Tuesday, June 30, 2009

You Pay for What You Get

That's the mantra. But it isn't true. Sometimes you get charged what the market will bear.

Here are some health care stats from an Economist article cited in a The Big Picture post:
US spend on healthcare is 15.4% of GDP including both state and private. With that it gets 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people, 3.3 hospital beds and its people live to an average age of 78.2

UK - spends 8.1% of GDP, gets 2.3 doctors, 4.2 hospital beds and live to an average age of 79.4. So for roughly half the cost their citizens overall get about the same benefit in terms of longevity of life.

Canada - spends 9.8% of GDP on healthcare, gets 2.1 doctors, 3.6 hospital beds and live until they are 80.6 yrs

France - spends 10.5%, 3.4 docs, 7.5 beds and live until they are 80.6

Spain - spends 8.1% , 3.3 docs , 3.8 beds and live until they are 81
It is pretty clear that the US is paying more and getting worse results. But wait... the US has all the sexy new gizmos and all the super well paid medical staff. So I guess the US is making more of a fashion statement than a health statement. In that sense, the US leads the world in stylish health care!

I, however, never wanted to be a fashion victim, so I'm quite happy with the Canadian medical system. Sure, it has flaws. But looking at "the big picture" it is head and shoulders over the US.

Technological Utopians

Malcolm Gladwell has written an excellent article in the New Yorker which attacks technological utopians: people who think we are on the verge of paradise because technical advances are going to drastically reduce the cost of some item.

Mostly the book is an attack on Chris Anderson and his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. But this bit givves you a better feel for the thrust of Gladwell's argument. In this bit Gladwell takes a step back and looks at an older utopian claim (one which I remember from my youth and was lured into youthful daydreaming about) to show how foolish it was:
Anderson begins the second part of his book by quoting Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who famously predicted in the mid-nineteen-fifties that “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”

“What if Strauss had been right?” Anderson wonders, and then diligently sorts through the implications: as much fresh water as you could want, no reliance on fossil fuels, no global warming, abundant agricultural production. Anderson wants to take “too cheap to meter” seriously, because he believes that we are on the cusp of our own “too cheap to meter” revolution with computer processing, storage, and bandwidth. But here is the second and broader problem with Anderson’s argument: he is asking the wrong question. It is pointless to wonder what would have happened if Strauss’s prediction had come true while rushing past the reasons that it could not have come true.

Strauss’s optimism was driven by the fuel cost of nuclear energy—which was so low compared with its fossil-fuel counterparts that he considered it (to borrow Anderson’s phrase) close enough to free to round down. Generating and distributing electricity, however, requires a vast and expensive infrastructure of transmission lines and power plants—and it is this infrastructure that accounts for most of the cost of electricity. Fuel prices are only a small part of that. As Gordon Dean, Strauss’s predecessor at the A.E.C., wrote, “Even if coal were mined and distributed free to electric generating plants today, the reduction in your monthly electricity bill would amount to but twenty per cent, so great is the cost of the plant itself and the distribution system.”

This is the kind of error that technological utopians make. They assume that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors—that if you change the fuel you change the whole system. Strauss went on to forecast “an age of peace,” jumping from atoms to human hearts. “As the world of chips and glass fibers and wireless waves goes, so goes the rest of the world,” Kevin Kelly, another Wired visionary, proclaimed at the start of his 1998 digital manifesto, “New Rules for the New Economy,” offering up the same non sequitur. And now comes Anderson. “The more products are made of ideas, rather than stuff, the faster they can get cheap,” he writes, and we know what’s coming next: “However, this is not limited to digital products.” Just look at the pharmaceutical industry, he says. Genetic engineering means that drug development is poised to follow the same learning curve of the digital world, to “accelerate in performance while it drops in price.”

But, like Strauss, he’s forgotten about the plants and the power lines. The expensive part of making drugs has never been what happens in the laboratory. It’s what happens after the laboratory, like the clinical testing, which can take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In the pharmaceutical world, what’s more, companies have chosen to use the potential of new technology to do something very different from their counterparts in Silicon Valley. They’ve been trying to find a way to serve smaller and smaller markets—to create medicines tailored to very specific subpopulations and strains of diseases—and smaller markets often mean higher prices. The biotechnology company Genzyme spent five hundred million dollars developing the drug Myozyme, which is intended for a condition, Pompe disease, that afflicts fewer than ten thousand people worldwide. That’s the quintessential modern drug: a high-tech, targeted remedy that took a very long and costly path to market. Myozyme is priced at three hundred thousand dollars a year. Genzyme isn’t a mining company: its real assets are intellectual property—information, not stuff. But, in this case, information does not want to be free. It wants to be really, really expensive.
Go read the whole article. It is typically delightful Malcolm Gladwell, i.e. thought provoking and very interesting.

For a slightly different take on the Chris Anderson/Malcolm Gladwell argument. Here is a blog entry by Matthew Yglesias:
Where Anderson goes off the rails is in his suggestion that this “give it away” business model is actually a promising business model. Gladwell demolishes some of Anderson’s examples, but the problem with Anderson’s argument is completely theoretical. The convergence to marginal cost of production is predicated on the idea that you’re operating in a highly competitive marketplace. But the thing about operating in a highly competitive marketplace is that it’s impossible to make tons of money by doing this.


Consider the case of YouTube, which Anderson labels a quintessential example of Free. Gladwell points out that YouTube actually loses money—it’s a terrible business. But what’s really noteworthy about YouTube, to me, is that as it exists it’s actually competing with several other, also Free, also money-losing video services. But since Google as a whole can easily afford to cover YouTube’s losses, it’s hard to see the percentage for Google management in shutting down a market-leader, or in destroying its position by trying to charge people to use it. But conceivably YouTube will just operate indefinitely as a money-losing subsidiary of a large profitable firm. And since it’s there losing money but not going out of business, it will probably be impossible for any competitors to ever beat it. And if YouTube does go out of business some new money-losing free video site will become the market leader as long as there’s some investor out there somewhere who believes, wrongly, that he’s smart enough to figure out a way to make money out of this thing. Meanwhile, as the underlying technology gets cheaper the scale of the losses should get smaller, making it ever-more-realistic to run the business at a loss and thus ever-less-likely that the money-losers will be driven out of the market and create the possibility for monopoly rents.

That’s the real lesson of Free. The combination of competition, the near-zero marginal cost of production, and the psychological significance of the zero bound means that the market-leader in video is bound to lose money. To win the market, you need to make your product Free. But while your marginal cost is near-zero, it’s not actually zero, so you’re losing money.

China: Unintended Consequences

From the Freakonomics website, an explanation for the high savings rate in China:
Some say that a major cause of the U.S. housing bubble was a surge in savings overseas, particularly in China, where the personal savings rate soared to 30 percent of disposable income. (In the U.S., meanwhile, we were saving next to nothing). Just why the Chinese were saving so much has been a puzzle to many economists. Now Shang-Jin Wei and Xiaobo Zhang think they’ve come up with an explanation. It turns out that China’s “one child” policy, which created a huge surplus of men in the country, has driven up the cost of getting married, as more and more men compete for fewer and fewer women. To keep up, families with sons have been holding off on spending to save up wealth that boosts their children’s marriage prospects. In their paper, Wei and Zhang argue that Chinese marriage-price inflation could account for as much as half of the increase in the country’s household savings since 1990.
Life is full of surprises. The problem with rational problem solving is that in the real world we usually don't have an accurate model of how things work so we constantly get "unintended consequences". Who would have thought that a one-child policy in China might lead to a housing bubble and financial crash in the US?

The lesson to be learned: be cautious in proposing "fixes" to problems. Without sufficient prior experience you are probably setting yourself up for failure. Even with prior experience, unless it is relevant and exhaustive, you still might be setting yourself up for failure.

The problem with modeling: a model is a simplification of the real world down to "essentials" which allow you to experiment to "understand" the real world. But how do you know what to leave out of the model and to what extent to "simplify"?

If you don't fully understand the phenomena, a model can't claim to be validated. But if you fully understand the real world, then the model is usually not needed. Models are a bit like the legwork in science. You explore for "facts" and develop a theory, the model is the crystalization of your theory. But like all scientific theories, experience can falsify the theory/model instantly. So the theory/model is only as good as the long series of testing you've put it through and how well it fits into a web of other theories/models that support it.

I still carry with me the interesting model that a chicken has of the world. This is from Bertrand Russell's book The Problems of Philsophy in the chapter "On Induction". He points out that domestic chickens build a model of the world where when the sun comes up then a man comes out and feeds them. This model works wonderfully well until one day the sun comes up and the man comes out and wrings the chicken's neck. The model is wonderfully accurate until it completely fails. The underlying problem is induction. How do you find "regularities" or "laws" or "model rules" on which to build your knowledge. The fact that up until now something has always been true is not logically sufficient to make it into a scientific law (or a sound model). Modelers and amateur "scientists" beware!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Iran and the Long Shadow of Abu Ghraib

Here is a post from Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish that spells out how the Bush/Cheney torture regime has completely undermined any moral legitimacy the US might have had regarding the suppression of dissent in Iran and the torture that Iran uses against its dissidents:
Here's another first-hand account of a student protester tortured by the Iranian regime after the last round of student uprisings ten years ago. What he describes is exactly what the United States did to prisoners under the Bush-Cheney torture regime:
The place was one of the semi-abandoned military camps outside Tehran that date back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. There we were shoved into metal freight containers – the kind used for shipping. They stripped us naked and gave us two blankets each. Inside there was nothing to sleep on and no electric light. There was no way to tell the time except by the daylight when it shone through the watchman’s peephole at one end and a ventilation vent at the other.
This is more daylight and two more blankets than allowed the bulk of prisoners tortured under Bush and Cheney. But the cramming into windowless cages naked is classic neocon torture.
I was in the container with four other boys. We were all barely 20. And we were inside for two weeks -- naked, powerless, and face-to-face with the fear of being totally at the mercy of our captors... I was in the container with four other boys. Food was thrown in once a day. From time to time, we were taken out for questioning. And both those processes helped to destroy whatever shreds of our dignity remained.
The prisoners were beaten as part of their torture, something endemic in US captivity but formally restricted to mild forms under Cheney. There are other similarities:
The interrogations were conducted with a hood over my head. Looking down, I could see only the floor. Once I saw the hands of one of the interrogators after he cuffed my head. His hands were twice the size of mine. After two weeks, I was transferred to a succession of other prison cells, with no idea where I was. Sometimes, the cells were pitch dark. Sometimes, they had four brilliant light bulbs shining 24 hours a day.
A word to the neocons: you have no standing to protest the barbaric treatment of these prisoners any more. And you have made their torture more helpless, more powerful and more brutal than it would otherwise have been. As these protesters - the men and women hose tweets we were reading so recently - look toward America, as they try to see a beacon somewhere that would let them know that their torturers have no standing in the civilized world, they find one thing.

That beacon? Neoconservatism snuffed it out.
The West won the Cold War because they were seen as morally superior to the commies. But Bush/Cheney has undermined the future by putting the US on all fours with all the other slimey torture regimes around the world.

Here's another post on The Daily Dish that lays out the blight of Bush/Cheny torture. In this case, it is the fact that only the underlings were punished for Abu Ghraib. Admininstration officials and top CIA/military were never held accountable:
[W]hen images do show torture or execution actually happening, not just victims' bodies afterwards, they encourage us to feel enraged at the people doing it -- but those people are invariably low-level operatives, not policy-makers. And so (as essentially occurred in the case of the Abu Ghraib photographs, for example) those powerful decision-makers who are actually responsible for the system of abuse trot off into the sunset while a handful of soldiers or prison guards get labeled "sadistic" or "bad apples" and get thrown in prison. It's just never going to be photos that implicate the people at the highest levels -- that requires different kinds of sources, much less sensational but nevertheless enormously important. There's a reason tireless French anti-torture campaigner Pierre Vidal-Naquet described the entire anti-torture movement during France's Algerian War as boiling down to "a passionate quest for documents."

This isn't to say images aren't exceedingly valuable. They are. As I've said before, cell phone cameras -- and the existence of the Abu Ghraib photographs in particular -- are one huge reason for the differences between the American conversation about torture for the past several years and the French conversation (or, more often, non-conversation) about torture during the Algerian War. I believe that Obama ought to release the photographs. But ultimately photos can only be worth a thousand words when they're framed by lots and lots and lots of...words.

Krugman on the Climate

In his latest NY Times op-ed, Paul Krugman waxes fanatic on the climate wars:
And as I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn’t help thinking that I was watching a form of treason — treason against the planet.

To fully appreciate the irresponsibility and immorality of climate-change denial, you need to know about the grim turn taken by the latest climate research.

The fact is that the planet is changing faster than even pessimists expected: ice caps are shrinking, arid zones spreading, at a terrifying rate. And according to a number of recent studies, catastrophe — a rise in temperature so large as to be almost unthinkable — can no longer be considered a mere possibility. It is, instead, the most likely outcome if we continue along our present course.

Thus researchers at M.I.T., who were previously predicting a temperature rise of a little more than 4 degrees by the end of this century, are now predicting a rise of more than 9 degrees. Why? Global greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than expected; some mitigating factors, like absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans, are turning out to be weaker than hoped; and there’s growing evidence that climate change is self-reinforcing — that, for example, rising temperatures will cause some arctic tundra to defrost, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
I have a problem with this zeal on this topic.
  1. I'm not sure the science is as rock solid as Krugman believes it to be. There is evidence of fanatics tampering with the underlying data. There is even more evidence gathered by Anthony Watts and documented on his Watts Up With That? website that slipshod data collection has allowed surface temperatures to soar because weather stations are sited without due regard to rules for proper siting (this on top of "heat island" effects as cities have grown around long standing weather data collection sites).

  2. My knowledge of computer modeling and the results produced so far tells me that it is very unlikely that the models tell us much real information about the future (here and here and here and here and here and here and here).

  3. You can go look at the temperature data for yourself on a NASA web page. Despite the problems with data tampering raised under the first point above, you can see for yourself that the "runaway" heating or the "hockey stick" rise just aren't all that obvious in the data. My favourite graph is "Annual Mean Temperature Change in the United States" towards the bottom of the page that shows that anomaly -- variance from the long term average -- is less than half a degree centigrade and that recent temperatures have moved back toward average.

  4. I believe that there are a lot of things that aren't well understood: cloud formation (and albedo), carbon source/sinks, solar variance, etc. What I find odd is that everybody is jumping on CO2 as the vilain but methane gas (and others) are stronger greenhouse gases (but less common). Shall we kill all the cattle to reduce methane? Drain all the swamps? Put concrete over the Arctic to prevent the release of methane there?

  5. I'm with Bjorn Lomborg in thinking that if you really care about planet earth and humanity, you would do a cost-benefit analysis and rationally attack the problem. Running off and wanting to shut down our petroleum & coal based energy and throwing us into a Dark Age is not my idea of rationally attacking a potential problem.

  6. I believe that technology change will move us to a post-carbon energy system. The run-up of oil to $160/barrel in 2008 is a hint of things to come. The pressure to move to more sustainable energy is growing and will shift us away from oil & coal. But if we handcuff ourselves by depressing the economy based on hysteria about "global warming" then we may in fact postpone the beneficial changeover by reducing wealth. (Think of environmental clean-up. No poor nation has ever really gotten serious about environmental contaminants. Only when you wealth rises to a level of abundance with secure food, housing, etc. does a population start demanding cleaner environments. The same will be true of greenhouse gases.)
I think Paul Krugman is a very bright person. But I think this is an area where we have to agree to part company. He and I do not see the facts the same way. I think he has been duped about "global warming". He probably would think that I don't understand "the science". This is an experiment that will take another 30 years to really decide. He doesn't think we have time to "play with our fates" and I think he has been stampeded by doomsayers and end-of-the-world fanatics (just the latest in a long line of sellers of gloom-and-doom).

The very over-the-top rhetoric that Krugman is using (irresponsibility, immorality, treason against the planet) says to me that the doomster meme has seized his brain and closed him off to rational discussion.

Neither Krugman nor I are expert in climatology. His ad hominem attack carries no weight. He has his experts (MIT with a recent report) and I have "my experts" in Lawrence Solomon's book The Deniers,world class scientists who are brave enough to go against popular sentiment as documented in this book.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Cost of War

Here is an interesting table from a post by the U.S. Navy:

Military Costs of Major U.S. Wars

(Updated to Include Appropriations Enacted Through June 30, 2008)
 Years of War SpendingPeak Year of War Spending
Total Military Cost of War in Millions/Billions of DollarsWar Cost % GDP in Peak Year of WarTotal Defense % GDP in Peak Year of War
American Revolution
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
101 million
1,825 million
War of 1812
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
90 million
1,177 million
Mexican War
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
71 million
1,801 million
Civil War: Union
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
3,183 million
45,199 million
Civil War: Confederacy
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
1,000 million
15,244 million
Spanish American War
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
283 million
6,848 million
World War I
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
20 billion
253 billion
World War II
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
296 billion
4,114 billion
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
30 billion
320 billion
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
111 billion
686 billion
Persian Gulf War /a/
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
61 billion
96 billion
Iraq /b/
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
616 billion
648 billion
Afghanistan/GWOT /b,c/
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
159 billion
171 billion
Post-9/11 Domestic Security (Operation Noble Eagle) /b/
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
28 billion
33 billion
Total Post-9/11--Iraq, Afghanistan/GWOT, ONE /d/
Current Year $
Constant FY2008$
809 billion
859 billion

I don't think a lot of people believe they got their "money's worth" by spending $648 billion (in 2008 dollars) for the Iraq War's part of the GWOT (Global War on Terror). It was a war of "choice". Saddam Hussein was already contained and had not part in the 9/11 attacks. This was purely a war to satisfy the cravings of the neocons to "reshape" the Middle East. Instead, they've managed to reshape America because they plunged the country into huge deficits just before th criminal greed of Wall Street plunged America into a financial meltdown. It is disaster piled on disaster. Nobody wanted that. But George Bush delivered!

Religion to the Rescue!

This pretty well sums up the idiotic "yes we can!" optimism of religious nuts who are going to "fix" people whether they need it or not. What I love is the complete non-action at the point of crisis. Nada, nothing, zip... just some Bible thumping and a whispered "clean up that room" and the story goes on. Oblivious. Inhumanely indifferent to real people and real needs... all in "devotion" to pushing a message, selling a brand, beating the world into a sterile vision of what it "should be"...

Oh... and I should mention that the religious mullahs of Iran are busy "shaping minds" convincing people that ballots are expressions of God and only the Supreme Leader has access to God's thoughts, so all those little pieces of paper stuffed into small boxes are a triffle... the religious zealots are on the streets of Iran reshaping minds using God's batons, tear gas, and snipers to ensure that only holy "thoughts" are free on the street, no more messy demonstrations, no more people with their petty interests... no, the streets of Tehran will be reserved for God's thoughts and he wants empty streets, broad boulevards of quiet, no pedestrians, no cars, no messy minds pestering us about pieces of paper... just the peace that God brings... so give yourself over... let the Supreme Leader shower you with love and bullets so that you too can find the true love of God...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Key to America's Debt Crisis

You have to watch this all the way to the end... yes, you have to resist jumping to the end... if you watch the whole thing then you will understand the secret to solving America's Debt Crisis:

There's an article by Johan Lehrer in The New Yorker that discusses the above experiment:
Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.
Update 2009jun28: There's more information about the "marshmallow test" in Wikipedia.

You can join in the research by clicking here to take the Paths to Happiness Survey conducted by the Central Michigan University. (Warning: I could not use the Opera browser to fill out the forms, I needed to use Microsoft's Internet Explorer.) Here is the "analysis" of my results:
In general, you are satisfied with most of the important aspects of your life. Overall, your level of stress seems to be about as high as most people. Lately you have a fairly typical number of worries, and tend to get sad or depressed as often as most other people. Also, you only get angry about as often as most people. In terms of physical health, you tend to be about as healthy as most people. Lately, you feel about as well as usual.

For people who are not as satisfied with life as they would like to be, the following feedback on delaying gratification may suggest useful paths for changing behavior. Foremost, your responses indicate that you are sometimes able to withstand discomfort for the sake of long-term gains, but in some areas you are more concerned with immediate pleasure. In terms of eating habits, you may prefer to eat what you want when you want it, rather than worry about long-term health concerns. In general, physical comfort is important to you, but sometimes you are willing to experience distress if there are positive long-term consequences. In social situations, you sometimes focus more on meeting your own needs than pleasing others, but seeing other people happy also makes you happy. Financially, you may try to save money when possible but also splurge from time to time. In school and work, you may have tried to work hard but sometimes procrastinated.
To me the above reads like your typical newspaper horoscope, i.e. it is vague enough to apply to most people. I was also able to see how my answers directly resulted in the mechanical "analysis" provided by the site. I didn't learn anything new about myself, but hopefully it helps the scientists.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Howard Zinn's The Twentieth Century

This book takes chapters from Zinn's A People's History of the United States and adds sections to cover the mid-1970s up to 2002. I loved the earlier book and I love this one. This is the book you would have loved to have read in your high school civics class instead of the dead tome they forced you to read. This is real history. It covers the worker's strikes and the politics. It has all the left wing and right wing stuff that is left out of the Bowdlerized school texts.

To give you a taste of how the book reads, here is a selection from Chapter 3, War is the Health of the State. This bit talks about 1917 Espionage Act:
Congress passed, and Wilson signed, in June of 1917, the Espionage Act. From its title one would suppose it was an act against spying. However, it had a clause that provided penalties up to twenty years in prison for "Whoever, when the Unite4d States is at war, shall wilfully cause or attempt to cause isubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall wilfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S. ..." Unless one had a theory about the nature of governments, it was not clear how the Espionage Act would be used. It even had a clause that said "nothing in this section shall be construed to limit or restrict ... any discussion, comment, or criticism of the acts or policies of the Government ..." But its double-talk was used to imprison Americans who spoke or wrote against the war.

Two months after the law passed, a Socialist named Charles Schenck was arrested in Philadelphia for printing and distributing fifteen thousand leaflets that denounced the draft law and the war. The leaflet recited the Thirteenth Amendment provision against "involuntary servitude" and said the Conscription Act violated this. Conscription, it said, was "a monstrous deed against humanity in the interests of the financiers of Wall Street." And: "Do not submit to intimidation."

Schenk was indicted, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to six months in jail for violating the Espionage Act. (It turned out to be one of the shortest sentences given in such cases.) Schenk appealed, arguing that the Act, by prosecuting speech and writing, violated the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."

The Supreme Court's decision was unanimous and was written by its most famous liberal, Oliver Wendell Holmes. He summarized the contents of the leaflet and said it was undoubtedly intended to "obstruct" the carrying out of the draft law. Was Schenk protected by the First Amendment? Holmes said:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic... The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
Holmes' analogy was clever and attractive. Few people would think free speech should be conferred on someone shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic. But did that example fit criticism of the war? Zechariah Chafee, a Harvard law school professor, wrote later (Free Speech in the United States) that a more apt analogy for Schenck was someone getting up between the acts at a theatre and declaring that there were not enough fire exits. To play further with the example: was not Schenck's act more like someone shouting, not falsely, but truly to people about to buy tickets and enter a theater, that there was a fire raging inside?

Perhaps free speech could not be tolerated by any reasonable person if it constituted a "clear and present danger" to life and liberty; after all, free speech must compete with other vital rights. But was not the war iself a "clear and present danger," indeed, more clear and more present and more dangerous to life than any argument against it? Did citizens not have a right to object to war, a right to be a danger to dangerous policies?

(The Espionage Act, thus approved by the Supreme Court, has remained on the books all these years since World War I, and although it is supposed to apply only in wartime, it has been constantly in force since 1950, because the United States has legally been in a "state of emergency" since the Korean war. In 1963, the Kennedy administration pushed a bill [unsuccessfully] to apply the Espionage Act to statements utterede by Americans abroad, it was concerned, in the words of a cable from Secretary of State Rusk to Ambassador Lodge in Vietnam, about journalists in Vietnam writing "critical articles ... on Diem and his government" that were "likely to impede the war effort.")
What is tragically comical about the bit above is that the Kennedy administration itself murdered Diem when they decided he was a "hindrance" to the war effort (see here).

This will give you a taste of how Howard Zinn thinks. This is from a 2008 graphic book A People's History of the American Empire that talks about US history at the same time it talks about Zinn's own coming to realize the real history of the country:

Also, you can listen to the audio book for the earlier A People's History of the United States here to access a set of YouTube files that read through the book.

Krugman on Hypocrisy

Here is a blog entry by Paul Krugman that nails the difference between conservatives and liberals. Since I find hypocrisy outrageous, I guess that nails me as a liberal:
I think Joe Conason gets this wrong:
If they looked honestly at themselves, religious conservatives might notice that they are morally lax, socially permissive and casually tolerant of moral deviancy — just like the liberals they despise.
Yes, conservatives sin just as much as liberals. But they aren’t “socially permissive and casually tolerant” — at least not in the same way that liberals are.

First of all, there’s a difference in what bothers them. When a liberal politician engages in sexual betrayal, what bothers his erstwhile supporters is the betrayal. When a conservative politician does it, what bothers the supporters is the sex.

And after watching a series of scandals unfold, I’ve come to the conclusion that the liberal reaction — that the hypocrisy of the moralizers undermines their cause — just doesn’t come to grips with the conservative worldview.

From their point of view the cause, the need to police what people do in bed, is, by definition, right, because it’s literally God-given. So the fact that some of those trying to police what other people do in bed are themselves doing nasty things does not reflect on the cause itself — on the contrary, it shows just how necessary more bed-snooping is.

It’s also notable that conservatives are, in practice, more forgiving of their politicians’ sins than liberals. John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer ended their political careers; Ensign and Vitter are still in the Senate, and Newt Gingrich is out there on the Sunday shows, speaking for the GOP. Why? Because where liberals see gross hypocrisy, conservatives see men doing the Lord’s work — which partially excuses their own failings. Liberals think that a man who has an affair is worse if he preaches moral values; conservatives think he’s better. You might say that as they see it, if he interferes with what enough other people do in bed, it doesn’t matter what he does himself.

So left is left and right is right, and never the twain shall meet.
I had a relative who was a preacher, so I got a close-up perspective on who some people use religion to get what they want (money & sex) from others who buy a story (i.e. religion). As an adolescent I found I could easily fall under the sway of this character because he had very good dramatic skills, knew enough scripture by heart to be impressive, and was very clever about psychologically manipulating people. This taught me a valuable lesson: religion can be a tool used by some to control or extract resources out of other people.

Toys for Boys

Here's a fun video of high temperature superconductors at work...

I remember getting excited when the first high temperature superconductor was discovered in 1986. I keep waiting for the real application of this technology. The obvious early application would be lossless high transmission cables. But I just don't see that growth. I just looked at the American Superconductor website and their sales growth is in wind power conversion boxes not high temp superconductors. Oh well.

Here's how the future keeps receeding out, hanging as a mirage, always just "around the corner"...

Interesting Critique of Krugman

There is an interesting article by Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute (a right wing think tank). I generally avoid these right wing web sites because they seldom have anything interesting to say. Cato is libertarian which is a flavour of right wing that is more tolerable to me than the dogmatic conservative, neocon, or ideologically atavistic political sites. I share a desire for minimal government, but unlike libertarians I accept a need for government and want it to be "right" sized not "downsized". As for Lindsey, this bit from the Wikipedia article on him explains why I find him more palatable than most: "Lindsey, a registered Republican, has endorsed Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. A self proclaimed "Obamacon", Lindsey expressed his frustrations with the current state of the Republican Party in a June 17, 2008 BloggingHeads.tv diavlog, A Real Live Obamacon."

This article entitled "Nostalgianomics" is interesting and worth reading. Here are the key bits:
“The America I grew up in was a relatively equal middle-class society. Over the past generation, however, the country has returned to Gilded Age levels of inequality.” So sighs Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize–winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist, in his recent book The Conscience of a Liberal.

The sentiment is nothing new. Political progressives such as Krugman have been decrying increases in income inequality for many years now. But Krugman has added a novel twist, one that has important implications for public policy and economic discourse in the age of Obama. In seeking explanations for the widening spread of incomes during the last four decades, researchers have focused overwhelmingly on broad structural changes in the economy, such as technological progress and demographic shifts. Krugman argues that these explanations are insufficient. “Since the 1970s,” he writes, “norms and institutions in the United States have changed in ways that either encouraged or permitted sharply higher inequality. Where, however, did the change in norms and institutions come from? The answer appears to be politics.”

To understand Krugman’s argument, we can’t start in the 1970s. We have to back up to the 1930s and ’40s—when, he contends, the “norms and institutions” that shaped a more egalitarian society were created. “The middle-class America of my youth,” Krugman writes, “is best thought of not as the normal state of our society, but as an interregnum between Gilded Ages. America before 1930 was a society in which a small number of very rich people controlled a large share of the nation’s wealth.” But then came the twin convulsions of the Great Depression and World War II, and the country that arose out of those trials was a very different place. “Middle-class America didn’t emerge by accident. It was created by what has been called the Great Compression of incomes that took place during World War II, and sustained for a generation by social norms that favored equality, strong labor unions and progressive taxation.”

The Great Compression is a term coined by the economists Claudia Goldin of Harvard and Robert Margo of Boston University to describe the dramatic narrowing of the nation’s wage structure during the 1940s. The real wages of manufacturing workers jumped 67 percent between 1929 and 1947, while the top 1 percent of earners saw a 17 percent drop in real income. These egalitarian trends can be attributed to the exceptional circumstances of the period: precipitous declines at the top end of the income spectrum due to economic cataclysm; wartime wage controls that tended to compress wage rates; rapid growth in the demand for low-skilled labor, combined with the labor shortages of the war years; and rapid growth in the relative supply of skilled workers due to a near doubling of high school graduation rates.

Yet the return to peacetime and prosperity did not result in a shift back toward the status quo ante. The more egalitarian income structure persisted for decades. For an explanation, Krugman leans heavily on a 2007 paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Frank Levy and Peter Temin, who argue that postwar American history has been a tale of two widely divergent systems of political economy. First came the “Treaty of Detroit,” characterized by heavy unionization of industry, steeply progressive taxation, and a high minimum wage. Under that system, median wages kept pace with the economy’s overall productivity growth, and incomes at the lower end of the scale grew faster than those at the top. Beginning around 1980, though, the Treaty of Detroit gave way to the free market “Washington Consensus.” Tax rates on high earners fell sharply, the real value of the minimum wage declined, and private-sector unionism collapsed. As a result, most workers’ incomes failed to share in overall productivity gains while the highest earners had a field day.
That is a fair statement of Krugman's position.

Lindsey offers this criticism:
The Treaty of Detroit was built on extensive cartelization of markets, limiting competition to favor producers over consumers. The restrictions on competition were buttressed by racial prejudice, sexual discrimination, and postwar conformism, which combined to limit the choices available to workers and potential workers alike. Those illiberal social norms were finally swept aside in the cultural tumults of the 1960s and ’70s. And then, in the 1970s and ’80s, restraints on competition were substantially reduced as well, to the applause of economists across the ideological spectrum. At least until now.

The economic system that emerged from the New Deal and World War II was markedly different from the one that exists today. The contrast between past and present is sharpest when we focus on one critical dimension: the degree to which public policy either encourages or thwarts competition.
There is an element of truth in this criticism, but I think Lindsey misrepresents the "benefits" from laissez-faire run rampant. For example, here are the particulars on his complaint about how the Treaty of Detroit "strangled" the finacial industry:
Comprehensive regulation of the financial sector restricted competition in capital markets too. The McFadden Act of 1927 added a federal ban on interstate branch banking to widespread state-level restrictions on intrastate branching. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 erected a wall between commercial and investment banking, effectively brokering a market-sharing agreement protecting commercial and investment banks from each other. Regulation Q, instituted in 1933, prohibited interest payments on demand deposits and set interest rate ceilings for time deposits. Provisions of the Securities Act of 1933 limited competition in underwriting by outlawing pre-offering solicitations and undisclosed discounts. These and other restrictions artificially stunted the depth and development of capital markets, muting the intensity of competition throughout the larger “real” economy. New entrants are much more dependent on a well-developed financial system than are established firms, since incumbents can self-finance through retained earnings or use existing assets as collateral. A hobbled financial sector acts as a barrier to entry and thereby reduces established firms’ vulnerability to competition from entrepreneurial upstarts.
Well, we can see just how wonderful a world the "liberalized" financial regulation has given us: economic collapse.

I can accept, and I'm petty sure Krugman would accept, most of the complaints that Lindsey lays on the Treaty of Detroit era. But Lindsey is strangely oblivious to any faults in his Washington Consensus world. The fact is: you need elements of both. You need regulation, you need social safety nets, you need competition, you need innovation. The trick is to get the recipe right. I think Krugman is a better chef than Lindsey. I would be more willing to enter a world the Krugman constructed than Lindsey. I'm not nostalgic for a fantasy world. I'm nostalgic for a world in which the great mass of people got a fair shake from the economic system.

For me, the following is a statement of the absolute unreality of Lindsey:
The highly progressive tax structure of the early postwar decades further dampened competition. The top marginal income tax rate shot up from 25 percent to 63 percent under Herbert Hoover in 1932, climbed as high as 94 percent during World War II, and stayed at 91 percent during most of the 1950s and early ’60s. Research by the economists William Gentry of Williams College and Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University has found that such rates act as a “success tax,” discouraging employees from striking out as entrepreneurs.
The joke is that the economy was far more dynamic and delivered for more economic well being in the 1950s and 1960s than it ever did in the 1980s, 1999s, and 2000s. In the Washington Consensus only the billionaires really got to party through the night.

Here is a point that I would agree with Lindsey. He argues that the cultural mores of the 1950's conformity and "organizational man" gave way to a focus on individual freedom (1960s), "me first" ego building (1970s), and individual greed (1980s):
Indeed, the relevant changes in social norms were led by movements associated with the left. The women’s movement led the assault on sex discrimination. The civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and ’60s inspired more enlightened attitudes about race and ethnicity, with results such as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a law spearheaded by a young Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). And then there was the counterculture of the 1960s, whose influence spread throughout American society in the Me Decade that followed. It upended the social ethic of group-minded solidarity and conformity with a stampede of unbridled individualism and self-assertion. With the general relaxation of inhibitions, talented and ambitious people felt less restrained from seeking top dollar in the marketplace. Yippies and yuppies were two sides of the same coin.
I think he has a point. Culture and economics drive each other.

While Lindsey's article is seductive, he never strays too far from "party line". Here is the parting shot in his article:
The rise in income inequality does raise issues of legitimate public concern. And reasonable people disagree hotly about what ought to be done to ensure that our prosperity is widely shared. But the caricature of postwar history put forward by Krugman and other purveyors of nostalgianomics won’t lead us anywhere. Reactionary fantasies never do.
I got a good chuckle out of Lindsey calling Krugman a "reactionary". That is precious. It is tempting to call this an example of a pot calling a kettle black but Krugman is not a reactionary. Krugman is pointing to the past to identify lessons learned then forgotten that we need to re-learn. Lindsey is in love with the recent past and, I would guess, love to go live in the 1980-2008 "Washington Consensus" era from here to kingdom come.

In summary, I think people should read Lindsey's article. It is interesting. It is thought provoking. But I warn people to take a lot of it with a pinch of salt. You need to check facts and think hard about life in the Treaty of Detroit era versus the Lindsey wonderland of the Washington Consensus era.

Economics and Mathematics

Here is an interesting article by Larry Elliott in the Guardian. He points out that economics has failed us.
As a profession, economics not only has nothing to say about what caused the world to come to the brink of financial collapse last autumn, but also a supreme lack of interest in it. If, for example, you scroll down the list of papers scheduled for publication by the Review of Economic Studies, one of the prestigious UK journals, there is not the slightest sense that the world of general equilibrium and real business cycle models has been turned upside down in the past two years. There is, on the other hand a paper on "Generalised non-parametric deconvolution with an application to earnings dynamics", which includes the insight that "Monte Carlo simulations show good finite-sample performance, less so if distributions are skewed or leptokurtic". Got that? And that's just the abstract. The full article is even more fun – if you get your kicks from fantasy economics divorced from reality.

The big divide in economics is not between Keynesians and Hayekians, but between those who are interested in looking at the world as it is and those who are interested in how it would be if it conformed to the dictates of their mathematical models. The insights that Smith, Marx and Keynes brought to economics came not from differential calculus but from an attempt to understand what was happening during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the expansion of the mid-19th century and the Great Slump.

To those who believe in it, general equilibrium theory is a beautiful expression of the world assuming that the price mechanism works to align demand with supply and that human beings are rational economic agents. There is no room for the idea – supported by Minsky and Schumpeter – that instability is inherent to the economy, and might be good for it.

Experiments have shown just how limited the modern approach can be. Try this one for size: you are given £100 and told to share it with a stranger. If the stranger accepts your offer you get the money, but if he rejects it neither of you get a penny. How would you divide the cash? An economist's answer is that you offer the stranger £1 and keep £99 for yourself. That way you are both better off but you maximise your benefit. But this is not what tends to happen, since it offends people's sense of fairness. Many people share the money equally.

There are economists out there battling against the mainstream. Andrew Oswald, Amartya Sen, Robert Frank – you can take your pick of those who have insights into the way we live now. Paul Ormerod has written a series of books describing how general equilibrium theory has driven economics down a blind alley.

But it should be of concern that mainstream economics is disappearing up its own fundament, with the determination to see economics as a hard science crowding out a more nuanced and ­relevant approach.
I can appreciate the argument that mathematics and models give a crispness and manipulability to economics that you don't get from an arm chair philosophical economics. But when the mathematization of economics means that it deals with minutiae and irrelevancies rather than critical economic issues of the day, that says to me that the field needs to be revamped from top to bottom.

Notice that the discussion of splitting £100 in the above excerpt is a presentation of the ultimatum game, a toy model that behavioural economics (and neuroeconomics) focuses on. This is economics that deals with humans not as homo economicus but as living breathing beings with behaviours relevant to our evolutionary past and social systems.

Here is an analysis of the problem from Steven D. Levitt of Freakonomics fame:
In my opinion, the fundamental problem is this: from a modern academic perspective, the sorts of skills that accompany having a good working knowledge of the macroeconomy are not easily measured by, and are not rewarded in, the current incentive schemes for economists. In microeconomics, at least there is an abundance of good data, so people who are good at measuring and describing things can succeed. But in macro there is not much data, so most of the rewards are for the mathematics, not the empirics.

The single easiest way to make a mark in a modern macro paper is to solve a problem that is really, really hard mathematically. Even if it is not that relevant to anything, it is seen as a sign that the author has “impressive skills,” which is enough to get a job — and even tenure sometimes — at top universities.

You might think that macro forecasting would be an important part of what academic economists would do, but in practice there is almost nothing of that sort being done. That sort of thing is left for economists at places like the Federal Reserve or private banks to do. You might think that the models that most successfully explain economic patterns would rise to the top, but in the current regime, if they are not meticulously constructed from “micro foundations,” they aren’t allowed to be considered.

Krugman on Half Measures

In his latest op-ed at the NY Times, Paul Krugman takes Obama to task for "negotiating with himself" and ending up with half measures that lead to policy failure.

The main object of his attack in Obama's watering down health care. But the following bit, on the stimulus package, is much clearer and easier to understand. So I'm quoting it here:
At the beginning of this year, you may remember, Mr. Obama made an eloquent case for a strong economic stimulus — then delivered a proposal falling well short of what independent analysts (and, I suspect, his own economists) considered necessary. The goal, presumably, was to attract bipartisan support. But in the event, Mr. Obama was able to pick up only three Senate Republicans by making a plan that was already too weak even weaker.

At the time, some of us warned about what might happen: if unemployment surpassed the administration’s optimistic projections, Republicans wouldn’t accept the need for more stimulus. Instead, they’d declare the whole economic policy a failure. And that’s exactly how it’s playing out. With the unemployment rate now almost certain to pass 10 percent, there’s an overwhelming economic case for more stimulus. But as a political matter it’s going to be harder, not easier, to get that extra stimulus now than it would have been to get the plan right in the first place.

The point is that if you’re making big policy changes, the final form of the policy has to be good enough to do the job. You might think that half a loaf is always better than none — but it isn’t if the failure of half-measures ends up discrediting your whole policy approach.
Go read the whole article to understand Krugman's point and to understand his worries about Obama's handling of health care reform.

From the Horse's Mouth

I enjoy reading Scott Adams' blog even more than I enjoy his cartoon Dilbert (of which I am a big fan). He is smart guy who has some crusty opinions. I don't always agree (and he admits he sometimes tries to be provacative). But I almost always find his blogs interesting and often thoughtful.

Here's one on banks and how they treat you:
Your Bank Hates You

I pay my bills online. The interface for the bill paying system is a tragedy, as you might expect from a bank. But it's not entirely accidental. Banks inconvenience their customers for a reason.

For example, I would like the option of automatically debiting my checking account every month to pay off my credit card balance just before it is due. The system could easily send me a courtesy e-mail warning me the transfer was about to happen, in case I changed my mind. And if I didn't have enough money in my checking account, it could warn me by e-mail and abort the transfer. This system would save me time and avoid late fees on my credit card.

You won't be seeing that feature anytime soon. Banks and credit card companies make a lot of money from late fees. They have a naked interest in keeping their service as inconvenient as possible. My bank doesn't even offer a check box option for paying the entire balance on my credit card. Instead I need to write down the balance from one screen, or try to memorize it, until the screen appears where I can enter that figure. In other words, they even make money from my typos. It's totally intentional. Bastards. That trap has worked on me several times.

If consumers mattered, your bank would offer one retail product. It would be part checking account and part credit card. And by that I mean your balance could either be above zero or below zero at any given point. When your balance is below zero, you pay interest to the bank. When it is above zero, the bank pays you interest. You'd have one plastic card that does what your ATM and your credit card does now.

If you needed more credit, you could secure your account with your home equity. That way you wouldn't have multiple types of credit with the same bank, where the bank hopes you misplace at least one of their bills so they get the late fee.

Banks might argue that they can't offer that sort of product for regulatory reasons. But I haven't seen a bank shy away from trying to influence regulators when it works for them.

Did I say bastards yet?

(P.S. I started my career at a bank. And that's where Dilbert was born.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Strip Searching a 13 Year Old

Here is an infamous case of school authorities going way beyond anything reasonable:
The ACLU reports that "the Supreme Court ruled today that school officials violated the constitutional rights of Savana Redding, a 13-year-old Arizona girl who was strip searched based on a classmate's uncorroborated accusation that she previously possessed ibuprofen. This is the biggest victory for students’ rights in the last 20 years."
The video provides more details:

What I don't understand is that people in the US love to wave their flags and declare themselves as "the land of the free" but they allow the above kind of police state tactics to go on. In this case, this poor family had to fight all the way to the US Supreme Court before they could get an admission that you don't strip search a 13 year old on the uncorroborated "testimony" of another student.

What I can't believe is that the taxpayers of Safford Arizona have been, and will be for many years, paying a lot of taxes to cover the crimes of school officials and to line the pockets of a lot of high-priced lawyers. All because the school officials in this town believe it is OK to strip search a 13 year old on "testimony" from another kid who is already in trouble and eager to find a way to get the authorities of her back and onto somebody else. I wouldn't feel so bad if this was the Scottsdale Arizona school board where you have a lot of millionaire parents who can dig a little deeper to throw money away on idiotic school bureaucrats, but Safford is a poor town without a tax base to cover this kind of waste to taxpayers' money. (Safford: median household income $29,899, Scottsdale: median household income $57,484.)

All Singing, All Dancing

Hoe-Down by Aaron Copland from his ballet score Rodeo. The following is a short film by Eleanor Stewart to present the music:

Hoedown from Rodeo from Eleanor Stewart on Vimeo.


Even the very stones weep at this cruel injustice...

The above is a video by Mike Scott of the rock band The Waterboys.

Update 2009jun28: And here is a Michael Jackson inspired message...

and this...

Strict Constructionist

When Bush ran in 2000 and 2004 he kept blathering about appointing "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court. He claimed that this meant judges who wouldn't "make new law" but instead would read the words of the constitution and get into a mental frame of the constitutional writers and strictly abide by their intentions.

I for one, find it hard to believe that in the 21st century you can claim to get into a mental frame of reference in which a country is founded on "all men are created equal" but in which slaves are counted as 3/5 of a person (Article 1, Section 2). That is twisted logic that I don't think many people today could honestly say they can wrap their mind around. Also, I doubt that the writers of the Constitution had any clear opinions about assault rifles (since the rifled musket itself was a mid-19th century invention), or same sex marriage, or late term abortions.

But here, finally, is an example of what kind of mental framework a strict construtionist is supposed to bring to bear:
Four Right-Wing Supreme Court Justices Argue That Buying Off A Judge Is No Problem When West Virginia coal overlord Don Blankenship’s company lost a $50 million verdict to one of its competitors, Blankenship set out to buy a judge. Rather than appeal his case to a fair tribunal, Blankenship spent $3 million to elect a friendly lawyer to the West Virginia Supreme Court, even running ads accusing the lawyer’s opponent of voting to free an incarcerated child rapist, and of allowing that rapist to work in a public school. Once elected by a Blankenship-funded campaign, the newly-minted justice cast the deciding vote overturning the verdict against Blankenship’s company.

Today, the Supreme Court held that this kind of justice-for-sale bribery has no place under the United States Constitution. But all four of the Court’s most conservative members voted that there is no problem when a wealthy businessman literally buys a judge. In a dissent joined by conservative justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that this decision — on a case so egregious that John Grisham turned it into a legal thriller — would encourage “groundless” charges that other “judges are biased”.

From a post by Ian Millhiser on the website Think Progress.
Oh... now I understand. When you strictly construe the meaning of the framers of the Constitution they intended that money buys "justice" and that voting is to be manipulated by money until the results produce what the elite want.

Morten L. Kringelbach's "The Pleasure Center"

I started reading this book with very high hopes. But I was not rewarded. The material is up-to-date but it is too scattershot, too unfocused. I never got a satisfactory feeling that I was "mastering" anything. It was just "stuff".

Sadly this writer does not have a style that grabs you and holds your attention. If found my attention meandering as I read. The chapters ostensibly were focused on a topic but I never felt I learned anything. I paged through this book finding interesting nibbles here and there but no tasty meal. Nothing satisfying.

My suspicion is that his research isn't driven by theory. It is a collectors cupboard of curiosities. And that is exactly how this book reads. Little bits here and there, but no compelling narrative. Here is an example pulled from the chapter on madness:
Among the many brain regions found in neuroimaging studies, depression shows up most in a region called the subgenual cingulate cortex, which is intimately connected to the orbitofrontal cortex. This brain region has also been shown to be an important part of the brain's resting network, which is active even at reast. Studies in monkeys have shown that neurons in this brain region change their activity when the monkey is about to fall asleep. In addition, as shown in earlier chapters activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex is related to the monitoring of the pleasantness and unpleasantness of stimuli. So dysregulation of the activity in these regions would seem likely to affect the subjective hedonic experience and perhaps even lead to anhedonia.

Based on these findings, the American neuroscientist Helen Mayberg used deep brain stimulation in the subgenual cingulate cortex for patients with treatement-reistant depression. Initially, the treatment resulted in sutained remission of depression in four of six patients. Given the strong placebo component in depression, it is too early to say to what extent this might help others.
You read through this expecting great insight, important fact fitted into some big picture, and it doesn't. It is just "stuff". Pages and pages of stuff.

I was disappointed with this book. I can't say that I learned much of anything useful. It isn't because there wasn't new "stuff" in the book. It was that the material was not presented in a way that made it meaningful, made it find a home in what I already knew or created a new framework for thinking about the brain and pleasure. Sadly, I closed this book and felt robbed of the pleasure that a good read should give you.

Cold Fusion, Again

Here is a very thoughtful presentation on cold fusion by Robert Duncan. What makes this video especially valuable is that Duncan looks at what went wrong and pulls lessons from the cold fusion fiasco. In the end he calls for an honest application of the scientific method to clarify the underlying physics of cold fusion:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Click here to see the cold fusion material from CBS's Sixty Minutes.

Critical Thinking

The most important skill anybody can have is thinking for themself. This manifests itself in many ways:
  • skepticism

  • critical thinking

  • independent thinking

  • insisting on working things out for oneself from first principles
Here's a video by Michael Shermer that covers the basics:

Funny thing... Shermer calls cold fusion "baloney" and he calls skepticism about global warming "baloney". For me, this just proves that you can't take anybody as an "authority". I reject Shermer's claims on both of these. There are credible scientific experts who will tell you that cold fusion is real and that global warming is overblown. The bottom line: you have to find your own way through the world. You have to do the hard thinking. You can't let somebody else tell you what to think. Not even Shermer who is trying to teach you critical thinking.

Global Warming Takes a Break in the Arctic

Here is a post by Joseph D'Aleo on the Watts Up With That blog about this year's arctic ice melt... it is late. I've added the bold to highlight the key bit:

The average arctic temperature is still not above (take your pick) 32°F 0°C 273.15°K – this the latest date in fifty years of record keeping that this has happened. Usually it is beginning to level off now and if it does so, it will stay near freezing on average in the arctic leading to still less melting than last summer which saw a 9% increase in arctic ice than in 2007.


Along the edge of the arctic, Ross Hays who worked for CNN and then NASA who last year posted from Antartica sent this note to me “They have me working in arctic Sweden until mid July. One of the Esrange staff members told me that so far Kiruna had had the coldest June in 150 years!”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Obama Continues "Extraordinary Rendition"

Here is a BBC report that the US continues the Bush policy of seizing people around the world and shipping them to Afghanistan where they are held and tortured at Bagram airbase.

Is this the "change" that Obama promised? Where is the shame in America about its inhumane and brutal treatment of people?

More details from the BBC website:
Since coming to office US President Barack Obama has banned the use of torture and ordered a review of policy on detainees, which is expected to report next month.

But unlike its detainees at the US naval facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the prisoners at Bagram have no access to lawyers and they cannot challenge their detention.

The inmates at Bagram are being kept in "a legal black-hole, without access to lawyers or courts", according to Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network, a legal support group representing four detainees.

She is pursuing legal action that, if successful, would grant detainees at Bagram the same rights as those still being held at Guantanamo Bay.

But the Obama administration is trying to block the move.

Bringing "Enhanced Interrogation" Home

You knew it had to be only a matter of time...

Since Bush deemed waterboarding to not be torture, then it was only a matter of time before police departments decided to use this non-torture technique on criminal suspects to "encourage" them to confess to crimes...
UK cop accuses colleagues of waterboarding pot suspects

By Stephen C. Webster

Published: June 9, 2009

Six members of London’s metropolitan police force are the focus of a criminal investigation after a corruption probe revealed allegations by a serving officer that detectives waterboarded suspects allegedly caught with a “large amount” of marijuana.

“The officers under investigation were among 10 based in Enfield, north London, who were suspended in February in one of the worst allegations of corruption to hit the Metropolitan police in recent years,” reported The Telegraph.

“The part of the inquiry focusing on alleged police brutality has been taken over by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC),” reported the Times Online. “It is examining the conduct of six officers connected to drug raids in November in which four men and a woman were arrested in Enfield and Tottenham.

The British publication added: “Police said they found a large amount of cannabis and the suspects were charged with importation of a class C drug. The case was abandoned four months later when the Crown Prosecution Service said ‘it would not have been in the public interest to proceed.’ It is understood that the trial, by revealing the torture claims, would have compromised the criminal investigation into the six officers.”

“The officers, who include a detective sergeant, were originally suspended over allegations they stole property during the drugs raids,” noted Sky News. “The officers are members of the Enfield crime squad based at Edmonton police station.”

“[British] papers gave varying accounts of the exact technique used by police, with the Times saying that officers poured water on a cloth and placed it over a suspect’s face to simulate the experience of drowning,” reported the Associated Press. “The Daily Mail said police officers repeatedly dunked the suspects’ heads in buckets of water. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.”

“The [metro police] Directorate of Professional Standards received information from an MPS employee which raised concerns about the conduct of a small number of officers on Enfield borough,” a police spokesman told The Telegraph. “The Met’s DPS then initiated a thorough investigation and as part of this made a referral to the IPCC in April 2009.

“The IPCC is independently investigating the actions of six officers during the arrests of five people in November 2008. ”

“Any allegations of such behavior are treated very seriously … and if found true the strongest possible action will be taken,” Scotland Yard told the AP in an e-mail.
So... you too can soon expect your local police to add this new "technique" to their repertoire of standard policing procedures. I look forward to the day when people who are reported to be "acting suspicious" will be routinely processed by these enhanced interrogation techniques to ensure that the full truth is expeditiously extracted from suspects. Why waste time with legwork and brainwork when you can "squeeze 'em like a grape until they pop".

What did you expect? Once Bush unleashed the "new techniques" there was no reason to limit their effective use to scary "terrorists". These are wonderful techniques -- time tested since the Spanish Inquisition -- that cry for application in today's world.

Interesting Iran Analysis

I find this analysis of the Iranian situation very interesting. I'm not expert enough to say this is correct, but it appears to be a sound analysis to me:
The New Dynamics of the Islamic Revolution: How Did We Get Here?

The dynamic are more and more interesting as days go on. Even though the streets have settled quite a bit, things are still boiling.

Meanwhile, I wonder about the state dynamics, and how we got to this point. To do this I separated myself from the incredibly fluid news coming out of Iran to think of a theoretical framework and historical genealogy to this sharp re-directioning that the neoconservative (not to be confused with US neoconservative) elites in Iran have decided to take this country. It helps to disconnect from the massive information to think about what has happened too.

Anyway, here are my musings:

The factional crevices within the revolutionary system have now turned into major fault lines. As years of, to use Max Weber’s terminology, “rationalization”, a sociological term describing the overtaking of traditional social behaviors for more calculated and efficient means, has taken place since Khomeini’s charismatic leadership ended in ‘89. Especially leaders of the pragmatic right, such as Rafsanjani and Mousavi, along with those of the more liberal reformists like Khatami and Karroubi (frankly, all of those who have been in power of the republican institutions from ‘89-’05), the state had been ‘de-revolutionizing’ its approaches and its functioning ideology. Sure there was still heavy zeal on the skin of the system, often ideological columns that hold up the revolutionary ideology, and of course zealots were still well entrenched in many places, like the judiciary for instance, but the republican institutions were awakening from the days of being a rubber stamp for Khomeini’s initiatives.

During the ‘90’s and early part of next decade there was essentially a dampening of religious rhetoric, and a turn away from traditional governance through revolutionary institutions and charismatic authority. The customary methods were exchanged for governance through the republican institutions and a moderation of extremist discourse that was heavy during the years the revolution consolidated.

As Rafsanjani took the reins of the state he took the lead in recreating Iran after years of chaos and war, giving him his title of the “Commander of Constructiveness” (sardar-e sazandeghi). The then-weakness of Khamenei, who Rafsanjani had basically made the supreme leader, allowed Rafsanjani to take on Khomeini’s legacy (khatt-e Imam) and set the direction and principles of the Islamic Republic.

During these imperative days for the continuation of the revolution after Khomeini’s death, Rafsanjani was able to combine support from the economic conservatives, with his privatization and opening of the economy, with the liberal left that accepted his sociocultural opening (especially with his appointment of Khatami as the Minister of Islamic Guidance) and realist foreign policy aims. Initially Rafsanjani was able to steer down the middle, often succeeding in remaining neutral in conflicts between the right and left because he had interests invested in both sides.

But as these balances broke apart the hardline conservatives began to oppose Rafsanjani’s, and next Khatami’s, route. These concepts of civil society (jahm’eh-e madari) were being juxtaposed to the hardline submission to the ultimate authority of the jurist regardless of the republican institutions (jahm’eh-e velayi). Additionally, these reformists’ alienation of the traditional segments of society, through government centralization and bringing in experienced technocrats rather than appointing only people with “religious credentials”, began to marginalize previous power brokers.

Although for the most part Rafsanjani sided with his conservative base, his later years were primarily concerned with creating a foundation of power for his pragmatic-right faction, gaining allies on both sides, and eventually raising his banner carefully behind popular reform, and creating a momentum that gained Khatami his popular support.

But while these factional political disputes, his Realpolitiking, and his agenda of building strong government centralization helped to develop a functioning state built off of the original days of the revolution, what was happening on a meta-level was a complete restructuring of the revolution’s methods of doing business.

The rational consequences of this de-revolutionization soon grew incompatible with the Islamic Republic’s radical ideological roots (Max Weber presented this framework regarding Calvinist embrace of capitalism in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). This did not happen over night of course, and is actually still happening, as a lot of heavily worded zeal remained in the language of the state, as both sides used Khomeini and the revolution to bolster their agendas.

This is where Iran’s neoconservatives reenter the stage. Even back when Rafsanjani began to steer the state in his direction, figures like Ahmad Jannati, today’s chief of the Guardian Council, opposed Rafsanjani’s de-revolutionization, along with the middle generation of post-war revolutionaries, or the Hezbollahis, he was marginalizing, dubbing it a westernization of the Islamic Republic.

When the conservative right had originally accepted Rafsanjani’s emphasis on a type of rule of law and “economic liberalization”, as years went by, his allowance of the left’s sociocultural openness, which spread to Khatami’s election on 2 khordad in ‘97, alienated their cultural identification of the ‘true’ Islamic Republic.

Simultaneously Khamenei’s power was growing. In fact, Khamenei was structuring the loyalty of many key regime figures to bolster his power in state apparatuses such as the hajj organization, the richest bonyads (charitable foundations), the Qom seminary, and the IRGC.

When he was first chosen to be the leader, or rahbar, his authority was weak religiously and politically. But by the time the latter part of Khatami’s presidency came about, Khamenei had secured his legal (Guardian Council, Assembly of Experts, and Judiciary) and extra-legal (IRGC, basijis, bonyads) power bases, and the offensive against pragmatic conservatism and liberal leftism began swiftly with the arrest and conviction of Tehran’s mayor Karbaschi and the impeachment of two of Khatami’s ministers.

Thus, the engineering of Ahmadinejad’s election in ‘05, the Majlis next, and the 22 khordad elections just this month, reveals a complete reconnection with what the neoconservative Jannatis, Mesbah-Yazdis, Ahmadinejads, Khameneis, Rayshahris, Ja’afaris, etc., believe to be the true path and legacy of Imam Khomeini.

Essentially before, the perceived over-rationalization and bureaucratic centralization alienated the traditional patronage system that the early years of the revolution provided. The lower-social strata took the backseat again for efficiency and instrumental, means-ends, social rationalization.

But unfortunately for the new bureaucrats/old pragmatic elites those segments marginalized are the militarized ones and Khamenei knew this.

Famous sociologist Max Weber, referencing the traditional Christian societies he studied, stated this process more clearly:

“Rationalization destroyed the authority of magical powers [religion], but it also brought into being the machine-like regulation of bureaucracy, which ultimately challenges all systems of belief” (Weber, 1991).

‘Belief’ which, to the neoconservative militant element, is the foundation of the rahbar’s power, and therefore the system of velayat-e faqih.

Now, with a war veteran in the second most powerful position in the Republic again, patronage re-institutionalized in ‘05 and continuing now with his reelection, and the Hezbollahi segment comfortable with Ahmadinejad’s activist continuation of the Islamic Revolution’s early ideals, Rafsanjani and his cohort realists are being pushed severely to the sidelines.

But what the regime didn’t expect was a reaction from the people. What this movement, and the regimes obvious surprise, shows is that the neoconservative elite rulers aren’t just anti-liberal, but that they are completely out of touch with a majority of the society they run.

Of course these neofundamental elites don’t care so much. But what they didn’t anticipate was a reaction to their marginalization of old elites, like Mousavi, Khatami, Karroubi, and Rafsanjani. They certainly foresaw the power struggle that would develop behind the scenes, but they did not anticipate that civil society too would be an actor in this drama. And what an actor it has proven to be.

So the question remains: Can the power of the citizenry, over time, prevent these elites’ marginalization in order to halt a complete overhaul of the Republic (producing a compromise), or will the new hijacking of the Republic remain in the hands of the militants?

We’ll just have to keep waiting to see…