Saturday, October 31, 2009

Again Ayn Again

The great thing about reviewing a biography is that you get your chance to take your shots not only at the biography but the subject as well. Adam Kirsch makes good use of the latter opportunity in his New York Times review of Anne Heller's new biography of Ayn Rand. Like Heller (and unlike YHC) he is no mad dog Rand hater. He starts with a few notes about her continuing appeal to a certain strain of conservatives:

A specter is haunting the Republican Party — the specter of John Galt. In Ayn Rand’s libertarian epic “Atlas Shrugged,” Galt, an inventor disgusted by creeping American collectivism, leads the country’s capitalists on a retributive strike. “We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it,” Galt lectures the “looters” and “moochers” who make up the populace. “We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.”

“Atlas Shrugged” was published 52 years ago, but in the Obama era, Rand’s angry message is more resonant than ever before.

Kirsch seems to have a sneaking admiration for her passionate idealism, but he also knows how the totalitarian impulse infects a cult of personality. A fan letter from a nineteen year old college freshman led to her seduction of him (both were married to others) and the formation of group of followers.

Heller shows how the Brandens formed the nucleus of a growing group of young Rand followers, a herd of individualists who nicknamed themselves “the Collective” — ironically, but not ironically enough, for they began to display the frightening group-think of a true cult. One journalist Heller refers to wondered how Rand “charmed so many young people into quoting John Galt as religiously as ‘clergymen quote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.’ ”

Inevitably, it all ended in tears, when Branden fell in love with a young actress and was expelled from Rand’s circle forever. That he went on to write several best-­selling books of popular psychology “and earned the appellation ‘father of the self-esteem movement’ ” is the kind of finishing touch that makes truth stranger than fiction. For if there is one thing Rand’s life shows, it is the power, and peril, of unjustified self-esteem.

I can't help thinking that Rand would be a good match for our old inspiration and occasional nemesis, Lubos the Motl. There is the same confused worship of an idealized capitalism, and the same toltalitarian impulse brandished in the name of freedom. I wonder if he has read her stuff.

Friday, October 30, 2009


There are said to be two paths to knowledge: the specialist and the generalist. The specialist learns more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. The generalist learns less about more, on his way to the end state of knowing nothing about everything.

Either way, I seem to be getting pretty close. What I know seems to be about less and less, and what I don't know seems to be about more and more.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Philosophy in America Ia

It says something about my education that one of the most influential (at least in America) philosophers of the twentieth century was somebody I never heard of. Alisa Rosenbaum was a Russian Jewish emigre who came to America, became a successful screenwriter and novelist, and eventually the favorite philosopher of the right wing nutbaggery. She is in the news a bit these days because Anne C. Heller has written a new biography and is flogging it on some of the better book venues.

Except for a short excerpt or two, I haven't read any of her stuff, but that little was enough to provoke a visceral dislike. She wrote novels of ideas, which is to say novels where characters give long ideological lectures. Perhaps the most famous is here. The frank worship of Mammon has made her popular with the greedy ever since, despite some flaws of logical coherence and disdain for history. By positioning herself in direct opposition to 1 Timothy 6:9-10 - choosing the role of anti-Christ in the most direct way possible, she proclaims a radically anti-Christian ethic, but one well suited to certain investment bankers.

Never mind that her arguments hardly stand up to casual scrutiny.

Take a look at an electric generator and dare tell yourself that it was created by the muscular effort of unthinking brutes.

Of course if you recall enough history to know that the generator was created by the thought of those who never made any money from it, Francisco's logic looks a bit tenuous.

In the time of Jesus as well as our own, though, much of the time money flows to rentiers of various types - often those who persuade the government to grant them some sort of charter to extract money from everybody else.

Ayn Rand - that's what she changed her name to when she went Hollywood - was clever, but there doesn't appear to be much room for such subtleties in her monomania. Some inventors do profit handsomely, of course, and big chunks of wealth sometimes flow to the creators.

(Links to Francisco's money speech and 1 Timothy via Alex Tabarrok).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


You are considering hiring an employee. She (or he) is honest, conscientious, and has demonstrated the ability to do the work. Is there anything else you really ought to know before hiring her? Well yes, say eighty years of employment studies, or so this source claims.

The upshot of this research is that general mental ability (IQ and related tests) was the best predictor and work sample tests (e.g., seeing if people can actually do key elements of a job -- if a secretary can type or a programmer can write code ) were the second best of the 19 examined. Here is the rank order of the 19 predictors examined:

1. GMA tests ("General mental ability")

2. Work sample tests

3. Integrity tests: surveys design to assess honesty ... I don't like them but they do appear to work.

4. Conscientiousness tests: essentially do people follow-through on their promises, do what they say, and work doggedly and reliably to finish their work.

Not, I'm sure, what the anti-IQ people want to hear - me either - but sometimes, at least, evidence matters. But if you want to argue, it's not good enough to say you don't like the result - you need to confront the evidence.

(via Tyler Cowen.

St. Crispin's Day: Once More Into the Breach

The Battle of Agincourt gets a double dollop of fame for serving as the climax of Shakespeare's Henry V as well as a pivotal moment in military history where the English longbow bested French Chivalry (and steel armor). James Glanz, writing in the New York Times, notes that historians are suggesting that it's just possible that Hal, and Will, might have exaggerated the odds that Hal and his "Band of Brothers" faced on that day.

No one can ever take away the shocking victory by Henry and his “band of brothers,” as Shakespeare would famously call them, on St. Crispin’s Day, Oct. 25, 1415. They devastated a force of heavily armored French nobles who had gotten bogged down in the region’s sucking mud, riddled by thousands of arrows from English longbowmen and outmaneuvered by common soldiers with much lighter gear. It would become known as the Battle of Agincourt.

But Agincourt’s status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English self-image — has been called into doubt by a group of historians in Britain and France who have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time and now take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers.

The historians have concluded that the English could not have been outnumbered by more than about two to one. And depending on how the math is carried out, Henry may well have faced something closer to an even fight, said Anne Curry, a professor at the University of Southampton who is leading the study.

What? The winners might have exaggerated? Shock! (As Mr. Drudge might say.) Whatever. In any case, mud and an ideal tactical situation combined to lead to a gruesome slaughter.

...Henry, through a series of brilliant tactical moves, provoked the French cavalry — mounted men-at-arms — into charging the masses of longbowmen positioned on the English flanks in a relatively narrow field between two sets of woods that still exist not far from Mr. Renault’s farm in Maisoncelle.

The series of events that followed as the French men-at-arms slogged through the muddy, tilled fields behind the cavalry were quick and murderous.

Volley after volley of English arrow fire maddened the horses, killed many of the riders and forced the advancing men-at-arms into a mass so dense that many of them could not even lift their arms.

When the heavily armored French men-at-arms fell wounded, many could not get up and simply drowned in the mud as other men stumbled over them. And as order on the French lines broke down completely and panic set in, the much nimbler archers ran forward, killing thousands by stabbing them in the neck, eyes, armpits and groin through gaps in the armor, or simply ganged up and bludgeoned the Frenchmen to death.

And Shakespeare made it into a heck of a play.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Super Freaking

Dubner and Levitt have followed up their best selling Freakanomics with a new book extending their shtick. They call it Superfreakanomics, probably because How to lie with statistics, part II wouldn't sell as well. Others have well-documented their systematic dishonesty on the climate question, but let me just comment on Dubner's recent gig on CNN.

One of the subtitles refers to Patriotic Prostitutes, their cutsey way of proclaiming that the Fourth of July is a good day for the sex trade. This was a lead in to a discussion of their claim that street prostitute today earn about four times as much as they would in more conventional occupations, but 100 years ago, they earned ten times as much. Dubner attributed this change to the sexual revolution, claiming that the difference was due to greater availability of free sex. This may not be entirely wrong, and it might even be right, but their facile assumption is typical of the shallow nature of their reasoning. For one thing, the ecology of prostitution is different since the invention of the internet (and even since the telephone). For another, good paying jobs for women in the legitimate economy are far more available than 100 years ago. Widespread availability of birth control and condoms has made prostitution slightly safer. More addictive drugs are available that may increase the supply of prostitutes. The list goes on.

The original Freak had its amusing moments, rather spoiled for me by the pompous puffery that had Dubner praising Levitt's genius in every other section. Sequels are usually a pale imitation of the original. This could well be the case here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Three and Out

Senator Lamar Alexander, former President of the U of Tennesee (and US presidential candidate), thinks higher education ought to be completed in three years. His big arguments for this are that education is expensive and a three year degree is somehow the analogous to the hybrid automobile. Or at least that's how I understood his Newsweek essay.

It's hard for me to see that four years is too long for a college education. Pretty clearly though, there are vast differences in what one is expected to learn for, say, an EE degree from Caltech and a basket weaving degree from Nowhere City College.

It is clear that there are some serious diseases in US college education, notably the rapid run up in cost. I have never seen a convincing reason for the rate of inflation of college costs.

My guess is that we do give students too many choices. I would favor programs with less choice and more rigor for most students.

Other education officials writing in the same issue suggest that we have a severe problem with our high schools, which is about to get much worse as the No Child Left Behind generation reaches college age. The total focus on just two aspects of education, reading and writing, and only the most basic skills of each, they claim is producing a cohort of otherwise able students who have never been challenged and who know no history, science, or literature.

De Rating/Update: Never Mind

I have decided to eliminate the ratings stars, but I don't know how. Has anybody dealt with this problem?

The ratings seem to be used only by people who hate everything I write. I don't mind that, but if they don't explain themselves their feedback is merely useless and annoying.

UPDATE: Never Mind.

Statistics XXIV: Neoteny

While surfing some sourpuss film critic's HP 6 blog, I found this in the comments:

If you're over the age of 20 and dig HP without an accompanying child, you're engaging in aesthetic regression.

My first thought was to wonder whether aesthetic regression is linear or not. Later I wondered whether such an engagement might be illegal or immoral. I guess the author's point is supposed to be that an aesthetic regressor is enjoying things as a child might, and that he intended the comment as a slam.

Stephen Jay Gould used to emphasize the role of neoteny - retaining childlike characteristics beyond normal childhood - in evolution, and especially in human evolution. It seems plausible that art and science are each consequences of human neoteny. Einstein attributed his revolutionary insights into relativity to the fact that he, as an adult, was still sorting out basic notions of space and time that most people dispensed with in early childhood. The artist story teller is again playing a game that every child, but few adults, engage in.

So I won't take offense at being accused of "aesthetic regression." I will just take it as a complement to my scientific and artistic orientation.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


The great challenge in explaining the origin of life is the chicken vs. egg problem. The most primitive life we know of is utterly dependent on a complex web of chemical reactions that depends on accurate transcription of detailed blueprints for the construction of the molecules that make metabolism possible. All known life requires a cell membrane, an elaborate set of metabolic pathways guided by carefully tailored enzymes, DNA blueprints that preserve genetic information, and complex ribosomal factories for manufacturing the proteins specified by the blueprints. It's very difficult to imagine how such a complex, interdependent mechanism could have evolved by selection, since it's very difficult to imagine intermediate states that function well enough to support the degree of faithful reproduction required for evolution.

Nick Lane, writing in New Scientist, explains a new idea that bridges some of the difficult steps required for development of living cells.

My summary can't do justice to the rather extensive article, but the key ideas as I see it are: (1)initial evolution didn't require cell membranes because it took place in natural pores in rocks by hydrothermal vents, (2)the first metabolism was based on proton transport, which is used in all cells, (3)In the presence of free hydrogen (as occurs near such hydrothermal vents), metabolism can occur without elaborate enzymes and energy transport, (4)the pores form a natural environment favorable to the synthesis of nucleic acid precursors.

This far from being a compete story, but it looks to me to come closer than many earlier attempts. Good theories suggest good experiments, and this one suggests a lot.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dan Brown's Lost Symbol

The Truth? You can't handle the truth!........ A Few Good Men

The Nicholson quote is a theme of every big Dan Brown novel. There is always some set of events which must be concealed from the credulous masses. The Lost Symbol is no exception, only this time that which must be hidden is so banal that I can hardly guess who would care. The other invariable theme is the existence of some sensational but long hidden mystical knowledge, which the hero must unravel by virtue of his decoding skills. These themes served Brown pretty well in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, but here they are starting to look a bit threadbare.

Brown's novelistic virtues are easily summarized: he knows how to create page turning suspense, his ultrashort chapters package the suspense into bite size tidbits, and finally, the richly detailed architectural research that underlies each book gives them a vividness beyond their otherwise modest virtues.

His faults are plenty obvious too: weak and wooden dialog, nearly nonexistent characterization, and the heavily doctored version of history upon which the plots invariably hang.

Art is at best a rather rough simulacrum of life, and every work of art requires a certain amount of cooperation between artist and audience. The first job of a writer, then, is to get the reader to buy into his fiction. The masters of genre fiction have developed a standard set of gimmicks for accomplishing this and with luck, it becomes a conditioned reflex for the reader. The very best selling authors - Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, John Grisham, and Jo Rowling - each developed reliable formulas to do the job.

Dan Brown's formula is particularly repetitive - a sinister villain with occult links, a grisly crime with clues steeped in ancient hocus pocus, a mishmash of Masonic and Catholic mystery, and an urgent summons for his annoyingly dull but supposedly brilliant hero. None of these things is a major obstacle for me - I'm good at suspending disbelief.

*** Some Spoilers Follow ***************

The Lost Symbol follows the formula, but this time the magical principle at stake is truly irritating: Some "ancient mysterious magic" of the kind sold by every street corner New Age charlatan, in the form of the untapped power of the human mind to rule matter if you just know the right kind of magic - Brown calls it Noetic science. This is a pretty distasteful brew for me to swallow. There are other irritations. The villain gets away with his dastardly deeds by virtue of truly obtuse decisions by the responding authorities.

If you were one of those skeptical children surprized by Red Riding Hood's failure to recognize the wolf in Grandmother's clothing, you may find some equally implausible failures to recognize here. You might also be disappointed by the tendency of the characters to fall for the same trick again and again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Conquest is hardly a new theme in human affairs. One of the most dramatic events of prehistory was the vast expansion of the Indo-Europeans, whoever they may have been. Their linguistic and cultural conquest seems to have extended to nearly all of Europe and vast chunks of Asia. In most cases that conquest does not seem to have annihilated the conquered peoples, so some sort of colonization must have occurred, with the conquerers dominating culture and language but being gradually absorbed into the local gene pool.

Similar events seem to have occurred with subsequent historical empires like those of Alexander, Rome, and Mohammed. Such episodes of conquest seem more likely to originate on the fringes of the highest civilizations rather than the center: from Macedonia and Rome, not Greece and from Arabia and Mongolia rather than from Constantinople or China.

The overseas European empires that arose in the 15th century are not too alien to the pattern. The dominant seapower at the dawn of the 15th century was China, and her ships were much larger and probably more seaworthy than the Spanish and Portugese ships that reached the Americas and Asia at the end of that same century. It is one of the great ironies of history that China, at the apex of its seagoing power, voluntarily abandoned the oceans. One can hardly doubt that the history of the world would have been quite different if a fleet of Chinese ships like those of Zhang He in 1408 had shown up in the Canary islands in 1450 or so.

In any case, that Chinese decision to abandon the sea condemned it and Asia to half a millenium of subservience to the Western powers.

Best Subjects

Another Q&A borrowed from Marginal Revolution (plus the first sentence of Tyler's reply)

Joanne asks a good question:

Everything else being equal, are there subjects that lend itself to better teaching by professors? I've always chosen classes mostly on professor teaching quality as measured by anonymous student surveys, but was wondering if there are certain classes of subjects where one could find better or worse teachers?

This may sound odd, coming from someone with a Ph.d, but I don't feel I have much experience being a student.

Whatever your answer, it probably isn't math or physics. The one useful thing teachers in those subjects can do is show you how to work problems, but books probably do a better job than lecturers even at that.

I did have some excellent teachers for acting, literature, and philosophy though. Anybody?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Question for My Readers

It seems likely that the next priority after healthcare will be a jobs bill. One element will doubtless be a subsidy to employers who hire. What about a direct jobs program though - something like the WPA?

I think that would be a good idea, but what work should the employed be put to? I would favor some sort of work-study plan where those employed would be obliged to upgrade their work skills as well as labor, but that doesn't answer the question.

A few possibilities: (1)General cleanup and maintenance of public and other facilities. (2)Tutoring when the tutors are qualified. (3)Activities in support of public safety.

Clearly, some better ideas are needed. Any suggestions?

A Good Bureaucracy/Anna Karenina

From deep in the heart of libertarian economics comes this question for Tyler Cowen, and his answer:

Jason asks:

What are some examples of successful government bureaucracies?

Wars aside, here is a short and very incomplete list: the NIH, the Manhattan Project, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Fairfax County, the World Trade Organization, the urban planners of postwar Germany, some of the Victorian public works and public health commissions, most of what goes on in Singapore, anywhere that J.S. Bach worked.

The European Union has been very good for eastern Europe. I'll leave aside the health care issue because we've debated that plenty already. The real question is what all these examples have in common.

I don't think this is such a hard question, and I don't think the answers are specific to government bureaucracies. Here again is a place where Tolstoy's Anna Karenina principle applies. ("Every happy family is the same. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.")

It's hard for any organization to be successful if it doesn't have a clear mission, if it doesn't have competent leadership and employees, if it lacks adequate resources, or if its organizational structure prevents its proper functioning. The first two are the biggies - many problems can be overcome if you have those crucial ingredients.

Success is transient though, because all those elements are temporary. Bill Clinton's FEMA was pretty good because he gave it good leaders. George Bush's FEMA was a catastrophe because he appointed inept political cronies and muddied its mission, and because those two things drove out the competent employees.

American public schools and universities were a great triumph and played a crucial role in our emergence as the dominant power in the world. The rest of the world has now caught up though, and in many cases surpassed our educational system. The educational system has been severely damaged both by tampering with its mission, by ill-conceived social experiments, and for public universities, by starvation of resources.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I'm from Montana, and I live in New Mexico, so I thought I knew something about empty. Far West Texas still had a lesson or two for me though. My wife and I drove over to Carlsbad on business but stayed to see the caverns again, and then decided to drive down 285 to Big Bend, which we had never seen. It's a bit like rolling yourself down some hundred mile long bowling lanes - start out pointing the right way and you can go a lo-on-ng way before you need to correct your steering.

There are big stretches in Montana with no people, of course, but most areas have some relief - mountains, hills, forests, lakes and rivers. That part of Texas - not so much. That all changes as you approach Big Bend though, with real mountains, limestone arroyos that are really canyons, and a real canyon for the Rio Grande. In my town, the big river has been thoroughly domesticated by dams and is often reduced to a muddy trickle, but while we were there, it was a real river, small but swift through the Big Bend.

It was probably the least populated National Park that I've been in - we drove for hours on the main roads hardly seeing another car. A nice but isolated place.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Off The Grid

I will be off the grid for a few days. Feel free to post your brilliant or crackpot theories of the universe in the comments thread while I'm away.

The Mind Boggles

I have never noticed that Tyler Cowen is overflowing with compassion for his fellow man, but it seems that his heart does bleed - for the insurance companies.

There is talk of repealing the antitrust exemption enjoyed by the insurance industry. Whether the exemption is a good idea or not, I do not know. The relevant event is that the insurance industry seems to have turned against Obama's health care reform. Everyone who cares about American democracy and rule of law should be complaining about Harry Reid, Patrick Leahy and their allies in this move. So far I don't hear the outcry.

Because making insurance companies follow the same laws as most other companies is surely an outrage to rule of law and especially, democracy.

Welcome to the space cadets, Tyler. Your helmet is in the starboard garbage chute airlock.


One of the challenges of being a colonial power is that of keeping your local agents in line. Many of our difficulties in Afghanistan and Iraq arose from trying to simultaneously indulge the colonial ambitions of the neocons and Bush's conceit that he was a liberator. We once had a legitimate mission in Afghanistan: capturing Osama bin Laden and his principal lieutenants. Once Bush let him escape, that mission was over.

In Karzai, we seem to have a de facto agent that we can neither remove nor control. Kevin Drum catches Tom Friedman saying something sensible about Afghanistan.

If President Obama can find a way to balance the precise number of troops that will stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, without tipping America into a Vietnam there, then he indeed deserves a Nobel Prize — for physics...

Because when you are mounting a counterinsurgency campaign, the local government is the critical bridge between your troops and your goals. If that government is rotten, your whole enterprise is doomed.

Independent election monitors suggest that as many as one-third of votes cast in the Aug. 20 election are tainted and that President Hamid Karzai apparently engaged in massive fraud to come out on top. Yet, he is supposed to be the bridge between our troop surge and our goal of a stable Afghanistan. No way.


I am not sure Washington fully understands just how much the Taliban-led insurgency is increasingly an insurrection against the behavior of the Karzai government — not against the religion or civilization of its international partners. And too many Afghan people now blame us for installing and maintaining this government.

Karzai is already trying to undermine more international scrutiny of this fraudulent election and avoid any runoff. Monday his ally on the Electoral Complaints Commission, Mustafa Barakzai, resigned, alleging “foreign interference.” That is Karzai trying to turn his people against us to prevent us from cleaning up an election that he polluted.

Talking to Afghanistan experts in Kabul, Washington and Berlin, a picture is emerging: The Karzai government has a lot in common with a Mafia family. Where a “normal” government raises revenues from the people — in the form of taxes — and then disperses them to its local and regional institutions in the form of budgetary allocations or patronage, this Afghan government operates in the reverse. The money flows upward from the countryside in the form of payments for offices purchased or “gifts” from cronies.

Friedman seems to think that there is hope of reforming Karzai.

This is crazy. We have been way too polite, and too worried about looking like a colonial power, in dealing with Karzai. I would not add a single soldier there before this guy, if he does win the presidency, takes visible steps to clean up his government in ways that would be respected by the Afghan people.

If Karzai says no, then there is only one answer: “You’re on your own, pal. Have a nice life with the Taliban. We can’t and will not put more American blood and treasure behind a government that behaves like a Mafia family. If you don’t think we will leave — watch this.” (Cue the helicopters.)

I don't think reform is a realistic help, though.

Obama is hemmed in on every side by Bush's blunders. Right now, our only legitimate mission in Afghanistan is guarding the border against a return of al Quaeda - and this mission is both hopeless and pointless as long as Pakistan shelters bin Laden. Obama correctly understands that Pakistan is the core problem here, but neither he nor anyone else has figured out how to unravel that Gordian knot.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Does Obama Look Weak?

Gideon Rachman frets that Obama may be looking like a pushover.

The notion that Mr Obama is a weak leader is now spreading in ways that are dangerous to his presidency. The fact that he won the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday will not change this impression. Peace is all very well. But Mr Obama now needs to pick a fight in public – and win it with a clean knock-out.

In truth, the Norwegians did the US president no favours by giving him the peace prize after less than a year in office. The award will only embellish a portrait of the president that has been painted in ever more vivid colours by his political enemies. The right argues that Mr Obama is a man who has been wildly applauded and promoted for not doing terribly much. Now the Nobel committee seems to be making their point for them.

The rightwing assault on the president is based around a number of slogans that are hammered home with damaging frequency: Obama the false Messiah; Obama, the president who apologises for America; Obama, the man who is more loved abroad than at home; Obama, the man who never gets anything done; Obama the hesitant; Obama the weak.

Of course, this is the kind of stuff that was always going to be hurled at a liberal, Democratic president by the Republicans. The danger for Mr Obama is that you are beginning to hear echoes of these charges from people who should be the president’s natural supporters.

One leading European politician warns that Mr Obama is looking weak on the Middle East: “If he says to the Israelis ‘no more settlements’, there have got to be no more settlements.” And yet it is the White House, not the Israeli government, that has backed down.

Even before the Nobel announcement, liberal American columnists were sounding increasingly sceptical about the man they once supported with such enthusiasm. Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post that the president “inspires a lot of affection but not a lot of awe. It is the latter, though, that matters most in international affairs where the greatest and most gut-wrenching tests await Obama”. Now Saturday Night Live – the slayer of Sarah Palin – has turned its fire on President Obama, portraying him a do-nothing president.

How has this impression built up? The promise of bold changes of policy on the Middle East and Iran – without much to show for it – has not helped. The public agonising over policy towards Afghanistan has been damaging. The slow pace of progress on healthcare has hurt...

I don't buy it. The President has lots of big wins, and picking public fights (the Bush strategy) was what got us into this mess. Some clean knockouts would be nice, but but if Obama wins on health care there will be lots of room for new initiatives. I can't imagine paying any attention to Richard Cohen - a guy who has been wrong so many times he can't spell right.

But a clean victory or two would be nice.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Not Even Cake

It seems that Lumo was a cute kid.

Happy Birthday!

Real Genius

Suppose you have an original theory of how the world works.

Consider the following. Do physicists tend to find excuses to go visit their mothers-in-law when you show up? Do you find yourself banned from a lot of physics comment threads? Does your brilliance tend to go widely unrecognized? If you have considered the conventional explanations for this kind of shunning and they don't cut it, it's possible that you might be a crank.

My version of crankology depends on two simple tests. Have you learned the tools of the usual physics, as demonstrated by being able to work, say, the problems in Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics? Can you describe a quantitative test that reveals the difference between your theory and conventional physics?

If your theory of the world fails one or especially both of those criteria, you are probably a crank, and may I just suggest that you try another line of endeavor? Physics already has its share of such prosetelyzers. Perhaps you would be more comfortable in economics, where essentially all of the theorists would be more like you.

If the above don't give you quite enough guidance, more detailed versions can be found in John Baez's Crackpot Index or Gerard 't Hooft's guides HOW to BECOME a GOOD THEORETICAL PHYSICIST and HOW to BECOME a BAD THEORETICAL PHYSICIST. From the latter:

It is much easier to become a bad theoretical physicist than a good one. I know of many individual success stories.


PS - Even if you fail all of the above, you may be able to get an audience for your ideas if you provide donuts and coffee, or, better, beer and pizza.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Amen Amen Amen

The headline at the TimesOnLine: Barack Obama ready to pay Afghan fighters to ditch the Taliban. As I have said previously, this is a no brainer, though apparently it only occurs to those of us with brains.

Of course there is a moral hazard argument, but I don't find it persuasive.

Harry Potter and the Nobel Peace Prize

Obama has to feel a bit like the boy who lived. Celebrated for a deed he can't remember and despised just for living by the Draco Malfoys of the world.

Despite the challenges of living with the acclaim, he managed to be as gracious in acceptance as his scorned foes were petty and petulant.


We are spending ten or hundreds of billions of dollars every year to occupy a country with a gdp of $12 billion, a country whose insurgency is fueled largely by the absence of jobs or other ways to make a living. Why not just hire every Afghan who wants a job and put them to work building schools, building roads, defending their towns against the Taliban, etc? It's got to be cheaper than our present strategy, and far fewer American soldiers need to be put at risk.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Michael Moore on Capitalism

If you were going back and forth on whether Michael Moore might have socialist leanings, Capitalism, a Love Story ought dispel any doubts. It's a pretty forthright call for a democratic revolution. That's not the subject or real business of the movie, though. Rather, he is mainly exercised by some blatant abuses of crony capitalism that extend back at least to Reagan.

There is no shortage of outrages to point out: the private juvenile jail in Wilkes Barre Pa that bribed judges to sentence young teens to long incarceration for trivial or non existent offenses (in one case, for posting insulting remarks about a vice principal), the so-called "dead peasant" policies that many corporations take out on their employees, causing the employees to be worth more to them dead than alive, the bribes to Senators and Representatives, and, most centrally, the systematic scamming of homeowners by the mortgage game.

As usual, Moore has a repertoire of childish but amusing stunts. One of my favorite moments was the stern faced security guard turning him away from Goldman-Sachs who couldn't quite keep from cracking up. He also has a great eye for the telling detail - former Merrill Lynch head and White House Chief of Staff Don Regan telling President Ron Reagan when to sit down and shut up was one. Another was the set of three memos of Citigroup welcoming its prime customers to what they called the "Plutonomy" - rule by the richest 1% - and explaining the threat posed by the other 99% who were still, somehow, allowed to vote.

I don't agree with Moore's diagnosis of capitalism ("intrinsically evil") and I don't think he is fair to some of the subjects, notably Tim Geithner, but he assembles a powerful indictment of the system as it exists - the creation of which largely took place under the presidencies of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush jr.

Some stunts I found predictably irritating: a Wall Street trader and Harvard prof Ken Rogoff failing utterly to simply define a "financial derivative," and some putatively mysterious but actually rather simple equations for calculating their value. (Oooh - Calculus!)

Moore also has a big collection of quotes from Jesus and the founders (Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin) revealing their rather socialistic sympathies.

Despite a rather slow start, I would rate it one of his most powerful movies. The people who really should see it, though, probably won't.

Huh? WTF?

President Obama must feel a bit like the high school student who turns in his chemistry mid-term only to be told that it's so good that he has been awarded a full scholarship to Harvard. I doubt that he can be very gratified to get the Nobel Peace Prize just for not being George Bush. He must be tempted to refuse it and say "consider me again when I've done something."

It's not too unusual for the Peace prize to be given as a wish and a prayer rather than for accomplishment, but in Obama's case I fear that it will be more a nuisance than a help.

Not to minimize the importance of not being George Bush.

UPDATE: See Arun's Musings for some interesting details and not too dissimilar reflections.

I scratch my head in puzzlement - what for? It can only be for potential and not actual achievement. It is a highly political award, perhaps meant to make Americans realize how scary the previous administration was to the whole world.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Roger Penrose

Discover has an interview with Roger Penrose, and the Lumonator takes strong exception to what Penrose has to say - unsurprisingly, since Penrose himself calls his opinions "sacriligious" in physics. Lumo's religious zeal is aroused mainly by Penrose daring to doubt the conventional interpretations of quantum mechanics, though he subscribes to a few other outrages as well.

Lubos doesn't ascribe his outrage to religion, but he can't (or won't) articulate it either, more or less mumbling "stupid, stupid, stupid." Penrose's qualms put him in the same boat with such other stupid physicists as Einstein, Planck, Schroedinger, J S Bell, and 't hooft. Even Feynman allowed that "quantum mechanics is not only stranger than you imagine, its stranger than you can imagine."

Feynman was no doubter though, or at least he didn't express any public doubt. He seems to have believed that the strangeness was just part of the deal you had to accept to do physics, and something like that attitude is predominant among theoretical physicists. In that line were such physicists as Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, and, more recently, Gell-Mann, Zurek, and others.

Physicists, I think, need to be ruthless intellectual opportunists. If doubting something looks like it could lead to interesting progress, go ahead. If not, believe and go forward. For 100+ years, the quantum mechanical believers have been the ones to be rewarded, and the doubters mostly get left behind. Of course the next 100 years might be different, but it looks like a long shot bet.

Larry Summers

Ryan Lizza has a long profile of Larry Summers, chief of Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, in the New Yorker. His combination of broad experience in government, combined with solid economics credentials and a famously quick mind makes him the most influential force on Obama's economics team, but it's not a team of shrinking violets or yes men (or women).

It's a friendly portrait. Even the blunders Summers made are portrayed in a relatively favorable light, and I found him impossible not to like. The most famous of these blunders, the occasion where he told a meeting a feminist scholars that they shouldn't reject the hypothesis that women might be less successful in science and math because of inferior talent, is hardly an expression of prejudice. Rather, it's a statement that all reasonable hypotheses should be evaluated. It was, of course, the wrong thing to say to the wrong group of people, and was ultimately a significant factor in his being forced out of the Harvard presidency.

Summers, who some fault for his role in the deregulation of the financial industry, seems to have realized long before many others that a crisis was building. He was a vigorous critic of the "efficient market hypothesis" and the quasi-mystical economics build on it - "There are idiots," he wrote, and as it turned out, many of them were running the financial industry, and more were neglecting their jobs of regulating it.

I strongly recommend the article to anyone interested in economics, the Obama White House, or the Panic of 2008.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Real Business Cycle Theory

Few aspects of economics are as interesting to the public as the frequent fluctuations of the economy, especially recessions, panics, and depressions. Unfortunately, then, we find that economists are utterly divided as to the causes of such cycles and as to what, if anything, can or should be done about them. A theory popular with those of the freshwater persuasion is the so-called Real Business Cycle theory, or RBC.

One basic aspect of RBC is that it seeks explanation of the business cycle in so-called exogenous factors, sometimes called technology shocks: bad weather, new inventions, environmental regulations. In particular it rejects the so-called endogenous causes postulated by Keynesian and monetarist economists. Most fundamental, though, is the idea that the markets response to the exogenous factors is optimal in that it maximizes utility. Keynesians and monetarists, by contrast, see recession and depressions as market failures. Consequently, any interventions, either monetary or fiscal, are likely to be at best useless and at worst harmful.

There is, I suppose, a certain attractiveness to a theory seeks explanation in relatively concrete facts like weather and technological progress rather that in an abstraction like money, which is only a symbolic representation of that production.

To me, of course, that's extremely silly. If there is anything physics has taught us about complex systems, it's that complexity gives rise to emergent behaviors. Dynamical systems theory has also taught us that it probably doesn't matter, in many cases, if this or that initial condition or perturbation gives to some evolution or other. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions means that it doesn't really matter if the precipitating shock is exogenous - the interesting dynamics are still endogenous.

Of course there are real exogenous shocks, and some of them have dramatic effects on the economy. The nonsense is concentrated in the notion that the market is optimal. This notion is predicated on some manifestly false assumptions, and has more to do with wishful thinking than science. The falsity of the assumption, by the way, is quite independent of the question of whether any agent could do a better job of pricing assets than the market. I would love to debate that point with any RBCer who would dare.

Mostly, though, RBC is a religious-ideological notion. It is built to be impervious to facts. The economy is a black box controlled from the outside and it's optimal by fiat.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The View from Below

My masochistic tendencies kicked in enough this morning to get me to tune into a bit of the Sunday talking heads. Or what we used to call the talking heads. Now, they are more like talking backs, as the camera focusses on the host while we are left looking at the backs of the members of the round table panel discussion. The view we get is that of a waiter standing attendance on a table of diners.

This might bother me less if they spent more time talking about interesting things. They did venture briefly into the question of jobs and the stimulus, and E J Dionne even had some relatively intelligent things to say about it, pointing out that the Snowe, Collins, Specter trick of getting aid to the States taken out of the stimulus bill had significantly weakened it.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Size Matters

Those whose memories can reach back to January may recall that Paul Krugman and other economists predicted at the time that Obama's stimulus package was too small, and even it was further shrunk to attract three lousy GOP votes: Collins, Snowe, and that PA guy who switched parties [Arlen Specter]. The latest economic news seems to be proving them right, with the consequences Krugman predicted:

And that gets us to politics. This really does look like a plan that falls well short of what advocates of strong stimulus were hoping for — and it seems as if that was done in order to win Republican votes. Yet even if the plan gets the hoped-for 80 votes in the Senate, which seems doubtful, responsibility for the plan’s perceived failure, if it’s spun that way, will be placed on Democrats.

I see the following scenario: a weak stimulus plan, perhaps even weaker than what we’re talking about now, is crafted to win those extra GOP votes. The plan limits the rise in unemployment, but things are still pretty bad, with the rate peaking at something like 9 percent and coming down only slowly. And then Mitch McConnell says “See, government spending doesn’t work.”

Let’s hope I’ve got this wrong.

And now, Krugman today:

Alas, I didn’t have it wrong — except that unemployment will, if we’re lucky, peak around 10 percent, not 9.

There was a lot of talk about health care being Obama’s Waterloo. It won’t, I think and hope. But stimulus is starting to look like Obama’s Anzio — the battle in which the American commander got himself into terrible trouble by being too cautious.

And right now Obama is pinned down in his too-small beachhead, taking heavy casualties.

And the Republicans see another attack chance - and you can be sure that they will work furiously to defeat anything that might actually help fix the economy.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Happy Birthday Gandhi!

Today is the 140th birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, probably the most influential moral leader of the twentieth century. Despite the progress he inspired, I imagine that he would be quite disappointed to see how far the world still has to go.


It's unsurprising that the right wingers were cheering against America in the bid for the Olympics. Unsurprising but still contemptible.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

CIP Explains It: Yamal

Steve McIntyre ventures once again into hockey sticks and thinks he finds something amiss. The usual suspects jump up and down in in their cages and throw some shit around. Real Climate (aka Gavin Schmitt?) responds but the Pig remains puzzled by significant obscurities in each's utterances. (Steve's and Gavin's that is).

So here is the the Pig's attempt to decipher all.

Tree ring temperature reconstructions always seemed like a black art to me, but so far as I can tell, it goes a bit like this. To start with, you have a collection of old living trees and trunks from fossil trees. It most places, the living trees are at most a few hundred years old, so to get information about earlier times you need to add fossil trees, and they need to be matched up in a continuous sequence up to the present. To present a simplified example, you might have a fossil tree that lived from 1200 to 1500, another that lived from 1400 to 1750, and a living tree that sprouted in 1675. Because different years have different effect on the growth rings, it's possible to match up the overlaps and create a continuous sequence. After one has collected a significant number of such sequential growth rings, it is necessary to try to get temperature information from them. Tree rings depend on temperature, but they also depend on a lot of other things - water, insect infestation, etc).

The blackest of the black arts in this is the elimination of cores that don't appear to be good indicators of temperature (or alternatively, selection of those that do appear to be good indicators.) Possible reasons for elimination might be fire or insect damage or just growth ring behavior significantly different from ones peers. I call this a black art because it is precisely here that potential selection bias raises its ugly head.

Finally, the cores are statistically analyzed to produce a temperature sequence.

McIntyre's argument, if I understand it correctly (and I don't find his prose that pellucid) is that (a)the sequence used at Yamal has a very small number of tree ring cores, and (b)that there are a whole bunch of nearby cores from living trees, and (c) when he throws them into the mix, he gets much different results for the last 100 years or so. Because his cores are all from short lived living trees, older results aren't affected except in that the divergence of recent results suggests more noise than the earlier samples admit.

The hysterical have concluded that the failure to include McIntyre's cores is some kind of scientific fraud, and that meme has become a cause celebre in the dimmer regions of the denial-o-sphere. McIntyre makes the more modest claim that ignoring the other cores makes the conclusion untrustworthy.

Real Climate's response devotes a lot more space to sarcasm than detailed critique, but here is about the clearest part:

So along comes Steve McIntyre, self-styled slayer of hockey sticks, who declares without any evidence whatsoever that Briffa didn’t just reprocess the data from the Russians, but instead supposedly picked through it to give him the signal he wanted. These allegations have been made without any evidence whatsoever.

McIntyre has based his ‘critique’ on a test conducted by randomly adding in one set of data from another location in Yamal that he found on the internet. People have written theses about how to construct tree ring chronologies in order to avoid end-member effects and preserve as much of the climate signal as possible. Curiously no-one has ever suggested simply grabbing one set of data, deleting the trees you have a political objection to and replacing them with another set that you found lying around on the web.

My take away from that: Of course McI's signal is noisy, he didn't do any quality control. Which is where the black art part comes in.

Finally, Keith Briffa, the author critiqued, has responded in a measured fashion, refuting some of McI's claims, but allowing that his data set deserves further consideration - which brings us back once again to selection criteria.

The "hockey stick" is one small piece of the case for AGW, but the criteria and statistical details are intricate enough for me to be glad that it's hardly an essential one. Am I missing anything important?