Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Camera Bleg

Every once in a while, I look at some of Arun's great pictures like these and say, hey, I'd like to be able to do that. Aside from the small matter of skill, I expect that it would require a better camera than my current set of point and shoots. So, if I were considering a step up to an entry level DSLR, what should I get? How about micro four thirds and EVIL? Wait for EVILs to come down in price?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Next American Century

It seems that Andres Martinez wrote a Time Magazine article with title as above that triggered an anti-American rant from Bee. What especially offends her about us is our attitude, I think, though for specifics she cites newspapers, roads, plumbing, windows, food, and oh yeah attitude. Not sure that we have a monopoly on that last.

OK, so the post provoked a bit of patriotic defensive ire, reminded me of a couple of unpleasant encounhters with Germans and Germany (they were very much the exception, btw), and got me thinking about centuries. It wouldn't be crazy to call the twentieth century an American century, but it is surely way too early to hand that title to us in this one.

I suspect that Bee makes too much of the independence of modern German popular culture. The Americans may be a minority on the charts, but even the German and Belgian are singing a mainly American genre. Bee writes a blog in English for cripes sake.

I don't think we are moving to a global America, but we do seem to be moving toward a more global culture. It will have elements of many societies, including a lot from America (most of which in turn come from Europe, Africa, and Asia).

Tolerably So

So often when I read libertarians, I often get the feeling that something missing. So it is with this from Robin Hanson via Alex Tabbarok.

“Tolerance” is a feel-good buzzword in our society, but I fear people have forgotten what it means. Many folks are proud of their “tolerance” for gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus. But what they really mean is that they consider such things to be completely appropriate parts of their society, and are not bothered by them in the slightest. That, however, isn’t “tolerance.”
“Tolerance” is where you tolerate things that actually bother you.

Well, he has come up with a definition that fits the case he wants to make - that he is more tolerant than you - but I think it lacks both justification in the traditional use of language and cogency as an argument. The usual dictionary definitions of tolerance actually de-emphasizes the notion that tolerance has to be of things you hate. By that standard, the ancient Romans were a lot more tolerant than us, because they tolerated pedophilia, slavery, and mass public murder for entertainment.

Sometimes the dictionary is worth a peek. Here are the four relevant meanings from one:

1.a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.
2.a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own.
3.interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one's own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.
4.the act or capacity of enduring; endurance: My tolerance of noise is limited.

Only the fourth definition comes close to Hanson's meaning. All the others clearly refer to what he won't accept as real tolerance.

I would argue that is some behavior or group offends one, one ought to try to figure why it offends you. I find that I can often find good reasons that I can justify for being offended - and in those cases I see no good reason for tolerance. Other times, I can't find any excuse other than ignorant prejudice - and that signals a good reason to start tolerating. With luck, I will reach a state where it doesn't bother me.

“Epistemic Closure”

There is a concept in philosophy called “epistemic closure” The fundamental notion is that if one knows something, one also knows those things logically implied by that something. This idea looks pretty silly to anyone who has ever studied mathematics, but that’s not my subject here.

Every once in a while, some semi-technical phrase or idea gets hijacked by popular culture, usually utterly changing its meaning in the process. Such was the case with “begs the question” a few years back, “quantum leap” way back when, and thus it is with “epistemic closure” today.

It seems that one Julian Sanchez wrote a piece about the 'epistemic closure' of the conservative mind. What he was referring to was what a painfully objective observer might call conservative’s close-mindedness or their resistance to testing their ideas against empirical evidence – I would just call it “obdurate stupidity.”

Now it seems to me that this usage is almost unrelated to “epistemic closure” in the classical sense, but it has been picked up by popular writers and even a Nobel Prize winner, so it seems that fuddy-duddies like me will just have to grit their teeth over this like we do when hear the abuse of the phrase “begs the question” or the claim that it’s somehow improper to use “hopefully” as a sentence adverb.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Talk to the Animals

Stephen Hawking thinks that alien extraterrestials are out there and that humans shouldn't try to contact them. Human History is pretty definitive on the consequences of encounter between technologically unequal culture, humans seem certain to be far behind any extraterrestial culture they encounter. Hawking is worried that the planet might be taken over by aliens who had trashed their own planet or just wanted more room.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the native Americans,” Hawking said on his show.

I think that I can reassure Hawking on both those counts, though. Most advanced civilizations in the Galaxy have learned to live within their means, and no longer require the intermediation of an Earthlike planet to extract negative entropy from the Universe. Frankly though, you do scare the hell out of us. It's the combination of rapacity and skill in harnessing techology to it that's bothersome. Our course we all came up through more or less similar Darwinian meatgrinders, so those traits aren't exactly new to us.

Up until recently we have pursued a policy of more or less strict non-intervention, but I feel that I should warn you that four out of five planets that develop a technological civilization don't make it - the rest either sterilize their planet themselves or need to be removed as a threat to the rest of us.

Your local wildlife ranger,


Friday, April 23, 2010

The Clone Wars: Bryan Caplan

Tyler Cowen started a minor internet firestorm when he posted this excerpt from a forthcoming (potential?) book by Caplan.

Bryan Caplan's cloning confession

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I'm sure we'd share. I'm confident that he'd be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I'm not pushing others to clone themselves. I'm not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

This confession didn't exactly arouse a chorus of adulation. "Icky" and "creepy" were common reactions. Others noted soberly that his expectation of "a sublime" bond with a person he imagined would be himself were wildly unrealistic. Clone or not, his son would be a different person, at least forty years younger, and very likely to learn to despise being under the control of someone who (inevitably) would look, sound, and act like his worst fears for his own fate.

Caplan, of course, has a book to promote, and what better way than to outrage the blogospheric classes. Cowen, DeLong, and Sullivan have all stirred up their own minions.

I'm not a fan, but for those who want a first hand look at his thinking, you could look here at what he calls his intellectual autobiography. It's the usual sad story: boy meets Ayn Rand, mostly downhill from there.

UPDATE: Jim Henley, at Brad DeLong's site, defines exactly why Caplan's statement is so creepy:

The creepy is Caplan’s confidence that he and his son will share a uniquely “sublime” bond. Yes, the undeniable relative deprecation of the bond he shares with his existing children is part of that. But so is the pressure his avidity puts on someone who would be, if Caplan got his wish, a real person in his own right – and a vulnerable, immature one.

My guess is that the clone would be forced to rebel just to get some intellectual oxygen.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Trust Me!

Trust is a pretty fundamental element in the construction of a society. Levels of mutual trust are very highly correlated with economic progress - lack of mutual trust is a poison that cripples economic activity. It also seems that trust is modulated by one basic hormone: oxytocin. Oxytocin is a critical homone in cervical dialation (for birth), the let-down reflex (lactation), pair bonding, and orgasm, and if they spray it up your nose you are likely to give away your money to a stranger who asks.

Trust in government is at an all-time low right now, and NPR decided to do some stories on the phenomenon. Government isn't the only institution that isn't trusted - distrust is rather general, suggesting a widespread oxytocin shortage - I mean that distrust is contagious. The NPR story today focussed on the biological underpinnings, but even when we aren't engaged in one of the activities listed in the previous paragraph, our oxytocin levels are equisitely modulated by our overall mental processes, as well as more generalized states like stress. The widespread economic distress today is one good reason for stress and a consequent lack of trust in everything.

Cynical actors - I'm talking about Fox News and the Republican Party - have learned to foster, encourage, and in part to harness this distrust. What they get by spreading their current lies - Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, Communist, Antisemite or whatever, for example, is an angry and distrustful population eager to lash out. Some of the people they have incited have already murdered or planned to murder policemen and other government officials.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hoist by Our Own Petard

P W Singer has a must read article in Newsweek on the threat posed by unmanned aerial systems (UAS). These robotic or remote controlled aircraft have been a crucial weapon of technological advantage for the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, but the underlying technology is neither very difficult or expensive. The rest of the World is catching up rapidly.

The unmanned spy plane that Lebanon's Hizbullah sent buzzing over Israeli towns in 2005 was loud and weaponless, and carried only a rudimentary camera. But the surprise flight by a regional terror group still worried U.S. analysts, who saw it as a sign that the unmanned vehicles were falling into the wrong hands.

Today that concern appears to have been well founded. At least 40 other countries—from Belarus and Georgia to India, Pakistan, and Russia—have begun to build, buy, and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, showcasing their efforts at international weapons expos ranging from the premier Paris Air Show to smaller events in Singapore and Bahrain. In the last six months alone, Iran has begun production on a pair of weapons-ready surveillance drones, while China has debuted the Pterodactyl and Sour Dragon, rivals to America's Predator and Global Hawk. All told, two thirds of worldwide investment in unmanned planes in 2010 will be spent by countries other than the United States.

To date, we have been the dispensers of death from the skies, but there is a real chance that the US could be on the other end of gun - or bomb, soon.

Singer sees no evidence that Homeland Security, or the US in general, is taking the threat seriously. The US buys much of its robotic technology from abroad.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Inconvenient Truths

Bob Gates writes the inconvenient truth.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability, according to government officials familiar with the document

Sanctions - tactics of economic isolation - have rarely been effective, especially against a country with something really valuable to sell. The fact is that there isn't really any good way to keep Iran from getting nukes. Sanctions strong enough to work won't happen. Iran's nuclear facilities are likely deep underground and widely dispersed. Attacking Iran would be dangerous, expensive, and only likely to succeed with a gigantic effort.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Word of the Day

Commenter Neil taught me a new word yesterday: scientism. It's not a word I can like. Scientism, it seems, is a religio-philosophical (rp) belief system. It's not the belief system I have a quarrel with, though, it's the word. The problem is that it creates a potential ambiguity for the word scientist, which traditionally and universally describes someone engaged in doing science, regardless of their rp belief system.

I also have to take strong exception to Neil's claim that economic progress is largely due to "scientism." Actually, most economic progress is due to science, by which I mean both the methodology of science and more importantly, the body of results that science has revealed. No doubt many scientists would largely agree with the supposed tenets of scientism - many more would not. Scientists with all sorts of attitudes have made big contributions to science.

I'm not a big believer in "the scientific method." Aside from honesty and respect for the results of experiment, lots of strategies work, including ruthless intellectual opportunism.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sullivan Gets Palin

The post: A halfterm former governor with a TV show

Some highlights:

Of course, none of this makes any sense, but Palin, unlike some of her rivals who feel some kind of lingering need to relate their policies to fiscal and global reality, is a thoroughly post-modern creature. She creates her own reality, and that is an incredibly important talent for a party base that desperately wants to live in another reality (a kind of souped-up version of 1950s culture and late nineteenth century economy). Her book - a fictional account of an imagined life - sold well with the GOP base because they too want a fictional account of America's current standing in the world and an imagined set of viable policy positions. She so lives and breathes this magical-realist culture she doesn't need to channel it. She knows we can keep social security and Medicare and global power for ever and balance the budget without any taxes - because that is what she wants to know. And she has never let reality get in her way. Reality is one of those doors she keeps crashing through.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Essay Tests

The new right-wing Governor of Virginia wants convicted felons who have served their time to have to take an essay test before having their voting rights restored. I don't want to take a position on that, but could we have one for prospective politicians?

I think that it ought to cover history, economics, science, and math...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Economic Progress

I'm inclined to believe that economists are way too optimistic about the prospects for continuing economic and technical progress. The long history of human economic progress tends to fits and starts. An occasional burst raises living standards for a bit, is consumed by Dr. Malthus, leaving all but a select few rather worse off than they were before.

The last couple of hundred years doesn't look like that, but there are pretty good reasons to believe that exponential growth is not a permanent condition. The scientific discoveries that led to the technological explosions of the nineteenth and twentieth century haven't yet run their course, but there isn't much sign of anything truly new to come. There is still a fair amount of juice to be squeezed out of manipulating matter at the molecular level, but then what?

The one revolutionary event still to come - the replacement of humans by robots, is well underway, but that's likely to bring human economics to a finish anyway.

TBBT: Shark Jumping/Squid Diving

OK, the writers of The Big Bang Theory seem bent on turning our heroes from nerdy scientists into nerdy high school comic book fanboys. On behalf of all 5 or 6 of us physicist fans, I have to say this is not good. I realize that the writers **are** nerdy high school comic book fanboys, but many of the episodes in the first couple of years had a nice scientific aroma - could they try to get back to that a little?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mine Safety

Mining is a dangerous business. In the latest mine disaster, though, as in so many previously, it seems that the mine where the tragedy happened had a pattern of safety violations so frequent and so severe that it can hardly be doubted that management had made the deliberate choice to violate the law and reasonable regard for safety. Accidents and fines, for them, were a cost of doing business. This choice is only likely to be made when the penalties for violation are far too slight.

My modest suggestion: in the event of serious accident where gross negligence and violation of the law occurs, summarily execute the CEO and other complicit members of senior management. Execution of a few of the Don Blankenships of the world might get the attention of other senior executives in a way that fines rarely do.

I have to admit though, that a Fox News interviewer (!!) came up with a better idea. When inspectors find a serious safety violation, empower inspectors to close the mine and keep all the miners on the company's clock until the violation is fixed. This gives all concerned a motive to do the right thing.

UPDATE: After reading some more background from Devilstower at Daily Kos, let me reiterate my first suggestion. A few excerpts:

The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship ... donates huge amounts to conservative causes, has funded a good chunk of the Tea Party movement in West Virginia, famously spent over $3 million to get a friendly judge elected to the state Supreme Court, and donated another $3 million in an attempt to fund a Republican takeover of the state legislature. Blankenship regularly engages in calling Democratic leaders "the crazies" and has said that any move to regulate pollution is the first step toward communism. Grist named Blankenship the "scariest polluter" in the country.

Now that Blankenship's disregard for safety has cost the lives of 29 men, what should we expect?

Not much. After all, this isn't the first time. In 2006, two West Virginia miners died in a fire at Massey's Alma Number 1 Mine when fire fighting equipment turned out to be non-functional. The company paid out a record $4.2 million in fines, but still turned a record profit. Blankenship personally pocketed an extra $14 million in stock options that year -- not exactly an incentive to change.

Read the Devilstower story though - it's a better piece of advocacy journalism than you are likely to see.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats

I thought this was a greatly underated movie. It had my family laughing hard, much of the time. George Clooney is one of the great modern comic actors, and Ewan McGregor was a fine straightman.

Saturday, April 03, 2010


Evidence continues to pile up that Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, was a key player in the Catholic Church's coverup of the pedophile scandal.

Documents reviewed by The Associated Press show that as a Vatican cardinal, the future pope took over the abuse case of the Rev. Michael Teta of Tucson, Ariz., then let it languish at the Vatican for years despite repeated pleas from the bishop for the man to be removed from the priesthood.

In another Tucson case, that of Msgr. Robert Trupia, the bishop wrote to then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become pope in 2005. Bishop Manuel Moreno called Trupia "a major risk factor to the children, adolescents and adults that he many have contact with." There is no indication in the case files that Ratzinger responded.

The details of the two cases come as other allegations emerge that Benedict — as a Vatican cardinal — was part of a culture of cover-up and confidentiality.

"There's no doubt that Ratzinger delayed the defrocking process of dangerous priests who were deemed 'satanic' by their own bishop," Lynne Cadigan, an attorney who represented two of Teta's victims, said Friday.

Meanwhile, while the Pope's minions continue to offer non-denial denials and lame excuses (procedures were being revised), the ineptitude of their spin was epitomized by the spokesman who compared the criticism of the Pope to Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Did we remember to note that Ratzinger **was** a Nazi Youth member?

Climate Sensitivity Again

OK, here is a model (adapted from a wikipedia article that I can't find at the moment) that is simple enough that I can understand, but that reveals many of the key aspects of climate sensitivity. Define the following variables, all of which should be considered as planetary averages, numbers are from Lubos:

S – incoming solar flux at top of tropopause

A – albedo of the planet

e – emissivity of the planet

c – Stefan-Boltzmann constant = 5.67 * 10^-8 W* m^-2*K^-4

T – surface temperature of the planet = 288 K

Te – effective radiating (absolute) temperature of the planet = 256 K

R – radiated energy per unit area, (radiant flux)

In equilibrium, R has to equal the absorbed energy R = (1-A)*S
Te is defined by R = c Te^4. That is, Te is the temperature that a black body radiating R would have.

In the “grey body” approximation, we also have R= e c T^4. Note that the emissivity can be estimated from the last two equations e = (Te/T)^4 = .62

We would like to calculate climate sensitivity lambda = dT/dS, but it’s simpler to work with its inverse

lambda^-1 = dR/dT = d/dt (S*(1-A)) = d/dT(e c T^4)

= 4R/T - (R/(1-A))dA/dT +(R/e) de/dT

The solar input is being treated as constant. The 4 R/T term is what I called the grey body (inverse) climate sensitivity and is = 3.3 Adding CO2 to the atmosphere operates through the third term, decreasing the emissivity, so de/dT is negative, inverse lambda decreases, and lambda increases. Feedbacks due to increases in temperature put more water vapor in the atmosphere, also decreasing emissivity. Similarly, melting of polar ice decreases albedo, and lambda again increases. Other effects are more complex and controversial – clouds both decrease emissivity and increase albedo.

A small percentage change in either albedo or emissivity is needed to produce a K degree of change in temperature.

UPDATE: Well, I expected some commenter to have figured this out, but I guess I need to do it myself. In fact all the terms in the equation should have the same sign. Naturally its important to be a bit careful in ones definition. The radiative forcing should be defined as the difference between the equilibrium output = input = S(1-A) and the output with emissivity adjusted but not surface temperature = e c T^4 RF = e c T^4 - S(1-A)

d(RF)/dT = 4 R/T + (R/e)(de/dT) + (R/(1-A))(dA/dT)

Fairly modest feedbacks in the second two terms are adequate to produce the IPCC's lambda=0.8 value. (Black body = .18, "grey body" = .3)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Climate Sensitivity: More Motled Thoughts

Well, I'm still trying to understand how and where Motl gets his non-SB emission curves. Now that I understand that he is computing emissions at the ground I need to throw in a quibble. After deriving the relation
dT/d(RF) = T/(4 RF), he proceeds to plug in T = 288 and RF = 235. RF and T are not independent - one determines the other, and RF(T=288K) is not equal to 235 W/m^2 - the radiant output of a 288 K black body would be 390 W/m^2 - an error by almost a factor of tw by Motl. The sea and land infrared emissivities average well over 95%, so the terrestial Earth is emitting around 370-380 W/m^2 at 288 K. The whole point of the greenhouse effect is that this number is not equal to the 235 W/m^2 emitted at the top of the atmosphere.

The difference between these numbers, 380-235 =145 W/m^2 is the energy returned to Earth due to absorption and re-emission by atmospheric gases.

UPDATE: OK, now I understand. Motl is effectively calculating the climate sensitivity for a so called grey body Earth. By contrast, I did the blackbody Earth. The reasons that the feedbacks have the signs they do, and add significantly to the sensitivity number are well explained here by another skeptic incidentally, but one whose logic seems a lot clearer to me. He believes in a relatively low sensitivity based on estimates from geological history data. It's worth noting that others who attempt to make historically based estimates have come up with different values.