• Lunchtime Photo

    The moon and Venus made a close approach last night—about 1.3 degrees apart—so I delayed dinner to take some pictures of it. The first one was taken about ten minutes after sunset. The second one was taken 15 minutes later.

    July 15, 2018 – Sand Canyon Wash, Irvine, California
    July 15, 2018 – Sand Canyon Wash, Irvine, California
  • Puny Humans Crushed By Machines Yet Again

    Chinese doctors line up to learn with work camp they will be sent to after they allowed their spirits to be comprehensively crushed into dust by a collection of running-dog silicon and soulless algorithms.Mark Schiefelbein / Associated Press

    In the latest heavyweight challenge to the human mind, the human mind ended up on the canvas bloodied and beaten:

    When the results came in, Biomind beat the doctors squarely in both rounds. In round one, it correctly answered 87% of the questions, versus 66% for the doctors. In round two, it won by 83% to 63%.

    In the first round, doctors and computers competed to identify tumors. In the second round they looked for signs of stroke. And it was all done on a ritzy, live, Iron Chef style television show:

    According to Raymond Moh, chief executive officer of Hanalytics’ Beijing office, Biomind diagnoses diseases with 90% accuracy, without fatigue. “The role of AI is not to replace doctors but to help to investigate blind spots: ‘ Please investigate further.’

    ….Last year a robot developed by iFlytek and Tsinghua University passed China’s medical licensing exam with a score that was higher than 96% of candidates. Yitu Technology — a facial recognition specialist — is involved in a project in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in southern China, to diagnose cancer, while Chinese tech giants Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are all involved in AI health projects.

    We’re still at the “don’t worry, robots are just here to help you” stage, but don’t be fooled. Radiologists are already in trouble, and if a robot can pass a medical licensing exam summa cum laude then how much longer can it be before robots are making house calls? Everybody thinks of truck drivers and retail clerks as the first victims of the coming robot revolution, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Jobs that require no tricky physical proficiency but very deep analytical skills are going to be some of the first to put people permanently out of work. In a sense, though, this is a good thing, since it means the challenge ahead will finally get some serious attention.

    Of course, it will really get some serious attention when it starts putting journalists out of work. How long before that happens?

    DEAR LOS ANGELES TIMES: Once again I have a polite request: if you put a fucking story in your print edition can you put on your goddam website as well? How much expertise does it take to at least have a working search function?

  • Trump’s Tariffs and High Prices Are Sinking the Midwest

    You can call ’em tariffs or you can call ’em taxes, but they’re all the same to me. Tory Newmyer reports from the heartland:

    In Iowa, Mike Naig, the state’s Republican secretary of agriculture…. “Current commodity prices are not equaling the cost of production … There has been a 20 percent drop in prices.” In South Dakota, Kolberg-Pioneer, which manufactures equipment for making crushed stone and gravel, is contemplating its second price increase of the year to deal with higher steel prices thanks to Trump’s metals tariffs…. Meanwhile, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader’s Dana Ferguson and Jeremy Fugleberg report the trade fight has “already cost South Dakota farmers and ranchers hundreds of millions of dollars, experts said, as the value of their crops has dipped.”

    ….In Utah, the steel tariffs could add roughly $15 million to the cost of a new state prison already over budget. …In Wisconsin, a range of businesses are feeling the effects of retaliatory tariffs from Canada, designed as a “surgical strike” on the state and others that backed Trump, Scott Gordon of the Wisconsin State Farmer writes: “With new tariffs on greeting cards, tissue paper, napkins, toilet paper and even playing cards, Canada puts pressure on a range of products that has represented more than $2 billion in exports from Wisconsin to that nation over the past decade.”

    That’s just a sampling. Some other headlines:

    • From WECT in North Carolina: “Trump’s trade war with China could affect local jobs”
    • From the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri: “’Trying to keep the faith’: Missouri farmers brace for Trump’s trade war—and drought”
    • From WKRG in Mobile, Ala.: “Local leaders say Trump tariffs threaten Mobile economy
    • From The Day in New London, Conn.: “Local manufacturers feel the pain of aluminum, steel tariffs
    • From the South Bend Tribune in Indiana: “Indiana farmers not exempt from prolonged tariff battle”

    Do all these folks still think it was a great idea to vote for Trump? Dave Weigel takes the pulse of the Midwest:

    Doubts about the ongoing tariff battle and about the administration’s agenda on health care, spending and immigration have changed the terrain. Rather than back the president and Republicans, the Midwest has begun to flirt with candidates who would keep them in check. In Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio, Democratic senators once thought to be endangered have rebounded and are in fairly safe positions. In House and gubernatorial races, Democrats have grown more competitive since the start of the year.

    ….Across the Midwest, Republicans also have found themselves on the defensive for different sets of Trump administration actions. Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) has tried to separate himself from the administration’s moves to undermine the Affordable Care Act. “Our bipartisan plan invests $200 million to help lower premiums for Wisconsin families, because we can’t wait for Washington to get the job done,” Walker says in one TV ad.

    In other states, Democrats are capitalizing on the administration’s decision not to pursue a large infrastructure funding package. Abby Finkenauer, the Democrat running in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District — another stop on Pence’s tour — said the lack of infrastructure funding had given her an easy opening among voters who had switched from Obama to Trump. “The administration talks a big game about infrastructure but hasn’t done a whole lot,” Finkenauer said. “I tell people that I want to go to Congress, work across the aisle, pass an infrastructure bill, put it on his desk and see if he signs it.”

    But perhaps Trump will come back from Helsinki with the world’s greatest deal ever from Vladimir Putin. That’ll show everyone.

  • #NationalBeefTallowDay Was Lit!

    As you know, last Friday was not just FRYday the 13th, it was also the first ever #NationalBeefTallowDay. Back in the day everyone cooked french fries in beef tallow, but then we all went crazy with fear over saturated fats and started using canola oil and corn oil and other vegetable oils instead. This sucked all the flavor out of french fries, but somehow made us all feel good about how healthy we were.

    Well, beef tallow is making a comeback! Friday was also opening day for the Orange County Fair, and Ernie Miller, the head chef of Coast Packing Company, was there to teach us all about the science of french fries. Here is Ernie roaming the stage and delivering his spiel

    Ernie says there are three steps to a great french fry. First you fry the cut potatoes at a low heat, called par-frying or blanching. Second, you freeze the fries. Third, you deep fry them in yummy, yummy beef tallow. Lori Southerlend of Tasti-Fries was there to provide comparison samples of fries cooked in peanut oil and beef tallow. Here she is dishing up the fries:

    Oddly enough, Tasti-Fries doesn’t exist as a normal fast food place you can go to for lunch. They do county fairs and that’s it. But plenty of people were there for the demonstration, including this guy, who was either very suspicious of the whole deal or else very into it, giving the fries the old deep wine glass sniff to get a sense of their bouquet before he ate them:

    I have to admit that the difference between the peanut oil fries and the beef tallow fries was subtler than I expected. The beef tallow fries were definitely better, with a deep, rich flavor that vegetable oil just can’t match. But I wouldn’t say they jumped out at me like a whole new taste experience. In fairness, however, part of that might be due to my chemo regimen, which is at the point where it’s starting to affect my taste buds.

    So where can you get fries made with beef tallow these days? Ernie gave me this list:

    • Checkers and Rally’s use beef tarrow, BUT BE CAREFUL. West of the Rockies they used a vegetable oil/beef tallow blend. East of the Rockies they use pure beef tallow. Blends can be good, but be aware of what you’re getting.
    • Popeye’s. However, their fries are coated, which some people (i.e., me) aren’t crazy about.
    • Top Round Roast Beef. There’s only four of them, but they use beef tarrow for their fries.
    • Smashburger. This is strictly a Los Angeles/Orange County chain, and I haven’t been there. But I guess I should try them.
    • Buffalo Wild Wings. This is the hot ticket. I went there for lunch today, and they serve great fries alongside a perfectly respectable burger. This is now in the running to become one of my favorite burger spots.

    So there you have it. In a few days Ernie will provide me with the finalists who wrote the best tweets capturing “beef tallow’s vintage goodness.” I will ponder these and pick a winner, who will be announced at the end of the month. Can you feel the suspense building?

  • Should Theresa May Hold a Second Brexit Vote?

    Huh. Theresa May revealed today Donald Trump’s “maybe too brutal” advice on how to negotiate over Brexit:

    Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr what it was he said, she replied: “He told me I should sue the EU — not go into negotiations.” … Mrs May laughed off the president’s legal action suggestion, but added: “Interestingly, what the president also said at that press conference was ‘don’t walk away’. Don’t walk away from those negotiations because then you’ll be stuck. So I want us to be able to sit down to negotiate the best deal for Britain.”

    This is certainly an … innovative approach considering that there’s no deal to sue over yet, but Donald does like his lawsuits. But it’s worth noting the constraints that May is working under. On the one side, EU officials want to drive a hard bargain as a warning to anyone else who might be thinking about leaving the EU. On the other side, support for Brexit has dropped considerably among May’s own constituents:

    For the first year after the Brexit vote, sentiment remained pretty even. But over the following year, as the real-world problems presented themselves in skull-crackingly concrete terms, the Leave vote plummeted by 5 points. This is what’s driving May’s insistence on a “soft” Brexit. Not only does she know that a hard Brexit would be catastrophic, she also knows that this would be impossible to hide. She’d end up leading Britain out of the EU under a thunderstorm of disapproval. It would be a bloodbath.

    The other day I suggested a democatic solution to May’s dilemma: call another referendum. This is done all the time. In California, a big majority of voters passed a referendum in 1998 that essentially banned ESL education for Spanish speakers. Twenty years later we decided it hadn’t worked so well, so we repealed the ban by a landslide in another referendum. Likewise, several redistricting initiatives were proposed in 2004 and 2006 and failed, but then passed for state offices in 2008 and finally for congresional districts in 2010.

    In 1865 we decided that slavery wasn’t such a good idea after all, so we passed the 13th Amendment. Politicians lose elections and then decide to run again. Taiwan got kicked out of the UN in 1971 by a huge majority. Democracy is messy, and do-overs happen all the time. In the case of Brexit, we have (a) an explicitly nonbinding referendum (b) that passed by a hair (c) with the help of a foreign adversary, (d) and is causing tremendous problems. May would be well within her rights to call for a second referendum, perhaps with different options, in order to give British voters a second chance at something that’s going to have a heavy influence on their lives. And if the idea of just proposing a new referendum out of the blue still bothers you, I don’t figure it would take much for the Democratic Unionists to bolt the Tory coalition over some problem with the Irish border, which would cause the government to fall. Then we’d get new elections, and it would behoove whoever wins to give their new constituency another run at Brexit.

    Democracy is messy. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get a consensus that works. At the moment, the evidence suggests that Brexit is on very thin ground with the British public, and it’s not as if it’s some kind of century-old precedent we’d be tearing apart. It hasn’t even taken effect yet. Given everything we now know about the covert Russian support for the Leave campaign; the flat lies the Leave campaign has admitted to campaigning on; and the dawning awareness of just how bad and protracted the problems with Brexit will be; it’s pretty hard to see the case against asking the voters to say Yes a second time before Britain makes such massive constitutional move.

    And while we’re on the subject of mysterious foreign countries, I thought I’d draw up a nice simple map for our president. New he’ll always know where he is:

    You’re welcome, Mr. President.

  • There’s a Disturbing Element to Europe’s Long Postwar Peace

    The future of Europe?

    There is an ominous passage in Tony Judt’s Postwar that’s stayed with me ever since I first read it. It starts on page 27 in my edition, and since it’s near the beginning you can read the whole excerpt on Amazon if you want. Alternatively, you can buy the entire book on Kindle for $1.99, which is certainly one of the great bargains of all time.

    The topic of this passage is the fate of displaced persons after the end of World War II. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but apparently the Western allies decided that the experience of World War I demonstrated that European countries simply couldn’t handle minority ethnic groups within their borders. So instead of doing the traditional thing—redrawing borders to take territory away from the losers and give it to the winners—they did something more effective. Here’s an abridged version of what happened:

    With one major exception [Poland] boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moved instead….Western policymakers…acquiesced readily enough in the population transfers. If the surviving minorities of central and eastern Europe could not be afforded effective international protection, then it was as well that they be dispatched to more accommodating locations. The term “ethnic cleansing” did not yet exist, but the reality surely did—and it was far from arousing disapproval or embarrassment.

    ….With certain exceptions, the outcome was a Europe of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before….Poland, whose population was 68 percent Polish in 1938, was overwhelmingly populated by Poles in 1946. Germany was nearly all German…Czechoslovakia…was now almost exclusively Czech and Slovak….The ancient diasporas of Europe—Greeks and Turks in the south Balkans and around the Black Sea, Italians in Dalmatia, Hungarians in Transylvania and the north Balkans, Poles in Volhynia (Ukraine), Lithuania and the Bukovina, Germans from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from the Rhine to the Volga, and Jews everywhere—shriveled and disappeared. A new, “tidier” Europe was being born.

    Adapted from “People on the Move”

    The main exception to this was Yugoslavia, which nonetheless survived peacefully under Tito’s autocratic rule but promptly became increasingly strained after his death and then turned into a bloodbath during the following decade. For the rest of Europe, the descent into hatred and bigotry has been slower and less dramatic, but no less real. As the “tidier” Europe invented after the war became less tidy, native populations once again became more restless and right-wing nationalist parties grew more powerful. This change has been noticeable for decades, but it was the migrant crisis of 2015 that finally tipped things back over the edge. Just as it was before the war, the problem of ethnic tribalism is worse in poorer, less traditionally democratic eastern Europe—in countries like Hungary and Poland—but it’s migrated as well to France, Austria, the Netherlands, and, most famously, Great Britain.

    My aim here is modest: I mostly just want to highlight Judt’s unsparing review of postwar Europe’s solution to endless war. None of this means that Europe is hopelessly ethnocentric, or that perhaps the problem of burgeoning migration across borders should have been taken a little more seriously back in the 80s and 90s. There was, after all, every hope that things had become more civilized by the end of the 20th century. But in the same way that America has made progress against racism but is far from erasing it, it turns out that Europe is farther from erasing its own tribal past than it had hoped. If ethnic cleansing really did play a role in Europe’s unusually peaceful postwar decades, it’s perhaps not too surprising that the spirit of ethnic cleansing is on the menu again.

  • Republicans Have Degraded Cost-Benefit Analysis Into a Parody of Itself

    Branden Camp/AP

    Tyler Cowen says this today:

    Not since the 1970s has cost-benefit analysis been as underrated as it is right now.

    I don’t know if this is true. But if it is, I place the blame squarely on conservatives, who have corrupted the entire enterprise. When they look at public spending programs aside from the military, they don’t just exaggerate the costs and minimize the benefits; they ignore the benefits almost completely. Major environmental rules, for example, usually have enormous net benefits, but conservatives hate them anyway. To take a recent example, here is EPA’s cost-benefit calculation for the Clean Power Plan as of January 19, 2017:

    EPA estimates the costs and benefits for two different approaches and two different discount rates. The net benefit is around $30 billion in all four scenarios. Nonetheless, Scott Pruitt almost immediately initiated a review of the CPP with the goal of repealing it. Nor was this some kind of rogue action: it was supported nearly unanimously by the Republican caucus in Congress.

    Now, you can argue that compliance costs of CPP are pretty concrete, while the benefits mostly depend on assumptions about the value of life. How much is an extra year of life worth? How much is a lifetime without asthma worth compared to a lifetime with asthma? These are obviously not hard-and-fast things, but they’re certainly real things. And even if you think EPA is wrong, an estimate of zero for the benefits is obviously really wrong.

    But this is all part of the Republican Party’s growing hostility toward science and evidence in the post-Gingrich era. Rigorous research all too often fails to support the conclusions they want it to support, and their answer is to retreat to basic principle and ignore its real-world consequences if they’re inconvenient. This is a very human thing to do, and all humans do it. Modern conservatives, however, have elevated it to the status of dogma.

    Is my view just partisan hackery? It could be, and you can certainly cherry-pick examples of denying or downplaying troublesome evidence from every party and creed in history. But it sure seems like Republicans do it a whole lot more than normal. Back when cost-benefit looked like a useful tool for reining in big liberal programs, they believed in it. When that changed, they couldn’t really abandon it, so they simply degraded it into a parody of itself.

  • Do Social Democrats Believe In Free Lunches?

    I have a question for Brad DeLong. He has semi-jokingly created membership cards for various versions of lefty economics, including this one for Social Democrats:

    “Many” free lunches? I’m not saying Brad is wrong—that would be foolish since he’s a PhD historian of economics while I’ve read only one book about the history of social democracy—but what are these free lunches?

    Here’s my own guess: lefties in general are a little too willing to sucker themselves into believing that various kinds of welfare pay for themselves. This is frequently based on a few questionable studies and some strong confirmation bias rather than hard thinking. So you get folks who claim that broader health care coverage will pay for itself by reducing emergency room use, or that free college will pay for itself in higher GDP down the road. There are some cases where this is true, but not nearly as many as a lot of people would like to believe.

    However!

    As near as I can tell this rarely affects policymaking in a serious way. For the most part, Social Democrats want things like universal health care and free college because, as Brad puts it, equality is beautiful for its own sake. We believe in a decent safety net because we believe in treating people decently, and we believe in going beyond that because we want everyone to live their best possible lives regardless of how much money they happen to grow up with. The business about these things paying for themselves is a minor bit of flim-flam that helps to sell the case.

    But it really is minor. It’s nowhere near the massive belief in the free-lunch fairy that conservatives routinely haul out to defend their tax cuts for the rich or their belief that self-regulation works a treat. It’s a small self-deception that has a small effect, and I don’t think it deserves to be one-seventh of a postcard summary of social democracy.

    But maybe I’m missing something big. Anyone care to chime in?

  • India’s Coal Bubble Has Burst

    Tonight is dex night. In the future this will return to Thursday nights, but for now I’m awake on Friday¹ with nothing much to do. I’m tired of working on photos for the moment, so instead I’ll put up a few miscellaneous blog posts.

    The first is this chart from James Wimberley, which shows that the coal bubble in India has well and truly burst:

    I don’t have anything special to say about this, other than it’s good news. We are on a cusp at the moment, with renewables worldwide now underpricing coal and almost competitive with natural gas—and that’s even when you add in the shrinking cost of storage. If we can continue this, in a few years the only economically sensible new electric generation will be 100 percent renewable. That’s obviously good from an environmental view, but it’s also good from an employment view: a lot more people will be employed building out renewable infrastructure than are currently (or ever will be) employed in coal, and that’s probably true even if you add gas to the equation. With just a little more progress, renewables will be a win in practically every respect.

    If you want (a lot) more detail about this ongoing revolution, David Roberts has it here.

    ¹Yes, I know it’s really Saturday morning. Cut me some slack.

  • How to Betray Your Country in Ten Short Steps

    Miami, Florida, July 27, 2016: "Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."C-SPAN

    A timeline of the entire Russia election hacking affair would be several yards long, so how about if we just do a short, focused one? Here you go:

    1. Summer 2014: The Dutch intelligence service, AIVD, breaks into the network of the Russian hacker group Cozy Bear. AIVD can see everything the Russians do.
    2. Summer 2015: AIVD watches as the Russians begin their efforts to hack into DNC servers and the email accounts of Democratic Party leaders.
    3. April 2016: Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Putin confidant and one of the most active Russian advocates for repealing sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act, meets with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R–Calif.) in Moscow. Veselnitskaya gives Rohrabacher a memo alleging that major Clinton campaign donors have evaded taxes on some of their Russian investments. Rep. French Hill (R–Arkansas) gets a copy of the same memo.
    4. June 3: Donald Trump Jr. receives an email from Rob Goldstone, a promoter who helped Donald Trump bring the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow. Goldstone writes that a mutual friend has been given access to “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
    5. 17 minutes later: Trump Jr. replies that “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
    6. June 9: Natalia Veselnitskaya meets at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and other members of the Trump team. Later they all tell various lies about what was discussed until evidence leaks that contradicts them.
    7. June 22: Wikileaks sends an email to the Russian hackers, who are publicly posing as Guccifer 2.0, asking them to “[s]end any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing.” A few days later Wikileaks makes another request: “if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next tvveo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC [Democratic National Convention] is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after…we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary . . . so conflict between bemie and hillary is interesting.” A month later, shortly before the Democratic convention starts, Wikileaks releases the Russian trove of DNC emails.
    8. July 27: While the Democratic convention is in progress, Donald Trump suggests he’s open to recognizing Russian control of Crimea and then says, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find” Hillary Clinton’s missing 30,000 emails.
    9. Later the same day: Russian hackers begin their first attempt to break into Clinton’s email server.
    10. October-November 2016: The Russians never find Clinton’s emails, but they do find John Podesta’s. These are turned over to Wikileaks, which releases them in 33 installments during the closing weeks of the campaign.