Sunday, March 01, 2015

More of the Same

Political murder is a hallmark of the Putin era. Balazs Penz has a rundown for Bloomberg.

One of Our Robots is Missing

It's Rumelia, of course. Rumelia is our Roomba vacuuming robot. She is maddeningly inefficient in her vacuuming patterns, but she does love those places I never vacuumed before I had a robot - under the couch, under desks, under any heavy piece of furniture.

That's where we will probably find her - out of juice and asleep.

More Nemtsov

Lumo points out that Nemtsov was a physicist before politics.

Michael Birnbaum, writing in The Washington Post, notes that the location of the assassination, Red Square, is always blanketed with a heavy security presence. How could the murder have taken place and escaped the notice at the doorstep of the Kremlin?

Authorities announced they were investigating a slew of possibilities, none of which included what Putin critics said was a primary suspect: the Kremlin itself. Many in the opposition reasoned that, at minimum, the security services that blanket Red Square must have had advance warning of Nemtsov’s fate.

One can at least imagine that a highly placed security official plotted the crime just to discredit Putin - but the near certainty of being caught would be a big deterrent.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Novel Experience

So far as I can recall, I've read eight novels in the last 18 months or so, seven of them in the last 18 days. They include three SF novels and three John Le Carre Smiley novels, the first three, and I have become an addict. This little binge seems to have been prompted by getting the flu, despite a flu shot, and subsequently contracting pneumonia. The flu didn't seem to make me very sick, but the pneumonia sapped every bit of my physical and especially intellectual strength. I sort of felt like I had gotten too stupid to read anything heavier than a short, light novel.

One of the best things about the Le Carre novels is the author's short introductions, which tell a little about his remembered state of mind when he wrote them.

I'd like to read more, but I had best get back to my edX computer science class, in which I had accumulated enough points for a minimal C before I got sick, but haven't done anything since.

Motive, Opportunity, History

All point to Putin, but other suspects can't quite be ruled out. Andrew E. Kramer, writing in the NYT, has some background.

MOSCOW — About two weeks before he was shot and killed in the highest-profile political assassination in Russia in a decade, Boris Y. Nemtsov met with an old friend to discuss his latest research into what he said was dissembling and misdeeds in the Kremlin.

He was, as always, pugilistic and excited, saying he wanted to publish the research in a pamphlet to be called “Putin and the War,” about President Vladimir V. Putin and Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict, recalled Yevgenia Albats, the editor of New Times magazine. Both knew the stakes.

Mr. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, knew his work was dangerous but tried to convince her that, as a former high official in the Kremlin, he enjoyed immunity, Ms. Albats said.

“He was afraid of being killed,” Ms. Albats said. “And he was trying to convince himself, and me, they wouldn’t touch him because he was a member of the Russian government, a vice premier, and they wouldn’t want to create a precedent. Because as he said, one time the power will change hands in Russia again, and those who served Putin wouldn’t want to create this precedent.”

Putin or his spokespople had an imaginative list of suspects:

Russian authorities said on Saturday that one line of investigation would be to examine whether Mr. Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former first deputy prime minister and longtime leader of the opposition, had become a “sacrificial victim” to rally support for opponents of the government, the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement.

The economic crisis provoked by the collapse of oil prices, with a minor assist from Western sanctions, is already causing some economic pain, not least for the crony capitalists that form a hard core of Putin support.

This comes as analysts of Russian politics say the Kremlin could be worried about, and intent on discouraging, further defections to the opposition, given reported high-level schisms between hard-liners and liberals over military and economic policy. The government is already under strain from Russia’s unacknowledged involvement in the war in Ukraine and runaway inflation in an economic crisis.

A high profile murder might be considered a good way to discourage "further defections."

About that research and pamphlet. Will we now ever see it?

Nemtsov: Final Interview

Via Brad DeLong. For those with eyes to see, this interview has plenty of reasons for Putin and his corrupt associates to want Nemtsov dead. Of course we don't know who ordered the hit, or even whether it was explicitly ordered - maybe somebody just mumbled "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?".

...People see what this crazy politics led to, they see widespread corruption, they have firsthand experience with the inadequacy of the state. But they still believe in the leader because for the past several years, the leader was doing one thing very well: He was brainwashing the Russians. He implanted them with a virus of inferiority complex towards the West, the belief that the only thing we can do to amaze the world is use force, violence and aggression. [Putin] programmed my countrymen to hate strangers. He persuaded them that we need to rebuild the former Soviet order, and that the position of Russia in the world depends entirely on how much the world is afraid of us. He managed to do all these things with Goebbels-style propaganda.... The responsibility for spilling both Russian and Ukrainian blood... lies not only with Putin, but also with such gentlemen as Konstantin Ernst [director general of Channel One] or Dmitry Kiselyov [head of the new, Russian-government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya]. They operate in accordance with the simple principles of Joseph Goebbels: Play on the emotions; the bigger the lie, the better; lies should be repeated many times. This propaganda is directed to the simple men; there is no room for any questions, nuances. Unfortunately, it works.... We need to work as quickly as possible to show the Russians that there is an alternative, that Putin’s policy leads to degradation and a suicide of the state. There is less and less time to wake up...

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Thuggocracy That Is Russia

Russians who criticize Putin have a way of dying violently.

Boris Nemtsov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal and visible opponents was shot and killed near Moscow’s Red Square today, a member of his political party told ABC News.

Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader, was shot multiple times in the back as he walked by a bridge near the Kremlin late Friday night, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee.

Russian news reports said that Nemtsov was walking with a female companion when a white car pulled up and fired on him before fleeing the scene.

Don't expect this to discourage the enthusiasm of his fan club.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Contrarians, Crackpots, and Crooks

Contrarians play a significant role in science. Sometimes those who are willing to take an unpopular point of view have a point that's needed to wake up everybody else. Of course they are often completely wrong and even a bit nuts. Crackpots, on the other hand, are people of strong opinions who really have no idea what they are talking about, and contribute only noise to any discussion. At the rotten end of contrarian opinion are those who dishonestly present phony science in exchange for money. I just call them crooks. It's not necessarily easy to always tell the flavors apart.

The saga of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon fits somewhere along this spectrum, and recent revelations have not been kind. Soon is one of the favorite scientists of various climate denialists, speaking frequently to conservative groups, Congress, and other crackpots. He is now accused of failing to disclose conflicts of interest in various papers despite journal rules and ethical standards requiring such disclosure. Harvard-Smithsonian is charged with accepting money from energy industry interests which comes with unethical non-disclosure and prior review agreements.

Some details from the NYT here, the Washington Post here, and the Guardian here, plus an NPR story here. Naturally the right-wing wind machine has entered the lists as well.

From the NYT:

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

That "deliverables" word would seem to make clear that the work in question was a clear quid pro quo, rather than a considered scientific judgement.

From the Guardian:

A prominent academic and climate change denier’s work was funded almost entirely by the energy industry, receiving more than $1.2m from companies, lobby groups and oil billionaires over more than a decade, newly released documents show.

Over the last 14 years Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, received a total of $1.25m from Exxon Mobil, Southern Company, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and a foundation run by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the documents obtained by Greenpeace through freedom of information filings show.

According to the documents, the biggest single funder was Southern Company, one of the country’s biggest electricity providers that relies heavily on coal.

The documents draw new attention to the industry’s efforts to block action against climate change – including President Barack Obama’s power-plant rules.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Krugman on Music/Bankers

PK for today:

Basically, musicians are just like bankers, except for the business about saving our souls versus destroying them.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Business and Islamist Politics

Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, this paper suggesting that one reason for the success of Islamist parties in regions of social upheaval and civil war is their effects on the business class. The un-gated abstract:

In civil wars across the world, certain Islamist groups have competed exceptionally well against their rivals. The conventional wisdom points to either religion or ethnic politics to explain Islamist success. These ideological and identity-based explanations, however, tend to overlook the powerful economic influence that the local business class has over civil war outcomes. Civil war can be modeled as a market for security, wherein protection must be purchased from multiple substate rackets. Using this market model, a close investigation of the Somali case reveals why and under what conditions the interests of the profit-driven business class align with those of ideologically motivated Islamist groups. Security costs are of critical importance to businesses in a civil war, and Islamists are uniquely competitive in lowering these costs. The business-Islamist alliance is therefore driven by rational, economic considerations, which can contribute to the rise of Islamist power.

NFL vs. Second Law of Thermodynamics

Jason Lisk, whoever that may be, takes some anonymous NFL scout to task for bad thermodynamics. The alleged misuse, re Jemais Winston, Florida State QB and 2013 Heisman winner with a checkered past:

“Someone will take him in the first round, but how could you even let that guy in the building?” another scout said. “The second law of thermodynamics basically is the more ways something can happen, the more likely it is to happen. That’s true of players. The more ways they can (expletive) up, the more chances they (expletive) up. This guy’s got a lot of stuff that would lean him more likely to be a bust than a good player.”

Mr. Lisk seems pretty sure that:

Yeah, that’s not what the second law of thermodynamics basically says, but this scout’s take on entropy is quite refreshing.

Actually, for a non-technical summary, I think the scout's version is pretty good. The second law really can be interpreted in terms of the tendency of systems to occupy all of the available (coarse-grained) phase space.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bush World III

Maureen Dowd reminds us what happened last time we let the Bushies take us to the dance, and points out the Jeb Bush's pool of advisors is filled with the same rotten apples that led us to war and disaster last time around.

WASHINGTON — I had been keeping an open mind on Jeb Bush.

I mean, sure, as Florida governor, he helped his brother snatch the 2000 election. And that led to two decade-long botched wars that cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The nation will be dealing for a long time with struggling veterans and the loss of American prestige. Not to mention that W. let Wall Street gamble away the economy, which is only now finally creeping back.

Dowd is no friend of Hillary, but her enthusiasm for the Bushes is no greater.

Like the Clintons, the Bushes drag the country through national traumas that spring from their convoluted family dynamic and then disingenuously wonder why we concern ourselves with their family dynamic.

So who is advising Bush III?

W. was a boy king, propped up by regents supplied by his father. Since he knew nothing about foreign affairs, his father surrounded him with his own advisers: Colin Powell, Condi Rice and Dick Cheney, who joined up with his pal Donald Rumsfeld and absconded with W.’s presidency.

Jeb, too, wanted to bolster his negligible foreign policy cred, so the day of his speech, his aide released a list of 21 advisers, 19 of whom had worked in the administrations of his father and his brother. The list starts with the estimable James Baker. But then it shockingly veers into warmongers.

It’s mind-boggling, but there’s Paul Wolfowitz, the unapologetic designer of the doctrine of unilateralism and pre-emption, the naïve cheerleader for the Iraq invasion and the man who assured Congress that Iraqi oil would pay for the country’s reconstruction and that it was ridiculous to think we would need as many troops to control the country as Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, suggested.

There’s John Hannah, Cheney’s national security adviser (cultivated by the scheming Ahmed Chalabi), who tried to stuff hyped-up junk on Saddam into Powell’s U.N. speech and who harbored bellicose ambitions about Iran; Stephen Hadley, who let the false 16-word assertion about Saddam trying to buy yellowcake in Niger into W.’s 2003 State of the Union; Porter Goss, the former C.I.A. director who defended waterboarding.