Tuesday, March 24, 2015

News from the ant colony

An example of EastEnders'​ popularity is that after episodes, electricity use in the United Kingdom rises significantly as viewers who have waited for the show to end begin boiling water for tea, a phenomenon known as TV pickup. Over five minutes, power demand rises by three GW, the equivalent of 1.5 to 1.75 million teakettles. National Grid personnel watch the show to know when closing credits begin so they can prepare for the surge, asking for additional power from France if necessary. [link]

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Decline and Fall

The Dying Russians
Sometime in 1993, after several trips to Russia, I noticed something bizarre and disturbing: people kept dying. I was used to losing friends to AIDS in the United States, but this was different. People in Russia were dying suddenly and violently, and their own friends and colleagues did not find these deaths shocking. Upon arriving in Moscow I called a friend with whom I had become close over the course of a year. “Vadim is no more,” said his father, who picked up the phone. “He drowned.” I showed up for a meeting with a newspaper reporter to have the receptionist say, “But he is dead, don’t you know?” I didn’t. I’d seen the man a week earlier; he was thirty and apparently healthy. The receptionist seemed to think I was being dense. “A helicopter accident,” she finally said, in a tone that seemed to indicate I had no business being surprised.

The deaths kept piling up. People—men and women—were falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes.

Back in the United States after a trip to Russia, I cried on a friend’s shoulder. I was finding all this death not simply painful but impossible to process. “It’s not like there is a war on,” I said. “But there is,” said my friend, a somewhat older and much wiser reporter than I. “This is what civil war actually looks like. “It’s not when everybody starts running around with guns. It’s when everybody starts dying.”

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Menos mal que nos queda Portugal

Quando uma pessoa pensa que é difícil encontrar um país europeu mais burocrático e com uma adminstração pública menos eficiente...
Anton sai da assembleia de voto. Não saí apenas com um boletim, tem uma resma de papel nas mãos. Sim, na Grécia, não há um boletim de voto. Há 20, um por cada um dos 19 partidos concorrentes, mais um para os que queiram votar em branco. O eleitor escolhe o papel do partido preferido que contém uma lista de nomes com os candidatos a deputados. Desse conjunto faz uma cruz em quatro. O processo continua com a colocação do papel escolhido num envelope que se insere na urna. Quanto aos restantes 19 têm um final comum, vão para o lixo.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Picking on Piketty

A classic example of confirmation bias:
While Americans swooned over Thomas Piketty and his thesis about ever-rising inequality it has taken a Brit, the FT’s Chris Giles, to expose the corruptions in his data. What he has found – on the cover of today’s FT and in detail on a blog here – is shocking because the errors are so basic. And yet on this, Piketty has built a manifesto for all kinds of tax rises. It makes you wonder how his publisher, Harvard University Press, allowed such flaws to enter print. (...) 
The points Chris Giles so powerfully makes ought to have been picked up by any serious peer review process. (...) Perhaps the idea of one’s instincts being proving empirically correct is rather intoxicating, which partly explains the success of his book. Perhaps Piketty gave the left intelligentsia a story which (as tabloid hacks say) was “too good to check”. 
But what about Harvard University Press? Piketty’s publisher there, Ian Malcolm, is interviewed here. From the sounds of it, he just reprinted the French version without applying the checks and balances that you’d hope would be applied to a Harvard economics book. He says how much money Piketty has made his company, and concluded by saying: “As long as there is bullshit and inequality, we won’t go out of business.” Quite.
It's worth reading the full article in The Spectator.

Also recommended: What Piketty Misses

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Don't mention the war

The last Jew in Vinnitsa [1941]
One of the worst consequences of living in a post-war era is that all the talking heads will then be trying to fix whatever they believe were the set pre-conditions leading up to the war they have just been through. Sometimes they get it right and implement worthy policies such as having an independent central bank, a policy first implemented by the Bundesbank in order to avoid a similar situation to the Weimar Republic's hyperinflation in the 1920s, which is usually seen as one of the determining factors of Hitler's rise to power.

Sometimes, however, they get it all wrong. One of the most common arguments put forward by proponents of military conscription in Germany has been that it is necessary to keep very strong ties between the military and society so that nothing like the Schutzstaffel will ever again be conceivable. While it is true they were a paramilitary organisation, just like many others which came to life throughout the Weimar Republic, this obviously ignores the fact Hitler was democratically elected and used the full force of the existing military apparatus for his own purposes. And what could possibly be better for the state than having a very submissive population - by the very nature of the mandatory conscription - who has been trained to kill people and obey their military superiors without question? Well, having a submissive population who has also been ideologically indoctrinated.

Homeschooling is currently illegal in Germany. Not very surprisingly, the ban dates back to the third Reich:
One of Hitler and his buddies' first acts on taking office was to establish the Reich Ministry of Education and give it control of all schools, including private schools. Nobody was to have the right to teach children from a different point of view than the State (with a capital "S"). There would be no right to teach from a distinctively religious point of view, especially. As Hitler said on May 1, 1937, "The Youth of today is ever the people of tomorrow. For this reason we have set before ourselves the task of innoculating our youth with the spirit of this community of the people at a very early age, at an age when human beings are still unperverted and therefore unspoiled. This Reich stands, and it is building itself up for the future, upon its youth. And this new Reich will give its youth to no one, but will itself take youth and give to youth its own education and its own upbringing."
This also seems to be the actual position of the German state in the present day:
German homeschoolers have told us on numerous occasions that your calls are working despite the response many of you have received from the [German] Embassy [in the United States]. In part, the Embassy stated that homeschooling should not be legal because "The public has a legitimate interest in countering the rise of parallel societies that are based on religion or motivated by different world views and in integrating minorities into the population as a whole."
Yes, I'm afraid you've read that right. The best way to get a healthy society is to make sure everyone gets their education approved by the government, all the while erasing every sign of individuality and killing any seeds of political dissident before they are even allowed to coalesce by making everyone conform to the same standard. I wonder what could possibly go wrong. If you thought Milgram and Asch's experiments had taught us anything, you are now probably wondering how long we'll have to wait for the 'burning of books and burying of scholars'.

Alas, we reach the point of this diatribe of mine - a couple of days ago something curious happened in Darmstadt. I recommend reading the whole article:
At 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, August 29, 2013, in what has been called a “brutal and vicious act,” a team of 20 social workers, police officers, and special agents stormed a homeschooling family’s residence near Darmstadt, Germany, forcibly removing all four of the family’s children (ages 7-14). The sole grounds for removal were that the parents, Dirk and Petra Wunderlich, continued to homeschool their children in defiance of a German ban on home education.

The children were taken to unknown locations. Officials ominously promised the parents that they would not be seeing their children “anytime soon.” (...) Moreover, Germany has not even alleged educational neglect for failing to provide an adequate education. The law ignores the educational progress of the child; attendance—and not learning—is the object of the German law.

Judge Koenig, a Darmstadt family court judge, signed the order on August 28 authorizing the immediate seizure of Dirk and Petra Wunderlich’s children. Citing the parents’ failure to cooperate “with the authorities to send the children to school,” the judge also authorized the use of force “against the children” if necessary, reasoning that such force might be required because the children had “adopted the parents’ opinions” regarding homeschooling and that “no cooperation could be expected” from either the parents or the children. 
So, how do you prevent a society from turning into a totalitarian state? It appears the answer is to act pre-emptively and make it turn into a totalitarian state as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What is the definition of irony?

From the administration that has been spying on everything from here to Pluto and subsequently charged Edward Snowden with espionage, we now get this one:
(...) on Friday, White House officials today publicly pressured Hong Kong authorities to give him up. “If Hong Kong doesn’t act soon, it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong’s commitment to the rule of law,” a senior Obama administration official told Reuters Saturday afternoon.
I swear that sometimes I can't tell whether government officials are serious or simply laughing in everyone's face.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Poor choice

Remember to wear a Che Guevara shirt next time, kiddo. Those never seem to get anyone in trouble.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

O verdugo

Neste momento, se eu fosse líder de um dos partidos do arco da governabilidade em Portugal estaria com suores frios durante a noite. Apesar de ter uma noção relativamente clara das medidas necessárias a uma redução do défice orçamental a curto e a longo prazo, tal como acordado no âmbito do resgate financeiro, mas sem um respaldo inquestionável da população ou uma visão política pessoal (por exemplo, um preferência pela redução drástica das actuais funções estatais) que me compelisse a encetar as devidas e sucessivamente adiadas reformas profundas à estrutura do estado, não teria a mais mínima ideia de como implementá-las de forma a que estas não fossem bloqueadas pelos elementos do regime vigente que fazem da manutenção do status quo o seu cavalo de batalha.

É por esta razão que as declarações de Seguro são particularmente curiosas. "Eu estou disponível para substituir o Governo.", diz-nos vincadamente, como se alguém neste mundo julgasse que um político de carreira que se coloca na posição de líder do principal partido da oposição o faz não porque tem necessariamente interesse em vir a ser chefe de governo, mas porque gosta do cheiro do novo escritório. Sendo que a elite do PS, como gente pérfida e imoral que é, sabe perfeitamente o que causou esta crise e está mais do que ciente das dificuldades constitucionais em aprovar qualquer reforma significativa - mais não seja porque eles mesmos têm sido parte irrefutável deste problema -  o que me começa a parecer a mim é que toda esta ansiedade em tomar o lugar de Passos Coelho mostra que na cabeça de Seguro já nem sequer importa construir uma série de frases feitas sobre como vai milagrosamente sacar Portugal da crise, sem reduzir a despesa social do estado ou aumentar impostos, porque o que realmente o preocupa é apanhar as últimas migalhas enquanto o bolo ainda existe. Se isto sugere que o princípio do fim está próximo e que isso, de alguma forma, é em si um bom sinal no grande esquema das coisas, é algo que ainda estamos para ver.

Leitura recomendada: Uma sentença cristalina, um destino trágico

Sunday, March 17, 2013

That's a relief

Cypriot bank deposits tapped as part of €10bn eurozone bailout
While Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who chairs the group of eurozone finance ministers that hashed out the deal in all-night talks, declined to categorically rule out hitting depositors in future bank bailouts, he insisted that it was not being currently considered for any other country.
I'm sure they would let us know in advance if that were the case:
The levy on bank deposits will come into force on Tuesday, after a bank holiday on Monday. Cyprus will take immediate steps to prevent electronic money transfers over the weekend.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

How prejudice affects our concerns

White slime. Yes, it's that yummy.
It has been somewhat interesting to observe how British society reacted to the revelation that a significant percentage of meat products currently in sale at retail stores contain a fair amount of horse meat. Unlike in Continental Europe, where horse meat is occasionally consumed - and is actually popular in some regions - the notion of eating horse meat is something of a taboo in the British Isles, so while someone in Italy would probably feel deceived if they purchased a horse-based product that had been advertised as pork, they wouldn't necessarily feel outraged because it contained horse meat.

Thus far, we've seen officials promising 'tougher testing' on meat products, begging citizens not to stop eating meat and dispelling concerns that the dreaded horse meat might have been served in schools. Is there any reason for all this hysteria? Aside from the fact that there is false advertising involved, not really - in theory, given that horses are not raised in factory farms, horse meat would probably be healthier than regular meat were it not for the possibility that it might be contaminated with a carcinogenic drug called phenylbutazone. However, that has nothing to do with the quality of the meat itself safety-wise and this particular fact hasn't even been featured prominently in any of the discussions related to the scandal, which leaves us with the explanation that all this drama was purely caused by the cultural norm that frowns upon the consumption of horse meat - or as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland adequately put in in the report (entitled "FSAI Survey Finds Horse DNA in Some Beef Burger Products", even though traces of pig DNA were also found) that opened Pandora's box:
In Ireland, it is not in our culture to eat horsemeat and therefore, we do not expect to find it in a burger.
The irony of all this is that no one seems to be overly concerned about other contaminations that are quite common or are becoming so in the meat industry, such as faecal bacteria and MRSA [1, 2, 3]. And of course, no one cares whether their sausages, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, burgers and salami are made with pink slime or mechanically-separated meat. But maybe one day they will - if any of those things are found along with horse meat.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

But hey, at least they have a government to protect them now!

A Mogadishu court on Tuesday handed down one-year prison sentences to a woman who said she was raped by security forces and a reporter who interviewed her. The judges decided the woman falsely claimed she was raped and had insulted the government…

Rights groups have decried the case as politically motivated because the woman had accused security forces of the assault. Rape is reported to be rampant in Mogadishu, where tens of thousands of people who fled last year’s famine live in poorly protected camps. Government troops are often blamed.

(via Reason)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death

Death in America is largely a foodborne illness. Focusing on studies published just over the last year in peer-reviewed scientific medical journals, Dr. Greger offers practical advice on how best to feed ourselves and our families to prevent, treat, and even reverse many of the top 15 killers in the United States.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A new low for The Economist

Blogging at Democracy in America, Matt Steinglass writes about the Newtown masacre in an article entitled "Fake Tears":

Those of us who view the events remotely, however, unless we start to evince a newfound appetite for gun-control measures to prevent future mass slayings, are doing little more than displaying and enjoying our own exalted strickenness. This is an activity at which we, as a culture, excel. Americans' postmodern eagerness for self-aggrandising displays of grief over events that did not actually happen to us was captured over two decades ago in the still-remarkable "Heathers"; as that movie understood, mass slayings at schools provide the perfect backdrop of "senseless" tragedy against which the public can profile its own angst and bogus sorrow.

Thomas de Zengotita, in his book "Mediated", has a nice analysis of the way the Western public's treatment of media-transmitted tragedies evolved from Pearl Harbor through the assassination of JFK to the death of Princess Diana, as the public gradually came to see these moments chiefly as occasions to stage its own overwrought little emotional performances, like teenagers boasting unconvincingly of how upset they are by another kid's parents' divorce. "Princess Diana's mourners," wrote de Zengotita, «so many of them, so obviously exhibiting their grief, not even pretending that they weren't exhibiting it, understanding that this was their role, in both the sociological and theatrical sense, understanding that they were there for this purpose in service of the Global Show that their very presence was inciting, producing and promoting in real time...»

The killings in Newtown, of course, appear just as "senseless", if one insists on ruling out the idea that such episodes might be forestalled by limiting people's access to firearms. Indeed, it's most convenient for media purposes when such tragedies are truly "senseless"; it lends them a nicely wistful aura, and makes it easier for the grief-performing public to spin them in whatever creative fashion they like. (See Ross Douthat's weepy response, which tacks clear to Dostoevsky and Ivan Karamazov. Alack, the death of innocents; is God even possible in such a world, and so forth.) And as of last Thursday, we certainly appeared to have given up any pretense of trying to prevent future school massacres. (...)

More horrible still — to me at least — is the inevitable lament, “How could we have let this happen?” It is a horrible question because the answer is so simple. Make it easy for people to get guns and things like this will happen. (...)

So unless the American people are willing to actually do something to stop the next massacre of toddlers from happening, we should shut up and quit blubbering. It's our fault, and until we evince some remorse for our actions or intention to reform ourselves, the idea that we consider ourselves entitled to "mourn" the victims of our own barbaric policies is frankly disgusting.
Which is basically a fancy and long way of saying that those who feel sad about the massacre but do not believe stricter firearm laws in Connecticut would have made any difference are simply evil hypocrites. Such a civilised way to raise the bar on what is a complex academic debate in which the evidence actually refutes Steinglass' position.

Ironically, in a post which is all about fake emotions, there is no question raised about the authenticity of Obama's emotional reaction to the shooting (personally I found this one far more genuine). But I guess there can be no doubt about it because he's on the gun-control side.

Further reading: