Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mr. Speaker

Speaker of the House offers only slightly more job security these days than Number Three Man in al Quaeda used to. Paul Ryan is the latest guy in the cross hairs. So far he has deeply angered not only Paul Krugman but the right wing House conservatives, President Trump, and the right wing media. All agree that he should take the fall for Trumpcare. Will high cheekbones, the widow's peak, and devotion to Ayn Rand be enough to save him?

Trump loosed Jeanine Pirro, Fox News host and Trump attack dog, on Ryan yesterday:

Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host, is a longtime friend of President Trump. So when Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Saturday — a day after his crushing defeat in the House on health care — that people should watch her show that night, political observers began guessing what was in store.

What she delivered was a diatribe against the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan.

“Paul Ryan needs to step down as speaker of the House,” Ms. Pirro, a former prosecutor, said at the opening of her show. “The reason? He failed to deliver the votes on his health care bill.”

Of course Trump is trying to pass off his share of the blame for the disaster - it was Trump who promised a "terrific" bill and Trump who signed up for Ryan's disaster.

In Ryan's favor there is the fact that House Republicans are deeply divided (that's why they couldn't pass a bill - any bill) and there is no obvious candidate who is likely to be less divisive.

I am resisting schadenfreude for the moment on the theory that whoever comes next will probably be worse.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I've played a thousand or two hands of bridge lately, almost all of them against robots. I've tentatively decided that I'm not a big fan, at least of playing with robots. Bridge has some good points - it's challenging, complex, and difficult to master, but I have tentatively concluded that it lacks strategic depth. Of course I'm a pretty poor player.

This is mostly because I've failed to master what I consider the most basic skill of bridge, developing a clear mental picture of all the hands. Essentially this means counting all the cards that are played and using that and other information to get an optimal estimate of the remaining tricks. This skill starts with counting trump, and I can do that, at least as declarer, but counting more than one additional suit seems to overflow my registers. Any slight distraction tends to make me lose count.

So I should probably give it up.

Friday, March 24, 2017


David Frum:

Some of the conservatives who voted “no” to the House leadership’s version of repeal may yet imagine that they will have some other opportunity to void the law. They are again deluding themselves. If the Republican Party tripped over its own feet walking across this empty ballroom, it will face only more fearsome difficulties in the months ahead, as mid-term elections draw closer. Too many people benefit from the law—and the Republican alternatives thus far offer too little to compensate for the loss of those benefits.

In that third week in March in 2010, America committed itself for the first time to the principle of universal (or near universal) health-care coverage. That principle has had seven years to work its way into American life and into the public sense of right and wrong. It’s not yet unanimously accepted. But it’s accepted by enough voters—and especially by enough Republican voters—to render impossible the seven-year Republican vision of removing that coverage from those who have gained it under the Affordable Care Act. Paul Ryan still upholds the right of Americans to “choose” to go uninsured if they cannot afford to pay the cost of their insurance on their own. His country no longer agrees.

Jersey Physics


The Physics First program could become "Physics Last" at Montgomery High School, if a group of parents have their way.

All Montgomery High School freshmen must take physics, but a petition being circulated by parents is calling on school officials to re-evaluate the high school science program - including abolishing the Physics First program.

The petition, which has been signed by more than 300 parents, states that the Physics First program "creates an undue amount of stress, negativity and decreased confidence for our children."


However, Montgomery Township school district officials said the rationale for requiring physics for freshmen is that it is a "foundational" science. It builds into chemistry, which leads into biology, said Jason Sullivan, the science supervisor at Montgomery High School.

The freshman physics course is offered on three levels - general, college prep and honors, Sullivan said. The freshman course is a conceptual, algebra-based course, but the honors course addresses a few items where basic trigonometry is involved, he said.


Freshman Alexandra Lister told the school board that she knew physics would be challenging, but there was no choice. The result is she feels stressed and confused.

"I am a high achiever and I am self-driven. I don't deserve the burden of physics," Alexandra said. She cannot focus on other courses because she is worried about the physics course, she said.

It's certainly true that physics is foundational - necessary to deeply understand almost all the other sciences, but it's also true that it's the most mathematically demanding science. Most of physics is not really accessible without calculus. I think that I might find it painful to teach a whole year of physics without invoking calculus.

When I went to high school we took a freshman level course in physical science. I don't recall much about it but one can use such a course to introduce concepts like gravity, basic electromagnetic phenomena, energy and heat as well as apply it to astronomy, geology, and engineering.

We were on the layer cake plan: sophomores got biology, juniors chemistry, and seniors physics. My preferred approach would be four years of plain science, integrated with the math curriculum, and carefully building the tools needed for all the sciences. The students would get physics, chemistry, biology and some other sciences each year.


And the good news is that Trump/Ryancare didn't win.

The bad news is that Trump and Ryan are ideally placed to sabotage Obamacare.

That Way Madness Lies

Sometime about noon yesterday I looked outside and noticed that our mountains were missing, as were any other terrain features more than a couple of miles away. Naturally, I jumped to the conclusion that the simulation we live in had glitched, wiping out all those pixels. Possibly that conclusion was influenced by the fact that I had heard that some of the intelligentsia of my universe (OK, Scott, Bee, and Lubosh) were arguing about the world as a simulation.

Actually I didn't bother to read their stuff, mainly because past experience has indicated to me that such discussions, where predicated on any logic whatsoever, usually are based on assuming that the simulation exists in a universe with laws of physics similar to or even exactly like our own.

Doh! Why would anyone do that? Real simulations, in our universe, aren't like that. Mostly they use simplified physics to try to capture a few elements of reality, or just imagine different physics to see what happens. So if we are a simulation, whatever that means, it's likely in a universe governed by perhaps unimaginably different physical laws.

Anyway, after a while a different explanation occurred to me: perhaps the cold front that just moved in with violent winds had stirred or advected enough of our desert dust to obscure everything further away - it certainly looked dusty out there. Of course my first guess might be more likely, but see title, above.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mathematical Thinking

The Lumonator has a recent post on the importance of mathematical thinking, and of teaching it.

He summarizes some of this in ten points, which I endorse, but I would like to add one more point which he doesn't quite state explicitly: mathematical thinking teaches disciplined methods of thought. I am reminded of the fact that Lincoln taught himself to prove all the theorems of Euclid's first six elements at sight not because he thought they would come up in his legal practice, but because he thought that would sharpen his logical and analytical skills. It also teaches a language for expressing analysis in a disciplined manner.

Losing It

The Democratic defeat in the 2016 election was monumental at virtually every level. Only the Presidential election was close. Why so?

There are, of course, a million theories, but the one I like best is based on the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, which was published a couple of months before the election. She set out to look at Louisiana members of the Tea Party, but many aspects resonate more widely. The last half century has not been kind to the middle class, who have gotten virtually none of profits of economic advance, and have been brutal to the working class, which has lost a lot of ground.

Now some blame this on the explosive growth of the wealth of the super-rich, but for various reasons, including a powerful propaganda apparatus in the hands of those same super-rich, many see the entitlements of those they consider line cutters, all those allegedly disadvantaged who get a leg up thanks to the government or thanks to the government letting foreigners "cut in". White men, especially white men without a college degree, voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and they have a lot of beefs with government and liberal ideology.

Aside from the disappearance of good jobs, like the factory jobs that gave their parents an entry to the middle class, they feel that their economics, honor and prestige has been dissed by the rise of affirmative action, feminism, and identity politics. They have a solid case. When some rise, others fall, even if only relatively.

The economics, though, are more complex. Globalization and automation have done most of the dirty work of taking away well paying jobs and transferring wealth to the super-rich.

2016, I think, was an election ruled by anger. What I don't see from the Republicans is any disposition or idea of how to fix the fundamental problems. Their health care plan is a symptom of their intellectual and moral bankruptcy. They can scapegoat Muslims, Mexicans and Blacks, but that (I hope) will only displace anger, not remove the causes.

Can Democrats, or anybody, transcend these problems to build a better society?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Daily Beast:Daily Beast:

According to a CNN report, advocacy groups led by Charles and David Koch are promising to create a new fund for Republican reelection races in 2018 for Republicans who vote against the current proposed health care bill. "We want to make certain that lawmakers understand the policy consequences of voting for a law that keeps Obamacare intact," Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips said. "We have a history of following up and holding politicians accountable, but we will also be there to support and thank the champions who stand strong and keep their promise." It is an explicit effort to influence the vote for the American Health Care Act, which is up for a vote in the House on Thursday.

The essence of bribery is a quid pro quo, and this is bribery, pure and simple. Will anybody make the case?


The Winter maximum of Arctic sea ice extent this year seems to have been the lowest in modern era, that is, since satellites made possible accurate measurements (starting in 1979). I am a bit bemused by the difficulty headline writers and newsreaders have had reporting the slightly complicated idea of the minimum of a bunch of maxima. The NPR story I heard made it sound like Arctic sea ice was at a minimum during the dead of winter.

Here is the NYT: "Arctic’s Winter Sea Ice Drops to Its Lowest Recorded Level"

Uhh, not exactly. It was lower a couple of weeks ago and will be lower (very likely) in another couple of weeks.

Math is hard - Barbie.

Hidden Figures

I heard a brief interview with Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money, on NPR today. She was talking about how Citizens United has made it possible for a few ultra-rich people than hardly any American has ever heard of to dominate American politics, and in particular for Rebekah Mercer to play a pivotal role in Trump's election and policy objectives. How many Americans, I wonder, have heard of this Hedge Fund heiress and boutique cookie baker?

Her father, Robert Mercer, made a few zillion bucks in quantitative trading and writes a lot of the checks, but she seems to be guiding a conservative network that generates propaganda, funds "institutes" selling the party line, and finances candidates. Key among her projects was Breitbart and Steve Bannon, who some have called her Svengali.

Here is an excerpt from a campaign era Politico story:

Rebekah Mercer now sits at the nexus of Trump’s universe. So influential has she become that her conversation with Trump during an August fundraiser in the Hamptons has been widely credited with spurring the rookie candidate to shake up his campaign team by turning its leadership over to two of her closest confidants.

Pollster Kellyanne Conway, who has worked with Mercer on a pro-Cruz super PAC, became campaign manager, while the new job of campaign CEO went to Steve Bannon, a campaign novice who helped run both the Government Accountability Institute — which has received at least $2 million from the Mercer foundation — and Breitbart News, the intensely pro-Trump nationalist website in which the Mercers have invested. This month, Trump rounded out his newly reconfigured campaign leadership by bringing in yet another operative with whom Mercer has worked — David Bossie, who previously ran both an anti-Clinton super PAC that received $2 million from Bob Mercer in July and an anti-Clinton nonprofit called Citizens United that received $3.6 million from the Mercers’ foundation from 2012 through 2014.

Rebekah Mercer did not respond to requests for comment. Conway, Bannon and Bossie either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. And most conservative insiders approached for this story were loath to speak on the record for fear it might jeopardize their chances of receiving funding from Mercer's intensely private family. Mercer, some said, has scolded allies for calling attention to her — even when it’s been positive.

Some personal stuff:

Described almost universally as intelligent and hard-working, Mercer graduated from Stanford in 1996 with a dual degree in biology and mathematics, then received a master’s in operations research from Stanford. She went to work on Wall Street as a trader, before retiring to raise the four children she had with her husband, Sylvain Mirochnikoff, a managing director at Morgan Stanley.

Associates describe the family as close-knit and culturally conservative but also known to spend lavishly on their wide-ranging hobbies.

Bob Mercer has commissioned a $2.7-million model train set and multiple massive yachts, including one with décor inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

Lots more in the Politico story linked above.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Trump Tower Tapping

Josh Marshall:

For two years ending in 2013, the FBI had a court-approved warrant to eavesdrop on a sophisticated Russian organized crime money laundering network that operated out of unit 63A in Trump Tower.

The FBI investigation led to a federal grand jury indictment of more than 30 people, including one of the world’s most notorious Russian mafia bosses, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. Known as the “Little Taiwanese,” Tokhtakhounov was the only target to slip away, and he remains a fugitive from American justice.

Five months after the April 2013 indictment and after Interpol issued a “red notice” for Tokhtakhounov, the fugitive appeared near Donald Trump in the VIP section of the Moscow Miss Universe pageant. Trump had sold the Russian rights for Miss Universe to a billionaire Russian shopping mall developer.

There have been persistent rumors of Trump's mob ties, foreign and domestic. If there is any substance to them, Trump may have put himself in a place where it's hard to hide.

The Trump High

Sociologist Hochschild completed her book before Trump became President, but she describes the scene at one of his rallies:

His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life. Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated. The man who expressed amazement, arms upheld—“to be in the presence of such a man!”—seemed in a state of rapture. As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land. “Collective effervescence,” as the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called it in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, is a state of emotional excitation felt by those who join with others they take to be fellow members of a moral or biological tribe. They gather to affirm their unity and, united, they feel secure and respected. While Durkheim was studying religious rites among indigenous tribes in Australia and elsewhere, much of what he observed could be applied to the rally at the Lakefront Airport, as well as many others like it. People gather around what Durkheim calls a “totem”—a symbol such as a cross or a flag. Leaders associate themselves with the totem and charismatic leaders can become totems themselves. The function of the totem is to unify worshippers. Seen through Durkheim’s eyes, the real function of the excited gathering around Donald Trump is to unify all the white, evangelical enthusiasts who fear that those “cutting ahead in line” are about to become a terrible, strange, new America. The source of the awe and excitement isn’t simply Trump himself; it is the unity of the great crowd of strangers gathered around him. If the rally itself could speak, it would say, “We are a majority!”

Added to that is a potent promise—to be lifted up from bitterness, despair, depression. The “movement,” as Trump has increasingly called his campaign, acts as a great antidepressant. Like other leaders promising rescue, Trump evokes a moral consciousness. But what he gives participants, emotionally speaking, is an ecstatic high. The costumes, hats, signs, and symbols reaffirm this new sense of unity. To those who attend his rallies, the event itself symbolizes a larger rising tide. As the crowd exited the hangar, fans were saying to one another, “See how many of us there are.” It felt to them that Trump had captured the flag.

One way of reinforcing this “high” of a united brother- and sisterhood of believers is to revile and expel members of out groups. In his speeches, Trump has spoken of “something within Islam which hates Christians,” and of his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the country. He has spoken of expelling all undocumented people of Mexican origin. And only reluctantly and in truculent tones (“I repudiate, okay?”) did he repudiate the notorious Louisiana KKK grand wizard, David Duke, thus signaling blacks as members of an out group. In nearly every rally, Trump points out a protestor, sometimes demonizing them and calling for their expulsion. (One protestor was even falsely depicted by his campaign as a member of ISIS.) Such scapegoating reinforces the joyous unity of the gathering. The act of casting out the “bad one” helps fans unite in a shared sense of being the “good ones,” the majority, no longer strangers in their own land.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (pp. 225-226). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

I think this helps explain the imperviousness of his core support to blunders in office and general clownish behavior. They are still high on their own supply.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fake News?

Headline from the New York Daily [fake] News:

President Trump's approval rating sinks lower than Obama's

How much lower? Well, if you compare approval-disapproval figures, about 30+ percentage points lower. That's compared to Obama's rating last year. Compared to Obama or other recent Presidents at the same point in their Presidencies, Trump's numbers are even a lot worse.


Trump's approval/disapproval ratings are very low for a President so early in his term, but the past week of chaos has coincided with another sharp drop to 37%/58%, which is bad, but still well short of catastrophic. He still has a hard core of 37% or so believers and probably another 10-15% who are persuadable. I suspect though, that he can't afford any big screw ups or other disasters. If his approval/disapproval were to fall much below 30%/65% I think that the Congressional Republicans would start getting really antsy.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Jesus vs. Paul Ryan

I like this Nick Kristof column: And Jesus Said Unto Paul of Ryan ...


A woman who had been bleeding for 12 years came up behind Jesus and touched his clothes in hope of a cure. Jesus turned to her and said: “Fear not. Because of your faith, you are now healed.”

Then spoke Pious Paul of Ryan: “But teacher, is that wise? When you cure her, she learns dependency. Then the poor won’t take care of themselves, knowing that you’ll always bail them out! You must teach them personal responsibility!”

They were interrupted by 10 lepers who stood at a distance and shouted, “Jesus, have pity on us.”

“NO!” shouted Pious Paul. “Jesus! You don’t have time. We have a cocktail party fund-raiser in the temple. And don’t worry about them — they’ve already got health care access.”

Have I mentioned that Paul Ryan is pond scum?

One Child

China's "One Child" policy has to be the most successful economic experiment at least since the Marshall plan, and maybe since the invention of stock markets. Fifty years ago, China was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP one fifth that of Nigeria, and a comparable fertility rate. Under "One Child" the fertility rate plummeted from 7.5 (children per woman) to 2.3 and then to about 1.5. Meanwhile, the per capita GDP went from $732 to $13,330 (in 2015). Nigeria, like many other African countries, has maintained a birth rate of 6.0 or so and barely nudged forward in per capita GDP.

Dr. Malthus may have died centuries ago, but his insights live on. If you have as many children as the land can sustain, subsistence is about the best you can do.

China's leaders had the immense foresight to see this, and totalitarian political control to implement it. Other nations have achieved similar results with less draconian methods. Of course there is ultimately a penalty of sort to be paid. Many countries have seen their populations age, and a few are already shrinking in population. This slows economic growth and the burden of carrying for the old falls on a shrinking population. Of course if you've seen a ten or twentyfold increase in your per capita income in the meantime, the burden is enormously lightened.

China has relaxed the one child policy, but the Chinese, like their counterparts where low fertility evolved more naturally, are showing little sign of going on a baby making frenzy. Most of South Asia seems close to dropping to the replacement rate or lower. The Middle East lags a bit, but is also getting close.

A few war torn and desperately poor countries (Aghanistan, Syria, Yemen) lag well behind, as does most of Africa. Africa, in particular, needs to learn that it will always be poor unless it can slow or stop its population explosion.


A Bag of Rocks

I've been reading Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Hochschild is a highly regarded sociologist who specializes in close up looks at groups of people who might be unfamiliar to many of us. Here she ventures into the heart of Tea Party country in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She prepped for the trip, she tells us, by rereading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which is something of a Bible for the Tea Party founders. That alone tells me that her pain tolerance is a heck of a lot higher than mine.

The area around Lake Charles is densely packed with petrochemical plants and has been devastated by pollution. Some of the nation's most productive rivers and estuaries used to be here, but many of them have now been killed by the deadly flood of chemicals. Hoschschild wanted to get a look into the mind of the Tea Party, and thought the pollution issue, which has devastated many, might be what she calls a "keyhole" into their thinking. Her lead characters include many who have been personally devastated by the polluting industries: friends and relatives crippled or dead of cancer, homes and livelihoods destroyed.

One interesting tidbit comes from a study that was commissioned of the best places to situate a noxious pollution source. It concludes that it should be a community of "least resistant personality types," which it concluded were:

•​Longtime residents of small towns in the South or Midwest

•​High school educated only


•​Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism

•​Involved in mining, farming, ranching (what Cerrell called “nature exploitative occupations”)



•​Advocates of the free market

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (p. 81). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

This fits the local profile almost perfectly. On the other hand, her characters (as she notes) are nothing like Rand's soulless creeps. They are warm, kind, and deeply frustrated by their situation. Still, it's hard for me to understand how they can keep voting for a gang of crooked Bible thumpers who are in the pockets of the oil companies (and devoted to emptying the taypayer's money into oil company coffers). Maybe the rest of the book will give me a clue.