Thursday, December 31, 2009

Another Thing I Didn't Know Yesterday

There is a difference between rowing and sculling. In the simplest version of rowing, the blade of the oar is perpendicular to the direction of movement of boat and oar and propulsive force is achieved by simply pushing the water backwards, with little net circulation about the oar - similar to the operation of a paddlewheel steamer.

There is a better way, exploited by birds, scullers, and propeller driven craft. That way is to fly the blade through the fluid at an angle to its direction of motion, inducing circulation about it and letting Mr. Bernoulli do the driving.

Courtesy again of Mr. Tennekes.

Minus 160

Current political divisions in Congress are bitter, but hardly unprecedented. It's interesting to compare divisions in the US today to those of 1850. Then, even more than now, an enraged minority was willing to tear the country apart to get its way. Tempers in the Senate ran high enough that pistols were drawn.

Somehow, though, the stakes today look incredibly smaller. In 1850, the whole economic system of the South was at stake, as was the freedom of a substantial portion of its population. What's at risk today? Relatively minor modifications in the health insurance system? Someone said that American Conservatism today was an inferiority complex masquerading as an ideology. I don't think that's far wrong. Conservative ideas were roundly rejected by reality and by the voters, and they are scrambling and praying for a sign from above. Not that I minimize the hazard of such feelings. One might similarly say that militant Islamic radicalism is an inferiority complex in religious disguise.

The Republican party didn't yet exist in 1850, but the elements that created it were antithetical to the modern Republican party in almost every way. Not entirely coincidentally, the geographic focus of the party was more or less the negative image of that today. The modern Republicans have decided to bet everything on the failure of the Obama administration. Given the challenges which disastrous Republican governance presented it with, that failure is hardly unlikely, but if Obama can fix the economy, or get lucky enough for the economy to fix itself, the Republican party might find itself going the way of the Whigs.

If the Republicans do come back to power, bringing their ideological crackpottery in full manic form, the Union might face its greatest challenge in a long time.

Bad Things/Bad People

I am not one to hope or pray for bad things to happen, even to bad people, but this comment at TPM regarding Rush's hospitalization in Hawaii caught my eye:

Barleymash December 31, 2009 1:08 PM

I really hope he recovers, but I am concerned that this happened in Hawaii. If, heaven forbid, Rush doesn't recover, I want to see the official long-form death certificate. Who knows? He could actually be in Kenya right now and I, for one, am not willing to accept anything less than the official documentation.

Sporting News

Sea Lions Leave San Francisco is the headline at The Daily Beast.

Officially there is no explanation, but they are rumored to be demanding that the City construct a new stadium, provide 100% tax abatement, and give them all revenue from Sky boxes and memorabilia

UPDATE: But they do say "and thanks for all the fish."


I'm happy to say that my Mac and I are getting along much better, thanks. I thank all of you who have sent me useful software suggestions, crackpip, Eli, jpd, Steve, and Arun. Especially Dr. Mac, of course.

Doughnuts: Or Why Quidditch Players Are Thin

We, which is to say, we the donut eaters of the world, like to think that we can work off the calories in a donut with a bit of exercise. True enough, but how much exercise? An elite athlete can generate something like 200 Watts of mechanical work for an hour. This mechanical work is generated at an efficiency of about 25%, i.e., by burning about 800 Watts worth of stored energy. That amounts to about one Calorie (i.e., 1 kilo calorie) every five seconds, which means that he could work off that donut in 20 minutes or so. Those of us who actually eat donuts are likely to take a lot longer.

Bar tailed godwits are a lot more impressive burners of calories. During their fall migration from Alaska to New Zealand (nonstop!) they burn off about 58% of their body weight, including all the fat, most of the muscle, and big parts of every organ except brain, bone and feather. So, how many Calories could I burn by flying to, say, Cozumel?

Bird arcana courtesy of The Simple Science of Flight, by Henk Tennekes.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Beautiful But Dumb

Have I mentioned that I hate computers? Well, I do. But I've never hated a computer - not even the Univac 1106 or the IBM 360 - more than I hate my new Macbook Pro at the moment. The reason I hate computers is that they never operate the way I think they should. Mostly I hate the Macbook because nothing seems to work. I had worked my way up to a mere extreme dislike before I made the mistake of installing Iwork.

At first I thought Pages was just a truly crappy 1980's word processor, but that was before I encountered it's truly obnoxious qualities, like the postage stamp it expects me to write in but mainly and most especially the f****** Registration Screen that won't let me register, won't go away, and won't let me go on to do anything else, or all the greyed out commands in all the menus that don't work.

It's really a shame the damnable thing is so pretty.

UPDATE: Well, as HAL 9000 might have said, it's usually human error. I have solved some of my Mac problems, but not the two finger exercise. And it is really pretty.

A One Finger Swipe at Steve Jobs

My new Mac has something called a Multi-Touch Trackpad (MTTp). This allows it to do various cool things with one finger (mouse stuff), two fingers (mouse & trackball stuff), three fingers, and four fingers (really). I only knew how to do the one and two finger swipe stuff, but that not very well.

I wondered why, for example, my expand and shrink functions (two finger swipes) only worked about 5% of the time. That's when I learned that Apple has learned how to write an even stupider help function than Microsoft. I tried typing in "touchpad". (I didn't know proper name of the MTTp yet). Nothing. "Pad" did get a hit though. I seemed to think I wanted to know about templates.

I asked my son, who was visiting for Christmas. "RTFM" he said. So I found this little booklet that came with the puter. It had the real name of the MTTp. It also had cool stuff about two, three, and four finger swipes. It doesn't, so far as I can tell, explain why my two finger pinch and expand works only 5% of the time.

Digitally Enhanced

In the future, only digitally enhanced humans will be permitted:

Via Marginal Revolution

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mac Shout Out

Especially to Dr Mac - but also any other Mac users.

Well, I finally bought myself a Mac Powerbook, so your proselytizing finally won another convert. So, if you get a chance, you might remind of a few of those Mac Daddy scientific software packages you used to show me.

The Foreign Student

It's no coincidence that the terrorist attacks and attempts keep on coming from westernized or partially westernized Muslims. The experience of being a student or worker in a richer and more technologically advanced country certainly has some opportunities for resentment breeding humiliations and rejections, but it seems to be almost only among the Muslim students that this has turned to terroristic violence. Chinese, Indian, and other developing country students of past decades no doubt had similar experiences, and quite likely some left with similar anger. Somehow, though, they almost univerally managed to channel whatever feelings into building societies competitve to the West rather than adopting the tactics of suicidal rage.

Sooner or later, another horrific terrorist attack is likely to succeed, and there will be understandable calls for drastic action. Many will call for launching more wars against the Islamic world. Only slightly less drastic would be to simply ban students and others from the affected nations from travelling to or living in our countries.

Good ideas are in short supply, though. Perhaps the most crucial problem is that Islam seems especially resistant to either assimilation or accomodation. That may be a temporary problem caused mainly by current circumstances and Saudi Wahabi propaganda, or it might be more

Thursday, December 24, 2009

AGW Ammunition

The Pig, who actually has real work to do, nonetheless gets bored pretty easily. Hence, he decided that he ought to challenge local members of the denio-sphere to one or more public debates. He remembers vaguely from his high school debate days that it's harder to defend a complex proposition than to challenge it, so that it's a pretty good idea to be well prepared, rather than just rely on native wit and making stuff up.

Consequently, he has been assembling some of the basics, and he remembers that there are some good internet resources around. Other than AR4 and Wikipedia, he forgets exactly what they are. Especially good was a source that considered specific critiques and answered them. Anybody remember that? Have any other special recommendations?

Example: despite big increases in CO2 during the period 1940-1980, the atmosphere cooled rather than warmed. The models don't predict that. Why should we believe them for the future?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Global Warming for Fun and Profit

Economists mostly love cap and trade. The idea is to put the incentives of the free market to work finding better energy efficiencies. An unfortunate side effect is that, in a government controlled process, the market also likes to work the government to set up scams. It tends to create a perfect environment for the most profitable way Warren Buffet claims to have found to make money - lobbying the government for special deals.

There is ample evidence that this is already at work, and I'm not just talking Al Gore's commercial empire. There are several different forms in which the scams are perpetrated, the following being a few. (a)Giving away (instead of auctioning) pollution permits to polluters. This directly rewards those who create the problem while penalizing everyone else. (b)So called offsets: Real offset are desirable but the trick is in the accounting. How do you ensure that the effect of the so-called offset is genuine, and not another scam like ethanol from corn? (c)Subsidies to third world and other countries: these are usually stolen and rarely put to any good use.

Meanwhile, the whole system is ripe for scandal and hysteria.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Do You Believe in Magic?

Not to worry, your friends at Tea Bag Central do:

Josh Marshall:

Teabagger calls into C-Span in tears, worried that his prayers for Sen. Byrd's death may have ricocheted through the prayer chamber and hit Sen. Inhofe instead.

Block Universe Blowdown

Ellis and Rothman have a new model with a seemingly more real distinction between past, present, and future. Relativity doesn't make any distinctions, but say E & R, adding QM makes a difference. I like the general idea:

The future is uncertain because it is not
yet determined: it does not yet exist in a physical sense.

The future is different because it doesn't exist yet. That suits my intuition just fine. An arrow of time, and, if you like, some version of free will, fit in quite nicely.

The abstract:

Time and Spacetime: The Crystallizing Block Universe
Authors: George F. R. Ellis, Tony Rothman
(Submitted on 4 Dec 2009)
Abstract: The nature of the future is completely different from the nature of the past. When quantum effects are significant, the future shows all the signs of quantum weirdness, including duality, uncertainty, and entanglement. With the passage of time, after the time-irreversible process of state-vector reduction has taken place, the past emerges, with the previous quantum uncertainty replaced by the classical certainty of definite particle identities and states. The present time is where this transition largely takes place, but the process does not take place uniformly: Evidence from delayed choice and related experiments shows that isolated patches of quantum indeterminacy remain, and that their transition from probability to certainty only takes place later. Thus, when quantum effects are significant, the picture of a classical Evolving Block Universe (`EBU') cedes place to one of a Crystallizing Block Universe (`CBU'), which reflects this quantum transition from indeterminacy to certainty, while nevertheless resembling the EBU on large enough scales.

Hat tip: Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tea With Harry

I went down to meet with my Congressman today. I wanted to complain about his failure to vote for the health care bill. Harry Teague got elected in a usually Republican district thanks to the Obama landslide and the fact that the incumbent tried to graduate to the Senate. My guess is that his attempts to mollify the angry right will backfire - he can't win them over and he has alienated his core Democratic constituency.

A few dozen people had gathered in his Las Cruces office, most of whom seemed to be vocal Tea Party enthusiasts. I put in a few contrary words and after a while the Congressman retreated to his inner office to deal with constituents one at a time.

Six or eight of the tea baggers were gathered in the parking lot, so I went over to engage them. They were mostly elderly, and like me, eligible for Medicare. One who wasn't was covered by a State subsidized insurance pool. None of them admitted voting for the Congressman. I wondered why they thought it was fair for them to be covered by socialized medicine, but not other people. I made a pitch for European style universal coverage, but many seemed to be still fighting the revolutionary war. We were actually having a pretty good chat, with me listening more than talking, when a tea party agitator came over to work the crowd. I hated to leave the discussion to him, but I had other business.

I found it pretty interesting, and I got the impression that a lot of the crowd was persuadable. They were angry, but not too sure what they were angry about (except illegal immigrants).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Of Marginal Utility

I used to read Marginal Revolution in the hope of learning a bit of economics. That doesn't seem to be happening, but I do get an occasional glimpse into a rather strange mind. Consider Tyler Cowen's post on the liquidity trap, a concept I'm pretty sure he doesn't believe in.

Here's another simple thought experiment. Let's say that, for reasons of technology, currency disappeared. All transactions would be made with POS or cell phones, backed by interest-bearing assets, in one form or another. You might think that's unlikely today but it's at least possible in the future. In any case, it's a thought experiment.

Economists of the Chicago faith seem to disbelieve in the reality of money. It presents certain problems for their neat mathematical models. I'm guessing that this is Cowen's attempt to banish it.

More Keynesian views, I gather, think that depressions happen when there is a flight to liquidity, and people decide that they would rather hold on to money than anything that they might buy with it. This condition leads to a collapse of trade, unemployment, and recession or depression. The idea offends Chicago, since their models assume that money only exists to spend.

I'm guessing (since I can't really make any sense out of the rest of Tyler's commentary), that he wants to eliminate the possibility (in his thought experiment) that people really might put money under the mattress when times are scary.

If that's the case, I think his thought experiment falls apart when one considers the nature of his interest-bearing assets. What is an interest-bearing asset (iba)? It's a loan! That's not too strange, because currency too can be considered a sort of loan - a token we accept from the government whose value is guaranteed by the taxing power of the state. So what about those ibas? Are they all of the same sort? Who get's the loan and who negotiates the interest rate? If it's a government, then it's just money by another name, and it will pay whatever interest it likes. If it's other people, then valuation becomes a challenge because the most fundamental characteristic of a loan is the risk that it might not be paid back.

The point is, that even in Tyler World, different kinds of ibas have different values, and in times of panic, funds flow out of risky loans and into the safest ones, choking the economy's potentially most productive opportunities. Then, when nobody want's to lend money to anyone who wants to borrow it, the supply of ibas will evaporate, and a deflationary spiral ensues.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dark Town

So two darkons* go into the CDMS - or at least that's what some scientists think they have seen. Two event "candidates" is a pretty weak signal - there is an expectation of 23% that they could be background events disguised as dark matter.

Still, that's two more than anybody had seen before.

*Dark Matter particles - or at least events that look like we should expect dark matter particles to look like. If so, they are the first really new particle physics discoveries in decades.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Somebody recently said that any reasonable theoretical physicist ought to have a good understanding of quantum field theory. No sooner does he say it and it saunters up to his doorstep and kicks his screen in.

Turbulence is the great unsolved problem of classical mechanics. Versions of the following apocryphal story are attributed to Heisenberg, Lamb, and other major figures in fluid mechanics: "when I die, I'm going to ask the Lord to explain two things. Quantum electrodynamics, and turbulence. I expect he will be able to answer the first.

Because turbulence depends exquistely on initial conditions and displays highly random characteristics, we want a statistical theory of turbulence. Unfortunately, when we write down statistical version of the equations of fluid dynamics, we find that the equations for the various statistical quantities are not closed. Each order of correlation depends on higher orders of correlation.

One of the few important constraints we have on the statistics of turbulence are Kolmogorov's scaling laws. It's based on Lewis Richardson's idea of the turbulent energy cascade.

Big whorls have little whorls
That feed on their velocity,
And little whorls have lesser whorls
And so on to viscosity.

-- Lewis F. Richardson

Kolmogorov theory works pretty well for many situations, but the theoretical foundations are a bit shaky.

So much for prolog. This morning, Lumo posted an article linking to a new ArXiv paper on String Theory and Turbulence. The abstract:

We propose a string theory of turbulence that explains the Kolmogorov scaling in 3+1 dimensions and the Kraichnan and Kolmogorov scalings in 2+1 dimensions. This string theory of turbulence should be understood in light of the AdS/CFT dictionary. Our argument is crucially based on the use of Migdal's loop variables and the self-consistent solutions of Migdal's loop equations for turbulence. In particular, there is an area law for turbulence in 2+1 dimensions related to the Kraichnan scaling.

I won't attempt to comment on the success of their program, but probing a bit further showed that their work had important predecessors in papers by Polykov,

The methods of conformal field theory are used to obtain the series of exact solutions of the fundamental equations of the theory of turbulence. ...

and Migdal. Here's Migdal:

The central problem of turbulence is to find the analog of the Gibbs distribution for the
energy cascade.

And it turns out that quantum field theory is the way to look, or so our authors claim.

It's just as I feared.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

QFT: Zee

Any good theoretical physicist needs to have a deep understanding of quantum field theory(QFT). It's not a sufficient condition, of course, but it is pretty close to being absolutely necessary. Knowledge of that fact is probably why I have some dozens of books on quantum field theory. Transfer of information from the printed page is not automatic, of course, which is why I have a distinctly shallow* understanding of QFT.

Tony Zee is a guy with a deep understanding of QFT, and he has written a somewhat unconventional but widely praised book on quantum field theory: Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell. I mention this because Peter Woit has pointed out that Zee is coming out with a new edition.

Looking over the promo page at PUP, I was surprised to see my old school among the major universities that had adopted the first edition as a textbook - not surprised that they had adopted the book but that they were a "major" university. In my day, the old school was notable mainly for baseball, parties, hot girls, and good football teams. These days, the good football teams have vanished - I hope there are still some hot girsls about.

I have the first edition, and quite like those parts I have read. It would be ridiculous for me to buy the second, since there is essentially no chance that it will inspire me towork hard enough to get a significantly deeper understanding of QFT. I probably will buy it, of course, but maybe I can wait until the preorder period is almost up.

*Even that may be a little overly generous. What I mean is that I took and passed a couple of courses in the subject, read parts of a number of books, and worked some of the easier problems. On the other hand, if I open a QFT book at random to a middle chapter, the odds are that I will have little clue as to what is going on. If I'm lucky, I will see an equation I remember.

A View of Our Opponents

Paul Krugman notes:

Ah, civility
Hoisted from comments on my eulogy for Paul Samuelson:

Samuelson was just another Eichmann. He is responsible for propagating a destructive economic dogma.

The scary thing is that there probably are a number of people in this country who believe that advocating Keynesian economics is a crime comparable to being complicit in mass murder.

Yet another example of how wacko the American right has become. These people have adopted all the worst intellectual and political qualities of fanatical religions and totalitarian politics. Reason is quite powerless with such.

Alex Tabarrok is Not An ****** Reporter

Alex Tabarrok reports:

John Tierney relays today what seems like a very sensible idea from economist Ross McKitrick, tie a carbon tax to the temperature. If the temperature rises the tax goes up, if the temperature does not rise (as McKitrick, a climate change skeptic thinks) the tax will stay at a low level. Temperature of the troposphere would be measured by satellite at the equator and averaged over a period of time.

After claiming that everyone ought to agree, he predicts that those concerned about anthropogenic global warming won't. After the comments accumulate he comes back with:

Addendum: As predicted most of the objections (in the comments) are from climate change proponents. In essence, they argue that the problem is so serious that we must act before the evidence is in. . .

I read every critical comment to that point (and made some) and that is not an honest reporting of the objections posted. The most frequent objections were that (a)Because climate lags CO2 waiting until temperature heats up a lot means you will be too late and (b) that the evidence decidely is in. You can't wait to act until the last flat Earth idiot concedes. Equally important, it was pointed out that the method McKittric suggests for measuring temperature change is puposely designed to be minimally sensitive to actual climate change. Warming overwhelmingly takes place in high latitudes, not at the equator, and satellites have proven themselves insensitive to warming at the surface.

UPDATE: Just as I might have predicted, Alex took offense at my description of his reporting style. He might have done better to consider why a diagnostic that doesn't diagnose well until the patient is dead is a poor choice when you want to prevent calamity.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Politics and Religion

Arun has a couple of recent posts on the theme that Western political thought and social science are manifestations (or at least echos of) the Christian religion.

I would just like to remind him that Christianity, like all the other popular religions, was invented in Asia.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Old Battles

Reading about William Seward in 1840, I am struck by how modern his progressive views still seem and how familiar looking the battles of 160 years ago still are. As governor of New York he campaigned for better treatment of immigrants (Germans and Irish in those days), better public schools, against imprisonement for debt, and against slavery and for Negro rights. His enemies look familiar too: Southern slavery advocates, anti-immigrant nativists, and protestants who thought only their religion had rights.

I can't imagine any modern politician doing what he did though; representing an insane black defendant who had murdered a local family in court while his whole town screamed for a lynching.

I also find it interesting that the modern Republican party now stands for almost everything this founding father despised: racism, nativism, and religious prejudice. He probably would have been bothered more by their contempt for logic and truth, though.

Central Economic Planning

Is wise central planning a substitute for the chaos of the marketplace? The twentieth century saw a multitude of experiments, and a multitude of colossal failures. It's mostly remembered how spectacularly those socialist and communist experiments failed in providing economic growth and a better standard of living for the people, but it's sometimes forgotten that they weren't total failures. In particular, those economies seem at least moderately effective for focussing on a single overriding goal, like military power.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, new models of the centrally planned economy emerged in Asia. These were based on some variation of state capitalism - a fundamentally capitalist system for the organization of production, but with a heavy dose of direction and management by the state. The modern state has an extensive set of tools for guiding and directing the work of businesses even when it isn't directly managing the economy.

It ought to bother advocates of democratic capitalism at least a bit that the world's most successful economy (in terms of progress) over the last thirty years is also one of the least democratic and most rigidly state controlled, China.

The United States, the world's largest and richest economy, has by contrast seen a pretty tough thirty years, culminating in the catastropic blunders of Bush and Greenspan. The fundamental question is whether a relatively free economy led by politicians elected by citizens who are neither very smart nor well-informed can compete with a slightly free one managed by unaccountable but seemingly cool-headed bureaucrats.

Worst Case Scenarios

As the brighter - using the term loosely - members of the denialist crowd like to point out, global warming is not exactly unprecedented. Our current athropogenic warming episode has many natural antecedents. So how bad is it likely to get?

The worst imaginable AGW crisis would be for the warming to trigger a Venusian style runaway greenhouse and exterminate all life on Earth. That will eventually happen as the Sun continues to warm up, but it seems extremely improbable in the short run. Some of the natural global warmings of the past have triggered, or at any rate, coincided with, major extinctions, however, including one which wiped out essentially all large animals. That one, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, is the scariest precedent.

In the PETM, some event seems to have led to a fairly rapid build up of carbon dioxide and a global warming by about 6 C (11 F) - perhaps a bit more than the most likely maximum increase from our current CO2 releases. The Earth remained hot for about 20,000 years. From the Wikipedia entry:

Other "hyperthermal" events can be recognised during this period of warming, including the Elmo event (ETM2). During these events – of which the PETM was by far the most severe – around 1,500 to 2,000 gigatons of carbon were released into the ocean/atmosphere system over the course of 1,000 years. This rate of carbon addition almost equals the rate at which carbon is being released into the atmosphere today through anthropogenic activity. [8]
(My emphasis)

So how does such a warming trigger a mass extinction? A (uniform) 3 C or even a 6 C warming might render most of Africa and portions of Asia and the Americas unihabitable, but England might even be more pleasant, right? Maybe not. The problem is that these kinds of warmings aren't uniform and are likely to strongly disrupt the global wind currents. Fertile lands may become arid. The excess CO2 in the atmosphere will change ocean chemistry. The PETM saw life disappear from large chunks of ocean, and major extinctions on land.

I personally doubt that humans are in much danger of extinction as a species due to AGW - we are too versatile. Randomly killing 99 out of every 100 tigers might extinguish the species - the survivors might not be able to find each other. Even 9999 out of every 10,000 casualties for humans would be unlikely to have the same effect.

If warming can be kept to 2-3 C (the current goal is 2), damages may be much less. The atoll nations, I fear, are doomed. There seems little prospect that they can be saved. Bangla Desh and The Netherlands are at extreme risk as well. In such "moderate" scenarios, one of the major risks will be resource and land wars as the displaced struggle to sieze habitable land from the less damaged.

There is one other respect that the denialist crew may have a point. They believe that actions taken to stave off global warming are likely to produce a global economic crisis. Maybe, maybe not, but the alternative might be far worse.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fat Boy in the Donut Shop

As usually happens on these ritual occasions, the press has produced a number of psychological analyses of Mr. Wood's behavior. It's pretty simple, really. They let the fat kid into the donut shop and left him unsupervised.

Personally, I like the analogy on a number of levels.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tax vs. Cap

Recent days have seen some low intensity warfare among those who are trying to enact some measures to control global warming. In each case, the idea is to control carbon emissions. One way to do this would be by enacting carbon taxes, with the idea of making emissions so expensive that people could not afford them. The so-called cap and trade system instead is based on the idea of providing a limited supply of emission permits that would be sold (traded) to the highest bidders. The tax idea has been pushed strongly by James Hansen and tends to be favored by lefty types like the authors of this show linked by commenter Cynthia: Cap and trade is a favorite of economists. I am trying here to assemble some of the pros and cons of each side, though I think it will become clear which idea I find more likely to succeed.

Pro Tax: The carbon tax avoids the complications of setting up markets and the risks that speculators would game those markets, create bubbles, and (oh horror!) make a profit. It provides one kind of predictability, in that you know how much the energy/carbon tax is going to cost, which facilitates planning. Also it provides a big stream of revenue that social engineers are itching to get their fingers on.

Anti Tax: Predictability in price is achieved at the cost of predictability of effect. You can't predict how much a given tax rate will affect the emission of CO2. Consumers may just suck it up and pay through the nose to go on emitting. The tax is a blunt instrument, limiting the options of consumers and industry to find innovative ways to save emissions. It provides no incentive for sequestering carbon. It provides a stream of revenue profligate politicians are certain to funnel to special interests. Finally, it is a very regressive tax. The poor will starve and freeze while the rich will still lead the same lifestyle. Finally, there is no way a big energy tax is going to be enacted in the US or many other countries.

Pro Cap and Trade: It provides predictability where you need it, in the total emissions. It provides more scope for ingenuity and enterprise since those who find ways to save emission can do more than just save a little money, they can make it, even big money. It can naturally accomodate sequestering carbon and other offsets as well as emissions. As an indirect tax, it is a smaller target for the anti-tax fanatics. If permits are auctioned, it too can provide a revenue stream (for good or ill). Prominent advocates are Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong:

Anti Cap and Trade. Regulation of emissions requires detailed monitoring. There will be opportunities to game the system. Profitteers are already gathering up emission permits with the aim of selling them at a big profit. We don't need another trillion dollar market for speculators to create bubbles in. Its revenue stream, if any, is unpredictable and less likely to be used to help victims of higher energy prices.

My comments: I find the arguments of the economists persuasive, and I'm especially skeptical of the idea that there is any political will to pass an energy tax. I like the idea that cap and trade seems to provide more scope for innovation. Too many on the left, I think, are motivated by a besetting fear that somebody, somewhere, might be making a profit.

That said, I am deeply skeptical of the likelyhood that any effective action will occur. Long term planners should be watching the predictions of where climate damge is likely to be concentrated and making plans to emigrate before everybody else tries to. (This advice doesn't apply to my generation, but to their children and grandchildren).

We're In The Dark

About the dark stuff.

News Next Week?

Dark rumors swirl:

and here:

and here Peter Woit slightly dampens the flames:

Jester seems to be the source:

If real, this is big. It probably isn't.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Two Boobs and a Blond

Gretchen Carlson is the blond in one of the Fox News Two Boobs and a Blond shows. Her job on the the alleged news show is being stupid - she has to look up the meaning of "czar", "ignoramus*" (and still gets it wrong), and "double dip" - even though she has them sitting on either side of her. Meanwhile the boobs put up and commented on a typical Fox News Rasstymussen poll with 120% participation.

Remember how the smart girls in high school played dumb so they could date the football players? It seems GC's lot in life is still to play this roll. The gang at The Daily Show tracked down her resume. It seems that she was high school valedictorian - think she had to look that one up -, graduated with honors from Stanford and studied at Oxford, and played a difficult classical violin piece for her talent when winning the Miss America contest. It didn't mention any lobotomies.

How humiliating has that got to be, pretending to be dumber than the two genuine rock-dumb boobs beside her? And how dumb - excuse me, how much of an ignoramus do you have to be to watch Fox?

Evidently Fox World and "The Base" are still places governed by high school rules. Anybody who actually knows anything is mocked and disdained. It explains a lot.

* She confused the definition with the context of the appearance in English

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Gaga at the Gogo

Popular art is always a challenge for the professional intellectual. Even if they like it, they might be afraid to admit it. If they don't they may catch Seth Colter Wall's disease and write a pretentious and fatuous article like this one in Newsweek.

French intellectual Claude Lévi-Strauss died at the age of 100 last month, before he could comment on the latest single from Lady Gaga. If you think this an absurd notion, note that Lévi-Strauss's major project—discovering the common aspects of myths from different eras and continents—has influenced many pop scholars, including Greil Marcus. In our American Idol-ized culture, few myths loom larger than pop fame, which is why the philosopher and anthropologist might have had something to say about Top 40's self-professed conceptual artist of the moment. In a way, he still does.

...The problem with Gaga is that she refuses to add any concrete value, while also wanting us to think she has something to say...

...Gaga may want to have it both ways, but that doesn't mean we should let her. Inscribing Rilke's question—"must I write?"—on your arm and then hiding behind a nihilist's superficiality amounts to a pretentious form of bulls--t. As the 20th century drew to a close, and postmodern critics of Lévi-Strauss gained clout, the idea of whether we can "know" anything about artistic texts became its own cliché. But Lévi-Strauss's death gives us a chance to remember what it's like for a writer to bear the risk of intending to mean something. Gaga shows no appetite for this. Instead, she is content to give us thesis and antithesis, because the contrast sparks commentary (and, yes, her fame). She writes strong melodies and gives us great photos, but unlike Madonna—who was willing to tie provocation to a discernible purpose in "Like a Prayer"—Gaga offers no synthesis. Of course, bubblegum music can get a pass from needing to say anything if it's philosophically modest: rocking all night and partying every day. But with due respect to the swear-word police, pop also becomes offensive when it puts on airs it has no intention of earning.

WTF. Does Levi-Strauss have any connection to this story beyond being the subject of a lecture the author once attended in a drug induced stupor? More to the point, why does the author insist on putting on airs he has no intention of earning?

By contrast, Shana Naomi Krochmal's NPR story is a small delight.

Lady Gaga is scary. She writes dangerously catchy songs that sound like nonsense but eat their way into your brain. She's always dressed in some combination of wigs, sunglasses and — if she wears much else — what looks like half a museum of modern art on her back. At the American Music Awards, she set her piano on fire and belted out a heart-wrenching ballad while smashing wine bottles on the keys.

... We're just not used to turning on the TV and seeing performance art. Pop stars tend to be very straightforward; that's what makes them so likable, how easily they fit into one box or another.

Gaga got her start in the college coffeehouses and underground bars where avant-garde performances are par for the course. But the more albums she's sold, the more she's pushed that artsy aesthetic on a popular audience. It's not just the look that's unexpectedly complex. Even the most dance-floor-friendly Gaga hit has a black hole of fear at its center.


At 23, she's already broken Billboard records and sold millions of albums. She writes all her own lyrics and music. She carefully curates her image along with a handpicked group of stylists and artists she's dubbed the Haus of Gaga. She's quite suddenly a very powerful woman in what's still a man's music industry. She's not just selling sex; she's selling art — which may be the most terrifying idea of all.

Skepticism and Denial

Skepticism is not only normal human behavior, its also crucial for science and any sort of analytical thinking. Given that, it's probably unsurprising that normal skepticism sometimes turn into cranky denial of that which has been well demonstrated. For a scientist, Feynman said, the most important thing to be skeptical about is your own theories. That's the step that so few of the hard core denialists can manage. Their skepticism is just another manifestation of their blind faith.

There is a continuum for denial, from total wacko to slightly overenthusiastic skeptic. There really are some who claim to believe the Earth is flat. In the US, a huge percentage of the population doubts evolution. There still are a few scientists who doubt relativity and a lot who find conventional quantum mechanics unacceptable.

At bottom, denial is usually the manifestation of unwillingness to doubt our own prejudices. For such people, evidence is almost beside the point. Does Darwin cast doubt on the Bible? Then Darwin must go, whatever the evidence for him and whatever lack of evidence there is for anything in the Bible.

I don't think that there is any industry for doubting the spherical character of the Earth or even relativity, but that's not the case for Darwin. Religious leaders were quick to see what a fundamental challenge natural selection posed to their sacred texts, and they have been counterattacking for most of the past 150 years. Their weapons are faith, religion, fake science of their own invention, and yes, good old skepticism - the kind that looks only outward.

When it became clear to big Tobacco that they were selling a product that killed millions, they were quick to get religion, or at least to adopt the tactics of delay and confusion that had worked for religion. Paid liars, some disguised as scientists, were there to spread the message. The same tactic was deployed again, with even the same cast of characters when it became clear that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer.

By the time the specter of anthropogenic global warming loomed, these battles had been lost, and the usual cast of characters was mostly out of work, so AGW was a perfect opportunity: some fairly difficult new science, some complicated measurement methods, computer models, and best of all, a huge, fabulously rich industry that didn't want it to be true. Add to these the idelogical conservatives who can't believe that there can be a threat that requires a collective response and the time religious who are convinced that god is driving their train, and the AGW denial industry was born.

It continues to thrive.

Tyger, Tyger, Burning a Bit Less Bright

Why is our malicious pleasure in the discomforture of the fallen idol so delicious? I suspect a few factors are at work. Human societies offer many chances for people to take advantage of others, and we've managed to move beyond the war of all against all mainly by depending on some rules intended to maintain a rough justice and equality. Some of these rules are written and some are un, but they can only work to the extent that transgressors are punished.

We have a powerful instinct to punish those who cheat and take advantage, whether they are Wall Street bankers or welfare cheats. To a first approximation, Tiger's "transgressions" as he styles them, would seem only to affect his family, so why are we so eager to join the offended? Part of it is envy. This SOB has everything: looks, talent, money, and a beautiful family and he still can't keep from being a greedy asshole. Part of it is anger at his hypocrisy: he sells himself as Mr. squeaky clean and protects his image with great diligence. And, to be sure, partly it's racial. He may be biracial, but to most Americans, black and white, he's a black man whose taste runs exclusively to white women.

It seems unlikely that he will suffer much from our annoyance. His profits may suffer for a bit, but he doesn't need the money. Unlike a Clinton, Spitzer, or Sanford, his job doesn't depend on our approval, just on his skill. His wife might high tail it to Sweden, but, as Charlie Harper put it, they haven't stopped making girls, and the girls won't stop flocking to the rich and celebrated.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Miky and the Rabbi

As a native, I have a soft spot for Montana stories, but this one cracked me up: Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana.

In Montana, a rabbi is an unusual sight. So when a Hasidic one walked into the State Capitol last December, with his long beard, black hat and long black coat, a police officer grabbed his bomb-sniffing German shepherd and went to ask the exotic visitor a few questions.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Troglodytic Cinderfellas

If this story is on the level, these guys not only improve their financials but are in line for a kick-ass reality show.

Gossip Boy

Jack Shafer takes a crack at explaining why gossip about Tiger is so popular. It isn't surprising that gossip is popular. Anthropological studies suggest that gossip is one of the most popular activities in every culture. Studying each other is a major survival skill in the small hunting band, giant corporation, or English department.

It's pretty depressing though, that that's the only thing television news seems able to figure out how to cover.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Another Stupidity

From a usually smart guy.

Remember too that when you have a progressive tax system, especially when there are surcharges on people making seven-figure incomes, you also have a system where for any given level of national income, the greater the inequality, the greater the government’s tax revenues. And indeed federal revenues have been rising faster than median wages for decades now, thanks to the rich getting ever richer.

Given the government’s insatiable appetite for cash, it’s only natural that it would prefer to tax plutocrats, spending some of that money on poorer Americans, rather than move to a world where poorer Americans earn more (but still don’t pay that much in taxes), and the plutocrats earn less, depriving the national fisc of untold billions in revenue.

This idea is so dumb that it succumbs to the most casual applications of logic or history. Progressive taxes are not good for plutocrats, which is why they always fight them, and why they got poorer when we had them, and why they are so rich since Reagan nearly abolished them. Naturally it was picked up by Andrew Sullivan and Tyler Cowen, two guys who are stupid only when they smoke to0 much wingnut crack - or about once per day.

The Madness of Crowds

Tyler Cowen post a thoroughly uninteresting note of climate science, and hordes of denialists descend on his comment thread like flies on ****. It's tedious enough to drive a climate scientist (and me, for that matter) nuts. The same old half-baked objections, misunderstandings, and lies ("CRU "cleaned" the data and has never revealed its methods. Would you ever release a paper without revealing your methods? This was known before, but now there are emails talking about "hiding" data and "tricks" to manipulate the data. If you trust their methods now, you would have to be crazy. " - a casual glance at Ar4 refutes that one). All of them refuted again and again.

The only thing I learned from the comments was what an absurdity RP jr. is. He feigned outrage at the scandal of climate data sets not being "independent" because, gosh, they almost all used the same global weather station data!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Obama's Strategy

The pivot of Obama's strategy is Pakistan. Only if Pakistan can summon both the will and the capability to defeat al Quaeda and its own Taliban can Obama achieve success. It won't be easy, but Obama at least understands the problem.

Millions and Millions

The thirty thousand additional soldiers being sent to Afghanistan will cost about one million dollars per year per soldier. For the cost of one soldier, you could probably hire 1000 Afghans.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Afghanistan Reaction

For the moment I'm outsourcing my reactions to Andrew Sullivan. He has a string of thoughtful reactions in the link and previous posts.