Indians and Arabs

Friday, October 31st, 2008

John Baden draws an interesting analogy between the Plains Indians and Arabs:

The storied Plains Indian nomadic culture and economy didn’t emerge until the middle of the eighteenth century. Until they acquired powerful means to exploit their environment, specifically the horse, gun, and steel knife, Indians on the plains were sparsely populated, a few bands of agrarians hovering on the margins of subsistence. Their primary foods were maize, squash, and beans.

Hunting bison on foot was a sorry proposition and incidental to crops. It couldn’t support a substantial population. When the occasional bison was killed, it was used in its entirety. Skins provided houses, garments, and ropes; sinew made thread for sewing; bones made awls; and bladders became jugs. Buffalo supplemented their vegetable diet.

Horses fundamentally transformed this life. Indians obtained their first horses from the Spanish in 1598, and by 1800 horses had spread north to the Shoshone in Wyoming. They were no longer impoverished and weak. They could confront their traditional enemies the Crow. Most importantly, they had the bonanza of the bison.

As horses and horse culture spread, the disparate tribes surrounding the plains from Texas to Alberta poured into it. These groups were diverse: Athabaskans, Comanche, Arikara, and perhaps 20 others representing five language groups.

By 1800, their obvious cultural differences were melded into a common Plains Indian culture. All oriented their lives around the buffalo hunt. Herds could now be pursued on horseback and only the best, not the sick or lame, bison were taken. The entire animal was no longer utilized. Indians suddenly had the luxury of waste.

This economy was so powerful that nomadic bison hunters displaced farmers. Plains Indians came to rely on traders for clothing, firearms, and cooking utensils.

They didn’t have time to evolve a culture to accommodate their economic revolution. Elaborate rituals emerged and status depended on wealth and martial prowess. Permanent villages disappeared, and with them farming. With rifles more effective than bows, an armament race ensued.

Theirs was a cultural crescendo lasting but a few generations, effectively ending shortly after our Civil War and the Indian wars that followed. We suffer the results today. Independent of the cause or blame for failure, one fact stands out: cultures maladapted to changed circumstances won’t thrive.

What’s the link to modern Arabs?

The Arab countries with large oil and gas deposits offer a parallel. Until 1973 when their crude brought $2.00 a barrel, the now immensely wealthy Arabic countries were poor indeed. Decades ago reading ethnography, I recall this observation, probably by a British anthropologist writing before 1960: if the Arabic societies become rich, their cultures will rupture.

Both they and the Plains Indians experienced sudden huge economic expansions. Both developed undiversified economies with one primary product, bison and BTUs. A single focus creates huge societal risk; knowledge of earlier means of production soon dissipates and cultural constraints on excess erode.

The real lesson:

Our danger arises from institutions enabling politicians to distribute present benefits to the detriment of future taxpayers. This is ethically wrong and unsustainable. The reality checks of finance will inevitably emerge exposing opportunistic political promises, our democracy’s dominant expression.


Friday, October 31st, 2008

When I read Frankenstein years ago, I immediately realized how little resemblance it bore to the version of the story I’d osmotically absorbed through the culture.

In particular, I was shocked to realize that Doctor Frankenstein does not assemble the monster from dead body parts — or, if he does, it’s left terribly, terribly vague:

One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance, that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.

The monster also bears little resemblance to the iconic movie version:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

Note too that the good doctor does not scream, “It’s alive! Alive!”

Boy shocked after man powers up campaign sign

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Boy shocked after man powers up campaign sign:

Shawn Turschak of Chapel Hill was tired of someone stealing McCain-Palin campaign signs from his yard. Turschak, with a degree in electrical engineering, hooked up a third sign to a power source for an electric pet fence Monday and also put up a surveillance camera.

The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that a 9-year-old boy with an Obama-Biden sign grabbed the McCain-Palin sign and got a jolt on Tuesday.

The boy’s father, Andrew Noble, upset that his son had been shocked, showed up at Turschak’s door. Soon an Orange County sheriff’s deputy also showed up at the Turschak’s home.

Noble said his son just wanted to see how the sign was put together. Turschak said the boy intended to swap out the signs.

Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass said he doesn’t plan to file charges.

I suppose both sides see the other as totally in the wrong.

Obama and the Politics of Crowds

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Fouad Ajani discusses Obama and the Politics of Crowds:

There is something odd — and dare I say novel — in American politics about the crowds that have been greeting Barack Obama on his campaign trail. Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.

As the late Nobel laureate Elias Canetti observes in his great book, Crowds and Power (first published in 1960), the crowd is based on an illusion of equality: Its quest is for that moment when “distinctions are thrown off and all become equal. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd.” These crowds, in the tens of thousands, who have been turning out for the Democratic standard-bearer in St. Louis and Denver and Portland, are a measure of American distress.

On the face of it, there is nothing overwhelmingly stirring about Sen. Obama. There is a cerebral quality to him, and an air of detachment. He has eloquence, but within bounds. After nearly two years on the trail, the audience can pretty much anticipate and recite his lines. The political genius of the man is that he is a blank slate. The devotees can project onto him what they wish. The coalition that has propelled his quest — African-Americans and affluent white liberals — has no economic coherence. But for the moment, there is the illusion of a common undertaking — Canetti’s feeling of equality within the crowd. The day after, the crowd will of course discover its own fissures. The affluent will have to pay for the programs promised the poor. The redistribution agenda that runs through Mr. Obama’s vision is anathema to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the hedge-fund managers now smitten with him. Their ethos is one of competition and the justice of the rewards that come with risk and effort. All this is shelved, as the devotees sustain the candidacy of a man whose public career has been a steady advocacy of reining in the market and organizing those who believe in entitlement and redistribution.
My boyhood, and the Arab political culture I have been chronicling for well over three decades, are anchored in the Arab world. And the tragedy of Arab political culture has been the unending expectation of the crowd — the street, we call it — in the redeemer who will put an end to the decline, who will restore faded splendor and greatness. When I came into my own, in the late 1950s and ’60s, those hopes were invested in the Egyptian Gamal Abdul Nasser. He faltered, and broke the hearts of generations of Arabs. But the faith in the Awaited One lives on, and it would forever circle the Arab world looking for the next redeemer.

America is a different land, for me exceptional in all the ways that matter. In recent days, those vast Obama crowds, though, have recalled for me the politics of charisma that wrecked Arab and Muslim societies. A leader does not have to say much, or be much. The crowd is left to its most powerful possession — its imagination.

From Elias Canetti again: “But the crowd, as such, disintegrates. It has a presentiment of this and fears it. . . . Only the growth of the crowd prevents those who belong to it from creeping back under their private burdens.”

The morning after the election, the disappointment will begin to settle upon the Obama crowd. Defeat — by now unthinkable to the devotees — will bring heartbreak. Victory will steadily deliver the sobering verdict that our troubles won’t be solved by a leader’s magic.

What’s Next?

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

John Baden asks, What’s Next?

The answer is easy; America will attempt to emulate Europe’s welfare state. Our perceived crisis is inimical to sound policy and provides a good seedbed for political opportunism.

Constraining the “stationary bandits” in government “may be impossible in a large democracy comprised of numerous factions, interest groups, and ethnic and racial identities” — and it certainly doesn’t seem to be getting any easier:

First, there is diminishing support for institutions that generate wealth rather than redistribute it. [...] Third, both positive and negative values increasingly converge and agglutinate. This promotes substantial class differences. If one is blessed with responsible parents, intelligence, favorable genetics, health, presentable appearance, and the ability to defer gratification, she is exceeding likely to prosper — and to marry one with similar characteristics. However, everyone has one vote. The political calculus is obvious and on bold display; promising voters public largess brings victory and dependency.

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling.)

It doesn’t take a weatherman

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

In Magna cum laundry, Richard Fernandez cites an excerpt from the 1982 documentary No Place to Hide, in which undercover agent Larry Grathwohl discusses the Weathermen’s post-revolution plans for the United States:

As he points out, the Weathermen’s plans included putting parts of the United States under the control of Cuba, North Vietnam, China and Russia and “re-educating” the “uncooperative” in camps in the Southwest. An estimated 25 million “unreconstructable” die-hards would need “liquidating”.

Grathwohl can’t believe the people with advanced degrees would suggest such a crazy plan. Fernandez can’t believe that anyone else would:

What’s hard to imagine is sitting in a room full of plumbers discussing the same thing. The longer I live the less I believe that humanity is able to live without submitting itself to some kind of belief system. Western Civilization decided to liberate itself from a belief in Christ — whose Kingdom was not of this world — and went straight to the altars of Nazism and Communism, whose kingdom was in the camps. People like Ayers aren’t atheists, they’re true believers. GK Chesterton was right when he said that a man who declares he has stopped believing in God often doesn’t mean he believes in nothing. It only means he’s willing to believe in anything.

Jean Paul Sarte believed Che Guevara was “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age … [the] era’s most perfect man”, which just goes to show you can get a fancy diploma from the École Normale Supérieure and still graduate with not an iota of common sense. Unclogging a drain with a snake is something anyone with a little intelligence and persistence can do. Planning the death of millions of Americans takes an education.

If you’re not familiar with the Weathermen, they were revolutionary Communists who split off from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969 and went on to lead riots and to bomb a number of targets: the Haymarket Police Statue in Chicago, several police cars in Chicago and Berkeley, the Golden Gate Park branch of the San Francisco Police Department (killing one officer and injuring a number of other policemen), etc.

They took their name from the lyric “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” from the Bob Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and they declared themselves a “white fighting force” allied with the “Black Liberation Movement” to achieve “the destruction of US imperialism and achieve a classless world: world communism.”

Today they’re best known for being the terrorist group Bill Ayers co-founded.

A Tutorial on Obamanomics

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Aaron Clarey, going by the name of Captain Capitalism, has provided A Tutorial on Obamanomics. I don’t normally enjoy partisan rants, but he gets points for style:

Clarey is also the author of Behind the Housing Crash: Confessions from an Insider.

Beatles Unknown "A Hard Day’s Night" Chord Mystery Solved Using Fourier Transform

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

The opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night” is famous because no one has been able to figure exactly what chord Harrison was playing — and they’ve been trying to figure it out for 40 years. Now the chord mystery has been solved using Fourier transforms:

Four years ago, inspired by reading news coverage about the song’s 40th anniversary, Jason Brown of Dalhousie’s Department of Mathematics decided to try and see if he could apply a mathematical calculation known as Fourier transform to solve the Beatles’ riddle. The process allowed him to decompose the sound into its original frequencies using computer software and parse out which notes were on the record.

It worked, to a point: the frequencies he found didn’t match the known instrumentation on the song. “George played a 12-string Rickenbacker, Lennon had his six string, Paul had his bass…none of them quite fit what I found,” he explains. “Then the solution hit me: it wasn’t just those instruments. There was a piano in there as well, and that accounted for the problematic frequencies.”

“I started playing guitar because I heard a Beatles record — that was it for my piano lessons,” says Brown. “I had tried to play the first chord of the song many takes over the years. It sounds outlandish that someone could create a mystery around a chord from a time where artists used such simple recording techniques. It’s quite remarkable.”

Dr. Brown deduces that another George — George Martin, the Beatles producer — also played on the chord, adding a piano chord that included an F note impossible to play with the other notes on the guitar. The resulting chord was completely different than anything found in the literature about the song to date, which is one reason why Dr. Brown’s findings garnered international attention. He laughs that he may be the only mathematician ever to be published in Guitar Player magazine.

Tesla Model S 4-Door Sedan

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

Road & Track apparently has a photo of the Tesla Model S 4-Door Sedan, and it looks pretty sweet:

Tesla says the Model S will get about 240 miles per charge while still offering “exceptional performance.” Numbers being bandied about include 0–60 mph in less than 6 seconds. The Model S will have a base price of about $60,000 (versus the Roadster’s $109,000 price tag) when it goes on sale in late 2010. Tesla recently hired Franz von Holzhausen as its chief designer; he was formerly the director of design for Mazda North America. His first project is to put the finishing touches on the Model S.

Lewis and Clark and Their Air Rifle

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Years ago, when I was reading a Sherlock Holmes story — “The Adventure of the Empty House,” in which Holmes famously returns from his supposed death — I was shocked to find the villain — big-game hunter Colonel Sebastian Moran — using an air gun.

The technology didn’t seem very Victorian to me — so imagine my surprise when I found out that Lewis and Clark brought an air rifle on their expedition, back in 1803-06 — it gets mentioned repeatedly in their journals — and that air guns in fact go back 400 years.

Air guns were much, much more difficult to produce — and thus much, much more expensive — than ordinary flintlocks that ignited gunpowder, but they had their advantages, as this passage from 1803 explains:

Visited Captain Lewess barge. He shewed us his air gun which fired 22 times at one charge. He shewed us the mode of charging her and then loaded with 12 balls which he intended to fire one at a time; but she by some means lost the whole charge of air at the first fire. He charged her again and then she fired twice. He then found the cause and in some measure prevented the airs escaping, and then she fired seven times; but when in perfect order she fires 22 times in a minute. All the balls are put at once into a short side barrel and are then droped into the chamber of the gun one at a time by moving a spring; and when the triger is pulled just so much air escapes out of the air bag which forms the britch of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious peice of workmanship not easily discribed and therefore I omit attempting it.

So, in 1803, an air gun can shoot 22 rounds per minute! (And it could shoot 40 rounds from one “load” of compressed air.) By comparison, a trained soldier was expected to manage 3 rounds per minute from a musket.

One advantage the air gun did not possess though — Sherlock Holmes stories aside — was silence. It was quieter than a powder-based gun, but not very quiet. Authorities nonetheless feared poachers with silent guns — which isn’t so different from the hysteria over “plastic guns” a few years ago. (No, a Glock can’t pass through a metal detector without setting it off.)

I love this passage — from the journal of one Private Whitehouse — about Lewis and Clark impressing the Yankton Sioux with their magic gun that obviously had infinite ammunition and needed no powder:

Captain Lewis took his Air Gun and shot her off, and by the Interpreter told them there was medicine in her, and that she could do very great execution. They all stood amazed at the curiosity; Captain Lewis discharged the Air Gun several times, and the Indians ran hastily to see the holes that the Balls had made which was discharged from it. At finding the balls had entered the Tree, they shouted a loud at the sight and the Execution that was done suprized them exceedingly.

Now, if your only experience with air guns is with children’s BB guns, you may wonder how dangerous these air rifles were. Very. The Girandoni was no .177 caliber BB gun. It shot a large-caliber (.463) lead ball, and it was considered lethal out to 150 yards. This was, after all, an Austrian military weapon — if not an entirely successful one:

Emperor Joseph personally was involved in the most detailed matters of the Austrian military airgun project and their use in combat. He realized early that the air guns must be “deployed correctly and maintained at the best standard. It is necessary that the simple soldier, whose intelligence is generally quite limited, is given this training immediately upon receiving the gun — and that the training is delivered in individual parts and not too much at once.”

It was determined that two corporals would have to be especially trained to train and supervise the rank soldiers in the use of the Girandoni airguns. Thus every 20 air-riflemen would be supported by these two special corporals plus a specially trained officer. In addition, there would be a specially trained journeyman gunsmith for each 100 airguns and a supply of replacement seals, air reservoirs, mainsprings, etc.

Even with this intense support, there was considerable malfunctioning and poor maintenance of the airguns. Emperor Joseph was soon complaining that “we appear to have a miserable bunch of riflemen, none of who is suitable for service with the air rifles.” By end of November 1788 the Emperor seems to have ordered that the air rifles be taken away from the troops. The General Artillery Director, the Duke of Colloredo himself, reported on July 21, 1789: “Due to their construction, these guns were much more difficult to use effectively than normal, as one had to handle them much more cautiously and carefully. In addition, the soldiers using them had to be supervised extremely carefully, as they were unsure about the operation. The guns become inoperable after a very short time — so much so that after awhile no more than one third of them were still is in a usable state. We needed the whole winter to repair and replace them.”

After this it was deemed wise to take back the airguns and issue them only to select, specially trained Tyrolean sharpshooter units. The last order given by the Emperor prior to his death was “to select the most promising and skilful soldiers to use these guns.” Because of extensive service work, and most importantly, the lack of Emperor Joseph’s interest and involvement, the airguns still had not been issued on December 16, 1792. However, the Tyrol Sharp Shooter Corps indicated “that these weapons were really accurate and effective” in the Turkish War and in 1790 against Prussia. (Contrary to many accounts, they never saw service against any of Napoleon’s troops.) The air rifles were later supplied only with the wheeled and short hand pumps behind the lines — the idea being that captured airguns would not be very useful without the pumps!

At any rate, it’s a fascinating technology:

Operation Grand Slam

Friday, October 24th, 2008

Richard Fernandez doesn’t call it an election. He calls it Operation Grand Slam:

In the movie Goldfinger, James Bond, about to be split in half by a laser beam, asks the villain, “do you expect me to talk?” He answers, “no Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.” Roger Kimball exclaims, “is Obama a ‘transformational figure’? You don’t know the half of it!” Michael Medved believes that “for Conservatives, Obama’s changes would be permanent and devastating”. That, my dear Mr. Bond, is the point.

Intensity of commitment has long been a decisive component of historical military strategy. It is possible to defeat a superior enemy if you can ‘outcommit’ him: take things to a level where he is afraid to follow. Napoleon did not anticipate that the Russians would burn Moscow rather than let him have it. Napoleon was defeated. Late in the Second World War the Japanese adopted the method of suicide attack, which became famous as the kamikaze. The Japanese still lost, but only because the US was many times more powerful and had the Atomic Bomb to boot. If the match were nearly equal things would have been much harder. Clausewitz observed that war is an act of force to compel the enemy to do its opponent’s will. In that equation, it is not just the quality of the force, but the quality of the will that matters. In politics, to a lesser extent, things are much the same.

If conservatives now realize that their political enemies are not simply out to win an election cycle but to effectively destroy them, the only surprising thing is that they were surprised.

Although it’s tempting to ascribe ruthlessness only to certain ideologies, it is potentially an attrbute of all “winner-take-all” world views. The continued survival of a liberal democracy implies the absence of groups which see politics as a zero-sum game. Once a significant political force decides that it — or its point of view — must dominate over all others, a social crisis becomes inevitable. Lincoln put it this way: “In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. ”

Civility in political life can only be sustained when everyone owes their basic allegiance to the larger nation and subordinates their partisan identity to it.
While there may be some doubt about what Barack Obama’s intentions may be, should he win the Presidency, there’s little doubt that for people like Ayers, Dohrn, Wright and Farrakhan, a victory in 2008 won’t be seen as “their turn”, but as their Destiny.

Savvier Airline Schedules, Fewer Cheap Fares

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Savvier airline schedules should lead to fewer cheap fares, as airlines stop flying low-demand routes just to keep the schedule the same from Monday through Friday:

No airline has a more complex schedule than Southwest. The low-cost carrier now has more daily flights than any other airline, and it runs a frenetic operation with planes hop-scotching across the country and spending only 20 or 30 minutes on the ground. With more than 500 airplanes and 60 cities to link together, there are literally billions of different ways to set the airline’s schedule.

As a result, Southwest made fewer schedule changes historically than other airlines, and for most of its history was writing schedules by hand. Each new schedule was simply a copy of the previous, with a few changes here and there. But all that has changed.

Southwest’s November schedule was developed with an upgraded version of its in-house schedule-optimization system that reworked the airline’s entire 3,400 daily departures. The airline now flies a completely different schedule on Saturdays — in the past it just erased some flights here and there from the regular schedule on Saturdays. Now some cities like Omaha, Neb.; Salt Lake City; Oklahoma City; and Tulsa, Okla., get nonstop flights to Orlando only on Saturdays.

In January, Southwest will cut 190 flights, reducing its capacity by 6% in the slower winter travel season. That’s more schedule jockeying than the airline has ever done before. And next year, it will add Minneapolis-St. Paul to its route network without increasing its capacity. The scheduling system trimmed flights here and there and improved efficiency, freeing up airplanes to fly to and from Minneapolis.

I think the Wall Street Journal buried the lede on this one:

Southwest’s computer reworked a flight from Austin, Texas, to Orlando because it figured out that the departure around 8 p.m. wasn’t desirable for leisure customers because they’d arrive after 11 p.m. in Florida. Moving the departure to 2 p.m. boosted demand for that flight.

In the past, Southwest’s schedule planners penciled out routes for each aircraft for a seven-day week, with Monday-Friday usually identical, and some changes on the weekend. Schedules were hand-written on sheets of paper that were taped together in scrolls reaching as long as 30 feet.

Southwest tried to hire consulting firms or software providers to devise a system for its unique way of operating. But most airline scheduling systems are geared to long-haul, hub-and-spoke carriers where planes fly into and out of the same city over and over again and airlines want to maximize flight connections. None of the 20 companies Southwest talked to could produce a scheduling system to do the whole job.

Then a Southwest employee, Alex Heinold, came up with a breakthrough on his home computer, devising a formula to match the airline’s unique operation.

It took several years, but the company built the idea into a home-grown schedule “optimizer,” and used it on real schedules for the first time in 2004. The computer took six airplanes out of Southwest’s schedule without cutting any flights, a saving of $180 million in aircraft purchases. The schedule was run through the system again in 2006, and earlier this year, a more advanced system was put into regular use. “We’ve been able to decrease almost every devil that plagued us,” said John Jamotta, senior director of schedule planning at Southwest.

Optimizing the schedule has a benefit for travelers — flights timed when people most want them, going to the places they most want to go, Southwest says.

There is a potential downside — fewer bargain-basement prices.

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Half-feathered dinosaur was a bit of a show-off

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

The fossil of a pigeon-sized, flightless dinosaur has been dug up from the Daohugou formation in Inner Mongolia, and it looks like the half-feathered dinosaur was a bit of a show-off:

The Chinese fossil, named Epidexipteryx (meaning “display feather”), “is very close to the bird lineage,” says Fucheng Zhang of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing, China.

The creature’s evolutionary relationships to other dinosaurs, its age, and some details of its anatomy remain uncertain. Epidexipteryx might have evolved from flying ancestors, Zhang says, but its age and appearance suggest “that display feathers appeared before airfoil feathers and flight ability”.

The fossil’s most striking features are four ribbon-like tail feathers stretching at least 20 centimetres – the full length is uncertain as the tips are no longer present. Parallel filaments resembling the barbs in bird feathers run along their length.

The shoulders show short fuzzy feathers, which Zhang says also covered the body. But its limbs show no trace of flight feathers.

Where is the Credit Crunch?

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Where is the Credit Crunch?, Alex Tabarrok asks — for the third time:

Back in February I pointed out that despite all the talk of a credit crunch commercial and industrial loans were at an all-time high and increasing. In September I once again pointed to data showing that bank credit continued to be high (even if growth was slowing.) At that time I also discussed how bank loans were not the only source of funds for business investment and that many substitute bridges exist which transform and transmit savings into investment. I suggested that despite the panic the problems which exist in the financial industry may be relatively confined to that industry.

Three economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Chari, Christiano and Kehoe, now further support my analysis pointing to Four Myths about the Financial Crisis of 2008.

The myths

  1. Bank lending to nonfinancial corporations and individuals has declined sharply.
  2. Interbank lending is essentially nonexistent.
  3. Commercial paper issuance by nonfinancial corporations has declined sharply and rates have risen to unprecedented levels.
  4. Banks play a large role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers.

Each of these myths is refuted by widely available financial data from the Federal Reserve. It’s a short paper, read the whole thing.

Economists with Pseudo-Knowledge

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Arnold Kling is shocked at the behavior of his fellow economists during this crisis, because those economists are claiming to know much more than they do about causes and solutions — but he saves his harshest words for the macroeconomists who haven’t worked toward understanding the “real economy” at all:

But the economics profession for the past thirty years instead focused on producing stochastic calculus porn to satisfy young men’s urge for mathematical masturbation.

Economists ought to admit that we do not know much about what is going on today. Neither do the Fed Chairman and the Treasury Secretary. Of course, the market demand is for “strong” leaders and for “strong” economists, who can fool the public into believing that they have great knowledge. The ones who do this best are those who have fooled themselves.