Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Barren Future

Tyler Cowen considered the problem of what would happen if a freak solar event sterilized one half of the planet. It's a bit unclear exactly what is meant by "sterilized" here, but let's assume, as Tyler and most of his commenters did, that it just meant removed human's capability of reproduction. So what would one think would happen?

It seems that that depends greatly on one's prejudices. Cowen says:

I would predict the collapse of many fiat currencies and the immediate insolvency of most financial institutions. Who could meet all those margin calls? Unemployment would exceed 20 percent and martial law would be declared, food rationing and guys with rifles on street corners.

Say what? It might be just as well that he didn't bother to describe his logic in making those deductions.

NYT columnist David Brooks read the post, and his take is not too different:

Without posterity, there are no grand designs. There are no high ambitions. Politics becomes insignificant. Even words like justice lose meaning because everything gets reduced to the narrow qualities of the here and now.

If people knew that their nation, group and family were doomed to perish, they would build no lasting buildings. They would not strive to start new companies. They wouldn’t concern themselves with the preservation of the environment. They wouldn’t save or invest.

There would be a radical increase in individual autonomy. Not sacrificing for their own society’s children, people would themselves become children, basing their lives on pleasure and ease instead of meanings to be fulfilled...

Within weeks, in other words, everything would break down and society would be unrecognizable. The scenario is unrelievedly grim. An individual who does not have children still contributes fully to the future of society. But when a society doesn’t reproduce there is nothing left to contribute to.

I don't think so. An awful lot of people now have relatives on the other side of the world. People are not going to abandon all hope just because they are sterile.

Of course it depends on which half of the planet. If it was the half centered on the South Pacific, the victims might be confined to Australia, Oceania, and Baja California.

Imagine, though that Asia, the most populous continent, was the victim. There are millions of overseas Chinese, Indians, and Pakistanis. They would likely be given large inducements to come back, and be richly rewarded by governments, uncles and cousins for reproducing. Many would seek eagerly to adopt. Japanese humanoid robot children would be everywhere.

Minus the burdens of child care, the countries involved would experience the tremendous economic boom experienced by every country that has had its fertility rate plummet.

Brooks thinks that the religious would despair. I think that they might conclude that the long awaited end times were upon us.

Finally, it is not in human nature to give up hope. As long as life endures, there is the possibility (I would say certainty) that science could solve any infertility problem.

Bitter Complaint

Monday morning I awoke with a bitter metallic taste in my mouth. I brushed my teeth for the full two minutes, raked my tongue, gargled and rinsed with mouthwash. I poured some milk on my Cheerios and dug into bitter cereal. At lunch I took one bite out of my sandwich, decided that it was spoiled and tossed it. I wondered if I had been poisoned.

By this morning things were no better. After my bitter meal I went to the intertubes to google "bitter taste in mouth." Some nutbag thought that she had gotten hers from consumption of pinenuts. How silly, I thought. After I had gotten about six more versions of the same story from various sites I remembered that there were pine nuts in the pesto I had eaten Saturday afternoon. My wife, who had also eaten the pine nutty pesto, also complained of a bitter mouth.

A bit more intertubing: notes from all over and even a published scientific study. Nobody knew what ingredient of the pine nuts might be responsible. Not all pine nuts seemed equally suspect. Suspicions pointed to Chinese pine nuts, and maybe just one species of them, smaller than our usual domestic ones.

Most people's experience seemed similar: the bitter taste only developed a couple of days after actual consumption. It was strongest when you ate something else, especially something without much native taste, like bread. It did ruin wine though.

Whatever ingredient is responsible, it must take a couple of days metabolic processing to show its face. The symptoms are said to go away after a week or three, and no known serious health effects have been noted.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Health Care: What Libertarians Hate

What Alex Tabarrok says about health care reveals the vast divide between liberals and libertarians. Many of his points get knocked down by Kevin Drum and his commenters

Unspoken but central is what really pisses off libertarians: some would be involuntarily forced to subsidize others. True enough, but that's the bargain of civilization. There is no society where that doesn't happen. The big question is who subsidizes whom. Over the past decade American taxpayers have subsidizes Israel to the tune of a few hundred billion - unless you count the vast misbegotten attempted subsidy of the Iraq war - another three trillion.

Needless to say, the rich (and their minions) are pretty happy with the current system in which they collect most of the subsidies.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Slaughter in East Rutherford

The US and Mexico met in the Gold Cup (soccer) final today, and for the first half the US looked solid. The collapse in the second half was far far worse than their earlier collapse to blow a 2-0 lead over Brazil. Mexico only outscored the US 5-0 in the second period, but that was just because they missed a lot of easy shots - it could easily have been 11-0.

Typically, US player gets ball, gets surrounded by three Mexican players, US loses ball. On the other end, Mexican player gets the ball, is surrounded by four players, and passes or dribbles out for an excellent shot.

Supposedly, this squad was the US junior varsity, with most of the top players otherwise engaged. It does not bode well for the future of US soccer.

Principles of Magical Aerodynamics

I. Underlying Principles:
The non expert tends to think of magic as transcending the laws of physics. That's mainly a misconception. In particular, Newton's laws of motion retain their validity. For broomstick rider as well as bird or helicopter, staying aloft requires a non-inertial trajectory (steady upward acceleration)in the Earth's gravitational field, and consequently a force (Newton's Second Law). A steady flow of momentum relative to the inertial frame is needed. This momentum flow comes almost entirely in the form of the reaction force of air (Newton's third law), so an equal flow of momentum goes into accelerating air downward.

For a rider of mass m a force mg is required to hold the rider up, where g is the acceleration due to gravity. This force is balanced by changing the momentum p of air at a rate dp/dt = mg. If we simplify by assuming that a mass M of air has its velocity changed at a rate of dv/dt, then Newton's third law gives M(dv/dt) = mg. For a 60 kg broom rider, mg = 588 N, which would correspond to changing the velocity of 588 kg of air by 1 m/s every second. At 1.2 kg/m^3 of air, that amounts to 490 m^3 of air - roughly the volume of a suburban house. Keeping a single light weight rider aloft thus requires throwing down a houseful of air every second at 1 m/s or every 10 seconds at 10 m/s. No doubt you have noticed the blast of air as a broomstick rider flies closely by.

The same principles apply to a 1 kg owl, 3000 kg helicopter, and a 200,000 kg 747 jetliner, with dp/dt proportional to the mass.

What about lighter than air vehicles, such as helium balloons or flying carpets? They too must manage the momentum transfer trick, though they do it a bit differently. Every second, zillions of air molecules moving rather smartly (at about 150% of the speed of sound, on average) smash into us from all directions and zip off at roughly the same speed away from us, thus changing their momentums drastically. Since they are coming from all directions, the forces due to these momentum changes tend to cancel out.

We can divide the forces on the bubble of air that supports a flying carpet into three parts, First, those due to air collisions from the side, which cancel out since each force is balanced by an equal force from the opposite direction. Second, the weight of the carpet, its occupants, and the air in its "bubble." Third, the forces from collisions from above and collisions from below. The third category of forces do not balance, since the air pressure (=force due to collisions per unit area) decreases with height. The net force due to that pressure change is exactly the weight of the air that would occupy the bubble at normal density. The carpet operates by decreasing the density of the air in its bubble - that decrease is responsible for the slight "pop" you feel in your ears as the carpet lifts off. A similar mechanism is responsible for the lift in a hot air balloon.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


  1. Anthropogenic climate change denialists
  2. Market Magic libertarians
  3. Creationists and like-minded anti-Darwinians
  4. Holocaust deniers
  5. Birthers (Obama is not a US citizen)
  6. Black helicopter conspiracy theorists*

Most of these people are not in mental institutions. Instead, they are in the Republican Party or other Libertarian fringe groups. What exactly is it that attracts the nut jobs to right wing politics? A lot of these people are just the left behind, the people who couldn't or wouldn't understand history, science, or logic. Others are just incapable of stretching their world view to accomodate reality. Still others are clinical. A common thread is a sense of grievance, but Dems have people like that too. There are left wing nutjobs, to be sure, but they don't run the Democratic party, or even have a real voice in it.

The people who control the Republican Party and it's machinery (Grover Norquist, Fox News, most other news) are usually not that dumb, of course. Instead they seem to be cynical opportunists seeking to take advantage of the credulity of masses by spreading what they know to be lies. Here I have in mind the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post as well as the Hannitys and Rushes. They really only have one platform: low taxes for the ultra-rich.

*In order of increasing separation from reality.


After a lot of wavering and side changing, I've decided to go with the "regretable misunderstanding" interpretation of Gatesgate. Two quite probably conscientious individuals were going about their respective business and the intersections of their world lines led to an understandable but regretable...

The officer's duties led him to challenging a guy in his own home, something most of us would find quite disrespectful. The homeowner's pique, perhaps compounded by fatique, his own sense of self importance, and his position as head of a department one of whose functions is nursing a sense of racial grievance, lost his temper, made baseless accusations, and generally mouthed off to a policeman, in public, before neighbors and fellow policeman. The understandably incensed policeman took the easy way out and busted him.

Was the arrest justified? No way! Were Gates accusations or behavior just, fair, or appropriate? No way! Given the media circus surrounding the event, can either afford to apologize? Not really. What they can do is sit down, admit that they wish things had gone better and that each other's reactions were the result of unfortunate events rather than malice. If they get a beer at the White House as part of the deal, so much the better.

If one of them shows up with a big chip on his shoulder, then screw him - he had his chance and blew it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

That's a Negatory

Conor Friedersdorf, who is filling in for Andy at Andrew Sullivan's Store, gets his panties in a knot over what he calls:

...one of the sleaziest "pickup techniques" short of drugging.

What he's talking about is this:

The community of men who study picking up women — let’s call them “players” — are unified by a belief that dating is a “game,” and that utility should guide one’s approach to it. The results can be harmless enough. An item I once saw in a men’s magazine advised that a good first date might involve walking across a suspension bridge, or standing atop the observation deck of a tall building, because what women feel when they experience vertigo mimics the butterflies that accompanies proximity to a man to whom they’re genuinely attracted. I imagined some poor guy bringing his date on a long hike to the bridge over the river only to discover that she isn’t confused nearly as easily as he was led to believe.

Of course, the belief that one acts amorally by manipulating women quickly leads to abhorrent behavior. The rogue who is zealous for sexual conquest at least understands that he acts badly if he uses deception to get sex. The cerebral “player,” exemplified by the author of the blog Elysium Revisited, doesn’t grasp that anything is the matter with his behavior.

As a result, he is quite unabashed as he describes a male behavior that I’ve observed on many occasions, and that I abhor more than any other mainstream pickup technique. Though I’d never heard it referred to as such, Sebastian Flyte dubs it “the Neg,” and calls it “the Swiss army knife of pickup.”

I’ve been thinking about the neg recently. It’s an amazing little tool that accomplishes so much in such a small amount of time. For those who don’t know, the neg is a comment lobbed at a woman that knocks her off her pedestal. It is not an insult… well, actually, it kind of is (semantics). Who are we kidding? But it’s a playful insult, and some women secretly like being insulted.

He offers examples:

Negs: turning your back to her, pointing out a flaw in her clothes, her hair, something, anything. ‘Hey your nose wiggles when you talk’. ‘Your lipstick is weird’. Eating a sandwich while talking to her, with sweet sandwich in your mouth. Ignoring her. Correcting body language is a great neg. I don’t like when people cross their arms, it’s a sign of anger, so when girls do it I tell them to uncross them. They always do, it’s a very alpha neg… and compliance test… and IOD… and DHV!!! Oh sweet negs, you do so much, so very very much, you are the swiss army knife of pickup!!! They Alice-in-Wonderlandise the world, black becomes white, up becomes down, cute becomes ugly - that 9 you would covertly beggar yourself for is suddenly seeking your smile, your good graces, like some moon-pale concubine in Kublai’s court!

I’ve never seen anyone do this to a woman who hasn’t seemed to me a complete asshole even beforehand — and I’ve been dismayed at the frequency with which it works. Oh, Sebastian Flyte overestimates its utility. But it does work sometimes. Wait, let’s try that sentence again. It works sometimes! And I must admit that the author does a pretty solid job describing when it works: “Be wary though, it must never rampage out from bitter fields - it must always be quick, indifferent, and stealthy, like a dark assassin or pot of poisoned pears. It reaches just out over the abyss without falling in…”

Here’s the part of the post I find most telling:

But there is trouble afoot. The neg has gotten such a bad rap from the disgruntled masses that it has been abandoned by many a seducer. Few dare defend it. Every dimestore doofus who interviews a guy in the community is instantly confronted on the dreaded neg question - isn’t this proof that pickup is purest evil, that it is wrong, wrong to learn what works, wrong to help the piles of beta males left behind by the sexual revolution, wrong wrong wrong!!

Fascinating, isn’t it? The author perceives a world wherein women unjustly pass over beta males in favor of alpha males. He justifies the insults in the same way that MIA justifies Third World robbery and murder: as a tool that is the only choice of the dispossessed to achieve equality.

Interestingly, the author is trying to disabuse us of the notion that the pickup game is depraved when he writes the following:

…without the neg the Mystery Method is nothing, pickup is nothing. It doesn’t work. The neg is central to the whole system. There is no edge without a neg, you become some dancing clown spouting rudderless routines with no backbone to them, very approval seeking. I ‘upgraded’ to Magic Bullets from the old Mystery Method, learned a pile of routines, read some other natural game gurus and so forth, but then had a sudden slump. The reason? No negs!! I completely forgot to neg!!

The neg links it all together. It changes you. It sows the choosy seeds inside that are so key to this whole art. ‘“In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that, one must have long legs”, so said Nietzsche. Let negs be those legs, they will take you from peak to peak, atop each peak you DHV in your own peculiar way, but without the neg you won’t get to those cold peaks in the first place, and you will run your routines in the dark and lonely valleys where no-one hears or cares.

What that passage actually does is demonstrate precisely why — beyond its immorality — the neg is a terrible approach: “It changes you.” Without a technique “that changes you,” the author argues, “pickup is nothing. It doesn’t work.”

Imagine that. The notion that the pickup approach to dating is irrevocably flawed.

As I've mentioned before, I first met the "neg" in Feynman's "Surely You're Joking," where he explains how the master of ceremonies at some Albuquerque night spot explained to him that if he wanted to get laid, he needed to "disrespect the girls." Feynman reported that he tried it with excellent results, not only on bar girls but even with a graduate student's nice sister, but decided he didn't really like it - perhaps it was too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

I can't quite summon up Conor's level of indignation, but I was amused to hear that there is a "community of pick-up artists." Evidently, it is a team sport, best played in pairs. It seems a bit gay - or at least bi - to me -- and in this particular case I can't quite testity "not that there is anything wrong with that."

The psychology of how it works is fairly interesting, and really good evidence for evolutionary psychology. Women are attracted to alpha males, and looking too eager is hopelessly beta (or gamma, delta or omega). If you can't quite manage to be fabulously wealthy, handsome, and athletic, maybe you can at least intimidate your prey down to your level.

I'm certain that men use similar tactics on each other, albeit for another purpose - getting a psychological edge. Using it on a man does carry the risk that he will get pissed off and kick your ass, though. He might not be willing to cede alpha status without a fight.


The Party of Stupid is mostly getting exercised about the President's use of the word in his description of the actions of the Cambridge policeman who arrested Harvard professor "Skip" Gates in his own home. It's hard to imagine a set of circumstances in which the President's description wouldn't be accurate. Given the facts that we know, the policeman was acting entirely properly in entering Gates' home and asking for identification. Once that identification was given, Gates was entirely within his rights in asking for the policeman's badge number. He may have been unwise if he was loud, insistent, or insulting, but none of those things is criminal in nature. The cop may have been embarrassed, and felt disrespected, but those aren't justifications for arrest. Short of events which no one has so far alledged, the policeman was out of line, and should be disciplined - he acted stupidly, losing his cool and behaving in ways which reflected discredit on his department. Policemen can't be expected to be perfect, but they can be expected to exercise good judgement under stress - it's the most crucial requirement of the job.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Two Bad Ideas

(1)A special tax on the rich to pay for health care.

(2)Making the rich ineligible for government health care.

Both have the same flaw - they pit the citizenry against each other. Health care for all can only work if all are in the same boat.

My preference: a basic health care for all, funded from general revenues. Everyone would get issued an insurance card, and basic would apply to all citizens and legal resident aliens, but would have significant deductibles for the better off. Insurance companies could market add on insurance - gold or silver plated, say - but would have to use the same health card system.

Yesterday I saw one doctor and went to one imaging center. I had to enter my insurance data three times, sign my name at least seven, and generally enter a whole passel of duplicative info.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Don't Need No Education?

Tyler Cowen speculates, others take note: could education be a placebo effect? Yes, it could, and the Moon might really consist of green cheese. Ben Casnocha:

On your first day of school at a fancy institution you listen to grand speeches about the wisdom that will soon be imprinted in your brain. You have entered as feeble minds, you will leave as the ruling class. You are also reminded about the ultra-selectivity of the august institution. You are some of the smartest young men and women in the world. It is impossible to leave a convocation ceremony without being convinced that you are among the chosen ones.

Then, you spend four years cracking open the great books, interacting with professors who shock and awe you with their intelligence, and listening intently to outside speakers who tell you it's up your generation to right yesterday's wrongs.

All the while you are keenly aware of the time and money investment you are making. By the end you have spent 48 months full-time engaged in the crucial business of educating yourself. At private colleges, your parents have mortgaged the house to make one of the largest investments of their life.

Surely, you've learned something profound. Surely, you've learned "how to think." Surely, without such a formative intellectual experience you would be at a significant disadvantage in the workforce.

At graduation, you walk off the campus toting the armor of self-confidence that comes from being told you are now "an educated adult." Self-confidence is extremely important.

Perhaps at some point it doesn't matter what actually happens during those four years; if the song-and-dance is elaborate enough, you will be convinced that education happened, and you will carry intellectual self-confidence with you into the world.

Casnocha admits that these speculations clearly don't work for subjects like science and engineering (or presumably for any others where technique is taught - music, accounting, theatre...). What about liberal arts?

If you are lucky, your liberal arts education will force you to read some good books, and maybe even to discuss them. I asked one liberal arts student what he had learned. His answer: How to write a five page essay. That's not a small thing.

The "placebo effect" is a silly identification in any case, since everybody knows that the primary result of an education is the awarding of the tribal badge...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Shock!! HP 6 a Good Movie

David Yates finally made a good Harry Potter movie. Necessary and unnecessary liberties were taken, but the result was excellent. That said, why was Harry standing around aimlessly in the crucial scene? No doubt some of these problems can be fixed when the ten hour miniseries version comes out.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hope for the Rest

It seems there is a new on-line archive where Lumo and friends ought to be able to publish their climate research.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Will Wilkinson might have gotten short changed in the name department, but I doubt if that's why he became a Death Eater. Not quite literally, of course, but I do lump him with Sauron's servants and Morgoth's minions because he is a Cato Institute mouthpiece. The Cato Institute, in case anyone didn't know, is a Right Wing "think" tank funded by some righty billionaires and other evil doers (big tobacco, big oil, big Walmart, etc.) Like it's similarly funded brethren, The AEI, The Marshall Institute, and The Heritage Foundation, it pretends to be an intellectual enterprise but actually produces only propaganda - scholarly looking articles that are rarely published or subjected to peer review - a necessity when what you have to say is less than honest.

Wilkinson, it seems, has written a long article on income inequality in America that got mentioned on two of the sites in my blog list (Andrew Sullivan's and Tyler Cowen's). This article tries to challenge Paul Krugman's various articles complaining about rising income inequality in the US. There are twenty-eight pages of it - many words and few to the point, as a great moral philosopher once said on a different subject.

Recent discussions of economic inequality,
marked by a lack of clarity and care, have confused the public about the meaning and moral significance of rising income inequality. Income statistics paint a misleading picture of real standards of living and real economic inequality. Several strands of evidence about real standards of living suggest a very different picture of the trends in economic inequality. In any case, the dispersion of incomes at any given time has, at best, a tenuous connection to human welfare or social justice. The pattern of incomes is affected by both morally desirable and undesirable mechanisms. When injustice or wrongdoing increases income inequality, the problem is the original malign cause, not the resulting inequality. Many thinkers mistake national populations for “society” and thereby obscure the real story about the effects of trade and immigration on welfare, equality, and justice. There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich. The unequal political voice of the poor can be addressed only through policies that actually work to fight poverty and improve education. Income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice.

Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality
by Will Wilkinson

As his preface suggests, he wants to dispute Krugman's claim of rising income inequality. His problem is that the facts are quite unmistakable. The proportion of the national income going to the top 0.1% and the top 0.01% has increased dramatically in the last 40 years.

He has prepared a multi-layer defense. First, he says, income may not be rising for the bottom 90%, but their consumption is! I guess it's supposed to be some kind of blessing that people with less than $100 k income bought million dollar houses (which are now being foreclosed, of course. People are making less, but they are borrowing more! The fact that he led with such a stupid argument doesn't promise much, and the rest of his arguments don't deliver.

Second, even though the rest of us have less money, the crap we buy at WalMart has gotten cheaper, but the crap the rich find from Hermes hasn't. The point, I guess, is that money differences don't represent real differences - a very odd argument for a free marketer to make, btw.

Third, there may be more inequality, but it doesn't matter, because the Ethiopians have less income inequality than us but we are still better off. There's a big hooray, alright.

Fourth, income inequality is OK even it is harmful it it was achieved "fairly" - whatever that means.

Fifth, if incomes are unequal that's because that's the way Americans like it.

Finally - at least as far as I'm concerned - he claims that:

There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and
rule by the rich.

This is simply untrue. Even if you disregard the evidence of Greece, Rome, and Florence, there is plenty of domestic evidence of that rule already. He likes to disparage "redistribution" but look to whom the hundreds of billions of dollars of bailout money are being distributed to - the same rich guys who brought about the crash.

Like others in his camp, he likes to pretend that there is a huge leftist army arrayed against the Fox liars and people like him, but those he cites are just more billion dollar corporations - the NYT, National rePublican Radio, etc.

If we really had rule by the rich, he claims, Obama and the Democrats could never have taken power, and he cites all the money Obama was able to raise. This ignores the fact that the same wealthy interests are almost as deeply embedded in the Democratic Party as in the Republicans. It also ignores the fact that it took an enormous cascade of misrule by truly stupid Republicans to arouse enough anger to throw them out.

Go ahead and read it if you have an hour to waste. The true believers are sure to wield it like a bible.

It also includes some pretty stinko writing, e.g.,

You can have a distribution of anything you can put a number on. Take height. Andre is 68 inches tall, Beatrice is 70 inches, and Carlos is 80. Let’s say they are members of a club...

WTF? Ok, he's trying to explain what an income distribution is,but this sure looks like non-nutritive fiber to me. There is a lot of it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I have played computer games for years, but only the intellectual kind - chess, go, or solitaire. Some young people I have known forever recently published a new game called Altitude though, so I tried it. It's a multi-player internet game of aerial combat with some cool game physics, but at first I thought that my aged and untrained reflexes would prove a hopeless handicap - and they did, at first. I have gotten a real kick out of finding out that I really could learn to play it though, and my steady improvement has been a blast.

Shameless plug: you can try it for free. You don't need a game controller, only a keyboard.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Tyler Cowen points us to Sam Knight of the Financial Times writing on high IQs. The featured player is Marilyn vos Savant, owner of the Guinness World Records highest IQ, now and forever, of 228.

Savant – the surname is real, it was her mother’s maiden name – has had a unique claim to fame since the mid-1980s. It was then, almost 30 years after she took a test as a schoolgirl in downtown St Louis, Missouri, that her IQ came to light. In 1985, Guinness World Records accepted that she had answered every question correctly on an adult Stanford-Binet IQ test at the age of just 10, a result that gave her a corresponding mental age of 22 years and 11 months, and an unearthly IQ of 228.

I say now and forever because Guinness has dropped that category.

If we were to try to interpret that IQ in the conventional fashion for adults, at the usual rate of 15 points per standard deviation, that number comes to just about eight and one half standard deviations and a probability of less than 10^(-17) or one in 100 quadrillion. That's not plausible, of course, but as a ten year old she supposedly did as well as the average 23 year old on an IQ test.

In any case, she was obviously a smart kid and has become a very clever and knowlegible adult. The FT article is a winner in my book, touching a number of points that fascinate me: the high IQ societies, the superstitious awe in which society holds IQ, and a few hints of the relationship to achievement (modest but real) - not to mention the good old Monty Hall problem, probably Marilyn's most famous controversy, but one that she did get right.

So what do IQ tests test? One of the beauties of the IQ theory is that once you have convinced yourself that a bunch of skills are correlated, testing almost any of them seems equally plausible. Because correlations are imperfect, most IQ tests present a grab bag, but three key components are pattern recognition, speed and complexity of mental processing.

The Wechsler Adult Inteligence Test is one of the most popular ones. They test four general areas, each of which has sub areas:

Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI)
Perceptual Reasoning Index (PRI)
Working Memory Index (WMI)
Processing Speed Index (PSI)

The well-substantiated claim for IQ tests is that they predicts academic performance. Looking at the individual skills certainly makes that claim seem plausible to me. It's also claimed that it predicts performance in all sorts of other areas. There is little obvious correlation of very high IQ to exceptional intellectual accomplishment, however. Geniuses are smart, but might have IQs only a couple of standard deviations above the norm. Many of the so-called super IQs are extremely modest in accomplishment. vos Savan, for example, was distinctly ordinary until she got the idea of claiming the world's highest IQ - two failed marriages (the first at age 16) and employment in the family business A very high IQ friend once explained to me the reason why he left academia - he found that the thing he was actually good at was taking tests.

A claim is made in the article for what I would call the Sheldon Cooper phenomenon - that very high IQ individuals tend to be socially incompetent and often suffer from Asberger's syndrome.

The Good Old Days

I was shredding a bunch of old financial records over the weekend. Among them (for some reason) I found a bunch of old calculations for my dissertation. Page after page of gruesome integrals, all of which had to be done by hand in those pre-Maple days - probably not even a good two day's work now, but many weeks (or months) in those ancient days.

Well, that was certainly a waste.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Scientific Explanation

My friend Zephir asks what I find wrong with his physics. Let me give some examples of what I consider good scientific explanations and what I don't like about his.

What makes a good scientific explanation? The cosmos, and particularly the motion of the planets, has provided us with a couple of thousand year’s worth of explanations. Consider three:

(1)Copernicus. His explanation of planetary motion exemplifies some crucial features of a good scientific explanation. (a) It starts with two simple explanatory principles – the Earth and planets move around the Sun and the follow circular paths. It also has another crucial feature that will set the standard for all physics to come: it makes specific, quantitatively testable predictions. This last feature proved that the Copernican theory could not be quite correct and set the stage for

(2)Kepler. Kepler kept heliocentricity, replaced the circular paths with ellipses, and found specific laws relating the rates of motion of a planet along different portions of its path and relating the periods of the orbits to their semi-major axes. Kepler’s magnificent work set the stage for

(3)Newton, who showed that Kepler’s laws, and their counterparts for the newly discovered moons of Jupiter, could be understood as the manifestation of universal gravitation, the same force that makes an apple fall from a tree (and holds galaxies together).

Every one of these explanations embodied the following principles: (a) A clear geometric and quantitative model and (b) quantitative testability. The same principles, by the way, characterize Einstein’s model which refined and superseded that of Newton. When string theory (or some other quantum theory of gravitation) supersedes Einstein, it will be expected to pass the same tests.

Zephir has offered several (to me mutually incoherent) "explanations" of dark matter. http://aetherwavetheory.blogspot.com/2009/07/awt-approach-to-dark-matter.html

Here is one:

But we can use even more illustrative explanation, linked to dispersion of energy by background field of CMB photons formed by gravitational waves (GWs), which manifests like weak deceleration equivalent to product of Hubble constant and speed of light. This dispersion is direct manifestation of hidden dimensions on both large scales, both small scales, because it manifests as a shielding effect of these photons at Casimir force distance scale. We can say, Casimir force is a shielding effect of GWs, whereas the Pioneer anomaly is subtle deceleration effect caused by dispersion by GWs. Both these forces are result in violation of Newton law at small scales, which manifests itself by anomalous deceleration at large scales and as such it violates the equivalence principle of general relativity - it's as easy, as it is.

To me this looks like a word salad of phrases taken from currently popular articles on cosmology and physics. Does anybody have any idea what it means? Where are the principles upon which the explanation is based, and how are they woven into a coherent expanation? They aren't. What about "dark matter" is it trying to explain? And where is there any specific capable of quantitative test? In short, I don't think this "explanation" explains anything, not even what it is that it's trying to explain.

I would consider this an extreme example, but some of the same traits exist in the so-called explanations the evolution doubters.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Bibliomania Redux

My wife has been doing a bit of summer cleaning. This time this meant getting rid of several boxes of her books. If we are to contemplate retirement, we need to think about where to put the books we bring home from work. She's not content to give away her books, of course. If she has to suffer, so must I, and so I was ordered to undergo the same ordeal.

I have a lot of books that I started but never finished. This could be due to getting bored, or just hating the book, but usually it's because something else - some other book - distracted me. I do plan to finish them someday, so getting rid of them now just doesn't seem reasonable.

Of course there are a lot of books that I have read. I would get rid of them except that I might want to read them again sometime.

The largest class of books consists of those I haven't read, or have barely started. Mostly these are technical books on subjects that interest me, especially math, physics, astronomy, biology, and economics. It would really be silly to have paid good money for them and give them away before reading them. Never mind the fact that I read such books more and more slowly as I get older, blinder and dumber. And that I already have more of these than I'm likely to read in any plausible lifetime.

Thinning a book collection is hard - maybe there is a good book on it somewhere.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Philosophy: Natural and Unnatural

Physics used to be called natural philosophy, but it and other philosophy were divorced sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. Physics got the children, the house, and the bank account but philosophy still had to pay alimony. Philosophers have had a major grudge ever since.
Sean Carroll notes that Steve Hsu found this quote from philosopher Paul Feyerbend.

The withdrawal of philosophy into a "professional" shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth -- and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.

Lumo adds some mostly insightful commentary including apposite comments by Steve Weinberg. (I say mostly, because he can't resist irrelevant rantings against Peter Woit and Lee Smolin).

Feyerbend's distain for Feynman is vindictive but hardly justified. Feynman was more contemptuous of philosophy than ignorant of it. He just didn't think that it still had anything useful to say about the world. It's probably safe to say that most scientists today would agree that the insights of philosophy are of another day.

There are some modern philosophers with a more humble attitude toward science, of course. If nothing else, some of them, say Daniel Dennett, write some good books explaining aspects of science.

Plato and Aristotle thought that the nature of the world could be apprehended by pure thought. History revised that to say that the work of pure thought could be done by mathematics, but experiments had to settle the facts. This left those philosophers who were neither mathematicians nor physicists out in the cold.

On the other hand, string theorists do seem to be going back to the "pure thought" paradigm, but most of them would still like to see some experiments.

UPDATE: Anyone interested in this subject should read the comments over at Cosmic Variance, especially this detailed and well-informed one by Lee Smolin.

Ther are other good ones too.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Barracuda and the Flow

I have nothing to add to the various speculations as to what is going on in Palin's tiny mind, but I hope recent events mean that there is less chance that this loony will become president. I would like to believe that the American people would be smart enough not to elect her, but the evidence (George Bush, John Edwards, etc., etc.) is not encouraging.

It is yet another example of John McCain's colossal unfitness for office that he picked her for VP.

Libertarianism vs. Paternalism

It's hard to find a nastier epithet than "paternalism" in the libertarian vocabulary. That epithet describes a lot about the vast chasm between liberal and libertarian. In my ongoing effort to analyze exactly why it is that I consider libertarians wack, I thought that I ought to take a look at that word. Since different people can mean different things with the same word, especially if that word is emotionally loaded, I thought I would let the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster online do the definition.

Main Entry: pa·ter·nal·ism
Pronunciation: \pə-ˈtər-nə-ˌli-zəm\
Function: noun
Date: 1881
1 : a system under which an authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals as well as in their relations to authority and to each other
2 : a policy or practice based on or characteristic of paternalism

The kernel of the dispute is the question of exactly which of those are just "matters affecting them as indviduals" and which affect "their relations to authority and each other." What liberals and libertarians mostly agree on, in contrast to theocrats, totalitarians of all stripes, and conventional American conservatives is that the government should not be in the business of regulating individual morals, beliefs, and behavior or behavior involving only consenting adult parties. The real disputes come up over relations to authority and each other.

The hardest core libertarians, like Patri Friedman and his seasteders appear to reject almost any role whatsoever for government. In their fantasy, the "free good" that makes possible their utopias is artificial land, beyond the domain of any existing nation. In such utopias, they imagine, they would be free to construct societies of their own design, based on supposedly libertarian principles.

This may seem like a hopeless fantasy (and it is), but the interesting thing is that the experiment has already been tried many times in human history. Repeatedly, bands of adventurers discovered new lands, previously unpeopled, and set up societies. The purest examples were the peopling of the Americas thirteen thousand years ago and of the Pacific islands much more recently. We can't know how these societies started, but we do know how they turned out - variations on themes well explored in the rest of the world.

The fundamental constraints of biological existence and human nature decree that competition for scarce resources will happen and that the struggle for existence will be regulated either by society or by the war of all against all. In practice, humans are social animals, so we enter into various cooperative arrangements. Such cooperative arrangements always require an element of compulsion, for the enforcement of contracts, if nothing else. Even most libertarians would concede as much.

A real and practical question is the proper scope of regulation of relations of individuals to each other and to the regulating authority. Theoretical libertarianism claims that almost no such regulation is needed. Practical libertarianism, Cato institute style, is mostly concerned with making sure that the very rich have few constraints on their actions.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel memorial economist (and grandfather of Patri), was something of a libertarian extremist. He didn't think, for example, that even surgeons should be licensed, and didn't believe in parks or any other kind of governmentally sanctioned public goods. He could argue very cleverly for the advantages of his vision, but he couldn't present any example of a society that functioned on his principles. He liked to cite the example of Hong Kong, a very freewheeling economy with excellent results, conveniently ignoring the fact that it and its economy were creations of an elaborate bit of colonial regulation.

A wise man once said that everybody loves freedom - for themselves. The problem comes when they think about letting other people have it.