Monday, March 28, 2011

Thank God We're Smarter Than [insert foriegn county here]

The headline reads: Japanese Rules for Nuclear Plants Relied on Old Science

In the end do we really believe that American nuclear interests understand risk any better or are less cost averse than those in a technologically sophisticated country like Japan? Remember, American financial experts believed that they had banished risk with credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations.

Japanese nuclear officials are using that hoary phrase, "No one could have anticipated..." I hate to beat a dead horse here, but the Black Swan can not be wished away. For something as critical as a nuclear plant (or even many chemical plants) it is not enough to plan for the anticipated. Designs must be robust enough to handle the unanticipated or the project should not be done at.

The big question is whether this inability to evaluate risk properly is so ingrained in the structure of the human brain that it is impossible to overcome and hence humility demands that we limit the kind of activities we attempt. Call me a Neo-Luddite?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why 'Plan B' Often Works Out Badly

As must-read on risk and backup plans: Why 'Plan B' often works out badly

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Time to Call It Quits

I have a nuclear engineer friend from college who bristles anytime someone questions the safety of nuclear power. On the assumption that she doesn't read this blog (or is reasonable enough to view recent events with alarm), I will say the following:

We have now had major natural disasters within the space of about 10 years - Katrina and the Sendai Earthquake. We have also had two energy-related environmental disasters in the space of a year - the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdown. In our reckless pursuit of cheap energy we are forced to employ ever more fragile and questionable technologies, deepwater drilling, nuclear power, tar-sands and natural gas frac-ing. At what point do we sell our SUVs and admit that we are not living in a Star Trek universe where dilithium crystals will solve all our energy needs. We might prepare for situation X and Y but Z is always out there along with a thousand cousins. The Black Swan will always be poised to strike at our softest points.

I can't speak for my spouse but I think I am prepared to make some changes. I already drive a two-door Speck that gets 36 mpg on the highway, the best alternative I can afford. We have already moved from the ex-urbs to the suburbs and think I am ready to move far enough into the city to make public transportation a viable alternative if it is available. The problem is that our society is organized to make these lifestyle choices difficult. For instance, if I moved downtown, my job would still be in the suburbs and the hopes surrounding telecommuting are not being realized on anything approaching a realistic scale.

There have been numerous calls after each disaster for more investment in alternative energy but that is a dead end. The answer is not "more-but-different energy". That let's each of us off the hook of personal responsibility. Sadly, the answer is "less".

Monday, March 14, 2011

You Know That God Knows That You Know

Great blog post by Jesse Bering at Scientific American. He reviews an experiment on children and "magical thinking."

Along with the somewhat surprising conclusion that 9 year-olds are more likely to assign supernatural significance to perceived events than 5 and 6 year-olds, comes an exploration of the theory of mind - an individual's model of what another person might be thinking. The cool bit is when the discussion turns to second-, third- and even seventh-order theories of mind:
For example, in the everyday (nonsupernatural) social domain, one would need this kind of mature theory of mind to reason in the following manner:
"Jakob thinks that Adrienne doesn’t know I stole the jewels."

Whereas a basic ("first-order") theory of mind allows even a young preschooler to understand the first propositional clause in this statement, "Jakob thinks that . . . ," it takes a somewhat more mature ("second-order") theory of mind to fully comprehend the entire social scenario: "Jakob thinks that [Adrienne doesn’t know] . . ."

Most people can’t go much beyond four orders of mental-state reasoning (consider the Machiavellian complexities of, say, Leo Tolstoy’s novels), but studies show that the absolute maximum in adults hovers around seven orders of mental state.

I personally find myself sinking fast as the orders of mind theory build. Rather than a illuminating a general failure of intelligence (other evidence may exist!), my occasional mental discomfort has a specific cause. Others with a more highly developed skill might even enjoy flexing their theory of mind muscles (Isaac Asimov comes to "mind").

There are such a myriad of mental skills that we practice each day. Encountering an explanation of a hitherto unexplored example brings that unique rush of "Ah ha!" and provides the high that helps a nerd get through the day.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Which Judaism did David Practice?

Reading 1 Samuel in which two oddities have struck me.

The first is: Why is there an idol handy for David's wife - and Saul's daughter - to stuff under the blankets while David escapes? (1 Samuel 19:13)

The second, related issue is: Why does 1 Samuel keep mentioning sacrifices taking place in Bethlehem? Were sacrifices not limited to the the temple in that period?

Idols. Family Sacrifices. Asherah Figurines. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone can read the Old Testament and conclude that Judaism is this monolithic, eternally unchanging institution. In fact, this is becoming one of my litmus tests for evaluating the claims of scholars (and pseudo-scholars).

Monday, March 7, 2011

And So It Begins

For decades the growth of international trade has contained a sometimes discussed but rarely embraced threat to American workers: wage competition. Every president and free trader (redundant?) has promised us that our wages would never plummet to the level of our foriegn competitors because the magic U.S. economy would replace all those low-skill, low-pay jobs with sparkling high-tech jobs that we could walk in to straight from community college graduation. Or maybe not.

An analysis of the latest job "gains" come to a disturbing conclusion: even the meager gains in job creation experienced in February produced mostly low-wage openings ($9-$12 per hour) while biggest loses from the Great Recession were in the higher paying jobs ($19 to $31 hourly range).
In the private sector, there is a striking imbalance between where the recession’s job losses occurred, and where the growth of the past 12 months was concentrated:
  • Lower-wage industries constituted 23 percent of job loss, but fully 49 percent of recent growth
  • Mid-wage industries constituted 36 percent of job loss, and 37 percent of recent growth
  • Higher-wage industries constituted 40 percent of job loss, but only 14 percent of recent growth
National Employment Law Project, February 2011
Or as Robert Reich puts it:
For several years now, conservative economists have blamed high unemployment on the purported fact that many Americans have priced themselves out of the global/high-tech jobs market.

So if we want more jobs, they say, we’ll need to take pay and benefit cuts.

And that’s exactly what Americans have been doing.

Of course, with US productivity climbing over the last 30 years but wages stagnant, one might suspect that there is more than international competition going on here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Moral Deficit Crisis

Yesterday I linked to a David Brooks editorial in which he suggests that we should "reduce the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life." Frankly I found it incomprehensible how someone could espouse this line and claim to be "moral". I now think I get it. My problem was that I was imagining pulling the plug on people like John F Kennedy, Audie Murphy or others of the so-called Greatest Generation. That, of course, would be reprehensible.

Fortunately we are not talking about euthanizing this group of heroes, great and small. No, this policy nugget is timed perfectly to coincide with the dotage of the Baby Boomers! Conservatives seem to have a special scorn for Baby Boomers - among whom they never count themselves, regardless of birth cohort. If these self-indulgent former hippies die helplessly in their beds, well then, that is just karma landing back on their morally bankrupt selves.

Turns out the moral deficit crisis is not fiscal at all. The actual deficit that the conservatives find is in the character of the post-WWII generation and it must be repaid in blood and breath.

I can't wait to see what these fine moral crusaders have in store for us slacker Gen-X types...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

GOP Death Panel QOD

We should adjust pension promises and reduce the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life so we can preserve programs for those who are growing and learning the most.

David Brooks
How is this different from the supposed death panels that the Palinistas invented in their attempt to derail health care reform? Ah, the conservatives do it in the name of unbearable taxes on capital gains!

Tom Scocca spots the emperor's hind quarters:
The debt—the runaway debt—has nothing to do with morality. Casting the debt as an object of moral concern is the work of minds that have come detached from human experience. The debt is an epiphenomenon. It is the side effect created by the specific moral decisions about what the country wishes to see funded, and how it is willing to fund those things.