Operation Everest

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Control of the heights has long been important in war:

Two centuries ago the Montgolfier hot air balloon took this to a new dimension — high in the air. When Benjamin Franklin saw one of the first flights, he envisioned an armada of thousands of balloons carrying airborne troops to battle. France formed the first air force — the “Compagnie d’Aerostiers” — and on 2 June 1794 two French soldiers were taken high above gunshot to observe and report the disposition of the Austrian army ranged against them. For many decades such balloons did not ascend more than a few thousand feet. However, in 1875, a huge balloon carried three men to over 25,000 ft; two were dead from hypoxia when they landed. The danger of great altitude was thus dramatically proven: if men were to fight in the air, the hazards of high altitude must be overcome.

By 1920, powered aircraft could reach altitudes that incapacitated pilots if they did not breathe extra oxygen. Twenty-five years later, aircraft could go even higher, beyond the level where pure oxygen, delivered under ambient pressure, sufficed. Pressurized cabins were thought impracticable for battle; other approaches were sought.

By then it was clear that exposure to gradually increasing altitude enabled men to survive, whereas the unacclimatized soon lost consciousness. Some air forces kept pilots for weeks at moderate elevations in the mountains to enable them to fly higher than their adversaries. This was somewhat effective but impractical, and it suggested that air crews might become acclimatized by repeated exposure to simulated altitude in decompression chambers.

To examine this concept, in 1946 the US Navy authorized a study of acclimatization called Operation Everest, which was conducted at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. Four men were taken to a simulated altitude of 8,800 m (29,000 ft) during 35 days of slow ascent. Samples of arterial and venous blood, expired air, and urine, taken at rest and after exercise, were analyzed, and subjects were examined repeatedly during the ascent. Electrocardiograms and occasional chest roentgenograms monitored cardiac function.

Finally two of the four reached a simulated altitude of 8,800 m, where they were able to do light work for 20 minutes. Next day, breathing 100% oxygen, they were taken slowly from 8,800 to 15,200 m (50,500 ft), where they were able to exercise, although only lightly. This portion of the study showed that when breathing pure oxygen, these partially acclimatized men could go much higher than could the unacclimatized; at the time, this proved that acclimatization could give a small edge to the fighting pilot at extreme altitude. Soon, however, the use of pressurized cabins made moot the issue of acclimatization. Today, for military purposes, the altitude ceiling of the aircraft, rather than the pilot’s tolerance, is the limiting factor.

End of an Extravaganza

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

John Derbyshire describes the end of an extravaganza:

In the first third of the 15th century, while the Hundred Years War between England and France stormed dramatically to its denouement (Agincourt, Joan of Arc), and Muslims held on by their fingernails to their last fragment of Spain, and the Ottomans regrouped following the ravages of Tamurlane, and Ladislas II was breaking the power of the Teutonic Knights — while all that was happening at the other end of the Eurasian land-mass, China was enjoying a spell of national confidence and bold self-assertion under the third Ming emperor.

The famous great tourist sights of Peking stand as testimony to that period of vigor. Among its other glories, though they left us with no monuments to admire other than a few scattered steles, were the seagoing expeditions of the “Eunuch Admiral” Zheng He. In seven voyages from 1405 to 1433, Zheng and his “treasure fleets” carried the imperial banner to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa.

The striking thing is how utterly little historical consequence these voyages had. It can fairly be argued, in fact, that they had none at all. A school of revisionist historians has come up arguing that Zheng was instrumental in the consolidation of Islam in Indonesia; and one scholar even tells us that “Zheng He reshaped Asia.” Even on the most extravagant claims, though, nobody thinks that Zheng’s voyages had any result as dramatic as what followed the great European explorers of a few decades later.

There were no colonies established as a result of the treasure fleets, no trade routes opened up, no alliances formed, no enlargement of understanding among China’s educated classes. The Ming court decided at last that the whole business was too costly. The records of Zheng’s last two expeditions were destroyed in a court intrigue, and China commenced the retreat into incurious bureaucratic despotism from which she was awoken only four hundred years later, when European traders came banging on the nation’s doors.

Derbyshire wrote this in June, which explains the punchline:

Now, approaching the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing (July 20), you have to wonder if history is repeating itself. America’s manned space program was a grandiose public-works project, government-initiated and government-funded, like Zheng’s expeditions. Its achievements, like theirs, were sensational but content-free. Men floated in orbit above the earth’s atmosphere; men walked on the moon, but nothing changed among the earthbound.
Manned space travel always was, and still is, a pointless extravaganza project of no practical or scientific value — a Zheng He expedition for our time. In the bumptiousness of early-imperial triumphalism — a new dynasty established in China, a great war won by America — government can get away with stuff like that. Then, as domestic lobbies clamor for more of the national fisc (“If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we …?”), as the people are tamed by long peace, turning away from great events to their small daily affairs, as a mandarinate of unimaginative scholar-bureaucrats consolidates its grip on the society, priorities shift.

The free-market system is politically fragile

Friday, October 30th, 2009

The free-market system is politically fragile — especially the financial industry:

It is so fragile because it relies entirely on the sanctity of contracts and the rule of law, and that sanctity cannot be preserved without broad popular support. When people are angry to the point of threatening the lives of bankers; when the majority of Americans are demanding government intervention not only to regulate the financial industry but to control the way companies are run; when voters lose confidence in the economic system because they perceive it as fundamentally corrupt — then the sanctity of private property becomes threatened as well. And when property rights are not protected, the survival of an effective financial sector, and with it a thriving economy, is in doubt.

The government’s involvement in the financial sector in the wake of the crisis — and particularly the bailouts of large banks and other institutions — has exacerbated this problem. Public mistrust of government has combined with mistrust of bankers, and concerns about the waste of taxpayer dollars have been joined to worries about rewarding those who caused the mess on Wall Street. In response, politicians have tried to save themselves by turning against the finance sector with a vengeance. That the House of Representatives approved a proposal to retroactively tax 90% of all bonuses paid by financial institutions receiving TARP money shows how dangerous this combination of backlash and demagoguery can be.

Fortunately, that particular proposal never became law. But the anti-finance climate that produced it greatly contributed, for instance, to the expropriation of Chrysler’s secured creditors this spring. By singling out and publicly condemning the Chrysler creditors who demanded that their contractual rights be respected, President Obama effectively exploited public resentment to reduce the government’s costs in the Chrysler bailout. But the cost-cutting came at the expense of current investors, and sent a signal to all potential future investors. While Obama’s approach was convenient in the short term, it could prove devastating to the market system over time: The protection afforded to secured creditors is crucial in making credit available to firms in financial distress and even in Chapter 11. The Chrysler precedent will jeopardize access to such financing in the future, particularly for the firms most in need, and so will increase the pressure for yet more government involvement.

The pattern that has taken hold in the wake of the financial crisis thus threatens to initiate a vicious cycle. To avoid being linked in the public mind with the companies they are working to help, politicians take part in and encourage the assault on finance; this scares off legitimate investors, no longer certain they can count on contracts and the rule of law. And this, in turn, leaves little recourse for troubled businesses but to seek government assistance.

It is no coincidence that shortly after bashing Wall Street executives for their greed, the administration set up the most generous form of subsidy ever invented for Wall Street. The Public-Private Investment Program, announced in March by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, provides $84 of government-subsidized loans and $7 of government equity for every $7 of private equity invested in the purchase of toxic assets. The terms are so generous that the private investors essentially receive a subsidy of $2 for every dollar they put in.

If these terms are “justified” by the uncertainty stemming from the populist backlash, they also exacerbate the conditions that generated the backlash in the first place — confirming the sense that government and large market players are cooperating at the expense of the taxpayer and the small investor. If the Public-Private Investment Program works, the very people who created the problem stand to grow fabulously rich with government help — which will surely do no good for the public’s impression of American capitalism.

This is just the unhealthy cycle in which capitalism is trapped in most countries around the world. On one hand, entrepreneurs and financiers feel threatened by public hostility, and thus justified in seeking special privileges from the government. On the other hand, ordinary citizens feel outraged by the privileges the entrepreneurs and financiers receive, inflaming that very hostility. For anyone acquainted with the character of capitalism around the world, this moment in America feels eerily familiar.

A Unitary Multi-National State

Friday, October 30th, 2009

China calls itself a unitary multi-national state, which is pretty close to the dictionary definition of an empire. What is surprising, John Derbyshire notes, given their illustrious history, is how bad they are imperialism:

The trick of successful imperializing is to leave the locals alone as much as possible, stamping out only the most objectionable of local folkways, picking off only the most troublesome local nationalists, letting the subject peoples use their own languages for any purpose that does not involve addressing the central authorities, and above all avoiding insults to their religion. The British ran India with a few thousand expatriates on this principle — most of them, as Winston Churchill pointed out, not feeling very well most of the time. The Romans worked along similar lines, once they had gotten the hang of it. So did the Austrians, the early Arabs, and the descendants of Alexander.

The imperial power has to let the subject peoples know who’s boss, of course. A few salutary demonstrations — the suppressions of the Sepoy Mutiny and of Boadicea’s revolt — early on in the imperializing process generally suffice. If you’re not willing to break a few heads (actually, in those particular cases, a few hundred thousand heads), best stay our of the empire business. Things can get bloody at the other end of the cycle, too, in the chaos of imperial retreat. Ask an Armenian.

That brings us to the Turks, one of the more successful imperial powers while things were going along smoothly, which they were for several centuries. It brings us back to East Turkestan, too, as the majority people in that region, the Uighurs, share their deep ancestry with the Turks of Turkey. The preface to the Oxford English-Turkish Dictionary tells you that once you have mastered the Turkish language, you can make yourself understood from the Bosphorus to the borders of Mongolia. There was in fact, in the fever-flush of 19th-century Ottoman decline, a pan-Turkic movement with the dream of uniting all speakers of Turkic languages in a single great nation named Turan. Few educated Turks nowadays take pan-Turkism seriously, though the nationalist MHP party sometimes makes pan-Turkic noises for rhetorical effect.

With or without a full-blown pan-Turkic ideology, the Turks of Turkey have generally felt a vague brotherhood with their cousins in Central Asia. The Uighurs of East Turkestan actually had a republic of their own for a few years in the 1940s, while the Russians and Chinese were busy with matters elsewhere. When Mao Tse-tung crushed that republic sixty years ago, its leaders fled to Turkey.
Even by the normal dismal standards of emigré groups, the Uighurs’ case looks hopeless. Their homeland has been flooded with Chinese settlers. The Chinese authorities say that the region is now forty percent Chinese, but they are probably understating settler numbers. Unlike Tibet, East Turkestan has a fairly agreeable climate, and it is not so high that Chinese settlers suffer respiratory discomfort. Also unlike Tibet, the region is Muslim, making it easy since 9/11 for the Chinese to label all Uighur independence activists as “terrorist,” and to hitch imperial policing activities to the War on Terror. Even the kindred peoples of West Turkestan — the old Turkic republics of Soviet Central Asia, now independent — are not inclined to help the Uighurs for fear of offending China and the U.S.A. Russia, increasingly wary of Muslim numbers in its southern “near abroad,” has been cheering on the Chinese goon squads these past few days as they have clubbed the Uighurs back into submission. Perhaps there never was a people so completely friendless as the Uighurs.

There is still much public sympathy in Turkey for the Uighurs, but it is not likely that any conceivable Turkish government would alienate China on the Uighurs’ behalf. It doesn’t help that this is Turkey, a country not much loved beyond its borders. Prime Minister Erdogan’s Friday statement that “The incidents in China are a genocide” occasioned much derision in Europe and the U.S.A. What? — a Turk talking about genocide? When the 1915 Armenian massacres are still a taboo subject in Turkey?

The Chinese therefore have a pretty free hand against the Uighurs. They can be depended on to use it. Short of a Final Solution, though — which I think, and very much hope, can be ruled out — they will not subdue the Uighurs. If they were competent traditional-style imperialists, instead of Leninist control freaks, they would have left the Uighurs to take care of their own local affairs under a suzerainty rule, with tribute paid in the form of oil and mineral concessions. That’s how the Great Game should be played.

Better yet would have been for the Chinese to take a lesson from post-Ottoman Turkey: to give up the imperialism business altogether, retreat to the metropolitan homeland, and leave the old imperial territories to their individual fates.

After coming to power sixty years ago this fall, Mao Tse-tung did a fine imitation of Suleiman the Magnificent. In the long run, though, it might have been better for China, and for the rest of us too, if he had taken Atatürk as his model.

Obama’s Alpha Delusion

Friday, October 30th, 2009

The current administration recently unveiled $3.4 billion in stimulus grants for advanced electricity-grid projects, and Eric Falkenstein calls this Obama’s Alpha Delusion:

This PR parade relies on the idea that this administration, if not Obama himself, gets into details, and chooses the right cutting edge technologies and methods. Look at Obama above, with his sleeves rolled up, giving pointers to an appreciative bunch of field managers (perhaps the NEA can get to work on some Soviet Realism in this context). In this case, Obama merely has to allocate some of our money to a select list of projects that are aligned with the buzzwords ‘clean energy’, and we get the increasing returns to scale that Paul Krugman won his Nobel Prize for (too bad Ann Krueger didn’t win a Nobel for showing the same ‘infant industry’ argument has been a pretext to protect inefficient industries for over 200 years).

It never occured to any of these guys that there aren’t any magic solutions to our energy problem. They act as if we only tried to develop batteries, we could have ten times the power. See this video from Zocalo, and at the end of the critical discussion about the oil industry an audience member earnestly asks: “can’t we develop energy out of water?” as if the only reason we use oil is because the Rich Uncle Pennybags character from the Monopoly Game is not letting us. The electric car predates the internal combustion engine. My laptop and cell phone routinely run out of energy, highlighting the high reward waiting for the next battery innovation. There has been and continues to be research, and incentives, to increase the efficiencies of batteries.

Obama hates being compared to socialists, so I’ll refrain and compare him to a communist. In the state published hagiography, Divine Stories About the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il is presented as someone excellent at golf, pistol shooting, technology, and battlefield courage. He’s basically better than everyone at everything. For a communist state that belief is necessary, otherwise their system is too centralized.

Obama and his experts are presumably more efficient than the market at allocating more resources to productive technologies. The idea that since the market won’t provide funds, perhaps the informed expected return on battery investment is truly low, seems absurd: how could selfish oafs who run business know better than an articulate, caring, public servant? It’s The Secret writ large: think it true, and it becomes so. No wonder it’s a popular idea: would that it were true.

Unfortunately, the bien pensants who adore Obama (or really, adore that they adore Obama), see his value add being multifaceted micromanagement. There are countless $3.4B special investment targets to do, each one with dreams of cold-fusion, high-speed trains, and the end to the achievement gap. Most people think that ‘good smart people’ are better in almost every way than your average businessman, and most people think they vote for such people, thus these politicians should be directing activities the way a coach directs a football team.

Alas, the value of extreme intelligence and knowledge of detail, does not scale at the managerial level. It runs out of benefit to a ruler, because they cannot and should not try to micromanage things. Thus, the best developer of a new technology is often a lousy director for a state or large corporation, and the best managers are often not the best developers. Indeed, a key advantage of those who are smart — but not too smart — is they know they don’t know more than everyone. The Barak Obamas and Paul Krugmans, having excelled at Harvard or MIT, can more easily think they actually know more than everyone else, leading to the classic Fatal Conceit of planners everywhere.

The idea that the only feasible alpha for a leader of a large collective, is to enforce rules and get out of the way, is simply preposterous for those who think the Invisible Hand is merely a theory used by conservatives to excuse their indifference. This reflects a failure to appreciate the complex, homeostatic mechanisms of self interested agents within a free market, and the infinite number of ways top-down rules are worked around when applied to the masses. As Hayek noted, the biggest flaw with the free market is that it wasn’t designed, it emerged spontaneously, which causes people to dismiss its value. Thus, they have 1000 page plans like our health care bill, or ideas about new committees that will assess issues intelligently and disinterestedly.

The Inheritance of Rome

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

The fall of Rome was really the fall of tax revenue:

As [Chris Wickham] tells it, the most important dividing line between “ancient” and “medieval” — the profoundest marker of the “fall of Rome” was not a matter of language or culture, of the shift from togas to tunics or from stuffed swan to roast meat. The most important dividing line was the loss of the power and capacity to tax.

The Roman emperors had imposed a wide variety of taxes on trade and land. The revenues from these taxes supported the army and provided the free grain ration to the populations of Rome and Constantinople.

After the breakup of the empire, the successor states tried to maintain the old Roman taxes. Some — like the Merovingian Franks — succeeded for a time. But sooner or later, all these tax systems broke down. The world had become too poor, trade and agriculture too unproductive, to yield a positive return on the effort invested in tax collection.

Instead, rulers began assigning lands to their supporters — on the understanding that the supporters and their tenants would follow the ruler to war when summoned. Land assignment was much less efficient than taxation, and the opportunity it presented for treachery was obvious, but as the world narrowed, what other choice was there?

Curiously, the state that maintained the old Roman tax system longest was not the eastern empire — its tax system broke down in the 610-650 period — but the Islamic caliphate! In the 700s and 800s, the Abbasid caliph was the richest ruler west of China, richer than the Constantinople emperor, vastly richer than Charlemagne. And the foundation of his wealth was the revenue he extracted from Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia using the old cadastral surveys of the Roman emperors.

Thomas Hobbes mockingly described the papacy as the “ghost of the deceased Roman empire, sitting throned on the grave thereof.” If Wickham is right, that title more properly belongs to the caliphate — in fiscal terms anyway.

(Hat tip to Razib.)

What Startups Are Really Like

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Paul Graham asked a number of founders what surprised them about starting a startup and came away with this advice to potential founders:

  1. Be Careful with Cofounders
  2. Startups Take Over Your Life
  3. It’s an Emotional Roller-coaster
  4. It Can Be Fun
  5. Persistence Is the Key
  6. Think Long-Term
  7. Lots of Little Things
  8. Start with Something Minimal
  9. Engage Users
  10. Change Your Idea
  11. Don’t Worry about Competitors
  12. It’s Hard to Get Users
  13. Expect the Worst with Deals
  14. Investors Are Clueless
  15. You May Have to Play Games
  16. Luck Is a Big Factor
  17. The Value of Community
  18. You Get No Respect
  19. Things Change as You Grow

The key insight is the super-pattern, the pattern of patterns:

These are supposed to be the surprises, the things I didn’t tell people. What do they all have in common? They’re all things I tell people. If I wrote a new essay with the same outline as this that wasn’t summarizing the founders’ responses, everyone would say I’d run out of ideas and was just repeating myself.

What is going on here?

When I look at the responses, the common theme is that starting a startup was like I said, but way more so. People just don’t seem to get how different it is till they do it.

Historians Reassess Battle of Agincourt

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Historians reassess the Battle of Agincourt and question just how outnumbered Henry V’s “band of brothers” really was:

Based on chronicles that he considers to be broadly accurate, Clifford J. Rogers, a professor of history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, argues that Henry was in fact vastly outnumbered. For the English, there were about 1,000 so-called men-at-arms in heavy steel armor from head to toe and 5,000 lightly armored men with longbows. The French assembled roughly 10,000 men-at-arms, each with an attendant called a gros valet who could also fight, and around 4,000 men with crossbows and other fighters.

Although Mr. Rogers writes in a recent paper that the French crossbowmen were “completely outclassed” by the English archers, who could send deadly volleys farther and more frequently, the grand totals would result in a ratio of four to one, close to the traditional figures. Mr. Rogers said in an interview that he regarded the archival records as too incomplete to substantially change those estimates.

Still, several French historians said in interviews this month that they seriously doubted that France, riven by factional strife and drawing from a populace severely depleted by the plague, could have raised an army that large in so short a time. The French king, Charles VI, was also suffering from bouts of insanity.

“It was not the complete French power at Agincourt,” said Bertrand Schnerb, a professor of medieval history at the University of Lille, who estimated that there were 12,000 to 15,000 French soldiers.

Ms. Curry, the Southampton historian, said she was comfortable with something close to that lower figure, based on her reading of historical archives, including military pay records, muster rolls, ships’ logs, published rosters of the wounded and dead, wartime tax levies and other surviving documents.

On the English side, Ms. Curry calculates that Henry probably had at least 8,680 soldiers with him on his march to Agincourt. She names thousands of the likely troopers, from Adam Adrya, a man-at-arms, to Philip Zevan, an archer.

And an extraordinary online database listing around a quarter-million names of men who served in the Hundred Years’ War, compiled by Ms. Curry and her collaborators at the universities in Southampton and Reading, shows that whatever the numbers, Henry’s army really was a band of brothers: many of the soldiers were veterans who had served on multiple campaigns together.

“You see tremendous continuity with people who knew and trusted each other,” Ms. Curry said.

That trust must have come in handy after Henry, through a series of brilliant tactical moves, provoked the French cavalry — mounted men-at-arms — into charging the masses of longbowmen positioned on the English flanks in a relatively narrow field between two sets of woods that still exist not far from Mr. Renault’s farm in Maisoncelle.

The series of events that followed as the French men-at-arms slogged through the muddy, tilled fields behind the cavalry were quick and murderous.

Volley after volley of English arrow fire maddened the horses, killed many of the riders and forced the advancing men-at-arms into a mass so dense that many of them could not even lift their arms.

When the heavily armored French men-at-arms fell wounded, many could not get up and simply drowned in the mud as other men stumbled over them. And as order on the French lines broke down completely and panic set in, the much nimbler archers ran forward, killing thousands by stabbing them in the neck, eyes, armpits and groin through gaps in the armor, or simply ganged up and bludgeoned the Frenchmen to death.

“The situation was beyond grisly; it was horrific in the extreme,” Mr. Rogers wrote in his paper.

King Henry V had emerged victorious, and as some historians see it, the English crown then mounted a public relations effort to magnify the victory by exaggerating the disparity in numbers.

Where the Best and Brightest Go

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Thirty years ago, Luigi Zingales notes, the brightest undergraduates were going into science, technology, law, and business. For the last 20 years, they have gone to finance:

Having devoted themselves to this sector, these talented individuals inevitably end up working to advance its interests: A person specialized in derivative trading is likely to be terribly impressed with the importance and value of derivatives, just as a nuclear engineer is likely to think nuclear power can solve all the world’s problems. And if most of the political elite were picked from among nuclear engineers, it would be only natural that the country would soon fill with nuclear plants. In fact, we have an example of precisely this scenario in France, where for complicated cultural reasons an unusually large portion of the political elite is trained in engineering at the École Polytechnique — and France derives more of its energy from nuclear power than any other nation.

Get Back to the Real Thing

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Russ Roberts wants his country back:

Americans are angry about executive compensation.

Rightfully so.

The executives at General Motors and Chrysler don’t deserve to make a lot of money. They made bad products that people didn’t want to buy.

The executives on Wall Street don’t deserve to make a lot of money. They were reckless with other people’s money. They made bad bets that didn’t pay off. And they wasted trillions of dollars of precious capital, funneling it into housing instead of health innovation or high mileage cars or a thousand investments more valuable than bigger houses.

Everyday folks who are out of work through no fault of their own want to know why people who made bad decisions not only have a job but a big salary to go with it.

No wonder they’re angry at Wall Street,

But if we keep getting angry at Wall Street, we’ll miss the real source of the problem. It’s right here. In Washington.

We are what we do. Not what we wish to be. Not what we say we are. But what we do. And what we do here in Washington is rescue big companies and rich people from the consequences of their mistakes. When mistakes don’t cost you anything, you do more of them.

When your teenager drives drunk and wrecks the car, and you keep giving him a do-over — repairing the car and handing him back the keys — he’s going to keep driving drunk. Washington keeps giving the bad banks and Wall Street firms a do-over. Here are the keys. Keep driving. The story always ends with a crash.

Capitalism is a profit and loss system. The profits encourage risk-taking. The losses encourage prudence. Is it a surprise that when the government takes the losses, instead of the investors, that investing gets less prudent? If you always bail out lenders, is it surprising that firms can borrow enormous amounts of money living on the edge of insolvency?

I’m mad at Wall Street. But I’m a lot madder at the people who gave them the keys to drive our economy off the cliff. I’m mad at the people who have taken hundreds of billions of taxpayer money and given it to some of the richest people in human history.

I’m mad at Bush and Obama and Paulson and Geithner and Bernanake. And I’m mad at Congress. You made sure that risk-takers continue to expect that the rules that apply to the rest of us don’t apply to people with the right connections.

You have saved the system, but it’s not a system worth saving. It’s not capitalism but crony capitalism.

Using a Special Master for Compensation to get our money back is too little, too late.
The comfort we receive from seeing compensation reduced distracts us from the policies that created the problem in the first place — the rescue of Wall Street from its own recklessness.

It is a charade of political window dressing to make crony capitalism look respectable.

I want my country back.

Let’s get the government out of the auto business, out of the banking business and out of the compensation design business. We need explicit timetables to disengage from government ownership including a plan for how the Federal Reserve will draw down its balance sheet. Most of all, we need to stop trying to imagine we can design housing markets and mortgage markets and financial markets and compensation.

I want my country back.

I want a country where responsibility still means something. Where rich and poor, Main Street and Wall Street live by the same rules. We don’t need a Special Master to level the playing field. We just need to take the crony out of crony capitalism so we can get back to the real thing.

No R Sounds At All

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

The first thing John Derbyshire noticed about his Wikipedia entry was that they got his name wrong:

Not the spelling — they at least managed to get that right — but the pronunciation. Their rendering in the International Phonetic Alphabet is /?d?rb???r / That includes two fricative-lingual r sounds. In fact there are no r sounds at all in the pronunciation of my name, fricative-lingual or otherwise. It is pronounced with pure vowels: /?d??b???/ (DAH-bi-shuh). I refer interested readers to §773 of Daniel Jones’ classic Outline of English Phonetics: “[I]n London English the r is never sounded when final or followed by a consonant.” The following §774, “Words for practising the omission of r,” is also helpful. Prof. Jones does not give a phonetic transcription of “Derbyshire” in standard English but he does, in §287, show /?d??b?/ for “Derby.”

Faster Maintenance with Augmented Reality

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

A U.S. Marine technician wears an augmented-reality headset as he carries out a maintenance task inside an armored vehicle.When you use virtual reality technology not to portray imaginary worlds but to “annotate” the real world, you get augmented reality &mdash which may soon help Marine mechanics carry out repairs:

A user wears a head-worn display, and the AR system provides assistance by showing 3-D arrows that point to a relevant component, text instructions, floating labels and warnings, and animated, 3-D models of the appropriate tools. An Android-powered G1 smart phone attached to the mechanic’s wrist provides touchscreen controls for cueing up the next sequence of instructions.
Henderson and Feiner first gathered laser scans and photography of the inside of the vehicle. They built a 3-D model of the vehicle’s cockpit and developed software for directing and instructing users in performing individual maintenance tasks. Ten cameras inside the cockpit were used to track the position of three infrared LEDs attached to the user’s head-worn display. In the future, the team suggests that it may be more practical for cameras or sensors to be worn by the users themselves.

Six participants carried out 18 tasks using the AR system. For comparison, the same participants also used an untracked headset (showing static text instructions and views without arrows or direction to components) and a stationary computer screen with the same graphics and models used in the headset. The mechanics using the AR system located and started repair tasks 56 percent faster, on average, than when wearing the untracked headset, and 47 percent faster than when using just a stationary computer screen.

(Incidentally, if you read between the lines a bit, the untracked headset was slightly worse than a stationary computer screen.)

Yuppie 911

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Rescuers are already lamenting the rise of Yuppie 911:

Last month two men and their teenage sons tackled one of the world’s most unforgiving summertime hikes: the Grand Canyon’s parched and searing Royal Arch Loop. Along with bedrolls and freeze-dried food, the inexperienced backpackers carried a personal locator beacon — just in case.

In the span of three days, the group pushed the panic button three times, mobilizing helicopters for dangerous, lifesaving rescues inside the steep canyon walls.

What was that emergency? The water they had found to quench their thirst “tasted salty.”

If they had not been toting the device that works like Onstar for hikers, “we would have never attempted this hike,” one of them said after the third rescue crew forced them to board their chopper. It’s a growing problem facing the men and women who risk their lives when they believe others are in danger of losing theirs.

Tell me your premises

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Sam Anderson describes Mrs. Logic with verve:

Whenever Ayn Rand met someone new — an acolyte who’d traveled cross-country to study at her feet, an editor hoping to publish her next novel — she would open the conversation with a line that seems destined to go down as one of history’s all-time classic icebreakers: “Tell me your premises.” Once you’d managed to mumble something halfhearted about loving your family, say, or the Golden Rule, Rand would set about systematically exposing all of your logical contradictions, then steer you toward her own inviolable set of premises: that man is a heroic being, achievement is the aim of life, existence exists, A is A, and so forth — the whole Objectivist catechism. And once you conceded any part of that basic platform, the game was pretty much over. She’d start piecing together her rationalist Tinkertoys until the mighty Randian edifice towered over you: a rigidly logical Art Deco skyscraper, 30 or 40 feet tall, with little plastic industrialists peeking out the windows — a shining monument to the glories of individualism, the virtues of selfishness, and the deep morality of laissez-faire capitalism. Grant Ayn Rand a premise and you’d leave with a lifestyle.

Stated premises, however, rarely get us all the way down to the bottom of a philosophy. Even when we think we’ve reached bedrock, there’s almost always a secret subbasement blasted out somewhere underneath. William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, “a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned?…?What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is — and oh so flagrantly! — is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”

No one would have been angrier about this claim, and no one confirms its truth more profoundly, than Ayn Rand. Few fellow creatures have had a more intensely odd personal flavor; her temperament could have neutered an ox at 40 paces. She was proud, grouchy, vindictive, insulting, dismissive, and rash. (One former associate called her “the Evel Knievel of leaping to conclusions.”) But she was also idealistic, yearning, candid, worshipful, precise, and improbably charming. She funneled all of these contradictory elements into Objectivism, the home-brewed philosophy that won her thousands of Cold War–era followers and that seems to be making some noise once again in our era of bailouts and tea parties. (Glenn Beck and Ron Paul are Rand fans; Alan Greenspan, once a member of her inner circle, had his faith in the market’s rationality shaken by the crash.)

It’s easy to chuckle at Rand, smugly, from the safe distance of intervening decades or an opposed ideology, but in person — her big black eyes flashing deep into the night, fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines — she was apparently an irresistible force, a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock who converted doubters left, right, and center. Eyewitnesses say that she never lost an argument. One of her young students (soon to be her young lover) staggered out of his first all-night talk session referring to her, admiringly, as “Mrs. Logic.” And logic, in Rand’s hands, seemed to enjoy superpowers it didn’t possess with anyone else. She claimed, for instance, that she could rationally explain every emotion she’d ever had. “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive,” she once wrote, “and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.” One convert insisted that “she knows me better after five hours than my analyst does after five years.” The only option was to yield or stay away. (I should admit here my own bias: I was a card-carrying Objectivist from roughly age 16 to 19, during which time I did everything short of changing my last name to Randerson — a phase I’m deeply embarrassed by, but also secretly grateful for.)

Rand insisted, over and over, that the details of her life had nothing to do with the tenets of her philosophy. She would cite, on this subject, the fictional architect Howard Roark, hero of her novel The Fountainhead: “Don’t ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think.” But the things she thought, it turns out, were very much dependent on her family, her childhood, her friends, and her feelings — or at least on her relative lack of all that.

Anne Heller’s new biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, allows us to poke our heads, for the first time, into the Russian-American’s overheated philosophical subbasement. After reading the details of Rand’s early life, I find it hard to think of Objectivism as very objective at all — it looks more like a rational program retrofitted to a lifelong temperament, a fantasy world created to cancel the nightmare of a terrifying childhood. This is the comedy, the tragedy, and the power of Rand: She built a glorious imaginary empire on that nuclear-grade temperament, then devoted every ounce of her will and intelligence to proving it was all pure reason.

This anecdote says so much:

Toward the end of her life, Rand listened as a prominent psychologist stood onstage and dismissed her fictional heroes — those idealized steel barons and physicists and composers — as implausible. Soon she’d had enough and stood up in the crowd, outraged.

“Am I unreal?” she shouted. “Am I a character who can’t possibly exist?”

She intended this, one suspects, as a refutation. It strikes me as maybe the most profound question she ever raised.

Populist Anti-Finance Bias

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Americans have historically avoided a general anti-capitalist bias, but not a populist anti-finance bias:

This bias has led to many political decisions throughout American history that were inefficient from an economic point of view, but helped preserve the long-term health of America’s democratic capitalism. In the late 1830s, President Andrew Jackson opposed renewing the charter of the Second Bank of the United States — a move that contributed to the panic of 1837 — because he saw the bank as an instrument of political corruption and a threat to American liberties. An investigation he initiated established “beyond question that this great and powerful institution had been actively engaged in attempting to influence the elections of the public officers by means of its money.”

Throughout much of American history, state bank regulations were driven by concerns about the power of New York banks over the rest of the country, and the fear that big banks drained deposits from the countryside in order to redirect them to the cities. To address these fears, states introduced a variety of restrictions: from unit banking (banks could have only one office), to limits on intrastate branching (banks from northern Illinois could not open branches in southern Illinois), to limits on interstate branching (New York banks could not open branches in other states). From a purely economic point of view, all of these restrictions were crazy. They forced a reinvestment of deposits in the same areas where they were collected, badly distorting the allocation of funds. And by preventing banks from expanding, these regulations made banks less diversified and thus more prone to failure. Nevertheless, these policies had a positive side effect: They splintered the banking sector, reducing its political power and in so doing creating the preconditions for a vibrant securities market.

Even the separation between investment banking and commercial banking introduced by the New Deal’s Glass-Steagall Act was a product of this longstanding American tradition. Unlike many other banking regulations, Glass-Steagall at least had an economic rationale: to prevent commercial banks from exploiting their depositors by dumping on them the bonds of firms to which the banks had lent money, but which could not repay the loans. The Glass-Steagall Act’s biggest consequence, though, was the fragmentation it caused — which helped reduce the concentration of the banking industry and, by creating divergent interests in different parts of the financial sector, helped reduce its political power.

The 1999 passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act had little to do with the current financial crisis:

The major institutions that failed or were bailed out in the last two years were pure investment banks — such as Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch — that did not take advantage of the repeal of Glass-Steagall; or they were pure commercial banks, like Wachovia and Washington Mutual. The only exception is Citigroup, which had merged its commercial and investment operations even before the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, thanks to a special exemption.

The real effect of Gramm-Leach-Bliley was political, not directly economic. Under the old regime, commercial banks, investment banks, and insurance companies had different agendas, and so their lobbying efforts tended to offset one another. But after the restrictions were lifted, the interests of all the major players in the financial industry became aligned, giving the industry disproportionate power in shaping the political agenda. The concentration of the banking industry only added to this power.