Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Trick or Treat

Organized candy fests at schools, churches and community centers seem to have depressed Tricker-Treater turnout. Of course my neighborhood is also getting older. By six O'Clock it was apparent that we had way too much candy. Even handing it out by the fistful wasn't enough.

In the good old days kids used to show up by the vanful around 8:00 PM - from whence we never knew. Whence ever, they were no shows tonight. After 7:15 we seemed to mainly get tweens and teens.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Corporate Power Today

Let's abandon the libertarian world for a moment to consider the News industry in the US today. The US has two national newspapers (the NY Times and the Washington Post), or perhaps 2 1/2 if you include the Wall Street Journal, which doesn't really have fully national reporting nor editorial content. The WSJ is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the NYT is controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family (though the largest shareholder is Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim), and the Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Like other Murdoch news enterprises, the WSJ is predictably right-wing and pro-Trump. The WP and NYT are usually considered liberal and anti-Trump but both work hard at trying to be non-partisan - which is really hard when you are tying to report the truth. There is no significant leftist press in the US.

There are also three national News Television networks, Fox, owned by Murdoch, being hard right and pretty much a dedicated Trump propaganda site. MSNBC is probably the closest thing to a leftist news presence in the US (though very middle of the road by world standards) and definitely anti-Trump. CNN, the oldest and probably most complete news network, tries to be centrist but relentless hostility from Trump has pushed it into the anti-Trump camp.

All this is preface to the fact that AT&T is engaged in an attempted takeover of CNN's parent company, Time-Warner. Josh Marshall takes a hard look the process and the implications, especially in the light of some remarks by Trump confidant Roger Stone:

AT&T is currently trying to finalize an $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner. It’s actually behind schedule. But not to worry. The companies say they are extending their deadline “for a short period of time to facilitate obtaining final regulatory approval required to close the merger.”

AT&T needs the Justice Department’s approval for that deal. Normally, that decision would be housed off at the Antitrust Division at the Justice Department. But no one thinks that’s how it works in the Trump Administration. AT&T needs Donald Trump’s sign off, possibly mediated through the hand of Jeff Sessions but maybe not. Indeed, there has already been quite a bit of concern on Capitol Hill that Trump would try to hold up the AT&T deal as a way to exert pressure on Time Warner?

Why would the President want to pressure Time Warner? Because Time Warner owns CNN. And the White House has already put out word that it wanted to use the deal as a way to place pressure on CNN to rein in its coverage. Senators have pressed the administration to make the decision purely on legitimate antitrust grounds. Finalizing the deal has gone over schedule. It’s been suggested that to help move things along AT&T might suggest (or perhaps already has suggested) that it will rein in the “fake news” at CNN as a way to get President Trump to Yes.

Last night, as CNN’s breaking news about a Mueller indictment was rippling across the interwebs, Roger Stone went on a Twitter tirade ranting at various people. One Tweet thought was quite specific.

When AT&T aquires Time Warner the house cleaning at CNN of human excrement like @donlemon @jaketapper & dumbfuck @ananavarro will be swift

— Roger Stone (@RogerJStoneJr) October 28, 2017

Read the whole story.

A Brief Segue Into Contestable Markets

Since the Stoat has derided me for my purported ignorance of contestable markets, let me use his own petard* to hoist him above the castle walls:

A perfectly contestable market has three main features:

No entry or exit barriers

No sunk costs

Access to the same level of technology (to incumbent firms and new entrants)

A perfectly contestable market is not possible in real life.

Dr. Connolley thinks that Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have contestable effective monopolies. Did he even read the three "essential features" in his link? None of them comes close to applying to these corporations. In particular, sunk costs are in the tens of billions, technology is protected by a vast patent web, and entry costs are enormous.

My free advice: Mr. Connolley should stop reading Tim Worstall and read some actual economists. On second thought, never mind. Economics is heavily populated with dolts and scoundrels with PhDs and professorships. But Tim is an idiot.

*I mean Wikipedia reference, though technically a petard is a small bomb, as in Shakespeare's Hamlet "For 'tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petar." The word, like the English word "fart" and cognates in Russian, French, Sanskrit, Lithuanian and Greek (among others) is descended from the Proto-Indo-European root *perd-, one of two PIE words we have meaning 'fart," this one referring to the noisy kind.

One More Try

I tried asking the question "what do libertarians think should be done about untrammelled corporate power?" Or at least I thought I did. Based on the answers I got, most people seemed to think I was complaining about the quality of service I was getting from Amazon or Google. I was expecting something more along the lines of either "corporate power, what corporate power?" or "the magic of the market and its invisible hand will fix any problems."

Let me adduce a few examples of that rampaging corporate power. The most extreme example is probably the British East India Company, a corporate entity with its own army which overthrew dozens of independent nations and killed, directly or indirectly, millions of people. Similar rampaging corporations on a smaller scale were the slave trading companies that terrorized Africa for centuries, the corporate arms of King Leopold of Belgium, and Cecil Rhodes and the Rothschilds, each responsible millions more murders.

How about some more nearly contemporary examples. How about the tactics John D Rockefeller use to build Standard Oil. Details can be found in Ida Tarbell's works and, in slightly less detail, in Daniel Yergin's magnificent book The Prize. More recent still is the story of the great crash of 2008, as documented in several books. In each of these cases, legal and illegal activities, covered up or tolerated by law enforcement, used the power of concentrated wealth to produce results destructive of individuals and society.

Anybody want to try answering my real question?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Question for Libertarians

I will take a break from my usual pastime of Libertarian bashing to ask a question: Does libertarianism have an answer for the extraordinary power and control of our lives achieved by the giant transnational corporations? I am thinking primarily of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet(Google) and Microsoft. Their resources now dwarf those of many or most nations, and their business means that they possess an extraordinary amount of information about us, likely more than any country.

League of Extraordinary Gropesters.

It's not news that sexual assault and sexual harrassment is not confined to Hollywood and Fox News. Four recent US Presidents (Kennedy, H.W. Bush, Clinton and of course Trump) have now been credibly accused. A well known CNBC panelist was just suspended following accusations by five women. It is extremely likely that these cases are only an insubstantial tip of a vast iceberg.

We discussed the topic in my history class and every woman in the class reported being a victim. Almost every woman either has been a victim or knows several women who have.

We probably can't hope to remove these predators from our society, but making serious examples of the top predators should be a priority. If even half the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are true, he undoubtedly belongs in jail. I don't know the details of the O'Reilly case, but I wouldn't be surprised if the same is true of him. These crimes should be priorities for District Attorneys, especially in view of their shameful role in previous coverups.

Anomalies in Physics Publishing

Several decades ago, as a physics undergrad, I bought Sears and Zemansky's University Physics for $9.95 (the price was on the inside of the front cover). It was already a third edition at that point. The current 14th edition has acquired new authors and lists for 309.80, and for another couple of c-notes you can get the solutions manual and some other aid. I'm going to guess that mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, and optics haven't changed that much, but the book has fattened up to 1600 pages. What a ripoff, but you can get slightly older editions for less than my price for edition 3.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, I found a beautifully bound and printed copy of an 700 plus page advanced textbook/monograph for less than $25 bucks - including shipping from New Delhi, India. Published in the US, printed in the UK, it somehow made its way to India and back (via Germany, and Ohio) to Las Crucesfor a dirt cheap price.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Condolence Calls

Such calls are hard, and Donald Trump has zero talent for empathy. I think that it was as inappropriate for the Congresswoman to release his inappropriate comments as it was for Trump to make them. However, General Kelly's strident and seriously inaccurate attack on her was even worse, if possibly excusable on the grounds of his personal experiences with that most awful of condolence calls.

Maybe we should all dial it back on this subject.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Spurious Correlations and Spearman's g

Spearman's g, of course, is IQ. When various tests of mental abilities (verbal, mathematical, and geometrical, for example) are given, it is found that scores tend to be positively correlated, so that better performance on one type of test is correlated with better performance on others. Factor analysis is a tool for analyzing such correlations. If we measure a couple of parameters that are strongly correlated, like human height and weight, for example, and display them on a graph, they will tend to cluster in a roughly elliptical region along a line. Factor analysis finds the line of best bit. For poorly correlated variables, like perhaps time of day and height, clustering will be less evident.

Factor analysis works in higher dimensions too. The essential idea is to transform the original measurement variables into linear combinations that resolve the highest amount of variance.

If one measures a large number of variables, or simulates a large number of random variables, chance will dictate that some of them will appear to be correlated. This fact has led astray numerous critics of IQ, including Stephen Jay Gould (in The Mismeasure of Man and now Arun G., a smart and well-educated guy whose anti-IQ zealotry seems to make him forget his math.

So how does one separate such spurious correlations from real ones? The test is durability. Purely random correlations disappear when more measurements are made. Moreover, their domain is narrow. Two independent measurements being randomly correlated can happen - three, ten or more, not so likely. The correlations of IQ exams have persisted over hundreds of different exams and millions of test takers. Moreover, they have been shown to correlate strongly with educational and other measures of successful performance.

Spearman thought that the correlation pointed to a single general ('g') factor that explained the correlations. We now know that this is a bit simplistic. Factor analysis can tease out several factors that exhibit significant correlations, but g has never disappeared nor has it ever been adequately explained.

Chandra's Birthday

Today's Google doodle celebrates S. Chandrasekhar's 107th birthday, and hooray for that. I have several of his books and his writing was as clear as his thinking. I guess the doodle is trying to illustrate that white dwarfs can be heavy compared to some main sequence stars, but an actual white dwarf has only about one millionth of the volume of its main sequence counterpart.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

How the Kochs Got Back in the Driver's Seat

The Koch brothers didn't support Donald Trump and a lot of his rhetoric seemed dangerous to them. A few months down the road, though, the White House is populated with Koch people and the Kochs' Libertarian agenda is running the show, especially where it can do the most damage to the environment and do the most for the Kochs' vast wealth. Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker, tells the story. The Key piece of the puzzle turns out to be Vice President Mike Pence, whose public face as Trump's amiable sycophant obscures our view of the long time made guy in the Kochtopus.


The Kochs, who are not religious, may have been focussed more on pocketbook issues than on Pence’s faith. According to Scott Peterson, the executive director of the Checks & Balances Project, a watchdog group that monitors attempts to influence environmental policy, Pence was invited to the Koch seminar only after he did the brothers a major political favor. By the spring of 2009, Koch Industries, like other fossil-fuel companies, felt threatened by growing support in Congress for curbing carbon emissions, the primary cause of climate change. Americans for Prosperity devised a “No Climate Tax” pledge for candidates to sign, promising not to spend any government funds on limiting carbon pollution. At first, the campaign languished, attracting only fourteen signatures. The House, meanwhile, was moving toward passage of a “cap and trade” bill, which would charge companies for carbon pollution. If the bill were enacted, the costs could be catastrophic to Koch Industries, which releases some twenty-four million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere a year, and owns millions of acres of untapped oil reserves in Canada, plus coal-fired power plants and oil refineries.

Pence, who had called global warming “a myth” created by environmentalists in their “latest Chicken Little attempt to raise taxes,” took up the Kochs’ cause. He not only signed their pledge but urged others to do so as well. He gave speeches denouncing the cap-and-trade bill—which passed the House but got held up in the Senate—as a “declaration of war on the Midwest.” His language echoed that of the Koch groups. Americans for Prosperity called the bill “the largest excise tax in history,” and Pence called it “the largest tax increase in American history.” (Neither statement was true.) He used a map created by the Heritage Foundation, which the Kochs supported, to make his case, and he urged House Republicans to hold “energy summits” opposing the legislation in their districts, sending them home over the summer recess with kits to bolster their presentations.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Evil Genius

The evil geniuses who populate comic books and bad science fiction movies are usually bent on world domination or just messing up everybody else's lives. That type of evil genius, quite fortunately, seems rare or maybe nonexistent. I suppose that we would like our geniuses to be saintly, but that's not very common either, and some geniuses are definitely evil, but their evil seems to be more prosaic than the stereotype. Bill Cosby was definitely a comic genius, if such a thing exists, but he was also apparently a serial rapist. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski also come to mind. Even Harvey Weinstein seems to have had sort of a genius for making movies.

Of course many ordinary jerks and "fucking idiots" are also sexual predators, but being wealthy, powerful, or a famous genius provides a lot of extra insulation from the consequences. Power corrupts, in Lord Acton's famous aphorism, and genius is a sort of power.

It apparently doesn't take a lot of differential in power to trigger some men's inner scumbag. Supervisor and worker, professor and student, famous or slightly famous guy and admirers. I suspect that the scumbag gene is widely present, only I hope that most of us manage to suppress it.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

More Libertarian Work

The Washington Post and the Sixty-Minutes television show collaborated on the story of how deregulation, corporate greed, and a few corrupt Congressmen trigger the American opioid epidemic which has now killed more than three times as many Americans as the Vietnam War.

Congress effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation’s streets.

By then, the opioid war had claimed 200,000 lives, more than three times the number of U.S. military deaths in the Vietnam War. Overdose deaths continue to rise. There is no end in sight.

A handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills, according to an investigation by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes.” The DEA had opposed the effort for years.

The law was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market. The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns.

The chief advocate of the law that hobbled the DEA was Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who is now President Trump’s nominee to become the nation’s next drug czar. Marino spent years trying to move the law through Congress. It passed after Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) negotiated a final version with the DEA.

The US Libertarian lobby, which can't muster enough popular support to elect a dog catcher, continues to use its billions to corrupt every aspect of American life. The objective, I guess, is to make us hopeless pawns of our corporate masters.

We have draconian penalties for people who sell a few rocks of crack cocaine. Similar penalties would be appropriate for the corporations whose mischief killed these hundreds of thousands of Americans. I suggest the severe penalties for the corporations and their principal executives and enablers, but especially for the corporations responsible, a death penalty: forfeiture of all assets and loss of all equity.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

One of Our Apex Predators is Down

...And his fellows are quickly ripping apart his corpse. Harvey Weinstein, I mean, and the Academy has kicked him out. Even his brother is dissing him. The carnage is possibly prompted by fear that the contagion will spread. I mean that their own crimes will come out.

Meanwhile, the predator in chief (or PRIC, for short) remains safely ensconced in his golf resorts. I wonder if the swift fall of Weinstein will prompt his accusers to push forward. Let's hope so.

Violent Relaxation...

...sounds like a new form of extreme sports for the overly energetic, but it's actually a process of some importance in galaxy formation. The virial theorem relates the time average of the kinetic energy of a system of gravitationally bound particles to its potential energy: Tav = -(1/2)V. A system in which this kinetic energy is close to this average is called relaxed.

Suppose one starts with an arrangement of, say 100, mass particles with random velocities and turns on gravity. Initially, there is no particular relation between the total kinetic energy and the potential energy (except they should be bound, so T +V < 0). After a few particle crossing times (the time for a typical particle to cross the distribution under influence of other particles gravity) one should find that the ratio approaches the virial average. Such a system is said to be relaxed.

One process that leads to relaxation is gravitational encounters between pairs of individual particles, which tends to equipartition kinetic energies. The time to relaxation in such encounters depends on the density and number of particles. For an open cluster of about 100 stars, relaxation times are roughly ten million years, while for for globular cluster of 100,000 stars, the relaxation time is about half a billion years. Unsurprisingly, such systems are relaxed. For a big elliptical galaxy, though, the relaxation time may be 10^17 years, or millions of times longer than the age of the universe.

Surprisingly enough, then, such systems are also usually relaxed. Why so? Many derivations of the virial theorem depend on assuming that the moment of inertia of the system is not changing. However, if you start, say, a big mass of gas or particles from something approaching rest, and turn on gravity, it will rapidly contract, changing the moment of inertia and the overall gravitational potential. This kind of process can produce rapid ("violent") relaxation.

This kind of relaxation is thought to account for the relaxed state of most galaxies.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Why Do We Still Suck at Soccer?

For the first time since 1986, the US failed to qualify for the World Cup - and failed in truly humiliating fashion. Why?

Brian Phillips blame leadership. The problem seems to be that American players just aren't very good - though I thought they played credibly in Brazil.

At least a few factors probably play a role. The level of youth teaching is generally quite poor. Soccer is a second class sport, played mostly by suburban kids whose parents have too much sense to let them play football. The suburban dominance probably also means that many top athletes don't get the chance to play or just prefer the bigger rewards in football and basketball.

Arun suggested, no doubt sarcastically, that genetics might play a role. As in other sports where foot speed and agility are at a premium, this makes sense, and indeed many of the top players all over the world have Afro-European ancestry. Of course the US also has plenty of athletes of such ancestry, but maybe they just play football or basketball or tennis or golf.

Anyway, it looks like back to the drawing board for the next decade or two.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Why Do Powerful Men Sexually Exploit Women?

Oh wait - I know the answer to this one!

Because they can!

And because they can get away with it. The recent ignominious fall of Harvey Weinstein is just the latest blip in a story older than the casting couch, older, in fact, than history. Of course now that he is down, even a few old buddies are having a kick at his still squirming body, but before the fall he managed to intimidate numerous famous actresses, the New York DA, NBC and other prominent media outfits into silence.

This story is getting monotonous: Ailes, O'Reilly, Cosby; Kennedy, Clinton, and Trump. Some who have fallen and plenty of others still on the loose.

One might think that Hollywood is something of a worst case scenario. Immense power, and plenty of young women willing to use their bodies to take a step up - easy for a powerful man to imagine that it's all there for them, whether the women are willing or not. The Lewinsky case suggests that it's not much different for politicians.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Ross Doughhat has a column entitled "The Pigs of Liberalism" featuring his older look alike, Harvey Weinstein.

Ross starts off his improbable tirade with:

If you are surprised by the news that Harvey Weinstein of Miramax fame, a man well known for profane tirades and physical altercations and scrounging M&Ms off movie theater floors, is also the sort of charmer who loafs around semi-nude while asking subordinates for “back” massages, then you can be surprised by just about anything: the sun rising in the east, the fact that movie stars employ plastic surgeons, the news that “The Artist” didn’t actually deserve to win Best Picture.

Doubtless Ross would be surprised to hear that 95% of Americans think Harvey Weinstein might be a dentist. Among the 5% who have noticed his name in the credits of some excellent movies, I would guess that less than 1 in a thousand has any clue to his sexual habits or proclivities. Obviously, Mr. Douthat was in that select group, which makes me wonder why he never bothered to post an expose. Especially, since he says:

The truth is that while not everyone knew exactly how Harvey Weinstein treated women, everyone knew what kind of man he was. The women he harassed didn’t have the power to restrain him, but plenty of powerful people did.

The point that Douthat really wants to make is that Liberalism makes us uniquely wicked, and liberal perps are less likely to be punished. This is laughable considering the long records of misbehavior documented for O'Reilly, Ailes, more Republican Speakers of the House than you can shake a stick at, not to mention the President. Weinstein was fired from the company he founded only about a week after the story broke. Trump is still President.

But conservative principles can still save us says RD. Women, keep to you kitchens, and don't forget the Pence rule.

Test these Suckers!

Donald Trump, perhaps offended by being called a "fucking moron" by his own Secretary of State, challenged Tillerson to an IQ comparison. Given that both men are well into the age of IQ decline, any past scores are irrelevant, so a new test is clearly called for. MENSA, a society of misfits dedicated to celebrating their own IQs, purportedly in the top 2%, has offered to host a test for both. Personally, I suspect that an IQ test aimed at the top 2 % might be too tough for both, and Trump has a busy golf schedule, so perhaps something like the Wonderlic might be more appropriate. Personally, my money is on Tillerson to score in the offensive-tackle to quarterback range, while I've got Trump out there with the cornerbacks.

Actually, I'd like to see IQ tests made mandatory for all candidates for public office. If you need an IQ test to play linebacker in the NFL, why not one to serve in Congress, or as President?

Monday, October 09, 2017

Inspired by Pence Clown Show*...

...Alexandra Petri imagines a few more protests for the Vice President.

After briefly refusing to dignify a football game with his absence, Vice President Pence jetted to California for a previously scheduled event, and I guess President Trump thought this was how protests ought to go. Below are a few more ideas for protests that Pence doubtless has planned.

Take Secret Service detail 80 miles out of the way to glower at a yard sign that says “No Matter Where You’re From, I’m Glad You’re My Neighbor.”

Pointedly refuse a piece of toast because it appears to contain an image of the Virgin Mary and his wife is not present to guard his virtue.

*Pence flew to Indianapolis and went to the Colts vs. 49ers game just to watch the opening ceremony and walk out when some of the players knelt for the anthem. Good use for taxpayer bucks. Good use for the second dumbest guy in DC.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Ethics, Economics, and Climate

The Stoat has a nearly impenetrably referential post on the subject as above. As usual, reading the post left me pretty much entirely clueless about what he was talking about, but because I had more important work that I wanted to avoid, I read a couple of the links. I discovered that a few years ago he seemed to be able to express himself more clearly, though even then he wasn't willing to give his stuff a descriptive title.
His point, then and now, as I understand it was:

So I’ll be more explicit, here, and argue for solving GHG emissions as a matter of economics, to be handled by taxation, rather than as a matter of morality, to be handled… somehow. Context: Eli wants to handle it as ethics. And a fair amount of the comments on Can global emissions really be reduced? are about this.
Oddly enough, I agree with this, but I think that posing potential solutions as economics versus ethics is profoundly misleading, mostly because they are inextricably intertwined. Ethics is supposed to tell us what we ought to do, while economics is mostly about the consequences of certain choices. I think Connolley wastes a lot of energy arguing that differences in moral principles prevent adequate agreement on goals. While this is true, economic means is equally obstructed by disagreement on goals.

The real question is, given the extent to which goals can be agreed on, what are the best methods for achieving them? The choices come down to economic incentives and punition. Punitive measures are probably appropriate in cases of fraud, like the Volkswagen case, but also usually consist mainly economic incentivization by fines, sometimes with a few symbolic perps getting jailed. The more famous economic incentives are taxes and exchange traded emission permits.

I think that Connolley and I both agree that taxes are the better choice. A lot of economists preferred emission permits, mainly, I think, in the vain hope that this would deceive the gullible into not realizing that they were intended to raise the price of gasoline and other petrochemical products. As it happens, they aren't that gullible, especially when there is a multi-trillion dollar industry dedicated to making sure they know exactly that.

So, I say, decreasing GHG emissions comes down to moral persuasion: persuading people that it is morally correct to impose taxes which will make certain aspects of their lives today more difficult in order to make a better future for their children and grandchildren. That is really hard, since the world is full of both scoundrels and honest men who don't accept the premise.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Jews, What Jews?

From the NYT:

The architecture of Canada’s new National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa is both symbolic and haunting, with six concrete triangles depicting the stars that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, and that marked millions of them for extermination during World War II.

But while the structure’s design embodies Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, a plaque placed outside it failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism, an omission that has drawn furious criticism.

There were Jewish victims of the Holocaust? Who knew?

Not Donald Trump, of course, but apparently he wasn't alone.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Weiss, Thorne, and Barish

Win Physics Nobel, surprising exactly nobody.

Discovery of gravitational waves, 100 years after they were first predicted, is clearly the biggest physics discovery of the twenty-first century (so far). The only surprise was that GR waves didn't win last year.