Saturday, January 31, 2009

Demolition

A favorite climate ploy of the crackpot rightwing creationists and other reality deniers is claiming that a warmer Sun is responsible for observed climate warming. Lou Dobbs, no lefty he, had representatives for both sides on his show. I was impressed by how effortlessly the scientist managed to puncture this particular bit of nonsense.

If the Sun is hotter, he noted, why is the upper atmosphere cooler while the lower atmosphere is warmer? The "upper cooler, lower hotter" pattern is an unambiguous greenhouse effect signature. There is no plausible way for a warming Sun to produce such an effect. The perp has to be in our atmosphere.

Suicide Pact?

The House Republicans have apparently decided to be relentlessly obstructionist on everything from the economic stimulus bill to digital telivision. So is trying to cause the President's programs to fail good strategy or a suicide pact?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

One Idiot's Guide to the Economosphere

Paul Krugman - a very clever fellow who should never be allowed to use the word "wonk." (If it is a word)

Brad DeLong - Another clever fellow - unfortunately also a reincarnation of Savronala. Could stand to be more temperate/mealy mouthed.

Eugene Fama - Who?

Tyler Cowen - A very clever fellow who would be more successful if he were less concerned with being the coolest kid in the school.

John Cochrane - Eugene Fama's son-in-law. The Fama family's most useful output: Children's stories.

Greg Mankiw I - Prolific writer of unintelligible but prestigious textbooks. Good blogger.

Greg Mankiw II - Bottom dwelling Bush admin econo-liar. Not known to be related to his namesake.

Steven Landsberg - Math/relativity dropout. Also, frequently annoying twit.

Steven Levitt - Economist with a genius for self-promotion.

Milton Friedmann, John M Keynes, Adam Smith. Members of two famous economics clubs: G = good economists, D = dead economists. An important but unproven conjecture holds that G is a subset of D.

Lawrence Summers - Former Harvard President and Treasury Sec. Famed for his groundbreaking study: "The Economics of Tact."

Wonk - The sound a goose makes as it is sucked into the engine of an Airbus A-380 personal luxury jet with onboard parking for your Rolls.

Is Economics Worthless?

The subject of the stimulus furiously divided the economists of the Chicago faith from others. The Mellonites are convinced that the stimulus is unlikely to do any good. Meanwhile, Krugman, DeLong and others keep complaining that despite all their Nobel Memorial prizes, the fresh-water economists don't understand elementary macroeconomics. The width of the gulf suggests that there might not be anything that economics has learned that is relevant to science or policy. Krugman:

...Nobody who was at all familiar with this literature could make the logic mistakes that are coming fast and furious from the fresh-water economists.

What this reveals, I think, is just how insular part of the macroeconomics profession has become. They just don’t read anything that doesn’t come from their cult circle; they just weren’t aware of major bodies of work that didn’t happen to be in their preferred style.

This insularity is asymmetric. Ask a PhD student at Princeton what a real business cycle theorist would say about something, and he or she can do that; ask a student at one of the freshwater schools what a new Keynesian would say, and I doubt that he or she could answer. They’ve been taught that there is one true faith, and have been carefully protected from heresy.

It’s a sad story.

For the top experts to be so divided on a question like this suggests to the outsider that in economics, there is no there there. Perhaps we would be better off if all the economics departments were bulldozed and replaced by something more practical, like art history.

Back when physics used to be a science, we had a remedy for such impasses: see what the alternative theories predict and check the results against what actually happens. Given that it seems certain the stimulus will be passed, maybe the fresh and salt water varieties of economist could agree on what their respective theories predict differently about the results. If they do, at least we can check the results and figure out which half of the profession are the idiots that the other half claims. If they can't, or don't predict anything differently, we can conclude that the mutual contempt bandied about is just posturing, and that neither has anything useful to say.

My money is on the neo-Keynesians, but that leaves the question of what the Friedmanites got all those Nobels for.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Badgers

Badges, we don't need no stinkin badges...

Prompted in part by the writings of Arun and his guru, I realized that I have left out a huge part of the role of contemporary religions: that of keeper and enforcer of morality codes, and thereby of social and power relationships. I'm not sure if this applies to primitive societies, but it's clearly a cardinal role in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Hindu religion.

That role is probably even more relevant for most societies than the (closely related) role of organizing for war. Most religious warfare is internal to societies rather than external. Different groups can be seen competing for control of the levers of power in all of the religions I have mentioned. Often the struggle is portrayed as between fundamentalist and modern, but that is surely an oversimplification.

Why do the Taliban blow up schools for girls, or Hindu mobs burn movie theaters, or West Bank settlers stone Palestinian children? They usually justify such actions in the name of God or religion, but more concrete economic and social goals can be detected by the cynical.

The struggle for control of the mind of the society goes on furiously in most modern countries, but the struggle is fiercist in societies in the grip of radical change and restructuring. Americans are most familiar with the attempt of the fundamentalists among us to keep thier grip on sexual morality, but I suspect that this has an underlying economic and political motif. Is it coincidence that the biggest players in the anti-abortion and anti-gay movements in the US are each at the center of large financial empires? I doubt it.

The stakes in the Middle East and Islamic world are much more overtly political, but India is perhaps the most interesting case of all. Unfortunately, I don't yet know enough to have a clear view, but some very familiar themes are clearly in play (nationalism, national identity, sexual morality) while other elements are more novel (especially the complexities of the caste system).

Friday, January 23, 2009

Button, Button

Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Three hours long, but it seemed much longer. Perhaps it was an effect of the Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's incompatible arrows of time, but more likely it was just because this is an excruciatingly bad movie. Boring, plotless, incoherent, illogical, maudlin and slow-ow-ow. Four hundred funerals and an endless voice over mainly by Pitt.

Some of the scenery was OK, and the makeup guy really does deserve an Oscar, but I can't imagine why this interminable piece of pretentious crap got 13 Academy Award nominations. I surely hope it doesn't win any - except for makeup, that is.

By the thirty minute mark I was willing to pay another $8 for the damn thing to end.

Supposedly this was based on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps it could even have been an amusing short subject. But a three hour movie with a ten minute plot and no interesting character development - ugh.

Did I mention that I didn't care for the movie? Come to think of it, screw the makeup guy - nobody should have to watch this. Not quite sure what inane plotting resulted in Hurricane Katrina coming in to destroy New Orleans at the end, but by that time I was definitely cheering for Kat.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

That Old Time Religion

Religions, like other social institutions, changed dramatically when humans started practicing agriculture and living in cities. In most cases, the religion became closely allied with that other new invention, the state. Priestly classes, and priest kings appeared. A nastier invention also seems to have sprung up very broadly at about the same time: human sacrifice. When the priests gained power, so did the gods, and with that they became greedy for blood. The practice seems to have occurred everywhere cities did: Europe, the Middle East, India, China, and the Americas. The largest scale carnage we have documented was that of the Aztecs, whose bloody warfare was carried on mainly for the purpose acquiring more victims for their sacrificial rites. Modern religions have official objurred it, but many have bloody roots. The Bible documents a couple of cases of human sacrifice, but more are mentioned. Their Semitic relatives, the Carthaginians were reputed to be big sacrificers of children.

Christianity's central narrative is that of a human sacrifice (that of Jesus), and Catholics are told that in communion they are literally eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, even though they have been disguised as bread and wine in order to seem less icky. Muslims officially abjure human sacrifice, but the "martyrs" whose ritual murder suicides are glorified by Muslim extremists are just that.

Human sacrifice seems to have been fairly widely practiced in Africa and India (in the forms of Tantric murders and the murder/suicides of sati) until very recently, and in fact occasional occurrences still seem to happen.

So what's up with that?

We can only guess, of course, but it is here than Jared Diamond's theory might enter. The sacrifices, the glorification of martyrs and heroes, might all increase the power of the priests, and their ability to draft people into war.

We like to think that we are beyond that, but the example of the suicide bombers suggests that we are not completely. Modern religions have largely ceded that role to the state, but some of the same mechanisms still seem to be in play.

The Goof Supreme

So why did John Roberts flub the presidential oath? Steven Pinker has a persuasive theory.

How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? Conspiracy theorists and connoisseurs of Freudian slips have surmised that it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama’s vote against the chief justice’s confirmation in 2005. But a simpler explanation is that the wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling.

Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.

Among these fetishes is the prohibition against “split verbs,” in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like “to,” or an auxiliary like “will,” and the main verb of the sentence. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly.” Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that “I will always love you” but “I always will love you” or “I will love you always.”

Any speaker who has not been brainwashed by the split-verb myth can sense that these corrections go against the rhythm and logic of English phrasing. The myth originated centuries ago in a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive because it consists of a single word, like dicere, “to say.” But in English, infinitives like “to go” and future-tense forms like “will go” are two words, not one, and there is not the slightest reason to interdict adverbs from the position between them.

Though the ungrammaticality of split verbs is an urban legend, it found its way into The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is the arbiter of usage for many law review journals. James Lindgren, a critic of the manual, has found that many lawyers have “internalized the bogus rule so that they actually believe that a split verb should be avoided,” adding, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has succeeded so well that many can no longer distinguish alien speech from native speech.”

In his legal opinions, Chief Justice Roberts has altered quotations to conform to his notions of grammaticality, as when he excised the “ain’t” from Bob Dylan’s line “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” On Tuesday his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb “faithfully” away from the verb.

President Obama, whose attention to language is obvious in his speeches and writings, smiled at the chief justice’s hypercorrection, then gamely repeated it. Let’s hope that during the next four years he will always challenge dogma and boldly lead the nation in new directions.

So the Constitutional strict constructionist was trumped by the linguistic pedant.

Or, as Prof. Dr. Leslie Winkle might have put it:

Dumbass!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On Purpose

People who study such things tell us that the ability to identify and understand the motivations of others is, if not uniquely human, at least uniquely developed in humans. It's a very powerful technique for understanding and predicting human interaction, not to mention being the most likely origin of art, empathy, politics, and perhaps even language. Lately, I've been wondering about its role in the origin of science and religion.

It's Arun's fault, or at least partly his fault, that I got started thinking about such things. Everytime I post something about religion - not too often, I hope - he posts some quotes on religion than I can't quite understand.

So why do religious ideas see to be almost universal in humans? How did our remote ancestors come up with such things? We don't know, of course, but we do have a couple of clues. The first clue is that those modern and pre-modern peoples who retained a lifestyle like that of our remote ancestors seem to be almost universal in having animist ideas. They see everything around them as containing spirits or gods that have motivations and purposes somewhat like our own. Sky gods, wind gods, storm gods, fire gods and the spirits of a grove of trees or a mountain.

Here is my idea (I have no idea as to its originality, but I don't recall seeing or hearing of it): understanding of purposeful behavior was such a useful tool in predicting human and animal behavior that it became natural to apply it to the inanimate world as well.

Here is an example with animal behavior. Humans and chimpanzees both find termites a useful source of food, and both hunt them. Humans are much cleverer at it. One technique, which could hardly be imagined without our purpose seeking thinking, is druming very lightly with ones fingers on the termite mound to create a sound in the mound like that of rain. Termites like to come out in the rain, it seems, and fooling them into thinking it's raining is one way to get a high protein meal.

Such purpose seeking behavior is less effective with inanimate things like the Sun and rain, but apparently still has some utility for making classifications and predictions. If the sky god is angry and clouds his face with clouds, he is likely to make thunder crash and lightning bolts fly.

I see this sort of animistic thinking as the real root of religious ideas, and of protoscientific ideas as well.

"Mr. Huxley," asked the reporter, "what has a lifetime of studying nature taught you about the ways of the Lord?"

"He seems," replied Huxley, "to have an inordinate fondness for beetles."

Huxley was having fun with his interlocutor, of course, but it certainly is one way to make the prevalence of beetles - there are about 350,000 extant species - memorable.

More to follow in a future posting on Agriculture and Religion.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Handwriting on the Wall

Brad DeLong looks at the 14% interest rate the NYT got on its loan from Carlos Slim and thinks that the game is just about up.

Good God almighty! 14% interest with short-term inflation at zero plus a share of the upside if the stock price recovers!

Duncan Black:

Eschaton: NYT Co is taking out a subprime loan.

The New York Times Company said Monday it had reached an agreement with the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú for a $250 million loan intended to help the newspaper company finance its businesses.

Under the terms of the deal, Mr. Slim, who already owns 6.9 percent of the Times Company, would invest $250 million in the form of six-year notes with warrants that are convertible into common shares, the company said in a statement. The notes also carry a 14 percent interest rate, with 11 percent paid in cash and 3 percent in additional bonds.
Not bad! If they'd let me I'd scrape together the pennies under my couch cushions and lend it to them for 14%.

Hard to see this deal as anything other than a forecast that the New York Times will be in bankruptcy court within a decade.

It's going to be weird to live in a country without a newspaper.

Monday, January 19, 2009

So What?

I guess I just lost my husband
I don't know where he went
...................So What, by Pink


Found him?

Atheism, Religion and War

Thoughtful atheists are often baffled by thier fellow humans stubborn attachment to religion. Even a smart guy like Richard Dawkins lapses into silliness when trying to concoct an explanation. My guess is that the question doesn't even occur to dumber guys like PZ Myers and Christopher Hitchens - but I don't know.

Part of their confusion, I suspect, stems from confusing religion and theology. In practice theology is a relatively unimportant part of religion, serving somewhat the same function in religion that a hood ornament does for a car. Because our atheist friends mostly fail to understand this, they waste a lot of time "refuting" various religious beliefs.

The key to understanding religion, I think, is understanding its historical and present role in society. Consider Gaza as a thought experiment. If Gazans were or suddenly became Christians, Israeli policy would crumple like a MacDonald's sandwich wrapper. If those images of dead and maimed Muslim children were images of dead and maimed Christian children American policy would shudder to a halt and turn on Israel with crushing force.

The point is that religious affiliations are potent badges for tribal affiliation. American support for Israel stems from two factors, the American protestant desire to convert the Holy Land (and bring on the end of days) and American Jews virtually unanimous support for their tribe in the Middle East fight. In both cases, the badge of the tribe is the key factor involved.

For me, the argument is very strong for Jared Diamond's idea that religions took their modern form to organize large groups for armed struggle against each other. From this point of view, religion is a tool for moving the unit of selection from the individual to the tribe. Groups that failed to adopt and unify around suitable badges get killed out by those that do.

When I observe the antics of a dolt like PZ Myers, who arranged the theft of a consecrated Catholic host so that he could abuse it, I am both disgusted and amused. Does he really not realize that he is re-enacting the ancient tribal rite of counting coup against another tribe? That there is no intellectual distance between his actions and those of the gangbanger who tags an innocent wall with his own tribal affiliations. The answer, of course, is that he doesn't . He is a fanatical member of the Church Militant of Atheism, and his acts in defence of his religion are sanctioned by his Faith.

Hint to the Palestinians: if you want your land back, try converting to Catholic or Southern Baptist. It's bound to be more effective than the pop guns Iran is providing you with.

Hint to the Israelis: you may have picked an inopportune time and place to establish a new state based on a theocratic and racist principle. On the other hand, there is no chance that the Palestinians will adopt my advice, and little chance that Muslims will join the modern world anytime soon, so you could be alright.


The Undead

Paul Krugman argues that Citigroup and other zombie banks need to go. The alternative, giving them taxpayer gifts of a few hundred billion to keep them walking, is robbery and a very bad precedent.

To explain the issue, let me describe the position of a hypothetical bank that I’ll call Gothamgroup, or Gotham for short.

On paper, Gotham has $2 trillion in assets and $1.9 trillion in liabilities, so that it has a net worth of $100 billion. But a substantial fraction of its assets — say, $400 billion worth — are mortgage-backed securities and other toxic waste. If the bank tried to sell these assets, it would get no more than $200 billion.

So Gotham is a zombie bank: it’s still operating, but the reality is that it has already gone bust. Its stock isn’t totally worthless — it still has a market capitalization of $20 billion — but that value is entirely based on the hope that shareholders will be rescued by a government bailout.

Why would the government bail Gotham out? Because it plays a central role in the financial system. When Lehman was allowed to fail, financial markets froze, and for a few weeks the world economy teetered on the edge of collapse. Since we don’t want a repeat performance, Gotham has to be kept functioning. But how can that be done?

Well, the government could simply give Gotham a couple of hundred billion dollars, enough to make it solvent again. But this would, of course, be a huge gift to Gotham’s current shareholders — and it would also encourage excessive risk-taking in the future. Still, the possibility of such a gift is what’s now supporting Gotham’s stock price.

A better approach would be to do what the government did with zombie savings and loans at the end of the 1980s: it seized the defunct banks, cleaning out the shareholders. Then it transferred their bad assets to a special institution, the Resolution Trust Corporation; paid off enough of the banks’ debts to make them solvent; and sold the fixed-up banks to new owners.

The thing that makes these plans especially odious is that it was the reckless behavior of these very banks that precipitated the current economic crisis.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lucky

Sully Sullenberger, the hero of the day is getting well deserved kudos as a brilliant pilot. It's also true that he was lucky. If he had been only just a tiny bit unlucky, his plane would have broken apart on landing, and many or most of the passengers and crew would likely have died. If that had happened he would have been pilloried by some for not choosing to attempt to land at one of the two nearby airports, but his decision would still have been correct. He very quickly evaluated the risks and decided that the risk of a catastrophic crash that might have killed many more than just the passengers was too great.

President Obama will face several terrible challenges in his first term, and it is certain that success will require luck as well as good judgement. My guess is that at least some of his policies will fail. We can only hope that such failures, if they occur, will not cloud his judgement of how to proceed.

We have just about finished with one President who continually brags about his decision making even though nearly all his decisions were disastrous. Not only were the decisions bad, but the decision making process was textbook folly. A very ignorant and not very bright president insisted on making his decisions with a minimum of information input, ignored anything that didn't fit his stereotypes, and was effortlessly manipulated by his advisors.

Obama seems to be unusually free of those specific vices. Let's hope that his virtues serve him well.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thought Experiment

Imagine that nothing else about the last 70 years in the Middle East was changed but that the Palestinians were predominantly Christian. What kind of a different universe would that produce?

Nationalization

Nationalization is a word that gives every good capitalist, and lots of us slightly less good capitalists, the shivers. Experience has proven that (a)governments are lousy at running entrepeneurial enterprises and (b)giving the government huge chunks of the economy seriously constrains everybody else's freedom.

The problem we have is that several huge banks, notably Citi and Bank America, made a bunch of bad loans and are seriously insolvent, despite already enormous injections of taxpayer money. The money involved is more than the GDPs of most countries, and there is a well-founded fear that their collapse could spread an Iceland-like financial armageddon to the entire world.

Kevin Drum takes a look at the voices for nationalization and especially at the mostly admired Swedish experience in nationalization in the 1990s. His tentative conclusion: let's not get hasty.

So is this what we should do? I don't have the financial chops to say — though certainly government ownership makes the "bad bank" idea a lot easier to implement. But if we think the Swedish model is worth taking guidance from, the path ahead includes systemic debt guarantees, capital injections, a bad bank for toxic waste, and nationalization only as a last resort.


Of course it's plenty ironic that the most conservative government since Hoover led us into a situation where that very government decided that it needed to massively intervene in the economy and is talking about nationalization. Whatever we do, let's not get our butts in this kind of a crack again anytime soon - once per century is more than enough.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

And The Horse's Ass You Rode In With

Arianna Huffington had the right diagnosis for Bush's goodbye speech: "Still delusional after all these years."

Reports From Stupid World

Hilzoy looks at Pentagon reports that many of the people released from Gitmo returned to their terrorist ways. Some of the evidence is straight from StupidWorld.

". What the DoD actually counted as their "return to the fight" was-- I hope you're sitting down -- the fact that one of them published an op-ed in the New York Times.

Yet another reason not to brake for Republicans.

Shock! Moon Really Green Cheese!

The Party of Stupid may be hurting, but they still have suicide bombers willing to go out and lose one for the Gipper. Richard L. Connor, whoever the hell that is, thinks "History May See Lincoln-Like Greatness in George W. Bush."

Right, and there are so many parallels. Lincoln was a self-made man from the humblest origins, Bush was a perpetual screwup from the rotting detritus of the aristocracy; Lincoln was our most eloquent President ...

Never mind.

David Kurtz of TPM is to blame fro bringing this particular moron to my attention.

PS. About the speech tonight. When do they get to the part where he is tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

...And Tinkerbell Saved The Lost Boys

Andrew Sullivan has a reader who gives us a glimpse into the greatest conservative legal mind of his generation:

A reader writes:

You asked (referring to 24): "Do people take this stuff seriously?"

Quite unfortunately, yes. I guess you've forgotten the comments of one of Justice Scalia:

"Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles . . . . He saved hundreds of thousands of lives.... Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?" Then, "I don't think so... So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes."

Pretty scary, huh?

The Magic of Strings

Relying on the recommend of the Lubonator in a very laudatory review posted to his blog and Amazon, I bought David McMahon’s String Theory Demystified and started going through it.

Perhaps you are familiar with the following “derivation:”

1 = Sqrt (1)

= (-1)*(-1)*Sqrt(1)

= (-1)*(i^2)*Sqrt(1) where i is the imaginary = Sqrt(-1)

= - Sqrt(i^4 * 1)

= - Sqrt(1) since i^4 = 1

= - 1

Truly an impressive result – even more so when you notice that steps 2-5 are utterly superfluous.

I mention this because David McMahon, in his book “String Theory Demystified,” uses the exact same trick to deduce that x * Sqrt(- m^2 / x) = - m * Sqrt(-x), (I have simplified a bit - he has lots of subscripts and superscripts and manages to throw in both more steps and a couple of cancelling sign errors.) (Pages 27-28, and yes, it did take him most of two pages).

This is hardly an inconsequential aside. The procedure is intended to illustrate how the so-called Polyakov action can be shown to be equivalent to the Nambu-Goto action.

Needless to say, this has shaken my faith in the idea that I can learn anything much about string theory from McMahon.

Wolfgang - I'm relying on you to check my work!

Consorting With the Enemy

Via Josh Marshall. Oh dear!.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Down Plaxico Way

Senator Burress will be sworn in tomorrow. This is truly an amazing American comeback. And how did he manage to both shoot himself in the leg and Eli Manning in the passing arm?

Krudlow & Friends

Why exactly does Larry Krudlow continue to have giant television and other media pulpits?

See Paul Krugman for the forensics in vivid graphical form.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Exceeding Himself

Just when you think that George Bush has plumbed the ultimate depths of cluelessness, he tops himself with this gem due to Atrios:

8 days left of this absurd tiny man.


One thing Bush hadn't shared previously was his thinking about Hurricane Katrina, which up until the financial crisis was seen as his biggest domestic failure.

"I've thought long and hard about Katrina; you know, could I have done something differently," he said. Like what? "[L]ike land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge."

Yeah, maybe you didn't play the PR quite right.

A short list:

  1. Two years before: appoint somebody other than Skeletor to head Homeland Security. Comic book villains are usually a poor choice for key national security posts.
  2. Six months before: Appoint an experienced emergency manager head of FEMA instead of a political crony who failed at every job he had.
  3. Two months before, when it became clear a very severe hurricane season was coming: Preposition emergency response materials. Train emergency responders.
  4. Five days before, when it became clear that a terrible hurricane was going to hit the Gulf Coast: Call up emergency responders, prepare evacuation plans - and put away the f****** air guitar.
  5. Day after, when the scope of the disaster was clear - send in troops, emergency supplies, airlift food and water.
  6. One week after, when CNN and Fox had been there for six days documenting the dead and dying, but no hint of federal aid had yet appeared: Shoot Skeletor, shoot Brownie, send in the goddamn aid.
  7. One month after: stop trying to use the diaster as an excuse to funnel money to political cronies and bury the dead.
  8. One year after: send the aid you promised.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Another Stupid Prediction From David Brooks

Maybe Obama can pull this off, but I have my worries. By this time next year, he’ll either be a great president or a broken one.
............David Brooks

Either of those is possible of course, but neither is especially likely. How would Brooks have evaluated Lincoln after his first year?

More likely is a third possibility. After one very challenging year, Obama will probably have a few obvious successes, a few obvious failures, and a potload of issues hanging fire. How he deals with the latter two will determine the fate of his Presidency.

Despite the epic failure of 9/11, George Bush was not yet a failed president after his first year. It was his persistence in his error and failure to change course that turned it into a disaster.

The greatest Presidents, especially Lincoln, had terrible failures. Their greatness emerged from their ability to recognize and get beyond those failures.

Priorities

Steve Benen looks at George Bush's Presidential priorities:

PRESSURE'S ON.... George W. Bush's two terms haven't been successful, but they have been eventful. The president has faced daunting challenges and striking crises, some of his own making.

And given what we've seen, statements like these are just painful.

Asked by People magazine what moments from the last eight years he revisited most often, W. talked passionately about the pitch he threw out at the World Series in 2001: "I never felt that anxious any other time during my presidency, curiously enough."


Specifically, People asked, "Which moments from the last eight years do you revisit most often?" Bush, after talking about meeting with families of fallen soldiers, replied, "I think about throwing out that pitch at the World Series on [Oct. 30] 2001. My heart was racing when I got to the mound. Didn't want to bounce it. Didn't want to let the fans down. My heart was pumping so hard, I wasn't sure if I could lift my arm. I never felt that anxious any other time during my presidency, curiously enough."

Benen looks at the implied priorities:

Not on Sept. 11, not when sending troops into Iraq, not when he was told we might lose an American city to a hurricane. Not when the economy collapsed, not when anthrax starting killing people through the mail, not when he was told about what had happened at Abu Ghraib, not in the midst of crises in Israel, Afghanistan, Georgia, India, North Korea, or Pakistan

None of this is remotely surprising anymore, but it still chills me that half my fellow citizens voted for this tiny little imitation of a man twice.

Ouch!

So did the NY Giants' offense suck today or what?

Asteroid Impact?

Brad Setser has some graphics and discussion on the effect of the financial crisis/recession/depression on trade. The data is just early reporters Korea and Japan, but the impact looks a bit like that of a major asteroid encounter.

Words don’t really do justice to the sheer brutality of recent downturn in Korean and Taiwanese exports.

Brad has the charts.

Winkery/Wankery/Wonkery

Paul Krugman's latest post is entitled: Risks of deflation (wonkish but important)

"Wonkish," it seems, is econospeak for "technical." I wonder if that usage has been cleared with Nashville.

English Only

In Nashville, a new municipal resolution would require that Country and Western Songs be written only in English. Nashville city councilmen have aclaimed this measure as the first step in taking America back for Americans.

“Kono jyoukyou wa kaeru bekidesu,” said the councilman, Eric Crafton, who is fluent in Japanese. Translated, it meant, “This situation must change.”

In fairness, however, we really should report that other observers claim that due to certain imprecision in Mr. Crafton's syntax, his remarks could also be translated as "You are the backside of a mule."

A committee of English teachers has been appointed to vet all published music for proper grammar and usage. Because of the expected expense, this work will be outsourced to India.

A city council spokesman says that the next step will be to attempt to apply the same standards to rap and Tex-Mex.

"This is America," he said. "We can't have people just saying things anyway they want."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Yuck!

Huffington Post seems to have devolved into the cheesiest possible type of tabloid journamalism.

If I want this kind of garbage (misleading headlines, tabloid trash) I can just go to Drudge - and it loads faster.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Unrealistic Expectations

Charles Krauthammer is an MD, specifically a shrink, specializing in wishful thinking and other right wing nutjobbery. His latest contribution to that literature appeared today in the Washington Post. He thinks that the endgame is near in Gaza, and sees the options as twofold:

Israel's leaders have purposely obscured their war aims in Gaza. But there are only two possible endgames: (A) a Lebanon-like cessation of hostilities to be supervised by international observers, or (B) the disintegration of Hamas rule in Gaza.

Option A, he thinks, would be very bad. He doesn't address the question of why he thinks Israeli leaders have been deliberately obscure, which is not helpful to those of us who think those Israeli leaders don't have a f****** clue.

Option B is where the power of wishful thinking asserts itself. Thus speaketh Chuck:

In the first four minutes of this war, the Israeli Air Force destroyed 50 targets, taking down practically every instrument and symbol of Hamas rule. Gaza's Potemkin leaders were marginalized and rendered helpless, leaving their people to fend for themselves. At such moments, regimes are extremely vulnerable to forfeiting what the Chinese call the mandate of heaven, the sense of legitimacy that undergirds all forms of governance.

The fall of Hamas rule in Gaza is within reach, but only if Israel does not cave in to pressure to stop now. Overthrowing Hamas would not require a permanent Israeli reoccupation. A transitional international force would be brought in to immediately make way for the return of the Palestinian Authority, the legitimate government whose forces would be far less squeamish than the Europeans in establishing order in Gaza.

The disintegration of Hamas rule in Gaza would be a devastating blow to Palestinian rejectionists, who since the Hamas takeover of Gaza have been the ascendant "strong horse" in Palestinian politics. It would be a devastating blow to Iran as patron of radical Islamist movements throughout the region, particularly after the defeat and marginalization of Iran's Sadrist client in Iraq. It would encourage the moderate Arab states to continue their U.S.-allied confrontation of Iran and its proxies. And it would demonstrate Israel's irreplaceable strategic value to the United States in curbing and containing Iran's regional ambitions.

Of course the Chuckster thinks Israel missed a similar opportunity in Lebanon.

Krauthammer's delusional thinking is especially evident in his nonsensical prattling about the "mandate of heaven." Hamas still has its guns, most of its leadership is intact (hiding in their bunkers), and Gazans are outraged not against Hamas but against the people killing their children and blowing up their houses - and so is a lot of the rest of the world.

I think that Israel's choices are far grimmer - fight a war to the finish with Hamas that will cost them a thousand or more soldiers (and 100,000 Palestinian civilians), settle down to a bloody stalemate, or lose.

Idiots like Krauthammer used the same kind of thinking when they predicted triumph in Iraq with flowers strewn before our feet.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

When You're Rich ...

...they think you really know.

But, it seems, rich people turn out to be dumb in the same ways the rest of us are. About the selling of Bernie M.

In other cases, Mrs. Kohn appealed directly to investors during her frequent trips around Europe. Like Mr. Madoff himself, she used the promise of entree to an otherwise unavailable investment as her key selling point.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

AGW Refuted!!!!

Latest proofs that AGW can't be real

1)Temp drops below freezing at 51 degrees North latitude !!!!

2)7% of Earth cooled very slightly during the most recent decade!!!!

What will science discover next? Snow in Michigan!?

Bombing for Votes

The US is nearly the only country in the world where it's impossible to see any mainstream media criticism of Israel. Such is the grip of the Israel Lobby on the American Press, political parties, and most of the American public. If you want hard hitting critiques of Israeli policy, you need to go to Israeli papers, or the web.

Mark Lynch went to listen to the Israeli Ambassador

It was a profoundly dismaying experience. Because if Ambassador Meridor is taken at his word, then Israel has no strategy in Gaza.

Asked three times by audience members, Meridor simply could not offer any plausible explanation as to how its military campaign in Gaza would achieve its stated goals.(
via Kevin Drum)

Cristopher Hitchens thinks he knows what Israel is up to. Israeli politicians are bombing for votes:

Until last week, Benjamin Netanyahu was strongly favored to come back as the man whose hard line against territorial concessions had been vindicated by the use of long-evacuated Gaza as a launching pad for random missile attacks. It now seems unlikely that he can easily outbid the current ruling coalition, at least from the hawkish right. (Remember that all the nonsense of the so-called "Al-Aqsa intifada," which wasted so much time and life in the last decades, was first instigated by an electoral rivalry between Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, in which the latter showed himself more hard-line than the former by waddling militantly across the Temple Mount in the company of an armed band. For such vanities do children end up screaming in the streets over the mangled bodies of their parents—and vice, if I may so phrase it, versa.)

Israel's politicians play for short term gains, but they are risking a lot - that Americans will wake up to the fact that we are playing the role of Israel's patsy. How much longer will Americans be willing to pay Israel for the privilege of fighting its wars?

I certainly don't expect it, but I would be pleased if Obama told Israel that if it's going to keep messing up Gaza it had better take responsibility for cleaning it up - with a proper occupation, like the one we imposed on Japan after WWII. They need to shape a constitution, rebuild the government, arrest all the radicals, reform the schools and rebuild the economy.

Of course it won't happen.

Rollo

Roland Burris seems to be a rather vain and not especially trustworthy guy who got himself appointed to the Senate under very dubious circumstances. He should fit right in. Swear him in.

There is no good legal justification for trying to keep him out.

Intelligence

David Kurtz takes a look at the seemingly odd fact that Senior Senate intelligence committee Dems Feinstein and Rockefeller were not consulted about the appointment of Panetta to head the CIA.

Good. Few Dems were more in the pocket of Bush and the torture lobby. Feinstein is a real horror story and Rockefeller is a complete zero.

GUCFT

I jocularly pretended to be working on a UFT of crackpotia in the previous post, but I should mention that the real Grand Unified Crackpot Field Theory is due to John Baez, reproduced below:

The Crackpot Index
John Baez

A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics:
A -5 point starting credit.

1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.

2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.

3 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.

5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction.

5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.

5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).

5 points for each mention of "Einstien", "Hawkins" or "Feynmann".

10 points for each claim that quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.

10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it. (10 more for emphasizing that you worked on your own.)

10 points for mailing your theory to someone you don't know personally and asking them not to tell anyone else about it, for fear that your ideas will be stolen.

10 points for offering prize money to anyone who proves and/or finds any flaws in your theory.

10 points for each new term you invent and use without properly defining it.

10 points for each statement along the lines of "I'm not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations".

10 points for arguing that a current well-established theory is "only a theory", as if this were somehow a point against it.

10 points for arguing that while a current well-established theory predicts phenomena correctly, it doesn't explain "why" they occur, or fails to provide a "mechanism".

10 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Einstein, or claim that special or general relativity are fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a "paradigm shift".

20 points for emailing me and complaining about the crackpot index. (E.g., saying that it "suppresses original thinkers" or saying that I misspelled "Einstein" in item 8.)

20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel prize.

20 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Newton or claim that classical mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

20 points for every use of science fiction works or myths as if they were fact.

20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories.

20 points for naming something after yourself. (E.g., talking about the "The Evans Field Equation" when your name happens to be Evans.)

20 points for talking about how great your theory is, but never actually explaining it.

20 points for each use of the phrase "hidebound reactionary".

20 points for each use of the phrase "self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy".

30 points for suggesting that a famous figure secretly disbelieved in a theory which he or she publicly supported. (E.g., that Feynman was a closet opponent of special relativity, as deduced by reading between the lines in his freshman physics textbooks.)

30 points for suggesting that Einstein, in his later years, was groping his way towards the ideas you now advocate.

30 points for claiming that your theories were developed by an extraterrestrial civilization (without good evidence).

30 points for allusions to a delay in your work while you spent time in an asylum, or references to the psychiatrist who tried to talk you out of your theory.

40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis, stormtroopers, or brownshirts.

40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a "conspiracy" to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.

40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case, and so on.

40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is. (30 more points for fantasizing about show trials in which scientists who mocked your theories will be forced to recant.)

50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.

Well sure Prof B., but I have a simplified version: Crackpots are immune to evidence and argument.

That fact, BTW, is the main reason I'm pretty sure that I'm not a crackpot. It's true I'm fond of some crackpot ideas. For a long time, for example, I was terribly enamored of Hotta's idea that the horizon of a black hole was a sort of surface of phase condensation, with all the mass of the black hole at the surface. Susskind has more or less persuaded me that this idea, crazy though it is, is probably not crazy enough to be right. Something stranger, perhaps Susskind's Black Hole Complementarity, must be going on. Of course I could change my mind tomorrow.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Road to Crackpotia*

Sean Carroll muses on scientists gone crackers in The Varieties of Crackpot Experience - or, more exaxtly, on one particular physicist. No, not the one you were thinking of.

Frank Tipler is a crackpot. At one point in his life, he did very good technical work in general relativity; he was the first to prove theorems that closed timelike curves could not be constructed in local regions of spacetime without either violating the weak energy condition or creating a singularity. But alas, since then he has pretty much gone off the deep end, and more recently has become known for arguments for Christianity based on fundamental physics.

I will leave the details to Sean and Wolfgang, but I think I know the moment at which Tipler went off the rails. At least twenty years ago he had a paper published in Phys Rev Letters, in those days the most prestigious physics venue, which purported to refute Hawking's black hole radiation argument. At that moment I thought wackjob (as well as what in the hell were the editors thinking?).

Alas, the nutbag is not an uncommon destination for the brilliant. An editor of PRL went to a talk by a fairly elderly Arthur Eddington and decided that he had gone into deep space. Turning to his companion at the talk he asked: "Is that going to happen to us?"

The companion thoughtfully replied: "Relax Sam. A genius like Eddington may go nuts, but guys like you just get dumber and dumber."

Godel was nuts enough to starve himself to death for fear of poisoning. Groethendieck is wacko. Linus Pauling, who won two Nobels and narrowly missed a third, became a vitamin C nut in his elder days. Some fairly competent molecular biologist became a crackpot HIV/AIDS denialist. Richard Lindzen, a fairly distinguished atmospheric physicist now devotes his efforts to global warming denial, a cause otherwise mainly in the hands of corporate flacks and minor economists.

Tipler was never in the Eddington - Godel - Groethendieck class, of course, but it seems that non-geniuses aren't actually immune.

I myself am working on a unified field theory of science crackpots, but haven't yet made my (soon to be) epic discoveries.

* Rhymes with Cappadocia.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Suck on This, Bill O'Reilly

Al Franken then.

Shoulda gone with the Karyoke version, though.

Lincoln and Rivals

I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln , and one thing stands out already. Lincoln and his rivals for the Republican nomination, Seward, Chase, and Bates all had this fierce desire to study and learn. As boys and men they awoke early and went to bed late, in order to read, study, and develop their intellectual skills.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

String Theory, Yet Another Book

A look at but less than a review of String Theory Demystified by David McMahon.

An extremely popular genre these days is is that of the book which promises an easy road to understanding some subject. The "For Dummies" series is probably the most extensive, but a whole host of competitors are also out there. One that leans technical is the "Demystified" series which sets out to tackle Advanced Calculus, Complex Variables, Quantum Field Theory and String Theory, among many others.

Now these subjects are not really cloaked in mystery. What they are is advanced, in the sense that one needs to master a lot of other material before one can understand them. "For Dummies," "Demystified", and similar titles could probably more accurately be called "A concise introduction to ..." books.

To be sure, there is some variation in the flavors of the genre. At 1200 plus pages, "Java in a Nutshell" can hardly be called concise. Zee's "Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell" is an idiosyncratic textbook but neither concise nor especially simple, and Kirtsis's "String Theory in a Nutshell" is advanced and only concise by comparison to its even larger competitors.

The "For Dummies" books set a kind of standard. I'm a big fan of Weight Training for Dummies for example, and the subject strikes me as nearly ideal. There are no real prerequisites and the concepts to be mastered are not complex, but they are fairly extensive. Muscles need to be named, described, and located, and a wide variety of weight training machines need to be explained. Add appropriate explanations of proper technique, safety rules, and etiquette and you have material for a two hundred page plus book with large print and lots of pictures. The authors succeed by being well organized, by explaining clearly, and teaching systematically in suitable sized chapters.

Can you do that with string theory? I was initially skeptical, but Lubos Motl's recommendation persuaded me to make the modestly priced purchase. String Theory Demystifyed (hereinafter STD), with its low page count (about 300) and relatively large print has a lot less text than typical ST textbooks. McMahon is not, so far as I can tell, a string theorist.


Anyway, I'm not ready to make a full review, but I did look somewhat closely at chapters four and five. Chapter Four is titled "String Quantization" and goes through covariant quantization and light cone quantization. I found the presentation clear, simple and direct. Of course I can't testify as to accuracy or completeness, you will have to rely on Lubos for that sort of thing. Chapter Five is called "Conformal Field Theory, Part One" - though there is no chapter called CFT Part Two. (The subject is treated further in the chapter on BRST quantization).

For CFT I, I actually opened the similarly titled chapters in Polchinski and the Becker, Becker, and Schwarz book. (I remember the CFT chapter of Kaku's book as particularly opaque). There is no doubt that the formal textbooks are far more detailed and complete, but McMahon does seem to cover some essentials.

McMahon includes some worked examples and lots of problems. The ones I looked at looked reasonably straightforward. A big question about this kind of mini-text is whether one can learn enough to work the problems, but I don't really know the answer.

The pace is undoubtedly faster than that of Zwiebach's superb elementary textbook but the prerequistes are a bit steeper - some quantum field theory and a tiny bit of differential geometry.

I think that I was impressed despite my initial reservations. This might actually be the book for that physicist wanting a birds eye view of string theory with some technical details. I might have a real review later if I get around to a full fledged read.

Proportionate Action

Israel has a policy of assassinating enemy leaders and their families. They do this because they can. Cenk Uygur, writing on The Huffington Post, doesn't approve:

Imagine what American reaction would have been if Hamas had just killed one of the top Israeli leaders -- like Tzipi Livni -- and her family. No one can honestly say that we would have the same reaction of indifference...

Hmmm. Yes, I can sort of see Charles Krauthammer lying on the floor, frothing at the mouth.

Uygur's larger point is that the Palestinians have adopted a strategy and tactics that can't possibly succeed. The Israelis were pioneers in modern terrorism, and it worked for them, but the case of the Palestinians is different. In the British, the Israeli Irgun was dealing with a foreign country that really wanted to get the hell out, while the Palestinians are dealing with colonists who have taken root and really really intend to stay.

Uygur thinks that the Palestinians would be far better off adopting the tactics of Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King. I am inclined to agree, but far from confident that it could work - for one thing there is too much history in the way already.

The Hamas strategy, such as it is, is to provoke Israeli retaliation by any means possible. That retaliation inevitably kills noncombatants, and that provokes the outrage of the Arab masses. The weakness in the strategy is that the Arab masses are impotent, and that everybody else can see that Hamas provoked the retaliation deliberately.

There is much talk of proportionate action, but that is rarely appropriate in war. In war, it is necessary to destroy the enemy's power to resist as quickly as possible. Now that Israel has invaded, the question is what its strategic objectives are, and whether they are coherent and achievable. One concrete action they could take is to sieze control of a broader area of the border with Egypt, thereby limiting the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

Whatever they do, though, Palestinians are unlikely to submit as long as Israel keeps them miserable and starving in a gigantic unsupervised jail.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Bear's Bad News

Paul Swartz has some graphs comparing the current economic downturn to past recessions. The forward looking indicators point to a grim start to 2009. Some of the financial numbers are unprecedented.

(via Brad Setser)

Excuse Me!

As the days dwindle down to a precious few, perhaps the biggest question still remaining is whether Bush will pardon key members of his criminal gang. With Obama showing no interest in pursuing Bush transgressions, it is plausible that he might not. On the other hand, ongoing investigations of the former attourney general plus Fredo's threat to write a tell-all might exert a contrary pressure.

Moral Clarity

Charles Krauthammer writes with characteristic effrontery on Moral Clarity in Gaza. As is usual in such cases, "moral clarity" is achieved through intellectual opacity and dishonesty. Krauthammer has 20/20 vision for Hamas's very real transgressions but turns a blind eye on Israel's. Krauthammer:

The grievance? It cannot be occupation, military control or settlers. They were all removed in September 2005. There's only one grievance and Hamas is open about it. Israel's very existence.


What a crock. Israel removed its (rather few)settlers from Gaza and withdrew its troops, but continues occupation, expands its settlements in the West Bank and practices death from the skies instead. Israel controls the borders of Gaza so tightly that its residents can neither import the necessities of life or earn a living - except by smuggling. Israel made and broke a truce with Hamas. Grievances there are a plenty.

The Israeli government is convinced, or perhaps pretends to be convinced, that if they just kill enough Palestinians, then the Palestinians will see error of their ways and throw out Hamas, or perhaps, since Hamas has the guns, that Hamas will decide to become peaceful.

I don't blame Israel for retaliation against the provocations of Hamas. I do blame it for its part in creating the conditions that made Hamas inevitable. I also really blame Krauthammer and his fellow neocons for their unceasing efforts to ensnare the United States still further in this mess.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Shroud of Turin

I'm not one to listen to Sean Hannity, but I did catch a bit of his show on XM during a drive today. The subject was the Shroud of Turin, claimed to be the shroud Christ was wrapped in but demonstrated rather conclusively to be a fourteenth century fake. the interesting part to me was that the Catholic Church, which did sent a bit of the fabric out for Carbon 14 testing a couple of decades ago (which demonstrated the age and fakery) now refuses to let skeptics view the Shroud.

Less interesting, but even more predictable, are the responses of the defenders of the Shroud, who grasp at implausible straws even as the Church continues to try to hide the fraud. Very remniscent of the behavior of the deniers of Anthropogenic global Warming.

Growing Up

I know, of course, that children have to grow up, leave home, and make their way in the world, but it is lonely, and I really miss them.