Doctor Who?

October 8th, 2012

Doctor Who

"Coincidence. It's what the universe does for fun" ("Closing Time", Series 6, 2011)

A few years ago, I happened to be downtown San Diego during ComicCon - the huge annual comics and science fiction convention. That event occasioned some entertainment watching the costumed participants streaming by the pub where we took sidewalk seating to enjoy a bite and brew with the view.   A few weeks ago, I was flipping through channels and came upon broadcast from ComicCon 2012, which featured an interview with two actors in the current season of Doctor Who, a television franchise that dates to the first Doctor in 1963.

As a youth, in high school, I watched quite a bit of the fourth Doctor (played by Tom Baker) and the program continued well after that, concluding that run in 1989 with the seventh Doctor.  Season 1 of the modern reboot started in 2005, featuring the ninth Doctor.  The current Doctor is number eleven.

The ComicCon interview was intriguing, and later on I noticed several of the recent seasons "on demand" through the cable, so decided to give it a try.  I missed the initial Series of the reboot, but later ones were still available, so I started watching with the regeneration of the Doctor to his tenth incarnation.  It was a seven minute special that sucked me in enough to watch the next full episode, and before long I was completely engaged by the characters and story.   I noticed those earlier Series were soon to expire from the on-demand system, so commenced a viewing binge that completed Series 2 in about four days, and Series 3 about a week later.

Since then I am mostly caught up into the current Series 7, in the process seeing two incarnations of the Doctor (tenth, played by David Tennant, eleventh Matt Smith), and principle companions Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), Amy Pond (Karen Gillen), and the mysterious River Song (Alex Kingston).  I located Series 1 at the local video parlor, so I am now savoring the backstory with the tenth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). This has meant a lot of television watching, for which my penance is writing this review.

Some of you may already appreciate Doctor Who; it is reasonably famous in SF as among the longest running programs in television history.  The modern version of Doctor Who seems a far cry from what I remember as a youth; the production values are much greater, to begin with, so it hardly seems like the same program.  To summarize the premise, the Doctor is of a very long lived race known as time lords. While the Doctor's universe is not ours, there are many similarities; it is naturalistic; but there are aliens everywhere (or so it seems), and strange psychic phenomenon.    Doctor Who has continued this long in part because they figured out how to change the Doctor; if faced with death, he can regenerate (within some limits); his successor holds the memories and adventurous spirit, but not exactly the same personality.  

Doctor Who is firstly an adventure series.  The first words of the Doctor to Rose is "Run!" ("Rose", Series 1, 2005).  Donna tries to explain to her friend - "He saves planets, rescues civilizations, defeats terrible creatures, and runs a lot. Seriously, there's an outrageous amount of running involved" ("The Doctors Daughter", Series 4, 2008).  Like many fictions, however, the strength is in the characters - the Doctor and his foibles, his companions and their sometimes ambiguous, sometimes rocky relationships.  

The Doctor has a device called a TARDIS, which allows him to travel across time and space.  The TARDIS has the external appearance of a blue British police call box.  A perception filter keeps the TARDIS from seeming out of place to the local inhabitants wherever it goes.  On the inside, the TARDIS is very much larger, which allows the comfortable travel of the time lord and his companions.  The Doctor's coat pockets are apparently also bigger on the inside, which explains how he can sometimes pull from them a needful item.   

Doctor Who takes on companions - contemporary humans - and travels together for an adventure, a season, or longer.  Their adventures sometimes balance the ultimate future of the universe, or the immediate future of individuals or cultures.  The Doctor's companions are attracted to him in different ways, but those relationships are treated with some subtlety.  The Doctor is heroic; he has a adventurous spirit that values life and abhors violence, that (mostly) seeks a solution to threatening danger that can thread the needle rather than blow it up.  But to be fair, things blow up real good from time to time. While it is not for everyone, once they experience it, his companions are attracted by that adventure.  

In the opening sequence to Series 6 (2011), Amy Pond says "I ran away with him, and we've been running ever since".  Rose Tyler asks "is it always this dangerous?", and joins the Doctor in spite of his unequivocal "yes". ("Rose", Series 1, 2005)

The Doctor is not perfect by any stretch, his plans sometimes go horribly awry, and the TARDIS doesn't always take the Doctor where or when he wants.  A five minute trip can turn into 12 years; what was meant to be several hours absence turns out to be a full year.  Evidently he came to possess it under some sketchy circumstances that didn't provide the operators manual, and It seems to have a mind of it's own ("The Doctor's Wife" Series 6, 2011).  

The Doctor has a fold out wallet that he uses for identification. The psychic paper contents are completely blank, but it works everywhere, because it appears to attest he is watever he needs to be. This works up to the time when he tells a young boy that the credentials show he is "universally recognized as a mature and responsible adult".   The boy says:  "but it's just a lot of wavy lines".  The Doctor pulls it back to see, then: "it's shorted out; finally, a lie too big." ("A Christmas Carol", Series 5, 2010)

Like much science fiction, one must suspend disbelief.  I find it perfectly acceptable that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than the outside, and that it can travel anywhere in time and space.  However, the Daleks are still cheesy after a 40 year tune-up, and Series 5's "Victory of the Daleks" (2010) went over the edge with the Spitfire attack on orbiting spacecraft.  Even so, while I have cringed a time or three, the writing is entertaining, and the characters sympathetic and multi-dimensional.  And I like how the production has not focused on pretty faces; Karen Gillen is unique along the cute range, while her character Amy Pond and the others have their own goals and motivations.

"There's so much to discover; think how much wiser we will be by the end of all this. Did I mention missiles?  I didn't want to worry you. And anyway six hours is a lifetime. Not literally a lifetime - that's what we're trying to avoid. And we're already clever; let's see what we can find out." - the Doctor ("Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", Series 7, 2012)

While he may not always succeed at it, the Doctor aims to resolve conflict through communication and wits, rather than violence. Often his first response to an apparent threat is "let's try to talk with them".  Even so, his sense of justice can be harsh, even vengeful with rage in the face ancient adversaries, and it falls to the strong character of his companions to give voice to reason or compassion. ("Dalek", Series 1, 2005).  His approach to justice can also be more subtle; when the Prime Minister orders the destruction of a retreating alien force, the Doctor triggers her political downfall with six words spoken to an aide: "Don't you think she looks tired?" ("The Christmas Invasion", Series 2, 2005).

The Doctor has a wry and sometimes madcap sense of humor, but fear, in it's multifarious forms, features to drive the action. In "Midnight" (Series 4, 2008), the Doctor is engaged in a vacation tour when the vehicle breaks down in a life threatening environment and the group must wait for rescue. When one of the passengers starts repeating the words of everyone else, and then begins to speak those words in advance of everyone else's utterances, panic and suspicion sets in, followed by attempts to toss the Doctor out the airlock.  In "The God Complex" (Series 6, 2011), several people are trapped in a cheap hotel; the hotel has a unique room for each of them that contains their worst fears. One by one the party discover their room, succumb to fear, and are consumed. The Doctor must sacrifice his trust in order to save them.

I have heard it said that we are living in a new golden age of television.  That might be true.  For Doctor Who, it's "Anywhere you want. Any time you want. There's one condition - it has to be amazing." (Series 5 opening, 2010)

socialist paradise in practice

October 7th, 2012

Several thoughts come to mind with the story depicted by the images here about this natural gas deposit that has been burning in the former Soviet Union since 1971

Perhaps the most concise would be simply that the roads to hell are paved with good intentions, but that would minimze the  death and destruction that was deliberate policy with the rise of communism.

Of course, statists on the right have their own bloody hands to atone for.

privilege - when law favors private interests

October 2nd, 2012

I have previously ranted and otherwise written elsewhere about how the regulatory state tends to promote special interests:  sports stadiums, company bailouts, and regulation in general.

I was looking at my archive of Planet Money episodes and found these two further examples:  in one, we hear about how a young woman can't braid hair for a living without obtaining a license from the state; another describes something much more widespread - farm insurance programs, where even the recipients recognize them as a private benefit.

These sorts of restrictions hurt consumers everywhere.

rant on Brooks on Elon Musk

September 25th, 2012

David Brooks "Temerity at the Top" column in the NYT motivated this rant.  In it, Brooks makes some excellent points about how the character traits that drive economic innovation are not necessarily the touchy-feely ones, as illustrated for the case of Elon Musk.

The reason capitalism has a bad rap in many circles is that people who achieve economic power and influence so often use it to twist the regulatory process in their favor.
I do not believe that most of the economically successful people fit in this category.  However, the people who end up influencing regulatory policy are almost exclusively also economically successful.  Those are the people who have the time and resources required to go to DC and sit with the regulators and get their preferences and arguments heard – they are the ones with the most to gain (and lose, for that matter) from the outcome of the regulations.  And their payoff is huge, considering the investment of time and energy.
Meanwhile the rest of us are facing economic losses of much smaller magnitude, losses directly related to the regulatory outcomes that restrict competition, or enable subsidies, or retard technological development by favoring certain technologies.  But those losses, small on an individual basis, swamp the scales when taken for the overall population.
What is most irritating about this situation is that the whole process is sold to the public as being for their own good, for safety, for consumer protection, or to preclude an economic meltdown.
Far preferable, and leading to far better outcomes, would be to hold people accountable (liability), protect their property (trespass and damage), and uphold contracts (fraud).  In short, we don’t need “government policies that boost them along”.

two educational podcasts

September 24th, 2012

In the same week I found two distinct but complementary takes on the question of whether there might be better ways to improve education among the poorest in our communities;  This American Life's Back to School presented interviews with researchers, practitioners, and school children,circling around and through some ideas collected recently in a book by Paul Tough - How Children Succeed

Meanwhile, Russ Roberts' EconTalk podcast featured an extended interview with Tough about the ideas in his book and their implications on public policy.

Mr Tough has been making the rounds - I also caught the very tail end of an interview on Seattle's KUOW.


September 19th, 2012

Among the recent news is a report in Nature Materials out of Charles Lieber's lab at Harvard, describing what they call "nanoelectronic scaffolds for synthetic tissues."  This sort of topic is liable for all sorts of hyperbolic rambling, so I'll try to restrain myself.  Even so, the subject promises to become of increasing relevance; this is not my first post on the prospects for human technology to enhance human physiology, and I expect others.

It was from exposure to the works of Robert Anton Wilson (especially Illuminatus!, with Robert Shea) that I started thinking about the prospects for radical life extension - the SMIILE paradigm appealed to my predelictions - Space Migration, Increased Intelligence, Life Extension, still seem like a great combination (the notation credited to Wilson and Timothy Leary).

This work by Lieber, et al, represents another step along the path towards improving the performance of our bodily tissues, with the prospects of allowing them to last far longer, require less energy to operate and maintain, and add new features that could increase resistance to disease, repair traumatized organs and birth defects, enable us to tolerate a greater range of environmental conditions, and increase our range of sensible detection.  Lieber and his colleagues rank among the most productive contributors to developments on this path (check out 25 years of publications), but many others have been working along this path for decades.

Someone at work brought my attention to the somewhat snarky conclusion to this post on SLATE, that this work represents "another tiny step in our ill-advised quest for immortality."   I say that improved health and increased life span is an unequivocal good.

yet another Seattle sports stadium subsidy

September 16th, 2012

I am amazed and disappointed that Seattle's City Council, with support from some state legislators, is planning yet one more public subsidy to sports teams

"The proposed deal [is] to build a half-billion-dollar arena, with a city tax investment of up to $140 million ($145 million, including $5 million from the county) if [San Francisco hedge-fund manager Chris] Hansen only secures an NBA team. If he secures an NHL team as well, King County will kick in another $80 million."

How do we know it is a subsidy? for one thing, if the stadium enthusiasts were just in business, then all they would need is a building permit. Instead they are after public financing. If they were a business, they would have to find investors to take a stake in the enterprise.  The result if this passes is that the team owners will have gotten cheap financing and kept their ownership undiluted.

Another questionable feature of this deal is the allocation of funding to mitigate transportation issues in the SODO area that might arise due to another stadium located there - "the council’s arena deal would create a $40 million fund to pay for transportation mitigation around the Port of Seattle".  Such provisions are likely to get lost when the pushes come to shove, and these $40 millions will end up just increasing the total spending by the city; they also plan on appealing for matching funds from the State and US government, which will just lay the bills for this project at the feet of people who are completely removed from it.

City Council member Mike O'Brien is quoted saying:  "When you read through the [memoranda of understanding], there’s a whole slew of corporations and entities that are listed … but none of those entities actually exist yet, so it’s hard for us to tell who’s actually backing this up" - acknowledging ignorance about how this deal is supposed to work even as he joins the other Council members, Tim Burgess and president Sally Clark, in announcing the deal with Hansen who also owns the property where the stadium is expected to be built.

Jerry Brewer at The points out the hypocrisy of the Seattle Mariners opposition to the new Arena - they are recipient of public largess even worse than that proposed in favor of Chris Hansen and basketball fans.

Seth Kolloen at hails this deal, but he's mistaken to portray this as capitalism in action - this is just one more example of how private interests capitalize on their political associations to foist their private interests on the general public.

That this project is likely to go through is another consequence of how politics tends to favor the few who stand to benefit by government spending.  Those few are the ones who take the trouble to make donations and otherwise grease the palms of politicians, and stroke their egos by praising their farsightedness in creating this new monument to their vanity. 

Everyone else has better things to do than fight this, so once again politics will concentrate the gains and socialize the costs.

the crisis - gory details

September 15th, 2012

I have made several posts concerning various perspectives on the current economic crisis, and thought it would be useful to consolidate those item into a single piece, so here goes.  Many of these introduce particular episodes of Russ Roberts' interview podcast - econtalk, a program I have found to be very educational and informative of details of diverse perspectives on economics, through a long form interview format.

A number of posts looked at the state of the crisis and our understanding of the details at different points in time;  here is one from February 2009; this post introduces the perspective from May 2010.   The moral hazard aspects of the recent bailouts, coming as they did after decades of prior cases where other large banks were saved from the consequences of their risk taking, is a persuasive model for ow we got in this mess, and how the prospects for future such messes seem more than likely.   The bailouts were not just practically counterproductive, leading as they do to more bailouts in the future, but they are fundamentally unfair inasmuch as the taxpayers end up footing the bill for the risks that went bad, while the people in charge of those banks maybe lose part of their large fortunes - privatizing the gains and socializing the losses.

The whole bailout situation continues to strike me as wholly unnecessary; I first wrote about it here; this post makes a point about the growth of economic and political power, and this post introduces discussion of the stimulus spending that was supposed to make things all better, while this post takes in the perspective of one of the people responsible for trying to make the bailout system even minimally accountable to the general public.  Matt Taibbi over at Rolling Stone authored a critique of what Bear Stearns was doing all that time (among other things); I found a couple points at issue with Mr. Taibbi's analysis of the situation.

The events leading up to the crisis were in some circles described as completely unprecedented and unpredictable - I don't believe that, nor do I think it amounts to an excuse for the policy decisions made in the aftermath; this post introduces a discussion with Nassim Taleb concerning is book - Black Swan - and the phenomena of low probability events.   For some explanation of techincal details of the crisis, this post introduces what is mean by a "credit default swap", a financial derivative that features prominently in the onset.  For more of the theoretical underpinnings, this post calls attention to the two rap videos that pit Hayek and Keynes, who are used in the video to represent two explanatory models for the crisis.

I introduce a discussion of gold as money in this post.  Gold has a long history as the monetary unit of people around the world, across all sort of cultures, for thousands of years.  Gold is important vis a vis the crisis, in as much as we can lay the causes at the feet of the Fed, for pursuing policies of cheap credit and monetary expansion.  Ron Paul, as part of his recent US Presidential campaign, has proposed competing currencies, an approach which could allow for Gold, or Silver, or even Copper or Platinum as eventually taking the dominant place in substitute of the Federal Reserve Note; the call for sound money has been picked up by Gary Johnson, 2012 Libertarian candidate for US President and former two-term Governor of New Mexico. 

At one point in this period I came upon the description of Modern Monetary Theory as explanation and prescription for the crisis; I promised myself to delve into some of the details, which led to a series of posts starting here.

rapping the financial crisis, on econtalk

September 11th, 2012

Something recently reminded me of certain similarities between developments of the current economic crisis, and the one we call the Great Depression.  How they both start under the tenure of a Republican, who is replaced in the next election by a Democrat.  How the R is perceived as a free-marketeer, but whose policies are matched in so many ways by the D successor.  How those policies end up causing the crisis to last longer than most other economic reversals.

Most of what communication talent I might have is verbal, and whatever I sense of poetry comes with no small labor.  The majority of my practice of writing is in technical communication, which perhaps accounts for my occasional reductions to first principles.  At any rate, I was reviewing some of my old notes and came upon brief comments on these two podcast episodes that together feature a completely different approach toward raising questions about the causes of the ongoing economic crisis.

The first concludes with the song "Fear the Boom and Bust", from the fantastic rap video that Roberts made with John Papola.  One can tell from this discussion that the portrayals in that song of the intellectual differences between Keynes and Hayek are pretty fair to the two of them, in so far as 7m33s duration can represent.  Fifteen months later, Roberts and Papola made a second rap song about the differences between Hayek and Keynes - "Fight of the Century".  This podcast has the two discussing some of what it was like to create these videos, the ideas they are trying to express with them, and the strengths and limitations of this art form as an entertainment and educational tool.  I like how they spend a little time getting deep with Say's law, and recount how some of this debate has recurred every hundred years or so.

Keynes and Hayek were engaged in this intellectual exchange back with the Great Depression.  It is somewhat remarkable that some of the same questions of political economy continue to be raised 80 years later.

Hayek and Money (2/1/2010) - Larry White of George Mason University talks about Hayek's ideas on the business cycle and money. White lays out Hayek's view of business cycles and the role of monetary policy in creating a boom and bust cycle. The conversation also explores the historical context of Hayek's work on business cycle theory--the onset of the Great Depression and the intellectual battle with Keynes and his work. In the second half of the podcast, White turns to alternative ways to provide money, in particular, the possibility of private currency and free banking explored by Hayek late in his career. White then describes his own research on free banking and in particular, the more than a century-long experience Scotland had with free banking. The podcast concludes with the economics rap "Fear the Boom and Bust," recently created by John Papola and Russ Roberts. The song itself can be downloaded at where viewers can also watch the video, read the lyrics, and find related resources on the web for Keynes and Hayek.

Papola on the Keynes Hayek Rap Videos (5/2/2011) - John Papola of Emergent Order talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about their collaboration creating rap videos based on the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek. Their first was "Fear the Boom and Bust" which was released January 25, 2010. This past week they released "Fight of the Century." The latest video discusses the overarching differences between the philosophies of Keynes and Hayek and their views on whether government spending promotes recovery from an economic downturn and whether it leads to prosperity. In this conversation, Papola and Roberts discuss some of the underlying ideas in the video--whether the military spending of World War II ended the Great Depression, the debate between Malthus and Say and their influence on Keynes and Hayek, and the fundamental differences between Keynes and Hayek in how economic prosperity is created.

bailouts on econtalk

September 10th, 2012

Econtalk host Russ Roberts recently interviewed Neil Barofsky, former Special Inspector General of the TARP (and life long democrat), about his work with the Troubled Asset Relief Program and other related programs.  Barofsky was responsible for making sure that the taxpayer money spent in those programs had some semblance of accountability, and instead was faced with obstacles thrown up not by the banks, but by the US administration and Treasury departments.

TARP and the other programs were sold to the American people on the argument that the financial system was running off the rails and something had to be done.  Whether one believes this story, or that is was the sincere and well-intentioned objective of our dear leaders, like so much else in financial regulation the result was ultimately fraught with the deep moral hazard of many government programs.

He says at 46:04

"all that money got paid out, and you have another windfall for banks, who under a normal functioning free market get punished for that counter-party risk, from putting on such big bets on with AIG, which they had to have known that AIG would never be able to pay off if we had a housing crisis. But again, the whole presumption of bailout so underlies our market, that we don't have a free market, we have a government-subsidized market that encourages inefficiency, and encourages really unfair and unjust results.   When actions are taken, like Geithner with AIG, it just reinforces all of that unfairness and inefficiency in our markets."

At around 54:08: 

"[what if] there were some sort of diversity of voice ... but it wasn't, and that makes it very easy to discount those views, to rule them out as being stupid or politically motivated, which is what Geithner and his team did to any dissenting voices, when you maintain this type of echo chamber.  And the second part of course is, one of the aspects of the revolving door, is that there is ahuge incentive for people within the government to get those jobs on wall street, and shaping what they do.  I was told point blank, by the assistant secretary of the Treasury, that I was harming my own interests in getting one of those shots one day, by my tone, by my harshness of my criticisms of wall street and the government and that I needed to change my tone.  And so there's also still that promise of reward if you do right by wall street.  I think it's interesting that Ron Susskinds book, he quotes the Wall Street CEOs that Tim Geithner, they refer to him as "our man in Washington".  And there's an eventual payoff for that type of role, I imagine."

Barofsky has written a book about his experience as TARP Special Inspector General - Bailout.  It is interesting to hear someone with such exposure to the internal workings of these programs, come out with direct observations of the corruption that has become endemic, but ultimately inherent to the government control of these industries.

The banks should have been allowed to fail from the start.