Outwitted by the Taliban Again

If it weren't for the fact that they're a gang of murderous 13th-century religious fanatics, you could almost admire the Taliban's latest prison break. Sort of embarrassing for the putative good guys, though.

Terrorism and the ISI

Here's an interesting tidbit from today's WikiLeaks release of the military's assessment of every prisoner ever held at Guantánamo Bay. Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times bothered to mention it, so this passage is from the Guardian:

US authorities listed the main Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), as a terrorist organisation alongside groups such as al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence. Interrogators were told to regard links to any of these as an indication of terrorist or insurgent activity.

....The inclusion of association with the ISI as a "threat indicator" in this document is likely to pour fuel on the flames of Washington's already strained relationship with its key regional ally. A number of the detainee files also contain references, apparently based on intelligence reporting, to the ISI supporting, co-ordinating and protecting insurgents fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan, or even assisting al-Qaida.

As with so many documents released by WikiLeaks, this is hardly a surprise in one sense. Still, it's one thing to "know" something and quite another to see it officially documented in a classified file.

Bonus Easter Catblogging

Easter is the excuse for today's bonus catblogging, but really, who needs an excuse? Yesterday Marian brought home a couple of new catnip plants, and as you can see, Inkblot got blissfully stoned out of his little feline gourd on one of them. Happy Easter, everyone!

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 April 2011

The cats were a little boring this week, so I didn't have a lot of new pictures to choose from. So here's the same bench from last week, but this time with both cats on it. I should note that this little scene of domestic bliss didn't last long. They never do. Eventually Inkblot gets a burr up his butt and ends up with the bench all to himself.

In other cat news, here's the story of George, who survived the fires raging in Texas this week and returned home in fine fettle. Apparently sardines did the trick. And I want to remind everyone that next Friday is the day of the royal wedding of Wills and Kate. With the help of my Anglophile sister, I'll try to have appropriate catblogging pictures to mark the great occasion. Assuming the cats cooperate, of course. Which they might. Or might not. Check in next week to find out.

Pack and Crack: Now Even Better!

The Washington Post reports that blacks are increasingly migrating into the suburbs, making the GOP's "pack and crack" gerrymandering strategy even easier than it used to be:

“The practical effect is great for the GOP,” said Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “In state after state, it’s allowing Republicans to pack more heavily Democratic close-in suburbs into urban black districts to make surrounding districts more Republican.”

....Over the last few rounds of redistricting, Republicans have made a habit of “packing” as many reliably Democratic black voters into as few districts as possible, virtually guaranteeing black representation for those districts while also making nearby ones more winnable for the GOP.

In a way, this is almost a bipartisan, or perhaps biracial, strategy. Republicans like it because packing all the black voters in one place gives them more winnable districts elsewhere, and Democrats go along with it because it gives African-American candidates a chance to win congressional seats. Unfortunately, this is pretty much their only chance: only a handful of black members of Congress come from majority white districts because the sad truth is that, for the most part, white voters are still largely unwilling to vote for black candidates. And just to restate the obvious, this works out pretty well for Republicans, which goes a long way toward explaining why Fox News spent practically the entire summer last year scaring the hell out of white people.

Apple Knows Where You Are

When I first heard that Apple iPhones were collecting location data on users, I was a little skeptical of the possibility that this was just a mistake. The data, you see, was collected in a .db file, and that's not really something you're likely to do by accident. If your intent is to hold just the current location data in memory (and there are plenty of good reasons to do that), you'd just hold it in memory. You wouldn't create a database structure to do it.

Well, according to the Wall Street Journal, my skepticism was warranted:

Apple Inc.'s iPhones and Google Inc.'s Android smartphones regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google, respectively, according to data and documents analyzed by The Wall Street Journal—intensifying concerns over privacy and the widening trade in personal data.

Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people's locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services—expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner Inc.

Neither Apple nor Google have deigned to comment on this issue. If they actually have an explanation for this, that better change pronto.

Who's Really Courageous Here?

Paul Ryan is "courageous" for proposing huge cuts to Medicare and Medicaid in order to finance tax cuts and balance the budget by 2050. But how about the Congressional Progressive Caucus? Their plan balances the budget sooner than Ryan's, and their numbers are more honest to boot. So why haven't they gotten any attention? Matt Steinglass thinks he knows:

The budget savings come from defence cuts, including immediately withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, which saves $1.6 trillion over the CBO baseline from 2012-2021. The tax hikes include restoring the estate tax, ending the Bush tax cuts, and adding new tax brackets for the extremely rich, running from 45% on income over a million a year to 49% on income over a billion a year.

....Mr Ryan has been fulsomely praised for his courage. The Progressive Caucus has not. I'm not really sure what "courage" is supposed to mean here, but this seems precisely backwards. For 30 years, certainly since Walter Mondale got creamed by Ronald Reagan, the most dangerous thing a politician can do has been to call for tax hikes. Politicians who call for higher taxes are punished, which is why they don't do it. I'm curious to see what adjectives people would apply to the Progressive Congressional Caucus's budget proposal. But it's hard for me to imagine the media calling a proposal to raise taxes "courageous" and "honest". And my sense is that the disparate treatment here is a structural bias rooted in class.

Bingo! The Beltway elite mostly understands things like Medicare and Medicaid as academic subjects. They themselves don't really need them, so they can accept big cuts with considerable equanimity. But taxes are a different story. Higher tax rates affect them and their friends directly, so they're wide open to intellectual just-so stories about how high taxes are economically destructive.

This same personal dynamic also leaves them wide open to believing that entitlement cuts are courageous while tax increases on the well-off aren't. Ask a Wal-Mart clerk, though, and their life experience would probably push them in exactly the opposite direction. Neither one is inherently correct, but the difference is that Wal-Mart clerks don't usually get op-eds printed in the Washington Post. Beltway elites do. So one meme takes off and the other doesn't, even though both are equally rooted in little more than personal experience and class bias.

Raw Data: Everyone Loves Oil

"Price elasticity" is a measure of how people react to rising prices. A high number means they cut back sharply when prices rise. A low number means they just suck it up and keep buying.

So what's the elasticity of oil prices? This is important, because it tells us, for example, how people are likely to react to higher taxes on gasoline. Will they use less and find other ways to get around? Or is it damn the torpedoes, keep burning the stuff, and figure out other places to cut back?

Stuart Staniford draws our attention to the latest estimates from the IMF, and as he says, they're pretty eye popping. Here's the table:

Take a look at the bottom row. "Non-OECD" means poor countries, and the IMF figures that short-term price elasticity in poor countries is -0.007, which means that a 1% increase in price leads to only a 0.007% decrease in consumption. Put another way, even a 50% increase in price leads to only a negligible 0.35% decrease in consumption1. Long-term elasticity is higher, but even here a 50% price hike would lead to only a 1.8% decrease in consumption.

The rich world is modestly more sensitive. In the short term, a 50% price increase produces a 1.2% decrease in consumption. In the long term, it produces a 4.7% decrease.

Part of the reason for these tiny effects is that income elasticity is quite large. That is, when income goes up, oil demand also goes up. In the short term, a 1% income increase in the poor world produces a 0.7% increase in oil demand. So as long as incomes are going up in the developing world (and they are), the effect of higher incomes swamps the effect of higher oil prices.

If these numbers are right, they're pretty stunning. Even in the rich world, it apparently takes massive price increases to significantly reduce the demand for oil, even over a 20-year horizon. In the developing world, forget it. As long as incomes are going up, demand will go up. Urk.

1Actually, elasticity isn't necessarily linear, so a 50% increase might have a bigger effect than 50 times a 1% increase. However, it's probably not wildly non-linear at these levels, so the response to a 50% price increase is still likely to be quite small.

The Great Collapse and You

Earlier this week, David Frum wrote that although he's been a Reaganite free market true believer for nearly 30 years, he recently realized that the bargain he thought he had made simply hasn't been kept:

Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans. The promise of macroeconomic stability proved a mirage: America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

....Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans — and not only Americans — were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

Obviously Frum is still considerably to my right. There are just a lot of things we're never going to agree on. But it's nice to read this, and not because it moves Frum modestly in the direction of my own worldview. It's nice to read it because it's such an unusual concession to reality. The financial crisis of 2008 was a stupendous event, and it's frankly stunning to me how few people seem to have responded to it in any substantive way. Occasional throat clearing aside, it's been business as usual for a huge chunk of the political, business, and pundit class, especially on the right.

I just don't get that. The Great Collapse was a big enough, and unexpected enough, event that it should have changed your mind at least a little bit about something. If it didn't, you either have godlike powers of prognostication or else you've simply decided not to let real world events ever affect your worldview. I'm willing to put money on the latter.

Multitasking vs. Task Switching

Isn't multitasking a great subject? It must be since I keep coming back to it. Today, Matt Yglesias, who is still (barely) a twenty-something, says that he's long since figured out that true multitasking is impossible (i.e., literally paying attention to multiple things at once), but:

I’m never totally sure what it is that people mean by “multitasking.” Does switching between tasks rapidly count? I do that all the time. A little reading, write a post, respond to some emails, send some tweets, then do it all over again. That seems inherent to the life of the professional blogger. And I do think it’s scrambled my brain a bit, insofar as I find it much harder now to read long books than it was when I was in high school....I think people ought to try to distinguish between switching between tasks (useful as more kinds of tasks are invented) and actually trying to do multiple things simultaneously, which seems to me to be a fool’s errand.

Task switching is obviously a different thing than multitasking, and humans have been doing it for a long time. Anytime you get interrupted, either electronically or in person, you have to switch tasks at least briefly. And the cost of this is that you lose your train of thought and have to get it back when you return to your original task.

This is harder for some things than others. Blogging is obviously tailor made for task switching. Each blog post is a single short thought that doesn't require a ton of concentration to keep in mind. So if the phone rings or someone IMs you, it's not a big deal. Writing computer code, by contrast, is exactly the opposite: it usually involves keeping a complex problem in working memory for a substantial time as you put together a few dozen or hundred lines of code to address it. When I was in the computer biz, programmers complained bitterly whenever they were deeply into a tricky piece of coding and some yahoo product manager (i.e., me) would wander by their cubicle to ask them why they'd put a button in one place instead of another. Poof! Their concentration was broken and they'd have to spend several minutes regaining it after I left. I've done just enough coding myself to understand this state of mind perfectly, and this is no prima donna excuse making. It's absolutely real.

Still, not everything is like that, and I've always thought that although the media onslaught that bathes kids from earliest childhood had obvious drawbacks (most notably a shortening of attention spans), it probably also had advantages. The main one, it seemed to me, was that kids raised this way could probably task switch faster than older people like me. And who knows? In the world of the future, maybe that will be more important than having a long attention span.

But this is what makes the recent research on multitasking so dismal: it turns out that high multitaskers can't task switch faster than others. In fact, they're worse at it. They're worse at everything.

Now, who knows. Maybe experiments in the lab are incomplete. Maybe things will be different for kids who grow up this way from earliest childhood. Maybe. But I doubt it. More likely, critical brain functions are being lost, and nothing is being gained in return. It's kind of grim.