Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Da Music Critic

Written in the Stars by Tinie Tempah featuring Eric Turner is a very catchy song, but really, what excuse can there be for this kind of rhetorical (and astronomical) imprecision:

Oh written in the stars
A million miles away
A message to the main...

OK, there is one star several tens of millions of miles away, but the rest we see are at least tens or hundreds of trillions of miles away. And some doubt that hip hop is corrupting our youth.

Just sayin'.

Guilty by Reason of Insanity

Bobby Fisher did not appear to be psychotic. He didn't, apparently, hear voices or see visions. Nonetheless, his self-destructive pattern of behavior was clearly driven by paranoia combined with an apparent inability to judge or appreciate other people's points of view, and a fierce sense of entitlement. Somewhat similar peculiar behavior seems to have been found in a few crazy geniuses - Kurt Goedel, Grigori Perelman, and Alexander Groethendieck, for example.

My guess is that the underlying condition is something like Asperger's syndrome, but most with Asperger's don't appear to suffer the same kind of personal disintegration.


Since I'm pretty sure Obama, or at least Hillary, must read this blog, some principles of intervention:

1)If you intervene in a civil war, pick a side.

2)Make sure that side wins.


That is all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sticks and Stones

Chimpanzees have immense arm strength - far beyond the strongest body builders, so you might think a chimp with a rock is pretty dangerous. Only if they can hit you. They don't have control, and their aim is lousy. One of the things evolution seems to have devoted a lot of effort to in humans is developing our pitching skills. this strongly suggests that the development of missile weapons played a key part in making us human.

Republicans Love The Poor

They have made so many of them...

Monday, March 21, 2011

So Buy Australia Already

Dominic Tierney notes that the projected cost of the F-35 Lightning II is more than the GDP of Australia.

The F-35 is designed to be the core tactical fighter aircraft for the U.S. military, with three versions for the Air Force, Navy, and the Marine Corps. Each plane clocks in at around $90 million.

In a decade's time, the United States plans to have 15 times as many modern fighters as China, and 20 times as many as Russia.So, how many F-35s do we need?



Washington intends to buy 2,443, at a price tag of $382 billion.

Add in the $650 billion that the Government Accountability Office estimates is needed to operate and maintain the aircraft, and the total cost reaches a staggering $1 trillion.

In other words, we're spending more on this plane than Australia's entire GDP ($924 billion).

Given that this baby is certain to be made instantly obsolete by the more capable robo-fighters that China will be building for about $179.85 a copy, I say, what the hell, let's just buy Australia. It would be a great strategic platform on the upside down part of the world, and give Eli a convenient in-country place to test his toilet flushing theories. With any luck, Rupert Murdoch, finding himself back in Oz, might leave.

I can't imagine why any Australians might object ;)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

That's Going to Leave a Mark

Failed prophets had best not abuse the reputation they once had on Paul Krugman's watch:

Greenspan writes in characteristic form: other people may have their models, but he’s the wise oracle who knows the deep mysteries of human behavior, who can discern patterns based on his ineffable knowledge of economic psychology and history.

Sorry, but he doesn’t get to do that any more. 2011 is not 2006. Greenspan is an ex-Maestro; his reputation is pushing up the daisies, it’s gone to meet its maker, it’s joined the choir invisible.

He’s no longer the Man Who Knows; he’s the man who presided over an economy careening to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — and who saw no evil, heard no evil, refused to do anything about subprime, insisted that derivatives made the financial system more stable, denied not only that there was a national housing bubble but that such a bubble was even possible.

Kindle DX

I have a Kindle DX which I generally like, and for which I have gotten a number of books, but I do have some suggestions:

a)Having now used Kindle on PC and Android phone, the DX interface seems very clunky. Touchscreen please.

b)DX size (10.7") is too big - I should have bought the smaller regular Kindle.

c)Lack of color is is a significant handicap.

d)Still not enough technical books. A number of conversions to Kindle format are flawed, especially of equations.

e)Proprietary restrictions are a pain - Kindle books are not available from libraries, for example, unlike other formats.

I would like to buy an improved Kindle, but right now I'm thinking my next reader will be a Nook, an IPad, or an Android.

Air Power

It was pretty clear at this late date that denying Gaddafi the skies would not cut it. It seems that that lesson was well appreciated. From Karim Fahim's article in The New York Times:

The attack seemed to have come out of clear skies onto a field of wildflowers.

Littered across the landscape, some 30 miles south of Benghazi, the detritus of the allied airstrikes on Saturday and Sunday morning offered a panorama of destruction: tanks, charred and battered, their turrets blasted clean off, one with a body still caught in its remnants; a small Toyota truck with its roof torn away; a tank transporter still on fire. But it did not end there.

Full-scale war from the air.


Breathes there a man with soul so dead, that never to himself has said: I really need a 12-Inch Double-Bevel Slide Compound Miter Saw? And how about an inside-outside 11pc Snap Ring Plier Set?

To be sure, I was more than a little unclear on exactly what a snap ring was, but I wanted the pliers, darn it. And the saw thing, never mind that I would need to have a new garage/workshop built to house it.

I think that tool-love is a sort of primordial thing, going back to the first Acheulian hand axe, perhaps. Anyway, I find it strongest in the spring, perhaps a [mainly?] male version of the nesting instinct.

Changing His Mind

Andrew Sullivan was a big supporter of our war on Iraq. Libya, not so much. Under the headline Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb he quotes (blogger) Talleyrand:

Several European nations, the United States and a few token others have decided to intervene militarily in a civil war on the losing side, and just at the moment when these forces were on the verge of defeat.

The timing, indeed, was bizarre.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

What Next?

As of tonight it's not clear if intervention will have any effect on Gaddafi's reconquest of Libya. It came very late in the game - very possibly too late. More might be known tomorrow.

If the intervention fails, it will be a significant failure that will be easily laid at Obama's feet. His dithering not only increased the likelyhood of failure but probably also increased it's price - and not only for the Libyian people.


About big numbers, by Scott Aaronson, via Steve Landsburg.

Beyond ordinary notions of bigness, like exponentials and factorials, says Scott, lie more exotic numbers defined by recursive functions and Turing machines. These big numbers make my head hurt, for reasons also explained by Scott.

Whence the cowering before big numbers, then? Does it have a biological origin? In 1999, a group led by neuropsychologist Stanislas Dehaene reported evidence in Science that two separate brain systems contribute to mathematical thinking. The group trained Russian-English bilinguals to solve a set of problems, including two-digit addition, base-eight addition, cube roots, and logarithms. Some subjects were trained in Russian, others in English. When the subjects were then asked to solve problems approximately—to choose the closer of two estimates—they performed equally well in both languages. But when asked to solve problems exactly, they performed better in the language of their training. What’s more, brain-imaging evidence showed that the subjects’ parietal lobes, involved in spatial reasoning, were more active during approximation problems; while the left inferior frontal lobes, involved in verbal reasoning, were more active during exact calculation problems. Studies of patients with brain lesions paint the same picture: those with parietal lesions sometimes can’t decide whether 9 is closer to 10 or to 5, but remember the multiplication table; whereas those with left-hemispheric lesions sometimes can’t decide whether 2+2 is 3 or 4, but know that the answer is closer to 3 than to 9. Dehaene et al. conjecture that humans represent numbers in two ways. For approximate reckoning we use a ‘mental number line,’ which evolved long ago and which we likely share with other animals. But for exact computation we use numerical symbols, which evolved recently and which, being language-dependent, are unique to humans. This hypothesis neatly explains the experiment’s findings: the reason subjects performed better in the language of their training for exact computation but not for approximation problems is that the former call upon the verbally-oriented left inferior frontal lobes, and the latter upon the spatially-oriented parietal lobes.

One problem with the biggies is that they are hard to pin down. It's known that the sequence of so called Busy Beaver or BB numbers grows faster than any computable function, the first few are not so bad BB(1) = 1, BB(2) = 6, BB(3) = 21 and BB(4) = 107. It took mathematicians more than twenty years to calculate all these. Bigger BB numbers are not known, but it is known that:

Then, in 1989, Heiner Marxen and Jürgen Buntrock discovered that BB(5) is at least 47,176,870. To this day, BB(5) hasn’t been pinned down precisely, and it could turn out to be much higher still. As for BB(6), Marxen and Buntrock set another record in 1997 by proving that it’s at least 8,690,333,381,690,951.

All these biggies have their origin in the recursive properties of language. Of course it's also known that recursive thinking can lead to paradoxical conclusions.

The Human Touch

I needed to stop by the bank to pick up some cash for lunch and stuff, but I wasn't going that direction, so I decided to stop at a branch that I knew was on the way. Problem: a quick drive around failed to find the ATM. Well, there were several drive through lanes open so I decided to try one of them. I hadn't done this for a while, so I just sent my ATM card and asked for the money.

Not so simple. They sent back the little container thingy with some paperwork to fill out and a request for another form of ID. Sent it back with my driver's license. Oops again. I had forgotten to fill out a crucial line on the form. Sent the cylinder down the zoom zoom tube again, finally getting my money. Things get so complicated when people are involved.

This place will be much simpler once they manage to replace all of them.

Lee asked...

So is it your contention that the United States can obtain a desired result in the Middle East through the judicious use of military power? Sounds very much like the same argument the neocons make.

Obtaining desired results by military action in the Middle East, or at least North Africa, was a principal reason for the formation of the United States. After the American Revolution, when American merchants lost the protection of the British empire, our ships plying the Mediterreanean became a favorite prey for the Barbary pirates. Without the power to raise a navy, the Articles of Confederation left the States unable to defend the sea routes. That fact was a principal reason for the constitutional convention that created the US.

Hitler liked dogs. Me too. Paul Wolfwitz has an undergraduate degree in physics. Me too again. Despite these coincidences, I'm not a Nazi or a Neocon, but I do believe that the reason we have a military is to use it judiciously.

That puts a heavy weight on the word "judiciously." I believe that the Neocon war on Iraq was multiply injudicious - it was launched under false pretences, it was poorly prepared for, it was undertaken for specious goals, and no consideration was given to what to do once occupation had been achieved. Essentially all the blame for this monumental injudiciousness goes to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their idiot Neocon cheerleaders.

The Afghanistan war, by contrast, was launched for perfectly sensible reasons - revenge against bin Laden and elimination of his threat. Once again the Neocon idiots mucked it up by taking their eyes off the ball - and letting bin Laden escape - to pursue their aims of Middle Eastern empire.

Timing... comedy, is everything. It's also pretty critical in revolutions.

The first thing a revolution does is force people to choose sides. You may hate the current oppressive leader, but if he looks likely to win, the incentive to line up with, rather than against, him is large.

By waiting until Gaddafi was on the very brink of victory, the West may have ensured that every doubter has already lined up on his side in irrevocable fashion. This could produce the worst possible result - Gaddafi triumphant, with a convincing case that much of the whole kerfluffle was a foreign plot.

The West had better figure out how to keep Gaddafi from crushing Benghazi.

Friday, March 18, 2011


I may have mentioned that I'm studying Spanish, and that I have a demonstrated anti-talent for languages. For what it's worth, here are some of my experiences to date.

I started off with Rosetta Stone Latin American Spanish. It's expensive, so I only bought levels I and II. Probably un error, since when I later bought all five it was cheaper to buy I-V than III-V, or nearly so. Rosetta Stone calls their method dynamic immersion, and essentially all instruction is in Spanish. The idea is to learn as a child does, by a combination of context and point and say. For example, they will show a picture of an apple and display una manzana, while a native speaker is heard pronouncing it. You are confronted with a series of choices to pick, speak, or write, and correct answers get a more or less pleasing sound while wrong ones get an less pleasant one.

You need to learn pronunciation by imitation, a task that was difficult for me. There are some sonograms which I found very unhelpful. The lack of formal instruction in sound or grammar was a significant handicap for me, one that became more onerous as more tenses and other grammatical elaborations were introduced.

The strongest aspect of the lessons is the structure of the content - you learn the vocabulary and grammar most essential to the prospective traveller first. Another exceptionally useful aspect is continuous review. The computer keeps track of your progress and how long you have been away and schedules you appropriately. I have so far completed Level II, and made a resolution to finish III this year.

Why so unambitious? Well I decided that I really needed to go back and study some formal grammar and work on my vocabulary before I continued. I have now acquired several books on Spanish, a couple of which look really good. More on them later.

Needless to say comments, suggestions, and your own experiences are welcome.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


It's awfully late in the game, but now, it seems, we shall see. I'm still inclined to think that this was the better of the bad choices - but I shouldn't be surprised to be proven wrong. I think that there was a moment when a feather would have toppled Quaddafi, but now I fear that it will be much harder.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

James Reports From Japan

James Annan gives a blow by blow from somewhat outside the worst destruction.

It's a long, detailed post, but here are three excerpts:

We were just a few minutes outside Tsukuba when the earthquake struck. The first we knew was that the train started braking quite hard and announced that it was emergency braking. The train was swaying from side to side, so I initially wondered if there was a problem with the track, but the bouncing around got worse as we slowed and kept on after we stopped at which point the penny dropped. We had felt the 7.2 earthquake a couple of days before during the workshop, and had had a couple of large aftershocks in the night, so it wasn't too much out of the ordinary. I did wonder if the train was going to topple over sideways, and then I realised that the whole line was high up on stilts and that it might sting a bit if the whole shebang collapsed.

Fortunately he was in a country where the trains stop automatically when an earthquake happens - starting before the earthquake waves arrived.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, jules had enjoyed a comfortable earthquake in a one year old building built to the highest earthquake standards. Apparently built on some sort of sliding mechanism, the building feels very sensitive to minor quakes, but in a biggish one, slides beautifully smoothly. Nothing at all slid around inside the building. Not even a book, or a cup...

...Back in the primary school in the middle of nowhere, when we realised that no-one present knew much more than we did and that the cavalry was probably not coming to our immediate rescue, we decided just to set off to Tsukuba on foot. We reasoned that a big town with many hotels and restaurants was probably a better bet than small village with nothing, plus I know people who work and live around there so we reasoned we might find some more support. It was hard work to convince the head honcho that us three gaijin should just head off by ourselves into the night. "It's dark! Dangerous! You'll get lost" etc etc but anyone who's lived in Japan for any length of time will be quite used to hearing that sort of stuff every time they fail to follow the set routine in the approved manner. It was about 6km pretty much straight along a main road, mostly lit (it was a clear moonlit night too) and with a decent pavement, so was not actually a serious challenge...

Obama's Latest Sellout

Obama sold out Arab advocates of democracy, and he did it in the worst way possible - by speaking words that encouraged their struggle even as he fiddled until action was too late. I can't help but think this will return to bite us. We just announced to the world that every tinpot dictator can get away with anything with no consequences from us. How many Arabs are very likely to conclude tha la Quaeda is the only alternative?

I suppose he did it because the Saudis and (maybe) Israelis ordered it.

A Modest Budget Proposal

No role of Congress is more central than passing a budget: it's the first subject mentioned under powers of the Congress. From Article 1, section 8.

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

Lately, the Congress has proved singularly inept at this central task. I suggest a modification of the Constitution to provide that if Congress has so failed, by the end of the fourth week of the fiscal year, all members be summarily removed and made ineligible to hold any office of trust under the United States for four years.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nuclear Hazard in Japan

Luboš Motl has a nice post on what the units bandied about mean.

One vivid image:

Today, near the worst reactor building in Fukushima, they detected 400 millisieverts per hour: this figure was ultimately confirmed by IAEA (which was, until very recently, trying to downplay all radiation risks in Japan - a fact that may be related to the current Japanese leader of IAEA, Yukiya Amano). I want you - including all fellow big fans of nuclear energy - to understand that this is just a huge number. We have quantified one death to be 5 sieverts above: and the kids playing next to the reactor receive 0.4 sieverts per hour. Thank you, you're welcome.

If you spend twelve hours by playing in the vicinity of the worst reactor of the Fukushima power plant, you will probably die.

Nu ku lar

The big hazard of nuclear power has always been the fact that you wind up with an awful lot of highly radioactive material in one place. For that reason, nuclear power plants go to a lot of trouble to keep that highly radioactive material confined and contained. As of this writing, it is not clear that there has been a loss of containment in Japan, and it seems highly unlikely that a Chernobyl scale loss of containment could occur, but the current troubles do show that there are always more ways to go wrong than we expect.

I have generally been an advocate of nuclear power, but I have to admit that my faith has been shaken. Maybe these damned things are just too dangerous to tolerate.

The worst threat has always been that somebody with a nuclear weapon could set it off near a nuclear reactor. The resulting vaporization of the core could render hundreds of thousands of square miles uninhabitable and blight the futures of a generation of the hemisphere's children.

Monday, March 14, 2011

God's Plan

The Universe, say some, is unfolding according to God's plan.

What an asshole.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Third World America

There is a shocking contrast between Japan's response to an enormous catastrophe and the Bush Administration's response to the much lesser catastrophe of Katrina. Katrina was a catastrophe that had been anticipated for forty years, and was clearly on the radar screen for at least five days before landfall. If Japan's earthquake had happened in Bush's America, George would still be playing air guitar while his aides cowered at the prospect of interrupting his vacation - and Karl Rove gleefully rubbed his hands at the prospect of another Democratic stronghold drowning.

Seconds after the big quake in Japan, before the first Earthquake waves had reached Tokyo, alarms were going off all over Japan, trains were being brought atomatically to a stop, and people in harm's way had a few precious minutes to flee to higher ground. Nothing like that exists in the United States, and our Republican Congress is working diligently to dismantle the feeble and obsolete manual Tsunami warning system that we do have.

Obama's Rwanda?

As a President who inherited two idiotic "tar baby" interventions from his predecessor, Obama is reluctant to launch on any more, but the current turmoil in African and the Middle East seems different. In each case, a major indigenous revolt against an oppressive dictator has been launched, and in each case Obama has dillied and dallied on the sidelines, speaking out of both sides of his mouth, afraid to take sides. In Tunisia and Egypt, that didn't stop the rebels.

The situation in Libya seems different. It looks like the people are largely against Qaddafi, but Qaddafi has modern weapons and has used them ruthlessly. Obama speaks nonsense about "tightening the noose" on Qaddafi but seems paralyzed at the thought of going beyond empty rhetoric. Most signs indicate that the slaughter of Benghazi will begin soon.

The fight against Qaddafi will continue, but next time rebels there and elsewhere will look elsewhere for inspiration - perhaps to al Queada.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

...the Savage Breast?

Chris Brown is a multi-genre singer whose career took a serious southward turn in June of 2009 when he pleaded guilty to felony assault on his girl friend and fellow singer Rihanna. He was rightly condemned for his actions, but the plot gets slightly thicker.

Rihanna was already a star, but she has since become even bigger. The oddity is that two of her monster hits have celebrated the pleasures of sado-machochism.

From "Love the Way You Lie:"

Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that's alright
Because I like
The way it hurts
Just gonna stand there
And hear me cry
But that's alright
Because I love
The way you lie...

And from S&M:

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But chains and whips excite me

Now songs aren't necessarily autobiographical (and Rihanna didn't write them). And you shouldn't beat your girlfriend up just because she says (or sings) that she likes it - but it does cast a somewhat different light on Chris Brown.

Both songs, BTW, are incredibly catchy.

Strategic Aerial Warfare: Pakistan

From the Newsweek story: Inside the Killing Machine

It was an ordinary-looking room located in an office building in northern Virginia. The place was filled with computer monitors, keyboards, and maps. Someone sat at a desk with his hand on a joystick. John A. Rizzo, who was serving as the CIA’s acting general counsel, hovered nearby, along with other people from the agency. Together they watched images on a screen that showed a man and his family traveling down a road thousands of miles away. The vehicle slowed down, and the man climbed out.

A moment later, an explosion filled the screen, and the man was dead. “It was very businesslike,” says Rizzo. An aerial drone had killed the man, a high-level terrorism suspect, after he had gotten out of the vehicle, while members of his family were spared. “The agency was very punctilious about this,” Rizzo says. “They tried to minimize collateral damage, especially women and children.”

Such is the nature of Obama's drone war in Pakistan. The selectivity of killing only the suspected terrorists rather than their whole family or village seems humane somehow, but it also doesn't seem to work. It's part of an old familiar story. Air power has repeatedly proven its decisive effect in support of ground troops, but Air Forces fell in love with the idea of strategic bombing in World War II.

Thus the Germans pounded British cities, and Britain and the US later returned the favor with interest, but when the results were analyzed the strategic effectiveness was slight. We heard the same story in Vietnam - all we need to do is multiply the amount of ordinance by some large number and it would work. Again in Iraq, shock and awe was supposed to do the job. The result was always the same - the air war proved far more effective at pissing people off than at weakening their will or ability to fight.

The UAV is a far more selective weapon, but the results don't seem any different. The net result has been to greatly strengthen the Pakistani elements most hostile to the United States.

Captain Meteo: Sandstorms and All That

One of those little puzzles with which fluids professors like to annoy and edify their students goes like this: the velocity of a fluid drops to zero at a solid interface, so how do winds propel, pick up and fling dust motes, sand grains, pebbles and larger objects?

Captain Meteo will offer two looks at this. If we consider this purely as a Newtonian fluids problem, we need to remember that stress depends not on velocity but on velocity gradient, so that even though the velocity drops to zero at the surface, the velocity gradient doesn’t.

Does this still sound a bit funky to you? Should it? Consider a molecular point of view. The molecules of that fluid are busy jostling each other at pretty high speeds – hundreds of meters per second at room temperature. If the fluid is in motion, there is superposed on that jostling a general drift, and when that fluid flows over a solid surface, we know from experiment that there is a velocity gradient in the mean flow near the surface.

The molecules have motions transverse to the flow as well as parallel to it. Consequently, they are constantly wandering from their “lanes” to collide with other objects. Those closer to the wall collide with it more frequently, transferring momentum with each collision. These collisions tend to equalize momentum between fluid and wall. Of course these molecules are busy colliding with their neighbors, with the net effect of transferring momentum from the flow to the wall. Note that this transfer depends on the fact that the molecules actually hitting the wall come from a place where there actually is momentum along the wall – in other words from somewhere the fluid velocity is not zero. This is because actual molecules have finite size and spend most of their time at least a small distance from the wall. The average longitudinal velocity of molecules goes to zero as one approaches the wall, but the actual molecules hitting the wall *do* have average longitudinal velocity – and that’s the funky point.

Of course we have talked only about longitudinal forces only. For transverse velocities, not only the velocities but the gradients go to zero at the wall. So how do you get that sand grain into the air? You push it along the ground until some collision bounces it up high enough so that it can get caught up in some general motion.

For the more ambitious student: how do the foregoing arguments help us understand why superfluids have zero viscosity?

[Hint: think about transverse momentum]

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

About That Day Job...

This blogger says: I Bet You Paul Krugman Can’t Do This - but I don't know - Krugman seems pretty fit.


Matt Damon recently noted that he had given up on seeing any audacity from Obama. His decision to run for President, with hardly any revelant experience was certainly audacious, but he seems to have spent every last cent of his audacity there.

To be sure, he inherited terrible problems not of his making. Unfortunately, it seems that he has always been cautious where boldness was needed - on the economy, on Iraq and Afghanistan, and now on the turbulent events in Africa and the Middle East.

While he dithered, Quaddafi has had time to regroup, muster his superior firepower, and now looks like a plausible winner in his civil war.

His timidity on every issue makes him look like a weak President. Maybe he needs to read some Hamlet -

...and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought....

Social Security

There are few things that Republicans hate more than Social Security. It's the number one or two remaining bulwark of the American middle class against reduction to the kind of penury that conservatives think everybody else deserves. There number one ploy in their war against SS is the claim that the system is broke - when in fact it is actuarially one of the soundest programs that the government has. I was talking to a couple of friends at lunch today and they were oh so concerned that something be done to reduce social security benefits. These guys are not idiots - they have five physical science degrees among them - but they have swallowed the nonsense that the US cannot afford to pay back the money that it has borrowed from the SS trust fund.

The idea of borrowing from the Social Security trust fund was cooked up by Alan Greenspan and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The claim then was that they were putting away money for the funds future. The real purpose was to pay for the tax cuts Reagan gave to the rich and his vast expansion of the military.

Now that payback time approaches, the heirs of these policies are saying "just kidding, you middle and working class suckers, we don't really intend to pay you back." The whole scam was an enormous transfer of wealth from the middle and working class to the rich, and the rich like it that way, and they have the trillions (literally) to buy enough politicians to try to pull it off.

If Americans let them get away with that, we are probably too dumb to be saved.

Too bad we don't have a Democrat in the White House. A real one, I mean.


So the Repubs decided to dump the quorum requiring budget bill and just pass the Union targetting parts of the bill. At least that makes their priorities clear.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Reader, They Fired Him

(with apologies to Ms. Bronte)

First They Came for the Lawyers...

OK, not really first. Weavers, spinners, and auto workers were way ahead of them, but now it seems that the robots are picking on the lawyers.

When five television studios became entangled in a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS, the cost was immense. As part of the obscure task of “discovery” — providing documents relevant to a lawsuit — the studios examined six million documents at a cost of more than \$2.2 million, much of it to pay for a platoon of lawyers and paralegals who worked for months at high hourly rates.

But that was in 1978. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. In January, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than \$100,000.

Lawyers aren't the only ones, says Paul Krugman. We are seeing the value of advanced education declining as more and more jobs thought to require a college education are being taken over by computers.

And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design. More broadly, the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.

The fact is that since 1990 or so the U.S. job market has been characterized not by a general rise in the demand for skill, but by “hollowing out”: both high-wage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs — the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class — have lagged behind. And the hole in the middle has been getting wider: many of the high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have seen much slower growth recently, even as growth in low-wage employment has accelerated.

I'm inclined to think that we ain't seen nothin' yet. Robots, computers and the net can plausibly replace humans in everything from flying planes and driving trucks to teaching school over the next ten to fifteen years.

I'd Like to Thank...

It's been my experience that when something intellectual really irritates me, there is a significant chance that my brain is telling me that I'm missing something.
So it has been with Libertarianism. It has always been repellent to my deepest instincts, but I keep coming back to see if I really might be missing something important. I would like to thank Tyler Cowen and (especially) Steve Landsburg for relieving me of that worry.

Not that I'm implying that Tyler Cowen isn't worthwhile - just the opposite - but he gets wack too when he gets libertarian.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Strategic Oil Reserve

Every time gasoline prices rise, we hear calls to tap the strategic oil reserve. With few exceptions, this makes no sense. In particular, it makes no sense when we are faced with a long term shortage or likely long term shortage. Allowing Americans to keep wasting oil at cheap prices merely postpones and aggravates the inevitable reckoning. Americans need to face up to the fact that we don't control the price of oil and are at the mercy of unpredictable and unstable foreign regimes until we can achieve something like energy independence.

The Good Old Days

Back in my youth, when every other weekend seemed to bring a new particle yet unexplained - this was before the standard model, before the quark, and even before the eight-fold way - particle physics seemed a vast unexplored jungle. Today's particle physics, by comparison, seems unbearably humdrum, with nearly every tree and bush mapped to the millimeter and promised discoveries always being pushed to the next horizon.

Maybe the field isn't quite dead yet. Lumo brings word of a new effect that might be significant. A hint of a new particle?

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Charlie Sheen is an Scumbag Who Routinely Beats Up Women and Ought to Be Locked Up

Anna Holmes makes the case in an NYT Op-Ed.

FORTY-THREE minutes into his “special live edition” with Charlie Sheen on Monday night, Piers Morgan finally got around to asking his guest a real question. Before that, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Sheen had mostly traded chuckles and anecdotes about multiday benders, inflated network salaries and meet-ups in Aspen, Colo. But then, after three commercial breaks, Mr. Morgan inquired, “Have you ever hit a woman?”

Sheen denied it, says Holmes, and Morgan didn't pursue. His record says otherwise, she says, and puts in some details.

Our inertia is not for lack of evidence. In 1990, he accidentally shot his fiancée at the time, the actress Kelly Preston, in the arm. (The engagement ended soon after.) In 1994 he was sued by a college student who alleged that he struck her in the head after she declined to have sex with him. (The case was settled out of court.) Two years later, a sex film actress, Brittany Ashland, said she had been thrown to the floor of Mr. Sheen’s Los Angeles house during a fight. (He pleaded no contest and paid a fine.)

In 2006, his wife at the time, the actress Denise Richards, filed a restraining order against him, saying Mr. Sheen had shoved and threatened to kill her. In December 2009, Mr. Sheen’s third wife, Brooke Mueller, a real-estate executive, called 911 after Mr. Sheen held a knife to her throat. (He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation.) Last October, another actress in sex films, Capri Anderson, locked herself in a Plaza Hotel bathroom after Mr. Sheen went on a rampage. (Ms. Anderson filed a criminal complaint but no arrest was made.) And on Tuesday, Ms. Mueller requested a temporary restraining order against her former husband, alleging that he had threatened to cut her head off, “put it in a box and send it to your mom.” (The order was granted, and the couple’s twin sons were quickly removed from his home.) “Lies,” Mr. Sheen told People magazine.

Sheen gets away with it because he's rich, powerful, and has powerful enablers like Morgan and his CBS bosses, and yes, especially, Sheen's current target, Chuck Lorre. Lorre and his writers created the lovable scamp Charlie Harper behind whom the far more sinister real Charlie Sheen hides.

Holmes argues, convincingly, I think, that Sheen's habitual abusiveness is part of a pattern where society tacitly allows rich and powerful men to abuse lower status women.

Whatever his pathology, his recent mania symptoms suggest that he might be in a more dangerous phase. It's highly plausible that he might kill somebody else before he kills himself.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Defining Moments

Via Daniel Indiviglio.

It seem that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was before some Congressional committee, when Ron Paul asks him how he would define the dollar. Now one good reason I would never suceed in politics is that I think a stupid question deserves a stupid answer. So here's's top three.

1. a paper money, silver or cupronickel coin, and monetary unit of the United States, equal to 100 cents. Symbol: $
2. a silver or nickel coin and monetary unit of canada, equal to 100 cents. Symbol: $
3. any of the monetary units of various other nations, as australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Fiji, Guyana, Hong Kong, jamaica, Liberia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, and Zimbabwe, equal to 100 cents.

Bernanke, of course, knows that a gold-plated wack job like Paul would take offense at this kind of blunt honesty, so he offers:

My definition of the dollar is what it can buy. Consumers don't want to buy gold; they want to buy food, and gasoline, and clothes and all the other things that are in the consumer basket. It is the buying power of the dollar in terms of those goods and services that is what is important, and that's what I call price stability.

Not a definition of course, and certainly not what Paul wants. His reptilian mind can only grasp money if it's convertible into some stack of heavy metal.

Indiviglio isn't impressed either, but I had a similar impression of his thoughts.

What Paul (and Indiviglio) seem to be worried about is the question of how we can have faith in the stable value of money when it's based on arcane calculations of the Federal Reserve, rather than in something very concrete. Ultimately, the value of the dollar is based on a very complex set of actions of a whole horde of people: the ability and willingness of American people and American businesses to produce products the world wants, willingness of Congress to collect enough of the wealth produced to finance government costs, and the ability and willingness of the Fed to maintain price stability.

Scary stuff, since the parties of the first two parts are not doing so hot on holding up their ends. The alternatives, though, or at least Ron Paul's gold standard, has been tried, and found greviously wanting. It's a complicated world. Live with it or get off.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Gateway

Calculus is the gateway to math, engineering, and the sciences. It's hard for me to consider anyone educated who doesn't know at least a little. It's a forbiddingly fortified gateway though. Typical calculus texts these days have 1300 pages or so and weigh and cost roughly as much as a Mercedes S600.

Could that be overkill? I mean there are only one or two real ideas in calculus - the rest is technology.


Blogger Fuel

Winston Churchill was once asked why he got into politics. He said:

Ambition , sheer naked ambition.

So having scaled the political heights, why did he stay in politics? The answer.

Anger, sheer naked anger.

I believe that there is a similar logic in blogging - at least for me. Nothing gets my fingers tapping and typing like some outrage begging to be refuted. Once again, Steve Landsburg is kind enough to provide that fuel. As usual, he is happy enough to throw up any kind of nonsense and pronounce it convincing - provided it fits his prejudices.

The question is, are public sector workers overpaid. I don't wan't to take a stand on that, since I'm pretty sure some are and others aren't. It's his abuse of logic that pisses me off.

Here are his two arguments:

Public-sector quit rates are roughly one-third of their private-sector counterparts. The obvious explanation is that public-sector jobs are generally too cushy to walk away from. It seems to me that it would be hard to account for that factor of three in any other way...


If you cut the pay of an overpaid worker, he’ll generally scream bloody murder. After all, overpaid workers like to stay overpaid. But if you cut the pay of a non-overpaid worker, you haven’t really damaged him. He just quietly leaves and gets a job elsewhere. After all, the ability to find a comparable job elsewhere is pretty much the definition of not being overpaid.

Now how are the Wisconsin public workers reacting to projected pay and/or benefit cuts? As if the rug’s been pulled out from under them, that’s how. Every time a worker says “These cuts will cause me severe pain”, that worker is saying, in effect, “I can’t get anyone else to pay me at the level I’m accustomed to”, or, in briefer words, “I am overpaid!”.

So yes, they’re overpaid. And the louder they get, the surer you can be.

His second argument might make sense in his twisted market of perfect efficiency version of economics, but it is still deeply dishonest, because it completely ignores two key facts (a)that the protesters have agreed to the pay cuts asked of them and (b) they aren't protesting about that - they are protesting the Governor's attempt to take away their collective bargaining rights.

Of course Landsburg doesn't believe in unions, so he finds it more convenient to ignore the fact and spout dishonest nonsense.

His second argument is mostly just dishonest, but the first is a more fundamental assault on the science of economics. It's offensive because it substitutes speculation (that quit rate is a good estimate of overcompensation) for investigation. Here are a few things an honest scientist would have checked: What factors are experimentally correlated with quit rate? What are quit rates in various occupational groups? Do quit rates vary by occupation or education? What are quit rates among college professors, say? How does the government workforce compare in education and demographics with the private work force?

Most obvious to me is the structure of compensation. Certain occupations, including CEOs and military professionals have compensation packages that tend to strongly reward staying around, like retirement packages and benefits contingent on completing some minimum term of service. Most public service employees have compensation packages structured thusly - stick around twenty-five or thirty years and get a nice pension - leave early and get nothing. That a pretty powerful anti-quitting incentive.

You can quibble about the wisdom of structuring compensation thusly, but ignoring the fact of it is either stupid or dishonest.

And yes, I probably am an idiot for continuing to read him.

A Rush Democrats Can Admire

Rush Holt

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ)proved on Monday that man can still dominate machine -- as long as that man is a trained rocket scientist and former five-day Jeopardy! champ.

Holt defeated IBM supercomputer "Watson" in a round of the game show. Take that, robot overlords!

Holt was actually a plasma physicist.

One of the Smarter Republicans

Mike Huckabee, via Andrew Sullivan

One thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, very different than the average American ... his perspective as growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather, their view of the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British are a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather."

That's Entertainment

In less civilized times, so I have heard, insane people used to be paraded through the streets and put on display for the entertainment of the less insane.

If you think we have gone beyond that, you probably haven't been following television infotainment. A guy with obvious symptoms of a manic psychotic break is on display everywhere (NBC, ABC, etc). Here is a list of classic symptoms:

■Extreme optimism
■Inflated self-esteem
■Poor judgment
■Rapid speech
■Racing thoughts
■Aggressive behavior
■Agitation or irritation
■Increased physical activity
■Risky behavior
■Spending sprees or unwise financial choices
■Increased drive to perform or achieve goals
■Increased sex drive
■Decreased need for sleep
■Inability to concentrate
■Careless or dangerous use of drugs or alcohol
■Frequent absences from work or school
■Delusions or a break from reality (psychosis)
■Poor performance at work or school

Charlie Sheen seems to be roughly eighteen for eighteen. If he can't be institutionalized, his exes ought to at least try to protect their children.