Cash Neutrality

NYT: Banks and WikiLeaks

[A] bank’s ability to block payments to a legal entity raises a troubling prospect. A handful of big banks could potentially bar any organization they disliked from the payments system, essentially cutting them off from the world economy.

The fact of the matter is that banks are not like any other business. They run the payments system. That is one of the main reasons that governments protect them from failure with explicit and implicit guarantees. This makes them look not too unlike other public utilities. A telecommunications company, for example, may not refuse phone or broadband service to an organization it dislikes, arguing that it amounts to risky business.

Of course, the net neutrality issue isn’t exactly settled. But the arguments have common roots.

While this does not represent my endorsement of Wikileaks, I think that the treatment they have received at the hands of both the government and business is scary. Nobody has been charged with a crime, and the news organization which have been relaying the leaks have not been targeted. Illegal and extra-legal actions have occurred or been contemplated. Does it not occur to “responsible” politicians and pundits that calling for assassination might be problematic? Due process, anyone? Another example of a-la-carte constitutionality. Does anyone expect that to change with Tea-Partiers arriving in a few days, or are some going to be shocked, shocked that the constitution is again being treated as a document of convenience.

I find myself in an unusual situation with regards to safeguarding information. I work for the Department of Defense and have served in the military, yet I am a scientist. I understand and agree with points on both sides. As scientists, it is pounded into our heads that information should be shared, and that the best thing that can happen is to have lots of smart people looking at a problem. The military view is just the opposite — information is to be compartmentalized so that it does not get out. It’s always a struggle to achieve a balance, because scientists don’t work very effectively when they are cordoned off. Maybe the security trade-off is worth the slower pace, maybe it isn’t. When scientists get together and talk science, they share information. You can’t just be at the receiving end all the time. Younger scientists, just starting out, are included because of the expectation that even if they have nothing to share now, they will be able to do so very soon. If you have nothing to share, you will eventually be cut off. It won’t happen right away — we love to talk about our work and contemplate interesting questions, but it has to be a two-way street. So secrecy has a very strong quenching effect on the ability to do science.

But countries do need to keep secrets. And the big problem I have with Julian Assange and Wikileaks is that they do not seem to be discriminating between secrets that are held because they are covering up behavior — the kind of “Pentagon Papers” information that they are using as a justification for their actions — and the secrets that a government needs to keep. The difference between covering up and giving cover. You show people how the sausage is made if the ingredients are not what is given on the label, otherwise you don’t need to know. Wikileaks is telling us how the sausage is made, regardless. That seems more like poking the anthill for the fun of it than the actions of (to paraphrase Justice Black) a free and unrestrained press exposing deception in government.

The War on the War on Christmas

Halfway There: Happy Humbug!

Therefore I was less than impressed when Prager lamented the death of “Merry Christmas” as a holiday greeting. He declared, with great assurance, that pressure from anti-religious pressure groups had brought nonsectarian greetings like “Happy Holidays” into prominence in preference to speaking of our (not his) dear savior’s birth. Instead of taking Prager’s word for it, I decided to do a little checking. What does Google’s Ngram viewer show?

I’m not sure how authoritative Google’s database is, but if their sampling is close to random, “Merry Christmas” isn’t suffering the fate that some would have you think it is.

“Happy Holidays” is inclusive.
“Merry Christmas” is exclusive.

Not surprising to me the general association of who uses what, and what group is upset about their sense of entitlement being challenged.

Navy Drops 18th Century Technology in Favor of 19th Century Technology

It’s not just the guns that are going electromagnetic.

Full Electromagnetics Ahead! EM Naval Launcher Test Successful, Will Replace Steam

Propelling a 5 ton jet to liftoff speed over short distances has been the key to US Naval success for 50 years and the reason why their aircraft carriers are unique. Their steam “catapults” allowed fast enough acceleration for launch.

It was a good run, but it’s time to run out of steam.

The Navy made history Saturday when it launched the first aircraft using the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, technology.

There’s a video at the link, but it’s anticlimactic; acceleration is acceleration. If you watch, I recommend skipping the first 1:50; it’s all boring character development and plot dead-ends that have no bearing on the story line.

Physics May Succeed Where Regulation Fails

When The Speed Of Light Is Too Slow: Trading at the Edge

The limit to signal delay imposed by the speed of light is starting to affect how well companies can do arbitrage trading.

Typically, the latency for HFT trades is now below 500 microseconds. Traders in the same city can achieve that by optimizing their computers, network hardware, and software for speed. But when it comes to trading between cities — or worse, between continents — the speed of light, not routing or traffic delays, actually becomes the limiting factor. (It takes at least 66.8 milliseconds, more than 100 times longer than 500 microseconds, for light to travel between two points located at opposite sides of the Earth, for example. This doesn’t include delays from the electronics and the fiber itself.)

Which means where you locate your trading office can affect how well you do business. Not surprisingly, the first-order solution would be to place your office at the midpoint between the two offices where the trades will occur. It will be interesting to see if people actually start doing this.

Perhaps Someone Should Base a Thesis on This

The disposable academic. (Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time)

I think the article suffers from several flaws — the premise is based on the contention that the only legitimate reason to obtain a PhD is to get an academic position and/or to earn a lot of money.

There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things.

The notion that a doctorate is training for academia is contradicted by the various stories I hear about how graduate school never trains you how to teach. In science, at least, the main thrust of graduate school is to teach you how to do research.

Also, the author contradicts his own idea, because if the only reason for a PhD is to get a position in academia, why should the wants and desires of the business world matter? I suspect that the skills the business world wants is as a lab technician, with the capabilities of someone who can do research but without the financial burden of paying someone who has a doctorate. Someone with the capabilities of a PhD but without the ambition to get the degree..

In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

What this fails to note is that there is some work that you will only be able to do is you have a PhD. While you might not get paid more, there’s the chance that it will be more interesting and/or fulfilling. There are people who do what they do because they like doing it.

Proponents of the PhD argue that it is worthwhile even if it does not lead to permanent academic employment. Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%.

Here the author fails to note that the graduation rate of undergraduate degrees is about the same — in 2008, 57.2% of college students had completed their degree within six years of enrolling. If completion is the metric for worthiness, then a bachelor’s degree is just as worthless.

The decision to get a PhD should be made based on knowing the facts. If you want to go on to be a professor and do research at a major university, you should know that the odds are against you, and shame on anyone who tries and misrepresent those job prospects. You should know whether you stand to make more money with the degree. But it’s just irresponsible to pretend that there are no other reasons to choose such a career path.

Guaranteed to Be Pauly Shore Free

Life Under the Bubble

Constructed between 1987 and 1991, Biosphere 2 was a 3.14-acre sealed greenhouse containing a miniature rain forest, a desert, a little ocean, a mangrove swamp, a savanna, and a small farm. Its name gave homage to “Biosphere 1”—Earth—and signaled the project’s audacious ambition: to copy our planet’s life systems in a prototype for a future colony on Mars. A May 1987 article in DISCOVER called it “the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President Kennedy launched us toward the moon.” In 1991 a crew of eight sealed themselves inside. Over the next two years they grew 80 percent of their food, something NASA has never attempted. They recycled their sewage and effluent, drinking the same water countless times, totally purified by their plants, soil, atmosphere, and machines. It wasn’t until 18 years later, in 2009, that NASA announced total water recycling on the International Space Station. At the end of their stay, the Biospherians emerged thinner, but by a number of measures healthier.

Despite these successes, the media and the science establishment seized upon the ways in which the project had failed.

I suspect the way the project was treated was because the basic operation was presented as a given — the inhabitants will be sealed inside and the system will be self-sustaining. In that sense it was not a great experiment, but it was a grand experiment: it was large-scale, and we did learn things we did not previously know. When physicists build a bigger and better accelerator, the operation of it is pretty much a given, because we have a long history of building bigger and better accelerators. Even the LHC, with the well-publicized superconductor quenching and baguette bombing, the setbacks in operation were relatively minor and fixable — it’s not like the problems would prevent searching for the Higgs, they just delayed it a little.

But nobody had attempted an isolated man-made biosphere before. So I think they got a raw deal on the collective raspberry that the media blew when it didn’t work out as hoped. It’s nice to see it has served as a scientific platform, even if it is in a more limited way.