Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Space warships

Okay, that last bit of physics blogging has whet my appetite. I simply must link to Steven Den Beste's speculations about space warships. If you read through all that and want more, visit The Ministry of Minor Perfidy; there's no less than four posts of futuristic goodness (1 2 3 4). These speculations are all relatively grounded in that they don't consider things like energy shields, wormholes, and warp drives, or even fusion power or antimatter drives.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Iran and Sadr

Michael Ledeen is doing what he always does: warning about Iran. This time he's pointing out evidence of a link between Sadr and Iran. See his writings here and here. Also see this post at the Belmont Club. Back in 2002, he saying that we should change the Iranian regime before overthrowing Saddam, which I would have agreed with had I thought it practical. And he still advocates regime in Iran, but (here's where the practicality comes in) not by force, but by giving money and vocal moral support to democrats within Iran. It sounds good to me, and we should do it, but who knows how long it will to take to succeed, or even if it will succeed? We should be under no illusions that some Iranians can overthrow their government without military help. Meanwhile, we have to deal not only with any Iranian meddling that might be occurring neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, but with the Iranian nuclear weapons program. If it's just a matter of taking out a few key facilities, then I vote for an Osirak redux. My second choice is economic sanctions, which, like nonviolent support of Iranian revolutionaries, have no guarantee of success.

Why they hate us

Lee Smith has a very good article in Slate about Arab anti-Americanism.

The government and general relativity

Gregg Easterbrook is complaining about the cost of Gravity Probe B.
Well, maybe we don't hear enough about far-reaching implications for the nature of matter and structure of the universe, but is it really worth $700 million of taxpayers' money to gain an increment of abstract knowledge regarding minute distortions in space-time?
This a valid point, which I shall return to. Then Easterbrook wonders off into ignorance.
Einstein made his breakthroughs via thought experiments, using a chalkboard; the cost of deriving the two theories of relativity was extremely small, and that's appropriate, since the practical benefits of the theories are small.
Easterbrook should consider GPS-guided smart bombs, which allowed the U.S. military to avoid civilian casualties to an unprecedented degree in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. GPS would take a big hit in accuracy if we didn't know of relativity:
To get accuracies of order 10 m, light travel times with an accuracy of order 30 ns (nanoseconds) have to be measured. Special relativistic time dilatation (caused by the velocity) and gravitational redshift corrections in these satellites are of order 30000 ns per day.
Actually, according to this book that I used in a class a few years ago, it's 39000 ns per day. To observers on the ground, the GPS satellites' clock appear to gain 39000 ns each day. This correction has two parts. First, clocks at higher altitudes appear to run fast to observers at lower attitudes. For GPS, altitude difference leads to a 50000 ns daily disparity. However, the satellites are moving relative to us, and, according to special relativity, moving clocks appear to run slow. This reduces the daily disparity to 39000 ns.

Another big application of relativity comes from the relativistic Doppler effect, which police use to catch speeders and meteorologists use to detect rain and show us cute color-enhanced Doppler radar images on the nightly news. I will skip the countless applications of relativity to other parts of physics, as most of these are not "real-life" applications, and move on to the big enchilada, E=mc^2, which includes nuclear power and nuclear bombs among its applications.

Getting back to Easterbrook's valid point, Gravity Probe B will test a part of general relativity that will not provide any practical benefit to humanity for the foreseeable future. One might say Gravity Probe B is a purely aesthetic public good. Truth be told, if I were the appropriator of the funds, I would not spend so many taxpayer dollars on a purely aesthetic pursuit. (I want to privatize the national parks too.)

The other reason to fund Gravity Probe B is national prestige. I half-suspect that the reason theoretical science gets the public funding it does in America is less that the people think theoretical science is beautiful than that people want the United States to be the best at science. However, I don't agree with this rationale for public funding either. I think we should just let private actors decide on their own how important prestige is to them. (I would have opposed the Apollo missions were I alive at the time.) Bottom line: things like Gravity Probe B should be privately funded.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that, starting this fall, I will receive funding from the National Science Foundation to do theoretical mathematics research that is even less likely than Gravity Probe B to produce practical benefits. And yes, were I the appropriator of the funds, I would not fund myself. I believe that theoreticians like myself should support ourselves by teaching or from funding from private foundations. But, just as I don't refuse to visit national parks that I think they should be privatized, I don't refuse government funding that I think should come from a private source. If a gift is to be given and the question is just "To whom?", then it doesn't make sense to refuse the gift just because one thinks it is imprudent to give the gift, for one's refusal will not prevent the giving.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Blowback on "stable"

Remember that Kerry quote from last week? It appears that the New York Times editors (obviously following my lead) also disapprove:
"Iraq," Mr. Bush said at his news conference last week, "Iraq will either be a peaceful democratic country or it will again be a source of violence, a haven for terrorists, and a threat to America and to the world."

Mr. Kerry now argues that there is a third option. But what would that be? "I can't tell you what it's going to be," he said to reporters covering his campaign. "That stability can take several forms." True; in the Middle East, there is the stability of Islamic dictatorship, the stability of military dictatorship and the stability of monarchical dictatorship. In Lebanon, there is the stability of permanent foreign occupation and de facto ethnic partition. None is in the interest of the United States; all have helped create the extremism and terrorism against which this nation is now at war.
I had to pinch myself to make sure, but yes, I agree with a paragraph from an NYT editorial.

Correction! (4/27) I don't know what sort of state my brain was in when I wrote this post. I forgot to include the link to the editorial, which is actually from the Washington Post. I also had originally truncated "'Iraq,' Mr. Bush said..." to just "Mr. Bush said...," but I assume everyone figured out what was intended, for no one complained.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Tragedy or farce? Farce.

Heh. I suppose this was inevitable.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Huntington, meet reality

Remember Huntington's immigration article? At last, I've found some more statistics on the subject. The results are not favorable to Huntington. They rebut most of his claims. The author of the rebuttal, when he strays from the numbers, interestingly manages to say plenty of things I agree with and plenty of things I disagree with, too many things for me to list here. I would like to point out this, though:
Virtually every immigrant to America wants to remain as they are, most of them want their children and grandchildren to remain loyal to their language and culture, and many of them plan to return home someday. Very few - almost none before WWI and very few now - arrive with any particular loyalty to America or desire to integrate.
In that past, this lack of personal loyalty to America didn't make much difference. Third generation German monolingual Americans didn't have another country to be loyal to. Immigration in the 19th century was a once - or at most twice - in a lifetime experience for all but the super-rich. Even native born Mexican-Americans lived too far from the population centres of Mexico to feel strongly connected to the old country.

That is something that has changed.

In the 21st century, moving to the other side of the world doesn't even mean having to miss your favourite soap opera. The Internet will bring you your hometown paper in real time, no matter where you live. Satellite TV keeps you as well informed in the new country as you were in the old. And, even a quite low income can purchase the airfare for an annual pilgrimage to take the kids to see the grandparents. The numbers and concentrations of Mexican immigrants is not new. Their proximity to Mexico isn't even terribly important. What is new is that immigrants need no longer be completely cut-off from their old country.
I think there's something to this. A bigger challenge than Huntington's "Hispanic Challenge?"

"Stable" - good enough for Kerry

Is this man insane? Kerry says "I have always said from day one that the goal here . . . is a stable Iraq, not whether or not that's a full democracy." Has it occurred to this man that he might actually become President in January 2005? Even were Kerry right to give up on Iraqi democracy, by saying so, he makes clear to people like Sadr that, depending on what happens here in November, they can prevent Iraqi democracy by causing sufficient instability. How would Kerry deal the next Sadr? Would he install him as a friendly dictator? Given what he's said already, Kerry would be a very weak bargaining position in such a scenario.

All of this adds up to another reason to stick to the June 30th sovereignty transfer date, and to hold elections as soon as possible: there simply is no guarantee that American support for Iraqi democrats will last much longer.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

A small comfort

"Medicare will soon publish detailed information comparing the prices of most prescription drugs." Excellent. I'm still displeased (it's one of those half-a-trillion-dollars-over-a-decade displeasures) with this administration's Medicare policy, but I must give credit when credit is due.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Now all I need is a green eyeshade

Ooh. A 2004 federal government budget simulator. Care to balance the budget? I tried, and it came down to cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits (by a fifth), significantly raising taxes, or devolving (cutting half federal funding in a single year) many federal programs to the states. (The last option would doubtless cause state tax increases.) No wonder neither presidential candidate is promising to do more than cut the deficit in half. Even a politically suicidal president would have to work with Congress, so I don't see how to really cut the deficit in the short term. There are reasons the biggest spending categories got so big.

All I can really say is "stop digging." We can't instantly fix S.S. & Medicare. But we can start long-term reform right now. Our primary goal must be the privatization of both of these programs and the removal of government disincentives to properly save for one's old age, to the point where government's (ideally state and local governments') role is just to help the truly destitute. The federal government is overseeing a massive intergenerational transfer of wealth that used to be done privately, i.e. children supporting their parents in their old age. Before the new deal, most old people who couldn't take care of themselves were cared for by their children, and the remainder relied on charity from the local government (poor houses) and/or from local private charitable groups (churches). To my mind, the pre-New-Deal system (combined with present-day technology, of course) would be superior to our current system in every respect.

If you'll permit me to speculate, I'd also claim that a return to the pre-New-Deal system would lead to a small increase in fertility, something that various European countries, which are literally dying out, could use. The idea is simple: just as welfare for poor single mothers and their children makes the state the father in many respects, so does government-financed care for the elderly makes the state the child in many respects, taking up yet another familial financial duty. One selfish reason for a person to have more children is to ensure he'll be cared for in his old age. When a person is guaranteed to have a child as wealthy and as generous as the state, then the financial incentive to have more children correspondingly diminishes.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Iraq as Vietnam

I think Victor Davis Hanson has the best reply to Senator Kennedy's claim that Iraq is Bush's Vietnam.
If there is any similarity between Vietnam and the current war, it is not 1963, when his late brother convinced us to commit troops to stop Communist aggression. A better year for comparison is 1974, when Kennedy and other senators began to cut off funding for air support promised to enforce the Paris peace accords, resulting in the collapse of South Vietnam, mass murder in Southeast Asia, and over a million boat people, with more still sent to the Communist reeducation camps.
At least Kennedy is in the minority today.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Democracy deferred

This is not cool. If Hong Kong doesn't get real elections by 2008, then I'd argue it's Olympic-boycott-not-cool. China is reneging on another part of the 1984 treaty with Britain concerning the Hong Kong handover, cooking the frog by heating the pot slowly.
Hong Kong, which is much richer and more Westernized than the Chinese mainland, had been widely expected to become a local democracy - although under Beijing's oversight - by 2008. That is the earliest date permitted in the Basic Law, or miniconstitution, for free elections for all legislative seats and for the chief executive, the top official in the territory.

But after public demands for more democracy intensified in Hong Kong in the past few months, China asserted a prerogative to interpret two key clauses in the Basic Law that set out the process for introducing and implementing changes to the electoral system.

In the ruling issued by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress today, the central government decreed that it has the right to decide whether there is "a need" to introduce democratic changes.

Pouring in

Michael Rubin brings troubling news from Iraq: Iranian money is pouring in, and you can guess where it's going to:
One February evening, a governor from a southern province asked to see me. We met after dark at a friend's house. After pleasantries and tea, he got down to business. "The Iranians are flooding the city and countryside with money," he said. "Last month, they sent a truckload of silk carpets across the border for the tribal sheikhs. Whomever they can't buy, they threaten." The following week, I headed south to investigate. A number of Iraqis said the Iranians had channeled money through the offices of the Dawa Party, an Islamist political party, led by Governing Council member Ibrahim Jafari. On separate occasions in Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriya, I watched ordinary Iraqis line up for handouts of money and supplies at Dawa offices. The largess seems to be having an effect: Polls indicate that Jafari is Iraq's most popular politician, enjoying a favorable rating by more than 50% of the electorate.
Rubin faults the CPA is being strictly neutral between political parties. I'm not sure if we should be neutral or not. CPA funding of an Iraqi political party might take away that party's legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis. The ideal, albeit impractical, solution is covert funding of the parties we like. However, if you think the CPA should be funding liberal Iraqi parties, then don't just complain; take matters into your own hands. In America, we privately fund our political parties. Who is to say we can't privately fund Iraqi political parties? American donors could match the Iranians, and then some. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that all we need is publicity and a PayPal account. I looked around on the web for something like this and haven't found anything yet, but I can't be the first person to have thought of this. Somebody with the right connections needs to make this happen.

Monday, April 05, 2004

All-weather federalism

Fair-weather federalists come in just about every political stripe, even my own. At least Ramesh Ponnuru is rightly standing up for federalism on the gay-marriage issue. I hope his view prevails among my fellow social conservatives. Even those who reject federalism must admit that a more federalist amendment is a lot more likely to actually pass.

The truth about flying laptops

Why Your Gadgets Won't Crash the Plane. I'm awfully tempted to take a copy of this with me the next time I fly. Of course, for those who don't mind exaggerating things a little, you can always bring this along too.

Martian utility

Michael Williams is having fun at the expense of those who think it is unethical to terraform Mars. But he's just going after the low-hanging fruit. The slightly more respectable argument against terraform Mars is utilitarian: "If there is life on Mars, then who knows what we might learn from it. We can't risk destroying it before we find it." I've heard this argument before: "We must protect the rainforests. There might some obscure plant there that contains the cure for cancer." The problem with the argument is that it the expected utility of native Martian bacteria and obscure rain forest flora is actually quite low, due to the low probability that we will find a valuable use for them. One might as well argue, "Don't show up on time for work today; stop by the convenience store to buy a lottery ticket. You could win millions." (OK, I guess I'm going after low-hanging fruit too.)

The only likely goods of a "pristine" Mars are aesthetic appeal to some and partial satiation of scientific curiosity for some. Of course, a (human) populated Mars would allow many more people to enjoy Martian scenery up close and allow much greater scientific investigation of Mars. Thus, I see no reason not to terraform Mars. I say we dump any loony ideas about a Moon base or human travel to Mars for at least a century, and start making Mars a place worth colonizing.

A free trade campaign?

There were many times when I doubted this, but it looks like the President will support free trade in his reelection campaign, even if he'd probably prefer not to talk about it. From the last Kerry campaign ad:
Announcer: While jobs are leaving our country in record numbers, George Bush says sending jobs overseas "makes sense" for America

Announcer: His top economic advisors say "moving American jobs to low cost countries" is a plus for the U.S.
I don't see how Bush could possibly go left enough on trade to neutralize the issue without repudiating the majority (sadly not the entirety) of his trade policy for the past three years. Bush may have thought steel tariffs were good for him in the months before the midterm elections, but now he's singing a different tune:
The 57-year-old Bush holds up the creation of U.S. jobs by companies from abroad as an example of the benefits of free trade. In a speech in Cleveland on March 10, he said 10 percent of Honda's worldwide workforce lives in Ohio. Honda has two vehicle-assembly plants in two Ohio towns.

"About 16,000 Ohioans work for Honda, with good, high-paying jobs, and that's not counting the people who work at 165 different Ohio companies that supply Honda with parts and material," Bush said. "When politicians in Washington attack trade for political reasons, they don't mention these workers, or the 6.4 million other Americans who draw their paychecks from foreign companies."


This strikes me as a really good idea:
Inglewood voters go to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to turn over 60 acres of barren concrete adjacent to the Hollywood Park racetrack to Wal-Mart to create a megastore and a collection of chain shops and restaurants.
Company officials say that Wal-Mart adopted this aggressive new tactic only after it became clear that Inglewood officials - backed by allies in organized labor, church groups and community organizations - would never approve the complex.
The only city official vocally supporting the project is the mayor, Roosevelt F. Dorn. He said the complex would bring more than 1,000 new permanent jobs, add $3 million to $5 million a year to the distressed city's tax base and provide a revenue stream to finance as much as $100 million in new bonds. "We're talking about a new police station, a new community and cultural center, a new park in District 4, upgrades for every park and recreation area in Inglewood," Mr. Dorn said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a no-brainer."
Another fight against the abuse of zoning laws has been long overdue.


Johnathan Rauch lays bear the hypocrisy with which we call Israel's assassination of Yassin "troubling" at the UN, while we haven't had trouble with (trying to) assassinate Al Qaeda leaders since 1998. An enduring critique of the Bush administration has been that it is not sufficiently diplomatic, but I've always thought they aren't sufficiently outspoken.

Saturday, April 03, 2004


You were given the choice between war and dishonor....

Partly Made Bomb Found Under a Rail Line in Spain. Remember what Churchill said after Munich.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Pete du Pont on free trade

Did I mention Delaware has an awesome former governor?


Steven Den Beste provides an interesting analysis of the most recent barbarity in Fallujah. He thinks the strategy behind it was to invite a counterproductive reprisal, rather than to weaken our morale. His idea is plausible, but at this point I can only take the position that there isn't enough data, and that discerning the motives of the twisted is often a dubious effort. Many other bloggers, such as Donald Sensing, demand as tough a reprisal as possible, whatever the motives of the enemy. I'm inclined to agree with this. If there's one place where people can't hate the Americans more, it's Fallujah.

Title VI abuse

One good education post deserves another. I've been keeping track of Stanley Kurtz's muckraking of Title VI abuse for a while now. He's just written an article with more evidence to back up his allegations, as well a few bits of good news.

Lousy schools, lousy teacher incentives

Whoa. I didn't know high school drop-out rates were this bad. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that public schools have found ways to hide it. While I'm on the subject of education, I may as well link to this paper, which diagnoses another problem with our education system:
There are two main hypotheses for the decline in the aptitude of public school teachers since 1960: improved job opportunities for females in other occupations and the compression of teaching wages owing to unionization.... The evidence suggests that compression of teaching wages is responsible for about three-quarters of the decline in teacher aptitude.

OPEC and the future

Jerry Taylor reminds us of all the damage OPEC has done. He also zings the environmentalists who keep demanding a "sustainable" (i.e. planned) energy economy:
Someday, of course, oil stocks will indeed begin to dwindle. When that might be, however, is unknowable because new technologies continue to emerge that make finding and producing oil cheaper than ever before.

Regardless, we don't need OPEC to manage the future. When depletion becomes a real problem, oil prices will rise of their own accord and economies will adjust because prices today reflect expectations about prices tomorrow.

Russian democracy - there's still hope

The bad news about Russia is overhyped, says this NBER paper:
Russia's economic and political systems remain far from perfect. However, their defects are typical of countries at its level of economic development. Both in 1990 and 2003, Russia was a middle income country, with GDP per capita around $8,000 at purchasing power parity, a level comparable to that of Argentina in 1991 and Mexico in 1999. Countries in this income range have democracies that are rough around the edges, if they are democratic at all. Their governments suffer from corruption, and their press is almost never entirely free. Most also have high income inequality, concentrated corporate ownership, and turbulent macroeconomic performance. In all these regards, Russia is quite normal. Nor are the common flaws of middle income, capitalist democracies incompatible with further economic and political development-if they were, Western Europe and the US would never have left the 19th century.
This sounds about right to me. Of course, the biggest difference between Russia and, say Mexico, is several thousand nuclear warheads. Thus, holding Russia to a higher standard makes sense, so as we don't let this skew our perception of her.

The more important point in my mind is that Russia does not count as evidence for the case made by various rulers that their valves on political freedom must admit only trickles.