Showing posts from May, 2009

Seldon is Heard

I was a big science fiction fan in my youth, and one of its gods in those days was Isaac Asimov, author of I Robot , the Foundation series, and roughly a million other books. The hero of Foundation , if I can remember half a century later, was Hari Seldon, pschohistorian. Psychohistory, Seldon's new science, used mathematics to predict the evolution of an interstellar civilization over a millenium. It was supposed to be a statistical science, sort of a statistical mechanics for social science. I always considered it a crock - something of a blot on Asimov's reputation. This was before Lorentz and Mandlebrot, but I had read a little Poincare, and either influenced by that, or by a natural aversion to implausible extrapolation, I was pretty sure that the evolution of societies would exhibit sensitive dependence on initial conditions, especially those initial conditions that weren't yet known - like laws of physics yet to be discovered. Others, it seems, hold a different

Bomb, Bomb, Bomb...

Israel is still pitching the absurd notion that other Muslim countries would support an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. And still trying to mousetrap us into another one of its wars. North Korea's latest test shows how difficult it is going to be to keep that nuclear genii partially in its bottle. Impossible would be closer. W made it clear that no nation without nukes has any security against superpower invasion. I expect that a few countries will join the nuclear club over the next half dozen years. Can the hands of Iran or North Korea be pried off the nuclear trigger at this point? I doubt it. If so, only an iron clad security guarantee is likely to do the trick, including, for Iran, some sort of control on Israel's capabilities. So why do Iran/Korea want nukes asks the moron chorus? Duh! Why do the US, Israel, China, etc want them? Why do yahoos in Texas and Congress want the right to carry guns in National parks? If it's crazy, it's univer

Robo Doom

I just caught P. W. Singer talking robots to a group at West Point on CNN. The robots are no longer coming, of course, they are already here. In most cases there is still a person in the loop, a person who has to actually pull the trigger, but that's changing too. Robot autonomy is coming fast. At present, the US and its close allies control most of the world's war robots, but that is unlikely to continue. Many countries have the skills needed to make such robots, and many will find it advisable to have some. One area of opportunity is the fighter jet. American military power today depends heavily on total air superiority, but that military superiority resides in fighter jets that cost $100 million plus each. Even our future robot fighter jet is planned to cost $80 million each. It will be vary capable, I'm sure, but how will it fare against hordes of robot planes that cost $1 million or less each? It's not just science fiction movies that worry about the bots

Star Dreck

Take a few bits of Star Wars, standard hospital dramas, a dash of Heinlein from Starship Troopers (book, not movie), and of course all the old Star Trek, run it through the Lame-o-tron, and you get the new Star Trek. So am I being too cranky? The Enterprise seems to have grown in size by a factor of 1000 or so, now takes a crew like an aircraft carrier, and has a new interior patterned after the Pompidou. Oh well. It was occasionally amusing, never gripping, and often annoying, especially the crappily filmed fight scenes, of which there were about ninety. Not explained was why ... never mind... nobody likes spoilers even if the plot makes no sense.


California has a fabulous climate, fabulous agricultural productivity, a great coastline, and a gdp that most countries could envy. So why is it on the brink of bankruptcy? Greed, Lies and Republicanism. Before the Republicans sold the country on the idea that you could just cut taxes and borrow the money, they sold California. Paul Krugman takes a look in his NYT column: The seeds of California’s current crisis were planted more than 30 years ago, when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, a ballot measure that placed the state’s budget in a straitjacket. Property tax rates were capped, and homeowners were shielded from increases in their tax assessments even as the value of their homes rose. The result was a tax system that is both inequitable and unstable. It’s inequitable because older homeowners often pay far less property tax than their younger neighbors. It’s unstable because limits on property taxation have forced California to rely more heavily than other states on in

Loyal to a Fault

Israel is debating Foreign Minister and party chairman Avigdor Lieberman's proposed loyalty oath. This will require everyone in Israel to take an oath affirming: I commit to being loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic and Zionist state, to its symbols and values and to serve the country as needed through military service or an alternative service, as decided by law Abe Foxman of the ADL seems to think that it is a good idea . Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, noted with concern the trips by Arab Israeli Knesset members to enemy states and expressions of solidarity with Hamas by Israeli Arabs during Israel’s recent military operation in the Gaza Strip. “There were a lot of people who said, 'Hey, that's disloyal,' ” Foxman told JTA. “That's what he's talking about. He's not saying expel them. He's not saying punish them.” Lieberman, 50, has proposed requiring a loyalty oath as a condition of Israeli citizenship. Those who ref


As an NBA playoffs fan, I have now seen about 10^7 iterations of the Dos Equis "most interesting man" ad. Oddly enough, I have never had a clue as to what was supposed to be interesting about him. From Seth Stevenson in Slate I learn that this was because I never connected whatever the hell was supposed to be interesting about him (some footage of the usual adventures - I guess) with the doltish sounding senior citizen dispensing dumb advice ("stay thirsty, my friends") in some bar. Let me see if I can decode the message here: (a)drink Dos Equis and you will still be thirsty? or (b)stay thirsty, and don't drink anything?


I guess it's time to unban Lubos - or would be if he actually had been banned. I'm not sure if I actually banned him or not, but in any case, he is too clever and too experienced in being banned to be hindered much by my shallow banning power. Consider yourself welcome to the hospitality of the site, Lumo.


Some time ago, never mind how long precisely, Jared Diamond published a long meditation on revenge and the thirst for it in the New Yorker. (The story has since been taken off their site). Since I no longer have access to the story, some of the following will be based on my highly fallible memory, but as I recall it, there were only two featured characters. The principal one was Daniel Wemp, a native of Papua New Guinea. In Diamond's account Wemp told a tale of war and revenge, and of his great satisfaction in crippling an uncle who had organized a fight that killed another favored uncle. Diamond's own uncle, by contrast had a lifetime of bitter regret about failing to murder a man he believed murdered some of his relatives. Diamond draws far reaching conclusions about the nature of revenge and its role in human affairs from these two stories, and they made a big impression on me when I read them. It seems, however, that much of Diamond's story is not true. Daniel We

Posner on Inflation

Richard Posner, usually an unlikely candidate for my quotables list, has some sensible things to say about inflation: I need to be more precise about inflation, and in particular to avoid an implication that zero inflation is the summum bonum that the government should be striving to achieve. The whole article is short and clear, and I recommend it, but the key points are that inflation can be bad, but deflation is worse. Some inflation can be a potent stimulator when you are in a depression. Inflation penalizes savers, but rewards debtors. Large scale inflation is highly destructive to economic planning and tends to kill the lending that fuels economic growth, but deflation encourages everybody to put their money under their matresses. One point that he doesn't make: inflation, deflation, and control of the money supply in general tends to transfer wealth from one group to another. Deflationary policies like those run in parts of the nineteenth century tend to transfer money f


Arun likes Terence Tao's post on whether maths requires genius . Terence Tao is a mathematics genius, but here are his thoughts on Does one have to be a genius to do maths? The brief answer is - No! Personally, I feel that the huge quantities of energy that a lot of people spend in wondering where they and their colleagues stand in the genius and intelligence pecking order would be better spent elsewhere. Terence Tao is a Field's Medal certified genius as well as a talented writer great at explaining advanced math in simple terms, but is he really the guy to know the answer here? Tao taught himself arithmetic at age 2, scored a 760 on the math SAT at age 8, went to the International Math Olympiad at 10, scored a gold medal there at 13, and became a full professor at UCLA at 24. It's a bit like Lebron James telling us fantastic physical characteristics aren't needed for basketball in the NBA. Right, but I would believe it more if I heard it from somebody half a foot sh

Execute This!

Warm and fuzzy they aren't. Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies. David Brooks looks at a study of successful CEOs and finds that people skills, empathy, and other liberal arts values were beside the point. What mattered, oddly enough, was ability to execute. Who 'da thunk it? What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours OK, so that explains why I am not a CEO - not that my people skills are so hot either. Actually, though, it matches well with my experience with good executives at every level. Adam Smith, IIRC, referred to non-owner CEOs as "senior clerks." It's still a good description of the job, and unsurprising that those

Religion -- and Multi-cellularity

Multi-cellularity must have started as a sort of mutually beneficial alliance of cells against the wider world. Religion has some parallels. In both cases, though, once created, the multi-cellular organism takes on an identity and self-preserving purpose of its own. The Palestinians represent a case in point. Once it became clear that Muslim solidarity would not save them from the invading Israelis, the best strategy for the Palestinians would probably have been to covert to Christianity and appeal to the Christian world for rescue. That strategy might have succeeded - or not, since at that point the dissed Muslim world would probably have allied with the Israelis against them. Any crack-brained theories like that above ought to be subjected to more detailed examination. A case like that of the Sinhalese - Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka might be a good test. There, religion, language and ethnicity all intertwined in an intricate and only partially known history to produce one of the


A non-scientist asked me: "What are these problem sets physics students are always talking about?" After a long-winded and feeble attempt to explain why these become the center of the physics student's existence and a kind of Sysiphean hell, I figured out how to get to the point: "They are a longer and harder version of the math problems elementary school students solve for homework." Which hardly explains why physics students need to devote ten thousand or so hours to them.

Bush Rumsfeld

Yet another example of Bush's stupidity. Taking so long to fire Don Rumsfeld. Only Cheney has done more damage to the United States. Paul Krugman: A Katrina mystery explained One of the many mysteries during the week of Katrina was the absence of military help. I picked up on this in the column I wrote during that time: Even military resources in the right place weren’t ordered into action. “On Wednesday,” said an editorial in The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., “reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!” One thing I remember about that time was the smear campaign carried out against anyone who suggested that the federal effort was inadequate. In particular, any suggestion that the military wasn’t doing its part was — you guessed it — denounced as an unpatriotic a

History of Sex

Part I: 1,000,000 BC to 1960 AD. Very little of interest happened in this period - mostly just the usual yada, yada, yada. There was one thing - maybe I will get to it later. Part II: 1960 - present. The invention of the contraceptive pill made a convenient and effective method of birth control widely available. This greatly reinforced the feminist revolution and all the other sexual revolutions. Progress toward a pan-sexual paradise was interrupted when it was noticed that sex was still a very effective means of spreading disease - and that the instincts developed over the previous billion years hadn't disappeared either. More importantly, effective control of fertility made it possible, for the first time in human history, to control population increase to Malthusian immizeration by means other than war, disease, and starvation. The jury is still out on whether this will actually happen.


Andrew Sullivan has a headline: Wanted, Conservative Intellectuals. He forgot the "Dead or Alive."

Superluminal Effects

On the rare occassions when I can get an economist to actually admit to the correlation between low fertility and economic growth, they doggedly insist that the growth causes the demographic transition rather than vice versa. Odd that the effect so consistently precedes the cause, however. Clearly, some sort of superluminal propagation of information is required. Or maybe economists don't want to admit the primacy of an effect that by and large doesn't care whether the nation in question is communist or capitalist, democratic or authoritarian. Those things no doubt matter, especially for the people of the country involved, but they don't seem to be primary or perhaps even very important for economic growth.


I delayed seeing this movie because I don't really care for Bill Maher and because I didn't think it would have anything I didn't know. It did though, but the movie was still pretty slow. The primary focus was on all the silly things Christians believe, and of course there are many. Jews also got a look at the nasty old testament murderousness, and they manage to look pretty damn ridiculous as well - especially a couple of orthodox rabbis engaged in producing absurd inventions supposedly skirting some Sabbath proscriptions. Muslims don't get so much of a theological display, but he finds plenty of Muslims willing to lie about, or at least pretend to absurdly interpret, the more intolerant and violent passages of the Koran. Among the non-Christians, only Mormons and Scientologists get a look. In the theatre of the absurd, Mormons trump Christians and Jews, but Scientologists get the prize. Highlights for me were some notably anti-religious sentiments from founding f

Alpha ... Testing

Steve Wolfram's new idea might make a bunch of homework problems obsolete. According to Nicholas Ciarelli, writing in The Daily Beast : Step away from your Google search for a moment and consider the following scenario: What if a search engine, instead of giving you a long list of Web pages, simply computed the answer to whatever question you threw at it? What was the average temperature in Chicago last year? What is the life expectancy of a male, age 40, in New Zealand? If you flip a coin 10 times, what is the probability that four of the flips will come up heads?

The Fake-Cell Strategem

Regular readers, if any, might not be surprised to hear that I have a big mouth - bigger than any senior citizen really ought to have. It happens that I stopped by the auto-teller at the bank, and after collecting my cash, was having a bit of trouble getting my seat belt buckled, etc. I noticed though, that someone was waiting behind me and moved forward a bit just to be polite and tried again with the seat belt. This turned out to be a mistake, since a guy in a giant pickup decided I was still blocking his way. He beeped at me, which did not improve my coordination, and then beeped again. I found a different position to try again, but he again found me in the way of wherever he was planning to go, and beeped some more. I said something impolite to my steering wheel, but forgot that my window was still open, and now I get an ugly stare. Still unbelted, I pulled out onto the roadway and make a turn. He follows and follows again. At this point I go into a grocery story parking lo

Torture Master

Rumsfeld's torture master in Afghanistan, says Andrew Sullivan, reported directly to Stanley McChrystal , Gates and Obama's new commander in Iraq. McChrystal might have some dirt on him from the Pat Tillman affair as well. This does not look good. If Obama can't figure how to put this one back in the box, Petraeus and Gates might find their butts out the door too.

Economic Demography

The most robust trend in economic demography might also be one of the least publicized: rapid economic growth follows when the fertility rate falls below about 2.5. China and India illustrate the point. Go to Gapminder and compare total fertility and per capita gdp through time. In 1950, both had total fertility rates around 6 (with India slightly lower) and both were very poor 418 UX for China, 538 for India inflation adjusted dollars. Sometime during 1978, China caught up and passed India, each country now making about 800 per yr. But China's fertility rate was now 2.8 while India's was 4.6. What happened next was dramatic. China's fertility rate dropped to 1.7 and China grew explosively, sextupling it's gdp per capita to 4959. India's fertility rate dropped too, but much more slowly and only to 2.5, and its gdp grew only half as much, to 2452. These are the biggest guys on the block, but other have similar results. South Korea has grown steadily, but very

Slumdog M

I fnally got around to seeing Slumdog Millionair , and except for the setting, it seemed to be an excellent but fairly conventional romantic melodrama. The big star was India, captured vividly and sometimes horrifyingly. I don't know how real the picture is, but vivid and gripping it is. One gut reaction was that the slums of Bombay/Mumbai seem like a good argument for semi-compulsory population limitation, Chinese style.

Debt Peonage, American Style

One of the standard techniques used by aristocracies to turn themselves into oligarchies is debt peonage. The general idea is to somehow get the lower classes so deeply in debt that they owe their souls to the company store. A big area of success for the American plutocracy is our university system. A generation or so ago, a student could get an education even at a private school for a lot less than the price of a nice house, but no longer. Many students now come out of school with debts so large that they are forced into a kind of peonage for their most productive years - a good deal for American corporations but a bad deal for innovation and entrepreneurship. It seems like a lousy idea to me, and just another way the blankety-blank bankers control the country. Now if you would just stand back out of the way, Mr. Obama, I think we have some torches for them right handy. Europe seems to be quite different, with a university education being free or heavily subsidized. Anybody with

Failure is Not an Option...

It's an outcome, and highly expectable one when a writer tries to be both salacious and politically correct in the same story.

I Faux-bot

Timothy Noah of Slate thinks he knows where all those lunatic Fox News talking heads come from. If he were still alive, Joseph Weizenbaum would know that his worst fears had been realized.


Abby Ellin has seen the new frontier in marriage rights. Yeah, maybe. It seems that it is a type of polygamy. Polygamy seems like kind of an unlikely "new" frontier, but it seems that this kind of polygamy has more multilateral structure: Maine this week became the fifth state, and the fourth in New England, to legalize gay marriage, provoking yet another national debate about same-sex unions. The Lessins' advocacy group, the Maui-based World Polyamory Association, is pushing for the next frontier of less-traditional codified relationships. This community has even come up with a name for what the rest of the world generally would call a committed threesome: the "triad." Unlike open marriages and the swinger days of the 1960s and 1970s, these unions are not about sex with multiple outside partners. Nor are they relationships where one person is involved with two others, who are not involved with each other, a la actress Tilda Swinton. That's closer to biga

What Men Are Thinking

Driving to work this AM, I heard an ad for a new show promising to explain men's latest thinking to women. I see the same sort of promise on the magazines at the supermarket. Now I have a peculiar theory about that: maybe they just try listening to men talk. I even have some theories about what they would hear. Mostly, I think, men talk is about (a)showing off, (b)themselves , (c)sports, (d)work and work politics, (e)sex, and (f)women, with(e) and (f) only distantly related. If they notice a not obviously decrepit woman listening, of course, you can neglect everything except (a) and (b). Men might harbor similar curiosity about women's thinking, but that kind of show for them woudn't work. Trying to find out about women in that way would be almost as humiliating as asking for directions. Men could try the listening to women trick, but it usually comes acropper when the man zones out or interrupts with inappropriate comments. I have spent some time listening to women

Full Court Press

Malcolm Gladwell has written a New Yorker article on: How David Beats Goliath . More on the larger topic later, but his featured example is that of supposedly untalented 12 year girls league team that got to the nationals on the strength of its unconventional tactic: a full-court press. Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he settled on two principles. The first was that he would never raise his voice. This was National Junior Basketball—the Little League of basketball. The team was made up mostly of twelve-year-olds, and twelve-year-olds, he knew from experience, did not respond well to shouting. He would conduct business on the basketball court, he decided, the same way he conducted business at his software firm. He would speak calmly and softly, and convince the girls of the wisdom of his approach with appeals to reason and common sense. The second principle was more important. Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is fr

Gandhi in Gaza

NPR had an interview with a guy who had a charter to solve the world's greatest problems. His approach to the Middle East conflict: show the movie "Gandhi" to Palestinians in Gaza. He claimed that it was a revelation to many of them. The possibility of nonviolent resistance - much less its historical record of accomplishment - had not occurred to them. I find that surprising but plausible. I also suspect that Gandhi's methods would be very powerful in Gaza. Hamas and Mossad are probably already plotting to assassinate any nonviolent resisters.

Mumble, Mumble, Curse, Curse

Or how economics is still dominated by psuedo-scientific charlatans.. Alex Tabbarok posts an excerpt promoting his and Tyler Cowen's new Macroecon book: In the United States, diarrhea is a pain, an annoyance, and of course an embarrassment. In much of the developing world, diarrhea is a killer, especially of children. Every year 1.8 million children die from diarrhea. Ending the premature deaths of these children does not require any scientific breakthroughs, nor does it require new drugs or fancy medical devices. Preventing these deaths requires only one thing: economic growth. A typical dishonest bit of libertarian religious hucksterism. Most severe infant diarrhea is due to unclean water and eliminated by supplying clean water. Not that economic growth is unrelated to infant mortality - but it's a long term and indirect effect. The rest of the text of the chapter is better. The strong actual correlation is to per capita gdp, and it's shown in several graphs,but even

Jacob Weisberg, Miserable Douchebag

Jacob Weisberg has a new Slate column explaining that the torture perpetrators can't be punished because "all Americans are guilty." His reasoning: By 2003, if you didn't understand that the United States was inflicting torture on those deemed enemy combatants, you weren't paying much attention He then cherry picks some prescient reports that strongly hinted at just that. Meanwhile, he forgets to add, all the machinery of government and most of the press was denying it. Where was Weisberg calling out the liars? Not in the pages of the online magazine he edits. Weisberg, remember, was one of those so called "liberals" in the Israel lobby busy cheerleading for the attack on Iraq. Those "liberals" played a disproportionate share in getting the country behind Bush's war. Where was Weisberg after Abu Ghraib, when the lawyers defending the low level soldiers were claiming that they had orders from above were called liars by the very archi

Cheney as Iago

Hilzoy's version. Andrew Sullivan and friends have some alternatives here and here. but I go with the reader's suggestion of Grima Wormtongue.

Something Interesting/Something Stupid

Martin Walker reports some interesting demographic trends and draws some remarkably obtuse conclusions from them. The interesting facts are that fertility is climbing in Northern Europe and the US but falling most other places, except sub-quitorial Africa. The shallows of his analysis are on exhibit in the following: Iran is experiencing what may be one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in human history. Thirty years ago, after the shah had been driven into exile and the Islamic Republic was being established, the fertility rate was 6.5. By the turn of the century, it had dropped to 2.2. Today, at 1.7, it has collapsed to European levels. The implications are profound for the politics and power games of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, putting into doubt Iran’s dreams of being the regional superpower and altering the tense dynamics between the Sunni and Shiite wings of Islam. Equally important are the implications for the economic future of Iran, which by ­mid­century may

Not An Idiot

I just read economics correspondent David Leonhardt's interview with Obama in the New York Times magazine, and all I can say is that it sure is nice to have a President who isn't an idiot. One can no more imagine W sitting for a hour long one-on-one with an economics correspondent than singing Don Giovanni , but Obama did. His answers to Leonhardt's question are typically long, thoughtfull, and well-informed. The last paragraph shows the pragmatist in sharp relief against the ideologue with the singularly stupid gut: What I’m very confident about is that given the difficult options before us, we are making good, thoughtful decisions. I have enormous confidence that we are weighing all our options and we are making the best choices. That doesn’t mean that every choice is going to be right, is going to work exactly the way we want it to. But I wake up in the morning and go to bed at night feeling that the direction we are trying to move the economy toward is the right one

Wall Street's Man

Jo Becker and Gretchnen Morgenson's New York Times profile of Tim Geithner is required reading for everyone trying to understand how Wall Street owns our government. Their is little in it to hint at any corrupt influence on Geithner, but it's obvious that he is and has been under the spell of Wall Street's thinking. But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription. Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes. And more often than not, Mr. Geithner has been a leading architect of those bailouts, the activist at the head of the pack. He was the federal regulator most willing to “push the envelope,” said H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent Wall Street lawyer who spoke frequently with Mr. Geithner. Geithner seems to sincerely believ

Slippery Slopes and Normal

NPR had a story on the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, settled and populated by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and Tahitian women. The story concerned the trial in 2005 of several men for rape and child molestation. According to the reporter, a culture had grown up on the island in which essentially all girl children had been raped by the age of 12. This is a reminder that almost all the rules of sexual behavior developed by religions and civilizations are ultimately conventions chosen by society, and that those who speak of "slippery slopes" when those laws are modified are not entirely crazy. Pitcairn is hardly a freak - we know that rape and child abuse were widely tolerated in ancient Greek and Roman civilization, to name just two. Nevertheless, this does not suggest to me that we should let God pick our rules of morality, especially when "God" in this case becomes a sentence or two cherry picked from an ancient book that is really more interested i

China Syndrome

Libertarians drive me nuts with their market magic and pie in the sky theories of doing without government. One popular meme among the libnuts is the idea that there is no important difference between Japanese corporations making cars in Ohio and a US corporation doing the same thing. They laugh off any notion that governments might be interested in something less transitory than maximizing this year's profit in the auto industry. Meanwhile China is moving agressively to strengthen its grip everywhere with military as well as manufacturing power. One instructive example is described in this Times Online story of how Chinese money is powering the ruthless Sri Lankan campaign to annihilate the Tamil Tigers. The Chinese don't have a real dog in that fight, but by funding that war, they not only prevent any peace negotiation but buy themselves an ultramodern naval base at a gateway to the Indian Ocean. On the southern coast of Sri Lanka, ten miles from one of the world’s busies

Steve Benen Asks

Who would Jesus torture? I think he meant "whom," but whatever. Since I don't seem to be permitted to comment there, let me just note the obvious answer: Sinners. What did you think that Hell stuff was about, Steve?