Friday, September 30, 2016

You call it self-dealing, I call it embezzlement (and btw, yet another tax problem)

I've been curious how mass media are describing the Trump Foundation paying off debts owed by Trump businesses as "self-dealing". To recap, two examples known so far have Trump businesses settling disputes with others by agreeing to an obligation to pay money to a third-party charity, which Trump then paid from his own foundation's money.

Self-dealing is basically doing business between a foundation and disqualified persons who have a connection to the foundation. If the Able Family Foundation needs computers, and Amy Able who runs the foundation also sells computers, then the foundation would be self-dealing if it bought its computers from her.

Trump Foundation's paying off of Trump debts goes beyond this. The outcome would have been identical if Trump Foundation, instead of writing the check directly to charity, had written the check to Trump who then paid off his debt to charity. This hypothetical is clearly embezzlement, what Trump actually did isn't any different. I suppose it's also self-dealing, but worse.

Something else I haven't seen in the discussion of self-dealing is tax evasion. There has been discussion of a different tax evasion Trump scandal, when he directed that debts owed to his businesses be paid to his foundation, but this is a separate issue. Trump Foundation in effect discharged debt owed by his businesses to others, and the IRS calls that taxable income to the businesses that didn't have to pay the debt. If we could see his returns, I'm pretty sure we'd find that he didn't pay taxes on that discharged debt.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Cheery Sound of Heads Exploding in the Morning as Paris Moves Toward Coming Into Force

With India ratifying the Paris Agreement countries with 51.89% of the world's CO2 emissions have joined the club.  The agreement comes into force when the 55% level is reached.  The World Resources Institute has a nice interactive map which allows bunnies to play the who's next game

and a game of poker it will be for countries wishing to have their name attached to the good news to be heard around the world.  Japan with 3.79% of the world's emissions can make it next, as could the EU (12.10%) and Russia (7.53%).  Various alliances are possible for the final push, but Eli is quite enjoying the sound of heads popping in the early morning as the usual suspects contemplate the success of Paris.

Bunnies will always have Paris.

So said the man who would be President

O'Donnell [top-level Trump staffer] had seen the same kind of reaction when Trump once launched into a tirade against an accountant who was black. "I've got black accountants at Trump Castle and Trump Plaza - black guys counting my money!" Trump said according to O'Donnell's memoir, Trumped! "I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else....Besides that, I've got to tell you something else. I think that the guy is lazy. And it's probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is; I believe that. It's not anything they can control."

Trump Revealed, p. 136.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

VW may have killed hundreds in the US, thousands in Europe, and who knows everywhere else

Some news stories buried the lede about how many people may have been offed by VW lying about its NOx emissions. Headlines say "Volkswagen emissions cheat may lead to 50 premature deaths", and only deeper in the apparently-a-press-release mention that figure is only for a single year, as well as not covering some vehicle models also implicated in illegal emissions. The illegal activity covered multiple years, and even I can multiply.

Diesel has a tiny penetration in the US market but an order of magnitude higher in Europe. Thousands died there if we extrapolate, a crude thing to do but maybe conservative given the higher population density.

Some caveats if you jump past the press release and RTFA: 50 deaths a year is the high end of a range, with the lowest at merely 5 people killed by Volkswagen annually. AFAICT this is illegal emissions and not total emissions we're talking about. Europe allows far higher NOx levels, so VW can proudly trumpet that many of the thousands it killed in Europe were offed legally. These numbers are also higher than older estimates I saw last year. Fifty a year is now a reasonable number though.

One defense of VW often heard last year that it wasn't killing its own customers through emissions, it was killing other people who doubtless deserved it (I paraphrase). Kill enough people though, and you're eventually going to send some VW owners into fatal asthma attacks. Defenders need to amend their argument to concede that yes, VW was killing VW owners, but with cars purchased by other VW owners, not their own cars.

My own speculation - I'm curious how many VW owners ever drove into their garage, closed the door and forgot to turn off the engine for 30 seconds while they wrap up something. With emissions 10-40 times the allowed amount, that's equivalent of spending up to 20 minutes breathing exhaust in an enclosed garage. Maybe Volkswagen caused (and has) additional problems.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Someone needs to take a heat lamp to Gary Johnson's yard. Seriously.

The minor downside is that it would be illegal, but still a worthwhile act of civil disobedience.

Johnson says we're warming the planet but shouldn't do anything about it because the sun will expand and encompass the earth (ed. note: in hundreds of millions of years at earliest).

Seems pretty feasible to me - bring a small portable generator (bonus credit if solar-powered) or battery, together with a heat lamp, stand on the sidewalk or street by his yard, and start wilting the grass and whatever other plants are in reach until you get arrested. Even a blowdryer might work, I'm not sure. Nothing that puts out a flame though.

Obviously, Johnson should have no objection to wilting his plants given that the sun will eventually encompass the earth anyway.

If his place is in some gated community, then maybe outside his campaign HQ?

And to be Scrupulously Fair, if Johnson has withdrawn this argument, then don't wilt his plants. His millennial supporters need to know more about his positions though.

Finally, a good point here:  continental drift will resolve political problems in the Middle East before the sun moots our response to climate change.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Travel Rage

Any ScienceBunny (TM -ER) who attends a conference today as penance has to do a couple of years with the real auditors.  Eli, for example, just got paid for a trip the Rabett took in December last.  Kate Marvel is doing time in Purgatory

This put Eli in mind of a comment last year by Francis Collins, NIH Director when asked what the most important thing Congress could do to help science

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pascal’s wager and the wages of motivated cognition

Now Eli has on occasion been a betting bunny and he has a long term one going with one Blaise Pascal, one that sooner than the Bunny would enjoy is going to pay off or not.  Still it has been a good time so far but it does pay to consult the experts and Rabett Run has called in a philosopher, a well known racehorse and investment company, all going by the name of Kelso to help cook the argument, and so it goes

Pascal’s wager makes a famous argument for motivated cognition. While there is a good reply that doesn’t address this aspect of the wager, a response that goes straight for the jugular is more illuminating, providing a wider lesson about the relation between beliefs, preferences and rational choice. The wager is also a great example of how short, vivid and easily taught arguments in philosophy can have much broader implications.

Pascal asks non-believers to consider a choice between two options: believing in God and disbelieving. He assumes that belief has a modest net cost if God does not exist, since belief requires at least some sacrifice of time and effort. But disbelief has an infinite net cost if God does exist: the loss of a blissful eternity in heaven. The upshot is clear: at any odds, the expected value of believing will exceed the expected value of disbelief.

Pascal understands that we can’t just choose to believe—so the real choice of the wager is between trying to become a believer and not trying. Pascal recommended going through the motions of religious belief, making religious ritual and engagement a regular part of life, in the hope that belief will follow. The first reply takes advantage of the other side of this challenge: we can’t choose once and for all not to believe, either. No matter how committed you may be to your agnosticism or atheism, you just might have a sudden conversion. But adding this possibility to the calculation balances the scales—both alternatives now provide a finite chance of an infinite return: the expected values are equal after all, so Pascal’s argument fails.

But the argument’s focus on belief in God is a distraction, bringing in a lot of background noise. Many do believe in a God who rewards believers and punishes unbelievers. Others reject the suggestion that a good God, if she exists, would be so intent on primping in the mirror of believers’ faith as to enact such a policy. But this back-and-forth misses the real point. There’s a general puzzle here that has nothing to do with theism. Suppose the required belief was any belief we have no evidence for, such that having the belief at the end of your life would be infinitely rewarded if it were true. What belief might that be? Here’s a template:

B: If B is true and I believe B at the time of my death, then I will be infinitely rewarded. Two questions come up for any belief like this:

  1.  Should you try to acquire the belief? 
  2.  If you decide to try, how do you go about it?

The reply given above points out that there’s no guarantee that you will fail to have the belief if you don’t try. This equalizes the expected values, so there’s no reason to try.

But I prefer a second reply: if beliefs aren't based on evidence, Pascal's method for deciding what it's rational to do collapses, and the argument fails again, but in a more general and illuminating way. This reply has more heft: it targets the legitimacy of motivated beliefs, drawing on Pascal’s own model of rational choice to argue that choosing beliefs using Pascal’s wager-type arguments undermines the rationality of the appeal to expected values.

Rational choice in gambling combines beliefs about the probability of various outcomes given each alternative action with valuations of those outcomes to determine which action to choose. Like other early probability theorists, Pascal could calculate probabilities in games of chance when most professional gamblers couldn’t. But if we choose our beliefs based on whether we think having those beliefs will lead to better outcomes, Pascal’s method becomes an ouroboros: choices like that break the link between the beliefs we adopt and the actual probabilities/reliability of those beliefs. If our choices aren’t based on reliable judgements of probability, they can’t do the job Pascal’s account of rational choice needs them to do.

It’s the job of beliefs to be true and of probability assignments to reliably reflect ratios of outcomes in like cases. Dodging philosophical worries about ‘truth’ and focusing exclusively on the pragmatics we can say that to be useful, beliefs need to be a reliable basis for expectations about the consequences of our choices. (Similarly, it’s the business of evaluations of outcomes to reflect their real value to us.) When these conditions are met and we apply Pascal’s method our choices will be good ones, though of course we can still be unlucky. When the conditions aren’t met (think of professional gamblers fleeced by early probability theorists (probably frequentists - ER) or someone actively seeking an outcome they later regret) our choices are bad even if we’re lucky and things to turn out well. So like motivated cognition in general, denialism is a recipe for bad outcomes, well-earned: flying on a wing and a prayer may sound like fun, but it’s not likely to pay off.

This raises an obvious question: if the rationality (reliability) of beliefs is essential to making good choices, why do so many people reason poorly and have irrational beliefs? It doesn’t require a trip into real issues to show this (though those issues are what we’re really after here)—Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed long ago that people make similar mistakes in very simple cases (a story told elegantly in Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow). Their suggestion is that our psychology combines a capacity for careful, reliable reasoning with a quicker, more reflexive system that ‘cuts to the chase’ but often gets things wrong. This makes a lot of sense: rationality is a lot of work (consider Kepler’s travails in calculating by hand how well Brahe’s observations fit with the hypothesis of elliptical orbits obeying his three laws). Sense perception (a more basic evolutionary heritage) is quicker and easier—and so is guessing. Even though it can be misleading, sometimes making quick calls is more important than consistently making the right call.

The point is that rationality is not something nature built into us, but a difficult, piecemeal, always-incomplete accomplishment. It demands that we think hard, apply critical reflection and evaluate our reasoning carefully rather than leap to conclusions. These habits don’t come without effort, and even once we’ve learned them, it can be hard to resist jumping to conclusions. Science is built on conclusions that have been tested carefully to ensure they provide a reliable basis for evaluating both new information and the possible consequences of our actions. There’s no guarantee that it’s always right. But any conclusion that survives scientific examination has shown itself to be reliable in a range of applications and circumstances. And (at least for a pragmatist) that’s about the best we can expect.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Try reading the next sentence in the article, Professor Rotunda

Comments at Eli's previous post led me to Chris Mooney's fun and games at WaPo, reporting on some law professor talking about how a Harvard researcher showed that melting Greenland will lower regional sea level for places like the Netherlands and therefore it's all great. When pressed skeptically by physicist/Congressman Bill Foster who says the overall effect must be to raise sea level, Prof Rotunda says, "Read his article, that's what he says".

Okay, let's do that! Here is Harvard's Jerry Mitrovica:

When an ice sheet melts, that gravitational influence diminishes, and water moves away from the ice sheet, causing sea levels to drop as far as 2,000 kilometers away. (The drop is most pronounced close to the glacier, because gravity’s effects dissipate with distance.)
Vindication! Unless of course the very next sentences tell us something additional:

But because the sea level has fallen where the ice sheet melted, it rises everywhere else beyond that 2,000-kilometer boundary, and on distant shores this rise is far greater than the global average. The effect amplifies the rise in average global sea level attributable to the addition of the meltwater itself to the oceans. 

Either Prof. Rotunda had failed to read more than two and one-half paragraphs of an article he discusses in Congressional testimony at some length, or he's being deceptive.

On top of that, three other points. First it's not clear that the 2000 km range is a net effect after considering the effect of increased ocean volume from melt, or just the range of discernible gravitational effect. If the latter, then Rotunda's claim that Netherlands gets a benefit is misplaced in yet another way. The quote is in a mainstream magazine, not peer reviewed. I thought I was being lazy by not finding the original publication, but besides not knowing where it is, I'm not testifying to Congress right now.

Second, Greenland is big. Rotunda seems to think a magical gravity shield protects any place in Europe that's within 2000 km of any place in Greenland from all Greenlandish impacts. If most of the mass loss in Greenland is more than 2k away, it doesn't matter if some of it's closer - the net effect is worse than not considering gravitational effect.

Third, Rotunda needs to pull out a ruler and a map. Google Earth says no part of Netherlands is within 2000km of any part of Greenland's ice cap. I wonder if he did the miles/kilometer mixup, but maybe I'm just giving him too much credit. He says Europe doesn't need to worry about Greenland, but except for Northern UK, Ireland, and part of Scandinavia, no part of Greenland is with the magic distance Rotunda is discussing.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Frankly Eli is getting to the Weasel state.  Climate blogging was always mole whacking and moles have gotten older and slower so the sport has gone out of it.  They never were very bright to begin with.  So Brian and the occasional others, without your help things are going to get very slow here in the hutch.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

XKCD nails it on climate

Was going to blog about it, but Planet3 says it all, so go read.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Round Mound Trying to Be Profound

So Eli understands that Lamarrrrrr Smith held a hearing today to try and justify his pursuit of those nasty Attorney Generals who don't take Donnie Trumps money to stifle investigations.  While there is much fun to be had, Shawn Otto tweeted Eli to a particular give and take between Bill Foster (D-IL) and the only doctoral level scientist in the house, and one Ronald McDonald Rotunda, one of those expert witnesses that the Republicans find in small sectarian law schools with bad rankings and high tuition.

The fun starts with something that Rotunda tried to slip in earlier (have to look for it) about how melting Greenland will lower the sea level (starts at about 2:40).  

Foster's physical intuition is quite good, and Rotunda is pretty much at sea trying to twist things right and right.

Eli has taken an interest in local sea level rise for quite some time and can help.  Eli is a very helpful bunny.  What Rotunda is trying to refer to is work by Jerry Mitrovica and his students.  The long and short of it can be viewed here on YouTube

Chris Mooney had an article on this effect some months ago, the figure below show what will happen if part of Antarctica melt

Thursday, September 08, 2016


There for a couple weeks with my wife and nephew. No volunteering this time to pretend the travel emissions aren't sinful, just a vacation. Can't do it without some blogthoughts though!

Iceland has nearly 100%, renewable energy-sourced electricity, mostly hydro and a large chunk of geothermal, so no variability problems either. Wiki says they can do a lot more of both, although new projects attract a lot of environmental controversy. They also make extensive use of district heating as is done in a lot of Europe, and something we Americans really should take up a lot more. A lot of the home hot water is geothermal even, so very enviro if a little smelly.

Here in California there's a concern with toxic metals brought from the subsurface with geothermal power. We toured one plant and I asked about that, and the company rep said no problem there. I'm not quite clear why. It might be it's so hot there that they can pump up steam, do a heat exchange with freshwater, use the freshwater for district heating and send the steam back underground. Or maybe there's just a heck of a lot more water in Iceland than in California, so the toxics don't concentrate. Beyond my lazy tourist-sleuthing to quite nail down.

Wind energy barely exists in Iceland, and it is hard to compete with hydro on price. OTOH, habitat and cultural concerns may limit new hydro, while wind keeps dropping in price and is perfectly matched with hydro and geothermal for dependable, carbon-free power. There's even talk of exporting power to the UK, although that seems like just talk and nothing more for several years now.

I was surprised at how little EV penetration exists. Islands tend to be good markets for EVs, and Iceland has cheap electricity along with the other reasons like expensive fuel and limited driving range. Maybe the island is a little big and underpopulated with charging stations, but that should change.

Icelanders have a weird thing with trees, clearly planting them in lots of places for obscure reasons beyond wind breaks. My psychoanalysis is it's a cultural thing with two reasons:  they're still traumatized by the decimation of birchwoods that originally covered Iceland, a bad decision that was only somewhat less disastrous than at Easter Island. The other reason is they want to show they can grow trees like other countries, dammit. Iceland's Forestry Department has other reasons, so take your pick.

UPDATE:  some excellent comments by readers, as usual.