Archive for April 2008

More on Really Stupid Ideas

April 22, 2008

Just to provide yet more real-world evidence of the vapid stupidity of McCain’s gas tax, now endorsed by Clinton, here, via Atrios, comes confirmation of the fact (surprise!), that price affects consumption.

Short form: gas consumption and traffic are down. The Feds predict a .4 percent fall in gas consumption this summer (when the proposed gas tax holiday would, if any savings made it to the pump, reverse that long-sought outcome). Money quote:

“Sustained higher gasoline prices are beginning to show up in lower gasoline consumption,” said Tancred Lidderdale, an analyst for the Energy Information Administration.

That’s the market in action, folks. Doing what it should. Is there a problem here?

John, Hilary: pay attention. Good on ya’ Barack for figuring this out.

Image: Lesser Ury, “Hackney in Rainy Weather, (Pferdedroshke im Regenwetter),” 1924. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

Really Stupid Ideas, take two: Hillary Clinton edition.

April 22, 2008

In this post, I tried to lay out why John McCain’s idea (sic) for a gas tax “holiday” (now there’s an Orwellian usage).

Short form: the holiday would save, on average 28 bucks per person; would cost jobs in the construction business (the gas tax supports the highway trust fund, which pays for road construction and repair), damage our infrastructure — and, as a lagniappe, would further damage any US attempt to address carbon pollution and climate change. (See the first post for links).

The point I made below is that McCain has tried to defend his credentials as the one of the few major Republican party figures to take climate change seriously — but that this proposal shows that he ain’t serious. I think the proposal illustrates much that is wrong with the McCain candidacy in general: it reminds us of his deep economic illiteracy; it is a demonstration of his dangerous capacity for holding two incompatible ideas in his head at the same time, with apparently no strain; and it reveals a very risky commitment to a kind of tooth-fairy approach to governance: if there’s a problem, then anything that sounds like a solution becomes one in fact…

except, of course, it doesn’t.

Why repeat all this?

Because today we learn that McCain has company: Hilary Clinton. All the reasons that a suspension of the gas tax is dumb, dumb, dumb apply just as much when the support comes from a me too Democrat as it does when it pops out of a clueless Republican. Barack Obama, to his credit, sees the idea for the harm-causing gimmick it is, and rejects it.

In many ways, Hillary’s endorsement of McCain’s folly is worse than the original silliness. She is not a policy idiot. She has to understand the immediate and long term economic harm that flows from this. (You don’t fix infrastructure, it costs a ton in difficult to measure ways — everything from blown tires and busted shocks from pot hole interactions to the loss of time (money) that comes when deteriorating roads can’t handle the traffic load.) And above all, she says she takes global warming seriously. Check out her proposals here.

She knows better. She does the wrong thing anyway, presumably for a short term political advantage. (Short term — because it is hard to see how trailing along after McCain helps her in a putative general election run.)

She may not mean it, of course, just as McCain quite probably does not. The gas tax suspension has been proposed for this summer when, as you may have noticed, neither of the two candidates will actually wield any executive authority. This could well be one of those “how dumb do they think we are?…Pretty dumb” campaign trial balloons, to be forgotten the moment real governance begins.

Strangely, that doesn’t make me regard either John McCain or Hillary Clinton more kindly.

For further comment, see Virginia Postrel’s on point asperity here. (h/t Andrew) You can follow her link to Stephen Postrel’s quickie analysis of carbon tax vs. cap and trade economics here. S. Postrel falls into a familiar smart guy trap of opining about stuff he doesn’t actually know when he sneers at the state of climate science. (See Eric Roston’s incredibly generous review essay about my twenty year old book on the subject for context). (And hey — if we couldn’t blather about stuff we barely understood, where would the blogosphere be?) But that aside, he’s put together as clear a brief primer as I have yet seen on the economics of carbon regulation.

Update: John Cole can’t stand the idiocy any more either.  Shorter and funnier than me.

Image: Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: Shine A Light edition

April 20, 2008

Warning: science free Sunday pop-culture break.

This is a bit of inside baseball, but it’s Sunday, so why not?

A couple of weeks ago, I got to attend a screening of Martin Scorcese’s new concert film Shine a Light, hosted by none other than Marty himself. No special virtue attaches to me — my wife is working on the crew of the film Scorcese is shooting now, and the screening was a friends-and-family perk, a very welcome break in the usual frenzy of work on any feature. I was just along for the ride.

By now the critics have weighed in on the film, and the consensus seems to be that it’s a fine piece of work.

I agree — I had a great time. The real advantage of having those who made the film in the audience is that the theater took pains to make sure that it was screened properly. The print was pristine, the sound system was tuned, and even at the concert-volume setting used for this particular showing (maybe all of them, I don’t know), you could pull every note out of the mix.

Viewing it in these conditions (not my usual experience at the multi-plex) enabled me to see into the film a bit more deeply than I can usually guage on a single viewing, and beyond what most of the critics have highlighted, I picked up on two different measures of its quality.

First, though it is, for the most part, “merely” a concert film, it is one with a subtext. There are a couple of documentary elements that accompany the pure music footage. The first is a slightly arch sequence juxtaposing Scorcese and Jagger playing footsie over the logistics of the film to come. The second comes with the insertion of clips from Stones’ interviews in the sixties and seventies, almost all grouped around the theme of “do you think you’ll be doing this when you’re sixty.” With that, Scorcese took on the twin themes of nostalgia and artistic persistence.

Jagger, as you might expect, is the obvious focus of that latter question, and of the film as a whole. But the surprise — and it might have been one to Scorcese as well — is the way in which Keith Richards becomes the moral center of the film whenever the question of what the hell these guys are still doing here came up.

In fact, the most unexpected aspect of the film was the sweetness of Richards. Whatever he might be, whoever he might be off stage, inside the music he is beatified. My one formal criticism of the film is that Scorcese let Jagger overload the movie, as he usually does. The film needed more Richards building the musical platform on which Jagger struts, and a little less of the front-man-as-God trope that ensnares so much concert coverage.

But the movie is still a real pleasure, and not just for Stones folks. Putting on my movie-maker’s hat, what got me is that Scorcese has here shown what can be done with what I thought, going in, was a purely conventional form, if only you put the same kind of maniacal, obsessive concentration on the image and the sound that he brings to all his work.

To put it another way: see this film if you want to get a deeper insight into film-making technique. There is no plot here to get in the way. No character, really; the men on screen are who they are, and if there is a development in moral or emotional terms that takes place across the couple of hours, its a tiny element in the film. All that you see is pure movie making, camera work, editing, sound, the work of a sensibility that wants to guide your eye and ear through an aesthetic experience.

Pretentious enough yet? Taking it down a notch: The camera work is great, but you’d expect that. Scorcese is always going to get the best operators, the DP, Robert Richardson, is an enormously talented shooter, and he had the budget to create a camera plan to ensure that any angle he could imagine would be covered.

The sound is extraordinary. Better than the hall. They spent months on the mix and it shows. But again – you’d expect that. The production had the ability to pull sound off every single track, clean it as needed, and assemble it to the precise balance chosen. This is high technique, but not anything in itself surprising. Scorcese and his team are supposed to be top class, and they are.

The element of the film that to me showed me the mettle of the people at the aesthetic controls — really here, Scorcese and his editor, David Tedeschi — was the extraordinary cutting. Watch the film with your ears. Think as you listen where you’ve been trained over years of MTV and other concert footage to expect the cuts. Mostly on the beat, usually on the measure. Here, time and again, the cuts syncopate, hitting just before the downbeat, occasionally after. When the time comes to grab your attention and refocus it — bang, bang, bang, right on the rhythm. The film is two hours long. It’s essentially the same damn scene over and over again. The Stones play song. They finish. They start another one…and so on.

And yet the repetition doesn’t put you to sleep because Tedeschi’s cut, directed by Scorcese, keeps you inside each song, chasing and then relaxing as the beat hits just in and out of reach.

Sum it up: anyone who wants to know how editing controls your gaze through a film can see a bravura demonstration here of what you can do with your cut.

Image: Jean-Antoine Watteau, “The Love Song,” c. 1717. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Really Stupid Ideas: John McCain – Environment – Global Warming edition

April 17, 2008

I begin to think that John McCain and George Bush made major — and really scary — speeches on Tuesday and Wednesday in the hope that any serious examination of what they actually said would disappear in the intensity of the very serious ™ examination of Obama’s hatred of small town America and Hilary’s capacity to distinguish between the sound of AK 47 and Dragonov fire.

But they both said very interesting — stupid, but interesting — stuff, and if we wait for media grandees to help us figure it all out,….it could be a while.

Bush, of course, decided to punt action on global warming not just to the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania, but three or four down the road.  I’ll probably blog about it, but the real story is not the last President, still desperately trying to burnish his already impressive claim on the title of worst President evah.

The real concern now has to be the thinking of those trying to take his place.  And here, McCain has given us all real, renewed cause for worry bordering on panic.

McCain delivered his much anticipated speech on his economic “plan” (sic) on Tuesday.  There was an extraordinary amoung that was frightening in both his analysis and his policy proposals (that’s a grand term for what was rather a grab bag of half formed ideas).  I’ll blog a soon — I really ought to do it with my next post — about the real killer for American science (and probably our lng term economic health and national security too, now that I think of it) within the fine print of what he said.  What makes this one scary is that it stands a chance of being enacted if McCain does become President.

But the real insight into the kind of thinking that McCain would bring to the Presidency came in one of the more obvious non-starters, his proposal to enact a gasoline tax holiday through the summer driving season, Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Now there are all kinds of reasons that this is a really dumb idea.  People have pointed a lot of them out.  It would drain the already underfunded Highway Trust Fund.  (That is: if you liked this, you love driving on John McCain’s infrastructure.)  It will be a windfall for the oil refining companies.  (What a surprise, given the recent history of Republican transfers of wealth from American consumers to oil company owners.)  It would kill jobs, bash mass transit, and save the average driver — wait for it — twenty eight bucks a year.

All of that is true, and probably is sufficient reason why this is going nowhere, at least for now.  But I’ve been surprised that what seems to me the biggest and most obvious point.

McCain has been praised as the first major Republican candidate to take global warming seriously.  That claim is incompatible with this proposal.  Flat out.  One or the other wins.  If McCain wants to combat global warming, then he has to support policies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.  If he wants to encourage driving by making the use of cars cheaper, then by all means cut the gas tax — but Katie Bar The Door for the global climate system.

There is no rocket science here, and there are no loop-holes.  Virtually every thinking economist says that the most efficient way to cut carbon emissions is to impose a carbon tax.*  The only existing even vaguely broad such tax is the gas tax.  A genuine commitment to controlling global warming would raise that tax, and make it truly universal across different emissions sources; alternatively, a cap-and-trade system could perform the same goal, making the cost of polluting the atmosphere an explicit element in the total cost of any economic transaction.

The one thing you really don’t want to do if you have any serious concern about climate change is to provide yet more encouragement for people to drive.

So which do you think McCain would save, if he had to throw a tax cut or an environmental stand under the bus.  Bets?  I didn’t think so.

At least we learned something from the whole affair; McCain is an environmentalist in precisely the same way that George Bush was compassionate and a conservative.

*See this NYT article if you want a backgrounder on carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade schemes..  For broad, digressive, funny and incredibly well informed analysis of global warming and the follies of our leaders, see Eric Roston’s blog Carbon Nation.  I’m a little embarassed to plug it here, because he has just posted a truly generous review of a book I published almost two decades ago. (Yours, for only 2 cents on Amazon!  — the price dropped two cents since I last grumbled.)  Also, look for Eric’s book coming out in a couple of months.

Image:  André Huppertz, Painting – 2.  Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Integers we have loved — in honor of National Poetry Month

April 15, 2008

This blog talks a lot about the importance of quantifying things — using numbers to abstract from the details of experience. What I rarely add in sentences like that is that there is a purpose to such abstraction: to find meaning deeper than the surface impressions with which we begin.

Well — you take insight where you can get it, and this morning, I got up early to attend my son’s Second Grade class Poetry Cafe. There each of the sixteen kids got up and recited a favorite poem from memory. One of my son’s friends, Sparky, got up and declaimed about four stanzas of Mary Cornish’s “Numbers.”

Soulless thug that I am, I had never come across it. Hearing it in that squeaky seven-year-old voice, I found it captured precisely the idea I have labored to express. Numbers are generous, in that “they are willing to count anything or anyone.” All I’m asking is that we embrace such kindness.

National Poetry Month it is…so enjoy.


I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition–
add two cups of milk and stir
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
garden now.

There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.

–by Mary Cornish.

Originally published in Poetry magazine, Volume CLXXVI, Number 3, June 2000.

Image Person Scott Foresman, “Abacus,” copyright donated to the Wikimedia Foundation.

John Archibald Wheeler, RIP

April 14, 2008

There is plenty to read about John Wheeler around the web today. Start with Dennis Overbye’s obituary in Times, read Daniel Holz’s moving remembrance over at Cosmic Variance, and then browse at will through what will be an increasingly overwhelming tide of tributes, all deserved.

Everything I’ve heard from people who knew him much better than I confirms the initial impression you will get from even a cursory look at the reaction to his passing. He was a man in love with learning new stuff; he was happy when he could do it himself; he was Cheshire Cat satisfied if he could catalyze the desired outcome in students.

I’m not a physicist of course, and I only met Wheeler once — so I can’t add anything meaningful to what has come to me second hand. But I do have one story, coming from that single meeting, that captures a little bit of the man.

It was back in 1995, when he was a mere 83 years old. I and a colleague had gone down to Princeton to talk to Wheeler about the film we were getting ready to shoot — a new and hopefully more complete portrait of Einstein than had made it to PBS at the time. We hoped Wheeler might work as an interviewee for the film, but he was already slowing down a little, and we instead sought as much of a sense of the Einstein he knew as possible, in the hopes that his memory would inform our movie.

So, 83 and all, he led us up Princeton’s campus and down. His secretary asked us to try to make sure he took it easy, but no amount of attempting by stealth to slow our pace worked. He just charged along. He took us what had once been called Fine Hall, home of the Princeton math department, and temporary quarters from 1933-39 for the Institute of Advanced Study. Wheeler, who became friends with Einstein after the older man arrived in Princeton in 1933, was also close to Niels Bohr, an occasional visitor.

As he was taking us through the old building (complete with Einstein’s quip “Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber Boshaft ist Er nicht — Subtle is the Lord, but not malicious — engraved over the fireplace in the lounge), he started to tell us a tale. Einstein, he said, was unbothered by his apostacy, his disinterest and disinclination for quantum mechanics. Rather, his insouciant unconcern for what seemed to almost every other physicst still breathing to be the vital center of the subject bothered Niels Bohr much more.

Eventually, Einstein would cease his once impressively persistant effort to poke logical holes in quantum theory. (See his and Leopold Infeld’s Evolution of Physics for a graceful acknowledgment of the theory’s success — aimed at a broad audience, no less.) But at the point of Wheeler’s memory, Bohr and Einstein were still at it, and Einstein could still make his friend nervous.

So, Wheeler tells us, this one day, he encounters Einstein in the hall. They walk together. Einstein has left something in Bohr’s office, maybe a pouch of pipe tobacco. As they get closer to the door, they hear Bohr muttering (when did he do anything else but mutter?): “Einstein…Einstein……Einstein, Einstein….Einstein.”

Albert grinned. He held his finger up to his mouth — be quiet Wheeler! — and waited behind the jam as Bohr paced the length of his office. When he turned –“Einstein…Einstein” — the real thing snuck in behind him, and stood next to the table, picking up the tobacco and waiting.

Bohr completed the circuit, still whispering “Einstein,” turned…and then leaped out of his skin at the sight Albert in the flesh, conjured, as it were, out of his torment.

Wheeler was then a young scientist, keeping company with legends. He laughed at the time, he said, but a little awkwardly. Not now. He could still see Bohr in shock almost six decades on, and the sight in his mind’s eye delighted him.

John Wheeler. A great physicist, perhaps a better teacher, a very generous man. My only other contact with him was in a nice letter that he wrote to my editor saying how much he liked my Einstein book — unsolicited, unexpected, an enormous balm to this writer’s heart. And he loved a good joke, told a good story.

Another one to be missed.

Update: Link added for Einstein/Infeld, minor grammar edits.

Image: Spitzer Space Telescope image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Among Wheeler’s gifts was a genius for naming stuff. We owe him the term “black hole,” a substantial example of which is located in the center of our galaxy, somewhere out of sight but not of mind in the photograph above.

Why is it so hard…

April 14, 2008

OK. I’m sitting at home, alternating cups of tea with doubleshots of tylenol or ibuprophen, trying to avoid unnecessary agitation, and I foolishly click on Marc Ambinder’s “reported blog on politics.” In a post that is otherwise informative about the battle between the pragmatists and the economic crazies* in his campaign, Ambinder writes that

McCain did not change his position, [about government responses to the housing crisis ] he certainly changed his tone, so much so that a a comparison of the two speeches, side by side, is bound to produce some whiplash.

Not something to read while nursing a headache.

John McCain has certainly said his position is unchanged — that’s an important part of his straight talk brand, and one can imagine he would be unwilling to admit to a little political expediency. But why is it so hard for the political press to go past what McCain says and ask if it actually makes sense, if the claim is true? Because clearly, in this case it is not.

What follows is the comment I helpfully posted to Marc’s site, but it all comes dowm, as so often these days, to echo Brad DeLong’s repeated plaint. Why, oh why, can’t we have a better press corps?**

So, to my kvetch at Ambinder:

I’m sorry, but I’m not sure that “position” means what you think it means. (h/t Inigo Montoya). In March, McCain says clearly no government assistance except to prevent (sic) systematic risk to the banking system. I do not think that there is any reasonable interpretation of that statement except that McCain opposes aid to individuals caught up in the banking crisis. Bank liquidity yes, homeowner…not so much.

Then in April: “priority number one is to keep well meaning, deservign home owners who are facing foreclosure in their homes.” Clearly this implies a shift of policy intention. Now its not systematic risk that is most important, but helping “deserving” home owners.

The impression is strengthened — or rather, the fact of a politically expedient (necessary?) flip flop is confirmed — by the fact that McCain actually offered a kind of a program to help out the “deserving.” Scare quotes abound because his program is the least one can do and get an unobservant press corps to report it as real. Define “deserving” narrowly enough and it turns out you don’t have to do all that much — but it sounds sort of good till the details emerge. But still, this is a distinctly different approach than the one McCain proposed a couple of weeks before.

Now John McCain swears he hasn’t changed his position, and I’m even willing to believe that he believes that. McCain may well have convinced himself that everything he says is true, even if it is different from what he said yesterday. But that doesn’t mean the press, even or especially the authors of “reported blogs” need to share that delusion.

McCain is not your friend, Marc. He’s your subject. Treat him accordingly.

Now it may reasonably be asked that while this is obviously a matter for the public square, what has it to do with science.  The answer is not much…but a little.  Habits of mind again.  One of the critical aspects of training in science is to discipline oneself to see as much as possible what is actually there.  This is very hard to do — I’ll blog another day about a not-that-well-known case of Albert Einstein falling victim to loving the story more than he should, to the destruction of his ability to read the experimental data correctly.  But it’s an acute problem for journalists.  Once a certain story gets entrained — John McCain is a straight talker, sometimes wrong, but never duplicitous, for example — contrary data gets written out.

This is an occupational hazard of especially beat reporting.  You stay with an institution or a person too long, and you get caught up in the agreed world view.  To take a sufficiently distant and non-partisan problem:  in the wake of the Challenger disaster in 1986, The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its dissection of the tragedy.  The team of reporters that shared the prize did not include the usual suspects among the Grey Lady’s space and NASA beat journalists.  They had so completely become entrained in NASA’s self delusions about its engineering culture and cult of safety that they had missed what in hindsight seemed like obvious signs of deterioration in the management of the program.  Instead, the team included people from the business pages and elsewhere — folks who had no stake in NASA, no personal identification with the mission and so on.

Compare that with modern political reporting.  The inmates are confined together in small spaces for months on end.  The messaging is relentless, and the pressure to fit the story to the storyline is overwhelming.  If I were king of the world, I would mandate short tours for every campaign journalist — no more than two weeks, at most a month, with any candidate; enforced background pieces; and a “but is it true” paragraph required no later than graf four of any piece.  Dream on.

But the larger point is that John McCain’s narrative is based on the assumption that his description of himself is true.  The question any scientist worth his/her salt asks when confronted with assumptions not in evidence is “but is it true?”  In legend, and occasionally in fact, that used to be the default question for any half-decent reporter too.  No longer.

*It remains an ongoing mystery why Phil Gramm is so breathlessly viewed as a deep economic thinker by the political press. He could carry water pretty well — see this episode for details — but as far as I can tell he’s a poster child for the truism that half of all economists are below average. If this is the best McCain can do for advice, we could all be in even worse trouble than we think.

**I chose the DeLong link I did above because it directly references the mortgage crisis. But for sheer howling, it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-so-painful mortification, read this.

(By the way, did I say how pissed I am at DeLong? He manages to put up one or more long, thoughtful posts per day while enjoying all the leisure customarily granted to teaching-and-researching types. Makes the rest of us (a mere cold slows me down!) look bad.)

Image:  Enrico Mazzanati, “Pinocchio” 1883.  Source, Wikimedia Commons