Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Five years ago at the blog -- with Techno-Optimism bullshit waxing, this is a good time to revisit two of the movement's favorite examples

The "we've forgotten how to be great" crowd love to talk about the Apollo program and the Manhattan Project, but only in vague, inspirational terms ("look what can happen if you'll only believe"). When dealing with this kind of mythologizing, I find it useful to check in with contemporary sources. 

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A few points on Willy Ley and "the Conquest of Space"

To understand the 21st century narrative around technology and progress, you need to go back to two eras of extraordinary advances, the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the postwar era. Virtually all of the frameworks, assumptions, imagery, language, and iconography we use to discuss and think about the future can be traced back to these two periods.

The essential popularizer of science in the latter era was Willy Ley. In terms of influence and popularity, it is difficult to think of a comparable figure. Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson hold somewhat analogous positions, but neither can claim anywhere near the impact. When you add in Ley's close association with Werner von Braun, it is entirely reasonable to use his books as indicators of what serious people in the field of aerospace were thinking at the time. The excerpt below comes with a 1949 copyright and gives us an excellent idea of what seemed feasible 70 years ago.

There is a lot to digest here, but I want to highlight two points in particular.

First is the widespread assumption at the time that atomic energy would play a comparable role in the remainder of the 20th century to that of hydrocarbons in the previous century and a half, certainly for power generation and large-scale transportation. Keep in mind that it took a mere decade to go from Hiroshima to the launch of the Nautilus and there was serious research (including limited prototypes) into nuclear powered aircraft. Even if fusion reactors remained out of reach, a world where all large vehicles were powered by the atom seemed, if anything, likely.

Second, check out Ley's description of the less sophisticated, non-atomic option and compare it to the actual approach taken by the Apollo program 20 years later.

I think we have reversed the symbolic meaning of a Manhattan project and a moonshot. The former has come to mean a large, focused and dedicated commitment to rapidly addressing a challenging but solvable problem. The second has come to mean trying to do something so fantastic it seems impossible. The reality was largely the opposite. Building an atomic bomb was an incredible goal that required significant advances in our understanding of the underlying scientific principles. Getting to the moon was mainly a question of committing ourselves to spending a nontrivial chunk of our GDP on an undertaking that was hugely ambitious in terms of scale but which relied on technology that was already well-established by the beginning of the Sixties.


The conquest of space by Willy Ley 1949 [emphasis added]
Page 48.

In general, however, the moon messenger [and unmanned test rocket designed to crash land on the moon – – MP] is close enough to present technological accomplishments so that its design and construction are possible without any major inventions. Its realization is essentially a question of hard work and money.

The manned moonship is a different story. The performance expected of it is, naturally, that it take off from the earth, go to the moon, land, takeoff from the moon, and return to earth. And that, considering known chemical fuels and customary design and construction methods, is beyond our present ability. But while the moon ship can make a round-trip is unattainable with chemical fuels, a moon ship which can land on the moon with a fuel supply insufficient for the return is a remote possibility. The point here is that one more attention of the step principle is possible three ships which landed might have enough fuel left among them for one to make the return trip.

This, of course, involves great risk, since the failure of one ship would doom them all. Probably the manned moon ship will have to be postponed until there is an orbital nation. Take off from the station, instead of from the ground, would require only an additional 2 mi./s, so that the total works out to about 7 mi./s, instead of the 12 mi./s mentioned on page 44.

Then, of course, there is the possibility of using atomic energy. If some 15 years ago, a skeptical audience had been polled as to which of the two "impossibilities" – – moon ship and large scale controlled-release of atomic energy – – they considered less fantastic, the poll would probably have been 100% in favor of the moon ship. As history turned out, atomic energy came first, and it is now permissible to speculate whether the one may not be the key to the other.

So far, unfortunately, we only know that elements like uranium, plutonium, etc., contain enough energy for the job. We also know that this energy is not completely accessible, that it can be released. He can't even be released in two ways, either fast in the form of a superexplosion, or slowly in a so-called "pile" where the energy appears mainly as he. But we don't know how to apply these phenomena to rocket propulsion. Obviously the fissionable matter should not form the exhaust; there should be an additional reactant, a substance which is thrown out: plain water, perhaps, which would appear as skiing, possibly even split up into its component atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, or perhaps peroxide.

The "how" is still to be discovered, but it will probably be based on the principle of using eight fissionable element's energy for the ejection of a relatively inert reactant. It may be that, when that problem has been solved, we will find a parallel to the problem of pumps in an ordinary liquid fuel rocket. When liquid fuel rockets were still small – – that was only about 17 years ago and I remember the vividly – – the fuels were forced into the rocket motor by pressurizing the whole fuel tank. But everybody knew then that this would not do for all time to come. The tank that had to stand the feeding pressure had to have strong walls. Consequently it was heavy. Consequently the mass ratio could not be I. The idea then was that the tank be only strong enough to hold the fuels, in the matter of the gasoline tank of a car or truck or an airplane, and that the feeding pressure should be furnished by a pop. Of course the pump had to weigh less than the saving in tank wall weight which they brought about. Obviously there was a minimum size and weight for a good home, and if that minimum weight was rather large, a rocket with pumps would have to be a big rocket.

It happened just that way. Efficient pumps were large and heavy and the rocket with pumps was the 46 foot the two. The "atomic motor" for rockets may also turn out to be large, the smallest really reliable and efficient model may be a compact little 7 ton unit. This would make for a large rocket – – but the size of a vehicle is no obstacle if you have the power to move it. Whatever the exhaust velocity, it will be high – – an expectation of 5 mi./s may be conservative. With such an exhaust velocity the mass ratio of the moon ship would be 11:1; with an exhaust velocity of 10 mi./s the mass ratio would drop .3:1!

The moon ship shown in the paintings of the second illustration section is based on the assumption of a mass ratio of this order of magnitude, which in turn is based on the assumption of an atomic rocket motor.

Naturally there would be some trouble with radioactivity in an atomic propelled rocket. But that is not quite as hard to handle as the radioactivity which would accompany atomic energy propulsion under different circumstances. A seagoing vessel propelled by time and energy could probably be built right now. It would operate by means of an atomic pile running at the center high enough to burden and water steam. The steam would drive a turbine, which would be coupled to the ships propeller. While all this mechanism would be reasonably small and light as ship engines go, it would have to be encased in many tons of concrete to shield the ships company against the radiation that would escape from the pile and from the water and the skiing the coolant. For a spaceship, no all-around shielding needed, only a single layer, separating the pilot's or crew's cabin in the nose from the rest of the ship. On the ground a ship which had grown "hot" through service would be placed inside a shielding structure, something like a massive concrete walls, open at the top. That would provide complete shielding or the public, but a shielding that the ship would not have to carry.

The problem that may be more difficult to handle is that of the radioactivity of the exhaust. A mood ship taking off with Lee behind a radioactive patch, caused by the ground/. Most likely that radioactivity would not last very long, but it would be a temporary danger spot. Obviously moon ship for some time to come will begin their journeys from desolate places. Of course they might take off by means of booster units producing nothing more dangerous in their exhaust them water vapor, carbon dioxide, and maybe a sulfurous smell.


Monday, October 30, 2023

Canadian Universities: the Quebec edition

This is Joseph.

Quebec is planning to double tuition for interprovincial students attending English universities, starting with the entering cohort in 2024. They are also seizing part of the proceeds from international students:

Quebec also announced changes to the system for international students. As of the fall of 2024, Quebec will take the first $20,000 in tuition that universities charge international students. In the past, universities could keep the entirety of international tuition.

It also seems like they will be taking a cut of the increase in interprovincial fees:

 And make no mistake, this policy is intended to be — and will be — an absolute disaster for the anglo universities. The province made no effort to consult them, and by all accounts they were totally blindsided by the announcement. The concession by the province to grandfathering tuition for those students already enrolled is minor compared to the effect, which will be to significantly decrease enrolments. The fact that the province is going to take a slice out of this higher tuition money, and use it to fund the province’s French-language universities, is just the extra kick in the nuts.

Although I have been having trouble confirming this. But the fee hike is huge:

Tuition for Canadians outside Quebec will jump to $17,000 from $8,992, Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry announced Friday. She said the government will charge universities $20,000 for each international student they recruit and direct that money only to francophone universities

This will shrink the number of out of province students and, given international students already pay $20-28K tuition, shatter university revenue.  So why is this happening. One possibility is that the government in Quebec sees what is happening elsewhere: 

And is trying to get in front of the disaster before it strikes. After all, I rather doubt Cape Breton Island has build a few thousand apartments nearby.  It's also becoming clear that the international student boom is aggravating a housing crisis brought on by poor policy at the municipal and provincial level across Canada. Just look at this chart (via Mike Moffat, cited in the last sentence:

But Canada is struggling to build housing. The final post is the key "In short: Canada cannot simultaneously be a high-growth and a low-growth country". I agree and think we should be a high growth country. 

Now you can quibble with the full impact of a massive increase in housing (infrastructure, new investment in scare health care resources, the need for more tradespeople -- it's a big list) but the key point is that the housing bubble, and its impact on ordinary Canadians, is underneath it all. Some of it is NIBMY-ism but there is also just a shortage of housing (even rents are exploding) that is not at all being addressed.

So is this move by Quebec good policy? No. Because it shifts the pain entirely to the Anglophone universities while subsidizing the Francophone ones. It will strengthen French in Quebec, fair enough, and it is true that there are a lot of English speaking students in Canada who are about to learn just how incentivized Ontario universities are to not admit them. But it still fails to grapple with the underlying problems in a clear way. Instead, it sacrifices a lot of the drivers of the wonderful hybrid culture of Montreal and that is a shame.  

Friday, October 27, 2023

Ten years ago at the blog -- thinking about the self-evident

 Looking back over this, I wish I would have spent more time on how much the obvious is a moving target. This is especially true with learning math where concepts have a way of going from incomprehensible to obvious so quickly that the student has no idea how they got there. 

While what the essayist is writing may be obvious to them out the time, it is hopefully the product of lots of study, observation, and reflection.



The obvious and the obviously obvious

This quote (cited by Andrew Gelman via a badly chosen URL [use this one: https://www.chesshistory.com/winter/extra/james.html]), "The necessary conceit of the essayist must be that in writing down what is obvious to him he is not wasting his reader’s time." got me to thinking about what we mean when we say "obvious" or, more precisely, the different things that different people mean when they use the word in different contexts.

The obvi-... er, first example that comes to mind is this anecdote I first encountered in The World of Mathematics."

A famous math professor was giving a lecture during which he said "it is obvious that..." and then he paused at length in thought, and then excused himself from the lecture temporarily. Upon his return some fifteen minutes later he said "Yes, it is obvious that...." and continued the lecture.
A slightly different form of this anecdote was cited by Paul Renteln and Alan Dundes in their essay on mathematical folklore, unfortunately, it seems fairly obv-... make that, fairly clear to me that they missed the point of the joke:
This metajoke says a lot about mathematicians. First, they are often very quick thinkers, able to reach conclusions far faster than others. Second, they can see the humor in some jokes but are easily bored by the routine or familiar. Third, they often dismiss results that are obvious to themselves as “trivial”, even though the results may not be trivial to others. The following joke vividly illustrates this penchant.
A mathematics professor was lecturing to a class of students. As he wrote something on the board, he said to the class “Of course, this is immediately obvious.” Upon seeing the blank stares of the students, he turned back to contemplate what he had just written. He began to pace back and forth, deep in thought. After about 10 minutes, just as the silence was beginning to become uncomfortable, he brightened, turned to the class and said, “Yes, it IS obvious.”
The problem with this interpretation is that the students' confusion is not only not a central feature of the joke; it's not even a standard element (note that it doesn't appear at all in the previous version).

The joke here isn't that what's obvious to a mathematician may not be obvious to mere mortals. Instead, it's the far more interesting point that mathematicians and their ilk (and if you're reading this...) often use the words like "obvious" in a way that, though relatively precise, is very different from the way normal people use them. In common usage, being obvious is itself obvious. Normal people sometimes wonder if something that seems obvious is really true but they never spend time wondering if something that is true is really obvious.

At the risk of speculating on the motives of the apocryphal (and keeping in mind that I haven't taken a pure math class in more than a decade), I'd say that 'obvious' in this context means 'does not require a lemma.' You will hear mathematicians use the word in this sense, even though the question of whether or not a proof is complete is often far from obvious inn the traditional sense.

You could make a similar point about the way economists use 'rational' but that's a topic for another post.


Thursday, October 26, 2023

Thursday Tweets -- a lot of philanthropists insists on having things named after themselves

This was going to be part of our regular tweets post, but I didn't it getting lost in the crowd.

Even for Elon, this is some cartoonishly evil asshole techbro shit.

Though this offer is too outrageous to be entertained, it's also worth noting that the ratio of what Elon says he's going to give to charity to what Elon actually gives to charity is remarkably low. Musk is a master of the effective altruist trick of claiming that money you give yourself is actually going to help humanity.

Musk has been trying to bully Wikipedia for years, sometimes successfully. This may have something to do with him being a serial revisionist.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

“The GOP is a failed state. Donald Trump is its warlord.”

Following up on yesterday's post,

One of the points raised in that post was that, in contrast to the Republicans...

While the members of the democratic establishment may disagree on many points, they all speak basically the same language, mostly hold common values, are inclined to follow the rules both inside and outside of the party, and at least in the Trump era, have proven surprisingly predisposed toward sticking together.
Josh Marshall argues that the embrace of rule-breaking is a fundamental aspect of the MAGA GOP.

Eight years ago Will Saletan said, “The GOP is a failed state. Donald Trump is its warlord.” There’s probably no short summary, phrase or aphorism I’ve repeated more times on TPM. Because it’s that good. Today we’re seeing another permutation and illustration of that enduring reality.


What we see here is the same core message of the last three weeks and in many ways the last dozen years. The only way to get to 217, the hold outs argue, is a coalition of the rule-breakers and the rule-followers. For years the latter group has mostly gone along with that. What happened last week is that a section of the rule-followers rebelled and wouldn’t have it.

This is more basic than a fractured caucus or any of the personalities involved. It is the logical end result of a party and political movement based on rule-breaking, as a central value and mode of operation. When rule-breaking becomes the norm, organizations and polities fall apart … without a strongman. For eight years Donald Trump has been that strongman. It’s Trump’s general indifference to the House Speaker debacle and perhaps focus on his unfolding legal woes that has allowed the chaos to drag on.

This is always the relationship between civic democracies and the broken states where strongmen thrive and dominate. Civic democracy operates through an organized competition between different stakeholders in society. It requires a consensus to litigate disagreements through a prescribed set of rules. The breakdown of those rules creates an opening for strongmen who traffic in raw power and sell their ability to impose order. It is both the cause and result of the species of civic and moral degeneracy we see as the mother’s milk of Trumpism.


Tuesday, October 24, 2023

What Republican Establishment?



 David Weakliem and Andrew Gelman both posted a somewhat different take on Trump's position. Here's  Weakliem

That is, Trump doesn’t seem to have an exceptionally large number of enthusiastic supporters among the public . . . I think his continued strength in the party is mostly the result of Republican elites’ reluctance to challenge him, which is a mixture of genuine support and exaggerated ideas about his strength among Republican voters.
I'll try to do a post looking at these numbers soon, but in the meantime, here's part of the bigger issue I have with this idea.


It's possible my choice of illustration will age badly and Emmer will sweep into office on the first ballot, but even if that happens, the events of the past three weeks have brought home the level of dysfunction in the Republican Party.

Admittedly, the current house is something of an extreme case where less than 3% of the Republican members have effective veto power over the party, but we have seen thin margins before, and we have never seen anything like this, at least not in living memory. The basic dynamic is that of a group of distrustful people sitting in a rubber life raft in the middle of the ocean, each holding a big, sharp knife. The most powerful person in this situation is the one who is perceived as being most willing to kill them all.

When we talk about the current Democratic establishment, things look remarkably normal. The head of the party is the president, a long time loyal member who has served in various leadership positions. The vice president has a similarly conventional record. In Congress we have Schumer and Jeffries, likewise veterans of the party with conventional resumes. After that, you have influential members in the senate in the house, as well as former office holders who still have powerful voices in the party. We might quibble about exactly who is in the establishment, but your list and my list would almost certainly have most of the same names.

While the members of the democratic establishment may disagree on many points, they all speak basically the same language, mostly hold common values, are inclined to follow the rules both inside and outside of the party, and at least in the Trump era, have proven surprisingly predisposed toward sticking together.

There is now nothing comparable on the other side. Traditional party leaders like McConnell are fewer in number, have less of a voice, and are widely distrusted by the base.  If you made a list of members of the Republican establishment/elite eight years ago, how many names on that list would be on today's list? No list in 2015 would leave off Bill Kristol or Liz Cheney, both were conservative royalty, but today neither has any real influence on the GOP. Along similar lines, the Bushes, for decades one of America's most powerful political families, seem to have gone into the witness relocation program.

Rupert Murdoch is still around, but, for reasons we'll get to next time, does not have the power he once had. The donor class still has the power to get politicians (and possibly judges) to do what they want, it's not clear how much leverage they have in this case (more on that later as well). 

We've been talking about the devolution and growing dysfunction of the GOP here at the blog for about a decade. The current state of things is just the logical conclusion of what has been going on for years. The rise of Trump exacerbated the situation but it did not cause it. Much of it traces back to Gingrich. The Tea Party greatly accelerated things. Add to that feral disinformation fed by decades of propaganda and apocalyptic rhetoric designed to keep the base angry and afraid. 

While we can debate just how loyal Trump's supporters are, taking down a front runner with an overwhelming lead would be a daunting task for even the most powerful and organized party establishments. I doubt the leaders of the GOP could have done it in 2016. I am sure they can't do it now.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Suggesting that another candidate could take the nomination away from Donald Trump is not just unrealistic; it is journalistic malpractice.

[I didn't see David Weakliem and Andrew Gelman's related posts until after I wrote this. I plan to have a reply ready soon (tldr: I'm still skeptical). I'm also working on posts examining other aspects of the primary. "The polls" don't tell the whole story, but the rest of the details don't seem to tell that different a tale.]

The New York Times and company have been peddling a dangerous fantasy. It is easy to see the appeal of a scenario where the Republican Party suddenly comes to it senses and saves us from this threat to democracy, but based on all of the available data that would be all but impossible and encouraging people to hold on to that fantasy is as irresponsible as advising the debt-ridden to play the lottery.

I've been going through the polling for the last few presidential races. Joseph has been looking at things like ranked choice, and, as have many others, we both independently came to the conclusion that even before a single primary is run, unless something cataclysmic happens to the race, Donald Trump has basically won the nomination. 

I'll see if I can get Joseph to talk more about the numbers that he has seen, but based on the historical record from places like 538 and Real Clear Politics, we are looking at an unprecedented level of support. Mitt Romney had what amounted to an insurmountable lead, but it was dwarfed by the level of support that Trump had in 2015, which in turn has been dwarfed by what he has now.

Barring truly unprecedented shifts in the way things have always worked, I can think of only three plausible scenarios where Trump fails to get the nomination. The first would be some kind of major health crisis. The next two would be based on big legal setbacks. Much of this hinges not on whether he is convicted but on where.

If Trump is convicted in federal court, he will go to a minimum security white collar facility where he will still be able to live a relatively cushy lifestyle while having access to the press and being able to play the martyr card. It would even be a fundraising opportunity. Just to show how far we have sunk, I'm not confident that this would be enough to cost him the nomination. Trump has apparently been thinking along these lines as well since there have been news reports of him asking questions like would he be able to have his own food sent in if he went to prison.

Georgia is a different story. As I understand it (and if there are any experts in the audience, please speak up) there is nothing analogous to Club Fed in the Georgia State Prison system. Though he would get some special treatment such as a secret service detail, this would be from his perspective very hard time and even if he were to be able to somehow win the presidency, he still couldn't pardon himself.

(There have been reports of Trump asking advisers what conditions in prison would be like. If he's been getting honest answers, Georgia has got to be making him nervous.)

The former president is the very definition of a flight risk. He has private planes, tons of cash, and lots of places to run to. Perhaps I am being insufficiently cynical, but I do believe that the GOP would dump Trump if he fled the country to avoid extradition.

Obviously these are extreme cases, and normally we wouldn't even bring them up, but as improbable as some people may claim them to be, a major health crisis or a criminal conviction are both far more likely than the possibility of anyone who is currently running or is likely to run in the GOP primary unseating a healthy, actively campaigning Trump.

There's one point we need to be really clear on, and it's something that political commentators have been doing a horrible job with over the past year. In normal times, anything that helps you win the nomination helps your overall chances of winning an election simply because without the first you can't have the second. That said, as savvy politicians like Richard Nixon have always understood, there are positions and actions that can improve your odds in the primary but seriously hurt you in the general. This has probably never been more true. Being sent to federal prison may actually improve polling numbers for the nomination, but they will almost certainly hurt November after next.

Friday, October 20, 2023


This is Joseph.

From Wikipedia, about the Acadians:
The Acadians (French: Acadiens) are the descendants of 17th and 18th century French settlers in parts of Acadia (French: Acadie) in the northeastern region of North America comprising what is now the Canadian Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Gaspé peninsula in eastern Québec, and the Kennebec River in southern Maine. The settlers whose descendants became Acadians primarily came from the southwestern and southern regions of France, historically known as Occitania, while some Acadians are claimed to be descended from the Indigenous peoples of the region.
If we think that all non-indigenous peoples are settlers in North America, what is the endpoint for the Acadians? These people are all removed from France by around 300 years and clearly do not have the right to return, do they? 

Why am I using those specific words?

Well, if I were a person of Jewish descent, is there anywhere in the world where I would not be a settler? Because if there is not a right of return to an indigenous homeland for the Acadians (France) then we have a real issue with deciding what the options are for populations that have been away from their homeland for an extended period. This is rather central to the challenges of Israel.

Keep in mind that some of the latest arguments (settlers are not civilians) casts rather an ominous light over decolonial narratives. This is one that indigenous persons in Canada were quick to spot and immediately grasp that this had some unfortunate consequences:
Anyone trying to justify violence against civilians, especially women and children, using our Indigenous legacy is, at best, misguided. Our cause is about healing, justice, and resilience. It is not about perpetuating violence. If you aim to involve us in the Middle Eastern conflict bring waged against helpless civilians with the utmost brutality, be aware: such actions will find little support among those of us whose "Snu'wuy'ul" (traditions/teachings) are still intact.
Finally, I think that this has some real contradictions to the whole idea of refugees. People who leave a part of the world for a different environment are settlers, by any plausible definition. Yes, that includes the professor who argued that settlers are not civilians. It probably includes the historian at Cornell who found the attack exhilarating. Or the unions that applauded it. Or the professors. Canada is trying hard to come to terms with its colonialism past, but this seems to be the opposite of Truth and Reconciliation. 

But this post isn't about counting coup. It is to highlight the huge intellectual leap here that is being taken to tie these two streams of activism together. I used the Acadians as an example because their history starts in 1604 (yeas, 419 years ago). Many nations have changed borders or ceased to exist in that time period. The year 1604 is far closer to the Byzantine Empire than it is to today. 1604 was also the year after the death of Elizabeth the first and the Tudor dynasty was just ending in England. It was a long time ago. Furthermore, do we really think that the people who live in modern nations (like say Turkey, England, Sweden, Spain) are all the correct indigenous inhabitants? And if they are not, what might be the actual plan for the "settlers"? Because sending them back is a very . . . challenging idea.

So what is the path forward? Well, I think the settler distinction is useful when talking about power sharing and existing oppression. The homelessness rate of first nations persons in Canada is a disgrace, no way should it be nearly10x as high as non-first nations persons, and perhaps that might be a very good place to put government interest and resources. It is completely coherent to see ongoing oppression as completely unacceptable and the dissonance between the homelessness rate among first nations and the land acknowledgements are almost tragic.

The other thing that I will note is that I come from a very different vision of the nation state than most of my readers. I do not believe in blood and soil ethnonationalism. I see nationalism as a project that anybody can join in. Like with Rome, who allowed barbarians to join the Senate, the project is big enough to include everyone who wants to participate.  It doesn't mean that the state has been historically innocent but that anybody could become a Roman. 

In this modern world, I guess my beliefs make me an American:
America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, 'You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won't become a German or a Turk.' But then he added, 'Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.'
Ronald Reagan, Campaign rally for Vice President Bush, San Diego, November 7, 1988
Ronald Reagan is not, to be clear, anywhere on my list of favorite politicians. Not sure he breaks the top 500, and that only because there is a limit to how many people I can remember to insert in front of him. But the sentiment he expresses is full of so much more hope and promise than the grubby promise of an eternity of deciding who is or is not pure enough to be a legitimate inhabitant. Or to quote somebody I like more: 
"If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective."
Martin Luther King Jr., Christmas sermon, Atlanta, Georgia, 1967.
So I am happy to rage against injustice. It would be nice to see more concrete progress on this front. But a tribal idea of humanity where we are all allowed only to live where we came from seems to be a much darker view of the world than I seek.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Thursday Tweets -- "a moment so cretinous and conflicted and confused that it keeps mistaking con men for seers.”

Does this mean they'll shut up?

If you have to base government on a sitcom...

For the 479th time, every time a Democrat is in front of a microphone, they need to make the interview about reproductive rights, protecting democracy, and SS/Medicare.

On a related note.

Years ago I heard West going after Obama and coming to the defense of Nader's decision to run in 2000. I should have seen this coming.

Thoughtful thread:

Always listen to Sullivan.

"Lost" in the sense that he got the most votes.


It will require at least one dedicated post to list all the problems with this Matt Yglesias post. 

There's no doubt the clips were selectively edited, but this doesn't looked fake.

This reminds me of a gag from an old SNL sketch (the Mack Reardon Story), but I can't find a clip online, so forget I mentioned it.

Cartoonishly evil.

And just cartoonish.

Not as funny, but possibly more costly.

More from the angry young sensible Democrat.


This Time it's different.

More on Hinton's prognostication record.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Ten years ago at the blog, we were talking about government shutdowns and GOP dysfunction

You be the judge as to how well our take has held up

Tactics, Schmactics -- why I don't buy the latest trope on the government shut down

[I haven't seen anyone frame the discussion in the following way, but a lot of the points I want to make in this thread have been made recently by Josh Marshall and Jonathan Chait. Both are on my fairly short list of daily reads and both have a rare gift for, to paraphrase Orwell, seeing what's in front of their noses.]

You've been hearing it everywhere from Paul Krugman to the National Review: the growing rift in the Republican Party is strictly over tactics -- everyone on the right agrees on what they want; they're just fighting over how to get there -- but having looked carefully at this (and I've stared into this abyss longer than I should have), I'm convinced that it's not just wrong but wrong on multiple levels. I don't think it fits the facts but, more importantly, I don't even think it answers a meaningful question.

Here's a rough analogy. Let's say you're standing in a subway station and a man next to you has a seizure, falls to ground and rolls off of the platform. In that situation, "Why would he want to do that?" is not a meaningful question. The idea of explaining actions through desires only make sense if we make certain assumptions about rationality, vantage and control.

When we're talking about groups, particularly groups large enough not to be able to form fully connected graphs, checking similar assumptions becomes even more important. We have a tendency to anthropomorphize institutions. "The business community wants this." "The Tea Party is trying to do that."   Of course, we know this isn't true. The most you can say is that there's a strong consensus or that the group is following the lead of an individual. This doesn't mean that it can't be useful to analyze groups as if they were individual actors; it can often be the best approach, but only if certain conditions are met. The first of these is that the groups have to be, for lack of a better word, functional.

To be functional, the group has to have certain mechanisms in place and working reasonably well:

Mechanisms to bring information into the system, analyze it and make appropriate decisions based on it;

Mechanisms to disseminate instructions for implementing these decisions, and gathering feedback from members to allow adjustments in strategy;

Mechanisms to check those personal agendas when they threaten the overall goals of the group.

My take is that for quite a while now, the Republican party and the conservative movement have not been functional by these standards. I'm not saying that conservatives are stupid or unbalanced or are acting in an irrational or erratic manner. I am saying that the mechanisms needed for functional operation have broken down and, furthermore, they have broken down in entirely predictable ways, as long as you apply the right principles (game theory, social and individual psychology, voting "paradoxes," collective action and principal agent problem, organizational theory, etc.).

For example, the Romney campaign's inability to process poll information clearly indicates a breakdown in the way that information is suppose to flow through a system. More recently, many of the statements being made by prominent conservatives are clearly cathartic; They can only be seen as the actions of people seeking emotional release without regard to the larger strategic goals of the group.

I've got some suggestions as to why this is happening that I will try to flesh out more later (with the caveat that I have no special expertise in any of these areas and I will invariably get in over my head). I've got first drafts of the next couple of posts, but just to restate the underlying thesis, when it comes to recent developments in the GOP, I think that we are less likely to find useful analogies in the Art of War and more likely to find them in When Prophecy Fails.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

What's a little rabies between best friends?

One point I probably should have emphasized more in previous feral disinformation posts is that while some of these effects may be big and obvious, they are often indirect and never simple. That is the nature of this particular beast.

The post-covid anti-vax movement is one of the best examples of how disinformation goes feral. Originally, attempts to deny or at least minimize the threat from the pandemic was straightforward propaganda and disinformation designed to prevent the outbreak from damaging Donald Trump's chances in 2020. As time progressed, however, the Republican party and conservative media lost control of the narrative and it took on the life of its own, to the point where when Trump finally had perhaps the one big accomplishment of his administration (Operation Warp Speed), the anti-mask/anti-vax movement had grown so strong that some of his strongest far-right supporters such as Alex Jones and Candice Owen attacked him for taking credit for it.

Now, the movement that was primarily about attacking anti-covid measures has metastasized, often with disturbing results and in unexpected directions. So far, debunked concerns haven't greatly lowered vaccinations, at least not in this story, but it is clearly pushing people in that direction.

Pien Huang  reporting for NPR.

But Marabito considers the current vaccination guidelines "excessive." She's one of many pet owners with "canine vaccine hesitancy," a phrase coined in a recent study led by the Boston University School of Public Health and published in the journal Vaccine. The study found that 53% of U.S. dog owners surveyed question whether the rabies vaccine is safe, whether it works, or whether it's useful.

The researchers sought to quantify a sentiment they were seeing in their work as veterinarians.


That around half of all dog owners are skeptical about the rabies vaccine is "very disturbing" to Lori Teller, a veterinarian at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "The rabies vaccine has been around for decades and it is so incredibly safe, especially when you consider the risk of death," she says.

Rabies is nearly always fatal if it advances to the point where symptoms appear.


Of the approximately 24 million dogs that are vaccinated against rabies each year, "the vast majority ... have no adverse reactions to the vaccine," he wrote in an email, "There are only a very small number of severe adverse reactions per year (~2.4 per 1,000,000 vaccinated) and, even with those, it's difficult to definitively attribute these reactions to vaccination."

In comparison, Wallace sees great benefit to rabies vaccinations. He analyzed rabies data and estimated that they prevent nearly 300 dogs from getting infected with rabies per year, in turn preventing more than 100 human deaths and saving more than $3 million in treatment costs.

Not vaccinating against rabies could lead to your dog dying if they get infected – or in some cases – if they bite someone, Teller from Texas A&M says: "There is a real likelihood that animal control could euthanize your dog and test it for rabies because human health is going to supersede animal health at that point," she says.


"The suffering and fear caused by it are so great that they make this the most dreaded of all diseases," wrote the authors of an article from 1928 in the American Journal of Public Health. In the early 1900s, thousands of pets and farm animals caught it each year, and dozens of people died from it.

After decades of concerted public health efforts, the rabies situation in the U.S. was brought under control in the 1960's, and remains so — meaning most human deaths are prevented. Each year, a few hundred pet cases are reported, and one to three people die from it.


Globally, rabies is still considered "one of the most feared infectious diseases worldwide," according to health researchers. The disease kills around 59,000 people each year, mostly in countries in Asia and Africa where the disease is endemic in dogs.


Motta sees pet vaccine skepticism as a "spillover effect" from a rise in human vaccine hesitancy – related to the skepticism towards COVID vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement against childhood shots. "We see in our research that people who hold negative views toward human vaccinations are precisely the types of people who hold negative views toward vaccinating their pets."

While many dog owners have some skepticism towards the rabies vaccine, the shot is required by law in most places and 84% of the Mottas' survey respondents said they're still giving it to their pets. That's about the same as it was a decade ago, the CDC's Wallace says, according to a separate study conducted then.

Health officials say the margin is slim. The World Health Organization and CDC both recommend maintaining at least a 70% dog vaccination rate, to prevent rabies outbreaks. If the rate dips below that, parts of the U.S. could start seeing more deadly rabies cases in people and pets, Wallace says.



Monday, October 16, 2023

Sam Bankman-Fried, Lord of Ithuvania*

One of the most persistent and damaging assumptions in the popular discourse is that to become fantastically rich you have to be the smartest person in the room almost all the time. The press is hugely invested in this notion and the result is a powerfully doubly reinforced halo effect. The idea that these tech messiahs are all super-geniuses is treated as self-evident despite the lack of actual evidence.

Your first reaction to someone who said Shakespeare is gibberish would be to think this guy is an idiot, and you would probably be right. There are many reasonable arguments you can make for the position that Shakespeare is overrated (just as you can do with pretty much any writer or artist who has at one point been widely described as the greatest of all time). You can criticize his sloppiness, his willingness to leave the narrative path for a cheap gag or pun. You can argue that future generations read things into the plays that weren't there. You can critique his worldview which while fairly advanced for a man of his period, certainly is filled with views we find repugnant today. But when someone goes with the gibberish attack, pretty much the only conclusion you can come to is that person is not smart enough to follow what's going on in the plays.

Of course, we all have our weak spots and there are countless examples of unquestioned geniuses who hold at least a few shockingly stupid opinions. No one expects SPF to be a gifted literary critic. people do, however, expect him to be mathematically literate, which is what makes the following so goddamn funny.



Despite Musk's best efforts, there are still enough people on Twitter familiar with this classic example of a statistical fallacy to generate a suitable wave of mockery. Lots of tweets pointed out that any hand of poker, pat or not, would be evidence of cheating since the odds against getting any particular hand are astronomical. Others pointed out that you can't be your height (or other scenarios based on continuous variables.) according to this line of reasoning.

My go-to rebuttal of this broader class of fallacies is that any argument that can be applied equally well with minimal tweaking to every person living or dead cannot be informative. We are all highly unusual in some way.

P.G. Wodehouse once described his dim-witted hero Bertie Wooster as having passed through the world's finest educational institutions untouched by human thought. SBF came from one of the country's most distinguished academic families, grew up attending elite prep schools and math camps, graduated from MIT with a degree in physics and a minor in math, and still doesn't understand basic probability.

What's worse, this ineptness extends to the kind of mathematical reasoning that is at the very heart of Finance and particularly Trading. The indispensable Matt Levine points out this glaring example, also from Michael Lewis's book.

People have thought about this question! Like, this is very much a central thing that traders and trading firms worry about. The standard starting point is the Kelly criterion, which computes a maximum bet size based on your edge and the size of your bankroll. Given the intern’s bankroll of $100, I think Kelly would tell you to put at most $10 on this bet, depending on what exactly you mean by “this bet.” [7] Betting $98 is too much.

I am being imprecise, and for various reasons you might not expect the interns to stick to Kelly in this situation. But when I read about interns lining up to lose their entire bankroll on bets with 1% edge, I think, “huh, that’s aggressive, what are they teaching those interns?” (I suppose the $100 daily loss limit is the real lesson about position sizing: The interns who wipe out today get to come back and play again tomorrow.) 

But I also think about a Twitter argument that Bankman-Fried had with Matt Hollerbach in 2020, in which Bankman-Fried scoffed at the Kelly criterion and said that “I, personally, would do more” than the Kelly amount. “Why? Because ultimately my utility function isn’t really logarithmic. It’s closer to linear.” As he tells Lewis, “he had use for ‘infinity dollars’” — he was going to become a trillionaire and use the money to cure disease and align AI and defeat Trump, sure — so he always wanted to maximize returns.

But as Hollerbach pointed out, this misunderstands why trading firms use the Kelly criterion. [8]  Jane Street does not go around taking any bet with a positive expected value. The point of Kelly is not about utility curves; it’s not “having $200 is less than twice as pleasant as having $100, so you should be less willing to take big risks for big rewards.” The point of Kelly is about maximizing your chances of surviving and obtaining long-run returns: It’s “if you bet 50% of your bankroll on 1%-edge bets, you’ll be more likely to win each bet than lose it, but if you keep doing that you will probably lose all your money eventually.” Kelly is about sizing your bets so you can keep playing the game and make the most money possible in the long run. Betting more can make you more money in the short run, but if you keep doing it you will end in ruin.

 I'm a huge fan of Lewis's work, but I'll probably give this on a pass. SBF is a con-man with a messiah complex who really isn't that bright. I believe that's all I really need to know about him.

* Part of our long running Ituvania thread.

Friday, October 13, 2023

"Trump leaking highly classified military data is getting less coverage than a literal dog-bites-man story." -- actually more true than when I wrote it.

The New York Times' capacity for self-parody exceeds your capacity for mockery. I wrote that tweet (my first one to go viral) in response to the NYT burying the latest story of Trump leaking some of our most closely guarded defense secrets.



This has not been a slow news week, but the NYT still found time for this.

The piece itself was, if anything, worse than you'd expect. Pretentious, bland, filled with amateur psychoanalysis, and lacking even that small amount of self-awareness to realize that he is, at the risk of repeating myself, writing a literal dog-bites-man story, the very definition of unnewsworthy.

There was only one interesting part, and that was entirely unintentional. It turns out the whole thing started with news releases from Judicial Watch, a right wing trolling operation...
... also known for race-baiting, conspiracy theories...

... and up to their pale white necks in the attempt to overthrow the election.

In a sane world, trivial stories from right-wing propaganda outs would, at best, merit a few column inches in the back of the paper, but in this world, far too many journalists are more concerned with avoiding the appearance of liberal bias than they are with doing their job.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Thursday tweets (we're thinking of advertising on the platform, but we'll need to scrape together the $10)

No tweets about the war but an observation that lots of people of people are making. Twitter used to be the place that you went to follow a big story in real time. That's one of the things Musk has managed to ruin about the site.

And it's not just Fox

After all these tweets, I finally go viral before Elon destroys the site.

It's important to have the support of family.

I assume the reasoning is that this positive press will prime the pump and the MSM will jump on the bandwagon, but given that the anti-vax wing of the party is pissed with Trump while most Dems have grown to hate RFK jr, this could go all sorts of interesting ways.

While the intent of the post may have been to satirize rather than to inform, learning that Rodger's dad was a chiropractor fills in a lot of the picture.

When I got to the part about needing unemployment to rise, I thought it was going to be about inflation, not the childish need to see employees grovel.

In other tech super-genius news...

They watch Fox so you won't have to.


A blogger named Matt Campbell has been pulling at threads dangling from the Huckabee Sanders administration and things are starting to unravel.

Yeah, the GOP moderates were so undemanding they were practically invisible.

"National Security Reporter @ForeignPolicy"

Maybe it's an exercise in constrained writing, like a lipogram.



Yes, I did have to look it up.)