Showing posts from May, 2010

Exodus 2010

It's probably not coincidence that the fate of the Gaza aid flotilla echos that of the Exodus 1947 - the ship trying to bring Jewish holocaust survivors to Palestine in 1947 - but it is ample evidence of historical ignorance and general stupidity of the Netanyahu government. Robert Mackey tells the story in The New York Times To some Israeli observers, it was impossible to miss the parallels between Monday’s killing of pro-Palestinian activists by Israel’s military in international waters, as commandos intercepted a flotilla of ships trying to break the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza, and a seminal event in the Jewish struggle for an independent homeland. Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist who is rounding up reports and commentary on the attack on his blog, “Promised Land,” points to a post in Hebrew by Rafi Man of the Israel Democracy Institute which asks: “Will This Be the Palestinian Exodus?” The British Navy tried to block the ship, the Exodus tried to break through, and vio

The Empathy War

After sixty years of counterproductive terrorism, the Palestinians and their allies appear to be learning the lessons of empathy. One of the consequences of global communication is the power to communicate that emotion on a vast scale. The anti-slavery movement may have been one of its first great triumphs. Gandhi demonstrated its enormous geopolitical power. There is a certain irony in the fact that nobody used it better than the founders of Israel. Their compelling narrative played a major role in enlisting American and world support for their enterprise of nation founding. Today's disastrous assault on the Gaza relief flotilla may go down as the most catastrophic event in Israel's long war with its foes. The flotilla, bringing food and medical aid to Gaza, was an iconic appeal to that empathetic power - like the march on Selma, or the slaughter of peaceful Indian protesters by British machine guns. The Israelis appear to have played their part according to the script, attac

The Irresponsible Blogger

When I started blogging, I thought this would be a good opportunity to say any stupid thing that came into my head, and I followed that principle. Then I started noticing that some people actually read my stuff - people on six continents even. It's intimidating. I started wondering if I should try to say something intelligent. That rarely works out well.

Denying Relativity

I suppose that it is no surprise that the modern climate denier shares a lot of political DNA with the various anti-scientific campaigns of the past: the relativity deniers, the evolution deniers, the ozone hole deniers, and the AIDS deniers. Joss Garman has a nice story on the parallels between the anti-relativists of the early twentieth century and the anti-AGW crowd today. I especially like this Einstein quote: "This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” So wrote Albert Einstein in a letter to his one time collaborator, the mathematician Marcel Grossmann in 1920. More from Garman Jeroen van Dongen of the Institute for History and Foundations of Science at Utrecht University in Holland, writing in a recent edition of the journal, ‘Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics,’ describes the effectiveness of the movement that g

What an Idiot: Part VI

I really have to stop reading Stevie Boy: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, widely known as the bible of psychiatric medicine, is under revision and the American Psychiatric Association is accepting public comment at a new website. Medpage Today reports that the revision has already been changed several times in response to these comments. These include several areas within the Sexual and Gender Identities categories, and modifications to the criteria for adjustment disorders and eating disorders. By contrast, the American Physical Society is not asking the general public to weigh in on the prospects for supersymmetry, nor is the American Economic Association surveying the general public on the properties of dynamic stochastic general equilibria. So much for any pretense that psychiatry is a science. And so much for any pretence that certain economists have a clue about what makes a science. Here's a hint: it takes more than staring fixedly at your own navel to make a scienc

Collective Punishment

I seem to recall that collective punishment is officially a war crime. We do, I think, occasionally hang enemies who wipe out a village because one of their soldiers got assasinated there. Of course all war is collective punishment. Killing a few hundred thousand inhabitants of Tokyo because their countrymen killed a somewhat smaller number of Americans (and a rather larger number of Chinese) is a collective punishment. Trying to make rational and humane judgements about war has always been a nasty and slippery business. We are currently engaged in yet another costly experiment in what is called "counter insurgency warfare." I am inclined to think that there is a fatal flaw the theory behind this kind of warfare. That theory seems to hold that country A is divided into good guys and bad guys and that if we just help the good guys a bit, everything will be dandy. The contrast with reality in Afghanistan is stark. It would be closer to the truth to note that while most of the p

Austerity Madness

Paul Krugman sees "serious people" of the economic world in the grip of an austerity fever - an irrational fear of a coming inflation that the markets show no sign of believing in. Krugman the Keynesian sees this as a recipe for a new great depression. So the OECD wants the Fed to start raising interest rates soon — in the next six months or less — because … well, we can look at the OECD’s own forecast. According to this forecast, in the fourth quarter of 2011 — a year and a half from now — the unemployment rate will still be 8.4 percent. Meanwhile, inflation will be 1 percent — well below the Fed’s implicit target of 2 percent. My view is that inflation will be lower than that — core inflation is already below 1 percent. But even given the OECD’s forecast, what possible reason would there be to tighten monetary policy now, when the economy will still have vast excess capacity and inflation that’s too low at the end of next year? The only explanation seems to be at the begi

What is North Korea Up To?

If the North wanted all out war (and self-immolation) all they need do is launch it. So why provoke the South in such and extreme way, by sinking one of its ships? Perhaps it's gratifying to watch the US and South Korea scrambling around trying to find some suitable response short of cataclysm. Sink a few ships? A predator strike on the maximum leader? Those could send a message at a very considerable risk of all-out war. One of the secrets of being the crazy guy with the bomb is convincing everybody that you are just crazy enough to use it. Kim Jong-il has quite a bit of credibility on that count. I've heard it claimed that most wars start because somebody thinks that they can get away with it and somebody else figures that they can't afford to let them. Our own history suggests, of course, that we can't afford to be very credulous regarding claims of provocation. Yes, I remember the Maine and The Gulf of Tonkin and Saddam's mobile chemical factories that we

Words and Consequences

Words have consequences, and it the world of politics and diplomacy, very large consequences. A couple of incautious sentences from an American diplomat about America's strategic interests were taken by Stalin as a sign to launch the Korean War - millions died and no peace treaty has yet been signed. A similar stupidity from one of GHW Bush's minions induced Saddam to take over Kuwait - we haven't finished with that yet either. A lot of right-minded people were consequently appalled when Rand Paul suggested rethinking (and consequently refighting)the civil rights act. Enter Steve Landsburg: “It’s now crystal clear what the Tea Party stands for” says Frank Rich midway through a column that makes it crystal clear what Frank Rich stands for, and it isn’t pretty. Whatever you may think about the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a whole, it indisputably narrows property rights by allowing politicians to dictate the policies of private businesses. Not only is it perfectly reasonable t

Life and Death: Go

It would be hard to imagine a much simpler game than Go. The idea, rules and general idea can be explained in three or four sentences. The technicalities and details might take another couple of paragraphs. I know of no game deeper than this three or four thousand year old one though. For those who would pursue mastery, or even basic competence, there are many technical details to master, and probably none is more basic than the matter of Life and Death. The objective of the game is to surround territory, and it usually happens that groups of stones will be surrounded by stones of the opponent. In this situation, the stones are safe (alive) if they can remain in contact with two separated open points, but are captured (dead) if they can't. Assessing whether a given group of stones is alive or not is consequently a crucial game skill. If you or your opponent has an endangered group, it is essential that you be able to assess whether it can be killed or not. Killing a big grou

Things I Never Hear From Libertarians

Obviously this could be a very long post, but let me restrict myself to one category: Answers to Paul Krugman's N+1 part series Why libertarianism doesn't work . I've got to say though, that I think Krugman is somewhat wrong. Libertarianism does work just fine for some - the billionaires who finance the Cato institute and all the similar stink tanks. Many or most of these entreprenueurial geniuses triumphed mostly by careful selection of their parents.

Math Software Bleg

Contemplating the possibility of retirement, I realize that one thing I can't stand to be without is my math software package. At work I mostly use MATLAB and some older verseions of Maple and Mathematica. Both Maple and Mathematica offer personal versions for a price I can sort of afford. I slightly prefer my old work Maple. Anybody have any good arguments for the current versions of either?

More on Incorporated Persons

Alex Tabarrok has a follow-up post on the "shares of earnings" theme. The comments to this and the previous post are as interesting as his posts. The most interesting point: it's already happening. Ryan Hahn also points to Lumni, a new firm that is investing in human capital in the developing world: Lumni designs, markets and manages "Human capital funds", an innovative investment vehicle for financing education. Students agree to pay a fixed percentage of their individual incomes for a predetermined number of months after graduation. The arrangement traspases part of the risk of investing in education from the student to the investor, who is in a better position to diversify it. Lumni is the brainchild of economics professor Miguel Palacios. Here is his book and Cato paper on human capital contracts. It ought to be interesting to see how this turns out. As a commenter points out, it doesn't make sense to invest willy-nilly - you want to put your cash

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066, my distant ancestor, Sir Norman (aka, Big Norm), bought his infant son Norman (aka, Little Norm) a ten Euro Norman Conquest bond paying 5% compound interest. Today that bond would be worth about 265,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 dollars – and if the family had held onto it we could have afforded to buy everybody in the world a private Gulfstream 650 or custom outfitted Airbus A380. Unfortunately enough, Little Norm cashed the bond on his 18th birthday and bought all of his friends mugs of mead instead. How could our ancestors have been so thoughtless?

Hair (sic) Brained Ideas

Our Libertarian friends are good at coming up with hair brained ideas for replacing our current institutions. Now I'm no enemy of ideas, hair brained or other, but I do think a bit of rational criticism is called for. Here's one via Alex Tabarrok . The Unincorporated Man is a science fiction novel in which shares of each person's income stream can be bought and sold. (Initial ownership rights are person 75%, parents 20%, government 5%--there are no other taxes--and people typically sell shares to finance education and other training.) The hero, Justin Cord a recently unfrozen business person from our time, opposes incorporation but has no good arguments against the system; instead he rants on about "liberty" and how bad the idea of owning and being owned makes him feel. The villain, in contrast, offers reasoned arguments in favor of the system. In this scene he asks Cord to remember the starving poor of Cord's time and how incorporation would have been a

Corporate Death Penalty

Watching CBS's Sixty Minutes tonight made it seem very likely that the BP blowout in the Gulf was due to a reckless disregard for public safety and the safety of the BP workers. If so, this will not be BP's first example of corporate manslaughter. If similar acts of criminal recklessness had been committed by individuals, they would face loss of all their assets and long prison terms. Maybe it's time to apply the same standards to corporations. Imprison responsible executives, and size all corporate assets. A credible threat might lead to serious consideration of consequences. By comparison, current penalties are a joke. Bought and paid for legislators passed strict limits on corporate liability, and criminal penalties are likely to be small - compared to the damage done - fines. Paul Krugman points out how this is yet another example of how libertarian theory fails in the real world. Thinking about BP and the Gulf: in this old interview, Milton Friedman says that the

An Answer For Lumo and Neutrino

More on lapse rates of planetary atmospheres. Consider the following one-dimensional thought experiment. Let the surface be at temperature Ts and the elevated radiating level of the atmosphere be a temperature Te < Ts. Suppress convection for the moment (perhaps by replacing it by glass of equivalent optial properties). Consider a layer of the atmosphere somewhere above the surface. It absorbs upwelling radiation from below and downwelling radiation from above, and the amount absorbed is proportional to its absorption coefficient alpha. It also emits radiation half downward and half upward proportional to alpha and the Planck function. Because it is hotter below, it absorbs more from below and less from above. If you do the integration, you get that its radiative equilibrium temperature is given by Ts^4 = (Te^4)*(1+xi0), where xi0 is the integrated opacity from point e to the surface. If you make the crude but reasonable assumption that opacity (from z to ground) is given by

About Lapse Rates in Planetary Atmospheres

Lubos and Goddard seem to be confused about the role of the adiabatic lapse rate in planetary atmospheres. In particular, they seem to consider it sort of a law of nature. That’s the case only in a very limited way – the adiabatic lapse rate is rather a limiting condition: if the lapse rate becomes super adiabatic, then convection will occur. Nothing special will occur if the actual environmental lapse rate is less than the adiabatic lapse rate. The fact that the environmental lapse rates in the Terran, Martian, and Venusian atmospheres are all decidedly subadiabatic (on average) ought to be a clue as to that fact. Isothermal and even temperature inverted hunks of atmosphere are common, even near the surface of the Earth. If an adiabatic or semi-adiabatic lapse rate is not some sort of consequence of the ideal gas law, then what does cause it? It’s caused by the fact that the atmosphere is heated from the bottom and cooled mainly from the top, and that is in turned caused by the

Venus if you will

Eli has been applying the rabbety art of kickboxing to some dolt named Goddard. This miscreant, writing at one of the many branch campuses of Climate Stupid, had suggested that Venus was hot not because its atmosphere was opaque to IR but because it weighed a lot. Naturally, the kind of dunce who comes up with these ideas never stops to consider the application of his notion to planets like Jupiter, Saturn, etc, much less doing any of the radiative transfer calculations. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I saw that Lubos had bought into this nonsense. Oh dear! This is algebra and a little calculus, subjects Lumo probably mastered before he was toilet trained. This is our old friend Stefan’s law. The temperature at the surface of the planet is 735 K and that surface is probably a fair approximation to a black body (but in any case, a body of known emissivity). The planet as a whole radiates with effective radiating temperature 220 K, meaning that its net emissivity is abo

Race is a Social Construct!

Every once in a while, someone in or on the borders of academe manages to get themselves into a lot of trouble by allowing as how it might be possible that there could be intellectual differences between "races." The title sentence is usually part of the fevered response. I can't argue with it. Especially if by "social construct" you mean that borders drawn between races are ultimately arbitrary, in a way that the border between dogs and cats isn't. If you think that it means that the concept of race is meaningless, though, I have to call bullshit. Social constructs are quite real, and they reflect underlying social and physical realities. After all, property, religion, and nation are all social constructs too. It's obvious even to young children that people can be grouped in lots of ways - tall or short, fat or skinny, and by characteristics like skin color, head and body shape, and the nature of their hair. These characteristics are all at least

Holy Shit!!

read this. Maybe the human race had to damn lucky to survive this long.

Perfect, Self-Regulating Frictionless Markets, Robot Division

The robots were coming... but now it seems that they may already be here. The Dow lost 1000 points in a matter of minutes today (before recovering most of the loss). Nobody seems quite sure why, but a popular theory holds that computer trading programs did it. Didn't they supposedly fix that back in 1987.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be...

Jesus said that "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," but many of our Randite friends were more inspired by Pancho's soliloquy in Atlas shrugged, where he proclaimed it "the root of all good." It is pretty clear that money is one of the most important human inventions, and credit is not terribly far behind. JC and Pancho were both speaking great truths, I think, in Bohr's sense (a great truth being a statement whose opposite is also a great truth, unlike ordinary truths which have falsehoods as their opposites). Money and credit provide the crucial lubricant for economies of every advanced sort, but they bring their own darkside. Just as we were about to recover from one credit crisis, the Euro provides us with another. The Euro was a great invention until it wasn't. Unfortunately it turned out not to be stable. Thrifty Germans and others saved their Euro's and spenthrift Greeks and others borrowed and spent them, and everybody

Begging the Question: Grumpy Old Men

I'm one of those grumpy old men who cringes whenever I hear "beg the question" used as synonymous with "raise the question." I haven't really wondered, though, how the phrase came to have the peculiar meaning of "assumes that which is to be proven" that it has in classical logic. For those who would like to know, it's all here, in post and comments: language log (Mark Lieberman). The take away: OK, those of you who are still with me, what should we do? Should we join the herd and use "beg the question" to mean "raise the question"? Or should we join the few, proud hold-outs who still use it in the old "assume the conclusion" sense, while complaining about the ignorant rabble who etc.? In my opinion, those are both bad choices. If you use the phrase to mean "raise the question", some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from what

Crying Over Spilled Oil

The big oil spill was topic number one on ABC's This Week today. I'm sorry to say that George Will kicked the alleged liberal reps - Al Sharpton, Bill Maher and Katherine van den Heuvel - all over the set. They had some pretty lame claims that we could do without oil - with wind farms for example - and Will pointed out that wind farms killed a lot more birds than oil slicks. Of course oil does most of its damage in the coastal wet lands. The fundamental fact is that there is no way for this planet to support billions of people, their cars, planes and energy consuming gadgets without exposing the environment to a lot of actual and potential damage. All options have potentially serious consequences, and the tradeoffs need to be carefully studied. Immigration was next, and nobody would commit. George Will allowed as how the Obama bill was pretty tough and could have been written by a Republican, but evaded repeated questions as to whether he would support it. Al Sharpton was no mo