Showing posts from March, 2012

A Penny for Your Thoughts

I have a sneaking fondness for that old expression, but not for the actual 1 cent coin. It's somehow optimistic to think that even in the age of twitter, thoughts might actually be worth something. The coin, though, is simply a pain. It costs 2.4 cents to produce them and they are essentially a pure nuisance rather than facilitator in commerce. Our Canadian neighbors have decided to get rid of the darn things , according to Andrew Sullivan, and bravo to them. Canada will withdraw the penny from circulation this year, saving taxpayers about C$11 million ($11 million) annually and forcing retailers to round prices to the nearest nickel, the government announced in its budget [Thursday]. We should do the same of course. And while we are at it, the Nickel is another bad deal - they cost about 10 cents to produce. A dime for your thoughts?

Beyond Reproach

Andrew Sullivan finds this gem: "[A]ny and all criticism of Israel not only can be but must be antisemitic. It is either subjectively antisemitic, in that it consciously and intentionally furthers the goals of the campaign; or it is objectively antisemitic, in that it unconsciously and unintentionally does the same thing. The distinction, if there ever was one, between the two, is now meaningless. Either way, the result is the same: Those who seek to slaughter the Jews en masse are brought a step closer to their goal," - Benjamin Kerstein , Pajamas Media . The most fanatical elements of a movement seek to Force everyone to choose sides, since they think that that will make their side victorious.  Thus Jews who dare to criticize any act of Israel's government or it's citizens, no matter how heinous, are singled out for the most vicious abuse as self-hating Jews.  Other critics are anti-semites, effectively indistinguishable from the Nazis. I don't thi

The Matrix

Spectacular images of the large scale circuitry of the brain .  Big surprise: it's nearly as simple as we can imagine - an orthogonal 3-D grid (locally rectangular). This suggests that we now know more or less how to design a realistic electronic brain.

Gotta Love This Bot

You should see him dunk!

Muscular Thermodynamics

Muscles are pretty efficient at turning energy into motion. Apparently efficiencies as high as 70% can be achieved. To the naive former student of thermodynamics this may be a bit of a puzzle. Don't we recall that the ideal efficiency of a heat engine is given by Kelvin’s formula for the efficiency of a reversible Carnot engine: e =1-T/T’ If we apply that rule to muscles, where temperatures are nearly uniform, it would seem to imply that thermodynamic efficiency must be near zero, which is a lot less than 70%. It might appear that our biological systems are troubling the second law of thermodynamics. Of course, physicists know that the second law always wins, so clearly our analysis has a flaw. That flaw is that muscles are not heat engines, and they don’t exactly extract heat from one heat reservoir and transfer it to another. Instead, they extract energy from excited molecules (ATP) and transfer it to less excited molecules. E. T. Jaynes pointed out that Gibbs seems to

Real Money

The Mega Million's lottery is estimating its next jackpot at a nominal $500 million, with a cash value of $359 million - before taxes, of course. That's real money by most people's standards. More to the point it's at least approaching the point where it makes sense for a well-heeled investor to buy every possible ticket to guarantee a win - at a cost of $175,711,536. Of course if a bunch of people do this, you will have to split the prize with them as well as any lucky bit players there might be. I'm not to clear on the relevant tax laws, but it's at least plausible that your investment might be deductible. I'm only in for a buck, but I like my odds, since I've already lost several times before ;)

Why Americans Don't Support Obamacare (Much)

Andrew Sullivan says: And the responsibility for this lies with the Obama administration who have shown no talent, zest or intelligence in explaining and selling their core domestic achievement. I don't get it. Obama has made so many mistakes on this issue. Few worse than saving most of the real provisions for 2014.

Donald's Very Bad, Horrible, Just Awful Day

A lot of people seem to think that US Solicitor General Donald Verilli did a really bad job of arguing the case for Obamacare before the Supremes. Kevin Drum headlines: Donald Verrilli Makes the Worst Supreme Court Argument of All Time. He quotes Adam Serwer: —By Kevin Drum | Tue Mar. 27, 2012 3:20 PM PDT25Virtually everyone agrees that today's arguments before the Supreme Court were a disaster for the Obama administration. Adam Serwer sums up the reason: Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. should be grateful to the Supreme Court for refusing to allow cameras in the courtroom, because his defense of Obamacare on Tuesday may go down as one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the court. Stepping up to the podium, Verrilli stammered as he began his argument. He coughed, he cleared his throat, he took a drink of water. And that was before he even finished the first part of his argument. Sounding less like a world-class lawyer and more like a teenager giving an

Under A Flat Rock

Paul Krugman turns over a big flat rock and finds something not very pretty: The American Legislative Exchange Council, AKA, ALEC. ALEC is a very aggressive lobby that doesn't just advise legislators, it writes their legislation for them. They turn out to be big players in the crony capitalism racket: writing laws that ship taxpayer dollars to big corporations. Florida’s now-infamous Stand Your Ground law, which lets you shoot someone you consider threatening without facing arrest, let alone prosecution, sounds crazy — and it is. And it’s tempting to dismiss this law as the work of ignorant yahoos. But similar laws have been pushed across the nation, not by ignorant yahoos but by big corporations. Specifically, language virtually identical to Florida’s law is featured in a template supplied to legislators in other states by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed organization that has managed to keep a low profile even as it exerts vast influence (only re

Austerity: Who Loves Ya Baby?

Since the onset of the great recession, there has been a pitched battle among economists and policy makers over the proper governmental response. Austerity has been championed by economists of the freshwater school and those Paul Krugman calls the Very Serious People (VSP) of Europe and the American Right. Krugman and Brad DeLong have been fairly lonely voices shouting that those who don’t remember Keynes are doomed to repeat the worst of the past. In practice, austerity has bitten deepest in a few countries in Europe that depended too much on the kindness of strangers – or at least on Germans - and in the US, because States mostly have to run balanced budgets, and in Britain (because the Brits are nuts). A new paper by Larry Summers and Brad DeLong demonstrates what Krugman has been saying – Austerity has been a miserable failure as economic policy, impoverishing millions and reducing economic output almost everywhere. Krugman is astounded at the pigheadedness of the Lucasian e

Human Powered Flight

Lumo has up a clever video of human powered flapping flight. It turns out to be a clever CGI fake, but I thought it might be fun to analyze the aerodynamics. Heavier than air fliers overcome gravity by accelerating air downward. That takes work against drag. It turns out that there are two components to that drag - so called induced drag that is a direct side effect of lift and frictional drag, often called form drag. Form drag is proportional to the square of velocity while induced drag is inversely proportional to the square of velocity - circumstances that combine to produce a velocity sweet spot of minimum drag that depends mostly on the wing loading, the ratio of mass to wing area. That velocity sweet spot is given approximately by V = Sqrt[W/0.38A], where W is weight, A is area and the numerical factor (appropriate for MKS units) combines plausible values of air density and angle of attack. If we assume conservatively that the flier of the video plus equipment weighs at l

Are Jewish Parents Overprotective?

More Michael Lerner: In the next few years, I moved back and forth between my office in New York and the apartment I had rented in Jerusalem in order to help take care of my son on the weekends when he’d come home from his IDF service (the Tzanchanim—paratroopers). Lerner, Michael (2011-11-22). Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East (Kindle Locations 2746-2748). Random House Inc Clients. Kindle Edition.

Is The Climate Debate Over?

It looks pretty much lost to me. It shouldn't surprise any student of history to find that the forces of ignorance and superstition are frequently triumphant in human affairs. Nor should we be surprised to find that our fellow humans much prefer to put off pain today even when the threat is of far greater pain tomorrow. That's the way that were are built. So it seems to be with the debate over what to do about anthropogenic global warming, or AGW. From time to time I wander over to LumoWorld or some other denialist site just to take the temperature of the ignoranti. The extent of their delusion on one point is particularly startling - they actually seem convinced that their view has the support of a substantial majority of scientists competent in the relevant disciplines. Not only do they believe the world is flat, but they think that most scientists agree! Of course their delusion is promoted by a vast and wealthy propaganda network whose interests have nothing to do wi

Israel: In the Beginning

The way new nations are made is usually not very pretty. Most of us live on ground that our actual or national ancestors won for them by dispossession or murder of the previous owners. Michael Learner is a self styled Progressive activist, rabbi, philosopher and historian. I have been reading his book, Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East . He is a committed Zionist, but he is also a believer in the prospects of a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. His point of view does not prevent him from taking a hard-eyed look at the history. Modern Zionism had several origins including pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and a maturing Jewish nationalism, but got a big boost from Britain's attempts to grab Arab oil and preserve it's colony in India. Those efforts led the UK to encourage Jews to emigrate to Palestine and they built up the Jewish communities as a counterweight to the local Arabs by granting them special

Bee Personal

It's not news that people differ in personality. Some of us are born adventurers and risk takers. Other prefer the armchair adventure. It was news to me, though, that honeybees also exhibit a somewhat similar behavioral spectrum . Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are more than cookie-cutter drones, workers, foragers and queens. They might have individual personality differences similar to our own, according to new research. After studying hives—both in the wild and in the lab—and analyzing genetic and biochemical profiles of bees’ brains, researchers have found that some bees, like some humans, seem to be programmed to seek out new experiences, or novelty. Forager bees are in charge of gathering food outside of the hive, but not all of these bees, it seems, are inclined to strike out and go exploring for new flowers. Only a subset of them—some five to 25 percent—actively scout out new pollen sources. Even scarier is that the behavioral parallels seem to go all the way to the neuro

Tyler Cowen

Economist tells joke... But ...conveniently forgets punch line. Come 2014, the Affordable Care Act will prevent insurers from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions: cancer victims and stroke survivors will be able to buy insurance at the same price as otherwise similar applicants. Insurance companies may take a hit to profits, but part of the cost will surely be passed on to the lower-cost counterparts to this high-cost pool. Healthy people might be tempted to opt out, but under the new law, they’ll be required to have insurance. This individual mandate is a natural fix to the problem of adverse selection in health insurance: It keeps the lowest-cost participants from opting out, and as a result the market doesn’t unravel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these solutions rankle the likes of Ron Paul and other libertarians who see the heavy hand of government at work here.

The Hurtling Moons of Barsoom

100 years ago, a pencil sharpener salesman and pulp novel fan decided he could write as well as the people he was reading and wrote the serialized novel A Princess of Mars. Five or six decades later, I fell under the spell of Edgar Rice Burroughs' books and the Mars they depicted. John Carter's Barsoom was a take on Percival Lowell's Mars, rather than the one we know today, a dying planet with canals and vestiges of civilization. Consequently, I was a bit nervous going to see John Carter, since I was pretty sure they could find lots of ways to mess it up. I was pretty pleased with the result, though, even if Deejah Thoris and her maids insisted on wearing a certain, albeit not too large, amount of clothing, contrary to the naked except for jewelry way I remember them. It was pretty hard to take Carter, devotee of the God of War, as a pacifist, though. Naturally the fight scenes were shot in the obligatory speeded up motion of contemporary cinema, with the result th

Something Strange in the Neighborhood

The recent effects at the European financial barber shop have left me more than a bit confused. Greece owed a lot but could not afford to pay, so a deal was arranged whereby most lenders “voluntarily” accepted a roughly 70% haircut or payout at 30 cents on the dollar. A few percent of borrowers declined the deal, triggering a “credit event” ruling from some somebodies somewhere (the ISDA committee), causing credit default swap (CDS) policies to become payable. Somehow, though, Greece had been able to insert and activate collective action clauses (CACs) in most of the loans, which presumably made them immune to their CDS protections. (a) So why did anybody accept, unless (b) The CACs made them, and if so how, and (c) Why were the few exempt? And (d) WTH is a collective action clause, anyway?

Science and Engineering

Science and engineering have been intricately linked since the beginning. New developments in science frequently spring from exploitation of engineering triumphs, and fundamental advances in science usually trigger an explosion in engineering innovation. This was brought home to me in recent discussions with some important biologists who describe what they do as biological engineering. The radical advances in electrodynamics and thermodynamics in the nineteenth century led to the rapid economic and technological advances of the latter part of that century and the first half of the twentieth. The twentieth century exploration of the atomic scale gave rise to the transistor and molecular biology. So far, the twenty-first century is looking like the age of biological engineering. Some of the things that these bio-engineers are up to look downright weird to this old-timer: building logic gates based on cellular signalling and regulator proteins, or protein and nucleic acid signalling c

More Stevereeno

It seems that Landsburg has been chastised by his University President for his rash words ala Rush. He is, however, unchastened, partly, I suppose, because he has tenure, but mainly, I guess, because he is a clueless git who doesn't understand what he did wrong.

Is Science Over?

It seem pretty clear that not only has physics hit a severe dry spell, but all other sciences have been largely reduced to physics. Only cosmology and astronomy still seem to pose fundamental unsolved problems, but those might prove inaccessible. In physics we still have lots of untested theories but not much prospect for testing them. Biology and Chemistry, like most of Physics, are pretty much branches of engineering now. Meteorology and Geology still have some nuggets perhaps, but the big points seem pretty clear. Neuroscience remains messy, but eventually all those threads will doubtless be sorted out too, and it doesn't look like many big surprises are still awaiting. I figure the big breakthroughs still lie in the field of p


...........though I'd always thought of the brothers Koch as more Blofeld than Khan. My personal distaste for libertarianism is rooted in dislike of its moral principles and disdain for its impracticality, but gets a big boost from the idea that libertarians are really just front men for the oligarchy. The Cato Institute probably had as much claim to intellectual seriousness as any of the right wing "think" tanks - by which I mean a little, but not much, and apparently had some people in it who occasionally allowed an independent thought to invade their minds. This was apparently too much for the brothers Koch, who used their money and power to stage a putsch against the management. Noahpinion has a masterful dissection: Given my history of critiquing libertarianism, it would hardly be surprising if I felt a flash of gleeful schadenfreude to see the dismay with which so many movement libertarians are reacting to the Koch takeover of the Cato Institute. But I don't

The Sounds of Silence

From HuffPost Scientists have come up with device for silencing speech, but the hand-held "Speechjammer" has people talking up a storm. The scientists--from Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology--said in a new paper that the experimental device is designed to help curb "inappropriate speech in public places." But one can easily imagine how the gun-like gizmo might be used as a "weapon" against loud-mouthed protestors and others who voice unpopular opinions. ... The computer-controlled device features a microphone and a loudspeaker that plays back a speaker's voice 0.2 second later. The fraction-of-a-second delay in playback--a phenomenon scientists call delayed auditory feedback--confuses the speaker and makes it hard to continue speaking.

Stormy Weather

Consider climate change, brutal winter in Europe, mild winter in US, and another early and severe start to the US tornado season. Are they connected? Well, the last three are, and a plausibility argument can be made for the first, but the connection is hardly iron clad. The same positioning of the Polar vortex that brought a brutal winter to Europe made the US winter surprisingly mild, and it too contributed to the abnormal jet stream that promoted the tornadoes. The unusually mild winter also meant the US Midwest lacked snow cover at a time of year when it usually does, and that in turn meant sharper temperature differentials across the front that spawned the tornadoes. So does climate change play a role? Maybe so. Here the logic seems to be that the unusually low surface ice extent in the Arctic means more evaporation and more Asian snowfall which affects the strength and positioning of the Polar vortex . Let's call that one TBD.

Limbaugh Lower

Rush Limbaugh is used to being the recipient of apologies, not the bearer, but he has apologized to Sandra Fluke for calling her a "slut." Bailing sponsors, threat of a zillion dollar lawsuit, or a sudden attack of human decency? I would guess the middle option, but who knows? Let's see if the the jackals feel the same pressure as the lion.

Bountiful Saints

The NFL has announced that an extensive investigation has revealed that the NO Saints ran a bounty system for the past three seasons which rewarded players for injuring opponents. From the NYT: During the past three seasons, while the National Football League has been changing rules and levying fines in an effort to improve player safety, members of the New Orleans Saints’ defense maintained a lucrative bounty system that paid players for injuring opponents, according to an extensive investigation by the N.F.L. The bounty system was financed mostly by players — as many as 27 of them — and was administered by the former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who also contributed money to the pool. The N.F.L. said that neither Coach Sean Payton nor General Manager Mickey Loomis did anything to stop the bounties when they were made aware of them or when they learned of the league’s investigation. According to the league, Loomis did not even stop the bounties when ordered to by the tea

Pimps and Wimps

The wimpier Republicans are fleeing Flush Limbaugh's little adventure in calling a law student who testified before Congress a "slut" and volunteering to set himself up as her pimp. Never fear, though, little Stevie Landsburg Rushes in where logic, taste, and an understanding of the actual question at issue fear to tread. What the virginal Flush and Friend forget to mention is that their real beef is with the law, passed by our elected representatives, that mandate employer covered health-coverage, and the fact that Ms. Fluke had the temerity to defend it against certain moralist's attempts to carve out special exemptions to that law.

The Privilege of Being An American

Treasury Secretary Geithner happened to mention that rich Americans should expect to pay more taxes as part of the privilege of being American. Naturally this provoked a spasm of outrage from the Wall Street Journal, which took the form of this benighted nonsense from Larry Lindsey , an apparently dimwitted predecessor. Lindsey bases his attack on a concept of "privilege" unrooted in language, history, or law and a conflation of privilege with inalienable right. Mr. Lindsey seems unaware of the fact that root meaning of "privilege" is a special right granted by law but not available to all, or indeed of the fact that Jefferson never argued for an inalienable right of everyone to be an American or avoid taxes. Less than 5 % of the World's population has been accorded that first privilege, and we guard it jealously, but not jealously enough to have denied it to the WSJ's foreign born owner, a mistake which continues to bear evil fruit.