Tuesday, June 30, 2015

German Propaganda...

...has been remarkably successful in portraying the Greeks as the villains of the current debt fiasco, and Europe has bought into it, big time. The US has been slightly less gullible, probably because we were less of a target, but also because several of our top economists have repeatedly called "bullshit" on this particular pile of crap.

Of course it helps the propaganda machine that the Greeks, both citizen and government, have screwed up badly, especially before the financial crisis of 2007. Most bankruptcies involve either really bad luck or stupidity on the part of both borrower and lender. The Greek disaster initially involved all three: reckless borrowing by an irresponsible Greek government, reckless lending by (mainly German) banks, and the bad fortune to get caught up in a global financial meltdown.

The blame for this really bad situation becoming a disaster lies almost entirely with the Troika (EU and IMF) who imposed a brutal austerity which crushed the Greek economy and destroyed any potential it had to repay. The big banks (again, mostly German) bear most of the blame for the Troika's bad behavior - the same folly that led them to make stupid loans made them cling to the fictional repayment of these loans long after the money was gone.

The propaganda effort follows the traditional formula of modern masters like Reagan and his predecessors in the Soviet Union and Germany: blame the victim. Find (or, more usually, just invent) examples of somebody in Greece getting away with something and extrapolate to every Greek. Ignore the fact that almost all the disasters have been provoked by the bad economic policies of the T.

I notice that the US has been getting a late dose of the same garbage.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Creepie Stool

Jenny Geddes, in the guise of James Annan, has thrown hers at the Pope.

Krugman on Greece

Krugman votes for Grexit.

Greece should vote “no,” and the Greek government should be ready, if necessary, to leave the euro.

To understand why I say this, you need to realize that most — not all, but most — of what you’ve heard about Greek profligacy and irresponsibility is false. Yes, the Greek government was spending beyond its means in the late 2000s. But since then it has repeatedly slashed spending and raised taxes. Government employment has fallen more than 25 percent, and pensions (which were indeed much too generous) have been cut sharply. If you add up all the austerity measures, they have been more than enough to eliminate the original deficit and turn it into a large surplus.

So why didn’t this happen? Because the Greek economy collapsed, largely as a result of those very austerity measures, dragging revenues down with it.

Creditors and rentiers still rule the world.

Sunday, June 28, 2015


Puerto Rico is now Puerto Pobre.

The governor of Puerto Rico has decided that the island cannot pay back more than $70 billion in debt, setting up an unprecedented financial crisis that could rock the municipal bond market and lead to higher borrowing costs for governments across the United States.

Puerto Rico’s move could roil financial markets already dealing with the turmoil of the renewed debt crisis in Greece. It also raises questions about the once-staid municipal bond market, which states and cities count on to pay upfront costs for public improvements such as roads, parks and hospitals.

Apparently there is no provision in law for bankruptcy by a State or territory. Maybe it will have to leave the dollar zone.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tracking the Post Office

A little over a week ago, my package destined for me in Las Cruces, NM left Salt Lake City (820 miles from Las Cruces), Traveled the 535 miles to Denver (616 miles from Las Cruces), next traveled the 795 miles to Dallas (680 miles from Las Cruces) so far having traveled 1330 miles to get 140 miles closer to the destination (all distances road miles).

I wonder if their routing routines are optimal.

What da ya think?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Small Numbers

The percentage PhD's in physics awarded to black women is roughly the same as the percentage of same who have become Grand Dragons of the Ku Klux Klan: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/24/chanda-prescod-weinstein_n_7574020.html

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ms. Haley, Tear Down That Flag!

In response to the latest gun violence, racist murders in Charleston, South Carolina, several states, including South Carolina have begun at least token efforts to remove the Stars and Bars from their Capitols, flags, and licence plates. I support all these efforts. Also, Amazon, WalMart and others have removed Confederate memorabilia from their shelves. I'm less enthusiastic about these.

It's true, of course, that these items have served as badges, slogans and rallying points for racism, but they aren't the cause of racism, and making them slightly harder to obtain is hardly going to cure it. It might well have the opposite effect. Removing implicit or explicit official sanction of racist badges is one thing, but half-hearted attempts to suppress them in private use is quite another.

There is a somewhat silly debate going on about whether Dylann Roof's murder rampage was terrorism, racism, or just the actions of a troubled and deranged individual. The answer, of course, is that it was a compound of all three. Yes, he is a troubled and probably deranged individual, but racism had become his focus, and terror was its expression.

The US has made a lot of progress against racism in the last half century, but we are far from eliminating or even reducing it to minor levels. We really don't know how to eliminate it, but I'm pretty sure eliminating Confederate flags is not going to do the trick. Removing them from government institution could well help make racism even more publicly unacceptable though, and that has been one of the key weapons against racism.

Despite a vast expansion of the surveillance state, we haven't eliminated terrorism either.

The one measure that could have a major effect against all sorts of mass violence is the one that is anathema to a hard core of fanatical Americans: gun control. Despite all the evidence they insist on keeping guns available even to the craziest.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Heat Deaths

Both India and Pakistan have experienced killer heat waves this summer. Pakistan's most recent one has already killed 800. Although the subcontinent's contribution to the world's excess CO2 has so far been small, it's population is among the most vulnerable to global warming.

It is a cruel irony that the most useful thing for coping with the heat - more reliable electricity - is also likely to exacerbate future warming, as much of the future increase in emissions is likely to come from the developing world.

Rapid development of low carbon energy sources is needed, and that probably means nuclear.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Climate Pessimism

My friends in the climate denialist camp like to call themselves skeptics. They call me a climate alarmist. I prefer to call myself a climate pessimist, by which I mean than anthropogenic climate change is happening, probably going to be catastrophic, and unlikely to be avoided, mostly because humans are too foolish, or more precisely, too poorly organized to cope with the challenges presented. Ezra Klein has promoted his own version of climate pessimism here, and while I largely agree with him, I think he still underestimates the difficulties.

Democratic Presidential candidate Martin O'Malley has advanced what is widely regarded as a serious climate plan, but I'm not buying it. Supposedly he wants to eliminate fossil fuels in 35 years. As the saying goes, if frogs had fur, the world could be made safe for chinchillas. The problem is how to get there from here. His vague mix of cap and trade and efficiency measures won't cut it. The world has been fooling around with cap and trade for a decade or so now and essentially all that has happened is that a new market for speculators has been opened.

Moreover, what happens in the US will be increasing irrelevant to the global carbon budget - only concerted global action has a chance to affect it. The only idea with a chance, I think, is a global carbon tax, imposed on all goods, with the proceeds used to promote renewable energy and efficiency. Such a tax would have fierce opposition everywhere, and the economic consequences would likely be ferocious. Energy would inevitably become more expensive, and the connection between oil production and global gdp growth is very strong.

Perhaps a very small such tax could be implemented, with the hope that more serious measures could be put to work as the consequences of global warming become more manifest. Every good pessimist hopes to be proven wrong, but I'm not optimistic.

Saturday, June 20, 2015


Larry Summers and Kevin Drum. Summers:

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras needs to do what is necessary to make reaching an agreement politically feasible for his fellow Europeans....He needs to be clear that he will accept further value-added tax and pension reforms to achieve primary surplus targets this year and next, but that he expects a clear recognition that if Greece does its part, debt will be written off on a large scale.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European authorities must do what is necessary to make policy adjustments politically tenable in Greece. That means acknowledging that the vast majority of the financial support given to Greece has gone to pay back banks rather than to support the Greek budget. They must agree on debt relief and recognize the degree of adjustment in Greek spending that has taken place: with nearly 30 percent of government workers laid off. It also means announcing their intention to accelerate economic growth throughout Europe.


In case that wasn't clear, here's a translation: the leaders of Europe are idiots. Everyone with a room temperature IQ has known for years that something like this is the deal that needs to be made. It's been discussed endlessly in meeting rooms, op-eds, scholarly papers, and conferences. Not only is it not a secret—or rocket science—it's been the obvious solution forever. But Europe vs. Greece is now like the Hatfields vs. the McCoys. Nobody cares anymore how it started, whose fault any of it was, or what the catastrophic results of continued obstinacy will be. They don't even care much about inflicting pain on their own people as long they also inflict pain on the other side.

Nietzsche was deeply suspicious of his countrymen's penchant for resentment, and he was prescient in that regard. German resentment played a big part in its blowing of Europe up twice in the twentieth century, and German fear that somebody else is taking advantage of them is being whipped up by politicians once again.

Free Energy Ain't Free

All organized activity, notably including life and civilization, depends on thermodynamic free energy, sometimes known as negative entropy. Plants get it from the Sun, heterotrophs (like you, reader, and I) depend on the foods we eat, and civilizations, increasing depend on fuel, especially fossil fuel. The industrial revolution and the relative prosperity it brought were bought with fossil fuel and the free energy it supplied.

Of course we are finding out that that free energy did not come cheaply. The fossil fuels are a finite resource, and their use imposes costs on the planet. Coal is the most abundant such fuel and it's also the cheapest. King Coal made and ruled the industrial revolution but it also brought bitter consequences. The great London Smog of December 1952 killed 4,000-12,000 people and cows in their farm fields. It was a wake up moment for action against air pollution and cities in Europe and the Americas gradually cleaned up their acts.

Most of the environmental cost of coal is imposed on the local population, but not all of it. Coal is an abundant source of radioactivity and carbon dioxide, both of which spread globally, as does some of the particulate. Today's biggest consumer of coal and largest source of CO2 is China, the world's newest industrial superpower. China's city population has paid the price in death rates and pollution induce disease, but it has also benefited from a vastly increased per capita gross domestic product. China, though, has now become rich enough to take the pollution problem seriously and is actively pursuing measures to ameliorate it.

Many other countries have yet to reach that level or take those steps. Africa and the Indian Subcontinent need electricity, and coal is still the cheapest way to get it. Pollution in the Indian city of New Delhi (apparently twice as polluted as Beijing) got a lot of publicity when a returning New York Times columnist wrote of his son's struggles with asthma there. I have noted that India plans to continue and accelerate its use of coal, doubling production by 2020.

Some seem to think that any mention of pollution and global warming is a plot to keep India poor:

Rich capitalists in the West want Indians to go without electric power rather than cut back themselves on carbon dioxide emissions. They do not have the temerity to demand this of China. They mask all this as a pious concern about air pollution in India.

Whether or not that's the case, it's certainly true that the industrialized countries have done most of the pollution so far and continue to be big CO2 producers. From the same article:

The Western meat-lover's diet - diet alone - is 3.3 tons of CO2 per year. If he drives a car or flies to Europe for a vacation, he rapidly adds up. E.g., a round trip from New York to Paris, one that a Paul Krugman, for instance, might often take, adds another 0.93 tons. A chap driving 12,000 miles in a 2013 Ford Pickup adds 4.9 metric tons of C02 to the atmosphere.

China, India and the West all continue to make very half-hearted attempts to control CO2 emissions, though the West has made progress on particulates. We can be pretty sure though, that effective measures against CO2 production, like a global carbon tax, will meet fierce opposition from meat eaters, vacation goers, and developing economies alike.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Crazy vs. Terror

For some reason there is some debate over whether the mass murders at the Charleston church should be called terror or just crazy.

What's the difference? For me the difference is motivation and organization. The crazy guy may imagine that he is responding to instructions from God, the Devil, or Slender Man, but the terrorist is responding to an actual political movement and organization.

Most of the domestic terrorists/mass murderers we have seen in the US seem to have at least a toe in both camps. Most are troubled loners, not recruits or apparatchiks, but they draw at least some of their inspiration from organized hate groups. Dylann Storm Roof, the Charleston shooter, appears to follow this pattern. Most of the school shooters, and the Denver theater shooter, by contrast, appear to fit more into the purely crazy mode. A few, like the shoe bomber and the Times Square would be bomber, look more like politically motivated terror recruits.

Intelligence and surveillance sometimes work against the last category, but they are all but useless against the first two types. What would work is keeping guns out of the hands of crazy people - something that the NRA fights fanatically against.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Population III? Footprints of the Giants.

According to cosmology, the first stars in the universe would have been built solely from hydrogen and helium with a trace of lithium, because the primordial nucleosynthesis would only have had enough time to make helium and that lithium trace. Such stars would have been more transparent to radiation than stars containing other elements (which astronomers call metals), and consequently could have been much larger than those that exist in the universe today.

Today's New York Times has a Dennis Overbye story claiming that the signatures of these early monsters have been found in a galaxy seen as it was only a few hundred million years after the big bang.

Astronomers said on Wednesday that they had discovered a lost generation of monster stars that ushered light into the universe after the Big Bang and that jump-started the creation of the elements needed for planets and life before disappearing forever.

Modern-day stars like our sun have a healthy mix of heavy elements, known as metals, but in the aftermath of the Big Bang only hydrogen, helium and small traces of lithium were available to make the first stars.

Details at the link.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Monday, June 15, 2015

Natural History of the Lynch Mob

The lynch mob should not be thought of as an aberration. It's more like a natural manifestation of our human nature. Christopher Boehm, for one, has argued that collective punishment of deviance played a key role in the human development of altruism and conscience. The most common and least drastic version is shaming of the perpetrator. It's not a minor punishment for most persons, and in fact was largely abandoned as a legal punishment in the US because it was thought too harsh. Hunter gatherer societies deal with more serious offenders, or those (like psychopaths) who ignore shaming, by ostracism or lynching (murder by the group)

We have near contemporary evidence for group punishments among contemporary hunter gatherers, and highly suggestive circumstantial evidence of lynchings of deviants from thousands of years ago. The lynching was a key tactic of racial oppression in the United States until quite recently, and is prevalent in many parts of the world even today. Civilization has largely tried to replace physical lynching with judicial actions, but public shaming has seen an explosive reincarnation in an age when social media have turned the mob into a global monstrosity.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, has written about the case of Sir Tim Hunt.

Take the case of that great and good man, Professor Sir Tim Hunt. This world-famous British biologist has consecrated his life to the study of cells, and in the early Eighties he was looking at some sea urchins when he made a breakthrough. He discovered cyclins – crucial proteins that help somehow with cell development. He has won the Nobel prize and just about every other award; and last week, at the age of 72, he was giving a light-hearted, off-the-cuff speech to some scientific journalists in Seoul. Those remarks have prompted such global outrage that he has been stripped of honorary positions both at University College London and the Royal Society. In an interview at the weekend, he said that he was “finished” and that his career was at an end.

What did he say, to make the plaster fall off the ceiling? Why did the seismograph yaw so crazily? Well, he was speaking flippantly, ironically – or so he thought – about men and women working together in the lab. Or rather, he spoke about his own experience. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Now the first two observations are surely uncontentious. Men fall in love with women, women fall in love with men. It’s been going on a long time, and thank goodness, because otherwise our species would die out. It is the third point – about crying – that has earned him the wrath of the Twittersphere, and the most venomous hatred.

The first question to ask, when someone is accused of saying something unacceptable – even in a semi-satirical way – is whether or not that statement is true. Is there any foundation to this casual assertion, that women cry more readily than men?

How many will be shocked to find that, even though both men and women weep, women do it more often?

In my minds eye I can see the faces of the lynch mob that destroyed Tim Hunt's career and life: they are the faces I saw on a postcard celebrating a mob hanging and burning a young black man 100 years ago. The crazy-eyed fanatics with rope and gasoline; the women in the back, children in hand, cheering them on; the smug town leaders watching at a distance, tut-tutting the mob perhaps but afraid to intervene - they are the cowards and fools that fired Hunt from his positions. I can't see the photographer who took the picture or the men who sold the postcards or those who bought them, but they are legion.

The smugly pious journalists who abetted the modern version of the lynching may fancy themselves liberal or humanitarian, but they aren't nearly so far from the characters in that old time lynching as they think.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Did George and Barbara Bush Have Any Intelligent Children?

Well, none that I've heard of.

Paul Krugman cites a couple of the Jeb Bush campaign's latest ignorant blatherings in this aptly named post: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/06/14/dont-know-much-about-history-jeb-bush-edition/

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sex and the Single Robot

Can there be any doubt but that the human race is doomed?

Some engineers, it seems, are working on sex dolls that can converse and presumably exhibit other lifelike responses.

Meanwhile, I'm having my own trouble with the servants. Once again it seems that the maid (AKA my Roomba) has latched onto the footman (AKA, my walking shoe), dragged him under my bed, and had her way with him (AKA, attempted to digest my shoestring). Now I need a robot that will pick up my shoes and put them away.

PC Violation

Another Nobel Prize winner has been crucified for daring to utter comments that are presumed to insult a protected group. Paul Hunt is the target in this NYT article.

A Nobel laureate has resigned as honorary professor at University College London after saying that female scientists should be segregated from male colleagues because women cry when criticized and are a romantic distraction in the laboratory.

The comments by Tim Hunt, 72, a biochemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for groundbreaking work on cell division, added fuel to a global cultural debate about discrimination against women in science.

He was pressured into resigning his position. It's bizarre to me that faculties members can survive torturing their students, exploiting them financially and sexually, but still get run out of town for making statements that are (a) widely believed and (2) arguably true.

The NYT quote is this:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Mr. Hunt said Monday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

Supposedly he also said that he was in favor of single-sex labs. Well, I think that's a dumb idea, but if every one with a dumb idea was ridden out of town on a rail, towns would be poor in people and rails. We mostly all work in sexually integrated workplaces today, and while it is true that love, sex, and tears happen, we have learned to live with it. Now if we could only learn to live with criticism.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Oh What an Entangled Web We Weave...

I looked up "entanglement" in the indexes of half a dozen quantum mechanics texts I have around here. Didn't find it. The spooky quantum entanglement that so bothered Einstein doesn't feature heavily enough in any of them to make the index. Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum isn't like that. Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman put quantum entanglement at the center of their book. For them, entanglement is the most novel and one of the most important features of quantum, as well as one that is consistently neglected in textbooks.

I happened upon the book more or less by accident. I was wandering through a bookstore with one of my old graduate school office mates, arguing, as usual, about Bell's Theorem, realism in quantum mechanics, and so on. I suddenly realized that I really was a bit unclear on exactly what was meant by quantum entanglement. Since it was a bookstore and we were in the physics section, I looked around for a QM book and there was Susskind - the book, that is. I found a pretty good definition, and much more, so I bought the book.

It's a textbook of sorts, but not a conventional one. It has equations and even problems, but the concern is very clearly with presentation of the fundamental ideas in the simplest and clearest fashion possible. I've only read a few parts so far, so I'm not going to make any definitive declarations, but so far I really like it. If you've had some exposure to quantum mechanics, even a long time ago, you can pretty much read it like a novel.

If you haven't, a little calculus is needed, and some exposure to linear algebra would be nice, but the latter is developed in the text. Apparently some classical mechanics is used later in the book, but he begins with the simplest possible quantum system, a spin one-half particle, and develops the formalism and ideas from there.

So far, I think it looks like a great book to clarify quantum ideas, well-suited to the student who is about to take quantum or who has already completed a course or two but having trouble fitting it all together. It also looks good for old fogies who have forgotten a lot.