Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

No, not that fixed point.

In the current sex-scandal-of-the-week, New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner has basically admitted to sending lewd messages under the pseudonym “Carlos Danger.” Where the heck did that name come from?

Clearly, there is a function that maps from one’s ordinary name to one’s “Carlos Danger” name. Slate has helpfully provided an implementation of the Carlos Danger name generator function. Using this tool, for example, one can determine that the Carlos Danger name for me (Stuart Marks) is Ricardo Distress. Hm, not too interesting. Of course, the Carlos Danger name for Anthony Weiner is Carlos Danger.

Now, what is the Carlos Danger name for Carlos Danger? It must be Carlos Danger, right? Apparently not, as the generator reveals that it is Felipe Menace.

Inspecting the source code of the web page reveals that the generator function basically hashes the input names a couple times and uses those values to index into predefined tables of Carlos-Danger-style first and last names. So, unlike Anthony Weiner, which is special-cased in the code, there’s nothing special about Carlos Danger. It’ll just map into some apparently-random pair of entries from the tables.

If the Carlos Danger name for Carlos Danger isn’t Carlos Danger, is there some other name whose Carlos Danger name is itself? Since there is a fairly small, fixed set of names, this is pretty easy to find out by searching the entire name space, as it were. A quick transliteration of the function into Java later (including a small wrestling match with character encodings), I have the answer:

  • The Carlos Danger name for Mariano Dynamite is Mariano Dynamite.
  • The Carlos Danger name for Miguel Ãngel Distress is Miguel Ãngel Distress.

You heard it here first, folks.

Finally, if you ever run into Ricardo Distress, tell him I said hi.


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I just finished reading Arsenals of Folly[1] by Richard Rhodes. Not a bad book about the arms race, though not quite as interesting as the other Rhodes books I’ve read (The Making of the Atomic Bomb[2] and Dark Sun[3]). What struck me was how much I kept thinking of Dr. Strangelove[4] while I was reading the book, especially the parts about the early Cold War years in the 1950s and 1960s. One passage in particular was significant:

After the war, Truman disguised his aversion to using nuclear weapons with public bluster, but his policies as well as private comments reveal his qualms. An artillery officer in the First World War, he hesitated to put atomic bombs into the hands of the military; he told James Forrestal, his first secretary of defense, that he did not propose “to have some dashing lieutenant colonel decide when would be the proper time to drop one.” Through the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the historian David Alan Rosenberg writes, Truman imposed “a system that made atomic weapons a separate part of the nation’s arsenal, with the President of the United States the sole authority over their use….” [p. 78], [5]

This immediately brought to mind an early scene from Dr. Strangelove. The nation’s top civilian and military officials have just started a meeting in the War Room of the Pentagon. General Turgidson (George C. Scott) is about to inform President Muffley (Peter Sellers) and the gathered staff that the Air Force has launched a nuclear attack on Russia:

GEN. TURGIDSON: (leaning over a binder entitled WORLD TARGETS IN MEGADEATHS) Mr. President, about 35 minutes ago, General Jack Ripper, the commanding general of Burpelson Air Force Base, issued an order to the 34 B-52s of his wing which were airborne at the time, as part of a special exercise we were holding called Operation Dropkick. Now it appears that the order called for the planes to attack their targets inside Russia. The planes are fully armed with nuclear weapons with an average load of 40 megatons each. (Gestures toward the Big Board.) Now the central display of Russia will indicate the position of the planes. The triangles are their primary targets. The squares are their secondary targets. The aircraft will begin penetrating Russian radar cover within 25 minutes.

PRES. MUFFLEY: General Turgidson, I find this very difficult to understand. I was under the impression that I was the only one in authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.

GEN. TURGIDSON: That’s right sir. You are the only person authorized to do so. And although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it’s beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority.

PRES. MUFFLEY: It certainly does, far beyond the point I would have imagined possible.

GEN. TURGIDSON: Well, perhaps you’re forgetting the provisions of Plan R, sir.


GEN. TURGIDSON: Plan R is an emergency war plan in which a lower echelon commander may order nuclear retaliation after a sneak attack if the normal chain of command has been disrupted. You approved it, sir, you must remember. (Muffley frowns.) Surely you must recall, sir, when Senator Buford made that big hassle about our deterrent lacking credibility? The idea was for Plan R to be a sort of retaliatory safeguard.

PRES. MUFFLEY: A safeguard.

GEN. TURGIDSON: Well, I admit the human element seems to have failed us here.

Perhaps the main theme of Rhodes’ book is the extent to which the military-industrial complex drove the planning for nuclear war, and the appalling, almost cavalier rationale they used to justify it. Rhodes discusses the Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) approach to solving the problem of having hundreds of planes trying to deliver nuclear bombs to their targets simultaneously, potentially destroying each other if they weren’t coordinated properly. Rhodes writes,

The solution to the problem, the Joint Chiefs concluded in 1959 after prodding from the secretary of defense, was that “atomic operations must be pre-planned for automatic execution to the maximum extent possible.” Thus was inaugurated the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), developed initially under the direction of Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Power, who succeeded Curtis LeMay as commander in chief of SAC from 1957 to 1964.

John F. Kennedy was briefed on the first plan, SIOP-62, by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, on 13 September 1961. SIOP-62, Lemnitzer told the president, was designed to work either preemptively or in retaliation for a Soviet nuclear strike on the United States. Like SAC’s earlier plan, it targeted not only the Soviet Union but also the People’s Republic of China and allies of the two countries in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, all to be hit at the outset of hostilities with a massive simultaneous attack from all sides at once, bomb as you go. The PRC and Eastern Europe would be hit even if they had not initiated hostilities. …

The journalist Fred Kaplan reports that General David Shoup, the Marine Corps commandant, asked Thomas Power at a similar SIOP briefing in 1960 if the United States had any options to avoid bombing China if that country happened not to be involved in the conflict that had led to nuclear war. “Well, yeah, we could do that,” Kaplan reports Power replying, “but I hope nobody thinks of it because it would really screw up the plan.” [p. 87] [6]

This would be funny if hundreds of millions of lives weren’t at stake.

And the brilliance of Dr. Strangelove is that Kubrick took this topic, its absurd military reasoning and politics, and really did make it funny.


[1] Rhodes, Richard. The Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

[2] Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon & Schuster, 1986.

[3] Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Simon & Schuster, 1995.

[4] Kubrick, Stanley. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1964.

[5] Millis, Walter, Ed. The Forrestal Diaries. New York: Viking, 1951, p. 458. Quoted in [1] p. 78.

[6] Kaplan, Fred. The Wizards of Armageddon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983, p. 270. Quoted in [1] p. 87.

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Oh cool, Greg Mankiw wrote about getting a copy of Samuelson’s first edition, which I mentioned previously. Mankiw had the good fortune to work with Samuelson on a regular basis and so he had Samuelson inscribe his copy. My copy isn’t inscribed by Samuelson, but it is inscribed by my Dad, which is pretty cool too.

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Paul Samuelson, 1915-2009

Paul Samuelson, Nobel laureate and noted professor of economics, has died. See the NYT obituary and some comments from Paul Krugman.

Samuelson is famous for his economics textbook that has been used by college students for decades. The first edition was published in 1948. My father used this textbook in college, and a copy sits on my bookshelf. (Well, it sat there until this morning when I pulled it down to read it.) Who cares about an old economics textbook? According to another Krugman post, it’s still relevant. Pretty cool, I was able to find the passage Krugman cited and read it in print myself.

A note on the title page states, “The quality of the materials used in the manufacture of this book is governed by continued postwar shortages.” Despite this, the book isn’t in bad shape for being over 60 years old. The cloth cover is somewhat scuffed, the pages are a bit yellowed, but they are quite readable and don’t feel like they’re going to fall out. I’ve seen many younger books in much worse condition.

Somehow my father also ended up with a copy of the sixth edition. It was on the bookshelf right next to the first edition. This was published in the 1960s. Not sure where this might have come from; nobody in the family was in college during those years. I also have a copy of the 12th edition (co-authored with Nordhaus) somewhere. I used it when I was in college in the 1980s. The most recent edition was the 18th, published in 2004.

Paul Samuelson, R.I.P.

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Congratulations to Abel Maldonado for helping to break the logjam in California’s (latest) budget crisis. The budget crisis, which now seems to be an annual event, was especially bad this time, both fiscally and politically. The “gap” in the budget amounted to $41bn. The political situation is not much better.

The classic argument seems to be between the Democrats, who want to close the gap by raising taxes, and the Republicans, who want to close the gap by cutting spending. Of course, things are more complicated than this, but that’s essentially it. The problem is that the situation is so politicized — and so polarized — that nobody can find any common ground, and so progress is extremely difficult. The California Senate was locked in its chambers two nights in a row, and only after that was one senator (Maldonado) bribed enough to cross party lines to support the budget.

When I say “bribed” I don’t literally mean that they paid him off. The Democrats made a number of concessions to win his vote. Most notably they agreed to support open primaries, and they agreed to drop the proposed 12c/gallon gas tax from the budget. The Republicans are not likely to look kindly on Maldonado’s move. After all, earlier in they week, they ousted minority leader Dave Cogdill and replaced him with “anti-tax hard-liner” Dennis Hollingsworth. The reason for Cogdill’s ouster? Because he cooperated with the Democrats in putting together the current proposal! So Maldonado is likely to be viewed as a traitor. They’d draw him and quarter him if they could get away with it.

It’s a risk, but of course there’s something in it for Maldonado. Crossing party lines is likely to put him in jeopardy with the Republican party machine. But if there’s an open primary, he can get Democratic voters to vote for him. After all, he’s the hero who helped save the budget, right? Also, he earned a lot of publicity. Who had heard of Maldonado before the budget vote? Probably nobody outside his district. With the press coverage he’s getting now, it would set him up for another run for a statewide office. (He ran unsuccessfully for state controllers in 2006.)

Unfortunately, at least one of the concessions to get his vote is terrible. I don’t really care that much about open primaries, but removing the gas tax (in preference to leaving the sales tax increase) is a mistake. With the current economic situation, raising the general sales tax is exactly the wrong thing to do. If you’re going to raise any tax, the gas tax is the one to raise. When gas was over $4/gallon last year, people really did change their behavior. They drove less, took public transit more, and stopped buying gigantic SUVs. Yes, it’s painful, but high gas prices will help improve air quality and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. So that’s why the California legislature made a move to keep gas cheap. Wonderful.

Unfortunately, it’s quite common for the legislature to do things that don’t make sense. The usual analysis of the oft-recurring budget problems concludes that the root causes of budget problems lie in Proposition 13 (from 1978) and the requirement of having a two-thirds majority in the legislature to pass a budget. I think these are indeed problems, but the analysis kind of misses the point. The real problem is that the legislature doesn’t know how to save money for the future. Remember the idea of saving money for a rainy day? It means, don’t spend it all when the sun is shining. But when the economy is booming and tax revenues are up, the legislature says “Great, we have all this money, let’s spend it on all those pet projects we’ve always wanted to do!” When the bust comes and tax revenues fall, we get a huge budget gap. I am slightly sympathetic to the Republicans when they say we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. But I don’t hear them — or anyone — saying that we should save money (i.e., run a budget surplus) when times are good, so that we won’t have a problem when times are bad.

It’s politically difficult to do this, I know. But as Rahm Emanuel said recently, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” What California needs to learn from this crisis is how to save money.

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Victory and Defeat

It’s now been a week since Obama’s inauguration, more than enough time for the pundits to express their opinions about Obama’s inauguration speech. Commentary has been received from the usual suspects:

Like many of the critics, I thought Obama’s speech was good, but not great. It was neither soaringly inspiring nor overly alarmist. It struck a middle tone of cautious optimism for the future while warning of the amount of work and sacrifice that will be required. It seemed calculated to please liberals and conservatives alike. It did so by using careful phrasing that allowed the critics to project their own interpretations onto the speech. Let me do the same.

The phrase that was surely crafted to please conservative listeners was “And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents … You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” Of course: Obama will be tough on terrorism! In this day and age, who would not be tough on terrorism? Who would hesitate to proclaim being tough on terrorism, if such hesitation could be interpreted as being soft on terrorism?

What does it mean to be tough on terrorism? Of course, it means that we will bomb Iran! That’s the only way to be tough on terror, right? There’s a group of people who think that the only way to defeat our enemies is to bomb them (or blow them up, or shoot them, or whatever). Probably a bunch of Republicans do. Maybe McCain does (though his “Bomb Iran” line was possibly a joke). Certainly the questioner from the audience described in the above-linked article believes in bombing. The Iranians are evil, so we have to drop bombs on them. End of story.

OK, so we drop some bombs on Iran. Now what? Now that we’ve done so, are they going to say “Sorry about that, we didn’t mean it, let’s be friends”? Of course not. They’ll be bigger enemies, and a bunch of people sympathetic to Iran will also become our enemies. Oh great, more enemies. Should we bomb them too?

Trust me, this doesn’t stop. Remember when Yugoslavia broke up after the fall of communism? Some of the tribal warfare that broke out had roots going back 800 years. Eight. Hundred. Years. So if you want to bomb Iran and create some enemies who will stick around for the next few centuries, be my guest.

So, how do we achieve victory if not through guns and bombs? A clue about how Obama’s policies will take us forward can be found just a few sentences earlier in his speech:

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

This is, I think, amazing speechwriting. It advocates of “soft power” which should please the liberals, while pleasing the conservatives by tying it to Reagan’s defeat of communism and the Greatest Generation’s victory in WWII. Simply astounding.

Given this context, what is victory? Here’s my definition:

You have achieved victory when you have convinced your adversary to change his behavior in your favor.

Not easy or straightforward. But more likely to secure peace than bombing the other guy.

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