Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bringing Back the Worst of the Great Depression Policies

Here is a bit from Paul Krugman's NY Times op-ed where he looks at the Republican party's desire to bring back the failed policies of Hoover's Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon:
“Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” That, according to Herbert Hoover, was the advice he received from Andrew Mellon, the Treasury secretary, as America plunged into depression. To be fair, there’s some question about whether Mellon actually said that; all we have is Hoover’s version, written many years later.

But one thing is clear: Mellon-style liquidationism is now the official doctrine of the G.O.P.

Two weeks ago, Republican staff at the Congressional Joint Economic Committee released a report, “Spend Less, Owe Less, Grow the Economy,” that argued that slashing government spending and employment in the face of a deeply depressed economy would actually create jobs. In part, they invoked the aid of the confidence fairy; more on that in a minute. But the leading argument was pure Mellon.

Here’s the report’s explanation of how layoffs would create jobs: “A smaller government work force increases the available supply of educated, skilled workers for private firms, thus lowering labor costs.” Dropping the euphemisms, what this says is that by increasing unemployment, particularly of “educated, skilled workers” — in case you’re wondering, that mainly means schoolteachers — we can drive down wages, which would encourage hiring.

There is, if you think about it, an immediate logical problem here: Republicans are saying that job destruction leads to lower wages, which leads to job creation. But won’t this job creation lead to higher wages, which leads to job destruction, which leads to ...? I need some aspirin.
I love to read Krugman because he so beautifully shows how the idiot Republicans raise themselves on their own petard.

Go read the rest of Krugman's article to find more entertainment.

The sad fact is that a very large minority of Americans believe the crap that the Republicans put out. These are the same people who gawk at the rich and admire them even when they are shown to be baby stranglers and mother killers. The awe of "all that money" is the only validation they need to know that these are "special people". Willie Sutton got rich robbing banks getting more than $2 million in 1931 dollars (roughly $200 million in today's dollars). He wasn't a nice guy, but he had a "following" that loved to be regaled with stories of his crimes. Al Capone was a popular "hero". People loved the exploits of Bonny and Clyde. Bizarre. These are not people you want to live near of have dealings with.

We live in strange times when good is in hiding and evil swaggers down Main Street claiming virtues it never had and never will have.

Here's a bit from Krugman's close to his article:
Republicans are now fully committed to the doctrine that we must destroy employment in order to save it.

And Democrats are offering little pushback. The White House, in particular, has effectively surrendered in the war of ideas; it no longer even tries to make the case against sharp spending cuts in the face of high unemployment.

So that’s the state of policy debate in the world’s greatest nation: one party has embraced 80-year-old economic fallacies, while the other has lost the will to fight. And American families will pay the price.
Pathetic.

Using Game Technology to Develop New Robotic Technology

It is funny how ideas feed on each other. Normally you think of game developers as parasitic on research by universities doing computer graphics, computer vision, robotics, and motion sensing research. But here's a case where university researchers are building on some game technology:



You can find the news story here.

Struggling to "Get By" on $174,000 a Year

Can you believe the sheer stupidity of claiming that it is "hard to get by" on a public employee salary that is three times what the median for Wisconsin...



This guy wants you to sympathize with him, but he is from the very political party that is rolling back income for public union employees in Wisconsin in order to give more tax cuts to corporations and fat cats who... how can I put this gently... are earning something north of $170,000/year.

Here's a bit from the blog Talking Points Memo:
The tape caused a stir for Duffy, a first-term conservative best known for his past as a reality TV show star on MTV's The Real World. Democrats flagged the comments about his taxpayer-funded salary (which is nearly three times the median income in Wisconsin) and criticisms began to flow Duffy's way.

In the clip, Duffy is asked whether he'd support cutting his own salary. Duffy says he would, but only as part of a plan where all public employees' salaries would be cut. He then said that the $174,000 in salary (not including benefits) he receives is a squeeze for his family of seven to live on:

I can guarantee you, or most of you, I guarantee that I have more debt than all of you. With 6 kids, I still pay off my student loans. I still pay my mortgage. I drive a used minivan. If you think I'm living high on the hog, I've got one paycheck. So I struggle to meet my bills right now. Would it be easier for me if I get more paychecks? Maybe, but at this point I'm not living high on the hog.
Duffy's office said any Democratic criticism of his response was "a misleading attack." For more on Duffy's finances, see this post.

The county GOP took down the video from its blog after the Washington Post posted a short clip of it yesterday morning.
This isn't quite as bad as the kid who killed his parents and then asked for mercy from the court because he was an orphan, but it is close.

Why do people vote in this bloodsuckers to be their "representatives" when they are so unrepresentative of the people they are supposed to "represent". This guy is so out to lunch he thinks he has an especially hard time because he has to get by on only $174,000 per year. I wonder how that sits with the Walmart employees of his district.

Update 2011apr02: Here is a bit more background from the Talking Points Memo blog:
Duffy is one of the poorest members of Congress. OpenSecrets.org, which tracks the money in Congress, ranks Duffy as near the bottom among House members when it comes to his personal net worth.

Here's a rundown of Duffy's finances, from the 2009 disclosure form he had to file with the government: his family of 7 (wife plus six kids) is carrying between $250,000 and $500,000 in mortgage debt; between $50,000-$100,000 in student loans; between $15,000-$50,000 in credit card debt; and between $100,000-$250,000 in debt related to the family vacation home, a cabin not too far from his primary residence in Wisconsin.

The Duffy family lives in a 5-bedroom house sitting on 5 acres in Ashland, Wisconsin. The home has a market value of $247,000. They also own a 2-bedroom cabin in Iron River. That house is valued at $229,000.

Duffy's household reported a total of $154,500 in income in 2009. That included $94,000 in salary from his job back then as county district attorney and $4,500 in income from his side gig as a competitive lumberjack. Duffy's wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy -- who like her husband starred in MTV's The Real World -- brought in $56,000 in salary.

View the entire 2009 financial disclosure form here.

The $154,000 in income in they reported in 2009 made Duffy's family objectively well-off when it comes to a family from Wisconsin. Median household income there in 2008 was $52,103, according to the Census.

But in Congress, that kind of coin makes Duffy one of the poorest. Check out this chart from OpenSecrets comparing Duffy's finances to the congressional average.

...

Earlier this month, the site did a big report on the freshman House class, which is among the wealthiest ever to be elected. Duffy was among the "several freshmen who, however, have little reportable wealth at all," OpenSecrets wrote.

Duffy's also tried to paint himself as one of the more austere members of the freshman class. He's one of around 20 members who sleep in their Hill offices rather than pay for a residence in Washington.
Go to the TPM blog to get the embedded links.

An Inspirational Story

I love stories about underdogs rising up and surprising everybody. Here's a story about a water-logged soccer team and its surprising success:

James Gleick's "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood"


This is a monster of a book. It is a vast landscape in which there are sections of pure delight and others where the writer appears to have gone a bit too far and ended up beached and lost. The bits about "information flood" and especially the many occasions on which Gleick turns to Jorge Luis Borges’s story "The Library of Babel" is a bit much for my taste. I found nothing useful on the musings about infinite random texts or the historial worries about "too much information". On the whole, however, the book is well worth reading.

For me, the meat-and-potatoes of this book are the sections on logic, cryptology, information theory, and quantum information. The other historical bits of fun to read but distracting. The real value in this book is that it offers a nice historical review of the rise of understanding about symbol manipulation and the mathematics of "information". The vignettes about key historical figures adds an excellent layer to the technical account.

The good news is that this book is accessible to anyone with a modest technical background. It doesn't try to teach you theories or delve into the mathematics, but it gives you a good appreciation of this technical side of things. The weaving of a story through several technical displines and their key personalities gives you good insight into how the "science of information" has developed and its trajectory into the future via the great 20th century physicist John Archibald Wheeler's maxim of "it from bit".

An excellent review of this book by Freeman Dyson can be found here as well as links to subsidiary information about Gleick.

Update 2011aug22: A less useful review is available via the NY Times Sunday Book Review from Geoffrey Nunberg:
Gleick ranges over the scientific landscape in a looping itinerary that takes the reader from Maxwell’s demon to Godel’s theorem, from black holes to selfish genes. Some of the concepts are challenging, but as in previous books like “Chaos” and “Genius,” his biography of Richard Feynman, Gleick provides lucid expositions for readers who are up to following the science and suggestive analogies for those who are just reading for the plot. And there are anecdotes that every reader can enjoy: Shannon building a machine called Throbac I that did arithmetic with Roman numerals; the Victorian polymath Charles Babbage writing to Tennyson to take exception to the arithmetic in “Every minute dies a man / Every minute one is born.”
Nunberg provides a literate review but not a particularly insightful.

Compare the above to Freeman Dyson's succinct summary:
According to Gleick, the impact of information on human affairs came in three installments: first the history, the thousands of years during which people created and exchanged information without the concept of measuring it; second the theory, first formulated by Shannon; third the flood, in which we now live. The flood began quietly. The event that made the flood plainly visible occurred in 1965, when Gordon Moore stated Moore’s Law. Moore was an electrical engineer, founder of the Intel Corporation, a company that manufactured components for computers and other electronic gadgets. His law said that the price of electronic components would decrease and their numbers would increase by a factor of two every eighteen months. This implied that the price would decrease and the numbers would increase by a factor of a hundred every decade. Moore’s prediction of continued growth has turned out to be astonishingly accurate during the forty-five years since he announced it. In these four and a half decades, the price has decreased and the numbers have increased by a factor of a billion, nine powers of ten. Nine powers of ten are enough to turn a trickle into a flood.
Nunberg is for artistic dilettantes, Dyson is for the scientific types.

Robert Reich Turns Pessimistic

Robert Reich is a smart guy and I respect his opinions, but I sure hope he is wrong on this call. In his blog he writes:
Why aren’t Americans being told the truth about the economy? We’re heading in the direction of a double dip – but you’d never know it if you listened to the upbeat messages coming out of Wall Street and Washington.

Consumers are 70 percent of the American economy, and consumer confidence is plummeting. It’s weaker today on average than at the lowest point of the Great Recession.

The Reuters/University of Michigan survey shows a 10 point decline in March – the tenth largest drop on record. Part of that drop is attributable to rising fuel and food prices. A separate Conference Board’s index of consumer confidence, just released, shows consumer confidence at a five-month low — and a large part is due to expectations of fewer jobs and lower wages in the months ahead.

Pessimistic consumers buy less. And fewer sales spells economic trouble ahead.

What about the 192,000 jobs added in February? (We’ll know more Friday about how many jobs were added in March.) It’s peanuts compared to what’s needed. Remember, 125,000 new jobs are necessary just to keep up with a growing number of Americans eligible for employment. And the nation has lost so many jobs over the last three years that even at a rate of 200,000 a month we wouldn’t get back to 6 percent unemployment until 2016.

But isn’t the economy growing again – by an estimated 2.5 to 2.9 percent this year? Yes, but that’s even less than peanuts. The deeper the economic hole, the faster the growth needed to get back on track. By this point in the so-called recovery we’d expect growth of 4 to 6 percent.

Consider that back in 1934, when it was emerging from the deepest hole of the Great Depression, the economy grew 7.7 percent. The next year it grew over 8 percent. In 1936 it grew a whopping 14.1 percent.

Add two other ominous signs: Real hourly wages continue to fall, and housing prices continue to drop. Hourly wages are falling because with unemployment so high, most people have no bargaining power and will take whatever they can get. Housing is dropping because of the ever-larger number of homes people have walked away from because they can’t pay their mortgages. But because homes the biggest asset most Americans own, as home prices drop most Americans feel even poorer.

There’s no possibility government will make up for the coming shortfall in consumer spending. To the contrary, government is worsening the situation. State and local governments are slashing their budgets by roughly $110 billion this year. The federal stimulus is ending, and the federal government will end up cutting some $30 billion from this year’s budget.

In other words: Watch out. We may avoid a double dip but the economy is slowing ominously, and the booster rockets are disappearing.
He goes on to discuss why this pessimism is not more obvious and why Wall Street and Washington ignore this situation. It is well worth your time to read this bit as well.

He isn't outright calling for a double dip, but he is very worried. I think he fear is overdone. I think the recovery is on solid ground, but very, very weak for the reasons he identifies. But I don't see the economy sliding back into recession. But it is a great tragedy that the lessons of the Great Depression were not applied in this, the Great Recession. Instead, right wing ideologues who helped create this Great Recession, are actively undermining any effort to get the US out of the recession. They should be villified for this and be sent into the political wilderness. But they aren't. They are rampant and controlling more and more of the media and the reins of power. This is a great tragedy for the American people. It is simply astounding that the nuts who caused the problem blame Obama and the Democrats for the disaster that Republicans (with the aid of some Democrats) created by their "free market" fanaticism, their "deregulate, deregulate, deregulate" philosophy, their corrosive view that "government is the problem and not the solution", and their vicious attacks on the bottom 90% of society as evidenced by state governments busily tearing up contracts with public sector unions and mounting an all out attack on workers.

Funny, when it came to rolling back bonuses to Wall Street fat cats, these fanatics all wrung their hands and claimed it couldn't be done because contracts are "sacred". But when it is a union contract, suddenly there is no "sacred" and the legality is ignored. In fact, Governor Walker in Wisconsin is publicly flaunting the judicial branch of the government by refusing to recognize a court decision that his pushing legislation through a midnight session is illegal because it ignores a law requiring 24 hour notice to allow the opposition to know what is being jammed down their throats.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Japanese Dysfunction

Sadly, the inept and incredibly slow response of the Japanese government and Tepco, the nuclear reactor operator, means that the world is getting dosed unnecessarily by radiation. Right now the amount of Cesium-137 released by Fukushima is equivalent to what was released by Chernobyl. But Chernobyl was one reactor while Fukushima is 4 reactors and 4 piles of spent fuel (more details here). Chernobyl was one bad explosion, Fukushima is a simmering situation with many small explosions and apparently no end in sight. It is a ticking timebomb slowly releasing many, many times more radioactivity than Chernobyl.

You would think that Japan's government and Tepco would be expediting everything possible to contain the leak. But they aren't. That's because of the dysfunctional Japanese culture of "saving face" and an unwillingness to admit problems or the need for help.

Here's a bit from a post by Robert X. Cringely that explains:
In this nuclear accident the situation is complicated by an extra party — Tokyo Electric Power Company — with its corporate personality and internal agendas. TEPCO is embarrassed by this accident. Embarrassment, either corporate or personal, is a huge deal in Japan. It’s not like they can just give up their corporate face for a few weeks or months while necessary things get done. I saw a similar unwillingness to squarely face reality at General Public Utilities back at Three Mile Island in 1979. In both corporate cultures there was too much emphasis on political damage control — emphasis that often comes at the expense of good engineering.

If a nuclear plant manager is worried too much about his job he isn’t worried enough about his reactor.

TEPCO just this morning announced that four of the six Daiichi reactors can never be repaired. I wrote that right here less than 24 hours after the earthquake and tsunami before the emergency batteries had even run out. It was instantly obvious to even a moderately informed observer like me, yet why did TEPCO take two weeks to come to the same conclusion? Internal politics, which can only increase public danger.

But wait, there’s more! Now we have reports of water contaminated with plutonium at the plant and possible plutonium ground water contamination. Radioactive cesium and iodine are bad enough, though that water can be stored in pools for a few months while the radiation decays then carefully diluted for disposal. But plutonium contamination is forever — at least 10,000 years.

There are right now two plutonium remediation technologies on offer to the Japanese government and TEPCO that I know about — one from Russia and one from the USA. One approach uses nanotech and the other uses biotech but both are novel and unique. Both have been offered to the Japanese through government channels and in both cases the Japanese government or TEPCO have yet to respond.

I know about these technologies because the Russian one is represented by a friend of mine and the American one comes from a Startup America company so I took it straight to the White House myself.

I think it would be smart for TEPCO to adopt both technologies in case one works better than the other. But my sense is that if an answer ever comes from Japan it will be months from now and will probably be “no thanks.”

Think about this as you read about that plutonium-contaminated water, because it is going to be in the news for years to come. If only there had been a technology available to clean up that stuff early in the crisis, the pundits will say, lives could have been saved. There was such a technology available — two of them in fact.
Sadly, 6.4 billion people are going to pay the price for the idiot social culture of "face saving" going on in Japan. Normally I would say "let each culture do its thing". But if their "thing" is to poison the world for the rest of us, then I think maybe the UN Security Council should hold a meeting and decide to send in troops and install an efficient decision process and an effective management system to deal with the crisis. The rest of the world shouldn't have to pay for the "niceties" of Japanese culture.

As Cringely points out, the leakage of plutonium is essentially "forever" since it takes over 30,000 years to reduce the radioactivity by half. Human civilization is only 10,000 years old. That is forever. And we are paying this price because of stupidity and unwillingness to get the job done by a culture which has shot itself in the foot and continues to refuse to admit it and seek the help proffered by the rest of the world. Tragic!

Changing Styles in America

I recall that Obama during his presidential campaign tried to avoid ending all speeches with the quasi-mandatory "God Bless America" and he resisted wearing the American flag pin. But under Republican pressure he has caved in, wimped out, and now does both of these neo-conservative genuflections to satisfy the American people.

I think the right wing in America should push Obama the whole 9 yards. Sure the flag pin and the "God Bless" are nice, but there is more he needs to do. The Republicans should make known their utter hatred and scorn for FDR by undoing the hated 1942 act of Congress pushed by FDR that which squashed the traditional Bellamy salute to the American flag.

I think Sarah Palin and the rest of the Tea Partiers should push their weak-willed GOP brethren to go whole hog and bring back the proper, historical, and much-loved, pre-FDR flag ceremony centred on a proper Bellamy salute of the American flag.

Children performing the Bellamy salute to the flag of the United States, Hawaii, March 1941

Sadly FDR stampeded the country away from this fine old American tradition because of scenes like this:

The Nazi salute in school, 1934

But what's to fear in healthy young German children showing their respect and love of country and leader with the Hitlergru├č?

True conservatives always yearn to go back to the "good old days" and I'm thinking that they should push to re-instate the Bellamy salute. It was good enough for the right wing Nazis, it should be good enough for the Tea Party and the stalwarts of the GOP!

I, for one, would find a re-adoption of the beloved tradition would help clarify just where the Tea Party stands with its politics.

History of Civilization on the Fly

Here's a quick zoom through civilization's impact on native vegetation:



Some see the browning (desertification?) of that lovely green as a horror story. I see it as humans taking charge of their fate through their technology. I don't want to pave over paradise, but I enjoy farmland. I think it looks lovely. And I especially love the fruits of the labour of farmers.

Back to the Future with the Republicans

Sitting in Canada and watching what passes for "politics" in the US is quite entertaining. Here's a bit from a blog post in The Economist that points out that one of the leading Republican presidential candidates wants to take the US back to the 19th century by replacing Federal Reserve notes (paper) with something more solid (gold):
TIM PAWLENTY, former Minnesota governor and potential Republican presidential candidate, has thoughts on money:
The former Minnesota governor said the administration has devalued the dollar by injecting "fiat money" into the economy.Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) predicted Tuesday that the U.S. will face a double-dip recession that could last all the way until the 2012 elections.The likely presidential candidate said the government, under President Obama, has devalued the dollar by injecting "fiat money" into the economy in an attempt to boost it — a plan he said will be damaging in the long-run.
This is unfortunate. Let's review the reasons why:
  • "Fiat money" is another way of saying "money". Fiat money—that is, dollars—is what people use to obtain goods and services in America. I'm assuming this is Mr Pawlenty's way of suggesting that everything would be better if America were on the gold standard.

  • Everything would be terrible on the gold standard. Once upon a time, conservatives understood this. Conservative patron saint and economics Nobelist Milton Friedman argued that tight monetary policy—a product, in part, of the need to defend gold convertibility—was responsible for the depth of the Great Depression.

  • If Mr Pawlenty is talking about monetary policy here, and it seems as though he is, he's got his organisational charts all wrong. The administration does not control monetary policy; the Federal Reserve does. Barack Obama did reappoint (Republican appointee) Ben Bernanke, but once Mr Bernanke was confirmed the administration had little say over the Fed's policy decisions.

  • Mr Pawlenty seems to think a falling dollar will lead to a recession. I...don't know why. I suspect that if asked, Mr Pawlenty would heartily agree that America should export more and import less. A falling dollar is one of the ways unbalanced economies engineer a reduction in the current account gap.
What more can you say? Increasingly, it seems as though the default Republican position on monetary policy is a set of thoroughly discredited fringe beliefs that would prove economically disastrous if adopted. That's a problem!
It is amazing to see the US bolding striding from the 21st century back to the boom-and-bust economy of the 19th century. While he is at it, Pawlenty should disband public health services under the theory that "oppressive government" threatens the health of American, and he should disband the public education system because a two-tier society of overlords and servants doesn't need an educated underclass. What is next? Will Pawlenty wax romantic about horse-and-buggy transport as a way to get out from under the thumb of those nasty Arabs?

What the Japanese Won't Admit about Fukushima

I don't understand "message control". It always blows up and makes you look bad, but every government and large corporation religiously practice message control in the hopes that people are idiots and will simply buy the story being retailed and never bother to find out the truth.

Here's the truth about Fukushima as published in the UK's Guardian newspaper:
The radioactive core in a reactor at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant appears to have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel and on to a concrete floor, experts say, raising fears of a major release of radiation at the site.

The warning follows an analysis by a leading US expert of radiation levels at the plant. Readings from reactor two at the site have been made public by the Japanese authorities and Tepco, the utility that operates it.

Richard Lahey, who was head of safety research for boiling-water reactors at General Electric when the company installed the units at Fukushima, told the Guardian workers at the site appeared to have "lost the race" to save the reactor, but said there was no danger of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe.

...

"The indications we have, from the reactor to radiation readings and the materials they are seeing, suggest that the core has melted through the bottom of the pressure vessel in unit two, and at least some of it is down on the floor of the drywell," Lahey said. "I hope I am wrong, but that is certainly what the evidence is pointing towards."

The major concern when molten fuel breaches a containment vessel is that it reacts with the concrete floor of the drywell underneath, releasing radioactive gases into the surrounding area. At Fukushima, the drywell has been flooded with seawater, which will cool any molten fuel that escapes from the reactor and reduce the amount of radioactive gas released.

Lahey said: "It won't come out as one big glob; it'll come out like lava, and that is good because it's easier to cool."

The drywell is surrounded by a secondary steel-and-concrete structure designed to keep radioactive material from escaping into the environment. But an earlier hydrogen explosion at the reactor may have damaged this.

"The reason we are concerned is that they are detecting water outside the containment area that is highly radioactive and it can only have come from the reactor core," Lahey added. "It's not going to be anything like Chernobyl, where it went up with a big fire and steam explosion, but it's not going to be good news for the environment."

...

In the light of the Fukushima crisis, Lahey said all countries with nuclear power stations should have "Swat teams" of nuclear reactor safety experts on standby to give swift advice to the authorities in times of emergency, with international groups co-ordinated by the International Atomic Energy Authority.
There is much more detail worth reading in this article. Go read the whole article.

I'm surprised that there isn't already an international "swat team" to advice governments. I'm even more surprised the Japan has not replaced the incompetent "management" at Tepco with experts who can direct the containment and shutdown of Fukushima and undertake the necessary evaluation of all other reactors in Japan to decide on what needs to be shutdown, what needs safety upgrades, and what meets proper safety standards. I understand that Japan is a "consensus" society which can paralyze decision-making, but there are situations where you have to act and get consensus later otherwise the cost is astronomical. I would think a core meltdown is one of them. But apparently this truth has not yet dawned on Japanese officials.

How the Steely-Eyed Fiscal "Realist" / Conservative See the World

Here are some bits from a post by Paul Krugman on his blog at the NY Times making fun of Alan Greenspan's "worldview"...

First he cites a bit from an FT article by Greenspan:
Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.
To help "appreciate" the subtlety of Greenspan's logic, Krugman points to some comments on a posting (at Crooked Timber) that posits similar examples of this brilliant logic:
With notably rare exceptions, Newt Gingrich is a loyal and faithful husband.

With notably rare exceptions, Japanese nuclear reactors have been secure from earthquakes.

Though unredeemably(sic) opaque, Mr. Madoff’s operations delivered excellent returns, with notably rare exceptions.

With notably rare exceptions, the levees protecting New Orleans have held fast in the face of major hurricanes.

With notably rare exceptions, locking all exits to the workplace is a harmless way to improve your employees’ productivity.

With notably rare exceptions, petroleum extraction has minimal environmental impact.

With notably rare exceptions, simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction after August of 2002.

With notably rare exceptions, none of us is Spartacus.

With notably rare exceptions, the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup every year.

With notably rare exceptions, noise is Gaussian distributed.

With notably rare exceptions, when you wake up in the morning, you know for a fact that you will still be alive by the end of the day.

With notably rare exceptions, Soylent Green is NOT people.

With notably rare exceptions, the Roman Empire’s crucifixion policy was successful in containing subversive religious movements

With notably rare exceptions, the shadow banking system has made the US economy more stable.

With notably rare exceptions, the bacterium Yersinia pestis does not cause significant human suffering.

With notably rare exceptions, economics is scientific discipline.

With notably rare exceptions, allowing Ayn Rand’s acolytes to serve as Federal Reserve chairmen has worked out well

With notably rare exceptions, Michael Jackson behaved perfectly normally.
This is the thinking brought to you by the Reagan Revolution and the shining examplar of "a Decider" as President, George Bush. Ah... for the good old days when white was black, and black was light.

Sadly, we live in Tea Party times when Obama is painted in one shade only, an unrelenting socialist, Muslim, liberal gray. Too bad we can't bring back the glorious "with notable rare exceptions" time of the Reagan/Bush/Bush rule of the imperial presidency when the media knew it would have its head chopped off if they questioned "the logic" of this era.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An Interesting Chinese Artist

I saw a documentary on PBS's Frontline tonight about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. I like some of his art, other bits of this I find silly and pretentious. But I love his politics. He strikes me as a down-to-earth guy.

Here's the "teaser" for the PBS Frontline documentary:



If you hunger for more, then watch this BBC documentary:



Is he a "great" artist? I don't think so but I'm willing to say that his art is "interesting". From Wikipedia about his "Sunflower Seeds" piece:
In October 2010, Sunflower Seeds was installed at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, the work consists of one hundred million porcelain "seeds," each individually hand-painted in the town of Jingdezhen by 1,600 Chinese artisans, and scattered over a large area of the exhibition hall. The artist was keen for visitors to walk across and roll in the work to experience and contemplate the essence of his comment on mass consumption, Chinese industry, famine and collective work. However, on 16 October, Tate Modern stopped people from walking on the exhibit due to health liability concerns over the porcelain dust.
As art it is bizarre. To "simulate" a sunflower seed by having a small army of craftsmen to "produce" an imitation of the real thing when you could buy the real thing cheaply is bizarre. All that effort for what? From watching the video I would guess that one reason was the sunflowers were a symbol that the Communists liked, the idea that the sunflower always turned to watch the sun, i.e. the party leadership, an unquestioning following of the party line. Stepping on the seeds is a symbol of breaking with that past subjection. But it is a big effort to get a small point across. I wish he wrote a poem like this father instead of putting 1,600 people to work to create this "installation".

Toward the end of the BBC documentary the claim is made that sunflower seeds represent the food that saved starving peasants during the Cultural Revolution. The critic claims this art "is a monument to the multitude, poverty, and transformation". But to make art that requires such deep "interpretation" to be meaningful means the art is "interesting" but within a century it will be completely forgotten because required insight or interpretation doesn't talk to people across the ages. It appeals right now to sophisticates, historians, critics, but not ordinary people. Real art can't be built on such narrow elitism. All this sophistication turns to dust within a century because the public won't "know" what is required to "appreciate" the art. Great art is built on great themes that are deeply rooted in a civilization and can be interpreted and appreciated over thousands of years, not a mere century.

On the other hand, I think his architecture, the "Bird Nest" stadium for the Beijing Olympics, is a truly wonderful building. And the BBC documentary show brick buildings with wonderful texture. So he does do first class artful architecture.

Where he goes astray, in my mind, is to indulge in the silly elitist "conceptual" art of the 20th century.

Ai Weiwei is a great self promoter. That is his genius. He is very like Andy Warhol. Or today's Damian Hirst. These are "great artists" who will be forgotten within a century. Being popular doesn't guarantee you a place in history.

When I hear him in the BBC documentary answer the question of "do you believe that art can communicate and engage with ordinary people as well as using ordinary people's experience... are you a believer in connecting with the lots of people" by saying:
Yes, I believe that only when art is connecting with ordinary feeling or ordinary common sense does it become most powerful.
This is great and this is the thread in his work that I can engage with and enjoy. The elitist stuff I'm not interested in, but when he does art that is meant to reverberate with ordinary people do I think he has the makings of a great artist. He is interesting because he is bridging East and West in his art. He may find a place in history, but much of his "art" will be forgotten. It will be the stuff that speaks across the millennia that will make him a great artist and that means speaking at the level of "ordinary" people, their myths, their aesthetic, their experience.

His politics are astoundingly courageous and hopefully will create more freedom for the Chinese. I like the comment in the video that he manages to survive in China because the authorities are thugs and Ai Weiwei is a bit of a thug, so he understands the authorities' maneuvers and, so far, has managed to counter their moves. But it is pretty clear that his days are numbered. Sad.

I do think he is a heroic cultural figure. His art probably will not last. But he certainly is a great man for today and his art is enormously interesting because it fits in and accommodates his politics.

Update 2011apr03: There is a report in the UK's Guardian newspaper that Ai Weiwei has been "detained" by the Chinese police. The Communists just can't take an independent thinker. They have to crush anything and anybody that they see as "undermining" their iron grip on China. Sad.
China's best-known artist, Ai Weiwei, has been detained in Beijing and police have searched his studio, confiscated computers and questioned assistants.

The 53-year-old remains uncontactable more than 12 hours after officials held him at the capital's airport.

Ai, who designed the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium, has been an outspoken critic of the government.

Although he has repeatedly experienced harassment, he appeared to be relatively protected by the status of his late father, a renowned poet, and his international profile. Last year, he created the Sunflower Seeds installation for Tate Modern.

His detention comes amid what human rights campaigners have described as the harshest crackdown on activists and dissidents in over a decade.

At least 23 people have been criminally detained, mostly in relation to incitement to subversion or creating a disturbance.

Three more have been formally arrested and more than a dozen are missing, including high profile human rights lawyers.

Officials detained Ai at immigration control as he attempted to catch a flight to Hong Kong for business. An officer told an assistant travelling with him that the artist had "other business" and could not board the plane.

Uniformed and plainclothes police surrounded and searched his studio in Caochangdi, in the north of the capital. Power to the neighbourhood was cut off.

Men who appeared to be plainclothes officers grabbed the phone of a Guardian journalist who photographed the scene and deleted the image. A uniformed man said: "You are not allowed to be on this street. You must leave."

A staff member told the BBC Chinese news service that officers had taken away eight of Ai's assistants and volunteers.

A friend of the artist tweeted that most had been released but that his wife Lu Qing and two employees remained out of contact.

Police are thought to have searched two other properties relating to Ai and visited the mother of his two-year-old son.

Twitter users reported that police also detained Ai's friend Wen Tao. Wen's mobile was not available.

Beijing police said they did not know anything about either man. Asked about Ai, an airport police spokesman said: "I do not have the obligation to tell you the information. You may have got your information wrong.
The Chinese people have made a pact with the devil. They "bought" economic growth at the cost of their social and political soul. They saw how vicious the regime is after the crushing of the Tiananmen protests.

There is much more in the Guardian article. Go read the whole article.
Ai Weiwei has long been a thorn in the Chinese government's side, but human rights campaigners see his detention as part of the wider crackdown that has seen activists, dissidents and lawyers detained or go missing.

"Ai Weiwei has been a bit of an outlier and the harassment against him has been more and more intense in the past few months," said Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "I think the signal it sends is that if he can be arbitrarily harassed in this way, no one is safe."

The drive by security officials follows anonymous calls for "jasmine revolution" protests, echoing the uprisings in the Middle East. Although the posting was on an overseas website, and there was little sign of domestic support for the appeal, officials began detaining and harassing people within hours of its appearance.

Knowing Your Place

America is slowly slipping into a two class system: the ultra-rich and everybody else. The "everybody else" group is expected to happily become the servants of those ultra-rich. That is what the "free market" is telling us with wages and employment. So get yourself ready.

In the meantime, here is a bit from a post by Brad DeLong pointing to a comment by Paul Krugman:
Last September Paul Krugman joked:
Have You Left No Sense Of Decency?: Pretty soon, we’ll be having serious, completely un-self-conscious discussions in major magazines about the servant problem...
And soon afterwards yet another reporter called me to, among other things, claim that a New York police inspector and school principal together making $250-$300K a year were not rich. When I point out that the middle-class family making the median $50k a year in household income might disagree that he and his are in the same class as they and theirs, he said that people making the median income aren't what he calls middle class...
Yes... the fact that wages and stalled for the bottom 90% and continue to soar for those in the top 1% means that $300K/year is necessary to keep a person in "the middle class". If you are making $50K you are getting close to being priced as a maid, butler, cook, or groundskeeper for the ultra-rich.

Here's a bit of clarifying factual data for you to chew on. From Ezra Klein's blog at the Washington Post:
Click to Enlarge

Arguments over income taxes tend to get bogged down in arguments about who is really "rich." And what you hear then is that rich in Ohio and rich in New York City are different. But how different?

According to the Census Bureau, only 6.3 percent of New York City's households pulled in more than $200,000. So if you're a household making $250,000 or more, you're easily in the top 5 percent -- even in New York City.

Now, it's true that those people might not "feel" rich. There's lots of stuff to buy in New York City. It's pretty easy to construct a lifestyle where you spend $250,000 a year. In Columbus, Ohio, only 1.3 percent of households make more than $200,000, so there's less stuff for them to buy and fewer rich people for them to try to keep up with. But what you buy and whether you try to keep up with the people in the penthouse is a personal decision, not an objective economic necessity. The fact of the matter is that a household making $250,000 in New York City is making more than pretty much anyone else in the city. Being rich is more than just a feeling.
The above should give you some perspective on that NY couple making $250K-$300K/year as "not being rich". Yes, shed a tear. It is tough to be in the top 5% of incomes and feel "not rich". Luckily all those people on minimum wage are too busy to notice that they are "not rich" otherwise they might revolt. They might decide that all those "tax cuts" for corporations and "the rich" that have been touted since 1980 under Reagan "trickle down" economics as the cure for a stagnant economy just aren't working. They may decide that it is time to go back to a tax regime of the 1950s when working and middle class people actually saw improvements in their living standards each and every year.

From Wikipedia, the tax rates in the US:
Click to Enlarge

For example, between 1952 and 1960 under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the marginal tax rate for unmarried individuals in the highest income bracket was 91%. Also during this period, the United States public debt was cut in half, from almost 100% of GDP to under 50% of GDP.
Maybe Americans should try less "tax cuts" for the rich and go back to the good old days when tax rates were high and there were no deficits and the debt was being cut by the fiscal surplus that the taxes brought in. You know, back in the days when the US Interstate Highway system was built, schools for the baby boom were built, unions were strong, and wages were high enough for 80% of the population to feel like they belonged to the "middle class".

Robots on the Fly

Progress in robotics continues apace. Here's the latest in robot birds:



From a New Scientist article:
You could be forgiven for thinking the bird in this video is real, especially when filmed from a distance. But it's actually an energy-efficient robot, weighing just 500 grams, that captures the elegance of a bird in flight.

The robot, aptly named SmartBird, has just been unveiled by Festo, the robotics company known for its bionic animal designs. It has previously created penguins that can communicate with each other to avoid collisions and a robotic elephant's trunk designed to grip objects and safely interact with humans.

SmartBird is modelled on the herring gull and can take off, fly and land while its flight is controlled remotely from the ground in real time.

To take off, the robotic bird flaps its wings with the help of an onboard motor. As the wings beat, the front edge also twists, enabling airflow along the wings to generate thrust. Once in flight, the tail acts as a rudder to steer the bird through the air.

The technology could be used to design "stroke wing generators" - devices that produce energy from water.

If you liked this video, you might also like to watch a bio-inspired robotic fish.
New Scientist has a "robotics" page here that is worth taking a peek at.

I'm still waiting for the all-singing, all-dancing, tuck-me-in-bed-and-feed-me robot that can tell me bedtime stories and worry about my health. Something tells me I've got a few more decades to wait. Actually it looks to me that the Grim Reaper will get me before robotics delivers on this promise. But I still enjoy reading about the progress.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Modern Day Safari "Hunters"

It is hard if you love your gun and want to go after the really "collectible" specimens, you know, elephant, lion, tiger, grizzly, Afghani civilian, rhino, big horn sheep, ... Wait a second. Afghan civilians?

If you read this Rolling Stone article you will see how some rogue US soldiers decided to play the role of "Great White Hunters" and go after innocent, unarmed civilians:
Early last year, after six hard months soldiering in Afghanistan, a group of American infantrymen reached a momentous decision: It was finally time to kill a haji.

Among the men of Bravo Company, the notion of killing an Afghan civilian had been the subject of countless conversations, during lunchtime chats and late-night bull sessions. For weeks, they had weighed the ethics of bagging "savages" and debated the probability of getting caught. Some of them agonized over the idea; others were gung-ho from the start. But not long after the New Year, as winter descended on the arid plains of Kandahar Province, they agreed to stop talking and actually pull the trigger.
What is especially sickening about this story is two-fold:
  1. Just like Abu Gharaib, no officers are charged, just "grunts". Funny how you can have rogue soldiers but the "officers" never notice. Must be the wonderful new organization skills of the military that let the little guys come up with their own policies, their own strategies, and fight their own self-defined wars without bothering the big brass. Wonderful concept!

  2. There were a number of attempts to tell higher-ups about these rogue soldiers, but the officers ignored this information. Again, it shows the excellence of the "new & modern US military" that is so confident about the quality of their troops that they really don't need officers. I suggest they simply furlough the whole bunch since they seem to be doing no oversight, no management, no strategy & tactics. Other than wearing gold braid, it isn't clear what their "role" is in the "new" military.
Funny how the US military has learned nothing from Abu Gharaib.

BC Attack Ad

Here's how Canadians get in the gutter and play the American "attack ad" approach to politics:



Actually, the ad is funny. It does slander and distort, but in a comfy Canadian "polite" way. I'm hoping the Liberals respond with a similarly cute ad built around the theme of the NDP promising "new and improved" fast ferries if they get back in power, like ferries that actually can run between Vancouver Island and Vancouver after spending $300 million in public funds unlike the boat anchors that were built with taxpayer money. This would be a good riposte to the sly "train giveaway" in the above ad. Yep... both parties have misgoverned! So the upcoming election will depend on who you believe will in fact deliver better government.

It is interesting that the Vancouver Sun reported this "political" story in its "entertainment" section: NDP launch attack TV ad on B.C. Premier Christy Clark

Meanwhile, on the national level, attack ads have lost their veneer of comfy Canadian and become more "go for the jugular American attack ad" aura. Here's Rick Mercer in 2009 setting us up for the new era:



His points are dead on. The Conservatives are working overtime to poison the well of politics (and to be fair, the other parties are slip sliding away and giving themselves over to this "new and improved" political campaigning style).

Here's a sampler of Conservative attack ads:





Sleazy!

Here's an example of a Liberal attack ad:



The sad fact is that none of the above enable a voter to make an intelligent choice. At least in the old days the parties would campaign on their platforms (and then ignore them once they were in power). The platform gave you something positive to consider when deciding how to vote. But Canadian politics is morphing into the Mini-Me of American politics, mudslinging and a race to the bottom!

Is the American Civil War Finally Over After 150 Years?

Here is an interesting post by Ta-Nehisi Coates in an article in The Atlantic magazine:
Mississippi's governor offers his thoughts:
"Slavery was the primary, central, cause of secession," Barbour told me Friday. "The Civil War was necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery," he continued. "Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it's regrettable that it took the Civil War to do it. But it did."
Matt smirks at this. I'm less inclined to do so.

I think this is an important admission. You can make the case that this is all politics, and not heartfelt. Given that Barbour is a politician, I don't find that particularly damning. George Wallace's racism wasn't heart-felt either, but it still did incredible damage to Alabama. By that same principal, a step away from the gleeful profession of Confederate creationism, no matter the motives, will always earn my praise.

Good on Haley Barbour. It's that simple.
Go read the original article to get the embedded links.

I think the US is close to turning the page on the Civil War, but I suspect it will take one more generation to truly bury the racism and viciousness of that secular divide in the country. The fact that blacks are now moving back into the deep South after the flight of the early 20th century is a sign of real change. But it will take another generation to truly get the "peculiar institution" buried in the history books and no longer a living thing among the minds of the population.

Obama Negotiates with Himself

Here's a bit from a post by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post which shows exactly how Obama's "leadership" is an abysmal failure:
Back in February, Paul Ryan unveiled what was supposed to be the opening bid from the House Republicans: $32 billion in cuts for the rest of 2011. But the Tea Party demanded more and House leadership quickly caved, doubling their proposed cuts to more than $60 billion -- or almost $100 billion less than barack Obama’s 2011 budget request (quick note: different news stories present these numbers differently, as it depends on whether you use Obama’s budget request or 2010’s funding as a baseline. I’m using the difference from 2010 funding, which makes for lower sums). Now Democrats are offering as a compromise measure $30 billion in total cuts, or exactly what Ryan’s original proposal had called for. Pretty neat, huh?

And that’s not the Democrats’ final offer, either. Odds are good that the eventual compromise will see cuts somewhere between the $30 billion Republican leadership called for and the almost $70 billion the conservative wing of the House GOP demanded. “That’s not much of a compromise if we end up with what the House Republican leadership wanted in the first place,” observe Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden. And they’re right. But the irony is that it’s entirely possible the press will report that Democrats “won” the negotiations.
Pathetic.

Confusing the Tool with the Object of Study

There is an interesting controversy in biology over the concepts of eusociality and inclusive fitness.

This blog posting by Carl Zimmer on the Discover magazine site sums up the state of the controversy and identifies the key paper that is driving the current intellectual battles. Zimmer sides with the mathematical modelers. The other side is led by E. O. Wilson and is represented by this paper "The Evolution of Eusociality" in the Nature journal.

But I worry that the argument of inclusive fitness is an example of science mistaking the tool for the object of the science. Sure, if you make the assumptions of inclusive fitness you "explain" a large number of eusocial species. But I fear that models, as tools to tweeze out principles and help understand complex phenomena, get reified into "solutions" when in fact they are idealizations and can't handle all cases.

Carl Zimmer is dismissive of the E. O. Wilson paper, but it appears to me that Wilson has a valid criticism of the modelers. His point is the eusociality, while being extremely successful as a strategy, is rare in nature because it requires some unlikely series of steps and especially because it requires multilevel selection (a viewpoint that is anathema to the inclusive fitness crowd and many geneticists). But nature is complex and the drive to find simple models boxes you in conceptually. It is as if physics only allowed ideal gas laws and ignored any explanatory mechanisms that went below the level of an idealized billiard ball (i.e. models that attempt to describe real gas behaviour).

In a multicellular organism you have "eusociality" at a level of cells. Clearly you have reproductive division of labour, overlapping generations, and cooperative care of the young. And in this case, this is a degenerate and simplistic case of "inclusive fitness" because the genes in all cells are exactly the same. The odd cells that don't fit this pattern, e.g. blood cells, in fact do have the same genes until late in their "maturation" where they discard the nucleus with the DNA and go into a robo-mode. So in fact they do fit exactly the assumptions of inclusive fitness. But what about symbionts? How do lichen flourish? How does this cooperation arise since the originating algae/cyanobacterium and the fungus share no DNA? It does despite no fitting the mathematical model of inclusive fitness.

I like Wilson's attempt to understand the rise of eusociality in five phases:
  1. Formation of groups in a freely mixing population.

  2. Historical accidents that lead to the accumulation of traits that make the change to eusociality more likely (i.e. preadaptions).

  3. The rise of eusocial alleles.

  4. Natural selection operating on emergent traits among the cooperating organisms in a eusocial group.

  5. Natural selection operating on competing eusocial groups with their variant emerging eusocial traits.
That explanation has the richness to ring true to me. It is a much more credible account than the simplistic inclusive fitness model which is a simple calculation that can't explain how eusociality arises and changes over time.

I enjoy Carl Zimmer, but I think he has made a mistake in picking a "winner" in this controversy. Sure the inclusive fitness guys may have the "numbers" to be persuasive. But science isn't a political contest. Ultimately it is effectiveness of a theory in explaining the real world. It may take some time, but I expect that Wilson and his crowd will win this argument, not the simple modelers of the inclusive fitness crowd. They have a very useful tool for analysis, but (in my humble opinion) they've made the mistake of confusing the tool with their object of study.

Krugman Worries about the Next Obama "Compromise"

Paul Krugman has nailed the frustration of the left with Obama's "negotiating" with himself rather than fighting for the rights of the working and middle class. From a post on his NY Times blog:
Steve Benen and Ezra Klein both point out that by negotiating with himself, Obama seems to have ensured that the eventual budget “compromise” will give Republicans more than they ever imagined in the way of harsh cuts.

Maybe this is just political realism. But the way I see it, Obama adopted Republican framing of the budget debate — including the rhetoric about how families are tightening their belts so the government should too — as early as the 2010 State of the Union, back when Democrats had 59 Senate seats and control of the House. If that genuflection to the right was supposed to help Dems in the midterms, well, it didn’t; and it has meant that there is no effective counter-argument to the cut cut cut people.

So, can we now count on Obama, at least, not to preemptively surrender to the right by proposing Social Security cuts — cuts that we know will be a starting point, not an end to the discussion?

No, we can’t.
What I can't understand is that Obama persists in "negotiating" when it has been proven again and again that the Republicans are not serious. Their "negotiations" are elaborate maneuvers to use Obama against himself to box him into a Republican position. Obama is smart so you would expect he would learn from the bad experiences to date. But he has shown no ability to recognize how he has be had and continues to give himself over to the Republicans. Amazing.

The political left needs a leader. Obama has demonstrated unwillingness to lead the left. He is a centrist. During his victory speech in November 2008 he made it clear that he would not lead. He told his followers that he was counting on them to build the political pressure to force change. He wasn't going to lead. He would follow. And as a centrist, he seems very unwilling to follow any popularist push arising from the Wisconsin fight (or any of the other states where there is now a groundswell to counter Republican maneuvers to gut budgets, destroy unions, remove services to the bottom 90% of the population, and hand out yet more tax cuts to the ultra-rich).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Radiation Leakage from Fukujima

Here are some interesting bits from an article in the magazine New Scientist talking about the nuclear radiation released by the meltdown at Fukujima:
Japan's damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima has been emitting radioactive iodine and caesium at levels approaching those seen in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors – designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests – to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 per cent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 per cent of the amount released from Chernobyl.

The difference between this accident and Chernobyl, they say, is that at Chernobyl a huge fire released large amounts of many radioactive materials, including fuel particles, in smoke. At Fukushima Daiichi, only the volatile elements, such as iodine and caesium, are bubbling off the damaged fuel. But these substances could nevertheless pose a significant health risk outside the plant.

...

In the 10 days it burned, Chernobyl put out 1.76 × 1018 becquerels of iodine-131, which amounts to only 50 per cent more per day than has been calculated for Fukushima Daiichi. It is not yet clear how long emissions from the Japanese plant will continue.

Similarly, says Wotawa, caesium-137 emissions are on the same order of magnitude as at Chernobyl. The Sacramento readings suggest it has emitted 5 × 1015 becquerels of caesium-137 per day; Chernobyl put out 8.5 × 1016 in total – around 70 per cent more per day.

"This is not surprising," says Wotawa. "When the fuel is damaged there is no reason for the volatile elements not to escape," and the measured caesium and iodine are in the right ratios for the fuel used by the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Also, the Fukushima plant has around 1760 tonnes of fresh and used nuclear fuel on site, and an unknown amount has been damaged. The Chernobyl reactor had only 180 tonnes.

The amounts being released, he says, are "entirely consistent" with the relatively low amounts of caesium and iodine being measured in soil, plants and water in Japan, because so much has blown out to sea. The amounts crossing the Pacific to places like Sacramento are vanishingly small – they were detected there because the CTBT network is designed to sniff out the tiniest traces.

...

The Chernobyl accident emitted much more radioactivity and a wider diversity of radioactive elements than Fukushima Daiichi has so far, but it was iodine and caesium that caused most of the health risk – especially outside the immediate area of the Chernobyl plant, says Malcolm Crick, secretary of a United Nations body that has just reviewed the health effects of Chernobyl. Unlike other elements, he says, they were carried far and wide by the wind.
I'm losing confidence in Japan as well as the US since this disaster hasn't been brought under control and the information we are getting is through third parties and not official government sources. The promise to bring power to the plant dragged on for over a week and when power arrived suddenly we were told that you couldn't just start up the cooling system. There is no information about the scope & scale of the disaster and now authoritative statement of what has to be done and the expected time it will take. Worst of all, there is no guidance on the radioactive release stating what has been released, when it is expected to be under control, and what we can expect over the coming weeks and months.

I'm starting to get very cynical about this situation and the competence of the authorities. I'm now wondering why they didn't just bury the site under a hundred feet of water impervious concrete to prevent these weeks and weeks of radiation leakage. It is obvious that Tepco is incompetent and has lied about safety in the past, so why are these clowns still "in charge" of the cleanup?

Unrest in Syria

The Arab world is afire. Syria may be the next big flare up:



I find the most interesting statement in this video to be the chant "Syrians are not hungry for bread, we want our freedom and dignity". It ends up that the most powerful force for political change is not hunger or a broken economy. It is the cry for dignity and freedom.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spinning a Food Crisis

This graph should tell you all you need to know about the "food crisis" that doom-and-gloomsters want you to believe is upon us:

Click to Enlarge

The above is from an article by Willis Eschenbach on the Watts Up with That? blog. He examines the claims of professional doomster (oh, I mean "environmentalist") Bill McKibben. What I enjoy about people like McKibben is that they never let a fact get in the way of their prejudices. Go read the article by Eschenbach to see how he demolishes McKibben's claim that:
We’re seeing record temperatures that depress harvests – the amount of grain per capita on the planet has been falling for years.
Those are all lies. But McKibben has been in the business of lies for a long time. From the Wikipedia site:
His first book, The End of Nature, was published in 1989 by Random House after being serialized in the New Yorker. It is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has been printed in more than 20 languages. Several editions have come out in the United States, including an updated version published in 2006.
Yep, for 22 years he has been telling people that "the end is nigh" because of global warming. I guess it is too much to think that he would give up on that theme since he also pushes the Robert Malthus "we are all going to starve to death because population grows faster than food supply" lie that has been around since 1798, that's 213 years and counting.

Why is there World Hunger?

Superstitious, anti-science thinking is the simple answer. Here's a bit from a UK Guardian newspaper article:
Food prices worldwide were up by a whopping 25% in 2010, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, and February marked the eighth consecutive month of rising global food prices. Within the past two months, food riots helped to trigger the ousting of ruling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. (It is noteworthy that food prices increased 17% last year in Egypt, and the price of wheat, a critical staple there, soared by more than 50%.) For poor countries that are net importers of food, even small increases in food prices can be catastrophic, and recent bumps have been anything but small.

There are several causes of rising prices. First, large-scale disasters have precipitated localised crop failures, some of which have had broad ripple effects – for example, Russia's ban on grain exports through at least the end of this calendar year resulted from fires and drought. Second, deadly strains of an evolving wheat pathogen (a rust) named Ug99 are increasingly threatening yields in the major wheat-growing areas of southern and eastern Africa, the central Asian Republics, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, South America, Australia and North America. Third, rising incomes in emerging markets like China and India have increased the ability of an expanding middle class to shift from a grain-based diet to one that contains more meat.

And fourth, against this backdrop of lessened supply and heightened demand, private investment in R&D on innovative practices and technologies has been discouraged by arbitrary and unscientific national and international regulatory barriers – against, in particular, new varieties of plants produced with modern genetic engineering (aka recombinant DNA technology or genetic modification, or GM). Genetic engineering offers plant breeders the tools to make crops do spectacular new things. In more than two dozen countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment.
And this:
In fact, the United States and Europe are diverting vast and increasing amounts of land and agricultural production into making ethanol. The United States is approaching the diversion of 40% of the corn harvest for fuel and the EU has a goal of 10% biofuel use by 2020. The implications are worrisome. On 9 February, the US department of agriculture reported that the ethanol industry's projected orders for 2011 rose 8.4%, to 13.01bn bushels, leaving the United States with about 675m bushels of corn left at the end of the year. That is the lowest surplus level since 1996.
So, what do we know? Bad weather and a virulent new plant pathogen. The weather will change. And science can help develop resistent strains to deal with the new pathogen.

Rising incomes is not a problem. It makes it tough for the world's poor, but rising incomes also gives them hopes that they too will earn more and eat better some day.

Anti-GM quackery is a real problem. This is anti-science at its worst. Mumbo jumbo about what is "natural" and how it goes "against God's will to move genes from one species to another" is nutty. And the lies these fanatics tell! They claim that new breeding programs based on GM need special scrutiny is the same nonsense as the belief that the tomato was a "poisonous food" back in 1590.

Worst of all are the doom-and-gloom crowd so worried about "global warming" that they are willing to sacrifice the poorest billion people so that the "global warming" crowd can tool around in their SUV's using ethanol. That's right. The "global warming" crowd burns food so they can enjoy their yuppie lifestyle and continue to spread malicious rumours about "global warming" while letting a billion or so people starve to death. Talk about misplaced values and skewed ethics! And these hypocrites dare to preach to the rest of the world and spread their vile propaganda, a lie about climate that isn't going to kill anybody. But they are willing to condemn a billion to painful starvation. Hypocrites!

Justice in America

The first principle of "The Law" in America is "never go after the big fish when you can terrorize the little fishes!"

Here's a bit from a NY Times article by Joe Nocera on how the US Justice Department is throwing the full weight of "The Law" against the little people while letting the big, the really big, criminals get off scott free!
In Prison for Taking a Liar Loan

A few weeks ago, when the Justice Department decided not to prosecute Angelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that none of the big fish were likely to go to prison for their roles in the financial crisis.

Soon after that column ran, I received an e-mail from a man named Richard Engle, who informed me that I was wrong. There was, in fact, someone behind bars for what he’d supposedly done during the subprime bubble. It was his 48-year-old son, Charlie.

On Valentine’s Day, the elder Mr. Engle said, his son had entered a minimum-security prison in Beaver, W.Va., to begin serving a 21-month sentence for mortgage fraud. He then proceeded to tell me the tale of how federal agents nabbed his son — a tale he backed up with reams of documents and records that suggest, if nothing else, that when the federal government is truly motivated, there is no mountain it won’t move to prosecute someone it wants to nail. And it was definitely motivated to nail Charlie Engle.

Mr. Engle’s is a tale worth telling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its punch line. Was Mr. Engle convicted of running a crooked subprime company? Was he a mortgage broker who trafficked in predatory loans? A Wall Street huckster who sold toxic assets?

No. Charlie Engle wasn’t a seller of bad mortgages. He was a borrower. And the “mortgage fraud” for which he was prosecuted was something that literally millions of Americans did during the subprime bubble. Supposedly, he lied on two liar loans.
There's much more. Go read the whole article.

But it comes down to "the long arm of the law" going after a petty crook while looking the other way to let the big crooks run free. It is like going after the corner drug seller while ignoring the head of the criminal gang that is bringing in hundreds of tons of drugs and setting up the thousand man operation to push drugs onto the schoolyards of America.

The killer bit of Joe Nocera's story is the extent to which the federal government went to "nail" this petty criminal:
Still convinced that Mr. Engle must be hiding income, Mr. Nordlander did undercover surveillance and took “Dumpster dives” into Mr. Engle’s garbage. He mainly discovered that Mr. Engle lived modestly.

In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments.

After acknowledging that he had been speculating in real estate during the bubble to help support his running, he said, according to Mr. Nordlander’s grand jury testimony, “I had a couple of good liar loans out there, you know, which my mortgage broker didn’t mind writing down, you know, that I was making four hundred thousand grand a year when he knew I wasn’t.”
It did this while it has let the big shots of Wall Street and all those mortgage broker companies that crashed the US economy (and the world economy) walk free. Free as the birds. No prosecution. No femme fatales chasing after them to get them to whisper sweet nothings about their crimes so that hard-nosed feds can nail them for their crimes.

This is "justice" in America. The big shots dance free while the little guy gets his skin nailed to the wall. Yep... blind justice... blind to the rich and vicious when it comes to petty crimes. Steal a hundred billion and you get wined and dined (and appointed to big government positions in the Obama administration) but be a petty crook and you will spend years in the slammer!

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Must Read Book?

Any publisher who goes to the trouble of putting out a video clip to sell the book deserves a second look...



My local library has three copies...

And this reviewer assures me this book is head and shoulders above the cheap imitators.

How can I resist?

Oh, and when I finish the above, I guess I'll be ready for the challenge of this book...

Republican Plan to End the Great Recession

There is a paper by the Republicans Joint Economic Committee that is pointed to by the US House of Representative's Speaker, John Boehner because it has some wonderful "fixes" to get the US back to properity. Here are a few of its "suggestions" with a bit of commentary that I've added to encourage them to take their logic to its logical conclusion:
Decreasing the number and compensation of government workers. A smaller government workforce increases the available supply of educated, skilled workers for private firms, thus lowering labor costs.
Yes! Solve high unemployment by throwing more people out of work to create more fear and have these new unemployed fight to lower their wages so that employers can make even bigger profits while workers pauperize themselves in a race-to-the-bottom!

And of course, cut taxes!
HIGH TAXES ARE THE BANE OF ECONOMIC GROWTH. Most economists agree that fluctuations in business investment in equipment, software, and structures drive the economic cycle, but there is disagreement on what causes this volatility.
And to get certainty, just simply eliminate all taxes on the rich and corporations. Put those taxes on the broad shoulders of the working and middle class who know how to pay through the nose for government. That will give certainty to the elites who "create jobs". They will know they have no taxes to pay! They will immediately go out and create tens of millions, maybe even hundreds of millions of jobs to celebrate the fact that they no longer owe any taxes.

And don't forget that "privatization" is always a sure cure for "big government" which everybody knows causes recessions and depressions:
In particular, government asset sales and the privatization of government-owned enterprises and commercial functions both generate government receipts and increase economic efficiency. Since government asset sales and privatizations are politically difficult to reverse, they also may have expansionary “non-Keynesian” effects in the short term.
I'm thinking that an auction should be set up to see whether China or Russia would bid the highest to acquire the complete US military, that means not just the weapons, ships, planes, tanks, etc. but the personnel as well. Wrap 'em up and sell the whole shebang. Now that is taking "privatization" seriously!

Another surefire medicine to get the economy to grow is to shrink government:
The current level of federal spending—a projected 24.7% of GDP in fiscal year 2011—is far above the optimum level for maximizing U.S. economic growth over time, according to empirical studies.
The Republicans should stop all half measures. They should move this number to 0%! Just let the rich hire private guards and build up private armies, oh and create private prisons and run their own "government" which can give workers a choice: either work for bread and water wages or be locked up in solitary and forced to "pay their own way" in prison sweatshops. Now that would fix unemployment! And it would be very profitable for business which everybody knows is the secret to getting out a "recession".

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

Wired magazine has a fascinating article by Noah Shachtman on the anthrax killer in the autumn of 2001:
On August 18, 2008—after almost seven years, nearly 10,000 interviews, and millions of dollars spent developing a whole new form of microbial forensics—some of the FBI’s top brass filed into a dimly lit, flag-lined room in the bureau’s Washington, DC, headquarters. They were there to lay out the evidence proving who was responsible for the anthrax attacks that had terrified the nation in the fall of 2001.

It had been the most expensive, and arguably the toughest, case in FBI history, the assembled reporters were told. But the facts showed that Army biodefense researcher Bruce Ivins was the person responsible for killing five people and sickening 17 others in those frightening weeks after 9/11. It was Ivins, they were now certain, who had mailed the anthrax-filled letters that exposed as many as 30,000 people to the lethal spores.
It is a fascinating story, and a very unsatisfying story because they really aren't that sure they caught the killer. Read the article. Fascinating stuff.

FMEA and Evolution

I was not aware of the use of genetic algorithms to come up with FMEA analysis. This is an interesting thought. Right now it isn't clear to me how the software can be built to evolve new failures for an engineered system, but the following video claims at 3:11 that it is be used by the US Navy with great success:



One thing I learned from working in high tech industry: don't trust any claim until you've had time to investigate it, understand it, and see it in work with your own eyes. Too many times I've been told about "gee whiz" capabilities of software only to discover that it was merely a gleam in the "inventor's eye" and not really present in the software. The software industry is probably the worst at making unsubstantiated claims for its products.

One thing that makes me suspicious about the above claims at 4:40 about medicinal chemistry using this genetic algorithm approach to "evolve new drugs" is the very fact that I don't see any major drug company successfully using this technology. I do know that big drug companies are desperate for new drugs and pay billions to their labs to develop new drugs. If a multi-million dollar software package could obviate the need to invest billions, drug companies would be beating down the door of Eric Bonabeau's Icosystem Corporation. This company is over ten years old and isn't a billion dollar company and on everybody's lips. That says to me it doesn't do the gee whiz developments that the above video claims.

The fact that the company web site names Nymbler as a "product" says to me that the gap between the claimed capabilities and the actual delivery is an awesome unbridgeable chasm:
The ominous panda generator and the addictive baby-naming site Nymbler are two examples of what we, at Icosystem, call the "hunch engine."
To claim that you can discover new drugs and test complex engineered system but cite as your "products" a baby naming algorithm and panda expression generator apprears to me to be a monumental "bait-and-switch" con. You claim to be able to generate billion dollar values with new drugs and sophisticated testing, but you point me at rinky-dink applications like baby name generators and panda expression generators!

This article in The Atlantic doesn't change my mind.

The New Republican Reality

Here is a bit from a post by Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, writing about the Maine governor's assault on labor and the FDR Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins:
Frances Perkins was the first woman cabinet member in American history. She was also one of the most accomplished cabinet members in history.

She and her boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, came to office at a time when average working people needed help – and Perkins and Roosevelt were determined to give it to them. Together, they created Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right of workers to unionize, the minimum wage, and the forty-hour workweek.

Big business and Wall Street thought Perkins and Roosevelt were not in keeping with pro-business goals. So they and their Republican puppets in Congress and in the states retaliated with a political assault on the New Deal.

Roosevelt did not flinch. In a speech in October 1936 he condemned “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.”

Big business and Wall Street, he said,
had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.
Fast forward 75 years.

Big business and Wall Street have emerged from the Great Recession with their pockets bulging. Profits and bonuses are as high as they were before the downturn. And they’re spending like mad on lobbying and politics. After the Supreme Court’s disgraceful Citizens United decision, there are no limits.

Pro-business goals are breaking out all over. Governors across America are slashing corporate taxes as they slash state budgets. House and Senate Republicans are intent on deregulating, privatizing, and cutting spending and taxes so their corporate and Wall Street patrons will do even better.

But most Americans are still in desperate trouble. Few if any of the economic gains are trickling down.

That’s why the current Republican assault on workers – on their right to form unions, on unemployment insurance and Social Security, on public employees, and even (courtesy of Governor LePage) on our common memory – is so despicable.

And it’s why we need a President who will fight for workers and fight against this assault — just as Perkins and FDR did.
The "pro business" preference of Republicans will get them tossed out of office. There is a rebellion afoot that will make the Tea Party look like a tempest in a teacup. The pro-business forces have crossed a line and aroused a sleeping giant.