18th April 2012

Beggar thy Neighbor

This is a great explanation of how class war in Germany fux0red the Euro by Dr. Heiner Flassbeck. It really pays off at the end:
“If you do not have a regime that allows the systematic participation of workers in the productivity increase, … capitalism hits a wall, because no economy can grow successfully if the people have to rely only on bubbles that sooner or later burst to consume, if they do not expect that they will participate in the success of all.”

Via naked capitalism.

posted by saurabh in Echo-gnomics | 0 Comments

11th April 2012

Scientism & why I don’t like to call myself an atheist

Ran into Richard Dawkins on the Internet again today, so I thought I’d go over why I think he’s a dummy:

“Science” is a particular way of knowing, and especially of learning. Anyone who gets into the metaphysics will eventually arrive at the problem that there is no really good way of wrapping your mind around the world; the mind is inherently representational, meaning that it can, at best and at worst, deal in approximations of the universe, the construction of an ideal that inevitably involves the paring away of detail. Unfortunately, this seems the only way available to us to comprehend the world: a bottle of milk, your fingernails, the social relation between people and dogs, all of these things occupy space and time in ways so diabolically complex and infinite that to know them fully is impossible; what you can know is a mere shadow of the bottle of milk, a rude representation of the aspects of it that your mind is prepared to see. A bottle of milk held in my hand implies all of the fundamental mysteries of the universe: to know it fully would be to know everything. The way I know it is infinitely smaller.

Science is the pretense that this reduction is an access to the truth. And it is, of course, access to an aspect of it, and often quite a useful one. My mind comprehends the bottle of milk as physical form, nutritive liquid, situated in a particular cultural context. That chain of relations allows me to direct my subjective experience; I can open it, manipulate it, drink it, talk about it. And the application of rigor to that mental model, making its construction more explicit, rule-based, mathematical, precise, extends my power of manipulating that subjective experience.

But, it does NOT provide me with complete knowledge of anything. Let’s take the so-called “laws of physics”; first of all, they don’t actually exist. Not a single physical “law” is true even to the limit of our understanding; all of them break down at the edges. Sometimes, we might hope that we are able to replace these “laws” with ones that better represent reality (that is, better provide us with the means to predict and direct events), but inherent in that representation, as there is in all human knowledge, is a reduction.

Moreover, knowledge that is rooted in empirical observation – i.e., the “scientific method” – is a particularly narrow reduction of the possible scope of representation. Being rigorous and regimented, it is a conservative way of understanding the universe – that which cannot be demonstrated cannot be taken as true.

But we should be careful not to confuse the advantages of this conservative form with indispensability; there are many other ways of knowing that are often quicker and more useful, that are decidedly not scientific. The fleeting trace of worry on my lover’s face is something I might ingest and act on; the utility of this form of knowing is unquestionably high, and it’s probably the case that here is a piece of information that is more-or-less inaccessible to rigorous empirical examination; I can’t conduct double-blinded controlled studies on how worried my lover is, and about what.i But, no matter: the fact that I can’t know something empirically does not mean that I can’t know it, and the fact that I can’t prove something empirically does not mean I cannot consider it to be true. Empiricism is only one way of understanding the universe.

Let me reiterate that scientific examination is an extremely rigorous and powerful way of understanding the world. It has recently become fashionable, however, to turn this rigor into a kind of rationalist absolutism. Science cannot replace all other forms of understanding, and we should be cognizant of its limits. Because it does, indeed, limit us to force all of our thinking to be scientific. A lot of thought is not scientific, by necessity, and works better because of it.

To dispense with the subject of God: there is an old Sanskrit aphorism which lampoons the ability of rational examination to say anything substantive on the question of divinity. The only statements you can make are in the negative – “neti, neti” – it’s not this, it’s not this.ii This might allow us to pare back some, or even most, of the claims of religion, but it’s not enough to leave us with anything other than a puzzled agnosticism. The fact that you cannot scientifically prove the existence of God is not a defeat for God, really, it’s just a limitation of science as a way of knowing.

  1. Well, I could, but there would probably be lots of human subjects approval forms to fill out. []
  2. Indeed, this is the kind of statement that science is best at making. []

posted by saurabh in Dharma, G_d, Religion, Science! | 0 Comments

26th March 2012


Let’s imagine exposing legislation to the scrutiny of the Internet.

I don’t mean that any member of the public could propose new bill text; that would still be the purview of individual legislators. But when they submit legislation, it shows up in a “Recent Changes” style docket. Any member of the public could view it. They could highlight pieces of it by voting it up or down. They could attach explanatory comments to the text. There could be ways for people to directly register their approval or disapproval of particular portions of the text. There could also be indirect ways for you to register your approval, as mediated by trusted experts: for example, the Sierra Club could run a subscription service that would annotate bill text for me, highlighting the portions of text they find good, and worth supporting, or extremely distressing and probably worth fighting. I could subscribe to a number of groups that maintained such lists; smaller groups could focus on narrower issues, like just abortion, or just research funding for physicists. I could weight the contributions of such groups and get a picture of how much they are in agreement or disagreement; I could identify places of conflict in my set of political views and perhaps adjust them. In the aggregate, I could get a picture of how often bill text agreed or disagreed with my positions. I could get a picture of how often my Congressperson voted against what I wanted, and in what specific ways. We could express ourselves to our legislators as a community.

Such a tool has a few nice features: first, if it were visible, it would give advocacy groups a better way to engage with voters and legislators; it would give them a clearer role in the political process, as a way to aggregate the voices of disparate constituencies. The modern mechanism requires money; this would require some as well, but the volume of bill text is not tremendous, and individual organizations could probably make a contribution more cheaply than they could buy the support of a legislator, where they risk merely being outbid by wealthier interests. Second, it is democratic; an organization with a small staff might succeed in making a significant contribution to the political process merely by dint of a large number of subscribers. Third, it reduces the role of the legislator to a helpless automaton. There is really no reason why, if such a system accurately reflects the desire of your constituents, a legislator should vote against it. Therefore, there is really no reason why you should reelect a legislator who continually misrepresents you.

Representing political viewpoints as a pastiche of intersecting interests is definitely the way modern politics already functions; individual interest groups are already engaging legislators on behalf of the voters. Currently they do this by direct bribery, which means the function of voting is essentially null; money determines who wins elections, and thus determines the course of voting. But even in a best case, voting for a single individual forces a narrowing of political choice and power; the legislator has little or no information about what the voters want, and the voters have no simple, efficient to present it, and their only mechanism of power is the vague hope that the person they are electing will manage to represent them accurately over the next few years. If the legislator’s vote is merely a binary filter on a much more complex representation of individual’s political interests (I agree with Greenpeace, CEPR, Global Exchange, Atheists of America, etc. in that order; you agree with Grover Norquist, the Heritage Foundation, the NRA, etc.), it broadens the efficacy of the democratic function.

Also, this system would be much harder to buy. While it’s possible that I might be suckered into subscribing to the ideas of a group that I don’t in fact agree with, it’s much easier for me to trust individual groups when their advocacy is passive, and their record is open to examination and recommendation.

Finally: since this is merely an annotation of publicly-available bill text available at places like thomas.loc.gov, it requires no legal adjustments to be brought into place. Someone could create such a site tomorrow.

This is only one possible way we might be better utilizing the radical democratization of the Internet.

posted by saurabh in Government, Voting | 5 Comments

24th March 2012


The New York Times had a front-page article yesterday titled “US Inches Toward Goal of Energy Independence“. This made me froth at the mouth, because it is pure, uncut horseshit. There has been a bit of crowing recently about how oil and gas production is way, way up, and things are looking bright for the world of fossil fuels. But this jubilation is a purely seasonal phenomenon; that is, the press is merely carrying water for the President in an election year where gasoline prices are once again back at their all-time pinnacle.

It’s true that, thanks to the opening of previously off-limits offshore areas, oil productivity is up in the United States for the first time in a long time. In fact, production is up since 2004 by a whopping 4.7%.

“Wait, what the fuck?” I hear you asking.i Yep, sorry to bust the bubble that quickly, but there really isn’t that much of a bonanza. Individual regions might be more productive, but the US as a whole is way past its oil heydey. And in case there might be any air left at all in that bubble, let’s kill it with a graph:

Now you can see that we’ve managed to increase our oil productivity so much, it’s all the way back up to what it was in 2003. Hey, great!

The obvious lesson here is that American oil productivity is over. There simply is not that much oil left in the ground in the United States; we pulled out about half of it by 1969, and most of the rest since. There might be a small bump from the untapped resources offshore, but this is expensive and difficult to get at, and in case you’ve forgotten, as the New York Times seems to have, sometimes there are problems associated with this kind of drilling.

You’ll also note that the total of production & imports is down since its high point in 2004.ii That is, the “glut” is merely the result of conservation resulting from high gasoline prices combined with severe recession and economic contraction.

The story for gas is only slightly different. Unlike oil, gas is a bit more local, meaning what happens on the American market can actually affect prices. And while it stagnated for a long while, gas production really is up again, by almost 25%, which is a real meaty number for a change. Check out this graph:

Hey, all right! Production is back up to what it was in the 60s. Great news, right? Well, okay, but let’s just add in consumption and see what’s happening:

Aww, seriously? Well, at least here we can see that production has a hope of crossing over consumption at some point in the next decade, so we might become a net exporter of the stuff if the trend continues. This boom, of course, is purportedly thanks to the much-ballyhooed and maligned hydraulic “fracking” fracturing technique, which allows us to access lots of previously inaccessible gas trapped in shale deposits. How much is recoverable this way, you ask? Well, the USGS believes that the Marcellus Shale, the huge deposit underlying the eastern United States, probably contains 84 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, which at our current consumption rate of 24 Tcf/year should give us an additional err, um. Yeah.

Anyway, that’s all that’s worth saying about that. The rest of it, the lunacy of cheering a move in the wrong direction, the slavish toadying to kiss the boot of power, you know all that stuff. I’m tired of repeating myself.

  1. Which leads me to ask – what are you doing in my room? []
  2. It’s a bit harder to plot actual consumption of crude oil, since it gets refined into so many products, but since the US doesn’t really export the stuff any more, the total is a reasonable proxy for consumption. []

posted by saurabh in Energy, Galloping idiocy, Petrolatum | 0 Comments

11th March 2012

Hark! What light from yonder window breaks?

No, this isn’t a post about Windows 8! Haha. This is the consuetudinal post that tradition requires, the post of contrition, accompanied by beating of the chest and the shrieks and lamentation of professional mourners, who you can be sure I have hired to provide chorus for the act of my composition*. Yes, it has been yea these too-many-to-count months since last I communicated with ye, O Internets. But what can I say? I’m bored with you. It’s all starting to seem like an exercise in shrewish gossip, punctuated by videos of cats/boobs. And while I’ll admit that shrewish gossip is not wholly without political utility, I can tell you that standing on a soapbox and shouting about what is to be done seems much less fun and useful when you’re standing alone in a corner of a room.

Nonetheregardless, I do need some space to think, and this is a nice place to do it. So here’s the deal, Internet: I’m going to start ranting incoherently on this here blaargh again, and I do mean incoherently, i.e., without any intent towards intelligibility to, perhaps, even my future self (yes that’s right, future self, fuck you!). And you will, hopefully, go on ignoring my presence. If you agree to this compact, just let me know by posting thirty more cat videos on yourself within the next three minutes. Don’t worry, I know where to find them.

* I’m not clear on whether tradition also makes allowance for the use of noise-canceling headphones in this situation.

We all recall the role it played in the deposition of the subterranean empire of His Lowness Grung Heavy-Paws, the mightiest mole in the whole history of my dad’s back yard.

posted by saurabh in A Series of Tubes, Bloorg, Navel-gazing, What Is To Be Done | 0 Comments

10th August 2011

I ☠ trash

Rolling Stone (of which I am a big fan) has an article on the subject of plastic bags, including some daunting statistics: the world consumes 1 million plastic bags every minute, and Americans use 102 billion every year. While 500 billion plastic bags every year is an outrageous figure, and the plastic bag is a particularly egregious and permanent form of trash, it’s only one of hundreds of kinds of permanent trash that we produce every year.

There is an active, well-funded and continuous movement to maintain our trash productivity. Last year in California, there was an effort in the legislature by a number of environmental organizations, legislatures, and the governor (Schwarzenegger) to ban plastic bags state-wide. Ostensibly this ban exists in San Francisco, although you wouldn’t know it by the profligate use of plastic in this city. The legislative measure went down in flames at the last minute, thanks to extreme lobbying efforts on the part of plastics industry groups, notably the American Chemistry Council. Hopefully environmental groups will regird themselves and push this through in the future.

However: I like to keep my eye a bit ahead of the ball (which is why I suck at baseball). So, I’d like to suggest two laws that I think would do a lot to make our trash situation manageable (that is, virtually nonexistent).

1. Uniform Packaging law – This means that package design should be done with an eye towards recyclability. Packaging should be made of single materials that can be recycled as a unit – that is, nothing like the dreaded Tetra Paks, which, being made of paper laminated with polyethylene and lined with aluminum, are exceedingly difficult to recycle. Packaging should also be minimized – no triple-wrapping things in layers of plastic for no reason at all. I’ve always had a beef with the Japanese about this. Also, my books don’t need to be shrink-wrapped to a piece of cardboard when they arrive from Amazon.

2. Guaranteed Recycling law – This is the more draconian one, which specifies that any manufacturer has to provide means for recycling their product down to harmless components, either themselves or via a third-party service. This means everything – batteries, cellphones, egg cartons, bicycle frames, etc. The consumer will probably be made to bear the additional cost, but it would also mean that manufacturers will be forced to consider the decomposability of their products, and hopefully bring their design around to match.

This might seem like a heavy-handed way to deal with trash, but ultimately it’s the only reasonable way (other than, maybe, vaporizing it with a plasma torch) – we have to stop manufacturing things that are difficult to get rid of. In general, we need to think about who – and what – will bear the costs of our production, of our activity, not just until we get paid for our effort, but until the ends of existence.

posted by saurabh in Ecofascism, What Is To Be Done | 2 Comments

8th August 2011

A wretched hive

So, following the downgrade and the resulting stock-market plunge, it’s worthwhile to shine a little light on S&P, to eradicate my own ignorance, anyway. If you wish to peer over my shoulder, I’m noting down my observations here. The company is a subsidiary of McGraw-Hill (yes, the guys who made your Geometry textbook), led by one Deven Sharma, a Bihari of relatively modest background (he has a degree in business management from OSU). Mr. Sharma last year penned an editorial in the WSJ complaining that they may be held to account (that is, face liability) for their rating standards, and calling for the repeal of ratings requirements on the debt held by certain investors. That is, the correct response to the colossal failure of ratings agencies to correctly identify CDOs, etc., as radioactive bombs, should be to remove ratings requirements from debt – that is, debt could simply be unrated, and a rating is merely a suggestive imprimatur bearing no significant or determining weight.

It’s quite clear why S&P’s president feels this way; he wants to punt. In the boom time he was happy to rubber-stamp junk and collect his commissions on it; now that the obvious deficiency of his agency (viz., their complete lack of any accountability for their ratings) has come to light, and some people in Congress are proposing an accountability mechanism, suddenly, S&P ratings should only be considered “just one of many tools”.

He also says:

[O]ur criteria for rating a security [following post-recession corrections] as AAA (our highest designation) include consideration of what could happen to a security if the country faces an economic scenario on par with the Great Depression.

Bear in mind that this was written well over a year ago. Now, it’s arguable that S&P was spot-on for rating all of that crappy debt AAA, since as it turned out, it was backed by the U.S. government. The government took the hit on behalf of all of that shitty debt, and now that its debt situation looks precarious, S&P wants to downgrade THEIR rating. This is high irony – if they had just done their fucking job correctly in the first place, instead of being greedy banksters, there would have been no need for a downgrade of U.S. government debt. S&P screws the pooch twice – first by not doing the job a ratings agency should (actually rating debt correctly), and then pillories the government (and the entire world) for cleaning up after their mess. Die in a fire, S&P.

None of which is to say, of course, that we don’t deserve a downgrade. We’re like a Bantustan right now, except without the political cohesion.

posted by saurabh in Galloping idiocy, Government, Rhinocrisy, Schmapitalism | 2 Comments

15th March 2011

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Lots of exciting stuff going on in the world these days, momentous, world-shaking events. And we all know what that means: now’s the time for dictators to swiftly crush their rebellious populace, while everyone is distracted by tsunami footage.

So, keep an eye on US ally Bahrain, where evil king Hamad has just imported troops from surrounding dictatorships (UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) to shoot and kill the angry plebes. Sounds reasonable, right? Fortunately our government is right on top of things: they are carefully evacuating all non-essential personnel from the US military base in Bahrain, and Secretary of State Hillary “Why Isn’t This Evil Shrike Dead Already O Lord”* Clinton took the vital step of urging “all sides” to remain calm – gun-wielding foreign soldiers AND unarmed civilian protesters. In fact, it seems like all of our government officials, all the way up to the big Cheese himself, are “deeply concerned”.

Some of you might be wondering: “Wait, what was that about a US military base in Bahrain?” Well, what about it? That doesn’t really affect our deep, deep concern. After all, why would that be relevant?

“The welfare of our personnel and their families is of the utmost importance. This Authorized Departure is being ordered to allow family members who have concerns about their safety to depart without incurring an undue burden. We remain committed to our long-standing partnership with Bahrain.

* I am told the story of how she acquired this nickname at Wellesley is hilarious and instructive.

posted by saurabh in Global Machinations, Government, Rhinocrisy | 1 Comment

10th March 2011

St. Matthew’s Island

Just reposting a link to this excellent comic from BoingBoing, so that it can get a wider readership.

posted by saurabh in Ecofascism, The Future, What Is To Be Done | 8 Comments

28th February 2011

Comics update

After nearly a year-long hiatus, I finally drew a new comic. Not a very funny one, but it serves as a bridge that will allow me to draw other unfunny comics.

posted by saurabh in Comics | 2 Comments

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