Saturday, May 31, 2008

John Elder Robison's "Look Me in the Eye"

This autobiography provides a stark -- yet humourous -- perspective on Asperger's syndrome. Some details of his childhood are grim, but he has a quirky personality that spices the book in a way that keeps it interesting. You can feel his personality (and condition) as you read the story. He both tells you and exhibits it through the prose.

I've enjoyed reading several books on Autistic Spectrum Disorder, e.g. the books by Temple Grandin and Donna Williams's book (Nobody Nowhere and Somebody Somewhere).

Inside View of Wall Street Collapse

Here is a series of three articles in the Wall Street Journal that provide an inside view of the collapse of Bear Stearns:

Supply & Deman

As the oil price goes up, people are cutting back. There is a nice article in the NY Times on this, and this very nice graphic:


If you are saying "but that isn't much of a cutback!" and see bigger cutbacks in 1974 and 1980. Just wait! The article points to indications that cuts of 5% or more are coming. Here are the relevant quotes"
But the Federal Highway Administration estimates that in March — the most recent month for which data is available — vehicles traveled 246 billion miles. That is a lot of driving, but the figure is down 4.3 percent from the previous March.

MasterCard SpendingPulse, which samples data from gas stations, reports that on the Friday before Memorial Day the amount of gasoline purchased was 7.6 percent lower than on the Friday before Memorial Day in 2007.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Res Ipsa Loquitur

Here's an interesting film on the debate between Intelligent Design and Evolution. As the film states: Res Ipsa Loquitur

Now that is my kind of debate!

Just the Facts, Mam!

Here's a guy that I like to think is just like Joe Friday from Dragnet, the cop show in the 1960s, famous for his "just the facts, mam!" demeanor. This is an excellent exemplar of a rational argument, the infamous reductio ad absurdum. But the real reason why I enjoy this argument so much? It speaks from the heart, specifically the heartland of America, where the flag flies high and God is in every heart. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Oops! I Did it Again

Here is another example of how shaky the data is upon which climate modelers have built their global warming story:

Global temperatures did not dip sharply in the 1940s as the conventional graph shows, scientists believe.

They say an abrupt dip of 0.3C in 1945 actually reflects a change in how temperatures were measured at sea.

Until 1945, most readings were taken by US ships; but after the war, UK vessels resumed measurements, and they took the sea's temperature differently.

Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers say this does not affect estimates of long-term global warming.

from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/science/nature/7423527.stm

Notice that these scientists still swear allegiance to "global warming" even when they admit that some of the data is bad. I believe that it is career suicide for any climatologist to question "global warming". Note: I'm not saying that there isn't a case for global warming. What I am saying is that I believe that a true, open, scientific discussion of the facts is not possible due to the charged political environment in which the scientists work. I believe that those who question the political dogma find it nearly impossible get any funding. So there is tremendous pressure to "toe the line". I believe that carbon emissions do lead to global warming, but I don't believe that the basic science is solid enough to project the future. I believe that the model projections are mistakenly a simplistic linear extrapolations from the past. The models ignores the very likely switch to alternative energy in the near future. I'm not saying that humans will stop dumping carbon into the atmosphere. What I am saying is that the projections of continued growth are wrong. There in fact will probably be a slow dropoff as we switch to other energy sources. Building policies around models that don't have a firm grounding in reality -- both real data and more importantly in solid projections of technological change and human behavourial response -- is foolish.


I've been down this road before. In the late 1960s Paul R. Ehrlich got everybody in a lather over a population crash in his book "The Population Bomb". In the 1970s I taught high school with materials telling kids that "the end of oil" had come and that we had to look forward to a bleak future. During this decade The Club of Rome was infamous for its linear extrapolations of resource depletion and project imminent doom. In the 1980s were were first told, in a cover story by Time Magazine, that we were all doomed by a horrible plague. Not AIDS! No, they worried people over herpes. At the same time a real plague, AIDS, was spreading. And of course, in due time (the late 1980s), we were told that civilization would collapse due to this unstoppable plague. In the early 1990s there was a brief spring of euphoria with the collapse of communism, but the 2000s have brought the pessimists back in full force with projections of a bleak future of eternal terrorism and, of course, the end of oil.

I'm not saying that we should all be pollyannish and deny there are pitfalls and problems. But I'm a great believer in Julian Simon's The Ultimate Resource, i.e. human ingenuity will help us overcome problems. Sure civilizations can collapse but they don't have to if humans cooperate and innovate and overcome problems. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I've seen too many pessimists glorying in dire predictions. Sure, admit the problems, but don't revel in bleak predictions that paralyze you from acting intelligently. And, most important, don't let yourself be stampeded by some "obvious" truth. Here's a bit of an antidote from Freeman Dyson:



Scott Adams' "Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain"

I've enjoyed Dilbert Comics even though I was never a cubicle inmate, but I did work in high tech. His office environment commentary is dead right.

Over the past year I've been reading his blog. This book is a collection of blog entries from around 2006. The nice thing is that while they are reliably amusing they also give you some insight into his personality. He strikes me as the kind of guy it would be fun to pal around with but who you want to make sure lives several blocks from you. In other words, he's fun but he is a bit screwy. Do they call that "comic genius"? I don't know. But I appreciate his twisted perspective. It helps me better adjust my own perspective. He's a bit too libertarian for me, but from reading this I can understand his reasoning and better identify where he and I part company. On the whole, it was a fun read. Lots of short bits in all directions, so if one doesn't hit your fancy the next might. Great light reading!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dawkins on the Rampage

Here's an hour long documentary with Richard Dawkins railing against the lack of scientific knowledge in the general populace and how people are turning to pseudo science. I'm a big Dawkins fan. He's like those champions of the Middle Ages who loved to perform on the field of valour. In Dawkins' case it isn't for his lady love in the flesh but for his idealistic lady love of science.

This is from a 1996 documentary called "Break the Science Barrier":












Talk about Money Blues

Here's an hour long radio documentary on the financial crisis done by Alex Bloomberg and Adam Davidson. It is an interesting up-close-and-personal view of the financial crisis:

Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life" documents: The Giant Pool of Money

Gloomy Scary Predictions

Nouriel Roubini of NYU has replaced Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley as my favourite economic pessimist. I read/watch Roubini for the same reason I watch horror movies. It gives me that delicious frisson of horror, in this case economic horrors that we face:





Zippy the Lecturer

If this is what kids get these days in the lecture hall, I want to go back to school!



This is a nicely entertaining "opinion piece" on the need for more mature sex in video games. I don't even play the things, but I'm up on my chair yelling "go! go! go!" by the end of this video piece. Nicely done!

Water Worries

Living in the Pacific Northwest it is a little hard to get excited about "peak water" but I do at least "conceptually" understand the problem. I guess the solution is to grow gills and move en masse back into the oceans of the world!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Interview with Richard Dawkins

Here is an interview from Canadian television that let's Dawkins talk about his views from the book "The God Delusion":







Sunspots

It is interesting that there is a correlation between sunspot activity and climate. Right now we are in a low in sunspot activity and global temperatures are cooler than the Global Warming models would predict. Here's a bit from a NASA site that tracks sunspot activity:


The Maunder Minimum

Early records of sunspots indicate that the Sun went through a period of inactivity in the late 17th century. Very few sunspots were seen on the Sun from about 1645 to 1715 (38 kb JPEG image). Although the observations were not as extensive as in later years, the Sun was in fact well observed during this time and this lack of sunspots is well documented. This period of solar inactivity also corresponds to a climatic period called the "Little Ice Age" when rivers that are normally ice-free froze and snow fields remained year-round at lower altitudes. There is evidence that the Sun has had similar periods of inactivity in the more distant past. The connection between solar activity and terrestrial climate is an area of on-going research.

Besides sunspots, there is a newly discovered Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation that is expected to keep the world cooler than expected for the next decade.

A Bilion Here, A Billion There

Yeah, a billion here and a billion there, and soon you are talking "real" money! Here's a Washington Post story of the fraud of the Bush admin in losing $15 billion in Iraq...

The inspector general for the Defense Department said yesterday that the Pentagon cannot account for almost $15 billion worth of goods and services ranging from trucks, bottled water and mattresses to rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns that were bought from contractors in the Iraq reconstruction effort.

The Pentagon did not have the proper documentation, including receipts, vouchers, signatures, invoices or other paperwork, for $7.8 billion that American and Iraqi contractors were paid for phones, folders, paint, blankets, Nissan trucks, laundry services and other items, according to a 69-page audit released to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

An earlier audit by the inspector general found deficiencies in accounting for $5.2 billion of U.S. payments to buy weapons, trucks, generators and other equipment for Iraq's security forces. In addition, the Defense Department spent $1.8 billion of seized Iraqi assets with "absolutely no accountability," according to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the oversight committee. The Pentagon also kept poor records on $135 million that it paid to its partners in the multinational military force in Iraq, auditors said.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Nipping at the Ankles of Power

I love the towering rage of Keith Olbermann at Bush's incompetency. It makes good theatre. I don't think it makes any real difference. Those who support Bush are oblivious to facts. Those who despise Bush already are firmly set in their opinion. But it is nice to hear you rage...



Kids Helping Kids

Here's a heart-warming story of kids halfway around the world reaching out to other kids in a wonderful new economic model where preteens make clothing to sell to preteens...



The above has inspired me to consider other innovative economic ideas...

I think I can solve the impending health care problem and old age pensions created by the baby boomers by reclassifying people over 65 to be "property" (just like in the US Constitution!). That way you can buy and sell the old fogies and there will no longer be any of those pesky requirements for health care spending or pensions. Who does health care for a washing machine or gives a pension to a vacuum cleaner?

This concept can be generalized! If this trend of converting pesky "people" problems in to "property" is extended to other age groups, then maybe by the end of this century the only legal "persons" left will be the corporations. The rest of us will have become property and therefore have no more economic claims on the government.

What a great solutions!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Free Trade Boogyman

I don't have much patience with the anti-free trade crowd. At worst it says "I'm rich and I don't want to have to share it via open borders with the poor". But most on the left dress it up as a question of sweatshop labour and a fair playing field. I'm all for that, but not if it is used as a club to beat back the third world from economic access to markets in the first world. What I'm in favour of is a fast track to getting everybody a decent life through good wages. I think that is best done by opening borders. I enjoy Dean Baker's "Beat the Press" blog because he points out that most of the upper middle and upper class are all for "free trade" but only for manufactured goods. They are not for allowing in doctors and lawyers and other professionals freely to compete in the first world. Well, I'm all for free trade in everything and open border for everything. I think we get to a better world best by this, the direct route, which is a kind of democracy of the feet and ballots via the pocketbook. Here's an article by James Surowiecki in The New Yorker that points to surprising aspects of free trade:
It’s an understandable view: how, after all, can it be a good thing for American workers to have to compete with people who get paid seventy cents an hour? As it happens, the negative effect of trade on American wages isn’t that easy to document. The economist Paul Krugman, for instance, believes that the effect is significant, though in a recent academic paper he concluded that it was impossible to quantify. But it’s safe to say that the main burden of trade-related job losses and wage declines has fallen on middle- and lower-income Americans. So standing up to China seems like a logical way to help ordinary Americans do better. But there’s a problem with this approach: the very people who suffer most from free trade are often, paradoxically, among its biggest beneficiaries.

The reason for this is simple: free trade with poorer countries has a huge positive impact on the buying power of middle- and lower-income consumers—a much bigger impact than it does on the buying power of wealthier consumers. The less you make, the bigger the percentage of your spending that goes to manufactured goods—clothes, shoes, and the like—whose prices are often directly affected by free trade. The wealthier you are, the more you tend to spend on services—education, leisure, and so on—that are less subject to competition from abroad. In a recent paper on the effect of trade with China, the University of Chicago economists Christian Broda and John Romalis estimate that poor Americans devote around forty per cent more of their spending to “non-durable goods” than rich Americans do. That means that lower-income Americans get a much bigger benefit from the lower prices that trade with China has brought.

Idiocy Begins at the Top

There is an entry on the Canadian Dimension blog site that identifies how stupid the government spies are at finding and tracking real terrorist threats. This entry points out that CSIS thinks a punk band is a terrorist threat and has a 184 page file on them! You need to read the whole entry, but here's the gist of it:
Canada’s spy agency and an RCMP anti-terror unit carried out an intelligence campaign against Ottawa-based punk band The Suicide Pilots, documents obtained through Access to Information requests show.

Following the arrest of the band’s drummer, bones (aka Jeffrey Monaghan), the RCMP’s anti-terror unit opened a file on the band, alleging their logo “depicts an airplane flying into the Peace Tower on Parliament
Hill.” A copy of the frightened-looking airplane caricature was included in the 184 page file.

“If you want an example of bloated police powers, this is it,” says Ottawa-based lawyer Yavar Hameed. Hameed notes that the investigation seems to be completely unrelated to the arrest of Mr. Monaghan. Monaghan was alleged to have leaked the Tory Green Plan last spring. The anti-terror investigation appears to have surfaced after media coverage of Mr. Monaghan denouncing the Harper regime’s actions of climate change. Monaghan has never been charged. The investigation is organized through the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSET), and the documents reveal an explicit coordination with Canada’s spy agency, CSIS.

Hameed notes that this case illustrates the unaccountability of police agencies in their efforts to catalog and criminalize activists. The Suicide Pilots have commented that the intelligence effort is another example of state-lawlessness in the so-called “War on Terror.” “The explosion of security culture over the past few years has cost countless innocent people very dearly, in ways we can’t even begin to fully appreciate - but this just straddles the line between disturbing and silly. What’s next? A tag-and-release program for
social activists? We already have a make-work program for creepy, paranoid voyeurs,” says the band’s vocalist NaCl.

It is unclear why, precisely, the band has been targeted. The documents indicate that investigators believe the band compares “Harper to Hitler” — a reference to the band’s song entitled Harper Youth. It notes that the band has “anti-Harper songs” and a “9-11 type drawing showing an airplane crashing into the Parliament.” The documents also make several references to the recently-opened Anarchist infoshop, Exile, in Ottawa.

Bruce Chilton's "Rabbi Jesus"


Chilton gives a detailed imaginative recreation of Jesus' life based on his understanding of the various Jewish sects of the first century, a careful reading of all the texts available from that time, and his own interpretation. The key to his interpretation is that Jesus was a Jew and therefore the details related in the Bible must be reinterpreted in a way compatible with first century Judaism.

I find the book very thought provoking and very believable. I enjoyed the "aha!" moments it brought me when I could see Chilton's point about how the Bible captured some truth dimly because it was written at the hands of new sect with Jewish roots but which had spread into the larger cultural setting of the Mideast at that time and evolved into sect in contention with Judaism. I especially enjoyed his reinterpretation of Jesus' words for the communion. I've been bothered for years with the realization that the Roman critics were right in saying that it sounded like cannibalism. And Chilton adds the very important point that Jews would never eat the body of Christ nor drink his blood because that is contrary to the teachings of Judaism. Chilton points out that the communion was reinterpreted in the context of the Hellinistic culture as an ecstatic union with a divine and that the mystery religions of the time had similar re-enactments of consuming the god of their religion. But this couldn't have been what Jesus meant because he was a practicing Jew. Chilton provides an interpretation by pointing out that Jesus was deeply involved in the mysticism of Ezekiel's Throne of God and that Jesus' interpretation was that this mystical state could be achieved in a feast that replaced physical sacrifices at the temple with symbolic sacrifices in the context of a meal that brought all together in a mystical union with God:
When Jesus spoke of his "blood" and "flesh," he did not refer to himself personally at all. He meant his meal really had become a sacrifice. When Israelites shared wine and bread in celebration of their own purity and the presence of the Kingdom, God delighted in that more than in the blood and flesh on the altar in the Temple.
This reinterpretation, along with Chilton's dramatic reinterpretation of Jesus' life and preaching makes sense to me. This is a very credible account. This reinterprets Christianity in a way that explains its Jewish roots and shows how it was recast as it spread beyond Judaism.

I especially enjoy this comment by Chilton:
The rabbi from Nazareth never claimed he was unique. His Abba was the Abba of all. His teaching, purifying, exorcism, healing, prayers, signs, meals, and sacrifices were not for himself alone, nor were they intended to demonstrate his personal power or bring him adulation for his attributes or accomplishments. All his work was undertaken to open the gate of heaven so that Israel might enter before the Throne of God.

Far too much theology has been preoccupied with closing the gate. By exalting Jesus as the only human being to sit at the right hand of God, many theologians have denied heaven to others. They remind me of Jesus' complaint about some Pharisees, who used the key of knowledge to shut God's Kingdom to those of lesser learning.

History Doesn't Repeat Itself, but it Rhymes

I ran across this article about a Chilean singer. It is well worth reading.

Embedded in the story was the following video of song with film clips that remind you of the time -- 1973 -- when this singer died, the time of a military coup in Chile:



The sad story of Victor Jara is just one more life lost reminds me that life is an endless tragedy. The reality is that so much of that tragedy is authored by people who don't know their history.

As I read the article I thought of how George Bush proudly claims that "America wants democracy in the Middle East". If you don't know how the US has treated democracies, this sounds stirring, it sounds wonderful. But the sad truth of history is that the United States does not want democracy. Chile in 1973 is evidence of that. What the US wants is something called strategic "national interest" which is something very different from democracy.

The US intervened to suppress a democratically elected country, a stable country with a long history of democracy:
The Nixon administration authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to instigate a military coup that would prevent Allende's inauguration and presumably call new elections, but the plan was not successful. The extent of Kissinger's involvement in or support of these plans is a subject of controversy.
The US was involved in the 1970s in suppressing popular leftists throughout South America under Operation Condor:

Operation Condor (Spanish: Operación Cóndor, Portuguese: Operação Condor) was a campaign of political repressions involving assassination and intelligence operations officially implemented in 1975 by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America. The program aimed to deter left-wing influence and ideas and to control active or potential opposition movements against the usually conservative governments. Due to its clandestine nature, the precise number of deaths directly attributable to Operation Condor will likely never be known, but it is reported to have caused thousands of victims, possibly even more.

Condor's key members were the right-wing military governments in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, with Ecuador and Peru joining later in more peripheral roles.[4] These nations were ruled by dictators such as Jorge Rafael Videla, Augusto Pinochet, Ernesto Geisel, Hugo Banzer, and Alfredo Stroessner. The operation was jointly conducted by the intelligence and security services of these nations during the mid-1970s with support provided by the United States of America.

The above article about a Victor Jara, a popular Chilean singer of the early 1970s, reminds us of that fact that the US really is not interested in democracies. But people forget this fact when a president like George Bush proclaims he is for "democracy" in the Middle East.

George Santayana tells us: "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it."

Give me that Old Time Religion

Here's a video that brings back fond memories of Sunday School and those wonderful adolescent days spent arguing over the Bible...

Life's a Walk on the Beach

Here's a fairly good representation of how I feel today...

octopus

For you literalists out there... OK, you got me! that's not really me. That's an octopus hiding in some requisitioned shells caught hot-footing along the sub-liquid part of the beach. Oh, and I haven't taken a walk along the beach, either below or above the waves, in many, many years. So think evocative, not literal.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Mismatch

Here is a video of the New Yorker magazine conference at which Malcolm Gladwell gives a talk drawing on the subject of his upcoming book: the mismatch between what we can objectively measure and skills that we really want and gives a number of examples across a spectrum of job types. Some of this talk is quite humourous. For example, the seven lowest scoring quarterbacks on an intelligence test end up having some of the all-time great quarterbacks. But the NFL gives the test in hopes of spotting a quarterback who can handle the cognitive demands of leading a team on the field.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sing Along!

I'm a great fan of a Hootenanny or a Hullabaloo. I love a singalong.



I can just picture this with the red bouncing ball just like in the old Mitch Miller Singalong!

Bee the Best!

Here's a video clip that should prick you imagination, put a bee in your bonnet, and leave you with a real buzz...



I love Penn & Teller. Can't get enough of them!

We Are the Olive in the Martini

Interesting concept. A physics lecture at a political meeting. Here is Sean Carroll, a physicist at CalTech, giving a 20 minute talk a the 2007 DailyKos convention. (Note: to understand the title of this entry, you will have to watch the video!)



Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Bush-kebab

Joe Klein skewers Bush this this observation in a Time Magazine article:
You've got to wonder what sort of anti-Israel, soft-on-terrorism nutjob said this after the elections that brought Hamas to power in 2006: "So the Palestinians had another election yesterday, and the results of which remind me about the power of democracy ... Obviously, people were not happy with the status quo. The people are demanding honest government. The people want services ... And so the elections should open the eyes of the Old Guard there in the Palestinian territories ... There's something healthy about a system that does that."

Wait a minute. That wasn't some pro- terrorist nutjob. It was George W. Bush. The President balanced that assessment of Hamas with, "I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform." But that's the point: it was a balanced statement on an issue that has not produced many such — and none at all in the U.S. presidential campaign. Of course, Bush had a stake in the Palestinian elections. His Administration had demanded them, over the quiet objections of the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority — both of which suspected that the service-providing terrorists of Hamas might win. And very soon after that initial, gracious statement, Bush changed course and, along with some of our European allies, refused to deal with the Hamas government unless it recognized Israel. The message to democracy activists in the region was crystal clear: We want elections unless we don't like the results of those elections. It stands as Exhibit A of the incoherence of the Bush foreign policy.
The article includes other jewels, e.g., it points out how Obama is slowly caving into the political process and selling out ideals to achieve "electability", that "asset" that Hillary Clinton held so precious and dear. The article is well worth reading.

Political Hypocrisy

You can't get much more blatant in your hypocrisy than what the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) discovers in US Congressman John Boehner. The EFF describes how Boehner wants telecommunication privacy for himself while vigorously working politics to deny it to anybody else. Boehner successfully sues for $1.1 million to protect his own privacy while pushes laws that remove privacy for other people!
When ordinary Americans are victimized, Boehner's taken every opportunity to caricature their representatives at EFF and ACLU as "unscrupulous trial lawyers" who are "trying to find a way to get into the pockets of the American companies." But when Boehner himself is the victim, suddenly defense attorneys don't seem so unscrupulous to him, and he has no problem employing his own litigators to receive a $1.1 million reward.

A Smash Hit!

I'm a sucker for a good video. This one is action-packed, thrill-a-minute, and worth every bit of attention it demands...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Richard Croker's "The Boomer Century 1946-2046"



This is a companion book to a PBS documentary. Not having seen the documentary I can't comment on it. The book, however, is disappointing. The initial part, the history, is satisfactory but nothing special. There is too much focus on individuals and not enough on "the big picture" and the historical context. The last third is focused on boomers in their old age and the "expected" influence they will have on society. Most projections into the future are linear extrapolations and this falls into that category. There is nothing particularly insightful about this author's projections.

On the whole, this is a book that I would have skipped if I had known how unsatisfactory it would be. Oh well. I'm the kind of fool who compounds a mistake by ploughing through a book -- once started -- all the way to the end.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Who Would have Thunk It!

Here's an article by Arthur C. Brooks, Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University, that is surprising. His research results show that extremists are happier than those middle-of-the-road souls. The ancient Greeks must be rolling over in their graves! What has happened to sophrosene, the Greek ideal of balance and moderation?



The Economics of Charity

Stephen J. Dubner writes a short blog entry on the economics of charity for the web site Freakonomics. The conclusions are interesting. First, the facts:
...consider the following three natural disasters from a few years ago, listed along with number of fatalities and amount of U.S. individual charitable donations (according to Giving U.S.A.):

1. Asian Tsunami (Dec. 2004)
220,000 deaths
$1.92 billion

2. Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 2005)
1,577 deaths
$5.3 billion

3. Pakistan Earthquake (Oct. 2005)
73,000 deaths
$0.15 billion ($150 million)

Americans gave nearly three times as much money after Hurricane Katrina as they did after the Asian tsunami, even though the tsunami killed many, many more people. But this makes sense, right? Katrina was an American disaster.

Then along comes a terrible earthquake in Pakistan, killing 73,000 people, and U.S. contributions are only $150 million, making the $1.92 billion given after the tsunami look very, very generous. That’s only about $2,054 per fatality in Pakistan, versus an approximate $8,727 per fatality for the tsunami. Two far-away disasters both with huge loss of life — but with a huge disparity in U.S. giving. Why?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oil Baron turns to Wind Power

With oil prices high you can expect more and more big moves on alternative energy. Here's a $2 billion announcement by T. Boone Pickens:
Maverick oilman T. Boone Pickens has placed a $2 billion bet on wind power in just the first of a four-phase project to build the world's largest wind farm in Texas. ...

Pickens' Mesa Power said the Pampa Wind Project in the Texas Panhandle will eventually cover 400,000 acres and generate enough power for more than 1.3 million homes.
Here's an account on Bloomberg from which you can watch an hour interview with T. Boone Pickens where halfway through the interview he talks about his plans to spend "big money" to put in a huge wind farm.

Here Comes Some Good Ideas

Here is a talk by Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody. This is a very insightful talk that points out that at critical turning points society has a surplus it has to dissipate until it learns to harness and use. He argues that when the Industrial Revolution occurred there was a surplus population and drinking gin was the way to dissipate the surplus. He points out that in the 20th century with shorter work weeks there again was a surplus to dissipate and the sitcom on TV was the mechanism to dissipate the surplus. He argues that participative media is how that surplus will be usefully engaged. I find it to be a compelling story. And I love the little story he tells at the end of the little girl looking for the mouse. That is a great little vignette to make his point that media has to be more than something pushed at us. It has to be more than just consuming, it has to include producing and sharing which includes the wider society.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jeffrey Rosenthal's "Struck by Lightning"

This book is a fairly tame introduction to probability and statistics directed to the general science reader. It assumes nothing and doesn't push you with any really hard concepts. Consequently you don't learn a great deal, but it is written in a light handed style that tries hard to be entertaining. He doesn't quite have the writing gift to make the book absorbing. But it is a perfectly adequate, entertaining book that will leave you with the broad principles.
I enjoyed the fact that the book was written by a Canadian and unabashedly includes a number of Canadian references. Too many Canadian authors hide the fact to make themselves more "acceptable" to US readers. In fact, he has the "nice guy" Canadian quality all through the book, but nicely summarized at the end following the "final exam" he gives you. He makes the point that while math, his speciality, is important, it is only one of many skills that a well-rounded person needs to have:
The Probablity Perspective will never replace all of your other critical thinking skills and decision-making methods -- things like intuition and compassion and determination and honour and just plain common sense. But it will provide you withone more tool to better understand the world's randomness and your place within it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Hog Tied & Raped by Canada

The Canadian government has a ridiculous system of copyright as noted in a blog entry by Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law. He argues that copyright policy in Canada is both (a) expensive and (b) subverted to political ends:
Documents from Public Works and Government Services Canada, which administers the crown copyright system, reveal that in the 2006-7 fiscal year, crown copyright licensing generated less than $7,000 in revenue, yet the system cost over $200,000 to administer.

In most instances, Canadians obtain little return for this investment. Ninety-five percent of crown copyright requests are approved, with requests ranging from archival photos to copies of the Copyright Act. More troubling are the five percent of cases where permission is declined. While in some instances refusals stem from the fact that the government does not have rights in the requested work, government documents reveal that some requests are declined for what appear to be politically motivated reasons.

Climbing the Economic Ladder

Harvard economist Dani Rodrik gives a very short talk (30 minutes) entitled "Why do some poor countries remain poor while others grow rich?" As he points out, he doesn't actually know the answer to this. He admits that the title was a "teaser" to get conference attendees to come to the talk.

What he does talk about is how economists think about the issues of international development. Towards the end of the talk he focuses on Turkey (where the conference is held) and points out that the problem in Turkey is not a failure to "innovate" or develop R&D. It is more structural. Lagging countries usually have a mix of economic enterprises. The best growth strategy is to remove impediments to the growth of the best, most productive parts of the economy to help lift the country up out of poverty. This is actually a "good news" story. It says you don't have to sink large funds into education or infrastructure development or do wholesale structural transformation to remove "crony capitalism" or other broad structural impediments. The simpler approach is simply to facilitate the growth of the better parts of the economy. In other words, growth is held back because backwards parts of the economy that are protected. What a poor country should focus on is making structural changes to remove structural favoritism of backwards parts of their economy and, instead, do limited structural changes to favour the more successful parts of their economy.

The talk is fun to listen to because he stays away from the arcane aspects of economics and speaks clearly because he is addressing a general audience interested in development, not specialists in economics. As well, this is a hopeful, positive talk saying that poor countries can close the gap with the rich and without terribly dramatic restructuring.

Cassity & Levaren's "The '60s for Dummies"

I'm not a big fan of the "Idiot's Guide" of "Dummies" series of books. But I am a sucker for a history of the 60s, so I read Brian Cassity & Maxine Levaren's The '60s for Dummies.


It isn't a scholarly account. It has no new revelations or special interpretation. It is just a good solid review of that decade. It wasn't particularly "dumbed down" for a broader audience, but it did keep the trajectory of the history straightforward based on a theme approach. First a top-down view of decade in terms of presidents and their policies & actions. Then a series of sections dealing with major drivers of the decade: civil rights, Vietnam, social change, and cultural change.

On the whole I appreciated the book as a no-nonsense review of the history. Certainly a good starting point for anybody who didn't experience it. My favourite history is the 1971 book Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960's by William L. ONeill.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Can You Believe This?

Somehow this graphic from a Paul Krugman blog on how people commute doesn't ring true to me...
I can't believe that the Netherlands uses less transit for commuting than Canada. I'm suspicious of this data. I can believe the US numbers, I find 2% for Canada by Bicycle dubious. The country is just too inhospitable for a lot of serious "bicycle" traffic. Plus my own eyes tell me that is isn't the case that 1 out of 50 commuters is using a bicycle! Very suspicious.

This just reinforces my belief that you have to filter all information through your own model of the world. Sure, that sets you up for prejudice and stereotype, but it saves you from the idiocy of believing everything you read or are told. The trick is to act like a scientist. Keep your mind open to the need to revise theory when facts are not lining up. But just like a scientist is lost without the aid of a theory to make sense of facts, ordinary humans who don't have a mental model of "how the world works" are babes in the woods waiting to be victimized by some sharpster.

Who Could Resist?

When an economist as famous as Paul Krugman entitles a piece "Why You Should Hate Economists", you have to be curious. Don't you?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Global Confusion

I love Global Warming stories. It is a lot like religious debates. There are the true believers and there are those who want to join in but aren't quite sure what is known and then there are those who just wish the debaters would spend the time to get their facts straight.

Today there are a couple of things to report on the Global Warming debate.

First, there is a report out of NASA that includes a rare bit of humility about what we really know:
The sun is relatively calm compared to other stars. "We don't know what the sun is going to do a hundred years from now," said Doug Rabin, a solar physicist at Goddard. "It could be considerably more active and therefore have more influence on Earth's climate."

Or, it could be calmer, creating a cooler climate on Earth similar to what happened in the late 17th century. Almost no sunspots were observed on the sun's surface during the period from 1650 to 1715. This extended absence of solar activity may have been partly responsible for the Little Ice Age in Europe and may reflect cyclic or irregular changes in the sun's output over hundreds of years. During this period, winters in Europe were longer and colder by about 1 C than they are today.
The other item which caught my attention from this report was the vague numbers presented:
Around 30 percent of the solar energy that strikes Earth is reflected back into space. Clouds, atmospheric aerosols, snow, ice, sand, ocean surface and even rooftops play a role in deflecting the incoming rays. The remaining 70 percent of solar energy is absorbed by land, ocean, and atmosphere.

"Greenhouse gases block about 40 percent of outgoing thermal radiation that emanates from Earth," Woods said. The resulting imbalance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing thermal radiation will likely cause Earth to heat up over the next century...
This "around 30 percent" that is reflected back is handled in general circulation models via "parameters". How accurate can they be? Well, here is a bit of evidence. A BBC news story reports that global warming will hiccup for a decade because the "latest" climate models that include models for the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) which were left out of previous models:
The Earth's temperature may stay roughly the same for a decade, as natural climate cycles enter a cooling phase, scientists have predicted.

A new computer model developed by German researchers, reported in the journal Nature, suggests the cooling will counter greenhouse warming.

The fact that the UN's IPCC has been producing climate models for over 30 years and these models are just now including a large phenomenon like AMO tells me that the "predictions" of these models is less than stellar. It is a bit odd to propose major changes to industry based on models that one day predict catastrophic warming and the next day predict a decade of cooling.

Here's a book by David Orrell, a mathematician who has worked on models of complex systems.


He makes it clear that we should not blindly trust the output of computer models. Here is an excerpt from the book's website summarizing the book:
...the media is dominated by scientists, economic pundits, and more than a few charlatans claiming to have surpassed the abilities of Apollo’s mythical arrow. Allegedly, they can foresee financial trends, flu outbreaks, and even next week’s weather—though often, of course, they get it wrong. In Apollo’s Arrow, Canadian scientist David Orrell looks back at past prognosticators, from the time of the Oracle at Delphi to the rise of astrology to the advent of the nightly news, showing us how scientists, astrologers, and grifters have attempted to predict the future. Despite centuries of scientific progress and billions of dollars in research, Orrell asks if we are any better now at predicting the future than Pythagoras was centuries ago.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

McClean's Interview with Brad DeLong

There's a very good interview of Brad DeLong in Maclean's magazine.

Q: The federal government in Canada has taken a laissez-faire approach and promoted aggressive tax cuts as a solution. Do you have any thoughts on that?

A: I learned my macroeconomics at the knee of Martin Feldstein, back when the Republican Party in the United States was still the party of sound money and fiscal surpluses. I was just running through my class the argument Marty made around 1980: that basic utilitarian calculations suggest the United States should be saving half again as much as it is and investing it into the future. Unfunded tax cuts take what would otherwise be national savings and divert them into government deficits.

While I do see a very small and limited role for tax cuts in a recession to try to prevent mass unemployment, I’m still with Marty—or at least with the old, unmuzzled Marty. Developed countries ought to be running substantial government surpluses because the opportunities for saving and investment are great, because aging populations are going to require debt capacity in the future, and because the technological revolution in medical care is going to produce a huge future demand for governments to spend money keeping people healthy. I have this instinctive, allergic reaction to unfunded tax cuts, even in recessions. And we’re not quite in a recession yet.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Getting Down and Dirty in Birdland

Now here's a bird that's "got its groove"... The bird dances better than I can manage. Wow!



And you've got to admire how long it "gets its groove on". Most animals lose interest in less than a minute. This bird qualifies as a "dancing fool".

Strange Hieroglyphics

According to experts -- the same ones Hillary Clinton claims "don't know anything" -- claim that the following tells the tale of the upcoming US election:

According the Paul Krugman we can decipher the election results in the above graphic because:
The political scientists I talk to basically have the view that nothing much matters in presidential elections except the rate of change in economic conditions — not the level — in the year or less preceding the election. If that’s true, the Democrats should have it in the bag. This year’s economy will almost certainly be at least as bad as 1992, and stands a chance, in terms of stagnant real personal income per capita, of being as bad as 1980.

US Credit Crunch & Housing Bubble

Paul Krugman gives an hour long talk at Google in Dec 2007 on the financial crisis and the problem with the subprime credit crisis which is feed in the crash in the housing bubble. This is an excellent summary of the problem:

Sunday, May 4, 2008

When "Being Rational" makes you Irrational

Here's a blog entry by Mark Thoma noting some results on "fairness" citing two different research results by other groups. Here's the "happy news" result:
The human brain responds to being treated fairly the same way it responds to winning money and eating chocolate, UCLA scientists report. Being treated fairly turns on the brain's reward circuitry.
We are social animals and this "natural wiring" helps reinforce our social actions. My only quibble with the snippet reporting the research is the failure to note that the degree of response varies, i.e. not everybody is wired the same way. Or, another way of putting it, there are some wolves in amongst us social sheep who will take advantage of our impulse toward fairness.

But there is also something else dark and sinister lurking out there. A little bit of education can turn a sheep into a wolf. The Thomas blog entry also points to this research result checking how being taught "economics" might interfere with this "fairness" circuitry:
All students are required to take courses in contracts and in torts, and they're randomly assigned to an instructor for each class. Some of these teachers have Ph.D.s in economics, some in philosophy and other humanities, and some have no strong disciplinary allegiances at all. Professors are encouraged to design their courses as they see fit. Instructors from economics may emphasize the role of contracts in making possible the efficiency gains of the marketplace, while philosophers may emphasize equal outcomes for contracting parties. So economists teach about efficiency and philosophers teach about equality. ...

The students made 50 decisions about giving. In some cases students started with $10, and for each dollar they gave up, their (anonymous) partner in the game would get, say, $5. In this case, giving was "cheap." In others, giving was expensive (each dollar given up yielded only 20 cents for the partner).

Someone who gives a lot when it's cheap and keeps most of the pie for himself when giving is expensive focuses on efficiency: He's making sure the maximum amount is paid out to him and his partner combined. Someone who keeps 80% of the pie when it would be cheap to give is more focused on equality. Someone who always keeps everything, regardless of the price of giving, is just plain selfish, the very embodiment of the rational, self-interested Homo economicus.

It turns out that exposure to economics makes a big difference in how students split the pie, in terms of both efficiency and outright selfishness. Students assigned to classes taught by economists were more likely to give a lot when it was cheap to do so. But they were also much more likely to take the whole pie for themselves.

These findings hint at the influence that powerful ideas may have in shaping how we see the world, even late in life.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Tutti Frutti

Here is an absolutely nutty video. Leave it to the religious crazies to put out idiotic propaganda like this.



I can't complain about the production values, but give me a break on the "surprising similarities" between foods and human organs. I was rolling on the ground watching them pull, tug, and stretch their imagination to come up with these "resemblances". Funny!

Et Tu, Brute?

Here is an interesting clip out of a conversation between Robert Reich, former Bill Clinton Secretary of Labor, and Glenn Loury, an economist. Reich explains why he was "driven" to come out publicly and support Barack Obama by his disgust at the smear campaign the Hillary Clinton was using.



What amazes me is how the American public doesn't see how the back room "handlers" turn the election into a circus with all the razzle dazzle over "he can't be patriotic because he won't wear a flag pin" and not over "just how does his health care plan differ from the other candidates", or the infamous "swiftboating" of John Kerry that turned an authentic wartime soldier into a patsy boy while the "true grit" macho image was highlighted for men like Bush and Cheney (who couldn't be bothered with actually getting near a war).

Even worse was the way these spinmeisters destroyed Max Cleland, the triple amputee war vet who magically became unpatriotic and unwilling to "defend" America. Funny how a the guy who won used these spin techniques to win the election on "patriotism", Saxby Chambliss, never found the time or the will to go to Vietnam like Max Cleland. Instead he defended America from Law School: Chambliss was given a student deferment so he could attend law school. After that, he received a medical deferment (4-F) because of a bad knee.

So... this long tradition of patriotic chest-beating Republican "warriors" (who are eager to lead a nation to war but not actually do any frontline fighting) are busy destroying Barack Obama. And a guy like Robert Reich has had enough of these dirty tactics. He is aghast that Hillary Clinton, a victim of the Republican slime machine, has decided to use these same tactics against Obama. So he has stepped forward -- been forced to step forward -- and line up with Obama.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Sherry Cooper's "The New Retirment"

I like to read retirement planning books even though I'm already retired. Sherry Cooper's book The New Retirement is a nice "how to" book without all the silly paraphernalia of forms to fill out and overly precise "rules" to guide you. Her simple rule -- the real heart of this book -- is found in Chapter 9 and says:
Rule of Thumb: You will need a retirement nest egg of between 20 and 25 times the level of additional desired pre-tax income (over and above government and employment pensions) to generate the extra income you need.
There! I saved you from needing to read the other 200 pages.

Well, there is some fun in the other stuff. She has some wonderful demographic data in Chapter 2 showing why Canada has a bigger problem than the U.S: we had a bigger boom and a bigger baby bust than the US. But, if you compare Canada to the rest of the world, we are in pretty good shape demographically because of our large immigration.

Chapter 5 talks about the problems of government funding for pensions and health. Here's where I get to see just how bad a problem the U.S. has. They offer up a larger government pension -- US$25,392 -- but they only collect 12.4% on the worker's income (split between worker & employer) to pay for it. Compare that to the Canadian pension of $10,365 paid by collecting 9.9% on the worker's income. You can see quickly that the Canadian funding is on a sounder basis. That's why we actually have a CPP Investment Board with money invested at a good rate building up to handle the boomer flood. The US doesn't. It lets the money it collect flow into general revenue and -- as the Republicans point out -- they just have pieces of paper in the Social Security Trust Fund. (OK, these are government bonds, but the Republicans make it pretty clear that when push comes to shove, they will default on those bonds because they are "only pieces of paper".)

Her chapter 7 is fascinating because it looks at the different composition of wealth when comparing Canada to the U.S. We have a lot more of our wealth in our homes. This is a bit odd when you think that the US just went through a housing bubble. But it makes sense when you realize that the "mortgage deductability" in the US encourages people there to not pay off their homes in order to get the deduction off their income taxes. She gets into something unusual in this chapter, a discussion of income disparity. She notes that the "average" wealth of a household in the US is 5.7 times their disposable income while the "median" wealth is only 2.3 times. In Canada, we have a much more egalitarian society, so our "average" wealth is 5.4 times disposable income and the "median" is 3.5 times.

In Chapter 8 she has a discussion of the fall of DB plans (Defined Benefit) and the rise of DC plans (Defined Contribution). How this is creating a two-tier society since government workers get the gold-plated DB plans while private industry has moved to DC or even gotten rid of its pensions. This discussion of pensions and fairness is unusual in a "retirement" book, but I love it. Fascinating stuff that makes you think about the role of government and how the ground under your feet can change between different segments of society quietly move in different directions.

The book is full of wonderful graphs. I love graphs. They distill so much into a picture.

So, this is an excellent book. As I said above, the essential "retirement" message is the one little quote I inserted above. The rest of it is a wonderful discussion of demographics, economics, government policy, wealth effects, etc. In short, a wonderful romp through a lot of interesting material. It is well worth the read!

Pigs and Global Warming, What's the Connection?

Sometimes the world is just too ridiculous. You have to fall down laughing.

On the one hand we have riots around the world from food shortages. On the other hand, the Canadian government is going to spend money to destroy pigs in order to create a shortage.
In what is being called an unprecedented move, the federal government will pay Canadian pork producers $50 million to kill off 150,000 of their pigs by the fall as the industry teeters on the brink of economic collapse.

The animals are being destroyed at slaughter plants and on pig farms in a bid to cull the swine breeding herd by 10 per cent.

Most of the meat is to be used for pet food or otherwise disposed of, but up to 25 per cent of it will be made available to Canadian food banks.

Great! So the pets get a cheap meal. The poor and homeless will get free food. But the working stiff is expected to suck it up and watch while the government spends tax dollars to make sure that the price of meat stays high. Why not let the pork producers send the pigs off to slaughter and let the retailers lower the price to clear the market and give the population to enjoy cheap meat?

By the way, why are the pig producers having to kill their pigs in such a rush? Here's the official government reason:
Producers are weighed down by the cumulative impact of low prices, increasing feeds costs and the high value of the loonie. They are also facing new country-of-origin labelling rules for meat products in the United States that are to go into effect later this year.
There's a lot of hogwash in there. The real reason is hidden in the middle: "increasing feed costs". Because of the worldwide food shortage, prices of all agricultural foods have doubled and tripled. So a pig farmer can't afford to pay big bucks for food for his pigs. So farmers need to rush the pigs to slaughter to reduce costs. Of course that means we'll all pay a whole bunch more for meat next year. In the interim, the Canadian government is going to short circuit the whole thing by using tax dollars to remove the meat from the human consumption market to "raise" prices. Thanks Mr. Bureaucrat. I elected you to make my food costs higher! Yeah, sure.

If you want to see an economist get hyperbolic about the coming crisis, watch Don Coxe, an economist with Bank of Montreal be interviewed about the global food shortage. He paints a very grim picture. He's more worried about the food crisis than he is about the financial crisis. He foresees governments falling and the rise of "Hitler-style autarky" as the crisis leads beyond riots to crowds overthrowing governments.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government is not looking past its nose. It is fixated on the short term, the "need" to clear the market of excess pork, and not seeing the longer term problem: higher costs for feedstocks will cause pig farmers decimate their herds by selling off animals at whatever price they can get to the cut their costs which means that meat prices will go sky high next year because the herds have been decimated and the costs of feedstocks are double, triple, or quadruple the traditional costs. With government bureaucrats "solving" a non-existant problem (short term drop in prices as pig farmers panic to clear stocks) while ignoring the real problem coming down the track: sky high prices as all agriculture products a rising astronomically. (This kind of government shooting itself in the foot reminds me of the Nixon government doing a secret deal to sell large amounts of food to Russia and thereby causing food costs in the US to go sky high right in the middle of the "stagflation" of the 1970s.)

Step back for a second:

Is there any reason why we've run into this agricultural problem at this time? As Don Coxe points out, for 50 years the governments in the developed world have been busy running programs to pay farmers to not grow crops. But now that the warehouses are empty, nobody has noticed and changed policy. The trigger has been drought in a few areas (Australia). And it can get worse. As Don Coxe points out, the corn crop is already two weeks late in being planted in North America. Why? Oh, because last year was the coldest in a long time, a full 0.7 degrees below normal, so the growing season is shorter. He traces this to the low sunspot activity. (He doesn't mention La Nina, but that is also playing a role.)

I laugh myself silly because we have governments running around trying to set up programs to deal with Global Warming when in fact the weather (at least short term) has gone cold and crops are failing and we will have mass starvation. So again, bureaucrats are firmly dealing with the wrong problem.

This is all so ludicrous you wonder, could anyone create this story and be believed? No! It is just too crazy. Just too silly. Just too much incompetence. But, sadly, this is the real world.

How to Buy an Election without Spending a Penny

It is pathetic to watch the US presidential campaign. The candidates don't get to talk about the issues. Instead "debates" are run as if it were pin the tail on the donkey with the best "gotcha" pulled by a so-called moderator. And now we have McCain and Clinton breathing fire about a complete non-issue and getting loads of press about it. They want to drop a gasoline tax this summer. They haven't won the presidency, they have no power, but they are on the stump proposing "actions" which have nothing to do with their candidacy. Worse, what they propose is plain foolish. It is a blatant pandering to the audience and buying voters with their own money! Lowering a gasoline tax won't lower the prices unless they plan to hire a mob of "inspectors" to check pumps and prices and an army of accountants to go through books to make sure that removing a tax is "passed through" to the customer. And, even if this works, all it does is encourages people to drive more and when the "tax holiday" ends, assuming prices went down -- which every economist tells you won't when supply is constrained -- the prices go back up and all those supposedly "happy" voters will be outraged about "higher prices" all over again. What an idiotic "plan". If this ability to "solve" a serious energy problem is evidence of their leadership, the voters should shun them, refuse to give them any votes, and flock to whoever is left on the ballot (Obama!) to show their disdain for this idiocy.

Here's what Barry Ritholz says is the problem with McCain & Clinton's "plan" for dealing with an energy crisis:
We have no energy policy, and none on the horizon. Candidates serious about the issue of high energy prices should be discussing increased CAFE standards, capital gains tax waivers for alternative energy investments, greater offshore drilling, Pigou taxes, rapid nuclear plant approvals, a huge increase in the basic R&D the government does on energy -- a Manhattan project for energy and transportation science.

Instead, we hear proposals about waiving an 18 cent tax.
Back in 1976-1978 I taught high school with materials talking about the "energy crisis". You had U.S. politicians promising a "Manhattan-type effort" to achieve energy independence. But nothing was done. That was 30 years ago. The U.S. has had 30 years to deal with this problem and no politician has had the guts to stand up and tell the American people to "get real" and deal with the problem. Oh, wait a second, you have one. You have Barack Obama saying he won't play these silly games of lying to the electorate. And what has happened to him? Oh, well he's not electable because he went to a church where the preacher is a little nutty. Now that's a reason to say "no" to him and go for the candidates who are willing to bribe you with your own money!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

How to Settle an Argument

Here is a nice discussion paper by the Pacific Institute that takes on an issue and presents its viewpoint via facts rather than just claims and hot air:
Could walking be worse for the planet than driving? This startling idea has recently received coverage in New York Times blogs and beyond. ...
In his book, How to Live a Low-Carbon Life,6 Chris Goodall answers the question this way: “It makes more sense to drive than walk, if walking means you need to eat more to replace the energy lost.”7 Goodall—a proponent of reducing GHG emissions—comments that his intent is not to encourage driving, but rather, “to draw attention to the carbon intensity of modern food production, particularly of meat.” ...
However, it is misleading to suggest “it makes more sense to drive than walk, if walking means you need to eat more to replace the energy lost.” ... as shown by the estimated GHG emissions of the typical U.S. diet, walking—even for a group of four people—makes more sense than driving a given distance.
What I find interesting is that this corrective analysis results in a surprise for me, i.e. driving isn't that shockingly worse in terms of carbon footprint than such supposedly earth-friendly actions as walking in lieu of driving.

T. C. Boyle's "Drop City"

I like T. C. Boyle's writing. He's got a solid story teller's art, he loves words, he's got a knack for descriptive narrative. Drop City attracted me as a boomer to "re-live" my past. I lived through the era, but did not participate meaningfully in the iconic events of the era and certainly didn't get involved in the more manic elements of "the times".


This novel paints the tale of the outrageous fringe elements. Actually it is two tales woven together and brought together to close off the tale. As is typical with modern novels there is no closure, but the lead characters come together and there is a bit of an accounting that gives you a sense that the book can be closed on the tale.

There are a few anachronisms that caught my attention. But I recognize how hard it is to describe the past given our lexicon of the present. Mine is a minor complaint. I loved the recreation of the past. He's got the emotional details right. His colourful vocabulary paints the right kind of picture. And the story is solid. Not a classic tale that will be studied centuries from now, but be honest, 99% of the current writers are forgetable. So Boyle is in the top 10%. He will linger a while. But with the filtering of time he will disappear. We all disappear. But he gets our attention for now.

He uses the tricks of the trade a number of times to pull me into the tale and uses plot twists and turns to turbo-charge my emotions. OK, I'm a sucker for that. I love novels as an escape. But I especially appreciate novels with historical detail because they let me "be there" even if I wasn't there. Here you get to ride the wave of idealism of 1970 (at the tag end of the hippie "boom" just as it was going bust) to see the bitter end of the "back to the land" era of hippiedom. And this novel takes that tale to dead serious end. It takes you from halcyon California to the bitter realities of frigid Alaska. Living at the fringes of the frozen north, I can appreciate all too well the life-and-death struggle against the cold. This is a tale of flower children who come up against the grim reality of a "struggle for existence".

This isn't the glitzy over-the-top ride that Tom Wolfe's non-fiction essays gave you of the 1960's culture: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Pump House Gang, or The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. But Wolfe's observations were of the disintegration during the early 1960s while Boyle's book deals with the aftermath of the smash-up with the people who were the loose-ends of the hippie crash. They were crazy times full of hope, but like Drop City, gravity takes over and the dreams come crashing to earth. Reality has a nasty way of pulling you back to earth.

So... mark this up as yet another fine bit of writing by T. C. Boyle.

Over the years I'm slowly working my way through his body of work. I can't complain about anything he has written it is all quite good. And the historically based works "The Inner Circle" and "Drop City" are an excellent way to be a fly on the wall of a past historical era. (To prove I'm not a sycophant, I must admit that I found the novel "Talk, Talk" to be a bit below standard, but I finished it and didn't begrudge the time spent, but looking back it wasn't as much fun as other things he has written.)

Arm Wrestling with the Future?

There are a number of reports floating around today about a new electronics device that holds great promise for reducing circuit size, efficiency, and reliability. It is touted as the new technology which will allow Moore's Law to be extended for another thirty years.

HP Labs reports that a memristor, a theoretical device proposed by Leon Chua of UC Berkeley in 1971 has been realized by R. Stanley Williams' lab at HP.
The memristor — short for memory resistor - could make it possible to develop far more energy-efficient computing systems with memories that retain information even after the power is off, so there's no wait for the system to boot up after turning the computer on. It may even be possible to create systems with some of the pattern-matching abilities of the human brain.
Wikipedia has a good discussion of this new device.

Now, I wonder whether this latest gee whiz device will live up to its billing. If past experience is any guide, there's maybe a 20% chance that all this hoopla is deserved. But that means there's an 80% chance that it will fizzle. Of course you expect that in a few months the fog will life and we will know the truth. In reality, the truth probably won't be clear for 3-5 years. Things always take more time than you expect! It is only in retrospect that you get that gee whiz feeling about how fast the future in on-rushing. For those of us living through "exciting times" it all feels rather banal.