Perhaps I should reconsider…

I am not feeling very well and might go home after I make this post, so sorry for the anemic output.

When I wrote a recent post on the cost of colonizing the moon I commented that sometimes the government can properly incent an industry, but I was having problems thinking of any success stories. So it was quite apropos when I saw this:

Who’s afraid of industrial policy?
Government support of industry is the American tradition
http://www.salon.com/2012/01/31/whos_afraid_of_industrial_policy/singleton/

While the article is specifically about ship building and the supporting infrastructure it mentions several other industries that were once supported/protected by the government and later became independent. It also makes the claim that the US government has a better track record than most VC firms, something I didn’t investigate so can’t really comment on.

As a consequence I have been reevaluating my earlier reluctance to support the government support of industries such as space launch vehicles, etc. In my own considerations of government design I had myself made decisions to ensure that certain industries (most notably food, raw materials and energy) were subsidized to the point that they remained robust enough to ensure that they could fully support my country if necessary. What I hadn’t also considered was the undoubtable stimulating effect on the economy that would have and that the overall cost (once the taxes on the dollars invested were accounted for) would likely be so low that it resulted in a net gain. Much like I complain that our silly-assed government should be spending money like water to upgrade our pitiful infrastructure as a way to both keep us from joining the third world in that regard as well as to stimulate the economy, perhaps some careful consideration could be given to the idea of subsidizing certain industries (space could be a good focus, but not with NASA on the critical path) as a way to bolster our economy in the short-term as well as long-term. I think that care needs to be given to the idea of avoiding picking winners (and therefore losers) and to keep it from becoming a simple transfer of tax payer dollars into the pockets of companies with the most lobbyists, but I am starting to come down on the side of a certain amount of protectionism might be a good thing.

What do you think? Is protectionism always bad, mostly bad, sometimes bad or implementation dependent?

This is going to start a shitstorm…

Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice
http://www.livescience.com/18132-intelligence-social-conservatism-racism.html

This is actually an interesting report that, while likely incendiary to those in the right-wing, should non-the-less be considered. The article makes several caveats, the most notable below:

A study of averages

Hodson was quick to note that the despite the link found between low intelligence and social conservatism, the researchers aren’t implying that all liberals are brilliant and all conservatives stupid. The research is a study of averages over large groups, he said.

“There are multiple examples of very bright conservatives and not-so-bright liberals, and many examples of very principled conservatives and very intolerant liberals,” Hodson said.

Nosek gave another example to illustrate the dangers of taking the findings too literally.

“We can say definitively men are taller than women on average,” he said. “But you can’t say if you take a random man and you take a random woman that the man is going to be taller. There’s plenty of overlap.”

Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that strict right-wing ideology might appeal to those who have trouble grasping the complexity of the world.

“Socially conservative ideologies tend to offer structure and order,” Hodson said, explaining why these beliefs might draw those with low intelligence. “Unfortunately, many of these features can also contribute to prejudice.”

They also pointed out that the liberal view had its own series of problems and I have read other articles that show liberals were just as likely to be racist as conservatives in their actions (though not in their words, meaning they were just as likely to send their children to same-race schools and live in same-race neighborhoods). The conclusion seems to me that people who dislike change (either philosophically or because their mental constitution makes change challenging to them) were more likely to be conservative and those traits were also present in a higher proportion of people with lower IQs.

On the other hand, perhaps, because this appears to be a British thing, it might be totally ignored on our side of the pond.

My own little bit of promotion

Birth Control Matters
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nita-chaudhary/kathleen-sebelius-plan-b_b_1241653.html

This is a big deal, but the topic has been hijacked by people who have no stake in the matter and want to revert us to a reproductive stone age. I recently read an article in the National Geographic (this looks like the article, but I didn’t do more than skim the first couple of paragraphs) about how Brazil’s birth rate had crashed to the point that in just one generation they now have legitimate reasons to be worried about keeping the population from _decreasing_. This was attributed to women gaining control over their family planning and the vast majority of them deciding that 1 or perhaps 2 would be fine. They are also putting off having children until much later (late 20’s instead of mid to late teens) which has the additional effect of those children being brought into a more stable financial environment. All this in a strongly Catholic country that frowns on abortion. So why is it so impossible here to promote birth control? Why is it that we are finding situations like those mentioned in the article above? I think too many people are allowing too few to speak for them and since our media reports only those who yell the loudest, the sheeple get a skewed idea of society’s wants.

Of course, I guess I could be totally wrong, perhaps the vocal minority does indeed represent the sheeple.

A book on our broken health care system

How doctors do harm
http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/30/health/how-we-do-harm-brawley/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

Astounding:

American medicine is big business. It is about 18% of the U.S. economy and growing. The average cost of a health insurance policy for a family of four is $19,400 per year. The expense of our inefficient health care system is a major drain on the economy. It is a major reason why employers are hesitant to hire and a reason why many employers cannot provide health insurance to employees.

Assuming there are 300 million of us and rounding up to $20K a pop, that comes out to one and a half trillion bucks. It is more impressive with all the zeros: $1,500,000,000,000.00 That is enough green to corrupt anyone! (According to Wikipedia, the US economy is around $14.5 trillion; 18% should translate to $2,610,000,000.00.)

I have always complained that most doctors are about as far removed from science as the average member of the Shakespearean repertoire and the author supports my contention:

Doctors deserve some blame for this mess. Appreciation of the science of medicine and the scientific method is often lacking.

It is amazing the number of health care professionals who seemingly reject the scientific method. They prescribe treatments they believe to be appropriate as opposed to therapies that are known to be appropriate based on objective scientific evidence. This form of ignorance is a root cause of much of the overuse of medical therapy.

Too often, doctors fail to distinguish what is scientifically known from what is unknown, from what is believed. This is beyond mere disagreement about interpretation of the science. There is often selective reading of the science, especially by those trained in a specialty wanting to advocate for it.

An old girlfriend’s father had cancer (late stage, but he got some 5 years from the original diagnosis) and since she and I were biochemist we invested a lot of time researching the state-of-the-art and developed a pretty decent knowledge base in a short time. Interestingly (and quite frustratingly) the doctor treated us with thinly veiled contempt (maybe he didn’t think so, but we sure did) and basically totally ignored anything we had to say. Why that matters to me is the treatments he recommended were based on perusing single paragraph abstracts in a non-peer reviewed document that simply reported what different doctors did and what the results were (I am sure there was huge bias against reporting things that _failed_ to work) and thus proved to my satisfaction that he didn’t know a damn thing about cancer biochemistry (the specific treatment he was recommending at the time was _specifically_ targeted toward a small percentage of breast cancer tumors, this for a man with throat cancer). Conversations I have had with people in the medical community that I otherwise respect as individuals nevertheless convinces me that there is no training in science in the world of medicine. Even those tiny number that pursue the MD/PhD route, they are not really likely to become scientists (or even grok the scientific method) because they are coddled because they must be super smart because they are dual doctorate students.

The most critical missing element in our dysfunctional health care system is any sort of evidence based decision making. The drug/equipment companies should never be allowed to market directly to the end consumer (sheeple), indeed, I don’t think they should be allowed to market directly to doctors or hospitals either. Of course, if we have a centralized approval process (more of that damn dreaded socialism raising its ugly head!) that makes for highly targeted corruption, but at least it would be centralized and easier to see. I firmly believe that no new drug/procedure/product should be approved for use unless it is has passed a cost/benefit analysis showing it provides a better benefit per dollar spent than the previous best choice(s). Of course, in our current society going that direction has about as much chance of happening as my being elected dictator this fall.

Like everything else, we are on a wide highway to hell and the momentum for the apocalypse is so high that the chance of avoiding the looming crash is only a wee bit greater than my chance of being elected dictator.

A moon colony is a waste of money

I couldn’t say it better than they did, so left off the cute title:

A moon colony is a waste of money
http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/30/opinion/frum-moon-colony/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

I put this here because I want my reader(s) to know that while I am intensely personally interested in space and space exploration (I plan to (perhaps more like fantasize about) building spaces stations (multiple) that house hundreds of thousands of people (each)) I think the idea of our (or any other) government doing anything beyond basic research is a total waste of time. While there is very much a chicken-and-egg issue of how to promote a commercial space business without any commercial space business, what we have now, the hugely wasteful NASA efforts or the slightly less wasteful give-money-to-a-few-specially-chosen-organizations-in-the-private-sector (sort of like my contracting gig in the intelligence community, Top Secret Stimulus!), as long as there is no financial incentive to attract entrepreneurs we won’t have anything meaningful. Sometimes the government can incent an industry, take a step back and let free enterprise do its thing (actually, I am having problems thinking of an example), but most of the time if there isn’t any money in something there won’t be any real competition, just jockeying of contracting companies to see who can get the best lip lock on the government tit.

I think the first guy who is rich enough to afford the sustained effort to pioneer space will become our first trillionaire (I hope to have that honor myself, but at this pace I will have to live to be at least 150 years old). Of course, if it takes becoming a billionaire to have that chance, the barriers to entry are such that it might take another 150 years before someone wants to make it happen (according to Wikipedia, there are only 1,210 billionaires (and how many of them have the liquid $10-20 billion to piss away in the hopes of being successful? According to Forbes, there are only 81 people with net worth of $10 billion or more (only 23 with $20 billion or more))).

So, as much as I would love to see wide spread access to space, I think having our (or any other) government on the critical path is asking for total failure (and the loss of at least another $100 billion).

Security theater in the police state

TSA rail, subway spot-checks raise privacy issues
http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/28/travel/tsa-vipr-passenger-train-searches/index.html?hpt=hp_bn7

So, in addition to the complete waste of time we now have in our airports, we are pissing money away on totally useless efforts to screen road and rail customers. The moronic attitude of these people is “hey, it must be working because nothing bad has happened”…

Is VIPR [Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response] working? It’s hard to know.

When asked if VIPR has ever directly resulted in discovered explosives or the arrest of suspected attackers, Thompson said, “Specific operational results are considered security sensitive information. Although the value of deterrence is difficult to measure directly the presence of law enforcement transportation security personnel VIPR assets increases the difficulty with which potential terrorists plan and conduct terrorist activity.”

These guys have deluded themselves into believing this shit works (of course, they might just be politicians and just lying):

The surprise element of a VIPR team accompanying local police at a train station or truck weigh station on the day of a planned attack might force a terrorist to cancel the attack. “This kind of unpredictability is another tool in the toolbox to manipulate and play with their minds and cause a level of tactical deterrence,” Rand security analyst Brian A. Jackson said.

If I am a bad guy and I figure I have a 99.9% chance being able to initiate my operation without any concern of being screened by authorities, that 0.1% chance of being ‘caught’ is irrelevant. I would worry much more about the beefy rednecks I am likely to encounter just itching to lay into bad guys and become a hero. I figure that chance is probably running around 90%, meaning 9 times out of ten some ‘good Samaritan’ will up and try to beat my brains out as soon as I try to start something. The reason we haven’t had any successful terrorist acts in the air since 911 has nothing to do with the screening (they got past the screeners, after all), but with the fellow passengers that took matters into their own hands (of course, we have had plenty of totally innocent people bumped from their travel plans by their fellow (moronic) passengers, so there is bad that comes with the good). Indeed, of the 4 planes hijacked on 911, 25% of them were unable to complete their appointed task because of passenger revolts.

We have given up our rights to privacy and liberty (and decency, why they feeling up gramma?) for nothing in return, just palaver for the sheeple.

Monkey see, monkey do

Can A Monkey Beat A Hedge Fund? New Study Reveals Disturbing Stats
http://wire.kapitall.com/investment-idea/can-a-monkey-beat-a-hedge-fund-new-study-reveals-disturbing-stats/

This reminds of the story that goes something like this: researchers trained monkeys to throw darts at a board that was then used to pick stocks for a virtual mutual fund. The researchers tracked their monkey fund against the actual fund results as published and found that the monkeys out did the average performance of the professionally (well, by humans, anyway ;-)) managed funds implying that human managers did worse on average than randomly selected stocks. I am not sure how true the story is, but that hasn’t kept me from repeating it as often as I can wedge it into the conversation (this one was a gimme, so I took it).

Harvard MBAs vs. Monkeys

Their goal was to find out just how much value brokers actually created. The found, when you strip out the firms’ fees, just 22% delivered any “alpha,” or risk-adjusted investment gains, at all.

Better yet, they posed this question: How many firms added value (risk-adjusted returns above those of the underlying hedge-fund indices) by picking the right managers, and avoiding the wrong ones?

Answer: After deducting fees, only 5.7%.

This finding has led Brett Arends of MarketWatch to conclude a bunch of monkeys stolen from a zoo would do a better job than MBAs from Harvard.

“You couldn’t make it up. Nearly half of all Fund of Hedge Fund managers, the academics report, delivered “negative after-fees alpha when benchmarked against the hedge-fund indices.” In other words they couldn’t even keep up with the index.”

So your take-home here is you are quite the fool to pay anyone any management fee to run a mutual fund. No one has ever been able to beat the time honored ‘buy and hold’ strategy. Just buy your own diversified fund using dollar-cost-averaging (a complex way of saying just buy the damn stocks/bonds each month irrespective of price).

BTW, here is the link to the paper the article is based on: http://ideas.repec.org/p/sol/wpaper/2013-97544.html

BTW2: Despite my above mentioned suggestion that you avoid paid managers and just buy your own stocks (really, it isn’t that challenging and since you should only be examining your portfolio at most once a quarter, not even very time consuming), I have an idea for fleecing (did I say fleece? What I meant to say was appeal to their more discerned and refined backgrounds that set them apart from us sheeple) rich people by building a hedge fund whose decisions are made by a machine-learning genetic program. The algorithm is basically an extremely complex random number generator (sure it is based on learning the past behavior of the stock market and it is just possible that it might actually identify otherwise missed trends that might be valuable for a few years), but the beauty of it is that because it does all the decision making I can sit on a beach in the Caribbean while I ‘maintain’ the program. I have tried to find people who have the contacts to find the rich people who want to pour money into yet another expensively managed hedge fund, but to no avail. If any of my reader(s) know some contacts and want to try massaging them, please let me know.

The art of scapegoating

The thrill of blaming others
We’ve always loved scapegoats, in politics and our own lives. Now science offers a new glimpse into its appeal
http://www.salon.com/2012/01/29/the_thrill_of_blaming_others/singleton/

I see bits of myself in this article, which perhaps makes me someone who isn’t the target of it. I guess the average sheeple (see, I am trying to elevate myself from the masses; I AM SPECIAL!) would read the article and shrug their shoulders. Either it would have no meaning and just be gibberish, or they would say it is perfectly obvious, just doesn’t apply to them. I am a wee bit dubious about the bit in the center regarding the Great Recession being all of our faults (certainly we the sheeple had to play a part in anything of that magnitude), to me the evidence that systematic fraud and outright criminal activity is practically damning, but the rest of the article really strikes a chord with me.

This might be a key take-away thought from the article:

This brings us to the most dangerous use of scapegoats – the blaming of certain individuals to give governments the freedom to act in certain ways. This is an age-old strategy, and, most recently, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were all similarly demonized. The latter was used to prove a non-existent link between the first two, giving the American public the sense of a greater threat against them than in fact existed, and justifying the use of military force in Iraq. As one can see, the urge to blame is sometimes incited in us, and this form of demonization has been employed for centuries.

If I read books anymore (another thing, like molecular biology, that seems to have ebbed away for no reason) I think I would like to read this one. I like to understand why I do things and while I try to analyze my thoughts and actions for unconscious bias, I am not necessarily capable of seeing my flaws (or seeing them as flaws ;-)) so reading something like this can help focus my analysis and perhaps lead to thoughtful breakthroughs (though probably not to any changes in my bad habits, much to my wife’s chagrin).

I loop, therefor I am

Self as Symbol
The loopy nature of consciousness trips up scientists studying themselves
http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/337947/title/Self_as_Symbol

I used to subscribe to Science News and had been receiving it for decades (my parents started getting it for me when I was a teenager). I find it a very good source of information on science in general and most of the time provides me with exactly the sort of digest I desire (and always provide links to the relevant peer reviewed data it is based on if I want to do additional reading). However, because the magazine was on paper by the time I got it I had pretty much already read all the information in it due to my regular haunting of the on-line new sources and I was finding the magazines were piling up un-read. My wife also noticed that and thus when renewal came around a year or two ago, she allowed it to lapse and I found I really didn’t miss anything. However, some years ago I had a reason to log onto their web site and formed an account and got signed up for weekly digests and have found these last few months that they are a few days ahead of most of the other sciency sites I visit, so expect the beginning of every other week to be tilted toward science as a consequence.

So with that as likely unnecessary preamble, to the article…

What is consciousness? I really like this quote:

“You and I are mirages that perceive themselves”

It is an interesting article and I look forward to the follow-on pieces promised in the intro.

I am not really sure how to address this in a blog post, either it is too brief or it turns into a novel. I am very interested in these sorts of concepts that sort of tread down the line betwixt philosophy, religion and science.

Personally I believe consciousness and self-awareness are ‘software’ based, rather than ‘hardware’, so while clearly there has to be enough complexity in the hardware (meaning brain or CPU) to support the software needed to have the self-referential looping constructs the article mentions, I think we could do this with silicon with appropriate effort and hardware expense. Whether that turns into Skynet and releases terminators on us or the somewhat more benign result of “The Two Faces of Tomorrow” is of course something we will have to just wait and see.

Well, after consideration, I have decided to just leave this post as-is, hence too brief. I have diverted myself reading some Wiki pages and how have even more ideas to think about and I suspect even if I were able to organize my thoughts this would wind up being such a long post no one would read it.

Even more stuff we didn’t know about

Deep Life
Teeming masses of organisms thrive beneath the seafloor
http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/337918/title/Deep_Life

I love this sort of stuff. Sometimes (often) scientists in mature (or thought to be mature) disciplines get all cocking thinking they know everything (or at least know what they don’t know) and then stuff like this gets discovered turning their convictions on their heads. For a very long time, even when it was shown that the sea floor wasn’t the lifeless muddy plain that people thought before they set eyes on it, scientists didn’t think anything interesting happened there. It seems to me that, particularly for those of us interested in the origins of life or astrobiology (is there a distinction?), that the determination that life has basically completely infected the entire crust of the planet and not just one or two forms of life, but likely thousands of wildly different forms of life (of course, still dependent on DNA and most of the amino acids we are familiar with (but how would we recognition them if they weren’t DNA-based or use amino acids?)) shows that once life has arrived on a planet (through Panspermia or native evolution (I favor that life is inevitable, so I expect native evolution is the driving force occasionally salted via Panspermia)) that planet (or moon, or asteroid) is infected forever. Simulations have shown that even the impact that formed the moon, as violent as that was, probably wouldn’t have been enough to totally eliminate life from the Earth, even though the oceans had boiled away and the top few miles of the surface were molten rock (there would have been rafts of non-molten rock, the centers of which would have been cool enough to support some of the extremophiles discovered the last decade or so). Life is tenacious and I expect that if we are finally able to adequately explore just our own solar system we will find life pretty much ubiquitous (would that we could get warp drive and explore the galaxy!).