Glass Gave Venetian Paintings Their Glow

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

Glass Gave Venetian Paintings Their Glow:

How did paintings by Tintoretto and other Venetian Renaissance artists get their special glow? Using an electron microscope, Barbara Berrie, senior conservation scientist at the National Gallery of Art, discovered one of their secrets: tiny bits of glass the artists mixed with their pigments.

‘By looking beyond the limits of their usual practice and transforming materials from other trades to their painting, the great artists of the Renaissance created a palette that gave them an immediate and lasting reputation as brilliant colorists,’ Berrie said.

Device allows building hurdle

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

Someone’s been watching Batman movies. From Device allows building hurdle:

The PowerQuick personal lifting device can raise or lower a load of up to 145 kilograms at the rate of one metre per second, enabling special forces, rescue services or even construction workers to quickly ascend or escape buildings.

New Scientist magazine said the operator would shoot a rope attached to a grappling hook to the top of the building and then attach the rope to a harness-like device which hauls them up.

It said one battery charge would be sufficient to climb 250 metres — the equivalent of five times the height of the Statue of Liberty.

Quoin International, the Nevada-based company that developed the device for the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, said on its website the solid fuel military version was designed for hostage rescue and urban warfare.

However, the battery-powered civilian version had been designed with commercial applications such as building repair, logging or window washing in mind.

"Peak Oil": Welcome to the media’s new version of shark attacks

Wednesday, August 24th, 2005

Steven Levitt looks at a recent New York Times piece, The Breaking Point, and says “Peak Oil”: Welcome to the media’s new version of shark attacks:

One might think that doomsday proponents would be chastened by the long history of people of their ilk being wrong: Nostradamus, Malthus, Paul Ehrlich, etc. Clearly they are not.

What most of these doomsday scenarios have gotten wrong is the fundamental idea of economics: people respond to incentives. If the price of a good goes up, people demand less of it, the companies that make it figure out how to make more of it, and everyone tries to figure out how to produce substitutes for it. Add to that the march of technological innovation (like the green revolution, birth control, etc.). The end result: markets figure out how to deal with problems of supply and demand.

Which is exactly the situation with oil right now. I don’t know much about world oil reserves. I’m not even necessarily arguing with their facts about how much the output from existing oil fields is going to decline, or that world demand for oil is increasing. But these changes in supply and demand are slow and gradual — a few percent each year. Markets have a way with dealing with situations like this: prices rise a little bit. That is not a catastrophe, it is a message that some things that used to be worth doing at low oil prices are no longer worth doing. Some people will switch from SUVs to hybrids, for instance. Maybe we’ll be willing to build some nuclear power plants, or it will become worth it to put solar panels on more houses.

The Fall of the House of Saud

Wednesday, August 24th, 2005

From The Fall of the House of Saud:

Saudi Arabia operates the world’s most advanced welfare state, a kind of anti-Marxian non-workers’ paradise. Saudis get free health care and interest-free home and business loans. College education is free within the kingdom, and heavily subsidized for those who study abroad. In one of the world’s driest spots water is almost free. Electricity, domestic air travel, gasoline, and telephone service are available at far below cost. Many of the kingdom’s best and brightest — the most well-educated and, in theory, the best prepared for the work world — have little motivation to do any work at all.

About a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s population, and more than a third of all residents aged fifteen to sixty-four, are foreign nationals, allowed into the kingdom to do the dirty work in the oil fields and to provide domestic help, but also to program the computers and manage the refineries. Seventy percent of all jobs in Saudi Arabia — and close to 90 percent of all private-sector jobs — are filled by foreigners.

Among men, at least, the Saudis have an admirably high literacy rate, especially for a place that only three generations back was inhabited mostly by nomadic tribesmen. About 85 percent of Saudi men aged fifteen and older can read and write, as opposed to less than 70 percent of Saudi women of the same age. But because in recent years the Saudi education system has been largely entrusted to Wahhabi fundamentalists, as a form of appeasement that many in the royal family hope will direct the fundamentalists’ animus at foreign targets, its products are generally ill prepared to compete in a technological age or a global economy. Today two out of every three Ph.D.s earned in Saudi Arabia are in Islamic studies. Doctorates are only very rarely granted in computer sciences, engineering, and other worldly vocations. Younger Saudis are being educated to take part in a world that will exist only if the Wahhabi jihadists succeed in turning back the clock not just a few decades but a few centuries.

Then there’s the demographic problem. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest birth rates in the world outside Africa — 37.25 births for every 1,000 citizens last year, compared with 14.5 per 1,000 in the United States. Ninety-seven percent of all Saudis are sixty-four or younger, and half the population is under eighteen. The simple presence of so many people of working age, and especially so many just now ready to enter the work force, places enormous pressure on an economy — particularly one designed less to accommodate those who want to work than to provide sustenance for those who would rather contemplate original intent in the Koran. A middle class stabilizes society. Saudi Arabia’s middle class is imploding.

Modern Germs

Wednesday, August 24th, 2005

In Modern Germs, Alex Tabarrok cites a number of stats from John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza:

The great influenza of 1918 probably killed 100 million people, about five percent of the entire world’s population. An even higher percentage of young people died, and most shockingly all of this occured in about 12 weeks.


One doctor visiting Inuit in Alaska found everyone dead in 3 villages and 7 other villages with a death toll of 85%.

In Retail, Profiling for Profit

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

Chain stores used to aim to please the generic shopper, but that’s changing. From In Retail, Profiling for Profit:

But inspired by Columbia University Professor Larry Selden’s book, ‘Angel Customers and Demon Customers,’ Best Buy chief executive Bradbury H. Anderson is on a mission to reinvent how the company thinks about its customers. Best Buy has pared some less desirable shoppers from its mailing lists and has tightened up its return policy to prevent abuse. At the same time, it has begun to woo a roster of shopper profiles, each given a name: Buzz (the young tech enthusiast), Barry (the wealthy professional man), Ray (the family man) and, especially, Jill.

Based on analyses of databases of purchases, local census numbers, surveys of customers and targeted focus groups, Best Buy last fall started converting its 67 California stores to cater to one or more of those segments of its shopping population. It plans to roll out a similar redesign at its 660 stores nationwide — including about 15 in the Washington area — over the next three years. The Best Buys in the Springfield Mall, the Fairlakes shopping center and Potomac Mills, for instance, are being transformed into stores for Barrys, featuring leather couches where one might imagine enjoying a drink and a cigar while watching a large-screen TV hooked up to a high-end sound system.

The Santa Rosa Best Buy, Store #120, is a Jill store.

Pink, red and white balloons festoon the entrance. TVs play ‘The Incredibles.’ There is an expanded selection of home appliances as well as new displays stocked with Hello Kitty, Barbie and SpongeBob SquarePants electronic equipment. Nooks are set up to look like dorms or recreation rooms where mom and the children can play with the latest high-tech gadgets at their leisure. Best Buy has new express checkout lines for the Jills; store managers say anyone can use them, but if you are not escorted by a special service representative they can be easy to miss. The music over the loudspeakers has been turned down a notch and is usually a selection of Jill’s favorites, such as James Taylor and Mariah Carey.

What Makes People Gay?

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

What Makes People Gay? shares the new, technical term for what used to be called “being a sissy”:

Patrick exhibits behavior called childhood gender nonconformity, or CGN. This doesn’t describe a boy who has a doll somewhere in his toy collection or tried on his sister’s Snow White outfit once, but rather one who consistently exhibits a host of strongly feminine traits and interests while avoiding boy-typical behavior like rough-and-tumble play. There’s been considerable research into this phenomenon, particularly in males, including a study that followed boys from an early age into early adulthood. The data suggest there is a very good chance Patrick will grow up to be homosexual. Not all homosexual men show this extremely feminine behavior as young boys. But the research indicates that, of the boys who do exhibit CGN, about 75 percent of them — perhaps more — turn out to be gay or bisexual.

Student’s t-distribution

Sunday, August 21st, 2005

I was aware that Student, the mathematician who created what we now call Student’s t-distribution, was operating under a pseudonym, but I didn’t realize where he was working at the time and why he needed a pseudonym:

The derivation of the t-distribution was first published in 1908 by William Sealey Gosset, while he worked at a Guinness brewery in Dublin. He was not allowed to publish under his own name, so the paper was written under the pseudonym Student. The t-test and the associated theory became well-known through the work of R.A. Fisher, who called the distribution ‘Student’s distribution’.

The Dread Pirate Bin Laden

Sunday, August 21st, 2005

The Dread Pirate Bin Laden argues that we need a legal framework for handling terrorists — as neither state agents nor citizens:

Coming up with such a framework would perhaps seem impossible, except that one already exists. Dusty and anachronistic, perhaps, but viable all the same. More than 2,000 years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero defined pirates in Roman law as hostis humani generis, ‘enemies of the human race.’ From that day until now, pirates have held a unique status in the law as international criminals subject to universal jurisdiction — meaning that they may be captured wherever they are found, by any person who finds them. The ongoing war against pirates is the only known example of state vs. nonstate conflict until the advent of the war on terror, and its history is long and notable. More important, there are enormous potential benefits of applying this legal definition to contemporary terrorism.

At first glance, the correlation between piracy and terrorism seems a stretch. Yet much of the basis of this skepticism can be traced to romantic and inaccurate notions about piracy. An examination of the actual history of the crime reveals startling, even astonishing, parallels to contemporary international terrorism. Viewed in its proper historical context, piracy emerges as a clear and powerful precedent.

Piracy has flourished on the high seas for as long as maritime commerce has existed between states. Yet its meaning as a crime has varied considerably. The Roman definition of hostis humani generis fell into disuse by the fifth century A.D. with the decline of the empire. But the act didn’t disappear with the definition. By 912, pirates along the coasts of Western Europe who styled themselves as ‘sea-warriors,’ or Vikings, had terrorized Britain and conquered Normandy. In the early Middle Ages, with no national navies to quash them, pirates held sway over nearly every trade route in Europe. Kings like Edward I of England then began to grant ‘Commissions of Reprisal’ to merchantmen, entitling them to attack both pirate ships and any other merchant vessel flying the same country’s flag as the one flown by the pirates they had seen before.

By the 16th century, piracy had emerged as an essential, though unsavory, tool of statecraft. Queen Elizabeth viewed English pirates as adjuncts to the royal navy, and regularly granted them ‘letters of marque’ (later known as privateering, or piracy, commissions) to harass Spanish trade.

It was a brilliant maneuver. The mariners who received these letters, most notably the famed explorers Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, amassed immense fortunes for themselves and the Crown, wreaked havoc on Spanish fleets, and terrorized Spain’s shoreside cities. Meanwhile, the queen could preserve the vestiges of diplomatic relations, reacting with feigned horror to revelations of the pirates’ depredations. Witness, for example, the queen’s disingenuous instructions saying that if Raleigh ‘shall at any time or times hereafter robbe or spoile by sea or by lance, or do any acte of unjust or unlawful hostilities [he shall] make full restitution, and satisfaction of all such injuries done.’ When Raleigh did what Elizabeth had forbidden — namely, sack and pillage the ports of then-ally Spain — Elizabeth knighted him.

This precedent would be repeated time and again until the mid-19th century, as the Western powers regularly employed pirates to wage secret wars. After a series of draconian laws passed by George I of England effectively banished pirates from the Atlantic, the Mediterranean corsairs emerged as pre-eminent maritime mercenaries in the employ of any European state wishing to harass another. This situation proved disastrous. The corsairs refused to curtail their activities after each war’s conclusion, and the states realized that they had created an uncontrollable force. It was this realization that led to the Declaration of Paris in 1856, signed by England, France, Spain, and most other European nations, which abolished the use of piracy for state purposes. Piracy became and remained beyond the pale of legitimate state behavior.

If this chronology seems familiar, it should. The rise and fall of state-sponsored piracy bears chilling similarity to current state-sponsored terrorism. Many nations, including Libya, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, have sponsored terrorist organizations to wage war against the United States or other Western powers. In each case, the motivations have been virtually identical to those of Elizabeth: harass the enemy, deplete its resources, terrify its citizens, frustrate its government, and remain above the fray. The United States is credited with manufacturing its own enemy by training, funding, and outfitting terrorist groups in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Central America during the cold war.

Don’t Have A Cow, Man

Sunday, August 21st, 2005

In March, 2002, Harper’s published Don’t Have A Cow, Man, “an exchange of emails in fall 2001 between Judd Apatow, the creator of the sitcoms Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared and a successful writer of Hollywood screenplays, and Mark Brazill, the creator of That ’70s Show.”

Read the exchange. It gets really, really ugly, really, really fast.

(Hat tip to mi hermano.)

Stout on Princess of Mars

Sunday, August 21st, 2005

In this interview, movie production designer William Stout explains his brief work on A Princess of Mars, which never came to fruition:

And before I forget, in regards to John Carter of Mars — it’s already been made into a movie; a really successful one. So why do we need to make another? That film’s called Return of the Jedi. Princess Leia is dressed as Deja Thoris throughout the film; you’ve got Martian fliers as ERB described them; the main characters sword fight throughout the movie. If you look at it, it’s the essence of John Carter. So if you make a John Carter movie, your audience, who are mostly unaware of the Burroughs books, is going to think you’re ripping off a Star Wars film.

This story illustrates why Hollywood adaptations often fall flat:

So I’m happily humming away on this and from the other room I hear McTiernan say, “Virginia. Does John Carter have to be from Virginia? Why can’t he be from Alaska? Alaska’s much more butch — and we wouldn’t have to deal with those touchy race issues.” I set down the pencil and walk into the next room and say, “John, John. There are really great reasons why John Carter is from Virginia. He was a Captain in the Civil War, but he fought on the wrong side — the South. And he lost. He didn’t own slaves; he was a warrior his entire life. This was a very personal crisis. He was unsuccessful in the defense of his culture. He didn’t know how to deal with it, so he did what a lot of people do when they’re faced with failure. He tried to escape. He went West, where, while trying to just be alone and mine for gold, he’s engulfed in another warrior situation. Americans there are fighting the Indians. Then, he ends up on Mars in the midst of a huge, worldwide Civil War. He is back to Square One but now he’s in a world he was born for. The more he tries to run away from himself the more he finds he has to confront himself. So you have this incredibly rich character, history and past to deal with, which, if he’s from Alaska, you completely lose.” That was my pitch to keep John Carter a Virginian captain in the Confederacy.

The Proper Attitude Toward Financial Regulation

Thursday, August 18th, 2005

Science-writer Matt Ridley amusingly points out that genes are not there to cause diseases, even though they’re named that way. Arnold Kling points out that financial instruments are not there to cause risk. From The Proper Attitude Toward Financial Regulation:

Often, the goal of financial regulation is to keep certain types of securities away from particular individuals or institutions. This is based on the ‘folk finance’ view that risk resides in securities, as opposed to portfolios.

In a previous essay, I mentioned economist Robert Shiller’s idea of creating a futures market in indexes of local home prices. That way, buyers of homes could hedge against the risk that they are buying into a bubble. However, most individuals would face stiff regulatory hurdles for setting up accounts to trade in such futures contracts. From the government’s perspective, it is just fine for you to buy a really expensive house ‘on margin’ (that is, using money borrowed in the mortgage market), but you would face strict scrutiny if you tried to scale back your risk by using a futures market!

Until very recently, banks and other financial institutions faced much tighter restrictions on the use of ‘derivatives’ (options and futures contracts on Treasury securities, foreign currencies, etc.) to hedge risk than on having large unhedged exposures to interest rate movements. Even now, the use of derivatives is considered suspect, although bank regulators have gotten wiser about looking at overall portfolio risk exposure.

When an individual or institution is discouraged from using derivatives, the effect is to deter someone from hedging a risk. As a result, a regulation that supposedly is intended to reduce risk-taking can have the effect of forcing someone to retain exposure rather than spread the risk.

Slicing the Pizza in Perfect Capital Markets

Thursday, August 18th, 2005

In Slicing the Pizza in Perfect Capital Markets, Arnold Kling cites an interview with Merton Miller, who explains his work on the irrelevance of capital structure — whether you fund a firm through stocks or bonds:

People often ask: Can you summarize your theory quickly? Well, I say, you understand the M&M theorem, if you know why this is a joke: The pizza delivery man comes to Yogi Berra after the game and says, Yogi, how do you want this pizza cut, into quarters or eighths? And Yogi says, cut it in eight pieces. I’m feeling hungry tonight.

Everyone recognizes that’s a joke because obviously the number and shape of the pieces doesn’t affect the size of the pizza. And similarly, the stocks, bonds, warrants, etc., issued don’t affect the aggregate value of the firm. They just slice up the underlying earnings in different ways.

…Reporters would say, you mean they gave you guys a Nobel Prize for something as obvious as that? [Lots of laughter.] And I’d add, Yes, but remember, we proved it rigorously.

The Blood of Martyrs

Thursday, August 18th, 2005

In The Blood of Martyrs, Lee Harris explains a perspective that’s quite foreign to most of us:

Banners are flying today in Gaza that read: ‘The blood of martyrs has led to liberation.’ They are the banners of the popular militant Palestinian group Hamas, and they enunciate an unpleasant truth that proponents of the so called peace process would be well advised to ponder. Translated from the language of hagiography, the message of the banners is blazingly transparent: Terrorism works. It gets us what we want. Look what the intifada was able to achieve: the liberation of Gaza. Just think what more terrorism can do for our cause. If the blood of martyrs has led to the liberation of Gaza, may we not expect the blood of martyrs to lead to the liberation of Jerusalem. As the popular Palestinian T-shirt says, ‘Today Gaza, tomorrow Jerusalem.’

Researchers Rescued From Polar Bears

Thursday, August 18th, 2005

Shark stories are good, but polar-bear stories might be even better. From Researchers Rescued From Polar Bears:

Three unarmed Polish researchers stranded on a remote Arctic island were rescued by helicopter as polar bears were closing in on them, officials said Wednesday.

The hairsbreadth escape took place on an island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, about 650 miles from the North Pole.

‘It was the worst imaginable situation. They were cold and wet, had no equipment or weapons, and were surrounded by hungry polar bears,’ said Peter Braaten of the Svalbard governor’s office.

The men had been shipwrecked at the edge of a tiny bay between two glaciers for 15 hours before the helicopter arrived, he said.

The three were aboard the Polish research ship Horyzont when they set out in a small inflatable boat to pick up equipment on one of the islands.

‘Their boat capsized, and they lost all their equipment and weapons,’ Braaten told The Associated Press. He said they swam and clambered over chunks of floating ice to get to the island of Egdeoya.

Braaten said the ship repeatedly tried to send in another small boat to pick them up, but conditions were too rough. The ship finally used a harpoon canon to fire a rope to land, so it could send the researchers food and water. Then it called for help.

‘They managed to start a fire, to keep warm and keep the polar bears away,’ he said, explaining that the men used the spark plugs from their capsized craft’s outboard motor to get the fire going. The island has some dried grass and scrubby plants.

‘It was a bit like MacGyver,’ Braaten said, referring to the adventure television series featuring a character who relies on science and his wits to solve problems.

Braaten said a least three polar bears looking for a meal where within roughly 20 yards of the three men when the helicopter picked them up.

‘That is dangerously close,’ he said.

Polar bears have no natural enemies in their frozen domain and regard all other living things, including humans, as potential meals.

The three men, who suffered only minor scrapes and bruises, were flown directly to a Polish research base on the islands and dropped off for treatment.