Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Robotic Peregrine

Robird Peregrine Falcon from Clear Flight Solutions on Vimeo.
This video shows the Robird Peregrine Falcon model flying.
Seen at Gizmag.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

when r > g

If you are seeking amusement, take a look at the critical responses in the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages to the publication of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  As might be expected, the WSJ commentators are not economists but rather business-schooled money managers.  Their arguments either ignore the inequality issues raised by Piketty or claim that obscene levels of compensation for CEOs have no significantly deleterious effect.  Much of the verbiage is devoted to an attempt to portray the French economist as a doctrinaire anti-capitalist Marxist.

What the WSJ folks do not do is to look at the central claim made in Piketty's work:

"Piketty uses a simple formula to illuminate the dynamics at work. Inequality tends to rise, he argues, when the average rate of return on capital exceeds the economy’s growth rate (or, as he puts it, when r > g)...

...Per capita growth for developed economies, Piketty believes, has settled at approximately its maximum sustainable rate, around 1 percent annually. That was enough to make people in the nineteenth century feel they were caught in perpetual revolution, but judged by the best of the twentieth century, or China and India today, it seems positively anemic. With growth reduced, escalating income inequality is all but inevitable without aggressive policy intervention."

Those are the words of Timothy Shenk in an extraordinarily articulate article in The Nation, in which the writer presents an analysis of Piketty's work in the proper historical context, which is totally lacking in the WSJ critiques.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mother Jones vs Mother Martinez

There is a  long article penned by Andy Kroll on the Mother Jones site about New Mexico Governor, Susana Martinez.  The piece has been linked to from Alternet and Huffpost and will get a lot of national attention.  The article makes use of a lot of intercepted conversations and emails from inside the Martinez machine, and it is likely to make the Martinez camp very nervous.  It will be interesting to watch how they combat the allegations of the article without calling more attention to the source.

It seems to me that Kroll has made an error in trying to characterize Martinez as the next Sarah Palin.  The Gov may be sketchy on policy detail, but she clearly is not an air head.  She and her handlers have been very adept at managing her media image.  Martinez has a bigger war chest already than all of her potential Democratic Party gubernatorial rivals together.  She has not hesitated to do effective hatchet jobs on rivals in her own party, but she has also not done anything that seriously harms her with the Tea Party wing of her party.  At the same time, Martinez has put considerable effort into ingratiating herself with the Republican mainstream, and she has been embraced by both the big names and the big funders.

Martinez currently has New Mexico approval ratings in the 50-60 per cent range.  It is hard to see how she might be bested in the upcoming Governor's race in the absence of some major scandal revelations.  While it may be hard to imagine anyone would take her seriously as a presidential candidate, when you look at the electoral history of the last couple decades, it is clear that there is a very low bar for aspirants to the second place on the ticket.

Friday, March 28, 2014


I watched part of a popular network tv program last night in which the actor portraying a supervisory-level policeman enters a holding cell and takes a knife to the ear of a prisoner, threatening to fully cut off the man's ear to get a confession.  Other similar shows I have watched show a similar proclivity for portraying acts of violence against people in police custody.  Torture of prisoners is a regular event, for instance, in the popular Hawaii Five-O series.

Why torture has become such a regular feature of popular crime shows is something of a mystery in itself.  While there is no doubt that police brutality is a fact of life, the ways in which it is typically portrayed on tv is totally lacking in credibility.  It is also notable for the fact that the torturers are invariably represented as being morally upstanding defenders of public safety.  It is hard for me to imagine what the writers and producers of these shows are trying to accomplish.  Do their marketing surveys show a big demand for torture scenes?  Is a substantial portion of the prime-time tv audience made up of Dick Cheney Republicans?  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a large part of the American population is living in a fantasy world in which more guns and more violence makes us all safer.

My suspicion is that the skewing of tv entertainment toward an acceptance of officially propagated torture is closely related to the universal trend toward the militarization of U.S. police departments.  No municipality of whatever size lacks a SWAT team these days, and most seemed to be armed with high-power weapons and equipped with surplus armored vehicles.  This is certainly the case in Albuquerque where the police armored truck shows up frequently at neighborhood events, apparently as some kind of public relations gesture.  There is also clearly a shoot-first cultural tradition in the department which has led to many questionable deaths over a period of years.  A large street demonstration a few days ago against the latest killings showed that public sentiment is swinging toward a demand for the establishment of control over the excess violence by the police, and possibly support for a Department of Justice intervention.

(Deming Headlight photo)
Some details about the militarization of small town police forces are available in a recent article at the AlterNet site.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Getting the News

I have added a couple links over in the right column to blogs about the news.  The most promising from my point of view is Joe Monahan's; he comments extensively and nearly on a daily basis on New Mexico politics.  I was prompted to go looking for new information sources on local news by yet another killing by the Albuquerque police of a person with mental health issues.  The local TV news has devoted quite a lot of time to the event, but the coverage of any topic in the typical half-hour format is superficial at best.  Monahan is well-connected and his wide-ranging articles are well written.  His reporting on the positions of local politicians on the issue of Albuquerque's out-of-control police department is superior to anything else I have found on the topic.

I'm hopeful but less optimistic for the new web site and blog under the direction of number-cruncher, Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight.  Silver's performance in predicting the outcomes in the last presidential race in every state was flawless.  I thought his book about number crunching was much less impressive.  His new on line undertaking employs a large team of writers with pretty good statistical credentials, but it remains to be seen if they can bring something really new to the table.  Quite a lot of attention is devoted to sports statistics which is of no interest to me.  The political and economic stories so far have mostly seemed uninspired, and the one on climate change by Roger Pielke was something of a disaster.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Photography as speech

New Mexico has taken a leading position in the advancement of the rights of gay couples to marry.  Recently, the state's Supreme Court also ruled that an Albuquerque photo studio, Elane Photography, could not refuse services to a gay couple wanting pictures of their wedding.  Elane Photography's owners had contended that they had a right to refuse services based on their religious beliefs regarding homosexual behavior.  The NM Supreme Court decision affirmed the principle that goods and services cannot be denied based on such discrimination.

A couple lawyers weighed in on the case recently in a letter reproduced in the Wall Street Journal.  Eugene Volokh and Ilya Shapiro asserted that the New Mexico ruling impinges on the company owner's right to freedom of expression or choice not to express some idea as represented by their photographic products.  The U.S. Supreme Court will soon make a decision whether or not to take up the case, and Volokh and Shapiro's point of view would no doubt play a role the proposed proceedings.

The problem I see with the position advanced by Volokh and Shapiro is that it equates the work of a commercial studio portraitist with that of a photojournalist, based primarily it seems on the use of similar image making technology.  That seems to me a pretty tenuous connection.  A photojournalist is clearly using the technology to express ideas in a manner that is constitutionally protected.  A commercial photo studio is doing no such thing; they are not expressing ideas about truth and justice, but rather producing a product designed to make their clients look as good as possible according to conventional social norms.  That is essentially the same objective sought by businesses selling toothpaste and beauty products.

There is a long history in the U.S. of efforts by the religious right to buttress discriminatory practices with appeals to ideas of religious freedom.  Racial segregationists, for instance, asserted it was God's will that the races should live separately, and for a time they were able to get tax exemptions for private segregated schools.  Richard Nixon, a Republican, did away with that exemption.  His party has since shifted further rightward, supporting an endless series of challenges chipping away at the idea of equal rights under law.  There is a good over-view of this history in a recent interview with Columbia Law School professor, Katherine Franke, at the Salon.com site.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court declined Monday to decide if a New Mexico wedding photographer was within her rights when she refused to work at a same-sex ceremony.

The denial leaves standing a decision by the state's highest court that went against the photo studio...

   - Richard Wolf, USA TODAY 9:52 a.m. EDT April 7, 2014

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


A Stanford researcher, Manu Prakash, has developed a 50-cent paper microscope capable of 2000x magnification.  His interest was chiefly in making an instrument for diagnosing blood-borne diseases like malaria.  However, the microscope has many other potential applications including basic science education.

An article in Scope, published by Stanford Medicine, describes the origami-like construction and use of the little microscope, and includes this Youtube video:

The web site for the project includes a request for 10,000 volunteers to beta test the Foldscope and to help in developing an open-source manual for the instrument.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Another MOOC

Pensamiento Científico 
by Carlos Gershenson

I have enrolled in a new free on-line Coursera offering, Pensamiento Científico.  It doesn't start officially until February 3rd, but the first week's lectures are already available, and I have completed all but one.  The Spanish vocabulary and the content are well within my grasp.  The presenter speaks quite rapidly but clearly, and his delivery is just enough of a challenge to be useful.  The very brief quizzes at the end of each lecture are useful to comprehension, and they can be repeated as often as necessary to maintain a perfect score.  Succeeding lectures may get beyond my comfort zone in terms of language and content, but I feel the course has already been well worthwhile in terms of coming to grips with the spoken language.

It seems to me that on-line courses like Pensamiento Científico would be a great addition to the offerings at Albuquerque's Cervantes Institute.  The resource is cost-free for students, and can be easily accessed in accordance with varying schedules.  The Institute could add useful value through the formation of discussion groups at the Albuquerque location, and I would think no one would object to a small fee for the use of the facility.  I will try to propose this idea Thursday when I will be at the Hispanic Cultural Center to attend a lecture by Martha Heard on her recently published book, Salir del Silencio, Voces de Càlig 1900-1938.

Advancing Rearward:
The course I am presently taking, as well as hundreds more offered by Coursera, is presently unavailable to anyone in Syria, Sudan, Iran and Cuba due to a ban on such online contact by the U.S. State Department.  It seems like quite a stretch to imagine that a basic course in scientific thought would seriously threaten U.S. security.  Given the disastrous PR associated with the wikileaks and Snowden revelations, it would seem that there would be considerable pressure to lift the current ban on access to free on-line educational resources for residents of black-listed countries.  In fact, another big course provider, edX, has been able to negotiate exemptions from the ban for students in Cuba and Iran.  So, maybe Coursera will get its legal act together and help eliminate this national embarrassment in the near future.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Revisiting Marinaleda

The mayor of Marinaleda, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, has been sentenced to seven months in prison for leading a group of about five hundred people in the occupation of a rural property owned by the Spanish military in Andalucía. The stated purpose of the action was to force the military to cede the property to the people of the nearby town of Osuna. Also arrested and sentenced were Diego Cañamero and two other leaders of the Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT). Sánchez Gordillo also faces a fine of a million euros. I have not found any report that the four men have yet been incarcerated, but that seems likely and imminent. What the outcome will be for the accused and for their community is uncertain, though it must certainly be perceived as a dire existential threat.

 Coincidentally, with the help of friends with family in Spain, I recently obtained and read a book about Marinaleda which came out in the mid-'90s, Cultura Jornalera, Poder Popular y Liderazgo Mesiánico. Antropología Política de Marinaleda, by Félix Talego Vázquez. I believe the author spent a year living in the community while working on his doctoral thesis. By the time the book came out, Sánchez Gordillo had been the town's mayor for twenty years, a thousand-two-hundred hectares of farmland had been ceded to the community from the holdings of the Duke of The Infantado and the mayor had also been elected as a representative to the legislature of Andalucía.

While the successful establishment of a rural agricultural cooperative was still a work in progress at the time, the majority of the population had seen considerable improvement in their economic conditions in comparison to their neo-feudal past. At the same time, there appeared to be a generalized feeling that the revolutionary vigor of the movement was waning, partly in response to the encroachments of the developing European and Spanish economies. While the author in his final assessment recognized the community's continuing allegiance to the movement, he also implied that there was a very good chance that the utopian experiment that was Marinaleda would be swallowed up by a booming economy fueled by foreign investment and ramapant real estate development.

 Of course, what actually happened and what nobody foresaw was the economic disaster of 2008 which brought crushing national debt, demands for austerity by northern European creditors, and catastrophic levels of unemployment. Marinaleda, it seems, was prepared to meet these challenges in a way that was unique in Spain. By the time of the collapse, the rural cooperative was an actuality. One hundred fifty families were able to build their own houses with materials and volunteer labor supplied from the community, and in the height of the crisis unemployment in Marinaleda did not exceed five percent. Some of this story has been told in journalistic accounts, including a recent article in El País, but there is clearly a need for a thorough follow-up to the book by Talego Vázquez.

 It would be interesting to get the views of Talego Vázquez on how Marinaleda has fared since the publication of his book in 1996. It is unlikely, however, that the Marinaleños would let him back into town to conduct further investigations. The mayor and his supporters never showed much tolerance for outside criticism and they saw his book as an attack on their hard-won gains. While there is certainly truth to the assertion by the author that the mayor's leadership of the movement has something of a messianic quality to it, I have to confess some sympathy for the rejection of the analysis contained in the Talego Vázquez book.

 Talego Vázquez from beginning to end, assesses the Marinaleda political process by comparing it to the ideals of neo-liberal democracy. That approach may be understandable to a degree considering the political and economic environment of the 1990's in Spain. However, it seems to me that a comparison such as that is really inappropriate to an anthropological study which aspires to some kind of scientific rigor. The author could have described the same political processes in a more neutral fashion that was not dependent on an ideological orientation that was foreign and largely irrelevant to the environment in which the story unfolded. The statistical data and analysis evident in the book is from census and electoral records that one would expect to be accessible to a fundamentally historical approach. There is also considerable reliance on anecdotal evidence rather than the independently acquired survey data and quantitative analysis one expects these days from the social sciences.