Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Rich Are Different Than You And I ... They Are Smarter

Or so claims Megan McArdle. It seems that McArdle read Sean Reardon's NYT article on the growing gap in educational achievement between the wealthy and the rest of America - though based on the internal evidence of her article, it's a little hard to believe she read beyond the first paragraph. It's obvious, she says, heredity and true breeding of IQ account for all the effect. In support of that she cites some stuff she seems to have invented out of whole cloth. In particular, she pointedly ignores all the evidence gathered by Professor Reardon and his students.

I didn't like McA (AKA Jane Galt) even before I found that she had been forged in the Koch brothers version of Mordor, and sent out on the world with more or less only their slime trail by way of credential. Some of her Kochtopus history is documented here.

What Reardon actually found was that the rapidly growing difference in educational achievement with income is closely correlated with both growing economic inequality and increased spending on preschool educational opportunities by the wealthy.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

There Can Be Only One %

Paul Krugman takes yet another look at why the austerians are so entrenched in the face of data, theory, and common sense and finally mentions the one that I think is key: the interests of the 1% don't coincide with those of the rest of the nation.

On the first question: the dominance of austerians in influential circles should disturb anyone who likes to believe that policy is based on, or even strongly influenced by, actual evidence. After all, the two main studies providing the alleged intellectual justification for austerity — Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna on “expansionary austerity” and Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff on the dangerous debt “threshold” at 90 percent of G.D.P. — faced withering criticism almost as soon as they came out.

And the studies did not hold up under scrutiny. By late 2010, the International Monetary Fund had reworked Alesina-Ardagna with better data and reversed their findings, while many economists raised fundamental questions about Reinhart-Rogoff long before we knew about the famous Excel error. Meanwhile, real-world events — stagnation in Ireland, the original poster child for austerity, falling interest rates in the United States, which was supposed to be facing an imminent fiscal crisis — quickly made nonsense of austerian predictions.

Yet austerity maintained and even strengthened its grip on elite opinion. Why?

He eventually gets to my pet notion:

And this makes one wonder how much difference the intellectual collapse of the austerian position will actually make. To the extent that we have policy of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent, won’t we just see new justifications for the same old policies?

I hope not; I’d like to believe that ideas and evidence matter, at least a bit.

Me too.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

That Old Time Religion

Lumo does some flacking for Gordon Kane's update on his book on supersymmetry: Supersymmetry and Beyond: From the Higgs Boson to the New Physics. Not sure what new there is to report. Maybe just an attempt to get another book out before the supersymmetry sell by date. I read one of his more technical books and it was pretty good.

Sympathy for the Devil

Americans, and apparently a lot of other people, seem to be remarkably forgiving of former leaders who left in some disgrace. That seems especially true in the case of George W. Bush. Paul Krugman reminds us of some of the reasons why Bush was a really terrible President:

But it does need to be said: he was a terrible president, arguably the worst ever, and not just for the reasons many others are pointing out.

From what I’ve read, most of the pushback against revisionism focuses on just how bad Bush’s policies were, from the disaster in Iraq to the way he destroyed FEMA, from the way he squandered a budget surplus to the way he drove up Medicare’s costs. And all of that is fair.

But I think there was something even bigger, in some ways, than his policy failures: Bush brought an unprecedented level of systematic dishonesty to American political life, and we may never recover.

Think about his two main “achievements”, if you want to call them that: the tax cuts and the Iraq war, both of which continue to cast long shadows over our nation’s destiny. The key thing to remember is that both were sold with lies.

I suppose one could make an argument for the kind of tax cuts Bush rammed through — tax cuts that strongly favored the wealthy and significantly increased inequality. But we shouldn’t forget that Bush never admitted that his tax cuts did, in fact, favor the wealthy. Instead, his administration canceled the practice of making assessments of the distributional effects of tax changes, and in their selling of the cuts offered what amounted to an expert class in how to lie with statistics. Basically, every time the Bushies came out with a report, you knew that it was going to involve some kind of fraud, and the only question was which kind and where.

The Nanny State, or Who's Got Your Back, Jack?

Conservatives love to rail against the "Nanny State" - the kind of government that seeks to protect you from buying poisoned food, getting typhoid from infected servers, or provide you with an old age pension. Students of human nature, or at least YHC, think that's a really bad idea. Humans are designed for a society in which we have each other's backs. Family, clan, and tribe provide that function in simpler societies. If you want to live in a more complex society, something is needed to take their place.

The nanny family, clan, or tribe can be very intrusive. It tells you how to dress, how to talk, how to behave, and circumscribes you with a whole list of behavioral imperatives. In return for that, it has your back, and helps you when you are in need (usually), defends you against enemies, revenges your murder, and probably even helps you find a mate.

That's the kind of life our genes designed us for, and a modern state which can't manage to incorporate some of these kinds of supports is not going to be a good place for people to live.

The usual fate of professional athletes motivated my latest musing on this topic. No group of children, except possibly the children of the super rich, is so catered to in their youth. Your mother might be a junkie and your father a cipher, but if you start showing the talent that will ultimately make you a professional athlete there will be coaches and others eager to make you a center of attention.

My freshman roommate in college was a promising tight end for the football team. No sooner had he decided to quit football to concentrate on engineering than an assistant coach showed up in our room to tell him that they could get him the answers to those darn exams. My roommate was smart enough to tell him to get lost, but nowadays wouldn't even of had the confusing fact of being in a dorm with actual students - he would be sequested with the other athletes in a special dorm.

A tiny fraction of these athletic stars make it to the pros and make big bucks, often many tens of millions. Most blow it almost immediately. See, e.g., the stories collected by Max Linsky in The Woe Ater the Show. One excerpt:

Five years after they leave the league, 60 percent of NBA players have nothing left. In the NFL, it’s closer to 80 percent after just two years...

And this:

Basketball’s iconoclast is now a broke recluse. “For the past three years, as Iverson chased an NBA comeback, his marriage fell apart and much of his fortune–he earned more than $150 million in salary alone during his career–dissolved. Now, those who once ignored past signals have recognized that basketball may have been the only thing holding Iverson’s life together. “‘He has hit rock bottom, and he just hasn’t accepted it yet,’ says former Philadelphia teammate Roshown McLeod.

So what should a nanny state do? I forget who suggested the following, but I like it. The basic idea is that young professional should be required to put a big chunk of his salary in a long term pension plan, perhaps all but say $300,000 per year. That way, even the superstars would have trouble enticing the less wealthy into ridiculous spending sprees. Of course the shoe contracts and other extras would still make some a lot richer than others, but at least everybody would understand where the money came from.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Mistakes Economists Make

With the exposure of the errors and other flaws in Reinhart-Rogoff and other papers, the theoretical basis of austeriean economics is in ruins. Meanwhile, the devastating consequences of austerian policies continue to wreck havoc on much of the world. Once again, Keynes prophecy about the powers economists for evil as well as good is confirmed. Astronomers errors probably mostly affect only their own community, but the mistakes of economists spread national, continental, or global catastrophe.

Paul Krugman points out that the reaction of the architects of disaster to the collapse of their predictions and theories has been to get hurt feelings, protest that nobody understands economics, and that the people who got it right - Krugman, Wolf, and bunch of others, includes Keynes - are a bunch of meanies.

When it comes to inflicting pain on the citizens of debtor nations, austerians are all steely determination – hey, it’s a tough world, and hard choices have to be made. But when they or their friends come under criticism, suddenly it’s all empathy and hurt feelings.

We saw that in the case of Olli Rehn, whose friends at the European Commission were outraged, outraged when I pointed out, using slightly colorful language, that he was repeating an often-debunked claim about economic history. And today we see it in Anders Aslund’s defense of Reinhart and Rogoff against what he calls a “vicious” critique by Herndon et al.

Aslund praises R-R for providing

an important corrective to the view that fiscal stimulus is always right – a position that is common across the Anglo-American economic commentariat, led by Paul Krugman in the New York Times.

This is a curious thing for him to say, because it’s an outright lie; as anyone who has been reading me, Martin Wolf, Brad DeLong, Simon Wren-Lewis, etc. knows, our case has always been that fiscal stimulus is justified only when you’re up against the zero lower bound on interest rates. I can’t believe that Aslund doesn’t know this; why, then, would he discredit himself by repeating an easily refuted falsehood?

Aslund is another one whose work has been discredited by analysis and history, of course. He and those he defends should be glad they live in such an unjust world. In a more just world Rehn would be stoned to death in a Madrid square.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Mission Ambiguous

It's not too surprising that faculty, parents, students, and boards of governors all have somewhat different visions of the mission of a university.  The biggest stick in this four-cornered fight is held by the boards of governors, and the people who control their money.  Frank Bruni has an NYT story on the version of this fight currently being waged in Texas, where conservative regents appointed by Governor Rick Perry are battling the UT President Bill Powers.

The regents’ apparent animosity toward Powers, whose most recent request for a modest in-state tuition increase they denied, reached a point where state lawmakers passed several resolutions in February making their support for him clear. That was a slap at the regents — and, by extension, at Governor Perry.

And while it reflected political factionalism, it also tapped into a philosophical divide. The regents, Perry and a conservative think tank with great sway over the governor have all called for, or mused publicly about, reforms at the university that many other Texans have deep and warranted reservations about.

The reformers want professors evaluated by how many students they teach and how many research dollars they attract, metrics that favor large classes and less speculative, visionary science.

They want the school to figure out a way, despite huge cutbacks in public funding, to offer students a four-year degree for a sum total of $10,000 in tuition, which is a small fraction of the current cost and seemingly impossible without a diminution in the quality of instruction.

Much as I distrust conservative think tanks, and Perry, I'm not wholly out of sympathy with such efforts. Most parents, and most kids, think college is about preparing for a career, and getting a leg up in the struggle for existence. Faculty, even those researching questions nobody else cares about, tend to think that universities are for research or whatever else it is they do when they aren't teaching.

The battle is part of a larger war that is by no means confined to Texas.

And so colleges in Virginia are now required to provide information for a database that shows what graduates majored in and what they wound up earning 18 months after getting their diplomas. Florida lawmakers have toyed with encouraging students to study engineering by making their tuition cheaper than humanities majors’. Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, recently advocated legislation to distribute funds to the state’s colleges based not on their enrollments — or, as he said on a radio show, on “butts in seats” — but instead on “how many of those butts can get jobs.”

My impression, though, is that this evolution is happening must faster than almost anybody can anticipate. It's quite plausible that a large fraction of US universities will cease to exist in the next couple of decades. Nathan Harden is slightly more conservative than I (The End of the University as We Know It:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

We’ve all heard plenty about the “college bubble” in recent years. Student loan debt is at an all-time high—an average of more than $23,000 per graduate by some counts—and tuition costs continue to rise at a rate far outpacing inflation, as they have for decades. Credential inflation is devaluing the college degree, making graduate degrees, and the greater debt required to pay for them, increasingly necessary for many people to maintain the standard of living they experienced growing up in their parents’ homes. Students are defaulting on their loans at an unprecedented rate, too, partly a function of an economy short on entry-level professional positions. Yet, as with all bubbles, there’s a persistent public belief in the value of something, and that faith in the college degree has kept demand high.

Before one gets too friendly with a snake, though, one ought to examine his plausible motives. More from Bruni:

I’d sound yet another alarm. Scratch the surface of some of the efforts to reform state universities and you find more than just legitimate qualms about efficiency and demands for accountability. You find the kind of indiscriminate anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism popular among more than a few right-wing conservatives.

It’s worth noting that Governor Perry has dismissed global warming as “one contrived, phony mess” and that many of the voices calling most loudly for change at the University of Texas are from the Tea Party fringe.

In other words there’s some crude, petty politics in all of this. And as we tackle the very real, very important challenge of giving young Americans the best and most useful education possible in an era of dwindling resources, that’s the last thing we need.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What's in a Name?

Arun points out that if you name your kid after one of the most murderous characters of human history, maybe you shouldn't be too surprised if he does bad things.

Close Counts in Horseshoes (and Thermonuclear Weapons)

The Czech Ambassador points out that Czechia is not Chechnya.

Maybe you should have thought of that when you named your country?

WB's socks

3 and 1.

Since WB seems to have banned me from comments

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The NRA and the Long Game

The NRA has handily defeated the most recent gun control legislation.  Despite representing only a small minority of American opinion, their power remains unbroken.  Why?  Organization and dedication.  They have spent decades building a paranoid culture in their hardcore members, and the easily distracted majority can't match that.  The NRA, of course, owes a lot of its muscle to the gun dealers and manufacturers.  For them, a drug war in Mexico, a gang war in Chicago, or a shooting in Massachusetts can be a profit centers, not a tragedy.  Only when the public realizes that the enemy is the NRA will a well regulated militia emerge.

Their power cannot be broken by reasoned argument - both interest and paranoia militate against that.  The only way to beat them is to systematically undermine their legitimacy.  Only if the public concludes that the NRA and its members threaten their safety and their children will momentum build against them.  When an NRA sticker on a car is regarded as odious as a KKK sticker, the game changes.

Chicken, Meet Eggosome

One of the most mysterious questions in science is that of how the whole intricate apparatus of life arose in the first place.  All Earthly life is very much the same at the fundamental level, the vast chemical factory of the cell.  Three critical elements are the mechanism of information storage (DNA), the apparatus for translating the directions written in the DNA into proteins (RNA & proteins), and the proteins that do all the chemical and mechanical work of the cell.  None can carry out their function without the other two.

Recent work has given us a clue, though.  RNA can't compete with proteins in general catalysis, but it does turn out to have some catalytic roles.  Most importantly, it turns out to be the RNA of the ribosome (rRNA) that does the all important task of catalyzing the formation of the peptide bond in the ribosome, the step that produces a protein out of amino acids.

This strongly hints that RNA got there first.


Insults appear to have a pretty crucial role in human relationships.  Some of the first insults kids come up with involve comparing one's foe with excrement.  A bit later, when kids are working out gender identification issues, boys tend to call other boys "girls."  Variations on that theme work well into adulthood.

The essence of an insult is comparison to something agreed to be bad, unprestigious, or other wise disapproved.  Racial epithets were a long time staple and remain so among the uncool, but are probably the most grevious of faux pas among the sophisticated.  Another category now in the Least Favored Insult class are the variations on kids gender identification sneers,  the accusations of homosexuality.

A lot of athletes have gotten into trouble recently for the so called "homophobic slur."  Now when one jock calls another gay, faggot, or some similar term he probably isn't really pretending the target is gay.  What he really means is that the target is lacking in some real or perceived masculine virtues.  Of course these days he would be on safer ground accusing the target of being part of the female sexual apparatus.

I'm sure that that isn't very PC either, of course.  Which leaves the would be insulter on shaky ground.  You could call the target stupid, ugly, make unfavorable comparisons with animals, but really, how much bite do those have.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I dare you to listen this Florida Georgia Line song a couple of times and not want to be a good old Southern boy with a brand new Chevy with a lift kit and KC lights - and not want to pick up a "song" and cruise the back roads with your windows rolled down.

Dust Bowl

Much of Arizona and Western New Mexico seems to be on the move in the air above us.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Checkmate for Reinhart-Rogoff?

Kenneth Rogoff is now a noted Harvard economist but he was once one of the strongest chess Grandmasters, and considered a Championship contender. I mention that, because it turns out that a key paper of his seems to include a patzer's blunder. The most famous result of his collaboration with his colleague Carmen Reinhart, one of the most influential economic papers (and books)of recent years, turns out to be critically flawed. In addition to some questionable choices in selection of data and equally questionable conclusions from their data, it seems that they made a critical calculational error in their Excel spreadsheet.

This is important, because their paper was one of the chief theoretical arguments for the austerity fever that has gripped Europe and the US Congress. The error was found by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin. Mike Konczal, AKA Rortybomb, has an excellent summary here. Excerpt:

In 2010, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff released a paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt." Their "main result is that...median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower." Countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent have a slightly negative average growth rate, in fact. ...

Coding Error. As Herndon-Ash-Pollin puts it: "A coding error in the RR working spreadsheet entirely excludes five countries, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark, from the analysis. [Reinhart-Rogoff] averaged cells in lines 30 to 44 instead of lines 30 to 49...This spreadsheet error...is responsible for a -0.3 percentage-point error in RR's published average real GDP growth in the highest public debt/GDP category." Belgium, in particular, has 26 years with debt-to-GDP above 90 percent, with an average growth rate of 2.6 percent (though this is only counted as one total point due to the weighting above).

Read more: http://www.nextnewdeal.net/researchers-finally-replicated-reinhart-rogoff-and-there-are-serious-problems#ixzz2QfyOZ0kp

Mike has lots of other good stuff, and many of the most prominent economic voices have weighed in today. Paul Krugman reacts here and responds to the R-R response here. From the latter:

So this is really disappointing; they’re basically evading the critique. And that’s a terrible thing when so much is at stake.

The Elite-osphere

Like our Chimpanzee cousins, we humans seem programmed to compete for status. A big complex society has a few such dimensions upon which to compete, so that the cheerleader and the vice president of science club can each get a little piece of the elite-osphere. Some elites, of course, are more unequal than others, and in the US tournament of prestige an Ivy League education is a singularly important merit badge. No recent US President or Supreme Court nominee has failed to collect one - and if you want to be President, it had better be from Harvard or Yale. The Ivy education is also one of the more promising paths to wealth or prestigious occupation.

Needless to say, those of us not in the club look with probably exaggerated awe and envy at the membership. This gives rise to, among other things, a whole industry of Ivy flavored prestige porn - usually hostile or faux hostile insider accounts.

William Deresiewicz has written a minor classic - not that F. Scott Fitzgerald is worried about his laurels - of the genre: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. This of course is what the hoi polloi want to hear (though he points out elsewhere the superfluity of the the "the" in the hoi polloi). What deprivation is it exactly that they, the elect, suffer?

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

The horror.

It's possible, I suppose, that the plumber actually just wanted to fix the pipes and get back in time to watch the Red Socks/Patriots/Bruins game, and if he had had more time, might have loved discussing Aristotle's lost classics with the prof. Or not.

There are some other problems too. It seems that some dumb or lazy kids manage to get in to the Ivies, either because their father was President or they were a jock/legacy/whatever or maybe just discovered the virtues of laziness and dumbness after getting there. These people, it seems, are destined to become entitled mediocrites, and subsequently, President, thus ensuring their own progeny a spot in some future class.

Or you could read the prof's own account, written with the benefit of several Ivy degrees, in one of his languages, English, and damn fine English at that.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Terror and Revenge

One of the problems with random acts of terror is that proportionate response doesn't seem to exist. How do you punish a suicide bomber? How do you discourage the like-minded? You can't always, but the ancient answer was to slaughter all the perpetrators relations to the ninth degree - in practice, those of his village and the surrounding villages.

That seems barbaric, by modern standards, so instead we hold whole countries responsible, and slaughter random samples of same. The improvement isn't obvious.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


Margaret Thatcher is being celebrated by conservatives for various economic deeds, some of which were probably useful. She did break the unions and sell off a lot of socialist enterprises, as well as lowering taxes on the rich and raising them on lower income people. They also like her bellicosity, smashing the Argentine invasion of the Falklands and pushing Bush I into the first Gulf War.

I think these miss her real historical importance, which was the role that she played in the end of the Soviet Union. Thatcher was a key player in getting Reagan and Gorbachev talking, with all the consequences that flowed from that.

Foul Mouthed Defense of Quantum Mechanics

...More or less proving that anything that looks enough like quantum mechanics is going to look exactly like quantum mechanics. Personally I found the first few pages of Dirac's Principles of Quantum Mechanics a lot more persuasive as well as more appetizing, but whatever.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Designer Threads

In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth. At that point, leaving some details to his apprentices, he set about the really serious task of designing bacteria. That was an incredible feat, and left him exhausted, so he took the rest of eternity off and left his ugly stepson, Chance, to do the rest of the work by evolution.

The feat of design that produced bacteria, whomever gets the credit, is mind boggling. By comparison, the rest of creation really seems like amateur hour. Not to knock my fellow Eukaryotes, but nearly all the really cool stuff was already done before we got to the party.

Looking at Pictures

A lot of learning molecular biology is looking at pictures. The last 60 years has produced very instructive pictures of the molecular machines that underlie biology - that constitute the secret of life - and the best way to get an understanding of how they work is to spend a lot of time looking at those pictures and understanding how they work.

Some other branches of science are pretty picture oriented too, though I can't think of anything to match molecular biology. Fluid dyanmics comes to mind. Every would be fluid dynamicist should spend a hundred or more hours looking at pictures and movies of fluid phenomena.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Another Good Reason for the Residential University to Wither Away

The NYT has an article today on the University salaries, and the growing gap between top public and private schools. More intersting to me was this:

And with stretched budgets and public pressure to keep costs down, many colleges and universities are cutting back on tenure and tenure-track jobs. According to the report, such positions now make up only 24 percent of the academic work force, with the bulk of the teaching load shifted to adjuncts, part-timers, graduate students and full-time professors not on the tenure track.

“Public colleges and universities, reeling from immediate and long-term cutbacks in their state funding, have sought to reduce spending on the back of their students, increasingly substituting lower-paid contingent faculty members for more fairly paid tenure-track faculty members,” the report said...

Along with the data on full-time professors’ pay that the association collects from colleges and universities each year, this year’s report includes data from a Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey of more than 10,000 part-time faculty members, finding that their median pay per course in 2010 was $2,700. Generally, private nonprofit institutions paid more than public ones, and doctoral universities more than baccalaureate or community colleges — and for-profit colleges paid only half to two-thirds as much.

You could do a lot better teaching high school, or maybe as a waiter.

Do students and their parents really want to pay big bucks for a 24% chance of being taught by a real faculty member?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Macro Economics

I've noticed that many of my commenters are reluctant to consider economics to be a "science" whatever that may mean. Of course one posssible theory is that that means that they just prefer to clinging to whatever prejudices they've accumulated rather than study the results of economics.

In any case, I decided to subject myself to a conventional course in Macroeconomics, taught by Nilss Olekalns of the University of Melbourne, on Coursera. I have a few other irons in the fire, so I'm not sure how far I will get, but so far so good. I would say that he has a reasonable defense of the science and its importance.

Battle of the Eds

One of the scientists I most admire, Edward O. Wilson, recently wrote an article in the WSJarguing that you don't need much math to be a scientist - even a great scientist. He doesn't admit knowing much himself, but he did learn some calculus as a tenured Professor.

Fortunately, exceptional mathematical fluency is required in only a few disciplines, such as particle physics, astrophysics and information theory. Far more important throughout the rest of science is the ability to form concepts, during which the researcher conjures images and processes by intuition.

Everyone sometimes daydreams like a scientist. Ramped up and disciplined, fantasies are the fountainhead of all creative thinking. Newton dreamed, Darwin dreamed, you dream. The images evoked are at first vague. They may shift in form and fade in and out. They grow a bit firmer when sketched as diagrams on pads of paper, and they take on life as real examples are sought and found.

Pioneers in science only rarely make discoveries by extracting ideas from pure mathematics. Most of the stereotypical photographs of scientists studying rows of equations on a blackboard are instructors explaining discoveries already made. Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodled paper, in the hallway struggling to explain something to a friend, or eating lunch alone. Eureka moments require hard work. And focus.

Mathematician Edward Frenkel disagrees. He thinks that Wilson is a relic of a bygone age, whose ideas are no longer relevant. Paul Krugman takes a somewhat middle ground, arguing that you need some math, probably arithmetic and calculus, but is a bit suspicious of the need for more. I've been an applied physicist and engineer for a while, and I like math for it's own sake, but I can't remember many non-academic applications where I've needed anything beyond differential equations. Every once in a while I think some differential geometry might help, but it hardly ever does (help me, that is).

I have to think, though, that someday biologists are going to find abstract algebra pretty useful.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Natural Experiment

Economists, especially macro economists, are forced to rely on natural experiments for the study of various theories. Europe, and to a lesser extent the US, are currently conducting big experiments in fiscal austerity. The results have been catastrophic at the human scale for many of the Southern economies but Germany and friends remain dedicated to that old Castor Oil purge. Meanwhile, Japan, after decades of somnolent deflation, has chosen a monetarist/Keynesian try to pump up inflation in order to stimulate the economy.

We shall see how it works.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Academic Tournament

Economists don't like tournaments, structures where a bunch of people compete for a benefit that only the winner will enjoy. Economically, they are wasteful, since immense effort is expended, futilely expended for all but the winner. By contrast, deffort expended in production benefits both producer and consumer. The human race, by contrast with homo economicus, is highly addicted to tournaments. See for example, every sports league, political contest, a billion reality television shows, the various lotteries, and much else.

Of course this is just one more confirmation that neo-classical economics fails to capture a lot of crucial aspects of human nature. Life, and evolution, are a tournament, a tournament where we are all ultimately losers, but we are programmed to fight to stay in the game as long as possible.

That doesn't change the fact that tournaments are economically wasteful, and probably best confined as much to the entertainment sector as possible.

One of our most expensive tournaments, and hence one of the most wasteful ones, is our system of graduate education and academic employment. Of late there has been a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the economic and psychological futility of getting a PhD in the humanities, e.g. Rebecca Shuman's Thesis Hatement, the point being that years of degrading slave labor leave you with no employable skills and, frequently, crushing debt. The situation for PhDs in the sciences and engineering is only slightly more favorable, mostly because they can usually get finacial support while going to school, but also because they can probably find jobs. Mostly those jobs pay just about the same as the ones they could get with a Master's degree. See, e.g., The Economist, The Disposable Academic.

There are a lot of perverse incentives built into the system that overproduces PhDs, especially research grants that demand or reward PhD production. Perhaps even more important is the existence of grad students and post docs as a cheap and discardable source of labor. There are 189 US universities that grant PhD's in physics. Most of them produce only a few per year.

The Engines of the Meritocracy

Ross Douthat, NYT designated right wing columnist, Harvard '02, has written a slightly schizophrenic column (The Secrets of Princeton) on the role of the Ivy League in preserving and breeding privilege. His column was ostensibly provoked by the woman who wrote a column telling Princeton women to marry her two Princeton sons - an offence tantamount to class betrayal in his eyes.

Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that’s formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it’s even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.

Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.

I call his column schizophrenic because he keeps wanting to make it about class privilege when in fact the system has a strong meritocratic bias. For example, he wonders:

...why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can’t seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t have a Harvard or Yale degree.

Now it's true that every President since Reagan has had a Harvard or Yale degree (or both) but, except for the two Bushes, none was a child of privilege. Among the other post FDR Presidents, only Kennedy had a monied background, and he was of the first generation in his family born to wealth, so for most of these, the Ivies were a about reaching the elite rather than preserving it.

Rather than merely just preserving the existing elite, the top schools are more about bringing in a trickle of the most talented to refresh it.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

School Daze

David Brooks writes about MOOCs and the college experience. After some plausible speculations:

Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?

David decides to get real - or maybe real-er:

My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task — the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do, the biological knowledge you need to grasp the basics of what nurses do.

Technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done. It is reducible to rules and directions. It’s the sort of knowledge that can be captured in lectures and bullet points and memorized by rote.

By this time anybody who has studied a technical subject, whether Physics or French Horn, has probably concluded that David Brooks is an idiot who acquired both his practical and technical knowledge at the Applebee's salad bar. But let's not stop here. About that practical knowledge:

Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

It's true that those skills are dissapointingly rare. Of course I think the best place to learn them is around the family dinner table, or maybe in kindergarten. I'm afraid my college was not big on teaching them.

Brooks then segues to Ben Nelson's Minerva project - a for profit start-up that hopes to deliver an Ivy League education at half the cost. I'm skeptical, but their faculty picture is impressive. I wonder how they got Dick to agree to come back to teaching.

Peak Oil: the Oilman and the Analyst

James Hamilton looks at some of the history of peak oil predictions, in particular those of T Boone Pickens and Daniel Yergin. Pickens claimed back in 2005 that we were already there. Yergin saw a lot of remaining capacity to increase production. So far, at least, Pickens is looking a lot better. Despite the miracle of fracking and a big run up in prices, global oil production has barely budged - though it has increased by a couple of per cent.

Of course there is still a lot of oil out there, if the price is high enough, but big increases in production appear to be getting pretty difficult.

Friday, April 05, 2013


The March jobs report sucked, but mainly because we were hoping for more. Upward revisions for the previous months were nice but the sense of a recovery losing steam was oppressive.

With government spending continuing to be cut, and with big payroll tax increases for those most likely to spend, this is not surprising even if it is infuriating.

Even more disturbing is the re-emergence Wimpbama - desperately seeking compromise at almost any cost.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Now What, Pathetique Humans?

edX has delivered another body blow to the professorate:

Imagine taking a college exam, and, instead of handing in a blue book and getting a grade from a professor a few weeks later, clicking the “send” button when you are done and receiving a grade back instantly, your essay scored by a software program.

And then, instead of being done with that exam, imagine that the system would immediately let you rewrite the test to try to improve your grade.

EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it. The software uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks.

In preparation for those other tasks you are being freed for, practice this:

Would you like fries with that, Sir?

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Victimless Crime

It's been a while since I've had Steve Landburg to kick around, and I'm not eager to get involved again, but he has posted one of his little nut job problems that has aroused high dudgeon in Brad DeLong and others. His sin, here, is that he appears to be arguing that the Steubenville rape was a victimless crime (he doesn't go quite that far, but he skates close enough to deserve the oppobrium.)

DeLong even votes him to replace long time stupidist-man-alive Don Luskin in that coveted spot. I think Brad misses the point here. Landsburg's stupidity is a very specific mental defect, probably something like autism spectrum. Like many of his fellow libertarians and Ayn Rand heroes, he just doesn't get human nature. He is a weird character, with facets of brilliance, but missing some key pieces. Sort of like TBBT hero Sheldon Cooper.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Game of Thrones

OK, I've only seen a trailer and a snippet, but I did read the first four books. The ratio of good to lousy fantasy epics is approximately 3/a zillion. GOT is not one of the former. Like many another talented writer, George R R Martin tried to stretch a knack for suspense, scene, and creepy effects into an epic. Bad idea. Like many others, he ran out of gas and started multiplying plot themes like rabbits, and the whole enterprise ground to a halt like an armored vehicle in deep mud.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, the grandmaster, never succumbed to the epic temptation. Instead he wrote linked but self contained stories with common characters.

It's possible, of course, that a bad book (or five) can be made into a decent movie. Maybe that has happened.