February 2013 Archives

By now everyone remembers that the sequestration was President Obama's idea, despite his persistent efforts to fudge the facts.

The White House instead has, with great success, fudged the facts. The administration has convinced a majority of the country that Republicans are more to blame by emphasizing that Republicans voted for the plan. Which they did -- after Obama conceived it.

The truth is that Obama and Republicans supported it because everyone believed it was a such a stupid idea that the grown-ups in Washington would never actually let it happen. They thought Obama and Congress would come up with a grand bargain on spending, entitlement cuts and tax increases, instead of allowing the sequestration ax to fall. They were wrong.

Our politicians are pretty absurd, but democracy means that we get what we deserve. The fact of the matter is that the public wants the budget to be cut, but no one wants to accept the loss of programs that a budget cut would mean. Politicians harp on "waste, fraud, and abuse", but that's hard to find and target. Everyone complains of bureaucratic bloat, but that's just another word for "jobs". Every anti-sequester sob story I've seen focuses on the poor bureaucrats who will suffer.

So, until the American people figure out what we want we shouldn't expect our politicians to do it. Politicians don't lead, they generally follow, and right now the boss, the public, is basically insane.

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is the archetypal "fire and brimstone" sermon, a style which is largely rejected by modern preachers but can nevertheless frame the nature of God's hatred of sin and love for humanity in a powerful, and terrifying fashion. Here is an excerpt from "Sinners" on the uselessness the schemes that a man crafts to keep himself out of Hell.

All wicked men's pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment. Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do. Every one lays out matters in his own mind how he shall avoid damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself, and that his schemes will not fail. They hear indeed that there are but few saved, and that the greater part of men that have died heretofore are gone to hell; but each one imagines that he lays out matters better for his own escape than others have done. He does not intend to come to that place of torment; he says within himself, that he intends to take effectual care, and to order matters so for himself as not to fail.

But the foolish children of men miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow. The greater part of those who heretofore have lived under the same means of grace, and are now dead, are undoubtedly gone to hell; and it was not because they were not as wise as those who are now alive: it was not because they did not lay out matters as well for themselves to secure their own escape. If we could speak with them, and inquire of them, one by one, whether they expected, when alive, and when they used to hear about hell, ever to be the subjects of misery: we doubtless, should hear one and another reply, "No, I never intended to come here: I had laid out matters otherwise in my mind; I thought I should contrive well for myself -- I thought my scheme good. I intended to take effectual care; but it came upon me unexpected; I did not look for it at that time, and in that manner; it came as a thief -- Death outwitted me: God's wrath was too quick for me. Oh, my cursed foolishness! I was flattering myself, and pleasing myself with vain dreams of what I would do hereafter; and when I was saying, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction came upon me."

I've created a shop to sell sequester survival gear. There are various shirts and clothes, as well as other paraphernalia likes mugs and messenger bags. This is my first foray into CafePress, so I covet your feedback. I've set the prices just about as low as CafePress will allow, so enjoy!



Glenn Greenwald has a great piece eviscerating MSNBC for fawning over President Obama. My favorite hit:

Impressively, David Axelrod left the White House and actually managed to find the only place on earth arguably more devoted to Barack Obama. Finally, American citizens will now be able to hear what journalism has for too long so vindictively denied them: a vibrant debate between Gibbs and Axelrod on how great Obama really is.

But anyway, there's a larger point: most of the media has lost its adversarial stance in favor of cozying up to the powerful.

In response to the ensuing criticism over how strangely happy he obviously became at being squirted in the face by Obama's then-Chief of Staff, Henry appeared on NPR where the following irony-free exchange, one of my favorite ever, actually occurred:
"NPR's BROOKE GLADSTONE: 'If these events don't influence coverage, why do you think the White House throws them? Do they just want to shoot you with a super-soaker?'

"ED HENRY: 'Maybe they wanna actually get to know us as people sometimes.'"

"Maybe they wanna actually get to know us as people sometimes": that's why Obama officials throw parties for White House journalists, said Ed Henry. That is easily one the funniest sentences ever. Did I mention that Ed Henry is the head of the White House Correspondents Association?

Ed Henry is with Fox. He thinks that the Obama White House wants to throw parties for journalists not to influence coverage but to get to know them as people. Seriously.

That you can cover what political officials do more effectively when you act adversarially and without their "cooperation" doesn't seem to occur to them. Moreover, getting to sit for personal interviews with the president usually produces anything but adversarial questioning. As even Politico admits: "some reporters inevitably worry access or the chance of a presidential interview will decrease if they get in the face of this White House."

Economic interpretation: politicians have broken the media cartel. The more favorable the coverage, the more access you get. Politicians basically get journalists to bid against each other, and whoever bids the most favorable coverage gets access. Journalists should recognize the game they're playing and wisen up. Unfortunately in an era of declining media revenue the outlets who stand firm will lose eyeballs (they fear) along with access.

It seems there are a lot of theories about how humanity escaped the Malthusian Trap, defined as such:

The Malthusian trap, named after political economist Thomas Robert Malthus, suggests that for most of human history, income was largely stagnant because technological advances and discoveries only resulted in more people, rather than improvements in the standard of living. It is only with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in about 1800 that the income per person dramatically increased in some countries, and they broke out of the Trap

That is: more total wealth led to more people, and the per capital wealth remained unchanged. I'm sure lots of historians and economists have covered this ground before, but the explanation for how humanity escaped this trap seems pretty obvious to me.

At some point in history, wealth started being generated more quickly than humans were generated. The percentage growth of wealth may have remained the same, but the absolute value of that growth kept increasing. At some point, the absolute value of the wealth increase was more than could be absorbed by simply having more kids. The "wealth/person" ratio had stayed constant, but at some point the numerator started growing faster than the denominator could, due to biology.

Which is more important: income equality or growth?

To see the limits of this reasoning, consider two hypothetical scenarios. In the first, 99 percent of the population has an average income of $10 and the top 1 percent has an income of $100. In the second, we increase the income gap. Now, the 99 percent earn $12 and the top 1 percent earns $130. Which scenario is better?

This hypothetical comparison captures several key points. First, everyone is better off with the second distribution of wealth than with the first--a clear Pareto improvement. Second, the gap between the rich and the poor in the second distribution is greater in both absolute and relative terms.

The stark challenge to ardent egalitarians is explaining why anyone should prefer the first distribution to the second.

An underlying question, however, is whether or not the top 1 percent is extracting wealth from the other 99 percent, either through taxation, regulation or force. Absent some form of unfair dealing, everyone should prefer the second scenario even though there is more income inequality.

Kurt Schlichter rails against those who treat government bureaucrats like our masters rather than our servants.

As for Barack Obama, and I say this with no disrespect, but he's just an employee. There's this thing military people know as the "chain of command." When it comes to American citizens, we're at the top of the chain. Done. That's the entire chain of command for an American citizen, and the President's not in it. Should he presume to suggest a course of action, with a few rare and well-defined exceptions, it is just that - a suggestion. ...

Is some minor bureaucrat giving you grief? Don't take it! Try this awesome word that we hear all too rarely from our fellow citizens - "No." Ask a relevant question - like "Who the hell do you think you are?" Complain, firmly and forcefully, to whoever is doing you wrong, and if that fails to his boss, and then to your city councilman, or state legislator, or congressman if you need to.

We need a lot fewer government employees.

Alan Taylor has a great series of photos capturing the world of 1963 -- 50 years in the past.

I'm starting to think that it's fortunate that ObamaCare (a.k.a., the Affordable Care Act) is full of holes. Maybe some semblance of sanity will be able to leak through.

The core problem with Obamacare is that it depends on ripping off the young and healthy to subsidize the old and infirm. On the one hand, we're glad that young people are able to escape the clutches of this trap, but we can't help but notice that their escape will bankrupt the system. It's almost as if the politicians didn't read the law before they passed it, and had no idea how its various provisions would cause car crashes as they tried to roll it out.

Maybe it'll be so bad that it gets repealed or basically ignored.

Scientists have given rats the ability to sense infrared light by means of a brain implant.

Scientists have created a "sixth sense" by creating a brain implant through which infrared light can be detected.

Although the light could not be seen lab rats were able to detect it via electrodes in the part of the brain responsible for their sense of touch. ...

But the new study, by researchers from Duke University in North Carolina, is the first case in which such devices have been used to give an animal a completely new sense.

Dr Miguel Nicolelis said the advance, reported in the Nature Communications journal this week, was just a prelude to a major breakthrough on a "brain-to-brain interface" which will be announced in another paper next month.

More interesting to me than a brain-to-brain interface would be a brain-to-internet interface. I'd love to browse the web and send email with my brain.

James Altucher always has something interesting to say. (I think he'd like that compliment.) Here are some letters he wrote to Google. The first starts:

Dear Google, I sort of want to have sex with you. Or I want you to be my father. Or my best friend. I don't know, I feel so nervous writing this letter.

Thanks James for teaching me that I always need to start with a hook. I need to practice this. Someday I'd like to write like you.

I'm proud to be a conservative, and my interests certainly do not always align with the Republican Party. However, it's gratifying to see that the Republicans are serious about diversity and actually have a more diverse set of statewide office-holders than the Democrats.

This is why it might surprise you to hear that Republicans are by far the more diverse party when it comes to statewide elected officials such as senators and governors. On this front, they leave Democrats in the dust. And that's why the GOP actually has a greater depth of diversity on their potential presidential bench looking to 2016 and beyond.

It's counterintuitive but true. Numbers don't lie. Let's start with a look at the governors, the traditional launching pad of presidential ambitions.

Among the Republican ranks is Brian Sandoval, the Hispanic governor of Nevada. The 49-year-old former federal judge took on a corrupt conservative incumbent and is now racking up an impressive reform record in his first term. Likewise, there is New Mexico's Gov. Susana Martinez, a former district attorney who remains popular in her state despite an otherwise Democratic tide.

How many Hispanic governors do the Democrats have in office? Zero.

As James Taranto notes, this isn't "counterintuitive", it just runs against common stereotypes of Republicans. Republicans and conservatives are not racist or sexist.

Bill Kristol and Peter Wehner indict President Obama for his inattention and passivity on September 11, 2012, the night that our embassy was attacked in Benghazi, Libya.

Thanks to the congressional testimony of outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey late last week, we know they met with President Obama on Sept. 11 at 5 p.m. in a pre-scheduled meeting, when they informed the president about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The meeting lasted about a half-hour. Mr. Panetta said they spent roughly 20 minutes of the session briefing the president on the chaos at the American Embassy in Cairo and the attack in Benghazi, which eventually cost the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, security personnel Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and information officer Sean Smith.

Secretary Panetta said the president left operational details, including determination of what resources were available to help the Americans under siege, "up to us." We also learned that President Obama did not communicate in any way with Mr. Panetta or Gen. Dempsey the rest of that evening or that night. Indeed, Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey testified they had no further contact at all with anyone in the White House that evening--or, for that matter, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

That's not all we discovered. We now know that despite Gen. Dempsey having been informed of Ambassador Stevens's repeated warnings about the rise of terrorist elements in Benghazi, no forces were put in place or made ready nearby to respond to possible trouble. It also seems that during the actual attacks in Benghazi, which the administration followed in real time and which lasted for some eight hours, not a single major military asset was deployed to help rescue Americans under assault.

So what happened? Ann Althouse speculates about the timeline and it's easy to imagine that she's right.

I think he is ashamed. Here's what I've been assuming happened: It looked like our people were overwhelmed and doomed, so there was shock, sadness, and acceptance. But then the fight went on for 7 or 8 hours. The White House folk decided there was nothing to do but accept the inevitable, and then they witnessed a valiant fight which they had done nothing to support. It was always too late to help. It was too late after one hour, then too late after 2 hours, then too late after 3 hours.... When were these people going to die already? After that was all over, how do you explain what you did?

President Obama should be ashamed. I'd be pleased if he resigned, for this and for a host of other reasons. The national media should also be ashamed for letting this story slide through the election -- this is much more significant than Watergate, folks. (And should we bring up Fast and Furious some more?) I think that President Obama is trying to do his best. The media, on the other hand, is more intent on covering for the President's failures than on performing its duty to the American public.

Key job for the media: interview some of the other Americans who were in Benghazi that night. Not everyone was killed. There were numerous other Americans at the embassy and the CIA safehouse who were rescued. Find them. Interview them.

Far be it from me to dispute Scientific American, but their recent bit about the internet reaching it's "limit" is nonsense.

The number of smartphones, tablets and other network-connected gadgets will outnumber humans by the end of the year. Perhaps more significantly, the faster and more powerful mobile devices hitting the market annually are producing and consuming content at unprecedented levels. Global mobile data grew 70 percent in 2012, according to a recent report from Cisco, which makes a lot of the gear that runs the Internet. Yet the capacity of the world's networking infrastructure is finite, leaving many to wonder when we will hit the upper limit, and what to do when that happens.

There are ways to boost capacity of course, such as adding cables, packing those cables with more data-carrying optical fibers and off-loading traffic onto smaller satellite networks, but these steps simply delay the inevitable. The solution is to make the infrastructure smarter. Two main components would be needed: computers and other devices that can filter their content before tossing it onto the network, along with a network that better understands what to do with this content, rather than numbly perceiving it as an endless, undifferentiated stream of bits and bytes.

Now I'm all for "smarter" networks, for some definition of "smart", but there are significant downsides to the approach mentioned later in the article by Markus Hofmann, head of Bell Labs Research in New Jersey. As I bolded above, there is a very simple and proven way to expand the capacity of the internet: more and fatter cables.

Says Hofmann:

We know there are certain limits that Mother Nature gives us--only so much information you can transmit over certain communications channels. That phenomenon is called the nonlinear Shannon limit [named after former Bell Telephone Laboratories mathematician Claude Shannon], and it tells us how far we can push with today's technologies. We are already very, very close to this limit, within a factor of two roughly. Put another way, based on our experiments in the lab, when we double the amount of network traffic we have today--something that could happen within the next four or five years--we will exceed the Shannon limit. That tells us there's a fundamental roadblock here. There is no way we can stretch this limit, just as we cannot increase the speed of light. So we need to work with these limits and still find ways to continue the needed growth.

The Shannon-Hartley theorem is real, but it all it does is define the limit for the amount of information that can be pushed through a pipe. It doesn't prevent us from laying new pipes.

How do you keep the Internet from reaching "the limit"?

The most obvious way is to increase bandwidth by laying more fiber. Instead of having just one transatlantic fiber-optic cable, for example, you have two or five or 10. That's the brute-force approach, but it's very expensive--you need to dig up the ground and lay the fiber, you need multiple optical amplifiers, integrated transmitters and receivers, and so on.

Yes, it's expensive to lay more pipes, but the return on investment is massive. Cars are expensive too, and yet few people ride Segways. Laying fiber costs money, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. DoD, Microsoft, Google, Apple, IBM, the financial industry, telecommunications... etc. The demand is huge, the profits are huge, and more fiber cables are being laid down as fast as humanly possible.

Hofmann continues:

What's needed is a network that no longer looks at raw data as only bits and bytes but rather as pieces of information relevant to a person using a computer or smartphone. On a given day do you want to know the temperature, wind speed and air pressure or do you simply want to know how you should dress? This is referred to as information networking. ...

Today, if you want to know more about the data crossing a network--for example to intercept computer viruses--then you use software to peek into the data packet, something called deep-packet inspection. Think of a physical letter you send through the normal postal service wrapped in an envelope with an address on it. The postal service doesn't care what the letter says, it's only interested in the address. This is how the Internet functions today with regard to data. With deep-packet inspection, software tells the network to open the data envelope and read at least part of what's inside. [If the data contains a virus, the inspection tool may route that data to a quarantine area to keep it from infecting computers connecting to that network.] However, you can get only a limited amount of information about the data this way, and it requires a lot of processing power. Plus, if the data inside the packet is encrypted, deep-packet inspection won't work.

A better option would be to tag data and give the network instructions for handling different types of data. There might be a policy that states a video stream should get priority over an e-mail, although you don't have to reveal exactly what's in that video stream or e-mail. The network simply takes these data tags into account when making routing decisions.

There are a whole host of downsides. False tagging and labeling would completely undermine such a system, which is one of the reasons it doesn't already exist. The idea is not new. "Information networking" is basically impossible in an untrusted environment because people want their data to be safe and encrypted, not inspected by every computer that routes it to its destination. This kind of trusting approach might work on specialized, contained networks, but it won't work on the internet.

What's more, opening up the content of data on the network would give enormous power to the governments and corporations that control the internet's infrastructure. Who is in favor of that other than bureaucrats and tyrants?

Even if a smarter Net can move data around more intelligently, content is growing exponentially. How do you reduce the amount of traffic a network needs to handle?

Our smartphones, computers and other gadgets generate a lot of raw data that we then send to data centers for processing and storage. This will not scale in the future. Rather, we might move to a model where decisions are made about data before it is placed on the network. For example, if you have a security camera at an airport, you would program the camera or a small computer server controlling multiple cameras to perform facial recognition locally, based on a database stored in a camera or server. [Instead of bottlenecking the network with a stream of images, the camera would communicate with the network only when it finds a suspect. That way it sends an alert message or maybe a single digital image when needed.]

Increasing the amount of processing done on data before transmitting it is a viable approach, but there are trade-offs. In particular, the trend has been to move towards "post before process" rules that intentionally post raw data onto networks so that end users with purposes that aren't known to the data provider can process the raw data according to their needs. If the data collector processes data before posting it there is a strong likelihood that something will be discarded that would have been valuable to someone. The data collector (and the human who designed it) shouldn't be responsible for knowing the needs of everyone who might use the data ever in the future. Hence, post before process. It's an extremely valuable method, and network capacity will expand to preserve it.

So my prediction is that networks will get more efficient, but they'll also get fatter. Bandwidth will keep going up forever. The only physical limit to wired bandwidth expansion is the physical space required to lay cable.

(HT: MG.)

Humans are not good at performing rote, mechanical tasks. When we're trained to do so we tend to excel by eliminating the breadth of thought that separates us from machines. Three examples:

83% of radiologists miss gorilla while searching for cancer.


Ok, now watch this video and see if you can count how many times a white team member passes the ball to another white player.

Notice anything weird? 50% of people don't.

And those TSA folks looking at x-rayed bags all day?

Security screeners at two of the nation's busiest airports failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents posing as passengers in more than 60% of tests last year, according to a classified report obtained by USA TODAY.

Screeners at Los Angeles International Airport missed about 75% of simulated explosives and bomb parts that Transportation Security Administration testers hid under their clothes or in carry-on bags at checkpoints, the TSA report shows.

Humans are not good at processing massive quantities of data, so when we have to perform searches on visual data we do it by creating culling and trimming out things that usually aren't important. These jobs will all be replaced by robots.

An awesome video showing off some intelligent algorithms for managing autonomous vehicle traffic.

The major difficulty will implementing a system that can yield efficiency advantages for the ever-increasing number of computer-driven vehicles while still allowing for the ever-decreasing number of human-driven vehicles.

(HT: RB and Txchnologist.)

Just a friendly reminder that sequestration was first proposed by President Obama in 2011.

No one disputes the fact that no one wanted sequestration, or that ultimately a bipartisan vote in Congress led to passage of the Budget Control Act. But the president categorically said that sequestration was "something that Congress has proposed."

Woodward's detailed account of meetings during the crisis, clearly based on interviews with key participants and contemporaneous notes, make it clear that sequestration was a proposal advanced and promoted by the White House.

In sum: Gene Sperling brought up the idea of a sequester, while Jack Lew sold Harry Reid on the idea and then decided to use the Gramm-Hollings-Rudman language (which he knew from his days of working for Tip O'Neill) as a template for sequester. The proposal was so unusual for Republicans that staffers had to work through the night to understand it.

So if the sequestration happens and disaster follows just remember who proposed it.

Just a friendly reminder that despite President Obama's continual promise to "focus on jobs" the unemployment rate is still higher in 2013 than when Obama took office in 2009.

The unemployment rate is 7.9 percent -- one tenth of a point higher than it was when Obama took office in January 2009. But the true toll of joblessness is far higher. The Labor Department's so-called U-6 rate, which includes people who want a job but have become so discouraged they have quit looking, is 14.4 percent. And a new study, by Rutgers University scholars, shows that 23 percent of those surveyed have lost a job sometime in the last four years, while another 11 percent have seen someone in their household lose a job. That is one-third of the American people who have experienced unemployment during Obama's time in office, along with many more who have experienced other hardships of the economic downturn.

I sincerely hope that the next four years are better for America than the last four.

Alex Tabarrok has an insightful post about how closeness and severity affect the perception of torture. Read it all, but here's his conclusion:

The theory has interesting lessons for entrepreneurs of social change. Suppose you want to change a policy such as prisoner abuse (e.g. Abu Ghraib) or no-knock police raids or the war on drugs or even tax policy. Convincing people that the abuse is grave may increase their belief that the victim is guilty. Instead, you want to do one of two things. Among the patriotic you may want to sell the problem as a minor problem that We Can Fix - making them feel good about both the we and the fixing. Or, you may want to create distance - The problem is bad and THEY are the cause. People in the North, for example, became more concerned about slavery once the US became us and them.

I think research in moral reasoning is important because understanding why good people do evil things is more important than understanding why evil people do evil things.

It's very interesting to consider whether there are really any "good" people in any objective sense. Within the torture context the experiment that Alex describes demonstrates that each participant believes that he is the good guy, even if they think that someone else is acting evil. Christianity resolves this problem by asserting that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong, but absent God is there a humanistic way to examine "why good people do evil things"? Or is it more meaningful to simply ask "why do some people do things I don't like?"

Remember the days when comedians struggled to find ways to mock President Obama? Well fortunately we're past that now and there are plenty of hilarious photoshops of Obama with his shotgun.

John Podhoretz describes in excruciating detail just how badly Chuck Hagel did at his confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense.

So Hagel corrected himself, kind of: "I was just handed a note that I misspoke -- that I said I supported the president's position on containment. If I said that, I meant to say that we don't have a position on containment." Whatever that means.

Later he said he was sorry he'd called the Iranian government elected and legitimate; rather, he should have said it was recognized.

"I don't understand Iranian politics," Hagel said -- which would be understandable if, say, Khloe Kardashian were testifying. But Hagel is going to be a key official determining US policy toward Iran, and one would hope he'd bring a bit of pre-existing knowledge to the table. ...

"There are a lot of things I don't know about," Hagel said, when it came to America's defenses. "If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do."

But why should he bother? After all, he said in perhaps the most head-shaking comment of the day, "It doesn't matter what I think."

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) begged to differ: "It matters what you think," she found herself saying in response.

Or maybe this was the most head-shaking comment: Defense secretary is "not a policymaking position," and because he has to work in consultation with others and in service to the president, he won't be "running anything."

Senators generally make terrible administrators. There are exceptions, but not many. The kind of skills and talents that make for even a great Senator (like who?) are very different from those that make a great executive. Senators don't run anything. Most of them are in charge of staffs that run into the dozens at most. They don't have to be experts on anything much less operate a bureaucracy, they just have to say "yes" or "no" when staffers and lobbyists tell them to.

I'd be happy to have a Constitutional amendment that bars Senators from the Presidency and cabinet-level positions.

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