Showing posts from September, 2009

The Antipatriotic Right

I'm not usually a big fan of Tom Friedman's column but he is so so right this morning: I hate to write about this, but I have actually been to this play before and it is really disturbing. I was in Israel interviewing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just before he was assassinated in 1995. We had a beer in his office. He needed one. I remember the ugly mood in Israel then — a mood in which extreme right-wing settlers and politicians were doing all they could to delegitimize Rabin, who was committed to trading land for peace as part of the Oslo accords. They questioned his authority. They accused him of treason. They created pictures depicting him as a Nazi SS officer, and they shouted death threats at rallies. His political opponents winked at it all. And in so doing they created a poisonous political environment that was interpreted by one right-wing Jewish settler as a license to kill Rabin — he must have heard, “God will be on your side” — and so he did. Others have already r

Financial Folly

The culprit is debt. Financial crises occur because there is too much debt. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have looked at eight centuries of financial crises and find that the culprit is clear. This is almost as surprising as finding out that too much rain can cause floods, but its nice that some serious academic economists have gathered the data and done the arithmetic. Martin Wolf reviews their book in the Financial Times. As the authors note, “If there is one common theme to the vast range of crises we consider in this book, it is that excessive debt accumulation, whether it be by government, banks, corporations or consumers, often poses greater systemic risks than it seems [to do] during a boom”. Thanks Alan Greenspan and George Bush. A fourth lesson is that bad things go together. In a boom, property prices jump, current account deficits explode, fiscal receipts soar and governments borrow easily; then, in the slump, property prices tumble, the financial system implodes, cap

China's big Retreat

Six decades before Columbus and Vasco da Gama, huge Chinese treasure fleets journeyed to India and Africa. Their ships dwarfed the European vessels in both size and numbers. It seems very unlikely that Europe could have prevailed against such fleets if ever they had met, but in one of the strange turns of fate on which whole empires depend, China withdrew from the seas, abandoned ship building, and forbade foreign trade. Why did they do it? The answer is probably not simple, but one aggravating factor was that due to turbulent successions and other problems, the Chinese throne lost much of its tax base - the rich had largely escaped taxation altogether. I wonder what lessons there are for the US in the blunders of the foolish emperor who tossed away China's world eminence and condemned it to centuries of relative backwardness and foreign domination. We have recently seen the damage one fool can do to our Nation and its place in the world. We are seeing today the continuing da


Eric Morris at Freakonomics asks what people know about their gas mileage. Quick, how many of you can tell me: 1. Your cars’ fuel economy in miles per gallon or, even better, gallons per mile. 2. How much you drove in the last year. 3. The cost to fill your tank. 4. Your monthly and annual fuel expenditures. 5. How your cars’ fuel economy sits in relation to other cars in their classes. 6. What your fuel savings in gallons and dollars would be if you switched to a hybrid or other highly economical vehicle. The most economically salient questions are probably 4, 5, and 6, but I found the others easier. I check my mileage frequently (~26 mpg) and I know that 1/26 is close to 0.04. I know how far I drive in a year and I know how much I spent to fill my tank last time but it fluctuates a lot. The others require calculation. For most people, says Morris, fuel economy didn't even influence their purchase decisions. Well, it surely did influence mine, but hardly minutely. Even if I

Ratings Widget

As an experiment I added a ratings widget at the bottom of each post for those who would like to express their opinions even if they don't feel like writing a whole comment. Just click on what you consider a suitable score. One to five stars.

The Nutcase Right

Steve Benen has Joe Tapper with this quote from Obama: President Obama at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner last night, discussing false claims made about the health care reform bill, told a little anecdote. "I was up at the G20 -- just a little aside -- I was up at the G20, and some of you saw those big flags and all the world leaders come in and Michelle and I are shaking hands with them," the president said. "One of the leaders -- I won't mention who it was -- he comes up to me. We take the picture, we go behind. "He says, 'Barack, explain to me this health care debate.' "He says, 'We don't understand it. You're trying to make sure everybody has health care and they're putting a Hitler mustache on you -- I don't -- that doesn't make sense to me. Explain that to me.'" That would be a good question for the Sunday idiots to ask their conservative guests.

Dreams of Fields

Math is hard...............Barbie Doh!.............................Ken. Math is one of many things that seems harder as I get older. I am studying a rather easy math book, but lately am having a bit of trouble solving the problems. A field is a set of number like things that can be added, subtracted, multiplied and divided, with the result always being in the field [UPDATE: except division by zero is not allowed!]. The integers, for example, are not a field, since their ratios aren't always integers, but the rational numbers (positive and negative ratios of numbers, aka fractions) are. Additional infinite fields include the real and complex numbers. There are also finite fields, the simplest one consisting of just 0 and 1, with 1+1 defined to be = 0. (Arithmetic modulo two, or Z2). Doing our arithmetic mod 3, mod 5, or mod 7 also works, but not mod 4 (or 6, or 8, or 9...). The problem is that you can't have a field when you have zero divisors (e.g., 2 X 2 mod 4 = 0). Galois, be

Television Review: Flash Forward

What if everybody in the world simultaneously experienced a loss of consciousness for (1/alpha) seconds while mentally experiencing whatever happened to them six months later? It sounds a bit goofy, especially the seemingly inappropriate presence of the fine structure constant, but so far it looks like a pretty promising dramatic premise. The carnage occasioned by the simultaneous loss of consciousness made the first episode rather disaster movie like, but things got more interesting once people started figuring out that they were experiencing the same future world (that 137 seconds saw an awful lot of people looking at clocks and calendars, but the real clue was that if A dreamt about B, B experienced the same events involving A.) Thursday nights, ABC.

Casey Mulligan, Phone Your Home Planet!

Casey Mulligan is a professor of economics at University of Chicago, famous enough to have a New York Times blog, but not quite famous enough to be among the 20 odd Mulligans who rate a Wikipedia page. He is pretty wrongheaded, but that's hardly an excuse to target him - that quality is plenty abundant. It's more that he is wrongheaded, loud, and has a prominent pulpit. So how wrong is he? How about some samples from before his latest outrage: Here he is a year ago, explaining that the fundamentals of the economy are still strong so we didn't really need a stimulus : So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 percent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 percent. A bit later he explained unemployment: Unlike in the severe recessions of the 1930s and early 1980s, productivity has been rising. Through the third

The Big Bang Theory: Season III

OK, I wasn't crazy about the first episode. First, tampering with Sheldon's data is the ultimate scientific sin - I just can't see Leonard going along with that. Second, I think they made a mistake letting Penny and Leonard finally get together - the tension in their relationship was major glue for the whole show. Finally, the stupid finale was godawful. After two years lusting for each other Penny and Leonard decide that sex between friends is "weird?" The writers are nuts, and weird. Worse, it leaves their relationship nowhere to go. They blew it. The only plausible excuse I can think of is that Kelly decided to leave the show and they are planning to shut it down.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Brad DeLong summons up the spirits and words of seven freshwater samurai, and uses them for target practice . After quoting and critiqueing them, DeLong adds: The scary thing is not that Levine, Cochrane, Lucas, Prescott, Fama, Zingales, and Boldrin are wrong--people are wrong all the time. The scary thing is the level at which they are wrong: these are all freshman (ok, sophomore) mistakes--yet the seven include two past (and a year ago I would have said three future Nobel laureates in Economics). If this doesn't frighten you, you aren't paying attention... There is a bizarrely childish character to much of their discourse. Levine: It is a daunting task to bring you [Paul Krugman] up to date on the developments in economics in the last quarter century... He could more transparently have just printed "I am a childish asshole" on his own forehead. Eugene Fama: "Sorry, but I’m not familiar with [Hyman] Minsky’s work" and "Haven't seen it [Paul Krugma

Another View of Chicago

Tyler Cowen links to this article . Alexander Rosenberg (Duke), as most readers will know, is a leading philosopher of science, especially of biology and economics, and author of a devastating critique of economics, Economics: Mathematical Politics or Science of Diminshing Returns? (University of Chicago Press), which won the 1993 Lakatos Prize in Philosophy of Science from the London School of Economics. I asked Professor Rosenberg for his reaction to John Cochrane's reply to Krugman, and he kindly gave me permission to post his thoughts: Samples of Rosenberg: Cochrane thinks that neither Krugman nor the last years of the Bush stock market can impugn the “efficient markets hypothesis” and so everything in conventional economic theory is untouched. The efficient markets thesis is that the market makes complete use of all relevant information, and the “proof” is roughly that in a perfectly competitive market among perfectly rational agents prices invariably and instantaneously ref

Evolutionary Strategy and Rational Expectations

Humans are a long lived species slow to reach reproductive maturity. For most of our history, successfully reproducing males depended on reaching maturity, becoming a alpha male, and making the most of our reproductive opportunities during a relatively short period in the dominant hierarchy. Males could also contribute to their genetic legacy by support of offspring during their vulnerable youth and by choosing females likely to live long enough to nurture the children. That, and one's genes, were the ultimate extent of integenerational altruism. Viewed in that light, the career trajectory of a traditional NFL football player makes sense: a youth of glory, three years of wealth, followed by bankruptcy. Before the crash, he has a few brief years as the ultimate alpha male, and in fact many players use that time to maximize their reproductive opportunities. From the perspective of biology, this is a triumph of rational expectations, but not one compatible with the one the economi

Blankety-Blank Blogger Bleg

Whenever a dollar sign: occurs in a quote [right here] $this stupid stuff starts happening. Anybody got any ideas?

Irrational Expectations

Bear in mind that the Ricardian Equivalence prized by freshwater economists depends explicitly on the condition "that families act as infinitely lived dynasties because of intergenerational altruism," and consider this via Tyler Cowen : ... 78% of NFL players go bankrupt within two years of retirement ... the average NFL career lasts just three years. So, figure a player gets drafted in 2009, signs for the minimum and lasts three years in the league: He will have earned about \$1.2 million [dollars] in salary. Factor in taxes, cost of living and the misguided belief that there will be more years and bigger paydays down the road, and it becomes a lot easier to see how so many players struggle with money after their careers end.

Nutballs! What's Eating Them?

It's pretty clear that the animating principle of the tea-party nutballs is not just a philosophical difference over the principles of republican government. Nor are the numerous Fox News demagogues wholly responsible. That kind of rage requires a deep sense of grievance, the kind based on real disasters and injustices. In fact, people in this country have a lot to be angry about: Americans dying overseas in endless wars, an economy in shambles, and, above all, vast sums of money flowing to some of those institutions and individuals most complicit in the economic collapse. Obama has played a role in the anger too, and not just by having "different" conveniently painted on his face, name, and history. By insisting on speaking softly and avoiding anger he has not turned away wrath but focused it on himself. The angry know they have a right to be angry and Obama's equanimity feels like a denial of their right to rage. The angry know they aren't smart or sophisticated

Maneker on Salmon

Marion Maneker has a nice introduction to Felix Salmon in Slate. (True to its scum-sucking WaPo roots, Slate naturally neglects to give us this link to Salmon's blog .) I thought Salmon was an academic, but it seems that he is a journalist - either way, anybody who can decrease the footprint of that fake Ben Stein is a hero in my book. It [documenting the many outrages of Ben Stein] was all harmless fun, if you consider this harmless: "Stein lives in a world," Salmon wrote in March 2009, "where flying commercial is always a chore; where few hotels are as well-appointed as his own homes; where every day he spends in a vaguely public place is a day he risks being accosted and held to account for the uncountable gallons of extremely harmful drivel that he has inflicted on his readers and viewers for years." By his own estimate, Salmon has devoted about 35,000 words to kicking Stein. But it wasn’t until mid-July of this year that Salmon considered Stein beyond th

That Toddlin Town II

Whatever else one may say about the Chicago School of economics, it is a wonderful source of quotes - the kind where a Nobel Memorial guy makes himself look like an idiot. Paul Krugman's analysis of the great macroeconomic divide finds one by Robert Barro: Robert Lucas married Phelps-type [inperfect information] models of employment with rational expectations, the view that people in the economy use all available information to make predictions. And this led to a startling conclusion: anticipated policies have no effect on employment. Only surprise changes in, say, the money supply matter – which means that you can’t use monetary or fiscal policy to stabilize the economy. The Lucas view took the economics profession by storm – not because there was any solid evidence for it, but because it was so clever, because it led to nice math, because it let macroeconomists give in to their inner neoclassicists. But by the late 70s it was already clear that rational expectations macro didn’t

Bush Hatred/Obama Hatred

An Andrew Sullivan reader notes : ...A couple went to a Bush rally wearing anti-Bush T-Shirts and got arrested. Guys standing outside Obama rallies openly carry guns and get interviewed by the media. The heaviest hitters in the Republican party, and in the conservative media have loudly and proudly called for Obama's failure. Liberals who even softly criticized Bush were roundly shamed and called terrorist-loving-America-haters. George W. Bush, despite the controversial beginning of his presidency, was given the chance - - no, in fact, after 9/11, he was given all the unopposed freedom in the world to succeed or fail based upon his own decisions and his own performance. Bush EARNED his hatred. Obama has not had that luxury. Sullivan notes: He also does not have the luxury of the Clinton inheritance. He was left with a steaming pile of doo-doo and a debt already in the stratosphere. And yet they also blame him for that

Bye Bye Barnes & Noble

I'm a big fan of local bookstores, even if they happen to be mega chains, but my local B&N just lost my vote - they took out their drinking fountains. Buying books is thirsty work, and so is walking around malls, and I'll be darned if I'm going to buy 6 bucks worth of coffee for the privilege.

Murray Gell-Mann

Murray Gell-Mann, my candidate for the greatest living physicist, recently celebrated his 80th birthday. He was the most prominent particle physicist in the heroic age of particle physics, and he produced a fabulous stream of crucial ideas. Lubos Motl and Peter Woit have each produced long posts on his career, and I strongly recommend them. In addition to being a great physicist and a genuine polymath, Gell-Mann was a difficult and prickly individual, compulsively rude and obnoxious in that "I'm smarter than you are" way that is so much more annoying because you know that he really is. That didn't stop him from having lots of loyal friends, so he doubtless had compensatory good qualities - but it did make him lots of enemies. His long rivalry with his fellow Caltech professor Richard Feynman seems to have cost him some psychic damage. Unlike Feynman, he was no storyteller, and severe insecurity about his writing made it difficult to share his thoughts in writin

Oafish Grandiosity

At some point during my life, our national virtue morphed from modest self-effacement to oafish gradiosity. David Brooks remarks today on the difference between American's self-effacing reactions to V-J day 65 years ago and today's world where we are bombarded with the boorish antics of the Joe Wilsons and Kanye Wests at every turn. These days, it seems, no third grader can score basket in a playground game without some self-indulgent posturing. So who started the freak show? My earliest memories in that regard are the braggadocio of Muhamad "the greatest" Ali and John "bigger than Jesus" Lennon, but I'm surely not a reliable cultural reporter. I do think something has been lost, though.

Ricardian Equivalence

Cochrane and the other economists of his school believe that Keynes has been refuted, and that stimulatory spending via government deficits can't work. Their principal justification is Ricardian Equivalence - which to Cochrane is a sacred "theorem". His reasoning is tautolgical: it's a logical connection from a set of "if" to a set of "therefore." Not even Paul can object to the connection. "If" frogs had fur, "then" the world could be made safe for chinchillas. There are a few things you need to know about Ricardian equivalence and Barro's "proof" of the same. Let Wikipedia explain : In simple terms, the theory can be described as follows. Governments may either finance their spending by taxing current taxpayers, or they may borrow money by issuing bonds. In the latter case, they must eventually repay this borrowing by raising taxes above what they would otherwise have been in future. The choice is therefore betwe

Does Biology Inform Our Understanding of Empire?

It's All in the family. Empires are an extremely common feature of civilization, having arizen more or less independently hundreds of times. Their common characteristics are striking. Centralized power and institution, a multinational and multicultural membership, and a course of growth, decay, and dissolution. Naturally, I have a theory about that. The fundamental unit of human society is the family, extended in hunter gather bands. Larger units of society, including empires, are modeled on the extended family. Member states and member cultures play the role of the family members. As in a family, some will strive for supremacy, and must be suppressed. More cooperative members must be rewarded because we will need allies in the next contest. Outsiders are a threat to our resources and their resources are a temptation to us. As with hunter gather bands, outsiders are not wholly alien. We are related to them as well, but they may be either enemies, allies, or target of our greed.

Cochrane: "You lie, Krugman!"

The essence of an insult is contemptuous rudeness, and that characteristic is what distinguishes it from ordinary criticism. It is a distinction lost on John Cochrane, a professor in the business school at the University of Chicago, and that confusion pervades his response to Paul Krugman's recent analysis of the state of macroeconomics in the New York Times Magazine. Cochrane is much exercised about what he calls Krugman's insults, though a sober analysis of Krugman's article reveals many criticisms but no insults. Cochrane's response, by contrast, seethes with insults and indignation. By my count at least 20 of his 56 paragraphs featured contemptuous and rude insults. Examples: In par 2 Krugman is compared to creationists and a list of other discredited denialists. In para 3, "he makes stuff up," "hints at dark conspiracies" and more. My favorite, mostly for comic relief, comes from para 37: "Hello, Paul, where have you been for the last 30

Mathematical Economics

Krugman has criticized his fellow macro economists for falling too much for mathematical beauty in theory, but exactly what is mathematical economics, and is any interesting mathematics coming out of it? Well game theory has certainly found some of its most important applications in economics, but it didn't exactly originate there. So what the heck do economists do, mathematically? A lot of the same things physicists study, for a start: calculus, linear algebra, differential equations. Mostly though, at least at the elementary level, they like optimization. Optimization brings questions of convexity, so there is at least a hint of geometry. Dynamical systems theory seems like a natural match, so I suppose that at least some economists do that, though the mathematical econ book I have doesn't seem to mention the subject. I have heard claims of links to gauge theory, and would be curious to know how that works. Surely symmetry and group theory must be relevant somewhere. Th


Andrew Sullivan has some astute readers. Here is one who shouldn't be missed : ...We did not go into Iraq after 9/11 because we had to make a huge military demonstration somewhere, no matter how implausible the aims (Millman); nor did we want to teach "the Arabs" a lesson (Ajami). Cheney, Bush and company had long had Baghdad in their gunsights -- 9/11 was merely an opportunity, just as WMD was merely a cover... No, we went into Iraq to fulfill a longer range strategic vision: Surround Iran. Defend Israel. Secure the oil. . . ...That's what empires do... What is surprising is the sheer incompetence with which it was done. But then, that's the hallmark of the Bush years, isn't it? And the hallmark of an empire on it's way to trouble: an utter incompetence based on the inability to read the real situation. Ideology over reality. Utopian fever dreams over cold conservative wakefulness... There is more, also worth reading.

Dan Brown's Body

Janet Maslin, writing in the NYT, produces a truly obnoxious review of Dan Brown's new book The Lost Symbol . She seems determined to cram a major spoiler into every paragraph - I quit after about three.

Professional Matters

The traditions of the learned professions took a beating from the deregulatory fervor of the nineteen-sixties. The very word professional comes from the oaths or codes members "professed" as part of their initiation, but after a thousand years or two the restrictions these imposed on practitioners were held to be illegal. It's true, of course, that a significant component of those codes of ethics was concerned with limiting competition among members, but those weren't the only components that were lost. In his book, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely cites reports widespread belief that the disappearance of professional standards of ethics has led to an increase in dishonesty and unscrupulous practice by doctors, lawyers, and accountants. One of Ariely's principle themes is the situational dependence of moral behavior, especially honesty. Most people, he argues, are somewhat dishonest most of the time, but details matter. Sixpacks of Coke left in dorm refrigerato

Decisions, Decisions

More Predictable Irrationality blogging. People like to keep their options open. That's another reason that most people hate making decisions. There are many cases when keeping your options open is a good strategy, but keeping one's options open too long leaves us in the position of Buridan's Ass - starving to death between two equally tempting haystacks. The experiments of Ariely and colleagues seem to show that people, or at least university students, will tend to incur clear tangible losses to keep an option open, even when that option is completely meaningless. There is plentiful evidence for the same kind of behavior in the real economy, as well. The tax laws have incentives for saving for retirement, but many people fail to take advantage of them even when they are so close to retirement that the money isn't really removed from their control or availability. I tend to see this as another example of people being unwilling to expend the emotional and cognitiv

Don't Know Much About...

It's commonly noted that watching television makes you stupid. It can also remind one how dumb some other people are. I happened to be watching an episode of Jeff Foxworthy's "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader." If you haven't had the experience, it is a $1,000,000 prize quiz show where the contestants are stumped by elementary school quiz questions. I used to suspect that contestants were either pre-selected for low IQ or perhaps given a dumb pill before the show, but it must be the latter since apparently George Smoot, the Nobel Physics laureate (and Big Bang Theory cameo actor) is going to be on. I was watching with my son, who is also trained in physics, and we had the same reaction - uh oh, is he going to embarrass the whole profession? The questions range from really, really easy ("How many days are there in two weeks"), to really easy ("How many dimensions does a rectangle have?" - the contestant missed that one) to slightly hard (&qu

Twenty Dollar Bill

In one cute tea bagger antic, a woman holds up a twenty dollar bill and dares representative Norm Dicks (D, Washington) to come down and take it for his health care program. Clever, disruptive, and hard to deal with on the fly. My suggested response. Well, we have all payed taxes, and from my own experience, it's never fun, so I think I can sympathize with you on that point. On the other hand, I like having roads, policemen, and an army to protect us from foreign enemies. That's the bargain of living in a civilization - we pay taxes and get a society. You may resent what you pay, but others pay much more. Right now we have men and women on the front lines in Afghanistan risking their lives and limbs to help keep you free - and if you think paying taxes means you can't be free, I think you might need to sample some of the places in the world where people really aren't free - there are an awful lot of them.

Is Daniel Lyons a Parasite?

Not language that I would normally use about an otherwise inoffensive tech columnist, but it's his choice of words, not mine. He didn't apply it to himself directly of course, but it's pretty clear from the context. What he did do is write a column (Exterminate the Parasites) based on a blog posting by Mark Cuban, the billionaire basketball/internet dancing star. Cuban's alleged theme (I didn't read his site, just Lyons parasite), heartily endorsed by Lyons, is that traditional media's only hope of forging a workable business plan in the internet age is to conspire in restraint of trade - more specifically, to get together to agree to blockade the news aggregator sites - Drudge, Newser, Huffington Post, etc. Only if they do that, says Cuban/Lyons, can they force people to pay for their content. Those sites, says Lyons, are "parasites," since they generate little content of their own, but mainly just summarize stories from other media - very much


The vulgar boorishness epitomized by Representative Wilson in the Republican response to the President's speech was hardly a surprise. When you celebrate boorishness and promote vulgar oafs to be your spokesmen, that's what you get. I think the American people may be tiring of this clown show, though, or at least I hope so. When you publically disrespect the President speaking on an official occasio, you disrespect the country, and Americans are entitled to be angry. By rights, Wilson should be censured and expelled, but politically it makes more sense to keep his around as a symbol. Let the tea baggers have their poster boy, and let the world see what they are.

What's Education Got To Do With It?

The purpose of the university is research.........................Prestige U Faculty Member Going to class is a waste of time better spent doing problem sets, or sleeping......................Prestige U Undergrad And Burck Smith can save you money. Like millions of other Americans, Barbara Solvig lost her job this year. A fifty-year-old mother of three, Solvig had taken college courses at Northeastern Illinois University years ago, but never earned a degree. Ever since, she had been forced to settle for less money than coworkers with similar jobs who had bachelor’s degrees. So when she was laid off from a human resources position at a Chicago-area hospital in January, she knew the time had come to finally get her own credential. Doing that wasn’t going to be easy, because four-year degrees typically require two luxuries Solvig didn’t have: years of time out of the workforce, and a great deal of money. Luckily for Solvig, there were new options available. She went online looking for som

Mind Speech

Via Patrick Appel at Andrew Sullivan : Mind speech is almost here . Reading thought patterns from electrodes attached to the scalp makes progress. Scientists are now working on systems that allow people to use their thoughts alone to control devices. Klaus-Robert Müller, the director of the Machine Learning/Intelligent Data Analysis Group at the Technical University of Berlin, has a system that allows subjects to play pinball with their mind alone. Of course they can do rather better if they actually stick the wires into your head - as they have with monkeys.

A Foolish Consistency....

... is not just the hobgoblin of little minds. Consistency at the expense of reason seems to be a universal feature of our thought. Libertarians and other economists seem pretty certain that presenting people with greater choice is a positive good, but the evidence doesn't back them up. We mostly don't like having to decide and tend to adopt drastic economies when forced to choose. We have a whole set of strategies for minimizing the difficulty of decision making. I mentioned one in my previous post: faced with a three way choice we tend to make the easy choice even at the expense of global optimization. An even more important one is a kind of imprinting - choosing whatever was closest to our previous similar choice. Dan Arielly refers to this as arbitrary coherence - essentially sticking with whatever choice we first made. Arielly is interested in the economic implications, but it also applies to the rest of the universe. We pick a sports team, a political party, a ch

Local Optimization

Irrational thoughts and behavior have been on my mind lately. Why do so many people think and do what seem to me to be objectively absurd things? It seems that Dan Ariely has written this book about it: Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. I'm a slow reader, partly because as soon as I read something good I have an irresistable urge to start writing about it, so I haven't gotten too far into his book yet, but here's the first gem: Decisions are hard, and we like to simplify the process by comparing similar things. I like to think of it as local optimization in the search space. Suppose we want to buy a new something, say a bicycle. Imagine that we are having trouble deciding between a road bike and a nice mountain bike, each priced similarly. It could be a hard decision, since each has rather different advantages, each of which might appeal to us (the mountain bike can go anywhere, but the road bike is faste

Mass Insanity

Public anger is not something new, and there isn't really a shortage of things to be angry about, but the peculiar unreality of the rage of 2009 is something new to me. Joe Klein has commented on the irrationality of it and so has Paul Krugman . It's not just that they hate Obama - it's that they hate Obama for preposterous and obviously untrue reasons. It's somehow as if some great American screw has come loose and spilled whatever it is that afflicts the street corner crazies raving about aliens in their dentures into the heads of a third of the population. Here's Joe Klein: I was at a Blanche Lincoln town hall meeting in Russellville, Arkansas, yesterday--and the number of people who believe that the President has larded the government with communists (!) was astonishing. One woman said there were four known communists in the government and that she'd researched it on the internet. When I asked her afterwards, she said environmental adviser Van Jones, le

The Big Bang Theory

This week, TBBT reran the episode where Sheldon tries to intervene to save Leonard's budding romance with Dr. Stephanie. Jim Parsons and the BBT writers have never been in better form - the timing, pace, and dialog were comedy at its best. Most sitcoms are deservedly despised, and CBS's non - Chuck Lorre entries typify that. Awful writing, execrable acting, and characters we can't even muster the energy to despise are the rule. For every Seinfeld we get a Friends and a lousy show like How I met your mother looks good compared to most of the other dreck around. So what does Chuck Lorre know that none of those other idiots do? Did he just lock up all the good writers or what?


"Unfortunately," says an ad that appears nearly every time I check certain aspects of my blog, "most men never know the real reasons why women reject them." Well maybe, but would we really want to know? Some possibilities: "Too ugly" "Too poor" "Too boring" "Too badly dressed" "Too uncool" "Too short" "Too fat" "Too dumb" "Too shy" "Too inarticulate" "Too clever" "Too nice" How many of these things do we want to know, or knowing, do we want to hear, anyway? I prefer just to assume that the last two "toos" cover it in my case. I am pretty sure that being "too conceited" couldn't possibly a problem.


It's odd, but reading Alex Tabbarok tends to slightly upset my equilibrium - something about a glimpse into a mind that's vaguely off.

Oops! Some Not so Beautiful Minds

The University of Chicago has collected more of those Nobel Memorial economics prizes than any other school. It has also become something of an economic joke. Those economists didn't just fail to predict the catastrophe that engulfed the financial world last year, they contributed to it and in many ways were the intellectual sponsors of it. Paul Krugman has a long article in the New York Times Magazine today examining the massive failure of the economics profession in the run up to the financial detonation, and he looks in detail at the failures of the so-called "freshwater" economists. The rest of the macroeconomics profession doesn't get off either. They too mostly failed to anticipate the tsunami. When a prominent and much glorified school of thought meets a catastrophic reverse, they have the choice putting their heads down and humbly accepting the rebuke of history, or speaking loudly and wildly to guarantee that history remembers them as idiots. Most of Chicago

The Meritocracy

Most us like our facts to be convenient for our theories and for ourselves. Rich people tend to think they deserve to be rich, even if their only contribution to the situation was a judicious choice of womb. Libertarians, it seems, like to see proof that this is the best of all possible worlds and that a meriotocracy arises by magic. Consequently, the following graph excited the libertarian economocracy. Proof positive, said they, that genetics rulz! Alex Tabbarok of Marginal Revolution reviews the bidding and finds that Dr. Pangloss was right: Into this libertarian paradise comes Mike Konczal of Rortybomb, who looks at the details and finds enough unnoted biases in the data to blow the theories to the moon: Another dumb theory slain, or at least greviously wounded, by nasty facts.

Freedom Muffins

No doubt the outrage over Britain's swap of the Lockerbie bomber for some oil contracts is justified, but it's worth noting that the man in question was at most a functionary - a pawn acting under orders from the "very interesting man" John McCain was lately twittering about having tea with. Quaddafi *is* the Lockerbie bomber.

Another Simple Greenhouse

Thumbing through Kittel and Kroemer's Thermal Physics - an admirably elementary introduction to statistical mechanics - I came across a particularly elementary treatment of the greenhouse effect. The simplicity is based on their rather drastic idealization - the atmosphere is reduced to a surface completely transparent to visible but perfectly absorbing (and immediately re-emitting) in the infrared. This version of the greenhouse produces a significant overestimation of the greenhouse effect but is completely quantitative and clearly shows the main principle. Page 115-116.