Sunday, November 12, 2006

Braudel for twelve year olds

My son's grade has an event where different subgroups volunteer to bring regional foods from different parts of Colonial America. My son's group was assigned the "Back Country", and, in their research, they learned that pork formed a major part of the Apalachian diet. It turns out that the pig's combination of intelligence and loyalty is ideally suited to ungenerous Appalachian terrain: A pig is smart enough to find its own food, and loyal enough to return home to be slaughtered. So, in many ways, a pork-rich diet allowed people to scratch a meager existence from the frontier.

My son volunteered to bring a salt pork roast to the event. He goes to an urban public school, and ten per cent of his class is either Jewish or Moslem, so this might seem to be a faux pas. His three Jewish classmates assured him that it would not hurt their feelings if he brought his roast, but he did not canvas the Islamic kids, and one of the marvelously liberal parents suggested that it might be less socially awkward if my son prepared a different dish. I also consider myself liberal, but my feeling is that if a twelve year old is willing to spend two month's allowance on a ten pound roast and is willing to spend spend his time preparing it, then I would rather not micromanage his generosity(particularly because he already demonstrated excellent sensitivity by including his Jewish friends in his decision-making process).

I'm planning on talking with his teacher tomorrow, to be sure that everything is fine, but, upon further reflection, his classmates will miss a potentially valuable learning opportunity if he doesn't bring his roast. Most educated people believe that the biggest problem with the former frontier states is that they do not have enough Jews, and the absence of Jews on the frontier is bound up with the fact the source of protein most suited to uncultivated land is traif. In an ideal world, the food at his school event would be as authentic as possible, and every dish from the back-country, from succotash to apple pie, would be heavily larded. Then, as different ethnic groups shun the backcountry table, the children would develop a greater understanding the historical origins of the red states' lack of ethnic diversity and tolerance, and see how a simple thing like a dietary prohibition can have lasting political ramifications.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

be nice, okay?

Every time you are unfriendly, you are committing a miniature act of murder.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Iraqi nuclear secrets and Persian psychological ones

The New York Times reports that, in their effort to prove that the Iraqis possessed dangerous nuclear secrets, the Bush administration accidentally revealed those dangerous nuclear secrets. Apparently, there were a few pages of equations that are not public domain, and the "experts in the field" say that producing those equations is a nontrivial task.

Some of us with long memories doubtless recall the Community College kid who transfered to Yale for his Junior and Senior years, and was featured in an eighties Sunday New York Times article for learning how to make an atomic bomb. Fearing the DHS, I hesitate to do too many google searches for his name, but respondants are welcome to fill in details. Since that story came out, I had always assumed that the biggest difficulty in making a nuclear bomb lay in acquiring rather than assembling materials, so the contents of the new story increases my own sense of safety, even while they described a world that had become less safe.

I can understand the New York Times' reasoning for documenting Bush administration incompetence on the eve of a national election, but did the New York Times story also make us less safe? Fifty years ago, had the story been covered at all, they would not have explicitly shared that correct information had been leaked. After all, before the article, there was no reason to assume that the Iraqis had even gotten their math right. The nuclear research program in Saddamite Iraq was probably like a massive, openended software development project that none of the scientists had any interest in completing, so it is quite possible that the Iraqis themselves were unaware that they had learned real secrets until they read it in the Times.

But, if the NY Times story makes you worry, this piece from the LA Times will provoke tooth-chattering anxiety. Who knew that Iranians had been refining bluffing games for as long as Anglo-Saxons had been colonizing the New World, or that Iranians have won more "World Series of Poker" championships than any country other than the United States?

With luck, I'll soon develop some better math for oil prices (and more importantly, oil price volatility), reversing my earlier post about the petroleum maket. In stark contract to my earlier views, I've concluded that oil prices are determined by a finite and limited set of market participants, and there is an inverse correlation between the number of participants in an oligopoly and the amount of volatility they introduce into the market. Oil volatility is particularly complicated because some participants can directly control the socio-political tensions that affect volatility.

Friday, November 03, 2006

All that was concealed shall be revealed (part 3)

This NBC story has Americans thinking back to drunken episodes at their computers, piecing together details, wondering what exact query directed them to the strange and unpleasant page they half remember through their inebriated fog. In the story itself, the search is archived in the fellow's hard-drive, but on CNBC they alluded to the fact that Google has been archiving every single search made on its site for the last six years. The ramifications are enormous: internet porn exploded because of the illusion of anonymity and privacy, but it turns out that buying a magazine from a traditional porn shop was more anonymous, cheaper, and ultimately less humiliating, than getting pornography over the internet.

That trove of information and potential revenue is certainly contributing to GOOG's market valuation. I would be delighted to pay $100 in exchange for deletion of all records of my searches, and, with about 250M blackmailable people in the world -- many for sums greatly in excess of 10K, 100K, or even 1M -- GOOG's 150B market capitalization seems a tad low. Further, as YouTube becomes _the_ softcore porn service, the number of diamonds in GOOG's data mine will only increase.

Could a lawyer make the case that GOOG's motto, "don't be evil" consititutes an implied contract with their users, and that the potential for evil from a vast archive of personal predilictions outweighs the potential for good, putting GOOG in breach and liable for damages? Or is that like suing a Used Car dealer for saying "trust me"?

Why don't the Democrats make this a campaign issue? We know the Republican culture of surveilance covets Google's search information for their own purposes, but shouldn't the Democrats be able to convince Americans that their search data is entitled to the same protection as, say, their medical records?

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Speaking of conditions in Bagdad, Patrick Cockburn writes that "the scale of killing is already as bad as Bosnia at the height of the Balkans conflict". Does this mean that the Serbian Air Force will be bombing Washington until we get our act together?