Showing posts from July, 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 insign

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 eq

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.

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 d p /dt = mg. If we simplify by assuming that a mass M of air has its velocity changed at a rate of d v /dt, then Newton's third law gives M (d v /


Anthropogenic climate change denialists Market Magic libertarians Creationists and like-minded anti-Darwinians Holocaust deniers Birthers (Obama is not a US citizen) 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. Ins


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

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: 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 ma


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 disc

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.

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

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.

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.


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 cha


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.


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^(-1

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.

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

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 w

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

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