A Hot Topic (Cont.)

Other shoes continue to drop in the ongoing story about the activities of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, which is regularly cited as one of the world’s leading proponents of the global warming hypothesis.  I’ve previously noted the curious e-mails obtained as a result of a criminal computer hacking episode.  Now the CRU has admitted that much of the raw data that it accumulated, and that formed the basis for its global warming findings, have been discarded, purportedly due to lack of storage space.   The linked article reports that a statement on the CRU’s website states that, while the raw data has been discarded, the CRU has retained what it calls its “value-added (quality controlled and homogenised) data.”

This decision seems extraordinarily unscientific to me.  One of the hallmarks of the scientific method, as I understand it, is to collect data based on tests, experiments, or other procedures, publish the data, and then let scientists elsewhere see whether they can recreate those results by following the identified procedures.  If other scientists can’t recreate the results reportedly obtained by a claimed procedure to achieve “cold fusion,” for example, they can legitimately question the legitimacy of the underlying study that claimed those results.  By discarding the raw data and keeping only data that has been modified in some way — whatever “quality controlled and homogenised” might mean — the CRU scientists have made it impossible to verify, or disprove, their claims.  If storage space was really that scarce, why would you discard the original data rather than the modified data?

I think scientists generally have credibility with the public not just because they are viewed as smarter than the average citizens, but also because they are viewed as neutral, objective observers who are engaged in an abstract quest for truth.   The CRU episode shows just how far that perception is from the reality of modern science — at least as it is practiced by some “scientists.”  When scientists discard raw data, refuse to share other data, and attempt to quash dissenting views, they are not acting as scientists but as proponents of a particular position.  They don’t deserve the credibility that we normally assign to scientific views — and others are coming to that same conclusion.

I hope that our government at least recognizes that this incident raises fundamental credibility issues that cannot be ignored.  Before we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to reshape our economy and our energy infrastructure in an effort to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are the supposed cause of climate change under the global warming hypothesis, which should at least insist that the scientific basis for that decision be the product of true science — where data is openly and completely published, opposing views are fully and fairly heard, and hypotheses are tested and verified.  Until that happens, we are building our policies on faith, not science.

Cash For Christmas?

A relatively new book, entitled Scroogenomics:Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, argues that holiday shopping is wealth destroying because we end up buying presents people don’t want.  The author, Joel Waldfogel, is an economist who makes a classic economics argument — that resources are most wisely allocated by people who make decisions for themselves, in view of their specific needs.  He argues that the farther you get from people you really know — spouses and immediate family — and into the realm of nieces, nephews, co-workers, and the like, the more likely you are to buy something ill-considered that is left unused.  Gift cards aren’t the most efficient response to this problem, either, because about 10 percent of gift cards never get redeemed.  An interview with the author is here.

Let’s face it, though — the Seinfeld episode hit the nail on the head.  Giving cash for Christmas, or for a birthday, is widely viewed as a cold, thoughtless, last-minute gift.  This perception seems a bit unfair to me.  I can honestly say that every time I’ve received a check for a birthday or a holiday I have used the money with grateful appreciation.  I can’t say the same for the tangible gifts I’ve received — and I know that, over the years, I’ve picked out many real clunkers for friends and loved ones, too.

The only drawback to giving cash, in my view, is a non-economic one.  I feel good when I think about what Kish and the boys might want for Christmas and then actually buy presents for them.  I don’t get that feeling by writing a check.  But maybe I can get that feeling by limiting my feel-good, but otherwise wealth-destroying, purchases to a few carefully considered stocking stuffers.

Not Smart (Cont.)

I’ve written before on the enormous losses Harvard recently sustained as a result of the investments of its endowment funds and capital accounts.   The Boston Globe has now published an article on how the losses happened.  It’s a familiar story and good lesson for anyone managing their 401(k) account.  People made aggressive investments notwithstanding cautions about risks, the aggressive investments produced very strong returns for a time, and the investment decisionmakers overlooked the risks, focused on the returns, and then took an uppercut when the markets went south.  They forgot the basic questions all investors should ask:  what am I looking to achieve with my account, and how much risk am I willing to take to try to achieve that goal?  These questions should be asked regularly — not just when the markets experience a downturn.

Stalwart Opposition

Although Ohio Issue 3, which amended the Ohio Constitution to allow for the building of casinos in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo, was approved by voters statewide, it was strongly rejected by voters in central Ohio.  Now, local politicians are trying to figure out what they can do to try to prevent the casino from being located in the Columbus Arena District, a new, upscale, family-friendly area located just north of downtown.  Today’s Columbus Dispatch has an editorial applauding those efforts.

It will be interesting to see what local leaders do to try to avoid the construction of a casino in the location that the Constitution now identifies as the sole, lawful location for a casino in Columbus.  Withhold water and sewer services?  Decline to improve roads and infrastructure?  Tell the police not to patrol in the vicinity of the casino?  Develop new taxing and fee-based ordinances to make operating the casino much less lucrative?  Such initiatives, if pursued, seem likely to set up an interesting legal battle between the “home rule” powers of municipalities like Columbus and the effect of an unprecedented state constitutional amendment.

A Hot Topic (Cont.)

The fallout continues from the data breach that led to the release of e-mail exchanges between climate scientists about global warming dataThis New York Times piece indicates that the controversy about the e-mails, and their true meaning as it relates to the science of global warming, has had broad repercussions. 

Hacking into a computer is a criminal act which should not be condoned.  However, if this particular criminal act results in greater access to raw global warming data, and increased scientific debate about that data and its true meaning, then it has had some positive effect.  Science should not be a black box.  If global warming is to be used as a basis for arguing that western countries like the United States should make enormous and costly changes to their economies and activities, it obviously should be the subject of robust and skeptical discussion.  If climate change scientists aren’t willing to engage in such debate, that says something about their methods, practices, and status as scientists.  To paraphrase Harry Truman, if climate change scientists can’t stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.


Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

It’s amazing how some Christmas cookie recipes, and other holiday treats, are so well-received that they become an integral part of the family traditions.  It gets to the point where you can’t really imagine Christmas without a plate of the particular cookies in the kitchen, ready to be gobbled down during A Charlie Brown Christmas and washed down with cold glass of milk.

When I was growing up, so it was with sugar cookies, cut out into holiday shapes and iced with the hard icing you get when you mix confectioner’s sugar and a few drops of milk and then brighten the mixture up with a few drops of food coloring.  Here is the recipe for that Webnerhouse classic.

Sugar Cookies

1 cup butter, softened; 1 cup granulated sugar; 1 large egg; 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla; 3 cups all-purpose flour; 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Beat together butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add egg and vanilla, mix.  Add flour and baking powder gradually.   Continue to mix with mixer until combined, even if mix seems dry. Divide the dough into four parts, shape into four circles, wrap with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for an hour or until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Lightly grease sheet pan with Crisco.  Roll out dough with rolling pin, lightly dusting with flour.  Cut out shapes with cookie cutters and place on baking pans.  Bake for 7 minutes or until edges of cookies are light brown.  Remove from oven, cool briefly, then put on plate.  Ice after completely cool.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes


The developing story about a Virginia couple that apparently “gatecrashed” the White House state dinner for the Prime Minister of India is pretty disturbing.  According to the new reports, the couple did not have an invitation but showed up at the event in their formal wear, went through screening, and had their pictures taken with President Obama and Vice President Biden.  Of course, this being modern America, we now learn that the woman in the couple has dreams of being on some kind of reality show about wealthy housewives in D.C.

Fortunately, nothing bad happened, other than a bit of embarrassment.  Still, this is not just a weird story about a mischievous prank.  If I were chief of staff for the President I would make sure that some heads rolled.  The Secret Service has one of the most important jobs in the federal government, and the notion that individuals without an invitation could crash a scheduled event — where the security undoubtedly was planned and set up far in advance — is just unacceptable.  It suggests lapses in procedure and general incompetence that can only encourage other people, with different potential goals, to try similar stunts. President Obama has a tough enough job without having to worry about whether security screenings are being done properly and strangers are roaming the White House.

Uh Oh

Dubai World, the state-owned company that has been borrowing like crazy and building artificial islands, fantasy structures, and other projects to convert Dubai into a kind of vacation wonderland, has announced that it will not be making interest payments on its loan debt.  In other parts of the world, where the markets aren’t closed for the Thanksgiving holiday, the reaction apparently is panicky and some banking stocks are getting hit hard.

My guess is that traders everywhere are still jumpy after the near meltdown that happened last year, and any sign of possible significant default by a big borrower is going to make the markets especially nervous and curious about on whose balance sheets the eventual liabilities may land.

Black Friday

I’m not quite sure when the day after Thanksgiving started to be called Black Friday — apparently because, for many stores, their sales on that day are what first pushes their year into the black — but I know that the day after Thanksgiving has been the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season for decades.  It has now become institutionalized — there is even a website the features only Black Friday ads.

I imagine that this year Black Friday is getting even more attention than usual.  Economists, analysts, and forecasters will want to find out whether people are shopping at all, and if so where and for what.  In our consumer-driving economy, if Americans aren’t diving into the Christmas shopping season with gusto the talking heads will say it shows a “lack of consumer confidence” and signals a longer and perhaps deeper recession.  There is something to this line of reasoning.  You can do all the surveys you want about consumer confidence, but whether people actually spend money during the season of spending is the best, most tangible evidence of what they actually believe about their own circumstances.

It is 8 a.m. as I post this, and many stores have been open for hours already, hoping to lure shoppers with special deals.  For all I know analysts already are crunching numbers on the crowds that have shown up at stores.  They shouldn’t draw any conclusions from my behavior, however.  I don’t like shopping, and I think going to shop in crowded malls the day after Thanksgiving would be a very unpleasant experience, whether the economy is weak or going great guns.


We will soon have a full house for Thanksgiving.  Richard and Russell (and a very shaggy Russell at that) are home and the rest of the extended Webner/Hartnett clan will be arriving shortly.  The kitchen table is groaning with an assortment of cheeses, nuts, meats, and fruits.  For dinner itself we will be serving two turkeys, mashed potatoes, yams, corn bread, pies, and three different kinds of stuffing.  (I’ve been motivated by Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods — after all, they both attended Vassar — so I cooked up the hearts, kidneys, and livers of the two turkeys and made a special stuffing with them.  We’ll see if anyone else is interested in giving it a try.)  We’ve got wine and beer galore, and Kish decided to have a special “signature drink” for Thanksgiving, which will be a pomegranate martini.

We have many reasons to be thankful this year.  Everyone who wants to be working has a job, and everyone is in good health.  Kish has enjoyed her job and is continuing her quest to read virtually every book reviewed in the New York Review of Books.  Richard graduated from Northwestern, likes his job as a project assistant and his downtown apartment living, and is looking at law schools.  Russell is doing well at Vassar, enjoys his art, and has joined the rugby team.  Penny has had her puppies.  And the Buckeyes have once again beaten Michigan.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

It was Worth Doing – It’s Made a Difference

I am puzzled as to how an editorial writer (see blog titled – Editorializing on the Failed Stimulus) can make a determiniation as to whether or not a public policy is a success or a failure when only a quarter of the stimulus money is out the door so far in the first nine months.  Here’s a recent article from the New York Times which says that “more dispassionate analysts have reached a concensus that the stimulus package, messy as it is, is working”.

I’m not sure what qualifications this editorial writer has, but I would venture to guess that he’s not an economist. He has probably just picked up on the reporting quirks of the plan and decided to label it a failure. I prefer to leave the decision making to the field experts as opposed to taking the opinion of an editorial writer. We were all well aware of the fact that the stimulus plan was not front loaded and that the majority of the money was to be doled out in 2010.

Mark Zandi who is quoted in the article is by no means a liberal economist as I have heard him speak many times on CNBC’s Kudlow report. He says “the stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do – it is contributing to ending the recession” and he said “that in his view GDP would still be negative and unemployment would be over 11 percent had the stimulus not been implemented”. GDP for this quarter is 3.5% and unemployment is 10%, while by no means great numbers it’s better than the alternative. Zandi also says “there are a little over 1.1 million more jobs out there in October than there would have been without the stimulus”.

Its just my humble opinion, but I think as the article states, there were many many more jobs saved then were created and much of the stimulus money that went to the states was used to finance ongoing projects. I know there have been numerous articles in the Columbus Dispatch regarding the State of Ohio’s budget shortfall and inability to get adequate funding to keep things going and I would not be surprised if things are just as bad in other states. 

So to be fair, shouldn’t we wait until after 2010 before judging whether or not the stimulus was a success or a failure ?

The Crab Nebula, From Three Perspectives

If you like science and space, you can do worse than regularly visit the NASA website, just to see the latest information and images posted there.  Recently they put up a very interesting depiction of the Crab Nebula, based on combining the Chandra X-ray image (shown in blue), the Hubble Space Telescope optical image (shown in yellow and red) and the Spitzer Space Telescope infrared image (shown in purple).  The result is the striking image shown above.

The Crab Nebula is the remnant of a supernova that was first observed in 1054 A.D. and was recorded and marveled at by humans across the world.  When the light from the explosion first reached Earth (of course, the explosion itself had happened long before) it was so bright it could be seen in broad daylight.  In the center of the nebula is now a neutron star, and if you look carefully at the image you see a fascinating, roiling cauldron of gases and gravitational phenomena surrounding the star.  It is no wonder that the Crab Nebula is one of the most studied celestrial items.

Jesse Jackson’s Modest Proposal

Jesse Jackson says that the United States Government can’t be a “tightwad” now.  Yes, that’s right — after the federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in borrowed money on TARP funds, the “stimulus” package, “Cash for Clunkers,” bank bailouts, home ownership incentive programs, GM and Chrysler bailouts, and countless other examples of unbridled government largesse, Jesse Jackson says it is time to finally open the purse strings!  Otherwise, state and local governments may be forced to actually lay off workers to reflect lower tax revenues, and California college students who have enjoyed heavily subsidized tuitions might actually have to pay something close to what their college education actually costs!  What a cold world it would be if those things were to happen!

I had no idea that Jesse Jackson had such a subtle and keenly developed sense of humor.  Nearly 300 years later, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal finally has some competition in the satire category.

The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

The Senate used to be known as The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.  Under the careful design of the Constitution, the House of Representatives, where every member must stand for reelection every two years, is supposed to reflect the current passions and will of the voting populace.  In the Senate, on the other hand, only one-third of the body is up for election in any two-year cycle.  The Senate, therefore, is supposed to be the contemplative body, largely immune from immediate popular sentiment, that will take a more long-term perspective on legislation.  (Of course, in the initial design of the Constitution, the Senate was not elected by the populace at all, but that is another story.)

To the extent that anyone clings to the notion that the Senate remains the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, the current health care debate seems destined to drive a stake through that perception, once and for all.  In the most recent disturbing episode, a complicated provision was added to the bill that could only benefit Louisiana; it evidently was drafted specifically to attract the vote of wavering Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.  The price tag for the provision is estimated to be $300 million, and the question for us hapless voters is how many of these goodies and freebies have been crammed into a Frankenstein monster of a bill that is hundreds of pages long and incapable of being read and fully understood by anyone other than the handful of staffers who crafted the relevant language.  That incident aptly demonstrates how far the Senate has strayed from the Framers’ intentions.

Senate floor debate on the health care “reform” bill is to begin next week, and no one knows whether it will pass or not, or whether it will be amended to include other special deals to attract the votes of other reluctant Senators.  Politics has always had its unseemly side, but there is something particularly appalling about our current processes, where Senators seem willing to peddle their votes on enormously important legislation in exchange for provisions that serve only narrow parochial interests.  Given the consensus view that the “stimulus” legislation was a pork-barrel monstrosity that demonstrably failed to satisfy its essential goal of immediate jobs creation, why in the world would any rational person think that Congress can fashion a reasonable, objective, carefully considered set of health care reforms?