Monday, May 31, 2010

Exodus 2010

It's probably not coincidence that the fate of the Gaza aid flotilla echos that of the Exodus 1947 - the ship trying to bring Jewish holocaust survivors to Palestine in 1947 - but it is ample evidence of historical ignorance and general stupidity of the Netanyahu government. Robert Mackey tells the story in The New York Times

To some Israeli observers, it was impossible to miss the parallels between Monday’s killing of pro-Palestinian activists by Israel’s military in international waters, as commandos intercepted a flotilla of ships trying to break the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza, and a seminal event in the Jewish struggle for an independent homeland.

Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist who is rounding up reports and commentary on the attack on his blog, “Promised Land,” points to a post in Hebrew by Rafi Man of the Israel Democracy Institute which asks: “Will This Be the Palestinian Exodus?”

The British Navy tried to block the ship, the Exodus tried to break through, and violence ensued. The British then were trying to prevent illegal entry into territory that they legally controlled. After two would be immigrants and a crewman were killed, and the rest were forcibly returned to displaced person camps in Europe:

Large protests erupted on both sides of the Atlantic. The ensuing public embarrassment for Britain played a significant role in the diplomatic swing of sympathy toward the Jews and the eventual recognition of a Jewish state in 1948.

The unfolding of the violence had its parallels too.

Another parallel between the events of 1947 and those on Monday is a dispute over what might have justified the use of deadly force against civilians. Israeli officials insisted in initial statements that shooting activists in the flotilla was justified because commandos boarding one ship were met with “live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs.” That assertion was called “a lie,” by one of the flotilla’s organizers. In his live-blog post, Mr. Sheizaf wrote that Channel 10, an Israeli television station, reported that the Israeli military had completed a search of the ship and “no weapons discovered except for the two pistols that were taken from the soldiers.”

In August 1947, a New York Times article on the clash at sea the previous month was headlined: “Crew Man From the Exodus 1947 Denies the British Met Firearms; Grauel, on Arrival in New York, Says Naval Boarding Party Shot at Jews Whose Weapons Were Potatoes, Canned Goods.”

Up to that point, the Jews in Palestine had most notably made their case for statehood with various terrorist acts, infamously blowing up the King David hotel.

The Empathy War

After sixty years of counterproductive terrorism, the Palestinians and their allies appear to be learning the lessons of empathy. One of the consequences of global communication is the power to communicate that emotion on a vast scale. The anti-slavery movement may have been one of its first great triumphs. Gandhi demonstrated its enormous geopolitical power. There is a certain irony in the fact that nobody used it better than the founders of Israel. Their compelling narrative played a major role in enlisting American and world support for their enterprise of nation founding.

Today's disastrous assault on the Gaza relief flotilla may go down as the most catastrophic event in Israel's long war with its foes. The flotilla, bringing food and medical aid to Gaza, was an iconic appeal to that empathetic power - like the march on Selma, or the slaughter of peaceful Indian protesters by British machine guns. The Israelis appear to have played their part according to the script, attacking the flotilla in international waters, forcibly boarding the ships, and gunning down unarmed civilians.


Israel now seems to be ruled by increasingly fanatical and militarist leaders, and increasingly contemptuous of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." The logical consequence of settler power is apartheid and genocide, but continued Palestinian resistance by terror is likely to ensure that much of the world's reaction to those policies will be "good riddance." The empathy card turns that upside down. The question is whether the Palestinians have the courage and wisdom to play it.

For now, Israel has the unconditional support of the older generation of American Jews and their Christian millenialist allies. There are hints that the younger generation is in play. My guess is that the time for Israel to wake up and smell the coffee grows short.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Irresponsible Blogger

When I started blogging, I thought this would be a good opportunity to say any stupid thing that came into my head, and I followed that principle. Then I started noticing that some people actually read my stuff - people on six continents even. It's intimidating.

I started wondering if I should try to say something intelligent. That rarely works out well.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Denying Relativity

I suppose that it is no surprise that the modern climate denier shares a lot of political DNA with the various anti-scientific campaigns of the past: the relativity deniers, the evolution deniers, the ozone hole deniers, and the AIDS deniers. Joss Garman has a nice story on the parallels between the anti-relativists of the early twentieth century and the anti-AGW crowd today. I especially like this Einstein quote:

"This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.”
So wrote Albert Einstein in a letter to his one time collaborator, the mathematician Marcel Grossmann in 1920.

More from Garman

Jeroen van Dongen of the Institute for History and Foundations of Science at Utrecht University in Holland, writing in a recent edition of the journal, ‘Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics,’ describes the effectiveness of the movement that grew up to oppose Einstein’s theory. There are some striking parallels with today’s climate debate.

At a time when The Guardian just reported another poll showing a drop in concern about climate change, and a New York Times front page this week described Britons’ growing doubts about the science, its worth taking a look at that anti-science campaign, which was waged by Einstein’s critics because like today’s climate denial movement, the anti-relativity movement had some success too.

Van Dongen highlights:

“Anti-relativists… built up networks to act against Einstein’s theory in concert. This led to some success. For instance, the clamor about the theory in Germany contributed to the Nobel Committee’s delay in awarding its 1921 prize to Einstein and to the particular choice of subject for which he finally did receive it: his account of the photo-electric effect, instead of the controversial theory of relativity.”

He continues:

“Anti-relativists were convinced that their opinions were being suppressed. Indeed, many believed that conspiracies were at work that thwarted the promotion of their ideas. The fact that for them relativity was obviously wrong, yet still so very successful, strengthened the contention that a plot was at play.”

Van Dongen concludes:

“Conspiracies theories tend to do well in uncertain times: they create order in chaos….Just as there is no real point in debating conspiracy theorists, there was no point in explaining relativity to anti-relativists… Their strong opposition was not due to a lack of understanding, but rather the reaction to a perceived threat… Anti-relativists were convinced of their own ideas, and were really only interested in pushing through their own theories: any explanation of relativity would not likely have changed their minds.”

Despite the well-intentioned efforts of some climate scientists like Professor Rapley of the Science Museum, it’s not apparent that a repeated explanation of the basics of climate science is what will help in the face of the latest disinformation campaigns on global warming.

As I’ve documented elsewhere, prolific climate deniers such as Ian Plimer, James Delingpole and Christopher Booker who deliberately spread untruths on climate change can be wrong 99% of the time and right for less than 1% of the time and still ‘win the argument’ because the playing field simply isn’t level. Equally, the IPCC can be right 99% of the time and wrong less than 1% of the time, and they still ‘lose.’ As Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the NYT quoted last year as “an expert on environmental communications,” told Climate Progress:

The anti-AGW crowd has a big advantage though: the support of a powerful and vastly wealthy set of lobbies that care nothing about climate change and everything about their own short term profits.

(via Andrew Sullivan)

What an Idiot: Part VI

I really have to stop reading Stevie Boy:

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, widely known as the bible of psychiatric medicine, is under revision and the American Psychiatric Association is accepting public comment at a new website.

Medpage Today reports that the revision has already been changed several times in response to these comments. These include several areas within the Sexual and Gender Identities categories, and modifications to the criteria for adjustment disorders and eating disorders.

By contrast, the American Physical Society is not asking the general public to weigh in on the prospects for supersymmetry, nor is the American Economic Association surveying the general public on the properties of dynamic stochastic general equilibria. So much for any pretense that psychiatry is a science.

And so much for any pretence that certain economists have a clue about what makes a science. Here's a hint: it takes more than staring fixedly at your own navel to make a science.

And just for informational purposes, psychiatry is a healing discipline rather than a science, and as such is based on science both theoretical and empirical but focussed on healing rather than investigation. The theoretical underpinnings of psychiatry are hardly massive, but rather sturdier than those of economics, it would appear - shrinks can pretty frequently do their patients good. Supersymmetry, on the other hand is an untested but interesting idea, and if anybody has a good idea for how to test it, lots of physicists will prick up their ears.

Collective Punishment

I seem to recall that collective punishment is officially a war crime. We do, I think, occasionally hang enemies who wipe out a village because one of their soldiers got assasinated there.

Of course all war is collective punishment. Killing a few hundred thousand inhabitants of Tokyo because their countrymen killed a somewhat smaller number of Americans (and a rather larger number of Chinese) is a collective punishment. Trying to make rational and humane judgements about war has always been a nasty and slippery business.

We are currently engaged in yet another costly experiment in what is called "counter insurgency warfare." I am inclined to think that there is a fatal flaw the theory behind this kind of warfare. That theory seems to hold that country A is divided into good guys and bad guys and that if we just help the good guys a bit, everything will be dandy.

The contrast with reality in Afghanistan is stark. It would be closer to the truth to note that while most of the people just want to mind their own business and make a living, the country is terrorized by rival gangs of corrupt narco criminals, one of which is nominally allied with us.

This situation is another sorry consequence of George Bush's fathomless stupidity. When the allied powers conquered Germany and Japan, they clearly realized that creating functioning democracies in enemy dictatorships was a complex and demanding task - a task they spent years preparing for.

The first task is to utterly crush and subdue the enemy power. Next, new institutions friendly to democracy needed to be built almost from scratch. In Japan, the occupying power decided everything from how the constitution would be worded to what children would be taught in school.

George "half-assed" Bush decided to skip all these pesky little nation building steps. He announced "mission accomplished" to the Iraqis and told them to go have a nice democracy. The crucial steps were all ignored - the enemy was not crushed or subdued, only scattered. Instead of crafting sensible institutions to build a stable nation he loosed a bunch of crooks to do a bit of looting while pretending to assemble a simulacrum of democracy.

It's too late for a redo. Iraq will be what it will be.

Afghanistan is probably in worse shape. Even if we had a plan for nation building, how could it succeed with an endless supply of more enemy fighters just across the border in Pakistan? Pakistan is the thorniest problem of all. Even if there are "good guys" there, all our attempts to help or bully them only further alienate them from much of their own population.

There are ancient methods that can force a win of sorts - the kind of war of terror and extermination we used against Japan and many others before - the way Sherman conquered the Confederacy. Burn the crops, kill the cattle, lay waste to all in your path. The enemy surrenders or dies. It's a nasty, filthy business, and certain to be costly for all.

Compared to what, of course. For the targets of our wrath is that really much worse than the grinding terrible cost of endless war and death from the skies? What our current tactics have spared has come with costs, most notably a significant failure to prevent further attacks.

What do we legitimately want from the Islamic world? Stop trying to blow us up or kill us. Sometimes the most humane tactics in the long run are the most brutal in the short run. The ancient Chinese reputedly had a form of punishment to "the ninth degree." The modern version goes like this: go ahead, blow yourself up in the street. You are dead. So are your brothers, sisters, children, parents, cousins, second cousins, everybody in your village (or on your block), everybody in your mosque, and so on. That kind of collective punishment is a war crime but it also is a deterent, and probably more effective than the legal kind where you randomly bomb a city and kill a few hundred or thousand people most of whom are only remotely related to the perp.

The cruel irony is that killing a few hundred scattered people with terror bombings or death from the skies angers people a lot more than it intimidates them. Even the prospect of certain death doesn't seem to deter many. Is there any prospect that does?

Austerity Madness

Paul Krugman sees "serious people" of the economic world in the grip of an austerity fever - an irrational fear of a coming inflation that the markets show no sign of believing in. Krugman the Keynesian sees this as a recipe for a new great depression.

So the OECD wants the Fed to start raising interest rates soon — in the next six months or less — because … well, we can look at the OECD’s own forecast. According to this forecast, in the fourth quarter of 2011 — a year and a half from now — the unemployment rate will still be 8.4 percent. Meanwhile, inflation will be 1 percent — well below the Fed’s implicit target of 2 percent. My view is that inflation will be lower than that — core inflation is already below 1 percent. But even given the OECD’s forecast, what possible reason would there be to tighten monetary policy now, when the economy will still have vast excess capacity and inflation that’s too low at the end of next year?

The only explanation seems to be at the beginning of that passage: some people, the report claims, are starting to think there might be inflation, so even though they’re wrong according to our forecasts, see, we need to head off this phantom threat and slow the economy’s recovery … what?

What’s so scary about this is that the OECD virtually defines conventional wisdom; it’s a numbered-paragraph sort of place, where a committee has to sign off on everything, policing the nuances as they say. So what we get from this is that among sensible people the idea that you should undermine recovery to appease those who think there might be inflation even though actually there isn’t has become conventional wisdom — so conventional that it’s treated as self-evident.

This is really, really bad.

Unfortunately, we live in a world rebelling against science, and the scientific pretensions of economics are none too solid anyway.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What is North Korea Up To?

If the North wanted all out war (and self-immolation) all they need do is launch it. So why provoke the South in such and extreme way, by sinking one of its ships? Perhaps it's gratifying to watch the US and South Korea scrambling around trying to find some suitable response short of cataclysm. Sink a few ships? A predator strike on the maximum leader? Those could send a message at a very considerable risk of all-out war.

One of the secrets of being the crazy guy with the bomb is convincing everybody that you are just crazy enough to use it. Kim Jong-il has quite a bit of credibility on that count.

I've heard it claimed that most wars start because somebody thinks that they can get away with it and somebody else figures that they can't afford to let them.

Our own history suggests, of course, that we can't afford to be very credulous regarding claims of provocation. Yes, I remember the Maine and The Gulf of Tonkin and Saddam's mobile chemical factories that were really hydrogen generators for weather balloons. Never discount the idea that our own leaders are lying, deluded, or more commonly, both.

In any case, some punishment seems certain. The danger will be less is China cooperates in some sanctions.

Words and Consequences

Words have consequences, and it the world of politics and diplomacy, very large consequences. A couple of incautious sentences from an American diplomat about America's strategic interests were taken by Stalin as a sign to launch the Korean War - millions died and no peace treaty has yet been signed. A similar stupidity from one of GHW Bush's minions induced Saddam to take over Kuwait - we haven't finished with that yet either.

A lot of right-minded people were consequently appalled when Rand Paul suggested rethinking (and consequently refighting)the civil rights act. Enter Steve Landsburg:

“It’s now crystal clear what the Tea Party stands for” says Frank Rich midway through a column that makes it crystal clear what Frank Rich stands for, and it isn’t pretty.

Whatever you may think about the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a whole, it indisputably narrows property rights by allowing politicians to dictate the policies of private businesses. Not only is it perfectly reasonable to find that at least a little disturbing, it’s perfectly unreasonable not to find it a little disturbing


Landsburg goes on to whine some more about the "dimunition of property rights" in a subsequent post on the same topic. I think that it's perfectly consistent to acknowledge that yes, the civil rights law, like nearly every law, diminishes some property rights, while still being outraged that a Senatorial candidate would be pushing to repeal the prohibition of whites only lunch counters.

Of course there was a much larger dimunition of property rights when slavery was abolished, effectively wiping out the capital of almost all the richest families in the South. How many tears does Prof L shed for that? Enquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Life and Death: Go

It would be hard to imagine a much simpler game than Go. The idea, rules and general idea can be explained in three or four sentences. The technicalities and details might take another couple of paragraphs. I know of no game deeper than this three or four thousand year old one though. For those who would pursue mastery, or even basic competence, there are many technical details to master, and probably none is more basic than the matter of Life and Death.

The objective of the game is to surround territory, and it usually happens that groups of stones will be surrounded by stones of the opponent. In this situation, the stones are safe (alive) if they can remain in contact with two separated open points, but are captured (dead) if they can't. Assessing whether a given group of stones is alive or not is consequently a crucial game skill. If you or your opponent has an endangered group, it is essential that you be able to assess whether it can be killed or not. Killing a big group of your opponents stones is often decisive. It's also important not to waste precious moves saving the already safe or trying to save the already dead.

There are at least two crucial elements in skill at Life and Death. The first, and more basic, is pattern recognition: its crucial to recognize the status of key formations and their variants. The second, which is nearly useless without the first, is calculational ability: the ability to mentally work through the possible variations to see the outcome. Computers, of course, are great at the second but not the first. I am modestly proficient at the first (at the weaker club player level) and lousy at the second. In practice, that means that I can often solve problems that are alike enough to ones I have solved before.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Things I Never Hear From Libertarians

Obviously this could be a very long post, but let me restrict myself to one category:
Answers to Paul Krugman's N+1 part series Why libertarianism doesn't work. I've got to say though, that I think Krugman is somewhat wrong. Libertarianism does work just fine for some - the billionaires who finance the Cato institute and all the similar stink tanks. Many or most of these entreprenueurial geniuses triumphed mostly by careful selection of their parents.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Math Software Bleg

Contemplating the possibility of retirement, I realize that one thing I can't stand to be without is my math software package. At work I mostly use MATLAB and some older verseions of Maple and Mathematica. Both Maple and Mathematica offer personal versions for a price I can sort of afford. I slightly prefer my old work Maple. Anybody have any good arguments for the current versions of either?

More on Incorporated Persons

Alex Tabarrok has a follow-up post on the "shares of earnings" theme. The comments to this and the previous post are as interesting as his posts. The most interesting point: it's already happening.

Ryan Hahn also points to Lumni, a new firm that is investing in human capital in the developing world:

Lumni designs, markets and manages "Human capital funds", an innovative investment vehicle for financing education. Students agree to pay a fixed percentage of their individual incomes for a predetermined number of months after graduation. The arrangement traspases part of the risk of investing in education from the student to the investor, who is in a better position to diversify it.


Lumni is the brainchild of economics professor Miguel Palacios. Here is his book and Cato paper on human capital contracts.

It ought to be interesting to see how this turns out.

As a commenter points out, it doesn't make sense to invest willy-nilly - you want to put your cash on the prospects with the most earning potential. There is already a market for the eggs of women with high SAT scores. Sperm are cheaper to produce and easier to store - soon women all over the world may be bidding up prize specimens for the cash value of the offspring.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066, my distant ancestor, Sir Norman (aka, Big Norm), bought his infant son Norman (aka, Little Norm) a ten Euro Norman Conquest bond paying 5% compound interest. Today that bond would be worth about 265,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 dollars – and if the family had held onto it we could have afforded to buy everybody in the world a private Gulfstream 650 or custom outfitted Airbus A380.

Unfortunately enough, Little Norm cashed the bond on his 18th birthday and bought all of his friends mugs of mead instead.

How could our ancestors have been so thoughtless?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hair (sic) Brained Ideas

Our Libertarian friends are good at coming up with hair brained ideas for replacing our current institutions. Now I'm no enemy of ideas, hair brained or other, but I do think a bit of rational criticism is called for. Here's one via Alex Tabarrok.

The Unincorporated Man is a science fiction novel in which shares of each person's income stream can be bought and sold. (Initial ownership rights are person 75%, parents 20%, government 5%--there are no other taxes--and people typically sell shares to finance education and other training.)

The hero, Justin Cord a recently unfrozen business person from our time, opposes incorporation but has no good arguments against the system; instead he rants on about "liberty" and how bad the idea of owning and being owned makes him feel. The villain, in contrast, offers reasoned arguments in favor of the system. In this scene he asks Cord to remember the starving poor of Cord's time and how incorporation would have been a vast improvement:

"What if," answered Hektor, without missing a beat, "instead of giving two, three, four dollars a month for a charity's sake, you gave ten dollars a month for a 5 percent share of that kid's future earnings? And you, of course, get nothing if the kid dies. Now you have a real interest in making sure that kid got that pair of shoes you sent. Now it's in your interest to find out if he's going to school and learning to read and write. Now maybe you'll send him that box of old clothes you were thinking of throwing away. Under your system you write a check and forget about the kid, who'll probably starve anyway. Under our system, you're locked into him.

...the real benefit comes about when those 'evil, selfish, horrible corporations' get involved. How long will it take for a business to realize that there's a huge profit to be made in those hundreds of millions of starving children?...Imagine a world where a bank gives a loan to a corporation to build a school, hospital or dormitory. Not because its the right thing to do; who cares! They'd do it because it's the profitable thing to do. And because of that, my system, not in spite of greed and corruption and incorporation, but because of it, will work better than yours in any time period with any technology you choose."

So who do you stand with, JC or Hektor?

Hat tip to Robin Hanson for lending me the book and from whom I cribbed the description of ownership rights. Hanson offers other thoughts on the novel. And here are earlier comments from Reihan Salam.

Of course an SF novel is the perfect place to explore such a notion. I suspect that if it were actually a very good novel, the hero would find better arguments than rants about liberty - and so might the plot.

Is there, in fact, any reason to suspect that corporations, greedy or otherwise, would find it a great idea to make a twenty year investment in starving children in the hope that they would someday become big earners? How would that look in the quarterly earnings? What about the incentive structure? Would parents find it convenient to have bunches of kids just to sell their future earnings? Suppose you sell much of your future earnings - what then would your incentive to work be? What corporation would be willing to buy expensive stakes in an asset without demanding control of it? Wouldn't there be a continuing pressure to more effectively enslave those whose earnings are already owned? Wouldn't those owned have large incentives to work "off the books?" Wouldn't they have an even bigger incentive to throw off the dead hands of their "owners" by election or revolution?

These seem to be the sorts of arguments the ideologically blinded never seem able to see.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Corporate Death Penalty

Watching CBS's Sixty Minutes tonight made it seem very likely that the BP blowout in the Gulf was due to a reckless disregard for public safety and the safety of the BP workers. If so, this will not be BP's first example of corporate manslaughter. If similar acts of criminal recklessness had been committed by individuals, they would face loss of all their assets and long prison terms.

Maybe it's time to apply the same standards to corporations. Imprison responsible executives, and size all corporate assets. A credible threat might lead to serious consideration of consequences.

By comparison, current penalties are a joke. Bought and paid for legislators passed strict limits on corporate liability, and criminal penalties are likely to be small - compared to the damage done - fines.

Paul Krugman points out how this is yet another example of how libertarian theory fails in the real world.

Thinking about BP and the Gulf: in this old interview, Milton Friedman says that there’s no need for product safety regulation, because corporations know that if they do harm they’ll be sued.

Interviewer: So tort law takes care of a lot of this ..

Friedman: Absolutely, absolutely.

Meanwhile, in the real world:

In the wake of last month’s catastrophic Gulf Coast oil spill, Sen. Lisa Murkowski blocked a bill that would have raised the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill from a paltry $75 million to $10 billion. The Republican lawmaker said the bill, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would have unfairly hurt smaller oil companies by raising the costs of oil production. The legislation is “not where we need to be right now” she said.

And don’t say that we just need better politicians. If libertarianism requires incorruptible politicians to work, it’s not serious.

Libertarianism, like its utopian cousin, socialism, is just another clever sounding idea that doesn't work. Each forgets to take into account human nature.

An Answer For Lumo and Neutrino

More on lapse rates of planetary atmospheres.

Consider the following one-dimensional thought experiment. Let the surface be at temperature Ts and the elevated radiating level of the atmosphere be a temperature Te < Ts. Suppress convection for the moment (perhaps by replacing it by glass of equivalent optial properties). Consider a layer of the atmosphere somewhere above the surface. It absorbs upwelling radiation from below and downwelling radiation from above, and the amount absorbed is proportional to its absorption coefficient alpha. It also emits radiation half downward and half upward proportional to alpha and the Planck function. Because it is hotter below, it absorbs more from below and less from above. If you do the integration, you get that its radiative equilibrium temperature is given by Ts^4 = (Te^4)*(1+xi0), where xi0 is the integrated opacity from point e to the surface. If you make the crude but reasonable assumption that opacity (from z to ground) is given by xi = xi0*exp[-z/He] you get a profile of the radiative equilibrium temperature for the atmosphere T = Ts/(1+xi0*exp[-z/He])^(1/4).

Put in the numbers for the Earth and you get that the lapse rate in the lower 11 kilometer is greater than the adiabatic lapse rate - so the bottom ll km of the atmosphere is convectively unstable - which drives tropospheric lapse rates toward adiabatic.

Make xi0 much smaller, and the radiative lapse rate would be less than the adiabatic lapse rate, in which case the atmosphere would be stable and subadiabatic.

This simplified model is developed (with all the detailed steps) in Richard P. Wayne's Chemistry of Atmospheres ppg 44-56 in my second edition copy. More accurate results from detailed computer models show the same pattern: Radiative equilibrium sets the table, convection smooths the curve when adiabatic rates are exceeded.

Friday, May 14, 2010

About Lapse Rates in Planetary Atmospheres

Lubos and Goddard seem to be confused about the role of the adiabatic lapse rate in planetary atmospheres. In particular, they seem to consider it sort of a law of nature. That’s the case only in a very limited way – the adiabatic lapse rate is rather a limiting condition: if the lapse rate becomes super adiabatic, then convection will occur. Nothing special will occur if the actual environmental lapse rate is less than the adiabatic lapse rate. The fact that the environmental lapse rates in the Terran, Martian, and Venusian atmospheres are all decidedly subadiabatic (on average) ought to be a clue as to that fact. Isothermal and even temperature inverted hunks of atmosphere are common, even near the surface of the Earth.

If an adiabatic or semi-adiabatic lapse rate is not some sort of consequence of the ideal gas law, then what does cause it? It’s caused by the fact that the atmosphere is heated from the bottom and cooled mainly from the top, and that is in turned caused by the opacity of the atmosphere in the infrared. If the atmospheres of Earth, Mars, and Venus were composed purely of some gas nearly transparent in the infrared (nitrogen, for example) then they would probably be nearly isothermal, and the surfaces of the planets would be at more or less the same temperature that they would be in a vacuum. If those atmospheres were almost perfectly opaque (i.e., for large greenhouse effects), then convection would dominate, and the portions of the atmosphere at an optical depth greater than one would closely approach the adiabatic limit. For the Earth and for Venus, the lower atmosphere is pretty opaque, and convection plays an important role.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Venus if you will

Eli has been applying the rabbety art of kickboxing to some dolt named Goddard. This miscreant, writing at one of the many branch campuses of Climate Stupid, had suggested that Venus was hot not because its atmosphere was opaque to IR but because it weighed a lot. Naturally, the kind of dunce who comes up with these ideas never stops to consider the application of his notion to planets like Jupiter, Saturn, etc, much less doing any of the radiative transfer calculations.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I saw that Lubos had bought into this nonsense. Oh dear! This is algebra and a little calculus, subjects Lumo probably mastered before he was toilet trained. This is our old friend Stefan’s law.

The temperature at the surface of the planet is 735 K and that surface is probably a fair approximation to a black body (but in any case, a body of known emissivity). The planet as a whole radiates with effective radiating temperature 220 K, meaning that its net emissivity is about epsilon = Teff^4/Tsurf^4 = (220/735)^4 =0.008. Why the difference? This is a straightforward (numerical) computation in radiative transfer, but it’s only dependence on atmospheric mass and density is through their effect on opacity.

Suppose you were to replace the 93 or so atmosphere’s worth of CO2 and other stuff on Venus with ¼ of an atmosphere of a (hypothetical but plausible) gas with equal net opacity. The surface temperature and the effective radiating temperature would be unchanged. For the pretty good approximation of local thermodynamic equilibrium (LTE) that calculation simplifies to:

It = Is*exp[-tau(s,t)] + int[alpha(z)*B(z)*exp[-int[alpha(z’),{z,t,dz’}]],{s,t,dz}]

Where “It” is radiated intensity at top of atmosphere, “Is” is radiated intensity at surface, alpha is absorption coefficient, tau = total opacity of atmosphere from s to t, and B is the Planck function. By int[f(z),{a,b,dz}] I mean the definite integral of f(z) from a to b.

Similar calculations (with possible corrections for non-LTE effects like scattering) are the basis for every satellite temperature measurement as well as nearly everything we know about stellar astrophysics. This, as we in the rocket science community like to say, is not string theory - or even brain surgery.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Race is a Social Construct!

Every once in a while, someone in or on the borders of academe manages to get themselves into a lot of trouble by allowing as how it might be possible that there could be intellectual differences between "races." The title sentence is usually part of the fevered response. I can't argue with it. Especially if by "social construct" you mean that borders drawn between races are ultimately arbitrary, in a way that the border between dogs and cats isn't. If you think that it means that the concept of race is meaningless, though, I have to call bullshit.

Social constructs are quite real, and they reflect underlying social and physical realities. After all, property, religion, and nation are all social constructs too. It's obvious even to young children that people can be grouped in lots of ways - tall or short, fat or skinny, and by characteristics like skin color, head and body shape, and the nature of their hair. These characteristics are all at least partially heritable, and systematic differences in gene frequency arose in different parts of the world during historical separation. Long periods of separation into essentially endogamous groups were usually enforced by geography, but social factors play a role as well.

The modern world has erased or at least blurred most geographic barriers, and modern nations like the US bring together peoples from all parts of the world with resultant genetic mixing - at which point the arbitrary element in the social construct starts to overwhelm the physical substrate.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Holy Shit!!

read this.

Maybe the human race had to damn lucky to survive this long.

Perfect, Self-Regulating Frictionless Markets, Robot Division

The robots were coming... but now it seems that they may already be here.

The Dow lost 1000 points in a matter of minutes today (before recovering most of the loss). Nobody seems quite sure why, but a popular theory holds that computer trading programs did it.

Didn't they supposedly fix that back in 1987.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be...

Jesus said that "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," but many of our Randite friends were more inspired by Pancho's soliloquy in Atlas shrugged, where he proclaimed it "the root of all good." It is pretty clear that money is one of the most important human inventions, and credit is not terribly far behind. JC and Pancho were both speaking great truths, I think, in Bohr's sense (a great truth being a statement whose opposite is also a great truth, unlike ordinary truths which have falsehoods as their opposites).

Money and credit provide the crucial lubricant for economies of every advanced sort, but they bring their own darkside. Just as we were about to recover from one credit crisis, the Euro provides us with another. The Euro was a great invention until it wasn't. Unfortunately it turned out not to be stable. Thrifty Germans and others saved their Euro's and spenthrift Greeks and others borrowed and spent them, and everybody was happy until it became clear that the borrowers could not afford to pay. Where have we heard that story before?

The problem is that everybody winds up a lot poorer - the savers because they don't get their money back and the spenders who can't get anybody to lend them more money. Even more serious is the sand that gets thrown in the wheels of commerce. The losses amplify because jobs and production get lost everywhere. That tends to make borrowers poorer, on average, and less able to pay their bills.

The amounts are not small. Italy reputely owes France an amount equal to 1/5 the French GDP.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Begging the Question: Grumpy Old Men

I'm one of those grumpy old men who cringes whenever I hear "beg the question" used as synonymous with "raise the question." I haven't really wondered, though, how the phrase came to have the peculiar meaning of "assumes that which is to be proven" that it has in classical logic. For those who would like to know, it's all here, in post and comments: language log (Mark Lieberman).

The take away:

OK, those of you who are still with me, what should we do? Should we join the herd and use "beg the question" to mean "raise the question"? Or should we join the few, proud hold-outs who still use it in the old "assume the conclusion" sense, while complaining about the ignorant rabble who etc.?

In my opinion, those are both bad choices. If you use the phrase to mean "raise the question", some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others' "misuse", you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean "assume the conclusion", almost no one will understand you.

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use "assume the conclusion" or "raise the question", depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.

I so resolve.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Crying Over Spilled Oil

The big oil spill was topic number one on ABC's This Week today. I'm sorry to say that George Will kicked the alleged liberal reps - Al Sharpton, Bill Maher and Katherine van den Heuvel - all over the set. They had some pretty lame claims that we could do without oil - with wind farms for example - and Will pointed out that wind farms killed a lot more birds than oil slicks. Of course oil does most of its damage in the coastal wet lands.

The fundamental fact is that there is no way for this planet to support billions of people, their cars, planes and energy consuming gadgets without exposing the environment to a lot of actual and potential damage. All options have potentially serious consequences, and the tradeoffs need to be carefully studied.

Immigration was next, and nobody would commit. George Will allowed as how the Obama bill was pretty tough and could have been written by a Republican, but evaded repeated questions as to whether he would support it. Al Sharpton was no more forthcoming.

Americans are on one of their occasional nativist kicks - propelled by recession - and are unlikely to buy into anything that isn't pretty punitive. My bet is that the forces who want to keep immigration dangerous, illegal, and common will win as usual.