Sunday, January 31, 2010

Not True

From Arianna Huffington today:

This week, Justice Alito offered up the refined, Supreme Court version of Joe Wilson's "You Lie!";

OK, Arianna is in the business of sensational journalism, but in my book there is a huge gap between Wilson's "You lie" and Alioto's "that's not so." The difference is between a deliberate insult and a possibly quite respectful diagreement on facts or their interpretation. Alioto was still out of order - as out of order as an administration official would be saying or mouthing the same thing in a Supreme Court hearing. The sentiment was appropriate but the occasion was not. He, like heckler at the Supreme Court, should have been summarily ejected.

Wilson, on the other hand, deserved more drastic punishment.

This Week, on the Road to Damascus

I watched ABC's This Week today, with Barbara Walters hosting. She asked fairly good questions of new Senator Scott Brown, but didn't follow up on his evasions. So far pretty much same-old, same-old. The round table discussion was a revelation though. It was by far the best that I have seen on any news show.

The cast of characters was mostly familiar: Paul Krugman, Ariana Huffington and Old Sourpuss George Will, but they brought in a ringer - Roger Ailes, chairman and creator of Fox News. Walters was unobtrusive, forgoing the usual chair at the focus, and interupted only occasionally and always to good effect. To my shock, Ailes was one of the most even handed and consistently intelligent commentators. Even more surprising, there was some real give and take among the panel, almost unheard of in the Stephanopoulis regime.

I have never previously been a fan of Barbara Walters, but maybe I now am. She has to deserve most of the credit for the improvement.

Debating Economists

Debate is a good way to learn things, especially if Socrates is your teacher. Debating experts on their own subject is usually unreasonable though - a more humble approach is usually called for. The direct challenge tends to waste their time and yours.

I have been known to make exceptions for economists and other social scientists, though. Social scientists generally tend to write about subjects with which we all have some practical experience and social scientists tend to make prescriptions for the way governments should operate. Economics in particular purports to prescribe a lot of things that affect the share of the economy each of us can obtain.

It has long been observed that republics have the unfortunate tendency to evolve into first oligarchies and ultimately dictatorships. The usual way for this to happen is that a group of the wealthy uses their wealth to control the state and the state to funnel wealth to them. Under such circumstance, there is good reason to believe that economists may have incentives to operate as less than honest brokers.

The Chicago or freshwater school of economics is a highly formal school with a distinct disdain for measuring its theories against reality and a habit of reaching conclusions that align with the interests of wealthy individuals. Oddly enough, despite its consistent predictive failures, it finds consistent support from those wealthy individuals.

So I make an exception for economists. I happened to make a critical remark about the way economist Steven Landsburg "deduced" that interest income shouldn't be taxed. Since he evidently found it provocative enough that he felt compelled to erase it, let me repeat it here, with some context. Here's the setup:

First, economics teaches us that everything should be taxed at the same rate to avoid unnecessary distortions. Second, it follows that current and future scones should be taxed at the same rate. Third, therefore there should be no tax on interest.


And the punchline:

Scenario 1 (no taxes): You earn two dollars, with which you can buy either two scones today or (after saving and earning interest) four scones tomorrow.

Scenario 2 (a 50% tax on wages): You earn two dollars, of which the government takes half. With your remaining dollar, you can buy either one scone today or (after saving and earning interest) two scones tomorrow. Either way, your consumption is cut in half. In effect, current and future scones are both taxed at 50%.

Scenario 3 (a 50% tax on both wages and interest): You earn two dollars, of which the government takes half. With your remaining dollar, you can buy either one scone today or (after saving, earning a dollar interest, and paying half that dollar in taxes) one-and-half scones tomorrow. If you spend today, your consumption is cut in half (from two scones to one); if you spend tomorrow, your consumption is cut by 62.5% (from four scones to 1 1/2). In effect, current scones are taxed at 50% and future scones are taxed at 62.5%.

When Landsburg talks about taxing "everything equally" he means taxing consumption today and consumption tomorrow equally. There is a theoretical case to be made for such "intertemporal neutrality" though Landsburg got huffy when I suggested that that implied valuing the scone tomorrow the same as the scone today - the bird in the hand the same as the bird in the bush. I can't imagine what else it could imply.

How about another scenario or two, only this time make the reasonable assumption that the government really wants to raise not some percentage but some amount of money - say 1 dollar. That excludes scenario 1, but leaves scenario 2 untouched. Scenario three gets slightly more complicated. The government takes x out of his two dollar pay, he saves the balance (2-x), earns (2-x) in interest, out of which the government takes (2-x)*x/2. The government's net take is 2x-x^2/2 = 1, so, if my arithmetic is right x is about 59 cents. The gov gets its dollar, and our hero winds up with 2.41 scones - an entirely better deal.

How about scenario (4), government taxes interest only. Once again I suck in my stomach and save the 2 bucks, so the next day I give the government its dollar and have three scones - or maybe have one scone and invest the other two for another payday.

I think I understand why he deleted my comment. It makes his "lesson" look decidedly stupid. Clearly taxing interest only is a better deal for scone eaters and scone sellers.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Acceleration in Special Relativity

I don't want to pretend to be an authority on general relativity, though I have studied it a little. The following thoughts represent my current understanding of one issue that seems to come up when the so-called paradoxes of special relativity are discussed.

There is a persistent myth that General Relativity is necessary to deal with accelerated reference frames. I even remember hearing that from one of my professors as an undergraduate. It's come up in discussion of the Ehrenfest Paradox below.

Misner, Thorne and Wheeler (in Gravitation), demolish the myth as follows:

...special relativity was developed precisely to predict the physics of accelerated objects-e.g. the radiation from an accelerated charge. Even the fantastic accelerations... of 28 g of a neutron in a nucleus...

The basis of the myth is somewhat obvious: special relativity treats inertial reference frames as "special" while general relativity purports to treat all reference frames on an equal basis. I say "purports" because it seems to me that locally inertial frames still have a special status.

General relativity is a theory of gravity. Gravity can't be reduced to special relativity because it's presence means that locally inertial reference frames can be and are accelerated with respect to one another.

The way one handles an accelerated reference frame in special relativity is to replace it at each instant with the inertial frame moving at the same velocity. Thus an accelerated object has its behavior calculated along a path by breaking that path into a sequence of inertial frames, each of which matches in frame of the object in velocity but not acceleration.

Does that work? Well yes, and there are tons of experimental data to prove. Moreover, it's an approach that respects the geometric character of Minkowski space.

In the presence of matter and its gravity, though, spacetime is no longer Minkowskian. A curved spacetime is necessary, and spacetime needs to become a manifold.

Bad Faith Efforts

One of the surest clues to phony science is the bad faith effort. It's possible that some among the mainstream climate community have gotten carried away from time to time or hyped certain facts more than they deserved, but the record of the climate sceptics consists of one bad faith effort after another. No sooner does one phony argument get shot down than they invent another. Eli, that most excellent climate Rabett, has now assembled evidence of yet another, this time featuring our old buddy Roger Pielke Sr. and friends.

Short Period Climate Variability

One of my frustrations with the climate science community has been a certain dodginess about the sources of short term climate variability - stuff like the more or less static behavior of global temperature over the past dozen years. So it was a big relief for me when Real Climate succeeded that stupid and defensive The IPCC is not infallible (shock!) headline with a new article on the recent paper by Solomon et. al. (I'm not so impressed by their headline for it either, but...).

Susan Solomon is a chemist and no newcomer to making important discoveries in atmospheric science. She was one of the first to unravel the connection between clorofluorocarbons and the ozone hole.

Her teams discovery this time is revealing the role that stratospheric water plays in regulating the atmospheric temperature. Water doesn't get to the stratosphere easily - it condenses out at lower levels - but the tiny amount that does get there keeps a significant amount of heat in. The stratosphere has been dry for the past decade, and that has played a role in slowing the temperature increase.

There is little reason to believe that this is likely to continue, though. The water in the stratosphere seems to be driven by a couple of processes - one of which is oxidation of methane, a green house gas likely to increase, and the other is lofting by very powerful tropical thunderstorms, which are likely to vary unpredictably.

Master and Commander

The Pres was in total command in his meeting with the Republican Caucus. No doubt the most severely deluded saw it a little differently, but I think the Republicans were throwing him their best stuff and he was pounding into deep left field. He is not the smoothest of speakers, but he was clearly in command of the facts, and he called out his questioners on their more egregious distortions. I expect that most Americans didn't get a glimpse of it but he really should try to set up occasions to have more of these.

He does need to simplify his rhetoric even more, and while that meeting was not the place for it, turn up the heat.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Wimp Out?

Will we see a wimp out tomorrow? The signs don't look promising.

Ehrenfest Paradox

Steve Landsburg, an economist/mathematician who fancies himself an expert on relativity (he has written a book on GR) poses the following problem:.

A circular train (front of the locomotive attached to the rear of the caboose) sits on a circular track. At some point, the train accelerates and starts traveling around the track. Because the train is moving, I (an observer stationary relative to the track) should see it shrink. But the track doesn’t shrink. So the train can’t stay on the track, and gets pulled inward, ending up inside the track. On the other hand, the passengers say the track has shrunk, so they should expect to get pushed outside the track. How can everyone be right?


This is a famous puzzle known as The Ehrenfest Paradox, but I think that Landsburg's "solution" is less than adequate - not really even correct.

Any comments?

UPDATE: Here is what I came up with. It has one major flaw that I really should try to fix:

I really like this problem and had several happy ours struggling to understand it, but I don’t think your solution is ideal. The trouble is that it depends on a Procrustean stretching the train in an unphysical fashion to make it fit. If you accelerate the train in a conventional fashion, say by electric motors in each car, you find that the train really does shrink and fall off the track to the inside. To see this quantitatively, imagine not a circular track but a long, thin racetrack shape, with negligible ends and long sides of length L/2. Train and track are each initially of length L. After acceleration to speed v, Jeeter, the observer on the train, measures the track to have Lorentz contracted length L*sqrt(1-(v/c)^2). The part of the train on his side has length L/2, as before, but the part of the train on the opposite side is shortened to length (L/2)*sqrt(1-(2v/c)^2). If we do the arithmetic in the binomial approximation, we see that the total length of the track minus the length of train is (L/2)(v/c)^2. The stationary observer sees each half of the train shortened by (L/4)*(v/c)^2, again in the binomial approximation, so they agree that the train is shorter than the track by (L/2)(v/c)^2.
The train **does** fall off the track to the inside. Note, by the way, that this form is a close spatial analog of the so-called twin paradox. The key point of asymmetry is the same – one observer gets accelerated and the other doesn’t.
In addition to the liberties of using the binomial approximation, I also used Galilean addition of velocities, but that’s a higher order correction unless v is close to c.

UPDATE II: OK, let me eat some (not all) of my words. Call it a limited, modified, partial hang out) Consider a train of cars of length l moving at speed v along a track. At some time t=0 in the track frame each car begins accelerating uniformly.

Meanwhile, back on the train, observers stationed on the train notice something funny. Do to the relativity of simultaneity, the front of the car in front of him began accelerating earlier than the back by an amount of time dt = l*v*gamma, where gamma = 1/Sqrt(1-(v/c)^2). Also, the back of the car behind him started dt later. This is what Steve Landsberg said, right? Right.

If the train is circular, and you go around the train, each observer notices that he started later than the guy in front of him and earlier than the guy behind him – very odd, but a manifestation of the fact that these observers can’t synchronize their clocks.

So how do the cars feel about being stretched like this? Well they resist fiercely and then they either stretch, break, or move inward toward the center of the track. Steve focussed on the details of the acceleration, and decided that the train didn’t shrink. I focussed on the physics of railroad cars being stretched, and concluded that it must.

It turns out that this is another famous paradox in relativity called Bell’s paradox. The upshot is that uniform acceleration of a rigid body can’t occur in special relativity. An accelerated body either deforms or accelerates nonuniformly.

Links to more on Bell’s paradox in the comments.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Barbarian Hordes

To the extent to which such matters were discussed at all, my history lessons portrayed European colonization of much of the rest of the world as a triumph of civilization over the primitive, and it’s true that many of the colonial victims were relatively primitive technologically, especially in the Americas, Australia, and much of Africa. That was not the case in Asia, so how, I asked, did Europe conquer India and China despite the logistical difficulties of operating across an ocean? Arun has now provided several posts by way of answer, and I now suspect that I might have been asking the wrong question.

Maybe the central premise – Civilization advancing against the barbarian hordes – has it backwards. Maybe it’s usually the barbarians who are the aggressors, invading and looting the higher civilization. Certainly that is the way we understand the fall of the Roman Empire, and it would seem to apply equally to the Roman conquest of the Greeks. Nor can we doubt the application of the paradigm to Genghis Khan and other conquerors from the plains of Asia. Having gone that far, how about Alexander’s conquest of “the World”?

Now it’s true that these conquerors often did have some technological advantage in this or that aspect of warfare, but I think that Arun has put his finger on the crucial point – the outsiders triumph by throwing sand in the gears of the complex economic interactions that make up a civilization. The invaders lacked this vulnerability either because of their primitive social organization, or because they were far from home, or both. Now we have a paradigm that applies to Alexander and Cortez, to Pizarro and Clive.

It should also have a few sobering lessons for us today. We feel secure in our military power today and our powerful economies, but a tiny band of Muslim terrorists have managed to throw quite a bit of sand in our economic gears. Most effectively, they have induced us to squander trillions in absurdly unprofitable wars.

It Should Be, It Should Be, It Should Be Like That

Rush speaks to the The Onion:

....My comments about the situation in Haiti have hurt and angered many Americans who genuinely care about the plight of the Haitian people, and that hurt and anger will likely never go away. Many of you are probably wondering, "What would compel a human being to say things like that?" Well, here's your answer: I am a very bad person. And, to tell you the truth, I don't really want to be alive anymore.

Try to look at it from my point of view. I have no reason to live. In my 59 years, I've made millions of dollars, built a veritable media empire, and accomplished virtually everything that a man of my limited imagination and worldview could possibly accomplish. And yet, at this point, in no way could you refer to what I'm doing as "living," exactly. I just sort of exist. I derive no real pleasure from life. Oh, sure, I talk a big game about what a golf nut I am and how much I enjoy the taste of a fine cigar, but it's all horseshit. Complete and utter horseshit.

I don't enjoy that stuff. I don't enjoy anything. I don't even want to be here. The sadness and regret I feel every waking hour of my life is absolutely unbearable. I am a miserable pig and I do not want to exist.


h/t Andrew Sullivan

Saturday, January 23, 2010

DeLong Defends Bernanke

DeLong's diagnosis: the problem in not with Ben, but with the rest of the Open Market Committee. Obama needs to make a couple of recess appointments. Brad knows whom he wants:

Excuse me:

OBAMA!! GET ALAN BLINDER AND DAVID ROMER ON THE FED BOARD NOW!!!!

There.

Now I'm back.

I found Brad's defense against Krugman's indictment pretty persuasive. It's not short, but it has a lot in it.

World Poverty

The global standard for poverty is living on less than one dollar per day. I'm not sure what this means. Can anybody actually live on what they ***can buy*** for \$1/day? I certainly doubt it. A subsistence farmer or fisherman could, perhaps, but that's just because most of their actual income is outside the formal economy.

Does anybody know the way they construct such a "standard?"

My real question is whether this measures how people live or just their participation in the money economy. One can imagine an ideally self-sufficient farmer with livestock, garden, and grain who needs almost no money but still eats well and lives comfortably. One can also imagine pretty desperate poverty in the US on \$10/day for somebody with no home.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wandering around my local Barnes & Noble, I noticed several copies of Chad Orzel's new book How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. As it happens, I've known Chad for decades, about one and a half of them. Not that he knows me, or would recognize me if he ran into me (not something you want to happen to you, by the way - he is a really big guy).

Before there were blogs, before the intertubes had been animated by the web, there was Usenet. Usenet, if I remember correctly, was sort of a collection of global bulletin boards, used mostly to post porn, but also for various useful purposes like discussing science fantasy or theoretical physics. (It was on the latter that I first encountered Lumo). Chad was one of the demigods of the group rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan devoted to the Wheel of Time fantasy series of the late Robert Jordan. The group itself was perhaps one of greatest wastes of human brainpower since theology.

Chad is now a physics prof with a popular blog called Uncertain Principles, but in those days he was but a humble - strike that - Chad has never appeared humble - graduate student. He was, to be sure, rather arrogant and obnoxious toward the humbler folk like your genuinely humble correspondent, or at least those of us with uppity behavior (who, me?), but he was and remains damn funny and an excellent writer.

So I picked up his book and looked it over. Unfortunately, I don't have a dog, but the book gets good reviews on Amazon even from people.

Creeping Tyranny

Via Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf deserves the largest audience possible when he tells conservatives to wake the hell up:

If I may address the skeptics on the right directly, it is penny wise and pound foolish to worry about creeping tyranny via government-run health care or gun control when we’re another terrorist attack away from popular support for an archipelago of secret prisons where anyone can be whisked away and tortured without any evidence against them. Look to Europe if you doubt whether government-run health care or black sites run by secret police are a more immediate threat to the liberty of innocents.

Do you think that I exaggerate?

Know that one of the Gitmo Three was arrested at age 17, held for some years without being charged, and scheduled for release at the time of his death due to the military’s conclusion that no evidence linked him to al Qaeda or the Taliban. We may never know exactly how he and his fellow detainees died: A conclusive, independent autopsy is impossible because their bodies were returned to their families with their throats missing.

In fact, there is fairly convincing evidence that they were murdered by torture. We will probably never have confirmation because the Obama government is still part of the cover up. I had lunch yesterday with a friend who was frothing with rage at the tyranny of health insurance, cap and trade legislation, and motor cycle helmet laws but who is unfazed by turning over to the government the power to detain and murder anyone they don't like. Yay for Faux News.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Supreme Corporate State

The usual rascals on the Supreme Court agreed to turn the United States into a corporate state for sale to the highest bidder today. While there was considerable wailing and knashing of teeth, even from an occasional Republican, everyone pretty much agreed that there was nothing Congress could do. Actually that's not true. Consider Section 2 of Article 3 of the Constitution:

(The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.) (This section in parentheses is modified by the 11th Amendment.)

In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

I have emboldened the crucial phrases. Congress has the unconditional right to decide what matters, if any, should be outside the Judicial appellate purview. It would be hard to doubt that the SC's interference in electoral matters might be an appropriate exception. This is the nuclear weapon of Congress in its long contest with the Court, and the Congress has been extremely reluctant to wield it. But this might be the time. Congress could write a very narrow law to the effect that the SC jurisdiction in the case of regulation of elections be limited to the interpretation of the law, and that Congress reserves to itself the right to decide questions of constitutionality of such laws.

Music, Music, Music

Why do we like music, and what about it do we like? Via Marginal Revolution, here is a provocative theory. The fundamental idea:

There are two interesting takeaways from this experiment. The first is that music hijacks some very fundamental neural mechanisms. The brain is designed to learn by association: if this, then that. Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors. In other words, every melody manipulates the same essential mechanisms we use to make sense of reality.

In his book on Black Holes, S. Chandrasekar has a pair of epigraphs which I will try to quote from memory: Heisenberg - Beauty consists of proper proportion of the parts to the whole, and to each other.
and Francis Bacon: "There is no thing of excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."

The point, I think, is that both order and tension with disorder are necessary. From the post and the musical paper:

The paper consists of a computational model and and an experiment. The model essentially demonstrated that statistical predictions based on our personal listening experience - because I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I'm able to predict the melodies of John Mellencamp - was much better at simulating the mind than a rule-based model, in which our expectations are fixed and inflexible.

The experiment was more compelling. The scientists measured the brain waves of a twenty subjects while they listened to various hymns. It turned out that unexpected notes - pitches that violated the previous melodic pattern - triggered an interesting sequence of neural events and a spike in brain activity:

Our electrophysiological results showed that low-probability notes, as compared to high-probability notes, elicited a larger (i) negative ERP component at a late time period (400-450 ms), (ii) beta band (14-30 Hz) oscillation over the parietal lobe, and (iii) long-range phase synchronization between multiple brain regions.

So why do we crave surprise as a contrast to the order? It's evolution's way of teaching us how to be prepared for the unexpected possible.

The ability to anticipate forthcoming events has clear evolutionary advantages, and predictive successes or failures often entail significant psychological and physiological consequences. In music perception, the confirmation and violation of expectations are critical to the communication of emotion and aesthetic effects of a composition.

Exercise for the student: What do Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga have in common that helps explain their respective successes?

Who Got Bailed Out By Whom?

Wolfgang and I have been discussing bailouts. Of course a bunch of banks got money, but many of them are paying off. Aside from them, WB says, in answer to:

>> Who got bailed out here?
Then just think about where the biggest losses were/are, which will (almost certainly) not be recovered. Ranked by the loss amount they are: Fannie, Freddie, AIG, GM and GMAC. The loss limit on F&F was recently raised from 200B$ each to basically unlimited.

So who were the beneficiaries here? All these corporations had their stockholder equity wiped out, so it wasn't them. Essentially all those who got were the bondholders or others who were owed money - seemingly the very "savers" Wolfgang is worried about. In the case of F&F, a big chunk of that debt, something like 1.5 trillion dollars was owed to foreigners, mostly banks. If those agencies had suddenly become unsellable, banks all over the world would have toppled like dominoes, and credit for the US would have disappeared, so what was the alternative?

To me, the most undeserving who were saved were the big Wall Street banks who did so much to provoke the crisis.

How would central banker Wolfgang (or Arun, or Cynthia, or Lee etc.) have handled the crisis?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Krugman on Obama

Krugman has never been an Obama fan, and he's not about to sign up now. He really hates what Obama is bringing to the health care issue now.

Maybe House Democrats can pull this out, even with a gaping hole in White House leadership. Barney Frank seems to have thought better of his initial defeatism. But I have to say, I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in.

I'm beginning to suspect that my friend had the right idea with his Christmas present for Obama. He sent him two balls.

Where Obama Went Wrong

I think George Packer has one of the more insightful analyses in this New Yorker article. A couple of excerpts:


Part of Obama’s weakness has been this unwillingness or inability to say a few simple things passionately, which would let Americans know that he is on their side. Reagan knew how to do it, which meant that, even when his popularity was sinking at a similar point in his presidency (remember 1982?), the public still knew where he stood, not necessarily on the details of policy, but on a few core principles that he could at least pretend never to sacrifice.

The most fundamental problem, though, was the sheer magnitude of the problems he faces:


But the fundamental reason why the soaring emotions of the inauguration have soured just a year later goes beyond anything that Obama can do. The country is in deep trouble, not just with ten percent unemployment (though that accounts for a lot of unhappiness), but with chronic, long-term social and economic problems. Whatever responsibility George W. Bush and his Republican Party might bear is almost forgotten; in the age of the iPhone and cable news, that was half a century ago. These problems, which can be summed up as the decline of the American middle class, have been so resistant to solutions that the readiest and most reasonable stance is profound skepticism. It is so much harder politically to do something affirmative than to stand in the way and say it can’t be done. Obama has made his job all the more difficult by trying to do something—and in some cases succeeding—without offering much of a challenge to the people standing in the way. So he pays the price, and they do not.

If Obama is going to be a successful President, he has to learn to lead. He has more to learn about that than I would have expected, though I suppose I should have. He really doesn't have prior experience with leadership. Let's hope he is a quick study.

On the positive side, he's still a lot better off than Lincoln was after First (or Second) Manassas.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Failure

Obama has failed at the health insurance reform that was to be the centerpiece of his first term. That failure will infect every other effort he makes. I don't think that that failure was foreordained. He, and Congress squandered their opportunity in negotiation and infighting, and the President chose to stay out of it rather than aggressively asserting his leadership.

Two things lay at the core of the failure, I think. First he failed to fight back when the Republicans adopted a strategy of total resistance. More importantly, by buying into a stimulus package that was far too small, he left ordinary people in the economy to flounder.

What is done cannot be undone, but he still needs to run the country for three more years. It would probably be a good psychological gesture now to fire his economic team, at least those associated with the bailout. He should also withdraw his nomination of Bernanke. The country has lost faith in his economic stewardship and he can't fire himself, so he needs to fire his managers.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Conquest - Or Not

The European conquest of the New World was mostly just a matter of germs and technology. The conquest of much of Asia is harder to explain. Europeans had no germs that Asia hadn't already seen, and the technological differences were fairly small. China was constructing ships far larger and otherwise superior to those of Vasco da Gama and Columbus 100 years earlier. Japan saw European guns and a few decades later was making better ones itself, only to completely abandon the technology in a few decades more.

The failures of China and India to effectively resist are the biggest puzzle. Almost certainly the failure was one of social organization, in that they were unwilling or unable to reorganize themselves for effective resistance. Essentially, I am guessing, their civilizations had become too conservative and too set in their ways to recognize and face the threat.

In the case of India, I am counting on Arun to set me straight.

I see certain parallels to the modern situation. The US and Western Civilization generally face existential threats from the consequences of global warming and other ecodestruction, but they are nearly completely paralyzed in their response. I can imagine some advisor to the Chinese emperor advising him not to worry about the British because the real threat was some monks with radical ideas, or a new scheme of health care, or gay marriage...

The Problem With Haiti

Why is Haiti so poor? Of course every crackpot has a theory, but Tyler Cowen links to this short essay by Bob Corbett which is better and more comprehensive than anything else that I have read. Much of the story is the usual:

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The Haitian masses suffer some of the most debilitating and depressing misery of any people in the world. Yet, virtually all that misery is human caused, in most cases, by a tiny minority inside and outside Haiti who have the wealth and power to control.

Peculiarities of history conspired against Haiti. As the only country to free itself as the result of a slave revolt, it was seen as a major threat by all the slave holding powers (most of them, in 1804) and was persecuted by the world. Much of the international oppression was orchestrated by France and the US. US interference has been dominant since the occupation 1915-1934. Corbett's article has lots of interesting details about internal and external problems.

One of the oddities of Haiti is the fact that the official language (French) is not the language of the people (Haitian Creole). This language barrier is a serious and fundamental barrier which helps to keep much of the population illiterate.

Best Case Scenario

gk2gk puts the best face on the case for dating geeks.

Reading For Democrats

This column by E. J. Dionne should be required reading for Democrats - especially Obama. (via TPM. Sometimes the critique has to come before conciliation.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Lubos Motl, Climate Expert

Give a clever lad some fancy statistical software, and you can never tell what will happen next. Lubos and his analysis of satellite data get a favorable mention in Andy Revkin's NYT climate blog. Move over McGuys.

Or do I mean: "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

Warm Front

James Hansen reports that 2009 was the second hottest year on record, second only to 2005 in If It’s That Warm, How Come It’s So Damned Cold? The title is an acknowlegment of the popular notion that this has been a very cold winter. Well, it has been a cold winter in many of the most populous areas of the Northern Hemisphere, but global temperatures are umm, global, and Europe, Asia, and the Eastern US together are still a small part of the total globe. The clueless, of course, will never grasp the notion that ice in their driveway is not evidence for or against global warming.

Hansen also mentions the reason the recent months have looked cold to many of us - the strong arctic oscillation this year. Cold polar air has moved far to the South, chilling places used to more warmth, but the other side of the oscillation is that some normally very cold places in the far North have been unusually warm.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Gruber Dust Up

There is a significant dust up in liberal circles over the role of MIT health economist in crafting the health care bill. The facts, so far as I can tell, are that the government paid him to do an analysis of the economics of the Senate health insurance reform bill, and that his analysis was then cited as independent by various government sources without noting that he was paid to do the analysis. Marci Wheeler of Fire Dog Lake and Glenn Greenwald cried foul, calling this similar to the Bush administrations hiring commentators to put out propaganda. Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong take strong exception. DeLong:

Jon Gruber is not a "consultant" or "strategist" who gets bribed by a political party or a government. Jon Gruber is, instead, an MIT health economics professor whom HHS hired to run a whole bunch of people whose job it was to mirror CBO--to carry out the analytical work on health proposals to tell HHS in advance what CBO was likely to say would be the budgetary implications of different pieces of health care. Gruber is best in the business at this: if you asked me what Doug Elmendorf and his team at CBO were likely to think, and if I couldn't reach Elmendorf, I would ask Gruber. It was a very good thing that HHS hired Gruber to run a team to do this.

Unlike you standard "consultant" or "pundit" or "strategist"--who will turn on a dime and spin as you wish him to if you sign him up for the team and pay him in six figures--Jon Gruber has said nothing this past year about health care reform that he was not already saying in 2008, and 2007, and 2006. Nothing. Nothing at all.


I'm going to guess that it is not entirely coincidence that the lawyers don't see any difference between a paid advocate and a technical analysis but the economists do. I've got to go with Krugman and DeLong here. Partly it's a matter of professional ethics. If a lawyer produces misleading statements on behalf of a client, nobody thinks the worse of him - that's his job. A scientist who produces a distorted analysis for pay is a crook, a liar, and is, or should become, a professional pariah.

To be sure, there is a disclosure issue, and Gruber and HHS were remiss in failing to disclose it. But I don't buy the Wheeler-Greenwald equation of this to the kind of paid flackery they compare it to.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Massachusetts

If polls are to be believed, the Republican candidate, running on a platform of killing health insurance reform, is on the verge of victory in the Massachusetts Senate race. If that happens, the American people are officially not smart enough to survive.

How can they already have forgotten the state the Republicans left the country in?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How Great Are We?

Says David Brooks - speaking here about his fellow Jews. Pretty frigging great it seems. Besides constituting 50% or so of the NYT Op Ed columnists, it seems that:

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.

Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction

Not to mention roughly 90% of television comedy writers.

Now one could quibble about a few of those numbers. Two of the greatest Chess World Champions, Fisher and Kasparov, had some Jewish ancestry, but Fisher was a notorious anti-semite. Does he count? Whatever. Jews are an accomplished group.

Brooks has another point though. Israel, he says, is becoming a technology hub.

Tel Aviv has become one of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial hot spots. Israel has more high-tech start-ups per capita than any other nation on earth, by far. It leads the world in civilian research-and-development spending per capita. It ranks second behind the U.S. in the number of companies listed on the Nasdaq. Israel, with seven million people, attracts as much venture capital as France and Germany combined.

...

Israel’s technological success is the fruition of the Zionist dream. The country was not founded so stray settlers could sit among thousands of angry Palestinians in Hebron. It was founded so Jews would have a safe place to come together and create things for the world.

If what Brooks says is true, and almost certainly it is mostly true, then it's probably game over for the Palestinians.

More CO2: Promoted From Comments

Lumo writes (in the comments):

Dear CIP, I said CO2 was irrelevant for a particular temperature graph we were discussing - and the word "irrelevant" has an effective meaning: the CO2's effect is undetectable with any statistical significance. Believe me that I do know the greenhouse effect, I believe it, understand it, and have been lecturing on it.

OK, my bad - I misunderstood your remark, but whether or not CO2 is relevant to the increased temperatures in middle England is not a settled question. You continued:

Venus' CO2 partial pressure in the atmosphere is something like 300 000 times higher than it is on the Earth: the total pressure is 100 times higher than here, and 96% instead of 0.038% of the atmosphere is CO2. Be sure you can't get there to the Venus-like mass of CO2 in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels - not even all fossil fuels that exist anywhere on Earth (insufficient by many orders of magnitude). The only way you get there is for you to be a young Earth creationist and pray to God to multiply your CO2 by one million - and you must know very well that at the level of science, all the miraculous effects attributed to the climatically irrelevant gas are just religious fantasies.

These is not enough fossil organic carbon for a Venusian atmosphere, of course, but even a 20K temperature increase would be pretty catastrophic. Once water can no longer condense (as on Venus), geological processes gradually dump the inorganic carbon into the atmosphere. There is a whole lot of that.

By the way, CO2 greenhouse effect adds something like 400 deg Celsius on Venus. If the impact were linear, it would be 400/300,000 = 1 millidegree on the Earth. The fact that it may be about 2 degree Celsius on the Earth (the CO2 greenhouse effect from all natural and man-added CO2) shows that the dependence is sublinear - closer to logarithmic, although the simple log dependence breaks down at very high concentrations like those on Venus.

But it's not a linear effect, as you note. It's approximately logarithmic, and Venus has about 2^18 times as much CO2 as Earth. If the effect were truly logarithmic, and Venus's greenhouse were due purely to CO2, that would imply a climate sensitivity of approximate 390/18 = 20 K per doubling - many time the actual sensitivity of 2-5 K.

If the Earth's CO2 were it's only greenhouse gas, the CO2 greenhouse effect would be about 10 K. Because there are other greenhouse gases, much of the CO2 absorption is redundant, so that the net additional warming due to CO2 is only about 1/3 as much - say 3 K. This fact is important, since that 10 K worth of CO2 stays in the atmosphere even if the amount of water vapor (the really big GHG) decreases. Otherwise, the Earth's climate would be less stable, since cooling decreases the H2O vapor (and the methane too) which produces further cooling, and so on.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Irrational Expectations: John Edwards Chapter

New York Magazine has a long excerpt from John Heilemann & Mark Halperin's book on the Edwards campaign, it's implosion, and the curious dynamics underlying. Much of the story is familiar to any political junkie, but Elizabeth Edwards is portrayed rather harshly compared to the usual kid glove treatment she gets.

It is pretty scary, though, to see how close this dimwit egomaniac came to getting the nomination and handing the presidency to McIdiot & Palin.

Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson

Andrew Sullivan remembers something from the past life of Iris Robinson, Irish MP and wife of the First Minister of Northern Ireland.

David Brooks Shows...

...flashes of intelligence and (Gasp!) wit in his review of Avatar. [SPOILER ALERT (just in case the reader is one of the 7 human beings who has not yet seen the movie).

Every once in a while Davy manages to escape the trite fables of conservative theology long enough to write something interesting. Personal faves:

This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

And:

The white guy notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he’s the most awesome member of their tribe...

Along the way, he has his consciousness raised. The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Carbon Dioxide and Climate

While I'm on the subject of odd objections, LM, in the comments, said CO2 is "irrelevant." Now while that wouldn't sound too strange coming from a young Earth creationist, it is genuinely weird coming from somebody supposedly educated in physics. Not quite G&T strange (see previous post), but damn strange, since CO2 is clearly one of the principle actors in Earth's climate, not to mention the climates of the other planets. The misnamed greenhouse effect was discovered by the mathematician and physicist Fourier almost 200 years ago, but didn't create much of a stir for quite some time.

Maybe the first big caution signal was sounded when the hellish temperatures at the surface of Venus were discovered. That was a big surprise, since Venus is such shiny planet that it absorbs less sunlight than Earth, despite being only about 2/3 as far from the Sun. When it was realized that it was the greenhouse effect of thick carbon dioxide atmosphere of Venus that was responsible, greenhouse effects were studied everywhere. Mars and Earth, with much less CO2 in the atmosphere, also exhibit substantial effects, though in the case of Earth, water vapor is the biggest player.

Astronomy and geology cooperate to give us the next big clue to the centrality of CO2 in our climate history. The young Sun was a lot dimmer than its present self. Replace our present Sun with it and our planet would promptly freeze solid, but in fact, our young planet had lots of running water. How could this be? The present oxygen rich atmosphere is a relatively new invention, on Earth - "only" six hundred or so million years old. In the earliest Earth, much of the oxygen was locked up in CO2, and it provided enough of a greenhouse effect to keep the oceans liquid.

These are only two of the many threads which confirm that CO2 and the carbon cycle have played a pivotal role in the world's climate history. Over the long run CO2 is a regulator of climate, with a strong negative feedback, but that long run is millions of years. In the short run, its feedback is opposite.

CO2 will mostly be a bystander in the planet's finale, though. Eventually, the Earth's ability to sequester CO2 will be overcome by the increasingly hot Sun. At that point, the oceans evaporate and the atmosphere becomes too hot for rain to form. Water vapor is ionized into hydrogen and oxygen and the hydrogen is lost to space. The oxygen will combine to form CO2 and other gases and Earth will become another Venus like furnace. With luck, we should have another billion years or so.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Number Two

Of all the odd objections to global warming theory, one of the oddest has got to be the claim that global warming would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, since it would imply that the cold upper atmosphere was warming the Earth. One reason it's an odd objection is that nearly every one of us experiences a very similar phenomenon every time we put on a jacket or sweater on a cold day. That jacket or sweater starts out colder than us and stays colder than us (if the air is cold), but it keeps us warm by transferring some of the heat we lose back to us.

The second law doesn't permit **net** transfer of heat from the cooler body to the warmer body, but if it's warmer that the outside, it can slow the loss of that heat. That's what your jacket does on a cold day and that's what the CO2 in the atmosphere does to the surface of the Earth.

Modern Economics

Does a lot of modern economics seem to defy common sense? Kevin Drum extracts this devastating commentary on saltwater/freshwater from Daniel Davies:

The production of more or less mendacious intellectual smokescreens for policies which favour the interests of rich and powerful men isn’t a sort of industrial pollution from the modern economics profession — it’s the product.

(UPDATE: Tyler Cowen has kindly presented us with a current example here.)

James Galbraith, where Keynes has some similarly harsh criticism:

It must have been due to a complex of suitabilities in the doctrine to the environment into which it was projected. That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect added, I suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carry a vast and logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain much social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attempt to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, commended it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.

Galbraith quoting himself:

Leading active members of today’s economics profession...themselves into a kind of Politburo for correct economic thinking. As a general rule—as one might generally expect from a gentleman’s club—this has placed them on the wrong side of every important policy issue, and not just recently but for decades. They predict disaster where none occurs. They deny the possibility of events that then happen. ... They oppose the most basic, decent and sensible reforms, while offering placebos instead. They are always surprised when something untoward (like a recession) actually occurs. And when finally they sense that some position cannot be sustained, they do not reexamine their ideas. They do not consider the possibility of a flaw in logic or theory. Rather, they simply change the subject. No one loses face, in this club, for having been wrong. No one is dis-invited from presenting papers at later annual meetings.And still less is anyone from the outside invited in.

Fair? I'm not sure, but I would like to see where the money comes from that funds U Chicago economics and it's freshie brethren. that might be some interesting economics.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Lumos' Little Climate Joke

Our good buddy Lubosh Motl has posted some figures on warming trends in Central England from 1659 to the present. When he plots the warming trend (essentially the first time derivative of the temperature) he finds quite amazingly that the past and present look rather alike to the casual eye. Anyone who has ever looked at noisy data knows that if you start looking at derivatives of noisy data the noise is sure to crowd out the data. Frankly, I'm a little disappointed that he would resort to such a cheap bit of fakery - suitable for fooling the bozos I suppose.

If you look at the actual temperatures instead of the time rate of change, you can see something more meaningful and familiar: a noisy signal, with the warmest temperatures heavily concentrated in the late twentieth and early twentyfirst century.



UPDATE: I presented this notion to the Prof and his reply was:

For a random walk, it is extremely likely that the beginning and/or end of an interval maximizes and/or minimizes the function...

Which left me curous as to how likely "extremely likely" was. For a random walk of 350 steps (say of equally likely plus or minus one), just how likely is it that the final step is the maximum of the set? Inquiring statistical minds would like to know. For n=1 I get P=50%, but 1 is a pretty small number...

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Red Queens and Hummingbirds

Red Queens, hummingbirds, and helicopters have to run as fast as they can simply to stay in one place. Actually going somewhere is usually easier. This circumstance is the result of the interaction of "induced" drag (the drag or retarding force intrinsic to the generation of lift) and parasitic drag (the drag produced by friction of the air). The former scales like 1/(wing velocity) squared and the latter inversely (velocity squared), which means that induced drag dominates at low velocities and parasitic drag at high velocities.

Another fun fact from Henk Tennekes Simple Science of Flight.