Saturday, July 31, 2010

Brain in a Box

Here's some research being done at IBM:

This project is a bit ahead of schedule. Here's a graph by Hans Moravec from the 1990s estimating how soon a human-life intelligence could be achieved by computers:
Click to Enlarge

As I listen to Dharmendra Modha, I hear too much general fuzzy stuff. This guy is very, very far from achieving what he claims. Going back to the mid 1950s computer scientists have been promising that a "brain in a box" will be achieved in a decade or two. He needs to think less about ubiquitous implementation and "productivity" and more about the hard problem of coming up with a wiring which can process inputs and "think" about them and give results. This is so far from being achievable as to be laughable.

Back in the 1950s linguists thought they could produce an automated natural language translator. If you have used Google Translate, you know that 40 years later we are very, very far from achieving even this limited goal.

If you look at Douglas Lenat's Cyc project, for 16 years it has been trying to build a base of knowledge rules that would let a computer take in information and reason about it as a human would. That project is nowhere near being ready to deal with real world communication. For limited domains I'm sure it is helpful, but that is many orders of magnitude from what was promised when the project started.

Here is a Wired Magazine article that looks at Dharmendra Modha's research and calls it a "scam" (by another IBM researcher trying to build his own brain in a box!). I wouldn't call it a scam. I wrote research proposals. The pressure is always on to hype your project to get funding. Modha is guilty of "excessive enthusiasm". But without that he wouldn't have gotten any funding. It is a hoax in that the research goals will not be met within the project timeframe or budget. In fact, that timeframe will be off by at least an order of magnitude and the budget will be off by several orders of magnitude, easily 3 maybe 5 or even 8.

From Out of the Past: Wild Sex

Here is a bit from a review of the book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá published in Seed Magazine:
When we think of the first swinger parties most of us imagine 1970s counter-culture, we don’t picture Top Gun fighter pilots in World War II. Yet, according to researchers Joan and Dwight Dixon, it was on military bases that “partner swapping” first originated in the United States. As the group with the highest casualty rate during the war, these elite pilots and their wives “shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual” and had an unspoken agreement to care for one another if a woman’s husband didn’t make it back home. Like the sexy apes known as bonobos, this kind of open sexuality served a social function that provided a way to relieve stress and form long-lasting bonds.
The article is filled with strange facts presumably from the book under review. The problem with an article like this: how can you tell what the truth is?

For example, I find this factoid completely unbelievable:
As an example they detail how in 1902 the first home-use vibrator was patented and approved for domestic use in the United States. Fifteen years later there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes.
Sorry, that doesn't fit my knowledge of that era. Sure there were groups and cults of "free love" but the majority of people were living under a Victorian view of sexuality and vibrators just didn't fit that mind set.

Assuming I ever get my hands on the book I would expect it to be heavily document to back up its claims. But my prejudice is that it isn't or that the references are obscure and not credible.

While I'm for removing the heavy hand of repressive sex laws, I this this is over the top:
Among apes the only monogamous species are the gibbons whose infrequent, reproduction-only copulations make them much better adherents of the Vatican’s guidelines than we are. In this way, Ryan and Jethá argue, repressing our sexuality should not be confused with reining in an “animal” nature; rather, it is denying one of the most unique aspects of what it means to be human.
I think sex researchers need to get out into the broader community. I do know that Alfred Kinsey had a problem with signing up over-enthusiastic sex fanatics as the "subjects" of his supposedly scientific study of human sex. So his data is skewed. It strikes me that this couple suffer the same problem with their data. Simply put: humans don't behave like Bonobos. We don't behave like Chimpanzees either. My judgement: We are mostly monogamous with some extra-marital copulations and with a significant subset of the population (single digit percent) who are hyper-sexual.

I simply don't think there is real data to back up this claim:
However, by looking at modern indigenous societies and comparing the findings of anthropologists with the latest results in behavioral psychology and biology, Ryan and Jethá piece together a remarkably coherent pattern from an otherwise fractured understanding of human sexuality. From societies that believe that multiple men are necessary for a successful pregnancy (what researchers refer to as “partible paternity”) to those where not having an extra-marital tryst will cause a man to be labeled “stingy of one’s genitals” by his female suitors, the authors conclude that marriage may be an established social arrangement among many hunter-gatherers but it’s one in which sexuality is decidedly fluid.
This reminds me of the claims that Margaret Mead made in her "study" of "primitives". Her claims have since been debunked. She "found" the answers that matched her prejudice (and her wish to find "exciting" new human relationship styles). It wasn't science. But it made popular reading. I suspect this book is more "popular reading" and not much real science.

This is one book I would be especially skeptical about its claims. It is too easy to publish sensationalistic "material" to boost sales (or to boost a career).

I find this conclusion by the reviewer to be telling:
While the authors’ conclusion that healthy relationships can be both committed and open may come as a shock to some readers, others will likely find it refreshingly honest.
In short, the reviewer sounds more like a propagandist for a point of view expressed in this book that an objective scientist. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Update 2010aug11: Here is a bit from a quickie review of the book Sex at Dawn on the Gizmodo blog site:
In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá put to lie the notion of sexual monogamy as something intrinsically human, arguing we gave up sexual novelty for agriculture. "Agriculture" probably means "beer". We gave up orgies for beer?
The "review" is a bit light hearted, but it takes this book seriously and at face value. It doesn't question the claim that at heart we are sexy Bonobos who got side-tracked by agriculture into an over-zealous commitment to monogamy. Here's how Gizmodo distills the message:
Our genes, still tuned toward sexual novelty, cause us to really hate being monogamous, but societal pressures—including centralized codified religion—force men and women into an arrangement that brings with it just as many problems as it solves. Men cheat, women wither in sexual shackles (or, you know, cheat), wars erupt over resources or sexual exclusivity, cats and dogs almost start sleeping together except they're afraid the neighbors might find out—Old Testament, real wrath of God-type stuff.
I don't buy it. We are basically monogamous with an alpha male hierarchy which gives a dash of polygamy to our "nature" since dominant males can cut corners and redefine rules to their favour.

Update 2010aug15: Here is a bit from an article by Carl Zimmer that establishes that humans have less "wild sex" than chimpanzees. This goes contrary to the thesis that Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá are advocating in their book:
Scientists have noted for a long time that the Y chromosome has been shrinking for hundreds of millions of years. Its decline has to do with how it is copied each generation. Out of the 23 pairs of our chromosomes, 22 have the same structure, and as a result they swap some genes as they are put into sperm or egg cells. Y chromosomes do not, because their counterpart, the X, is almost completely incompatible. My Y chromosome is thus a nearly perfect clone of my father’s. Mutations can spread faster when genes are cloned than when they get mixed together during recombination. As a result, many pieces of the Y chromosome have disappeared over time, and many Y genes that once worked no longer do.

Scientists have discovered that Clint and his fellow chimpanzee males have taken a bigger hit on the Y than humans have. In the human lineage, males with mutations to the Y chromosome have tended to produce less offspring than those without them. (This is a process known as purifying selection, because it strips out variations.) But the scientists found several broken versions of these genes on the chimpanzee Y chromosome.

Why are chimpanzees suffering more genetic damage? The authors of the study suggest that it has to do with their sex life. A chimpanzee female may mate with several males when she is in oestrus, and so mutations that give one male’s sperm an edge over other males are ben strongly favored by selection. If there are harmful mutations elsewhere on that male’s Y chromosome, they may hitchhike along. We humans are not so promiscuous, and the evidence is in our Y chromosome.
You can add to this the fact that there is less dimorphism between males and females in the human species which is another indicator that we are a fairly strongly monogamous species.

As far as I know, male genitalia size is not an indicator of much of anything. The only "fact" that I know is that gorillas have a small penis because the males control a harem so there isn't much sperm competition. Human genitalia indicates that there is some limited sperm competition, but we all know this "fact" already from stories about marital infidelity. But infidelity isn't rampant. For all the claims that humans are a "sexy" species, I don't see the evidence of that. You don't trip over humans copulating in the hallways or behind the door of every closet. Copulations are pretty rare.

Pity the Super-Rich

Here'e the lead-in for a short article on current research on money & happiness trying to figure out why money buys a little happiness but not as much as you would expect:
Spare a thought for the super-rich, the poor darlings can't appreciate a tin of spam, a lump of coal or a cardboard box the way you and I can.
It's a mystery why money doesn't make us happy, because it feels like it damn well should. With money we can buy whatever we want, go wherever we want, even be whoever we want. Surely that should make us happy?

And yet study after study shows that in affluent societies money might bring satisfaction, but it doesn't bring much happiness.

Perhaps, as people become really rich, they don't choose more enjoyable activities (i.e. they stay in the office working)? Perhaps material goods just can't make us happy? Or perhaps there is always someone richer, spoiling the party with their more impressive wealth?
Go read the blog posting the get the details of the research. It is worth a peek!

How Bad is Stress on Your Health?

Here's a bit from an excellent article by Jonah Lehrer in Wired Magazine about stress and its effects. A key result is that executives talking about their "stressful work" are not really stressed out. It is the employees at the bottom of the pecking order who suffer from the bad kind of stress that wrecks your health:
A few years ago, Donald Redelmeier, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, led a study of Academy Award-winning actors. His hypothesis was that having an Oscar gave people more control over their stressful careers. Instead of being forced to accept bad roles or work on mediocre movies just for the money, these stars could pick and choose their parts. This creative control, in turn, would lead to improved health outcomes. Redelmeier compared the award winners to two groups: (1) actors who had appeared in the same film as a nominated actor and didn’t get a nomination and (2) actors who had been nominated for an Academy Award but never won. The results were clear: People with Oscars lived, on average, four years longer than their less-successful peers, which represented a 28 percent reduction in death rate. As Redelmeier notes, this longevity boost is roughly equal to the effect that would come from “curing all cancers in all people for all time.”
Here's another take on this same effect:
While doctors speculated for years that increasing rates of cardiovascular disease in women might be linked to the increasing number of females employed outside the home, that correlation turned out to be nonexistent. Working women didn’t have more heart attacks. There were, however, two glaring statistical exceptions to the rule: Women developed significantly more heart disease if they performed menial clerical work or when they had an unsupportive boss. The work, in other words, wasn’t the problem. It was the subordination.
Here's a bit more from the article that details the downside effects of stress:
Chronic stress, it turns out, is an extremely dangerous condition. And not just for baboons: People are as vulnerable to its effects as those low-ranking male apes. While stress doesn’t cause any single disease — in fact, the causal link between stress and ulcers has been largely disproved — it makes most diseases significantly worse. The list of ailments connected to stress is staggeringly diverse and includes everything from the common cold and lower-back pain to Alzheimer’s disease, major depressive disorder, and heart attack. Stress hollows out our bones and atrophies our muscles. It triggers adult-onset diabetes and is a leading cause of male impotence. In fact, numerous studies of human longevity in developed countries have found that psychosocial factors such as stress are the single most important variable in determining the length of a life. It’s not that genes and risk factors like smoking don’t matter. It’s that our levels of stress matter more.


The emergence of stress as a major risk factor is largely a testament to scientific progress: The deadliest diseases of the 21st century are those in which damage accumulates steadily over time. (Sapolsky refers to this as the “luxury of slowly falling apart.”) Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of damage that’s exacerbated by emotional stress. While modern medicine has made astonishing progress in treating the fleshy machine of the body, it is only beginning to grapple with those misfortunes of the mind that undo our treatments.

The power of this new view of stress — that our physical health is strongly linked to our emotional state — is that it connects a wide range of scientific observations, from the sociological to the molecular. On one hand, stress can be described as a cultural condition, a byproduct of a society that leaves some people in a permanent state of unease. But that feeling can also be measured in the blood and urine, quantified in terms of glucocorticoids and norepinephrine and adrenal hormones. And now we can see, with scary precision, the devastating cascade unleashed by these chemicals. The end result is that stress is finally being recognized as a critical risk factor, predicting an ever larger percentage of health outcomes.
I enjoyed this sly dig at the dysfunctional US government while considering the chemicals -- glucocoricoids -- that underlie stress:
But glucocorticoids have a nasty side effect: When they linger in the bloodstream, as they might due to chronic stress related to low rank, damage accumulates. It’s the physiological version of a government devoting too many resources to its defense department, Sapolsky says. The body is so worried about war that it doesn’t fix the roads or invest in schools.
Go read the whole article to find out how Robert Sapolsky is progressing in developing a "vaccine" to treat stress.

Bush's Ownership Society

President Bush boasted about his presidency as one that stress "business values" and was one that was making Americans home owners!

Well, the business values ended up being outright fraud (e.g. Bernie Madoff) or shyster business ethics (e.g. the Wall Street securitization scam that created a banking panic that sank the whole world's economy).

Where has this left the American home owner? Here are some facts from a posting on the Calculated Risk blog site:
  • Almost 50% of home owners in Arizona are "underwater", i.e. they owe more to the bank than their house is worth!

  • There are 14.75 million home owners that are "underwater" across the whole US.

  • Just under 20% of all houses in the US are "underwater". Since some houses are wholly paid for, the more interesting fact is that of those with mortgages, 30.6% are "underwater".
Go look at the Calculated Risk posting. It has some wonderful graphs to help picture these and other facts.

What I find utterly unbelievable is that the Republican party which created this mess is poised to win the November 2010 elections. I guess Americans are masochists. They want to give these rapacious reptiles a second chance to destroy the American dream and finish off what is left of a sputtering economy!

The Dragons of the Right and their Dragon Breath

Here is a bit of a post by Dean Baker taking on the phony claims of the Right that they want to reduce the size of government and give people more freedoms:
When we consider a program like Social Security, we would ask how to carry through its purpose – ensuring workers a core retirement income— at the least possible cost. Any serious analysis would almost certainly show that some public Social Security type program fits the bill.

The administrative costs of the Social Security program are approximately 0.6 percent of what is paid out in benefits each year. By contrast, the administrative costs of privatized systems like the ones in Chile and the U.K. are on the order of 15-20 percent of the benefits paid out annually.

Furthermore, these privatized systems do not allow individuals to do what they want with their money. They threaten them with jail if they don’t turn over a fraction of their earnings to the financial industry each year. So the commitment to a privatized Social Security system seems more like a commitment to force people to give money to Merrill Lynch than a commitment to individual freedom.

The same applies to privatizing Medicare. We can hand people vouchers and tell them to buy the health care they want. However, this would require a massive array of laws and bureaucracy to ensure that the providers accepting these vouchers were not gaming the system and ripping off beneficiaries and the government. This approach can increase profits for insurers and providers but there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that it would make it possible to provide the elderly with health care at a lower cost.

We can take steps to lower costs and reduce the role of government that will send David Brooks’ small government types fleeing in horror. Suppose that we got rid of government patent monopolies and allowed all prescription drugs to be sold at generic prices in a competitive market. Free market types should love this one. Instead of drugs selling for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars per prescription, they could be bought at chain drug stores for five or ten bucks.

The research could be supported by government research grants awarded through competitive contracts. The government already spends $30 billion a year on biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health. If this sum was doubled, then it would probably be sufficient to replace the industry’s funding; especially if a requirement of getting grants was that all research findings would be posted on the Internet where they would be freely available to other researchers.

We could also try a variation of the Paul Ryan approach to Medicare vouchers. Instead of creating an incredibly burdensome task of policing a privatized system in the United States, we can allow beneficiaries the option to buy into the much more efficient systems in Europe, Canada and elsewhere. Free market types should love this win-win situation where giving beneficiaries a choice will allow taxpayers to save money on Medicare and put large sums of money (more than $10,000 a year in many cases) into the pockets of our retired workers. But, this voucher system means less money for the insurers, the drug companies and other providers, so Paul Ryan would not support it.

There are many other cases where smaller government can be used to accomplish the progressive goals of providing basic needs and limiting inequality[CSN]. But Paul Ryan and his friends are not likely to be interested in these policies. This might suggest that, in spite of what David Brooks tells us, Mr. Ryan’s concern is not reducing the size of government, but rather redistributing income upward.
The scare mongers of the Right -- the "Dragons" -- get all puffed up with claims of "getting government out of your life" and "freedom" but in reality this is a cover for wanting to "privatize" government functions into big money opportunities for their rich buddies. There's nothing in it for the ordinary person.

If you want to keep on top of the hypocrisy on the Right and the sleazy job the media does, follow Dean Baker's blog: Beat The Press.

Friday, July 30, 2010

I've always found ants to be fascinating. As a toddler I found a wonderful fuzzy red "ant" and got badly stung. It was a velvet ant which isn't an ant but a wasp! That didn't stop my interest.

Here's a nice video about ants and scientists in the San Francisco, California area:

And here is the Ant Web site they talk about in the video.

My favourite ant site is MYRMECOS: Alex Wild on insects, science, and photography... lots of pretty pictures and interesting tidbits about ants (and other bugs).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Krugman Hammers at Obama

Here's a bit from Paul Krugman's latest NY Times op-ed. He takes Obama to task for failing to give even the smallest acknowledgement to his progressive left. Instead Obama glories in being a "unifier" but has in fact simply shot himself in the foot again and again as his "negotiations" with the Republicans end up giving away the store for a promise of support that is never delivered by the Republicans.
Why does the Obama administration keep looking for love in all the wrong places? Why does it go out of its way to alienate its friends, while wooing people who will never waver in their hatred?

These questions were inspired by the ongoing suspense over whether President Obama will do the obviously right thing and nominate Elizabeth Warren to lead the new consumer financial protection agency. But the Warren affair is only the latest chapter in an ongoing saga.

Mr. Obama rode into office on a vast wave of progressive enthusiasm. This enthusiasm was bound to be followed by disappointment, and not just because the president was always more centrist and conventional than his fervent supporters imagined. Given the facts of politics, and above all the difficulty of getting anything done in the face of lock step Republican opposition, he wasn’t going to be the transformational figure some envisioned.

And Mr. Obama has delivered in important ways. Above all, he managed (with a lot of help from Nancy Pelosi) to enact a health reform that, imperfect as it is, will greatly improve Americans’ lives — unless a Republican Congress manages to sabotage its implementation.

But progressive disillusionment isn’t just a matter of sky-high expectations meeting prosaic reality. Threatened filibusters didn’t force Mr. Obama to waffle on torture; to escalate in Afghanistan; to choose, with exquisitely bad timing, to loosen the rules on offshore drilling early this year.

Then there are the appointments. Yes, the administration needed experienced hands. But did all the senior members of the economics team have to be protégés of Robert Rubin, the apostle of financial deregulation? Was it necessary to install Ken Salazar at the Interior Department over the objections of environmentalists who feared, rightly, that his ties to extractive industries would make him slow to clean up a corrupt agency?
It has become all too clear that the midterm elections in the US will be a disaster for the Democrats. They will have blown their small window of opportunity to achieve needed reforms. Instead, they have sold out to a rabid Republican opposition that stone-walled everything. A tragedy!

Christopher Hitchens' "Hitch-22"

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It was much more enjoyable that I would have expected. In the past I found a lot of Hitchens' writings to be strident and tedious. But I thoroughly enjoyed his "God is Not Great" and I found "Hitch-22" to be an interesting and enjoyable read.

The books is a very honest look at himself. I don't know enough to claim to be assured of its absolute veracity, but he shows a willingness to be critical about all around him as well as himself. He's willing to admit failings and shortcomings. We all have them, but many refuse to admit to them. This peek into his private life makes reading his other writings much more enjoyable. I now have a linchpin by which to grapple with those other writings.

Here are some bits I especially enjoyed:
During the 1992 election I concluded as early as my first visit to New Hampshire that Bill Clinton was hateful in his behavior to women, pathological as a liar, and deeply suspect when it came to money in politics.
Here he takes on Noam Chomsky and the "Left" and its "stance" on 9/11:
Anyway, I didn't have long to wait for my worst fears about the Left to prove correct. Comparing Al Quaeda's use of stolen airplanes with President Clinton's certainly atrocious use of cruise missiles against Sudan three years before (Which were at least ostensibly directed at Al Quaeda targets), Noam Chomsky found the moral balance to be approximately even, with the United States at perhaps a slight disadvantage. He also described the potential civilian casualties of an American counterstroke in Afghanistan as amounting to a "silent genocide."
If you want a tour through the last 50 years, especially sensitive to the key political events of those years, this is a very good book. It covers Hitchens's life experience, his political causes, and his enthusiasms for literature and his literate friends.

I especially enjoyed the chapter near the end of the book where he discovered that his mother was Jewish and had kept that from his children. He then talks about his stance towards Judaism, Israel, and the Palestinians. It is a complicated story, but told honestly. I especially enjoyed how he points out that his friend Edward Said, a Palestinian Christian, was fundamentally dishonest and their relationship soured at the end.

Between this book and "God is Not Great", I feel I now know Christopher Hitchens. I can now forgive must of what I took to be boringly strident political writings. The guy's heart is in the right place even if he is a bit of a fanatic and bore with his politics. He certainly has lived an interesting and exciting and apparently very rich life.

Update 2010aug05: Vanity Fair has an article by Christopher Hitchens about his cancer. It has metastisized from esophogus to lymph and lung. Sad news.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Elizabeth Warren

Here's a very good PBS interview with Elizabeth Warren, currently in charge of "oversight" for the TARP money, but being touted for the role of head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency:

I've said this many times: she is a breath of fresh air. She is honest. She is clear and straightforward. She would be excellent to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency. But Obama is dragging his heels. It isn't clear that he will push her name forward.

Notice how she is very "forthright" on her worries about the upcoming tsunami of commercial real estate foreclosures. I believe she's got it right. Geithner is a "company man" who gives party line and isn't honest. I don't trust him.

She does a very good job of describing how this Great Recession is likely to have a "double dip" as the commercial real estate failures bring down banks which puts the economy into another phase of financial panic and credit shrinkage. Her remarks about "extend and pretend" are an excellent warning about the path the Obama admininistration with Bernanke and Geithner are headed: a pathway to the "lost decade" of Japan. You fail to get banks healthy, so lending doesn't restart, so the economy coughs and gasps, and lurches, and fails year after year.

Realpolitik American Style

Of course, for America, that means the realpolitik of corporations...

Here's a bit from a post by Robert Reich that reminds you of who things "get done" in America:
BP is starting over. It just named a new American president and its finances are looking up. BP’s second-quarter report showed surprisingly strong revenues of $75.9 billion, beating Wall Street’s estimates. (This includes a $32.2 billion writedown along with the $20 billion liability fund that the Obama Administration wanted.) The company has started to sell $30 billion of its assets to ensure it has all the money it needs to pay any liability claims. No wonder several Wall Street analysts are suggesting BP stock as a terrific buy.

It doesn’t seem to matter BP was responsible for the worst environmental disaster in American history. Consumers worldwide – including Americans – continue to slurp up its oil.

But wait a minute. If BP emerges from this debacle fatter and happier than anyone imagined a few months ago, whatever happened to the idea of corporate accountability? Does this mean any giant corporation can wreak havoc and then get back to business as usual?

Corporations aren’t people. They have no brains, no consciences, no capacity for intent or guilt. Every one of their moveable parts can be replaced, just like BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward was replaced. Corporate accountability and responsibility are meaningless concepts. Corporations exist for only one purpose: to make money.

If we want corporations to act differently, we have to force them to do so through laws that are fully enforced and through penalties higher than the economic benefits of thwarting the laws.

Here’s the real outrage: In the wake of the BP spill, essentially no laws have been changed – not even a ridiculously low cap on damages private parties can collect from oil companies. Senate Republican leaders said Wednesday they wouldn’t support a bill retroactively removing the liability cap; and not even Democrats Mary Landrieu (D-La) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) will support it.

Why isn’t Congress doing more – not only removing the cap on civil liability but also raising the level of penalties oil companies have to pay for violating safety and environmental regulations, permanently prohibiting deep-water drilling, and enacting a carbon tax?

Because of Big Oil’s political clout.
And he points out:
Consider the grotesque Supreme Court decision earlier this year in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which gave corporations the status of people with First Amendment rights to spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads. Citizens United ranks right up there with Bush v. Gore and Dred Scott as the most brainless and irresponsible Supreme Court decisions in history.

In March, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided that in light of Citizens United, there was no longer any basis for limiting contributions to so-called independent committees set up to support or oppose particular candidates. (Such committees are known as 527’s, after a loophole clause in the campaign finance laws.) The old contribution limit was $69,900 every two years. Now even that’s gone.

And the Federal Elections Commission has just interpreted these two court decisions to mean corporations, not just individuals, can now give unlimited amounts of money to 527’s.

To top it off, Tuesday the Senate failed (by only a few votes) to pass the “Disclose Act,” that would have forced corporate sponsors of campaign ads to reveal themselves and not hide behind innocuous sounding names like “Americans for America.” The bill also would have prohibited campaign ads run by U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies. (Think BP.)
So what does the new "realpolitik" in American mean?
The will of the American people is being subordinated to the demands of giant money-making machines called global corporations that can now spend or threaten to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of any politician willing to help them make more and against any who might cause them to make less.

This is the final lesson of BP.
I think the band on the Titanic playing "Nearer, My God, to Thee". Those musicians had better chance to a long and happy life than the typical American alive today. Americans are now owned by a "company store" that not only will run their government, but write all the laws to make Americans economic slaves to the interests of big corporations. Americans are in a death grip worse than that of the icy North Atlantic waters, the waters that swallowed up those Titanic musicians as they play. Americans are in the death grip of big corporations who will squeeze and squeeze and squeeze them dry. Corporations have become ispo facto the US government!

Stupid Human Tricks

All kinds of odd things go viral on the Internet. Here's one that I like. The music is wonderful and I love the feeling of people "joining in"...

Here's Matt Harding explaining how the above came about:

And here's an early version of the above that has interesting sites around the world, but doesn't have the "feeling" of mad, fun, joining in that the version at the top has:

And here's one that shows how he got people to join in:

You can find more things at Matt Hardings' "channel" on YouTube.

Witten on String Theory

The following is a lecture on string theory by Edward Witten upon receiving the Newton Medal.

Note: Use the little screen icon -- second from right on bottom -- to flow up the image to full screen size.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Halfway through the second part, Witten talks about M-Theory.

In watching these videos it becomes very clear that the skills of the creator are not the skills of the expositor. For a generalist such as myself, I need an expositor with the ability to draw appropriate pictures and connections to make this material come alive. With Witten I find hints of something very interesting, but he doesn't know how to describe it in ways that makes it truly meaningful for me.

Bird's Eye View of US Wars... Cost & Effort

The NY Times has a very nice graphic that summarizes the current US war effort in terms of dollars, share of GDP, and manpower:

Click to Enlarge

Fool's Gold

All those right wing nuts who tell you that America's streets are paved with gold, that with only a bit of gumption and effort you too can be a millionaire, are pushing this scam:

Glen Beck should be in jail. He is preying on the stupid and the vulnerable.

Is is any surprise that "Republicans" are pro business? They are pro-fill-their-own-pockets by treating everybody else as a sucker.

Think of the line-up of big shot "pro business" Republicans who push this scam? Glen Beck, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee... a rogue's gallery of right wing parasites.

Congress Formally Opens Investigation into Goldline & Other Shady Gold Dealers

New York, NY – Rep. Anthony Weiner (D – Queens & Brooklyn) and House Commerce Subcommittee Chairman Bobby Rush (D – Chicago) formally announced a hearing of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection to investigate the business practices of Goldline International, a precious metals dealer that uses aggressive sales tactics and conservative spokespeople such as Fox News’ Glenn Beck to sell overpriced gold coins. Weiner and Rush sent a letter to Goldline requesting information in preparation for the hearing.

In May, Rep. Weiner’s office released a report outlining problems with Goldline

Among the Key Findings of Rep. Weiner’s Report: (Full Report CLICK HERE)
  • Goldline Grossly Overcharges For Their Coins

  • Goldline Falsely Claims To Offer “Good” Investments

  • Goldline Salespeople Misrepresent Their Ability To Give “Investment Advice”

  • Goldline Plays off Public Fears of Government Takeover and Has Formed an Unholy Alliance with Conservative Pundits to Drive a False Narrative

Buying Friends

Here's a bit from a NY Times op-ed by Maureen Dowd that points out that it is pretty darn hard to buy "friends". Usually you end up buying ingrates and sometimes (as with the US and its unaccounted for billions in Iraq and the payments -- bribes -- it hands out in Afghanistan) you end up buying enemies:
The more we try to do for our foreign protectorates, the more angry they get about what we try to do. As Congress passed $59 billion in additional war funding on Tuesday, not only are our wards not grateful, they’re disdainful.

Washington gave the Wall Street banks billions, and, in return, they stabbed us in the back, handing out a fortune in bonuses to the grifters who almost wrecked our economy.

Washington gave the Pakistanis billions, and, in return, they stabbed us in the back, pledging to fight the militants even as they secretly help the militants.

We keep getting played by people who are playing both sides.

Robert Gibbs recalled that President Obama said last year that “we will not and cannot provide a blank check” to Pakistan.

But only last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Pakistan to hand over a juicy check: $500 million in aid to the country that’s been getting a billion a year for most of this decade and in 2009 was pledged another $7.5 billion for the next five. She vowed to banish the “legacy of suspicion” and show that “there is so much we can accomplish together as partners joined in common cause.”
The US strikes me as a "shopaholic" on a wild binge for the last 65 years and is getting less and less for the money spent while the kids at home go shoeless and hungry.

What bothers me is that officials (US and especially here in Canada) don't learn any lessons from the quagmire:
We invaded two countries, and allied with a third — all renowned as masters at double-dealing. And, now lured into their mazes, we still don’t have the foggiest idea, shrouded in the fog of wars, how these cultures work. Before we went into Iraq and Afghanistan, both places were famous for warrior cultures. And, indeed, their insurgents are world class.

But whenever America tries to train security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan so that we can leave behind a somewhat stable country, it’s positively Sisyphean. It takes eons longer than our officials predict. The forces we train turn against us or go over to the other side or cut and run. If we give them a maximum security prison, as we recently did in Iraq, making a big show of handing over the key, the imprisoned Al Qaeda militants are suddenly allowed to escape.

The British Empire prided itself on discovering warrior races in places it conquered — Gurkhas, Sikhs, Pathans, as the Brits called Pashtuns. But why are they warrior cultures only until we need them to be warriors on our side? Then they’re untrainably lame, even when we spend $25 billion on building up the Afghan military and the National Police Force, dubbed “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight” by Newsweek.
Sadly, Obama didn't take advantage of the change of leadership to close down this mistake. Instead he has upped the ante. What a tragedy!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Freedom of the Press

Everybody is for motherhood until they get scared and then they are ready to "throw mamma under the train".

Wikileaks is a wonderful organization that is struggling to give teeth to the idea of "freedom of the press"...

How can you have a democracy if your government stamps everything as "secret"? I'm willing to agree that some things need to be secret, but that number is relatively small. Governments use secrecy to avoid the scrutiny of the public. But how can you have a "res publica" (a thing of the people) if the people are blind, deaf, and dumb? I like the US Bill of Rights that decides this by saying "go ahead and publish, and if it can be shown that what you did endangered the republic, then be prepared to be punished severely". That is how you guarantee the public is informed and is able to be a competent electorate.

The US Constitution gets it right:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This right is so essential to a democracy that the framers of the US Constitution were willing to grant the press (and the people via "free speech") the right to say and print anything. It didn't give them the right to avoid the consequences. But it recognized that tyrants can only be stopped if the people are free to think, speak, and organize and not be pre-emptively censored by an abusive government using "national security" as a bully stick to scare people from exercising their rights.

For some perspective about this release of material, here is a bit from an article in the New Yorker:
But after more than eight years at war, how carefully are we even looking at Afghanistan? The Times had a piece in Sunday’s paper on the strange truth that our expenditure since 9/11 of a trillion dollars on two wars has barely scraped our consciousness. ...

This stash will be compared to the Pentagon Papers, and in some ways that’s right—WikiLeaks, like Daniel Ellsberg, has been accused of ignoring the national interest. (An unfair charge, unless by “national interest” one means the political interests of a particular Administration.) But the Pentagon Papers were a synthetic analysis, a history of the war in Vietnam. WikiLeaks has given us research materials for a history of the war in Afghanistan. To make full use of them, we will, again, have to think hard about what we are trying to learn: Is it what we are doing, day to day, on the ground in Afghanistan, and how we could do it better? Or what we are doing in Afghanistan at all?
Go read the article. It gives an example of the kind of details released by this "leak".

Here's an example from Yahoo News of what WikiLeaks exposes (and that the US public needs to know):
Buried among the 92,000 classified documents released Sunday by WikiLeaks is some intriguing evidence that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has adopted a PR strategy that got it into trouble in Iraq: paying local media outlets to run friendly stories.
Several reports from Army psychological operations units and provincial reconstruction teams (also known as PRTs, civilian-military hybrids tasked with rebuilding Afghanistan) show that local Afghan radio stations were under contract to air content produced by the United States. Other reports show U.S. military personnel apparently referring to Afghan reporters as "our journalists" and directing them in how to do their jobs.

Such close collaboration between local media and U.S. forces has been a headache for the Pentagon in the past: In 2005, Pentagon contractor the Lincoln Group was caught paying Iraqi newspapers to run stories written by American soldiers, causing the United States considerable embarrassment.

In one of the WikiLeaks documents, a PRT member reports delivering "12 hours of PSYOP Radio Content Programming" to two radio stations in the province of Ghazni in 2008, and paying one of them "$3,900 for Radio Content Programming air time for the month of October".
Go read the full article and get the embedded links.

The Logic of Language

I've always been bugged by grammarians. They want to impose "rules" on language. But language is organic. It is conventional. And here's an excellent example of grammarians gone wild...

If an overwhelming majority of this generation of kids decide that the plural of octopus is "octopalooza" than within a generation that will be the correct plural despite what the grammarians say.

The nice thing about English is that grammarians have mostly been kept at bay. The language is omnivorous and continues to swallow up words and invite speakers from around the world.

How Not to Run a War

Bush thought he could fight a war on the cheap by "contracting out" the fighting. This includes spy services! And what the US has now is nearly a quarter of a million people with "top" security clearances fighting the war as a "profit centre" for some corporation. Not only does this mean the incentives are wrong -- profits over patriotism -- but the costs have skyrocketed because nobody puts their lives on the line for money, for patriotism yes, but when it is strictly money, the bodies become expensive.

Here's a bit from the Washington Post's series on the growth of "top secret" America:
Contractors can offer more money - often twice as much - to experienced federal employees than the government is allowed to pay them. And because competition among firms for people with security clearances is so great, corporations offer such perks as BMWs and $15,000 signing bonuses, as Raytheon did in June for software developers with top-level clearances.

The idea that the government would save money on a contract workforce "is a false economy," said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official and now president of his own intelligence training academy.

As companies raid federal agencies of talent, the government has been left with the youngest intelligence staffs ever while more experienced employees move into the private sector. This is true at the CIA, where employees from 114 firms account for roughly a third of the workforce, or about 10,000 positions. Many of them are temporary hires, often former military or intelligence agency employees who left government service to work less and earn more while drawing a federal pension.


So great is the government's appetite for private contractors with top-secret clearances that there are now more than 300 companies, often nicknamed "body shops," that specialize in finding candidates, often for a fee that approaches $50,000 a person, according to those in the business.


The Post's estimate of 265,000 contractors doing top-secret work was vetted by several high-ranking intelligence officials who approved of The Post's methodology. The newspaper's Top Secret America database includes 1,931 companies that perform work at the top-secret level. More than a quarter of them - 533 - came into being after 2001, and others that already existed have expanded greatly. Most are thriving even as the rest of the United States struggles with bankruptcies, unemployment and foreclosures.
What I don't understand is Obama's complicity in keeping this "privatization" of the war going. He won office on a slogan of "change you can believe in" and ends up being a Bobbsey twin of Bush's. OK... it isn't quite that bad:
Nine years later, well into the Obama administration, the idea that contractors cost less has been repudiated, and the administration has made some progress toward its goal of reducing the number of hired hands by 7 percent over two years. Still, close to 30 percent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies is contractors.
But a 7% reduction sounds like Obama isn't trying very hard.

I know something about the crazy world of "contractors". I worked for a Canadian company that managed "secret" work done by mapping and intelligence agencies in the Washington DC area. Our managers didn't have security clearances, so you have the strange world where our management "managed" workers who worked in vaults that were closed to the managers, i.e. the managers never got to see what the workers were doing. How does that work? Doesn't that strike you as bizarre? I found it to be straight out of cloud cuckoo land. I believe the operation was run well because the company I worked for was highly ethical and actually very well managed, but I still have a very hard time trying to figure out how management could "assign tasks", ensure quality in work, or plan for enhanced operations when management was not allowed to walk into the area and directly oversee the work being done!

Monday, July 26, 2010

The American Paradox

Robert Reich has put his finger on a paradox that is blocking economic recovery in the US:
Second-quarter earnings reports are coming in, and they’re making Wall Street smile. Corporate profits are up. And big American companies are sitting on a gigantic pile of money. The 500 largest non-financial firms held almost a trillion dollars in the second quarter, and that money pile is growing larger this quarter. Profits that plummeted in the recession have bounced back. Big businesses have recovered almost 90 percent of what they lost.

So with all this money and profit, they’ll start hiring again, right? Wrong – for three reasons.

First, lots of their profits are coming from their overseas operations. So that’s where they’re investing and expanding production.


Second, big U.S. businesses are investing their cash in labor-saving technologies. This boosts their productivity, but not their payrolls.


Finally, corporations are using their pile of money to pay dividends to their shareholders and buy back their own stock – thereby pushing up share prices.


The next supply-side economist who tells you companies need more incentive (i.e. lower taxes) before they’ll hire is living on another planet.

The reality is this: Big American companies may never rehire large numbers of workers. And they won’t even begin to think about hiring until they know American consumers will buy their products. The problem is, American consumers won’t start buying against until they know they have reliable paychecks.
Go read the full post on Reich's blog to get all the details.

The bottom line: the US will suffer a "lost decade" of lingering Great Recession because of this paradox. Business won't invest until people buy. People won't buy until they have jobs. In the Great Depression this paradox was resolved by WWII which forced massive government spending to get the economy out of the rut it was in. But today, the Republicans refuse to allow Obama to spend the necessary amounts (and Obama is too pusillanimous to stand up to the Republicans and demand that they put the interests of the country before petty politics). So you get a paradox: a head-butting between industry and consumers, neither wants to go first.

How to Throw Money to the Wind

Here is a bit from an article by Tom Engelhardt on his blog looking at the complete waste of US taxpayer money in a futile attempt to create an Afghan military force that can stand up and "defend their own country":
There are at present an impressive 450 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan training the Afghan air force. Unfortunately, there’s a problem. There may be no “buy American” program for that air force, but there is a “speak American” one. To be an Afghan air force pilot, you must know English -- “the official language of the cockpit,” Whitlock assures us (even if to fly Russian helicopters). As he points out, however, the trainees, mostly illiterate, take two to five years simply to learn the language. (Imagine a U.S. Air Force in which, just to take off, every pilot needed to know Dari!)

Thanks to this language barrier, the U.S. can train endlessly and next to nothing is guaranteed to happen. “So far,” reports Whitlock, “only one Afghan pilot has graduated from flight school in the United States, although dozens are in the pipeline. That has forced the air corps to rely on pilots who learned to fly Mi-17s during the days of Soviet and Taliban rule.” In other words, despite the impressive Soviet performance in the 1980s, the training of the Afghan Air Force has been re-imagined by Americans as a Sisyphean undertaking.

And this offers but a hint of how bizarre U.S. training programs for the Afghan military and police have proven to be. In fact, sometimes it seems as if exactly the same scathing report, detailing the same training problems and setbacks, has been recycled yearly without anyone who mattered finding it particularly odd -- or being surprised that the response to each successive piece of bad news is to decide to pour yet more money and trainers into the project.

For example, in 2005, at a time when Washington had already spent $3.3 billion training and mentoring the Afghan army and police, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report indicating that “efforts to fully equip the increasing number of [Afghan] combat troops have fallen behind, and efforts to establish sustaining institutions, such as a logistics command, needed to support these troops have not kept pace.” Worse yet, the report fretted, it might take “up to $7.2 billion to complete [the training project] and about $600 million annually to sustain [it].”

In 2006, according to the New York Times, “a joint report by the Pentagon and the State Department... found that the American-trained police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work, and that managers of the $1.1 billion training program cannot say how many officers are actually on duty or where thousands of trucks and other equipment issued to police units have gone.” At best, stated the report, fewer than half of the officially announced number of police were “trained and equipped to carry out their police functions.”

In 2008, by which time $16.5 billion had been spent on Army and police training programs, the GAO chimed in again, indicating that only two of 105 army units were "assessed as being fully capable of conducting their primary mission," while "no police unit is fully capable." In 2009, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction reported that “only 24 of 559 Afghan police units are considered ready to operate without international help.” Such reports, as well as repeated (and repetitive) news investigations and stories on the subject, invariably are accompanied by a litany of complaints about corruption, indiscipline, illiteracy, drug taking, staggering desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, ghost soldiers, and a host of other problems. In 2009, however, the solution remained as expectable as the problems: “The report called for more U.S. trainers and more money.”

This June, a U.S. government audit, again from the Special Inspector General, contradicted the latest upbeat American and NATO training assessments, reporting that “the standards used to appraise the Afghan forces since 2005 were woefully inadequate, inflating their abilities.” The usual litany of training woes followed. Yet, according to Reuters, President Obama wants another $14.2 billion for the training project “for this year and next.” And just last week, the Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes reported that new Afghan war commander General David Petraeus is planning to “retool” U.S. strategy to include “a greater focus on how Afghanistan’s security forces are being trained.”

When it comes to U.S. training programs then, you might conclude that Afghanistan has proved to be Catch-22-ville, the land where time stood still -- and so, evidently, has the Washington national security establishment’s collective brain. For Washington, there seems to be no learning curve in Afghanistan, not when it comes to “training” Afghans anyway.

And here is the oddest thing of all, though no one even bothers to mention it in this context: the Taliban haven’t had tens of billions of dollars in foreign training funds; they haven’t had years of advice from the best U.S. and NATO advisors that money can buy; they haven’t had private contractors like DynCorp teaching them how to fight and police, and strangely enough, they seem to have no problem fighting. They are not undermanned, infiltrated by followers of Hamid Karzai, or particularly corrupt. They may be illiterate and may not be fluent in English, but they are ready, in up-to platoon-sized units, to attack heavily fortified U.S. military bases, Afghan prisons, a police headquarters, and the like with hardly a foreign mentor in sight.
Shades of the wasted time & money in Vietnam to stand up South Vietnamese troops to "defend their country". The underlying false pretense was that it was "their" country. The locals saw themselves as mercenaries, not patriots, and so were not particularly keen to "learn" and certainly had no real interest in "fighting". In both Vietnam and Afghanistan (and Iraq), these US-supported "native troops" turn out to be riddled with deserters and even anti-government agents eager to turn the guns on their trainers and the mercenary force.

I remember Bush in 2004 leading up to the presidential election boasting about how many "divisions" the US has "trained up to defend" Afghanistan. That was 6 years ago. Those troops never were fielded. Here it is 8 going on 9 years later and after billions of wasted dollars, the US military is still promising that there "light at the end of the tunnel" and soon native troops will be out fighting to defend "their" government. Sorry... the facts prove otherwise.

As for the claims of US "withdrawal" from Afghanistan, Engelhardt points out a few facts that should cause you to pause:
“U.S. military officials have estimated that the Afghan air force won't be able to operate independently until 2016, five years after President Obama has said he intends to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But [U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael R.] Boera said that date could slip by at least two years if Congress forces the Afghans to fly U.S. choppers.”

In other words, while Americans argue over what the president’s July 2011 drawdown date really means, and while Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggests that Afghan forces will take over the country’s security duties by 2014, Whitlock’s anonymous “U.S. military officials” are clearly operating on a different clock, on, in fact, Pentagon time, and so are planning for a 2016-2018 target date for that force simply to “operate independently” (which by no means indicates “without U.S. support.”)
Aren't those dates exceedingly strange since Obama promised the leave Afghanistan in 2011. What does 2011 mean if the Afghanis can't field an "air force" until 7 years after the withdrawal date? And what they "field" at that time is really "mission ready" but only able to fly with US assistance? What a joke! What a waste of taxpayer money! What a pile of corruption and idiocy!

The Cost of Conversion from Oil to Natural Gas for Transportation

Here is a well thought out and detailed analysis of the T. Boone Pickens plan for getting the US off imported oil and stop the funding of terrorism. This analysis is done by Geoffrey Styles on his Energy Outlook blog:
I just finished reading the interview with Mr. Pickens in The American Spectator, published yesterday. The big shift in the Pickens Plan since the first time I examined it in detail is that he has switched his emphasis from using wind to free up natural gas to replace gasoline in cars, to using the abundant natural gas from our enormous shale gas reserves, which are already transforming the US gas and power markets, to replace diesel fuel in big-rig trucks. He is also in the process of lining up the legislative support to nudge this along much faster than market forces alone would. But does it make as much sense as he suggests when he talks about using $4.50 worth of natural gas to replace 7 gallons of diesel fuel at $3 per gallon?

Strictly in energy terms, that 7 gallons might even be a bit low. A million BTUs of gas (roughly 1,000 cubic feet or one MCF) would deliver as much energy to a truck as 7.8 gallons of diesel. And fundamentally, he's right that the recent price relationship between natural gas and crude oil makes gas a tremendous bargain, BTU for BTU. However, the prices he mentions in the Spectator interview constitute an apples vs. oranges comparison from both sides. Even if natural gas remained at a steady $4.50/MCF at the wellhead for the next 20 years, which seems unlikely despite the bounties of shale, that's not what you'd pay at the natural gas pump.

Start with the fact that it costs something to transport gas from the wellhead, wherever that might be, to market. Based on current pricing relationships, if gas starts out at $4.50, then by the time it's sold to a commercial account, which is probably how filling stations would be classified, it could cost as much as $9. And someone has to invest in the equipment to compress it to 3,000 or 3,600 psi and pump it into an 18-wheeler's tanks. Even with tax credits to help, a station owner will need to make a return on that investment, and some profit, too. Add another buck an MCF to cover that, and we're up to $10/MCF, which equates to $1.28/gal. of diesel. For a reality check on this, I took a look at, which shows the locations and pricing for stations selling compressed natural gas (CNG) for vehicles around the country, expressed in dollars per gasoline-equivalent-gallon (GGE). Prices range from roughly $1.25 to around $2, with a few outliers over $3. Since a GGE contains about 10% less energy than a gallon of diesel, you'd have to bump these prices up by about 10% to get the equivalent for a fair comparison.

Under $2 is still pretty cheap, but you shouldn't compare that to the $2.90/gal average retail price of diesel this week. The latter includes federal excise tax of $0.244/gal. and state excise and sales taxes that range from $0.08-0.49/gal. and average $0.281/gal. As best I can tell, CNG is taxed at the federal gasoline rate of $0.183/gal., while states seem to tax it to a much lesser extent than gasoline and diesel, as for example the $0.085/gal rate in Utah, compared to their state fuels tax of $0.245/gal. However, this is only viable as long as demand for CNG is tiny, relative to other fuels. If Mr. Pickens succeeds in displacing large quantities of diesel with CNG, then it will either need to carry a similar tax burden, or the lost revenues must be collected in some other fashion. If you strip out the taxes to get to an apples-to-apples price to compare diesel to CNG, it works out to around $2.50, give or take a dime or two, depending on location. So while CNG is still clearly cheaper than diesel, it's rarely $1/gal. cheaper on a truly comparable basis. This, together with conversion costs as high as the $65,000 per truck that Mr. Pickens cited, might explain why market forces alone haven't led to a rapid switch to CNG-fueled transport.

I've looked at the House bill containing the natural gas vehicle tax credits mentioned in the interview. It would cover as much as 80% of the incremental cost (over the diesel version) of a truck that can only burn CNG or LNG, up to $80,000, depending on weight. It would also extend the $0.50/GGE tax credit for CNG and LNG through 2027. These changes would drastically shorten the payout of an investment in a natural gas-powered truck, even if the per-gallon advantage of CNG appears to be somewhat less than Mr. Pickens suggests. That could move CNG into the truck-fuel market pretty quickly.

The remaining question is what the $7 billion investment Mr. Pickens wants the government to make in this proposition would buy us. He believes that converting the US heavy truck fleet to CNG would save 2.5 million bbl/day of diesel, or about two-thirds of the diesel and heating oil now sold in the US. That would have a much bigger impact on our oil imports than ethanol, although it's hardly an either/or proposition. I'm surprised that Mr. Pickens didn't go on to suggest that this benefit could be leveraged further by utilizing the resulting surplus diesel in diesel automobiles. Given their approximately 30% improvement in fuel economy vs. comparable gasoline vehicles, that could save an additional 750,000 bbl/day of gasoline, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions on those cars by about 20%. If you play all this out, then just under 5 trillion cubic feet per year of natural gas, or less than a quarter of current gas production, could save more than 3 million bbl/day of gasoline and diesel, or nearly a third of our net petroleum imports.

That sounds like a pretty good deal for $7 billion, though it could be made even better if the vehicle tax credits involved were converted into low-interest loans and loan guarantees, instead. If the main impediment to switching to gas is the up-front cost of natural gas conversions and the time involved in recouping that cost, then let's make it much easier for truckers to borrow the money for this purpose, and for banks to lend to them. Giving everyone taxpayer money to induce them to do what we want makes a lot more sense when the government has plenty of money to spend. With the US running large deficits and the private sector holding lots of cash earning next to nothing, we should use our tax dollars as efficiently as possible to achieve the same outcome. Otherwise, Mr. Pickens seems to be on to a sensible idea, and I wish him luck selling it.
This is an excellent example of why you need to pause when somebody is "selling" you an idea. The unscrupulous sell you a pig in a poke. T. Boone Pickens is fairly honest -- but he has a financial stake in convincing the government to go with his plan -- and what Styles has shown is that the "facts" need careful analysis because they aren't exactly how Pickens presents them.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that if you search dilligently enough you can usually find some useful analysis. On the other hand, there is an awful lot of dreck and misleading "information" on the Internet. You have to have a fairly good nose for truth before you can usefully use it to check facts. The problem is there is no real authoritative knowledge clearly labeled on the Internet. You have to check facts against what you know and what you can otherwise find out and check credentials of those posting opinions (and even there, since there is no authentication of "credentials" you can't necessarily trust that somebody posing as an expert is in fact an expert).

Climate Sciene: The State of the Art

Here is an interview with Brian Hoskins, a climatologist with the Imperial College, London, interviewed by The Economist:

This is interesting because he does take a step back from the "science is settled" crowd and does admit to the "group think" going on in climate science. Notice that he says that climate models are "pretty lousy" and he talks about how models as they were made higher and higher resolution got better and then got worse which showed that they didn't understand something fundamental. When asked if that has been fixed, he evades giving a straight answer. In short, they haven't fixed it.

When Political "Experts" are Fools

Here's an article by Ezra Klein on July 26, 2010 "discovering" that the 2009 stimulus was too small:
What went wrong with stimulus

The original stimulus package should've been bigger. Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says the Treasury Department originally asked for $1.4 trillion. Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, wanted $1.2 trillion. What we got was a shade under $800 billion, and something more like $700 billion when you took out the AMT patch that was jammed into the package. So we knew it was too small then, and the recession it was designed to fight turned out to be larger than we'd predicted. In the end, we took a soapbox racer to a go-kart track and then realized we were competing against actual cars.

This was a mistake, of course. But the mistake may not just have been the size of the stimulus package. I wonder if it wasn't fed by a belief that there'd be other chances. If all we needed was the $700 billion package, then great. But if unemployment remained high and the recovery had trouble taking hold, surely there would be the votes for further stimulus and relief spending. No one in the political system could possibly look at 10 percent unemployment and walk away from it, right?

Wrong. Ten percent unemployment and a terrible recession ended up discrediting the people trying to do more for the economy, as their previous intervention was deemed a failure. That, in turn, empowered the people attempting to do less for the economy. So rather than a modestly sized stimulus leaving the door open for more stimulus if needed, its modest size was used to discredit the idea of more stimulus when it became needed.
Here is what Paul Krugman said in a NY Times op-ed article on March 8, 2009, almost a year and a half ago!
President Obama’s plan to stimulate the economy was “massive,” “giant,” “enormous.” So the American people were told, especially by TV news, during the run-up to the stimulus vote. Watching the news, you might have thought that the only question was whether the plan was too big, too ambitious.

Yet many economists, myself included, actually argued that the plan was too small and too cautious. The latest data confirm those worries — and suggest that the Obama administration’s economic policies are already falling behind the curve.

To see how bad the numbers are, consider this: The administration’s budget proposals, released less than two weeks ago, assumed an average unemployment rate of 8.1 percent for the whole of this year. In reality, unemployment hit that level in February — and it’s rising fast.

Employment has already fallen more in this recession than in the 1981-82 slump, considered the worst since the Great Depression. As a result, Mr. Obama’s promise that his plan will create or save 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 looks underwhelming, to say the least. It’s a credible promise — his economists used solidly mainstream estimates of the impacts of tax and spending policies. But 3.5 million jobs almost two years from now isn’t enough in the face of an economy that has already lost 4.4 million jobs, and is losing 600,000 more each month.
Krugman was pointing out that the stimulus was too small even though everybody was estimating a lower unemployment rate than what actually occurred. And Krugman understood the politics that made this low-ball stimulus especially dangerous:
So here’s the picture that scares me: It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up. Mr. Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.

But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts. And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.

O.K., that’s a warning, not a prediction. But economic policy is falling behind the curve, and there’s a real, growing danger that it will never catch up.
Yep... Krugman nailed it a year and a half ago. Obama tried to finesse the politics, he tried to "accomodate" the Republicans with a smaller stimulus and one that included useless tax cuts and threw in a non-stimulative "AMT patch". This is the same kind of "compromise" that yields political turf to the Republicans before the fight has begun that Obama has done over-and-over again. Obama is a disaster because he isn't the patriot and statesman needed in a crisis. He is a "negotiator" who isn't clever enough to know what ammunition he has nor when to properly use it. Tragic.

Why Speculators are Parasites

Speculators cream an unusual portion of the profit from industry. Worse, they destablize markets. When they successfully corner a good, the price goes up. Suppliers respond to the "shortage" by increasing production. But the shortage is artificial, so at some point in the future, the hoarded goods are released onto the market (at an excessive price, that's the speculator's profit) and the price begins to plunge. If this maneuver has been done over sufficient time to induce suppliers to invest deeply in increasing supply, then the plunging price will dramatically plunge and wipe out suppliers which in turn creates a new cycle of shortage then over-supply. This is all in a "day's work" for a market manipulator. No good was served. But it effectively destroys a market.

That's the theory... here's the practice. From an article in the NY Times by Julia Werdigier and Julie Creswell:
In a stroke, a hedge fund manager here named Anthony Ward has all but cornered the market in cocoa. By one estimate, he has bought enough to make more than five billion chocolate bars.

Chocolate lovers here are crying into their Cadbury wrappers — and rival traders are crying foul, saying Mr. Ward is stockpiling cocoa in a bid to drive up already high prices so he can sell later at a big profit. His activities have helped drive cocoa prices on the London market to a 30-year high.

Mr. Ward, 50, is not some rabid chocoholic, former employees say. He simply has a head for cocoa. And, through his private investment firm, Armajaro, he now controls a cache equal to 7 percent of annual cocoa production worldwide, a big enough chunk to sway prices.

“Globally, he is unmatched in his knowledge of cocoa,” said Tim Spencer, a former Armajaro executive.

Armajaro maintains offices in West Africa, helping Mr. Ward keep tabs on major cocoa crops. “We even have our own weather stations — our very own that no one else has in some parts of the world,” Mr. Ward, soft-spoken and tan, said in a video interview this year with a financial news service.

Now, traders here are buzzing that Mr. Ward has placed an audacious $1 billion bet in the London market for cocoa futures. This month, he bought 241,100 metric tons of beans, they say.

His play has some people up in arms. While some see it as a simple bet that cocoa prices will rise on falling supply, others say Mr. Ward has created a shortage of cocoa simply to drive up the price himself.

The German Cocoa Trade Association and others wrote an angry letter to the London exchange on which cocoa is traded, demanding that it take action against what the association characterized as a “manipulation.”

The British news media has christened Mr. Ward “Chocolate Finger,” a nod to the Bond villain Auric Goldfinger. And on Facebook, someone has created a “Choc Finger” page featuring Mr. Ward’s face superimposed on a pig that is bellying up to the trough.

The fear is that Mr. Ward will become the go-to source until the annual cocoa harvest, which starts in October. With candy makers starting to stock up for the holiday season, they may be forced to pay him ever-higher prices — and cocoa has already jumped 150 percent since 2008.

“The squeeze was really timed perfectly,” said Eugen Weinberg, an analyst at Commerzbank in Frankfurt.

Mr. Ward and his firm, which has not acknowledged buying the cocoa contracts, declined to comment for this article.

Attempts to corner a particular market come and go in the rough-and-tumble world of commodities trading. During the 1970s, Nelson Hunt and his brother, William, tried but failed to corner the world market in silver.
I'm with the German Cocoa Association. The London exchange should step in an undo the monopoly of Ward. There is no benefit to society in letting this speculator distort the market!

Go read the article to get the full story.

I'm a great chocolate lover, but I'm on strike and will refuse to eat any more chocolate until I know that this monopoly has ended. If enough people refuse to play into the monopolists hands, he will lose a lot of money and society will be saved from the destabilization that his greed will have created. But it will take tens of millions of people agreeing to forego chocolate to have this impact. And sadly, this action has a side-effect of hurting innocent chocolate makers. But it is the only tool that ordinary people have to punish evil people like Anthony Ward.

The only other action people could take would be to picket his house and make life miserable for him, his wife, and his children until he rethinks his greedy attempt to extort "excess profits" out of ordinary people by cornering the chocolate market:
Mr. Ward lives with his wife and two sons in a four-story red-brick town house in the upscale Mayfair district of London.
In the good old days, the aroused public could show up with torches and pitchforks to make known their displeasure. But in the billion person world of today, an evil person like Anthony Ward can calmly hide from the public eye in his four-story red-brick town house in the upscale Mayfair district of London. Sad.

This guy isn't an innocent naïf, he has done this kind of speculation before and profited from it:
By most accounts, Mr. Ward profited handsomely by orchestrating a similar cocoa squeeze in 2002. That move, which earned him his chocolate-themed nicknames, caught the attention of financial regulators here, but their findings were never made public.

The Insanity of the Republican Party

Here is a bit from an excellent post by Martin Wolff of the Financial Times:
My reading of contemporary Republican thinking is that there is no chance of any attempt to arrest adverse long-term fiscal trends should they return to power. Moreover, since the Republicans have no interest in doing anything sensible, the Democrats will gain nothing from trying to do much either. That is the lesson Democrats have to draw from the Clinton era’s successful frugality, which merely gave George W. Bush the opportunity to make massive (irresponsible and unsustainable) tax cuts. In practice, then, nothing will be done.

Indeed, nothing may be done even if a genuine fiscal crisis were to emerge. According to my friend, Bruce Bartlett, a highly informed, if jaundiced, observer, some “conservatives” (in truth, extreme radicals) think a federal default would be an effective way to bring public spending they detest under control. It should be noted, in passing, that a federal default would surely create the biggest financial crisis in world economic history.

To understand modern Republican thinking on fiscal policy, we need to go back to perhaps the most politically brilliant (albeit economically unconvincing) idea in the history of fiscal policy: “supply-side economics”. Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. Supply-side economics said that one could cut taxes and balance budgets, because incentive effects would generate new activity and so higher revenue.

The political genius of this idea is evident. Supply-side economics transformed Republicans from a minority party into a majority party. It allowed them to promise lower taxes, lower deficits and, in effect, unchanged spending. Why should people not like this combination? Who does not like a free lunch?

How did supply-side economics bring these benefits? First, it allowed conservatives to ignore deficits. They could argue that, whatever the impact of the tax cuts in the short run, they would bring the budget back into balance, in the longer run. Second, the theory gave an economic justification – the argument from incentives - for lowering taxes on politically important supporters. Finally, if deficits did not, in fact, disappear, conservatives could fall back on the “starve the beast” theory: deficits would create a fiscal crisis that would force the government to cut spending and even destroy the hated welfare state.

In this way, the Republicans were transformed from a balanced-budget party to a tax-cutting party. This innovative stance proved highly politically effective, consistently putting the Democrats at a political disadvantage.
The article goes on the castigate the insanity of the Republicans. Sadly, the average American voter doesn't read and certainly doesn't read the Financial Times.

His message is simple: the Republicans are unhinged. They have learned a political trick based on an economic lie that gives them power. It enables the real fanatics among them to destroy the finances of the country to help achieve their goal of "shrinking" the country. That this will destroy the economy and the economies of the rest of the world is of no concern to these fanatics.

He points out the real facts of Republican unwillingness to be fiscally conservatives (despite all their current claims that all new legislation must "pay for itself"):
... the fiscal theory of supply-side economics did not work, the tax-cutting eras of Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush and again of George W. Bush saw very substantial rises in ratios of federal debt to gross domestic product. Under Reagan and the first Bush, the ratio of public debt to GDP went from 33 per cent to 64 per cent. It fell to 57 per cent under Bill Clinton. It then rose to 69 per cent under the second George Bush.
What does he foresee for the US?
What conclusions should outsiders draw about the likely future of US fiscal policy?

First, if Republicans win the mid-terms in November, as seems likely, they are surely going to come up with huge tax cut proposals (probably well beyond extending the already unaffordable Bush-era tax cuts).

Second, the White House will probably veto these cuts, making itself even more politically unpopular.

Third, some additional fiscal stimulus is, in fact, what the US needs, in the short term, even though across-the-board tax cuts are an extremely inefficient way of providing it.

Fourth, the Republican proposals would not, alas, be short term, but dangerously long term, in their impact.

Finally, with one party indifferent to deficits, provided they are brought about by tax cuts, and the other party relatively fiscally responsible (well, everything is relative, after all), but opposed to spending cuts on core programmes, US fiscal policy is paralysed. I may think the policies of the UK government dangerously austere, but at least it can act.

This is extraordinarily dangerous. The danger does not arise from the fiscal deficits of today, but the attitudes to fiscal policy, over the long run, of one of the two main parties. Those radical conservatives (a small minority, I hope) who want to destroy the credit of the US federal government may succeed. If so, that would be the end of the US era of global dominance. The destruction of fiscal credibility could be the outcome of the policies of the party that considers itself the most patriotic.

In sum, a great deal of trouble lies ahead, for the US and the world.
I've bolded the key bit.

Watching Paint Dry

Only a parent finds his own kids pictures "beautiful"...

I guess this roboticst found his successful training of a robot to flip pancakes gripping, exciting video...

A robot learning to flip pancakes from Sylvain Calinon on Vimeo.

Watching the failures was pretty boring. It is mildly interesting to see that the robot succeeded. But without any explanation from the roboticist, it is hard to appreciate how well and how fast the skill was transferred.

I keep waiting breathlessly for the day when robots will make a real impact on my life. The funny thing is, I believe that when that day arrives, it will be a turning point even more dramatic than that during the late 19th century when electricity, the light bulb, electric motors, the automobile, the radio and other technologies utterly transformed life for people. It will be a truly marvelous day when it arrives. And I expect that once the initial generally useful skill can be taught to a robot happens, then the floodgate will be opened and suddenly the world will be populated by an utterly unimaginable number of suddenly very useful robots. May that day come soon!