Thursday, May 28, 2009

Seldon is Heard

I was a big science fiction fan in my youth, and one of its gods in those days was Isaac Asimov, author of I Robot, the Foundation series, and roughly a million other books. The hero of Foundation , if I can remember half a century later, was Hari Seldon, pschohistorian. Psychohistory, Seldon's new science, used mathematics to predict the evolution of an interstellar civilization over a millenium. It was supposed to be a statistical science, sort of a statistical mechanics for social science. I always considered it a crock - something of a blot on Asimov's reputation.

This was before Lorentz and Mandlebrot, but I had read a little Poincare, and either influenced by that, or by a natural aversion to implausible extrapolation, I was pretty sure that the evolution of societies would exhibit sensitive dependence on initial conditions, especially those initial conditions that weren't yet known - like laws of physics yet to be discovered.

Others, it seems, hold a different view. Paul Krugman, the Nobelist and Clark Medal winner, says that he was inspired to go into economics by his early reading about psychohistory, since economics seemed the closest thing actually in the curriculum. Hal Varian, chief economist of Google, has told a similar tale.

It seems that Asimov's psychohistory at least predicted that I would not be an economist. It might be time for a reread.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bomb, Bomb, Bomb...

Israel is still pitching the absurd notion that other Muslim countries would support an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. And still trying to mousetrap us into another one of its wars.

North Korea's latest test shows how difficult it is going to be to keep that nuclear genii partially in its bottle. Impossible would be closer. W made it clear that no nation without nukes has any security against superpower invasion. I expect that a few countries will join the nuclear club over the next half dozen years.

Can the hands of Iran or North Korea be pried off the nuclear trigger at this point? I doubt it. If so, only an iron clad security guarantee is likely to do the trick, including, for Iran, some sort of control on Israel's capabilities.

So why do Iran/Korea want nukes asks the moron chorus? Duh! Why do the US, Israel, China, etc want them? Why do yahoos in Texas and Congress want the right to carry guns in National parks? If it's crazy, it's universal human crazy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Robo Doom

I just caught P. W. Singer talking robots to a group at West Point on CNN. The robots are no longer coming, of course, they are already here. In most cases there is still a person in the loop, a person who has to actually pull the trigger, but that's changing too. Robot autonomy is coming fast.

At present, the US and its close allies control most of the world's war robots, but that is unlikely to continue. Many countries have the skills needed to make such robots, and many will find it advisable to have some. One area of opportunity is the fighter jet. American military power today depends heavily on total air superiority, but that military superiority resides in fighter jets that cost $100 million plus each. Even our future robot fighter jet is planned to cost $80 million each. It will be vary capable, I'm sure, but how will it fare against hordes of robot planes that cost $1 million or less each?

It's not just science fiction movies that worry about the bots turning on us. Right now, of course, they still need us more than we need them, but that is unlikely to continue as manufacturing becomes ever more automated. They may not need to fight us for the world - just wait until we are so dependent on them that they have all the power. At that point, they might need to decide how many us they want to keep around - a few to supply them with stuff they can't conveniently get on their own, perhaps some pets, but surely not so many that suck up most of the planetary resources.

The cadets and faculty in Singer's audience asked a lot of good questions. One captain noted that when he had been a student there some years back he had proposed a robot with a mounted machine gun as a student project. It was turned down - that would be unethical he was told. His question: "when did that change?"

The answer: 9/11 plus experience in the field.

One thing that I am pretty sure about: if Skynet comes into existence it will be way too late. There is no hope that humans could win such a war. The robot brain works a million times as fast as ours, and if they combine that speed with adequate general smarts, it's already over.

Star Dreck

Take a few bits of Star Wars, standard hospital dramas, a dash of Heinlein from Starship Troopers (book, not movie), and of course all the old Star Trek, run it through the Lame-o-tron, and you get the new Star Trek.

So am I being too cranky? The Enterprise seems to have grown in size by a factor of 1000 or so, now takes a crew like an aircraft carrier, and has a new interior patterned after the Pompidou.

Oh well. It was occasionally amusing, never gripping, and often annoying, especially the crappily filmed fight scenes, of which there were about ninety. Not explained was why ... never mind... nobody likes spoilers even if the plot makes no


California has a fabulous climate, fabulous agricultural productivity, a great coastline, and a gdp that most countries could envy. So why is it on the brink of bankruptcy?

Greed, Lies and Republicanism. Before the Republicans sold the country on the idea that you could just cut taxes and borrow the money, they sold California.

Paul Krugman takes a look in his NYT column:

The seeds of California’s current crisis were planted more than 30 years ago, when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, a ballot measure that placed the state’s budget in a straitjacket. Property tax rates were capped, and homeowners were shielded from increases in their tax assessments even as the value of their homes rose.

The result was a tax system that is both inequitable and unstable. It’s inequitable because older homeowners often pay far less property tax than their younger neighbors. It’s unstable because limits on property taxation have forced California to rely more heavily than other states on income taxes, which fall steeply during recessions.

Even more important, however, Proposition 13 made it extremely hard to raise taxes, even in emergencies: no state tax rate may be increased without a two-thirds majority in both houses of the State Legislature. And this provision has interacted disastrously with state political trends.

For California, where the Republicans began their transformation from the party of Eisenhower to the party of Reagan, is also the place where they began their next transformation, into the party of Rush Limbaugh. As the political tide has turned against California Republicans, the party’s remaining members have become ever more extreme, ever less interested in the actual business of governing.

And while the party’s growing extremism condemns it to seemingly permanent minority status — Mr. Schwarzenegger was and is sui generis — the Republican rump retains enough seats in the Legislature to block any responsible action in the face of the fiscal crisis.

Will the same thing happen to the nation as a whole?

Once upon a time, Californias's public schools and universities were the envy of the nation, and these played no small role in the subsequent boom based on intellectual capital.

Thanks a f****** lot, Howard.

Loyal to a Fault

Israel is debating Foreign Minister and party chairman Avigdor Lieberman's proposed loyalty oath. This will require everyone in Israel to take an oath affirming:

I commit to being loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic and Zionist state, to its symbols and values and to serve the country as needed through military service or an alternative service, as decided by law

Abe Foxman of the ADL seems to think that it is a good idea.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, noted with concern the trips by Arab Israeli Knesset members to enemy states and expressions of solidarity with Hamas by Israeli Arabs during Israel’s recent military operation in the Gaza Strip.

“There were a lot of people who said, 'Hey, that's disloyal,' ” Foxman told JTA. “That's what he's talking about. He's not saying expel them. He's not saying punish them.”

Lieberman, 50, has proposed requiring a loyalty oath as a condition of Israeli citizenship. Those who refuse -- Arab or Jewish -- would have their citizenship revoked, though they’d be permitted to remain in the country as permanent residents.

No word yet on when Foxman will be taking his oath to the US as a Christian, anti-imperialist nation. Not that anyone would punish him if he didn't - just take away his citizenship.

Seriously though, the spread of this sort of thing could solve a lot of inter religio-ethnic conflicts by separating competing parties. Not quite sure where the Mormons, atheists, and Scientologists would wind up though - we might have to create new countries for each of them - ideally somewhere the locals are poorly equipped to fight back. Africa? South America? Hey, how about Antarctica? Or they could just Seastead


As an NBA playoffs fan, I have now seen about 10^7 iterations of the Dos Equis "most interesting man" ad. Oddly enough, I have never had a clue as to what was supposed to be interesting about him. From
Seth Stevenson in Slate I learn that this was because I never connected whatever the hell was supposed to be interesting about him (some footage of the usual adventures - I guess) with the doltish sounding senior citizen dispensing dumb advice ("stay thirsty, my friends") in some bar.

Let me see if I can decode the message here: (a)drink Dos Equis and you will still be thirsty? or (b)stay thirsty, and don't drink anything?

Sunday, May 24, 2009


I guess it's time to unban Lubos - or would be if he actually had been banned. I'm not sure if I actually banned him or not, but in any case, he is too clever and too experienced in being banned to be hindered much by my shallow banning power.

Consider yourself welcome to the hospitality of the site, Lumo.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Some time ago, never mind how long precisely, Jared Diamond published a long meditation on revenge and the thirst for it in the New Yorker. (The story has since been taken off their site). Since I no longer have access to the story, some of the following will be based on my highly fallible memory, but as I recall it, there were only two featured characters. The principal one was Daniel Wemp, a native of Papua New Guinea. In Diamond's account Wemp told a tale of war and revenge, and of his great satisfaction in crippling an uncle who had organized a fight that killed another favored uncle. Diamond's own uncle, by contrast had a lifetime of bitter regret about failing to murder a man he believed murdered some of his relatives. Diamond draws far reaching conclusions about the nature of revenge and its role in human affairs from these two stories, and they made a big impression on me when I read them.

It seems, however, that much of Diamond's story is not true. Daniel Wemp, whose real name was used in the story, and the supposedly crippled but actually hale uncle who was the supposed victim are sueing Diamond for ten million dollars (h/t Brad DeLong, Crooked Timber and a long chain of links). Some of Diamond's old enemies have gotten in on the feeding frenzy, and he is being accused of everything from bad journalism to racism.

The substantive critique is that Diamond told these stories without even a minimum of fact checking or review by those who would know (like Wemp and his uncle). Various idiots seem greatly impressed with the fact that Diamond attributes a number of improbably literate quotes to a jeep driver whose main languages are not English. I never took the quote marks literally - anymore than I take the speeches Thucydides attributes to his protagonists. Diamond should have mentioned that his story was reconstructed after the events, though.

Wemp himself reportedly admits that he told Diamond the stories, but that Diamond changed the list of characters. I find it more plausible that it was Wemp himself who changed the stories to make himself the hero, but this hardly excuses Diamond's carelessness. The story of subjects feeding improbable stories to credulous anthropologists is way too familiar now for anybody to allow themselves to be fooled in that way.

Posner on Inflation

Richard Posner, usually an unlikely candidate for my quotables list, has some sensible things to say about inflation:

I need to be more precise about inflation, and in particular to avoid an implication that zero inflation is the summum bonum that the government should be striving to achieve.

The whole article is short and clear, and I recommend it, but the key points are that inflation can be bad, but deflation is worse. Some inflation can be a potent stimulator when you are in a depression.

Inflation penalizes savers, but rewards debtors. Large scale inflation is highly destructive to economic planning and tends to kill the lending that fuels economic growth, but deflation encourages everybody to put their money under their matresses.

One point that he doesn't make: inflation, deflation, and control of the money supply in general tends to transfer wealth from one group to another. Deflationary policies like those run in parts of the nineteenth century tend to transfer money from debtors to lender, from farmers and small businessmen, for example, to bankers and other lenders (the railroad, the company store, etc.)

It is no accident that a classic theme of the old time western movie pitted the virtuous rancher about to lose his ranch to the evil banker. Deflation made his goods (cattle) worth less, and made it impossible to pay back his loan. Tools like the gold standard were manipulated by the wealthy controllers of government to impoverish the small businessman and sieze his wealth.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Arun likes Terence Tao's post on whether maths requires genius.

Terence Tao is a mathematics genius, but here are his thoughts on
Does one have to be a genius to do maths?

The brief answer is - No!

Personally, I feel that the huge quantities of energy that a lot of people spend in wondering where they and their colleagues stand in the genius and intelligence pecking order would be better spent elsewhere.

Terence Tao is a Field's Medal certified genius as well as a talented writer great at explaining advanced math in simple terms, but is he really the guy to know the answer here?

Tao taught himself arithmetic at age 2, scored a 760 on the math SAT at age 8, went to the International Math Olympiad at 10, scored a gold medal there at 13, and became a full professor at UCLA at 24. It's a bit like Lebron James telling us fantastic physical characteristics aren't needed for basketball in the NBA. Right, but I would believe it more if I heard it from somebody half a foot shorter, two ticks slower, and one third as strong.

Most people, of course, would find the idea of spending their day doing math a bizaare choice, but even math fans don't necessarily get good at it. I try to do a few problems every couple of days from some math or physics book, like my favorite elementary abstract algebra book but the fact is that I'm a very slow learner. I forget the theorems from two chapters back and the definitions from 5 chapters back. Worse, it takes me a long time to understand some elementary ideas like Lagrange's Theorem on group cosets.

UPDATE: And Lebron's last second catch and shoot three-pointer to win tonight sure looked like proof of genius to me - the gods do seem to pick whom they will smile upon.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Execute This!

Warm and fuzzy they aren't.

Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies.

David Brooks looks at a study of successful CEOs and finds that people skills, empathy, and other liberal arts values were beside the point. What mattered, oddly enough, was ability to execute. Who 'da thunk it?

What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours

OK, so that explains why I am not a CEO - not that my people skills are so hot either. Actually, though, it matches well with my experience with good executives at every level.

Adam Smith, IIRC, referred to non-owner CEOs as "senior clerks." It's still a good description of the job, and unsurprising that those clerical skills still predominate.

Successful entrepreneurs, I suspect, will turn out to be rather different, but they aren't discussed here. The charismatic Steve Jobs type leader is almost certainly a different breed of cat, but that's not the tale here either.

David Brooks being David Brooks, there is a moronic moral attached at the end, but fortunately you don't have to read it until you have read all the good stuff.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Religion -- and Multi-cellularity

Multi-cellularity must have started as a sort of mutually beneficial alliance of cells against the wider world. Religion has some parallels. In both cases, though, once created, the multi-cellular organism takes on an identity and self-preserving purpose of its own.

The Palestinians represent a case in point. Once it became clear that Muslim solidarity would not save them from the invading Israelis, the best strategy for the Palestinians would probably have been to covert to Christianity and appeal to the Christian world for rescue. That strategy might have succeeded - or not, since at that point the dissed Muslim world would probably have allied with the Israelis against them.

Any crack-brained theories like that above ought to be subjected to more detailed examination. A case like that of the Sinhalese - Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka might be a good test. There, religion, language and ethnicity all intertwined in an intricate and only partially known history to produce one of the nastiest conflicts of recent times.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


A non-scientist asked me: "What are these problem sets physics students are always talking about?"

After a long-winded and feeble attempt to explain why these become the center of the physics student's existence and a kind of Sysiphean hell, I figured out how to get to the point: "They are a longer and harder version of the math problems elementary school students solve for homework."

Which hardly explains why physics students need to devote ten thousand or so hours to them.

Bush Rumsfeld

Yet another example of Bush's stupidity. Taking so long to fire Don Rumsfeld. Only Cheney has done more damage to the United States. Paul Krugman:

A Katrina mystery explained
One of the many mysteries during the week of Katrina was the absence of military help. I picked up on this in the column I wrote during that time:

Even military resources in the right place weren’t ordered into action. “On Wednesday,” said an editorial in The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., “reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!”

One thing I remember about that time was the smear campaign carried out against anyone who suggested that the federal effort was inadequate. In particular, any suggestion that the military wasn’t doing its part was — you guessed it — denounced as an unpatriotic attack on the honor of our troops.

And now we know the truth. The military wasn’t doing its part, because Donald Rumsfeld refused to deploy troops until almost a week after Katrina hit.

Kevin Drum on the same subject:

From Fran Townsend, George Bush's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, when White House chief of staff Andy Card called during Hurricane Rita to ask her what she needed:

“I want to know if the president knows what a fucking asshole Don Rumsfeld is.”

Probably not. But plenty of other people did. Robert Draper's full story is here.

An idiot President and the monsters who ran him.

History of Sex

Part I: 1,000,000 BC to 1960 AD. Very little of interest happened in this period - mostly just the usual yada, yada, yada. There was one thing - maybe I will get to it later.

Part II: 1960 - present. The invention of the contraceptive pill made a convenient and effective method of birth control widely available. This greatly reinforced the feminist revolution and all the other sexual revolutions. Progress toward a pan-sexual paradise was interrupted when it was noticed that sex was still a very effective means of spreading disease - and that the instincts developed over the previous billion years hadn't disappeared either.

More importantly, effective control of fertility made it possible, for the first time in human history, to control population increase to Malthusian immizeration by means other than war, disease, and starvation. The jury is still out on whether this will actually happen.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Andrew Sullivan has a headline: Wanted, Conservative Intellectuals.

He forgot the "Dead or Alive."

Superluminal Effects

On the rare occassions when I can get an economist to actually admit to the correlation between low fertility and economic growth, they doggedly insist that the growth causes the demographic transition rather than vice versa. Odd that the effect so consistently precedes the cause, however. Clearly, some sort of superluminal propagation of information is required.

Or maybe economists don't want to admit the primacy of an effect that by and large doesn't care whether the nation in question is communist or capitalist, democratic or authoritarian. Those things no doubt matter, especially for the people of the country involved, but they don't seem to be primary or perhaps even very important for economic growth.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I delayed seeing this movie because I don't really care for Bill Maher and because I didn't think it would have anything I didn't know. It did though, but the movie was still pretty slow. The primary focus was on all the silly things Christians believe, and of course there are many. Jews also got a look at the nasty old testament murderousness, and they manage to look pretty damn ridiculous as well - especially a couple of orthodox rabbis engaged in producing absurd inventions supposedly skirting some Sabbath proscriptions.

Muslims don't get so much of a theological display, but he finds plenty of Muslims willing to lie about, or at least pretend to absurdly interpret, the more intolerant and violent passages of the Koran.

Among the non-Christians, only Mormons and Scientologists get a look. In the theatre of the absurd, Mormons trump Christians and Jews, but Scientologists get the prize.

Highlights for me were some notably anti-religious sentiments from founding fathers Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. No contemporary politician would dare say what they said. Senator Pryor from Arkansas had a good quote too: "there is no IQ test for the US Senate."

Unfortunately Maher fails to deal with the question that actually interests me: if religions are so absurd, and they are, why do so many believe. He may buy into the indoctrination theory, but I don't. I suspect it must be genetic - some gene or genes that were once useful, for something.

Alpha ... Testing

Steve Wolfram's new idea might make a bunch of homework problems obsolete. According to Nicholas Ciarelli, writing in The Daily Beast:

Step away from your Google search for a moment and consider the following scenario: What if a search engine, instead of giving you a long list of Web pages, simply computed the answer to whatever question you threw at it?

What was the average temperature in Chicago last year? What is the life expectancy of a male, age 40, in New Zealand? If you flip a coin 10 times, what is the probability that four of the flips will come up heads?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Fake-Cell Strategem

Regular readers, if any, might not be surprised to hear that I have a big mouth - bigger than any senior citizen really ought to have. It happens that I stopped by the auto-teller at the bank, and after collecting my cash, was having a bit of trouble getting my seat belt buckled, etc. I noticed though, that someone was waiting behind me and moved forward a bit just to be polite and tried again with the seat belt.

This turned out to be a mistake, since a guy in a giant pickup decided I was still blocking his way. He beeped at me, which did not improve my coordination, and then beeped again. I found a different position to try again, but he again found me in the way of wherever he was planning to go, and beeped some more. I said something impolite to my steering wheel, but forgot that my window was still open, and now I get an ugly stare.

Still unbelted, I pulled out onto the roadway and make a turn. He follows and follows again. At this point I go into a grocery story parking lot - he follows again, and I reach for the cell phone I always carry. Unfortunately I seem to have left it home on the charger today. I am now sitting in an empty lane in a half empty parking lot and he is parked right behind me.

This leaves only one tactic - cup my hand, pretend to push some buttons, and hold my cupped hand up to my ear. He decides that he really doesn't want to shop at this store and leaves.

That was my second success with the fake cell. Once before I had been an innocent passenger in a car whose driver had been enraged by the driver of the car I was in. That nut kept pulling his truck in front of us and slamming on the brakes. He too saw the light when the old f-c came out.

Next time though, I will have my cell. And maybe my .45. Either that or remember to roll the window up before I curse.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Torture Master

Rumsfeld's torture master in Afghanistan, says Andrew Sullivan, reported directly to Stanley McChrystal, Gates and Obama's new commander in Iraq. McChrystal might have some dirt on him from the Pat Tillman affair as well. This does not look good.

If Obama can't figure how to put this one back in the box, Petraeus and Gates might find their butts out the door too.

Economic Demography

The most robust trend in economic demography might also be one of the least publicized: rapid economic growth follows when the fertility rate falls below about 2.5. China and India illustrate the point. Go to Gapminder and compare total fertility and per capita gdp through time. In 1950, both had total fertility rates around 6 (with India slightly lower) and both were very poor 418 UX for China, 538 for India inflation adjusted dollars. Sometime during 1978, China caught up and passed India, each country now making about 800 per yr. But China's fertility rate was now 2.8 while India's was 4.6.

What happened next was dramatic. China's fertility rate dropped to 1.7 and China grew explosively, sextupling it's gdp per capita to 4959. India's fertility rate dropped too, but much more slowly and only to 2.5, and its gdp grew only half as much, to 2452.

These are the biggest guys on the block, but other have similar results. South Korea has grown steadily, but very rapidly since getting below the magic 2.0 number. Macau is atypical, but it to grew exposively after its fertility went all the way down below 1.

India and China are among the world's most productive lands but agriculturally and intellectually, so why are their people so poor? There is more than one reason, I'm sure, but the one that impresses me is that they just have way too many people.

Asia shows strong signs of clawing its way out of the Malthusian trap, but sub-equitorial Africa seems hopelessly trapped. It wouldn't hurt if more of the world would just acknowledge that we know the way out. Technology, infrastructure, and a economic legal system, sure, but the for the payoff -> fertility.

UPDATE: Why does **** stupid blogger insist on interpreting dollar signs as some sort of escape character? This post was incoherent enough without that.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Slumdog M

I fnally got around to seeing Slumdog Millionair, and except for the setting, it seemed to be an excellent but fairly conventional romantic melodrama. The big star was India, captured vividly and sometimes horrifyingly. I don't know how real the picture is, but vivid and gripping it is.

One gut reaction was that the slums of Bombay/Mumbai seem like a good argument for semi-compulsory population limitation, Chinese style.

Debt Peonage, American Style

One of the standard techniques used by aristocracies to turn themselves into oligarchies is debt peonage. The general idea is to somehow get the lower classes so deeply in debt that they owe their souls to the company store. A big area of success for the American plutocracy is our university system. A generation or so ago, a student could get an education even at a private school for a lot less than the price of a nice house, but no longer. Many students now come out of school with debts so large that they are forced into a kind of peonage for their most productive years - a good deal for American corporations but a bad deal for innovation and entrepreneurship.

It seems like a lousy idea to me, and just another way the blankety-blank bankers control the country. Now if you would just stand back out of the way, Mr. Obama, I think we have some torches for them right handy.

Europe seems to be quite different, with a university education being free or heavily subsidized. Anybody with experience care to comment?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Failure is Not an Option...

It's an outcome, and highly expectable one when a writer tries to be both salacious and politically correct in the same story.

I Faux-bot

Timothy Noah of Slate thinks he knows where all those lunatic Fox News talking heads come from.

If he were still alive, Joseph Weizenbaum would know that his worst fears had been realized.


Abby Ellin has seen the new frontier in marriage rights. Yeah, maybe. It seems that it is a type of polygamy. Polygamy seems like kind of an unlikely "new" frontier, but it seems that this kind of polygamy has more multilateral structure:

Maine this week became the fifth state, and the fourth in New England, to legalize gay marriage, provoking yet another national debate about same-sex unions. The Lessins' advocacy group, the Maui-based World Polyamory Association, is pushing for the next frontier of less-traditional codified relationships. This community has even come up with a name for what the rest of the world generally would call a committed threesome: the "triad."

Unlike open marriages and the swinger days of the 1960s and 1970s, these unions are not about sex with multiple outside partners. Nor are they relationships where one person is involved with two others, who are not involved with each other, a la actress Tilda Swinton. That's closer to bigamy. Instead, triads—"triangular triads," to use precise polyamorous jargon—demand that all three parties have full relationships, including sexual, with each other. In the Lessins case, that can be varying pairs but, as Sasha, a psychologist, puts it, "Janet loves it when she gets a double decker." In a triad, there would be no doubt in Elizabeth Edwards’ mind whether her husband fathered a baby out of wedlock; she likely would have participated in it.

Sounds like at best a metastable state, though it seems that they have thought of that too:

Akien MacIain and his wife, Dawn Davidson, have been counseling dyads, triads, quads and once even a quint, in San Francisco for over a decade. On their Web site, they offer tips for creating agreements—among them, “Use Time Limited Agreements Where Needed” (i.e., two weeks, two months, and so on) and “Check in Periodically; Renegotiate if Needed.”

If nothing else, these marriages, when legalized, ought to provide plenty of business for divorce lawers.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

What Men Are Thinking

Driving to work this AM, I heard an ad for a new show promising to explain men's latest thinking to women. I see the same sort of promise on the magazines at the supermarket. Now I have a peculiar theory about that: maybe they just try listening to men talk.

I even have some theories about what they would hear. Mostly, I think, men talk is about (a)showing off, (b)themselves , (c)sports, (d)work and work politics, (e)sex, and (f)women, with(e) and (f) only distantly related. If they notice a not obviously decrepit woman listening, of course, you can neglect everything except (a) and (b).

Men might harbor similar curiosity about women's thinking, but that kind of show for them woudn't work. Trying to find out about women in that way would be almost as humiliating as asking for directions. Men could try the listening to women trick, but it usually comes acropper when the man zones out or interrupts with inappropriate comments. I have spent some time listening to women myself, and I would probably have a pretty good idea what they are thinking about except for usually (a)zoning out, or (b)interrupting inappropriately to try and turn the conversation to some topic more interesting, for example, me.

Full Court Press

Malcolm Gladwell has written a New Yorker article on: How David Beats Goliath. More on the larger topic later, but his featured example is that of supposedly untalented 12 year girls league team that got to the nationals on the strength of its unconventional tactic: a full-court press.

Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he settled on two principles. The first was that he would never raise his voice. This was National Junior Basketball—the Little League of basketball. The team was made up mostly of twelve-year-olds, and twelve-year-olds, he knew from experience, did not respond well to shouting. He would conduct business on the basketball court, he decided, the same way he conducted business at his software firm. He would speak calmly and softly, and convince the girls of the wisdom of his approach with appeals to reason and common sense.

The second principle was more important. Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

There is more, of course, but the story is that the full-court press, executed by what he called his "little blond girls," with the aid of some coaching help from expert ringers, tore the opposition apart. They panicked, got demoralized, and gave up steal after steal for easy baskets.

The usual suspects chimed in: Kevin Drum thinks it was:

Plus, as Chad says, Gladwell seems oddly insensitive to the criticism that "playing '40 Minutes of Hell' is kind of a dick move in a league of twelve-year-old girls." But, really, it is. The coach who did this isn't a brilliant innovator, he's kind of a dick.

I've got to call bullshit on Chad and Kevin here. The full-court press is not only exciting basketball, but it's also a very good test of basketball fundamentals. You can't play the press without good teamwork, and you can't beat it without the same.

Most junior basketball is dominated by a few superior athletes who do most of the ball handling and most of the shooting, with their teammates serving mainly as decoys. The press attacks this tactic directly. The way to beat the press is to move without the ball and pass to the open girl (or man).

Because the press is relatively rare, it's also often an effective surprise. Surprise or not, however, the poorly coached team won't be able to cope. If you beat the press you usually get a fast break. If the press gets the ball, the defender gets a similar transition position. Either way, it's exciting basketball, and not "unfair" in anyway. What I think is a lot more unfair is a game where 9 girls stand around watching the one 5' 11" coordinated girl shoot baskets.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Gandhi in Gaza

NPR had an interview with a guy who had a charter to solve the world's greatest problems. His approach to the Middle East conflict: show the movie "Gandhi" to Palestinians in Gaza. He claimed that it was a revelation to many of them. The possibility of nonviolent resistance - much less its historical record of accomplishment - had not occurred to them.

I find that surprising but plausible. I also suspect that Gandhi's methods would be very powerful in Gaza. Hamas and Mossad are probably already plotting to assassinate any nonviolent resisters.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Mumble, Mumble, Curse, Curse

Or how economics is still dominated by psuedo-scientific charlatans..

Alex Tabbarok posts an excerpt promoting his and Tyler Cowen's new Macroecon book:

In the United States, diarrhea is a pain, an annoyance, and of course an embarrassment. In much of the developing world, diarrhea is a killer, especially of children. Every year 1.8 million children die from diarrhea. Ending the premature deaths of these children does not require any scientific breakthroughs, nor does it require new drugs or fancy medical devices. Preventing these deaths requires only one thing: economic growth.

A typical dishonest bit of libertarian religious hucksterism. Most severe infant diarrhea is due to unclean water and eliminated by supplying clean water. Not that economic growth is unrelated to infant mortality - but it's a long term and indirect effect.

The rest of the text of the chapter is better. The strong actual correlation is to per capita gdp, and it's shown in several graphs,but even it is hardly ironclad. A very poor country like Cuba has very low infant mortality, while the very rich Saudi Arabia has high infant mortality. Portugal is much poorer than the US, but has much lower infant mortality. It's not just how much money you have, it's how you choose to deploy it.

As usual, a quick lesson in most of the pertinent statistics can be had at Gapminder.

Economic growth, per se, is only weakly correlated with infant mortality. China has grown more rapidly than any other large country for decades now, but still has terrible infant mortality. Remember too, that it is per capita gdp that counts. Saudi Arabia inherited fabulous riches, but they mostly squandered it by concentrating it in a corrupt wealthy class and by quadrupling their population. Subequatorial Africa is less rich, but its lack of economic progress is as much due to population growth as to all its other calamities.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Jacob Weisberg, Miserable Douchebag

Jacob Weisberg has a new Slate column explaining that the torture perpetrators can't be punished because "all Americans are guilty." His reasoning:

By 2003, if you didn't understand that the United States was inflicting torture on those deemed enemy combatants, you weren't paying much attention

He then cherry picks some prescient reports that strongly hinted at just that. Meanwhile, he forgets to add, all the machinery of government and most of the press was denying it. Where was Weisberg calling out the liars? Not in the pages of the online magazine he edits. Weisberg, remember, was one of those so called "liberals" in the Israel lobby busy cheerleading for the attack on Iraq. Those "liberals" played a disproportionate share in getting the country behind Bush's war.

Where was Weisberg after Abu Ghraib, when the lawyers defending the low level soldiers were claiming that they had orders from above were called liars by the very architects of that policy. Somehow I don't recall him calling out Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush, even when those soldiers got long prison sentences.

This is not to claim that guilt wasn't widely distributed in the government and even the press. Nor to claim that much of the American populace didn't support such tactics. But those who knew, including (by his own testimony) Weisberg, kept the silence or actively sold Bush's big lie: The United States "does not torture." The liars have plenty of guilt not shared by the lied to.

Weisberg is a scumbag busily tring to pass his own guilt on to everybody else. What an asshole.

Cheney as Iago

Hilzoy's version.

Andrew Sullivan and friends have some alternatives here and here.

but I go with the reader's suggestion of Grima Wormtongue.

Something Interesting/Something Stupid

Martin Walker reports some interesting demographic trends and draws some remarkably obtuse conclusions from them. The interesting facts are that fertility is climbing in Northern Europe and the US but falling most other places, except sub-quitorial Africa. The shallows of his analysis are on exhibit in the following:

Iran is experiencing what may be one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in human history. Thirty years ago, after the shah had been driven into exile and the Islamic Republic was being established, the fertility rate was 6.5. By the turn of the century, it had dropped to 2.2. Today, at 1.7, it has collapsed to European levels. The implications are profound for the politics and power games of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, putting into doubt Iran’s dreams of being the regional superpower and altering the tense dynamics between the Sunni and Shiite wings of Islam. Equally important are the implications for the economic future of Iran, which by ­mid­century may have consumed all of its oil and will confront the challenge of organizing a society with few people of working age and many ­pensioners.

Aside from Mr. Walker's quaint nineteenth century notion that Iran's future regional power status depends somehow on its bulging out of its borders with twice the population it can reasonably support, there is plenty of other twisted logic. Does he think that Iran would consume its oil more slowly if it had twice as many people? Why (aside from the obvious) does he think Iran is obsessed with nuclear technolgy? Even if one thinks massive overpopulation is somehow useful, isn't it a bit early to speculate on Iran's population in 2050? Being short a few forty-one year olds in 2050 will be no handicap if their are plenty of twenty to forty year olds.

More importantly, the data show a consistent association between low fertility and rate of gdp growth. No other factor is more central to China's transformation from enfeebled giant to superpower. It is far more likely that Iran's current low fertility rate will produce rapid economic, social, and political progress than that it will somehow fatally weaken it in 2050 - not that Iran is in much danger of becoming a superpower in any case. What it can hope for, and low fertility rates will help, is to become modern, wealthy, and locally powerful.

Not An Idiot

I just read economics correspondent David Leonhardt's interview with Obama in the New York Times magazine, and all I can say is that it sure is nice to have a President who isn't an idiot. One can no more imagine W sitting for a hour long one-on-one with an economics correspondent than singing Don Giovanni, but Obama did. His answers to Leonhardt's question are typically long, thoughtfull, and well-informed. The last paragraph shows the pragmatist in sharp relief against the ideologue with the singularly stupid gut:

What I’m very confident about is that given the difficult options before us, we are making good, thoughtful decisions. I have enormous confidence that we are weighing all our options and we are making the best choices. That doesn’t mean that every choice is going to be right, is going to work exactly the way we want it to. But I wake up in the morning and go to bed at night feeling that the direction we are trying to move the economy toward is the right one and that the decisions we make are sound.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Wall Street's Man

Jo Becker and Gretchnen Morgenson's New York Times profile of Tim Geithner is required reading for everyone trying to understand how Wall Street owns our government. Their is little in it to hint at any corrupt influence on Geithner, but it's obvious that he is and has been under the spell of Wall Street's thinking.

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription. Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

And more often than not, Mr. Geithner has been a leading architect of those bailouts, the activist at the head of the pack. He was the federal regulator most willing to “push the envelope,” said H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent Wall Street lawyer who spoke frequently with Mr. Geithner.

Geithner seems to sincerely believe that his prescriptions are best for the country, but there is little doubt that he has put enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars at risk with little hope that much of it will ever come back. Geithner, like Larry Summers, and presumably Obama believes that the risks of loss to the taxpayer are a lot less than the risk of not acting, but many disagree, including Nobel Prize economists Paul Krugman and Joe Stigler.

While head of the New York Fed, Geithner had a front row seat at all the financial shenanigans that led to disaster, but he was hardly a strong voice for reform:

Mr. Geithner pushed the industry to keep better records of derivative deals, a measure that experts credit with mitigating the chaos once firms began to topple. But he stopped short of pressing for comprehensive regulation and disclosure of derivatives trading and even publicly endorsed their potential to damp risk.

Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University, who made early predictions of the crisis, said Mr. Geithner deserved credit for trying, especially given that the Fed chairman at the time, Alan Greenspan, was singing the praises of derivatives.

Even as Mr. Geithner was counseling banks to take precautions against adversity, some economists were arguing that easy credit was feeding a more obvious problem: a housing bubble.

Despite those warnings, a report released by the New York Fed in 2004 called predictions of gloom “flawed” and “unpersuasive.” And as lending standards evaporated and the housing boom reached full throttle, banks plunged ever deeper into risky mortgage-backed securities and derivatives.

The nitty-gritty task of monitoring such risk-taking is done by 25 examiners at each large bank. Mr. Geithner reviewed his examiners’ reports, but since they are not public, it is hard to fully assess the New York Fed’s actions during that period.

Given the environment (Bush, Greenspan, Bernanke) their might have been little he could do - but in any case he didn't do it.

I sometimes think that it might have been preferable to let AIG, Citi and all the others fall like dominoes. It would have been an interesting experiment in financial chaos - but we are getting that anyway with the added bonus that the malefactors have learned that any punishment will be temporary and most failures will be bailed out. Of course, it might really have ended Western Civilization and the global economic system, at least for a decade or two.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Slippery Slopes and Normal

NPR had a story on the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, settled and populated by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and Tahitian women. The story concerned the trial in 2005 of several men for rape and child molestation. According to the reporter, a culture had grown up on the island in which essentially all girl children had been raped by the age of 12.

This is a reminder that almost all the rules of sexual behavior developed by religions and civilizations are ultimately conventions chosen by society, and that those who speak of "slippery slopes" when those laws are modified are not entirely crazy. Pitcairn is hardly a freak - we know that rape and child abuse were widely tolerated in ancient Greek and Roman civilization, to name just two.

Nevertheless, this does not suggest to me that we should let God pick our rules of morality, especially when "God" in this case becomes a sentence or two cherry picked from an ancient book that is really more interested in what people eat and how they trim their beards.

Friday, May 01, 2009

China Syndrome

Libertarians drive me nuts with their market magic and pie in the sky theories of doing without government. One popular meme among the libnuts is the idea that there is no important difference between Japanese corporations making cars in Ohio and a US corporation doing the same thing. They laugh off any notion that governments might be interested in something less transitory than maximizing this year's profit in the auto industry.

Meanwhile China is moving agressively to strengthen its grip everywhere with military as well as manufacturing power.

One instructive example is described in this Times Online story of how Chinese money is powering the ruthless Sri Lankan campaign to annihilate the Tamil Tigers. The Chinese don't have a real dog in that fight, but by funding that war, they not only prevent any peace negotiation but buy themselves an ultramodern naval base at a gateway to the Indian Ocean.

On the southern coast of Sri Lanka, ten miles from one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, a vast construction site is engulfing the once sleepy fishing town of Hambantota.

This poor community of 21,000 people is about as far as one can get on the island from the fighting between the army and the Tamil Tiger rebels on the northeastern coast. The sudden spurt of construction helps, however, to explain why the army is poised to defeat the Tigers and why Western governments are so powerless to negotiate a ceasefire to help civilians trapped on the front line.

This is where China is building a $1 billion port that it plans to use as a refuelling and docking station for its navy, as it patrols the Indian Ocean and protects China’s supplies of Saudi oil. Ever since Sri Lanka agreed to the plan, in March 2007, China has given it all the aid, arms and diplomatic support it needs to defeat the Tigers, without worrying about the West.

Even India, Sri Lanka’s long-time ally and the traditionally dominant power in South Asia, has found itself sidelined in the past two years — to its obvious irritation. “China is fishing in troubled waters,” Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s Home Minister, warned last week.

The point of the Chinese action is obvious to any student of naval history, but doubtless utterly opague to the libidiots. They aim to counter American and Indian power in the Indian Ocean. Should they succeed, they will take a firm grip on the world's oil and a dominant position in Africa.

Steve Benen Asks

Who would Jesus torture?

I think he meant "whom," but whatever. Since I don't seem to be permitted to comment there, let me just note the obvious answer:


What did you think that Hell stuff was about, Steve?