Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Resolution for 2009 - stop procrastinating.

I know I'm a bit late on this, but I want to get out my predictions for 2008 before it's too late:

1)Dangerous Hurricanes.

2)Republicans will nominate an idiot (or two).

3)Stocks will fluctuate.

4)Global warming will continue to generate controversy and exercise the nutbag crackpots of the right.

4)Trouble in the Middle East

5)Oil prices will fluctuate

6)Bush will continue to be clueless

7)The LHC will be a big success

Risky Business

What is the evolutionary rationale for risk taking? Is it not a better strategy to play it safe? Like most questions of the sort, the answer to this one is "it depends." Trying to conquer the world is a pretty risky enterprise but something like 8% of all the males in a wide swath of Asia turn out to be descended in the male line (father to son) from Genghiz Khan. Zero of them turn out to be descended from those who failed before reproducing.

Risk taking is the engine behind exploration, entrepreneurship, scientific and technical progress, and asking the prom queen for a date. It's also implicated in crime, addiction, financial panics and lousy driving (right up there with talking on cell phones).

For most of us, following the herd is more comfortable than striking out on one's own. Physicists ten years ago became string theorists (today probably cosmologists) because that was the thing to do - but those who became string theorists thirty years ago were pioneers. Most of those who dare to think independently fail, and even those who don't suffer the oppobrium of being called "crackpot" by the members of the herd.

So much for philosophy. The Washington Post today has an article on the physiology. It seems to be a matter of dopamine auto-receptors.

-- Just in time for New Year's Eve comes research suggesting that "thrill-seeking" behaviors may be hard-wired into the brain.

Specifically, the study suggests that risk-takers -- those people who often engage in impulsive, rule-breaking entanglements with food, drink, drugs, sex, money and the like -- have fewer so-called dopamine "auto-receptors." These auto-receptors are designed to limit the release of the brain chemical dopamine. As a result, exciting activities typically associated with "feel good" dopamine stimulation trigger higher levels of dopamine release than normal -- essentially rewarding and encouraging thrill-seeking behavior, the researchers said.

Risk taking is likely to be a frequency dependent selection trait. It's probably an advantage to be a rare risk taker in a crowd of play-safers - and vice versa.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book Review: Fundamental Forces of Nature

Kerson Huang, an MIT emitus professor and prolific author of physics textbooks, has written a semi-popular account of gauge field theory: Fundamental Forces of Nature: The Story of Gauge Fields. Semi-popular is his description, and it starts from the fundamentals (Newton's Second Law) but it does include equations, including lagrangians for the standard model.

I suppose that a proper reviewer would try to figure out who would benefit from such a book. Certainly there would be a lot lost on anyone who had never seen vector and tensor notation, met a lagrangian, or heard of a group. Huang helpfully notes that those who don't understand the math can just read the words, appreciating the book "just as one might enjoy a foreign movie without the subtitles." Hmmm? In any case, it was a pretty good book for me, a physicist who doesn't remember quantum field theory very well, and learned most of what little he did before the gauge revolution.

He does attempt to develop the ideas carefully, but he just states the key equations, with very little development or demonstration. I very much like his discussions of gauge invariance and renormalization. I also find his ideas on unresolved questions in physics interesting.

A few odd errors creep in, e.g., pg. 177:

In 1975, Martin Perl discovered the tau, a spin 1/2 fermion with more than a thousand times the mass of a proton...

Actually, it's not quite twice as heavy as a proton, and it's hard to guess what he was thinking when he wrote that. The tau is more than 3000 times the mass of the electron, the lightest charged lepton, so that might be the best candidate.

There is a bit of history, and pictures of the main physicists who contributed to gauge theory.

I quite like the book overall, and recommend it at least to physics students who have met a lagrangian but never quite mastered QFT. There might possibly even be some insights for those who think they know QFT moderately well.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Boltzmann Brains

Sean Carroll has posted a few times on Boltzmann Brains, and he has a new entry today Richard Feynman on Boltzmann Brains. The original motivation for considering such things is the fact that the Universe seems to have started with a very low entropy - very low compared to all possible universes. This is fortunate since it allowed the development of all the things that make us possible - galaxies, solar systems, life and evolution. So why, we may ask, was the initial state of our universe so low in entropy. Nobody knows, but Boltzmann, who started the whole business, had an idea: maybe it was a random statistical fluctuation.

The so-called Boltzmann Brain Paradox is intended to show that the fluctuation hypothesis is not a profitable assumption. From Wikipedia:

This leads to the Boltzmann brain concept: If our current level of organization, having many self-aware entities, is a result of a random fluctuation, it is much less likely than a level of organization which is only just able to create a single self-aware entity. For every universe with the level of organization we see, there should be an enormous number of lone Boltzmann brains floating around in unorganized environments. This refutes the observer argument above: the organization I see is vastly more than what is required to explain my consciousness, and therefore it is highly unlikely that I am the result of a stochastic fluctuation.

The Boltzmann brains paradox is that it is more likely that a brain randomly forms out of the chaos with false memories of its life than that the universe around us would have billions of self-aware brains.

So far as I know, Feynman didn't actually consider Boltzmann Brains, but he makes a somewhat similar argument against the fluctuation theory based on familiar observations of physics. I don't think anybody thinks that Boltzmann Brains actually exist in our part of the multiverse, but they do serve as a useful reductio ad absurdum.

Lumo weighs in with a commentary, which, not unexpectedly, seems to utterly miss the point. It's a deep oddity that Lubos, who masters the intricasies of string theory with apparent ease, can't seem to follow a three step scientific, philosophical, or political argument.

Dennis Overbye, writing in the New York Times about a year ago, has an excellent article on why the subject has come up again in Cosmology.

A different, but perhaps related, form of antigravity, glibly dubbed dark energy, seems to be running the universe now, and that is the culprit responsible for the Boltzmann brains.

The expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating, making galaxies fly away from one another faster and faster. If the leading dark-energy suspect, a universal repulsion Einstein called the cosmological constant, is true, this runaway process will last forever, and distant galaxies will eventually be moving apart so quickly that they cannot communicate with one another. Being in such a space would be like being surrounded by a black hole.

Rather than simply going to black like “The Sopranos” conclusion, however, the cosmic horizon would glow, emitting a feeble spray of elementary particles and radiation, with a temperature of a fraction of a billionth of a degree, courtesy of quantum uncertainty. That radiation bath will be subject to random fluctuations just like Boltzmann’s eternal universe, however, and every once in a very long, long time, one of those fluctuations would be big enough to recreate the Big Bang. In the fullness of time this process could lead to the endless series of recurring universes. Our present universe could be part of that chain.

In such a recurrent setup, however, Dr. Susskind of Stanford, Lisa Dyson, now of the University of California, Berkeley, and Matthew Kleban, now at New York University, pointed out in 2002 that Boltzmann’s idea might work too well, filling the megaverse with more Boltzmann brains than universes or real people.

Blame that troublemaker Susskind!


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Chicago is, or at least until very recently was, the most prestigious address in economics. The University of Chicago has accumulated ten of the economics "Nobels" and has had unmatched influence on recent Republican policies. It also played the central role in our current financial debacle. Both deregulation and the explosion in the financial derivative markets trace their roots to Chicago.

John Lippert, writing for, has a great article on the reaction in Chicago to our current crisis: Friedman Would Be Roiled as Chicago Disciples Rue Repudiation. It is a stellar article, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the range of current economic thought, and especially to Krugmanites like myself who need to be reminded of the others.

The hard core efficient marketeers resisted the bailout and still swear allegiance to Saint Friedman, but others have seen their faith shaken. John Cochrane and father-in-law Eugene Fama head the Holy Inquisition.

Fama says he never denied the possibility of unexpected events even though he’d spent a lifetime showing that markets effectively digest information. He was stunned that American International Group Inc., once the world’s largest insurer, sold $441 billion in unhedged and undercapitalized insurance on securitized debt, much of it tied to mortgage values.

“No one expected a player like AIG to take a long position and not hedge themselves,” Fama says. He says the government may have been able to stabilize the U.S. financial system at a lower cost by letting AIG collapse.

Ah yes, the unexpected. No one could have expected that al Quaeda would attack us with airliners. Even if they had been explicitly briefed on the prospect. If it's not in the theory, it doesn't exist.

In their defense, the Chicagoans point out the successes of free market ideas in Chile, China, and other places. Those successes are undeniable, but it should give theorists a pause that their poster boys for free markets were statist dictatorships where the government was deeply enmeshed in the economy.

Paul Krugman has an acerbic commentary (Hangover Theorists) on John Cochrane's let them eat cake observation:

“We should have a recession,” Cochrane said in November, speaking to students and investors in a conference room that looks out on Lake Michigan. “People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.”

Andrew W. Mellon lives!

UPDATE: Read the article, but I should have mentioned that Obama has ties to U of C, having been on its law faculty, and also has links to the economics faculty. He is a free marketer, but probably not as much as George "I had to destroy free markets to save them" Bush.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gang Warfare, Palestine Style

Israel slaughtered a couple of hundred Palestinians in Gaza today, many of whom probably actually deserved it. This action was Israel's response to continuing rocket attacks and other provocations from the Palestinians. The aerial attacks, a form of shooting fish in a barrel, have the advantage of not putting actual soldiers at risk, or at any rate, much risk. I predict, however, that they won't be effective in stopping future attacks, nor do I think the Israelis think so - except perhaps for the air forces.

Stopping the attacks isn't really the point of course. The point is to make the Israeli public think that the government is doing something and give it the satisfaction of watching somebody else suffer.

Unfortunately, the only ways to actually do something all have their own severe problems: exterminate the Palestinians, rule them, or make peace with them. Israel isn't prepared to pay the cost of any of these - yet. The question is how long the current low intensity gang warfare approach can be sustained.

Israel's godfather, the US, is a tired and battered superpower, and moreover one that is getting a bit weary of carrying Israel's water and fighting its wars - which is what the fights against al Quaeda and Iraq mainly are. If the US were to become neutral and tell Israel to figure out its own way in the world, Israel's choices would narrow dramatically and its prospect for survival darken greatly.

That won't happen in this decade - the Israel lobby is still the most powerful in Washington. It could easily happen later though, especially if the current economic disaster deapens and persists. Anti-Semites have often found fertile ground in panics and depressions. Meanwhile, Iran is probably not far from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and Pakistan, which already has them, is threatening to disintegrate. Who gets the bombs if it does?

All these factors argue for an all out effort to achieve a real peace. Israel would have to make many hard choices, including possibly a real war to defeat Hamas and a nearly as bitter struggle to subdue its own militant settlers. As the saying goes, you can pay now, or you can pay later.

Friday, December 26, 2008


Tyler Cowen's:

GM fact of the day
As Mark Steyn pointed out on NRO, GM now has a market valuation about a third of Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Here is the link. The Steyn article also offers this:

GM has 96,000 employees but provides health benefits to a million people.

GM's problem is not making bad cars today, it is a casualty of its history. Yet another lesson in excessive debt being hazardous to your health.

Of course the same may be said of taking anything Mark Steyn writes as likely to be true.

Party of Lincoln

It's a sad irony that the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt has become the party of racists, yahoos, and know-nothings.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Price of Oil

We have now seen a couple of years of a wild run up in the price of oil followed by an equally drastic and even more sudden collapse. So what the heck is going on? David Cohen has a close look in The price is not right. Conventional economic theories do a lousy job of predicting oil prices, it seems, and so does everything else. The short answer: nobody knows.

Right now the price of oil is hovering in the mid to high thirties while the marginal cost of production (producing new oil) is in the low sixties. That makes it pretty clear that nobody is going to invest billions in new production unless they are pretty sure that the price will go way up again. If nobody does invest in new production, production will fall and, of course, prices will rise.

Oil is one of the most central items in the World economy, so the inefficiency of the market in predicting and thus stabilizing prices is a serious threat to economic stability. Cohen's long article is illuminating but doesn't suggest any magic bullets. A few quotes that I like:

Theoretical niceties that capture expectations about price keep academic economists busy, but what are they really modeling? Here we approach what I will call the Central Mystery of oil pricing. What is modeled is the collective behavior over time of all the traders of physical and paper oil with an active interest in futures contracts, including the all-important front month. And in the end, as General "Buck" Turgidson said in Dr. Strangelove after the planes were in the air, we must finally "admit that the human element seems to have failed us here."

Is that why we're on the verge of a 2nd Great Depression, a downturn caused by a 20-year credit binge, a ponzi scheme, in finance, because everybody knew what was going on because the markets were so god damn efficient?

The strategy this suggests to me is Joseph's Seven Lean Years, Seven Fat Years strategy. The US has should buy and store oil while it's cheap, expanding the strategic oil reserve, and prepare for the next spike. Another good idea is energy efficiency.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Madness of Crowds

Kevin Drum reads Noah Millman's look at the structured finance debacle.

The really short version: investors lost their minds. With other people's money.

Millman's opening paragraph:

Indeed, this dark forest is a hard thing to speak of. As readers of this blog may recall, I’ve spent the last several years working in an industry now credibly blamed for bringing on what is almost certainly the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Not only have I been working on Wall Street, but I work in structured finance. While I wasn’t at the epicenter of the crisis – I didn’t put together mortgage securitizations, and I don’t work for one of the big firms – I was certainly using some of the same financial technology, and trading the same products, as the businesses that were at the epicenter.

The moral of this story: the market is a ho. Don't trust a ho.

Right wing economists especially promoted the notion of the wisdom of the marketplace, but that is at best an exaggeration. Like other human institutions, the markets are subject to human error and the madness of crowds.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Seen and The Unseen

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?"
..................A. Einstein

The Statistical Mechanic has returned and his first post got me thinking. In physics we always tell the students that if they can't do the problems, they don't understand it. But what if you can do the problems (or least some of them) and you still don't understand it?

Many of us among the slow students find ourselves in that fix, and even some smart guys seem to agree. What's the deal with gauge fields, anyway? The gauges of gauge fields turn out to be essential for doing the math of quantum field theory, but they cleverly conspire to remain unobservable. Why should it turn out that nature seems to have this invisible degree of freedom?

I have been reading Kerson Huang's book Fundamental Forces of Nature: The Story of Gauge Fields. I will probably review it later.


Bernard Avishai argues at TPM Cafe that the West Bank settlements have got Israel in a box that it can't escape from on its own. Israel's colonies in the West Bank are small, absorb a dispproportionate share of Israeli resources, are a primary obstacle to peace and behave badly. Unfortunately, they are also very difficult to dislodge.

No Israeli leader wants to deal with facing down the new Judeans--or can, without destroying Israeli social solidarity. I have written here before about how all fanatics live within concentric circles of support. No matter who wins a majority in the next election, about half of Israeli Knesset members will be from circles which the settlers count on--National Orthodox, Shas, Leiberman's Russians, Haredi--people concentrated in and around Jerusalem, whom the settlers will tell you would be in settlements themselves if they had the guts; people who will nevertheless apply the "values" the settlers stand for to Jerusalem.

The problem with conquered people is that you need to either absorb, expel, or exterminate them. Israel is not will to do the first, since if it does it will soon become just another Arab state, and the latter constitute genocide.

WHERE DOES THIS leave us? The simple fact is, this problem is too big for Israel. We will need the world's involvement; anyone who tells you something different is either covering for the settlers, or afraid for electoral reasons to appear squishy about Israeli autonomy, or arrogant, or ignorant, or thick, or all of these at once. This post is not the place to describe what involvement means, though the contours of a two-state deal have been obvious for many years. The point is, what Hebron represents cannot be solved by this deal in a few decisive months, like the evacuation of the Sinai was. New changes to the landscape will take years. Or the landscape will look like Bosnia

But if Israel can't do it, who can?

Who are you lookin' at?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Life Support

Paul Krugman fears that the US economy might be on life support for a long time: Life Without Bubbles.

Whatever the new administration does, we’re in for months, perhaps even a year, of economic hell. After that, things should get better, as President Obama’s stimulus plan — O.K., I’m told that the politically correct term is now “economic recovery plan” — begins to gain traction. Late next year the economy should begin to stabilize, and I’m fairly optimistic about 2010.

But what comes after that? Right now everyone is talking about, say, two years of economic stimulus — which makes sense as a planning horizon. Too much of the economic commentary I’ve been reading seems to assume, however, that that’s really all we’ll need — that once a burst of deficit spending turns the economy around we can quickly go back to business as usual.

In fact, however, things can’t just go back to the way they were before the current crisis. And I hope the Obama people understand that...

A more plausible route to sustained recovery would be a drastic reduction in the U.S. trade deficit, which soared at the same time the housing bubble was inflating. By selling more to other countries and spending more of our own income on U.S.-produced goods, we could get to full employment without a boom in either consumption or investment spending.

But it will probably be a long time before the trade deficit comes down enough to make up for the bursting of the housing bubble. For one thing, export growth, after several good years, has stalled, partly because nervous international investors, rushing into assets they still consider safe, have driven the dollar up against other currencies — making U.S. production much less cost-competitive.

Furthermore, even if the dollar falls again, where will the capacity for a surge in exports and import-competing production come from? Despite rising trade in services, most world trade is still in goods, especially manufactured goods — and the U.S. manufacturing sector, after years of neglect in favor of real estate and the financial industry, has a lot of catching up to do.

This could be a good time for the US to come up with something the rest of the world wants to buy. Exotic financial instruments might not be the way to go.

Don't Confuse Me With Facts

He said it
I believe it
that settles it.
.................Bumper sticker syllogism

There is no arguing with hard core ideologues because, as proclaimed by the above, they aren't interested in facts or logic. Like the bishop who reputely refused to look through Galileo's telescope (at the craters of the moon and the moons of Jupiter) for fear of losing his soul they actively avoid fact and logic. Their style of argumentation is very recognizable when it exists at all: insults, denial, cherry picking and conspiracy theories.

Ideologues of that stripe tend to be rare in science because, as Neils Bohr once put it, "we all have the advantage of having written papers that were subsequently proven wrong." Bohr was lucky enough to have lived in a heroic age. That advantage seems to have largely disappeared from theoretical physics these days, since experimental results relevant to the new theories are largely nonexistent. Maybe the LHC will find something good enough to prove something important wrong. I hope so, but I'm not confident.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Is Congress Underpaid?

Timing, they say, is everything. Perhaps this wasn't an ideal time for Congress to raise its pay. Jordy Yager has this take at The Hill.

A crumbling economy, more than 2 million constituents who have lost their jobs this year, and congressional demands of CEOs to work for free did not convince lawmakers to freeze their own pay.
Instead, they will get a $4,700 pay increase, amounting to an additional $2.5 million that taxpayers will spend on congressional salaries, and watchdog groups are not happy about it.

So, is Congress overpaid?

In the beginning days of 1789, Congress was paid only $6 a day, which would be about $75 daily by modern standards. But by 1965 members were receiving $30,000 a year, which is the modern equivalent of about $195,000.
Currently the average lawmaker makes $169,300 a year, with leadership making slightly more. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) makes $217,400, while the minority and majority leaders in the House and Senate make $188,100.

$170K doesn't sound like starvation wages, but Congress members mostly do need to keep a couple of houses. Also, compared to a lot of other people in our economy - college football coaches, local school superintendents, surgeons, partners in major law firms and top level executives - it's chicken feed. Also, Jordy's comparison numbers are bullshit.

About that $6 bucks a day in 1789 - the GDP per capita in the US in 1790 was $48, so $6/day was something like 1/8 the annual income of an average person. The GDP per capita today is nearly 1000 times as large - $46,000, so using that conversion factor, modern Congress persons are drastically underpaid. That huge difference is due to two factors, inflation and the general increase in per capita income. The former is a factor of about 20 and the second of about 50. In any case, an average worker today is much better off compared to his Congressman than his counterpart in 1889.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Panic of '73

Via Marginal Revolution, Scott Reynolds Nelson writes on the Panic of 1873, which he sees as not only more severe than the Great Depression, but a more apt model for the present: The Real Great Depression. There are some strong points of similarity.

The problems had emerged around 1870, starting in Europe. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, formed in 1867, in the states unified by Prussia into the German empire, and in France, the emperors supported a flowering of new lending institutions that issued mortgages for municipal and residential construction, especially in the capitals of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Mortgages were easier to obtain than before, and a building boom commenced. Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the three cities today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period.

Financial underpinnings were shaky though, and a forest of new financial instruments was supposed to stabilize the economy but cracked when the going got tough. A major precipitating event was the invasion of European markets by cheap goods from across the ocean - America. A cascading financial calamity destroyed first European and then the US economy.

The depression was long lasting, and the sequellae were severe. Europeans blamed the Jews, and a series of Pogroms began.

Read it!

John Holdren

Obama's Science Advisor will be John Holdren, an MIT and Stanford educated physicist from Harvard. Despite his education, I didn't see much "hard science" in his CV. Instead he has concentrated on policy issues: environment and nuclear weapons. Our fair and balanced commenter LM has a post on him that is not entirely laudatory, but, needless to say, didn't seem to include anything on Holdren that I would disapprove of.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hating Paul Krugman

Brad DeLong on the Krugman haters:

First, there were an awful lot of people who knew in the summer of 2001 exactly what Paul Krugman knew, and I knew--that George W. Bush was a horrible president, intellectually lazy, incurious, suspicious and fearful of expertise, yet convinced that it was his job to be the "decider" and to make decisions based on inadequate information and then never to revisit them--for that would be a sign of "weakness." But they didn't say what they knew. And know they feel very guilty. And one way the guilt works itself out is by denigrating those--like Paul Krugman, like Ron Suskind, like Philippe Sands--who were brave enough to say that the emperor was buck-naked at the time.

Second, the right-wing slime machine worked spectacularly well in the 1990s.. And the slimers continued into the 2000s. And a bunch of other people said: "Hey, if it worked for Rush Limbaugh, it can work for me." And so you got the first wave of Krugman-haters--the Mickey Kauses, the Andrew Sullivans, the Donald Luskins--and from then on it was monkey-see monkey-do.

What to do going forward is unclear. It is certainly the case that in a good world nobody who was not denouncing Bush by the end of 2003 would have any place in American politics or in our public sphere of discourse--to have been so spectacularly wrong or so spectacularly cowardly or both tells us something about their judgment and honesty, and there are lots of politicians and commentators of good judgment and honesty out there to listen to, who should have the available slots

I have a slightly simpler theory: There is nothing that the true believer hates more than an unbeliever proven right by history. Also, fools don't like people smarter than them who show that they are idiots. Or am I repeating myself.

Centrist Activist

Many on the left are now bemoaning Obama's so-called "turn to the right." The Republicans have consistently tried to paint Obama as some sort of extreme leftist, but in fact there is nothing in his speeches, writings, or history to suggest that. Few Presidents, if any, have so clearly articulated their point of view before election. For anyone who read his books, or listened to his speeches, or paid attention to those who knew him best, it was always clear that he was anything but a doctrinaire ideologue.

None the less, he has an ambitious agenda, and it's one that many on the left should broadly sympathize with. He wants universal health care, and he wants the US to be a respected world leader rather than the neighborhood bully. Those are huge. Most importantly, he realizes that most of the challenges a President faces were unanticipated when he started running for office. For the US today, that means the world economic crisis that George Bush is leaving him.

Other things prized by many will need to get much lower priority.

Don't Trust a Ho*

* Don't Trust Me by 3OH!3

The fundamental disease of the current financial system is a well founded lack of trust. By deciding to trust exclusively in the "wisdom of the marketplace" the conservatives have forced a situation where nobody is willing to trust anybody, except the government, which they trust only because there is nobody else left.

The repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which put ordinary banks in direct competition with the investment banks, induced or perhaps even forced them to become hos. The payoff was the goodlife of multihundred million dollar bonuses, and the payback was the collapse of the international banking system.

The odd thing is that so much supposedly "smart money" trusted where it should not have - Bernie Madoff, for example. Near the core of these failures, though, was failure of the government, especially the SEC and the Fed, to do their jobs. This was Reagan's "the government is the problem, not the solution" coming back to bite us in the butt. Until George III, the government managed to maintain a minimal competence despite Reagan, but with W, incompetence as a policy trumped everything else.

As a country, we sowed the wind.

I've Tried A, I've tried B ...

Brad Setzer on the state of play in finance: Today’s Fed statement speaks for itself. The comments are also illuminating - less than 50% are nuts.

The take away: Situation still desperate. If we go down in flames it won't be for the lack of the Bernanke's trying. If this latest crisis manages to bring down our current version of capitalism, somebody should put up a tombstone inscribed with something along the lines of "Unregulated Markets are Dangerous to Your Health."

Thanks again to Ronnie and George III, and always and especially to Alan.


The AP seems to have gone into competition with the Onion. Despite this laudable entry: AP: Many Insisting That Obama Is Not Black they are losing big time.

Some potential follow-ups: George Bush insists he is not Herbert Hoover

Crazed scientist insists Moon not made of Green Cheese.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Saruman on Climate Change

Even if one concedes the reality of Anthropogenic Global Warming, there is a case to be made against draconian cuts in carbon emissions. That case, argued principally by conservative economists, rests on the idea that the cost of the required carbon cuts is greater than the cost of the predicted climate change. This is an important and serious argument, and it rests, quite unfortunately, on a pair of quite uncertain projections, namely upon the severity of the the respective effects. Moreover, the costs are upfront costs, to be borne by this generation and the next, but the projected benefits go to our grandchildren, great grandchildren, and their progeny.

This case is made, but not well, by our blogging mentor (a distinction I expect he regrets) Lubos Motl. His case is presented as a parable involving a hypothetical house owner and similarly hypothetical structural engineer whose name, Steve Chu, just happens to be shared with the Nobel Physics prizewinner and Energy Secretary designate.

Lumo would like to cure Steve of his "warmophobia."

As for Suruman, we can only note like Gandalf that his cure is beyond us, and hope that he finds his own.

The Party of Ideas

Mostly dumb ideas, these days, or at any rate ideas that hardly anybody likes. The Republicans are apparently looking to reboot. Steve Benen at Political Animal is on the case:

THE RNC'S THINK TANK.... I've argued a few times since the election that the Republican Party's intellectual bankruptcy compounds its electoral problems. The race to be the "party of ideas" is over; the GOP lost. When one of the top House Republican leaders wrote about the policy vision for the party's future, and listed three failed ideas from the '90s, it only helped reinforce the point this is a party lacking in substance and policy direction.

It appears that the party is at least aware of the problem (and admitting you have a problem is the first step). Ben Smith reports that the Republican National Committee is "building a new, in-house think tank aimed at reviving the party's policy heft

There is a certain topological obstruction to the project, however. Steve zeroes in:

To be fa[i]r, I think the party does have some genuine policy goals in key areas, but they're burdened by the fact that no one actually likes them. The party would love, for example, to privatize public schools and Social Security, but these are awful ideas that voters hate

BTW, I was and continue to be a fan of Kevin Drum, but the new Benen - Hilzoy combo is really great.

Minnesota Wack

My families paternal ancentry passes through Minnesota, and I probably still have some relatives there, but those people vote damn funny. Jesse Ventura?? Michelle Bachman????????????

The Truth

... is frequently not an adequate defense. From the Huffington Post:

A servant appeared with a bottle. Tenet knocked back some of the scotch. Then some more. They watched with concern. He drained half the bottle in a few minutes.

"They're setting me up. The bastards are setting me up," Tenet said, but "I am not going to take the hit."


"According to one witness, he mocked the neoconservatives in the Bush administration and their alignment with the right wing of Israel's political establishment, referring to them with exasperation as, "the Jews."

I suspect that the head of the CIA had better intelligence about the actions of Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Abrams and their allies in the press than he did about Saddam's WMDs.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Climate Quiz

Mainly for doubters of the Standard Climate Model, intended to assess how far up the river (de Nile) you are. (All questions yes or no or don't know/don't care )

(1)CO2 and other so-called greenhouse gases warm the Earth? (Y N DK)

(2)Human activities are increasing CO2 in the atmosphere? (Y N DK)

(3)Measurements prove that the Earth has been warming for over a century? (Y N DK)

(4)Human activities contribute to this warming? (Y N DK)

(5)Human caused global warming (AGW) is happening but not important. (Y N DK)

(6)AGW is likely to increase global temperatures by 5 C or more over the next century if nothing is done to stop it? (Y N DK)

(7)AGW is happening but we can't, or shouldn't do anything about it. (Y N DK)

(8)AGW is likely to transform our planet in unpleasant or even catastrophic ways. (Y N DK)

(9)AGW presents a severe threat to the continuance of human life, or at least to human life at an acceptable quality of life. (Y N DK)

My answers: 1. Y, 2. Y, 3. Y, 4. Y, 5. N, 6. Y, 7. N, 8. Y, 9. DK

(Cut, paste, and revise line above in comments if you are willing to share your answers.)

Caroline Kennedy

... may be a terrifically qualified person but this Nepotistic crap has got to stop.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


W appears to have retained fairly good reflexes.

Secret Service - not so much.

ALSO: Now he can say that he too, has been under fire in Iraq.

Equivalence Principle

Galileo famously demonstrated, or at any rate talked about demonstrating the equivalence principle by dropping heavy and light balls off the leaning tower of Pisa. Absent friction, the balls should fall at the same rate and reach the ground at the same time. WB has recently posted a puzzle on this subject. Since I found the puzzle hard, mainly because of what I considered miscelleaneous complications, and because Wolfgang didn't like my solution, I am posting my own more idealized, and hence slightly different, version here.

Consider a spherically symmetric matroyoshka Earth, with a very small inner sphere at its center, and a still smaller sphere at the center of it. The total mass of the Earth is M, the mass of the middle spherical shell (not counting the innermost sphere) is m, and the mass of the innermost sphere by itself is m1. Consider the following two experiments: (1) The spherical shell of mass m is separated from the Earth and raised to a distance between its center, and the center of the Earth, still occupied by the innermost sphere, is R. It is then dropped from rest, and the time until contact recorded. (2) The spherical shell, including its inner sphere (mass m + m1) is similarly raised to the same distance of separation and dropped, and its time recorded.

Note that the spheres dropped differ in mass, but not in diameter.

Will the two spheres have exactly the same time of fall? Assume no friction or external forces. For hints and answers consult WB's post and attached comments.

Mikey in the Multiverse

Michael Griffin is nothing if not a diligent student. He seems to have accumulated seven degrees, including a PhD, an MBA, and four other master's degrees, and is reputedly working on yet another. These qualifications don't necessarily make an ideal NASA administrator, however, and he has lots of critics. The principal criticisms seem to be three: NASA won't have heavy lift capability for nearly a decade or more, NASA has cut back science missions in favor of an unrealistic man on Mars scheme, and NASA has allowed unqualified political hacks to censor its scientists.

Most of these problems were in fact foisted on him by Karl Rove's political hackery, and Griffin could argue that he made the best possible defense of NASA's key assets from the White House idiots. Be that as it may, Griffin is now under fire for reportedly being uncooperative with the Obama transition team. The Orlando Sentinel, which keeps an ear close to the ground on space matters, reports this conversation between transition team member Lori Garver and Griffin (hat tip Kevin Drum:

Garver and Griffin engaged in what witnesses said was an animated conversation. Some overheard parts of it.
“Mike, I don’t understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood,” Garver said.
“If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar,” Griffin replied. “Because it means you don’t trust what I say is under the hood.

Nobody would trust a car salesman who said something like this, and I'm pretty sure Obama won't trust a NASA administrator who does. The Sentinel article linked above contains a lot of useful background. More can be found in Kevin Drum's post, also linked above, and the comments thereto, and in Julianne's post at Cosmic Variance (NASA's Hissy Fit, and for a view from another region of the Mutiverse, where the sky is green and the moons go backwards, Lubos Motl's post Obama is flooding . . .

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Good Cause, Weak Rhetoric

Deleted on the grounds that wiser heads thought this was a lousy context in which to complain about grammar and logic.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ahh Yes!

Supreme Court Overturns Bush v. Gore

Bailout Bingo

Bailouts remain very unpopular with voters, expecially the conservative Southern voters on the wrong side of the last election. That fact, more than ideology, explains the Republican Senators decision to torpedo the Auto bailout. Of course it helps that many have Japanese auto companies in their States that would benefit from the disappearance of Detroit.

The politics of resentment play a big role too. The wingnutosphere likes to talk about the Union workers making $73/hr - mostly BS of course, but actual wages and benefits are a bit higher in unionized plants, and costs, mostly legacy costs are significantly higher. The non-union workers in the foreign auto plants are well paid as well, mainly because the companies know that their workers would unionize if they fell too far behind Detroit - but watch them fall after Detroit disappears. In any case, Republicans are expoiting the fact that lots of other people are hurting and resent what they (correctly) see as special treatment for some.

Of course the other side is that if the US auto industry does go away, almost everybody will be badly hurt. In any case, there is room for argument about the form any rescue should take. Joseph Stiglitz, probably the most prestigious economist writing, thinks Chapter eleven is the way to go.

The debate about whether or not to bail out the Big Three carmakers has been mischaracterised. It has been described as a package to help the undeserving dinosaurs of Detroit. In fact, a plan to bail out the carmakers would benefit shareholders and bondholders as much as anybody else. These are not the people that need help right now. In fact they contributed to the problem.

Financial markets are supposed to allocate capital and monitor that it is used to good effect. They are supposed to be rewarded when they do that job well, but bear the consequences when they fail. The markets failed. Wall Street’s focus on quarterly returns encouraged the short-sighted behaviour that contributed to their own demise and that of America’s manufacturing, including the automotive industry. Today, they are asking to escape accountability. We should not allow it.

Well, as one of those stock and bond holders, it's hard for me to be enthusiastic about this theory, but it does make sense. What needs to be protected are workers, suppliers, car owners, and the industrial capacity of the US.

What needs to be done is to help the automakers get a fresh start and allow them to focus on producing good cars rather than trying to juggle their books to meet past obligations.

The US car industry will not be shut down, but it does need to be restructured. That is what Chapter 11 of America’s bankruptcy code is supposed to do. A variant of pre-packaged bankruptcy – where all the terms are set before going before the bankruptcy court – can allow them to produce better and more environmentally sound cars. It can also address legacy retiree obligations. The companies may need additional finance. Given the state of financial markets, the US government may have to provide that at terms that give the taxpayers a full return to compensate them for the risk. Government guarantees can provide assurances, as they did two decades ago when Chrysler faced its crisis.

With financial restructuring, the real assets do not disappear. Equity investors (who failed to fulfil their responsibility of oversight) lose everything; bondholders get converted into equity owners and may lose substantial amounts. Freed of the obligation to pay interest, the carmakers will be in a better position. Taxpayer dollars will go far further. Moral hazard – the undermining of incentives – will be averted: a strong message will be sent.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

News Flash!

From the stupidosphere, an increasingly popular meme:

Bush kept us from being attacked....

OK, by my count the US has suffered a massive foreign attack on our homeland exactly once during the past 196 years. Who was it that was President then?

I can't seem to remember, but his initials were "W."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fiscal Conservatism

Some Republican moron (Tim Pawlenty, to be specific) is now proposing a balanced budget amendment - a typical dishonest Republican trick for show purposes only. too bad he didn't think of that a bit earlier when his President was running the country into the ground. So far during Bush's Presidency, the national debt has increased by five trillion dollars, not quite doubling the amount run up by all previous administrations combined (5.6 trillion - which in turn was mostly due to Reagan and the slightly less disastrous first Bush) - and he still has six weeks to go. Two trillion of that was run up in the last two years, one and one half trillion this year, and one trillion in the last four months.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Multiple Guess

Kevin Drum is shocked to hear that multiple choice exams are apparently absent from Europe. Is that generally true of the rest of the world? Arun? Anybody?

Speed Racer: More Numbers

I ran some more of Saletan's numbers, and they are definitely non-Mendelian. He gives the following for the X allele frequencies in the various populations: Asians - 52%, European Whites - 42%, African Americans - 27%, West Africans - 16%. From this we can calculate the probable distribution of the XX, XR, and RR expected from random matings and births. For Asians, XX should occur with frequency (.52^2)=27%, RX (.52)(.48)*2= 25%, and RR at (.48)^2 = 23% These numbers differ very slightly from the ones of my table:

Race ******* RR *** RX *** XX

Asian _____.25__ .50___ .25

Wh Euro ___.30 __.50__ .20

Af Am_____ .60 __.27__ .13

Af Bantu ___.81__ .18___ .01

But the differences are larger for the other groups. Here is the expected table.

Race ******* RR *** RX *** XX

Asian _____.27__ .50___ .23

Wh Euro ___. 33__.49___ .18

Af Am_____ .53 __.40___ .07

Af Bantu ___.71___ .26___ .03

Compared to random behavior, RR is underrepresented among Asians and European whites, but the opposite trend is even more pronounced among those of African descent. Very odd.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Go Speed Racer: Genes, Race, and Racing

William Saletan has a new column on why White Men Can't Jump, or more precisely, on the correlation of genes, fast twitch muscle fibers, and race. It turns out that a certain gene, ACTN3 comes in a couple of types, call them R and X, that are linked to the proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers, which in turn are linked to speed. All really fast sprinters, it seems, have the RR type (you get one copy from each parent). It also turns out that gene frequencies for this gene differ significantly from race to race (he uses four "races", Asian, White, African American, and Bantu - never mind the imprecision). From his article you can deduce that those categories assort as follows:

Race ******* RR *** RX *** XX
Asian _____.25__ .50___ .25
Wh Euro ___.30 __.50__ .20
Af Am_____ .60 __.27__ .13
Af Bantu ___.81__ .18___ .01

Which seems a bit non-Mendelian for the latter categories - I have no explanation for that.

Now Asians and white Europeans are all but absent from the lists of top sprinters, even though there are lots of them in the RR category - more in absolute numbers than in the latter two categories. Also, West Africans are not dominant sprinters - mixed race sprinters from the US, the Carribean, and Europe are. Clearly, there is more to running fast than just one gene.

The fact that elite sprinters seem to come exclusively from the RR ranks does show, however, than genes matter, just in case anyone doubted it. We will doubtless see more and more genes identified that are correlated to real traits. This is at best a very mixed blessing.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


After praising Susskind's expository skills I find that he leaves me mystified on a crucial point. Maldacena conjectured a correspondence between Anti-de Sitterk space and a conformal field theory on its "boundary." Anti-de Sitter space, as far as I can tell, is a space with Lobachevskian spatial section - a space whose spatial part has constant negative scalar curvature. Susskind illustrates his AdS with Escher's picture of angels and demons on a Poincare disk. (I seem to recall Maldacena doing the same in a Scientific American story).

Poincare had noticed (a hundred years or so ago) that he could conformally map Lobachevsky's space on to a unit disk in the complex plane. The infinite Lobachevskian space is mapped onto a finite disk by a transformation that shrinks everything as it approaches the boundary.

The problem in my mind is that Susskind speaks of the boundary of the model disk as a real boundary at a finite distance, and treats the apparent shrinking of the far away angels, demons, or galaxies as real. What's up with that? What does it even mean to have a holographic image of your space at infinity? There must be a missing piece of the mental machinery that I can't see.
*Anti-de Sitter/Conformal Field Theory Unclear on the Concept

Friday, December 05, 2008

Free Trade and Mercantilism I

There is a story of a bitter rivalry between tow old Scottish farmers whom we shall call McGraw and McGrew. God decides to show them the error of their ways, so he said to McGraw: "I will give you anything you want, but there is a catch. Whatever I give to you, I will give two of to McGrew."

McGraw is torn between his greed and his hatred for McGrew, so he thinks long and hard. Finally he says: "Lord, put out me one eye."

Economists are nearly unanimous in their belief in free trade, but the public is much more suspicious. Economists tend to ascribe this difference to the publics failure to appreciate the subtle point of Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage. Wikipedia illustrates that point with the following nice example:

Two men live alone on an isolated island. To survive they must undertake a few basic economic activities like water carrying, fishing, cooking and shelter construction and maintenance. The first man is young, strong, and educated and is faster, better, more productive at everything. He has an absolute advantage in all activities. The second man is old, weak, and uneducated. He has an absolute disadvantage in all economic activities. In some activities the difference between the two is great; in others it is small.

Despite the fact that the younger man has absolute advantage in all activities, it is not in the interest of either of them to work in isolation since they both can benefit from specialization and exchange. If the two men divide the work according to comparative advantage then the young man will specialize in tasks at which he is most productive, while the older man will concentrate on tasks where his productivity is only a little less than that of a young man. Such an arrangement will increase total production for a given amount of labor supplied by both men and it will make both of them richer.

So is that really so hard to understand? I don't think so. I think that the real reason that the public is suspicious of that argument is an instinct more fundamental than the economists sacred principle of profit maximization, taught to us by the ages of evolution, that success and survival are mainly a matter of competition for resources.

Mercantilism, in it classic enunciation, has severe theoretical flaws which were well exposed by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and others, but it has proved far more durable and successful as an economic policy than that theory would suggest. China, Japan and the other Asian economies have pursued effectively mercantilist policies with enormous success, while the US, a prime proponent of free trade, has stumbled badly. Britain and the US each became industrial behemoths and world powers in part due to mercantilist policies, especially by promoting and protecting domestic industry.

McGraw, our Scottish farmer, was not a pareto optimizer, and neither is evolution.

So was Ricardo wrong? Not really, of course, but oversimplified. Chinese mercantilism, combined with some American and other stupidities, has helped put the World in it's current financial mess, but China has managed to very quickly become a dominant industrial power. We, meaning mainly the US and Europe, got some benefit too - cheap DVD players and mortgages, a big limit on the governments credit card, and a chance to rethink some verities.

The US and Pakistan

One of the hazards of being the big dog on the block is that everybody blames you. The main victims in Mumbai were Indian, or course, but the terrorist went to some trouble to make sure they killed Americans, Jews, and British. The Indians blame America as protectors and financiers of Pakistan.

Historically this is true, but the US alliance with Pakistan has never been a matter of our common allegiance to that old Hebrew War God, nor has it ever been more than a matter of current convenience. In the early years, when India tilted to the Russians in the cold war, Pakistan was a counterweight. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan was the vital staging area for the resistance. With 9/11, Pakistan was a country that needed to be kept on the sidelines of the Afghanistan struggle. Despite tens of billions in US aid, Pakistan has never been an effective ally against the Taliban, nor has it been able to keep its own state from perpetually teetering on the brink of political and economic collapse.

Despite all that, after repeated wars and almost wars, Pakistan and India in recent years made modest progress towards normalization of relations. This progress was only possible because cooler heads in India (business men, not politicians, for the most part) saw the threat that a failed Pakistani state posed. In one step, the Mumbai terrorists threw all that into gravest doubt. There are fewer cool heads in India than ever, and Pakistan is as close to collapse as it has been. The Lashkar-e-Taibba terrorists who are almost certainly behind the attack were created by the Pakistans ISI (and probably al Quaeda), but were disavowed by the government some time ago. Disavowed, but tolerated, never suppressed, and quite likely still with many friends high in the Pakistani government and military.

The ideal solution for the US and India would be for the Pakistani government to suppress, arrest and disband those organizations, but it is not clear that it has either the will or the means. It is far from clear that a government could survive a serious attempt to destroy the LeT, and not even clear that the military can. If the Pakistanis are willing to attempt it, the US should provide (very quiet) support.

What if it can't, or won't? The US, with modest but unacknowledged Pakistani tolerance can continue its robotic assassination program, and it is likely to get more capable with time. India may not have the capability and is unlikely to get any Pakistani tolerance, so its options are very limited.

US Neocon Robert Kagan proposes an international military campaign to deal with the militias. We know what a policy wizard he is. In any case, it's unlikely to work at any scale below a massive war of extermination (see, e.g., Israel's misadventures in Lebanon), and at that scale, vitually certain to draw a Pakistani response with nukes - against India, even if India is officially neutral.

The painful and humiliating option is for India to grimace and prepare to play defence for a long time. Meanwhile, a diplomatic and economic initiative should pressure Pakistan to at least take modest steps to rein in the LeT terrorists - and the US has to take the lead in this regard. Next, the flow of Saudi and other money to the various Islamic terrorists needs to be cut off. The current decline in oil prices means that the US now has more leverage with the Gulf States - the prime culprits - than it has had recently.

Finally, Iran needs to be reminded that if it has a dog in this fight it is not the Taliban or the LeT.

These aren't great or even good options, but I don't see any better, not for the US and not for India. Hotheads need to be reminded that just because a nuclear exchange hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't - in fact hot heads are exactly the things most likely to bring one about.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Why Mumbai?

A lot of planning went into the Mubai terror attacks. What was their strategic objective? Why the torture? Why the deliberately outrageous character of the attacks? Was it just a Columbine writ large, a fit of adolescent pique?

I think Daniel Benjamin, writing in Slate, has the key element. In a sense, the victims in India were collateral damage, victims of the struggle for power and contro in Pakistan. The radical elements in Pakistan, including the various terrorist organizations, fear and hate the recent trends of raprochment between India and Pakistan. They, and their supporters in the government, the military, and the ISI have been waging a campaign of terror and assassination in Pakistan but have not been able to capture control.

The origins of the attack remain unclear: We know little about the gunmen. Of those identified, all but one are dead. It is difficult to imagine that as few as 10 terrorists—the number cited in most reports—carried out this attack or that they did so without extensive local logistical support and sophisticated planning. Most attention is focused on the outlawed but tolerated Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Tayyba, a group that Osama Bin Laden reportedly helped establish in the late 1980s to fight against the Indian presence in Kashmir and that was nurtured for most of its existence by the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence agency. The group has been linked to the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, which nearly sparked a war with Pakistan, and the 2005 London Tube bombings. Although the Pakistani government under both Gen. Pervez Musharraf and President Asif Ali Zardari have condemned the group, the possibility that current or former ISI personnel might be involved cannot be ruled out.

What is clear is that whoever planned the attack had an incisive understanding of how to destroy the limited progress that had been made to reduce Pakistani-Indian tensions and to undermine the new Pakistani civilian government's efforts to defeat the Islamist radicalism that is consuming the state. Shortly before the U.S. presidential election, I argued that there was a big opening for jihadists to make an enormous impact with an action that could be traced to Pakistan, thus inviting retaliation against that country. Political backlash against such retaliation might render the new civilian government incapable of cooperating with the United States against terror and would accelerate the fraying of Pakistan, where extremists often operate in the open.

The planners of the Mumbai slaughter obviously saw this opportunity. The bloodshed in India's financial hub was calculated to outrage not just Indians, who constituted the large majority of those murdered, but also, it appears, the key partners in what the jihadists call the Crusader Alliance To Destroy Islam—Americans, Britons, and Israelis. It is plausible that the two luxury hotels were targeted in order to ensure American and British victims, and anecdotal information suggests that terrorists tried to identify hotel guests of these nationalities. The fact that the local Chabad House was hit indicates that Jews and Israel were also targets. In short, this was an attack that aimed at making a mark in the global jihad, not just another battle in the historic back-and-forth between the subcontinental neighbors.

So far they have had great success. India is outraged and Pakistan is retreating into a defensive crouch. The rest of the world can not afford to let these crimes go unpunished, but every pressure put on Pakistan will make it harder for the government to purge the terror supporting elements. It would be easy to push Pakistan into economic collapse, but who wins from that? Very likely the extremists.

We can hardly congratulate ourselves for starving a few tens of thousands of Pakistanis if the result is that al Quaeda and the other terrorists wind up pocketing the nukes.

IQ: Worth Its Salt

Nick Kristof on micronutrients and IQ.

Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.

When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Lenny The Plumber

Leonard Susskind is a noted theoretical physicist who is one of the founding fathers of string theory and who has contributed important ideas to particle physics and quantum gravity. He also has a somewhat unusual CV, having spent five years working as a plumber before entering graduate school.

When I bought his book, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, I didn't really have very high hopes for it. For one thing, there was the title - just a bit too self-congratulatory. For another, I had read some of his quotes on string theory, and they seemed redolent of string chauvinism.

I am happy to say that these fears proved quite unfounded. To be sure, he isn't a prose stylist at the same level as some other physics popularizers, and he does have this sometimes annoying chip on his shoulder - repeatedly giving into the temptation to dis other physicists: "Einstein pompously declared..." Actually though, it's rather Feynman and Gell-Mannish - less amusing than Feynman but not quite as creepy as Gell-Mann, and can be seen as an almost endearing tough kid from NYC act.

These flaws are minor, though, compared to the book's great virtues. Susskind has a very deep, clear, and pictorial way of describing how nature works - he is a superb explainer. He is a big fan of the crucial thought experiment, and describes some of the notatable such in the history of physics, including several of his own. This is very natural to my own way of thinking, though, of course, to be useful, these thought experiments have to be coupled with some calculation - not my forte.

The central theme of the book is Hawking's black hole information loss puzzle - the notion that the unitarity of the S-matrix is destroyed when matter falls into a black hole and the BH subsequently radiates its energy. This bothered the heck out of Susskind, who saw that it gave birth to even more disturbing paradoxes in our attempt to make sense of the Universe. Relatively few of his colleagues were equally bothered, Gerhard 't Hooft being the most prominent exception.

The resolution of this paradox leads by strange paths through black hole complementarity, string theory, and the holographic principle. I have to say that I consider the successful resolution to be the strongest argument for string theory that I have heard yet. Strings, it seems, not only explain much of the strange goings on near the BH horizon, but do so quantitatively, at least for some intriguing special cases.

Because Susskind is writing for the general audience, large portions of the book are devoted to explaining things that are very familiar even to physicists who know little about string theory or black holes. This part is not as wasted as I expected. Looking at the familiar through the eyes of a deep thinker can be a revelation even if you were sure you understood that all along.

Highly recommended to those interested in black holes, string theory, Hawking's puzzle, and how the deep down things really work. It's also a good look into the head of an original and deeply insightful thinker.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

QCD Strings

A bit more from Leonard Susskind. In describing hadrons he promotes a very specific and mechanical model of the hadron as a QCD string, with quarks connected by little bar magnet like gluons. Mesons, in this picture have their quark and antiquark connected by a single string of bar magnet gluons while the three quarks of a baryon are connected by a bolo shaped Y of gluon bar magnets.

I wasn't completely unfamiliar with this picture but I had always thought of it as more metaphorical than real and concrete. Anybody whose particle physics is more up to date have any thoughts on this? In particular, I hadn't realized that gluons were polar, though it does seem rather plausible.

The specificity of the shapes was the most surprising element for me. Is that implied by the linearity of the Regge trajectories?


If it's true, as reported by ABC, that India was warned of the terror attacks both by the US and its own intelligence, then the Indian government has a great deal to answer for.

U.S. intelligence agencies warned their Indian counterparts in mid-October of a potential attack "from the sea against hotels and business centers in Mumbai," a U.S. intelligence official tells

Other reports claim Indian police did not even use their own guns against the attackers - perhaps they weren't even loaded, and Indian special forces were many hours away. The same reports make the assignment of blame rather more clear cut as well.

It is quite possible that the perpetrators specifically targetted recent Indian - Pakistani cooperation with the aim of increasing tension or promoting war. Relatively few outside observers believe the Pakistani government promoted this attack directly, but Pakistan must now take decisive action against the militants or suffer for their sins.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

War Profiteer

How many American soldiers died to make Barry McCaffrey rich? That is the question invited by David Barstow's New York Times expose on the activities of NBC military analyst and retired four star General Barry McCaffrey. It is a long article, but Steve Benen picks out a particularly devastating sentence:

. As Barstow explained, "On NBC and in other public forums, General McCaffrey has consistently advocated wartime policies and spending priorities that are in line with his corporate interests. But those interests are not described to NBC's viewers. He is held out as a dispassionate expert, not someone who helps companies win contracts related to the wars he discusses on television."

Benen also quotes Spencer Ackermans "Get Rich or Die Trying:

If this mammoth New York Times piece is wrong, Barry McCaffrey really ought to sue, because if it isn't, he has no reputation for integrity left. [...]

[T]he scope of McCaffrey's hustle is really breathtaking. Barstow demonstrates that many, if not most, of the pronouncements he made on TV about the wars benefited one or another defense contractor who employed him. That's the way the scheme worked: Company hires retired general to use his connections to its benefit. Retired general accepts special grants of access from the office of the secretary of defense that benefit both his TV career and his consulting career. Retired general proclaims on TV things that benefit both the secretary and the company -- or, when circumstances necessitate, the company at the expense of the secretary. TV viewer, looking for informed analysis of confusing wars, is unaware of any of this. Welcome to the new military-media-industrial complex.

McCaffrey's reply, as quoted by Ackerman:

Thirty-seven years of public service. Four combat tours. Wounded three times. The country knows me as a nonpartisan and objective national security expert with solid integrity

Too bad he had to finish by selling out his country and fellow soldiers.

Racism Watch

Lumo is giving voice to his inner Nazi again today. His targets this time are the Gypsies.

Gypsies are a people of Indian origin who speak a language related to Hindustani and retain a number of Hindu cultural practices, but except in India, are not actually Hindus. Somehow they have managed to survive centuries of pogroms, enslavement, and extermination campaigns and remain widely distributed in Europe and the US.

In Lubos's country, the Czech Republic, they have suffered from Nazi extermination, a Communist era sterilization program, and continuing widespread discrimination.

The garbage Lumo spews is the usual stuff Nazis and other racists say about Jews, Blacks, the Irish, the Chinese, Eastern Europeans or any other target group of opportunity. Go to the link if you want a trip to the sewer.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Econ Cage Match: Friedman vs Keynes

Milton Friedman advanced the view that recessions and depressions were primarily monetary phenomena, and that the appropriate weapon against them was expansion of the money supply. He went further, claiming that the Federal Reserve caused the great depression. In fact monetary policies were somewhat effective against recession during most of the later half of the twentieth century, and an anti-Keynesian attitude became standard among conservatives.

Then came the Panic of 2008. Conservatives universally poo-pooed what the called the "leftist" Cassandras like Roubini and Krugman. When the tidal wave hit, Bernanke frantically threw money out of helicopter (a Friedman metaphor) but nothing worked.

Paul Krugman has a series of blog posts on how the current crisis has exposed the hollow core of monetarism and brought Keynesian ideas once again to the fore. The first one (Nov. 29) features Amity Schlaes as monetarist road kill.

Age Zero is Way too Late

Finally a practical use for all that genetics crap.

BOULDER, Colorado: When Donna Campiglia learned recently that a genetic test might be able to determine which sports suit the talents of her 2 ½-year-old son, Noah, she instantly said, Where can I get it and how much does it cost?

"I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things, but I still think it's good to match them with the right activity," Campiglia, 36, said as she watched a toddler class at Boulder Indoor Soccer in which Noah struggled to take direction from the coach between juice and potty breaks.

"I think it would prevent a lot of parental frustration," she said.

In health-conscious, sports-oriented Boulder, Atlas Sports Genetics is playing into the obsessions of parents by offering a $149 test that aims to predict a child's natural athletic strengths. The process is simple. Swab inside the child's cheek and along the gums to collect DNA and return it to a lab for analysis of ACTN3, one gene among more than 20,000 in the human genome.

Waaayyy, Way too late honey. My wife and I have the test done on all our sons' girlfriends.

Inconsistent Histories

I have been reading Leonard Susskind's The black Hole Wars and intend to do a book review, but meanwhile, I have gotten to the point where he presents his principle of "Black Hole Complementarity." This is a riff on Bohr's Complemetarity Principle which maintains that the apparently mutually contradictictory wave and particle pictures of matter describe complementary aspects of a reality not fully captured by either. Ask an electron a "wave question", and you get a wave type answer, ask it a "particle question" and you get a particle answer.

For black holes, the contrasting pictures are these: If you lower a probe (Julio, say) and stop it very close to the surface of the black hole, he sees a hellishly seething bath of Hawking radiation. I need to mention at this point that although the BH looks very cold to an outside observer, that is just due to the huge gravitational red shift. Julio's beer can, though, falls freely through the horizon and finds the trip quite uneventfully radiation free, at least until it gets to the overwhelming tidal forces closer to singularity at the center of the BH. So what does the outside observer see? He sees the beer can fall toward the horizon but never reach it, being annihilated and having his energy and bits become part of the seething bath of Hawking radiation.

The complementary elements are the inconsistent histories of the beer can - does it fall through the horizon untouched (the beer can view) or is it annihilated before it reaches the horizon? These seem utterly incompatible, but it appears that no experimental test can discriminate between them. This is a bit shocking.

Only in Hell

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, an American Admiral apparently said "When this is over, Japanese will be a language spoken only in Hell." One of his Japanese counterparts was slightly more precise: "We have awakened a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible purpose." 9/11 produced similar thoughts about Islam.

In the case of 9/11, much of that terrible purpose proved misguided, thanks largely to our doltish President and his corrupt and incompetent advisors who saw tragedy as an opportunity to advance the interests of big oil and their own warped notion of Israel's interest.

India is now in just that same state of incoherent and vengeful rage. Exactly how that rage winds up being focussed has momentous consequences for the world, but especially for India.

What? You Didn't Expect the Spanish Inquisition

Benny Sixteen, AKA Joey the Ratz, former head of the Holy Inquisition (and former Hitler Youth) has some news for youz:

In quotations from the letter that appeared on Sunday in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, the pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible

Friday, November 28, 2008

Night Thoughts

These terrorist attacks always provoke thoughts of the so-called "War of Civilizations" that bin Laden is said to wish to provoke. The money and sophistication of the weapons of the Mumbai attackers suggests organized support with real money and territory. These resources are tiny, of course, compared to those of India, Europe, or the US, but their effect is magnified by their willingness to use indiscriminate violence. So far, the rest of the world has responded in somewhat measured fashion.

Despite its excesses and grotesqueries, even the Bush response never descended into all-out religious warfare. When the provocation becomes great enough and prolonged enough, the pressure for that kind of response becomes overwhelming. Should that happen, the hundreds of millions of Muslims innocent of any violence will suffer with the relatively few who are guilty.

The principal victims of such a war would be the citizens of Muslim countries, but the damage to the institutions of democracy in the US and Europe would also be enormous. Mass expulsions and internments would be likely.

It is absolutely urgent that the countries of the victims and those of the perpetrators take urgent action suppress the individuals and institutions that promote terrorism.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


David Frum reputedly coined Bush's "Axis of Evil" phrase, linking together three countries (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) whose most obvious common traits were that they were all on Bush's enemies list and none of them had had anything to do with 9/11.

When 9/11 did happen, Bush's first instinct was to pack the bin Laden family on a jet and send them safely back to Saudi Arabia, the country most directly involved in 9/11, since both the plotter and most of the participants were from that country. Moreover, Saudi Arabia had spent decades financing the radical madrassas that have so successfully exported a radical jihadist mentality to Pakistan and other countries. If one wanted to single out an "Axis" (a dumb idea, anyway) responsible for much of current terrorism, it would run through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The Wahabi brand of Islam promoted by the Saudis is deeply reactionary, fostering both resentment of the modern world and rejection of it. By rejecting the very things that would permit Muslims to adapt to the modern world (education of girls, for example) they condemn their adherents to remain poor and backward.

It is unclear at the moment whether the Mumbai attacks were orchestrated by these people, but if Pakistan's fingerprints are on it, India can probably not let this go unpunished. Pakistan will be left with hard choices - to fight, and lose catastrophically against India, or to take on the radicals, including much of its own intelligence services in what is likely to become a significant civil war.

Westerners, and especially Americans were principal targets, so we have a major stake in this as well. What useful role can we play? That is also unclear.

If we had had a non-idiot president on 9/11, he would have made Saudi Arabia a main focus of his war on terror. The bin Ladens and other Saudi princes would have been detained as enemy aliens, and Saudi Arabia would have been given a harsh choice - reform utterly, surrender all the financiers of terror, and suppress the jihadist preachers or suffer a war of revenge.

The Saudis understand wars of revenge, but they know regime change is bullshit.

Life, Art

It's no news that life imitates art. Lousy art, it seems, is imitated by idiots, slavishly and often catastrophically.

24 is a television show popular with Bushies in which Kiefer Sutherland occasionally manages to prevent the Universe from being destroyed by torturing some hapless Muslim. In 24's World always has a ticking time bomb that only Jack (the KS character) can find and dispose of. I've only watched one episode, but regular viewers assure me my synopsis is correct.

Interestingly enough, the show was apparently the inspiration for the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld torture program, which, unlike Jack Bauer's, never managed to uncover even one ticking bomb, but did result in the torture of hundreds, dozens of them tortured to death or insanity.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Falling, Can't Get Out

My Xmas black hole puzzle (see earlier) has largely evaporated under the combined assault of Wolfgang and Lubos, but there is a nagging remnant.

What is the rate of change of the radius of BH in the coordinates of the free falling beer can? The ratio of their radius and distance as a function of time (in the free fall coordinates)?


Arun has some primo Kristol Meth.

It is sorta scary that Bill Kristol has a PhD - from Harvard yet. Tends to destroy my faith in the Ivy League. Not to mention a rational universe.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Still Idiots: George Will and David Brooks

Caught a bit of ABC's This Week this morning and George Will, who clearly had forgotten that last week Paul Krugman had schooled him on this very point, proclaimed again that "the New Deal didn't work," citing 1937. Paul wasn't there, but Arianna Huffington quite appropriately called this a "conservative myth" and Robert Kuttner followed up with devastating details.

David Brooks, on the other hand, seemed to have gotten his crystal pyramid stuck - somewhere - and wandered off into some sort of New Age fantasy. How refreshing to have a couple of non-idiots on board as a corrective.


I saw Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen (John Ziman's Physics World review here) last night, and I was very impressed. The principal subject is Heisenberg's September 1941 visit with Bohr in Copenhagen. At that time, the Bohr-Heisenberg collaboration that was so fundamental to the discovery of quantum mechanics was a decade and and a half in the past, Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany, and Heisenberg was already at work on a German fission bomb.

Heisenberg's visit was risky - he and Bohr were both being watched by the Gestapo, and Bohr, who was half-Jewish as well the world's most prominent nuclear physicist, was also under watch. What Heisenberg apparently said to Bohr "is it moral for a physicist to work on applications of fission" would have gotten them both shot if the Gestapo had heard. In any case, Bohr apparently reacted with intense anger, but no answer. Bohr was smuggled out of Denmark just before the arrest of all Danish Jews (who were tipped off, apparently by a source in the German embassy - who himself may have had Heisenberg links, and also mostly escaped.) Bohr wound up at Las Alamos, and contributed to the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while Heisenberg's bomb was never built.

This was a very difficult play for the actors, because many crucial question hinge on Heisenberg's understanding of the feasability of the fission weapon, especially the critical mass required for a fission weapon based on U235, which in turn depends on understanding the neutron diffusion equation. Moreover, there is much discussion of the heady moments of the nineteen twenties when Bohr, Heisenberg, and others struggled to create quantum mechanics. I think that the play captures both the thrill and much of the substance of those days. Both things require that the actors talk a great deal of physics - diffusion, cross-sections, fission, uncertainty, complementarity - and these are things actors usually don't know. I spoke to two of the actors afterwards, and this was something they worried about, but I assured them that they were right on, and they seemed pleased that a physicist thought so.

Though important, the physics is not the central point. That central point is the nature of moral choice and fate, and its contingency. Heisenberg comes off pretty well in this play, but there are no unblemished heroes here. Bohr was famous for the many drafts his papers required, an arduous task in those days before the word processor and the computer. The play too presents several drafts of the reality of the events depicted.

I should mention that the play was written after all the principals - Bohr, his wife Margarethe, and Heisenberg - were all dead, and it is in the form of a trialog among the three ghosts. I call them ghosts since they know and acknowledge that they are all dead.

I think it is a terrific play, especially for physicists and other fans of Bohr and quantum mechanics.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Stupid Headline for Today

Yahoo news: e=mc2: 103 years later, Einstein's proven right.

The actual deed, a QCD calculation, is perhaps interesting, but as the article ultimately admits, Einstein's famous equation already had plenty of evidence.

PARIS (AFP) – It's taken more than a century, but Einstein's celebrated formula e=mc2 has finally been corroborated, thanks to a heroic computational effort by French, German and Hungarian physicists.

A brainpower consortium led by Laurent Lellouch of France's Centre for Theoretical Physics, using some of the world's mightiest supercomputers, have set down the calculations for estimating the mass of protons and neutrons, the particles at the nucleus of atoms.

According to the conventional model of particle physics, protons and neutrons comprise smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons.

The odd thing is this: the mass of gluons is zero and the mass of quarks is only five percent. Where, therefore, is the missing 95 percent?

The answer, according to the study published in the US journal Science on Thursday, comes from the energy from the movements and interactions of quarks and gluons.

In other words, energy and mass are equivalent, as Einstein proposed in his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905.

The e=mc2 formula shows that mass can be converted into energy, and energy can be converted into mass.

By showing how much energy would be released if a certain amount of mass were to be converted into energy, the equation has been used many times, most famously as the inspirational basis for building atomic weapons.

But resolving e=mc2 at the scale of sub-atomic particles -- in equations called quantum chromodynamics -- has been fiendishly difficult.

QCD is hard. Journamalism - not so much.

However, 5% is a small number. Why shouldn't it be zero?

We don't need no stinkin' . . . (Xmas Edition)

It is time to post my annual Christmas Black Hole puzzle. It’s pretty much the same puzzle every year, but since nobody ever gives me an answer I can understand, here is the latest version:

Two immortal and durable observers, call them Paul and Julio, want to observe the life history of a black hole. The strategy is this: Paul will stay back, where space-time is flat, but Julio will go in and stop just outside the horizon. Immortal though he is, Julio likes a cold one, so he drinks his beer and tosses the empty out the back window, where it falls freely (behind him) toward the black hole. Julio moves so close to the black hole that his watch runs very slowly compared to Paul’s. In fact he stops just at the point where one microsecond on his watch corresponds to T on Paul’s, where T is the time it takes for the BH to evaporate. By coincidence, that microsecond happens to be just the time it takes for the beer can drifting behind him to catch up and pass him on its way into the black hole.

After time T has passed, the BH has presumably evaporated and space-time is again flat, so Paul ought to be able to see and communicate with Julio again. A few zillion years have passed for Paul, but only that one microsecond for Julio, but now their clocks are on the same time again.

So what about the beer can? It was falling freely into the black hole when it caught up with Julio, but at that point, the BH had just finished evaporating. The distant observer and the nearby observer both saw the aluminum test body falling freely into the BH, but by the time it got there, they both agree that the BH was already gone.

But there is nothing special about the beer can, so how can anything fall into the BH, and, for that matter, how can the BH form at all?

Thursday, November 20, 2008


OK, we knew we were screwed. Actually, it has been apparent for a bit that we were really, really screwed.

Paul Krugman has an encouraging word.

Don’t panic about the stock market

Panic about the credit markets instead. Interest rate on 3-month Treasuries at 0.02%; interest rate on high-yield (junk) bonds over 20%.

This is an economic emergency.

The three month T bill actually hit 0.005% today.

We are totally #$&@ed.

Shake It

CNN claims that other world leaders wouldn't shake hands with Bush at the recent summit.

It appears in this video that President Bush's approval is in a sorrier state than polls indicate. In a video taken at the G20 summit, Bush walks across a line of world leaders without shaking or being asked to shake any of their hands. Whether the President is being rejected by the world leaders or he is rejecting them, CNN's Rick Sanchez aptly says that Bush looks like "the most unpopular kid in high school that nobody liked."

I wouldn't be surprised if this interpretation is a bit excessive but it is pretty easy to see how he could wind up the skunk at the picnic. Being arrogant, overbearing, criminal, ignorant, obnoxious and grossly incompetent can tend to produce that effect in those about you. Being at the center of the destruction of the modern financial system at the end of your term doesn't help either.

Unclear on Concept

I was listening to Faux News on the XM on the drive home today. The usual idiots (Fred, Morton, Mara, and Charles Krauthammer) were yakking about the new administration. Krauthammer thinks he has an actual point, and says, look, Obama promised change and here he is bringing in a bunch of Clintonistas and Democrats. He's not giving people the change they voted for!

Earth to Chuck, here: The change they voted for was change from George Bush, Dick Cheney, and all the Neocon, Richcon, Crookcon and Crackcons, slime balls like you. A lot of those people would have been perfectly happy with more Clinton, and most of the rest of us are ecstatic to have an intelligent leader who is willing to tap into existing expertise - that's change I can believe in.

News You Can't Believe

From the NYT: Adam Smith, Disproved.

Adam Smith, in his famous pin factory description, wrote that labor specialization improves productivity. He should have specified which species he was referring to.

A new paper finds that ants that specialize are no more productive than ants that don’t. The author, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona named Anna Dornhaus, studied how efficiently rock ants completed their tasks of brood transport, collecting sweets, foraging for protein and nest building. An ant was considered more specialized the more it concentrated its work on one particular task.

For all I know, this is a perfectly reasonable paper. The NYT headline is pure crap, of course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Krugman Skewers Another RW Propagandist

Paul Krugman deflates the some more Amity Schlaes nonsense.

When you hear claims that the New Deal made the depression worse, they often come directly or indirectly from the work of Amity Shlaes, whose misleading statistics have been widely disseminated on the right.

Now, Ms. Shlaes has found a new target: John Maynard Keynes. There’s a lot to critique in this piece, but this one takes the cake:

But the most telling fact about the new rush to spend is that its advocates have insisted on invoking the New Deal. They tend to gloss over the period when the phrase, “We are all Keynesians now,” was actually first uttered: the mid-1960s. (Uttered by Friedman, in fact, though he meant only that we all work in the terms of the Keynesian lexicon.)

The Great Society of that period was the ultimate Keynesian experiment, and it didn’t work very well.
Grr. Keynesianism says that deficit spending can help create jobs when the economy is depressed. The Great Society wasn’t deficit spending, it wasn’t intended to create jobs, and the economy of the 1960s wasn’t depressed. It was social engineering; we can talk about how well or badly it worked, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with Keynesian economics.

Parts . . .

Physicians have succeeded in making an artificial trachea for a woman using her own stem cells and some donor cartilage.

PARIS — Physicians at four European universities have successfully transplanted a human windpipe, using stem cells from the recipient’s own bone marrow to reline a donor trachea and prevent its rejection by her immune system, according to an article in the British medical journal The Lancet.

This is an early step in the development of artificial organs based on one's own cells, but its apparent success guarantees that future efforts will be redoubled. The holy grail for such efforts is the creation of whole organs: artificial pancreas, heart, kidney, liver, and lungs. These will take a while, but some version might appear in the next decade, and in a couple or three decades, rich people might start stockpiling handy replacement parts.