Friday, July 31, 2015

More On Cecilicide And Public Shaming

Public shaming in the age of social media has created lynch mobs on a scale never before seen. Public shaming has always been terrible punishment for most people - so terrible that our legal system largely abandoned it. Global social media has multiplied its scope and impact immensely. Consider again the case of American Dentist Walter Palmer.

Via Kevin Drum, From Max Fisher in Vox.

When an American dentist named Walter Palmer killed a beloved lion named Cecil, the social media platforms that allowed outraged web users to spread the story also enabled them to do more than just fume. It gave them the power to act on their anger, to reach into Palmer's life and punish him for what he'd done, without having to wait for the wheels of more formal justice to turn.

Web users uncovered Palmer's personal information, including about his family, and published it online. They went after his business, a private dental practice, posting thousands of negative reviews on Yelp and other sites. The practice has since shut down. Users also went after professional websites that host his profile, leading the sites to remove his information. On Twitter and on his practice's public Facebook page, people made threats of physical violence.

This should look familiar: It is the same set of tactics that has been used in online harassment campaigns such as the "Gamergate" movement that targeted women in technology, or the seemingly endless online harassment conducted against female journalists. It is a growing trend of internet mob justice, one that often bleeds into real-world harassment with real-world consequences.

We as a society deemed campaigns such as Gamergate unacceptable and rejected their proponents as harassers who crossed the line. But because we all agree that we dislike Palmer, the campaign against him has so far been deemed acceptable, even funny or laudable.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

For Chris Matthews

I caught Chris Mathews inveighing against the Republicans who called Donald Trump "classless" the other day.

"What does that even mean?", he asked.

Uncouth. Lacking in education, manners, and refinement. Crude. Coarse. Rude. Boorish. Obnoxious. Uncivilized, uncultured, uncultivated, unrefined, Bush-league, common, plebeian, low, rough, loutish, oafish, churlish, uncivil, impolite, discourteous, disrespectful, unmannerly, bad-mannered, ill-bred, indecorous, crass, indelicate; vulgar, crude.

Chris probably doesn't know most of those words either, but if he gets stuck, he can look in the mirror and point at the reflection.


Catherine Thompson of TPM has a mini piece on New Hampshire Trump supporters.

I'm not sure what to make of it, except that they are pretty ignorant, very angry, and want somebody as pissed off as they are.

Pretty sure that's while people voted for Hitler.


I'm not a big fan of trophy hunting (or any kind of fan of trophy hunting, for that matter), but the fury against the dentist who poached the lion they call Cecil may be a bit of an overreach. Hunting is not only a basic human instinct, but it's also mainly legal.

Of course if he has some culpability in the poaching (luring a collared animal from the game preserve), then go ahead - throw the book at him. But leave his family alone.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Jonathan Pollard

After thirty years in the clink, Israeli Spy Jonathan Pollard is getting out. I recall attending a bar mitzvah a decade or more ago where the rabbi interrupted the service to implore the audience to petition their politicians to work for his release, and he explained that Pollard had done nothing to harm the US. I barely restrained my impulse to stand up and shout "Bullshit!"

Pollard gave away key US secrets, and they made their way to Moscow as well as Tel Aviv - and whatever his religious motives he got paid for it.

Fred Kaplan has the story in Slate:

At his sentencing hearing, Pollard, who’d been a U.S. Navy intelligence official, painted himself as a devout Jew who’d stolen classified documents dealing only with Arab military might in order to help Israel stave off an invasion; none of his actions, he claimed, harmed American security.

Judge Aubrey Robinson Jr. called Pollard to the bench, showed him a classified affidavit that the Department of Defense had submitted, listing the range of sensitive secrets that he’d stolen, pointed to one of the items, and said, “What about this?” Pollard was silenced. Robinson sentenced him to life.

We now know (and M.E. Bowman, a senior counterintelligence officer who was working the Pollard case, has since confirmed) that the item in question was a National Security Agency manual called the RASIN, short for “Radio Signal Notations.” The RASIN was a guide to the physical parameters of every radio signal that the NSA was intercepting—a guide on how the NSA was tracking military communications, not just Israel’s but any and every country’s, including the Soviet Union’s. The RASIN was 10 volumes, and Pollard gave his Israeli handlers every single page of it.

An article by Seymour Hersh, in the Jan. 18, 1999, issue of the New Yorker, titled “The Traitor,” listed some other beyond-top-secret documents—among the tens of thousands—that Pollard had stolen and sold. They included the “National SIGINT Requirements List” (SIGINT standing for Signals Intelligence), which revealed which communications channels of which military powers, in which regions, the NSA was intercepting in what order of priority. In other words, it would give the reader a heads up on where and what actions the U.S. military might take next.

I can think of a number of worse traitors, but he was bad enough.

Monday, July 27, 2015


"A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself...........Joseph Campbell"

I saw that quote on the back of a Special Forces tee-shirt while waiting for a burger at the local Five Guys. It made me think of the dispute over Donald Trump's claim that John McCain was not a war hero. Hero is one of those words with lots of meanings, and the Special Forces/Joseph Campbell version is a pretty rigorous one, seemingly implying that there are no live heroes. In any case, John McCain is a man who repeatedly went into deadly danger for his country, and paid a huge price for it. It's good enough for the hero designation in a lot of vocabularies.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a guy who coasted through that war on deferments. So whether McCain makes that tough hero standard or not, Trump pretty clearly is utterly lacking in standing to make the critique - but he probably qualifies for the title of "war coward" himself.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Scoundrel Times

History supplies an endless list of scoundrels, pirates, thieves and murderers who subsequently prospered. Their opposites, if not necessarily less common, are less prominent, and apparently less influential.

The Spaniards who came to Mexico with Cortez came to steal the Native American's gold, and save their souls for Christianity, but the catastrophe they brought had little to do with either purpose. Nearly 90% of the population of pre-Columbian Mexico perished as a result, but the overwhelming majority of them seem to have been killed by the diseases that the Spaniards brought. Disease and villainy more or less totally exterminated the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Caribbean.

The immense Native American genocide was mainly accidental, though one will not have any trouble finding plenty of villainy as well.

Many other genocides have a similar character, possibly including those of Stalin and Mao, but deliberate class extermination was also a motive. The Great Bengal famine of 1770 almost certainly fits that pattern. The famine was caused, or at least considerably exacerbated, by the greed and folly of the British East India Company, a peculiar colonial institution which gradually took over India by a mixture of war and enlistment of Indian allies.

The company's greed and policies caused (at least in part) the deaths of ten million inhabitants of Bengal and vicinity, but extermination of the population was neither the purpose or intent of those policies. Killing off the population almost certainly had a bad effect on the bottom line of the company as well as upon its reputation.

Of course the premeditated genocides of history are also plentiful, from the Athenian slaughter of the Melians to the Twentieth century genocides of Turkey, Germany, Rwanda, Serbia and so many others. Germany's genocide still seems peculiarly repellent, not only because of its extreme cold-bloodedness, but also because the victims or their survivors were especially eloquent.

Of course your mileage may vary, depending on your point of view.


After a somewhat slow start, the Arctic melting season has picked up a lot of steam. Few Arctic watchers expect this year's melt to match or exceed 2012's extraordinary record (ice Area more than 2.5 x 10^6 km^2 below the 1979-2008 average), but it looks like the relative rebounds of 2013 and 2014 (both well over 10^6 million km^2 below the average, and both below anything seen before 2006) might be over.

Prediction in the Arctic is a highly inexact art, but there are six or more weeks left in the melt season.

Bad Vibrations

Paul Krugman explores the evolutionary psychology of tattoos, Italian Academic incompetence, and Heritage foundation economics.

Henry Farrell — who recently said some very interesting things about Very Serious People — writes me about my musings on hipster style, and refers me to a review of a book on codes of the underworld. The book notes that tattoos and such play a role as signals of criminal identity, which work precisely because they make it hard to participate in non-criminal society. But there’s more: criminals actively cultivate a reputation for incompetence at non-criminal business, designed to reassure both their colleagues and the victims of their extortion that they won’t break their implicit contracts by going legit. And the author, Diego Gambetta, adds a wonderful parallel: according to his account, Italian academics, who do a lot of horse-trading in appointments etc., cultivate a reputation for incompetence at actual research, again designed to reassure those with whom one deals:

“Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else.

Haters Gonna Hate Hate Hate...

I was glancing at the work of a blogger I had once respected - not you, Lumo, I always knew you were as nuts as you are brilliant - and saw that it was frothing with racist and cultural hatred. It started me thinking about what makes a seemingly intelligent and reasonable person go off the rails. There are lots of reasons, I suppose - recent terrorist incidents point to a mix of mental illness and fanatical ideology.

One potent source of the latter is the cultural disruption caused by cultural globalization. The long history of civilization is strewn with the wreckage of cultures - most of them now lost to history - digested and absorbed by conquest or assimilation. The economic globalization which has transformed the world in the last few decades has a cultural counterpart as the internet, television, and video instantly transmits fashion and attitude to every part of the world.

There is a common thread that connects the nut jobs of the American religious right with the Mosque bombers of Nigeria and all their more or less outraged counterparts around the world. All see their culture under attack by the potent digestive juices of the global cultural annihilator.

The encroaching other is a natural target for every sort of disappointment and a convenient scapegoat for every catastrophe. It's interesting to me that women's rights has been a key focus of anger almost everywhere. Women have been a disadvantaged and often disenfranchised group in much or most of the world throughout much of history, and changing that has been profoundly disruptive. Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini was first provoked to speak out publicly when the proposal was made for women to be allowed to vote in the Iranian parliament.

Cultures usually fiercely resist digestion. Sometimes the rage that provokes takes its most destructive form in the immigrant who transported himself into an alien environment purely in search of economic opportunity. The stress of growing older in a culture that can't be accepted, especially if combined with other failures, can trigger descent into fanaticism, and, sometimes, terrorism.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Chasing Utopia

Maddy Crowell has a long article on Auroville, India in Salon. It's called Trouble in Utopia, but I think my title is more accurate. A punchline:

When I arrived back in Pondicherry, I began talking with a bar owner there about Auroville. Originally from Delhi, he told me he’d spent some time in Auroville, mostly, he admitted, because he was chasing a girl.

I asked him what he thought of Auroville.

“That place,” he waved his hand at the ground. “They’re all looking to be cured. The ones who are cured, they leave. The rest, they’re stuck.”

“Cured of what?” I asked.

“That,” he responded, “is the question.”

Friday, July 24, 2015

It's So Sad

Just today, Taylor Swift was telling me that we used to have Mad Love, but now all we've got is Bad Blood. I should have appreciated her more during the good times.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Star Dust

The dust grains produced when big stars spill their guts via supernova or stellar wind are tiny: mostly micron or submicron scale grains. These are the stuff that planets are made of. It takes about a billion such grains to make a millimeter sized particle, and a billion of the latter to make a something of meter size. Another factor of a trillion is needed before mutual gravitational attraction can become significant.

Each of these scales, and the additional factor of a billion before you get to a real planet has its distinct and complicated physics - some of which remains poorly understood. That first factor of a billion might be the best understood. Friction with the gas in the circumstellar disk slows down those tiny particles to tiny collision velocities where they readily stick together. By the time they have fallen to the center of that disk (under the influence of the perpendicular component of the star's gravity) they have already grown to millimeter size. It take only a tens of thousands of years and a billion collisions for that to happen. Raindrops grow in similar fashion in clouds, albeit a billion times faster.

Reference: Astrophysics of Planet Formation by Philip J. Armitage

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Blame Canada: Euro Division

Among the many angry complaints I got about my last post, there was one that got my attention as particularly apt. I will paraphrase it as: What does the German taxpayer owe Greece? (The original was expressed a bit more shrilly - you can look it up).

After thinking about it, I decided that the answer had to be: nothing.

But that made me think of another question: What does the EU owe Greece? Greece, of course, owes the EU and Germans a lot of money, but is there any reciprocal responsibility? I say yes, and yes because through its control of the money supply the EU has the ability to totally destroy the Greek economy, a power the EU just used to subvert democracy in Greece in a particularly brutal way. With great power comes great responsibility.*

So what does it owe Greece? An opportunity to leave or stay without total economic destruction. Either one will cost the EU, but see Spi, loc. cit. *Wisdom of Spiderman, vol. 1

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ressentiment: Greeks and Germans

My commentators have been almost unanimous in assigning the most scurrilous faults of character to the Greek people- a remarkable tribute to the power of the EU/German propaganda machine. For these faults the EU and most of my commentators prescribe 100 years of privation and debt peonage.

It might not surprise you that Paul Krugman gets a lot of hate mail, and lately a lot from Germany. Some of these latter have compared his criticisms to the German persecution of Jews and others. Because, I guess, criticizing a country's policies in the NYT is just like systematically exterminating a whole people.

Nietzsche, who had a keen instinct for his countrymen's weaknesses, loved the word Ressentiment. Here is Wikipedia on the word:

Ressentiment (French pronunciation: ​[rəsɑ̃timɑ̃]), in philosophy and psychology, is one of the forms of resentment or hostility. It is the French word for "resentment" (fr. Latin intensive prefix 're', and 'sentir' "to feel"). Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one's frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the "cause" generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one's frustration. This value system is then used as a means of justifying one's own weaknesses by identifying the source of envy as objectively inferior, serving as a defense mechanism that prevents the resentful individual from addressing and overcoming their insecurities and flaws. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.

Maybe that explains the German anger that Jacob Soll, writing in The NYT, finds so destructive:

A DEAL has finally been reached that could keep Greece in the eurozone. Few are happy with the outcome. We’ve heard a lot about how the Greeks feel humiliated. But we’ve heard less about German anger, and we know they are angry. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was reported to have started yelling during Saturday night’s negotiations. France and Italy have both made huge loans to Greece, but neither country has expressed hostility to Greece. Why is Germany so angry?

As an economic historian, I got a taste of this resentment during a conference on Greek sovereign debt held in Munich last week. It took place at the Center for Economic Studies and the Ifo Institute, which are headed by Hans-Werner Sinn, the German economist and longtime proponent of a Grexit. The conference included economists, accountants, journalists, investors and government officials from both Greece and Germany. Diverging views were aired by Mitu Gulati, the Duke law professor who helped devise an earlier Greek bailout; by Ashoka Mody, an economist, formerly of the International Monetary Fund, who preaches debt forgiveness; by accounting experts, who agreed that Greece’s total debts seem to have been inflated; and by Mr. Sinn.

But when the German economists spoke at the final session, a completely different tone took over the room. Within the economic theories and numbers came a moral message: The Germans were honest dupes and the Greeks corrupt, unreliable and incompetent. Both parties were reduced to caricatures of themselves. We’ve heard this story throughout the negotiations, but in that room, it was clear how much resentment shapes the views of German economists.

Naturally the Germans denied any culpability and showed no compassion for those whose lives they had destroyed.

That information brought back some lingering hostility and prejudice for me. In 1980 I happened to be in Germany for an atmospheric experiment and stopped in a store to pick up some items. A woman in perhaps her mid fifties, whom I suppose had heard me speaking English, approached and asked me if I was English or American. I admitted to being an American and she spit on me. I suppose she had her reasons. In any event, I walked away instead of grabbing a can of sauerkraut and beating her while screaming "that's for murdering my uncle, you Nazi bitch," but the thought did occur to me.

In any case, I had a good time in Germany, even though the experiment was a bust, and met a great many friendly and nice Germans. Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that everybody over fifty something was some kind of collaborator or enabler in one of the worst episodes of mass murder ever.

Nearly all those people are dead now, and Germany, more than any other recent perpetrator, has made a real effort to come to terms with its past misdeeds.

The thing I find most revolting about the Nazi killing machine was its utterly cold-blooded and mechanistic implementation. One of the most technologically and culturally advanced nations in the world turned its technology to utterly cold-blooded murder and hardly a German protested. There is a narrow moralism in German instinct and behavior that worships the rules and ignores compassion and real human morality. Put that together with their smoldering Ressentiment and bad things can happen.

Cultural traits have a durability that resists superficial education. As commentator hist, in one of his earlier apparitions, reminded us, the very German word for "debt" is the same as the word for "guilt."

Of course the Nazis have not come back to power in Germany, and Germany's actions are not like those of the Nazi era, but they are killing people and destroying lives. The callousness of the economists Soll describes, their certainty that it's all somebody else's fault, their willful disregard of the role played by their own actions, and their smoldering resentment look way too much like deja vu to me. And hist again reminds us that they are just following the rules, like good Germans should.

National Character

Is there such a thing as national character? Any truth to stereotypes?

I looked up a few national stereotypes - bear in mind that such stereotypes are usually created by enemies. A few samples:

Spaniards: – lazy; party animals; womanizers

Irish – loud; no sense of cuisine; impulsive; glass of whiskey or beer in his/her hand;

Greek – big and overweight; lazy; eat souvlaki and olives and drink Ouzo or red wine all day;

French – good lovers; best cuisine in the world; chaotic; irresponsible;

Germans – mechanical; organized; boring; no sense of humor;

British (UK) – drinkers; lousy food; stiff upper-lips; ultra-traditional;

Read more:

I shortened all the lists, but more or less everybody eventually gets accused of being a drunk. Full disclosure: According to 23 and me, my ancestry is German, French, English, Irish, Czech, and Norwegian, in more or less that order. I wouldn't put too much faith in these stereotypes. After all, the one for Czechs starts out:

Czech – agreeable; heavy beer drinkers; bohemian lifestyle; live and let live attitude; tolerant;

Let me see. How well does that fit the internet Czech I know best?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wow! IMF to Europe

From the NYT:

FRANKFURT — The International Monetary Fund threatened to withdraw support for Greece’s bailout on Tuesday unless European leaders agree to substantial debt relief, an immediate challenge to the region’s plan to rescue the country.

The aggressive stance sets up a standoff with Germany and other eurozone creditors, which have been reluctant to provide additional debt relief. The I.M.F role is considered crucial for any bailout, not only to provide funding but also to supervise Greece’s compliance with the terms.

A new rescue program for Greece “would have to meet our criteria,” a senior I.M.F. official told reporters on Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “One of those criteria is debt sustainability.”

So, the Troika is no more, and somebody has their head screwed on right. Lagarde? Obama?

Krugman Discusses The European Mindset

Thinking of some of my brighter commentators.

One of the ideas floating around in the aftermath of the sack of Athens has been that of, in effect, deposing Syriza from outside and installing a “technocratic” government. It wouldn’t be the first time in this dismal saga, and I won’t be surprised if it happens, for a few months anyway.

But let me note, as I have before, that what Europe calls technocrats aren’t people who know how the world works; they’re people who subscribe to the approved fantasies, and never change their minds no matter how badly wrong things go. Despite the overwhelming evidence that austerity has exactly the dire effects basic textbook macro says it will, they cling to belief in the confidence fairy. Despite a striking lack of evidence that “structural reform” delivers much of a growth boost, especially in an economy suffering from a huge output gap, they continue to present structural reform — mainly in the form of disempowering workers — as a sovereign remedy for all ills. Despite a clear record of past failure, they continue to push for asset sales as a supposed answer to debt overhang.

In short, what Europe usually means by a “technocrat” is a Very Serious Person, someone distinguished by his faith in received orthodoxy no matter the evidence.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Greek Deal?

There seem to be a lot of still moving parts, but it doesn't look like something that can work to me, mainly because there doesn't seem to be any debt forgiveness built in. If not, this is another kick the can measure which is likely to inflict further destruction on the Greek economy before Greexit.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Euro Demands

I thought I was joking when I said that Greece was to become a colony of Germany. It seems not. This list of Euro demands is what one imposes on a defeated enemy.

Krugman continues his rant against Merkel:

Suppose you consider Tsipras an incompetent twerp. Suppose you dearly want to see Syriza out of power. Suppose, even, that you welcome the prospect of pushing those annoying Greeks out of the euro.

Even if all of that is true, this Eurogroup list of demands is madness. The trending hashtag ThisIsACoup is exactly right. This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief. It is, presumably, meant to be an offer Greece can’t accept; but even so, it’s a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for.

Can anything pull Europe back from the brink? Word is that Mario Draghi is trying to reintroduce some sanity, that Hollande is finally showing a bit of the pushback against German morality-play economics that he so signally failed to supply in the past. But much of the damage has already been done. Who will ever trust Germany’s good intentions after this?

About Krugman's first supposition. The usual nutjobs don't consider Tsipras an incompetent twerp - they consider him the reincarnation of Joe Stalin. Or maybe they aren't really quite that nuts but just want some justification for their own sadistic impulses. Whatever it is that impels so many who get some money to wish evil on everybody less fortunate.

About his last question, I won't comment - at least not yet.

Merkel Plays the Part

... of Shylock to the hilt. Shakespeare gave Shylock all the best lines, but reality is less kind to the German Chancellor.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman can't decide whether he is angrier at Merkel for her intransigence or at Tsipras and Syriza for it's failure to do any contingency planning.

1. Tsipras apparently allowed himself to be convinced, some time ago, that euro exit was completely impossible. It appears that Syriza didn’t even do any contingency planning for a parallel currency (I hope to find out that this is wrong). This left him in a hopeless bargaining position. I’m even hearing from people who should know that Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is right, that he hoped to lose the referendum, to give an excuse for capitulation.

2. But substantive surrender isn’t enough for Germany, which wants regime change and total humiliation — and there’s a substantial faction that just wants to push Greece out, and would more or less welcome a failed state as a caution for the rest.

3. I don’t know if some kind of deal might still be approved; even if it is, how long can it last?

The world remains ruled mainly by idiots.

Astro FOTD: Angular Momentum

The clouds of dust and gas from which stars form usually have a specific angular momentum several orders of magnitude larger than typical stellar and planetary systems. Consequently, proto-planetary systems need a mechanism for ridding themselves of excess angular momentum. Turbulent mechanisms involving magnetic or gravitational interactions in the proto-planetary disk are believed to transport angular momentum outward.

Schematically, imagine a disk rotating with Keplerian velocities (gravity just providing the required centrepetal force), if an inner portion is linked by magnetic flux lines to an outer portion, magnetic tension will supply a braking torque to the inner portion, thus transporting angular momentum outward.


People who proclaim themselves a gender they were not born into are admirable heroes. Those who proclaim an ethnicity they were not born into are despicable fakers.

Is that interesting or not?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Greek Capitulation

After months of futile struggle Greece has agreed to surrender and forfeit its sovereignty to Germany. It will officially be a colony of Germany, giving that country its long desired Mediterranean seaport. Greece will be eligible to officially become a state of the Federal Republic in 2057 or whenever every Greek has learned German, whichever comes later.

Meanwhile, in other news, Chancellor Merkel has demanded that England return the Elgin Marbles.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Greek Play

Saw a local production of a show about the Greek debt last night. Greece was personified by Antonio, a mostly amiable dunce who lent out borrowed cash to a neer-do-well friend. Naturally, things went badly, and the EU demanded its pound of flesh.

Of course plays aren't reality, so in the end things turned topsy-turvy for Shylock, er, the EU, and it lost a bunch of cash and had to convert to Krugmanisn.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Communism, Socialism, Capitalism

Since some of my commentators are deeply confused about the differences.

The most obnoxious feature of Communism is that it is totalitarian and repressive. Some other governments are that way too.

The most obnoxious feature of democratic socialism is that it doesn't work. Free riders and other parasitic phenomena make it unworkable.

Capitalism works reasonably well when combined in proper proportions with some state action. Pure capitalism is a crackpot theory which has never been tried and probably won't be.

Economics is confusing, since some officially Communist countries, like China, are mainly capitalistic, and some officially non-Communist countries are mainly Communist, like Russia.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Bailing out Texas

Krugman and others have written lately about the biggest US bailout - the saving and loan disaster of the 1980's and early 90's. Deregulation, Reagan and Volker created the crisis, with plenty of help from Congress. A lot of the bailout money went to institutions in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma (big oil States hit by falling prices and the Bush crime family fraud division).

Krugman implies that Manhattan bailed out Texas:

Ahem. As it happens, the people of Manhattan did bail out Texas, big time. I wrote about it here. The savings and loan crisis, which was very costly to taxpayers, was mainly a Texas affair:

The cleanup from that crisis cost taxpayers about $125 billion (pdf), back when that was real money. As best I can tell, around 60 percent of the losses were in Texas (pdf). So that’s around $75 billion in aid — not loans, outright transfer.

Texas GDP was about $300 billion in 1987. So this was equivalent to giving — not lending, not even taking an equity stake — Spain 25 percent of its GDP to bail out its banks.

But of course Manhattan was never asked to bail out Texas; we had a national system of deposit insurance, and the big Lone Star bailout was automatic.

Sorry Paul, but I don't quite recall it that way. It wasn't really Manhattan that bailed out Texas. It was ordinary taxpayers of the whole country that bailed out both Texas the bankers in Manhattan who had put their money in Texas. The mostly wealthy depositors got bailed out, Neal Bush got the legal case against him dismissed through family influence, and the rest of us paid the bills.

Piketty on German and Greece

Debt and morality. From an interview in Die Zeit.


ZEIT: But shouldn’t they repay their debts?

Piketty: My book recounts the history of income and wealth, including that of nations. What struck me while I was writing is that Germany is really the single best example of a country that, throughout its history, has never repaid its external debt. Neither after the First nor the Second World War. However, it has frequently made other nations pay up, such as after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when it demanded massive reparations from France and indeed received them. The French state suffered for decades under this debt. The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.

ZEIT: But surely we can’t draw the conclusion that we can do no better today?

Piketty: When I hear the Germans say that they maintain a very moral stance about debt and strongly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: what a huge joke! Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations.

ZEIT: Are you trying to depict states that don’t pay back their debts as winners?

Piketty: Germany is just such a state. But wait: history shows us two ways for an indebted state to leave delinquency. One was demonstrated by the British Empire in the 19th century after its expensive wars with Napoleon. It is the slow method that is now being recommended to Greece. The Empire repaid its debts through strict budgetary discipline. This worked, but it took an extremely long time. For over 100 years, the British gave up two to three percent of their economy to repay its debts, which was more than they spent on schools and education. That didn’t have to happen, and it shouldn’t happen today. The second method is much faster. Germany proved it in the 20th century. Essentially, it consists of three components: inflation, a special tax on private wealth, and debt relief.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Who Won Anyway?

Greeks gave an empathetic "No" to EU demands. It looks like various Greek haters got their wish, but so did some with opposite views. Here is one of the latter, Paul Krugman in the NYT:

Of course, that’s not the way the creditors would have you see it. Their story, echoed by many in the business press, is that the failure of their attempt to bully Greece into acquiescence was a triumph of irrationality and irresponsibility over sound technocratic advice.

But the campaign of bullying — the attempt to terrify Greeks by cutting off bank financing and threatening general chaos, all with the almost open goal of pushing the current leftist government out of office — was a shameful moment in a Europe that claims to believe in democratic principles. It would have set a terrible precedent if that campaign had succeeded, even if the creditors were making sense.

What’s more, they weren’t. The truth is that Europe’s self-styled technocrats are like medieval doctors who insisted on bleeding their patients — and when their treatment made the patients sicker, demanded even more bleeding. A “yes” vote in Greece would have condemned the country to years more of suffering under policies that haven’t worked and in fact, given the arithmetic, can’t work: austerity probably shrinks the economy faster than it reduces debt, so that all the suffering serves no purpose. The landslide victory of the “no” side offers at least a chance for an escape from this trap.

So what happens next? If the "instinct to punish" crowd gets its wish, the EU will now do everything it can to crush the Greek economy. Other alternatives are murky. Krugman again:

The most immediate question involves Greek banks. In advance of the referendum, the European Central Bank cut off their access to additional funds, helping to precipitate panic and force the government to impose a bank holiday and capital controls. The central bank now faces an awkward choice: if it resumes normal financing it will as much as admit that the previous freeze was political, but if it doesn’t it will effectively force Greece into introducing a new currency.

Specifically, if the money doesn’t start flowing from Frankfurt (the headquarters of the central bank), Greece will have no choice but to start paying wages and pensions with i.o.u.s, which will de facto be a parallel currency — and which might soon turn into the new drachma.

I guess we shall see.

Tyler Cowen has been a loud voice for the opposite side. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily a test of the respective economic wisdom of the proponents, because the Eu still retains the ability to do a great deal of malicious mischief.

Friday, July 03, 2015


... seems to make you dumber, shorter, and less educated.

On the positive side, it doesn't seem to affect blood pressure or cardiovascular health.

Not sure I understand this part, but the authors concluded that this showed cognitive ability and height had been subject to positive selection.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Book Review: Fundamental Forces of Nature

Kerson Huang's Fundamental Forces of Nature: The Story of Gauge Fields is one of the rare examples a semi-popular physics book with lots of equations. It tells the story of the gauge revolution and the standard model with many words and a sprinkling of equations.

My own graduate work happened mostly before the gauge revolution in a department dominated by anti-field theory S-matrix people. My quantum field theory classes suffered from rather severe deficiencies in the book, the teacher, and, of course the student. Anyway, I didn't learn much. My work never used quantum field theory either.

From time to time I've tried to remedy this gross deficiency in my education, and I've accumulated a considerably library of QFT books in the process, but somehow I always seem to get distracted or run out of energy before I get to renormalization - which, in any case, was mostly smoke and mirrors when I was a grad student.

It's pretty hard for me to gauge (LOL) how much somebody innocent of physics would get out of this, but for me it was great. Huang is good at explaining ideas in words and he includes lots of pictures, but I think one should at least understand calculus if you want to follow the book. The idea of gauge as a fiber bundle over space-time is introduced with the electromagnetic field, and with it, the gauge covariant derivative. He shows how all the fundamental forces of particle physics take this form.

One of his overarching themes is the elimination of action at a distance from physics, via local gauge invariance.

The final chapters are mostly devoted to the ideas of fixed points and the renormalization group. I found the renormalization group material the most difficult to follow, perhaps because its the part I've never understood. For me, at least, the book has lots of pithy insights.

He throws in some more philosophical notions as well. Why gauge fields, for example, and why those particular gauge fields. He makes a nod to grand unified theories and string theory, but complains that they tend to make things more complicated rather than simpler. My favorite is the observation that the Feynman path integral is just the partition function of statistical mechanics with imaginary time, where time t = i hbar/T, where T is temperature.

This is not a textbook. There are no problems, no real derivations, and only the barest technical details. It is, though, a book that might be a bit of a guide for the perplexed student, wondering what it all means.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Up From Racism

Tim Parrish on how he almost became a Dylann Roof and how he managed to extricate himself from his own corrosive racism. A good and instructive read. He mentions that it's a demon one never completely escapes:

On my worst days, if a black person does something I don’t like or reinforces a stereotype still lodged in me, the N-word comes to mind quickly and sharply. Then I have to gather myself, bring reason to bear, once again dredge up the roots of these thoughts, and once more disconnect racist wiring laid in me since my childhood and recharged today by white institutions and media.

He thinks racism is a curable or at least treatable disease:

What about young men like Dylann Roof? Was there a method to point him down a different road—one that didn’t end with him looking for an hour at individual people’s faces, talking with individual human beings, doubting his intent, and yet still pulling the trigger time and again? Perhaps with sustained mental health support, perhaps with stricter gun laws, perhaps with someone to show the lies and warped conclusions of right-wing propaganda, he would have turned.

But in our country such resources and laws are shamefully lacking, especially for an isolated, young man with limited means. For Roof, the questions are the same as those regarding other mass shooters. But the more pressing questions concern people like my former racist mentor, who blaze against anything progressive.

Due Diligence

Just got a note from my broker on the Greek situation. While the note was intended to damp down the (so-far, mild) market hysteria over default, the content was borderline moronic, repeating all the stupid cliches I have railed against here. (It's all about socialism, blah, blah, blah).

Whatever happened to the idea that bankers ought to exercise due diligence before loaning out the money entrusted to them? I'm pretty sure my local banks do some checks before they loan somebody $20 k to buy a car. So how the heck do banks get off the hook for lending out tens of billions to a country (or Commonwealth, or City) that rather transparently is quite likely to have difficulty paying up? Well, says Commentator hist, the politicians told everybody it would be OK. Cause politicians are famous not only for probity but prophecy, I guess. They do know you can't repossess a country (city or Commonwealth) right?

It's a story as old as Sumer (at least). When times get good everybody gets greedy, and every foolish borrower can find an equally foolish lender. In ancient Sumer, lenders who got stiffed were allowed to enslave the unlucky borrowers. Germans seem to really hate the fact that that went out of fashion, but it turned out to be rather catastrophic for Sumer too. In bad times, the broke farmers grabbed their herds and set out across the desert, and then it was the bankers who were broke.

World Cup

The US was pretty lucky to escape with a 2-0 win vs Germany yesterday, but they mostly played better.

Another familiar FIFA failing was in evidence though when they let two clearly concussed women keep playing. FIFA is so rotten that it really should be abolished. National federations should agree to withdraw and start a new version.

It would be much less painful than withdrawing from the Euro.

From the NYT story:

“If #FIFA has learned anything … both players should be taken off immediately,” Taylor Twellman, a former most valuable player in Major League Soccer whose career was curtailed by concussions, wrote on Twitter.

“Amateur hour #FIFA,” Twellman added in a separate post on Twitter. “All show, no substance with player safety particularly head injuries.”

Briana Scurry, the American goalkeeper whose save during the penalty shootout made the difference in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final against China, and who has also suffered concussions, expressed similar concerns about Tuesday’s collision.

“This is why we need a head injury substitution that doesn’t count towards the 3” already permitted, Scurry wrote on Twitter.