Archive for December, 2008

Will the piracy bubble burst?

December 31, 2008

2008 was a very good year for pirates, but there are clouds on the horizon for them.

Piracy’s heyday was in the 17th century, and it has been on the decline since.  Interestingly enough, naval battles in general have been thin on the ground [sea?].  WWII in the Pacific was a big clash of navies, but more recently you have to go back to the Falklands war of the early ’80s for anything significant.

A navy is an expensive thing, but can it be justified?  If you’re an admiral, how can you make the case for funding and emerge victorious over your enemies (the army and the air force)?  Enter the pirates – easy to defeat, no friends, and it serves the national pride to eliminate them.  Iran, China, South Africa and India are all planning anti-piracy actions, eager to sink something.  So much easier than invading that little neighbour with big friends.

Bonus!  “Somali pirates to acquire Citigroup” story, thanks to a loyal reader.  But caveat emptor.  If you have options in pirates, you may soon find they’re under water.

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Happy Holidays!

December 24, 2008

Best wishes to all for the holidays and 2009

One bomb at a time

December 24, 2008

There’s a joke they sometimes tell in probability classes about a man who always brings his own bomb when he flies.  Why?  Because he figures that the probability of one bomb on a plane is one in a million, so the probability of two bombs is one in a million squared.  So if he brings his own bomb along, then he’ll be safer.

You’ve heard of the controversy over Obama’s selecting Rick Warren for the inauguration invocation, despite Warren’s anti-gay views.  But because you read this blog, you realise this is the best of all possible selections, and marks when many will lose faith in the new administration.  So what is Obama’s plan?

Ideally, the inauguration would be an opportunity for unalloyed joy and celebration.  But the President-elect realises that we do not live in an ideal world, and that there must be some negative story.  So, like the man on the plane, he has decided to create his own, to make him safer.   As a side-effect, he gets to move towards the centre and throw a bone to the right.

So, LGBT Americans and friends, thanks for your patience and understanding.  It will certainly be rewarded – in about 2015 or so.

Differences of emphasis…

December 15, 2008

… in coverage of the Iraq shoe-throwing incident.  NBC News says that security “subdued”‘ the man, and that the incident was “surreal”.  The NYT quotes an Iraqi journalist as saying security “kicked him and beat him until he was crying like a woman” and notes that Bush “called the incident a sign of democracy, saying, ‘That’s what people do in a free society, draw attention to themselves,’ as the man’s screaming could be heard outside.”

When will you lose faith in the new administration?

December 14, 2008

One of my recent posts was ostensibly on Obama’s cabinet choices, but was in reality an excuse to quote from Bernstein’s Candide and use the word contra in a sentence.  This post is a thinly-veiled excuse to quote from the interesting but little-known 1955 novel, Cards of Identity. Here, one of the narrators is discussing his time in a monastery, where the monks are all former Communists:

The outside world is full of ex-Party members … and they spend their lives fighting an exhausting battle of suspicion and hatred centring upon the question: ‘At what date did you break with the Party?’  Each heretic believes that he alone broke precisely at the moment when the eau-de-vie of Communism changed to the ditch-water of absolutism; those who broke before him he regards as renegades, those who broke after, as charlatans. … The brother in the cell on my left is a so-called ‘Thirty-niner’: he went out of the party with the Stalin-Hitler pact.  The brother on my right was ‘out in the ’45’, as we put it; and there are some who made their breaks even later, as well as a few who actually broke with Lenin in the battle with the Mensheviks.  Frankly, I think that to make a break before an autocracy has even been established is as silly as getting a divorce before one has been married, but I shall not press the point.

Shop till you drop

December 13, 2008

We’re familiar with labour strikes, and FDR introduced the idea of a capital strike.  What we have now is, in large part, a consumer strike.

Retailers have tried negotiating with consumers to offer better terms, but the strike is persisting, and threatening the economy and hence national security.  So now it is time for harsher measures.  I am calling on the governors to call out the National Guard to force consumers back to the shops.  There they will be given an opportunity to make non-essential purchases of their choice, but if they do not take it, specially trained units using advanced collaborative filtering techniques will be authorised to make the purchases for them.  After a few weeks of this, resistance should be broken and we can return to the economic paradise we knew and loved.

Remember, economic liberty is too important to be left to individual choice.

This is the age of the train

December 9, 2008

When I was growing up in England, there was a series of commercials with the tagline “This is the Age of the Train”, often sung.  You could almost believe it, and forget that British trains were chronically late and slow.

The true age of the train was the 19th century, when railways boosted the Industrial Revolution, helped the Union to victory in the Civil War, and took over the California government for a while.  Many made fortunes, and it was clear that the train was a transformative technology.

Now, we are living in the age of the Internet, specifically the age of Google.  Many have made fortunes, and it is clear that the Internet is a transformative technology.  Though trains still give rise to some interesting mathematical problems and may have a small resurgence in California, their age has passed, and only the very young now dream of being engine drivers.

As the railways moved people, goods, and materials, so the Internet moves information.  As the Union Pacific no longer rules California with a fist of steam and steel, so shall Google, Yahoo and Microsoft drift into the minor ranks of mundane corporations.  And perhaps there will come a time when only the very young will think of being software engineers when they grow up.

Double bonus!  Two “Age of the Train” ads:

For pleasure

and business:

Samuel Butler’s birthday today

December 4, 2008

Author of erewhon

… and 700 billion dollars short

December 3, 2008

I am a couple of days late in noting that the NBER is a year late in noting that we are in a recession.

The Panglossian Presidency

December 2, 2008

A loyal reader asks my view on the reappointment of Gates to Defence.  With some repurposing of part of my argument on Biden, and a little help from Leibniz:

Of course, your objectives and Obama’s differ.  You may be concerned about the economy, the environment, world peace.  He is, as a reasonable first approximation, concerned only with winning reelection in 2012.  But, contra McCain-Palin, these differing objectives need not cause a conflict.

How could you fail to support a decision of Obama’s?  There are three possible reasons:

1) You might prefer that Obama lose in 2012.  That is, of course, your prerogative, and not yet treasonous.

2) You might want Obama to win, and be concerned that his decision makes that less likely.  Of course, any President can end up in a bubble isolated from reality (Bush on Iraq, Clinton on healthcare).  On the other hand, you have your own bubble, and haven’t talked to as many voters in swing states, so it’s not clear that your judgment is any better.

3) You might accept an increased risk of a Republican win in 2012, to trade off against one of your personal objectives (e.g. end to Cuban embargo, U.S. troops out of Iraq, avoiding runaway global warming and the end of human civilisation).  Fair enough, as long as your expected utility calculation includes possibly 4-8 years of President Palin.  Does it still come out positive?

So, we don’t care about (1), (2) is unlikely and (3) is dangerous.  All of which leads us to the conclusion that you really have no good reason to oppose any decision by the President-Elect.  So if Clinton is appointed to State, that is for the best.  If Gates is kept on at Defence, that must be for the best.  And if Cheney were to be appointed to the EPA, that would be for the best also.  For we have shown that everything is for the best with this best of all possible Presidents.

Bonus!  “Best of all possible worlds” from Bernstein’s Candide below: