Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bruins with the Prince of Wales Trophy!

I don't pay much attention to NHL Hockey, but with the Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals, I'm obliged to take note of summer ice. And for someone who only knows a little about the game, I thank Fluto Shinzawa of the Globe for writing a deep, incisive analysis of the series-winning goal, and the backstory on what made that particular play work.

Go Bruins!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Refuting XKCD

Philosophy is not fundamental; mathematics is.

The wildly popular comic XKCD posted a mildly funny cartoon today with an intriguing rollover text.
Wikipedia trivia: if you take any article, click on the first link in the article text not in parentheses or italics, and then repeat, you will eventually end up at Philosophy.
I emailed my philosopher* and we worked on a few examples. N.T. Wright led to Philosophy in 8 steps. Brick took 21 steps; String Cheese 26. I tried my most recent Wikipedia search: Flag of Syria led to Philosophy in 21 steps as well. But then we tried Michelle Obama. She led through a series of political pages (e.g. Constitution) to Mathematics. And ended there: Mathematics leads to an infinite loop:
  1. Mathematics
  2. Quantity
  3. Magnitude
  4. Ordering
  5. Mathematics
We had found a tree of pages that did not lead back to Philosophy. But what does Philosophy lead to? Does it also loop back to itself in a narrow circle of nearby concepts? Here's what we found:
  1. Philosophy
  2. Rational Argument (reason)
  3. Rationality
  4. (Mental) Exercise
  5. Alzheimer's Disease
  6. Dementia
  7. Latin
  8. Latium
  9. Rome
  10. Capital
  11. Seat of local government
  12. Local government
  13. State (polity)
  14. Social science
  15. Scholarly method
  16. Scholasticism
  17. Academics (-ia)
  18. Community
  19. Group
  20. Group (mathematics)
  21. Mathematics
Mathematics, in the current configuration of wikipedia, at least, supervenes philosophy. Granted, the path is not made of obvious or deep concepts - Alzheimer's anyone? - and Wikipedia can easily be edited to reverse this relationship. But it's pretty telling, nonetheless.

* If you don't already retain a personal philosopher, I recommend doing so.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Toast to Pawlenty

But is he toast?
Yesterday former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced that he was running for president... He promised to end the era of bailouts and handouts if elected, including federal subsidies for ethanol. His remarks carried all the more weight because he was speaking from Iowa, a state heavily dependent on ethanol subsidies.
For speaking out against ethanol subsidies in Iowa, Pawlenty has Global Review's early support. Obviously, much more will be revealed about the many candidates for president in the coming months, but the soft-spoken midwesterner reveals some testicular fortitude by throwing down in Iowa with a statement that could torpedo his campaign in that crucial state. Here's hoping more Iowans are drawn to a message of responsible government than to the usual pandering.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Made in America

Come June, the [former Hoover] plant will be churning out EdenPure space heaters, vacuums, air purifiers and other small appliances once made in China.
You read that correctly: a manufacturer is moving production from China to America. The hopeful Washington Post story discusses the recent growth in manufacturing: 250,000 net new jobs in the last 16 months. A lot of that is probably just bounce-back from the abysmal lows in the Great Recession, but in the case of the EdenPure plant, it's a legitimate turnaround from the long-term trend of off-shoring.

Of course, the new jobs have lower wages than the old ones, and probably far fewer are unionized. As the EdenPure CEO says, “everybody wants to manufacture in the United States. It is just the cost of doing it” that prompts companies to move factories offshore.
He decided to move manufacturing back from China because it takes two months to get products to market from his factories there. That lag led to supply and inventory headaches for his weather-sensitive products, particularly his signature space heaters. Those problems became less tolerable as his costs for making products in China and shipping them home began to soar. The clincher was when his company was able to re-engineer the space heater so it required fewer man-hours to build. Even with all of that, Suarez said, his production costs are higher here than they would be in China. Nonetheless, he said he is happy to be bringing jobs back to his home town, adding that he will probably hire as many as 2,500 workers over the next 18 months.
American manufacturing was once written off as a lost cause, with the endless cities of Chinese workers always willing to work for less. But maybe, having shaken off the union shackles, Midwestern markets will once again find a place for the semi-skilled factory worker.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Debt Limit

If the U.S. does not raise the debt limit in the short term, it will start to default on portions of its debt, and will see interests rates rapidly rise. The rising rates will increase the cost of rolling over existing debt, causing more default, raising rates further, and ... you get the picture.

If the U.S. does not cut spending by trillions in the medium term, it will partially default on most of its debt. The only realistic public policy result of the current spending trajectory will be sustained inflation of the dollar, lowering the wealth of anyone owning dollars or dollar-denominated assets (except TIPS). This would hurt the Chinese government and Americans who have saved for retirement or college. It would benefit the American government and Americans who have credit-card or mortgage debt. It would also raise interest rates on government debt issues to 19th-century levels and effectively cripple the government going forward.

Are there alternatives? Massive tax increases would cause a bigger recession than the recent one, and further lower tax receipts, so that's not a realistic solution for closing the deficit gap, although closing loopholes and capping exemptions would be smart.

Massive spending decreases will be painful, but are possible, if begun soon and stretched out perpetually. Leaving Afghanistan and cutting military spending commensurately is the first and most obvious of these cuts. Preventing Medicare and Social Security costs from ballooning in the next ten years is the next-most-obvious.

If this Congress and its successors do not find the courage to address the debt crisis, it will spiral beyond their control in ways they cannot imagine. The foolishness of the stimulus package - some of which still has not been spent! - is staggering in light of the current budget outlook.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Rain Insurance

The NYTimes (gated) profiles a brilliant micro-insurance enterprise in Kenya. By linking payouts of farmers' insurance policies directly to measured local rainfall, the company avoids most of the costs of writing and enforcing an insurance policy.

The technology to measure rainfall in many locations cheaply and to transfer money almost freely to mobile phone accounts makes this possible: 21st-century technology created for the rich 20 years ago is now an integral part of life for those living on less than $2 a day. Three cheers for globalization!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Slavery and Mobility

One of the great innovations in visual information display was demographic maps created by Alexander Dallas Bache of the U.S. Coast Survey in 1860. These showed visually the concentration of slavery in narrow regions even within the South, and were among the most powerful tools of abolitionists. Blache was the first to use the now-familiar method of shading regions to show their demographic traits.

I was struck looking at this map how closely it resembles the current mapping of non-Hispanic blacks in the U.S. (Year 2000 data; from Social Explorer). Look closely at some part of both maps; you'll find that even at a county-by-county level, the concentration of blacks in 2000 is closely related to the slave population in 1860.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Godfather Obama

Maureen Dowd (gated) gives us an awesome image of the President:
After giving the order for members of a Navy Seals team to execute a fantastically daring plan to, let’s be honest, execute Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama put on a tuxedo and gave a comedy speech Saturday night in a Washington ballroom of tippling journalists and Hollywood stars.

If we could have seen everything unfolding in real time, it would have had the same dramatic effect as the intercutting in the president’s favorite movie, “The Godfather,” when Michael Corleone calmly acts as godfather at his nephew’s baptism at church, even as his lieutenants carry out the gory hits he has ordered on rival mobsters.

Just substitute “Leave the copter, take the corpse” for “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


To Republican Candidates for President.

From Global Review

Re: Death of Osama bin Laden

The president has allowed 36 hours to elapse since the death of Osama and not announced that U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan. This is wise and presidential, and he is doing the right thing. However, you are not president, and you have no due diligence to do; you must merely say the right thing. So say it now; be the one to shape the media narrative for the coming campaign, and preempt the president on the choice that he will necessarily make within a few months.

Call for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. You can couch it in careful language - "contingent on the intelligence found with bin Laden, with all due diligence, blah blah blah" - but be clear that the job is done, you applaud President Obama, and you want to see the young men and women of your district back at home. No more American soldiers need die. No more billions need be spent. The moment is perfect, the message is clear, and the only thing we lack is a voice.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Declare Victory and Go Home

The United States is buzzing this morning with the news that her greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden, is dead. American commandos executed a daring helicopter raid in an urban area, killed bin Laden, three other militants, and a woman who was used as a human shield. They took bin Laden's body away, dumped it in the ocean, and radioed home: Mission Accomplished.

President Obama needs to give another speech within the month, in which he tells America and the world, "Mission Accomplished". Under President Bush, America invaded Afghanistan, and encroached upon Pakistan, in order to find Osama bin Laden and punish the Taliban for protecting him. Both of those goals have been met. The ancillary objectives - that the Afghan people would erect a functional, representative government, that Pakistan would root out Islamist militants - are nice hopes, but after nine and a half years, they are unlikely to be advanced any further by the presence of American soldiers and spooks.

Mr. Obama, bring the troops home. They did their jobs. They did not complain, and they served and fought in one of the world's least hospitable climates, or died trying.

The Arab world is at a historic turning point, and the presence of active American soldiers in their region is a stumbling block to the ascendance of pro-Western parties from the revolutions in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Palestine. America's presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is one of the motivations for those who would replace authoritarian thugs with totalitarian ones. Mute them by leaving the region, and allow the Arabs to focus on the true source of their malaise: corruption and unrepresentative government.

Pakistan also hangs in the balance, and has endured deep shame for allowing a power from the other side of the world to trample on her borders and control her skies. Thank Pakistan profusely, build them a world class library or park or something in Abbottabad, and get out. Get the CIA out, get the drones out, get the hell out. Give the Pakistanis closure, and let them mind their own house. Maybe they'll do a better job fighting militants when those militants are killing them instead of killing us.

This moment will not recur. There is no other clear objective remaining in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region. There is no sign, unlike in Iraq, that the potential for a stable, representative government exists. There is no Taliban force left that is worthy of being beaten on a battlefield. No other landmark moment will arise which can be plausibly - let alone correctly - called victory. If we do not leave now, we will not be able to leave with our heads high in the next twenty years. Delay is death; do it now.

What's more, Mr. Obama, victory and departure make great politics. Hawkish types are still grinning from the death of bin Laden. You can leave now without offending their sense of honor. Doves, who were so important to your election, are distraught that you doubled down on the Afghan War (so is the Norwegian Nobel Committee). Allow them to vote for you in 2012 with cleaner consciences. You can also unsubtly remind people that you did two things Mr. Bush couldn't: kill Osama and end the war. "I finished the job in Afghanistan"; the election talking point writes itself. "And I reduced the annual deficit by $117 billion." That's a nice touch as well.

Lastly, do you really expect to gain anything from remaining in Afghanistan? There is no imminent threat to the U.S. emanating from that region, and withdrawal makes it much less likely that America suffers a catastrophic loss or major terrorist attack.

You have achieved your victory, Mr. Obama. Now enjoy its fruits.