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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A statement in favor of the Indiana Pi bill

by John MacBeath Watkins

In 1897, a bill was introduced in the Indiana legislature which would have had the effect of changing the value of Pi to 3.2, which would have made it possible to square the circle.

Sadly, it did not pass at that time, but in the current age, people are entertaining equally logical policies, so why not revive the effort? The following is written as a speech for anyone who cares to advocate the policy again.

Wake up, silly sheeple!
I've something to tell you deluded people.
The number Pi is an irrational factor
and yet, we allow this unstable actor
to help design our ships and planes
smokestacks for factories, wheels on trains,
circumference of our rocket ships
and of the bowls we use for dips.
Can we not reform this insane number,
drug it to a harmless slumber,
and while it dreams of circles true
pass a law that makes it 3.2?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A cartopper for cold climates

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Sunfish is about the ideal cartopper for warm waters. When I was living on Okinawa, I sailed quite a bit on its ancestor, the Sailfish, and found it quite pleasant in warm water.

However, that's a boat you'd sail in a dry suit in Puget Sound if you wanted to avoid hypothermia. I like the rig, and the fact that you can raise it or drop it while out on the water, and besides, Intensity Sails can provide a Sunfish "practice sail" for about $140. That's a major reduction in the cost of a boat, compared to the Snipe mainsail I bought a few years back for $800, which has only a little more sail area.

So, what's needed is a boat that can throw less spray and have higher freeboard to keep the crew dry.

Here's what I propose:

Compared to the Sunfish, the bow is designed to cut through the chop rather than rise and slam down. The wide transom will help keep the boat in that mode. With an overall beam of four feet and a waterline beam of three feet, it should be a little faster in light winds, such as those that prevail in the Pacific Northwest. She might not plane in quite such light winds as the Sunfish, but I think on balance, she'd be about the same speed and drier.

Here are the lines, nothing special, just panels that develop very well and a shape that won't confuse the water:

I think a sufficiently skilled person could build this boat in a long weekend, perhaps with a little help, with a materials cost under $600, if you stuck with wooden spars. Build it in 4 mm okume plywood, it should come in at about 100 lb. unless you go with a lot more deck than I've shown. And you might want to, if you prefer a self-rescuing boat to one that relies on buoyancy bags and needs to be bailed after a capsize. The hull itself you could build with three sheets of plywood, but with deck, daggerboard case, daggerboard, and rudder, you're going to need a bit more lumber than that.

With a low center of effort and easily driven hull, this should be a pleasant daysailer for one or two people, and manageable for carrying on a car with a roof rack. With a boat that you might launch off a beach, you either need a kick-up rudder and centerboard, or a rig you can raise or lower with the board and rudder already down. I've gone with the latter approach, since it seems simpler and results in a lighter boat. It should also paddle or row without too much effort.

Friday, December 18, 2015

War as a bar fight: Why democracies win

by John MacBeath Watkins

Part of the allure of the authoritarian leader is that they won't be namby-pamby about pursuing their nation's interest, right?

But that perception is puzzling in light of the evidence that democracies win a lot more of their wars than autocracies do. If you're interested in results rather than bravado, the stongman who leads his country into battle isn't the best choice.

Benjamin A. T. Graham, Erik Gartzk, and Christopher J. Faris,  have written a paper that explains this in terms of a bar fight.

In The Bar Fight Theory of International Conflict: Regime Type, Coalition Size, and Victory, (The European Political Science Association, 2015) they raise the question, who wins a bar fight? The answer is, usually the person with the most friends in the bar.Think of how many more allies Britain had than Germany during World War II. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the U.S. led coalition had 32 members aligned against him.

One reason that was possible was that other countries knew that unlike Hussein, we did not intend to keep Kuwait. Standing up for the little guy, it turns out, is more popular than taking his lunch money and his oil fields.

And consider the web of alliances in which America is a prominent member. NATO, SEATO, and other alliances are certainly better than the paltry alliances our old opponent, Russia, has managed to muster. Those who admire Putin for taking decisive action in seizing Crimea should remember, Russia's whole conflict with the Ukraine goes back to the fact that when it came time to choose between getting closer to Russia or the democratic West, the people of Ukraine made it clear they wanted it to be the West. Putin took action because he was losing to the soft power of the democratic nations of western Europe, and his "decisive" action was made necessary by his weakness, not his strength.

Graham and the other researchers write:
The biggest martial asset of democracies may well be that they are better at making friends, not that they are better at vanquishing their enemies.
Not that vanquishing your enemies is anything to be sniffed at. In general, wealthier countries beat poorer countries. But why are they wealthier?

Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, James A Robinson, and Pascual Restrepo, in the 2014 study Democracy Does Cause Growth, (NBER Working Paper No. 20004
Issued in March 2014) argue that--well, the title says it all, doesn't it?

Here's a graph illustrating their point:

In an introduction to the study, they state the following:
When we disentangle what components of democracy matter the most for growth, we find that civil liberties are what seem to be the most important. We also find positive effects of democracy on economic reforms, private investment, the size and capacity of government, and a reduction in social conflict. Clearly all of these are channels by which democracy can increase economic growth, and a great deal of further research is needed.
So, it isn't voting that matters, it's freedom. Not that you are likely to keep civil liberties if the rest of the institutions of democracy, such as rule of law and rule by the consent of the governed, disappear. You need those institutions to ensure that you can keep civil liberties, but the freedom to think and say what you want is, according to Acemoglu and his co-authors, the real spur to economic growth.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised. After all, the strength of democracy is not in executing policy, it is in deciding what policy is worth pursuing. And if the example of the Soviet Union showed us anything, it is that the ability to produce the most steel is not as important as being able to decide what to produce. Consider American capitalism without the input of the Wall Street Journal and other commentators on the economic scene. Without them, who would embarrass inept executives, or question company policy? And if you say, well, dissident shareholders, well, they need freedom of speech as well. Consider that the youth of the Soviet Union wanted Levi jeans, not Soviet work pants. Free speech gives you fashion magazines and other means of deciding what to wear, therefore what is worth making.

But freedom of speech is not the only civil liberty. Being secure in your property is not a feature of many authoritarian regimes, who seize the property of anyone they deem an opponent. If you can't be secure in your property, why invest in it?

And as for the reduction in social conflict, that the study cites, that has a lot to do with John Locke's insight in A Letter Concerning Toleration:that it is not people believing different things that causes social upheaval, it is trying to get them to believe the same thing. Given freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, a great deal that used to cause violence ends up just causing arguments.
Arguments may not seem productive, but they are at least not as destructive as kristallnacht or other ethnic conflicts that result in the destruction of the businesses, homes or temples of the targeted groups.

Twice Sold Tales in Ballard Endures! An update

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, so far, it looks like we can stay at out location at 2001 NW Market St., at least for a while. The landlord says that he isn't in control of the space, the owner of the coffee shop is, and as a sublessor, my deal is with him.

Several people have inquired about opening a new coffee shop in the Bauhaus space, but it seems the landlord can't negotiate with them until he's in control of the space. And that's tied up in a bankruptcy, or will be, is my understanding.

So, for now, I'm in purgatory. I've talked to the real estate agent who called me in on the project, and he says that everyone who looked at the space found the part I occupy surplus to their requirements, which is why it was a good deal to bring me in. This gives me some hope that I can stay where I am with a new landlord when things get sorted, if I can be there with a rent I can live with.

I'm pretty stressed about the whole thing, but for now, I'm still doing business in the same place. I'm still looking at places to move to in case things don't work out.

So, come on down, our stock is as good as ever and we are still here from noon to seven every day, unless I find the foot traffic pattern is different with no coffee shop and have to change the hours.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bauhaus coffee is closing, Twice Sold Tales Ballard needs a new space

by John MacBeath Watkins

Today the employees at Bauhaus Coffee, which I sublease from, told me the coffee shop is closing. It looks like all the Bauhaus Coffee shops are closing. I'm trying to contact Joel Radin, the owner, because my lease is with him.

So, I'll have to move. And this comes right during Christmas season, when I'd hoped to make a little money. Instead, I'll be looking for a new space. If you come by the store during our regular hours and we're not open, don't think we're closing down, it will just mean I'm out looking at possible locations.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Fed up with the Fed: The politics of interest rates

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Federal Reserve Bank is supposed to be an apolitical, technocratic organization that does things like attempting to control the money supply and keeping inflation in check. But that's not what the public statements from the agency sound like right now. They sound like politics.

At the center of central banking right now is the notion that the best way to conduct monetary policy is with inflation targets. The current inflation target is 2%. That target is supposed to be symmetrical, that is, undershooting is supposed to be as bad as overshooting. You can bet if inflation were running 10 times that, there would be a huge panic and the Fed would go to any lengths to set things right.

But with inflation running .2%, or one tenth of the target, the Fed is indicating that it will raise interest rates this month.

Think about that. Inflation is running two-tenths of one percent, according to the core Consumer Price Index, yet central bankers are giving every indication that they plan to raise rates.

This affects peoples' lives. Unemployment is running at 5% currently, but labor force participation is about 62.5%. As recently as 2007, the labor force participation rate was above 66 percent for most of the year. That would seem to indicate a csome slack in the labor market.

But the CPI isn't the only inflation indicator. They are also concerned with the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU. And the assumption is, with a lot of people getting jobs, wage inflation will need watching. After all, inflation targeting replaced full employment targeting because of the wage-price spiral of the early 1970s.

And there is a small spike in wages, which are increasing at an annual rate of 2.3 percent.

So, price inflation is running at two-tenths of one percent, and wage inflation is running at roughly eleven times that. Should we worry?

I'm not an economist, but as an outsider, my reaction is, of course not! Yes, wages are increasing at a rate of more than the magic 2% number, but there is no wage-price spiral. Price inflation is almost non-existent.

Furthermore, wages have a lot of catching up to do. Consider what has happened since the Fed started worrying about the NAIRU:

Productivity and wage growth

The inflation-adjusted value of hourly wages has remained flat or declined slightly since the NAIRU concept gained wide acceptance. Meanwhile, productivity has roughly doubled. If wages had increased as rapidly as productivity, American hourly workers would be making about twice as much money. The NAIRU is obviously not the whole story here, but it is one component of a political movement to increase inequality, which I explored here.

Consider the despair that has led to a decline in the life spans of non-college-educated middle-aged whites in this country. While everyone else has been living longer, they have been facing shorter lives. This is a symptom of despair. Here's a Washington Post chart that shows just how anomalous this is:

That chart is from a study conducted by Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife, Anne Case.

"Drugs and alcohol, and suicide . . . are clearly the proximate cause,” said Deaton,

These are symptoms of despair. Average male wages, in inflation-adjusted terms, peaked in 1973:

But why should they feel hard done by? Aren't they making nearly as much as their fathers?

Well, look at this:

Chart 4. Wages and Salaries of Private Sector Employees as a Percent of GDP

Nonsupervisory employees, by definition, have a boss. And compared to the boss, they seem to be doing worse every year, no matter how hard they work. 

This is a major decline in positional status. People can't help comparing themselves to those around them, and compared to their bosses, working-class people are going down, down, down.

Their power in the workplace keeps declining as union membership declines, and more states are adopting legislation hostile to unions, such as "right to work" laws. At this point, the only way to restore that power would be to have a tight labor market.

So, do we have that?

Not with a labor force participation rate of 62.5%. So, why is the Fed raising rates, when the inflation rate is close to zero?

Well, banks are begging for an increase, because they make very little money in a low-interest environment. So are people who earn a substantial amount of money from interest, which would be people with a very large amount of savings, that is, the rich.

These are powerful interest groups, but I don't think that's a complete explanation. I think the logic that gave rise to inflation targeting and the NAIRU has permeated central banking to the point where we've had what amounts to agency capture by, not just the banks, but the 1%, that is, the banks and the people with a lot to invest.

That's what I explained in my earlier post on the political movement to increase inequality, here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The uses of terror and the end of the world

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some people called him Timur the Lame. Some called him Tamerlane. He was a Mongol chieftain who, in 1398, built a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads before the walls of Delhi, to let the inhabitants know what would happen to them if they did not surrender. They did not, and after the sack of the city and the annihilation of its inhabitants, it was a century before the city could rebuild.

The uses of terror in war have a long history. Sometimes it works, as it often did for the Mongols, sometimes it fails, as it did in the terror bombing of London in World War II.

One of the things terror is used for is to eliminate the gray zones, the areas where compromise might occur. No one in Delhi after Timur's ghastly pyramid rose was saying, "I'm sure this Timur is a reasonable chap we can talk with, make a few compromises, and conclude a peace at a reasonable cost."

Terror draws a firm line between combatants. If you are Islamic State, and most Muslims are fleeing your state rather than flocking to it, eliminating the gray zones will eliminate the zones into which they are fleeing.

In fact, Islamic State sponsored violence in Europe is explicitly aimed at making Europeans view as the enemy refugees fleeing the violence of IS and other warring factions in Syria. Their propaganda magazine, Dabiq, following the Charlie Hebdo attack, published an editorial that said such attacks  “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone [where Westerners and Muslims co-exist] themselves…Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize …or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.”

The European Union's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, has said that all of the attackers in the November, 2015 Paris attacks were believed to be European residents, not refugees. All those who have been identified were. One who has yet to be identified carried a forged Syrian passport, which had been used to pass through Greece. Perhaps he was on a watch list in Europe, and was using the refugees as a way to get past border patrols, but if that were the case, why not a forged Belgian passport?

It seems quite likely that the unidentified terrorist carried a forged Syrian passport because the aim of the attacks was to eliminate what Islamic State sees as a threat -- cooperation between Europeans and those Muslim refugees who have fled IS.

Where terror is effective, it either terrifies the enemy into surrender, as was the intent of Timur's pyramid of heads or the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs, or it is intended to get the enemy to over-respond in a way that makes more people join the terrorists.

That's a motive that fits very well with giving a terrorist a fake Syrian passport and sending the agent through the refugee route to Europe. The attacks have had the desired effect, at least on all the serious Republican candidates for president (that is, those with a serious chance at the nomination, regardless of the seriousness or silliness of their rhetoric.)

It may seem that getting a powerful country like France as an enemy would be suicidal for a tiny protostate like Islamic State's "caliphate." But we must keep in mind that Islamic State is an apocalyptic cult which not only believes these are the end times, but strives to bring about the end times. As Graham Wood noted in his much-cited Atlantic article about Islamic State, this is not so different from the theology of the Branch Davidians, but instead of a compound with a few people in it, they control a territory with 8 million people.

The frightening thing to me is that some of our politicians most eager to confront Islamic State, and to define the conflict as being between Islam and Christianity, are those with ties to American religious groups who believe we are living in the end times. About three quarters of Evangelical Christians believe this. I remember talking to a small-town businessman in the Puget Sound area who was telling me about a real estate investment, then paused to say, well, I suppose it seems kind of silly to think that far out, when the Rapture may happen at any time.

Fortunately, he made the investment, which by now should have paid off.

But that's the thing. Islamic State is Sunni Muslim. There are Shi'a Muslim who also believe we are living in the end times, and Christians, and Jews. It is possible that at some point, all the major actors in the Middle East will be led by people who believe the end of the world is coming, and that this would be a good thing.

There are many different versions of the end times; Islamic State contends that the "Romans"(Christians, or perhaps the Turks) led by the anti-messiah Dajjal, will push them near annihilation, until there are only 5,000 fighters left cornered at Jerusalem, then Jesus, the second most revered prophet in the Bible, will come to lead them and they will push back and eventually gain victory.

But wait, isn't that the plot of the Left Behind series of books based on Christian eschatology? Well, pretty much, just a little difference about who the good guys are.

The prophesy is in the source material for all the religions in the Abrahamic tradition. There are different versions of what that source material means. Some Christians, for example, think the end times have already happened.(the Preterist view, which says Revalations describes the events of about 70 A.D.) Others of all the faiths with this source material are sufficiently humble not to claim they know when the world will end.

One problem with groups which hold these views is that they may not have any path to peace that is consistent with their beliefs other than the apocalypse. Another is that people will do far worse things in the name of making the world a better place than they will out of mere greed.

Those who believe they are bringing an end to injustice can easily justify acts of terror involving the deaths of innocent in order to bring about more deaths, more terror, and a final, dramatic end to all that is evil in the world.

The terror in Paris was intended to sharpen the lines of conflict. The ideal outcome for those who committed these atrocities would be to empower people who believe, as they do, that we are living in the end times, and who want to bring about the apocalypse. The strategy is to have terror beget terror, to bring about a final conflict that will end the world.

The term self-fulfilling prophesy comes to mind. Let's hope it doesn't come to pass.

Here's a list of the Paris, Nov. 2015, terrorists so far identified (seven of the eight attackers)

Bilal Hadfi, 20 - French (living in Belgium)
Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, 29 - French
Samy Amimour, 28 - French
Ibrahim Abdeslam, 31 - French (living in Belgium)
Salah Abdeslam, 26 - French (living in Belgium)
Hamza Attou, 21 - Belgian

Mohamed Amri, 27 - Belgian (born in Morocco)

The eight attacker was the one with the fake Syrian passport.