February 12, 2011

The Greenhouse Effect & Fat Tail Distributions


Somewhat unAmericanly, when I am interested in scientific data beyond my own cognizance or competence, I find myself consulting sources of information where the people writing about the subject know something, you know, about what the hell they're talking about. This is not actually a bad approach to the arcane and complicated, I find. When in doubt, read something by someone who has studied the subject thoroughly and has come to some honest conclusions about what he or she has looked into. Following such a practice, of course, can place one at odds with the predominant style of opinion-formation in this great land of ours, which might be called blowing it out your barracks bag.

For example, on this global warming issue, which has been relegated to the back burner, so to speak, I read the comments by trolls on various websites and come away with an impression, which is certainly not based on an unskewed sample (because AGW denialists, by their very nature, patrol the vast Internet looking for opportunities to wreak destruction on future generations with a triumphant display of their conventional ignorance and borrowed "gotcha" points, a current favorite being the "solar maximum" argument), and I wonder: does anyone have a simple way to explain the extremes in either direction which seem to be plaguing the world weatherwise? (Today's Secret Word, and I'm sorry Groucho Marx's bird can't drop down to reward you.)

It's been cold and snowy back East this year, although probably not a lot different from the weather which prevailed in the Northeast at the end of "a Little Ice Age" around 1970 (this period of abnormal cold also was present in New England during Thoreau's life there, as reflected in Walden's descriptions of intense cold and deep Pond freezing), so people look at all those snow-blowers and conclude that global warming is a hoax. My own surmise, which is confirmed to a degree by what I read (see above) is that the introduction of all that "forcing energy" in the form of trapped solar infrared radiation would naturally power more violent winds, more copious uptake of ocean evaporation, more of everything, and in cold weather months you would get exactly what we're seeing, blizzards and howling winds, although not necessarily record cold temperatures. All of this happens against a backdrop of an inexorably warming Earth, because there is also no doubt that year after year, the planet is setting records for "warmest year on record, warmest decade on record," et cetera.

The graph above is an elegant depiction of how this works. The bell curve of temperature has been shifted to the right by global warming, reflected as the red curve on the x-axis. The y-axis represents the distribution of weather events, with most of them clustered around the normal range, as is the case (by definition) with bell curves. Along the x-axis, under the fat tails, we can see the effect of skewing the average temperature to the right (warmer). The probabilities of events associated with abnormally warm temperatures (Australia's floods, Russia's epic heat wave destroying 30% of the wheat crop, China's wells going dry), increase in likelihood because the region of distribution (the "fat tails) has been enlarged. Meanwhile, because the average temperature of the Earth has increased on a constant basis, the ongoing problems continue at an accelerating rate (the cascading meltdown of Greenland, Himalayan and South American glaciers, the softening of the tundra, chunks the size of Massachusetts breaking off Antarctica).

It's a kind of dismal consolation, but at least this graphic depiction enables one to grasp why we're seeing the patterns we're seeing. The destruction already caused by AGW seems pretty far advanced, but one can cling to the hope that educated countries outside the theocratically-inclined United States might still organize to do something about it.

February 10, 2011

How long can bin Laden stay on dialysis?

"Archaeologists originally set the date of the scrolls at 4,000 B.C., or just after the massacre of the Israelites by their benefactors. The writing is a mixture of Sumerian, Aramaic, and Babylonian and seems to have been done by either one man over a long period of time, or several men who shared the same suit. The authenticity of the scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word “Oldsmobile” appears several times in the text..."
Woody Allen, "The Red Sea Scrolls," from Without Feathers.

No day is completely lost when you can quote Woody Allen. For reasons best known not even to me, I became curious about the current state of the hunt for bin Laden. I know that years and years ago, George W. Bush said something to the effect that "I don't really think about it that much," when asked where bin Laden was; but W never really evinced thinking about much at all, so I don't know how definitive that is. I thought there must be more to the story. After all, when you think about it, bin Laden was the occasion for Bush to use the phrase "casus belli" in a press conference. I remember the sly grin on his face when he said those words. You could tell he was pretty sure the half-wits in the press corps probably didn't know what he meant - a chance for George to throw some Latin around at their expense! I was proud of him, I really was. He overdid it when he started using the phrase again in relation to Iraq, but that's another story.

Well anyway, the casus belli for Afghanistan was a meticulously constructed argument built upon the following premises:

1. Osama bin Laden was the mastermind behind 9/11.

2. OBL lived in Afghanistan, Kandahar to be exact, and the Taliban "harbored" him, thus enabling OBL to plan "further attacks," using the Fiendish Jungle Gym Complex at his camp.

3. Anyone harboring terrorists is with the terrorists under the Bush doctrine that you are either with Bush or against him (echoing things he heard every Sunday at United Baptist: "I would that ye were either hot or cold, for if ye be lukewarm, I will spew thee out of my mouth.").

4. We must therefore invade Afghanistan, depose the Taliban, and install someone like Hamid Karzai, former PR man for Union Oil and current heroin dealer.

There may be some causal links in there confounding the "belli" part, but I think that's pretty close. Just about an airtight case, any way you look at it. Some caveats were noted:

A. Bin Laden himself denied any involvement in 9/11.

B. The Taliban, who had previously met with Cheney & others in Texas for a barbecue to discuss the construction of a Union Oil pipeline across Afghanistan (prior to W's ascension to the Bush Throne), asked for, but apparently did not receive, some sort of definitive proof that OBL was actually involved.

C. No one involved in 9/11 was actually from Afghanistan. They were all from Arab countries, principally Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, and the mastermind was probably Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Gurgling Confessor of waterboarding fame, who was only too glad, between swallows, to finger OBL as much as the CIA wanted. Indeed, there seems to be a substantial pesonnel overlap between 9/11 and the Bojinka Plot and the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

But what the hell do I know? I do sometimes think, however, that one problem with a certain vintage of the Baby Boom set (among whose number you can count me and W) is that we were overexposed to the Dick&Jane primers in grammar school, and as a result a kind of infantilization of logical processes took root in the cerebral cortex and has controlled our thinking ever since. This theory, again, will make people forget neither Godel nor Boltzmann but it's maybe something to think about. That list of 1 through 4, supra, is suggestive of this weakening of the analytical faculties, because, really, that list just doesn't make any frigging sense whatsoever. And when you think that we have waged a war that has lasted almost ten years on the basis of that list, then perhaps you know all you need to know about the state of the nation, circa turn of the Millenium.

Nevertheless, I got to thinking again about the Arch-Nemesis, the Mastermind, the Lex Luthor of the Neocons' perfervid nightmares: Osama bin Laden. And it occurred to me: ten years is a long time to be on dialysis in a cave in the mountains of Tora Bora. So I Googled the Dude. The consensus of opinion turns out to be that he died on December 13, 2001, in Tora Bora, of complications from acute kidney failure. Among the people holding this view are Robert Baer, the highly-quotable ex-CIA agent who is a persistent critic of America's anti-terrorist wars; former Pakistan "President" Pervez Musharraf; the aforemention Hamid Karzai; Donald Rumsfeld, when you get right down to it; Dale Watson, head of the FBI's Counter-Terrorism division; the Israeli Mossad; and lots and lots of other people. Were you aware of this general trend in thinking?

But haven't there been videos of bin Laden after December 13, 2001? Highly debatable. There is strong evidence that a "double" appears in those videos, including the famous one where bin Laden sits and discusses the fine points of the 9/11 attacks. Cynics have noted that bin Laden referred to melting "iron" in the Twin Towers, while a person trained in engineering (as bin Laden was) would have known the towers were built of steel, not iron. Plus, he appears to write something with his right hand in the video, and bin Laden was left-handed, not to mention that the person appearing in these videos is darker than OBL, with a black (not salt-and-pepper) beard, and with a broader and flatter nose.

All "9-11 conspiracy" stuff? What's harder to believe is that an abnormally tall Arab could actually make his way around in mountainous terrain for a decade tethered to a dialysis machine, with a $50 million price on his head, and not attract some attention, somewhere, somehow. Yet what is most astounding to me is why the press has never really zoomed in on this story and figured it out. Leaving aside the invasion of Iraq, which was a foreign policy aberration of George W. Bush and had nothing to do with the "war on terror," the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is built wholly and solely on the association of bin Laden with that country. So if the guy died within a couple of months of our invasion, isn't that, you know, newsworthy? Just how lame are the Mainstream Media?

I suppose if Elvis is still alive, then bin Laden might be too. Driving around somewhere in Waziristan in his vintage Oldsmobile.

February 08, 2011

High Speed Rail & Schizo-Politicosis

As I fumble my way toward my magnum opus, trying to define my topic, trying to describe the underlying connections between certain modern, media-related phenomena that have made our lives seem so alien to us...

One idea that keeps coming to mind, and I don't know how it relates to the overarching Theory of Everything, is that political discourse in America has taken leave of any lingering connection to reality in favor of an ideologically-driven style of "thinking" about all problems. As one example: as I played chess online, I listened with one ear to President Holograma's State of the Union Address. I believe at one point he voiced his support for high speed rail and talked about demonstration projects in different locations around the country. And the thought occurred to me: why don't you just build an intercontinental system? We have lots of unemployed people in the construction and manufacturing trades. We have tons of unused factory capacity, such as in Detroit (Michael Moore had the canny idea a couple of years ago that Obama ought to convert a lot of the auto manufacturing business to building locomotives and rolling stock for a national rail system, instead of propping up General Motors). Hire all those people and let's get to work. We need transportation. We need jobs. Air travel is a killer when it comes to carbon dioxide pollution. We need a way to get away from the single-auto mode of moving around.

Just build the damn thing. We must have the money, because we always find it when we need to invade the Middle East. Why can't we invade our own Midwest, say, with a high speed rail project?

It's right at this point that the insanity sets in. Immediately. First, everyone must consult their internal ideological gyroscope: is this Socialist, or is this Free Enterprise? That's the first cut. Obama must be very cautious (second nature to him) because he knows that Jim DeMint does not want anything whatsoever done that even sounds like government involvement in doing something other than building bombs. It might be better to "seed" private enterprise and just kind of hope that the private sector does it. The Obama Administration is sinking a whole $27 million into "promising" solar projects, for example. Imagine that. $27 million. And, over a very long period, $18 billion into high speed rail, if Congress will let him have the money after he's already out of office.

In China, Japan, Germany, France, Spain and the rest of the civilized world, they do not really detain themselves with ideological debates before they build high speed rail networks. It's assumed that such public facilities will require government support. They don't have to "pay for themselves." A Harvard economist named Edward Glaeser recently wrote a series of posts at the always-helpful New York Times in which he knocked HSR around because of its costs and other problems he foresaw. He used a hypothetical HSR line from Dallas to Houston for his model, which raised an immediate question in my mind: why would anyone in Dallas want to go to Houston? His hit pieces can be found here: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/high-speed-rail/ Thanks a lot for that, Mr. Glaeser, you buzzkill. The one thing I noted, in skimming through his analysis, is that all of his estimates are complete guesswork: cost per mile of construction, maintenance cost, everything. It's a complete GIGO situation that doesn't explain anything. After reading his blog posts, I had to ask myself whether it was simply a hallucination that I rode the AVE Spanish high speed train from Madrid to Seville, or the TGV from Lyon to Paris. Did those rides really happen, or can Prof. Glaeser correct my faulty memory? How were these other countries able to build these trains and continue to operate them?

I wonder if the free market extremists, in demanding that any good new idea always pay for itself, ever consider that the federal government currently taxes gasoline sold in this country to the tune of 18 cents/gallon, and that the money in this fund is used, among other things, to maintain the interstate highway system. Why don't the conservatives demand that the highway system pay for itself and refuse to drive on the nation's roads until they become self-sustaining? Why do we have a Federal Aviation Administration? Shouldn't the planes be allowed to collide in midair rather than risk doing something so obviously Communist?

Anyway, building a high speed rail system connecting all the major metropolitan areas in this country would really be something, which is why I suppose it has zero chance of getting anywhere over the next twenty years or so. We always begin every debate over doing anything with a very long, protracted discussion about which kind of "thing" it is, socialist, capitalist, anarcho-syndicalist, and expend all of our energy in this pointless drivel confirming everyone in their ideological purity. Then we move on to the next thing we don't do.

As I say, somehow this tendency, this increasingly ingrained habit of mind, has something to do with my Overall Theory of Everything. I don't think it will make anyone forget Godel's Incompleteness Theory, but perhaps 'tis enough, 'twill serve.

February 07, 2011

A note on the unemployment rate

Various wags around the blogosphere are having a lot of fun at the expense of Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor, and her Bureau of Labor Statistics, which some have taken to calling the Ministry of Truth with reference to the dystopian misinformation bureau in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The latest fuel on the fire came in the form of Friday's NFP (Non-Farm Payroll Report) which claimed that 36,000 Americans found jobs in the prior month, and that as a result the U-3 unemployment rate (which is the only one the media/political class ever pays attention to) had fallen from 9.4% to 9.0%.

Since as everyone knows (because the fact is repeated endlessly everywhere you look) the United States hatches about 125,000 to 150,000 new workers each month just through the maturation of the population, many looked askance at the effect of a number approximately 1/4th the size of the average of these two numbers in lowering the overall UE rate. Some cynics then suggested that if 36,000 new workers could lower the UE rate by .4%, then a bonanza month of hiring, say on the order of 360,000, well within historical precedent for previous recoveries, should take us all the way down to about 5%, which in Darwinian capitalism (the kind we practice) represents full employment. In other words, we're almost there.

Yet that seems a little crazy. How could such a huge problem of unemployment be solved with one fairly average good month, and with such a paltry number compared to the problem? Thus, rather than being like the other guys & gals writing about this, I decided to hike on over to the Bureau of Labor Stats website and see what was going on. Is Hilda, the lovely child of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants, a loyal cadre of BarackObama's 2008 campaign who was rewarded for helping the O-Man with the Latino vote with a plum job in his administration despite virtually no visible qualifications for the position - is she cooking the books?

Of course not. For one thing, Hilda began as a supporter for Hillary Clinton and only started delivering La Raza for Barack when that fell through (though I was thinking, she must be quite an operator to turn on a dime like that and convince the wily Obama she was worth bringing onto his team). Hilda's a good California kid from the San Gabriel Mountains area, educated at Cal State Poly-Pomona, who worked her way up through the ranks of California state politics. It's just a guess, but I doubt that she knows anything more about statistical manipulation than she does about labor policy, whatever that might be. In general, with the notable exception of Steven Chu at Energy, there isn't much correlation between career expertise and cabinet position. It's more what the cabinet-appointees "have been interested in" at some point, such as a rancher being "interested" in the Interior or Eric "Place" Holder being "interested in" law.

But one thing I learned at Albion H. Horrall Elementary School in San Mateo, California, in the halcyon 1950's of this great country of ours was that a percentage is essentially a conversion of a fraction. 3 is 60% of 5 because 5 divided into 3 = .6. It's just that simple. So these cynics and carpers can go on all they want about the ridiculousness of 36,000 hires lowering the UE rate by .4% but it still all comes down to a matter of a numerator and a denominator. And the denominator is the Obama Administration's friend, see, because the FAQ for the BLS tells you exactly who is in that pool:

Who is counted as unemployed?

Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work.

Workers expecting to be recalled from layoff are counted as unemployed, whether or not they have engaged in a specific jobseeking activity. In all other cases, the individual must have been engaged in at least one active job search activity in the 4 weeks preceding the interview and be available for work...

So there you go. Now if I can do that, why can't the other wiseguys? It's right there in front of us. Hilda has delivered once again for Obama, because I can assure you that the number he's going to use is that 9.0%, not some exotic indicator like the U-6, which sounds a lot worse, and he's not going to go into a lot of detail about how the denominator for U-3 is calculated. That's how politics works in a mass-media society, a subject which admittedly fascinates me. The public, the media, everything and everyone, are simply worn down by the repetition of the residual number, in this case 9%. There just isn't the patience or the mental space in our frenetic, crowded culture, every damn time out, to go into a whole routine about how the U-3 actually got better because the economy is so uber-shitty that no one even bothers to look for a job anymore, which is the actual, literal truth, but to point that out takes time and understanding, and those things don't exist anymore. The key to effective Presidentialness, and Obama understands this, I think, better than he understands anything else (it is the whole secret of his success) is to seize the headline numbers and make them work for you because no one, ever, is going to look at anything else, and your opponents are going to battle you on that turf.

Which is to say: modern mass-media politics is not actually about reality. It is essentially, only, exclusively, about the management of perceptions. It cannot do anything about real problems because it does not engage real problems; it only engages their simulacra, their indicia, their Platonic Shadows on the Cave Walls of Reality.