THE VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR
View 608 February 1 - 7, 2010
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February 1, 2010
It's busy here at Chaos Manor, and I need to get to work on fiction. Apologies. I'll have a ton of mail later this evening.
The Global Warming consensus seems to be coming apart, and Amazon warred with MacMillan then surrendered; but I covered that yesterday. The budget has a trillion dollar deficit. I can remember when it was a big deal that the entire budget passed $100 billion. Everyone was alarmed. We all know that we cannot sustain those deficits, and since much of the recent productivity in the United States is in financial manipulations which are no longer much in demand, it's hard to see how we work our way out of this.
I would myself think that getting people to work in making things would be a good idea, but that requires that we rethink the value of the myriad of regulations that make that unprofitable in competition with overseas shops. We don't seem to be interested in doing that. We will tax the rich, who might invest in small businesses, but surely the government wizards are better able to allocate those resources for the good of the people. We have, after all, the best and the brightest running the show. The last time we tried that we got Kennedy's tax cuts, which did in fact bring in more revenue. Reagan tried that again, and it brought in more revenue. Alas, the more revenue simply gave the government more to spend on regulations and regulators as well as in transfer payments. And of course the new taxes will be transfer payments: it's possible to get many thousands a year in Earned Income Tax credits, and you can be sure that more will be taking advantage of that this year.
Which is to say that the economy is still in trouble and it doesn't look as if the government really knows how to bring about recovery: they have had a year and more, and the current budget looks to be more of the same. I sure hope they know what they are doing in Washington. Cynics would say they know precisely what they are doing: transforming America from a capitalist union of states to a socialist unitary system run from the capital.
It's still not too late. Remember that political parties raise money and get out the vote; and any long term reform is going to require restructuring of at least one, and preferably both, major political parties. This needs thinking about. I'll get to it another time.
There is considerable mail on many subjects. It got posted late .
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Miss Schlaes is the author of The Forgotten Man, a history of the Great Depression that I have strongly recommended before. It's available in paper or in a Kindle edition (which is how I read it), and I sure wish Mr. Obama would read it. Much of the experiment that Obama is running was done before, and many parts of it are proven to have failed.
They keep forecasting rain for Los Angeles, but the rainy day recedes into the future. Yesterday it was to rain today. Today it's done to 20% by tomorrow, but the real rains will happen Friday and over the weekend. Obviously the weather service does the best it can, and it's certainly better than it was when I was young, but weather prognostication is still very imperfect. I know that short term predictions are generally more difficult and fuzzier than longer term -- one can say that something will happen but get the when wrong -- but still, if we can't predict rain in Los Angeles for this week with any accuracy, does this have anything to say about predicting climate in twenty years? Snowfall in the Himalayas, or over Kilimanjaro, will have a great deal to do with glacier formation or retraction in those places. Precipitation patterns pretty well govern glacial events -- enough snow in a winter will inevitably form glacial ice -- but our climate models don't really predict those patterns.
If enough snow falls in a winter, glacial ice will form. If more ice forms in a winter than melts off the rest of the year, the glaciers build up. If a lot of snow falls over a very large area, big glacial sheets form. Studies show that England went from deciduous trees to under meters of ice in a very short time. The glaciers advanced, and we had an Ice Age. Study of ice cycles show that technically we're still in the Ice Age, in an Interglacial Period. Me, I'd rather see the seas rise by a foot than have Alberta under a meter of ice.
Of course I don't know what's going to happen. Long ago I speculated (actually agreed with speculations, I doubt I had any original contribution to the discussions) that rising temperatures provided a mechanism for moving water vapor to higher and colder latitudes and might be the mechanism for building those rapid glacial advancement events we now know were astonishingly swift once started.
The point is that we don't know, and there is so much concentration on AGW that I don't know that anyone is actually studying the kind of feedback loops that built the Ice Ages. They used to do such studies which is how we know just how quickly the kilometer-thick ice sheets formed. That's a lot of ice, which is to say lots of water had to go from the oceans to the glacial sheets. Toronto for example gets less than a meter of rain each year, but was under a good bit more than a kilometer of ice. The mechanisms for moving that much water are not well understood, and perhaps someone ought to be studying them.
All of which brings us back to the question of allocation of scientific research money. In some areas the money is allocated by the hope for profitable returns. In others the money traditionally came from the wealthy -- Lowell Observatory being a good example. For some decades, though, research has pretty well been directed by tax money allocated by organizations such as NSF. Now I have famously said that I consider the NSF budget about the best use of tax dollars I know of, and I have not changed that view; but I do continue to worry about how peer reviewed allocation leads to an overwhelming consensus that neglects contrarian ideas. There's continued mining of consensus views and little investigation of the unexpected and astonishing.
One remedy would be allocation of a portion of the NSF budget to contrarian ideas. Of course it would be easy for this to be ridiculed. "How much does the Flat Earth Society get? Hah. Hah. Hah. How much for Velikovsky?" The proper answer is not much, but that doesn't mean that all the climate research money should go for pro-AGW studies. But I've said all this in other places, and it's time for my morning walk.
Hitler learns that Rush Limbaugh won the judges dancing contest. He was of course devastated...
Mail later today
February 3, 2010
And of course not only is he right, but in the early days of the computer revolution one of the features of quality S-100 systems like Godbout's CompuPro was that they were burned in for a week before shipping. Of course that was largely for reliability purposes. Most electronics fail in the first couple of days of use if they are going to fail at all; after that they are good for several years, with increasing probability of failure as time goes on.
Which reminds me that this is true of disk drives: if they work long enough for you to be using them they are good for a couple of years, after which backup becomes increasingly important as time goes on. Google has enormous experience of this as do of course drive makers. If your system is more than three years old, the hard drive is on track for failure in the next couple of years. Some last longer, of course, but you can't count on it.
Note the last paragraph in Duane's letter. It's important to keep in mind when you consider climate models. Recall that these are supposed to be looking at temperature values for at least a hundred years. There is no single instrument that has been recording temperatures in the same place and under the same conditions for all that time. It is especially critical that these instruments be calibrated properly if we are to compare 1895 to 2005 -- and they haven't been. There are models of how to model these temperatures...
And now I am off for the morning. It's not critical.
When I was brought up we had legal terms: moron, mental age of 12 or below; imbecile, mental age higher than idiot and lower than moron (mental ages varied by state, but generally about mental age 6 - 9), and idiot, which generally meant hopelessly retarded. The terms were widely used, both as epithets -- "He's a moron! No he's not he's an idiot!" -- and as actual diagnostic terms used in treatment and insurance payments. Over time those were abandoned for "Educable Mentally Retarded (EMR)", "Trainable Mentally Retarded" (TMR) , and Severely Mentally Retarded. Those diagnostics also had legal effect and school subsidies were based on them; there were EMR and TMR classes and even schools. Perhaps there still are, but I haven't heard of them lately.
Rom Emmanuel reportedly said something to the effect that Democrats were acting like a bunch of retards, and today's talk radio shows are full of discussion of this. Emmanuel apologized to retarded people, causing Rush Limbaugh to wonder if he ought not apologize to Democrats. This got Limbaugh caught in an odd circle of who insulted whom, and the shouting continues.
All of which got me wondering: just what is going on? Is it an insult to call an argument or a speech or an artistic work "idiotic"? If I say that a particularly nonsensical statement sounds like the work of an idiot, who has been offended? It's unlikely to be idiots: they don't comprehend the notion of idiocy. Still, we do know people who are "slow", "afflicted", "simple", who are smart enough to know they aren't like everyone else, and while few of them actually watch the news or read magazines, perhaps some of them find references to mental retardation a painful reminder of their unfortunate condition. Does this mean we must never discuss the problems? There really is a difference between normal children and the Educable Mentally Retarded, and moreover, the only way to see that normal kids and EMR kids get the same education results is to retard the education of the normal children -- just as the only way to get the same education outcome among well below normal and well above normal children is to hold back the smart kids. The only way to be sure that no child is left behind is to hamper those who would otherwise get ahead. Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 masterpiece short story "Harrison Bergeron" predicts the consequences of that. If you haven't read this story, you should. It's not very long.
(Aside: The story is easily available on line, but I am not sure any on-line copy is authorized. Under the copyright law at the time it was written it would become public domain in 2017; much later now. Finding an authorized copy outside of a public library is more difficult, unless you want to order a collection of stories. My cursory scan shows that the collections containing the story are out of print but used copies are available. Whether you buy a used copy or read it in the library, neither the author's estate nor the publisher will get any of your money, of course.)
Equality of outcome in education is impossible, and attempts to bring it about are disastrous. The simple fact is that bright people contribute more to the economy than the less gifted. They always have. The justification for compulsory education paid for by tax money -- compulsorily collected money -- is that it is an investment. This is so only if the education pays off, and the only way education pays off is if the bright kids are educated to go do innovative things, the normal kids are partly educated but largely trained to learn useful skills like reading and writing and arithmetic and some basic skills like mechanics and home economics, and all the kids are trained to be good citizens. This ideal isn't often realized, but it's a better goal than the nonsense about "every child deserves a world class university prep education", which is never going to be achieved; worse, the attempt at universal university prep education makes it pretty near impossible for anyone to get a university prep education.
Moreover, most of us know this, yet we live in a world where we not only can't change course, but we can't even talk about the problem. The fact is that idiots, imbeciles, and morons do exist, and they are not going to get a world class university prep education no matter how hard you try, and "mainstreaming" them will inevitably make it a lot more difficult to give anyone a world class university prep education. I realize that's an offensive statement. Many things in this world are offensive; but ignoring offensive ("inconvenient"?) truths is not a winning strategy. I doubt anyone can seriously challenge the facts, and I restate them: idiots, imbeciles, and morons exist, and no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we spend on their education, they are not going to get a world class university prep education.
If you can accept that, then you can see where we are going: half the children are below average. The lower half includes the idiots, imbeciles, and morons, but it also includes quite a few more, none of whom are going to get a world class university prep education no matter how hard we try. Jaime Escalante managed to teach calculus to surprising numbers of kids the system had previously given up on, but he never attempted to teach Advanced Placement math to all the children in his school. His story is worth study. Moreover, there are many success stories of "ordinary people"; to say that in general those of IQ under, say, 105 are not going to get a world class university prep education is not to say that they can't get a decent combination of education and training in useful skills, or that they won't be far more successful in life than the kids who do get a world class university prep education. Indeed, a world class university prep education prepares you for a university education, not for getting on with one's life. There are a lot of paths to success that don't involve universities, colleges, or even community colleges, but a world class university prep education doesn't do much of a job for preparing you for those paths.
Of course those who do get a good university prep education and then go on to university generally end up far more successful than those who don't; but this is just a way of restating that most of the innovations in this world come from the best and the brightest, which is to say from the upper quarter and above of the bell curve. Note that "brightest" doesn't mean wealthiest, and the great equalizer used to be public education for all; now, the wealthy go to private schools where they don't have mainstreamed Educable Mentally Retarded and the teachers aren't spending all their time trying to get some of the failures up to barely passing while neglecting the bright kids. Jaime Escalante found some university class kids in his barrio, but he's long gone now as is his program.
All of which ought to be obvious. My point is that when we decide there are topics we can't talk about, we may be making a more serious mistake than we know. I don't like being offensive to the mentally retarded, but they do exist, and their existence has consequences. Those consequences have to be discussed in any forum of public policy. Fortunately few mentally retarded people will read this site. I regret that some readers are parents of retarded children, but that doesn't change the situation.
It's time for lunch. I'll continue this another time. The point of this long view is that I think we can all agree that if compulsory tax supported education is to be justified as anything other than a jobs program, we cannot have a one education fits all system. Sometimes, as in the country schools I attended in the 1930's, there may be no choice: we had two grades to each room, and it was the only school, public or private, available. I made do; but fortunately I had more choices in high school, and I did get a world class university prep education, and was able to go to a good university without acquiring lifetime debts to do it.
We need to provide the opportunity for a university prep education to every student; but we also need to provide something else (not I did not say short of that, although that phrase is worth discussion) for those who aren't going to profit from a university education. If we can agree that the system we have can't work, we can start looking at what might.
February 4, 2010
According to the Wall Street Journal this morning, the "Public Share of Health Tab [will] Top 50%", and at the same time the health care share of GDP rose to its highest, and is expected to top 20% of the economy fairly soon.
Hardly surprising. The demand for a free good is infinite. The more you are willing to provide, the more will be consumed, so that at some point you simply have to limit what you will provide. Allocating these resources may be done in many ways. In disasters it's usually with troops enforcing long lines and the amount anyone can claim as they hand out bottles of water and bags of rice and beans. With health care it usually doesn't come to having riot police standing by, and most of the decisions are made by bureaucrats armed with rubber stamps, and the basis of allocation is set by people who have never seen the patients. Of course with a private system the limit is set by money: how much can you pay, and did you buy the right insurance policy?
Whatever the health care bill which the White House is still trying to give us whether we like it or not will do, it will not bring health care costs down. Bringing down those costs is not easy, and politically it's probably impossible: the first step would be to limit punitive damages (which are often fines allocated by a majority of a jury or through negotiation rather than in a criminal trial). There is no need to limit actual expenses including legal fees, but the enormous punitive damages generate an atmosphere of fear and over caution. None of this is particularly startling. It's also not going to happen, as we all know. There's none of that in the bill they want to give us whether we like it or not.
Steven Weinberg states the case for limiting space exploration to robots in his op ed piece today, "Obama gets space funding right." It's the standard argument we've been having for fifty years: do we explore space to learn about space, or is the goal to go there? For a long time manned space won that argument, but lately not so.
It is worth further discussion, and the subject is complicated, but it does boil down to the simple question: why are we interested in space? There's one view in mail today. Note that I am not shirking this question: I'll have a major essay on the subject shortly. I also have considerable mail on the subject and it needs sorting out as much is redundant.
Why are we interested in space?
I had thought that question settled long ago, but apparently it is not: at least not in the United States. I do note that many of us have said for many years that mankind will go to space, but there is no law of the universe that says that those who go will speak English. China did not discover the sea route to Europe, but at the time of Vasco de Gama they had far superior naval technology and organization. They decided they were not interested.
I remain convinced of this much: if we wish to go to Mars, we will need first to go to the Moon. The Moon is the proper place to learn how to live in space. The simplest way to go to the Moon is to set a large prize for establishing a base there. Twenty billion dollars would be enough. The legislation is simple: "The Treasurer of the Unites States is direct to pay to the first American owned person or firm to place 31 Americans on the Moon and keep them alive and well for three years and a day the sum of Twenty Billion Dollars, which is hereby appropriated and authorized, said fund to be held in trust until the prize is won. (2) The Secretary of Commerce shall appoint a technically qualified Assistant Secretary to appoint a commission to determine that the prize conditions have been fulfilled, and the sum of one million dollars per year is hereby authorized and appropriated for the expenses of the commission." Ok, so it can be drafted better, and before it's over the legislation will probably take five pages. It would still do the job.
There is a lot of mail on the NASA decision. Begin with this one from Canada.
The KUSC pledge drive started this morning. KUSC is the Los Angeles classical music station that operates on the "public radio" model: its entire operating budget comes from listener donations, and it's sort of the model I use for this site: which is to say this is a nag. This place operates on subscriptions, and stays open so long as enough readers subscribe and renew. My thanks to all those who have recently renewed their subscriptions. Think of this as a reminder to those who haven't.
February 5, 2010
Today's Wall Street Journal has an unusually high number of articles of general interest today.
I found Philip Howard's "Washington vs. Common Sense" a good summary.
On schools, infra-structure, the whole lobbyist scene, the problem isn't too few laws and regulations but too many. We can't build infrastructure projects without allowing lawyers to wet their beaks, not just instantly but for years and years. The nuclear industry in the United States is paralyzed by circling legal buzzards. We all know the schools are broken, but there is no possible way to fix the situation, and any attempt is met by frantic opposition. We can't fire incompetent teachers or promote good ones. After a while we stop trying.
We live in an era in which that government of the government, by the government, and for the government apparently can never vanish from the Earth, but instead will continue to grow. Possony and I were working on The Strategy of Progress, an attempt to look at what conditions actually bring real progress to human affairs. Our initial conclusions weren't terribly encouraging. Human history consists of a strong and unrestrained pressure to convert output into structure.
The structure may at first be useful, but eventually it merely exists for its own sake, and after a while grows far beyond necessity, even beyond endurance. The Iron Law always prevails. Sometimes there are such rapid gains in output that the structure can't stifle them; but slowly it continues to increase, to regulate, and to control. Examples are the various Industrial Revolutions. The most recent was the Computer Revolution in which the various computer related industries -- Silicon Valley, Silicon Sagebrush, the Massachusetts Corridor -- were able to leap ahead. It's also one of the most discouraging because it shows just how quickly the structure can gain control over a vigorous industry.
There has been a revolution in medical science and capabilities, new drugs with astonishing effectiveness, new treatments for the untreatable -- I'm certainly a witness to that -- in medical equipment. The "health care" bill will end much of that, of course. New treatments are too expensive to give to everyone, so therefore none should have them.
The only remedy to any of this are the twin solvents of transparency and subsidiarity. Power can't really be destroyed once created. It can be fragmented. That was something the Framers very much understood (read the Federalist Papers). Meanwhile, appeals to common sense are futile: we all know the common sense solutions to many problems, but the government of the government by the government and for the government isn't about to allow that. Try getting new charter schools in Washington DC. Or getting control of your local school. At the moment there are some alternatives such as the Catholic school system, but that's in Washington's sights as they try to impose creeping mandatory credentialism.
On the subject of common sense and lobbyists, there's another good WSJ article by Kimberly Strassel, "Pfizer's Bad Political Bet."
It's a sad but very predictable story, and illustrative of how the structure building works.
But how can we live without regulation and protection from evil corporations by government? That's a long story, but essentially the proper role of government ought to be truth in advertising and freedom. As to how freedom works, recall things like the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval", "Underwriters", Consumer Reports? "They Don't Just Trust -- They Verify" by Laura Vanderkam has sensible things to say on the subject.
It's all part of the same story: we rely on government, and federal government at that, for far too much. The result is government of the government by the government and for the government, not so much against the people as ignoring them when government interests are at stake.
As always the remedy is the same, fragmenting power through subsidiarity -- putting decision power as close to those affected as possible -- and transparency -- allowing those affected by government to see what's going on. It's still possible. It even makes common sense.
Announcement from the Authors Guild on the Macmillan-Amazon feud, and a new tracking tool; see mail.
February 6, 2010
The Winter pledge drive is definitely on, and thanks to those who have already responded, several with upgrades in subscription level for the same reasons you have. It's time for all those who last renewed in 2008 or before to renew again. I suppose at some point I'll send them a reminder, but you can avoid that by subscribing or renewing now during the pledge drive. My mail reminders are always gentle, but I don't try to make them amusing, so you don't miss anything if you subscribe and thus avoid the nag.
As nearly all of you know, this site and Chaos Manor Reviews are run on the "public radio" model, meaning that anyone can read them for free, but they'll stay open only so long as enough of those who enjoy them pay for subscriptions. As with public radio there are various levels of subscription. That's all explained here. I do these "pledge drives" at the same time that KUSC, the public radio classical music station here in LA does them, and theirs is on now. Become a patron of this site. Subscribe now. If you already subscribe this is a great time to renew. And thanks to all current subscribers. You keep this place going.
I am doing the column, and the first part is recovering from the worm by starting up from a clean operating system. That turns out to be simple enough for much of the job, but transferring some files is a pain. Games in particular: I have the original hard drive (still wormy) over as the USB drive on another system. Naturally I am not allowing that drive to share or be shared with the rest of the system: anything from that drive goes on a work file to a third machine, and from it to the new "main machine" -- and Windows 7 does things different from the rest of the world. Games, for instance: it turns out that saved games are not stored in the game folder as they used to be. They're in user folders now, I guess, only I can't access those from the -- well it's complicated, and I'll go into it in the column.
And transferring World of Warcraft from an XP machine to a Windows 7 system is an exercise in wonder, given a bunch of restrictions and security issues. Sigh. But it's grist for the column and it ought to be interesting.
I haven't time this morning to do a full essay on this, but I give you something to think about: the United States only produces about 70% of the energy needed to run the economy. We have to import the other 30%. We have been buying that from the production of the United States but in this Great Recession (or Depression depending on your mood) we aren't producing as much capital as we used to, and government grabs off much of that.
Our new "green energy" systems require a lot of energy to produce; some of those green systems will take thirty to fifty years to produce as much energy as it took to make them. Even at thirty years that's not a great return on capital investment of energy, and at fifty years we approach or exceed the life of the production system. I'm no expert on the energy input/output budgets of the various green systems, and those who claim to be experts tend to disagree along the lines of enthusiasm for the current green fetish, so I don't know who to trust. Data on the actual energy costs of production for various "green" systems turns out to be harder to come by than you might think.
I do know that I wrote "America's Looming Energy Crisis" some thirty years ago. We got past that energy crisis -- sort of, just barely -- and now we inevitably face another and worse energy crisis. Note that even if tomorrow we adopted a full up all out policy of producing energy, it will take a generation to build nuclear power plants (at least it will unless the military does it and simply ignores the lawyers, and that won't happen), and even if the legal issues could be suppressed it will take some years to get new petroleum and coal resources into the usable pipeline.
Meanwhile China and India have built many new coal and oil fired generators and are greatly expanding their energy resources, making them even more competitive than they are. They compete in the export markets. Without exports the US has no way to pay for the 30% of the energy we must import to keep the economy operating. Of the 70% we do produce, some large part must be used to stay warm in winter, produce food to eat, and generally for survival. What's left for investment in new energy production? Whatever it is, we won't have much in the way of economic growth without it.
We have been told for a long time that we are going to have to save our way to wealth, and that conservation is our best resource. I think we will shortly test that. Cheap energy and freedom generate wealth. I hate to be depressing, but on our present course we won't have either.
February 7, 2010
I have finished the column, and it should be up tomorrow night or Tuesday. I didn't get much else done today. I'll have put up some mail now. Thanks to all of you who subscribed or renewed this weekend.
This is a day book. It's not all that well edited. I try to keep this up daily, but sometimes I can't. I'll keep trying. See also the weekly COMPUTING AT CHAOS MANOR column, 8,000 - 12,000 words, depending. (Older columns here.) For more on what this page is about, please go to the VIEW PAGE. If you have never read the explanatory material on that page, please do so. If you got here through a link that didn't take you to the front page of this site, click here for a better explanation of what we're trying to do here. This site is run on the "public radio" model; see below.
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