Showing posts from August, 2011

Humanity and Climate Change

Caught an interesting Nova episode tonight.  It featured a detailed look at the first five million years or so of human evolution, starting with our first bipedal ancestors six or so million years ago.  A plausible argument was made that bipedalism was an adaption to the gradual drying of the African continent, requiring more efficient walking - it seems that humans expend about 1/4 as much energy per distance walked as a chimp.

Human like biped species proliferated over the next 3-4 million years, but their brain sizes stayed pretty close to chimp size (400cc) - roughly 1/4 the size of the modern humans.  At that point a period of violent climate change began, with the climate swingly wildly from tropical jungle to near desert over very short periods of time (on the thousand year scale).  Lake Victoria size lakes would form and then completely,  or nearly completely, dry up.  That period is poor in human fossils, but at the end of it a new type of human was making stone tools and pac…

Hurricane Hype

Was Hurricane Irene God's way of telling New Yorkers that gay marriage was a bad idea (by killing people mostly in North Carolina, etc)?  Maybe, but wouldn't it have been more efficient for him to just get a twitter account?  Or go on the Sunday talk show circuit?

What a significant landfalling hurricane always is is a good publicity opportunity, so those with a climate axe to grind are as quick to jump on that boat as fundamentalist ministers and rabbis.  Bill Mckibben blamed Irene's (as it turned out, overestimated) strength on global warming.  Planet denial was quick to respond.  James Taylor, writing in Forbes, claimed that there has been a 100 year plus trend of decrease in landfalls of Atlantic hurricanes on the US.

The facts are a bit more ambivalent.  NOAA's 150 year history of US landfalling hurricanes  shows a weak trend of decrease over time.

US landfalling hurricanes are only a very small percentage of global landfalling hurricanes of course, so I don't ta…

Stimulus Jobs

Tyler Cowen cites a couple of papers and concludes that they show that the stimulus didn't create many jobs.  A major reason, he argues, is that many of those hired were already employed.

Kevin Drum pokes a some holes in his logic.  One of them:

First of all, a lot of stimulus spending went to states, where it was explicitly used to avoid laying off workers. That doesn't take anyone off the unemployment rolls, but it certainly keeps unemployment from getting worse.To which I would say, how about a stimulus plan that directly hires the unemployed?  A modern version of the CCC.

Way Beyond Good and Evil

Nietzsche's philological researches led him to a theory that associated good with a conquering aristocratic class, and evil with the downtrodden masses.  It was good to be a Superman - Clark Kent, not so much.

David Graeber reports more recent philology.  In all Indo-European languages, it seems, debt is synonymous with sin.  The earliest known literature on the subject seems to be certain Vedic scriptures which posit a central moral role for debt in our relations with Gods, man, and scripture.

So, Nietzsche revised goes more like this:  Good = moneylender, Evil = debtor.  I wonder how the old rascal would have liked that?

I Hate Echo Comments

They won't let me login

They claim my blog has no comments

Their instructions for restoring service are incomprehensible to me.

They won't even let me email them.

More Graeber

In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber sets out shatter a bunch of the icons of classical liberal economics.  Hardly any of these is more hoary than the notion that the state and market are fundamentally at odds.  The anthropological and historical record is not very kind to this idea, says Graeber.  In fact, stateless societies almost never have markets.  Markets themselves were usually created by the state.

How does a king go about creating a market?  It might often be a byproduct of a more pressing concern: feeding a standing army.  How does one go about the logistics of supplying an army with all its manifold needs?  One clever solution was discovered in ancient times.  The king takes possession of the mines - he does have an army, after all - and mints a bunch of coins.  He pays his soldiers with them.  He also institutes a tax on the people, payable in coin.  Now they are forced to scramble for coins to pay the tax, which they can get by trading useful goods to th…

Money, Money, Money...

I have been reading David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years.  Among other interesting arguments, he maintains that economists usual idea of money and its history - that it evolved from barter - is utterly bogus, a just so story made up by Adam Smith and swallowed whole to this day in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

Fun fact: in Henry II time in England a sort of currency was made of notched tally sticks.  They were IOUs:
....both parties to a transaction would take a hazelwood twig, notch it to indicate the amount held, and then split in half.The creditor's half was called the "stock", from which the term "stock holder" was derived.  The debtor kept the "stub."

Worst Case Scenario

The people who refuse to leave evacuation zones in a hurricane scenario display an interesting facet of human behavior: why should anyone risk their life just to be in their house or store during the hurricane?  How much good can you do by staying?  Is it worth your life?

I think we do have a tendency to discount the worst case scenario, and we need to.  After all, if we didn't how could we dare get out of bed?  The world is full of risks, in bed and out, so we need a rough and ready built in risk assessor, and evolution provides us with one.  It's a good question, though, whether the one we got, evolved mainly to serve the needs of a primitive hunter-gatherer, is well suited for life today.


I suspect that when the details of the American collapse are analyzed, a lot of the credit will go to Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush.  Together they collaborated in the outsourcing of American manufacturing expertise.  Arun links to a Forbes article on why Amazon can't make the Kindle in America.  I will repeat his quote for those too lazy to click through:
So the decline of manufacturing in a region sets off a chain reaction. Once manufacturing is outsourced, process-engineering expertise can’t be maintained, since it depends on daily interactions with manufacturing. Without process-engineering capabilities, companies find it increasingly difficult to conduct advanced research on next-generation process technologies. Without the ability to develop such new processes, they find they can no longer develop new products. In the long term, then, an economy that lacks an infrastructure for advanced process engineering and manufacturing will lose its ability to innovate.”Interestingly e…

Sound Retreat

It having become utterly clear that the lunatics are running this asylum, I have decided to retreat into a fantasy world.

Any recommendations?  (Books, movies, etc.)

Blade Runner

I caught much of
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner , often considered the best sci fi movie ever made, on the tube the other night. It's based on Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Other Dick products that have made it to the big screen include Total Recall, Minority Report, and Paycheck.

The movie is the story of Decker (Harrison Ford), a burned out blade runner, called back for one last assignment. The blade runners job is the hunting down and "retiring" (assassinating) escaped android slaves, artificial humans crafted from human DNA, who have returned to Earth. Decker's victims in the movie are the latest and greatest model androids, the Nexus-6.

My question: WTF are Brin and Page thinking? Should Google be "retired?"

Obama's Path

David Tomasky doesn't think Obama has been well served by his current political advisors. It seems that Republicans and Independents hate his debt deal, though (incomprehensibly) Democrats sort of liked it. I guess Paul Krugman and I must be Republicans.
Tomasky:Watching this White House over these last several weeks has been like watching a time-lapse video of an apple rotting.Tomasky didn't like his choice of Vacation venue either, but would Drudge have been appeased by a vacation in Wyoming?

Twinkle, Twinkle...

Hmmm, a white dwarf that seems to have condensed into a giant diamond planet?
A team of astronomers dotted across the globe have discovered an unusual planet circling an old, dead star about 4,000 light years away that appears to be a gigantic, solid diamond.

The planet is about five times the diameter of the Earth, and circles the dead star of about 12-miles in diameter every two hours and 10 minutes.
From the size and mass (1.4 Sols), it's not a planet, but the junior partner in a twin star system.

More Keynes

I have been following a discussion of Keynesianism at an obscure journal of economic thought, and was struck by this observation:
...the main point is actually quite simple: Keynesianism stipulates that sometimes governments know better what people should do with their money than those people themselves.

This can only be true if those people fail to optimize their utility function i.e. behave non-rational[ly].. .
I expect that this is true, even if I'm a little fuzzy about what looks like conflation of Pareto optimality and utility maximization, but I'm a little bummed by this rejection of the fundamental creation myth for governments. If there aren't circumstances in which governments are able to spend peoples money better than individuals can, why have governments at all? That's a very radical, even anarchist point of view.
The Whig view, Lincoln's view, and mine, is yes, there are economic functions that the government can do better than individuals. And somet…

Failure of Demand

Trying to argue any complex idea with the committed opponents is a usually a fool's errand. Thus it is with Keynsian economics. Like relativity, it contains a concept or two which is unintuitive, and most people lack the imagination or willingness to challenge their common sense - what Einstein called the collection of prejudices we have acquired by age 18.
The first unituitive idea of Keynsianism is the so-called paradox of thrift. The idea is that if everybody with money starts becoming afraid to spend or lend it, everyone gets poorer. With nobody spending money, those who owe money are unable to find work, and can't pay back their creditors, making them poorer as well. With fewer people working, society produces less, so their are fewer real goods to go around. This is a second notion that some claim to find paradoxical - failure of demand.
At this point economists go their separate ways. Rational expectationists appear to claim that such a failure can't happen, s…

Who Dat Man?

Anil Dash:
So, who is this man? He's the anchor baby of an activist Arab muslim who came to the U.S. on a student visa and had a child out of wedlock. He's a non-Christian, arugula-eating, drug-using follower of unabashedly old-fashioned liberal teachings from the hippies and folk music stars of the 60s. And he believes in science, in things that science can demonstrate like climate change and Pi having a value more specific than "3", and in extending responsible benefits to his employees while encouraging his company to lead by being environmentally responsible.

Steve Jobs

One of the very few entrepreneurs who really is a genius at what he does.

I'm in the Wrong Business

According to the New York Times:
Libyan rebels have been coordinating their attacks using a Canadian-made, unmanned surveillance aircraft, the drone’s manufacturer announced Tuesday.

David Kroetsch, the president and chief executive of the manufacturer, Aeryon Labs of Waterloo, Ontario, said in an interview that his company was first approached by a representative of the Libyan Transitional National Council early in June, after members of the group searching the Web saw the company’s surveillance aircraft — essentially a tiny, four-rotor helicopter dangling a pod carrying stabilized-image day- and night-vision cameras.

The drone is extremely compact — the company says that it weighs about three pounds and fits into a backpack — and its operator does not need any knowledge of flight. Mr. Kroetsch said such factors were crucial for the rebels. The device is simply controlled by tracing flight paths on maps displayed on a touch screen display. Its base price is $120,000.
Ok, I can get a…

Surplus Humanity

I just got called by one of those annoyingly ubiquitous political polsters. Of course they only got to my birth year - once they found out my age they were no longer interested. I guess that's one way of pointing out redundancy.

The Prepared Mind

They say that fortune favors the prepared mind. The prepared mind may be fertile ground for fortune, but it seems that it might be prepared to be hoaxed as well. Even some of our cleverest anti-Krugmanian friends fell for this one:
It seems that some hardcore ninny took to the Google+ platform disguised as Paul Krugman and used that venue to disseminate some controversial statements about yesterday's earthquake.

Those statements included this: "People on twitter might be joking, but in all seriousness, we would see a bigger boost in spending and hence economic growth if the earthquake had done more damage." Evidently, enough people were fooled by this that it became a minor kerfuffle on Twitter. That's a result disingenuous hackery is known for!
Matt Yglesias discusses the underlying logic.
In a country with a lot of unemployed glaziers, breaking windows can increase employment. That doesn’t mean it would make the country wealthier. It means it would increase employ…

Bad Romance

Our local University recently outsourced its bookstore to Barnes and Noble . This was a good idea, I think, as selling books and gew-gaws isn't really very close to the core mission of the University. The town got a nice new bookstore, together with our first escalators ever, with much better parking and a built in Starbucks.
I've always had a thing for textbooks - not just any textbooks, of course, but those for science, engineering, mathematics and the like, so I was drawn to the new texts section. I quickly found the shelves a bit soul crushing. There was the latest edition of the elementary physics text I had used some fifty years ago, much broader and fatter - almost 1700 pages, but still with some of the same author names. Could they still be around? Unlikely, since some of them were old even way back when.
I knew this encounter would be painful, though, when I saw the price tag - $242 bucks - a lot of book but still a heck of a lot of cash. The calculus books were worse. …

Tibet is in Africa?

Who knew?
Nonetheless, while “the Swiss think they invented yodeling,” according to Christensen, he has traced its roots back to Africa.

Apparently Tibetan monks first used a form of yodeling to communicate. Marco Polo brought that knowledge back with him to Western Europe, where it quickly became part of the alpine tradition. The American cowboy yodeling tradition — yippee-kay-yay, y’all! — came about because European immigrants brought the vocal style with them to the range. The cowboy yodeling patterns aren’t as varied as the European traditions. They tend to be slower and simpler, since they were primarily lullabies to calm the cows at night, and also to soothe the animals during milking.
The article is interesting, but I was distracted by the geography lesson.


Imagine there's no Higgsy.
Now what?

Some details from Tomasso Dorigo.


Early hints on Obama's jobs plan are anything but promising - more of the same old weak tea. Something bold is needed and Obama seems to lack it. Huntsman?


Adios Ghadaffi! Though I'm pretty sure you are headed elsewhere.
Rebel fighters streamed into Tripoli as Muammar Gaddafi's forces collapsed and crowds took to the streets to celebrate, tearing down posters of the Libyan leader.

A convoy of rebels entered a western neighborhood of the city, firing their weapons into the air. Rebels said the whole of the city was under their control except Gaddafi's Bab Al-Aziziya-Jazeera stronghold, according to al-Jazeera Television.Can anyone say Assad?

Anthropogenic Global Warming

My review. Additions and clarifications welcome.
The Argument:
A. Human activities put a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere
B. The resulting increase in CO2 is large
C. More CO2 makes the Earth warmer
D. The effects are potentially dramatic (and mostly bad)

Why it’s Complicated:
A. The carbon cycle is complicated: there are several sources and reservoirs.
B. Radiative balance is complicated. Many factors are in play and they interact. Several different gases contribute to the greenhouse effect.
C. Calculation of the size of the effect is difficult, because feedbacks play a key role.
D. Many aspects of the impact of climate change are uncertain.

Kinds of Evidence:
A. Measurements of CO2 produced and atmospheric CO2
We know two central facts: Human activities are putting a lot of carbon (CO2) into the atmosphere and the amount of atmospheric CO2 has increased dramatically since the widespread use of fossil fuels began.
B. Physics of Radiation
a. A relatively simple direct calculation shows th…

My Summer Vacation: By Barack Obama

It could have been like this:
July 12, 2011
Statement by the President:
Despite the fact that Congress has approved every penny of our country’s budget expenditures, a determined minority in the Republican House has decided to attempt to hold the country hostage to their Cam0paign against Medicare and Social Security by refusing to raise the debt ceiling to accommodate those already approved expenditures. Should they fail to pass a debt ceiling increase, very drastic cutbacks will be needed in every aspect of our expenditures. In view of Congressional inaction, that duty falls on the President.

I have therefore directed my cabinet to prepare a contingency plan for that eventuality. It is an extremely painful contingency that will hurt virtually every American. In particular, it will be necessary to furlough most government workers and cancel most government contracts. We will continue to honor our obligations on government debt. Our soldiers will continue to be paid and supplied.…

And Paul Krugman

Awesome Wrongness
OK, seriously: things are looking really terrible, And crucially, they’re looking terrible in the wrong way, at least if you wanted to believe that political and policy debate over the past year and a half made any sense at all. We’ve been utterly preoccupied with deficits, deficits, deficits; there was supposedly a crisis looming, but a crisis that would take the form of an attack by the bond vigilantes.


In the past, you could make excuses on the grounds of ignorance. In the 1930s they didn’t have basic macroeconomics. Even in Japan in the 1990s you could argue that it took a long time to realize that the liquidity trap was a real possibility in the modern world.

But we came into this crisis with a pretty good understanding of what was at stake and pretty good analysis of the policy options — yet policy makers and, I’m sorry to say, many economists just chose to ignore all that and go with their prejudices instead.

And the worst of it is that the people who got t…


Kevin Drum: Watching Armageddon From an Armchair
Watching the world slide slowly back into recession without a fight, even though we know perfectly well how to prevent it, is just depressing beyond words. Our descendents will view the grasping politicians and cowardly bankers responsible for this about as uncomprehendingly as we now view the world leaders who cavalierly allowed World War I to unfold even though they could have stopped it at any time.

That is all. I just wanted to get this off my chest yet again.The only modification I would make is that it's not so much cowardice as avarice involved on the part of the bankers.


Lubos once again demostrates his ability to blow irrelevant smoke at us in a long, tiresome, and essentially pointless rant against Gavin Schmidt and Scientific American.
The odd thing is that he seems to understand most of the relevant facts but can't seem to figure out which ones could be relevant to anthropogenic global warming (real or not). He blathers on about oxygen, a somewhat weak greenhouse gas (because its IR absorbtion band is rather narrow) but spends most of his time on the absorption of UV (an anti-greenhouse effect) by oxygen and ozone. Doh - how much UV does the Earth emit!?
The one argument I thought interesting was about the residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere. The validity of the argument depends on detailed calculation, of course, but he only presents a plausibility argument. Whether climatologists have anything better, I don't know.
If he could free himself from his habit of confusing invective with rhetoric he would be a lot more readable - though m…

When You and I Were Fishes Still

Insects were the first creatures to take to the air in powered flight - 350 million years or so ago, back when our ancestral line were all still fishes - and they still seem to have a few aerodynamic tricks to teach us. The number one problem of heavier than air flight is how to support oneself against gravity, and the universal answer for powered flight is the wing. Flight is accomplished by dragging a wing (fixed, rotating, or flapping) through the air at an angle and thereby causing air to be accelerated downward.
The details are in Newton’s second and third laws. Law three says that if a wing exerts a downward force is exerted on air, and equal opposite upward force will be exerted on the wing by the air. The second law says that keeping an object of mass m aloft against gravitational force mg requires transferring downward momentum to air at a rate of dP/dt = d(Mv)/dt = mg where M is the mass of the air and is its speed. For example, if dM/dt is the rate at which air is recruited …

Peace in Our Time

Many Democrats are very annoyed with Obama's compromise at all costs tactics. William Broyles may be over the top, but he is saying what many Dems think. Obama, he says, is following the path of Neville Chamberlain:Obama as Appeaser
In the 2010 elections, Obama did another Chamberlain: he betrayed his allies. Desperate not to offend Republicans, he left Democratic values and programs undefended, the Democratic narrative unvoiced. Thousands of Democrats, from Congress to city councils, went down to defeat.

After each betrayal, after each terribly bad bargain, Obama comes out waving a piece of paper, a one-sided agreement to appease the Republicans—peace in our time. And Obama is always surprised when the Republicans, instead of being satisfied when he meets their demands, up the ante—as they did when they held the American economy hostage in the battle over raising the debt ceiling.

Emboldened by Obama’s appeasement, the GOP has set its sights on dismantling government itself. Its…

Eurin Trouble

Faced with more or less incontrovertible evidence that the Eurozone was grinding to an economic halt, demonstrating that Krugman, as usual, was dead right, and European Central Bank chief Trichet was an idiot, Sarcozy and Merkel met and came up with a dramatic new response: form a committee - er, council. The powers of the council, I presume, would include being able to order done anything that everybody agreed should be done.
It is not much comfort that Europe seems to be even more screwed than we are. They are in an unstable state intermediate between disintegration and some sort of fiscal integration, neither of which anybody seems to want. In that case, disintegration it will be - probably in a fashion which inflicts maximum damage on all concerned.

The Tropopause

One reason it's hard to argue with conservatives is that they mostly just can't do the arithmetic. Here is a global warming denialist argument I have been hearing: Venus is so much warmer than Earth not because it has all the CO2 but because it has such a thick atmosphere - about 90 Earth atmospheres worth. This fact alone, it is claimed, means the surface temperature needs to be warmer.
Like Earth, Venus has a tropopause, that is, the temperature decreases as you go up from the surface in a more or less steady way until you get to a point where it starts increasing again - the tropopause.. The denialo-argument says that because the atmosphere is so much thicker, the temperature has to decrease a lot more on the way up to that tropopause. That part is sort of true. The claim that this doesn't have anything to do with CO2 is totally bogus.
Remember that the tropopause is a colder region sitting above one warmer region and below another. That is not a thermodynamically s…

The Shaman

In my part of the world, catastrophes natural and man made are usually expected to evoke some response from the government - rescue of survivors, help rebuilding, etc. Not long ago, though, and not so far away, a slightly different model was pursued.
A terrible drought, for example, might bring forth the lead Shaman. The faithful would be gathered by the thousands. The Shaman would pray a great prayer to the rain gods, sign a few proclamations, and wait for the rains to begin.
It's a good racket. The faithful are cheered by the respect shown their gods and the rich like the low impact on their wallets.
Now if it turn our that God (or the rain gods) don't pay too much attention to the Shaman, that's the kind of downer that only interests readers of The New York Times and their ilk.
Of course it might behoove the rest of us to pay a little attention too, since it now seems that their Shaman wants to become ours too. If his State doesn't secede first.
Tim Egan documents s…

Literary Beat Down

Juliet Lapidos of Slate gets a bunch of little authors to beat up on some big ones.
These authors were asked to identify the "great books" they found most overated. I found myself sneakingly sympathetic when the most popular target turned out to be Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow though that sympathy curdled a bit when I found many hadn't finished it. Ulysses didn't fare so well either - but I didn't finish that one.
The most outrageous example was Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, who gave up on The Alexandria Quartet after two and one half pages. Those books made a huge impression on this (impressionable) 19 year-old, though part of it might have been that Lawrence tried to link his method to the theory of relativity.

Aerodynamics 210

Precision control at moderate Reynolds numbers.

Dead and Gone

In honor of the late PC:

Republican Values

In a nutshell:
Romney: "Corporations are people, my friend".
John Bruning, GOP Senate candidate: the unemployed are like scavenging racoons

Fifty Year Old Scotch

Kevin Drum's note about the drinking habits of the elite and the less so reminded me that I happen to have a bottle of fifty year old Glenfiddich single malt scotch.  I don't mean one of those £3995.00/$16,000 hand blown glass bottles of  fluid that spent the last half century in some old wooden barrel in Scotland, though.  This one is or was a perfectly decent 12 year old scotch that spent the last 39 years sitting unopened in my cupboard - you might correctly guess that I don't drink that much scotch.

My question: is this stuff still drinkable?  I tried it and it seemed as good (or bad) as any other whisky to my untrained palate.

Sorry Cassandra, er, Paul

I always thought the Cassandra story seemed a bit improbable - how could people be dumb enough not to heed the wise words of the prophetess. Boy was I the dummy. Here we are, coasting into economic catastrophe and our prescient prophets are reduced to frustrated despair. There is only the consolation of alone being right on the ship of fools - and this really great Anna-Frid ABBA song

The Rabble

When rioters attack, opinion in society tends to divide between those who say the rioters are subhuman something or others, and those who say "wait, they don't always riot. maybe there is something about their current circumstances (anger, hopelessness, desperation) provoking the riots.") You can guess which avenue I think is more fruitful for sociologic inquiry. You can also guess which attitude is most likely to be taken by the current masters of the world.
Regular readers may recognize some themes that Simon Baron-Cohen would identify with the essence of evil: ie, dehumanization of the opponent.
The opinions in the link are (mostly)worth a read.
BTW, I don't condone rioters, even if I think the circumstances that provoke riots are worth some scientific study.

Morality Play

Kevin Drum, playwright.
A very short tragi-comedy.


Drew Westen's NYT essay on Obama's need to tell a story to sell his program has drawn a lot of flack from people like Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Chait, both of whom miss the point - utterly miss the point - in my opinion.
No, a few Presidential speeches are not going to persuade the NRA to give up guns or fundamentalists to endorse gay marriage. What they can do is rally and consolidate support for ideas that are already popular - healthcare for all, programs to provide jobs, using taxes as well as cutbacks to reduce deficits, curbing the power of the banks and hedge funds. Surveys show these ideas are significantly more popular than the Republican alternatives - or non alternatives - but they lack a well placed advocate.
The President would have a powerful megaphone if he would advocate for these programs, but with the exception of his insipid advocacy for health care ("bend the cost curve"), he doesn't.
The President's power to create popular sentiment is…

Inflation: The Power of Ideas

I’m with Keynes in thinking that the power of ideas is usually underestimated. As Keynes also noted, this applies even to bad ideas.
Inflation is bad, so we have all been taught, and the confirmatory evidence is plentiful, especially for the great inflationary bugaboo, hyper-inflation. I was reading some comments on the WaPo, and ran across one hysteric who was bent out of shape because Obama was “producing inflation and devaluing the dollar.” Now neither accusation has any truth to it, but my reaction was “would that it were so.”
The thing is that the great threat to the economy today is not inflation, but deflation, and a little inflation would be good for the economy. Like most other medications, inflation, even in small doses, is not without adverse side effects – for some. Right now we have an economy which is producing far less than it can because a huge portion of our population is either unemployed or under employed. Too few goods are being produced because there are too…

(Air Canada) IQ Test

Steve Landsburg brings us this dazzlingly difficult IQ test puzzle (and solution), courtesy of Air Canada.
It may be part of the pilot qualification exam.

Selling A Narrative

Lumo and Krugman point me to Drew Westen's New York Times essay. Lumo, Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan don't like it, but Krugman does, and so do I. Westen's central point is that a good leader needs to have a narrative, a story, which incorporates and exemplifies what he wants to do and where he is taking the country. Teddy Rooseveldt and his nth cousin FDR understood that. So did Ronald Reagan and Jack Kennedy. Obama doesn't.
Like me, Westen is surprised that Obama, known for eloquent speech and one of the best literary stylists to reach the Presidency, doesn't seem to grasp that he needs to lead by word more than deed.
Westen no doubt puts off the conservatives with the somewhat rabble rousing content of the narrative he imagines for Obama, but even a quite different narrative would be fine if he could just articulate it coherently.
When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The …

Riots in Europe

Riots and ethnic violence in the UK and other parts of Europe remind us that public order is not guaranteed in a democracy under stress. The big bankers have imposed their austerity plans almost everywhere, and the people getting crushed are angry.
It could happen in the US too, and compared to most of Europe, we are armed to the teeth.

Famous Scientists

Via Tyler Cowen:
When asked to name a scientist, Americans are stumped. In one recent survey, the top choice, at 47 percent, was Einstein, who has been dead since 1955, and the next, at 23 percent, was “I don’t know.” In another survey, only 4 percent of respondents could name a living scientist.
Wait! Wait! I know one...!

Retched of the Earth?

Dow down six-hundred and thirty-four. Debtonomics? Downgrade? Europe?
Paul Krugman notes another theory by John Hempton:
You see the desperate selling of the biggest liquid names is a sign of margin calls.

The market is not puking. Some prime broker is puking the stocks held by one or more very large hedge funds.

So lets play the game: guess who got the margin call!
Favorites in the comments (and Krugman and Hempton): Paulson - I think the same one who made a killing on the collapse of the mortgage market.

News From Omaha

From the World-Herald:
The reality is that you're more likely to be bitten by another person than a shark ... Especially in Omaha.

Obama on the Downgrade

The President, naturally, could be counted on to rally the nation with inspirational rhetoric following the twin body blows to our nation's finances of stock market crash and S&P downgrade. Not.
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney:
The President believes it is important that our elected leaders come together to strengthen our economy and put our nation on a stronger fiscal footing.

The bipartisan compromise on deficit reduction was an important step in the right direction. Yet, the path to getting there took too long and was at times too divisive. We must do better to make clear our nation's will, capacity and commitment to work together to tackle our major fiscal and economic challenges.
Blah stupid blah.

Jacob Weisberg on the Debt Limit Debacle

Weisberg's article has a lot of good stuff. A couple of excerpts:
The debt-ceiling debacle revealed that politics is broken in every possible way and there's no point in explaining complicated matters to the American people.
OK, that's a slight but forgivable exaggeration. The finale resonates with me:
The president has tried reasonableness and he has failed. It has been astonishing to watch Obama's sheer unwillingness to give up on his opponents after their refusal to work with him on the stimulus package, health care reform, or the extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall. A Congress dominated by mindless cannibals is now feasting on a supine president. But surely even he now realizes there's no middle ground with antagonists whose only interest is in seeing him humiliated. Yes - what the hell is the matter with the man? Does he really think he is thereby helping a higher cause or is he just personally weak?

Sovereign Debt: Who Loves Ya, Baby?

…Neither a borrower nor a lender be…
This excerpt from the much derided advice of Polonius is looking better for the case of sovereign debt. Nations borrow money for the same sorts of reasons as individuals do – to get them through a rough spot, to buy crap they can’t afford, because they believe the future never comes, and, somewhat rarely, to make sensible investments for the future. The big debts run up by Reagan and the Bushes fall squarely in the middle two categories.
The normal source of income for a nation is taxes, and economists, but practically nobody else, recognize that to borrow is to tax. When a nation borrows money today, it’s deferring taxation today for the future.
So who loves sovereign debt? Those with cash in their pockets do. In the world today, that means governments like China, a bunch of big corporations, and the rich. Suppose that instead of running up 14 trillion in debt, the US had chosen Clinton’s path over the last eleven years, paid its bills, and be…

What Does It Mean

Paul Krugman on today's stock market bloodbath:
OK, OK, we always need to bear in mind Paul Samuelson’s line about how the stock market had predicted nine of the last five recessions. Still, the markets do seem to be telling us a couple of things:

1. The world looks a lot more like the way it’s viewed by the Krugman/Thoma/DeLong axis (hey, I like it) than as viewed by, say, the WSJ editorial page.

2. Policy makers have been worrying about the wrong things, obsessing over deficits when the real problem was lack of growth.

There are intimations that this could turn out to be more than a mere market plunge; European stresses are starting to make some nasty financial ripples that suggest a possible mini-Lehman event, although I think — I hope — governments and central banks will head this off. But if you had any doubts that we were on the wrong track, this should resolve them.I wouldn't count on many of the heathen seeing the light.  Fanatics make poor learners.

The first question …

Climate Forcings and Feedbacks

Lumo waxes wroth on the subject of the title here. If you drill down through the imprecations and overheated rhetoric, you will find that his point seems to be that one cannot sharply distinguish between forcings (exogenous factors which increase planetary temperature such as solar output, or CO2 from industrial emissions) and feedbacks (e.g. increased atmospheric water vapor due to increased surface temperature).
To which I say Tru Dat, but...
In particular, at issue seems to be the argument that clouds represent a forcing rather than a feedback. That could be the case, for example, if changing cloud cover is due to say cosmic radiation or some kind of volcanic action. On the other hand,if changing cloud cover is due to the heating of the surface and consequent greater moisture in the air, its a feedback.
In practice, as the Lumonator notes, you can't draw a bright line between feedback and forcing, because there are overlaps. That doesn't mean that it's not useful to …

Pivot Point

The Obama administration has announced its intention to pivot to the question of jobs - about 2.5 years short of a timely choice.
One deeply disappointed Democrat (former Democrat?) gave a vulgar salute and said "pivot on this, Obama."


Thank goodness I had diversified my portfolio to include European stocks.
I would have hated to all my losses concentrated in one continent.

Audacious Hope

Paul Krugman points out that the "prosperity is just around the corner" message from the White House is wearing thin - and neither good politics nor governance. He quotes spokesman Jay Carney:
President Barack Obama’s spokesman is discounting talk that the economy may be headed back into recession, despite recent concerns of economists.

Spokesman Jay Carney says there is no question that economic growth and job creation have slowed over the past half year.

But, Carney told a White House briefing, “We do not believe that there is a threat of a double-dip recession.”Krugman:
Of course there’s a threat. Larry Summers puts the odds at one in three; I might be slightly more optimistic, but the risk is very real. Who, exactly, is at the White House who knows better?

And think about the politics here. For two years the White House has been determinedly cheerful, always declaring that the recovery was on track, that its policies were working fine. And all it did was squander its cred…

Suspicious Headline

Santorum To Give Out Free Jelly At Ames
Peach Jelly, that is.

Coming Attractions

If we continue to lollygag, we will be buying our robocars from China.
The select global fleet of self-driving cars has a new Chinese addition, and the developers claim the intellectual property behind it was created entirely at a Chinese university.

After gaining early publicity five years ago, the robot-driven vehicle made the trip between the interior Chinese metropolises of Changsha and Wuhan in three hours and 20 minutes, the China Daily reported.

The state-run paper reported that the drive took place in inclement weather on July 14, but the vehicle nonetheless managed to overtake 67 other vehicles at an average speed of 54 miles per hour.

The Chinese project is hardly alone. Autonomous vehicles have been in development worldwide for years, with much of the action centered around the DARPA Grand Challenge competitions, supported by the U.S. Department of Defense.

One team of veterans of the DARPA competitions last year set out for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo from Parma, Italy, w…

Crisis of Integration

The trouble with the Euro is that Europe is inhabiting a metastable financial state that can't be maintained. If the countries currently in trouble could just devalue their currencies there would be a feasible if painful way to get back to financial stability. The Euro manacles prevent that.

Bloomberg thinks that the way forward is to push integration further:
To restore confidence, Europe’s leaders -- specifically German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- must demonstrate they are willing and able to fix the flaws in the currency union that the crisis has laid bare.

As Bloomberg View has advocated, any comprehensive solution will probably entail creating a finance ministry with the sole power to issue euro bonds backed jointly and severally by all the nations of the union. It will also involve fiscal transfers that, like earned-income tax credits and unemployment insurance in the U.S., ease the pain of wage and competitiveness adjustments that stat…

Europe is Still Screwed

Kevin Drum says markets tanked today because yet another European kick the can exercise seems to be failing.
Spanish and Italian politicians rushed to formulate a fresh response to the debt crisis engulfing their two countries as their borrowing costs hit new euro-era highs on Tuesday....The flurry of activity came against the backdrop of another big sell-off in markets. Yields on benchmark 10-year Spanish and Italian bonds peaked at 6.45 per cent and 6.25 per cent, respectively. The premiums Madrid and Rome pay to borrow over Germany also reached new euro-era highs of 404 and 384 basis points.

....Analysts said it was difficult to see what could stop Spanish and Italian rates continuing to climb, particularly in light summer trading. “What can be announced to really break that? It is difficult to see,” said Laurent Fransolet, head of European fixed income research at Barclays Capital
And Krugman:
But I still wonder, looking at news coverage, why our disaster is dominating the headlines …


I don't share Cynthia's belief that Obama is simply an evil tool of malign forces, but I am extremely disappointed in him. Fouad Ajami has a theory: Obama is a pessimist.
In one of the illuminating, unscripted moments of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama said—much to the dismay of his core constituency—that the Reagan presidency had been "transformational" in a way that Bill Clinton's hadn't. Needless to say, Mr. Obama aspired to a transformational presidency of his own.

He had risen against the background of a deep economic recession, amid unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; he could be forgiven the conviction that the country was ready for an economic and political overhaul. He gave it a mighty try. But the transformational dream was not to be. The country had limits. Mr. Obama couldn't convince enough Americans that the twin pillars of his political program—redistribution at home, retrenchment abroad—are worthy of this country's am…

Debt Ceiling Shakedown Strategy

The Republican debt ceiling shakedown strategy worked, partly because they were willing to wreck the economy if they didn't get their way, but mostly, I think, because the President failed to come up with a counterstrategy. If he had had to deal with failure to pass the debt ceiling increase, he steadfastly refused to go beyond vague threats.
Instead, I argue, he should have been very specific about what he would have cut, and where, and done it in such a way as to inflict maximum pain on the districts of tea party members. Then he should have invited Congress to come up with its own ideas, and veto any legislation he didn't like.
Governors and CEOs constantly have to make that sort of choice, and Obama should have welcomed the chance to destroy those and exactly those programs he found wasteful.
What would have been so hard about that?