Monday, December 31, 2018

Aurora and Manicouagan Crater from the Space Station

Aurora and Manicouagan Crater from the Space Station. From NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

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Image Credit: NASA
Explanation: How many of these can you find in today's featured photograph: an aurora, airglow, one of the oldest impact craters on the Earth, snow and ice, stars, city lights, and part of the International Space Station? Most of these can be identified by their distinctive colors. The aurora here appears green at the bottom, red at the top, and is visible across the left of image. Airglow appears orange and can be seen hovering over the curve of the Earth. The circular Manicouagan Crater in Canada, about 100 kilometers across and 200 million years old, is visible toward the lower right and is covered in white snow and ice. Stars, light in color, dot the dark background of space. City lights appear a bright yellow and dot the landscape. Finally, across the top, part of the International Space Station (ISS) appears mostly tan. The featured image was taken from the ISS in 2012.

Path in Snow

Path in Snow by Eyvind Earle (1916 - 2000)

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London Bridge Half Tide

London Bridge Half Tide, 1861 by John Grimshaw

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The average high school GPA of a representative sample of 700 millionaires in the United States is 2.9

Entertaining but you have to keep in mind that the half-life of the veracity of some of these items might be quite short. From 52 things I learned in 2018 by Kent Hendricks. Most all these are pulled from books which ought to indicate a higher probability of validity. However, there are many items in this list which the replication crisis calls into sharp challenge as to their probable truth. There are others which are old chestnuts oft repeated by also highly contestable.

Here are some of the items which were new to me, seemed at least possible if not plausible, and were intriguing.
Around 90% of infants lie with their heads facing right. (Gardner, et. al. 1976)

In the NBA, teams down by one at halftime are more likely to win. (Berger & Pope, 2011)

On average, a piece of gossip gets passed on to 2.3 people—often people who are higher status than you. In this way, gossip functions as a check on the amount of power the people with the highest social status have in a group. (Dacher Keltner, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence)

Contrary to the beliefs of roughly 33% of Americans, Kansas is not the flattest state. In fact, it’s the 9th flattest state, and it’s one of only two Great Plains states to make the top ten (the other is North Dakota). The flattest state is actually Florida, the second flattest state is Illinois, and the least flattest is West Virginia. (Disruptive Geo)

The average high school GPA of a representative sample of 700 millionaires in the United States is 2.9. (Eric Barker, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong)

For nine hundred years, there was a persecuted and despised underclass in France called the Cagots, living in villages from the English channel to northwestern Spain. They were not allowed to enter buildings or churches via main entrances, they were served communion on a stick, they were not allowed to pay taxes or possess firearms. They were allowed to practice carpentry and ropemaking, but no other trades. As late as 1968, people were still mocked for being descended from Cagots. Nobody really knows where they came from or why they were so discriminated against. (Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography)

Roughly one-fifth of Europeans alive a millennium ago have no living descendants today. (Adam Rutherford, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived)

Inventing fire and learning how to cook food has given humans many physiological advantages over our primate cousins. Chimps can chew around 300 calories of food per hour, while humans can intake an average of 2,000-2,500 calories per hour or more. Chimps spend more than six hours per day chewing; if humans ate the same raw foods as chimps, we would be chewing 42% of the day, just over five hours. In fact, humans chew between 5 to 12% of each day, and that figure includes a 2 hour evening meal. (Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human)

The surface area of human lungs is as big as a tennis court. (James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science)

86% of people in France have never traveled by airplane. (Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography)

People spend roughly one hour each day traveling or commuting, regardless of city size or form of transportation. This is called Marchetti’s constant. Whenever faster forms of transportation have been invented—the domestication of horses, the invention of trains, cars, and then planes—people do not reduce the amount of time spent commuting, they simply commute farther. Walking speed is around 5 km per hour, so the maximum size of a walking city is roughly 20 square kilometers; there are no large ancient cities built prior to 1800 larger than this. As transportation has become faster, and transportation networks have expanded, the physical size of cities has expanded in direct proportion. When people spend less time commuting or work at home, they make up for in it other days, including by going on walks that last as long as the remaining time that would be allotted for commutes. Even people stuck within the confines of prison spend around an hour a day walking around. (Wikipedia)
How many Americans have never flown? 18% according to this research.

Kin ties are declining but nonkin ties are increasing

From Is Loneliness Rising? by Timothy Taylor, an economist. It is an interesting question.

I did some research on this for a technology client a couple of years ago. The question being whether there was evidence to support the supposition that technological isolation might be causing rising loneliness or whether technological overexposure might be causing rising anxiety. Both are widely held suppositions but the evidence is remarkably diaphanous.

Something is happening as evidenced by 100,000 people dying a year from some sort of plague of ennui (deaths from drug overdoses, suicide, and alcohol). But whether it has anything to do with technology or loneliness or anxiety is remarkably hard to demonstrate.

From Taylor:
During this holiday season, as families and friends seize and make opportunities to gather, one wonders about those who do not feel that they have such a community. It's easy to find claims that loneliness is rising (for example, here's a recent Wall Street Journal article on that theme). But last summer the Social Capital Project run by the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress published "All the Lonely Americans?" (August 22, 2018) and found little evidence of such an increase. The report cites a broad array of claims and evidence, which you can check out for yourself. But here's a quick overview of some main points (with citations omitted for readability):
"There are a few different but related questions that tend to get lumped into one general story about whether loneliness is on the rise in America, in part because of a lack of good data, and occasionally because of a failure to distinguish the two often distinct lines of psychological and sociological research. One question is whether Americans are increasingly alone (that is, have fewer social contacts, or have less social interaction). This question, which sociologists tend to study, is about objectively observable social networks or relationship characteristics. It is distinguishable from the second question, regarding the subjective experience of loneliness. This latter question—whether Americans are increasingly experiencing loneliness (`perceived social isolation')—has typically been the research purview of psychologists.

"Correlations are lower than we might expect between the most common measures of loneliness and objective measures of social network characteristics, so these two questions are substantially though not wholly distinct from each other. ... However, it is not at all clear that loneliness has increased over the last several decades.

In his 2011 book, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970, sociologist Claude Fischer puts a fine point on this question: `For all the interest in loneliness, there appears to be little national survey data that would permit us to draw trends.'

"We looked for the strongest support for the claim that loneliness has risen, and the best we could find comes from polls by FGI. Between 1994 and 2004, the FGI polls indicate that the share of adults saying loneliness was a problem for them rose from roughly 25 percent to 30 percent. It is unclear, however, whether this five-point difference reflects a real shift or arises from chance differences in the people sampled in each year or in survey administration.

"The remaining evidence suggests flat trends. ... The claim that loneliness has doubled—or even increased—since the 1980s (let alone the late 1960s) is simply unwarranted. ... It is entirely possible that loneliness has increased over time, but the available evidence does not appear to support that claim. It is just as possible that loneliness has stayed the same or even declined."
In terms of measures of "aloneness," the study quotes from Fischer's 2011 book, where he wrote:
"Over the long run—say, the last couple of centuries—Americans' ties to kin have diminished, in number at least, if for no other reason than that families have shrunk in size. In addition, nonkin relationships have probably displaced weaker kinship and local ties—people may now turn to friends instead of cousins, to coworkers instead of neighbors. The friendships that emerge from work, clubs, hobbies, and casual meetings, and that are then sustained by modern affluence and communications, have probably grown in number and kind. In the window of the last forty years, not much has changed, and that continuity probably testifies to the ardor of Americans' ties to their families and friends."
All of which pretty much matches what I found for both loneliness and anxiety.

I suspect that there are some real trend issues around these topics but that they cannot be captured in aggregate population data. If we were to collect data by income or social economic status quintile we might see that there are some real problems that are getting washed out in overall averages. My suspicion but we are not there yet with the data.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Time of the Season by The Zombies

Time of the Season by The Zombies

Double click to enlarge.

Time of the Season
by The Zombies

It's the time of the season
When love runs high
And this time, give it to me easy
And let me try with pleasured hands

To take you in the sun to (promised lands)
To show you every one
It's the time of the season for loving

What's your name?
Who's your daddy?
(He rich) Is he rich like me?
Has he taken, any time (any time)
(To show) to show you what you need to live

Tell it to me slowly (tell me what)
I really want to know
It's the time of the season for loving

What's your name?
Who's your daddy?
(He rich) Is he rich like me?
Has he taken, any time (any time)
(To show) to show you what you need to live

Tell it to me slowly (tell me what)
I really want to know
It's the time of the season for loving

NGC 6744 Close Up

NGC 6744 Close Up. From NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Click to enlarge.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the LEGUS team
Explanation: Beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 6744 is nearly 175,000 light-years across, larger than our own Milky Way. It lies some 30 million light-years distant in the southern constellation Pavo, its galactic disk tilted towards our line of sight. This Hubble close-up of the nearby island universe spans about 24,000 light-years across NGC 6744's central region in a detailed portrait that combines visible light and ultraviolet image data. The giant galaxy's yellowish core is dominated by the visible light from old, cool stars. Beyond the core are pinkish star forming regions and young star clusters scattered along the inner spiral arms. The young star clusters are bright at ultraviolet wavelengths, shown in blue and magenta hues.

Roofs Under the Snow

Copenhagen, Roofs Under the Snow by Peder Severin Krøyer (Danish,1851-1909)

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Hajnal Line, alive and well in the modern era

For those wondering, The Hajnal Line from Wikipedia.
The Hajnal line is a border that links Saint Petersburg, Russia and Trieste, Italy. In 1965, John Hajnal discovered it divides Europe into two areas characterized by different levels of nuptiality. To the west of the line, marriage rates and thus fertility were comparatively low and a significant minority of women married late or remained single; to the east of the line and in the Mediterranean and select pockets of Northwestern Europe, early marriage was the norm and high fertility was countered by high mortality.
The Hajnal Line has a lot of practical implications in terms of folk ways, culture and institutions, and consequently prosperity.

The magnificent interstellar void of his cranium

From Left behind – life beyond the London bubble by James Bloodworth. Having lived in England multiple times since the 1960s and with family still there, I can testify to Bloodworth's observations.
“You’d think as we go forward things would be getting better, but they’re actually getting worse.” This pointed comment on the state of Britain’s buses came from Janice, a 73-year-old pensioner standing next to me at a windswept bus stop in the Somerset coastal town of Burnham-on-Sea.

Looking for a bus in the English countryside brings to mind the well-known aphorism about waiting for ages before two come along at once. Except, only the first part of this cliché holds true in any reliable sense: you certainly wait for ages, though a significant period of time usually elapses before a second bus arrives.

The dearth of public transport outside of England’s cities is shocking, especially for those accustomed to the comprehensive network that exists in London – where, of course, even when public transport lets you down there is typically a taxi close at hand (and you have the mobile phone reception to call one, unlikes many parts of rural England).

Having moved back to Somerset for the summer, I recently spent several days travelling around the county by bus in order to see how services compare to when I was growing up in the area. I live in a small village situated roughly half-way between Weston-Super-Mare and Taunton on the south west coast. There are shops located nearby – B&M Bargains, a few curry houses, as well as the obligatory hair salons and charity shops – but to find anything beyond groceries and cheap socks you have to venture further afield. This invariably requires a car or public transport. More than a quarter of Somerset’s population (28 per cent) is aged over 60, and they largely rely on the latter.

The first thing that strikes you about local buses, however, is how empty many of them are. On the 9.20 from Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea I found myself sitting alone on the upper deck – just four elderly passengers sat below. Rural bus services are essential for poorer or ageing communities, but as profit-making enterprises, they’re also unviable ­– something the introduction of free bus passes in 2007 has exacerbated. I was probably the only fee-paying customer aboard that bus.

Services are thus trapped in a vicious cycle in which fewer people travel by bus, so subsidies are withdrawn and fares hiked in order to sustain existing levels of coverage, and that in turn drives away those who can’t afford the higher fares. Figures from the Department for Transport show that passengers in Somerset took 7.2 million bus journeys in 2016-17, 2.6 million fewer than in 2009-10. It’s impossible to say for certain why this has happened, but fewer services and steeper fares seem an obvious starting point.
The article continues in this vein. The Cliff Notes version is "Public transportation outside London sucks." And indeed it does.

It is interesting how confusing these sorts of discussions become. Bloodworth - "as profit-making enterprises." But they are not profit-making enterprises in any fashion that that term is usually meant. The government contracts with bus operators for the provision of public transportation. But it is still a public service. The fact that contractors provide it more cheaply than civil servants, does not make it any less of a public service. A profit-making enterprise would be one that is sufficiently free of government regulations such that it can profitably schedule service when and where customers want that service. Public transport provides service when and where the government wants - not necessarily a Venn diagram with a lot overlap.

We had an interesting example of this distinction here in Atlanta a few years ago. MARTA is the regional public transport system including integrated bus and rail transportation. It is expensive to the consumer (more in terms of time but to some extent in terms of money), and it is expensive to the taxpayer in terms of subsidies, occasionally intermittent, routes not always convenient, schedules are not necessarily optimal, cleanliness also tends to be varied - typical issues for public transportation. But it is the sanctioned public transportation - you use it or you don't, that's your only choice. There is minimum choice.

Consequently, everyone who can uses a car. The upper middle class lobbies hard for more money to be spent on public transportation in the hope that everyone else will get off the road and make their own commutes in their BMWs faster and more convenient. But it never turns out that way. We spend more on public transportation and everyone continues to go by car.

About fifteen years ago, Royal Bus Lines, owned and operated by an immigrant, Carlos Ochoa, found some sort of loophole in the City charter. He began running a flexible bus service catering primarily to Hispanic immigrant communities. Smaller buses, owner-operators, flexible routes, clean enough, bilingual, cheaper fares, better schedules. The buses would stop wherever they saw a cluster of riders and made a simple and frequent loop between the communities and the nearest MARTA train station. And they cleaned MARTA's bus clock.

There were fisticuffs and incidents as MARTA bus drivers took exception to Royal Bus Line "stealing" potential MARTA riders. Kind of a local issue until things settled down.

But it served as an illustration of the inherent challenges of a public transportation system such as MARTA (or British buses) and what would be viewed as the real profit-making enterprise, Royal Bus Lines.

So Bloodworth is confusing public transportation and real competitive transportation alternatives. Which in some ways is not too surprising. Britain, as did the US, used to have private competitive bus and rail services up into the 1930s when many of them were nationalized or municipalized. In both countries, transportation has bifurcated between public transportation (buses and rail) and private (cars and a few long haul bus services).

There have been intermittent efforts, particularly under Thatcher in the 1970s and 80s to reintroduce some aspects of competitive private enterprise into "public" transportation but with fitful results.

Instead, in Britain, non-London populations become more and more isolated with worse and worse public transportation services and none of the Mandarin Class care.
Of course, it’s easy to slip into nostalgic reminiscing about the good old days of punctual and frequent public transport. Yet the available statistics – both local and across the country as a whole – do tell a discernible story of decline. Across Britain, more than 3,000 bus routes have been scrapped, reduced or altered in the last eight years, according to the Campaign for Better Transport. Britain’s bus network has fallen to levels not seen since the late 1980s. A lady I chatted to aboard the bus from Burnham-on-Sea to Taunton relayed to me how it took around four and a half hours for her to get to get to Taunton and back, a journey she made twice a week to take her disabled son to hospital. That 17-mile journey takes 40 minutes each way in a car.

Time is the only real commodity that the poor possess. During my research into precarious work in 2016, I learned that a low-income is nearly always synonymous with a great deal of wasted time. To be poor is to wait around at the whim of petty officialdom: for paperwork to be processed at the job centre, or, indeed, for the bus to turn up at the side of the road. It is inevitably the vulnerable and hard-up who are hardest hit when bus services are reduced or scrapped.


The fact we don’t take these inconveniences seriously costs us all in the long run. Research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation earlier this year found that a lack of punctuality on the part of buses was preventing many in the north of England from securing or keeping work. The Yorkshire Post recently reported on the cases of workers who had been fired because local buses had repeatedly failed to turn up to take them to work.

For city-dwellers, the decline of public transport in the countryside is something only noticed on a weekend away. And even then the stakes are inevitably lower: to be delayed on a day-trip to the country is an inconvenience; to lose your job because the bus didn’t show up is a potential catastrophe. This perhaps explains why, beyond the confines of the regional press – itself undergoing something of a crisis – the state of Britain’s buses receives scant political attention. Indeed, when the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn led on the issue of bus services at PMQs in July, he was assailed by online commentators for not leading with attacks on the Government over Brexit.
Where Bloodworth falls down is that he does an adequate job of at least identifying that there is a consequential problem that disproportionately affects the poor. Where he fails, is to actually consider alternatives. He wants government owned/operated public transportation to be better. He does not consider that there are alternatives that might be better such as allowing competition to determine what routes, schedules, and prices should be based on public demand.

Bloodworth's conclusion is that we ought to trust the State to make better transportation decisions and spend more on transportation without acknowledging that the poor service and expense is directly a result of a state monopoly. Socialism is always great, it just hasn't been done right seems to be his conclusion.

On a happier note, we can count on Bill Bryson who agrees that the service is wretched. From The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain.
The bus service from Bognor Regis to Brighton via Littlehampton is advertised as the Coastliner 700, which makes it sound sleek and stylish, possibly turbo-charged. I imagined myself sitting high above the ground in air-conditioned comfort in a plush velveteen seat, enjoying views over bright sea and rolling countryside through softly tinted glass, the kind so subtly coloured that you feel like turning to the person sitting beside you and saying, ‘Is this glass lightly tinted or is Littlehampton ever so slightly blue?’

In fact, the bus when it wheezed in had none of these features. It was a cramped and airless single-decker filled with hard metal edges and moulded plastic seats. It was the sort of vehicle you would expect to be put on if you were being transferred between prisons. But on the plus side it was cheap – £4.40 for the journey to Hove, which was less than I had spent on a pint of lager in London the night before.

I was still cautiously excited for I was about to travel through a succession of small and, I hoped, charming resorts: Littlehampton, Goring-by-Sea, Angmering, Worthing, Shoreham. I imagined them as the sort of happy villages that you would find in a Ladybird book from the 1950s – high streets with pleasant tearooms and shops with bright striped awnings selling pinwheels and beach balls, and people walking along holding cones with globes of yellow ice cream. But for the longest time – a good hour or more – we never went near the sea or even any identifiable communities. Instead we rolled through an endless clutter of suburbia on bypasses and dual carriageways, passing nothing but superstores (and there’s one of the least correct terms in modern British life), petrol stations, car dealerships and all the other vital ugliness of our age.
Which all sounds ineffably grim. And is.

But Bryson always sees a glint of humor in any situation, caustic though it sometimes is.
An earlier passenger had discarded a pair of glossy magazines in the seat pocket beside mine and I lifted one out now in a moment of bored curiosity. It was one of those magazines with a strangely emphatic title – Hello!, OK!, Now!, What Now! Not Now! – and the cover lines all seemed to be about female celebrities who had gained a lot of weight recently, though none that I saw looked exactly sleek to begin with. I had no idea who any of them were, but their lives made fascinating reading. My favourite article – it may be my favourite thing in print ever – concerned an actress who took revenge on her feckless partner by charging a £7,500 vaginal makeover to him. Now that is what I call revenge. But what, pray, do you get with a vaginal makeover? Wi-fi? Sauna? Regrettably, the article failed to specify.

I was hooked. I found myself absorbed in the sumptuously mismanaged lives of celebrities whose common denominators appeared to be tiny brains, giant boobs, and a knack for entering into regrettable relationships. A little further on in the same issue I found the arresting headline ‘Don’t kill your baby for fame!’ This turned out to be a piece of advice from Katie Price (a dead ringer for the late model Jordan, if you ask me) to a rising star named Josie. Ms Price is not a writer to mince words. ‘Listen up, Josie,’ she wrote, ‘I think you’re absolutely disgusting. Having boobs and getting an abortion doesn’t make you famous!’ Though intellectually and emotionally I was inclined to agree with Katie on this point, it did rather seem from the article that Josie was living proof of the contrary.

The photographs of Josie depicted a young woman with breasts like party balloons and lips that brought to mind those floating booms they use to contain oil slicks. According to the article, she was expecting ‘her third son in two months’, which I think we can agree is quite a rate of reproduction even for someone from Essex. The article went on to say that Josie was so disappointed at having another boy and not the girl she had longed for that she had taken up smoking and drinking again as a signal of displeasure to her reproductive system. She was even contemplating having an abortion, which is why Ms Price had leapt so emotionally into the fray. The article noted in passing that young Josie was considering book deals from two publishers. If it turns out that my own publisher is one of them, I will personally burn down their offices.

I hate to sound like an old man, but why are these people famous? What qualities do they possess that endear them to the wider world? We may at once eliminate talent, intelligence, attractiveness and charm from the equation, so what does that leave? Dainty feet? Fresh, minty breath? I am at a loss to say. Anatomically, many of them don’t even seem quite human. Many have names that suggest they have reached us from a distant galaxy: Ri-Ri, Tulisa, Naya, Jai, K-Pez, Chlamydia, Toss-R, Mo-Ron. (I may be imagining some of these.) As I read the magazine, I kept hearing a voice in my head, like the voice from a 1950s B-movie trailer, saying: ‘They came from Planet Imbecile!’

From wherever they spring, they exist in droves now. As if to illustrate my point, just beyond Littlehampton a young man with baggy pants and an insouciant slouch boarded the bus and took a seat across from me. He was wearing a baseball cap several sizes too large for his head. Only his outsized ears kept it from falling over his eyes. The bill of the cap was steamrollered flat and still had its shiny, hologram-like price sticker attached. Across the brow in large capitals was the word ‘OBEY’. Earphones were sending booming sound waves through the magnificent interstellar void of his cranium, on a journey to find the distant, arid mote that was his brain. It must have been a little like the hunt for the Higgs boson. If you took all the young men in southern England with those caps and that slouch and collected them all together in one room, you still wouldn’t have enough IQ points to make a halfwit.

Good intentions always fall victim to reality

From Texas City Featured in Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Sequel’ Lost Millions in Its Green Energy Gamble by Michael Bastasch. As a report, it is somewhat one-sided but given that in the media at-large the one-sidedness is all the other way, it is the only counterbalance available.

With a more than thirty-year career consulting to the utility energy, I have more than a passing knowledge of the issues and context.

With a faith-based conviction in anthropogenic global warming, a native inclination to improve the environment, with a government designed incentive structure to invest in uneconomic energy sources, a strong tendency towards simplistic solutions, a pathological desire to use other people's money to solve putative but unproven problems, and capital markets with sufficient depth and liquidity to allow an almost inconceivable level of pushing costs onto future generations in order to indulge nonsense now, we have the perfect storm for virtue signaling failure.

The naive but hopeful idea is that we can conjure up cheap, reliable, safe energy alternatives to carbon based fuel and that we can replace all our coal plants, gas plants and nuclear plants with renewable energy such as solar, wind, or wave.

When I graduated college in 1982, after having taken a number of classes on energy economics and alternate energy sources, I made an assessment of career options. I was intrigued and very interested in the potential for a carbon free future through renewables. But my honest assessment then was that despite all the promising technologies on the near horizon, it was unclear exactly when renewables might become an economic or operational alternative. The horizon for feasibility always seemed five years ahead and that had been true for some decades.

Now, nearly four decades after that assessment, it remains as true now as then. The costs of solar and wind have fallen. We have made huge strides on the engineering and fundamental science so that the economics have improved. But the same has been happening on the carbon energy side of the equation as well. The gap between carbon energy and renewable energy remains as wide as ever. And the ten-year promise of fusion and thorium reactors also remains ten years out.

Whether you view Al Gore and his ilk as delusional faith-based evangelists or mere charlatans, there is no denying that they have been effective at parting tax payers from their money through the auspices of government policies. While a few big half billion losses such as Solyndra catch the attention, it is the small few hundred or few thousand dollar subsidies here and there and the local government initiatives in the millions and tens of millions which, in aggregate, really handicap the economy and the future.

Part of the problem is that the alternative energy sources, without subsidies, are still not economically viable. Almost a bigger issue is that alternative renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar, are inescapably unreliable which wreaks havoc on electric grids.

Germany has shackled its economy, already exposed to Chinese subsidized competition, with expensive and unreliable renewable energy. Sweden has been headed down the same road, both of them replacing their nuclear fleets with renewables. The Australian state of South Australia did the same thing to the point where they nearly destroyed their electrical grid.

Here in the states, California is doing the same thing. California and, to a lesser extent, a handful of other states, counties and cities. Tragically, they all tend to be blue locales with already strained tax burdens and over-extended public debt exposure. You can see the slow-motion wreck occurring and yet no-one wants to acknowledge that the happy delusions are just that.

Bastasch is reporting on just such an experience in Georgetown, Texas. Georgetown is a small city thirty miles north of Austin and an indirect beneficiary of that city's regional boom.
Georgetown began its shift toward 100 percent wind and solar energy several years ago, and the city says it reached that goal in July after the Buckthorn solar plant went online. The city owned utility contracts with Buckthorn and the Spinning Spur 3 wind farm for all its power needs.

Georgetown Utility Systems contracted to buy wind and solar at fixed prices until 2035 and 2043, respectively. Georgetown is obligated to buy about twice as much power as it actually needs from green power plants. The city is the first in Texas and the second-largest in the U.S. to go 100 percent renewable.

The idea was that Georgetown would have enough green power to grow into at fixed prices, avoiding market volatility and what it saw as the rising costs of fossil fuels. In the meantime, Georgetown would sell any excess power back to Texas’ electricity market.

But energy prices plummeted in recent years, particularly natural gas prices, meaning the city lost money selling power back to the market. Georgetown Budget Manager Paul Diaz told city councilors in late November the utility had lost $6.84 million. City officials are looking for ways to make up the shortfall.

“[Georgetown Utility Systems] is in the process of opening negotiations with our current energy suppliers to adjust the terms of our contracts,” City Councilman Steve Fought wrote in an email to constituents.

“Additionally, we are working to change our management strategy for daily energy market operations,” Fought wrote in his Nov. 26 email. “We also need to implement belt tightening measures in the electric department and shift funds to balance the GUS accounts.”
From another, somewhat more balanced report, found through Wikipedia, we have Georgetown renegotiating solar, wind power contracts by Claire Osborn.
The city of Georgetown’s bill for wind and solar energy ended up being $8.6 million more than anticipated in fiscal year 2018 because the falling prices of oil and gas meant it had to sell its surplus renewable power for less than forecast, said City Manager David Morgan.

The city had budgeted $45 million for renewable energy but ended up paying $53.6 million, he said.
So basically, in its first year having a 100% renewable energy policy, the city has already had an unexpected 20% overrun in costs.

In neither article are their rates or an accounting for overall energy costs, so all we have to go on are the budget items.

But it does serve as an example of the structural decision-making and governance issues so common in these initiatives. It sounds good. It signals virtue. It attracts attention. But then the bill comes due.

And it comes due because of Hayek's Problem of Knowledge. The City approached the "problem" with a deterministic philosophy which failed to take into account all the contextual moving parts. Yes, they locked themselves into what they thought were beneficial long term energy contracts so that they would know that they had the energy necessary. But they either failed to take into account the macro-energy market prices or they suffered tunnel vision which blinded them to the fact that non-renewable energy is usually cheaper than renewable and therefore there would be at least periods of time when they would lose money on their resale of renewable energy.

What is not mentioned in either article is that Georgetown theoretically might come out whole. Market prices always fluctuate. Just because you are losing money at one stage of the cycle doesn't mean that you won't come out whole over the entire cycle.

But the renewable energy people, aside from hiding the capital costs in long term debt, also tend to mistime the market. It is much like people pouring into the residential real estate market in 2007 at the height of the real estate bubble, taking on unsustainable loans for overvalued homes. As soon as the market adjusted to reality, they lost their money. If each of those individuals had a fifty year time horizon for investment, likely they might have made their money back. But typically residential investment decisions are in the 5-15 year time horizon. With that horizon, you end up buying high and selling low. Exactly as Georgetown has ended up doing.

Cities, particularly growing cities, can have longer time horizons so maybe on a fifty year scale, they might come out ahead. But cities prone to indulge in such risky ventures also tend to load up on all sorts of other risky and social equity type investments which cumulatively cause financial collapse.

It is a tremendous irony, and a delightful one for Americans who benefit from it, that the OECD nation most averse to central planning, least committed to the AGW mindset, and most inclined to let markets resolve social issues is also the nation which has the lowest cost of energy for its citizens (making them that much richer), the fastest falling CO2 rates, among the fastest improvements of energy densification (economic value per unit of energy consumed) and among the best improvements in the environment.

Despite that decades long evidence that coercive centrally planned economies which base their decisions on magical thinking and moral wishes rather than hard facts on the ground only leads to ruin and decline, the advocates of such approaches are still out preaching that gospel.

Meanwhile, Georgetown, Texas residents can look forward to higher energy costs and rising tax rates, despite their good intentions.

Forgotten battles

I rarely read of the Alpine war in World War I between Austria and Italy despite its magnitude, a million or so dead in three years. It shows up in some Italian literature and certainly history but rarely otherwise.

An account of a week's visit to some of the battlefields by three American military veterans. The Most Treacherous Battle of World War I Took Place in the Italian Mountains by Brian Mockenhaupt.
The Italians came late to the war. In the spring of 1915, they abandoned their alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany to join the United Kingdom, France and Russia, hoping for several chunks of Austria at the war’s end. An estimated 600,000 Italians and 400,000 Austrians would die on the Italian Front, many of them in a dozen battles along the Isonzo River in the far northeast. But the front zigzagged 400 miles—nearly as long as the Western Front, in France and Belgium—and much of that crossed rugged mountains, where the fighting was like none the world had ever seen, or has seen since.

Soldiers had long manned alpine frontiers to secure borders or marched through high passes en route to invasion. But never had the mountains themselves been the battlefield, and for fighting at this scale, with fearsome weapons and physical feats that would humble many mountaineers. As New York World correspondent E. Alexander Powell wrote in 1917: “On no front, not on the sun-scorched plains of Mesopotamia, nor in the frozen Mazurian marshes, nor in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders, does the fighting man lead so arduous an existence as up here on the roof of the world.”

The destruction of World War I overwhelms. Nine million dead. Twenty-one million wounded. The massive frontal assaults, the anonymous soldier, faceless death—against this backdrop, the mountain war in Italy was a battle of small units, of individuals. In subzero temperatures men dug miles of tunnels and caverns through glacial ice. They strung cableways up mountainsides and stitched rock faces with rope ladders to move soldiers onto the high peaks, then hauled up an arsenal of industrial warfare: heavy artillery and mortars, machine guns, poison gas and flamethrowers. And they used the terrain itself as a weapon, rolling boulders to crush attackers and sawing through snow cornices with ropes to trigger avalanches. Storms, rock slides and natural avalanches—the “white death”—killed plenty more. After heavy snowfalls in December of 1916, avalanches buried 10,000 Italian and Austrian troops over just two days.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Saturn's Iapetus: Painted Moon

Saturn's Iapetus: Painted Moon. From NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Click to enlarge.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, JPL, SSI, Cassini Imaging Team
Explanation: What has happened to Saturn's moon Iapetus? Vast sections of this strange world are dark as coal, while others are as bright as ice. The composition of the dark material is unknown, but infrared spectra indicate that it possibly contains some dark form of carbon. Iapetus also has an unusual equatorial ridge that makes it appear like a walnut. To help better understand this seemingly painted moon, NASA directed the robotic Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn to swoop within 2,000 kilometers in 2007. Pictured here, from about 75,000 kilometers out, Cassini's trajectory allowed unprecedented imaging of the hemisphere of Iapetus that is always trailing. A huge impact crater seen in the south spans a tremendous 450 kilometers and appears superposed on an older crater of similar size. The dark material is seen increasingly coating the easternmost part of Iapetus, darkening craters and highlands alike. Close inspection indicates that the dark coating typically faces the moon's equator and is less than a meter thick. A leading hypothesis is that the dark material is mostly dirt leftover when relatively warm but dirty ice sublimates. An initial coating of dark material may have been effectively painted on by the accretion of meteor-liberated debris from other moons.

Six O'Clock, Winter, 1912

Six O'Clock, Winter, 1912 by John Sloan (1871-1951)

Click to enlarge.

Bach and the ubiquity of the power law

I have long been fascinated by the prevalence of the power law (Pareto distribution being a specific example) in all things human. It's there and yet it is hard to discern why it is there, or there so often.

Here is another instance. From Bach's Fifty Most Popular Works. It is based on the number of views of different Bach pieces on YouTube.

Click to enlarge.

OK - I see it empirically but I do not comprehend the causal mechanism. With so many masterpieces, why does it follow a power law instead of, for example, a linear decline?

Attributes of Billion-Dollar Startups

From Land of the “Super Founders“— A Data-Driven Approach to Uncover the Secrets of Billion Dollar Startups by Ali Tamaseb.

Essay and expanded discussion and analysis at the article. Key conclusions:
While there are many takeaways from the study and the charts above, these were the strongest signals to me:
1- Yesterday’s “Super Founders” (at least one previous exit over $50M or $10M+ annual revenue) create billion dollar companies of today.

The word “Serial Entrepreneur” has been misused and doesn’t mean much anymore, so the term “Super Founder” is a suggestion for something concrete. Basically, a founder with a previous real exit (no asset sales, no acquihire, no paper valuation)

2- For founders, overall work experience matters, directly relevant industry experience matters much less.

3- These startups were disproportionately built in markets that were already huge and the large majority didn’t create a new demand.

4- Competition is good, or at least not an extinction risk; the super-majority of these startups competed with multiple large incumbents at the time of founding.

5- Product differentiation matters a lot; these companies had very high differentiation in their core product/offering versus what was out there.
Detailed observations (graphs and charts in the article)
1) Two or Three Is The Most Common Number of Co-founders

2) More than Half of the Founding CEOs Are Over 35 Years Old

3) Founding CTOs/CSOs Have An Even Wider Age Distribution

4) SaaS/Enterprise Founders Are Younger, Health/Pharma Founders Are Older, Consumer Founders Are Not Just Millennials

5) 50% Have Over 10 Years of Work Experience

6) Directly Relevant Industry Experience Does Not Matter; It Matters Even Less For CxOs

7) Almost 60% Are Repeat Entrepreneurs

8) The Repeat Entrepreneurs Founded and Led a Couple of Startups Previously

9) Almost 70% of Repeat Entrepreneurs Had Previously Founded A Successful Company (Let’s Call Them “Super Founders”)

10) Some of the Founding CEOs Had More Than One Successful Prior Exit

11) Bachelors and MBAs Are The Most Common Degrees Among Founding CEOs

12) Half of CxOs Went To Grad School (Mostly Technical)

13) As Many Technical CEOs As Non-Technical CEOs

14) The Founders Had Previously Worked In Tier 1 Companies

15) Google, Oracle, and IBM Are the Biggest Billion Dollar Founder Producers

16) Previous Work Experience in Other Startups (Not Founded By Themselves) Does Not Matter

17) Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, But Also Some Lesser Expected Universities

18) This Is For Fun. A lot of Johns, Robs, and Daves

19) Most Common Themes: Cloud, Data, Mobile, Marketplace

20) Software Is Eating the World, But Not All of It

21) Social, E-Commerce, Network, Database, Biotech, Automation Are The Largest Sub-Sectors

22) Biotech Companies Go Public Fast, FinTech and Software Companies Stay Private For Longer

23) Cancer, Ride-sharing, Lending, and Autonomous Vehicles Were The Buzzwords

24) 2000 And 2008 Crashes Did Have An Adverse Effect — Also 2017 Was An Exception

25) Many Companies Did Not Have Much Engineering Complexity, And a Disproportionately High Number Were Deep Tech

26) Similar Number of B2B and B2C Companies, Very Few Doing Both

27) If You Can Raise the Money, High CapEx Companies Work Too!

28) 2008–9 Was Peak of Enterprise, 2011–12 Was Peak Of Consumer

29) Over 50% Were Competing With Multiple Incumbents At the Time of Founding

30) Engineering and Network Effects Are The Most Defensible

31) The Product Matters! Most Startups Had Very High Differentiation in Their Core Product Offering With Competitors

32) The Market Was Already Large At The Time Of Founding

33) In Over 65% of Cases, Their Aim Was to Get Market Share From Others, Not To Create A New Market

34) It’s Hard to Crack The Secret To Timing! You Can Be First, Among the First, Or Last!

35) You Need to Be A Pain Killer, But Vitamin Pills Work Too!

36) Save Time, Save Money, Or Make Things Easier

37) California is By Far Home To the Highest Number, Followed by New York and Massachusetts

38) Almost 90% of These Companies Did Not Go Through Any Accelerator Program. Of the Rest, YCombinator Is №1

39) Over 90% Are VC-Funded

40) Tech Companies Have Mostly Raised ~$250M, Pharma/Health Companies Have Raised ~$400M

41) 2009 and 2012 Seed Rounds Produced The Highest Number of Billion Dollar Companies

42) The Valuations Follow The Power Law. Over 50% Between $1-$2Bn

43) Tier-1 VCs See The Best Deals, Get The Highest Returns

44) Ex-founders Make the Best Angel Investors

45) Early Stage Investing Is Hard

46) Late Stage Funds Get Into More Billion Dollar Companies

47) They Raised Money Quickly, and Kept Raising Quickly

48) They Were Large and Expensive Deals From The Very First Round

49) Tech Unicorns Became a Unicorn Very Fast, In Some Cases In Just Two Years

50) The Seed Round Has Grown From <$0.5M Into Multi-Million Dollar Rounds

Things can never be so good that the Mandarin Class can't ruin them

I lived in Sweden as a boy from 1970-78 and have great admiration for the culture and the people. It is a beautiful place. While the political class has done foolish things, as a general rule, it is not perhaps usually as foolish as in many other countries.

But things have changed as reported in Sweden’s Parallel Society by Andy Ngo.

It is sad to see, if this report bears any semblance to reality, what has happened there. Sad, but not too unexpected.

In the time I was there, America was just coming off the civil rights protests and riots of 1968 and was still in the midst of anti-Vietnam war protests. For a pre-teen, it was an odd experience to have Swedish peers, and occasionally adults, want to enter into debates about the moral primitiveness of America. One of the striking things to me, young as I was, was the experiential gap that blinded Swedes to realities beyond their kin.

I eventually learned that one of the most effective rhetorical weapons I had was to turn the tables. While they might accuse America of racism, I could always point out that America was dramatically more diverse than anywhere in Sweden. That while America might not yet have struck the right balance between individual and state and between rights and responsibilities, America was dealing with issues of which Swedes had no knowledge.

If they countered that Sweden was a fair and open place and that there was nothing going on in America which Swedes had not already addressed, my fallback was to cite Sweden's acceptance of Finns, and treatment of Sami, and gypsies. Finnish laborers came over in the post-war era of labor shortages and were, in some ways, treated much like Mexican laborers in the US in the past thirty years of migration. The stereotype was of unskilled laborers lacking education or sophistication.

Sami were not treated as equal at all but almost as wards of the state. And the gypsies? Well, that was a completely unresolved issue to which people elected to turn a blind eye. Swedes had no idea how to accommodate a people who did not want to live as Swedes.

America has always had a rocky process of acculturation and integration, we, almost alone among the major developed nations of the world, actually have a pretty good track record of accepting, incorporating, and even adopting some aspects of new immigrant groups while they at the same time eventually become dyed-in-the-wool Americans.

while the rise of the philosophy of multiculturalism and social justice theory have hampered the acculturation a little bit, we still do a fantastic job compared to virtually everyone else. We are an open society founded on universalist enlightenment principals which cause us to demonstrate an openness, marred as it might be in isolated instances, that is little known elsewhere.

My argument came down to - America has a long track of messy but successful integration of many peoples from many cultures and forging new Americans. Sweden has little experience or track record of doing so.

Once that argument was deployed, the conversation would head in a different direction. It took me a long time to learn to make that argument but it was, in general, reasonably effective.

What was true then, remains as true now. And it is not just about culture. Politics and policy are central to this as well. In Sweden, their political/ideological Mandarin Class are as incompetent as in other countries. The foolishness of the multiculturalism craze took deeper root there than elsewhere. The idea that people are units that can be engineered towards a desired end is still common. And as a consequence, despite all the good will, and general intelligence of Swedes, the Mandarin Class have engineered a mass immigration of peoples who demonstrate little inclination to become Swedes. With results as reported by Ngo.

Black and Blue by Heather Stewart

Black and Blue by Heather Stewart

Double click to enlarge.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Crimson and Clover by Tommy James & The Shondells

Crimson and Clover by Tommy James & The Shondells

Double click to enlarge.

Crimson and Clover
by Tommy James

Ah, now I don't hardly know her
But I think I could love her
Crimson and clover

Ah when she comes walking over
Now I've been waitin' to show her
Crimson and clover over and over

Yeah, my, my such a sweet thing
I wanna do everything
What a beautiful feeling
Crimson and clover over and over

Crimson and clover over and over
Crimson and clover over and over
Crimson and clover over and over
Crimson and clover over and over

Adrift on their self-regard

If you want to gauge the direction of the wind of opinion among the Mandarin Class, you could do worse than tap into E.J. Dionne. NPR usually has him on with David Brooks each week, pretending that they are getting the view of the left and the right when what they are actually getting is the center left and the moderate center. Both are definitively of the Mandarin Class, existentially committed to the status quo and both as alien from either the neo-Marxist left (though they are thoroughly conversant with that language) as they are from any of the classical schools of conservatism (Hayekian, Burkean, Classical Liberal, Libertarian, Religious, Lockean, Smithian, Randian, etc.)

I listen to Dionne but rarely read him because I get confirmation of the status quo but rarely get interesting insight.

But I was interested in Getting Identity Politics Right by E.J. Dionne, as the title seems to indicate that he, as a representative of the establishment left, might be wrestling with the implications of the radical left which is inherently self-destructive (both in terms of behavior as well as in terms of philosophical incoherence.)

Regrettably, Dionne doesn't do much more than acknowledge that there is an incompatibility between the radical postmodernist, critical theory left and the establishment left. But we knew that already and no one seems to have much of an idea as to how to reconcile the two.
Such a reckoning is a commentary both on the limits of identity politics (we are all multiples of some kind) and on the limits of any argument for abandoning identity politics (we can never entirely divorce ourselves from who we are).

Disputes over the merits of identity politics are vexed because they are often seen as code for unstated claims or points of view. For example, calls for an end to identity politics are frequently (and reasonably) interpreted by African-Americans, Latinos, women and LGBTQ people as not-so-veiled attempts to make politics about straight white men again.
But of course, no one is seriously advocating either position. Another straw man argument. We are all multiple identities and we do also have multiple affiliations. The issue is not about that. The issue is whether you can have a philosophy and governance structure grounded in individual rights at the same time as you have a philosophy and governance structure grounded in the state and on arbitrarily manufactured and imposed group identities. Those two schools of thought are at least awkward partners, and likely incompatible. But Dionne manifests no awareness of their incompatibility. He wants this to be a left right issue, not an exploration of the philosophical incoherence of critical theory postmodernism.

The next paragraph captures both the conundrum and the incoherence facing Dionne and the establishment left.
This alone makes the war on identity a non-starter among progressives and Democrats. One of liberalism's most noble commitments is to advancing the rights of minorities and those who have suffered discrimination. Contemporary progressives would lose their moral compass, not to mention a lot of votes, if they cast this mission aside.
Again, there is obfuscation here. What are the "rights of minorities" of which Dionne speaks. The traditional establishment left as well as virtually all stripes of right philosophies would answer that all humans have equal god-given rights. They are called human rights and no one can strip those rights from individuals because they are held to be inherent to humanhood. If you are human, you have these rights even if your government chooses to try and restrain your exercise of those rights.

There are no special categories of minority rights distinct from the common human rights. Dionne is ceding the philosophical ground, or more likely failing to recognize the terrain, before he even argues it. We should protect all the human rights of all our citizens. But if Dionne wants to create new and additional rights based on skin color or ethnicity or religion or what not, then you are immediately in racist territory rife with bigotry.

The incapacity to acknowledge that traditional left and traditional right can both join arms in support of human rights is startling because it indicates a failure to recognize that the statism, authoritarianism, and repression of the critical theory postmodernist left is alien to our culture and philosophies.

The Mandarin Class is adrift on their self-regard. As usual.

Comics as a cultural delivery system

I have commented on this in the past, the amount of cultural knowledge which I absorbed as a youth through non-highbrow sources, principally comics and entertainment of that ilk. From How Classic Cartoons Created a Culturally Literate Generation by Annie Holmquist.
I recently picked up Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court for the first time. Finding the plot rather amusing, I began relaying it to my father over the weekend. Because he had never read the book, I was rather surprised when he began asking informed questions about the story. In no time at all, he was the one schooling me on plot elements I had not yet reached.

“Wait a minute,” I asked. “Are you sure you’ve never read this book?”

“No, never have,” he replied, “but I saw a cartoon version of the story when I was younger and everything I know comes from that.”

His revelation was intriguing, and to be honest, not the first of its kind. Like many in the Boomer generation, my father grew up watching classic cartoons, numbers of which were produced by the likes of Warner Bros.

But those cartoons did more than mind-numbingly entertain a generation of children. They also introduced millions of young people to key facets of cultural literacy, particularly in the realm of literature and music.

Beyond the aforementioned case of Mark Twain’s novel, these cartoons introduced children to stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde through the medium of Bugs Bunny. Key quotations and scenes from William Shakespeare’s works were the main theme in a Goofy Gophers cartoon known as A Ham in a Role. And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha was placed front and center in a Walt Disney short called Little Hiawatha.
In my case, the purveyor of cultural knowledge was a wonderful publication called Classics Illustrated Comics, abridgments in comic form of most the major classics of the Western canon. I read all sorts of classics in that form which I have never subsequently felt compelled to read. The fact that I read them as comics does not prevent me from garnering 70-80% of the outline.

Which is not to say that Classics Illustrated Comics was a substitute for the classics. Plenty I have read in their original because I enjoyed the story line. Treasure Island was consumed both as Classics Illustrated Comics and in the original. Les Misérables, on the other hand, was consumed only as Classics Illustrated Comics (and latterly as the CD and theatrical production.

The other source of classics was through serializations in children's magazines.

All those sources seem to have fallen by the wayside. More and more, it appears that our cultural institutions are failing to educate our children. Or, as Holmquist notes,
In short, neither schools, nor Saturday morning cartoons seem to be passing on the torch of cultural knowledge and literacy. Could such a scenario be one reason why we see an increased apathy and lack of substance in the current generation?

Be careful what you measure, people's lives depend on it.

An example of unintended consequences when changing complex systems, and especially arising from poor selection of performance metrics.

From It Sure Looks Like This Obamacare Program Has Led to More People Dying by Peter Suderman.
To determine whether a government program is successful, it's often necessary to look not only at how well it does what it's supposed to do, but what it's doing that it isn't supposed to. For example, killing people.

Take the hospital readmissions program built into Obamacare. The program derived from a simple observation that hospitals were treating lots of people who would then return for more treatment within the month. Unnecessary readmissions cost Medicare an estimated $17.5 billion a year. If hospitals were treating people effectively, the thinking went, those people shouldn't need to return so soon.

So the health law instituted a Medicare payment penalty for hospitals with too many readmissions for pneumonia, heart failure, and heart attack. Since 2012, Medicare has assessed about $2 billion in penalties on hospitals with too-high readmissions rates.

Hospital groups have argued that these payments are punitive and unfair, particularly to so-called safety net hospitals that serve the poorest, sickest patients. These patients tend to have higher readmissions rates, and the hospitals that treat them were more likely to be hit with payment reductions. (Earlier this year, the Trump administration changed the penalty structure for safety net hospitals.)

But the program has often been labeled a success because it accomplished its primary goal. Readmissions dropped between 2.3 and 3.6 percentage points for the conditions targeted. Readmissions associated with other maladies dropped by 1.4 percent. The authors of one 2016 study suggested that the lower readmission rates "point to how Medicare can improve the care that patients receive through innovative payment models." It offered proof, and hope, that with the right incentives, Medicare could save money and provide better care.

A new study appears to dash that hope, at least as far as readmissions are concerned.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and conducted by by researchers associated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical and Harvard Medical School, looked at hospitalizations between 2005 and 2015. It found that "30-day post-discharge mortality"—the number of people who died within a month of leaving the hospital—increased for heart failure patients after the readmissions penalty program was implemented.

Although heart failure mortality was already on the rise, the rate of increase became more rapid after Medicare started penalizing readmissions. In addition, mortality rates amongst pneumonia patients, which had been stable, increased.

Fewer people were being readmitted to hospitals, but more people were dying.

This is not the first study to conclude that the program increased mortality. A separate JAMA study last year looked at about 115,000 Medicare patients and also found that although readmissions for heart failure were down, mortality had increased, with about 5,400 more people dying annually.

Complex Jupiter

Complex Jupiter. From NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Click to enlarge.

Image Credit: NASA, Juno, SwRI, MSSS; Composition: David Marriott
Explanation: How complex is Jupiter? NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter is finding the Jovian giant to be more complicated than expected. Jupiter's magnetic field has been discovered to be much different from our Earth's simple dipole field, showing several poles embedded in a complicated network more convoluted in the north than the south. Further, Juno's radio measurements show that Jupiter's atmosphere shows structure well below the upper cloud deck -- even hundreds of kilometers deep. Jupiter's newfound complexity is evident also in southern clouds, as shown in the featured image. There, planet-circling zones and belts that dominate near the equator decay into a complex miasma of continent-sized storm swirls. Juno continues in its looping elliptical orbit, swooping near the huge planet every 53 days and exploring a slightly different sector each time around.

Rising social media or declining reason?

It is a glib piece of speculation, I don't buy his conclusions, but it has some interesting data in it. From Falling IQ scores may explain why politics has turned so nasty by Dan Hannan.
But I do believe that social media may have contributed to the problem in a different way. Screen addiction is shortening our attention span and lowering our cognitive ability, thus making us less able to entertain the idea that people we dislike might nonetheless have useful things to say.

The fall in IQ scores in the West is perhaps the most under-reported story of our era. For most of the twentieth century, IQ rose by around three points per decade globally, probably because of better nutrition. But that trend has recently gone into reverse in developed countries.

You hadn’t heard? I’m not surprised. Journalists and politicians won’t go near the subject and you can see why. Consider the theories offered by neuroscientists for the decline. Some argued it had to do with the rising age of motherhood, because the children of older mothers tend to have lower IQs, other things being equal. No one likes to say this, because it can come across as “older moms have dumb kids,” which is not true. (My wife and I were 44 when our youngest child was born, and my own parents were also elderly, but that didn’t make me too thick to grasp the concept of statistical distributions.)

Other theories were even more explosive. For example, that unintelligent people were having more kids, or that the fall in average scores reflected immigration from places with lower IQs.

But a new study from Norway, which examines IQ scores from 730,000 men (standardized tests are part of military service there) disproves all these ideas, because it shows IQ dropping within the same families. Men born in 1991 score, on average, five points lower than men born in 1975. There must, in other words, be an environmental explanation, and the chronology throws up a clear suspect: the rise in screen-time.

Kids brought up with Facebook and Instagram are more politically bigoted, not because they don’t hear alternative opinions, but because they don’t learn the concentration necessary to listen to opponents — a difficult and unnatural skill.

To put it another way, today’s American elections are mild compared to those of, say, 1800 or 1860. The relative tolerance that characterized the twentieth-century reflected rising education and rising intelligence, which made voters more capable of empathy with opponents. Reverse that rise and people will revert to the more primitive but easier rule-of-thumb: my tribe good, your tribe bad.
I had not heard of that Norwegian study. Intriguing. I am still not fully on board that IQ is declining. Could be, but it is relatively recent and I have not seen a lot of rigorous studies yet, especially across multiple OECD countries, for me to be confident that the supposed phenomenon is real. But if it is real, then the Norwegian study is quite significant.

And if it is real, is it really due to social media use? Again possibly but not yet convincingly. Not convincing yet because the data is still too sparse. And while journalists who write these stories are probably intense exploiters of social media, Americans at large are less so. Facebook is an exception with 68% of the population using Facebook. Otherwise, social media use is relatively light.
Only 21% of Americans use Twitter

Only 28% use Instagram.

Only 26% use Pinterest.
And these aren't additive. Most users of Twitter are also users of Instagram as an example.

Even with Facebook and its commanding presence, I am skeptical of the 68% number. What would be useful to know is what percent of the population uses Facebook frequently, i.e. daily. If they are using it once a week to catch-up with their graduating high school class 1982 which is having a reunion, that is an entirely different thing than someone who interacts with Facebook for two hours each day.

So if the population using social media is relatively low and especially if the population of intense users is small, then that calls into question (in my mind) whether social media could really be the cause of a population-wide IQ decline.

To be fair, there is at least a couple of caveats that increase that likelihood. First, social media tends to be used most intensely by the younger age cohorts. Those are the ones in whom we should be seeing the Flynn effect occurring most strongly. If social media is truly having an effect, then it will show up among the youngest the soonest and with the greatest impact. If new cohorts are not gaining 3 points a decade but actually losing a couple of points, that will have a mathematically material impact on the overall population average. In addition, the older cohorts after long stable IQs in their middle years are already prone to losing a few IQ points. Natural decline from an aging population combined with an induced decline among the youngest cohorts would indeed represent a double whammy which could show up quite quickly.

The second caveat is also there in the Pew Report - social media is more heavily used by brighter people. If social media does have a detrimental impact and that impact is being felt disproportionately among the brightest portion of the population, that again would represent a negative impact multiplier.

So there are reasons to give some putative credence to the idea of social media as a causal agent, but I think that we are a fair ways away from having good evidence to support it yet.

But it does suggest an alternative hypothesis, equally threadbare in terms of evidence but also equally temporally correlated and equally plausible. This alternative hypothesis is that there are five factors in combination which are working together to reduce both the quality of cognitive processing as well as the quantity and those two factors together might manifest as the appearance of a reduced IQ mean.

This could be characterized as a Gresham's law of cognitive quality - Instead of bad money drives out good, the law would state that bad arguments and faith-based belief sets drive out good arguments and empirical facts. More formally, if there are two forms of argument (or facts) in circulation, which are accepted by social norms as having similar face value, the more valuable arguments or empirical facts will gradually disappear from circulation. A sort of Pyrrhic victory of the Least Common Denominator of cognitive processing. We might call this the LCD Law of Cognitive Processing.

The five trends of the past thirty years, which correspond with the putative reversal of the Flynn effect would be:
Cultivation of participation ethos over achievement - It is a standard trope that our educational institutions have been infected by the effects of bad psychological research with the idea that children must be motivated to learn; to motivate them we have to cultivate their self-esteem; and to cultivate self-esteem, everyone should receive equal recognition. Its as if psychologists and teachers had never encountered real humans who thrive on competition and know fake awards when they see them. Reducing real recognition reduces motivation to learn.

Cultivation of emotional reasoning over logical reasoning - It is also notable the extent to which the ethos of critical theory/multicultural theory/postmodernism have infected our schools and institutions of higher learning. In this confused environment, there are no absolute truths, knowledge is socially constructed, and emotion trumps reason.

Prevalence of cognitive pollution and faith-based belief sets - When all around you, teachers and TV shows and social media are churning out cognitive pollution which stands in contrast to stark empirical realities, it diminishes the reward for actually knowing real things. If success depends on accepting empirical lies, it increases the cost of independent reasoning based on reality.

The trivialization of truth - Back to the insidious consequence of indulging the neo-marxisms such as postmodernism and critical theory where truth is socially constructed. Everything can be true if you wish to believe it. You can choose your race, you can choose your gender, you can choose your facts (contra Daniel Patrick Moynihan) and it will all be true. In such an environment, we debase empirical research and absolute facts and coherent reasoning. Magical thinking is available to everyone with no effort.

Sayre's Law - "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake." When the cognitive ecosystem is infested with people shouting and proclaiming trivialities with all the depth of emotion their shallow selves can muster, we are creating a negative incentive to rationalism and empiricism.
We see all of these trends almost daily but a crystalizing instance which brings most of the trends together was the howling critical theory postmodernist mob of emotionally distraught Yale students harassing and insulting a distiguished professor over the insult received from an email suggesting that the choice of Halloween costumes was not a material crisis for adults.

Double click to enlarge.

In an environment such as this, we have, in many places, created a huge disincentive to seek truth, to labor at sorting the wheat from the chaff in terms of evidence, to learn, to acquire knowledge. With such disincentives (and they are especially pervasive in social media) why would anyone do the types of things which bolster IQ? So perhaps the correlation of rising social media and declining IQ (if that is real) is masking the real issue - we have created an anti-intellectual, anti-empirical, anti-rational environment which punishes truth seekers and cognitive explorers. If that hypothesis is correct, then it would not be surprising to see a decline in IQ scores.

But it is all speculation for the time being.

Ideological incoherence

From Do America’s Socialists Have a Race Problem? by Miguel Salazar.

Of all the confused variations of Marxism, social justice theory and critical theory are among the most confused, incoherent and self-contradictory.

Which is what Salazar is reporting.
On an afternoon in July, nearly 200 people packed into the ballroom of a local community center in northern Oakland for a general meeting of the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). As they settled into folded chairs on the room’s faded wooden floors, the group ran through the week’s agenda, which included votes on the establishment of a code of conduct, a resolution to meet monthly instead of once every two months, and a proposal to support Cat Brooks, a black activist running for Oakland mayor.

Three miles away at the Marriott City Center, Brooks was working events at the California Democratic Caucus. Brooks, a co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, which provides support to communities of color in response to police violence, had been invited to speak on a panel defending Prop 10, a ballot measure that sought to repeal a 1995 law restricting rent control in Oakland and other cities in California. At the end of the event, Brooks checked her phone and found a stream of texts from people at the DSA meeting. The messages read: “You need to get here right now.”

Minutes later, Brooks stormed into the ballroom. A proposal to “prioritize” two other endorsements—for Prop 10 and a candidate for California’s state assembly—had snowballed into a referendum on Brooks herself, with critics saying she was too compromised to receive the DSA’s backing. The group’s support shouldn’t be given to people who are “a dime a dozen,” Brooks remembered one man saying. Like many of her rivals, she had pledged to expand affordable housing and reduce Oakland’s growing homeless population. Notably, she had insisted on cutting the city’s police budget in half.

At one point, Tur-ha Ak, a black organizer with Brooks’s Anti-Police Terror Project, asked to speak. As his turn approached, the young man who was chairing the meeting asked if Ak was a member. A number of white people had spoken before him, including Forrest Schmidt, 42, who was attending his first DSA meeting. “None of us had our credentials called,” he said. “Nobody said, ‘Are you a DSA member?’” When Ak responded that he was not a member, the chair asked him to take a seat.

The room erupted. The procedural rules were racist, Ak proclaimed, raising his voice over a cacophony of protests and chants. “The energy,” Brooks recalled, “turned into that of a white mob.” She decided to take the floor. “My name is Cat Brooks,” she said. “I’ve been organizing in this city longer than most of you have lived here.” In a brief, piercing speech, she accused the largely white crowd of being gentrifiers and then walked out, leaving members confused and outraged.

The debate quickly moved to Twitter, Reddit, and other corners of the internet. In an online essay, Jeremy Gong, an East Bay member who sits on DSA’s National Political Committee, the organization’s highest decision-making body, argued that Cat Brooks “weaponized” her race to coerce DSA into supporting her candidacy. He would not endorse her. The July DSA meeting, he wrote, was a textbook example of “race reductionism and liberal guilt politics.” By insinuating that white members were “the problem” when it came to Oakland’s gentrification, he claimed, Brooks had mistakenly reduced what was fundamentally a class conflict into a racial one.

Though a dustup among a small group of lefties in Oakland may seem to be a parochial affair, the controversy surrounding Brooks is part of a fierce debate about race within the newly invigorated socialist movement. Since 2016, when it had only 6,500 members, DSA has added nearly 50,000 members and over 125 chapters across the country. In 2018, two of its members—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, both women of color—were elected to serve in Congress, and 21 more won seats in state legislatures. Though DSA is separate from the Democratic Party, some of its members represent both institutions, while DSA itself is at the cutting edge of the broader progressive movement, a loud, insistent voice on issues ranging from universal health care to debt forgiveness.

In important respects, these are the same questions that dogged socialism as an ideology throughout the 20th century.
But unlike other progressive groups, DSA has to contend with internal factions that are very seriously wedded to a certain strain of socialist ideology—one that emphasizes, as Karl Marx did, a churning class war that governs the history of humankind. For these socialists, an anti-capitalist movement must be anti-racist, since capitalism has been instrumental in the subjugation of minorities. But they are also weary of liberal politicians who, they say, exploit race to pander to minority groups, all while skirting the deeper class conflict at work. In the past year, these hard-liners have clashed on numerous occasions with other socialists, often minorities themselves, who contend that righting America’s unique wrongs requires an approach distinct from the universal precepts of historical materialism—one that emphasizes racism’s special impact on inequality, supra-class.

In the Brooks controversy and other incidents, these tensions have come to a head, badly dividing the movement and raising difficult questions about socialism’s potential as a political force in the United States. In important respects, these are the same questions that dogged socialism as an ideology throughout the 20th century—questions that America’s fledgling socialists are openly struggling to answer, on Twitter and in left-wing periodicals like Jacobin. Is socialism, as an ideology, capable of welcoming dissenting opinions? And how central should issues of race be in a socialist movement?
Reading the whole article of the internecine squabbles among deeply deluded activists brings to mind a similar ancient controversy reenacted by the socio-historical documentary group, Monty Python.

Double click to enlarge.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Clash of NGC 3256

The Clash of NGC 3256. From NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Click to enlarge.

Image Credit & License: NASA, ESA, Hubble Space Telescope
Explanation: Marked by an unusually bright central region, swirling dust lanes, and far flung tidal tails, peculiar NGC 3256 is the aftermath of a truly cosmic collision. The 500 million year old clash of two separate galaxies spans some 100 thousand light-years in this sharp Hubble view. Of course when two galaxies collide, individual stars rarely do. Giant galactic clouds of molecular gas and dust do interact though, and produce spectacular bursts of star formation. In this galaxy clash, the two original spiral galaxies had similar masses. Their disks are no longer distinct and the two galactic nuclei are hidden by obscuring dust. On the timescale of a few hundred million years the nuclei will likely also merge as NGC 3256 becomes a single large elliptical galaxy. NGC 3256 itself is nearly 100 million light-years distant toward the southern sailing constellation Vela. The frame includes many even more distant background galaxies and spiky foreground stars.

I Had It All by Heather Stewart

I Had It All by Heather Stewart

Double click to enlarge.

I Had It All
by Heather Stewart

Time moves alone,
it keeps ticking on forever,
but I can’t wait that long
So before my time is through,
I will make a difference,
If it's the last thing I do

Have I climbed so high,
I won't survive the fall
Have I loved too much,
with no guarantee at all
cause on that day
they write my name in stone
I want the world to know
I had it all

Some, some may say,
only fools and dreamers,
think they get their way
but I'll find my way,
follow the moonlight,
be the first to greet the day

Have I climbed so high,
I won't survive the fall
Have I loved too much,
with no guarantee at all
cause on that day
they write my name in stone
I want the world to know
I had it all

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Cat's Eye Nebula from Hubble

The Cat's Eye Nebula from Hubble. From NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Click to enlarge.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Explanation: To some, it may look like a cat's eye. The alluring Cat's Eye nebula, however, lies three thousand light-years from Earth across interstellar space. A classic planetary nebula, the Cat's Eye (NGC 6543) represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star. This nebula's dying central star may have produced the simple, outer pattern of dusty concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. But the formation of the beautiful, more complex inner structures is not well understood. Seen so clearly in this digitally sharpened Hubble Space Telescope image, the truly cosmic eye is over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into this Cat's Eye, astronomers may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.

The more radical, the less grounded in reality.

Timely. From Metacognitive Failure as a Feature of Those Holding Radical Beliefs by Max Rollwage, Raymond J.Dolan, and Stephen M.Fleming. From the Abstract:
Widening polarization about political, religious, and scientific issues threatens open societies, leading to entrenchment of beliefs, reduced mutual understanding, and a pervasive negativity surrounding the very idea of consensus. Such radicalization has been linked to systematic differences in the certainty with which people adhere to particular beliefs. However, the drivers of unjustified certainty in radicals are rarely considered from the perspective of models of metacognition, and it remains unknown whether radicals show alterations in confidence bias (a tendency to publicly espouse higher confidence), metacognitive sensitivity (insight into the correctness of one’s beliefs), or both. Within two independent general population samples (n = 381 and n = 417), here we show that individuals holding radical beliefs (as measured by questionnaires about political attitudes) display a specific impairment in metacognitive sensitivity about low-level perceptual discrimination judgments. Specifically, more radical participants displayed less insight into the correctness of their choices and reduced updating of their confidence when presented with post-decision evidence. Our use of a simple perceptual decision task enables us to rule out effects of previous knowledge, task performance, and motivational factors underpinning differences in metacognition. Instead, our findings highlight a generic resistance to recognizing and revising incorrect beliefs as a potential driver of radicalization.
It is a small study, survey not observational, etc. But interesting if true.

For all the talk about polarization, I think America is pretty unified. I think the mainstream media has had a tendency to exaggerate isolated instances in order to create a much greater appearance of division than there really is. There is a small fringe of radicals - white nationalists, the much larger number of Antifa, shouters and protesters on campus about gender or race identity, DSA, etc. - who are <1% of the population but who create 95% of the headlines. We are not suffering polarization, we are suffering an overexposure of radicalization which is actually miniscule. Anything we can learn about the mind of the radical, the better. If we could put Eric Hoffer's insights in The True Believer onto an evidentiary base, that would be ideal. Reduce the exposure of the fringe radicals and you most likely reduce the sense of polarization.