Archive for August 2010


August 31, 2010

What John Cole said.

Google bombing run to commence in 3…2…1…


Seriously — I’ve got an acct. w. Paypal, and while they have not done to me what they have done to John (memo to self — no debit cards from companies whose offices I can’t walk into), I smell the grasping hand for that last little bit of float in every transaction I make with them.

Image:  Guy Pène du Bois, “The Confidence Man,” c. 1919.

More Treats: CERN, Physicists, Hippopotami, Higgs Love, Flanders and Swann edition

August 30, 2010

Via ThonyC, from Blake Stacy ab origio, this transport of delight*:

For those of you too callow, or merely victims of a deprived childhood to get the ur text from which Cern’s songbirds derive their version, here’s the original, by the irreplaceable Flanders and Swann:

*And just because I do truly love you, and we need all the happiness we can get at the end of a week that featured goldbug-cultist-grifter Glenn Beck’s misspelling of the word “honour” and the start of the final days before the students arrive…

…here’s the source of that little bit of F&S slyness with which I chose to open this farrago:

Curse You Carl Zimmer: Vicious Distraction Edition

August 27, 2010

So, a day or so ago Carl Zimmer tweets the existence of the Netflix iPhone app, boasting of the loss of his productivity.

A Trojan horse if there ever was one.

What a way to clear out potential writing competition.

Downloaded the app today.

Found myself watching episode one of the first season of Miami Vice.

I am fail.

Curse you, Carl Zimmer!

May the mosquito of vengeance hum in your ear from now to the time of the first better than break even human made fusion reactor. (Twenty years off since 1960 and counting.)

Image:  Robert Duncanson, “Blue Hole, Little Miami River” 1851 — and yeah, I know about which Miami it is.  Sometimes you gotta stretch.

The Way David Macaulay Works

August 27, 2010

Something of a Friday brain dump seems to be going on chez Inverse Square. I’m trying to help out a little on what would for me be another David Macaulay-hosted project.

(Info on first one in which I participated — the Peabody award winning Building Big — is here.)

That led me back to the video of the talk David gave at MIT a couple of years ago, when I had the fun of hosting him for a few day-long visit. (I’m the guy introducing David whilst forgetting to introduce myself or my program — an academic rookie’s mistake.)

But David makes no such errors. The talk, titled “The Way David Macaulay Works” is a wonderful fully illustrated tour through his career and the process through which he investigates the built and the natural world. Have fun.

The Way David Macaulay Works: Finding Ideas, Ma…, posted with vodpod

Quote of the Day: Cosma Shalizi, or why mathematicians are delightfully different from other people

August 27, 2010

Presented without comment, from a stray announcement on Cosma’s invaluable, slow-cooked blog, Three Toed Sloth.

Every human relationship is a unique and precious snowflake, but do we treat them that way when we model them mathematically? No.

Image:  Hiroshige, “Kambara,” number 16 from The Fifty Three Stations of the Tokaido, 1831-4 (Hoeido edition). And yes, sometimes I do post so I can put up (and look at) pix I love.

My latest letter to President Obama/Alan Simpson must go edition

August 26, 2010
I’m back, sort of, though still buried in start of term nonsense,
But just to dip my toe back in the water — here’s what I just shot off at on the subject of why those who hate you get so much love.  It amazes me still that the White House just doesn’t seem to get it.
Alan Simpson’s truth telling on  his view of Social Security is exactly what we need right now: the organizing incident that should allow us to let the voters know what a GOP return to power really means.
And yet, instead of fighting that good fight (and getting lots of folks like me revved up again– see below) as of now, President Obama seems content to accept the usual non-apology.  Stupid policy and stupid politics, all before breakfast.
Yes, I’m that grouchy.
Anyway — here’s what I wrote.  Feel free to express yourselves to 44 at this address.
Alan Simpson’s remarks about Social Security were offensive — no, strike that — brutally demeaning to all those in retirement scraping by, and to all those who work hard to understand the serious problems we face as a nation.
But that’s not the real problem, nor the reason I ask you to force Simpson off the committee.  Rather, it is his commitment, revealed again, but pursued over decades, to destroy the entire Social Security system, rather than to reform it as needed.
Look — I get emails daily from President Obama, from OfA, from all kinds of folks, asking me to renew the extraordinary effort I put out to create the kind of country I believe we need in 2008.  I spent more than I had, and I took weeks off my job to pound on doors in New Hampshire for candidate Obama and the rest of the Democratic ticket.
Now you want me to sign up again — and yet you give a position of enormous influence and some real power to a man who stands against everything I stand for.
You gotta make a choice.  You want me — and by extension the Democrats who view government as a crucial tool in building a better society — to pony up time and cash this year?  Then choose sides now.
Simpson has to go, both for substantive reasons and because the one thing we all need now the most is a reason to get out into the fight again before November.  Trust me:  it’s good for all kinds of reasons to take a stand against those who stand against you.
Make it happen.
Tom Levenson

Image:  Paulus Potter, Four Cows in a Meadow 1651.

Brain Candy — Ex Tagger Art as Performance, Big Al edition.

August 11, 2010

Visiting friends now, just before I head off to my mountain internet-less fastness.

Last night I got to talking with the eighteen year old in the house, who has been doing remarkable work with at-risk kids in his community* and he showed me this video taken at the big inspirational conference his organization put on to connect with the community with whom they engage.

For reasons that are probably obvious to regulars here, it connected with me.


*word from the street:  marijuana is the easiest abusable substance to get, and causes few problems; alcohol is only slightly more difficult for underage drinkers to acquire, but causes many, many problems. California voters this November might want to take note.

Just a Wee Bit of McArdle Snark to Keep My Hand In: She’s Still Always Wrong, but Makes a (Sad) Funny Nonetheless, Krugman, Ryan and Judt edition

August 8, 2010

I’m off on a two week holiday to a secure undisclosed location that is blessed by no landline phone; no cell phone coverage; no town electricity or cable (and hence no internet).

Bliss, in other words.

I may be able to launch a minor blog post or two, but if not, I thought I’d wave au revoir with this little thought.  Prompted by a commenter over at Nate Silver’s place on Paul Krugman’s brutal and efficient takedown on Paul Ryan’s fantasies, (check out the Krugman blog for more) I did a stoopid — I looked in on what was happening over where She-Who-Ws-Always-Wrong informs (sic?–ed.) her following.

Predictably, she attempts a combination of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger and petulant disdain in what amounts to an assertion that the Atlantic’s Business and Economics Editor, complete with her MBA, understands economics and tax policy better than someone with this CV.*

Well, maybe so; I’m not big on the argument from authority, and I suppose that were McArdle a quantum object, one could come up with a Feynman diagram that would allow us to calculate the probability that McArdle would in fact best Krugman in any substantive argument (that did not extend to exotic salt, of course).**

But because I’m really trying to leave this post with just one macabre visual gag, I’ll limit my snort of ridicule here to noting that in two longish posts (sure you want throw that stone, sinner? — ed.) she fails to grapple with the core of Krugman’s critique of Ryan.

That is:  the issue is not whether the CBO or the JCT was or was not asked, or should or should not have run the calculation on the revenue side of Ryan’s safety-net eviscerating and tax cut fantasies.***

What really matters is, who is right?  Does Ryan’s plan raise taxes on the poor and middle class, while cutting them on the rich, then slashing services of most importance to the poor and them middle, while still leaving the deficit in much worse shape than the status quo?

Yes it does. The only independent analysis to assess both revenue and spending cuts says it does, and Krugman, as you would expect from someone who’s actually accomplished this and that in the world, reports that fact correctly.****

So, though McArdle is deeply offended at the suggestion that someone who manages to obscure what his plan will cost in his discussions of that work in public is somehow misleading that public, I don’t have much sympathy for those who who think that calling a fraud a fraud is somehow not the thing to do over a table bedecked with pink Himalayan salt (you just can’t let that go, can you?…ed.) (No–TL).

‘And of course, the significant fact, the only one that matters, is that Ryan proposes a radical redistribution of wealth upwards, in the context of further shredding the social safety net while speeding the nation’s plunge into bankruptcy.

Until he, or his seemingly innumerate defenders***** can come up with a convincing demonstration that the Tax Policy Center’s analysis has got all that wrong, then Krugman’s conclusions as to both Ryan’s character and the impact of his policy proposals stand.

But you knew all that.

Which brings me to the snark.

I haven’t blogged on one topic I really think I should have.  I’ll may yet get to it — I hope I do.  But I don’t want to let pass the death of Tony Judt at this moment.  This is a tremendous loss.  I wish I’d had the chance to learn from him directly, rather than through his formidably researched, elegantly written and annoyingly prolific writing.

I do want to write at least a little more than that — but here what amounts to a kind of valedictory — the last two paragraphs from Judt’s most recent article in The New York Review of Books — will do to be going on with.  I read them as Judt’s deceptively simple elegy in which he captures worlds of historical and social insight:

Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.

In my generation we thought of ourselves as both radical and members of an elite. If this sounds incoherent, it is the incoherence of a certain liberal descent that we intuitively imbibed over the course of our college years. It is the incoherence of the patrician Keynes establishing the Royal Ballet and the Arts Council for the greater good of everyone, but ensuring that they were run by the cognoscenti. It is the incoherence of meritocracy: giving everyone a chance and then privileging the talented. It was the incoherence of my King’s and I was fortunate to have experienced it.

Just enjoy those sentences for their rhythm, their swing.  Then think about their meaning…

…and then consider this statement by Ms. McArdle on Judt: “Obviously, we were not politically sympatico, but I nevertheless had enormous respect for the man’s writing; at his worst, he was a mighty foe.”

When we snarkazoids sometimes talk about McArdle’s leaden, ponderous, unlovely prose, this is the kind of stuff we’re thinking about.    But let that pass, and focus on what she’s actually trying to say here.

I was gobsmacked, I have to admit, and then, for all the sadness of the moment, and the genuine awfulness of the way death took Judt, I couldn’t stop myself trying to imagine what might have happened in the unlikely event of Judt ever bothering to notice that McArdle might consider him a foe.

I found the answer — and do forgive me for the sudden turn of bathos here — from a Balloon Juice commenter writing on a completely different subject.  That writer led me to this truly evil and socially unredeemable clip…and you can fill in the rest.

That is all — see you in a fortnight.

*Which, you will note, describes an individual who somehow hasn’t managed to update the document with this news.

**And yes, I know.  This kind of appropriations of physics jargon is fraught, to put it kindly.  But I have no intention of heading towards Dancing Wu Li territory, and it’s my blog, and it’s late, so take it up with the management if you don’t like it.

***Though the verdict seems clear here…McArdle interprets Ryan’s exchange with the Joint Committee on Taxation as a rejection of Ryan’s request:  “the answer to Paul Krugman’s question “Why didn’t he ask” is that “He did, and they said no.”  The record shows that the JCT offered only a ten year projection, and Ryan refused that, preferring instead to assert the assumption that net revenue would remain unchanged.  So what actually happened is that the JCT wouldn’t answer the question the way Ryan wanted it handled, and so he simply set the dials himself and moved on.

McArdle notes that she wrote to two Ryan staffers asking if the problem was other than what Ryan has publicly stated it was — the limit to a ten year projection. (Here’s Ryan in his reply to Krugman’s latest column: “However, CBO declined to do a revenue analysis of the tax plan, citing that it did not want to infringe on the traditional jurisdiction of the JCT. JCT, however, does not have the capability at this time to provide longer-term revenue estimates (i.e. beyond 10 years) [Krugman's emphasis].” She reports, and I have no reason to doubt her, that the staffers agreed with her suggestion that it was mere lack of staff time, and not deliberate deceit that led Ryan to omit an actual analysis of the revenue side of his plan.

Unfortunately, McArdle, not actually being a journalist, doesn’t get why this is not dispositive, even ignoring the fact that Ryan and her unnamed sources do not have their stories straight.  I’ll leave to the reader to figure out the several problems she (fails to) confront in her attempt to identify and assert fact.

****Here’s most of the a summary of the full report (pdf):

TPC found Ryan’s plan generates much less revenue than he projects. If all taxpayers chose the simplified system, it would produce about 16.8 percent of GDP by 2020, far below the 18.6 percent he figures for that year. If taxpayers chose the system most favorable to their situation, the Ryan plan would produce even less revenue—about 16.6 percent of GDP.

What does that mean in dollars? CBO’s most realistic projection of revenues (assuming  most Bush tax cuts are extended and many middle-class families continue to be exempted from the Alternative Minimum Tax)  figures the existing tax system would raise about $4.2 trillion in 2020. By contrast, Ryan’s plan would generate about $3.7 trillion, or $500 billion less in that year alone.

While TPC didn’t model the Ryan plan beyond 2020, the pattern of revenues it generates suggests it would be decades before it reaches his goal of 19 percent of GDP—very likely sometime after 2040.

Top-bracket taxpayers would overwhelmingly benefit from Ryan’s tax cuts. By 2014 people making in excess of $1 million-a-year would enjoy an average tax cut of more than $600,000. To put it another way, their after-tax income would rise by nearly 30 percent.

By contrast, the average taxpayer making $75,000 or less would pay higher taxes if they  chose Ryan’s two-rate alternative. If they chose the tax plan more favorable to them, they’d do a bit better. For instance, people making between $50,000 and $75,000 would typically get a tax cut of $157 in 2014, while those making between $40,000 and $50,000 would pay $128 more on average.

These estimates are subject to lots of uncertainty. For instance, we assumed Ryan’s 8.5 percent VAT—the new business tax—would generate about 4.3 percent of GDP in revenues. TPC’s Joe Rosenberg, who modeled the Ryan plan, believes that estimate is generous. But since no such tax currently exists, it is hard to know for sure.

One other caveat: TPC did not assume that taxpayers would change their behavior in response to this new tax structure. We know they would, of course, in some ways that would generate additional revenue and in others that would lose revenue. But because these changes are so uncertain, TPC did not include them in our revenue estimates.

*****And no, Mr. Suderman, trying to throw dust into folks’ eyes with talk of the TPC’s liberal bias does not actually constitute a meaningful argument about the numbers they report. But you knew that.

Image:  Guy Pène du Bois,  “The Confidence Man” c. 1919.

McGeorge Bundy Lives! (Or Harvard’s Revenge on Itself and America, Larry Summers edition)

August 6, 2010

While I’m trying not to start drinking Mezcal at noon, reading stuff like this (h/t Atrios) and this doesn’t help.

By now, sitting up here at one end of Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, watching Larry Summers’ heirs pick up the pieces at Harvard (seriously — who puts operating budget into endowment investment?), while standing in silent respect for the departing Christina Romer, who more or less got the stimulus notion right, but was blocked by Summers from making that case to the President in the winter-spring of 2009, I find myself drifting back to those Best and Brightest Days of the early 1960s.

That would be when the Yale-educated wunderkind McGeorge Bundy went from having been the youngest Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard to be National Security Advisor to John F. Kennedy, and from within that position to serve as one of the architects of such triumphs as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and, of course, the Vietnam War.

Bundy’s preparation for his role as the lead Presidential advisor on security and defense was marked by acknowledged intellectual brilliance and a lack of real-world validation of his ideas and world view.  He served in World War II as a junior staff officer. (his eyesight was bad enough that he memorized the eye chart to fool recruiters.  No one ever said the man didn’t want to serve — which hasn’t been one of Summers’ sins either). But then, from 1945-1961, he lived the life of the professionally smart:  aiding former Secretary of War, Henry Stimson in writing his autobiography; then becoming first a Harvard professor of government and then, in 1953, the dean of the faculty.  He was by all accounts as clever and intellectually nimble as can be; a member of Boston’s aristocracy, a good dancer, a ferocious wit, a success…until he was placed in a position where his ideas about the use of American power hit the brutal reality of the forests, hills and lowlands of Vietnam.

Larry Summers was a wonder boy too. He too was a brilliant student, starting out at that notoriously relaxed institution of higher learning, MIT, at 16, completing his economics Harvard by the time he was a greybeard 28, becoming one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard’s history just one year later.  He too was born of an aristocratic family — this time peers of the mind, and especially economists, being as he was the nephew of two econ Nobels in Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow.*

And now we see that also like Bundy, Summers’s undoubted power of intellect has not met the challenge of making policy in the hard world of power and competing interests.

The parallels aren’t exact.  I’d argue that in Summers’ case we already knew he was a dangerous administrator.  No one can say that his tenure as Harvard President was a model of smooth administration, and hints that the financial management there had been weak, to say the least, on his watch, were already discernable at exactly the time Obama was assembling his economic team.  Bundy presented a much cleaner slate in 1961 than Summers did in 2009.

But the results: disaster in human terms and lasting damage to causes of social equity and national wellbeing to which both men subscribed, are much the same.

The moral: not that brains aren’t useful–essential– in governance.  Not that economists are evil, or political scientists naive — some are, some aren’t.  Not that arrogance is itself a besetting sin. Rather, I’d say, beware of wunderkinder.  If you’ve always been the most brilliant person on your block — and you’ve only competed for that title in essentially protected environments (trust me; there are few more protected ecological niches than that in which tenured Harvard professors live), then what you have to offer is advice, not decision.

Nominally, of course, both Bundy and Summers were/are advisors.  In fact, at the ranks they engaged in that advice, they were decision makers.  The stories linked above document how Summers constrained the flow of options and information reaching the president.  He was the wrong person to be doing so — and I would argue that he was predictably so.

I only hope that he winds up having done less damage to the country than some; the blunt trauma the Democratic Party is already suffering in this political season may already be beyond repair. If that’s true, then we are in for hard times, as the not-so-loyal opposition is simply not credible as a governing body.

*Now that, pace McArdle, is an intellectually intimidating family. (See the bottom of the linked post.)

Quick hit link love

August 5, 2010

This one probably slipped by most people, as it showed up in that bastion of mass media attention, The Boston Phoenix, but Professor, née Colonel Andrew Bacevich gave a sharp and important interview to their reporter, and you should read it.

The key take away: wars fought because we’ve been fighting them are (a) futile, and (b) demand sacrifices of those committed to giving them for reasons inadequate to that devotion.

On a happier note, for those wishing to enjoy some truly happy snark on the idiocies of nativism from a historical point of view should check out this piece by that foundational journalist, Daniel Defoe, pointed out to me by the admirable Thony C of Renaissance Mathematicus.

That’s it for a busy Thursday afternoon.  Sons and in-laws await, and so I’ll steal a much better writer’s farewell until tomorrow.

Image:  Hans von Gersdorff, “Battlefield Wounds” in Feldbuch der Wundarznei, 1517


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