Thursday, December 24, 2015

How markets work

How markets work. Shkreli was a piker. $900 million a year for doing nothing, now that's scamming.

And here's RtO's Xmas gift to you: you get a Ph.D. in market economics if you can correctly answer this question:

It is suggested that Uber, the ride sharing business, will be valued by the market at $20,000,000,000 when it goes public. For a doctorate in market economics, tell the examiners how much the drivers -- who provide the labor and the investment capital -- will get.

If you said $0.00 you are now a doctor of market economics.

For a cum laude sash, answer this additional question: How much will Uber contribute  to buliding and maintaining the public roads that Uber drivers use?

If you said $0.00, you graduate cum laude.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Yuck of the week

It seems like a long time since I've seen a really funny bumper sticker, but there was one in Kahului yesterday:


Not funny was the one today:

Are you just going to lay there bleeding or are you going to cowboy up

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Martin Shkreli Fan Club

I read somewhere (Bloomberg?) that Martin Shkreli has 35,000 Twitter followers. Even after subtracting the 34,000 business reporters who signed up to follow him as part of reporting on his business dealings, that leaves 1,000 Martin Shkreli fanboys.

Hard to believe, although the Dzhokar Tsarnaev fangirls shoud have alerted me to the possibility.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Dem hissy fit

Since I am not a Democrat, I would not ordinarily have anything to say about the campaign software dispute in the party over the weekend. However, the Sanders people on my FB feed have been howling like banshees. They do tend to be conspiracy theorists.

Perhaps they should have kept their counsel. Nut graf:

Still, the Sanders camp’s reactions have been laughable. It was their team that unethically breached Clinton’s data. It was their comms people who spoke falsely about what happened. The Sanders campaign wasn’t honeypotted into doing it—their people did it of their own accord. NGPVAN isn’t set up to benefit Clinton at Sanders’ expense—and if the violation by the campaigns had been reversed, Sanders supporters would have been claiming a conspiracy from sunrise to sundown. What’s very clear is that the Clinton camp did nothing wrong in any of this. Sanders campaign operatives did, and then Wasserman-Schultz compounded it by overreacting. And in the end, the right thing ended up happening: the lead staffer in question was fired, and the campaign got its data access back.
Lest anybody think, however, that I am letting up on the rightwingers, there was also this. Nuclear exchange, anyone? Follow the link embedded in the Washington Monthly story.

And there was also this. Nut graf:

Mr. Adelson chose to buy the paper through a Delaware corporation called News & Media Capital Group L.L.C., with just a Connecticut newspaperman, Michael E. Schroeder, named on the documents. The uncertainty left many observers both inside and outside the newsroom scrambling to discover who the owner was.
In another twist, The Review-Journal reported that The New Britain Herald, a Connecticut paper controlled by Mr. Schroeder, had run an article less than three weeks ago that had singled out Judge Gonzalez for criticism. Its author was Edward Clarkin, who had previously submitted reviews of local restaurants. Reached by phone on Friday, Mr. Schroeder declined to comment on the matter, but said that journalists in Las Vegas were merely stirring up trouble.
That one requires a little background. Gonzalez is Nevada judge who has a case involving Adelson before her.

When it comes to crazy, the Democrats just aren't in the game with the rightwingers.

Debunking fatigue

I don't consider RtO a debunking site although I suppose that at times it serves that function. But RtO is intended more as a positive conduit for stuff everybody knows even if they do not always realize they know it; rather than a negative corrector of bad information like

I like Snopes. But I'm not them.

To give an example, everyone knows -- if they stop a moment to think about it -- that a few Guatemalan landscapers suckered into signing mortgages did not crash a $14 trillion economy in 2008, despite what the rightwingers say. All RtO is doing is asking you to take that moment and reflect.

For the past year or so, Caitlyn Dewey at The Washington Post has taken the other road, trying to run down and expose the bad information on the Internet. She has run out of gas, no surprise.

I was not a regular reader of "What Was Fake," but her farewell column is worth the time it takes to read it. Nut graf:

Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
 That has certainly been my experience with 9/11 truthers.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Book Review 358: The Man Who Changed Everything

THE MAN WHO CHANGED EVERYTHING: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, by Basil Mahon. 226 pages, illustrated. Wiley, $29.95

I probably would not have read this book had I not been informed three times in the space of two weeks (twice in science books, once in an astronomy lecture) that James Clerk Maxwell is “hardly known in the wider world.”

True, many surveys have revealed that two-thirds of Americans know no more about the natural world than a peasant of the 11th century, but surely among the other third the man who unified the electric and magnetic forces, who along with Boltzmann explained the behavior of gases is at least known for that? It turns out that Clerk Maxwell is worth remembering for much more than that.

I did not know myself that Maxwell (working alongside his wife Katherine) elucidated the secrets of color vision, prepared the tables used by color printers and made the first color photograph. An experimentalist as well as a theorist, he did so with the simplest equipment, made mostly of wood and paper.

“He was the first to use field equations to represent physical processes . . . to use statistical methods to describe processes involving many particles.” He was on the team that regularized the units of measurement in electromagnetism, he devised equations that are fundamental in control theory and information theory, he explained why the rings of Saturn are stable, he set Planck on the path that led to quantum mechanics and Einstein to special relativity.

“It is sometimes said, with no more than slight overstatement, that if you trace every line of modern physical research to its starting point you come back to Maxwell.”  

So why isn’t he as widely known as Darwin or Einstein or even his friend Kelvin?

Basil Mahon speculates that he never had a controversial champion like Huxley to spread his fame. In fact, while some of his theories were only reluctantly accepted, most ended up as non-controversial; and none attracted the fury of the morons in pulpits.

Nor was there any scandal to attach to his name. We like our biographies to show warts and all, but Maxwell seems to have had no warts. He was universally esteemed, even loved, for his charm, tact, public spirit, generosity and humor. He was a constant practical joker, but never of the kind that humiliated or demeaned the target.

He treated the workers on his Scottish farm well and struggled to see that their children had opportunities. In the city he devoted evenings to lecturing at workingmen’s institutes.

He was even a better than average writer of humorous poems.

His life was, nevertheless, marked by big unhappinesses. His mother died when he was eight; his first and possibly great love was for a cousin, whom he could not marry; and he died at age 48.

Mahon’s brief biography is aimed at readers without mathematics but is not dumbed down as a result. He is an engineer and a virtue of his biography is that he often points out how working engineers still use Maxwell’s findings to make their designs work.

Maxwell is well worth getting to know better.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Another kill-crazy cop

The video tells the story.

The only difference from most you've seen is that the shootee was not a black guy.

Officer Feaster gets a Chutzpah Award for telling his dispatcher, after he shoots the guy, that he "refused to get out."

As the video shows, he was getting out, and Feaster didn't tell him to get out.

However, the NRA will not be pleased, because the district attorney ruled that Feaster did not intend to shoot. So here we have an official case of a gun killing people without the agency of a person.

Remember this next time some slavering idiot says, guns don't kill people; people kill people.

Not in Paradise

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Grateful Christians

Decades ago, when I lived among the Southern Christians, there were sporadic attempts to organize the bigots into economic pressure groups, generally called the "Christian Yellow Pages."

The inspiration may or may not have been the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany, but it  failed for the same reason that the antisemitic political parties in Vienna around 1900 failed: When everybody thinks alike, there is no percentage in emphasizing that you are just like everybody else.

So the Christian Yellow Pages never amounted to anything.  Not because Christians were appalled at the idea of diverting business from solid local citizens who might go to a different church (or none), but because pretty much everybody was eligible. Christian Yellow Pages is still around and proclaims itself as the premier bigot business organization, but even in a state full of hateful Christian bigots (or just because it is a state filled with hateful Christian bigots) like North Carolina, there are no entrants.

In Florida, there are few, but very few, in rightwing cesspools like Royal Palm Gardens. If you don't want an infidel repairing your convertible top, Royal Palm Gardens, Florida, is the place to go.

You might suppose that the failure of a bigot pressure movement would please someone like me who is a fan of tolerance; but I was insulted by Christians often enough not to jump to conclusions. Indeed, in North Carolina (where I first encountered the Christian Yellow Pages) there is a new bigot crusade under way, now called the Faith Equality Index and more closely tracking the Nazi model.

It does not seem to be having much impact, so for some weeks I have ignored it. However, something showed up in my Facebook feed today that made me rethink my reticence.

Professor Robert George, a leading Christian bigot, went into the hospital overnight facing what was said to be a very serious medical crisis. His fans urged prayers to god, and George was soon said to be out of danger.

His friends rejoiced and by the thousands thanked god. Not one thanked the doctors, nurses and medical technicians who -- I expect -- had something to do with it.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

What does white fade to, and other idle thoughts

Idle Thought No. 1

While Christmas shopping for towels, I found one that was guaranteed “not to fade.” It was white.

Idle Thought No. 2

There is an app that helps teach scat singing. This is not something I need, but while listening to an example, it occurred me to ask, did scatting evolve out of glossolalia, the speaking in tongues practiced by some religions?

Forty years ago, I read William Samarin’s “Glossolalia,” which proved that tongue-speakers are not communicating — their babble sounds like a language but it does not have the characteristics that make language work. No ideas are transmitted from one person to another, although perhaps emotional states might be.

(An aside: Samarin went to a lot of work to prove a point that can be made more easily. Despite what Chomsky says, there is no “deep” structure in language. It’s a convention. You can no more have a language with one speaker than you can clap with one hand.)

A few minutes spent with Wikipedia’s article on scat-singing places its origins simply in musical, not religious, traditions; but it does point to the article on glossalalia.

Curiously, both articles place the origins of their topic at the same moment: The often unreliable Jelly-Roll Morton said scatting began in New Orleans in 1900; and modern glossolalia is said to have started among Kansas Pentecostalists in 1901.

Hmmm. I suspect there were earlier antecedents, and that the religious practice was prior.

American religious traditions show up in strange disguises. I once saw a clip of the teevee hostess Tyra Banks becoming excited and writhing on the floor, kicking and screaming. It was exactly like a religious ecstatic becoming possessed in the spirit.

Idle Thought No. 3

After each shooting atrocity, the gun nuts tell us it is too soon, emotions are too tender to have a discussion about arming America. For example, the San Bernardino massacre was Wednesday, and political pundit and Ronald Reagan fantasy girlfriend Peggy Noonan wrote this on Thursday:

“Here’s an odd thing. If you really are for some new gun-control measure, if you are serious about it, you just might wait a while, until the blood has cooled, for instance, and then try to win people over to see it your way. You might offer information, argument, points of persuasion.”

OK, Noonan. It has been only hours (about 100 as I write) since the shootings. The blood still seethes. But it has been over 100 days since the Charleston church massacre. Can we talk about guns in the context of that one?

When I asked Mr. Google what Peggy Noonan has said about that, there was just one hit. She did not wait long, though. Apparently  her blood cools quickly, except for the torch she continues to carry for hunky Ronnie. Just four days after that slaughter, Noonan wrote in her Murdoch-owned rag, the Wall Street Journal:

"A Northerner bows, deeply, to the South. ... Did you hear the statements made at the bond hearing (for Roof)? ... Nine beautiful people slaughtered ... and their relatives were invited to make a statement (Friday) in court. Did you hear what they said? ... They spoke of mercy. They offered forgiveness. They invited the suspect, who was linked in by video from jail, to please look for God. There was no rage, no accusation — just broken hearts undefended and presented for the world to see. They sobbed as they spoke. ... It was people looking into the eyes of evil, into the eyes of the sick and ignorant shooter who'd blasted a hole in their families, and explaining to him with the utmost forbearance that there is a better way. What a country that makes such people. Do you ever despair about America? If they are America, we are going to be just fine.”

Nothing since. No information, arguments, points of persuasion in favor of arming America’s ammosexuals to the teeth.

Just sweet, deep oblivion.

And, no, Robert Adams, Isaac Amanios, Bennetta Betbadal, Harry Bowman, Sierra Clayborn,  Juan Espinoza, Aurora Godoy, Shannon Johnson, Larry Daniel Kaufman, Damian Meins, Tin Nguyen, Nicholas Thalasinos, Yvette Velasco and Michael Wetzel are not just fine.

They’re dead.

The blood’s on your hands, Noonan.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Who is prison for?

Whence comes this idea that prison is only for nonviolent offenders? Every week someone comes into the tool shop to tell me his tools were stolen (sometimes along with his truck sometimes just the tools). That can have serious consequences for the victim. It can make him homeless.

It doesn't matter whether drugs were involved or not, although often they were.

Property criminals are like rats: they destroy 10 times as much as they eat.

Is prison the only way to get property criminals off the street? Sometimes, for sure.

I had been thinking about a post on this subject for some time, as there was a spate of reports about long terms of imprisonment in the weeks before the president announced plans for early release of some drug criminals. This unperceptive op-ed in the Washington Post pushed me to go ahead and write.

I have nothing to say, right now, about drug laws as such, only about a baseline assumption that only violence is deserving of imprisonment.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Death score: Rightwing bigots 3; Syrian refugees 0

According to early reports.

I went shopping for a Christmas tree today. There were Air Police patrolling the tree lot armed with M16s and automatic pistols. I did not feel safer.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Biscuit tortoni

After a heavy Thanksgiving feast of creamed vegetables, dressing, etc., finishing with a heavy dessert (pumpkin pie, pecan pie) seems like a poor idea. Try this:

Biscuit (pronounced like bisque the soup) Tortoni 

This used to be on the menu of every Italian restaurant in New York City but for some reason has disappeared. An additional reason for making it part of the Thanksgiving table is that it is easy to make and scalable. It takes about the same effort to make biscuit Tortona for 50 as for 4.

My recipe follows that of Colette Black in her “Southern Italian Cook Book.” I learn from the Internet that there are extravagantly complicated versions involving making a custard or using marzipan, or easy versions made with ice cream. But Black’s version has the virtues of ease, simplicity and elegance. Hers does not need to be topped with a maraschino cherry.

For 6 or 8 people:

Whip a cup or so of heavy cream. I use a hand whisk rubbed back and forth between the palms. This is easy, gets your heart pumping and allows more control over how firm the cream gets than using a power mixer.

Blend in powdered sugar, any amount but less is more here.

Separate 1 or 2 eggs, whip whites till silky and very firm.

Toast a handful of almonds. If you start with whole almonds, boil water, pour over almonds, pour off water after 30-45 seconds, then pop off the skins. Toast almonds at 325 degrees for 5 minutes or less, then grind.

Combine cream, egg, almonds and add half teaspoon vanilla and a teaspoon to a tablespoon of sweet Marsala, sherry or Madeira. (Marsala is authentically Italian.)

Put 1 to 2 heaping tablespoons in ramekins or (preferred) paper cupcake cups. Freeze.

Most recipes say to defrost for 20 minutes prior to serving, but I prefer biscuit Tortona frozen almost hard. Defrost just a few minutes.

Frozen biscuit Tortoni goes perfectly with hot coffee, garnished with a cookie (Amaretto or a Chinese almond cookie). Or serve wth a fruit liqueur like framboise or maraschino.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


I saved this Washington Post story from Saturday in case it turned out to be correct, which it did.
If Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) wins today's runoff election for governor of Louisiana, it will be the second time in a month that a Republican defied public polls to walk into a state house. But it would be the first time an election clearly turned on the issue of Syrian refugees being allowed into the United States -- and it would overcome the almost unheard-of factor of an incumbent governor apparently trying to sink his own party's nominee.
In Louisiana, it's an open secret that Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) concluded a years-long blood feud with Vitter by ending his presidential campaign on Tuesday.
If you haven't read Harnett Kane's "Huey Long's Louisiana Hayride: The American Rehearsal for Dictatorship 1928-1940" I urge you to do so. 

There are lots of lessons to be learned from Long's career, not least that ordinary people take democracy, if not exactly seriously, then to heart sometimes. Long was not at all a product of the famously baroque upper class politics of New Orleans.

He derived from the rednecks in Winn Parish -- locally known as the Free State of Winn -- up in the piney woods, geographically and spiritually closer to Arkansas and east Texas than to New Orleans -- and today, to the Tea Party.  He was much like Donald Trump.

He is why I do not think Trump cannot get the Republican nomination. Franklin Roosevelt, whose political instincts were seldom wrong, was frightened of Long. The tendency of historians has been to think that Roosevelt overreacted, that Long would not have had staying power.

Maybe not, but barely six years after Long was shot to death Joe McCarthy -- who frightened Eisenhower -- tapped the same vein, and 12 years after McCarthy drank himself to death, Richard Nixon -- who frightened me -- tapping the same vein, was elected president.

There's a dark stratum in democracy. The men who operate most successfully in it are sociopaths with personally destructive tendencies, but we cannot count on their always imploding to save the republic.



Saturday, November 21, 2015

Syria's Gordian knot

The Washington Post's David Ignatius has a piece on getting the factions in Syria to agree to   a cease-fire, as prelude to a breakup of monolithic Syria into a "more federal" system of cantons.

It might be nice if the TP and rightwing crazies read this piece, not to get them to agree with it, but to introduce them to the notion that politics there is complicated.

(More complicated than even Ignatius lets on; the problem of Syria/Lebanon, whether they are one country or two, remains.)

Well, RtO thinks this part is a non-starter:

Diplomats have also discussed ways to get Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias out of Syria. One approach would allow the regime to get support from foreign militaries, such as Russia’s, or even Iran’s, to support the regime, but not foreign militias. The Syrians and Iranians are said to be willing to consider such a formula
Not because it's a bad idea (although it might be at that), but can you imagine the howls of rage from the Republicans? Of course you can.

As we learned this past week, the factions in Syria are sweet reasonableness itself compared to the crazies in the American rightwing.

Now that the Republicans have come into the open with their racism, bigotry and fascism, at least we do not have to argue about whether they are racists, bigots and fascists. They say so themseleves. Case closed.

SIDELIGHT: It was a tempest in a teapot, but the mayor of a small southern city, Roanoke, came out on the bigots side, but after getting schooled by, among many others, the daughter of my former Maui News colleague Gary Kubota, he changed his mind. He learned something.

This would hardly be worth mentioning except for one thing. He's a Democrat. You cannot name a Republican who's learned anything from this national embarassment.

I wouldn't bet many nickels that Ignatius's optimism is warranted, but this negotiation interests RtO because of one of RtO's persistent themes (along with the succculence of greasy pork): the moral and political desirability of America's backing a free and independent Great Kurdistan.

To get this will require the breakup of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. We are halfway to that goal already, thanks to Bush II. If Syria is modified into more or less self-governing cantons, one will be Kurdish. And then the cantonal government can coordiante with what is already a pseudo or de facto Kurdish province in what used to be Iraq.

Little by little. I don't think I will live to see a Great Kurdistan, but I can see its stirrings of emergence.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Book Review 357: The Great Hedge of India

THE GREAT HEDGE OF INDIA: The Search for the Living Barrier that Divided a People, by Roy Moxham. 234 pages. Carroll & Graf paperback, $14

When I saw the title of Roy Moxham’s “The Great Hedge of India,” I had the same first thought that he did when he encountered entries about it in books he was conserving: Probably another example of dotty sahibs left out too long in the noonday sun; or, if not that, perhaps one of the numerous attempts by the Government of India to figure out how to modernize the place.

But, as we learn in a few chapters and as Moxham learned over several years in the 1990s, the story is darker. Murderous, in fact.

The thorn hedge -- 2,500 miles long, around eight to 12 feet wide and 14 feet high -- was at its peak in the 1870s, but the story begins earlier.

Moxham skillfully weaves the threads, the question of the human requirement for salt, the development of salt policy by the East India Company in Bengal in the 18th century, the corruption, death and suffering that followed, and Moxham’s search for some remnant of the hedge, which was second only to the Great Wall of China in size.

It was also nearly forgotten; much of Moxham’s labor involved trying to find maps at a large enough scale to lead him to remnants of the hedge -- if any were left.

Along the way, we get a vivid picture of how unchanged India is; Moxham’s guide came from a village not reached by any road, with no electricity, running water or post office. But also of how much it has changed; the guide is a modish city dweller, and the hedge has been almost obliterated by roads, extension of cultivation and harvesting of the trees and bushes for firewood. It adds to the drama that the out-of-the-way places where the hedge might have been left alone today are the home now, as then, of ruthless robber gangs.

In the heat of India, an adult requires about an ounce of salt a day -- thankfully Moxham does not bother with metric measures -- for health. And salt cannot be stored by the body.

The Company imposed a tax so high that it would have required two month’s income of a ryot (landless farm worker) to pay for it. The hedge was made to stop smuggling of salt from western India, where the taxes, though high, were not murderous.

As so often when capitalists are involved, greed and individualism resulted in less, not more income for the capitalists, since salt-deprived workers are sickly, weak -- when not dead -- and unable to produce wealth. It goes without saying that the Bengalis were made poorer, but that was not a concern of the British.

It is impossible to say how many people were killed by the salt tax, but at least millions and probably tens of millions. When you add in the toll from famines caused by the secular decline in the value of silver (the currency of India) against gold (the money of Britain) the total reaches into hundreds of millions, but that is a story for another day -- you can find it in Mike Davis’s “Late Victorian Holocausts.”

Friday, November 13, 2015

The insanity of the gold standard

I did not hear the debates, so I was not aware till today that the Republicans have seriously started pushing for a gold dollar. Crazy.

Two articles (the one in the Atlantic has a link to a more extensive background piece) on why this is nuts are worth reading, if you don't already see the problem.

The real problem is not mentioned in either of the articles, though both are fine as far as they go. Today, there is so much commerce that there is not nearly enough gold to support it. This has been a problem even in the past when economic life was much more restricted.

But in a world of 8 billion people, most of whom get most of their income from commerce and not personal production, there just isn't enough gold to give each one a doubloon.

UPDATE: I see Krugman has joined in.

The interesting question is what will happen to monetary policy if a Republican wins next year’s election. As best as I can tell, most economists believe that it’s all talk, that once in the White House someone like Mr. Rubio or even Mr. Cruz would return to Bush-style monetary pragmatism. Financial markets seem to believe the same. At any rate, there’s no sign in current asset prices that investors see a significant chance of the catastrophe that would follow a return to gold.
But I wouldn’t be so sure. True, a new president who looked at the evidence and listened to the experts wouldn’t go down that path. But evidence and expertise have a well-known liberal bias.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tradition, TRADITION!

Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
Tradition, tradition! Tradition! (Tevye, in "Fiddler on the Roof")
 I love Christmas traditions.  The ceremonial Condemnation of the Fruitcake. The Maxing of the Last Credit Card. The Mysterious Expensive Christmas Card (Father: Who the hell are Maxine and Floyd in -- looks at envelope -- Columbus, Ohio?).

For an old newspaperman like me, a cherished Christmas tradition is the First Report of a Senseless Holiday Homicide coming over the AP wire (usually something like "Man beats brother to death with unopened can of Stokely-Van Camp Pork 'n' Beans during drunken argument on Thanksgiving afternoon").

But when in the name of sweet baby Jesus did Snowflakes on a Starbucks Cup become a cherished Christmas tradition?

This is -- no lie -- one of a series of emails I've been getting from Christian bigots:

 "Faith Driven Consumer’s #ChristmasBUYcott scores first victory as Dunkin’ Donuts sends clear “we want your business” message to faith community; yesterday, FDC called on 41 Million Faith Driven Consumers to BUYcott—proactively spend their $30 Billion Christmas budget with the most faith-compatible brands"

The "war on Christmas" bigots are both stupid and offensive and -- judging by my Facebook feed last year -- a lot more prevalent than you'd like to think, though I hope (perhaps naively) that they are still in a minority.

Merely stupid is the used gum tradition at Pike Place Market. And, heaven help us, according to Wikipedia also in San Francisco. What is it with these liberals?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Book Review 356: British Battleships of World War II

BRITISH BATTLESHIPS OF WORLD WAR II, by Alan Raven and John Roberts. 435 pages, illustrated. Naval Institute

General Billy Mitchell has come close to mythic status as the glamorous and visionary airman who preached the future of airpower to an unready America but was sacrificed to the outdated prejudices of the “gun club” admirals of a hidebound Navy.

The real story is that Mitchell was a charlatan, one among a flock of memorable con artists like Charles Ponzi, Wilson and Addison Mizner, Calvin Coolidge, Aimee Semple MacPherson and  Irving Fisher who helped make the ’20s the “era of wonderful nonsense” (the phrase is from Frederick Lewis Allen, who watched it unfold).

The fact is, no battleship was ever sunk — or even inconvenienced — by aerial bombing of the kind preached by Mitchell, and the reasons become apparent in Alan Raven and John Roberts’ “British Battleships of World War II,” although they never mention Mitchell’s name. They do refer to him, contemptuously.

Except for the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, no American battleship was ever sunk by any means.

British big gun ships had a harder time of it, and of the 15 the Royal Navy had at the opening of the war, 5 were sunk (two by submarine, one by gunfire, one by aerial torpedoes and one by a mine); and of the 4 commissioned during the war, 1 was sunk (by aerial torpedoes). Others were damaged and out of service for long periods, but never by Mitchell-style bombing. (Before Pearl Harbor, the United States violated neutrality by repairing several Royal Navy battleships, and without that help the British navy would have been in serious trouble in 1942.)

However, of the 6 that were sunk, 2 were battlecruisers that by design sacrificed the protection that made battleships so tough in order to get speed. The theme of Raven and Roberts is the struggle to balance protection, armament and speed for the most effective ship.

The British considered their ships were the best balanced, with the American ships underprotected and the Japanese overgunned. (The Italian battleships were well balanced but not well used and 3 of 5 were sunk.)

The puzzle was made less tractable by the naval treaties engineered by the antimilitary Republican presidents of the ‘20s, which left the British with old ships except for two. Despite some reconstruction (described in great detail in the book),  the Royal Navy entered the war with only 7 battleships that were up-to-date, and none sufficiently armed to cope with dive bombers (which had not been invented when Mitchell ran his fraudulent demonstrations off the Virginia Capes).
Unlike the flyboys, who sold moonshine, the navies of all the powers capable of building a battleship (UK, USA, France, Germany, USSR, Italy and Japan) were using a sophisticated form of what was later to be called operational research to evaluate designs. They were handicapped by an absence of any fighting to provide a final test, but the battleships of World War II were highly capable fighting machines, though very expensive.

Up to 1943, gun club fighting was significant for Britain, in part because aviation was not yet advanced enough to attack warships; not to mention the fact that in the North Atlantic and Arctic, several important battles were fought a night or in weather that was too bad for planes to fly at all. Radar, not pilots in silk scarves, changed that.

“British Battleships” is well-documented, well illustrated and well argued, except for one odd lapse.

The Royal Navy had developed excellent 15-inch guns by 1915 but for complicated reasons that   are explained in the book, it reduced the caliber of the guns in its modern King George V class to 14-inch.

There were only two fights in which the 14-inch guns were crucial: the first encounter with the German Bismarck and the Battle of North Cape. The authors inexplicably declare that the teething troubles experienced by the new (not fully completed) HMS Prince of Wales vs. Bismarck had been corrected by the time HMS King George V fought at North Cape. This is incorrect. King George V won that battle but it had serious problems with its guns.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Peak meddling

The New York attorney general is investigating whether ExxonMobile misled investors in its securities filings over the risks from climate change to the success of its investments.

I do not know Eric Schneiderman, but somehow I suspect that concern for the bank balances of ExxonMobile shareholders like me is not what's motivating him.

However, my first reaction was the same as with all discussions of the business risks sections of  annual 10K reports: Corporate managers do not like the idea of honestly revealing the risks they understand their businesses to be facing and so have taken to stuffing this section with every imaginable piece of obvious, stultifying garbage, so that only someone with lots of time on his hands will read through them. And despite an SEC rule that "climate risk" be considered, someone named Lawrence Taylor (not the retired linebacker) has determined that three out of four do not mention it.

Gee. Possibly they consider it less of a threat than, say, "our future business results also depend on our ability to manage successfully those factors that are at least in part within our control." (From Exxon's latest report.)

Here, by the way, is what Exxon has to say about climate risk:
Climate change and greenhouse gas restrictions. Due to concern over the risk of climate change, a number of countries have adopted, or are considering the adoption of, regulatory frameworks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These include adoption of cap and trade regimes, carbon taxes, restrictive permitting, increased efficiency standards, and incentives or mandates for renewable energy. These requirements could make our products more expensive, lengthen project implementation times, and reduce demand for hydrocarbons, as well as shift hydrocarbon demand toward relatively lower-carbon sources such as natural gas. Current and pending greenhouse gas regulations may also increase our compliance costs, such as for monitoring or sequestering emissions.
Funny, nothing about the next ice age, which is nearly certain although when is hard to say.

This looks like a waste of public resources. The fraud cops might find more productive targets at, oh, I don't know,  Mannatech (which is a much worse offender than Exxon in the obfuscation game; Exxon's 10-K is actually pretty good in the risk outlook section).

It takes a while to find, but Mannatech did warn that "scandals within the industries in which we operate" could adversely affect its business, and, lo and behold, unlike global warming or Obama's declaration of martial law, this one did happen.

 Only the risk turned out golden, so far.

It turns out that predicting the future is really hard.

Comment of the Week

From a Facebook site that my daughter often links to -- We Love GMOs and Vaccines -- someone named Jeph Hurley writes:

There's no better quick and dirty test to tell how first world end of the spectrum you are than by how severely you apply the precautionary principle.
 Someone named Jay Turetzky added:

 I wonder if people realize that this quote applies to some other highly publicized debates as well...

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gun nut delusions: three against one

In James Bond movies, hundreds of men with machine guns shoot thousands of bullets at Bond and his girlfriend and every one misses them. Usually Bond defends himself by throwing a handy empty barrel at several of the closest assailants, but when things get a bit hectic, he squeezes off a round from his Walther PPK and, although he is diving and rolling, his bullet finds its mark.

That is the kind of infantile delusion that animates concealed carry advocates. Real life is different.

Not much detail has been released about this robbery and gunfight at a Rhode Island gun shop -- the kind of place, the gun nuts tell us, nobody ever tries to rob. But the event is common enough that we can run through the possible scenarios.

In the one that is most conformable to gun nut delusions, the robbers intended to kill every possible witness, and the shop owner saved himself (unless he dies, which seems possible still) by using his gun and wounding two of the robbers.

Unluckily, there were three robbers and one of them also shot him, and he was later found bleeding by the mail lady.

This is possible, although nowadays with cameras everywhere shooting witnesses is not as productive a strategy as it used to be.

In most robberies (including other robberies of gun shops, videos of which have been linked here at RtO), the robbers do not plan to shoot anybody, instead using their guns to intimidate witnesses into stillness and compliance. I have talked with several people who have been robbed at gunpoint in gun shops, and they all say they did everything they could to show they were complying.

A typical robbery lasts a minute or less, so the advantage is all with the robber or robbers. Surprise plus intimidation is usually enough to prevent resistance.

But one way to change a robber's mind about shooting is to pull a gun on him.  In an example a couple of months ago in Houston, the robbers charged in shooting, and the owner shot back, killing one of them.

What happened in Providence is yet unknown. It may have been like the Houston holdup (without the car crashes that may have alerted the pawnbroker to get his gun ready).

More likely, the robbers would have left the Providence man unhurt had he not decided to shoot it out.

There are 300,000,000 guns in America. Maybe sometimes a good man with a gun can defeat a bad man with a gun, but there's nothing to stop the bad man from bringing along his bad friends, like in the scene in "Jurassic Park" when the human hunter is ambushed by the velociraptor's friends..

What happened to the Providence businessman is regrettable. It would be even worse if it happened because (primary cause) bad men have unlimited access to firearms and (secondary cause) the storekeeper bought in to gun nut fantasies.

Friday, October 23, 2015

It had to happen in Florida

RtO has pointed to many squirrely gun stories but this is the squirreliest.

Don't bring a BB gun to a gun fight.

This appears to count a a +1/2 in the good guns/bad guns balance of effects. The bad guy was certainly looking for trouble but it is not so clear what kind. Presumably he wasn't going to shoot his ex-wife and kids to death with BBs.

It is not so clear that the only way to resolve this incident was with gunfire, but it was Florida, so the shootee could not complain on that count.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review 355: Air

AIR: The Restless Shaper of the World, by William Bryant Logan. 398 pages, illustrated. Norton paperback, $16.95

I wouldn’t have thought you could write 350 pages  about “Air” without mentioning what gases make up Earth’s air and in what proportions, but William Logan has done it.

On the other hand, I’d have thought you could write 350 pages about “Air” without scatology, but William Logan hasn’t done that.

This is a very strange book in which we learn more about the untouristy places William Logan has visited than we do about trace gases in the atmosphere. When he does refer to the physical characteristics of air, he doesn’t always get them right; notably when he writes that the mass of the air is 500 trillion tons. That’s only one-eleventh of the accepted value.

Perhaps if he had spent less time on the vaporings of Maritain and Merton and more with reference books, he’d have gotten it right.

“Air” is not without its moments. Though he cannot be bothered to discuss the gaseous constituents of air, he is eloquent about the particles that the air supports, like fungus spores. He writes interestingly about learning to fly an airplane and sail in a hang glider; about weather; and about smells.

He also spends way more pages writing about the sonata form in western music than you’d expect —I’d have expected nothing — but what that has to do with air is not stated. He does point out that the sounds of music travel through air, but they travel also through water and steel.

The failure to discuss the constituents of air and their relative proportions is a very serious thing. Though Logan makes less of a fuss about climate change than I’d have expected, it is clear that he is among those who believe that the air’s share of carbon dioxide is titrated so delicately at three parts per 10,000 that it is ideal for humans, but that 4 parts per 10,000 would be a disaster.

The closest he gets to discussing proportions of gases comes in a discussion of oxygen levels (which, typically, he sets too low), which today are around 21%. He mentions they were very low before the evolution of photosynthesis, but there’s no hint that they seem later to have been very high — perhaps 50% above current levels.

You’d think that a discussion about why they dropped back and have settled, for quite a long time, at a lower level would have been part of a book about “Air.” But, again, you’d be wrong.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ben Carson: lunatic or moron?

Can we vote both?

Not only does he hold unorthodox views about the Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum -- I kid you not -- he appears to disbelieve in what philosophers call the arrow of time: Does time flow in one direction and, if so, why?

Now that Carson seems to be firming up his status as a Republican leader, reporters are examining his entrails and they're finding some weird stuff.

Not his young earth creationism. Plenty of other GOP presidential candidates, like Jindal, share that; although few would essay a 45-minute lecture on the topic the way he did.

That is where he reveals his odd views on angular momentum, not usually a topic that people even have opinions about.

Now The Progressive delves into a written statement Carson made claiming that American children in the 1830s were better educated than today. The Washington Post reprints the article, which explains how Carson cited six questions from a 6th-grade test of that era and wondered how many students today could get them correct.

Never mind that it wasn't a 6th-grade test and that whatever it was, reporter Jud Lounsbury determined that most children failed it. But get a gander at one of the questions:

Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865.

Is this like one of those annoying Facebook posts that asks you how many triangles you see?

It is!

Reader timsn274 asked:

"Did anyone else notice that Dr. Carson claims that the test is from the 1830's, yet contains questions about historical events in 1849 and 1865?"
Well, as Lounsbury reports, not only did Ben Carson, a man with an overweening vanity about his intelligence, not notice it, the Internet screed where Carson picked it up has been making the rounds on rightwing sites for over 15 years, and it appears that none of them noticed it either.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Gun nut delusions: a polite society

One of the gun nuts' favorite delusional slogans was lifted from a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel. I guess they don't notice that it's called science fiction, not science fact:

A typical real world example occurred in Memphis this week:
Authorities said Lorenzo Clark, 36, got into an argument Sunday with his neighbor, Terence Olridge, 31, who was headed into work. The altercation in the normally quiet Memphis suburb of Cordova escalated into an exchange of gunfire, and Olridge was shot multiple times and died at a hospital, authorities said.
 And what work was Olridge headed for? He was a police officer.

So this one is a twofer for us gun grabbers. Not only can we mock the "polite society" dimwits, we can also note that the NRA mantra that "the only thing that stops a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun" didn't work so well this time: Clark was, if not a provably "bad man" at least a felon with a firearm.

Even in my home state of Tennessee this is against the law.

Tennessee is full of guns, but it is not especially polite. For example, yesterday in my hometown:
Eight hours after a gunman opened fire on students waiting at a school bus stop in Alton Park on Tuesday morning, parents watched the yellow school buses rumble back to the same spot after school and recounted how their children managed to avoid the bullets.
 They did not seem to be confident that Tennessee's virtual absence of controls on firearms was making them safe:
 Both asked not to be identified because they fear for their safety.

UPDATE Oct. 16

UPDATE Oct. 17

Liven up your shopping experience with irresponsible gunplay. your daily serving of delusional gun nut fail.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Gun nut delusions: seeing is disbelieving

One of the favorite claims by gun nuts is that "nobody robs a gun store." In the real world -- the one gun owners refuse to inhabit -- it happens every day.

Today, f'instance. Note the gun shop workers on the floor as the armed robbers take their ugly-looking assault rifles, and ammunition to make them work.

This was in gun crazy -- and I do mean crazy -- Colorado. The linked story doesn't say so, but other reports note that two schools nearby were locked down while peolice hunted for the robbers, who, unaccountably, were not subdued by the gun shop workers despite their access to plenty of guns.

Of course, they could have rushed the robbers, like lunatic Republican presidential candidate -- but I repeat myself -- Ben Carson suggests school children should do. Or they could have rushed one of them, although perhaps then one of the other robbers would have shot them.

Who can say? 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Speaker for Animal House

I don't know why the Republicans are having such a hard time finding a Speaker for the House of Representatives. There is an obvious candidate: Sarah Palin.

She handles her liquor as well as John Boehner, she's as eloquent as Kevin McCarthy and she doesn't have any skeletons in her closet -- they're out brawling on the lawn. And since she shut down her teevee channel, which was occupying her for up to 6 minutes a week, she's available.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Carly's Mitt moment

OK, Fiorina did not herself say this, but she didn't bother to pay the people who worked on her Senate campaign either. It is her numbskull operations director saying it:

“People are just upset and angry and throwing her under the bus,” said Jon Cross, Fiorina’s operations director for her Senate campaign. “If we didn’t win, why do you deserve to get paid? If you don’t succeed in business, you shouldn’t be the first one to step up and complain about getting paid.”
I dunno, Jon. If my business invests in advertising to increase sales, but sales don't increase, why should I have to pay the newspapers and radio stations that ran my ads? If I buy diet yogurt so I can lose weight but I don't lose, can I get my money back?

It would be hard to believe anybody could be that dumb, but Cross's boss watches imaginary videos, so maybe it's an example of incompetent fools hiring idiots. Maybe so everyone will feel comfortable in the executive lounge. 

Who knows?

In the latest Pew poll, Jeb Bush, the only GOP contender  besides Trump who doesn't have to worry too much about money, is polling 4% among Republicans. Had enough? as the GOP said in 1948.

I am beginning to think that my prediction -- made half in jest -- that Trump will knock out a candidate a week and bring us to early January with Donald as the Republican standard bearer without any Republican having had an opportunity to cast a vote has a good chance of coming true.

A failed foreign policy

RtO spends a lot of time making fun of rightwingers, because they are evil, stupid and harmful to our polity. But the left or liberals have their failures as well.

They are just not as funny.

It is true that President Obama's foreign policy has failed, at least where he has tried to use military force. He has had numerous successes in the political sphere.

Part of his failure results from having an incompetent military. He inherited that but he hasn't tried to fix it.

But a big part has been his misunderstanding of the situation. RtO has consistently called him out on this, starting in 2009 and continuing off and on since. I have concentrated on asking for support for a free and independent Great Kurdistan.

This is not because Kurdistan is the most pressing issue of international politics but because it is the most clearly justified. If America stands for democracy and self-determination -- it hasn't since 1945 but it did once, sort of -- then freedom for the largest ethnic, historical, linguistic population without a nation of its own ought to be a self-evident policy.

If we cannot understand that, how can we expect ourselves to understand more complicated situations?

The Kurds have acted to the limits of their military capacity to set up a homeland. From the New York Times story cited above, it looks as if the Iraqi Shia are prepared to accept that:

The reality is that Iraq’s Shiite majority seems to be settling in to a divided Iraq and increasingly questioning whether it is worth shedding Shiite blood in areas like Anbar Province or Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the Islamic State captured in June 2014.

Waving the white flag at the new caliphate is a stupid position to take, and the Shia will come to regret that; but no one can say the Iraqi Shia have ever demonstrated any political sense. However, a recognition that the artificial borders of Iraq are not worth preserving and that something like a return to the three provinces of the Ottoman era could be made to work is something.

To make a Great Kurdistan, four old states will have to be broken up. Two already have been: Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, as in Iraq, Obama seems devoted to preservation of borders that go back only a century or so and were drawn to suit European empires, not the people who live there. Obama is no wiser than Kissinger in this respect.

Certainly, the questions call for skillful manipulation, and it can hardly be true that every trouble spot will be best served with a cookie-cutter response. The United States is on firm ground in supporting the independence of Ukraine, but it was silly to balk at the defection/seizure of Crimea, never historically Little Russian and only written into the borders of a fake "autonomous" republic of Ukraine as a result of cynical imperial maneuvering in the 1950s.

Foreign ministries almost always favor stable borders. It makes their life easier, at least so they think. Obama appears to have deferred to the Foggy Bottom bureaucracy too much, and neither of his secretaries of state has shown any vision or understanding of the aspirations of foreigners.

It cannot be a surprise that people will not willingly die for antidemocratic, antisocial, kleptocratic regimes. They won't always decide to die to get rid of them, but they will never choose to die for them.


Supply Side Jesus and the long-term bond

It's been a bad 24 hours or so for rightwing Christians.

First, Bill Maher absolutely nailed rightwing Christian economic preaching with his rap on Supply Side Jesus.

"Give all the fish to the 1% and let the fish trickle down."

Then "Pope Francis opened a divisive meeting of the world's bishops on family issues Sunday by forcefully asserting that marriage is an indissoluble bond between man and woman." So, like RtO has pointed out more than once, rightwing marriage heroine Kim Davis is living in sin wih a man not her husband.

Other reports say the pope is going to can the sleazeball archbishop who slipped Davis into the receiving line at the embassy, allowing Davis's attorney to float -- for a couple of days before reporters blew it to pieces -- a story claiming that il papa had praised Davis's courage.

I don't know if I believe the firing report; none of the sources repeating it is known to me; and I never did believe the report about the pope praising Davis, since I know Catholic theology -- 14 years, straight A's every report card.

So, is it time for Restating the Obvious to state an obvious fact, even though no one else seems to be noticing it? It is!

It's this: When god handed down the 10 rules for going to hell, he did not rank them. You get there just as surely by coveting your neighbor's ox as by disrespecting your parents. Or by lying.

Thou shalt not bear false witness. He went to the trouble to engrave it in stone, even.

Mat Staver, the prating Christian lawyer who retold the lies about Davis and the pope, ought to meditate on that one for a while. Mat Staver is going to hell.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Book Review 354: Tweakerville

TWEAKERVILLE: Life and Death in Hawaii’s Ice World, by Alexei Melnick. 262 pages. Mutual paperback, $15.95

It is uncommon for a didactic novel to also be a good novel, but Alexei Melnick has done it with “Tweakerville,” which can be read from several points of view and works in all of them.

We know it is didactic because Melnick ends the book with a Q & A about why he wrote it and how the characters can be critiqued and understood. I generally avoid didactic novels and also novels set in Hawaii with drugs as the theme. In the first case, I hate sermons; and in the second, the plots and authors are usually lame and lazy.

I read this one because of a positive blurb by Chris McKinney, who wrote a fine novel about Hawaii’s underclass, “The Tattoo.”

“Tweakerville” can be read as a tragedy in the sense that Aristotle defined it: a character makes a decision that is blameless in itself but brings disaster to everyone around him.

In this case, Jesse, a runner for a crystal meth dealer, answers a ringing cell phone. It is an automatic, thoughtless gesture; but the phone belonged to a young girl who overdosed at a party the night before. Jesse has just dug a hole to dispose of her body.

(One of the many threads of contrast in the novel is the honest dealer vs. the dishonest dealer. Apparently the dead girl had bought low-quality ice (batu, clear) from the dishonest dealer. However, honest dealers like Jesse and his mentor Robby don’t do any better than the bad ones.)

Or “Tweakerville” can be read as a noir crime novel. Jesse is the young acolyte -- 17 when we meet him -- aiming to gain respect and money by serving an established hoodlum.

 In this reading, the novel is as pitiless and violent as, say, Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”

The best reading is as a coming of age novel. If “Tweakerville” has a long life among readers, I suspect it will be as a young adult novel, although it was not written as one. Its profanity would have precluded its publication even for adults two generations ago, but young adults read sterner stuff these days.

In addition to Jesse’s quest for adulthood, there is a love story, with Kapika, also 17 when we meet her. She is from a somewhat more privileged social class than Jesse (but only somewhat), but this is no Gatsby yearning for Daisy romance. Jesse and Kapika are among the more cynical young romantics of literature.

(I have little to criticize in this book, but for a novel meant to be realistic, there is a serious goof in the meeting scene of Jesse and Kapika. Jesse is trying to buy beer [unusually for him; he usually boosts it] and Kapika the clerk demands identification. The problem is that in Hawaii, the seller as well as the buyer has to be of age; 17-year-old Kapika would not be allowed to sell beer.)

Many betrayals and murders later, the novel ends back at the dead girl’s grave. Going clean, as dealer Robby does, does not preserve you. Being a loving family guy, like Vili, Jesse’s most admired friend, does not preserve you. Being a stand-up guy, as Jesse is, does not preserve you.

Smokable meth -- or as Jesse calls it, clear -- dominates all. “Next thing you know had seven cop cars up the road. All for one tweaked out love sick butchie.  Clear is like that for some guys. No fear or pain, no tomorrow, just love and rage right now.”

Melnick has chosen to write the novel in the first person. Jesse speaks what I call Bamboo Ridge creole (because it originated in the literary magazine Bamboo Ridge), a printed form of pidgen that is not like any pidgen you hear but is serviceable enough. Kapika’s language is slightly less pidgen-y, and her tone is also slightly less effective.

Melnick is a born-and-raised, and his local color touches are authentic and nuanced, which is something outsiders writing fiction set in Hawaii never achieve. Locals will understand why Jesse’s last name is Gomes: Potagees (Portuguese) are stereotyped in the islands as loquacious, but the stereotype is valid often enough; only a Potagee would have told this long story. The other locals are, typically, economical of speech.

Once or twice, Melnick oversells the contrasts. Jesse is a dropout; he has an older sister who did well in school. That her school was Punahou (Barack Obama’s high school) is not impossible for a Potagee family headed by a tugboat captain but slightly surprising.

Gun nut delusions exposed

Gun nuts are all pretty much psychotics, in the definition that says a psychotic is someone who is not able to distinguish his fantasies from reality. Here we have a clear statement that exposes their key delusions.

One, which has been disproven so often that we can only conclude that anyone still shopping it is either a deliberate liar or crazy, is that killers aiming at a big score choose "gun-free zones."

However, the Umpqua school is not free of guns. How many persons on the campus were armed is hard to say, but the number was not zero and, according to the statement linked above, was considerable. They did not ride to the sound of the guns. They sheltered in place, just like wimpy unarmed liberals.

For good reason:
“Luckily we made the choice not to get involved,” he explained. “We were quite a distance away from the building where this was happening. And we could have opened ourselves up to be potential targets ourselves, and not knowing where SWAT was, their response time, they wouldn’t know who we were. And if we had our guns ready to shoot, they could think that we were bad guys.”
That is the very most optimistic view of it. Had they intervened, they'd just as likely have shot a student as a gunman, as happened in gun-happy Houston last week. Even more likely, they'd have lost the shootout with the already armed and prepped killer.

Three million Americans have been shot to death in the past century. The number who were criminals plugged by a conveniently placed gun nut is very small, and possibly (even probably) smaller than the number of innocents shot by mistake.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review 353: Against the Gods

AGAINST THE GODS: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF RISK, By Peter L. Bernstein. 383 pages. Wiley paperback, $18.95.

When “Against the Gods” was published in 1996, it was taken seriously. Parts of it still can be, but subsequent events have turned Peter Bernstein’s thesis into a bad joke.

His idea is that over a period of around 800 years, men (no women) thinking about mathematical descriptions of events figured out how to manage risk for the good of all of us.

Only in the past generation, though, did they really nail it. Prior to that time, humans considered themselves at the mercy of fate or capricious deities — hence the title. These mathematicians showed how there are regularities and constraints that we can use to guide our planning. Good for them.

It began with gamblers trying to understand their chances. These chances are now very well understood, at least by those who understand them. The casinos are full of people who do not.

In the 19th century, the mathematicians began to try to understand far more complex systems, including those in which humans can make choices. The villain here was Francis Galton, who wildly overinterpreted some apparent regularities that appear across unrelated systems.

This is the reversion to the mean, and here is where Bernstein starts becoming ridiculous.  Especially as it is applied to markets, which was Bernstein’s job. He had a company that advised fund managers.

If you think about it, it is really hard to find examples of any system that reverts to its mean. Physical systems have to come to equilibrium, and the example of a balloon obeying the ideal gas laws is probably the favorite example.

But it is hard to find an example of a real physical system reverting to a mean; or even to define such a mean. Did the atmospheres of the Moon and Venus revert to a mean? Is a black hole a reversion to a mean?

The temperature of the Earth, which has not varied too much from its current value for nearly 4 billion years, is the only example I can think of.

Anyway, when it comes to stocks and other investments, Bernstein is downright comical. The price of tulip bulbs, for example. They went way up in the 17th century and then came down, which Bernstein says should not have surprised investors who got in late. But today I can buy a tulip bulb for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a penny of the 17th century price; the price is so low that it cannot be computed in terms that would mean anything to a resident of Amsterdam 400 years ago.

So what mean was that reverting to?

As Bernstein finished “Against the Gods,” two of the book’s heroes, Merton and Scholes, were advising a hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management, how to manage risk. By the time the paperback edition came out, LTCM was broke and, far from reducing overall risk, it was so big that it had manufactured global systemic risk that had not existed before.
In his summation, Bernstein does recognize the joker in the deck, although he fails to assign it its proper weight.

By the ‘90s, the people who thought they understood how to manage risk — and were paid immense amounts to do so — were in love with derivatives. Handicapping the first wave of disastrous derivatives in the early ‘90s, Bernstein opined:

“There is no inherent reason why a hedging instrument should wreak havoc on its owner. . . . These disasters in derivative deals among big-name companies occurred for the simple reason that corporate executives ended up adding to their exposure to volatility rather than limiting it. They turned the company’s treasury into a profit center (once they noticed that hedges, which are a zero-sum game, sometimes yielded big gains).”

But nothing is more predictable than that managers in a free market system will do so. They have to, and everything in their ideology tells them they are right to do so.

Bernstein’s final pages are odd. After spending 300 pages telling us that risk has become scientifically manageable, for the benefit of all of us, he then describes how it hasn’t.

Long before the Bush Crash, the mortgage crisis in derivatives was brewing — it had nothing whatever to do with the Community Reinvestment Act — and here Bernstein did almost anticipate risk correctly. Though only in a footnote, he warned: “these mortgage-backed securities are complex, volatile, and much too risky for amateur investors to play around with.”

Too risky for the pros, too. I wonder what Peter L. Bernstein Inc. was advising its clients about mortgage-backed securities in 2006-7 or thereabouts. 

(I just realized that this Bernstein is the same idiot who wrote “Wedding of the Waters,” a ridiculous book about the Erie Canal. I wish I had connected the names sooner and not wasted my time on this silly book. On the other hand, Bernstein was in his time an influential popularizer of theories of investment, so it was useful to learn what doofus ideas Wall Street will buy.)


Institutional amnesia

“My first job as speaker is to protect the institution,” Mr. Boehner said, as he left the institution of the House of Representatives.

I wonder what  the Speaker thought he was doing for the institution when he allowed it to conduct 54 -- or six, if you use rightwing math -- pointless votes to end Obamacare.

This is a newly popular meme among rightwing failures. Just last week, Scott Walker announced that he was protecting the nomination process by leading himself out of it:
"Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field," Walker said.
I guess Bob Dole was the last consciously humorous Republican but he wasn't nearly as funny as these guys.