Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Being Unhelpful About Education

Very interesting Washington Post article about a school board member who took the Florida state standardized tests for reading and math.

You can guess what happened: he flunked them both. On the reading test he did poorly, but managed to eke out a 62%. Of the math test questions he states, "I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly." But here's where it gets interesting. You might think that this person would be embarrassed by his complete failure, in particular at (let's face it) basic math. But no. Here's what he actually said:

It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities...."

Yes, something is seriously wrong. Something is very seriously wrong when a person can obtain three university degrees and still not know a single question on a 10th grade math test, and the problem isn't with the test. I'd like to see some evidence that this gentleman actually can "make sense of complex data", because something does not compute here.

What does it mean when he says he "helps oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion... budget"? Well, it turns out that it means he was elected to the school board of a large district. So he's good at getting elected: fine. But that's not the same as being hired, and on the basis of what I read about his tests, I personally wouldn't hire him to oversee a $3 billion organization in a heartbeat. Would you?

It's possible that the standardized tests are too hard. Or it's possible that our schools are being run by over-educated idiots. To help you decide, consider the following: in the international PISA study, the United States finished 15th out of 30 in reading, 24th out of 29 in mathematics, and 21st out of 30 in science, while spending among the highest amount per student in the world.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

American Airlines, Then and Now

So American Airlines is bankrupt. That's bad news, I suppose, for the economy as a whole. And it's unfortunate for any AA employees who lose their jobs as a result. But in some larger sense, this seems like just desert.

Back in the mid-1990s, when computerized airline booking was pretty new, I once made a somewhat complicated reservation via CompuServe (there's a blast from the past, and gives you an idea of how many computer eons ago this took place). But I screwed up somehow. I meant to book a ticket from Newark; instead I booked one to Newark. Furthermore, I didn't even realize my error until I arrived at Newark Airport the day of travel, bags in hand, wondering why there was no line at the ticket counter.

Can you guess what happened? If you've traveled in the past ten years you might not believe this, but I swear it is true: They fixed it for me at no charge. The error was purely mine, and they just fixed it.

I can report another episode that happened a few years later. Again, flying out of Newark. This time, however, I was late for my flight because - and again this is difficult to fathom in today's world - my taxi broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike and the driver had no way to communicate with his dispatcher. So we ended up stuck on the Turnpike waiting for a police car, and then a tow truck, and then for the tow truck to take us to some service center, and then for another cab to arrive. By that point, of course, my flight was somewhere over Kentucky. When I got back home I called American to see what they could do: I needed to make the next possible flight out. They wanted to charge me a full last-minute fare at first - after all, I had missed the flight without warning them - but I managed to talk them into converting my ticket to a stand-by the next morning, at no charge.

Compare that to my recent return flight from a Thanksgiving trip. I booked the flight six weeks in advance. I selected seats: row 17, three together. The day before the flight I went online to check in and print my boarding passes. But my seats were now listed as "unassigned"! Imagining my wife, pre-schooler and I having to sit separately, I quickly tried to select new seat assignments, but naturally the only ones available were for an upcharge. I called AA customer service, and they patiently explained that, while there was nothing they could do, they would be able to seat us together when we checked in the next morning at the airport.

Well, that seemed a little crazy to me. I had had a seat assignment, which had been somehow erased without telling me. The customer service representative couldn't tell me why. Shouldn't I be able to get a new seat assignment, at least over the phone? No way, she said. Has to be in person, because they keep some seats in reserve for families with small children traveling together. (Are airlines beset with scammers pretending to have small children in their party in order to check in over the phone? Did they need visual proof that we had a small child with us? Maybe the truly savvy scammer could bring one to the ticket counter as camouflage.)

With no alternatives at hand, we showed up bright and early a bit before six in the morning to get our seat assignments. Sure enough, they did have three together! In the last row: row 33. Which, on an MD-80, turns out to be the loudest place on the plane, and the only row for which the window is entirely blocked by the engines.

I suppose I should be happy that we got to sit together at all. But consider the inversion in customer experience. In my first anecdote, I made an error and they took me at my word that it wasn't my fault and corrected it for me. In my second, the fault was not mine but also certainly wasn't theirs, and they still did their best to fix it. But in the third, I did everything by the book and properly, they screwed up, and then they wouldn't fix it.

I understand that at some point American Airlines eliminated one olive in each salad offered in the in-flight meal. This supposedly saved them several million dollars a year. The thought of having a salad during a flight - or a meal of any sort - is laughable today, but far more worrisome is that they have taken cost-cutting to its natural limit, and the customer experience is now seriously impacted. The economy has been bad for airlines for years, but surely this attitude to their customers contributed to the failure of American to remain profitable. Here's hoping they learn a valuable lesson.

UPDATE (12/9): An alternate view. Some good points...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

People Who Can't Plan Shouldn't Run Businesses

Just ran across a story about a "businesswoman" who was nearly ruined by a deep-discount coupon deal.
Rachel Brown, who runs the Need a Cake bakery in Reading, Berkshire, launched an offer via the money-saving website in the spring in which she offered a 75 per cent discount on 12 cupcakes, which normally cost £26.

However Mrs. Brown vastly under-estimated the popularity of the deal and was besieged by 8,500 people who signed up for the £6.50 bargain.

Naturally, Mrs. Brown is accusing Groupon of nearly ruining her business. But isn't she really to blame here? You can limit the number of deals you will accept via Groupon. Sure, Groupon's salespeople are supposedly pretty cut-throat and want businesses to make pretty steep discounts to maximize Groupon's profits.

But you know what? Sure they are. Groupon's in business for Groupon, not for the Need a Cake bakery. I feel bad for Mrs. Brown, who was evidently taken to the cleaners here while Groupon made a tidy profit. But she should've thought this through. Hmmmm, she might have thought, what's my worst-case scenario? What actually happened probably wasn't far removed from that.

The Groupon business model offers a quick buck, since they pay upfront based on coupon sales. But somehow businesses seem to forget that each coupon sale is a promise to provide some service which they have already been paid for. This could be a problem for Groupon going forward. I wonder how many repeat customers they get? My guess is: not many. Then again, the depths of human gullibility and greed seem endless.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Iron Lady

I was briefly super-psyched to see that there will be a major motion picture about Margaret Thatcher in January 2012:

Hmmmm, Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher? That's ominous. Then I looked more deeply. From the first reference:

What was it like to work for Margaret Thatcher? What sort of woman was she at the height of her powers? You might think that if you were setting out to make a so-called "biopic" about such a dominant figure on the political stage of the late 20th century, your researchers would have sought out those who were closest to her in those years and asked them.

I do not know whom the makers of the Meryl Streep film talked to. Perhaps Michael Heseltine or Geoffrey Howe, but certainly not me. To judge the film from its trailer, they confined their inquiries to the Daily Mirror and perhaps Tim Bell's public relations firm.

From the second:

"Sir Mark and Carol are appalled at what they have learnt about the film," says a friend of the family. "They think it sounds like some Left-wing fantasy. They feel strongly about it, but will not speak publicly for fear of giving it more publicity."

Oh, boy. At least the hard Left is also a bit upset:

That's all fine, but that narrative trajectory risks skewing the story. This was not just a time of one woman's assault on a male bastion, but an era of rage about what Thatcher, economy destroyer and warmonger, was doing to Britain.

Here's what Maggie had to say about being an "economy destroyer", by the way:

I guess I'm still psyched. But prepared for a hatchet job.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Perry Bites the Dust

I have to admit I was one of the hopers when Rick Perry threw his hat in the ring. Supposedly he's an excellent campaigner, and there's no doubt that he's presided over a very good Texas economy while the coasts slide into the ocean. It's hard to get excited about Romney. Cain's sexual allegations have caused him to implode. And none of the others seems serious. With Ryan and Christie sitting it out, that left a huge gaping whole for someone to fill. Perry seemed like he might be that person.

But really. He tries to make a point about eliminating agencies and can't even remember his own talking point. That's not a guy we can have debating Obama if we expect to win. I'm afraid this seals the deal: it's going to be Romney, and we might as well accept it and make the best of it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Income Mobility

There's been a lot of talk lately about income mobility in America. The Pew Economic Mobility Project (EMP) has done yeoman's work in this area. Scott Winship has a good summary of its findings in the latest issue of National Review. The quick takeaway can be summarized by these two points: first, absolute income mobility is still widespread — about 80% of people are better off than their parents were; second, however, relative income mobility is lower in America than in other industrialized countries — for example, people born into the bottom income quintile have only about a 60% chance of escaping it, while the average for most industrialized countries is closer to 70%. That's not a vast difference, but it's measurable.

But, as is his wont, Thomas Sowell steps up with some thoughtful counter-observations. His main point has to do with following actual people over their lifetimes, instead of simply looking at the history of an income bracket.

The Internal Revenue Service can follow individual people over the years because they can identify individuals from their Social Security numbers. During recent years, when "the top 1 percent" as an income category has been getting a growing share of the nation’s income, IRS data show that actual flesh-and-blood people who were in the top 1 percent in 1996 had their incomes go down — repeat, down — by a whopping 26 percent by 2005.

How can both sets of statistics be true at the same time? Because most people who are in the top 1 percent in a given year do not stay in that bracket over the years.

Something Sowell doesn't mention, and that I'd like to see, is relative income mobility by age group. Statistics show very clearly that young adults are much less wealthy than older adults (which makes the current structure of Social Security all the more absurd, but I digress). So it isn't really fair when looking at relative wealth to compare a 25-year-old college graduate to a 60-year-old executive. The bottom quintile will necessarily have a disproportionate number of 25-year-olds, many of whom will climb to higher quintiles through the natural process of wealth accumulation. But suppose we followed a 25-year-old from the bottom income quintile among 25-year-olds? It would be interesting to see what income mobility would look like then. Worse, no doubt. But by how much?

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Solar Moore's Law

A friend of mine sent me an interesting article about a "Moore's Law of solar cell efficiency" this morning. The main takeaway is this:
Averaged over 30 years, the trend is for an annual 7 percent reduction in the dollars per watt of solar photovoltaic cells.

This is all to the good, of course. Even a solar skeptic like myself wants to see more power options: I'd love for my skepticism to be mistaken. But that's not what interested me.

When you read that article you'll see a graph, showing the cost per watt of solar cells from 1980 to the present. It's a steady downward march. Is there any correlation between that trend and government subsidies or research grants into solar power? I was unable to find any good historical data on that kind of spending: solar is often lumped in with "renewables" that would include wind, hydroelectric and geothermal power.

There's big bucks to be made in solar if the efficiency improves enough, and the recent Solyndra scandal shows that the government isn't so good at allocating research and development dollars. Maybe it's time to see if this solar Moore's Law can sustain itself without throwing tax dollars at it? Just a thought.

Friday, November 4, 2011

What Separates Us From the Animals: Trade?

This is an enjoyable and enlightening talk on the history of trade and why it is the key to human success.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

9-9-9 vs 20%

I'm enjoying the GOP's jousting flat tax proposals. Isn't it nice to be debating the best ways to limit government, instead of the best ways to expand it?

We have two real proposals on the table here. Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan would tax personal income at 9%, corporate income at 9%, and levy and national sales tax at 9%. Rick Perry's 20% plan would create an optional 20% flat tax, with exemptions, that taxpayers could choose as an alternative to paying existing taxes.

Of the two systems I prefer Perry's, for a few reasons.

First, it's less radical. Cain's plan radically cuts income taxes and replaces the revenue with a sales tax. This would require the United States to create a system for administering a national sales tax, and would create uncertainty both for government revenue and businesses affected by the sales tax. State sales tax policies are extremely varied: some have few exemptions, while others have various carve-outs in an effort to make such taxes less regressive. In New Jersey, there are "enterprise zones" in which sales taxes are halved. The negotiations necessary to bring about a 9% national sales tax - higher than most states' - would be complicated to say the least.

Second, it's more politically feasible. Such a major change is going to engender lobbying efforts from industries that may be negatively affected. Take an inexpensive clothing retailer - Old Navy, say, just to pick one. In many states there is no sales tax on their products because clothing is exempt below some limit. Would a national sales tax also exempt them? You can be sure they would prefer it does, and would lobby to bring about that outcome. Remember the rent-seeking behavior that went on during the negotiations for Obamacare.

True, the Cain plan is simpler. Perry's plan has been attacked as "more complicated than the existing tax code", because it adds yet another layer onto an already complicated tax system. That is true. But the end result will likely be simpler for large numbers of people. My judgment is that total hours spent calculating income tax will be lower under the Perry plan than under the current plan, and that's what really matters. If large numbers of people choose the 20% flat rate, that provides a path to simplifying the rest of the tax code, as parts of it will be rendered irrelevant.

I wish I had more confidence that either plan would ever be debated by Congress.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Arguments from Probability

As with any logical proposition, one contradiction disproves the proposed rule. If each of 38 counterexamples has merely a 10% chance of being valid — an underestimate — then the probability that the Earth is billions of years old is less than 3.8%. In other words, the Earth must be young with a likelihood of greater than 96%.
(From the Conservapedia.)
It is a statistical certainty (p < 10-11) that there are innocent people being held at Guantanamo Bay.
(Sig on Slashdot.) These are a couple of cases I've seen recently of probability theory misused. The first one is easier to deal with, so let's start with that. The claim is that each counterexample has "merely a 10% chance of being valid — an underestimate". This claim is already problematic. Take this counterexample:
The Bible makes references to the dinosaurs. There is no explanation for this if dinosaurs supposedly lived hundreds of millions of years ago.
How would we calculate the odds that this claim is correct at greater or less than 10%? For the record: Biblical evidence for dinosaurs is razor-thin. It mostly rests upon Job 40, which reads (in the King James Version):
Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox. Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

I simply ask the reader: do you think there is a greater or less than 10% chance this describes a dinosaur? Follow-up question: if dinosaurs — huge beasts larger than anything else that ever walked this earth — lived in Biblical times, do you think it's likely there would be one single reference?

It strikes me that the probability that this is true is less than 10% — much less, in my judgment. But ultimately the point is that this is a judgment call.

But there is a deeper problem with the Conservapedia's argument. It makes the implicit assumption that each counterexample is independent. Here's a thought experiment: suppose we roll a fair 6-sided die and try to determine which face is on the table (that is, the one we cannot observe). We observe each of the five other faces, and find they are 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. For each one we say: we did not observe a 6, which means the odds of the bottom face being a 6 is 5/6. In total, then, the odds of the bottom face being a 6 is (5/6)^6 or about 33.5%. But this is obviously absurd, since we know that the bottom face must be a 6: we've seen all the other faces. The reason the argument fails is that our observations are not independent.

The same holds with Conservapedia's argument. Consider these two claims:

1. The Moon's orbit is a very strong counterexample: the moon is receding from the Earth at a rate[3] that would have placed it too close to the Earth merely four billion years ago, causing instability in its orbit, tidal catastrophes on Earth, and other problems that would have prevented the Earth and the Moon being as they are today. Additionally, the moon's orbit is becoming increasingly and unexpectedly eccentric, suggesting a lack of long-term stability,[4] which further disproves the theory of an Old Earth.

4. The planetary orbits in the Solar System — including Earth's — are unstable and unsustainable over the long periods claimed by Old Earth believers.

Let's ignore the question science behind these claims and take them at face value. The problem is that even if both are true, both may simply be indicative that orbits are unstable. If that claim has a 10% chance of being true, then both claims 1 and 4 would be true, but would not make the basic fact any more or less true. If we observed planets in other star systems that had unstable orbits, for example, we could toss in additional claims about them, but they would not be independent of the claims already made and thus would add no value to the overall question of whether the universe is old or young.

Very well. Let's consider the Guantanamo prisoner claim now. We can back into the assumptions made pretty easily. If the likelihood of an individual prisoner being guilty is g, then the likelihood that every prisoner is guilty is g^N where N is the number of prisoners. Currently N=171 if Wikipedia is reliable. The claim is that g^171 < 10-11, so this means g < 0.86.

That strikes me as low. But perhaps the calculation was made when we had more detainees. The maximum number was 775, in which case g < 0.968. Eh, maybe. But as with the Old Earth argument, one problem is that we are asked to believe a specific probability about the individual case, and then extrapolate it to the overall case. The argument is extremely sensitive to these probabilities: suppose that actually g = 0.995. Then the odds of a single innocent detainee would be only 58%. We have no idea what the probability g really is, though, so we are left making guesses. And these guesses strongly influence the outcome.

Independence is less of an issue here, but it's important to mention another factor. Not each detainee may have the same probability of being innocent. This can make a big difference. Suppose that there are 10 detainees, 9 of which are definitely guilty and 1 of which has a 50% chance of being guilty. Alternately, suppose there are 10 detainees who each have a 95% chance of being guilty. In both cases, a randomly chosen detainee has a 95% chance of being guilty. But the probability of having at least one innocent detainee is 50% in the first case and 40% in the second. It is easy to craft other examples that can push these probabilities as far apart as you like.

One thing I've ignored covering here is the question of whether these numbers are actually relevant. That's a big topic that could cover large swathes of the philosophy of science, but suffice for now to point out that probability has a somewhat different meaning in the Old Earth question than in, say, gambling. Either the Earth was created about 4.5 billion years ago or it was not: this is a question fundamentally unlike asking whether the next dice roll will be boxcars. The similarity between the two is that both deal with unknowns. We will never know, with 100% certainty, whether the age of Earth is about 4.5 billion years, so the best we can do is assemble all the evidence and weigh it. That's how science works.

On the Guantanamo question, I have similarly questions of relevance. Suppose the claim was true that at least one detainee was innocent with statistical certainty. How would that affect our policy? Would it help us determine which one? Would we be willing to let terrorists go in order to decrease the probability of detaining innocents? Such questions cut to the heart of any judicial policy, and they can't be answered by facile calculation.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Epstein Treatment

Watch Does U.S. Economic Inequality Have a Good Side? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Richard Epstein defends capitalism. Delicious.

Messaging on Regulation

Got an email from BarackObama.com today that reads, in part:
Yesterday, a Bloomberg News analysis found that the Obama administration has passed fewer regulations than George W. Bush had at this point in his presidency...
(Funnily, the link on "Bloomberg News analysis" points not to Bloomberg News, but to a Huffpo article about it. Here's the original, for those who want the straight dope.) The first paragraph in the Huffpo:
President Barack Obama has signed fewer regulations than President George W. Bush had at this point in his presidency, but it's putting a bigger dent into the wallets of the effected (sic). [emphasis mine]
Do I really care about the number of rules that have been passed? If Obama had a passed a single rule, but it cost the economy a trillion dollars, should I feel better because he's passed "fewer" rules? I think all I care about is the cost, or actually, what I care about is the net benefit, since surely we aren't making regulations just for the sake of making them. I'm not sure who this email is aimed at. Democrats will be upset that Obama isn't regulating more. Republicans might be a little surprised, but sharp ones will notice that he's costing us more anyway, and conservative Republicans don't think either Bush is a model worth emulating. Independents? I don't hear many of them calling for more regulation, except maybe of the banking industry. Very, very odd. The Obama campaign is floundering for a message, it would seem.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

There may be a nugget of truth to what the Occupy Wall Street people are saying. After all, conservatives should easily be able to get on board with the notion that we don't like government and big business getting in bed with each other. So I've read some commentary that we should co-opt them instead of ridiculing them. The problem with that strategy is this sort of person:

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Boatlift of 9/11

Incredibly moving story about the Boatlift of 9/11, in which nearly half a million New Yorkers were evacuated by boat from lower Manhattan in less than 9 hours following the 9/11 attack.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

AttackWatch

So the Obama campaign has a new site to report "smears" or "attacks" against the President. Interesting. Setting aside for the moment how this looks (an enemies list? informing on your friends and family?), I get why someone thought this was a good idea. The President is currently pretty unpopular, down in the high 30s or maybe just touching 40, and trending down. There's an avalanche of bad memes out there, so this looks like an attempt to collect some of them, so that staffers can sift them and maybe put out some counter-memes.

That's probably all this is. But my gosh, how can we ignore how it looks? I'm trying to imagine the response on DailyKos if President Bush had done this. (Fairly similar to what I'm seeing on Ricochet, I imagine, but with more expletives and a lot more hate and Hitler allusions.)

Just for the heck of it, I'll report this post and see what happens. If you hear nothing further from me, tell my wife I love her.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Some Notes on Obama's Jobs Speech

You can watch the speech here. I just have some random early thoughts...

* The President mentioned early and often that the proposal would be paid for. Obviously this is a response to political heat he's feeling over the deficit. But when he finally got around to explaining how it actually would be paid for, it was completely disingenuous. There was no plan: that was left for a future speech. And what details we got were that he would get Congress to make additional cuts. So, in short, he wants to pass a jobs bill that would increase the deficit, but "pay for it" by future spending cuts. Anyone buying this?

* The proposal calls for more jobs for teachers, but essentially zero details on how to do this. Grants to states? He recognizes that state budgets are to blame for layoffs, but gives no details on how his bill would help.

* Kids can't learn in anything but a super-modern building, eh? I've seen the school my wife went to, in a small village in Bulgaria. Probably wouldn't pass inspection in rural West Virginia, but she got a fine education. It ain't the buildings, it's the teachers.

* The proposal calls for more spending on infrastructure. Sounds eerily familiar. Sort of like the stimulus plan from 2009, which funded all those shovel-ready construction projects. But it's going to work this time?

* Employer tax cuts to stimulate hiring: here the problem is numerical. The numbers given were that a small business employing 50 could potentially see $80,000 in tax cuts. But that's only $1,600 per employee. Say you're an entrepreneur whose business is stagnant. A new employee would cost you at least $30,000 per year. Would saving $1,600 cause you to hire one when you otherwise wouldn't? I'm sure there are cases where it would, but I can't imagine this is common. It's very hard to believe this measure would create enough jobs to even notice - it takes something like 150,000 jobs to register 0.1% in unemployment figures.

* One other numeric gripe: the case of Warren Buffett's taxes was brought up. He, Obama claimed, earns $46,000,000 a year and pays 17.7% in taxes. Buffett's secretary makes $60,000 a year and pays 30%. First, I simply do not believe that his secretary pays 30%. I make a lot more than she and I don't pay 30%, at least not in federal income taxes. Possibly if you add up all her marginal tax rates she's at 30%, but then let's do the same with Buffett. Her average federal tax rate is almost certainly under 10%.

Second, it's worth at least thinking about total taxes paid. Even taking the numbers uncritically, Buffett's secretary paid $18,000; Buffett paid $8,000,000.

Last, there's simply a difference between capital gains taxes and income taxes. Obama might not like it, but there are good reasons for the rates to differ. Is Obama in favor of a flat tax? I doubt it. Or does he want to raise the capital gains rate? That would be a job killer. So this part of the speech really had nothing to do with anything; pure political theater.

* The later part of the speech was a hodgepodge of talking points with no proposals: lower corporate taxes, free trade agreements, cut regulations (but not too much! as if we're in danger of under-regulation), cut wasteful spending. All pure theater. Nothing will be done about any of these, with the possible exception of free trade agreements.

* A late, oblique shot was taken across the Supreme Court's bow. Mention was made of various New Deal and Great Society programs, and Obama said how awful it would be if we'd let our dedication to a single document (the Constitution, unstated but obvious) had prevented the government from doing whatever it needed to do to help people. I took this as a defense of Obamacare from possible overturn on Constitutional grounds. Interesting to see that he's worried about this.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Shame of Kelo

The 2005 Supreme Court decision Kelo vs. New London broadened municipalities' power to condemn property. Previously the takings clause had been used primarily to convert underused private property for some public use. Kelo allowed the city to give the property to another private developer, on the theory that this would generate tax revenue for the city.

It's now six years later. How much tax revenue has been generated? You might guess the answer: zero. But it gets worse:

Now, we learn from the local newspaper, The Day, that following the hurricane Irene, the city has designated the Fort Trumbull redevelopment site as a place to dump vegetation debris.


Hopefully this is just a temporary situation. Nonetheless, the fact that the site was originally condemned in 2000, the path cleared for development in 2005, and is now being used as a temporary dump is pretty clear evidence that the purported benefits from this taking will not be soon in coming.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Feds Poised to Take Huge Real Estate Bath

Or so this article would have you believe. It sounds bad, no doubt. I checked with a friend of mine in real estate, and his comment was:

In short, probably true but a bit misleading. It's frustrating but not nefarious. They just have a lot of crap to move and no great system for it. Similar stories abound in bulk for FDIC sales. I know one smart, wealthy guy who tried repeatedly to bid and [was] repeatedly shut out.


Still, I can't help wonder if that smart, wealthy friend of a friend just wasn't politically connected enough.

Friday, August 26, 2011

More Global Warming News

The headline "Cloud formation may be linked to cosmic rays" may not sound like much, but it is actually yet another blow to the standard model of anthropocentric global warming.

One of the problems with computer climates models is modeling clouds, which provide negative feedback. As the air heats up, the theory goes, more clouds form, which raises the Earth's albedo (a measure of how much light is reflected) and reduces heat absorption. The CLOUD experiment, which has been confirmed to have positive results, verifies that cosmic rays also cause clouds. Cosmic ray flux is inverse to solar flux, so when solar flux drops, cloud formation rises, and vice versa. This has implications for climate models, and hence for AGW theories.

For "settled science", there sure is a lot of new science coming out. Before we spend billions of dollars on climate change mitigation, it's pretty important that we understand our climate.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

James Wilson, the Forgotten Founder

I've long been a big fan of the musical (and, later, movie) 1776. It's a terrific (but of course, somewhat fictionalized) account of the political horse-trading that went on in the Continental Congress in the days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on (well, approximately on) July 4, 1776.

The climax of the story centers around the Pennsylvania delegation, which supposedly is split 2-1 against independence. The one in favor is Ben Franklin; those opposed are John Dickinson and the feckless James Wilson. Dickinson and Franklin carry on the debate, while Wilson sits helplessly in the background, voting "nay" when required by Dickinson but otherwise keeping his mouth shut. Only when the rest of Congress has voted for independence (a measure which must be approved by all the states, not just a majority), and Franklin asks that the Pennsylvania delegation be polled individually, does Wilson get singled out.

After Dickinson and Franklin vote "nay" and "yea" respectively, Wilson is asked for his vote, and pressure is applied by each side. Wilson changes his vote, explaining to Dickinson that while others were opposed, his nay vote would be just one of many. But now, if he voted nay, he would be remembered as the man who opposed independence. "I just didn't bargain for that," he complains, and votes yea. Wilson becomes the deciding vote in favor, but hardly heroically. He is manipulated at every turn, and his greatest desire is anonymity.

The truth, it turns out, is miles apart from the story. James Wilson was actually a Scot who arrived in America in 1766 at the age of twenty-four, and during the ten years between then and the events portrayed in 1776, he earned sufficient accolades through lecturing to be awarded an honorary degree by the University of Pennsylvania, studied law and attained the bar, opened a successful legal practice, joined the Pennsylvania State Militia and rose to the rank of Brigadier General, and wrote the influential pamphlet "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament". Hardly the career of one meek and anonymity-seeking.

His later career proceeded from highlight to highlight. After the Revolution, Wilson was such an eminence during the Constitutional Convention that he is considered second only to Madison among its framers. He was one of the first appointees to the Supreme Court. Through his real-estate dealings he became one of the wealthiest men in post-Revolutionary America.

Sadly, his final years were unhappy. After the Panic of 1796, his debts overtook him and he lost everything. He was imprisoned for debt in 1797, and died of a stroke in 1798. A bright flame, too quickly extinguished. Nothing like the character from the musical. Wilson's memory deserves rehabilitation.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cooling on Warming

This is sure to annoy the radical greenies. A key passage:

Scientists on all sides of the global warming debate are in general agreement about how much heat is being directly trapped by human emissions of carbon dioxide (the answer is "not much"). However, the single most important issue in the global warming debate is whether carbon dioxide emissions will indirectly trap far more heat by causing large increases in atmospheric humidity and cirrus clouds. Alarmist computer models assume human carbon dioxide emissions indirectly cause substantial increases in atmospheric humidity and cirrus clouds (each of which are very effective at trapping heat), but real-world data have long shown that carbon dioxide emissions are not causing as much atmospheric humidity and cirrus clouds as the alarmist computer models have predicted.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Book Review: The Wonder of Boys

The Wonder of Boys is an interesting book about raising boys by Michael Gurian. The author, a self-styled feminist, attempts to correct some misconceptions about boys that were created by radical feminists. Along the way he takes a few swipes at radical conservatives as well, trying for a moderate line. The book is good evidence for the end of the Culture Wars.

Some of the myths Gurian corrects are (1) that the difference between boys and girls is a social construct that can be "corrected" by proper upbringing; (2) that male culture is the root of all evil and should be thwarted at every turn; and (3) that the particular family structure isn't important as long as the boy is loved. The emphasis the author puts on these corrections will inevitably waste the time of those readers who already agree with him.

Luckily, there is still much to glean from the book about the nuts and bolts of boy-raising. From sports to discipline to learning styles to the teaching of morality, Gurian covers all aspects of this important task. Both the father's and mother's point of view are considered. The author is clearly an expert in his field. Still, while the book's advice is good and, I think, worth applying, his reasoning is often muddled.

For example, Gurian refers often to primitive tribes as archetypes for how we should be raising boys. He uses the Hillary Clinton line "it takes a village to raise a child" unironically, even giving it the authority of unnamed "anthropologists". (As in, "[A]nthropologists have generally agreed that it takes a whole village to raise a child." They have?) This line of reasoning is odd considering that in other places Gurian discusses what modern America has lost in terms of community as we have become more mobile. Wouldn't a better archetype, then, be pre-modern America rather than primitive tribes who have very different methods of child-rearing than Americans ever did?

I'll end the review with this thought-provoking extended quote from near the end of the book:

By focusing so obsessively on the safe ascension of women in the workplace and neglecting the work role of men, we are teaching most boys that they don't really have a clear path to self-respect anymore; their job is to make sure women and girls have a clear path to those things. Herein lies a bitter irony. Boys and men have always, in whatever culture, known that their primary job is to sacrifice themselves so that women and girls can be safe. The last thirty years of feminism, for all its good, has not noticed that feminism is preaching the same old message to male culture when it asks male culture to see how victimized women are, and make sure women are taken care of. Male culture has been biologically and socially based on this principle for millennia.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tau+3

I'm a few days late on this, but Tau Day (6/28) was earlier in the week. Tau is a new idea to replace pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) with the more natural constant tau (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius). Seems crazy, but there's a pretty good case to be made for this.

The problem is that pi is so entrenched, I can't see it ever being changed. But it's interesting nonetheless. If I were still in the habit of writing mathematical papers I'd try to insert tau here and there (appropriately footnoted) and see if it caught on.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Boys of Pointe du Hoc

On this 67th anniversary of D-Day, I was reminded of Reagan's speech on the occasion of the 40th anniversary. Here it is:



A few observations. First, the Soviets never really stood a chance once Reagan was elected. His rhetoric was so powerful and persuasive, it's hard to imagine it emanated from the same office that produced Carter's accommodationist "inordinate fear of Communism" speech a mere seven years earlier. Speak softly and carry a big stick, Teddy Roosevelt said. And boy, did Reagan take that lesson to heart. Speak peacefully but prepare for war: in the hands of a master rhetorician the combination was unstoppable.

Of course, it's easy to see that in hindsight. Reagan's genius was that he intuited the right strategy against almost all of the experts.

Second, this speech really illustrates how second-rate was George W. Bush. Bush tried but never could really convince that Islam was not the enemy, and that conciliation was possible. Reagan did make that clear, even while condemning the "evil empire". Reagan managed to convey that the Soviet regime was the problem, not the Soviet people. With Bush a similar message vis-a-vis Muslims and Islamic regimes was never clear.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hillary Deleted

The Hasidic newspaper Der Tzitung edited Hillary Clinton - and Audrey Tomason, the only other woman in the room - out of the iconic photo of the Obama situation room during the bin Laden operation.

In other photo news, Clinton explained her expression, hand over mouth, as probably covering up a cough. Frankly, I don't believe for a second that Hillary was coughing. I also couldn't care less either way. The whole coughing spin strikes me as an overreaction to what she feared would be seen as a womanly "eeeek!" moment. But I don't think many people who know Hillary think she was heading for the fainting couch.

About the editing job, two points: first, the reaction strikes me as slightly misguided. It isn't offensive because women were edited out; it's offensive because it was edited. This way lies madness, and Jews of all people really ought to know better, what with their experiences under Communism, as well as Islamic historical revisionism regarding Jews. Second, imagine if the room had been full of women. Would Der Tzitung have edited them all out, showing just an empty room?

I would think that a Talmudic scholar could easily figure out that the right solution to this dilemma is simply not to print the photo at all. If that leads to fewer photos in the paper, then that's the price you pay for having 12th-century beliefs about the sexes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The White House's Incoherence on Health Care

From the White House blog today:

Those who claim that the “individual responsibility” provision exceeds Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce because it penalizes “inactivity” are simply wrong. Individuals who choose to go without health insurance are actively making an economic decision that affects all of us.

I hope it's clear to them what a dangerous precedent this would create. If doing nothing can be construed as an economic act that affects all of us, then what can't be? For example, once I've been forced to buy my health care, then literally doing nothing can be hazardous to my health. This potentially raises my future health care costs, and when those costs are shared by all, it affects everyone. Therefore, according to the White House's logic, it would be perfectly Constitutional to fine me for not exercising.

Of course, many liberals may well believe this. Nancy Pelosi expressed shocked disbelief at the notion that the PPACA's health insurance mandate might be unconstitutional. When Elena Kagan was asked during confirmation hearings whether a law requiring people to eat vegetables would be unconstitutional, she evaded the question.

Simply put, the left does not believe the Constitution is a "living document". They believe it is an irrelevant one. Only when the Constitution happens to coincide with one of their sacred cows do they recognize it; whenever it poses the slightest barrier, it is met with utter disdain.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Loony Left On Osama

When I say "loony left" I am referring, of course, to Noam Chomsky and his ilk. Brilliant linguist and political whack-job Chomsky has published his take on the Osama operation in the magazine Guernica.

We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.

Surely Chomsky meant Saudi commandos, since I'm sure he's acutely aware that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Oh, but he believes that bin Laden didn't either!

There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Osama Dead

A few hours ago President Obama announced that American forces killed Osama bin Laden and, importantly, captured the body. So there should be proof.

Couple of points. Obviously, I'm happy this finally happened. We haven't heard much from Osama, but he's the kind of guy who's better off dead. So good for Obama for keeping the pressure up and taking the shot when the chance came. There's no doubt the President was in the loop on the final decision.

Second, if I can be permitted a little glibness, Osama's death penalty - executed less than ten years after the crime of which he was guilty, actually came faster than the average time on death row in the United States (which stands at 169 months in the latest statistics I could find - here - and hasn't been less than 120 months since 1993).

Third, while I'm pleased Obama ordered this mission, it's just one more indication of the difference between running for President and being President. I have no doubt that, had this operation been announced during the 2008 campaign, Obama's reaction would have been something like: Great, but we should have captured him and tried him with due process. He now realizes that Presidents often do not have that luxury.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Third Wave

Just read a fascinating article about a student experiment in totalitarianism. From the article:

On Monday, I introduced my sophomore history students to one of the experiences that characterized Nazi Germany. Discipline.... To experience the power of discipline, I invited, no I commanded the class to exercise and use a new seating posture.... It was strange how quickly the students took to this uniform code of behavior I began to wonder just how far they could be pushed.

As the class period was ending and without forethought I created a class salute. It was for class members only. To make the salute you brought your right hand up toward the right shoulder in a curled position.... You would be walking down the hall when all of a sudden three classmates would turn your way each flashing a quick salute. In the library or in gym students would be seen giving this strange hand jive.

I decided to issue membership cards to every student that wanted to continue what I now called the experiment. Not a single student elected to leave the room. In this the third day of activity there were forty-three students in the class. Thirteen students had cut class to be a part of the experiment. While the class sat at attention I gave each person a card. I marked three of the cards with a red X and informed the recipients that they had a special assignment to report any students not complying to class rules.

I won't give away how the experiment ends - read the article to find out - but suffice it to say that it well illustrates the appeal of the fascist mentality. As Solzhenitsyn put it: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Environmental "Truth" in a Nutshell

Yesterday my family visited the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland. Pretty cool; definitely recommended. It's on a hilltop overlooking the bay, in a beautiful state park, and has many nice exhibits for ages 4-12 or so.

On the downside, a big chunk of the museum is given over to Bill Nye the Climate Guy. One attraction was a bicycle kids could ride while watching a video of Bill biking in front, and confronting a boy and his father for driving to the gym. "Why don't you bike or walk to the gym, or better yet, give up those gym memberships altogether?" says Bill. "Why don't you mind your own *&^# business?" I wanted them to respond.

But the worst one, and this really sums up something essential about the environmentalists, was a wind turbine demonstration. You were supposed to pull a handle, which started a flow of air going, that turned the wind turbines and made a light go on. Simple. Only, when I tried it, because of the angle of the turbine blades, the wind didn't make them turn. They just juddered and rocked back and forth, never actually making more than a few degrees of rotation in either direction.

But the light came on anyway. Obviously, the demo had been rigged: when you pulled the handle, it made the light go on. The turbine had nothing to do with it. I get why a museum would do this, of course: you want the demos to work and not frustrate the kids. But the irony is thick: environmentalists constantly try to rig the numbers to make it look like converting to a more expensive, less efficient form of energy production will create jobs, or to make it look like wind plants produce more energy than they do, or what have you. Are here they are rigging a museum demo about one of their pet technologies. Priceless.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fascinating Fact

Today is the sesquicentennial of the opening shots of the Civil War: the siege of Fort Sumter. And here is a fascinating fact that I just learned: the first shot fired by the Union defenders of Sumter came from the hand of Abner Doubleday, the (alleged) inventor of baseball.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Saving Entitlements

Republicans are making a tactical mistake by calling their efforts to bring spending under control anything other than "saving entitlements". For decades they have been successfully depicted as wanting to throw Granny out on the street, so saying they want to "cut" anything, even though we have to, is not going to win the critical independent vote. The only way this works is if the Republicans can successfully counterattack with the message that the Democrats are actually out to destroy entitlement programs and Republicans are working to save them.

The argument is actually pretty simple. Under the Democrat "plan" - i.e., pretend our budget is fine as long as possible - entitlements will eventually become such a burden that they really will become unsustainable. They will crowd out other government spending; we will see rising interest rates, a devalued dollar, and the crowding out of private investment. The resulting backlash will likely be draconian: people who were "promised" entitlements and paid in for most of their lives will see their benefits cut to the bone, because there really will be no money. This is the future if the Democrats get their way.

As a conservative, I'm fine with saying that entitlements should be cut. But frankly, I don't count in this calculus. Independents will decide the 2012 election, as they have every election for the past 20+ years. And they are suspectible to the Granny-on-the-street argument. The Republicans must argue - and they have the benefit of the facts on their side, so all they have to do is stick to their guns on this - that Granny will be much safer with them than with the Democrats. Up to this point I don't think they've done this.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Republicans in the Mist

Some great quotes from thisSalon article from a woman who discovers that Republicans are people, too. Here's one in particular:

She has the same education as I have, and yet she has made different decisions, decisions that are so counter to what I believe. Decisions I find abhorrent.


"Abhorrent," indeed. It's a commonplace that conservatives view liberals as stupid, while liberals view conservatives as evil. But it certainly is a funny word coming from a representative of the "Party of Tolerance."

This is a democracy, after all. Isn't it worth understanding a bit more about why approximately half the country votes differently than we do? Isn't it important that we understand why people -- good and legitimate Americans, whose votes count as much as ours -- like Sarah Palin? Isn't it crucial we figure out why any woman would want to defund Planned Parenthood, if only so we could then address the argument?


Just so. As a conservative in a family that is largely composed of two wings, the apolitical and the liberal, I'm sometimes on the receiving end of the sort of attitudes the author writes about. What's surprising to me is that the author is so confused. Very few people on either end of the political spectrum are out to ruin the country.

Most people have pretty localized interests: themselves, their families - particularly their offspring - and to a lesser extent, their neighbors, fellow Americans, all of humanity, and most tenuously of all, all living things. That's generally true for both conservatives and liberals. So if we agree on that much, obviously the difference comes down to how we perceive the best interests of those ever-larger groups.

The difference there can be pretty severe, of course. But that doesn't mean your opponents are either evil or stupid. I'm glad to see this one Salon writer finally figured this out.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Doing Your Taxes

Jay Nordlinger writes today about taxes in America:

You know how people say, “There’s something wrong with our tax system if people can’t do their taxes on their own”? I think I agree with that. A special caste, almost a priestly caste, has grown up: tax accountants, tax preparers. They exist to help us do our taxes, or to do them for us.


Reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with a friend from Denmark. He was extolling the virtues of the Danish system: you give the government all your information, and they compute your taxes for you and send you a bill. Simple. I understand the allure of this idea, especially around this time of year. This year I get to file a federal return and two state returns, with major penalties on at least two of them because of some unexpected income in the year. It's a pain, and thank goodness we have software to help us.

I'd still prefer not to give the government my information if I don't have to. It's a losing battle, of course, or maybe a lost one: most of my finances are reported to them anyway in the normal course of doing business. But at least there's a chance to reverse this. Once the government is doing your taxes for you, the odds of reversal drop to infinitesimal levels.

But an even more important point is that with the authorities doing my taxes for me, I'm not as involved in the tax system. Right now I can see the loopholes: railroad workers get special treatment, as do the blind, the aged, those affected by natural disasters, and so on. It's right there on your 1040. Some loopholes are harder to find, of course, which is why we still have tax accountants. But if we turned over all preparation to the government, I lose whatever insight I currently have.

My Danish friend thought I was being a typically paranoid American. I hope my response was typical.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Watch Veena Malik

Veena Malik is my new hero. The Pakistani actress takes an imam to task on television for criticizing her appearance on an Indian reality TV show. She is unstoppable!



I almost felt sorry for the imam. He probably thought he'd just do his usual thing, invoke the community, shame, etc., and that his opponent would be cowed. But Malik will not be shamed, will not be cowed. She fights right back, gives better than she got, and just whips the guy. Of course, this is how it looks to a Westerner like me: a brave woman speaking truth to power. But the more important question is, how does it look to the average Pakistani?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Clean Energy: Pro and Con

If you have a couple of hours, watch this. It's the video of a debate on the proposition: "Clean energy can drive America’s economic recovery." Or if you can't watch the video, you can read the transcript or listen to the debate.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Impeach!

Says... Dennis Kucinich. No, not because the aliens said to. Apparently he thinks we should impeach Obama because of the attack on Libya. Priceless, priceless.

The best part are the comments below the story. My favorite is this one:


This was authorized by the U.N.

Please explain how the President has committed a crime.


Oh, well, in that case....

Monday, March 21, 2011

Clarity in Libya

Thanks to President Obama for clarifying our position vis-a-vis Libya. We are only intervening to protect Libyan civilians, not to oust Colonel Ghaddafi. However, Ghaddafi should go. But not because of the military intervention, of course. No, he should go because otherwise we might work with the U.N. to isolate him diplomatically, a threat which must chill the Colonel to his bones.

It is no wonder that the President is held in such high regard by foreign leaders, including the Arab League, whose own clarity of purpose was demonstrated by their welcoming a no-fly zone as long as no bullets or missiles were actually used. Perhaps butterfly nets would have sufficed.

No doubt this will all come to a happy conclusion soon.

Break Out the Potassium Iodide!

Or rather, don't. XKCD explains relative radiation doses. It's interesting to read, and to compare the differences among Three-Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl.

Clearly, TMI was nearly a non-event by comparison. The maximum external dosage was only 1 mSv, one-third the dosage from a single mammogram. The lowest radiation dose clearly linked to increased cancer risk is 100 mSv, so if you got that maximum external dosage near TMI for 100 years, you'd just reach this threshold. It's pretty clear that containment worked at TMI.

Next take Fukushima. All the facts are not yet in, but it's clearly worse than TMI: a one-day dose 50km away was already measured at 3.6 mSv. But — probably — no actual reactor fuel has been exposed to the atmosphere, which implies that the radioactive materials causing this dose have a short half-life and will quickly decay. There is reason for caution here, but this is almost guaranteed to be no Chernobyl.

It has been over 20 years since Chernobyl. And according to XKCD's chart, you can still get a 6 mSv dose in one hour on the grounds of the stricken reactor. That means spending a single day there, unprotected, would increase your risk of cancer. Spending two weeks there could very well kill you with a 2.1 Sv dose.

You could safely go on a camping trip to TMI today. Not so Chernobyl. The jury is still out of Fukushima, but my bet is that in 20 years it'll be much closer to the safer end of this spectrum.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie

Looks like Hollywood finally noticed that Atlas Shrugged is one of the bestselling novels of all time. The question, "Who is John Galt?" will finally be answered in cinematic form. I'm happy about this - and tickled that the movie opens on Tax Day, April 15, 2011. Even though I continue to have grave reservations about Ayn Rand herself, the novel is something different - something novel, if you will - and a sound rejection of the liberal platitudes that suffuse so many movies.

You can expect a thousand-page novel to be shortened for the film version. But maybe not too much: the one coming out in a month is just Part 1. Will Part 2 be just John Galt's speech? Let's hope not.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Democrats Mean by "Democracy"

Now that the Wisconsin state senate has passed Governor Walker's collective bargaining bill, it now falls to the State Assembly. But the Assembly was not able to hold a vote today. Why? Because of the danger posed by union protesters in Madison. I hope Democrats are extremely embarrassed by this. What the protesters are engaging in is raw violence for the purpose of preventing a vote they know will go against them, and entirely indefensible. Wisconsin's Democratic state legislators escaping to avoid the vote was bad enough, but could at least be viewed as a legitimate, if sharp-elbowed and cowardly, tactic. But protesters preventing the orderly functioning of government is ugly banana republic politics.

The Decline of Planetariums

Or is that "planetaria"?

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to attend a school that had its own observatory and planetarium. As early as first grade, I was exposed to the wonders of the planetarium show, where the sky was projected on a hemispherical ceiling from this funny ant-like device. An astronomer (or maybe just a science teacher) would explain about the constellations, or the planets, or the Milky Way, or whatever, and could demonstrate on the ceiling what he was talking about. And it wasn't just in school that I enjoyed them - I visited several other planetariums over these years (the 70s and 80s) and got the same basic thing.

So when did they turn into overpriced movie theaters? My family and I visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. One thing we were really looking forward to was the planetarium show. It's billed as a planetarium; that's what I expected. But when we entered the room, it was just an Omnimax theater. We didn't get a planetarium show at all; instead it was just a 30-minute movie.

I guess it's easier for them to run a movie every half hour than a live show. And trying to recreate childhood experiences almost always disappoints. But the content itself is so watered down now. There's no basic descriptive astronomy: what's a constellation? what's a star? where are the planets? The subject matter is too broad (this particular one was about the origin of life in the universe) and necessarily, therefore, too shallow.

So take this as a call for planetarium shows like they had in the old days. And if anyone knows where I can still find one today, leave it in the comments!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bogus Recovery

I feel sort of bad posting this, because I've been so awfully slow at posting the past three months. Sorry, everyone! In my defense, I've started a new job, and I'm very busy. Anyhow, having said that, all I have here is a repost from another blog. Not good news.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Why Bother Trying to Prove There Is No God?

Science and religion are like oil and water. Science is about devising theories about how the universe works; religion is about devising theories about how it *ought* to work. Granted, there are religious people who want to encroach on science, and I suppose they've made some small amount of headway with slightly clever ideas about Intelligent Design and so on. But these ideas are really no threat, in my opinion.

Which makes it all the stranger when real scientists take them seriously. In this case, cosmologist Don Page "says that a slightly negative value of the [cosmological] constant would maximise this process. And since life is some small fraction of the amount of matter in galaxies, then this is the value that an omnipotent being would choose." Whereas in the universe as we know it, the cosmological constant actually has a small positive value. Therefore, concludes Page, God must not have fine-tuned the constant.

What nonsense, and what a waste of time. There are any number of explanations why Page could be wrong: maybe greater density of stars and galaxies leads to more radiation, making it less likely for stable molecules to form. Maybe a higher constant leads to a universe whose duration is too short for life to evolve. Maybe anything. And moreover: who cares? This sort of theological debate really doesn't belong in science. Page may have a real discovery on his hands: that he has found a link between the cosmological constant and galaxy formation. That's useful knowledge. But to try to leverage it into a theological argument demeans it.