Friday, November 18, 2005

Invading Iraq: was it a good idea?

Obviously you can have a huge debate over that subject. A lot of important people, myself included, have gone from being hawks on Iraq to thinking the whole thing was a terrible mistake. What I wonder is if anyone, anywhere, has gone the other way. I can't think of any. You'd think that if the occupation really was going well, as some people (*cough*Instapundit*cough*) insist, you'd see at least a few doves changing their minds.

I guess the hawkish response could be that people had unrealistic expectations for how well the war and occupation would go, but what does that say about how the war was planned and sold?

I think they have to stick with the old standby, blaming the Liberal Media.

(No doubt there are a few doves who praised Bush two months after the invasion when he was putting up Mission Accomplished banners. The question is, are they still doing it?)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

No science here

It was my intention, on starting this, to write more about physics. Sadly, for a while now I haven't actually done anything involving physics that people would actually be interested in. An experimental physicist, at my level at least, doesn't spend most of his time thinking about "science." He spends most of his time hunting for flaws in electronics, designing and building equipment, tweaking programs, and so on. This has its challenges and its pleasures, but it's not "physics."

Right now, I'm trying to deal with a buggy instrument in which noise overwhelms my signal, and I haven't thought about the "big picture" stuff for months. So I'm thinking about inflicting discussions of noise sources in scientific instruments on you readers instead--since I seem to be encountering them all. I haven't seen any web site that goes through this from an experimentalist's perspective, so maybe it would be helpful to someone.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"Rational" choice

After reading several frightening stories about how much natural gas prices were going to increase this winter (due to increased demand and Katrina and Rita wiping out Gulf production), I decided to figure out whether it would be worthwhile for us to buy an electric space heater to supplement or replace our gas heat. Having a dedicated heater for the bedrooms would allow us to turn down the heat for the house at night.

This turned out into a fairly major project, involving looking up utility rates, standardizing the different units involved (natural gas is priced in "therms" while electricity is priced in kWh), estimating the cost per Joule for each form, and doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations about heat loss in various parts of the house.

Now I think math is fun, and I do heat transfer calculations all the time at work, so this wasn't a big deal for me, but it would have been a huge pain for most people. And yet economists assume that we all do this automatically, unconsciously, and, most importantly of all, correctly.

Obviously all fields make their assumptions, and I don't really have any deep insights into how important the breakdown of the perfect rationality assumption really is. Certainly I'm sure that many economists have thought deeply about the subject. However, my initial take on the subject that the more perfectly you expect people to conform to the perfect rationality, the more libertarian you'll be, whereas if you think people are very imperfectly rational, you'll be more technocratic.

The "pragmatic" case for libertarianism (that libertarianism is the best way to achieve other goals, rather than small government as an end in itself) is that people are better able to assess their own desires and risks than anyone else's. This is intuitively appealing, but if you think about it it really doesn't work. Consider smoking. A rational decision, I think, would incorporate *at least* the average rates at which smokers get diseases, the family history of cancer and other illnesses, the susceptability or lack thereof of people living in the same house, the cost of cigarettes, and the cost of health care. One might argue that our intuition does a good job of assessing these risks, but I don't believe it. In general, human intution is extremely bad at probability and statistics. Any number of simple probability questions are completely confounding to the average person. Why should we expect that intution will be better at an infinitely more complicated problem like smoking risk? Certainly it seems defensible to shift decision-making on this subject away from the individual onto those who have the time and expertise to deal with the issue. So drug laws, or tobacco bans, or seat belt laws can, I think, be defended *in principle* on these grounds. Whether *in practice* they're a good idea I'm not going to take a stand on right now.

I think this argument is a much better one (logically better, not politically better!) than the conventional argument in these cases, which is the argument from externalities. For (say) smoking, the conventional argument is that people ought to be discouraged from smoking, because their smoking indirectly imposes costs on others through the health care system. However, this is no one's real concern, and we all know it. Anti-smoking advocates aren't primarily worried about health insurance premiums--if they were, they'd be lobbying for health care reform, and they wouldn't get all upset when cigarette companies noted that smokers use less Social Security. They're worried about the health of smokers, and the health insurance angle is just a fairly transparent way to dodge charges of government paternalism.

Now of course actually arguing "you don't know enough to make these decisions for yourself" is politically toxic, and there are valid slippery slope concerns. But it would be nice if we could see some proudly paternalistic arguments, instead of seeing people make strained arguments about costs to others.

Monday, October 17, 2005

"strong turnout"

"Iraqi election officials said today that they were investigating what they described as "unusually high" vote totals in 12 Shiite and Kurdish provinces, where as many 99 percent of the voters were reported to have cast ballots in favor of Iraq's new constitution, raising the possibility that the results of Saturday's referendum could be called into question."

This crude, amateurish election rigging shows how young Iraqi democracy is. Hopefully under American guidance, Iraq will learn about and adopt America's slick, professional election-rigging techniques like gerrymandering incumbants into uncontestable districts.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The retractions roll in

Reason has yet another article on the exaggeration of violence in New Orleans. It includes several links to corrective articles from major news sources.

Something's fishy...

In response to skepticism after this speech, the White House has released a list of terrorist plots disrupted since 9/11. I (like everyone else) don't know anything about most of them. However, I do think that "ten" plots is a suspiciously nice round number, and "five" casings is too. That could of course be coincidence, but both "ten" and "five" together seems a bit much, and this is not an administration that has earned the benefit of the doubt in these matters.

Who knows what this means, though. It could mean that there are fewer plots, and some of them are padding. (In particular, the Padilla case is rather notorious--the government won't prosecute Padilla but is instead holding him without trial. Many people suspect the case against him must therefore be thin.) Or it could mean that there were more plots, and they're just releasing as little information as possible to appease the media. Both seem in character for this administration.

Via Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Back early

Camping looked much less appealing in the huge rainstorms that went through much of New England this weekend.

The race went well, in spite of the rain. It was my first road race ever. In spite of the rain, I felt like I ran about the best race I could have. My finish was in the top 20%. I ran with my girlfriend, whose rank in the women's category I don't know yet but I'm sure was absurdly high.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


I'm leaving early tomorrow to run a half-marathon this weekend, then going for a quick camping trip. I won't be back until Tuesday.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Home Economics

Cooking can be done in efficiently in a centralized location than in individual homes. You save on labor costs by having one (or a few) chefs making large meals and subdividing them, rather than having individual family each make their own food. Ingredients are cheaper when they're bought in bulk. A full-time chef will be more skilled than people who cook for themselves are. You can get more variety.

Consider a hypothetical two-income family with two kids where each parent earns $20/hour, which is about the median wage in many cities. If a parent takes one hour for cooking and clean up, then the opportunity cost of cooking was $20. Tack on ingredient costs, energy costs and so on and you're probably up to $30. You could quite easily feed the family at a cheap restaurant, or get delivery, for that less than price. So if the parents in this family cook, this "work" is something they're being substantially undercompensated for.

Obviously this argument applies only to the relatively affluent. But even among that set, the majority of meals are home-cooked by individuals. Why? Obviously most restaurants aren't appropriate for everyday eating, but that just shifts the mystery to why restaurants haven't filled this niche. Some proposed explanations:

1) Social incentives. People feel like they need to cook meals for their kids in order to be good parents, or feel that going out is an extravagance. Or perhaps the economics of home-cooking was better in the recent past, and society hasn't caught up yet.

2) People don't really internalize the idea of opportunity cost, and think of themselves as saving money by cooking, as opposed to thinking of themselves as working for an hour to produce goods without much monetary value.

3) People like cooking. However, I don't think this is very many people. Even those who like cooking, I think, only like making special dishes: they don't like doing it every single day.

4) Nutrition. You don't know what goes into the food you buy from a restaurant. If this was significant, though, you'd expect to see a shift toward healthy entrees along with nutritional information. I don't think that's occurring.

5) Customizability. You get tired of most restaurants pretty quickly, but somehow you never get tired of Mom's cooking. However, I think that this is because we've shifted the burden of doing "cooking research" onto the individual. Everyone builds up a storehouse of cooking knowledge over decades, but that knowledge took work to acquire. If this explanation is correct, then centralization would again be more efficient.

6) Travel is expensive or (equivalently) time consuming. This seems like a good reason in rural areas, but it doesn't work in denser cities.

7) Mass-produced food is worse for some reason. I don't know anything about cooking, but I suspect the reason for this is that the people who have historically eaten mass-produced food (students, soldiers) have had no power to demand anything better.

If I had to guess, I'd say 1 and 2 are the big ones. For me personally, 4 is important as well, but I'm the sort of person who eats brown rice with tofu and vegetables. I don't think most people care *that* much about health.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

There are far too many lobbyists

This is a fairly standard story about a FEMA screwup. After Katrina, they ordered $100 million of ice (over 200 million pounds), most of which wasn't actually needed. So the majority of it got shipped around the country in circles until finally it ended up going back into government freezers. Just your standard enormous FEMA screwup, nothing special really, until I hit this paragraph:

Archie Harris, a Wilmington, N.C., ice merchant who serves as disaster preparedness chairman for the International Packaged Ice Association, said that while FEMA had been criticized mostly as being underprepared, on the ice question it was being criticized for being overprepared. "FEMA can't win right now," Mr. Harris said. "Can you imagine what people would say if they'd run out of ice?"

Yes, FEMA can't win. The only possible options were ordering too little ice, or too much ice. The option of buying the RIGHT amount of ice is clearly ridiculous, and should not be considered.

So it's kind of scary that there even exists an International Packaged Ice Association. Next thing you know we'll be seeing the World Federation of Lemonade-Stand Entrepreneurs talking about how they need subsidies in order to be ready to maintain valuable lemonade supplies after disasters.

But what's more, the industry association is actively defending FEMA for wasting $100 million on ice. Apparently it hopes to get another similar order in the future. Shameful, really.

Monday, September 26, 2005

You read it here first

Saturday, September 24, 2005

What's so hard about logistics?

Many defenders of the government's response to Katrina point to the logistical difficulty of getting resources to where they needed to be. In the great Random Fluctuations tradition of oversimplifying complex problems, I thought I'd take a look at the question of how hard it would have been to get water to all those people in the Superdome. (Food is much ligher and easier to transport than water, so I'll assume that if you can get water there, you can get the food there too.)


One 2-liter bottle of fluid per day is enough to greatly alleviate the suffering of one person.

There were 23,000 people in the Superdome that needed water.

A standard Chinook helicopter can carry 26,000 pounds, and would have been able to land at or very near the Superdome.

Given these assumptions, we see that the Superdome required two liters of water times 23,000 people times 2.2 pounds/liter, or about 10,000 pounds of water. This is four trips from a helicopter per day.

Let's take this a bit further... a Chinook's range is 230 nautical miles or approximately 260 miles. Looking at Google Maps, Port Arthur (say) is less than 260 miles away from New Orleans, and wasn't badly damaged by Katrina. A Chinook flies 143 knots or 160 mph. So say we had just one Chinook available to ferry supplies from Port Arthur to New Orleans. It'd take roughly two hours to fly to New Orleans, say an hour to unload, two hours to fly back, and one last hour to reload and refuel. Six hours total, so it could make four trips in a day. In short, one helicopter could do the whole job of keeping the Superdome supplied with water.

How could this be a logistical impossibility? I'd be the first to admit that I know nothing about helicopters or logistics, but as long as the water bottles were stockpiled somewhere in easy-to-handle crates before the storm hit, I don't see anything complicated about this. Either my assumptions are screwed up, or the government is. Even if my assumptions are screwed up, I don't see how they could be so screwed up that the job couldn't have been done by, say, three helicopters. And I'm pretty sure this nation has more than three helicopters available to it.

So anyway, the logistics excuse seems pretty weak right now. But if someone out there actually knows something about this subject I'd love to hear about it.

Climate science made simple

I constantly see discussions (or should I say "discussions") of global warming which portray climate as some incredibly complex system which is impossible to understand or make meaningful predictions about. One problem (of many) is that the media does a poor job of distinguishing what parts of science are solid and widely agreed on, and what parts are still controversial. So while yes, climate is complicated, the basic logic of global warming is pretty simple.

1. Carbon dioxide traps heat. This is fairly basic physics--not something explainable in a blog to the general public, at least not without going through a lot more work that I'm willing to put in, but a senior in a good physics or chemistry program should be able to understand what's going on. In short, it's not an advanced or controversial statement. No one would ever argue about this in any context except climate.

2. Mankind has greatly increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This, too, is not (or should not be) a controversial statement. When you burn things, carbon dioxide is produced in predictable ways. Industrial society burns a lot of stuff--oil, coal, etc. If you add up all the stuff we burn, and compare it to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, you see a significant contribution. (Predictions are that that we will have doubled the atmosphere's carbon dioxide levels in the near future.)

So given those statements, it's logical to at least provisionally conclude:

3. Mankind's activities are causing the atmosphere to trap more heat, which will cause the earth to warm.

You can do some pretty simple calculations that show that without an atmosphere, earth's average temperature would be around -20 Celsius (give or take a few degrees). The actual average temperature is about 15 Celsius. So the atmosphere warms earth by about 35 degrees Celsius. If you drastically change the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, you ought to expect to see a change in the atmosphere's effects, too. A 10% change in atmosphere properties whould, to first order, lead to a 3 degree change in earth's temperature.

I'm not going to go through all the evidence for global warming here, nor will I pretend to have adequately captured the debate. Obviously climate really is a complex system, and you get all sorts of feedback mechanisms that make it hard to predict what, exactly, the effect of a major atmospheric change would be. People have long debates over the details. But the basic picture is really not that hard to understand. Given how solid statements 1 and 2 are, it would be pretty surprising if 3 wasn't true as well. I certainly haven't *proven* 3, but the burden of proof shouldn't be on scientists to prove 3 beyond a reasonable doubt, it should be on skeptics to show how 1 and 2 don't lead to 3. Statement 3 isn't surprising. If statement 3 was wrong, that would be surprising and counterintuitive.

More simple logic applies to a topic that's been in the news recently, that being hurricanes:

1. Hurricanes are stronger and more frequent in warmer waters. Without delving into hurricane physics, you can see this just by looking at a map.

2. If earth gets warmer, oceans will get warmer too.

3. Therefore, if global warming occurs, it will increase hurricane frequency and intensity.

This is not to say that you can blame any particular storm on global warming, just that you can expect more and larger hurricanes as the earth warms. Again, I certainly haven't *proven* 3 beyond a reasonable doubt, but you can see that if 3 is wrong it would be surprising.