Saturday, February 21, 2004

The Company He Chooses

I’ve heard quite a few television pundits suggests that it will be hard to convict or even indict Ken Lay for his activities at Enron. They educe every conceivable difficulty except the most obvious. Or has anyone heard anybody pointing out that Feds may be reluctant to go after Ken Lay because of his intimate connection to George Bush? Over the years, Ken Lay has been Bush’s number one backer. Their publicly available correspondence, more voluminous than many a packet of love letters, testifies to a very long affair indeed. Now this association doesn’t prove anything sinister, any more than the well-known business connection between the Bush family and the Ben Ladens, but it is surely relevant, especially since the then governor helped Lay with various deals in Texas.

Of course, the Feds may get Lay after all, perhaps striking a deal that offers him a reduced sentence in exchange for not helping them prosecute his accomplices.

Friday, February 20, 2004

The Latin Word for the Opposite of Trivia

You learn something new every day or, if you don’t, you simply aren’t trying. What surprises me, though, is how often what I encounter isn’t simply novel but in one way or another fundamental, a concept and not just another detail supplying local color to some corner or other of the cosmos.

If you think of the universe as a big box with things in it, you expect to find a new bird, beast, or rock from time to time; but discoveries of that order can’t satisfy a serious curiosity. It’s more rewarding but also more difficult to allow yourself to discover that the box itself has dimensions you hadn’t noticed. One of the problems with the Internet is that it encourages the notion that learning is just a matter of accumulating information as if all information were intrinsically equivalent, interchangeable blades of grass upon which the cattle peacefully graze. In fact, to digest the foliage that actually nourishes, us cows need to ruminate. When do we let that happen?

These thoughts were occasioned by a piece I read on the Nature site about avalanches. Somebody bothered to test whether the strength of snow can be reliably predicted from its density. What they discovered was that columns of snow of the same density broke under very different weights. Biologists and psychologists have known for a long time that under carefully controlled laboratory conditions experimental animals do what they damned well want to, but it is a bit shocking that even the inorganic displays erratic behavior. Because I work for engineers, I hear a lot about failure—how to calculate its probability, how to prevent it, how to live with it—but I don’t recall having thought about it in quite this way and also I hadn’t known that the measure of the variability of failure under loading is the Weibull modulus. The bigger the modulus, the more consistent the behavior, so that a piece of steel that can be counted on to fail when you expect it to has a Weibull modulus of about 30 while packed snow is 1 or 2. Having encountered this bit, I will now gradually come to think about many things differently including what it means to define the strength of anything, how well we can predict the future, and even what is defensible and indefensible about the old metaphysical notion of cause and effect. And that news is of a different order than the fact, which I also discovered, that the Weibull modulus was defined by one Waloddi Weibull, a Swede who died in 1979.

Used Postmodernism

The Federal Government funds something like a quarter of all research in this country, and even this number understates its true impact since the issues addressed by federally funded research tend to have important social and health implications. It is a matter of concern, then, that the Bush administration has intervened time and again to stack scientific committees with its partisans, hide or reverse research results it doesn’t like, and use government agencies to further the ideological and economic goals of its political supporters. Partly this pattern of behavior is simply corrupt in the usual way, but it also testifies to the trendiness of soi-disant conservatives who out postmodern the postmodernists in their relativism. For them, “there is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so” doesn’t go far enough. Now some of us may think that it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature after all and that muzzling the people you hire to tell you what the score is like firing your dominatrix because she’s too uppity. I guess in this, as in many other things, I’m just old fashioned.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Gravy Ain’t Wavy

My title comes from an ancient and completely extinct comic strip called Smokey Stover. Whatever the phrase meant in the strip—I’m no longer sure—it somehow came to be part of my private language as shorthand for “what I’m thinking of now is distinctly different other members of its class so don’t tell me I’m wrong about it by appealing to generalities.” A worked out example:

I’ve been listening to the debate about limits to economic growth for almost fifty years now, and I’m well aware that the Earth-friendly side of these arguments has frequently resorted to alarmist or simply invalid arguments. Back in about 1970, for example, I recall a New York Time article I read over a hangover breakfast in the famous Revolutionary Kitchen of my grad dorm. The piece predicted doom or at least inflation because of the impending shortage of nonferrous metals—that was before a decade-long collapse in prices for these commodities. I was appropriately depressed by the prospect of a zinc famine.

Political environmentalists used to speak about vanishing resources without considering the effects of increasing prices on demand for a scarce input or the possibility of substitution. It didn’t occur to them that recycling was as inevitable with rising prices as it was unlikely before it paid. And folks confronted with dollar a gallon gas and long lines at the pump suddenly began to worry if there were enough aggregate energy available to power a modern civilization. Some of these ideas seem funny in retrospect, rather like the tendency of people to think that population growth is a threat because there won’t be any place to stand. But all environmental concerns are not equal, and dismissing them all because some or even most of them are foolish or are raised in a foolish manner is an error. Anyhow, one of the reasons that the petroleum issues caught my attention some years ago is that it isn’t just environmental types who were writing about it. World production of liquid fuels is going to peak within the next ten years give or take, and we are not doing a huge hell of a lot about it. Gravy ain’t wavy.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Human Interest

Bad popularizations of science, and that means most of ‘em, dilute their perfunctory treatment of the science with a large volume of human interest like Metamucil in orange juice and yet fail to identify any substantial connection between the scientist and the science. Some scientists really are interesting human beings—think of the tragic and problematic trickster Richard Feynman, for example—but the connection of their personalities to their discoveries remains largely contingent. One writes about Feynman and not Julius Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, not because these great physicists, who shared a Nobel Prize with Feynman, had less to do with the development of quantum electrodynamics but because Feynman makes an entirely better read. Yet what is original about the sciences is not something that takes place on the human side of the line between the human and inhuman. The Hobbits are all very nice, but they’ve got to leave the Shire to participate in the huge and scary world outside.

The same problem objections that applied against such accounts of science can be made to history in general; for history is, as it were, a popularization of what happened. Events are mapped onto a handful of moral tales—indeed, they are defined as events in the first place because they can be moralized—although the great changes may have owed more to natural occurrences such as climate change than any fault or merit of men. Even people like Mike Davis who have explored the role of fluctuations in El Nino in the downfall of the old regimes in Turkey, India, and China have a hard time escaping the genre conventions of history. It is also true that if it really is possible and useful to think history from an inhuman perspective, one still has to deal with the commercial imperatives. The true explanation of the rise and fall of states may have little or nothing to do with original sin, but the prophetic narrative will continue to sell so long as the potential readers remain animals fascinated by their own ethology.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Compounding an Error

I was a little surprised that some of my old friends and I were playing for $30,000 a hand in the Texas hold ‘em game in a rundown track house in Berkeley, but that was OK. I had just won the last pot with five aces, all different. What really caught my attention was the sign-off sermonette I could just make out through the snow on an ancient black and white TV. The Cato Institute chaplain was berating Judas for despairing at his betrayal of Christ. “Hanging himself from a fig tree did not help anybody. If Judas had bucked up and invested the 30 pieces of silver at even a lousy 3%, his heirs in 2004 would own a mass of silver approximately the size of the entire Earth.” I had no way of checking the padre’s arithmetic in a dream, of course; but even if the math were more or less accurate, there had to be something the matter with his reasoning...

It shouldn’t be a secret to anybody that compound interest is only a pencil and paper miracle. Real exponential growth, whether of bacteria, human beings, or stock prices, always and inevitably crashes. But even when people do recognize this absolutely basic fact, they go on betting on the come. If you asked people during the stock bubble whether they expected a crash, most of them said they did and then bought more Enron. O well, we also know that the continuing growth in the consumption of liquid fuels is unsustainable and that we’ll be lucky if the consequences of the looming crash is no worse than a disaster; yet we’ve prepared for this Gotterdammerung by letting our government fall into the hands of a bunch of oil industry CEOs.

These comments are intended as a contribution to the ongoing debate at the Royal Ground Coffee shop on the question of whether it is actually an advantage to have a window seat on a crashing airplane.