Saturday, December 29, 2012

Can't get enough of Thomas Friedman?

Commentary on a Greenwald statement

One should strive to see the world and prioritize injustices free of pure self-interest - caring about grave abuses that are unlikely to affect us personally is a hallmark of a civilized person - but we are all constructed to regard imminent dangers to ourselves and our loved ones with greater urgency than those that appear more remote. Ignoble though it is, that's just part of being human - though our capacity to liberate ourselves from pure self-interest means that it does not excuse this indifference.
From here, by Glenn Greenwald.

I rather disagree.  I think this is wrong at several points.

Under Greenwald's prescription,  I can "prioritize" some grave injustice in a faraway land above a lesser injustice around me, that I might *actually* be able to do something about, and still retain the hallmarks of a civilized person. By focussing on the high priority items, and thereby doing nothing.

Under Greenwald's prescription, I can support an imperial mission to civilize others, the blood and treasure involved can be justified by a suitably high priority. In fact, most of the current injustices that bother Greenwald so much are in conflicts that have their historical roots in the colonial powers' mission to civilize the world.

There is also the question of what does it mean to care?  Surely, merely proclaiming that "I care about it" is meaningless.  Care has to manifest itself in appropriate actions.  Trying to keep track and prioritize every injustice out there will leave nothing for actual actions.  Far better to make some headway in one small problem, than to be helplessly aware of all the injustices six billion humans inflict on each other.

This next objection is more philosophical, I do not think that there is any set of beliefs that makes one into a moral person.  I think this delusion has come from religions where it is required to believe in some savior or doctrine in order to be a moral person.  I have examined the teaching of dharma in my tradition.  In the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, which are said to be teaching dharma, the protagonists and antagonists both "believe in" the same things.  The difference is in conduct.  Conduct alone makes one virtuous or otherwise.  Therefore "caring" about something which does not lead to better conduct is fruitless.

Doing everything that you can, balancing it with all your other responsibilities in life, to end injustice around you, and far away when possible, is the hallmark of a civilized person. If the injustice is grave enough, it may call for shedding or abeyance of other responsibilities.  Thus, for instance, one might become a freedom fighter.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

An account of the Delhi protests of December 23

The pleasant side of Churchill

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Lost Generation

It’s strange to think that the housing crisis that caused the financial meltdown most negatively affects the one age demographic that didn’t own a home.
The young adults who graduated during the past several years of economic mess are the so-called lost generation, unable to start a career, a family.  Looking for stable, full-time employment.

Monday, December 24, 2012

US - declining standards in mathematics

The proof of falling standards comes from looking at the best schools:
The transition from high school to college presents problems for all students, but for some students it is particularly challenging. At Caltech, many newly admitted students lack the background in mathematics that is necessary to succeed in Ma 1a. Unfortunately, few of them are even aware that their background in mathematics is deficient. This is not their fault. The mathematics curriculum in high schools is less rigorous than it was even a few decades ago. In conversations with Caltech students who have struggled with freshman mathematics, most report that they were star math students in high school, which of course is a major reason why they were offered admission to Caltech in the first place. Many of them, however, have never seen mathematics as it is taught at Caltech.

Those who struggle in Ma 1a usually continue to struggle in the rest of the core mathematics classes. They earn relatively low GPA’s during their first two years or so at Caltech, and when they graduate their GPA’s are significantly lower than those of other students. And not all who struggle with freshman mathematics succeed; such students are also less likely than their counterparts to graduate from Caltech. The students often report that, in the end, they have also not learned very much math, as too much of the material was beyond their ability to comprehend at the time it was presented. Currently Caltech attempts to assist such students in a number of ways but this assistance may be too little, too late.

In order to understand the specific reasons why many of our freshman struggle in Ma 1a, the undergraduate Academics and Research Committee conducted an online survey that asked a series of specific questions about the difficulties they encountered in Ma1a. From the survey results, the most common area of weakness that students identified was that of formal reasoning, writing proofs, and common proof techniques. The results thus corroborate what most people connected with Ma 1a have known anecdotally—that many Caltech freshmen, though computationally skilled, struggle with basic proof concepts. Moreover, a corollary obstacle to students thriving in Ma1a is that, because it is a “calculus” course, students feel like they should be mastering the topic with ease. They are thus reluctant to go to classmates, TA’s, or professors when they encounter difficulties. 
CIP pointed out the the Caltech core curriculum is revised down from five terms each of math. and physics, to three terms each. There appear to be a variety of reasons.

Anyway, for all the IQmetricians' (idiotic) claims that we are getting smarter, what with the Flynn Effect, and such, our high school achievement level is dropping. The higher IQ (supposedly) best students of today come out of high school knowing less math than their counterparts from a generation ago.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Making the NRA sound reasonable

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Empire and Gun Rights

Over on his blog, CIP regretted the excesses of empire, but essentially endorsed their "civilizing" mission.  Only half-tongue-in-cheek, I pointed to the collective insanity that is the United States and its worship of guns, as requiring the civilizing yoke of an empire.  Little did I know how far the insanity has progressed, it appears to be easier for a convicted, mentally disturbed felon to get his gun ownerships reinstated, than to get his voting rights reinstated.  The Republic after all needs more gun-toting, non-voting citizens! so the lunatics that run the asylum believe! Where is the jackboot of an empire when it could do some good  CIP for one, thinks (seems to, at least) that the human cost might be worth it, what was good for India should be good for the USA, no?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Understanding Newtown, CT

Nancy Lanza, the mother of Adam Lanza, the accused dead perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, was not just the usual gun enthusiast, we are told.
She wasn’t just into guns. She was apparently stocked up for when the economy collapses and when everyone’s on their own with their guns.
That area of Connecticut is apparently an enclave of such people, we are told.

The gun enthusiasts in Newtown, CT., were out of control, we are told.  TPM provides the summary of a New York Times article, along with some commentary:
But the gist is that over recent years the town of Newtown, CT. tried to place some limits on the rise of what might be called extreme gun-owning and shooting in the community. It wasn’t a fight between gun-owners and non-gun-owners but traditional gun owner and hunters versus people shooting close to other people’s homes, shooting at unlicensed firing ranges, firing military style weapons, even firing into explosives.
In short, the opposition of the extreme gun owners and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (the country’s second largest gun-rights organization, which happens to be located in Newtown) prevented anything from happening.
Newtown was not (yet) a typical US town.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Guns, the N.R.A., and the politicians that enable them

The American Academy of Pediatrics  has some statistics they would like Americans to be aware of:

1.  Every two hours, someone's child is killed with a gun, either in a homicide, a suicide or as a result of an unintentional injury.

2. An unmeasured but large number of children are seriously injured - often irreversibly disabled - by guns but survive.   One in every twenty-five admissions to pediatric trauma centers in the United States is due to gunshot wounds.

( Please read their rules for gun safety.)

The pediatricians' research has found that talking to parents about guns and gun safety is a good practice; the parents may wise up and improve the safety of the guns they have at home.  E.g., a recent paper is referenced here.  Pediatricians regularly talk to the parents of their patients about  safety issues surrounding automobiles and swimming pools.
Which is why pediatricians have to be so nosy. They ask all sorts of personal questions, delving into family diets and discipline and urging caution around swimming pools and street crossings. They remind parents to make their kids wear helmets when biking and stay in booster seats even when big kids complain they’re too babyish. They also ask whether parents keep guns at home and whether they’re stored safely — with the ammunition and the firearm kept separately in locked cabinets, the key tucked away from children.
But the N.R.A. took offense, and in Florida, the state of some of the craziest Republicans that the N.R.A. has in their pocket, they had a law passed in 2011, that penalizes physicians from inquiring about gun ownership.  A doctor could lose his license and face a fine of upto $10,000.   The Florida Medical Association originally opposed the legislation, and then caved, and supported the bill.

Fortunately, the Florida chapters of three physicians' organizations (the American Academy of Family Physicians , the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians, with support from the American Medical Association),   and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence challenged the law in court, and won a stay from a federal judge.
“Despite the State’s insistence that the right to ‘keep arms’ is the primary constitutional right at issue in this litigation, a plain reading of the statute reveals that this law in no way affects such rights,” wrote U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke. “A practitioner who counsels a patient on firearm safety, even when entirely irrelevant to medical care or safety, does not affect nor interfere with the patient’s right to continue to own, possess, or use firearms.”
Just how insane the N.R.A. and the politicians it has in its pocket should be evident by now.   The N.R.A. does have members who seem sane, (e.g., here ) but because they do not reign in their organization, they are culpable for its insanity, and the insanity of gun violence in the U.S.A.

PS:  In India, people weep over the violence in the 1990s and later in the Jammu & Kashmir insurgency.  But on a per capita basis,  Thomas A. Marks (Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement, Vol 12, No. 3 (Autumn 2004), pp. 122-143) makes the observation:

Indeed, the internal war in J&K, when scaled, does not begin to approach the levels of criminal violence present in those US metropolitan areas best known for their murder rates. The ‘death count’ in Jammu & Kashmir for 2003 stood at 836 civilians, 1,447 militants, and 380 security personnel.  If this violence is aggregated (2,663), which is unorthodox but certainly presents the worst possible statistical picture, it scales out at 24.5:100,000 population.  This would place Jammu & Kashmir between Memphis (24.7:100,000) and Chicago (22.2:100,000), in the 2002 murder rankings when examining American cities with populations greater than 500,000, well off the pace established by the likes of Washington, DC (45.8:100,000) or Detroit (42.0:100,000).
Think about it, it really opened my eyes:  the level of violence that led to fears of the break-up of India is tolerated as a normal phenomenon in the US of A.  A national emergency it is not!

Kieran Healy @Duke University made this graph of deaths due to assault in the USA and other OECD countries (read about it here), which shows that while the US is much improved, it still is incredibly violent compared to its peer group of countries.  (It may well be that the violence leads people to cling on to their guns out of fear, thus enabling perpetuation of the cycle of more violence and more fear).

There is no easy solution, but we cannot shrug away this problem.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The US economy in the 21st century

Federal Receipts
Percentage of GDP
Federal Outlays
Percentage of GDP
Median Household
(inflation-adjusted dollars)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Barrier to the adoption of solar power

David Crane and RFK Jr. write in the NYT:

... state regulatory agencies and local governments impose burdensome permitting and siting requirements that unnecessarily raise installation costs. Today, navigating the regulatory red tape constitutes 25 percent to 30 percent of the total cost of solar installation in the United States, according to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and, as such, represents a higher percentage of the overall cost than the solar equipment itself.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Elizabeth Warren is on the Senate Banking Committee!

LED lighting

An global warming & energy-conscious colleague gifted me and others a Philips EnduraLED light bulb each, and my initial impression is very positive.

You can read more about it here.
(Please note: ordering from that page is restricted to New Jersey.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The strange case of Joyce Carol Vincent

Many people were stopped in their tracks by the story. Was it possible in London, in a building of flats, for a person, an attractive woman, to fade into oblivion, so that no one thought to ask, "Where’s Joyce?" For nearly three years? So many people live alone in a big city, and some are old, less vivid, and without next of kin. They may be missing before they’re gone. But Joyce Vincent did not seem to fit that description. A tremor of anxiety, a fear of societal malfunction, went through London. It seemed like a warning, a measure of the times.

Explore the Andromeda Galaxy

In your spare time, explore the Andromeda Galaxy, and identify star clusters, for the sake of science.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On dieting

This from the NYTimes:

Two years ago, an overweight nutrition professor at Kansas State University went on a diet that was low in calories but consisted mostly of Twinkies and other junk food. In two months, he lost 27 pounds, lowered his bad cholesterol and raised his good cholesterol. His point was that for weight loss, calories mattered more than the actual content of the diet. Twinkie lovers rejoiced, but the nutrition world put its collective head in its hands.

The Silence of the Liberals

(via a Tarek Fatah tweet: )

Deeyah Thathaal, chased by fundamentalists from Oslo to London to Atlanta.  Liberals are silent apparently because of who the fundamentalists are.

The men who persecuted Deeyah in Norway and Britain were every bit as prejudiced and violent as neo-Nazis, but as it happens, they rallied under the banner of radical Islam rather than the swastika. A tiny difference, you might think. A mere trifle. But that tiny difference made all the difference in the world. No one came to Deeyah's defence. Not liberal-left or compassionate conservative politicians. Not the BBC or liberal press. Not Amnesty International or the "concerned" artists who take up so many leftish causes. No one cared. To defend an Asian woman from unprovoked attacks by Asian men was to their warped minds a racist or Islamophobic act. Unprotected and unnoticed, Deeyah slunk off to live in an anonymous suburb of Atlanta, and begin the long task of pulling herself together.  

Saturday, December 08, 2012


....excerpt from Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya’s book “Indianomix,”....
Devdutt refutes this narrow vision. He defines a myth as ‘subjective truth’. Any belief which someone subjectively holds potentially classifies as a myth. Equally, he critiques the standard Western assumption that scientific knowledge is rational and all other traditional knowledge, including mythological, is non-rational. As he sees the world, all beliefs are fundamentally irrational at their root. It’s just that the Western scientific view of the world has become so dominant, or ‘hegemonic’ in the jargon used by cultural theorists, that everyone assumes by default that this is the only correct way to view the world and all other ways must be inferior and irrational. Devdutt turns this idea on its head and argues that the apparently secular capitalism of the West in fact is a thinly veiled descendent of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian mythological traditions that have dominated Western civilization.

While this is a controversial hypothesis, the close relationship between economic and political ideologies on the one hand and religion on the other shouldn’t be. After all, it was Max Weber, the founder of modern sociology, who famously theorized that capitalism could arise in northern Europe because of the spirit of thrift and discipline embodied in the Protestant work ethic. Devdutt in a sense is taking Weber head on by suggesting, to the contrary, that capitalism really is only a disguised version of Protestant Christianity and not a logical outgrowth of it.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Solar cell breakthrough?

This story on dailykos explains the working of solar cells and a breakthrough in their design in a very readable way.

Another lie from the Catholic Church

Down at the southern tip of India, the Catholic Church is in the process of manufacturing a totally imaginary martyr, making him a saint, and setting his saint day on the same day as the Tamil festival of Pongal.  Students of religion can now study live the process by which the European pagan festivals were absorbed into Christmas and Easter.  

The fictitiousness of 'Martyr Devasahayam Pillai' is outlined here.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Koenraad Elst on AAR

Impressions from the American Academy of Religion conference.

...Indologists in the panel ignored the book’s challenge to their guild, viz. that unlike specialists in any other field, they actively desired and worked for the demise of their subject, Hinduism. 

Some Notes on the Federal Budget

The debates about the Federal Budget get to be pretty confusing.  The absolute magnitudes of money mentioned have little context.  For instance, this year’s budget deficit is $1.089 trillion. It is good to know that this amounts to 7% of  the $15.6 trillion US GDP.  Obama’s revenue proposal will raise $1.6 trillion over 10 years, I have to remind myself that a $15.6 trillion/year economy would have generated $156 trillion over that period (not accounting for growth in the economy) and so Obama’s proposal amounts to about 1% of the economy.

Fortunately, the US government issues documents that lay out the financial situation in some detail.   I will use primarily the following three to try to gain a quantitative understanding of the issues.

[1] Monthly Budget Review (Nov 2012) issued by the Congressional Budget Office (look under “Topics” at


[3] The 2012 Medicare Report (2012 ANNUAL REPORT OF

What I want to understand are:
1.     What are the federal revenues, now and projected into the future?
2.     What are the required federal expenditures, now and projected into the future?  Social Security and Medicare, the two paid benefit programs are the chief required federal expenditures.

I think if we understand these, the choices we have will be clarified.

Blue Brain

(via dailykos) The Blue Brain project.
The Blue Brain project represents an essential first step toward achieving a complete virtual human brain. The researchers have demonstrated the validity of their method by developing a realistic model of a rat cortical column, consisting of about 10,000 neurons. Eventually, of course, the goal is to simulate systems of millions and hundreds of millions of neurons.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The amazing Riemann zeta-function

In a more intuitive language, the Riemann zeta-function is capable of fitting any arbitrary smooth function over a finite disk with arbitrary accuracy, and it does so with comparative ease, since it repeats the performance like a good actor infinitely many times on a designated set of stages. - from here.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Macroeconomics - IS/LM model

Economist and columnist Paul Krugman advises us to think in terms of models.  One of the simple and important models for Keynesian economists is the IS-LM model.  CIP began a discussion of it.  Fortunately, it is simple enough to understand, there is an excellent exposition here.  The four youtube videos take just under a half-hour to watch, but after that you are equipped to think about the economy in terms of this simple model.