Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tea Party Mockery

It is so easy to make fun of the "tea party" activists. The best I've seen is this Flickr site that shows off the "best" of their signs.

US Federal Government Caught as a Law-Breaker

The following is heartwarming in that it shows that the separation of power and an independent judiciary still survive in the US. But my cynical side says that Obama's administration will ignore the court order and continue the wire-tapping and will appeal and fight it through the courts again and again until everybody alive today dies of old age. Governments don't like to give up power. They are tenacious. Here's the key bit from a NY Times article:
Federal Judge Finds N.S.A. Wiretapping Program Illegal


Published: March 31, 2010

WASHINGTON — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the National Security Agency’s program of surveillance without warrants was illegal, rejecting the Obama administration’s effort to keep shrouded in secrecy one of the most disputed counterterrorism policies of former President George W. Bush.


The ruling delivered a blow to the Bush administration’s claims that its surveillance program, which Mr. Bush secretly authorized shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was lawful. Under the program, the National Security Agency monitored Americans’ international e-mail messages and phone calls without court approval, even though the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, required warrants.


But since Mr. Obama took office, the N.S.A. has sometimes violated the limits imposed on spying on Americans by the new FISA law. The administration has acknowledged the lapses but said they had been corrected.
Abuse of power by governments is a slippery slope. Once rights are usurped they are never given back without a fight. The future of liberty in the US looks bleak to me.

Religious Delusions

Here is a particularly funny and pathetic example of religious delusions. Here's the key bit from a Guardian article about Raj Patel:
The trouble started when Raj Patel appeared on American TV to plug his latest book, an analysis of the financial crisis called The Value of Nothing.

The London-born author, 37, thought his slot on comedy talkshow The Colbert Report went well enough: the host made a few jokes, Patel talked a little about his work and then, job done, he went back to his home in San Francisco.

Shortly afterwards, however, things took a strange turn. Over the course of a couple of days, cryptic messages started filling his inbox.

"I started getting emails saying 'have you heard of Benjamin Creme?' and 'are you the world teacher?'" he said. "Then all of a sudden it wasn't just random internet folk, but also friends saying, 'Have you seen this?'"

What he had written off as gobbledygook suddenly turned into something altogether more bizarre: he was being lauded by members of an obscure religious group who had decided that Patel – a food activist who grew up in a corner shop in Golders Green in north-west London – was, in fact, the messiah.

Their reasoning? Patel's background and work coincidentally matched a series of prophecies made by an 87-year-old Scottish mystic called Benjamin Creme, the leader of a little-known religious group known as Share International. Because he matched the profile, hundreds of people around the world believed that Patel was the living embodiment of a figure they called Maitreya, the Christ or "the world teacher".
The cruel irony here is that this guy is an activist concerned with world hunger and his new religious "followers" are spending big bucks to fly and see him. What a waste of money. If these religious souls were really concerned about the world, they wouldn't spend it on visits to their reluctant spiritual leader but would be spending it on the cause that he is working for.

More Stories of Police Stupidity

This is an incomprehensible story of police brutality. What makes it special is that the judicial system backs the police. Here's a bit from the story on Wired:
A federal appeals court says three Seattle police officers did not employ excessive force when they repeatedly tasered a visibly pregnant woman for refusing to sign a speeding ticket.

The lawyer representing Malaika Brooks said Monday that the court’s 2-1 decision sanctioned “pain compliance” tactics through a modern-day version of the cattle prod.

“To inflict pain on a person if that person is not doing what the police want that person to do is simply outrageous,” said Eric Zubel, the woman’s attorney. “I cannot say that loud enough.”

Zubel said he would ask the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear Friday’s 2-1 decision that drew a sharp dissent from Judge Marsha Berzon:

“Refusing to sign a speeding ticket was at the time a nonarrestable misdemeanor; now, in Washington, it is not even that. Brooks had no weapons and had not harmed or threatened to harm a soul,” (.pdf) Berzon wrote. “Although she had told the officers she was seven months pregnant, they proceeded to use a Taser on her, not once but three times, causing her to scream with pain and leaving burn marks and permanent scars.”
Why do I find this so egregious? Because of the senseless, stupid, cruel murder of Robert Dziekanski by RCMP using tasers at the Vancouver airport. Here's a video that shows the cruel indifference of the police as they taser a guy who is no danger to anyone simply because he didn't jump when they said "jump" (he spoke only Polish so "jump" was meaningless to him, but why would the police bother with that petty fact?)...

An Honest Look at Chess

Here's a bit from a very interesting interview with Magnus Carlsen who is ranked #1 in the world in chess:
SPIEGEL: Mr Carlsen, what is your IQ?

Carlsen: I have no idea. I wouldn’t want to know it anyway. It might turn out to be a nasty surprise.

SPIEGEL: Why? You are 19 years old and ranked the number one chess player in the world. You must be incredibly clever.

Carlsen: And that’s precisely what would be terrible. Of course it is important for a chess player to be able to concentrate well, but being too intelligent can also be a burden. It can get in your way. I am convinced that the reason the Englishman John Nunn never became world champion is that he is too clever for that.

SPIEGEL: How that?

Carlsen: At the age of 15, Nunn started studying mathematics in Oxford; he was the youngest student in the last 500 years, and at 23 he did a PhD in algebraic topology. He has so incredibly much in his head. Simply too much. His enormous powers of understanding and his constant thirst for knowledge distracted him from chess.

SPIEGEL: Things are different in your case?

Carlsen: Right. I am a totally normal guy. My father is considerably more intelligent than I am.
He comes off as a guy with his feet on the ground and an all around normal guy. That is pleasant news since the media loves to present the idea that people with talent and genius are twisted, selfish, crazed, or in some other way tortured souls.

Rushkoff Lecture

I'm reading Douglas Rushkoff's book Life, Inc.. It is a fascinating book with lots of interesting ideas, but my prejudice is that he is a snake oil salesman. He preaches to much. He has too many solutions and not enough angst for my taste. Here's a taste of the kind of "message" he brings:

I generally distrust people "with answers". And I don't buy his "if you are not one of the programmers you will be programmed" warning. Any technology has specialists. The early humans sat around the fire. Not all made the new-fangled bows & arrows. Nope. That was a specialist job. While some hunted, so specialized in the skill of making tools. The dream that we are all generalists and will feed ourselves autonomously is silly. We are a social species with many -- and increasing -- interconnections. That is our strength.

Houston, We Have a Problem

From an article by Alfred W. McCoy on the blog:
At a drug conference in Kabul this month, the head of Russia's Federal Narcotics Service estimated the value of Afghanistan's current opium crop at $65 billion. Only $500 million of that vast sum goes to Afghanistan's farmers, $300 million to the Taliban guerrillas, and the $64 billion balance "to the drug mafia," leaving ample funds to corrupt the Karzai government in a nation whose total GDP is only $10 billion.

Indeed, opium's influence is so pervasive that many Afghan officials, from village leaders to Kabul's police chief, the defense minister, and the president's brother, have been tainted by the traffic. So cancerous and crippling is this corruption that, according to recent U.N. estimates, Afghans are forced to spend a stunning $2.5 billion in bribes. Not surprisingly, the government's repeated attempts at opium eradication have been thoroughly compromised by what the U.N. has called "corrupt deals between field owners, village elders, and eradication teams."
Go read the whole thing to discover the interesting "coincidence" that the growth of heroin production overlapped with CIA "involvement" in this area of the world:
Although this area had zero heroin production in the mid-1970s, the CIA's covert war served as the catalyst that transformed the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands into the world's largest heroin producing region. As mujahedeen guerrillas captured prime agricultural areas inside Afghanistan in the early 1980s, they began collecting a revolutionary poppy tax from their peasant supporters.

Once the Afghan guerrillas brought the opium across the border, they sold it to hundreds of Pakistani heroin labs operating under the ISI's protection. Between 1981 and 1990, Afghanistan's opium production grew ten-fold -- from 250 tons to 2,000 tons. After just two years of covert CIA support for the Afghan guerrillas, the U.S. Attorney General announced in 1981 that Pakistan was already the source of 60% of the American heroin supply. Across Europe and Russia, Afghan-Pakistani heroin soon captured an even larger share of local markets, while inside Pakistan itself the number of addicts soared from zero in 1979 to 1.2 million just five years later.
Funny, it was US "involvement" in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war which create a sudden explosion of drugs coming from that region. And the secret military involvement in South America in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with a sudden rapid growth of drugs from that area. What an amazing series of "coincidences"!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Analysis of the Republican Party

Brad DeLong has a posting on his blog that very nicely analyzes the current state of the Republican party:
To understand the Republican Party today, you have to recognize that right now it is bespelled by three curses:
  • The curse of Ronald Reagan: it believes that over the long haul somehow America can tax like Calvin Coolidge and spend like Lyndon Johnson and everything will come out fine because it is morning in America.

  • The curse of Richard Nixon: it believes that the purpose of politics is to win high-paid jobs with no heavy lifting involved and to humiliate your political adversaries, rather than to make a better country and a better world, and so anything goes.

  • The curse of Barry Goldwater: it believes that the big threat to liberty comes from government attempts to enhance equality of opportunity, and so the Republican Party must abandon its historic commitment to equality of opportunity.
The Republican Party may never again have a legitimate place in American civil life. But if it does, it will only be because brave men and women working within it lift these three curses.
I don't expect the Republicans to recover. I think that when Nixon took them on their "Southern strategy" they left the mainstream of politics and have slowly been edging over the cliff. It is pretty clear to me that with the Great Recession they have finally tumbled over the point of no return with their fanatical policy of obstructionism.

Religion and Power

The hypocrisy of religion is universal. You put somebody on a pedestal, especially a pedestal where he preaches "morality" at you, and inevitably he shows his feet are made of clay. The seduction of power is too great, and they end up in a sex scandal. It is interesting to note in this BBC report that this trait is universal and across all religions:
India guru quits after sex claims

A Hindu holy man in India has quit as head of a religious organisation after police launched a probe into allegations of obscenity against him.

Nithyananda Swami's announcement came weeks after a video emerged apparently showing him engaging in sexual acts with two women.

The guru has said he had done nothing illegal and the video scandal was "a false campaign".

Nithyananda Swami has a huge following in southern India.

The video shocked his devotees and angered locals - his ashram near the southern city of Bangalore was vandalised after TV channels broadcast the video.
I can understand the fall from grace of a hypocrite. What I don't understand is that people keep falling for the scam. It is just too obvious. Somebody is telling you how to live your life, you put them on a pedestal, they are tempted, they give in to temptation, and you look like a fool for having put them there. Why fall for this scam? Why put leaders (religion, political, business, etc.) on a pedestal? Why let them tell you how to live your life? Why fall for the idea that they are in some state of "holiness" or "power" or "knowledge" that you feels requires yourself to give yourself over to. Instead, take responsibility for your own life. Take your moral responsibilities seriously. Sure, take advice and work with others, but don't let look to somebody to have all the answers for you.

Monday, March 29, 2010

DeLong Dissects Glen Beck

Here is a lovely post by Brad DeLong on his web site...
In Case You Were Wondering: Yes, Glenn Beck *Is* the Anti-Christ

by Brad DeLong

Jesus Christ:
Esaias hath said: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord." This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears...
Glenn Beck:
I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice –they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes — if I am going to Jeremiah Wright’s church. Yes! Leave your church!
I've always thought the worst of the worst scoundrels hide amongst the religious. And I find it amazing that while the vast majority of the religious are truly wonderful, truly caring people, they never rise up and throw these fakes and evil men out of their midst!

You Are What You Eat (as Commanded by your Bacterial Masters)

Carl Zimmer has a new posting on his blog that points at new research that may indicate that the plague of obesity might not have anything to do with "weak will" or "self control" but instead point to our puppet master, the microbes that infest us and may be running our feeding for their benefit and to the detriment of our own health:
Can the bacteria in our bodies control our behavior in the same way a puppetmaster pulls the strings of a marionette? I tremble to report that this wonderfully creepy possibility may be true.

The human body is, to some extent, just a luxury cruise liner for microbes. They board the SS Homo sapiens when we’re born and settle into their assigned quarters–the skin, the tongue, the nostrils, the throat, the stomach, the genitals, the gut–and then we carry them wherever we go. Some of microbes deboard when we shed our skin or use the restroom; others board at new ports when we shake someone’s hand or down a spoonful of yogurt. Just as on a luxury cruise liner, our passengers eat well. They feed on the food we eat, or on the compounds we produce. While the biggest luxury lines may be able to carry a few thousand people, we can handle many more passengers. Although the total mass of our microbes is just a few pounds, the tiny size of their cells means that we each carry about 100 trillion microbes–outnumbering our own cells by more than ten to one.

It’s important to bear in mind that you can carry this galaxy of microbes around and enjoy perfect health. These microbes, for reasons that are not entirely clear, behave like well-mannered passengers. They do not barge into the kitchen, take a cleaver to the cooks, and then eat all the food. Aboard the SS Homo sapiens, the crew includes a huge staff of security guards armed with lethal chemical sprays and other deadly weapons, ready to kill any dangerous stowaway (also known as the immune system). For some reason, the immune system does not unleash its deadly fury on the microbes–even when the microbes are fairly close relatives to truly dangerous pathogens.

In fact, our microbial passengers may actually help out the cruise liner’s crew. They can close up the ecological space in our bodies, so that invading pathogens can’t get a solid foothold. Some species in our guts can break down our food in ways that we can’t, and synthesize certain vitamins and other compounds beyond our biochemistry. The genes that the microbes carry–millions of them–expand our biochemical powers enormously.


I was reminded of this sinister manipulation by a paper that was published in Science today by Rob Knight and his colleagues. They built on previous research that revealed that mice genetically engineered to be obese have different kinds of microbial diversity in their guts than normal mice. Scientists have found that if they transfer microbes from an obese mouse to a regular mouse that has had all its own germs stripped out, the recipient mouse will develop extra fat. In the case of these obese mice, it appears that the microbes become less efficient at helping the animals digest food, triggering a series of changes that leads the mice to be fat.
Read the whole posting. It has a lot more interesting details.

Life and the "real world" is far more complex than we have ever imagined. I get a kick out of the simplistic philosophies and religions that claim a few simple principles dictate everything. The nice thing about science is that it is willing to follow the data no matter how unpleasant or surprising they may be. The fact that we may be controlled by our microbes is a scary thought. But science is willing to investigate.

The good news, we may be able to use our intelligence to break the control of our microbial masters. Rise up ye toiling humans and throw off the chains of your microbial overlords!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Krugman on Financial Reform

In his latest op-ed in the NY Times, Paul Krugman is not optimistic about the US Congress passing any financial reform legislation:
Health reform is the law of the land. Next up: financial reform. But will it happen? The White House is optimistic, because it believes that Republicans won’t want to be cast as allies of Wall Street. I’m not so sure. The key question is how many senators believe that they can get away with claiming that war is peace, slavery is freedom, and regulating big banks is doing those big banks a favor.

Some background: we used to have a workable system for avoiding financial crises, resting on a combination of government guarantees and regulation. On one side, bank deposits were insured, preventing a recurrence of the immense bank runs that were a central cause of the Great Depression. On the other side, banks were tightly regulated, so that they didn’t take advantage of government guarantees by running excessive risks.

From 1980 or so onward, however, that system gradually broke down, partly because of bank deregulation, but mainly because of the rise of “shadow banking”: institutions and practices — like financing long-term investments with overnight borrowing — that recreated the risks of old-fashioned banking but weren’t covered either by guarantees or by regulation. The result, by 2007, was a financial system as vulnerable to severe crisis as the system of 1930. And the crisis came.
Read the whole article to see just how the Republicans plan to block reform and let the Wall Street banks run wild, collapse again, and run up a multi-trillion dollar bill for American taxpayers.

I want to make one small point: Focus on the third paragraph above. It dates the start of the problems to 1980. What is special about 1980? Oh, that was the start of the "Reagan Revolution" whose cry was "deregulate, deregulate, deregulate" and who claimed "the only good government is no government". The icon of the Republicans, Reagan, started this descent into financial calamity with his ideology about "government is bad" and that you can trust private enterprise because they would never, ever think of breaking the law, or cheating, or cutting corners. Yeah, just go read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities or even read the patron saint of free trade, Adam Smith:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.
Regulation is necessary to prevent the rapaciousness of those firms that would be tempted to adulterate the product, or bribe officials, or -- as in the case of the Wall Street Banks -- co-opt their regulators to allow them to indulge in excessively risky practices to profit short term at the expense of the taxpayer when the risks come home to roost in the long term.

Scientific Consensus and Skepticism

Here is an interesting bit from a speech by Michael Crichton at CalTech in January 2003:
In past centuries, the greatest killer of women was fever following childbirth . One woman in six died of this fever. In 1795, Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen suggested that the fevers were infectious processes, and he was able to cure them. The consensus said no. In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compelling evidence. The consensus said no. In 1849, Semmelweiss demonstrated that sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management. The consensus said he was a Jew, ignored him, and dismissed him from his post. There was in fact no agreement on puerperal fever until the start of the twentieth century. Thus the consensus took one hundred and twenty five years to arrive at the right conclusion despite the efforts of the prominent "skeptics" around the world, skeptics who were demeaned and ignored. And despite the constant ongoing deaths of women.


Finally, I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.
The above is a warm-up exercise for the real point that Crichton wants to make about scientific "consensus" and skepticism:
As the twentieth century drew to a close, the connection between hard scientific fact and public policy became increasingly elastic. In part this was possible because of the complacency of the scientific profession; in part because of the lack of good science education among the public; in part, because of the rise of specialized advocacy groups which have been enormously effective in getting publicity and shaping policy; and in great part because of the decline of the media as an independent assessor of fact. The deterioration of the American media is dire loss for our country. When distinguished institutions like the New York Times can no longer differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, but rather mix both freely on their front page, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard?

And so, in this elastic anything-goes world where science-or non-science-is the hand maiden of questionable public policy, we arrive at last at global warming. It is not my purpose here to rehash the details of this most magnificent of the demons haunting the world. I would just remind you of the now-familiar pattern by which these things are established. Evidentiary uncertainties are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for grants to support the policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron. Next, the isolation of those scientists who won't get with the program, and the characterization of those scientists as outsiders and "skeptics" in quotation marks-suspect individuals with suspect motives, industry flunkies, reactionaries, or simply anti-environmental nutcases. In short order, debate ends, even though prominent scientists are uncomfortable about how things are being done.

When did "skeptic" become a dirty word in science? When did a skeptic require quotation marks around it?

To an outsider, the most significant innovation in the global warming controversy is the overt reliance that is being placed on models. Back in the days of nuclear winter, computer models were invoked to add weight to a conclusion: "These results are derived with the help of a computer model." But now large-scale computer models are seen as generating data in themselves. No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world-increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality. And indeed they are, when we are projecting forward. There can be no observational data about the year 2100. There are only model runs.

This fascination with computer models is something I understand very well. Richard Feynmann called it a disease. I fear he is right. Because only if you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen can you arrive at the complex point where the global warming debate now stands.

Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we're asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?
Here is an excellent prescription by Crichton on how to move forward with a real research agenda in global warming (and other "hot button" topics):
Sooner or later, we must form an independent research institute in this country. It must be funded by industry, by government, and by private philanthropy, both individuals and trusts. The money must be pooled, so that investigators do not know who is paying them. The institute must fund more than one team to do research in a particular area, and the verification of results will be a foregone requirement: teams will know their results will be checked by other groups. In many cases, those who decide how to gather the data will not gather it, and those who gather the data will not analyze it. If we were to address the land temperature records with such rigor, we would be well on our way to an understanding of exactly how much faith we can place in global warming, and therefore what seriousness we must address this.

James Lovelock on Global Warming

Here is a key bit from a talk by James Lovelock at the Royal Society:
How, asks Lovelock, can we predict the climate 40 years ahead when there is so much that we don’t know? Surely we should base any assumptions on things we can measure, such as a rise in sea levels. After all, surface temperatures go up and down, but the rise in sea levels reflects both melting ice and thermal expansion. The IPCC, he feels, underestimates the extent to which sea levels are rising.

Do mankind’s emissions matter? Yes, they undoubtedly do.

No one should be complacent about the fact that within the next 20 years we’ll have added nearly a trillion tons of carbon to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. When a geological accident produced a similar carbon rise 55m years ago, it turned up the heat more than 5C. And now? Well, the effect of man-made carbon is unpredictable. Temperatures might go down at first, rather than up, he warns.

How should we be spending our money to prevent possible disaster? In Britain, says Lovelock, we need sea walls and more nuclear power. Heretical stuff, when you consider the vast amount that Europe plans to spend on wind turbines.

“What would you bet will happen this century?” a mathematician asked him. Lovelock predicted a temperature rise in the middle range of current projections — about 1C-2C — which we could live with. Ah, but hadn’t he also said there was a chance that temperature rises could threaten human civilisation within the lifetime of our grandchildren?

He had. In the end, his message was that we should have more respect for uncertainties and learn to live with possibilities rather than striving for the 95% probabilities that climate scientists have been trying to provide. We don’t know what’s going to happen and we don’t know if we can avert disaster — although we should try. His sage advice: enjoy life while you can.
I like what Lovelock says: there is uncertainty learn to live with it. The problem of trying to act on uncertain projections into the future is that you can be massively wrong. I have nothing against conservation and new technology to reduce green house gases, but I draw the line on the hare-brain ideas of de-industrializing or freezing in place an advantage where the rich get to cavort with their wasteful energy behaviours while the world's poor are supposed to do without. I especially detest Global Warming agitators who think nothing of hopping onto planes to fly halfway around the world to posture over the "need" to reduce a carbon footprint. Well, yeah! You can reduce it by staying home and quit your jet-setting around! I especially dislike being hectored and lectured at by hypocrites who preach one thing and do another, who want to tell the poor how to live their lives while refusing to reign in their own waste and extravagance.

If you don't believe me that "green" is hypocritical, then read this Guardian article.

Feynman on Flying Saucers

Here's my favourite physicist, Richard Feynman, giving his best scientific estimate of whether flying saucers are real:

Yep... it is far more likely that there are problems with the known rational failings of terrestrial intelligence than there is an unknown extraterrestrial intelligence whizzing around "visiting" us.

"Facts" about Obama

I love it when pollsters go out and check the pulse of America. From a Harris Poll of 2,320 adults surveyed online between March 1 and 8, 2010 by Harris Interactive. The actual percentages of adults who believe these things are true are as follows:
  • He is a domestic enemy that the U.S. Constitutions speaks of (25%)

  • He is a racist (23%)

  • He is anti-American (23%)

  • He wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers (23%)

  • He is doing many of the things that Hitler did (20%)

  • He may be the Anti-Christ (14%)

  • He wants the terrorists to win (13%)

There is a much longer list of insanity in the American body politic. Go look at the on-line report at Harris.

This is truly scary. There is a large number of crazed people who believe insane things. These are very dangerous people because they will support demogogues who will use this anger and ignorance to get their hands on power. Once that happens, you can kiss your democracy goodbye.

If you want to read some speculation about this phenomenon, read Welcome to Glennbeckistan: Where the Tea Party Rules and Tea-hadis Roam

Catholic Funny Business

Here's a bit from my favourite opinion piece writer, Maureen Dowd writing an op-ed for the NY Times. Here she is taking the Catholic Church to task:
Now we learn the sickening news that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler” when he was the church’s enforcer on matters of faith and sin, ignored repeated warnings and looked away in the case of the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, a Wisconsin priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys.


It was only when the sanctity of the confessional was breached that an archbishop in Wisconsin (who later had to resign when it turned out he used church money to pay off a male lover) wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger at the Vatican to request that Father Murphy be defrocked.

The cardinal did not answer. The archbishop wrote to a different Vatican official, but Father Murphy appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency and got it, partly because of the church’s statute of limitations. Since when does sin have a statute of limitations?


Pope Benedict has continued the church’s ban on female priests and is adamant against priests’ having wives. He has started two investigations of American nuns to check on their “quality of life” — code for seeing if they’ve grown too independent. As a cardinal he wrote a Vatican document urging women to be submissive partners and not take on adversarial roles toward men.

But the completely paternalistic and autocratic culture of Il Papa led to an insular, exclusionary system that failed to police itself, and that became a corrosive shelter for secrets and shame.

If the church could throw open its stained glass windows and let in some air, invite women to be priests, nuns to be more emancipated and priests to marry, if it could banish criminal priests and end the sordid culture of men protecting men who attack children, it might survive. It could be an encouraging sign of humility and repentance, a surrender of arrogance, both moving and meaningful.

Cardinal Ratzinger devoted his Vatican career to rooting out any hint of what he considered deviance. The problem is, he was obsessed with enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy and somehow missed the graver danger to the most vulnerable members of the flock.

The sin-crazed “Rottweiler” was so consumed with sexual mores — issuing constant instructions on chastity, contraception, abortion — that he didn’t make time for curbing sexual abuse by priests who were supposed to pray with, not prey on, their young charges.

American bishops have gotten politically militant in recent years, opposing the health care bill because its language on abortion wasn’t vehement enough, and punishing Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights and stem cell research. They should spend as much time guarding the kids already under their care as they do championing the rights of those who aren’t yet born.
I've always found an odd correlation: the more "moral" a person claims to be the more likely that they are a hypocrite hiding immorality. The most moral people I know are the ones who are most quiet and forgiving. By that measuring stick "God's Rottwiler" is a very big hypocrite.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Timothy Ferris Talk

Here is a nice lecture by Timothy Ferris on his latest book The Science of Liberty. Here is a ten minute slice out of the talk:

You can go here to see the full 72 minute video (skip the first 6 minutes of "intro" to get to Ferris and his talk).

The diagram he shows here is a two dimensional representation of politics. One dimension is a view of social change (progressive vs. conservative, i.e. a view that our major obligation is to improve things through change versus the view that our major obligation is to preserve the values of the past) and the other dimension is a view of social relations (liberal vs totalitarian, i.e. a flattened network of equals versus a rigid hierarchy).

If you read any book this year, make this one your top pick. It is that good.

Here is my previous comment on this book.

Financial Crisis and Financial Reform

Here's the opening bit from an excellent article by David Leonhardt in the NY Times discussing the need for financial regulation and the state of reform:
A public good is something that the free market tends not to provide on its own, to the detriment of society. Pollution laws and police departments are classic examples. In the case of finance — and of the crisis of the past two years — this missing good has been strong regulation. A weak system of regulation allowed Wall Street firms to take on enormous debt. Those debts let the firms make more and riskier investments than they otherwise could have, lifting their profits. But when the value of the investments began falling, the firms had little margin for error. They were like home buyers who made a tiny down payment and soon found themselves underwater.

It was tempting to let the banks fail. They certainly deserved it. But big bank failures often cause terrible damage. Credit dries up, and the economy can enter a vicious cycle of falling asset prices and job losses. That is what began to happen in 2008. To get credit flowing again, the federal government came to the rescue with billions of taxpayer dollars. It was a maddening story line: the government helped the banks get rich by looking the other way during good times and saved them from collapse during bad times. Just as an oil company can profit from pollution, Wall Street profited from weak regulation, at the expense of society.

If there has been a theme to the Obama administration’s disparate domestic policies, it has been to invest more in public goods.
You can watch a Bill Moyers interview with Gretchen Morgenson the NY Times business columnist. She is very pessimistic about financial reform because (a) it has been two years and nothing has been done and (b) Obama has put the fox in the hen house to "watch" the chickens.

Here's a bit from an article by Bill Moyers on Huffington Post:
That wickedly satirical Ambrose Bierce described politics as "the conduct of public affairs for private advantage."

Bierce vanished to Mexico nearly a hundred years ago -- to the relief of the American political class of his day, one assumes -- but in an eerie way he was forecasting America's political culture today. It seems like most efforts to reform a system that's gone awry -- to clean house and make a fresh start -- end up benefiting the very people who wrecked it in the first place.

Which is why Bierce, in his classic little book, The Devil's Dictionary, defined reform as "a thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation."

Financial Crisis and Financial Reform

Friday, March 26, 2010

How to Run a Right Wing "Think Tank"

First, you hire guys who think like you.

Then you insist that they they produce "research" that supports your ideology.

Next, you fire anybody whose "research" produces something you don't agree with.

Funny... I thought research was to discover new ideas or enhance old ones. That implies something new, some surprises. But the well endowed rich in the US want "research" institutes that only produce regurgitation of the official party line.

This brings us to a little story reported by Paul Krugman in his NY Times blog:
David Frum has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute; one has to assume that this is a response to his outspokenness about the Republican failure on health reform.

In discussing the Frum firing, Bruce Bartlett asserts that AEI has muzzled its health-care experts, because the truth is that they agree with a lot of what Obama is proposing. I find this quite believable; back in 2003 Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, which is supposedly harder-right than AEI, proposed a health care reform consisting of … drumroll … an individual mandate coupled with subsidies to make insurance affordable. In short, Obamacare.
I've never been very fond of David Frum, but if he is going to grow a backbone and have independent thoughts, then I'll have to rethink my opinions. I don't mind if he still writes right wing viewpoints. I just demand that what he writes be honest and well reasoned. This firing says I need to take a second look at what he has been writing lately.

Krugman Worries about Financial Reform

When Krugman worries, I break out in a cold sweat. He knows his stuff. If he is worried, we should be scared silly.

Here's a bit from a posting by Paul Krugman on his NY Times blog:
...long ago, I read about the difference between the military methods of the Romans and those of the Hellenistic regimes set up after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Hellenistic armies, it was explained, were collections of specialists: heavy infantry with 16-foot pikes, archers, cavalry, and so on. Roman armies, by contrast, consisted of generalists: guys with shields, short swords, and javelins.

Used optimally, the Hellenistic armies had the advantage: longer reach if their heavy infantry confronted guys with shorter spears, longer range if their archers confronted guys with javelins, and so on. But making sure that everything went right required a first-rate commander; you could mess up badly if your phalanx found itself on uneven ground, etc..

Roman armies, by contrast, were relatively robust to mediocre leadership, since the soldiers could function relatively well in many circumstances. And in the end, since mediocre leaders are the norm, the Roman way prevailed.

So what does this have to do with financial reform? The pre-1980 system was, I’d argue, pretty robust. Bank regulators didn’t have to be all that smart, because the rules were simple — and besides, the large franchise value of banks, the fact that they faced limited competition and were almost guaranteed to be profitable, made bank executives unwilling to take big risks of killing the goose that laid golden eggs.

By contrast, the regulatory proposals now on the table are fairly Greek — they rely on regulators identifying systemic risk and the actions to combat it.
I've been waiting for financial reform, but now it looks like what is proposed is more of a pretense than a reality. That means sooner, much sooner, the US -- and by consequence the whole world -- will be put through the wringer again. The wealthy will be shorn like sheep by a falling stock market and everybody else will be looking at 10% or higher unemployment for a couple of years. You would think the lawmakers would "gird their loins" an do the right thing. But I guess the money passing under the table must be immense. You know, everything is for sale in Washington.

American Extremism

Paul Krugman has another thoughtful op-ed in the NY Times. Here's the concluding two paragraphs:
For today’s G.O.P. is, fully and finally, the party of Ronald Reagan — not Reagan the pragmatic politician, who could and did strike deals with Democrats, but Reagan the antigovernment fanatic, who warned that Medicare would destroy American freedom. It’s a party that sees modest efforts to improve Americans’ economic and health security not merely as unwise, but as monstrous. It’s a party in which paranoid fantasies about the other side — Obama is a socialist, Democrats have totalitarian ambitions — are mainstream. And, as a result, it’s a party that fundamentally doesn’t accept anyone else’s right to govern.

In the short run, Republican extremism may be good for Democrats, to the extent that it prompts a voter backlash. But in the long run, it’s a very bad thing for America. We need to have two reasonable, rational parties in this country. And right now we don’t.
Krugman seems to hope that the Republicans will find a way to walk back from the end of the limb they've climbed out on. I don't think so. I think they are well on their way to extinction as a major political party. Instead, I expect a fission within the Democratic party will create the future two-party system for the US.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Green Gone Crazy

I enjoy reading Lubos Motl's blog The Reference Frame. He is a bit of a right wing nut, but his science is sound and I think he has his heart in the right place. We certainly agree on some things, but differ on others. But having different perspectives is what makes life interesting! Without differences, there is no point in holding a conversation.

Here's a bit from a posting by Lubos Motl on how state subsidies for "green technology" have gone crazy in the Czech republic. Watch closely when he talks dollar amounts:
The production of the Czech solar energy - and subsidies - grew nearly by an order of magnitude in just one year. That's crazy especially because Czechia is no Sun paradise. The lawmakers have realized the huge threat of global subsidizing, including their unsustainable growth, and they agreed to instantly fight against it.

However, Lidovky (EN), the country's #2 daily, published an analysis from economist Miroslav Zajíček (the last name means Bunny) estimating how much green subsidies we have already committed to - how much wasted money is already waiting in the pipeline - because many contracts can no longer be abolished.

The figure is pretty shocking: it's CZK 750 billion or USD 40 billion or so. The U.S. readers will find these numbers abstract so let me translate it to the U.S. context. The U.S. GDP is nominally 60 times greater than the Czech economy (30 times higher population, 2 times bigger GDP per capita). So if the U.S. have the same subsidies-to-GDP ration, there is already USD 2.4 trillion of green subsidies waiting in the pipeline! That's more than twice Obamacare.

The author of the article calculates the estimated prices and losses in the years to come, the "billions in the trap"... He thinks that details of his calculation make the CZK 750 billion figure conservative. He also says that as the electricity price jumps, some people will be switching to burning of the natural gas and old rubber boots. ;-)

Needless to say, the positive environmental advantages of these scary policies are pretty much non-existent. The electricity may be called "renewable" but the billions of dollars that are wasted for this meaningless flapdoodle are not renewable.
Motl is on the right and is against governments getting involved in the economy. In this case I agree with him. Fanatics have seized the levers of power to push an agenda. They have spent the equivalent of $2.4 trillion on a "green" scheme which will be mostly wasted tax dollars.

Here is a case in which I agree with the right: government shouldn't try to "pick winners" and subsidize industries. Government should restrict itself to creating an even playing field and ensuring that the laws are fair and fully enforced. Anything else and you have a government bureaucrat deciding what is good for you and there is no way he can know what you want to do with your dollars.

As I read the book The Science of Liberty by Timothy Ferris (see here) I realize that I'm neither left nor right, progressive or conservative. I'm more of a classical liberal (with progressive tendencies which Ferris labels a "neo-liberal"). Funny I've lived six decades, with five of which I've thought I'm a leftist, but I've discovered that I'm really a neo-liberal. It's funny that it has taken so long to recognize myself in a mirror. But it reflects how little real political discussion goes on in this society. Instead of discussion viewpoints and making careful distinctions, most politics is mud slinging and left/right name calling. So people never learn the possible subtle distinctions. Consequently the politics is stuck in puerile name-calling and never rises to the level principles and careful distinctions. Sad.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sweet Reason at the End of a Boot

Who says justice isn't swiftly delivered in Canada?

Here is one of Victoria's "finest" showing that a good swift kick is the perogative of the police. Why bother with judge, or jury, or executioner when a yellow meanie can boot a little "sense" into somebody.

I love the fact that the chief of police in Victoria held a news conference and told everybody to "not rush to judgement" since context is important and care must be used in viewing a video clip of "apparant" police brutality. Next, that police chief admitted he hadn't watched the video. Yep. It is a 30 second clip. I guess he is just "too busy" to take time out to check on his police charges. He is too busy holding press conferences assuring people that Victoria's finest are well trained and properly self-restrained professionals. Yep... those two kicks look like they were delivered with a stroke of swiftness acquired from many years of brutalizing miscreants. That cop is clearly a professional gut kicker and head banger.

It is very clear that the second booting was given to a guy who was trying to follow orders by getting on the ground. Unfortunately this guy doesn't understand that when an officer barks "get on the ground" that doesn't mean sit on your behind (which is interpreted as disobeying a legal police order) and instead these four words are a very clear statement that you are to lie face down with your hands behind your back waiting meekly to be cuffed and carried away (a very unnatural position which requires some "persuasion" to get people to voluntarily submit to it). I'm guessing the police are just "too busy" administering a swift boot of justice to be bothered to expand on the phrase of "get on the ground" to a guy who has squatted down and shows ignorance of exactly what those four words mean.

The New American "Revolution"

Thank goodness the "patriots" of today realize that democracy is a big waste of time. The only "liberty" than anybody can enjoy comes out of the barrel of a gun. So the new American "revolutionaries" are out in the dark of the night replacing old fashioned electoral politics with the politics of fear.

I'm thinking these new right wing "patriots" have learned a lesson from Osama bin Laden: change doesn't come from hard work and elections like Obama fought. Real change comes when you blow up buildings, assassinate people, and threaten the innocent. Thank goodness a new generation of brave patriots have stepped up to the challenge and are using the new politics to good effect.From
Reps. Louise Slaughter and Bart Stupak have received death threats.

A tea party participant published what he thought was Rep. Thomas Perriello’s home address and urged disgruntled voters to “drop by” for a “good face-to-face chat.”

Vandals broke windows at Slaughter’s office in New York and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s office in Arizona.
I'm glad that proud Americans have decided that the brownshirt thugs of Nazi Germany are the wave forward for politics in America.

This is reminiscent of the wonderful days of "democracy in bloom" during the early 1960s when the KKK struggled mightily to save "liberty" in America by bombing churches, pulling bus riders off buses and beating a political message into them by smashing their skulls, and by doing midnight assassinations. Ah yes. The good old days are back. The good old boys have stepped up to the plate and are swinging their baseball bats for "liberty".

And what's the threat? Why some Democrats want to provide medical insurance to the uninsured. How dare they? How un-American! If God intended people to have health insurance, he would have them born with insurance contract in hand!

Here is a relevant bit from Rachel Maddow. Fast forward to 1:10 into this video:

Conventional Wisdom

Here's an article by Daniel Gross in Slate which points out that conventional thinking, the "prediction markets", Republican strategists, and economists have all been wrong in predicting what would happen under Obama:
Those shorting the Obama candidacy got crushed. And since January 2009, so, too, have those who have shorted the Obama presidency—especially the performance of the markets and economy under Obama. The same Republican politicians and economic pundits who (wrongly) said Bill Clinton's 1993 budget would destroy the economy and the stock markets, and who (wrongly) said President Bush's tax cuts would usher in an era of endless prosperity and wonderful market performance, warned again that the presence of a Democrat in the White House would spell doom for the Dow.

Here's a two-year chart of the S&P 500; if you shorted the market after the election, or after the inauguration, you've lost money. And if you shorted in March 2009, after the passage of the stimulus package, when Stanford economist Michael Boskin penned the foolish op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with the headline's "Obama's Radicalism is Killing the Dow," you'd really be feeling some pain. The S&P 500 is up 72 percent since then.

The shorting of the economy's performance under Obama wasn't limited to the ideologues who populate the Journal's editorial page. Economist forecasters have also effectively shorted Obama, arguing that the economy would not respond to the stimulus and other efforts. In the second quarter of 2009, economic forecasters surveyed by the Philadelphia Fed said the economy would grow at a 0.4 percent rate in the third quarter of 2009 and a 1.7 percent rate in the fourth quarter of 2009. The reality: The economy grew at a 2.2 percent rate in the third quarter (more than five times the rate they projected) and at 5.9 percent in the fourth quarter (more than three times the rate they projected). Oh, and if you shorted the dollar on the grounds Obama's policies would debase our currency, you've lost money, too.
What I find amazing is that rich people support the Republicans despite a hundred year history showing that the economy and the stock market do better under Democrats than Republicans. Sure, the Republicans talk a good line about "stimulating business" and "building a strong country" but in reality they have been historically bad managers. It is the Democrats, the guys for the little people, who have done well by the country.

I'm reminded how all the "smart money" moaned that Brazil was lost when they elected leftist Lula. But the country has boomed. All those years under military dictatorship and right wing "strong man" governments that claimed they would build a better Brazil went fizzle. It was only when the people when for a guy who supported the "little people" did the economy boom. There is a profound message in this fact.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nostalgia for the "Good Old Days"

Here's a posting by Paul Krugman on his NY Times blog that needs to be read and taken to heart:
Jamie Dimon Was Right

About the 19th century, that is.

Dimon was castigated by many people, me included, for saying that a financial crisis is “the type of thing that happens every five, ten, seven, years.” Hey, no big deal.

But that is the way banking worked once upon a time. I’m reading Gary Gorton’s Slapped by the Invisible Hand, which tells us that there were bank panics — systemic crises — in 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, 1896, 1907, and 1914.

On the other hand, there were no systemic crises from 1934 to 2007.

The problem, as Gorton makes clear, is that the Quiet Period reflected a combination of deposit insurance and strong regulation — undermined by the rise of shadow banking. So we have a choice: restore effective regulation or go back to the bad old days.
I can't believe that the right wing in the US, the party of "No!", is growing in support. After 8 horrible years of incompetence under George Bush capped by a world-wide financial meltdown caused by the right's ideological "no government is the best government" and "just say 'no!' to regulation", these fanatics are crowing about winning in November.

I can't believe they are backslapping over their cruel "no!" to health reform as a socialist plot to remove "freedoms" from Americans. Well, yeah! The freedom to go bankrupt if a medical crisis occurs. The freedom to have insurance companies drop you. These ideologues refuse to look at the rest of the developed world and compare notes on health care. Everywhere else it is univeral, it is cheaper, people live longer, and nobody is bankrupted by a medical problem. But stout-hearted American's don't want the slavery this implies. They want to be free as in "free to let corporations rape them", free as in "letting prescription drug companies jack up prices and deny the right to bring in cheaper drugs from overseas", and "free to let hospitals to refuse treatment and put you in a taxi and dump you at some other hospital". Those are the heart-felt freedoms that resonate with Americans today!

Rodney Stark's "God's Battalions"

This is a very good read. Not only is the author clear and well-paced in his writing, he has a point of view that deserves consideration. He is pushing back against the view that the Crusades were carried out by ignorant barbarians from a benighted "Dark Age" Europe against the "enlightened" civilization of the Moslems. He carefully tears apart this entrenched view with a review of facts and a lively history of the five crusades.

The book provides a nice discussion of the background of the Crusades in Europe. I now have a good feeling for it. One new fact I learned was that the crusaders were a network of family and friends. Many in Europe had not time for or interest in the crusades, but some took up the challenge. Stark is very good at explaining why the Crusades happened, i.e. the background of Moslem expansion and the atrocities against Christians in the Holy Land. I can now appreciate this wasn't a "manufactured" event stirred up by a Pope to get idle knights out of Europe.

The book also explains why the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople (the treachery of the Byzantine emperors). Stark also points out a double standard when people talk about the "horrors" of this sacking. In fact it was quite mild by the standards of the day. He points out how many scholars have been very uneven in their attribution of brutality and cruelty.

The sacking of Jerusalem is put into context and it too ends up being nothing special despite the over-heated rhetoric about Crusading knights riding in blood up to their stirrups. The facts are that all warfare in this era was brutal and that all accounts coming out of this era are deeply unreliable with numbers and accusations that simply are incredible. Stark gives a good estimate of numbers and levels of violence. He makes a good case that the the Muslims and Byzantine Christians were extremely treacherous and brutal. He paints the Crusaders as simply brutal.

It is an easy book to read and well worth the time. It gives you a very good feel for the Crusades and height of the Middle Ages. And it gives you a good appreciation of the fact that the "Dark Ages" weren't all that dark. Finally, it restores balance by correcting the hyperventilated claims of civility and civilization attributed to the Muslims (he points out that much of it was a holdover from the conquered Romans and Persians and that there really is not much evidence for a truly great accomplishment of "Muslim civilization".

American Medley

Here's a few songs to enjoy the "brave new world" that the Wall Street banks have delivered...

I find it heartwarming to realize that the Wall Street bankers got record bonuses at the end of 2009 to celebrate their "success" at destroying the economy. (Oh, by the way, I find it odd that Wall Street rewards its top execs with big bucks when profitability was guaranteed by the the Federal Reserve which keeps interest rates at 0% for Wall Street while the big banks get to charge a 20% rate to the "little people" for their credit cards. Even the "brains" of Wall Street can money when the federal government is handing it out free. So why the big bonuses? And... why not "bonuses" for the taxpayer who footed the bill?)

Take an Out of This World Tour

Here's a promotional video of the new Virgin Galactic sightseeing rocket. This is from Virgin's site with multimedia:

This space enthusiast's dream is currently undergoing testing.

A Little Mathematics with Music

The following film by Cristobal Vila is a wonderful visual exploration of mathematics in nature. There is no narrative, so you really need to know about the Fibonacci sequence, golden ratio, Delaunay triangulation, Voronoi Tessellation, etc. Vila provides a quick overview of the math here. The video is a visual treat put out by Vila to demonstrate his company's capabilities in computer animation. Enjoy!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Science as Gee Whiz Stuff

The following interview of Vlatko Vedral, professor of quantum information science at Oxford University, is very unsatisfying to me. He comes across claiming that everything can be reduced to "information". That is an amazing, wide-reaching, a profound claim. You would think that to have the audacity to make that claim you would have nailed down pretty well all the details and have a rock solid, air tight case. But if you listen, he ends up saying something quite different: he admits that current science doesn't know. I applaud him for his honesty, but it immediately screams: this book has lots of promise but no real delivery, lots of 'theory' but no real facts and analysis that grounds the theory.

So why write the book? I haven't read it so my cynical side says "to pocket money from sales to people who want a peek at 'gee whiz' science".

I don't know. The guy has a position at Oxford. The book reviews include what look like very positive endorsements:
"Let Vedral guide you skillfully through the wonderland of modern physics - where nothing is as it seems. This is the finest treatment I have read of the weird interplay of quantum reality, information and probability."--Paul Davies, author of The Eerie Silence and The Goldilocks Enigma

"An engaging, non-technical exploration of what the new theory of quantum information and computation tells us about life, the universe, and everything."--David Deutsch, author of The Fabric of Reality
But can you trust these "reviewers"? Publishers put a lot of pressure on their stable of writers to say pleasant things about other writers in the stable. You will also find that a lot of the glowing blurbs on the back of a book "coincide" with a lot of favourable mentions of that reviewer by the author of the book under review. Curious.

I'm willing to consider reading this book, but my initial impression is that it is a lot of hand waving and not much real content. This guy has picked a topic that is far too speculative to provide a general reader with anything useful to "learn".

One thing that strikes me as quite odd about this book is that the index has many, many references to where Vedral writes something about Italo Calvino. What could Calvino, an Italian journalist (1923-1985) not a scientist, have to say that would be relevant to explaining how the whole world and all of reality reduces to quantum information? Sorry, I just don't buy that references to Calvino are critical to understanding quantum information. The references many be interesting because Calvino had an interesting life, but I don't see any scientific theory or theoretical argument that can be advanced with reference to Calvino.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

America's Lurch to the Left

For all the right wing hell raising about Obama-nomics and Obama "socialism", here's the real story on the health care bill by Robert Reich in his blog:
Medicare built on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal notion of government as insurer, with citizens making payments to government, and government paying out benefits. That was the central idea of Social Security, and Medicare piggybacked on Social Security.

Obama’s legislation comes from an alternative idea, begun under the Eisenhower administration and developed under Nixon, of a market for health care based on private insurers and employers. Eisenhower locked in the tax break for employee health benefits; Nixon pushed prepaid, competing health plans, and urged a requirement that employers cover their employees. Obama applies Nixon’s idea and takes it a step further by requiring all Americans to carry health insurance, and giving subsidies to those who need it.

So don’t believe anyone who says Obama’s health care legislation marks a swing of the pendulum back toward the Great Society and the New Deal. Obama’s health bill is a very conservative piece of legislation, building on a Republican rather than a New Deal foundation. The New Deal foundation would have offered Medicare to all Americans or, at the very least, featured a public insurance option.

The significance of Obama’s health legislation is more political than substantive. For the first time since Ronald Reagan told America government is the problem, Obama’s health bill reasserts that government can provide a major solution. In political terms, that’s a very big deal.
The funny thing is that what Obama is having to fight so hard for is something that Mitt Romney, a Republican, introduced in Massachusetts and which Richard Nixon, a Republican, tried to pass early in his second term as president. If that is "socialism" then something is badly screwy in the US body politick.

An Updated "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" Tale

Vaughan Bell a clinical and research psychologist has a wonderful presentation given to the UK's All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education. Click here to view it.

I enjoy it because it shows that the tale of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" is still on-going. Fear-mongering and doomsday gloominess will always be with us. Science is a wonderful "voice of reason" that helps counter these fears. But that voice is drowned out by media-spread fears and the urban myths that take hold of the popular imagination.

A Truly Offensive Offense

The US military budget is obscene. If you look at the numbers from this Wikipedia article, you can see that the US numbers swamp everybody else:
  • US $668B

  • UK $58B

  • France $55B

  • Japan $47B

  • China $33B

  • Russia $13B
But "big" is never "big enough" for the US. The poor taxpayers keep shoveling more dollars into the maw of an insatiable military-industrial complex.

Here is a bit from Tom Englehardt from his blog
When was the last time you saw the headline, “Cost of [Pentagon-weapons-system-of-your-choice] halved”? Probably never. Still, the thought came to mind when this recent Associated Press headline caught my eye: “Pentagon: F-35 fighter jet cost doubles.”

Here’s the story behind it: Since 2001, when an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was expected to cost an already hefty $50 million, the plane’s cost has soared into the stratosphere (despite the fact that the aircraft itself has barely left the ground). The estimated cost today is $113 million per plane. Yes, that’s per plane. This supposed future workhorse of the U.S. military is now priced like the planet’s most precious gem. It’s also 2 ½ years behind schedule. Keep in mind that the Marines, the Air Force, and the Navy are planning to buy a combined 2,450 of them for what’s now an eye-popping $323 billion. And if you think the costs are likely to stay in the $113 million range, given the history of Pentagon cost overruns, then I have a nice little national security bridge to Brooklyn I think the U.S. public might love.

In other words, if all goes well from here (an unlikely possibility), a single future weapons system is now estimated to cost the American taxpayer almost one-third of what the Obama administration’s health-care plan is expected to cost over a decade. You could even think of the Pentagon’s weapons procurement process as the health-care system of the national security state. Its costs just never stop rising. In fact, the Government Accountability Office pegs major weapons systems cost overruns since 2001 at $295 billion, another near third of the cost of the health-care bill supposedly coming to a vote this week.

And here’s what’s remarkable: You barely hear about such overruns. They’re almost never front-page headline news, even though the money’s being taken from not-so-deep taxpayer pockets.
It is really sad to see how the US wracked itself over spending money to assist the sick and dying, but spends no time wondering why it is spending so much on the implements of war. Don't get me wrong. I think it important for the US be militarily strong. But as the above blog posting makes clear, an incredibly large amount of "waste" is included in military spending. This is gravy for the military-industrial complex.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Political Madness

The crazy right is out in force in the US. The "tea party" protests are ugly and getting uglier. Here is a bit from a report in the Huffington Post:
A staffer for Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told reporters that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) had been spat on by a protestor. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, was called a 'ni--er.' And Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was called a "faggot," as protestors shouted at him with deliberately lisp-y screams. Frank, approached in the halls after the president's speech, shrugged off the incident.

But Clyburn was downright incredulous, saying he had not witnessed such treatment since he was leading civil rights protests in South Carolina in the 1960s.
If you look at the pictures accompanying the article you can see how insane the right has become. It makes the right wing nuts of the 1950s and early 1960s look down right genteel and sane.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures"

This is a good read. It takes a serious look at an scientific explanation of the religious phenomenon as well as a review of the historical development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It treads an interesting line between those who would repudiate religion and those who are in thrall to a specific religious viewpoint. It tries very hard to be accurate and fair. And of course this book will be attacked on all sides. It is a tough subject and the partisans on every side are fierce and nobody wants to compromise. Consequently, I enjoyed it.

I felt the book did a modest but not compelling look at evolutionary psychology and the genetic basis of religion. But I'm willing to admit there hasn't been a lot of solid research, so it is understandable that the author reports less than what I would like to hear.

I was pleasantly surprised in the section where he looked at the historical development of the religions. He was stronger in pointing out the myth-making behind all three religions than you normally encounter. I was especially interested in his discussion of Islam because he presented a viewpoint that was new to me: that Mohammed was not a historical person but a concoction after the fact based on a misreading of slogans used by the Jewish/Christian sects that gave rise to Islam. His discussions of the inscriptions of the Dome of the Rock and the claim that Abd al-Malik and a radical interpretation of the ruler Abd al-Malik:
In defining a unitary creed for Arab Christianity, 'Abd al-Malik seems to have reached back to this early Syriac tradition of Jesus as a plain human prophet and used it to oppose the Trinitarian approach of Hellenistic Christianity. In the "Praise Jesus" motto he put on his coins and in his great building, the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, he referred to Jesus, the revisionists say, as the "messenger of God."

Thus in Arabic, 'Abd al-Malik's unifying motto about Jesus was rendered as muhammadun rasul allah -- 'The messenger of God is to be praised." Muhammadun is a gerundive, meaning "one who should be praised." rasul is "messenger" and allah is "God."

To anyone with a passing knowledge of Islam, this is a central phrase of the faith and has an entirely different meaning -- "Muhammad is the messenger of God."

What proof is there that 'Abd al-Malik meant rasul allah to refer to Jesus? The proof, say the revisionists, is unambiguous and is provided by the inscriptions that 'Abd al-Malik had written inside the Dome of the Rock, "Allahum salli ala rasulika wa 'abdika isa ibn maryam -- God bless your messenger and servant, Jesus son of Mary" states the text on the inner northwest-north face of the octogaonal arcade. The inner, east-southeast face includes the words, "Inma I-masih isa ibn maryam rasulu llah -- For the Messaiah Jesus, son of Mary, is the messenger of God."
This was all new to me. Wade admits this is a radical and very much a minority viewpoint, but it is extremely interesting. My guess is that since studies in this area have been repressed this interpretation will gain strength as more scholars investigate it.

The book is thought-provoking and well worth reading. For me, the following snippet wraps up the position Wade takes:
A central problem facing the three monotheisms has arisen from their claims to historicity. These helped recruit believers when the religions were starting to grow. But the price began to be paid when the textual analysis of the nineteenth century uncovered the composite nature of the sacred texts and when Darwin's theory undermined most of what religion had to say about the nature of life. Scholars like Wellhausen showed that the Old and New Testaments were the works of many human hands, and so seemed less likely to have been divinely inspired. Modern archaeology has provided substantial evidence that there was no exodus from Egypt and no conquest of the promised land: the Israelites had always lived in Canaan. The great patriarchs of Israel belonged to legend, not to history. Jesus was a historical figure, but an orthodox Jew who probably sought to reformulate Judaism, not found a new religion; Christianity was developed by his followers from an artful blend of Judaism and the mystery cults that had penetrated the Roman world. As for Muhammad, there is a strange paucity of independent historical evidence about his life; some scholars doubt whether he lived in the Hijaz, where Islamic texts locate him, and a few wonder if he lived at all.

Does it matter that each of the three monotheisms asserts a historical basis not wholly in accordance with the textual and archaeological facts? In many ways it does not matter. Religion is about symbolic communication. The sacred texts of the three monotheisms include themes that symbolize the values and traditions of each religion. Their longevity is a testament to their emotional truth and their enduring value for the civilization constructed around them.
The book is well worth your time. Give it a read!

Here is a NY Times Book Review by Judith Shulevitz.

Here is an very thorough review by Razib Khan on ScienceBlogs.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Funny Business

Here's a bit from an article in the Guardian newspaper reporting on some Canadian psychological research:
According to a study, when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the "licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour", otherwise known as "moral balancing" or "compensatory ethics".

Do Green Products Make Us Better People is published in the latest edition of the journal Psychological Science. Its authors, Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, argue that people who wear what they call the "halo of green consumerism" are less likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal. "Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours," they write.

The pair found that those in their study who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it – in other words, steal – they did, while the conventional consumers did not. Later, in an honour system in which participants were asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves their spoils, the greens were six times more likely to steal than the conventionals.
I've always found it odd that people with a "holier than thou" attitude can be quite mean. I was not aware of "compensatory ethics".

Here is the original study.

If you are curious about "applied ethics" and contemporary issues in "compensatory ethics". Here is a dissertation on the topic by Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon: contacted me last week. I assume they thought of me because I'm so sporty. They have a web service that lets you watch live college basketball games, on demand, during March Madness. The web page wisely includes a Boss Button that allows viewers to switch to a business-looking screen when footsteps approach. They asked if I would be willing to design a page that cleverly looks like legitimate work from a medium distance, and yet is clearly a joke up close.

My first reaction was one of righteous indignation. How could they expect me to be a party to wholesale theft of employee productivity? In an era when bankers and CEOs are looting the country, it was time for an honest man to come forward and say, "Enough!"

At some point, a dollar amount was mentioned, and I realized that the person who manufactures a hammer isn't at fault if someone uses it to slay a suburban family who, for all you know, had it coming. All I would be doing is designing a simple web page; I wouldn't be forcing anyone to watch incredibly exciting basketball games during work while getting paid at the same time. I call that free will, which I have been told is a good thing.

I agreed to the deal, but a tiny voice in the back of my mind kept pointing out that a hammer has many legitimate uses, whereas a Boss Button can only be used for evil. I knew that this tiny voice was either coming from my conscience, or from my dog who had suddenly learned to speak. I checked my e-mail to remind myself how much I was getting paid, yelled at the dog to stop talking, and got to work.

If you're curious about the outcome, check it out at And don't blame me if the stock market crashes in March. If I hadn't designed that Boss Button page, someone else would have. And it might have been Ziggy.
As you can tell, Dilbert... I mean Scott... is a victim of "compensatory ethics".

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Good Advice

Here's some simple, but good and useful advice from Tal Ben-Shahar:

Political Theory

If you like to get your political theory from cartoonists, here's the latest speculation by Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon:
I have a hypothesis that people instinctively want to be led by whoever has the most energy. Sometimes that energy manifests itself in fiery speeches, Hitler being a good example. Winston Churchill was famous for only needing 5-6 hours of sleep per day, and working his staff late into the night. You often hear about how much energy American presidents have for jogging, chopping wood, or campaigning. In Russia, Putin likes to be photographed with his shirt off, wrestling with bears and whatnot. French Presidents have enough energy to run the country and satisfy mistresses without missing a beat. I'll bet you could take any two candidates for president, ask registered voters which one seems to have the most energy, and the survey would predict the winner.

You might say that energy is only one of several necessary traits that a leader needs. Perhaps Churchill's lack of sleep had more to do with his workload than his energy level. Maybe the candidate who has the most energy can shake hands and kiss babies for more hours each day, and it's the campaigning that makes the difference. But I give you Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and any other bat shit crazy leader with an IQ of 90, scary hair, and nothing much else going for him but lots of insane energy. Energy attracts followers, even when it isn't backed up by anything else.

The same theory of energy is probably true for the popularity of celebrities. The other day I found myself in a discussion with friends about what makes Paris Hilton so popular with some people, and so reviled by others. I think the difference has to do with your perception of how much energy she puts into her work. If you think she's just a lucky rich girl, coasting through life with the help of handlers, you probably have a low opinion of her. If you think that being Paris Hilton is probably a huge amount of work, and she's running her own show, and calling all the shots, you might have a high opinion of her. In other words, if you think she's a person with lots of energy, you like her more than if your impression is that she has low energy.

You've seen what happens when an energetic person enters a room. It raises everyone's energy level, and a boost of energy always feels good. Humans are imitators. When someone yawns, we yawn. When someone laughs, it puts us in a good mood. When someone is a downer, we feel down. A leader probably does little more than convey a sense that he has a lot of energy himself, which boosts the energy levels of everyone who gets that message. We like the feeling of energy, so we keep the leader in power so we'll see more of him. We're all energy junkies, and our leaders are pushers.
His argument has superficial plausibility. But like most things in life, reality is very complex and there are a lot of factors that go missing when you cherry-pick your examples or dress them up to sell your viewpoint. The different between armchair speculation and real science is that infamous 90% perspiration so talked about. You know. What makes a genius? The answer is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. The part missing in Adam's research is the 90% perspiration.

That said, it is fun to speculate. The trick is to remember that it is only speculation. The real scientists in the crowd will take this, work it up into a theory, then do the hard work of crafting experiments to test aspects of the theory.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

US Financial Regulation Bill

Here is a bit from the FireDogLake blog site on Senator Dodd's new financial regulation bill:
Copies of the “American Financial Stability Act of 2010″ summary and legislation are out, as well as a transcript of Chairman Dodd’s prepared statement. And he seems to have picked up some important support: Elizabeth Warren, the brainchild behind the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and a key progressive on financial regulation.
Go to that posting to get links to the underlying documents.

It is very important that Elizabeth Warren is expressing guarded support for this bill. She is someone I trust.

Dean Baker is 'On The Job'

I love Dean Baker. He keeps an eagle eye on the media and points out the inanities that pass for "news". He points out the ignorance that gets past the editor and published. He points out the ideology that prances around as "news".

Here is his latest:
Pension Fund Cashes in Treasury Bonds: AP Screams "Crisis"

Okay, it's not exactly a pension fund, it's the Social Security trust fund that is cashing in some of the government bonds that it holds to pay benefits. This is the way the trust fund was designed to work, but AP somehow cannot find a reporter (or editor) who understands even the most basic facts about Social Security or for that matter Treasury bonds, which get called "IOUs" in the headline and four times in the article. (When GE has its next bond issue, will AP report on the auction of "GE IOUs?")

The whole purpose of building up the trust fund was to help defray the cost of the retirement of the baby boom cohort. This meant that at some point it would be necessary to sell some of the bonds to pay benefits. This has happened somewhat sooner than had previously been predicted due to the economic crisis created by inept policy and Wall Street corruption. It is not clear why anyone should see this as a crisis for Social Security.

The article also includes this non-sequitur:

"Now the government will have to borrow even more money, much of it abroad, to start paying back the IOUs, and the timing couldn't be worse. The government is projected to post a record $1.5 trillion budget deficit this year, followed by trillion dollar deficits for years to come."

Actually, the timing couldn't possibly be better. The government is running a large budget deficit because the economy is in a steep downturn. It is very good that Social Security is continuing to pay benefits without any tax increase. This boosts demand and stimulates the economy. AP reporters should know this.

The article also includes the bizarre assertion that:

"Social Security's financial problems have been looming for years as the nation's 78 million baby boomers approached retirement age. The oldest are already there. As that huge group of people starts collecting benefits — and stops paying payroll taxes — Social Security's trust funds will shrink, running out of money by 2037, according to the latest projection from the trustees who oversee the program."

The fact that the program could face a shortfall in 27 years hardly fits most people's definition of crisis. Social Security also faced a shortfall in 1982. By the AP definition of crisis, it was in crisis at least from 1955. (Actually, it faced shortfalls in earlier years also, so by the AP definition, Social Security has always been in crisis -- giving the term a whole new meaning.)

What a careful reader can glean from this story is that AP doesn't like Social Security. The reality is that Social Security will likely face a modest shortfall in future decades, primarily due to the fact our children are projected to live longer lives than we do. This has been happening throughout the program's existence. There is no reason to believe that AP's Social Security "crisis" will be any more difficult to deal with than shortfalls that arose in prior decades.
If you don't already, you really should read his Beat the Press blog at The American Prospect website.

And a few days earlier, Dean Baker published this on his blog:
The New York Times Doesn't Like Social Security

That is what readers could infer from Jackie Calmes' blognote in which she listed Social Security alongside Medicare and Medicaid as "fast-growing entitlement benefit program." Social Security is projected to grow at a 5.3 percent annual rate over the next decade, only slightly faster than the 4.4 percent projected growth rate of nominal GDP over this period. By comparison, Medicare is projected to grow at a 7.0 percent annual rate.

It is also worth noting that Social Security is funded by a designated tax that is projected to keep the program fully funded until 2044. It appears that the NYT is unaware of the funding mechanism for Social Security. Given this designated tax it would make as much sense to cut Social Security as it would to cut interest payment on government bonds (i.e. default on the government debt), especially since interest is in fact a much more rapidly growing category of entitlement spending.

The reference to Social Security appears in a statement telling readers that: "many economists" are advocating cuts in these programs "to avert a fiscal calamity in the coming decade." It is also worth noting that many economists, citing extensive evidence, ridicule the "many economists" who make assertions about "fiscal calamity" without any evidence to support their position.
I wonder when the American public is going to wake up to the 'Boy Who Cried Wolf' story of the right wing ideologues in the US who hate social programs constantly trying to create hysteria in the hopes of destroying these programs.

Here's Naomi Klein on the Right's love of "shock therapy" as their way to shake things up and restructure things to their ideological preferences:

Read her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism