Showing posts from November, 2009

Through a Glass, Darkly

Paul Krugman has a vision of the future, and it's not exactly a rosy one.
...economic half-measures have landed the Obama administration in a trap: much of the political establishment now sees stimulus as having been discredited by events, so that it’s very hard to come back and scale the policy up to where it should have been in the first place. Also, with the apocalypse on hold, the deficit scolds have come back into their own, decrying any policy that actually involves spending money.

The result, then, will be high unemployment leading into the 2010 elections, and corresponding Democratic losses. These losses will be worse because Obama, by pursuing a uniformly pro-banker policy without even a gesture to popular anger over the bailouts, has ceded populist energy to the right and demoralized the movement that brought him to power.
Krugman is a pessimist, and I tend to like that in a practitioner of the Dismal Science. You need some kind of counter-balance to the hucksters and con …

Beastly Genius

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

The list is bottom up, Letterman style, but it doesn't get much better. There are a few people on the list I consider fairly smart, like Jobs and Chu, and others who have had at least one really good idea, like Brin, Page, and Bezos - all of whom had their good idea in the previous decade, btw. …

Afghanistan: Uh Oh

Andrew Sullivan doesn't like what he thinks he is going to hear from Obama on Afghanistan.
So instead of staying in neo-colonial occupation against an insurgency that now feeds off US intervention with no real strategy, we will stay in neo-colonial occupation against an insurgency that now feeds off US intervention with lots of super-smart defenses of the indefensible. Great.

CRU: Sorry Cassandra

Climate scientists have gotten a good dose of the Cassandra syndrome lately. Cassandra, you may recall, was the Trojan seer who saw through the subterfuge of Odysseus and warned her city against the tricky Greeks. Her curse was to see the truth but not be believed. So lately it has been with those warning of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).
A well-financed and politically connected group of professional doubters, liars and ideologically motivated crackpots have taken advantage of the public's short attention span and an apparent slowdown in the recent pace of warming to persuade much of the population that AGW isn't worth worrying about. A couple self-inflicted wounds by AGW Cassandras haven't helped either. First, Al Gore turns out to be pretty darn confused about basic geology and physics. Now, the CRU at the University of East Anglia lets a bunch of emails get hacked and is very slow-footed in responding.
What I have seen, mainly in the denialosphere, is hardly ve…

Mac(ro) Daddies

Brad DeLong wonders, perhaps rhetorically, Why Are Good Macro Policies Political Losers? Brad argues that the bailout and the stimulus prevented much worse things from happening, and wonders:
So we have a big puzzle: Just what is going on in America? Good policies that are working to boost production and employment without causing inflation ought to be politically popular, right?
Brad conjures up some possible reasons - an incompetent press, Chicago crackpottery, and the systematic dishonesty of the Republican party, but he somehow misses the giant beam in his own eye: employment and production have not been "boosted." Employment has continued to decline. Desperate people aren't interested in theoretical economics, they want results. It's easy to be complacent if you have a nice sinecure, but not so easy if you are the one losing job, home, or business.
DeLong's dismissal of the bonuses paid to the criminals who engineered the disaster as "a rounding error…

To Jail

Tyler Cowen notes the irony in the fact that Dubai, which is currently shaking world financial markets because of its inability to pay its debts, imprisons debtors.
With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills). Some are said to have maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield.
Kinda makes one nostalgic for the good old days when a non-performing sovereign debtor would be disciplined by pulling up a few men-o-war to shell the capital city.

Abstract Art

I had missed Bee's beautiful post on causal diagrams. Highly recommended. A quote from the introduction:
I once witnessed a physicist explain the universe to an artist. The artist had approached the physicist to learn how to understand extra dimensions, a concept, so he explained, that would undoubtedly enhance the depth of his artwork, and be of great inspirational value for his quest to capture the contextuality of essence. Or maybe essence of contextuality. Or something like that. Either way, the physicist took a piece of chalk and drew a line on the blackboard. "That is our universe," he said...
The science part is even better.

Memory: Up is Down

George W Bush and his minions spent the first eight months of his Presidency mocking and ignoring urgent warnings of an imminent terrorist threat. When the most devastating terrorist attack in American or World history occurred, they used the occasion not to kill or capture the perpetrators, but to pursue another foreign war. The family of the ringleader was hustled out of the country in private jets, and the President continued to kiss up to the country that financed the attacks.
In a feat of historical revision worthy of 1984 or at least Joseph Stalin, it seems that memory of these events has now completely disappeared from the Republican mind. Josh Marshall's TPM catches Bush Spokesgirl Dana Perino claiming that no terrorist attacks on the United States occurred during W's term of office. Naturally the Faux News interviewer agreed.
In the up is down world of Republican politics, this is not an exception. I have heard the same absurd claim made on television by at le…

Jews and Palestinians

American Jews who go to Israel frequently get what I call the "propaganda tour" - a highly fictionalized account of the origin and construction of the Jewish state. In this version, Zionists came to an unpopulated land, turned it green with native ingenuity, and thereby attracted a nuisance crowd of Arabs eager to catch the crumbs that fell from their tables. The real story of how land and water was acquired from Palestinian farmers, sometimes by purchase, sometimes by the familiar connivance's of European political economy, and sometimes by force and fear gets lost. The final struggle, where the Palestinians were utterly defeated in war and slaughtered and expelled from their lands is told as an epic with heroes on only one side.
Americans have seen this western, of course. We acquired our own land by a longer, more brutal, and far more drastic genocide. The story itself is at least as old as civilization.
In our modern scientific age we like to try to peer beneath the le…

Number of the Beast?

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


Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. In the interim, evidence for Darwin's theory has become overwhelming, but there has been little evidence of the human race evolving intelligence.
Some of the evidence can be found here and here and almost any place else that news is published. The empire of the ignorami marches on.


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

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

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

Gravity X 3

Newton's theory of gravity is a darn good theory. If you want to calculate the trajectory of a projectile or the orbital path of an interplanetary vehicle, Newton's your man. Ditto if you want to calculate the pressure at the center of the Sun. Of course your answers might be ever so slightly off - which is where...
Einstein's theory gravity, AKA General Relativity, comes in. It's a bit unwieldy with a whole potfull of nonlinear partial differential equations, but it can fix up those orbits. It can even let you calculate the pressure at the center of a white dwarf or a neutron star. It also tells you how to fix up your clock times in the presence of strong gravitational fields. What it can't do is tell you what's happening at super strong fields at the Planck length, or at the center of a black hole.
Really good theories make nice testable predictions, usually with important practical consequences, like keeping your GPS satellites synchronized. String The…

Free Trade

Steven Landsburg, having recently dissed Paul Krugman, tries to do a little penance by praising this essay Krugman wrote [some time ago] in defense of Ricardo and free trade.
Landsburg thinks the issue in question can be deduced from pure logic:
Take, for example his essay on the widespread failure of intellectuals to grasp Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage (the basis of the case for free trade). Instead of simply bemoaning the problem like the rest of us, Krugman makes a valiant and useful attempt to identify its root causes.

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

In The Big Questions, I argue that this analogy ultimately breaks down: The theory of evolution is compelling largely because of the evidence that supports it,…

Global Warming Indeed!

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

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

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


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

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

A Diversified Evolutionary Portfolio

Yet about a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry the variant that Bakermans-Kranenburg studied, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression.
Why should such apparently disadvantageous traits be preserved in evolution? David Dobbs, writing in The Atlantic says that new work, and new hypotheses, explain the apparent paradox. The key point is that genes that are unfavorable in some situations may be very favorable in others. Children who seem to thrive under any conditions are thought of as "dandelions," while those requiring specially favorable circumstances are "orchids."
Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio ap…


The 1930's and 1940's, with depression sandwiched between war, rumor of war, and war again, were fertile ground for dystopic visions. The rise of sinister incarnations in Communism and Facism provided a collectivist theme for those visions. Ayn Rand's Anthem had the same collectivist inspired theme as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, and a publication date between them, but can't otherwise bear comparison to Huxley's richly prophetic vision or Orwell's nightmare masterpiece. Anthem is a slight fairy tale, set in a grey future where the ultimate villain is the first person plural pronoun. Where technology has been set to sinister purpose in 1984 and become relentlessly dehumanizing in BNW, in Anthem it has nearly disappeared. Not to worry though: the hero, working alone (in an abandoned sewer) in his spare time, outdoes those ubiquitous local housewifes of the internet ad who earn a fortune with their computers. In a few short mo…

Harder Than String Theory

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

No Way Back

Lubos takes on the second law, once again. Suppose we have a current state which we identify with an ensemble of compatible physical systems [UPDATE: Lubos points out that the usual term is macroscopically indistinguishable microstates - I had forgotten that]. If we evolve that ensemble of states forward in time, entropy increases for all but a tiny fraction of the systems making up the ensemble. What if we use the time symmetric laws of physics to evolve that same ensemble backwards, in the opposite time direction?
Once again, entropy increases for most of the systems of the ensemble. Lumo's paradoxical sounding explanation: that other way isn't really backwards in time, it's forward too!

This was a major brain warp for me, so I had to try rephrasing it. My version: representing a system by an ensemble of compatible states and identifying the future state of the system with the typical evolution of states in the ensemble is a good way to predict the future but a lousy way t…


Paul Krugman is confused by the right's choice of epithets. He wonders why the wingnuts don't call him a commie any more.
A curious fact — one that I can attest to based on my own inbox, and is also borne out by more general observation — is that “Nazi” is the preferred term of abuse from today’s right wing. We get signs saying “Obama=Hitler”, not Obama=Stalin. I get mail calling me a “dirty Nazi scumbag”, not a Commie or pinko.

What’s going on? It really doesn’t fit, as far as I can tell — and bear in mind the long-running love affair of the National Review with Francisco Franco. You’d really think critics of Comrade President Obama would prefer the Soviet comparison.
There are many other bizarre aspects to modern right wing epithets. What's up with calling Obama a "racist?" Don't they grasp how preposterous, absurd, and stupid it is to compare health insurance to Dachau? And why is Glenn Beck wearing an SS uniform on the cover of his new book?
I have a certain …


As a Vietnam era draftee who eventually became pretty anti to the Vietnam war, I reserve a special scorn for the chickenhawks - the draftdodgers and draft avoiders who cheered the war from the safety of their own deferments. One of the scandals of Vietnam was the way deferments were handed out like Halloween candy to the priviledged and connected. Jack Kemp, later a Republican Congressman and Vice Presidential nominee, was too crippled to be drafted but not too crippled to play eight more years in the NFL.
This list of the deferred seems to include every Neocon nutbag and Republican: Abrams, Alito, Allard, Ashcroft, Bauer, Bennett, Bloomberg, Blunt and don't get me started on Bush. And that's just some of the A's and B's. Of course Cheney, Delay, Frist, Will and a swarm of others are on the list too. There are Democrats too, like Al Gore - though he enlisted and served in Vietnam, and Bill Bradley.
In World War II the privileged mostly served and sometimes died with…

John Galt Has Been Located

It seems that he turns out to be a Hmong tribesman, living somewhere in Upland Southeast Asia. From a review by Tyler Cowen:
The subtitle is An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia and the author is James C. Scott of Yale University. Here is a summary from the Preface:

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


I'm still gagging on the punch line to Tyler Cowen's love letter to Ayn Rand:
The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism -- the greatest force for human good ever achieved -- rely on the driving human desire to be excellent.
Now it happens that I think that capitalism (or at any rate, a mixed economy with a significant dose of capitalism) is the best economic system for an industrial economy. It did manage to keep chugging on when various variations on socialism ran aground in the twentieth century.
How, though, can a not always idiotic guy like Cowen come up with such preposterous load of crap? I think I understand the logic. Capitalism has been the dominant economic system for the past two hundred years. Those two hundred years have seen a vast burst of technological progress and improvement of the standard of living for a large fraction of the people. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is the usual name of this logical fallac…

The Obligatory We

Compulsory labor conscription is now practiced or advocated in every country on Earth..............Ayn Rand
And, I would add, in every civilization that ever existed. I, at any rate, can't think of any obvious exceptions. There were pretty dramatic differences in scale and scope, to be sure. A couple of fundamental circumstances constrain the nature and character of human interactions: the struggle for existence, and the need for cooperation. Every mammal is dependent for some period of infancy, but many live almost totally independently for much of their lives. Humans aren't like that. We are obligatory social animals, and lone individuals can't compete against a band or tribe.
Once men adopted agriculture, higher forms of society developed and with them came obligatory cooperation, with societies unwilling to adopt such being killed out by those that did. Such enforced cooperation doesn't sit well with human nature, so it was almost always limited in scope. The dystopi…


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

Once More Into The Breach

Prompted by a new paper by Brian Greene et. al., Lumo once more takes on the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its implications for the early universe. The whole long dicussion is quite fascinating, not least because it looks to me like Lubos is struggling not only against Greene but with his own uncertainties - acting, that is, exactly like a good physicist ought to.
Here is the part that got my attention. First Greene et al.
The status of [Boltzmann's H-theorem] is less settled than often claimed, because it requires the so-called 'molecular chaos' assumption, doubts about whose applicability have not been firmly laid to rest.
This is precisely where my own doubts arise, but Lubos has an answer. Once again, the argument looks pretty good - until I back off and start wondering if it's not just begging the question. In the traditional sense of assuming that which is to be proven. It seems OK in a hand wavy kind of way, but I sure wish he could show a logical proof, wit…

TBBT & Football

On this week's episode of The Big Bang Theory Leonard is upset because Penny is having a football party and he hasn't been invited. He decides that she is afraid of being embarrassed by him in front of her friends. After wangling an invite, he undertakes some intensive football education, but ...
I guess I shouldn't have had that kind of problem since we always went to football games as a family when I was little, and I played football in high school for two years. Coincidentally, or not, we won the state championship for two years when I was in high school. Coincidentally, or not, those two years were the two I didn't play...
I played offensive tackle. Offensive tackles are the brainiacs of football, at least in the NFL. This is because they have to be able to remember complicated footwork and blocking patterns even after having their brains shaken like a maracca a few dozen times a game. I was a lousy offensive tackle. This was because I didn't bother learning the …

Warning! Possibly Dangerous

Via the comments at Sean Carroll's site, I found this. It induced a seriously threatening case of uncontrollable ... well, you'll see. The operating principle: consistently change just one letter in one word in the Harry Potter novels. A sample:

"Yes, yes. I thought I'd be seeing you soon. Harry Potter." It wasn't a question. "You have your mother's eyes. It seems only yesterday she was in here herself, buying her first wang. Ten and a quarter inches long, swishy, made of willow. Nice wang for charm work."
"Your father, on the other hand, favored a mahogany wang. Eleven inches. "

Cowen on Rand

Tyler Cowen's 100th birthday retrospective (2005) on Ayn Rand is about what one would expect: he begins with some incisive observations but somehow manages to muddle through to silly conclusions. His best non sequitur:
The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism -- the greatest force for human good ever achieved -- rely on the driving human desire to be excellent.
There are a few competitors for the role of "greatest force for human good" I should think. Let's start with technology, art, science, agriculture, trade, government, law and education - most of which look to be essential enabling institutions for capitalism. The "driving human desire to be excellent" is one of those phrases (redolent perhaps of "the lilt of a driving dream") that I can' seem to get to play any rhetorical role beyond self-satire.
The pursuit of excellence may well be relevant to art and sport, but it looks a lo…

Paying Through The Nose

Why is US healthcare so expensive compared to the rest of the world? Mostly it's because we pay a lot more for the same services. Ezra Klein has a lot of helpful charts. How about a routine office visit? In Spain that only costs $15, $31 in France, or $32 in the Netherlands. In the US, the tab would range from $59 to $151.
How about some lipitor for your high cholesterol?These kind of price differentials exist across the board. So why are insurance companies so bad at controlling costs compared to European governments? The answer is probably complicated, but one reason might just be the amount of friction they introduce into the system. Doctors in the US need big staffs, mainly to handle the interface with various payers and insurance companies. Whatever the reasons, its clear that we are doing some things very wrongly.It seems unlikely that the health care bills being considered will change that much, but universality needs to come first. Once that is accomplished, we will …

More Randy Links

Via Marginal Revolution, a glut of Ayn Rand links here:

Some of this efflorescence is due to two new biographies, some may be due to the recent wacko takeover of the GOP.

Odd Things Conservatives Believe

We know, of course, that conservatives don't like evolution or AGW. Brad DeLong reminds us that they don't like Einstein's relativity either:

QFT: Dirac

I have trouble with Dirac. This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful.................Albert Einstein, as quoted in The Strangest Man - the title itself due to Neils Bohr.
Graham Farmelo's biography of Dirac mentions that Dirac's undergraduate education was in electrical engineering, but even so he wasn't introduced to Maxwell's equations until well into his graduate education at Cambridge - a reminder of how different the world of physics was in the 1920s. Three years later, in Copenhagen, Dirac invented creation and annihilation operators for the description of the quantum electromagnetic field.
One needs to be rather strange indeed to be the strangest man in an institute of theoretical physics, but Dirac filled the bill. Very likely, he fitted somewhere in the autistic spectrum. Fans of The Big Bang Theory might imagine an utterly taciturn version of Sheldon, except with much narrower interests.
There were many tragic aspects of his life, n…