Category Archives: politics

Bitcoin risks, uses, and bubble

Bitcoin prices over the last 3 years

Bitcoin prices over the last 3 years

As I write this, the price of a single bitcoin stands are approximately $11,100 yesterday, up some 2000% in the last 6 months suggesting it is a financial bubble. Or maybe it’s not: just a very risky investment suited for inclusion in a regularly balanced portfolio. These are two competing views of bitcoin, and there are two ways to distinguish between them. One is on the basis of technical analysis — does this fast rise look like a bubble (Yes!), and the other is to accept that bitcoin has a fundamental value, one I’ll calculate that below. In either case, the price rise is so fast that it is very difficult to conclude that the rise is not majorly driven by speculation: the belief that someone else will pay more later. The history of many bubbles suggests that all bubbles burst sooner or later, and that everyone holding the item loses when it does. The only winners are the last few who get out just before the burst. The speculator thinks that’s going to be him, while the investor uses rebalancing to get some of benefit and fun, without having to know exactly when to get out.

That bitcoin is a bubble may be seen by comparing the price three years ago. At that point it was $380 and dropping. A year later, it was $360 and rising. One can compare the price rise of the past 2-3 years with that for some famous bubbles and see that bitcoin has risen 30 times approximately, an increase that is on a path to beat them all except, perhaps, the tulip bubble of 1622.

A comparison between Bitcoin prices, and those of tulips, 1929 stocks, and other speculative bubbles; multiple of original price vs year from peak.

A comparison between Bitcoin prices, and those of tulips, 1929 stocks, and other speculative bubbles; multiple of original price vs year from peak.

That its price looks like a bubble is not to deny that bitcoin has a fundamental value. Bitcoin is nearly un-counterfeit-able, and its ownership is nearly untraceable. These are interesting properties that make bitcoin valuable mostly for illegal activity. To calculate the fundamental value of a bitcoin, it is only necessary to know the total value of bitcoin business transactions and the “speed of money.” As a first guess, lets say that all the transactions are illegal and add up to the equivalent of the GDP of Michigan, $400 billion/year. The value of a single bitcoin would be this number divided by the number of bitcoin in circulation, 12,000,000, and by the “speed of money,” the number of business transactions per year per coin. I’ll take this to be 3 per year. It turns out there are 5 bitcoin transactions total per year per coin, but 2/5 of that, I’ll assume, are investment transactions. Based on this, a single bitcoin should be worth about $11,100, exactly its current valuation. The speed number, 3, includes those bitcoins that are held as investments and never traded, and those actively being used in smuggling, drug-deals, etc.

If you assume that the bitcoin trade will grow to $600 billion year in a year or so, the price rise of a single coin will surpass that of Dutch tulip bulbs on fundamentals alone. If you assume it will reach $1,600 billion/year, the GDP of Texas in the semi-near future, before the Feds jump in, the value of a coin could grow to $44,000 or more. There are several problems for bitcoin owners who are betting on this. One is that the Feds are unlikely to tolerate so large an unregulated, illegal economy. Another is that bitcoin are not likely to go legal. It is very hard (near impossible) to connect a bitcoin to its owner. This is great for someone trying to deal in drugs or trying hide profits from the IRS (or his spouse), but a legal merchant will want the protection of courts of law. For this, he or she needs to demonstrate ownership of the item being traded, and that is not available with bitcoin. The lack of good legitimate business suggests to me that the FBI will likely sweep in sooner or later.

Yet another problem is the existence of other cryptocurrencies: Litecoin (LTC), Ethereum (ETH), and Zcash (ZEC) as examples. The existence of these coins increase the divisor I used when calculating bitcoin value above. And even with bitcoins, the total number is not capped at 12,000,000. There are another 12,000,000 coins to be found — or mined, as it were, and these are likely to move faster (assume an average velocity of 4). By my calculations, with 24,000,000 bitcoin and a total use of $1,600 billion/year, the fundamental value of each coin is only $16,000. This is not much higher than its current price. Let the buyer beware.

For an amusing, though not helpful read into the price: here are Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger, and Noam Chomsky discussing Bitcoin.

Robert Buxbaum, December 3, 2017.

Why Warren Buffett pays 0% social security tax

Social Security is billed along with Medicare (health care for the poor) as an anti-flat tax called FICA where middle class workers pay 7.65 -15.3%, and rich people pay essentially 0%. The reason that Warren Buffet and other rich people pay 0%, on a percentage basis, far less than their secretaries, is that there is a FICA cap of $127,200 currently, and he earns far more than $127,200. Buffett’s secretaries pays 7.65%, or which 6% approximately is social-security payment, and the rest Medicare. Buffett’s company then matches the 7.65% — a situation that applies to virtually every employee in the US.

A self employed person though, a gardener say, pays both the employee and employer portion or 15.3%. The same $127,200 cap applies, but since few gardeners make more than this amount, they are likely to pay 15.3% on all earnings, with no deductions. FICA really socks the poor and middle class, and barely touches a rich man like Buffett. This is the tax-inequality that most needs addressing, in my opinion, and one I have not heard discussed.

A short history of FICA

A visual history of FICA rates (right), and of the salary cap (left). Medicare contributions were added in 1966.

As I write this, there is a debate about tax reform that mostly involves income tax, but not at all FICA. Income tax could be improved, in my opinion, and should be. We could remove some exemptions that are being abused, and we should lower the general rates, especially for foreign-earnings, but the current income tax isn’t that bad, in my opinion. Buffett likes to brag about the high rate he pays, but it’s not a bad rate compared to the rest of the world. And Buffett benefits from a lot of things we don’t. His income is taxed at a lower rate than a worker’s would be since most of it is unearned. And, like most rich folks, he has exemptions and deductions that do not apply to most. He can deduct cars, private airplanes, and interest; most folks don’t deduct these things since they don’t spend enough to exceed the “standard deduction”. I’m happy to say these issues are being addressed in the current tax re-write.

The current, House version of the GOP tax proposal includes a raise in the standard deduction and a cap on interest and other deductions. There is a general decrease in the tax rate for earnings, and a decrease for earnings made abroad and repatriated. I’d like to see tariffs, too but they do not appear in the versions I’ve seen. And I’ve very much like to see a decrease in the FICA rate coupled with a removal of the salary cap. Pick a rate, 4% say, where we collect the same amount, but spread the burden uniformly. Why should 7.65%-15.3% or the workmanship wages got to the window, the orphan, and healthcare of the poor, while 0% of Buffett’s go for this?

Some other tax ideas: I’d like to see shorter criminal sentences, especially for drugs, and I’d like to see healthcare addressed to reduce the administrative burden.

Robert E. Buxbaum, November 17, 2017. In the news today, the senate version puts back the tax exemption on private jets. The opposite of progress, they say, is congress.

Forced diversity of race is racist

Let me browse through some thoughts on efforts to address endemic racism. I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere, but you might as well enter the laboratory of my mind on the issue.

I’d like to begin with a line of the bible (why not?) “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Lev. 19:15). This sounds good, but in college admissions, I’ve found we try to do better by showing  favoritism to the descendants of those who’ve been historically left-out. This was called affirmative action, it’s now called “diversity”.  

In 1981, when I began teaching chemical engineering at Michigan State University, our department had race-based quotas to allow easier admission to the descendants of historically-disadvantaged groups. All major universities did this at the time. The claim was that it would be temporary; it continues to this day. In our case, the target was to get 15% or so black, Hispanics and American Indians students (7 in a class of 50). We achieved this target by accepting such students with a 2.0 GPA, and not requiring a math or science background; Caucasians required 3.0 minimum, and we did require math or science. I’m not sure we helped the disadvantaged by this, either personally or professionally, but we made the administration happy. The kids seemed happy too, at least for a while. The ones we got were, by and large, bright. To make up for the lack of background we offered tutoring and adjusted grades. Some diversity students did well, others didn’t. Mostly they went into HR or management after graduation, places they could have gone without our efforts.

After some years, the Supreme court ended our quota based selection, saying it was, itself racist. They said we could still reverse-discriminate for “diversity,” though. That is, if the purpose wasn’t to address previous wrongs, but to improve the class. We changed our literature, but kept our selection methods and kept the same percentage targets as before.

This is a popular meme about racism. It makes sense to me.

This is a popular meme about racism.

The only way we monitored that we met the race-percent target was by a check-box on forms. Students reported race, and we collected this, but we didn’t check that black students look black or Hispanic students spoke Spanish. There was no check on student honesty. Anyone who checked the box got the benefits. This lack of check bread cheating at MSU and elsewhere. Senator Elizabeth Warren got easy entry into Harvard and Penn, in part by claiming to be an Indian on her forms. She has no evidence of Indian blood or culture Here’s Snopes. My sense is that our methods mostly help the crooked.

The main problem with is, I suspect, is the goal. We’ve decided to make every university department match the state’s racial breakdown. It’s a pretty goal, but it doesn’t seem like one that helps students or the state. Would it help the MSU hockey squad to force to team to racially match the state; would it help the volleyball team, or the football team?  So why assume it helps every academic department to make it’s racial makeup match the state’s. Why not let talented black students head to business or management departments before graduation. They might go further without our intervention.

This is not to say there are not racial inequalities, but I suspect that these diversity programs don’t help the students, and may actually hurt. They promote crookedness, and divert student attention from achieving excellence to maintaining victim status. Any group that isn’t loud enough in claiming victim status is robbed of the reverse-discrimination that they’ve been told they need. They’re told they can’t really compete, and many come to believe it. In several universities, we gone so far as to hire “bias referees” to protect minorities from having to defend their intellectual views in open discussion. The referee robs people of the need to think, and serves, I suspect, no one but a group of powerful politicians and administrators — people you are not supposed to criticize. On that topic, here is a video of Malcolm X talking about the danger of white liberals. Clearly he can hold his own in a debate without having a bias referee, and he makes some very good points about white liberals doing more harm than good.

Robert Buxbaum, November 5, 2017. In a related problem, black folks are arrested too often. I suggest rational drug laws. Some financial training could help too.

Fat people live longer, show less dementia

Life expectancy is hardly affected by weight in the normal - overweight- obese range. BMI 30-34.9 = obese.

Life expectancy is hardly affected by weight in the normal – overweight – obese range. BMI 30-34.9 = obese.

Lets imagine you are a 5’10” man and you weigh 140 lbs. In that case, you have a BMI of 20, and you probably think you’re pretty healthy, or perhaps you think you’re a bit overweight. Our institutes of health will say that you are an “average-wight” or “normal-weight” American, and then claim that the average-weight American is overweight. What they don’t tell you, is that low weight, and so-called average weight people in the US live shorter lives. Other things being equal, the morbidity (chance of death) for a thin American, BMI 18.5 is nearly triple that of someone who’s obese, BMI 32. The morbidity of the normal-weight American is better, but is still nearly double that of the obese fellow whose BMI is 32.

Our NIH has created a crisis of overweight Americans, that is not based on health. They work hard to solve this obesity crisis by telling people to jog to work, and by creating ever-more complicated food pyramids. Those who listen live shorter lives. A prime example is Jim Fixx, author of several running books including “The complete Book of Running.” He was 52 when he died of a heart attack while running. Similar to this is the diet-expert, Adelle Davis, author of “Let’s eat right to keep fit”. She died at 70 of cancer — somewhat younger than the average American woman. She attributed her cancer to having eaten junk food as a youth. I would attribute it to being thin. Not only do thin people live shorter lives, but their chances of recovering from cancer, or living with it, seem to improve if you start with some fat.

The same patter exists where age-related dementia is concerned. If you divide the population into quartiles of weight, the heaviest has the least likelihood of dementia, the second heaviest has the second-least, the third has the third-least, and the lightest Americans have the highest likelihood of dementia. Here are two studies to that effect, “Association between late-life body mass index and dementia”, The Kame Project, Neurology. 2009 May 19; 72(20): 1741–1746. And “BMI and risk of dementia in two million people over two decades: a retrospective cohort study” The Lancet, Volume 3, No. 6, p431–436, June 2015.

Morbidity and weight, uncorrected data, and corrected by removing the demented.

Morbidity and weight, uncorrected data, and corrected by removing the demented. The likelihood of dementia decreases with weight.

Now you may think that there is a confounding, cause and effect here: that crazy old people don’t live as long. You’d be right there, crazy people don’t live as long. Still, if you correct the BMI-mortality data to remove those with dementia, you still find that in terms of life-span, for men and women, it pays to be overweight or obese but not morbidly so. The study concludes as follows: “Weight loss was related to a higher mortality risk (HR = 1.5; 95% CI: 1.2,1.9) but this association was attenuated when persons with short follow-up or persons with dementia were excluded.” As advice to those who are planning a weight loss program, you might go crazy and reduce your life-span a lot, but if you don’t go crazy, you’re only reducing your life-span a little.

In terms of health food, I’ve noticed that many non-health foods, like alcohol and chocolate are associated with longevity and mental health. And while low-impact exercise helps increase life-span, that exercise is only minimally associated with weight loss. Mostly weight loss involves changing the amount you eat and changing your clothes choices to maximize radiant heat loss.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, October 26, 2017. A joke: Last week I was mugged by a vegan. You may ask how I know it was a vegan. He told be before running off with my wallet.

Military heroes, Genghis and confederate


This 13 story statue of Genghis Kahn looks over the plains of Mongolia.

All military statues are offensive, as best I can tell. Among the most offensive, is the 131 foot tall monument to Genghis Kahn in central Mongolia. Genghis Kahn is known for near-perfect military success, and for near-total disregard for non-Mongols; he treated them as cattle, to be herded, slaughtered, raped or pillaged. I imagine this statue is offensive to Chinese, Russians, Koreans, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Poles, and Germans — people he slaughtered by the millions. For some Mongols too, I imagine this statue is offensive as a sad reminder that Mongolia no longer rules the eastern world. But the monument is not for the maudlin, nor is it intended to offend. Like other military statues, the Genghis monument is a rally point for soldiers, old and new. It’s a way to inspire Mongols to be great leaders of men, military and not. Such will see, in Genghis, a man who made tough choices, and carried through to great achievements. That he killed and oppressed others will be justified by noting he did it to keep his Mongols from being killed or oppressed. The grand size is chosen to encourage Mongols to think big.

Genghis appears in fictional form as the villain, Shan Yu, in Mulan. There, his motivation is he doesn’t like the wall. Mulan and the Chinese army stop his Mongol attack by burying them at a snow-covered mountain pass. Historically, a Chinese army did meet Genghis and his army at a mountain pass, but the Mongols were not defeated. Instead they bypassed the Chinese and captured their supplies. Genghis then offered the starving Chinese a choice: join or die. Those that joined had to fight those who did not. A few months later, Peking fell, and in a few years, the rest of Asia. Few of the turncoats survived. Given the same choice, Genghis’s men never turned on him.

General Lee planted a maple tree on this spot in Fort Hamilton, New York. in 2017 the  plaque is removed as it's considered offensive.

General Lee planted a maple tree on this spot in Fort Hamilton, New York. in 2017 the plaque is removed as offensive.

Genghis’s most famous saying is that one arrow is easily broken, but a bundle will overcome any adversary. Similar to this, he is supposed to have said that, if you treat your soldiers as sons, they will follow you even into death. Such words are nonsense to non-soldiers and professional complainers: those who do not imagine themselves going to war. Those who go to war as generals know this is how to behave; those who go as soldiers hope for a leader who values them as sons, and not as cannon fodder.

In the US we’ve begun removing all monuments to the southern forces of the Civil War. This may be a mistake, but it seems irreversible. We’ve kept our monuments for Northern generals including William Sherman, known for his tactic of total destruction, and for Phillip Sheridan, equally known for total war, and for the saying: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” But we no longer tolerate Confederates. Among the reasons is that we claim to ease the pain of black people — a pain I feel looking at the Genghis Kahn monument. Another reason, we’re told, is that the statues are “dog-whistles” to racists and white supremacists — a particular danger now, evidenced in the election of Donald Trump. A danger, I think, that’s been largely trumped up as a way to keep politicians and newscasters politically relevant.

For these reasons, or politicians have removed every last confederate monument in Florida, the last being a large grave-stone in the Woodlawn cemetery. Virginia’s governor has similarly declared his intention to remove them all from his state. The city of Baltimore removed all four civil-war monuments in the middle of one busy night, August 18, 2017, and the University of Texas did similarly, working at night. New York City removed a plaque remembering Robert E. Lee for planting a tree at Ft. Hamilton, And, last week, an honorary window at the Washington cathedral where Lee had been a deacon.

Statues of Robert E. Lee are a particular target. There are quite a few in Virginia where his family was prominent — it was Richard H. Lee’s motion in the Continental Congress that carried as independence; his home now serves as Arlington Cemetery. While Lee opposed slavery and freed his slaves before the war, he fought for the Confederacy, so clearly he didn’t oppose slavery as totally as we would like. And Lee only freed his wife’s inherited slaves in 1862, fairly late, though Grant still had slaves at that time. Besides, in 1852, Lee caused an escaped slave to be whipped. I imagine he did the same to runaway soldiers. Historians used to praise Lee, but now call him a cruel racist. In hindsight, we imagine we would have done much better.

General Lee statue being removed from University of Texas.

General Lee statue being removed from the University of Texas.

As best I can tell, Virginians still remember Lee fondly, particularly soldiers, veterans, and those who imagine themselves leading men in difficult situations. When I try to put myself in Lee’s position, I find I can’t imagine myself doing better or achieving more. His life involved thousands of divisions and hundreds of inspiring actions. In the choice to fight for Virginia and not for the north, I note that Lee was given the same no-win choice as Genghis’s trapped Chinese: join the Union army and kill your brothers, or be killed by that army. The exchange appears in this movie. I admire Lee’s courage to stand by his brothers; it seems the more honorable of two bad choices. Early in his life, Lee committed himself to only honorable behavior  — according to his conception. This is all I expect from myself, and the most I hope for from any other person.

Another thing is Lee’s surrender. I find it a model of how to end a war so that lasting peace is achieved. It’s remembered in Johnny Cash’s song, “God Bless Robert E. Lee.”  Another song, “The night they drove old Dixie down” calls Lee “the very best.” I would be hard pressed to find a better US general: one who won more or was better loved.

Japanese resettlement.

Japanese resettlement in WWII. Our history is full of painful decisions by people we admire. Let’s try to not repeat our mistakes or pretend we don’t make them.

A killer complaint lodged against Lee, and against all the confederates, is that they were traitors. If so, George Washington and Ben Franklin were traitors too. In England, Benedict Arnold is honored as a patriot with a statue on Trafalgar square, but we do not honor him, rightly I think. He turned on his friends and brothers. I think it’s politics that’s motivated the current spate of removal. Most of the confederate statues stand (stood) in Democrat-leaning cities of five Republican-leaning states: Virginia, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi. The white, non-college country-folk of these states are being pitted against the darker, college-educated city folk in a fight for their hearts and pocket books.

As for my guess at interpretation of the statues themselves. I’m inclined to suggest that the statues and their inscriptions do not appear racists to me, so much as soldierly. The statues were largely erected between the Spanish-American war and WWII with soldierly (to my eyes) comments. Baltimore monument to Jackson and Lee, reads on one side: “STRAIGHT AS THE NEEDLE TO THE POLE JACKSON ADVANCED TO THE EXECUTION/ OF MY PURPOSE” and on the other side: “SO GREAT IS MY CONFIDENCE IN GENERAL LEE THAT I AM WILLING TO FOLLOW HIM BLINDFOLDED.” Another Baltimore inscription: “THEY FOUGHT AS GENTLEMEN.” To me this latter is a swipe at Sherman and Sheridan, who did not. Removing these statues is a swipe at the honor of southern soldiers. The statues now read “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” a slogan I read as anti-police, anti-Trump, and anti-white.

The remnant of Baltimore's Lee- Jackson statue, showing the old inscription and the new.

The remnant of Baltimore’s Lee – Jackson statue with the old inscription and the new..To me, the old inscription is military, mostly, and not as racist as the new.

The pain of black America is real, but the thing that’s missed is that it is similar to the pain of rural white America. Both have been left behind. I’ve noted that urban black Americans and rural whites have virtually no savings, It could be the two poor cultures don’t realize they have much in common. Or it could be (I think) some folks purposefully fermenting dissension. What is needed, at least is better financial sense, and a recognition that race isn’t racism, but to listen to CNN or read the New York Times, such understandings seem unlikely. The Trump election shocked everyone, I think, those who voted for him and those who didn’t — and perhaps even Trump himself. Hillary, it seems had already bought a house in DC to house her staff. The surprise is not a reason to turn on one’s fellow. I can hope that Trump will prove to be a great president. For now, he is the president, and we are faced by nuclear enemies. It hardly helps to see half of our electorate call the other half racists and deplorables. As with a bundle of arrows, we have strength in union, weakness in disunion. May we all be blessed for a good, sweet year of peace and brotherly love

Robert E. Buxbaum. September 24, 2017. Perhaps my fondness for Lee is because I’m named after him. Here’s my theory for why Mongol arrows flew further.

Estimating the strength of an atom bomb

As warfare is a foundation of engineering, I thought I’d use engineering to evaluate the death-dealing power of North Korea’s atomic/hydrogen bomb, tested September 3, 2017. The key data in evaluating a big bomb is its seismic output. They shake the earth like earthquakes do, and we measure the power like earthquakes, using seismometers. I’ve seen two seismographs comparing the recent bomb to the previous. One of these, below, is from CTBTO, the Center for Test Ban Treaty Oversight, via a seismometer in western Kazakhstan (see original data and report).

Seismic output of all North Korean nuclear tests.

Seismic output, to scale, of all declared DPNK nuclear tests as observed from IMS station AS-59 in Western Kazakhstan

North Korea’s previous bomb, exploded 9 September 2016, was reported to be slightly more powerful than the ones we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, suggesting it was about 20 kilotons. According to CTBTO, it registered 5.3 on the Richter scale. The two tests before that appear somewhat less powerful, perhaps 7-10 kilotons, and the two before that appear as dismal failures — fizzles, in atomic bomb parlance. The MOAB bomb, by comparison, was 9 Tons, or 0.009 kiloTons, a virtual non-entity.

To measure the output of the current bomb, I place a ruler on my screen and measure the maximum distance between the top to bottom wiggles. I find that this bomb’s wiggles measure 5 cm, while the previous measures 5 mm. This bomb’s wiggles are ten times bigger, and from this I determine that this explosion registered 6.3 on the Richter scale, 1.0 more than the previous — the Richter scale is the logarithmic measure of the wiggle amplitude, so ten times the shake magnitude  is an addition of 1.0 on the scale. My calculation of 6.3 exactly matches that of the US geological survey. The ratio of wiggle heights was less on the, NORSAR seismometer, Norway, see suggesting 5.8 to 5.9 on the Richter scale. The European agencies have taken to reporting 6.1, an average value, though they originally reported only the 5.8 from NORSAR, and a bomb power commensurate with that.

We calculate the bomb power from the Richter-scale measure, or the ratio of the wiggles. Bomb power is proportional to wiggle height to the 3/2 power. Using the data above, ten times the wiggle, this bomb appears to be 10^3/2 = 31.6 times as powerful as the last, or 31.6 x 20kTon = 630kTon (630,000 tons of TNT). If we used the European value of 6.1, the calculated power would be about half this, 315 kTons, and if we used the NORSAR’s original value, it would suggest the bomb had less than half this power. Each difference of 0.2 on the Richter scale is a factor of two in power. For no obvious reason we keep reporting 120 to 160 kTons.

NORSAR comparison of North Korean bomb blasts

NORSAR comparison of North Korean blasts — suggests the current bomb is smaller; still looks like hydrogen.

As it happens, death power is proportional to the kiloton power, other things being equal. The bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in the 15 to 20 kTon range and killed 90,000 each. Based on my best estimate of the bomb, 315 kTons, I estimate that it would kill 1.6 million people if used on an industrial city, like Seoul, Yokohama, or Los Angeles. In my opinion, this is about as big a bomb as any rational person has reason to make (Stalin made bigger, as did Eisenhower).

We now ask if this is an atom bomb or a hydrogen-fusion bomb. Though I don’t see any war-making difference, if it’s a hydrogen bomb that would make our recent treaty with Iran look bad, as it gave Iran nuclear fusion technology — I opposed the treaty based on that. Sorry to say, from the seismic signature it looks very much like a hydrogen bomb. The only other way to get to this sort of high-power explosion is via a double-acting fission bomb where small atom bomb sets off a second, bigger fission bomb. When looking at movies of Eisenhower-era double-acting explosions, you’ll notice that the second, bigger explosion follows the first by a second or so. I see no evidence of this secondary-delay in the seismic signature of this explosion, suggesting this was a hydrogen bomb, not a double. I expect Iran to follow the same path in 3-4 years.

As a political thought, it seems to me that the obvious way to stop North Korea would be to put pressure on China by making a military pact with Russia. Until that is done, China has little to fear from a North Korean attack to the south. Of course, to do that we’d likely have to cut our support of NATO, something that the Germans fear. This is a balance-of-power solution, the sort that works, short of total annihilation. It was achieved at the congress of Vienna, at the treaty of Ghent, and by Henry Kissinger through détente. It would work again. Without it, I see the Korean conflict turning hot again, soon.

Robert Buxbaum, September 11, 2017.

Kennedy’s perfect, boring college-entry essays

To get into any college you have to write an essay or two, generally including one describing why you want to go that particular college, and many students have trouble. How do I make myself stand out, they ask. My suggestion: Don’t. Make it clear that you want to go, but dare to be dull with the details. John Kennedy did; you can too.

JFK's dull letter to Harvard. It's his only essay.

JFK’s dull letter to Harvard. It’s his only essay.

Most school essays limit the number of words. The reviewer too prefers you keep it short. If you want to go to Harvard, or Princeton, or Iowa state, show you can say what needs to be said within the word limit. The first sentence must tell them that you want to go that college, specifically. Mention the college: you want to go to Old Ivy, say. Once that’s taken care of, just state your reasons. Unless you’re going into the writing program, the baldest, simplest terms will work just fine — e.g. that Old Ivy provides an excellent education. It’s better if you can mention a more-specific field of study, e.g. liberal arts or zoölogy, but that’s not necessary. You can now list three or so details to back up your claims. For example, you might mention that the zoölogy program at Old Ivy is well-regarded (mention the school often), that you enjoy their sports team (the ground-hogs, say), or their extracurriculars. Mention that your dad went there or your uncle (and is your hero — hero is a good word) or that you like the location. Surely there is some reason you want to go. If you can mention a famous teacher or alumnus, all the better. Flesh it out if you have space; don’t if you don’t. Conclude with a sentence pointing to the future: that this school will help me do something you want to achieve. You can be specific or not, but don’t lie. Dull is more effective than a lie. I’ve copied, above, John Kennedy’s essay to Harvard, and below his essay to Princeton. These essays follow the pattern, and are dull within the pattern. His conclusion for the first essay: that he wants to go to Harvard to be “a Harvard Man.” He got in. He used the same, dull letter for Princeton, but had more space. For Princeton he said It would have a good effect on me, and that he wanted to be “a Princeton Man.” He got into Princeton too, and went there for two months before switching to Harvard.

John F. Kennedy's, almost identical letter to Princeton. He got in there too.

John F. Kennedy’s, almost identical letter to Princeton. He got in there too.

You may think that letters like this only work if you are John F. Kennedy, and to some extent that is true. But not totally. I got into Princeton grad school from a background in public school, with no famous relatives or money. My grades were better than JFKs, but my essay had the same structure with some more specifics. As I recall, I explained that I wanted to go to Princeton because I wanted to study chemical engineering in a top department. I may have mentioned a famous professor, and stated I wanted to work on nuclear fusion — a big Princeton specialty at the time. That’s about all, as I recall.

This formula can be tweaked for the other college (and non-college) essays. I’ve previously written about the two speeches at the opening of the Gettysburg cemetery, in 1863. Edwin Everett gave the first speech of the day, excerpted and analyzed here. His speech followed the formula and was lauded. He told folks that it was important that we are here honoring the dead, and followed with three or four reasons for why it was important. His conclusion pointed to the future significance of the events. Republicans and Democrat listeners agreed this was a speech to remember from a scholar of note. Everett’s face graced the $50 bill for the 40 years after his death.

Abraham Lincoln also spoke at the Gettysburg dedication, but he didn’t follow the formula. He spoke of liberty, and America, and of a government of the people. His speech was panned at the time, even by Republicans. More details here. Though people now see his Gettysburg address as a landmark, at the time even the Republican press didn’t like it  Fortunately for Lincoln and the republic, they warmed to the speech over the next year – in time for the election of 1864. When you apply to college, you want entry now. You can’t wait a year for people to warm to your essay. Stick to the formula. You don’t want the compliment of finding, years from now, that one of the reviewers who rejected you remembers your words fondly. That will be too late. Write for the dull audience in front of you; help them put your application in the “accepted” box. As a last note: If you can not find any truthful reason that you want to go to Harvard or Old Ivy you probably should not be going there. The beginning of wisdom is self-knowledge, and the primary audience for your essay is you.

If you find you have good reasons, but find you need help with the process or with your english grammar, I should mention that my niece owns a company to help folks get into college — link here. She also has a book “From Public School to The Ivy League.

Robert E. Buxbaum, August 7, 2017. Some two years ago, I wrote an essay for my daughter on the joys and pressures of entering her junior year in high school. Here it is. 

Peace killed the Indian, ended Spain’s golden age

The why of history is always more speculative than the what. Yet, to write about only the what, is to do only half of the job, if that. The what is largely interchangeable: the names of kings and generals, the dates and locals of battles and treaties. It’s the why that adds interest, and provides whatever lessons one can take forward. With this as background, I’d like to speculate on the cause of: the destruction of the American Indian, and the end of the golden age of Spain. For both and some others, I suggest an unusual villain, peace: too much peace. It’s a speculative why, but bear with me.

Lets start with the American Indian. In the mid 1700s, Indians controlled the majority of the continent. They had an advanced society of six main nations, held together by mutual treaty. The Indians had few guns, but were not less intelligent than the Japanese or Chinese, suggesting that they could have learned to make them if they desired (or realized they needed to desire). The Japanese did so in short order. Indians addressed the Continental assemblies, and though they were not integrated, quite, they were not segregated either. But this first period of co-existence ended, as best i can tell, in the years of and following the French and Indian war. In the war, some Indians supported the French and some the British, and each side looked after their Indians. After peace was established, however, English leaders like Lord Jeffery Amherst set up to wipe out the Indians of both sides, “this execrable race,” with blankets infected with smallpox, and good old-fashioned cruelty. His activities are memorialized, on the cafeteria china used at Amherst Colleges till the 1960s.

Cup from the cafeteria of Amherst College shows Lord Jeff pursuing the Indians.

Cup from the cafeteria of Amherst College, used till the 1960s, shows Lord Jeffery Amherst pursuing a band of Indians. Purple and white are the Amherst colors. 

My thought of why he did it, and why he succeeded, is that the Indians had outlived their usefulness. The ones on the French side had been enemies, and might be again. The ones on his, English side were annoying and might turn in the next conflict. Besides, Lord Jeffery and his ilk had idle military power. Removing the Indians was something they could do. The army at peace could otherwise get destructive, or turn on him (I’m speculating here on motives).

This pattern appeared again in the Revolutionary war and in the War of 1812. During each war, Indians were befriended by both sides, and recruited. Indians fought important battles in each war, now mostly forgotten; the defense of Canada was largely by Indians. After each war, these Indians were largely betrayed. In the War of 1812, the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Creek mostly sided with the British, led by the fierce Shawnee general, Tecumseh. The Muscogee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw, mostly sided with the US. Iroquois fought on both sides. In the years following the wars, these and these were sent west of the Mississippi. Those who had been allies with the US were paid for their land, those that sided with the British were not. A good price, but it was a forced sale none-the-less. I will speculate that they were exiled because they retained a government structure independent of the US, making them a threat. Also (I speculate) the military, Generals Harrison, Jackson, etc., had nothing better to do with an army that might have mutinied otherwise. By 1846, there was no serious future for the American Indian east of the Mississippi, and besides, there was an external enemy to fight — The Mexicans. My speculation: the Indians were destroyed by “the era of good feelings” that follows war.

In the case of Spain, I note that the Inquisition and Jewish expulsion followed suddenly after 300 years of science, art, literature, and coöperation. I also note that the Alhambra decrees (March 1492) followed almost immediately after the defeat the last major Moslem-held citadel, Granada in December, 1491, and the peace treaty of Granada (January 2, 1492). The Alhambra decrees of March 31, 1492 mandated that all Jews must convert or leave Spain, and gave free-reign to the Inquisition to punish heresy. At the time, the financier of the Spanish crown was a Jew, Don Isaac Abarbanel. And some years earlier another Jew, Shmuel HaNagged hand been vizier (2nd) to the king. My theory of the cause for the sudden switch is that it was not a sudden surge in religion, as some have suggested, but rather that the king and queen no longer needed an army or Jewish or Moslem allies, but they still had an army that might turn against them if not otherwise occupied.

In the interwar, peace years, Stalin removed 3 of the 5 top generals, 13 of 15 below them; 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.

In the interwar, peace years, Stalin removed 3 of the 5 top generals, 13 of 15 below them; 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars. Peace is hell.

I’m reminded that peace is the background to intrigue in at least six of Shakespeare’s historical plays: Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III, Lear, Julius Caesar, and Othello. Richard III explains his behavior as follows (Act I, Scene 1):  “Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, have no delight to pass away the time, unless to spy my shadow in the sun and descant on mine own deformity.”

A few other examples: After WWI, most of Europe removed their bearded aristocracy, and Stalin used the peacetime to remove much of the communist leadership including many of his generals and former friends – this was especially so after signing a peace treaty with Germany. And, in the US after WWII, we entered a period of communist witch hunts — a mini Inquisition directed at the writers and artists who provided Allied propaganda during the war. Even a general good, like peace can leave casualties.

Robert Buxbaum, July 7, 2017. I like to speculate on the why of history, and like to imagine my speculations are partially true, at least.

West’s Batman vs Zen Batmen

“Holy kleenex Batman, it was right under our noses and we blew it.” I came of age with Adam West’s Batman on TV and a relatively sane Batman in the comic books. Batman was a sort of urban cowboy: a loner, but law-abiding, honest, and polite – both to the police and to the ordinary citizen. He was good, and he was “nice.” As with future Batmen, no one died, at least not from the Batman.


More recent Batmen have been not nice, and arguably not good either. They are above the law, trained in eastern monasteries by dark masters of kung fu, with a morality no one quite understands. One could say, quite literally, “He was a dark and stormy knight.”

Well, a few days ago, I found the item at left for sale on e-Bay, a plastic Batman-Buddha, and I started wondering about the meditations that produced Batman, and that Batman expounds on life and crime. It wasn’t pretty. They are not pretty. A quick check from the movie versions suggest the Zen Batman is pretty messed up, something that psychologists have noted.

Here’s a quote from the goofy, Adam West Batman of the 1960s: “Underneath this garb, we’re perfectly ordinary Americans.” Believing yourself to be normal helps improve sanity, and helps you relate to others. Calling yourself an American implies you keep American laws. Here’s another quote: “A reporter’s lot is not easy, making exciting stories out of plain, average, ordinary people like Robin and me.” It’s nice to see that the Adam West Batman feels for the other peoples’ problems, respects their professions, and does not profess to be better than they. By contrast, when a more recent Batman is asked: “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” The Dark Knight responds, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.” This is a might-is-right approach, suggesting he’s above the law. The problem: a self-appointed vigilante is a criminal.

Here are some more quotes of the recent, eastern Batmen:
“Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are.”
“That mask — it’s not to hide who I am, but to create what I am.”
“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”

These quote are at least as messed up as the hockey pad quote above. It sometimes seems the Joker is the more sane of the two. For example, when Batman explains why he doesn’t kill: “If you kill a killer, the number of killers remains the same.” To which Joker replies: “Unless you kill more than one… but whatever you say, Batsy.”

Not a classic Batmobile, but I like the concept.

Not a classic Batmobile, but I like the concept; if that’s not Adam West, if could be.

The dark, depressive Batmen tend to leave Gotham City in shambles after every intervention, with piles of dead. West’s Batman left the city clean and whole. Given the damage, you wonder why the police call Batman or let him on the streets. Unlike West, the current Batmen never works with the police, quite. And to the extent that Robin appears at all, his relationship with Batman is more frenemy than friend or ward. Batgirl (mostly absent) has changed too. The original Batgirl, if you don’t recall, was Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. She was a positive, female role model, with a supportive, non-sexist parent in Commissioner Gordon (an early version of Kim Possible’s dad). The current Batgirl appears only once, and is presented as the butler’s daughter. Until her appearance that day, you never see her at Wayne Manor, nor did she know quite what her dad was up to.

Here are some West Batman / Robin interactions showing an interest in Robin’s education and well-being:

“Haven’t you noticed how we always escape the vicious ensnarements of our enemies?” Robin: “Yeah, because we’re smarter than they are!”  “I like to think it’s because our hearts are pure.”

“Better put 5 cents in the meter.” Robin: “No policeman’s going to give the Batmobile a ticket.”
“This money goes to building better roads. We all must do our part.”

Robin: “You can’t get away from Batman that easy!” “Easily.” Robin: “Easily.”
“Good grammar is essential, Robin.” Robin: “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.”

Robin/Dick:”What’s so important about Chopin?” “All music is important, Dick. It’s the universal language. One of our best hopes for the eventual realization of the brotherhood of man.” Dick: “Gosh Bruce, yes, you’re right. I’ll practice harder from now on.”

“That’s one trouble with dual identities, Robin. Dual responsibilities.”

“Even crime fighters must eat. And especially you. You’re a growing boy and you need your nutrition.”

“What took you so long, Batgirl?” Batgirl: “Rush hour traffic, plus all the lights were against me. And you wouldn’t want me to speed, would you?” Robin: “Your good driving habits almost cost us our lives!” Batman: “Rules are rules, Robin. But you do have a point.”

And finally: “I think you should acquire a taste for opera, Robin, as one does for poetry and olives.”

Clearly this Batman takes an interest in Robin’s health and education, and in Batgirl’s. Robin is his ward, after all, rather a foster child, and it’s good to seem him treated as a foster child — admittedly with a foster-father whose profession is a odd.

Perhaps the most normal comment from a non-West Batman is this (it appears in many posters): “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” It’s, more or less, a quote from Karl Jung (famous psychologist) and can serve as a motivator providing pride in one’s art, but job-attachment goes with suicide, e.g. when you lose your job. The far healthier approach is less identification with job; just be proud of doing good and developing virtue. West’s Batman finds Catwoman, a woman with her own moral code, odious, abhorrent, and insegrievious, and says so. The only difference between her and The Joker is the amount of damage done; he should find her insegrievious. Sorry to say, recent, Zen Batmen and Supermen are just as bad. To quote Robin: “Holy strawberries, Batman, we’re in a jam.”

Robert Buxbaum, June 26, 2017. Insegeivious is a made-up word, BTW. If we use it, it could become part of the real vocabulary.

Race and suicide

Suicide is generally understood as a cry of desperation. If so, you’d expect that the poorer, less-powerful, less-mobile members of society — black people, Hispanics, and women — would be the most suicidal. The opposite is true. While black people and Hispanics have low savings, and mobility, they rarely commit suicide. White Protestants and Indians are the most suicidal groups in the US; Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics, Moslems, Orientals, are significantly less prone. And black, non-Hispanic women are the least suicidal group of all — something I find rather surprising.

US, Race-specific suicide, all ages, Center for Disease control 2002-2012

US, Race-specific suicide, all ages, Center for Disease control 2002-2012

Aha, I hear you say: It’s the stress of upward mobility that causes suicide. If this were true, you’d expect Asians would have a high suicide rate. They do not, at least not American Asians. Their rate (male + female) is only 6.5/100,000, even lower than that for Afro-Americans. In their own countries, it’s different, and Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans commit suicide at a frightening rate. My suspicion is that American Asians feel less trapped by their jobs, and less identified too. They do not feel shame in their company’s failures, and that’s a good, healthy situation. In Korea, several suicides were related to the Samsung phones that burst into flames. While there is some stress from upward mobility, suggested by the suicide rates for Asian-American females being higher than for other woman, it’s still half that of non-hispanic white women, and for women in China and Korea. This suggests, to me, that the attitude of Asian Americans is relatively healthy.

The only group with a suicide rate that matches that of white protestants is American Indians, particularly Alaskan Indians. You’d figure their rate would be high given the alcoholism, but you’d expect it to be similar to that for South-American Hispanics, as these are a similar culture, but you’d be wrong, and it’s worthwhile to ask why. While men in both cultures have similar genes, suffer financially, and are jailed often, American Indians are far more suicidal than Mexican Americans. It’s been suggested that the difference is religiosity or despair. But if Indians despair, why don’t Mexicans or black people? I find I don’t have a completely satisfactory explanation, and will leave it at that.

Age-specific suicide rates.

Age-specific suicide rates, US, all races, 2012, CDC.

Concerning age, you’d probably guess that teenagers and young adults would be most suicidal — they seem the most depressed. This is not the case. Instead, middle age men are twice as likely to commit suicide as teenage men, and old men, 85+, are 3.5 times more suicidal. The same age group, 85+ women, is among the least suicidal. This is sort-of surprising since they are often in a lot of pain. Why men and not women? My suspicion is that the difference, as with the Asians has to do with job identification. I note that middle age is a particularly important time for job progress, and note that men are more-expected to hold a job and provide than women are. When men feel they are not providing –or worse –see themselves as a drag on family resources, they commit suicide. At least, this is my explanation.

It’s been suggested that religion is the consolation of women and particularly of black women and Catholics. I find this explanation doubtful as I have no real reason to think that old women are more religious than old men, or that Protestants and Indians are less religious than Hispanics, Asians, Moslems, and Jews. Another difference that I (mostly) reject is that access to guns is the driver of suicide. Backing this up is a claim in a recent AFSP report, that women attempt suicide three times more often than men. That men prefer guns, while women prefer pills and other, less-violent means is used to suggest that removal of guns would (or should) reduce suicide. Sorry to say, a comparison between the US and Canada (below) suggests the opposite.

A Centers for Disease Control study (2012) found that people doing manual labor jobs are more prone to suicide than are people in high-strew, thinking jobs. That is, lumberjacks, farmers, fishermen, construction workers, carpenters, miners, etc. All commit suicide far more than librarians, doctors, and teachers, whatever the race. My suspicion is that it’s not the stress of the job so much, as the stress of unemployment between gigs. The high suicide jobs, it strikes me, are jobs one would identify with (I’m a lumberjack, I’m a plumber, etc. ) and short term. I suspect that the men doing these jobs (and all these are male-oriented jobs) tend to identify with their job, and tend to fall into a deadly funk when their laid off. They can not sit around the house. Then again, many of these jobs go hand in hand with heavy drinking and an uncommon access to guns, poison, and suicidal opportunities.


Canadians commit suicide slightly more often than Americans, but Canadians do it mostly with rope and poison, while more than half of US suicides are with guns.

I suspect that suicide among older men stems from the stress of unemployment and the boredom of sitting around feeling useless. Older women tend to have hobbies and friends, while older men do not. And older men seem to feel they are “a burden” if they can no-longer work. Actor Robin Williams, as an example, committed suicide, supposedly, because he found he could not remember his lines as he had. And Kurt Gödel (famous philosopher) just stopped eating until he died (apparently, this is a fairly uncommon method). My speculation is that he thought he was no longer doing productive work and concluded “if I don’t produce, I don’t deserve to eat.” i’m going to speculate that the culture of women, black men, Hispanics, Asians, etc. are less bound to their job, and less burdened by feelings of worthlessness when they are not working. Clearly, black men have as much access to guns as white men, and anyone could potentially fast himself to death.

I should also note that people tend to commit suicide when they lose their wife or husband; girlfriend or boyfriend. My thought is that this is similar to job identification. It seems to me that a wife, husband, or loved one is an affirmation of worth, someone to do for. Without someone to do for, one may feel he has nothing to live for. Based on the above, my guess about counseling is that a particularly good approach would be to remind people in this situation that there are always other opportunities. Always more fish in the sea, as it were. There are other women and men out there, and other job opportunities. Two weeks ago, I sent a suicidal friend a link to the YouTube of Stephen Foster’s song, “there are plenty of fish in the sea” and it seemed to help. It might also help to make the person feel wanted, or needed by someone else — to involve him or her is some new political or social activity. Another thought, take away the opportunity. Since you can’t easily take someone’s gun, rope, or pills — they’d get mad and suspicious –I’d suggest taking the person somewhere where these things are not — a park, the beach, a sauna or hot-tub, or just for a walk. These are just my thoughts, I’m a PhD engineer, so my thinking may seem odd. I try to use numbers to guide my thought. If what I say makes sense, use it at your own risk.

Robert Buxbaum, June 21, 2017.Some other odd conclusions: that Hamilton didn’t throw away his shot, but tried to kill Burr. That tax day is particularly accident prone, both in the US and Canada, and that old people are not particularly bad drivers, but they drive more dangerous routes (country roads, not highways).