an episode of the PBS series "Becoming Human" the other day. The subject was Homo erectus, our ancestors who lived for a couple of million years from roughly 2 million BC to 50,000 BC. The transition from earlier ancestors to H erectus involved a major change in size, locomotion, brain size, and diet. The larger brains required more nutrition and a longer childhood for the brain to grow outside the womb. The extended childhood almost certainly involved the development the characteristically human trait of empathy.

Empathy, the ability identify mental and emotional states of others, is a very fundamental human trait that provides much of the glue that holds society together, but its also a trait that seems to be largely absent in a fair number of people. Sufferers with autism, and various disorders of the autism spectrum are prominent examples. This is an extremely severe social handicap, but some, at least, of the afflicted nonetheless lead productive, creative, and even highly successful lives.

Paul Dirac, numerous mathematicians, and perhaps even Newton (not to mention Dr. Sheldon Cooper) seem to have fit the category. Perhaps the disconnection from ordinary human affairs provides both a spur and an opportunity to focus on the abstract.

Ayn Rand looks like another plausible candidate. Certainly she displayed notable lack of empathy as both child and adult. In Anthem, even the scenes in which the hero is tortured are curiously lacking in affect and emotional impact.

It seems surprising that a person without understanding of others emotions could become a charismatic personality, but perhaps it really isn't. Those of us tossed by the emotional storms of life can admire the peculiar calm of a Mr. Spock. The cold blooded thinker can learn to push the buttons of emotional response even if they can't feel the emotions.

I think I have heard that sociopaths are typically lacking in empathy. I wonder if that also fits cult leaders and pimps. That would make a collection: prophets, pimps, sociopaths and mathematicians. And, oh yeah, conservative economists - or am I being redundant?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Diversified Evolutionary Portfolio

Yet about a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry the variant that Bakermans-Kranenburg studied, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression.

Why should such apparently disadvantageous traits be preserved in evolution? David Dobbs, writing in The Atlantic says that new work, and new hypotheses, explain the apparent paradox. The key point is that genes that are unfavorable in some situations may be very favorable in others. Children who seem to thrive under any conditions are thought of as "dandelions," while those requiring specially favorable circumstances are "orchids."

Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.

It's a long article, packed with interesting information about the genetic underpinnings of the behavior of humans, and, not quite incidentally, rhesus monkeys.

Friday, November 13, 2009


The 1930's and 1940's, with depression sandwiched between war, rumor of war, and war again, were fertile ground for dystopic visions. The rise of sinister incarnations in Communism and Facism provided a collectivist theme for those visions. Ayn Rand's Anthem had the same collectivist inspired theme as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, and a publication date between them, but can't otherwise bear comparison to Huxley's richly prophetic vision or Orwell's nightmare masterpiece.

Anthem is a slight fairy tale, set in a grey future where the ultimate villain is the first person plural pronoun. Where technology has been set to sinister purpose in 1984 and become relentlessly dehumanizing in BNW, in Anthem it has nearly disappeared. Not to worry though: the hero, working alone (in an abandoned sewer) in his spare time, outdoes those ubiquitous local housewifes of the internet ad who earn a fortune with their computers. In a few short months he rediscovers that which took Coulomb, Volta, Galvani, Ampere, Faraday, Franklin and Edison a few centuries of collaborative effort - enough electromagnetism to make a generator and an electric light.

I shouldn't ruin the suspense by mentioning that there isn't any suspense, or that our hero overcomes every slight difficulty he encounters as effortlessly as he conquered the physics of electromagnetism. This is a fairly tale, but not even one in which the hero needs any particular wit to triumph. Accident or personal decision is enough for any worthy objective he can conceive to become reality. (Unworthy objectives, like doing something altruistic, are just as summarily punished.)

Anthem lacks the usual badges of literary merit. Characterization is utterly missing except for the hero, who is drawn without a trace of subtlety. Plot is minimal. Evocation of place and setting is, well:

It is dark here in the forest. The leaves rustle over our head against the last gold of the sky. The moss is soft and warm.

I guess they had a different kind of moss in that forest from any I ever slept on.

Nevertheless, Anthem has managed to achieve some influence in the world. How can I explain it? Rand is not a terrible writer, just a very limited one, and she is certain that she has an urgent message to convey. Its simple mindedness could be a virtue for its target audience. Just wish and let it happen. Blame every inconvenience in your life on others. Escape the oppression of the expectations of parent, teacher, church and state. Rand does seem to have a genius for resentment.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Harder Than String Theory

From Peter Woit at NEW, Ed Witten tackles a topic harder than string theory.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

No Way Back

Lubos takes on the second law, once again. Suppose we have a current state which we identify with an ensemble of compatible physical systems [UPDATE: Lubos points out that the usual term is macroscopically indistinguishable microstates - I had forgotten that]. If we evolve that ensemble of states forward in time, entropy increases for all but a tiny fraction of the systems making up the ensemble. What if we use the time symmetric laws of physics to evolve that same ensemble backwards, in the opposite time direction?

Once again, entropy increases for most of the systems of the ensemble. Lumo's paradoxical sounding explanation: that other way isn't really backwards in time, it's forward too!

This was a major brain warp for me, so I had to try rephrasing it. My version: representing a system by an ensemble of compatible states and identifying the future state of the system with the typical evolution of states in the ensemble is a good way to predict the future but a lousy way to retrodict the past. The asymmetry is not so glaring if we remember that the ensemble is not the real physical system, it's just a representation of our current knowledge of the state of the system. Forward or backward evolution of the microstates doesn't matter, since each gives a possible future.

In short, I'm pretty much a convert.


Paul Krugman is confused by the right's choice of epithets. He wonders why the wingnuts don't call him a commie any more.

A curious fact — one that I can attest to based on my own inbox, and is also borne out by more general observation — is that “Nazi” is the preferred term of abuse from today’s right wing. We get signs saying “Obama=Hitler”, not Obama=Stalin. I get mail calling me a “dirty Nazi scumbag”, not a Commie or pinko.

What’s going on? It really doesn’t fit, as far as I can tell — and bear in mind the long-running love affair of the National Review with Francisco Franco. You’d really think critics of Comrade President Obama would prefer the Soviet comparison.

There are many other bizarre aspects to modern right wing epithets. What's up with calling Obama a "racist?" Don't they grasp how preposterous, absurd, and stupid it is to compare health insurance to Dachau? And why is Glenn Beck wearing an SS uniform on the cover of his new book?

I have a certain Orwellian theory. It is that Limbaugh, Beck, et. al. get a kick out of showing how stupid and credulous and mind enslaved their tea party lackeys are. Anybody got a better idea?

Sunday, November 08, 2009


As a Vietnam era draftee who eventually became pretty anti to the Vietnam war, I reserve a special scorn for the chickenhawks - the draftdodgers and draft avoiders who cheered the war from the safety of their own deferments. One of the scandals of Vietnam was the way deferments were handed out like Halloween candy to the priviledged and connected. Jack Kemp, later a Republican Congressman and Vice Presidential nominee, was too crippled to be drafted but not too crippled to play eight more years in the NFL.

This list of the deferred seems to include every Neocon nutbag and Republican: Abrams, Alito, Allard, Ashcroft, Bauer, Bennett, Bloomberg, Blunt and don't get me started on Bush. And that's just some of the A's and B's. Of course Cheney, Delay, Frist, Will and a swarm of others are on the list too. There are Democrats too, like Al Gore - though he enlisted and served in Vietnam, and Bill Bradley.

In World War II the privileged mostly served and sometimes died with the rest of us - think of the Kennedy children and Bush Sr., for example. In Vietnam they mostly got a pass, and now, military service is done by hired professionals and volunteers, making the country more and more detached from the reality of war.

Anyway, it pleased me a lot to see Markos Moulitsas (of Daily Kos) chase chickenhawk congressman and anti-immigrant windbag Tom Tancredo off the set of MSNBC's The ED Show.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

John Galt Has Been Located

It seems that he turns out to be a Hmong tribesman, living somewhere in Upland Southeast Asia. From a review by Tyler Cowen:

The subtitle is An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia and the author is James C. Scott of Yale University. Here is a summary from the Preface:

...I argue that the [Southeast Asian] hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys -- slavery, conscription taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare. Most of the areas in which they reside may be aptly called shatter zones or zones of refuge.

I believe that this says most of what I always wanted to say about civilization and its libertarian discontents.


I'm still gagging on the punch line to Tyler Cowen's love letter to Ayn Rand:

The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism -- the greatest force for human good ever achieved -- rely on the driving human desire to be excellent.

Now it happens that I think that capitalism (or at any rate, a mixed economy with a significant dose of capitalism) is the best economic system for an industrial economy. It did manage to keep chugging on when various variations on socialism ran aground in the twentieth century.

How, though, can a not always idiotic guy like Cowen come up with such preposterous load of crap? I think I understand the logic. Capitalism has been the dominant economic system for the past two hundred years. Those two hundred years have seen a vast burst of technological progress and improvement of the standard of living for a large fraction of the people. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is the usual name of this logical fallacy. If you attribute everything good that happened in the last two hundred years to capitalism, and everything else to something else, capitalism looks pretty good.

It's far more plausible though, that capitalism was more an effect than a cause of the profound changes that have taken place in the world during that period. Most important, in my view, was the technological burst that came out of the scientific insights of the previous two hundred years. That technological progress coincided with and facilitated tremendous advances in political freedom and equality. Public education created a workforce capable of exploiting the technological revolution.

Attribution all progress to capitalism is a lot easier when one ignores all the pesky details, expecially the extent to which large scale government action facilitated and drove that progress. The Asian transformation of the past fifty years has been one of the most dramatic, and capitalistic ideas have played a role, but of China, India, Japan, and Korea, which practices anything ressembling neoclassical capitalism? Let's go with none of the above. Neither did the economic transformations of the US and Britain take place without a lot of state intervention in their economies.

Modern economic progress has a lot of ingredients: technology, trade, education, finance, and, yes, capitalism, but don't trust the ideological fanatics who try ignore all the details. And don't trust anybody who can write a sentence like Tyler's.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Obligatory We

Compulsory labor conscription is now practiced or advocated in every country on Earth..............Ayn Rand

And, I would add, in every civilization that ever existed. I, at any rate, can't think of any obvious exceptions. There were pretty dramatic differences in scale and scope, to be sure. A couple of fundamental circumstances constrain the nature and character of human interactions: the struggle for existence, and the need for cooperation. Every mammal is dependent for some period of infancy, but many live almost totally independently for much of their lives. Humans aren't like that. We are obligatory social animals, and lone individuals can't compete against a band or tribe.

Once men adopted agriculture, higher forms of society developed and with them came obligatory cooperation, with societies unwilling to adopt such being killed out by those that did. Such enforced cooperation doesn't sit well with human nature, so it was almost always limited in scope. The dystopian fantasy of Rand's Anthem has occasionally been approached but never achieved.

Enforced cooperation was the great bugaboo of Ayn Rand's thought and literature, but she ran her own circle of sycophants like an oriental despot. Her vision had no room for dissent or independent thought and consequently, no room for reality. Her fantasy is thus condemned to remain a fantasy, but it exerts a powerful pull that I don't fully comprehend.

Somehow this intensely elitist philosophy seems to have a lot of its appeal to those who look a lot like losers in the game of life.


The Fort Hood killer seems to have had time bomb printed on his forehead. What were his superiors thinking? I wonder what the heck his OER looked like.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Once More Into The Breach

Prompted by a new paper by Brian Greene et. al., Lumo once more takes on the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its implications for the early universe. The whole long dicussion is quite fascinating, not least because it looks to me like Lubos is struggling not only against Greene but with his own uncertainties - acting, that is, exactly like a good physicist ought to.

Here is the part that got my attention. First Greene et al.

The status of [Boltzmann's H-theorem] is less settled than often claimed, because it requires the so-called 'molecular chaos' assumption, doubts about whose applicability have not been firmly laid to rest.

This is precisely where my own doubts arise, but Lubos has an answer. Once again, the argument looks pretty good - until I back off and start wondering if it's not just begging the question. In the traditional sense of assuming that which is to be proven. It seems OK in a hand wavy kind of way, but I sure wish he could show a logical proof, with all assumptions explicit.

Greene again:

So the central problem of the arrow of time consists in finding a justification for the so-called past hypothesis - the assumption that the universe had low entropy at early times.

Greene, like Penrose and (maybe) Sean Carroll, wants to find some cosmological reason why the universe has to start in a state of low entropy. Lubos doesn't like this, but he seems to have deleted an earlier version in which he compared this (favorably) to wondering why an elephant doesn't have 486 legs and (unfavorably) to speculations about why the fine structure constant is what it is.

Of course there are good biological reasons why elephants didn't evolve with as many legs as a millipede, and there may well be consistent physical theories in which the fine structure constant is other than it is. It seems similarly reasonable to me to speculate that there might be some more "fundamental" or "natural" reason for the universe to have started in the special state that it apparently did start in.

Lumo can't help going off the rails a bit:

While it's manifest that the authors of similar papers are bothered by the very validity of the second law and they would indeed like the entropy to be higher in the past...

Jeez Lumo, why do you have to spoil a really good discussion by saying something lame like this. Nobody "wants" the entropy to be higher in the past, and Greene et. al. aren't bothered by the validity of the second law. What they are trying to do, perhaps quite unsuccessfully, is come up with a principle that explains the initial state in terms of some simple mathematical idea - that's a lot of what cosmology is about. That observations and the second law imply that the initial state was of low entropy is uncontroversial, but it's not an explanation, any more than saying that an elephant has four legs explains why it has four legs.

Perhaps there is no possible explanation, but it seems silly to deny the possibility that there might be such out of hand. On the other hand, it is perfectly sensible to critique a suggested explanation, as Lubos has here.