Archive for March 2010

The Education of Scott Brown…1/3rd term Senator edition.

March 30, 2010

Our very junior senator weighed in with an attempt to play in the big leagues today, and it wasn’t pretty.

Senator (sic) Brown put his name on top of what seems to have been a pre-packaged generic GOP attack op-ed in the Boston Globe, titled,”The Health Care Fight Is Not Over.” (h/t BarbinMD over at GOS)

Well, he got that part — and just about that part alone — right.  (To be fair, he did spell “Scott Brown” correctly as well.)  The fight isn’t over.  Next up are things like the public option, which the insurance industry seems to be begging Congress to pass, and or Medicare buy-in, not to mention an ongoing effort to replace fee-for-service with a less incentive-misaligning payment scheme.

But the piece itself is almost a type specimen of the GOPs one trick (a sadly effective one):  it is nothing more than the usual list of plaints, trumpeted as high crimes and misdemeanors.  Everyone of them has been painstakingly debunked, but the trick is to keep on repeating it — the caged-monkey faeces-flinging tactic– until the debunkers weary, and the falsehoods get to parade around the public square unmolested.  All it takes is a willingness to check your brain in a jar by the door, and it becomes easy to do this.  And sadly, my own senator (for a while, Brownie baby, just a little while), has shown himself ready, willing, and able to do just that.

Shall we fisk?

BY ELECTING me to the US Senate, the people of Massachusetts sent a clear message: Washington needs to get its priorities straight.

Err, no.  They sent a message that even a Cosmo centerfold who has Lot’s view of the instrumental use of daughters could beat out the worst candidate in living memory.  Don’t overthink what got you to that big dome, dude.

After my election, Washington politicians began an aggressive push to bend the rules and force their unpopular health care bill on an unwilling nation.

Err, no.  Health Care Reform had already passed both houses of Congress by the time Brown was elected.  And even after months of disinformation, the reform measure was just about equally balanced between yeas and nays.  “Divisive” — yes.  Unpopular in the conventional use of the term?  No. (It’s also worth noting that some measure of opposition to the bill came from those who thought the measure was not strong enough, and that, as the link above demonstates, the law has so far proved more popular than the bill, with a majority of Americans supporting what was, after all, a relatively modest and essentially conservative change.

They went into secret negotiations to make up their own rules…

Err, no.  Six committees, a year of debate and deliberation, extended negotiations with leading Republican Senators (remember the gang of six?), multiple votes and a supermajority in the Senate…not to mention a nationally televised and webcast health care summit that featured every major player in Congress on the bill, GOPer as well as Democrat, all led to a bill that passed through absolutely conventional methods.  The House passed its bill; the Senate passed its bill; the House then concurred with the Senate bill and by majority vote affirmed that measure.  It was just the way they draw it up in civics class.  And if Sen. Brown is decrying the use negotiations to sway votes by way of legislative sweeteners, the “backroom deals” so calumnied by the pearl-clutching set of temporary GOP Goo-goos, then he might want to opt out of the appropriations business altogether (and abandon whatever hopes he retains of being elected to a full term).

…and eventually found a way to circumvent the will of the people by using the reconciliation process to ram through their health care bill.

Err, no.  Last I heard, folks kind of liked getting rid of those backroom deals that so offend the nostrils of our squeaky clean new senator — the Nebraska pay-off an all that, not to mention the student loan reform that increases the money available to folks struggling to pay for college while reducing the federal deficit.  There was, of course, nothing untoward or unprecedented in the use of the reconciliation process to permit a majority of the US Senate to make minor fixes to already approved legislation.  After all, the GOP did it plenty when last they controlled Congress, those will-of-the-people cheating scoundrels.

For the last year, the American people have been shaking their heads at the closed-door meetings, sweetheart deals, and special carve-outs. It has been a very ugly process, and caused many Americans to lose faith in their elected officials in Washington.

Err, no.  Most folks in America have had little concern with minutiae of DC process.  And as for ugly?  No more — or rather, much less – than this, which truly does represent bad process and fiscal irresponsiblity, GOP style.  And as for passage of the bill affecting  faith in elected officials…well, rather more if you are a member of the party of no, than the folks who actually, you know, tried to do the jobs for which they had been elected.

This bill constitutes a massive increase in spending that our country…

Err, no.  See this.

…can’t afford

Err, no.  See this.

Instead of reforming the health care system and bending the cost curve down, we are doing the exact opposite.

Ahh, that “cost curve.”  This is simply false.  The law is imperfect — the more so because of unified GOP opposition on tactical, rather than policy grounds.  It became an insurance reform rather than a fundamental change to the health care delivery system, which, to be sure, is needed.  But the law contains significant pilot approaches to cost-cutting and thus represents a major federal measure to put downward pressure on cost increases (got that?).  Does more need to be done…absolutely — but returning to the status quo ante ain’t going to cut it.  (Nor will the GOP rationing-by-death approach.)

For starters, we can work in a bipartisan manner to repeal the worst parts of this bill.

Uhh.  No we can’t.  This is too dumb even to bother digging up links with which to ridicule this with.  We’re in “All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten” territory here.

We should replace the worst parts of this legislation with solutions that would actually lower costs and improve the quality of care — such as allowing individuals to purchase insurance across state lines, measures that will prevent waste, fraud and abuse, support for increased prevention and wellness programs, and reforms to limit costly litigation and defensive medicine.

Oh FSM, this again.  See what I mean about monkey faeces?*  OK — state opt ins already exist in  the form of the health care exchanges.  The phrase “waste, fraud, and abuse” must be available on a programmable function key available to every politician who doesn’t want to specify exactly what he/she is going to cut — but the bill contains oversight mechanisms and a number of technological fixes that address some of the low-hanging opportunities in reducing waste/fraud — note the administration’s emphasis on electronic medical record keeping as a core example.  Tort reforms are a convenient shibboleth, a GOP standard that has been repeatedly shown to be at best a minor component of health care cost growth.  Trotting this out shows Brown isn’t even trying; this is just a standard-issue bit of blather that for some reason the Globe accepted as authentic opinion.  The cross state-lines argument is similarly a red herring.  Some cross-border transactions are already enabled in the law  in the exchange mechanism — which retains the crucial element of host-state and or Federal regulatory control.  Lose that, and we’re back to situations worse than the status quo ante, as Ezra Klein has tirelessly pointed out.

Individual states should have the flexibility to solve the health care problems in a way that is best for their specific state, similar to the approach we took in Massachusetts that has resulted in a state-specific plan that covers 98 percent of our citizens without raising taxes.

Err, no.   I mean, for one thing the federal plan is, as President Obama pointed out just this morning, largely modelled on the Massachusetts plan — which suggests that we are onto a pretty good thing.  And second, we’ve seen what state-specific approaches do.  That’s what we’ve had for last umpty-ump years, and it’s left us with a system in which medical costs are soaring out of control while more and more Americans join the 45 million or so uninsured each year.  This is what we’re trying to fix, bozo…and not any sentient being’s idea of a solution.

This disastrous detour of a health care bill as distracted the attention and energy of Congress for the past year.

Huh?  Scotty, my Senator.  If the small matter of the ongoing trainwreck of 18 percent of the US economy that is failing at twice the cost of our nearest competitor nation to deliver outcomes that match those of our international peers is not smack in the middle of something to which Congress is supposed to devote attention and energy, I don’t know what could be. If it is too much for you, then do us all a favor and resign a job that is clearly beyond your competence.

Now, it is time to listen to the people and focus on their top priority: jobs.

Uh, Senator Brown?  Have you noticed that there is some kind of a connection between the health care sector and the labor market?  You haven’t?  You should.

It would be a mistake for the administration to try to ram through other items on the liberal agenda when so many Americas are struggling. Americans want their government to fully focus its attention on the economy and getting our citizens back to work.

Beyond the walk-and-chew-gum problem referenced above, I assume you mean such liberal agenda items as this, or this, or this — that last being only a modest down payment on the jobs concern, but still.

Only when we start heeding the will of the American people can we begin to restore faith in government, and it all starts with commonsense, practical solutions that will put Americans back to work and get our economy back on track.

Ahh, now we get to it.  When in doubt, give up on anything approaching an actual rational statement, and channel the quitta from Wasilla.

The op-ed is in fact more valuable than its individual parts are risible.  It gives us a clear reading of the intellectual capacity of our new senator.  There is not one original phrase in the entire piece, and most of what is there is simply wrong.  You could replace Scott Brown this; work on the speech synthesizer just  a bit; and no one would ever know.

*See, e.g. this from GOP Senate election chief John Coryn of Texas, in a memo leaked to, among others, CNN:

“On the trail, it’s critical that we remind people of the fact that it was Republicans who fought to force insurance companies to compete with one another over state lines for Americans’ business,” Cornyn writes in the memo. “It was Republicans who fought to reform the junk lawsuits that raise medical costs and lower quality by forcing doctors to practice ‘medicine.’ It was Republicans who fought for policies that protected Americans with preexisting conditions and it was Republicans who proposed health care reforms that didn’t cut Medicare by $500 billion and raise Americans’ taxes by $400 million.”

To put it another way Brown got the word, and the Globe got suckered (and I’m hoping it was that, and not connivance) into publishing what is in essence the GOP Politboro line of the day.  There is nothing in this column, that is, that suggests that Scott Brown himself has an original thought or an informed opinion about one of the most important pieces of legislation of the last several decades.  Not an inspiring sight…but not a surprise either.

David Brooks is Always Wrong — NPR Edition, Part Two.

March 30, 2010

Back in Part One, we covered one of David Brooks’ many transgressions as a financial pundit, his claim, repeated last Friday on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that the new health care law is a budget buster.

I called it an error.  It is more precise to term it a lie, as the best available data, stuff that Mr. Brooks cannot fail to have encountered  — CBO estimates and other, less formally constrained estimates — all support what proponents of the law have said, that the reform is mildly deficit reducing over the next decade, with the potential, at least, for major savings to come in later years.

But now, let’s shift to a wider frame.  In that same NPR appearance, Mr. Brooks offered a corollary of the presumed budget busting nature of health care reform:  a familiar, ritual claim that portrays current deficits or deficit trends as inherently destructive, unsurvivable.  Brooks complained in the piece that if the deficit did remain at a projected 90% of GDP level by the end of the decade, that would be a disaster.

He’s wrong.

Here’s why:

First, the American experience with deficit levels in that range does not suggest disaster.  Since the start of World War II, US deficits as a percentage of GDP topped at over 120% in the late 1940s (after the war, as the US was rebuilding Europe and ramping up military expenditure at the onset of the Cold and Korean Wars.  As I recall, most folks thought the 1950s were a reasonably successful time in US history, at least as far as economic growth and the creation of a thriving middle class went.

You can see a similar dynamic in the chart of Great Britain’s national debt as a percentage of GDP.  Twice in the modern period, Britain’s debt rose to more than two and a half times GDP.  The timing of the second such peak is probably easy to guess; it correlates with the combined burdens of World War One, the Great Depression, and The Great War, The Sequel demanded all the resources the British could bring to bear and more, engendering debt levels that touched the 200 percent mark in the early ’20s, never went below about 120 percent before rocketing up to over 250 percent  in the late 1940s.  The other similar spike also came in the context of extended conflict — the long-century of war that Britain waged from the late seventeenth century through the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.  British government debt climbed to over 100 percent of GDP in 1750 or so, and topped out above 250 percent shortly after Napoleon met his Waterloo in 1815.*

What is all this history doing here?  Because of what must be obvious already to the readers of this blog.

Think what happened in Britain’s nineteenth century.  Think what happened in the US during the ’50s and 60s.

Observe the fact that Britain and the US both managed to bring their debt levels down as a fraction of GDP after their rises to historic highs and the US did it again in the 1990s after twelve years of GOP transfer payments from the middle class to the rich once again unhinged the budget.

And last, for a quick, back of the envelope correction to current hankie clutching by Mr. Brooks et al., consider this from Paul Krugman.

The shorter of that already brief post:  cutting away at the debt incurred in our current attempt to use Keynesian methods to return from recession will require only modest shifts in either revenue or expenditure (or, of course, of both).  Same deal as in the fifties and early sixties — or rather a less draconiann one than that which that famous socialist, Dwight Eisenhower achieved with his 90% highest marginal tax rate.

In other words, this is yet one more case of the GOP and its useful-idiot allies like Mr. Brooks inventing facts to advance a purely political calculation.

Pay no attention to the real world, they say, nor the record of historical experience. Listen instead to the mewling and puking of the GOP deficit babies until the cry “we’re doomed! doomed!” comes to be seen as fact.

But in making decisions about what the government should or should not attempt to do, reality does matter.  And here the story is clear:  deficits  — even ones much higher than Mr Brooks has said he fears — do not imply in and of themselves extended periods of economic hardship.

What’s more:  why you borrow matters.

Certainly, there is certainly spending that is truly wasteful, in the sense that it adds little to GDP as a return on government borrowing. (See the quote from Bilmes and Stiglitz* about half way down the post at the second link; I’d link to the Harper’s original, but it’s behind a subscription wall.)

But the lesson of historic rises in debt levels and their return to lower percentages in the US and elsewhere over the last century and before is that debt properly employed is not just acceptable, but remains a critical tool to foster both economic growth and social strength.  (Once again: Keynes, much?)

And on that point, health care reform clearly falls into the realm of policy that forms part of the long term context of economic growth (and by extension, healthy government revenues, which then constrain the expansion of a public deficit).

Why?  Because, as David Brooks could have discovered had only read his own newspaper, the social contract matters. All he had to do was to check out — and grasp –some of the coverage from the exemplary David Leonhardt, for one.   (Leonhardt remains one of the most significant reasons one still has to read the New York Times.)

Consider this one, on the significance of health care reform on innovation.

This is not to suggest that Mr. Leonhardt, as good a reporter as he is, is some gold standard of judgment on economic policy.  But his work and that of many people who actually know things about fiscal policy and health care economics have noticed that the particular form of a nation’s health care system can have enormous consequence for seemingly completely unhealth-related sectors of the economy.

For jsut one example: the social safety net helps in difficult-to-quantify ways because, it turns out, it is when people feel secure in their basic needs that they accept more risks.  They leave bad jobs to seek better ones; they invest in their own education; they, as Leonhardt details, are more willing to gamble on their own vision as entrepeneurs.

It may be difficult to quantify, or rather to predict the degree to which such easing of care will add to GDP, and hence increase government revenues, and hence to reduce the scale of government borrowing, but the underlying concept is just not that hard to grasp. The idea that you will be more adventurous economically f you know that you or your kid won’t lack for access to health care if something goes wrongis beginning to penetrate the mass media in such distant locations as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  Apparently, the news has yet to reach the more hypoxic floors of the Great Grey Lady (formerly) of 43rd St.

Update: Via Brad DeLong, see Mark Thoma saying the same thing, only better.

From that thought, let me hand the next step of the argument over to old friend Tim Ferris, who in his recent book, The Science of Liberty notes that Democrats have consistently achieved a better economic growth outcome through that party’s commitment to a market system with a social network and a regulatory framework, compared with the GOP’s pursuit of policies that underregulate the market and undermine — at least confidence in — the social safety net.

Arguing from a classically liberal viewpoint  Ferris reports what is available to anyone (are you paying attention, Mr. Brooks?) (No.  SASQ — ed.) with access to Teh Google, that economic growth is much better maintained by Democratic adminstrations and policies than by the GOP lip-service he pays so readily to the icons of budget puritanism.

Specifically, Ferris writes,

Party politics may be a crude metric, but the United States in the past half century has experienced faster GDP growth, lower unemployment, and higher corporate profits during Democratic than during Republican administrations. The stock markets performed better, too, with annualized returns on investment averaging almost 9 percent when Democrats were in office against less than 1 percent for the Republicans. (The Science of Liberty, p. 25.   Emphasis added.)

The details of what parts of the two competing approaches to governance actually make the difference are (a) enormously complex and subject to debate and (b) beyond the scope of this blog post.  But the key point is, or should be obvious.  Deficit spending in itself is not the driver of outcomes.  It’s what you do with the money, and whether you address critical social/economic needs with your borrowing that counts.*

Which means: the general claim of deficit apocalypse is bullsh!t, a right wing mantra now being pushed to counter Democratic efforts to solve some of the problems that eight years (and most of the last thirty, in fact) of often criminal misrule have left behind.

In that context, health care reform is more than a moral victory, a statement by our society that tens of thousands of people per year should not die for lack of insurance.

Health care reform is more than mildly deficit reducing, a small down payment on the much larger reform that could both enhance the quality and reduce the cost of care by creating a national body of knowledge about best practices whilst paying for care rather than procedures.

Rather, or on top of those public goods, health care reform as just enacted is one of a number of critical steps towards creating the economic context for the next sustained epoch of growth.  A society whose members gain a greater share of numbers three and four of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s iconic freedoms is one that will be far better placed to prosper (and thus shrink deficits as a percentage of GDP) than one in which sclerotic institutions and an ever less flexible labor force constrain every attempt to come up with the Next Big Thing.**

In that context, I guess the only remaining question is why David Brooks — and his too-many allies on the right — so hate America that they’d rather see a budget balanced on the ill-health of the nation instead of a society betting on its own members to create a richer future.

*All this is not to say that medical care cost inflation isn’t a serious problem in the medium to long term.  It is.  But (a) the problem is worse without health care reform than with it; and (b) the real significance of health care reform is that it creates the context for further reform.  Clearly the proof will be in the pudding, but several next steps are obvious, and the new law contains several elements of cost-control mechanisms and the capacity to perform policy experiments

**And of course — if you take Ferris’s historical analysis seriously, and I do, then the first two of Roosevelt’s four freedoms are equally important to the formation of a creative and scientifically innovative society.

Images:  Maria Fyodorovna, “The Miser,” 1890

Great Depression photograph, courtesy of the Franklin Roosevelt Library and Museum,”Public Health nursing made available through child welfare services.”

Thomas Eakins, “The Agnew Clinic,” 1889.

David Brooks is Always Wrong — NPR Edition, Part One.

March 27, 2010

I know, I know.  It should be Megan McArdle up there; in some views, she’s retired that title, and it sits up there above the right field bleachers next to the 1, the 4, the 6 and the rest.  (Sacrilege!  Must this blog stoop so low?)

But the problem is, David Brooks is always wrong.  I keep on not finishing the piece I’ve been trying to get to you about a column he published last December, just because my brain explodes twice a week, and I faff and fiddle trying to figure out how to nail down that slab of jello that is Mr. Brooks’ approach to the task of reasoning.

Seriously.  His picture is next to that entry in the dictionary of quotations that reads ““It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

And so, though McArdle’s body of work remains a uniquely target-rich environment, Brooks, vastly more influential than Mme. Galt, and hence the more dangerous, must needs become the object of our attention with ever greater regularity.

Hence, this. (And this:  part two here.)

The occasion?  His weekly appearance last Friday on NPR’s All Things Considered, opposite E. J. Dionne.  There discussing the politics of the health care bill, he repeated two claims he’s making with increasing frequency as he grapples with the ongoing refusal of Barack Obama to take his advice.

These were that, for all that he applauded Obama and Pelosi for succeeded in the mechanics of passing the bill, he still hated it, because it was (a) a fiscal disaster, and (b) implicated in the projection that the deficit will be 90% of GDP by the end of the decade, which he termed calamitous (not his exact words — but the sense was there — Mr. Brooks sees current policy as driving us over a precipice.

The only problem?  Both of these statements are convenient nonsense. This is what conventional wisdom looks like.  Everyone knows — especially that professional everyman, Mr. Brooks — that spending on social programs is purely optional (and has no society-wide positive effect), that the current federal tax rate is the highest that it is possible to imagine sustaining, and that hence every choice to spend must drive deficits ever upward — and, as well all know, that deficits are the devil.

Now, this isn’t the post in which I’m going to dive deep into the usual — and true — observation, that it’s hard to take deficit hawks seriously who cheerfully swallow unfunded wars while rejecting explicitly budgeted reforms like the recent health care effort.  But it is important to push back on what seems to be the “serious” USDA approved™ meme on the health care issue — nice job, Dems, but you’ve bankrupted the country again.

So here’s the scoop.  Without being a Congressional Budget Office fetishist, it is important at least to acknowledge the data that one can gather.  And, as everyone knows who has paid even a scant bit of attention to the whole HCR farrago, the CBO has scored the bill that finally passed for its impact on the deficit.

It’s conclusion:  that the bill will lower the deficit by 130 billion dollars over the next ten years, and those savings could reach past a trillion over the next decade (though the CBO notes that such long term forecasts are wildlly unreliable).  For further discussion of these points, and some more conservative estimates of the deficit lowering capacity of this bill, see here, here and here.

That is to say, Mr. Brooks had it exactly reversed when he claimed that this bill was fiscally irresponsible.  It saves federal budget dollars.  It doesn’t do enough, IMHO, and I hope the murmurs are true that the public option and other cost-saving and coverage-expanding measures will make their way into the reform over the next few years, but it is better than what we got.  It is, to state it plainly, more fiscally responsible than any of the realistic alternatives, whether the status quo or the GOP death by rationing approach, by any coherent understanding of the term, “responsible.”

But for all of the annoyingly lazy repetition of what has been a false GOP talking point for months, (I heard you were supposed to be the thoughtful one, Mr. Brooks), it’s the second of the genial pundit’s two claims that is truly dangerous.  The campaign, in which Mr. Brooks is really no more than a willing subaltern, to portray the deficit as a kind of domestic policy al Qaeda, is really an effort to lock the current balance of power and social distribution of wealth into more or less it’s status quo.  It’s up and running with a vengeance, and at stake are not merely the spoils of wealth now, but the long term prosperity (and hence power) of the nation.  For details, please turn to part two.

For the second half of Mr. Brooks’ errors of fact and argument, please turn to part two.

Image: Albert Bierstadt, “Falls of Niagara from Below” before 1902.

Why You Should Want To Be An Astronomer…

March 27, 2010

You get the chance to make images like this one:

This is the Owl Nebula — a planetary nebula* visible in the Northern Hemisphere in the constellation Ursa Major.  It gets its name from the two dark “eyes” visible more or less along the center line of the image, which to the poetic soul that lives in skywatchers, gives it the look of an owl’s face.  It was made at the Gemini North telescope, an eight-meter class monolith at what is perhaps the best single observing site for optical astronomy in the world, the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The image was produced for the observing program of an atypical user of a major telescope:  Émilie Storer, a student at Collège Charlemagne, Pierrefonds, Quebec.  Storer was this year’s winner of an annual competition sponsored by the Gemini Observatory, asking high schoolers to write an essay about their favorite object in the sky, and why one of  the Gemini telescopes should observe it.

In this case, Storer’s choice prompted Gemini’s scientists to create the best available large-telescope data set on this planetary nebula, and thus reveal significant structure within what had previously been thought to be a quite simple ball. Details in the Gemini Observatory press release.

I’ve long been a fan of planetary nebulae — you can see a couple in the opening sequence to a film I made, and, as of this writing, 204 more in the archives (search for “planetary nebula) of the invaluable Astronomy Picture of the Day archive.  They are beautiful to look at, and, the more you know about them, poignant too — a terribly short lived passage in the life of a star, an eruption of splendor, swiftly to be eclipsed by a dwindling of the light.

And I’ve long been a fan of big telescopes on big mountains, and anything that gets people to know and love them.  I’ve made a couple of films centering on large ‘scopes, and have spent a lot of time trying to remain sufficiently oxygenated to remember when to turn the camera on and when to call “cut.”  I have a particular affection for Gemini North, as it happens, because I had the enormous good fortune to go to the Corning factory in upstate New York as they were finishing and shipping the eight meter mirror blank off to France for polishing.

What I saw was twenty ton contact lens, slumped into the rudiments of its curved shape, and through the generosity of both Corning and the Gemini team, I and my collaborator Larry Klein were able to make one of the most spectacular purely visual scenes we’ve ever shot — images of the giant blank, lit blue from below, being gently swept by a pair of moon-bootied men, to be followed by the amazing slow dance of lifting the mirror up and into its crate.  Doesn’t sound like much on the page, and that film “Cathedrals of the Sky,” is almost unobtainable now, but trust me, it was great.

But I digress.  This is just a post for a weekend to give kudos to Ms. Storer and to the Gemini Observatory — and to enjoy a break from the craziness that has overtaken this blog and our country.  Here, after all, is a glimpse of genuinely beauty that could not be less implicated in any trouble and strife here on the mote of dust we call home.

*Planetary nebulae, despite the name, are the products of a late phase in the life cycle of certain stars.  Larger stars — above 8 times the mass of the sun — tend to blow up in spectacular events called supernovae.  Lighter stars at the end of their lives don’t undergo the cataclysmic collapse and explosion of their massive  cousins (as long as they are not part of a distinct class of stars below 1.38 solar masses that under very specific conditions produce what are known as type 1A supernovae).  Instead, as such stars begin run out of hydrogen as fuel for fusion reactions and begin to burn helium (while remaining hydrogen stocks continue to fuse).  As the stars core heats up as the more intense helium fusion reactions take over, it becomes less stable (the actual dynamics are ferociously more complicated than this cartoon) and the star begins to blow off its outer atmosphere in a series of concentric shells.  Those expanding spheres of gas form the beautiful shapes and colors we detect as planetary nebulae.

Friday Brain Candy: Puppetmaster comeuppance edition

March 26, 2010

Because I’m too lame to figure out how to embed this, you’re just going to have to click on the link.

It’s worth it.

Trust me.

Image: F. A. Philips: Spielendes Kind mit Kasperpuppe, 1878.

For Good Times in Marietta, Ohio and Ann Arbor Michigan.

March 23, 2010

The Newtonpalooza rolls on.

If tonight (Tuesday, March 23)  you happen to be in the vicinity of Marietta College (in Marietta, Ohio), I’ll be giving the Krause Lecture at 7:30 in the Alma McDonough Auditorium on campus (number 7 on the campus map).  The subject — Isaac Newton, and what his not-so-secret history as a cop tells you about the man and the scientific revolution as it was lived on the spot.

And if you happen to be in the neighborhood of the University of Michigan tomorrow, Wed. 24 March, I’ll be talking to the Physics Colloquium on much the same subject at four p.m in room 340 in West Hall.  (Campus building search utility here.)

Come one, come all.

Image:  John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett: “Cicero denouncing Cataline” c. 1850

Quickie Post, to let you know that David Brooks has finally revealed the secrets of conservative math.

March 23, 2010

I’m on the road again in yet one more Newtonpalooza, so no substantive posting is going to happen, but I saw in my morning check of Balloon Juice (the only source for news you can really use) that David Brooks has produced another of his considered analyses to explain the real meaning of critical events.

The whole thing is yet one more sample of the unique combination of credulousness and really dangerous hackery-in-defense-of-establishment-power that characterizes Mr. Brooks’ work, and I’m going to try to go blog-medieval on it in the near future.   But here I just want to point out the implications of the delicious sentence that Mr. Brooks writes one truly revealing sentence, the one quoted by DougJ in his BJ snark:

Nobody knows how this bill will work out. It is an undertaking exponentially more complex than the Iraq war, for example.

The overt dumbness has already been dealt with at Balloon Juice.

As the commenters there point out, the only honest response is “Uh…..noes.”  It is also all you need to explain why the GOP so badly botched everything about that war.  They thought and think this is true, that destroying a country and rebuilding would be simpler and cheaper than regulating insurance companies.

(On that note — about two years into the Iraq war I had the chance to talk, completely informally with Madeleine Albright.  Among much else interesting, she told me that in the briefing she and other former high-ranking Clinton and Bush I officials received in the run-up to the war, the Rumsfeld DOD had made essentially no after-conflict plans, which we know now to be exactly right.  She told me she raised the thought that this was wrong, that real post-conflict planning had to be done to deal with all kinds of things, from the vacuum in civil power to economic matters.  She was, she said, brushed off by the Bush version of the Best and the Brightest — the So-So and the Not-Quite-Set-To-Be-Watered-Twice-A-Day).

But enough of ancient history.  I’m still wallowing in the mess of trying to understand  Mr. Brooks tortured diction.  Just what the hell could he mean by “exponentially” in this context?

Well — math jokes are not for amateurs, and I certainly don’t want to dive into xkcd territory (No! No! No!  Quantum leaps are really smalllllll), but it occurs to me that Mr. Brooks’ statement is more than usually meaningless if you don’t know what exponent he’s thinking about.

And then it became clear.  The only way any of Mr. Brooks’ attempts to assert some connection between his thought and that fundamental tool of science, mathematical reasoning actually makes sense, given the gap between reality and his accounts of it, is if that exponent contains the factor “i.”

That is all.

Image:  Nicolas Neufchâtel, “Nürnberger Schoolmaster Johann Neudörffer and a Student,” 1561.


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