Monday, December 29, 2014

Evidence of how Stupid Partisanship Can Make You

An online friend well to my left, one of the more reasonable people I argue with on FaceBook, recently posted the following. The link is from


Could this be more stupid? No. No, it could not.


After listening to the video and failing to persuade him that host said nothing of the sort, that the post and his response were evidence not of her stupidity but of how eager partisans are to think badly of members of the enemy tribe, I made a transcript of the relevant part of the conversation:

Host: “We are now going to bring in a former FAA insider saying that the different way other countries train their pilots may be the real reason Air Asia flight  has gone missing. Joining us now on the phone is former FAA official Scot Brenner. Scot thanks to be with us.”

Scott: “Good morning.”

Host: “Let’s talk about the differences. I mean even when we think about temperature it’s Fahrenheit or Celsius. It’s kilometers or miles. You know, everything about their training could be similar but different, right.”

Scott: “Correct. Yeah, what I think you see it could be a large reliance on automatic pilots and the requirements that pilots use that automatic pilot … “

Host: So it’s not just differences in the way we measure things, it’s difference in the way our pilots are actually trained. Is it not as safe in that part of the world …
The host offers differences in measurements as a simple example of difference, with no suggestion that that particular difference was responsible for the crash. Which doesn't prevent not only multiple left-wing web sites but my pretty reasonable friend from reading into it what they think she must have meant. And claiming she said it.

Stupidity, yes. But not of the host.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Icelandic Turkey: A Culinary Experiment

My family is fond of a recipe that I first encountered in a recipe collection included in a medieval Icelandic medical miscellany, hence refer to as "Icelandic Chicken." A scholar who studied it and a group of related manuscripts concluded that they were all daughters of a lost original, probably from southern Europe. So the recipe is Icelandic in the sense of having been in a written text in Iceland but  did not originate in Iceland and may never have been made there. 

To make it, you cut a chicken in half, roll out a flour and water dough, cover it with sage leaves, cover those with bacon, and wrap each half chicken. Each ends up enclosed in successive layers of bacon, sage, and dough. You then bake it. The dough, especially the dough under the chicken that gets the drippings and the bacon fat, is yummy, the meat  juicier than with an ordinary baked chicken.

This Christmas we decided to experiment with Icelandic turkey. The bird was about fourteen and a half pounds, that being the smallest we could get for five of us—my immediate family and my wife's mother. Out of respect to Christmas and Thanksgiving tradition I used the whole turkey instead of cutting it in half. 

I made the dough with about ten cups of flour and three or four of water, enough to be kneaded into a soft but not wet dough. The turkey was stuffed, the dough covered with sage less densely than the chicken usually is, due to not enough sage leaves. The half of the dough that went under the turkey was covered with bacon strips, the rest of a pound of bacon went on top of the turkey and the other half of the dough on top of that. The two halves of the dough were sealed together. 

The pan we usually use for roasting turkey in being unavailable, I put the wrapped turkey in a large oval Le Creuset pan, into which it barely fit. Then the whole thing was baked in a 325° oven, that being the temperature we use for Icelandic chicken. From time to time I basted the top with drippings. It ended up breast down, not by my intent but because once it was wrapped it was unclear which side was which.

It came out pretty well—the meat a little better than with our usual version of roast turkey. The bread on top of the bird was distinctly crunchy, the bread underneath soft and tasty. Next time I will do it in a larger pan and probably use more sage and bacon. 

Anyone curious about the Icelandic chicken recipe can find it in How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes, webbed as a pdf on my site, available as a hardcopy from Amazon.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Advice on an Index

I'm currently working on the index for the hardcopy of the third edition of The Machinery of Freedom, which raises a variety of minor questions. I suspect that many readers of this blog are familiar with the book, so thought I would collect opinions on one (and perhaps others later).

When referring to anarcho-capitalism in the index, should I use "anarcho-capitalism," "anarchy," or "A-C."? The first is a bit clumsy on the scale of an index. The second is potentially misleading—it's the only form of anarchy I discuss in the book, but obviously there are others. The third feels a bit in-groupy, but by the time a reader gets to the index he is part of the group of people familiar with the term.

Also, I have one minor irritation with MS Word's indexing function, useful though it certainly is. It alphabetizes "feud" with quotation marks, the word, at the beginning of the index. So my entry for the explanation that "feud" has nothing to do with "feudal" will have to be put in without the quotation marks, then the marks added to the index entry when everything is done. Any readers who work for Microsoft take note.

Working with the indexing software reinforces the conclusion I reached after writing my second book, using a word processing program on my first computer (an LNW80). Prior to the invention of word processors, no books were written. It's just too much work.

At least, none with indexes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Nice Example of Scientific Ignorance

Someone in an online discussion posted a link to what was claimed to be an experimental demonstration of global warming by a young student. It was presented by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Clean Air Conservancy.

The experiment consisted of filling one jar with CO2 and one with ordinary air, illuminating both with heat lamps, and observing the temperature. The temperature in the jar with CO2 went up more. The experimental design was imperfect, since the lamps might have differed a little in intensity or placement, but that's not a serious criticism given the age of the experimenter.

The real problem is that the experiment does not demonstrate the greenhouse effect. That effect depends on selective absorption, on the fact that CO2 is more transparent to the short wave length light coming down from the sun than to the long wave length light coming up from the Earth. The experiment showed that CO2 was less transparent than ordinary air to long wave length light but provided no evidence at all of its transparency to short wave length light, hence no evidence in support of the greenhouse effect. To do it right, it should have been repeated using a source of short wave length light such as sunlight. If that didn't heat the bottle with the CO2 more than the other bottle, that would have provided evidence of selective absorption, hence support for the claim that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

My conclusion is that the people who webbed the video were ignorant of the science they claimed to be demonstrating. The student who did the experiment was equally ignorant, which suggests, but does not prove, that whoever taught him was as well. The case of the student or the Clean Air Conservancy isn't all that surprising, but it is a little disturbing that the Cleveland Museum of Natural History would post a video based on a complete misunderstanding of the science it purports to demonstrate.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Drought and Bias (Mine)

It has been raining pretty heavily for a while now in California, where I live. That ought to be good news, but one would not know it by the news stories I see. They typically say two things:

1. The heavy rains may lead to flooding, mud slides, and similar problems. 

2. The drought is not over. 

My initial reaction to that pattern, in part due to spending too much time arguing climate issues online, was that the news media were pushing the orthodox line—climate change is bad—by focusing on the bad features of current weather and dismissing the fact that the increased rain signaled the end of a serious three year drought. My wife offered a different, and probably more nearly correct, interpretation. The claim that the drought is not over, taken as a statement about the weather, is false, since rainfall appears (casual observation—I have not seen comparative data) to be back up to at least its normal level. But it is an accurate description of the implications for humans. Three years of drought have left reservoirs very low and it will take more than a few weeks of rain to refill them. 

The claim that the drought is not over, in her view, is designed not to reinforce climate worries but to persuade people to hold down their use of water, since the less is consumed the faster the reservoirs will refill.

Will 2014 be the Hottest Year Ever?

Lots of people have claimed it will be and they could be correct, but there are two obvious problems:

1. The year is not over yet.

2. "Hottest year ever" is not well defined. There are a number of different published temperature series, calculated in different ways. "Hottest year" looks a lot less striking if it turns out to be true by only one measure out of five or six.

The series I mostly use in climate arguments is one from NASA, not because I have any reason to think it better than others but because it is one that I found conveniently webbed as numbers, not just as a graph. It shows 2010 as the hottest year so far. Just for fun, I added up the temperatures for the first eleven months of 2010 and 2014. Currently, 2010 is ahead by about  .01 degree C. 

But December of 2010 was relatively cool, so it would not be surprising if 2014 inched past the record in its final month. Or not.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Criticism of the IPCC from a Competent Source

I just came across an interesting piece online which quotes extensively from testimony by a prominent scientist critiquing the IPCC. It provides a good rebuttal to those who imagine that the only critics are ignorant and/or venal people who believe in a vast conspiracy of climate scientists. 

Testimony by Daniel Botkin

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Announcing a Cover Contest

My previous post attracted a lot of comments, along with a couple of cover designs. So I have decided to issue an invitation to anyone who wants to propose a cover for the third edition of The Machinery of Freedom. It should include the title, the subtitle ("Guide to a Radical Capitalism") and my name. Including "Third edition" is optional, but probably a good idea.

The prize consists of a signed copy of every book of mine that I can get a copy of, which I think means everything with the possible exception of Price Theory. And credit to the artist in the book, if he wants it.

Here are the suggestions so far. I've trimmed the list by removing ones where the artist has offered a revised version I like better:




























(possibly title page rather than cover?)













This is fun.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Which Cover Should I Use for the Third Edition of Machinery?

At this point, the only significant work left to be done in producing a POD hardcover of the third edition is adding an index, which the Kindle doesn't have (or need, since it's searchable). And, of course, fixing all the problems that I won't discover until I have a proof copy.

That raises the question of a cover. One possibility is the cover currently on the Kindle page, which was contributed by my agent, where from I don't know. Another is the cover of the Spanish translation with the text changed to English, assuming I can get permission to use it. Which do people here think is better? Other suggestions?

Kindle Cover

Spanish Translation Cover

Here's a third possibility, from someone reading this post on FaceBook

Friday, December 12, 2014

Climate and Elite Opinion

I have spent a good deal of time observing and participating in arguments about global warming. One striking point that I have not seen discussed is the sharp divergence between elite opinion and mass opinion.

Elite opinion, the New York Times, official statements by various scientific organizations and the like, views global warming as a dire threat, one that requires drastic and immediate action to prevent. Mass opinion, not only in the U.S. but, according to at least one poll I saw, world wide, puts it very far down in the list of what people are concerned about, perhaps tenth or twentieth. This pattern is reflected in the online discussions, where people concerned about warming mostly base their arguments on some version of "everyone who is anyone agrees with me." Their picture of the situation, pretty clearly, is one in which the truth is perfectly clear and it is only uneducated fundamentalists or people in the pay of the oil companies who can disagree.

My reasons for questioning part of that picture, not the fact of warming due to human actions but the likely consequences, I have discussed in past posts here. My general skepticism of elite opinion comes from many past disagreements with it, most notably on political and economic issues. My point here, however, is not about whether the elite view is right or wrong but about the relation between the elite view and the mass view in different countries.

Among western developed countries, Australia appears least supportive of action against warming, Germany most, the U.S. in between. Germany has been involved in a very high profile effort to push down its output of CO2. The current Australian government, so far as I can make out, has mostly rejected calls for anything along similar lines. In the U.S., the President is strongly in favor of climate action, the Congress reluctant to support it, with the result that the administration has been trying to implement its views by regulatory action instead of legislation.

After a summer in Australia many years ago, I concluded two things about the country. One was that it had a larger variety of flavored potato chips than anywhere else in the world, including all the British versions and all the U.S. versions. The second, possibly related, was that Australia had a full range of social classes built almost entirely out of an originally working class population. One implication, consistent with at least casual observation, is that Australians have less respect for their betters, their social superiors, their elite, than any other population on the globe. 

Germany, I think, represents the opposite pattern. The U.S. is somewhere in between. Unlike European countries, the U.S. never had a system with well defined social classes, the sort of system where there was a close correlation between how much money someone had, how much education he had, and how he spoke. One result is that Americans are  less inclined to see all political issues as my class vs your class than Europeans (I must confess that my view of Europeans is heavily weighted towards Great Britain, as the only European country whose language I am fluent in). Another, I think, is that Americans have less respect for their elite.

If I am correct—I am far from expert in the various societies and may be misinterpreting them—there is a pattern. Countries where the elite is more influential are more likely to take costly actions aimed at reducing global warming.

At a final tangent, I recently came across an online post, based in part on another post by a blogger I think very highly of, which nicely stated one of my reservations about arguments for the current elite view of warming.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Generalizing from the CIA to the NSA

Dianne Feinstein was clearly one of the main people behind the creation and release of a Senate report that found that torture by the CIA, in addition to everything else wrong with it, did not serve any useful purpose, that claims by the organization that torture had produced critical information were lies. She has also been one of the principle supporters of the NSA practice of mass surveillance, arguably illegal and indeed unconstitutional. The NSA has defended that program by claiming that it produced critical information. That claim too has been challenged, although not, so far, by Feinstein.

Which raises an interesting question. Will Feinstein be willing to generalize her conclusion? Having discovered that one large federal bureaucracy engaged in controversial policies to fight terrorism has been deliberately lying about their effects, will she become less willing to believe another large federal bureaucracy also engaged in controversial policies to fight terrorism?

There are two reasons she might not. 

One is that the organizations are different; she may believe one more to be trusted than the other. I find that argument unconvincing in part because of a conversation many years ago with a friend who, although not an NSA employee, was part of the culture around the NSA. He assured me, and I am sure believed, that the NSA could be trusted, that organization culture would prevent them from illegal spying on U.S. citizens even if they thought they could get away with it. That was well before the fact came out that the NSA had been intercepting phone calls without the authorization required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, in violation of federal law.

A second and less creditable reason she may be unwilling to generalize her conclusion is that the CIA misdeeds covered in the report occurred in response to the 9/11 attack, with the result that the misdeeds can be reasonably blamed on a Republican administration.  I have not read the Senate report, but I gather from news stories on it that it does not go into the question of whether similar misdeeds occurred earlier under other administrations. NSA spying has been going on for a long time under both Republicans and Democrats  and continues under the current administration. 

It will be interesting to see if Feinstein joins in the calls for criminal prosecution of some of those responsible for CIA torture. I do not remember her arguing for criminal prosecution of NSA employees who violated FISA or against Congress immunizing phone companies from liability for their illegal sharing of customer information with federal authorities.

Whether or not Feinstein is willing to generalize from the CIA to the NSA, the important question is whether other people are.

Torture: An Old Issue

The use of torture to extract information is not a new idea. Under both Athenian and Roman law, slave testimony could only be taken under torture. Presumably the theory was that slaves were interrogated in order to get evidence against their owners, the owner had ways of putting pressure on the slave, so torture was needed to get the slave to tell the truth. In Imperial Chinese law, not only the defendant but also witnesses could be tortured. In that system, and I think also in some legal systems of medieval and renaissance Europe, a defendant could only be convicted by his own confession. Torture was one way of getting it.

The argument against torture, that the victim will say whatever he thinks will end it whether true or false, is also old—people in the past were not stupid. Our main source of information on Athenian law consists of orations written by professional orators to be memorized by a party to a law suit in a legal system where there were no lawyers and each party had to represent himself. There is one oration which claims that slave testimony under torture is perfectly reliable, that there has never been a case where it turned out to be false. There is another making the obvious argument on the other side, that such testimony is worthless since the slave will say whatever the torturer wants him to say.

They were both written by the same orator.

People in other legal systems that used torture were also aware of the problem. There is a collection of Chinese cases compiled in the 13th century for the use of magistrates. Many of them are cases where a clever judge realizes that an innocent person has been forced to confess under torture and figures out who is really guilty.

That raises an obvious question—if they saw the problem with torture, why did they continue to employ it? One answer is that extracting information might only have been an excuse, that the real purpose was to punish someone without having first to convict him. That is a possible explanation in some contexts, including the current case of torture by the CIA. But it does not explain contexts where the person being tortured was not the suspect but a potential witness.

A second possible explanation is the belief that a competent interrogator could distinguish a real confession from a fake one. That strikes me as the most likely explanation in the Roman and Athenian cases, where it was the defendant's slave, not the defendant, who was being interrogated.

A third explanation is that torture might produce information that could be checked. That is the situation in the hypothetical cases sometimes offered in defense of the use of torture—the suspect is being forced to say where the kidnap victim, or the terrorist time bomb, is concealed. More plausibly, to say where the loot is hidden.

One example of this approach occurs in the earliest of the surviving Germanic law codes. Under the law of the Visigoths, before a suspect could be tortured the accuser had to provide the judge with details of the crime that an innocent defendant would not have known. The defendant's confession was only accepted if it matched the details. If the accuser had made the details public, the defendant could not be tortured. How satisfactory the system was for the defendant would depend on how severe the torture was and how much permanent damage it might do to him, but it at least was a way of distinguishing a true confession from a false one. The same approach is used in modern law enforcement, where a confession is validated by the fact that it contains information only a guilty defendant would have.

Both the Visigothic and the modern versions depend on the honesty of the people conducting the interrogation. A policeman who extracts a confession by either physical pressure or the threat of additional charges can make it more convincing by providing the relevant information to the defendant in the course of the interrogation. That possibility is an argument for recording all interrogations and making the recordings available to the defense. That option was not available to the Visigoths. I do not know if they employed the period equivalent—trustworthy witnesses to the whole procedure.

One can offer theoretical arguments for legalizing the use of torture. The problem with such arguments is illustrated by the evidence in the CIA case. Even if there are rare situations where the use of torture would be justified, once legal it is not likely to be limited to such. It is risky to give government actors powers on the assumption that they will only be used when they should be. That mistake is sufficiently common to have acquired a label, at least among economists:

The Philosopher King Model of Government.