Showing posts from 2009

Another Thing I Didn't Know Yesterday

There is a difference between rowing and sculling. In the simplest version of rowing, the blade of the oar is perpendicular to the direction of movement of boat and oar and propulsive force is achieved by simply pushing the water backwards, with little net circulation about the oar - similar to the operation of a paddlewheel steamer. There is a better way, exploited by birds, scullers, and propeller driven craft. That way is to fly the blade through the fluid at an angle to its direction of motion, inducing circulation about it and letting Mr. Bernoulli do the driving. Courtesy again of Mr. Tennekes.

Minus 160

Current political divisions in Congress are bitter, but hardly unprecedented. It's interesting to compare divisions in the US today to those of 1850. Then, even more than now, an enraged minority was willing to tear the country apart to get its way. Tempers in the Senate ran high enough that pistols were drawn. Somehow, though, the stakes today look incredibly smaller. In 1850, the whole economic system of the South was at stake, as was the freedom of a substantial portion of its population. What's at risk today? Relatively minor modifications in the health insurance system? Someone said that American Conservatism today was an inferiority complex masquerading as an ideology. I don't think that's far wrong. Conservative ideas were roundly rejected by reality and by the voters, and they are scrambling and praying for a sign from above. Not that I minimize the hazard of such feelings. One might similarly say that militant Islamic radicalism is an inferiority co

Bad Things/Bad People

I am not one to hope or pray for bad things to happen, even to bad people, but this comment at TPM regarding Rush's hospitalization in Hawaii caught my eye: Barleymash December 31, 2009 1:08 PM I really hope he recovers, but I am concerned that this happened in Hawaii. If, heaven forbid, Rush doesn't recover, I want to see the official long-form death certificate. Who knows? He could actually be in Kenya right now and I, for one, am not willing to accept anything less than the official documentation.

Sporting News

Sea Lions Leave San Francisco is the headline at The Daily Beast. Officially there is no explanation, but they are rumored to be demanding that the City construct a new stadium, provide 100% tax abatement, and give them all revenue from Sky boxes and memorabilia UPDATE: But they do say "and thanks for all the fish."


I'm happy to say that my Mac and I are getting along much better, thanks. I thank all of you who have sent me useful software suggestions, crackpip, Eli, jpd, Steve, and Arun. Especially Dr. Mac, of course.

Doughnuts: Or Why Quidditch Players Are Thin

We, which is to say, we the donut eaters of the world, like to think that we can work off the calories in a donut with a bit of exercise. True enough, but how much exercise? An elite athlete can generate something like 200 Watts of mechanical work for an hour. This mechanical work is generated at an efficiency of about 25%, i.e., by burning about 800 Watts worth of stored energy. That amounts to about one Calorie (i.e., 1 kilo calorie ) every five seconds, which means that he could work off that donut in 20 minutes or so. Those of us who actually eat donuts are likely to take a lot longer. Bar tailed godwits are a lot more impressive burners of calories. During their fall migration from Alaska to New Zealand (nonstop!) they burn off about 58% of their body weight, including all the fat, most of the muscle, and big parts of every organ except brain, bone and feather. So, how many Calories could I burn by flying to, say, Cozumel? Bird arcana courtesy of The Simple Science of Fligh

Beautiful But Dumb

Have I mentioned that I hate computers? Well, I do. But I've never hated a computer - not even the Univac 1106 or the IBM 360 - more than I hate my new Macbook Pro at the moment. The reason I hate computers is that they never operate the way I think they should. Mostly I hate the Macbook because nothing seems to work. I had worked my way up to a mere extreme dislike before I made the mistake of installing Iwork . At first I thought Pages was just a truly crappy 1980's word processor, but that was before I encountered it's truly obnoxious qualities, like the postage stamp it expects me to write in but mainly and most especially the f****** Registration Screen that won't let me register, won't go away, and won't let me go on to do anything else, or all the greyed out commands in all the menus that don't work. It's really a shame the damnable thing is so pretty. UPDATE: Well, as HAL 9000 might have said, it's usually human error. I have solved som

A One Finger Swipe at Steve Jobs

My new Mac has something called a Multi-Touch Trackpad (MTTp). This allows it to do various cool things with one finger (mouse stuff), two fingers (mouse & trackball stuff), three fingers, and four fingers (really). I only knew how to do the one and two finger swipe stuff, but that not very well. I wondered why, for example, my expand and shrink functions (two finger swipes) only worked about 5% of the time. That's when I learned that Apple has learned how to write an even stupider help function than Microsoft. I tried typing in "touchpad". (I didn't know proper name of the MTTp yet). Nothing. "Pad" did get a hit though. I seemed to think I wanted to know about templates. I asked my son, who was visiting for Christmas. "RTFM" he said. So I found this little booklet that came with the puter. It had the real name of the MTTp. It also had cool stuff about two, three, and four finger swipes. It doesn't, so far as I can tell, explai

Digitally Enhanced

In the future, only digitally enhanced humans will be permitted: Via Marginal Revolution

Mac Shout Out

Especially to Dr Mac - but also any other Mac users. Well, I finally bought myself a Mac Powerbook, so your proselytizing finally won another convert. So, if you get a chance, you might remind of a few of those Mac Daddy scientific software packages you used to show me.

The Foreign Student

It's no coincidence that the terrorist attacks and attempts keep on coming from westernized or partially westernized Muslims. The experience of being a student or worker in a richer and more technologically advanced country certainly has some opportunities for resentment breeding humiliations and rejections, but it seems to be almost only among the Muslim students that this has turned to terroristic violence. Chinese, Indian, and other developing country students of past decades no doubt had similar experiences, and quite likely some left with similar anger. Somehow, though, they almost univerally managed to channel whatever feelings into building societies competitve to the West rather than adopting the tactics of suicidal rage. Sooner or later, another horrific terrorist attack is likely to succeed, and there will be understandable calls for drastic action. Many will call for launching more wars against the Islamic world. Only slightly less drastic would be to simply ban student

AGW Ammunition

The Pig, who actually has real work to do, nonetheless gets bored pretty easily. Hence, he decided that he ought to challenge local members of the denio-sphere to one or more public debates. He remembers vaguely from his high school debate days that it's harder to defend a complex proposition than to challenge it, so that it's a pretty good idea to be well prepared, rather than just rely on native wit and making stuff up. Consequently, he has been assembling some of the basics, and he remembers that there are some good internet resources around. Other than AR4 and Wikipedia, he forgets exactly what they are. Especially good was a source that considered specific critiques and answered them. Anybody remember that? Have any other special recommendations? Example: despite big increases in CO2 during the period 1940-1980, the atmosphere cooled rather than warmed. The models don't predict that. Why should we believe them for the future?

Global Warming for Fun and Profit

Economists mostly love cap and trade. The idea is to put the incentives of the free market to work finding better energy efficiencies. An unfortunate side effect is that, in a government controlled process, the market also likes to work the government to set up scams. It tends to create a perfect environment for the most profitable way Warren Buffet claims to have found to make money - lobbying the government for special deals. There is ample evidence that this is already at work, and I'm not just talking Al Gore's commercial empire. There are several different forms in which the scams are perpetrated, the following being a few. (a)Giving away (instead of auctioning) pollution permits to polluters. This directly rewards those who create the problem while penalizing everyone else. (b)So called offsets: Real offset are desirable but the trick is in the accounting. How do you ensure that the effect of the so-called offset is genuine, and not another scam like ethanol from corn? (c

Do You Believe in Magic?

Not to worry, your friends at Tea Bag Central do: Josh Marshall: Teabagger calls into C-Span in tears, worried that his prayers for Sen. Byrd's death may have ricocheted through the prayer chamber and hit Sen. Inhofe instead.

Block Universe Blowdown

Ellis and Rothman have a new model with a seemingly more real distinction between past, present, and future. Relativity doesn't make any distinctions, but say E & R, adding QM makes a difference. I like the general idea: The future is uncertain because it is not yet determined: it does not yet exist in a physical sense. The future is different because it doesn't exist yet. That suits my intuition just fine. An arrow of time, and, if you like, some version of free will, fit in quite nicely. The abstract: Time and Spacetime: The Crystallizing Block Universe Authors: George F. R. Ellis, Tony Rothman (Submitted on 4 Dec 2009) Abstract: The nature of the future is completely different from the nature of the past. When quantum effects are significant, the future shows all the signs of quantum weirdness, including duality, uncertainty, and entanglement. With the passage of time, after the time-irreversible process of state-vector reduction has taken place, the past emerges, wi

Tea With Harry

I went down to meet with my Congressman today. I wanted to complain about his failure to vote for the health care bill. Harry Teague got elected in a usually Republican district thanks to the Obama landslide and the fact that the incumbent tried to graduate to the Senate. My guess is that his attempts to mollify the angry right will backfire - he can't win them over and he has alienated his core Democratic constituency. A few dozen people had gathered in his Las Cruces office, most of whom seemed to be vocal Tea Party enthusiasts. I put in a few contrary words and after a while the Congressman retreated to his inner office to deal with constituents one at a time. Six or eight of the tea baggers were gathered in the parking lot, so I went over to engage them. They were mostly elderly, and like me, eligible for Medicare. One who wasn't was covered by a State subsidized insurance pool. None of them admitted voting for the Congressman. I wondered why they thought it was fai

Of Marginal Utility

I used to read Marginal Revolution in the hope of learning a bit of economics. That doesn't seem to be happening, but I do get an occasional glimpse into a rather strange mind. Consider Tyler Cowen's post on the liquidity trap , a concept I'm pretty sure he doesn't believe in. Here's another simple thought experiment. Let's say that, for reasons of technology, currency disappeared. All transactions would be made with POS or cell phones, backed by interest-bearing assets, in one form or another. You might think that's unlikely today but it's at least possible in the future. In any case, it's a thought experiment. Economists of the Chicago faith seem to disbelieve in the reality of money. It presents certain problems for their neat mathematical models. I'm guessing that this is Cowen's attempt to banish it. More Keynesian views, I gather, think that depressions happen when there is a flight to liquidity, and people decide that they would rathe

Dark Town

So two darkons* go into the CDMS - or at least that's what some scientists think they have seen. Two event "candidates" is a pretty weak signal - there is an expectation of 23% that they could be background events disguised as dark matter. Still, that's two more than anybody had seen before. *Dark Matter particles - or at least events that look like we should expect dark matter particles to look like. If so, they are the first really new particle physics discoveries in decades.


Somebody recently said that any reasonable theoretical physicist ought to have a good understanding of quantum field theory. No sooner does he say it and it saunters up to his doorstep and kicks his screen in. Turbulence is the great unsolved problem of classical mechanics. Versions of the following apocryphal story are attributed to Heisenberg, Lamb, and other major figures in fluid mechanics: "when I die, I'm going to ask the Lord to explain two things. Quantum electrodynamics, and turbulence. I expect he will be able to answer the first. Because turbulence depends exquistely on initial conditions and displays highly random characteristics, we want a statistical theory of turbulence. Unfortunately, when we write down statistical version of the equations of fluid dynamics, we find that the equations for the various statistical quantities are not closed. Each order of correlation depends on higher orders of correlation. One of the few important constraints we have on the stati

QFT: Zee

Any good theoretical physicist needs to have a deep understanding of quantum field theory(QFT). It's not a sufficient condition, of course, but it is pretty close to being absolutely necessary. Knowledge of that fact is probably why I have some dozens of books on quantum field theory. Transfer of information from the printed page is not automatic, of course, which is why I have a distinctly shallow* understanding of QFT. Tony Zee is a guy with a deep understanding of QFT, and he has written a somewhat unconventional but widely praised book on quantum field theory: Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell . I mention this because Peter Woit has pointed out that Zee is coming out with a new edition . Looking over the promo page at PUP, I was surprised to see my old school among the major universities that had adopted the first edition as a textbook - not surprised that they had adopted the book but that they were a "major" university. In my day, the old school was notable m

A View of Our Opponents

Paul Krugman notes : Ah, civility Hoisted from comments on my eulogy for Paul Samuelson: Samuelson was just another Eichmann. He is responsible for propagating a destructive economic dogma. The scary thing is that there probably are a number of people in this country who believe that advocating Keynesian economics is a crime comparable to being complicit in mass murder. Yet another example of how wacko the American right has become. These people have adopted all the worst intellectual and political qualities of fanatical religions and totalitarian politics. Reason is quite powerless with such.

Alex Tabarrok is Not An ****** Reporter

Alex Tabarrok reports: John Tierney relays today what seems like a very sensible idea from economist Ross McKitrick, tie a carbon tax to the temperature. If the temperature rises the tax goes up, if the temperature does not rise (as McKitrick, a climate change skeptic thinks) the tax will stay at a low level. Temperature of the troposphere would be measured by satellite at the equator and averaged over a period of time. After claiming that everyone ought to agree, he predicts that those concerned about anthropogenic global warming won't. After the comments accumulate he comes back with: Addendum: As predicted most of the objections (in the comments) are from climate change proponents. In essence, they argue that the problem is so serious that we must act before the evidence is in. . . I read every critical comment to that point (and made some) and that is not an honest reporting of the objections posted. The most frequent objections were that (a)Because climate lags CO2 waiti

Politics and Religion

Arun has a couple of recent posts on the theme that Western political thought and social science are manifestations (or at least echos of) the Christian religion. I would just like to remind him that Christianity, like all the other popular religions, was invented in Asia.

Old Battles

Reading about William Seward in 1840, I am struck by how modern his progressive views still seem and how familiar looking the battles of 160 years ago still are. As governor of New York he campaigned for better treatment of immigrants (Germans and Irish in those days), better public schools, against imprisonement for debt, and against slavery and for Negro rights. His enemies look familiar too: Southern slavery advocates, anti-immigrant nativists, and protestants who thought only their religion had rights. I can't imagine any modern politician doing what he did though; representing an insane black defendant who had murdered a local family in court while his whole town screamed for a lynching. I also find it interesting that the modern Republican party now stands for almost everything this founding father despised: racism, nativism, and religious prejudice. He probably would have been bothered more by their contempt for logic and truth, though.

Central Economic Planning

Is wise central planning a substitute for the chaos of the marketplace? The twentieth century saw a multitude of experiments, and a multitude of colossal failures. It's mostly remembered how spectacularly those socialist and communist experiments failed in providing economic growth and a better standard of living for the people, but it's sometimes forgotten that they weren't total failures. In particular, those economies seem at least moderately effective for focussing on a single overriding goal, like military power. Toward the end of the twentieth century, new models of the centrally planned economy emerged in Asia. These were based on some variation of state capitalism - a fundamentally capitalist system for the organization of production, but with a heavy dose of direction and management by the state. The modern state has an extensive set of tools for guiding and directing the work of businesses even when it isn't directly managing the economy. It ought to bothe

Worst Case Scenarios

As the brighter - using the term loosely - members of the denialist crowd like to point out, global warming is not exactly unprecedented. Our current athropogenic warming episode has many natural antecedents. So how bad is it likely to get? The worst imaginable AGW crisis would be for the warming to trigger a Venusian style runaway greenhouse and exterminate all life on Earth. That will eventually happen as the Sun continues to warm up, but it seems extremely improbable in the short run. Some of the natural global warmings of the past have triggered, or at any rate, coincided with, major extinctions, however, including one which wiped out essentially all large animals. That one, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, is the scariest precedent. In the PETM, some event seems to have led to a fairly rapid build up of carbon dioxide and a global warming by about 6 C (11 F) - perhaps a bit more than the most likely maximum increase from our current CO2 releases. The Earth rem

Fat Boy in the Donut Shop

As usually happens on these ritual occasions, the press has produced a number of psychological analyses of Mr. Wood's behavior. It's pretty simple, really. They let the fat kid into the donut shop and left him unsupervised. Personally, I like the analogy on a number of levels.

Tax vs. Cap

Recent days have seen some low intensity warfare among those who are trying to enact some measures to control global warming. In each case, the idea is to control carbon emissions. One way to do this would be by enacting carbon taxes, with the idea of making emissions so expensive that people could not afford them. The so-called cap and trade system instead is based on the idea of providing a limited supply of emission permits that would be sold (traded) to the highest bidders. The tax idea has been pushed strongly by James Hansen and tends to be favored by lefty types like the authors of this show linked by commenter Cynthia: Cap and trade is a favorite of economists. I am trying here to assemble some of the pros and cons of each side, though I think it will become clear which idea I find more likely to succeed. Pro Tax : The carbon tax avoids the complications of setting up markets and the risks that speculators would game those markets, create b

We're In The Dark

About the dark stuff. News Next Week? Dark rumors swirl: and here: and here Peter Woit slightly dampens the flames: Jester seems to be the source: If real, this is big. It probably isn't.

Two Boobs and a Blond

Gretchen Carlson is the blond in one of the Fox News Two Boobs and a Blond shows. Her job on the the alleged news show is being stupid - she has to look up the meaning of "czar", "ignoramus*" (and still gets it wrong), and "double dip" - even though she has them sitting on either side of her. Meanwhile the boobs put up and commented on a typical Fox News Rasstymussen poll with 120% participation. Remember how the smart girls in high school played dumb so they could date the football players? It seems GC's lot in life is still to play this roll. The gang at The Daily Show tracked down her resume. It seems that she was high school valedictorian - think she had to look that one up -, graduated with honors from Stanford and studied at Oxford, and played a difficult classical violin piece for her talent when winning the Miss America contest. It didn't mention any lobotomies. How humiliating has that got to be, pretending to be dumber than the two

Gaga at the Gogo

Popular art is always a challenge for the professional intellectual. Even if they like it, they might be afraid to admit it. If they don't they may catch Seth Colter Wall's disease and write a pretentious and fatuous article like this one in Newsweek. French intellectual Claude Lévi-Strauss died at the age of 100 last month, before he could comment on the latest single from Lady Gaga. If you think this an absurd notion, note that Lévi-Strauss's major project—discovering the common aspects of myths from different eras and continents—has influenced many pop scholars, including Greil Marcus. In our American Idol-ized culture, few myths loom larger than pop fame, which is why the philosopher and anthropologist might have had something to say about Top 40's self-professed conceptual artist of the moment. In a way, he still does. ...The problem with Gaga is that she refuses to add any concrete value, while also wanting us to think she has something to say... ...Gaga may wan

Skepticism and Denial

Skepticism is not only normal human behavior, its also crucial for science and any sort of analytical thinking. Given that, it's probably unsurprising that normal skepticism sometimes turn into cranky denial of that which has been well demonstrated. For a scientist, Feynman said, the most important thing to be skeptical about is your own theories. That's the step that so few of the hard core denialists can manage. Their skepticism is just another manifestation of their blind faith. There is a continuum for denial, from total wacko to slightly overenthusiastic skeptic. There really are some who claim to believe the Earth is flat. In the US, a huge percentage of the population doubts evolution. There still are a few scientists who doubt relativity and a lot who find conventional quantum mechanics unacceptable. At bottom, denial is usually the manifestation of unwillingness to doubt our own prejudices. For such people, evidence is almost beside the point. Does Darwin cast

Tyger, Tyger, Burning a Bit Less Bright

Why is our malicious pleasure in the discomforture of the fallen idol so delicious? I suspect a few factors are at work. Human societies offer many chances for people to take advantage of others, and we've managed to move beyond the war of all against all mainly by depending on some rules intended to maintain a rough justice and equality. Some of these rules are written and some are un, but they can only work to the extent that transgressors are punished. We have a powerful instinct to punish those who cheat and take advantage, whether they are Wall Street bankers or welfare cheats. To a first approximation, Tiger's "transgressions" as he styles them, would seem only to affect his family, so why are we so eager to join the offended? Part of it is envy. This SOB has everything: looks, talent, money, and a beautiful family and he still can't keep from being a greedy asshole. Part of it is anger at his hypocrisy: he sells himself as Mr. squeaky clean and protects his

Miky and the Rabbi

As a native, I have a soft spot for Montana stories, but this one cracked me up: Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana. In Montana, a rabbi is an unusual sight. So when a Hasidic one walked into the State Capitol last December, with his long beard, black hat and long black coat, a police officer grabbed his bomb-sniffing German shepherd and went to ask the exotic visitor a few questions.

Troglodytic Cinderfellas

If this story is on the level, these guys not only improve their financials but are in line for a kick-ass reality show.

Gossip Boy

Jack Shafer takes a crack at explaining why gossip about Tiger is so popular. It isn't surprising that gossip is popular. Anthropological studies suggest that gossip is one of the most popular activities in every culture. Studying each other is a major survival skill in the small hunting band, giant corporation, or English department. It's pretty depressing though, that that's the only thing television news seems able to figure out how to cover.

Another Stupidity

From a usually smart guy . Remember too that when you have a progressive tax system, especially when there are surcharges on people making seven-figure incomes, you also have a system where for any given level of national income, the greater the inequality, the greater the government’s tax revenues. And indeed federal revenues have been rising faster than median wages for decades now, thanks to the rich getting ever richer. Given the government’s insatiable appetite for cash, it’s only natural that it would prefer to tax plutocrats, spending some of that money on poorer Americans, rather than move to a world where poorer Americans earn more (but still don’t pay that much in taxes), and the plutocrats earn less, depriving the national fisc of untold billions in revenue. This idea is so dumb that it succumbs to the most casual applications of logic or history. Progressive taxes are not good for plutocrats, which is why they always fight them, and why they got poorer when we had them, an

The Madness of Crowds

Tyler Cowen post a thoroughly uninteresting note of climate science , and hordes of denialists descend on his comment thread like flies on ****. It's tedious enough to drive a climate scientist (and me, for that matter) nuts. The same old half-baked objections, misunderstandings, and lies ( "CRU "cleaned" the data and has never revealed its methods. Would you ever release a paper without revealing your methods? This was known before, but now there are emails talking about "hiding" data and "tricks" to manipulate the data. If you trust their methods now, you would have to be crazy. " - a casual glance at Ar4 refutes that one). All of them refuted again and again. The only thing I learned from the comments was what an absurdity RP jr. is. He feigned outrage at the scandal of climate data sets not being "independent" because, gosh, they almost all used the same global weather station data!

Obama's Strategy

The pivot of Obama's strategy is Pakistan. Only if Pakistan can summon both the will and the capability to defeat al Quaeda and its own Taliban can Obama achieve success. It won't be easy, but Obama at least understands the problem.

Millions and Millions

The thirty thousand additional soldiers being sent to Afghanistan will cost about one million dollars per year per soldier. For the cost of one soldier, you could probably hire 1000 Afghans.

Afghanistan Reaction

For the moment I'm outsourcing my reactions to Andrew Sullivan . He has a string of thoughtful reactions in the link and previous posts.

Through a Glass, Darkly

Paul Krugman has a vision of the future, and it's not exactly a rosy one. ...economic half-measures have landed the Obama administration in a trap: much of the political establishment now sees stimulus as having been discredited by events, so that it’s very hard to come back and scale the policy up to where it should have been in the first place. Also, with the apocalypse on hold, the deficit scolds have come back into their own, decrying any policy that actually involves spending money. The result, then, will be high unemployment leading into the 2010 elections, and corresponding Democratic losses. These losses will be worse because Obama, by pursuing a uniformly pro-banker policy without even a gesture to popular anger over the bailouts, has ceded populist energy to the right and demoralized the movement that brought him to power. Krugman is a pessimist, and I tend to like that in a practitioner of the Dismal Science. You need some kind of counter-balance to the hucksters and c

Beastly Genius

Well my respect for MacArthur genius award winners just took a big hit. Tina Brown's Daily Beast claims to have gotten some people they thought were smart - who seemed to be mostly academic politicians and media celebrities - to nominate 100 plus people for the category of smartest of the decade. Next they found 40 MacA awardees who had nothing better to do than read their resumes and rank them, resulting in a list of the 25 supposedly smartest people of the decade. I think you can get an idea of the flavor of the result from the first five names you encounter on the list: Roger Ailes, David Chase, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Michael Bloomberg, and Karl Rove. Four terrorists and a rich guy. The list is bottom up, Letterman style, but it doesn't get much better. There are a few people on the list I consider fairly smart, like Jobs and Chu, and others who have had at least one really good idea, like Brin, Page, and Bezos - all of whom had their good idea in the previous decade, btw

Afghanistan: Uh Oh

Andrew Sullivan doesn't like what he thinks he is going to hear from Obama on Afghanistan. So instead of staying in neo-colonial occupation against an insurgency that now feeds off US intervention with no real strategy, we will stay in neo-colonial occupation against an insurgency that now feeds off US intervention with lots of super-smart defenses of the indefensible. Great.

CRU: Sorry Cassandra

Climate scientists have gotten a good dose of the Cassandra syndrome lately. Cassandra , you may recall, was the Trojan seer who saw through the subterfuge of Odysseus and warned her city against the tricky Greeks. Her curse was to see the truth but not be believed. So lately it has been with those warning of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). A well-financed and politically connected group of professional doubters, liars and ideologically motivated crackpots have taken advantage of the public's short attention span and an apparent slowdown in the recent pace of warming to persuade much of the population that AGW isn't worth worrying about. A couple self-inflicted wounds by AGW Cassandras haven't helped either. First, Al Gore turns out to be pretty darn confused about basic geology and physics. Now, the CRU at the University of East Anglia lets a bunch of emails get hacked and is very slow-footed in responding. What I have seen, mainly in the denialosphere, is hardly

Mac(ro) Daddies

Brad DeLong wonders, perhaps rhetorically, Why Are Good Macro Policies Political Losers? Brad argues that the bailout and the stimulus prevented much worse things from happening, and wonders: So we have a big puzzle: Just what is going on in America? Good policies that are working to boost production and employment without causing inflation ought to be politically popular, right? Brad conjures up some possible reasons - an incompetent press, Chicago crackpottery, and the systematic dishonesty of the Republican party, but he somehow misses the giant beam in his own eye: employment and production have not been "boosted." Employment has continued to decline. Desperate people aren't interested in theoretical economics, they want results. It's easy to be complacent if you have a nice sinecure, but not so easy if you are the one losing job, home, or business. DeLong's dismissal of the bonuses paid to the criminals who engineered the disaster as "a rounding err

To Jail

Tyler Cowen notes the irony in the fact that Dubai, which is currently shaking world financial markets because of its inability to pay its debts, imprisons debtors. With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills). Some are said to have maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield. Kinda makes one nostalgic for the good old days when a non-performing sovereign debtor would be disciplined by pulling up a few men-o-war to shell the capital city.

Abstract Art

I had missed Bee's beautiful post on causal diagrams . Highly recommended. A quote from the introduction: I once witnessed a physicist explain the universe to an artist. The artist had approached the physicist to learn how to understand extra dimensions, a concept, so he explained, that would undoubtedly enhance the depth of his artwork, and be of great inspirational value for his quest to capture the contextuality of essence. Or maybe essence of contextuality. Or something like that. Either way, the physicist took a piece of chalk and drew a line on the blackboard. "That is our universe," he said... The science part is even better.

Memory: Up is Down

George W Bush and his minions spent the first eight months of his Presidency mocking and ignoring urgent warnings of an imminent terrorist threat. When the most devastating terrorist attack in American or World history occurred, they used the occasion not to kill or capture the perpetrators, but to pursue another foreign war. The family of the ringleader was hustled out of the country in private jets, and the President continued to kiss up to the country that financed the attacks. In a feat of historical revision worthy of 1984 or at least Joseph Stalin, it seems that memory of these events has now completely disappeared from the Republican mind. Josh Marshall's TPM catches Bush Spokesgirl Dana Perino claiming that no terrorist attacks on the United States occurred during W's term of office. Naturally the Faux News interviewer agreed. video In the up is down world of Republican politics, this is not an exception. I have heard the same absurd claim made on television by a

Jews and Palestinians

American Jews who go to Israel frequently get what I call the "propaganda tour" - a highly fictionalized account of the origin and construction of the Jewish state. In this version, Zionists came to an unpopulated land, turned it green with native ingenuity, and thereby attracted a nuisance crowd of Arabs eager to catch the crumbs that fell from their tables. The real story of how land and water was acquired from Palestinian farmers, sometimes by purchase, sometimes by the familiar connivance's of European political economy, and sometimes by force and fear gets lost. The final struggle, where the Palestinians were utterly defeated in war and slaughtered and expelled from their lands is told as an epic with heroes on only one side. Americans have seen this western, of course. We acquired our own land by a longer, more brutal, and far more drastic genocide. The story itself is at least as old as civilization. In our modern scientific age we like to try to peer beneath the l

Number of the Beast?

Counting is one of those skills that was long thought to be uniquely human, though ravens are now reputed to be able to count to seven. It seems that this avian skill is eclipsed by that of some of the truly anciently civilized, though. It seems that in addition to celestial navigation, certain Saharan ants have mastered a specialized form of counting. NPR's Robert Krulwich has the story, a cartoon video, and a picture of an ant on stilts!


Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. In the interim, evidence for Darwin's theory has become overwhelming, but there has been little evidence of the human race evolving intelligence. Some of the evidence can be found here and here and almost any place else that news is published. The empire of the ignorami marches on.


The continuing dismal employment numbers are finally getting political attention. George Will advocated the Republican solution on ABC's Sunday morning yak today: cut unemployment benefits. My guess is that Democrats may lack enthusiasm for that idea. I personally like the idea of a new version of the WPA , with a pre-1940 style emphasis on jobs training. From the cited Wikipedia article: Until ended by Congress and war employment during 1943, the WPA was the largest employer in the country. Most people who needed a job were eligible for at least some of its jobs.[3] Hourly wages were the prevailing wages in each area; the rules said workers could not work more than 30 hours a week, but many projects included months in the field, with workers eating and sleeping on worksites. Before 1940, there was some training involved to teach new skills and the project's original legislation had a strong emphasis on training. This would be anathema to conservatives, of course, but there wou

Gravity X 3

Newton's theory of gravity is a darn good theory. If you want to calculate the trajectory of a projectile or the orbital path of an interplanetary vehicle, Newton's your man. Ditto if you want to calculate the pressure at the center of the Sun. Of course your answers might be ever so slightly off - which is where... Einstein's theory gravity, AKA General Relativity, comes in. It's a bit unwieldy with a whole potfull of nonlinear partial differential equations, but it can fix up those orbits. It can even let you calculate the pressure at the center of a white dwarf or a neutron star. It also tells you how to fix up your clock times in the presence of strong gravitational fields. What it can't do is tell you what's happening at super strong fields at the Planck length, or at the center of a black hole. Really good theories make nice testable predictions, usually with important practical consequences, like keeping your GPS satellites synchronized. String Th

Free Trade

Steven Landsburg, having recently dissed Paul Krugman, tries to do a little penance by praising this essay Krugman wrote [some time ago] in defense of Ricardo and free trade. Landsburg thinks the issue in question can be deduced from pure logic: Take, for example his essay on the widespread failure of intellectuals to grasp Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage (the basis of the case for free trade). Instead of simply bemoaning the problem like the rest of us, Krugman makes a valiant and useful attempt to identify its root causes. He starts with an analogy I’m also fond of (I’m not sure which of us has been using it longer): The theory of comparative advantage is like the theory of evolution by natural selection—to those who understand it, it is simple and compelling; yet non-experts can find it remarkably difficult to grasp. In The Big Questions, I argue that this analogy ultimately breaks down: The theory of evolution is compelling largely because of the evidence that supports

Global Warming Indeed!

The Lumonator catches Al Gore displaying a curious misunderstanding of geothermal and geological fact. I guess there are some subjects not covered in a Harvard education. Being even older than Gore, and well into semi-senility myself, I tend to be rather more forgiving of some kinds of brain farts, but this is a bit extreme for a guy who spends his life flacking this stuff. Unfortunately, there do seem to be a lot of people running the country who don't really differentiate among "thousand", "million," "billion," and "trillion." Speaking of differentiation, I would support a constitutional amendment restricting national political office to those who can pass a fairly rigorous calculus test - say AP Calculus at the 4 level.


I caught an episode of the PBS series "Becoming Human" the other day. The subject was Homo erectus, our ancestors who lived for a couple of million years from roughly 2 million BC to 50,000 BC. The transition from earlier ancestors to H erectus involved a major change in size, locomotion, brain size, and diet. The larger brains required more nutrition and a longer childhood for the brain to grow outside the womb. The extended childhood almost certainly involved the development the characteristically human trait of empathy. Empathy, the ability identify mental and emotional states of others, is a very fundamental human trait that provides much of the glue that holds society together, but its also a trait that seems to be largely absent in a fair number of people. Sufferers with autism, and various disorders of the autism spectrum are prominent examples. This is an extremely severe social handicap, but some, at least, of the afflicted nonetheless lead productive, creative, a

A Diversified Evolutionary Portfolio

Yet about a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry the variant that Bakermans-Kranenburg studied, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Why should such apparently disadvantageous traits be preserved in evolution? David Dobbs, writing in The Atlantic says that new work, and new hypotheses, explain the apparent paradox. The key point is that genes that are unfavorable in some situations may be very favorable in others. Children who seem to thrive under any conditions are thought of as "dandelions," while those requiring specially favorable circumstances are "orchids." Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio


The 1930's and 1940's, with depression sandwiched between war, rumor of war, and war again, were fertile ground for dystopic visions. The rise of sinister incarnations in Communism and Facism provided a collectivist theme for those visions. Ayn Rand's Anthem had the same collectivist inspired theme as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984 , and a publication date between them, but can't otherwise bear comparison to Huxley's richly prophetic vision or Orwell's nightmare masterpiece. Anthem is a slight fairy tale, set in a grey future where the ultimate villain is the first person plural pronoun. Where technology has been set to sinister purpose in 1984 and become relentlessly dehumanizing in BNW , in Anthem it has nearly disappeared. Not to worry though: the hero, working alone (in an abandoned sewer) in his spare time, outdoes those ubiquitous local housewifes of the internet ad who earn a fortune with their computers. In a few short

Harder Than String Theory

From Peter Woit at NEW , Ed Witten tackles a topic harder than string theory.

No Way Back

Lubos takes on the second law, once again. Suppose we have a current state which we identify with an ensemble of compatible physical systems [UPDATE: Lubos points out that the usual term is macroscopically indistinguishable microstates - I had forgotten that]. If we evolve that ensemble of states forward in time, entropy increases for all but a tiny fraction of the systems making up the ensemble. What if we use the time symmetric laws of physics to evolve that same ensemble backwards, in the opposite time direction? Once again, entropy increases for most of the systems of the ensemble. Lumo's paradoxical sounding explanation: that other way isn't really backwards in time, it's forward too! This was a major brain warp for me, so I had to try rephrasing it. My version: representing a system by an ensemble of compatible states and identifying the future state of the system with the typical evolution of states in the ensemble is a good way to predict the future but a lousy wa


Paul Krugman is confused by the right's choice of epithets. He wonders why the wingnuts don't call him a commie any more . A curious fact — one that I can attest to based on my own inbox, and is also borne out by more general observation — is that “Nazi” is the preferred term of abuse from today’s right wing. We get signs saying “Obama=Hitler”, not Obama=Stalin. I get mail calling me a “dirty Nazi scumbag”, not a Commie or pinko. What’s going on? It really doesn’t fit, as far as I can tell — and bear in mind the long-running love affair of the National Review with Francisco Franco. You’d really think critics of Comrade President Obama would prefer the Soviet comparison. There are many other bizarre aspects to modern right wing epithets. What's up with calling Obama a "racist?" Don't they grasp how preposterous, absurd, and stupid it is to compare health insurance to Dachau? And why is Glenn Beck wearing an SS uniform on the cover of his new book? I have a cer


As a Vietnam era draftee who eventually became pretty anti to the Vietnam war, I reserve a special scorn for the chickenhawks - the draftdodgers and draft avoiders who cheered the war from the safety of their own deferments. One of the scandals of Vietnam was the way deferments were handed out like Halloween candy to the priviledged and connected. Jack Kemp, later a Republican Congressman and Vice Presidential nominee, was too crippled to be drafted but not too crippled to play eight more years in the NFL. This list of the deferred seems to include every Neocon nutbag and Republican: Abrams, Alito, Allard, Ashcroft, Bauer, Bennett, Bloomberg, Blunt and don't get me started on Bush. And that's just some of the A's and B's. Of course Cheney, Delay, Frist, Will and a swarm of others are on the list too. There are Democrats too, like Al Gore - though he enlisted and served in Vietnam, and Bill Bradley. In World War II the privileged mostly served and sometimes died wi

John Galt Has Been Located

It seems that he turns out to be a Hmong tribesman , living somewhere in Upland Southeast Asia. From a review by Tyler Cowen: The subtitle is An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia and the author is James C. Scott of Yale University. Here is a summary from the Preface: ...I argue that the [Southeast Asian] hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys -- slavery, conscription taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare. Most of the areas in which they reside may be aptly called shatter zones or zones of refuge. I believe that this says most of what I always wanted to say about civilization and its libertarian discontents.


I'm still gagging on the punch line to Tyler Cowen's love letter to Ayn Rand : The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism -- the greatest force for human good ever achieved -- rely on the driving human desire to be excellent. Now it happens that I think that capitalism (or at any rate, a mixed economy with a significant dose of capitalism) is the best economic system for an industrial economy. It did manage to keep chugging on when various variations on socialism ran aground in the twentieth century. How, though, can a not always idiotic guy like Cowen come up with such preposterous load of crap? I think I understand the logic. Capitalism has been the dominant economic system for the past two hundred years. Those two hundred years have seen a vast burst of technological progress and improvement of the standard of living for a large fraction of the people. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is the usual name of this logical fa

The Obligatory We

Compulsory labor conscription is now practiced or advocated in every country on Earth..............Ayn Rand And, I would add, in every civilization that ever existed. I, at any rate, can't think of any obvious exceptions. There were pretty dramatic differences in scale and scope, to be sure. A couple of fundamental circumstances constrain the nature and character of human interactions: the struggle for existence, and the need for cooperation. Every mammal is dependent for some period of infancy, but many live almost totally independently for much of their lives. Humans aren't like that. We are obligatory social animals, and lone individuals can't compete against a band or tribe. Once men adopted agriculture, higher forms of society developed and with them came obligatory cooperation, with societies unwilling to adopt such being killed out by those that did. Such enforced cooperation doesn't sit well with human nature, so it was almost always limited in scope. The dystop


The Fort Hood killer seems to have had time bomb printed on his forehead. What were his superiors thinking? I wonder what the heck his OER looked like.

Once More Into The Breach

Prompted by a new paper by Brian Greene et. al., Lumo once more takes on the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its implications for the early universe. The whole long dicussion is quite fascinating, not least because it looks to me like Lubos is struggling not only against Greene but with his own uncertainties - acting, that is, exactly like a good physicist ought to. Here is the part that got my attention. First Greene et al. The status of [Boltzmann's H-theorem] is less settled than often claimed, because it requires the so-called 'molecular chaos' assumption, doubts about whose applicability have not been firmly laid to rest. This is precisely where my own doubts arise, but Lubos has an answer. Once again, the argument looks pretty good - until I back off and start wondering if it's not just begging the question. In the traditional sense of assuming that which is to be proven. It seems OK in a hand wavy kind of way, but I sure wish he could show a logical proof,