Showing posts from 2010

I Knew He Was French...

Paul Krugman reports: This is too weird not to share: guess who was named by one survey as the most influential left of center European thinker ?


The Daily Beast and their panel of MacGeniuses came up with a list of twenty " smartest people of 2010 ." Nobody I actually know made the list, but I have some opinions on some of them. Of course the really smart people of 2010 are probably toiling in utter obscurity in some math or physics department, but we are sticking with just the public types here. #15 Christopher Hitchens. A very clever, passionate, and erudite fellow who manages to be wrong about a lot of stuff. If I had to be stuck on a long ocean voyage with only one person to talk to, he would be my choice from this list. #14 Kanye West. WTF? #8 Felisa Wolfe-Simon. Probably a good scientist who did some nice work with the arsenic tolerating bacteria, but this story was so absurdly hyped by NASA and the press that it really has become something of an embarassment. The bottom line seems to be that she and colleagues do not seem to have proven metabolic replacement of phosphorus in cellular processes. #5 J. Cra

Nut-Jobs of the Right, XXIV

Tucker Carlson, who so far as I know is not a vegetarian, thinks Michael Vick should have been executed. This sentiment is probably widely shared by NY Giants fans, but I think that rather, the Eagles' offensive line ought to execute their blocks.

The Weather Outside is Frightful

OK, maybe not so much here in southern New Mexico, though I suppose you could get a sunburn if you left your shirt off too long outside - but Europe is having its third tough winter in a row and the eastern US is also in the fridge again. So what does it mean? Proof of global warming or disproof (I couldn't bring myself to say "a refudiation", but I was tempted). Judah Cohen, a commercial weather forecaster, offers a interesting meteorological theory in the NYT . Annual cycles like El Niño/Southern Oscillation, solar variability and global ocean currents cannot account for recent winter cooling. And though it is well documented that the earth’s frozen areas are in retreat, evidence of thinning Arctic sea ice does not explain why the world’s major cities are having colder winters. But one phenomenon that may be significant is the way in which seasonal snow cover has continued to increase even as other frozen areas are shrinking. In the past two decades, snow cover has ex

Why It's More Dire in Eire*...

Paul Krugman looks at the housing bubble in Ireland and Nevada ... The populations are similar; the housing bubbles were comparable in their extremity; both currently have roughly 14 percent unemployment. .... Fiscally, Nevada’s retirees can count on Washington to keep paying their Social Security and Medicare, which amounts to a big transfer into the state now that it’s paying much less in federal taxes. Oh, and Nevada is in effect getting a federal bank bailout — not so much directly via the FDIC, although there’s some of that, as via Fannie and Freddie: with less than 1 percent of the US population, Nevada is generating more than 5 percent of the F&F losses — losses that are a problem for taxpayers in general, not specifically in Nevada. So there you have it: optimum currency area theory in action.. Ireland is faced with the combined disadvantages of sharing a currency with Germany but not a budget. *Yes, I've heard that it's not supposed to rhyme with "fire."

Flim-Flam Man

Prof. Steve Landsburg, AKA "The Burg" has a response of sorts to criticism of his "percentage of girls" puzzle from yours truly and Lubos Motl . That response was to challenge Lubos (I am the blogger-who-may-not-be-named) and all comers to a \$15,000 sucker bet. Lubosh has called the bet a "borderline cheat" but I don't see any border at all. The problem is that the subject of his bet is quite different from the original puzzle and his answer to his new problem is different than his original answer - and, not incidentally, now correct in a certain approximation. Here is the original problem: There’s a certain country where everybody wants to have a son. Therefore each couple keeps having children until they have a boy; then they stop. What fraction of the population is female? Well, of course, you can’t know for sure, because, by some extraordinary coincidence, the last 100,000 families in a row might have gotten boys on the first try. But in expect

He'll Be a Dentist...

I had my teeth cleaned the other day. The tech managed to convince me that it was time to expose my head to some more ionizing radiation, so I submitted to X-rays. I had mixed feelings about the fact that they still used film. My previous dentist had gone to a CCD system which, while requiring less radiation per shot, also convinced my idiot tech that it wasn't really necessary to get the shot right the first time, since she could always get a do-over - one good reason I left that dentist. After the cleaning, the dentist looked at my X-rays and said somewhat wistfully: "Nothing really terrible happening to any of these teeth on the X-rays." Afterwards he carefully inspected my wisdom teeth, and said with still more apparent disappointment: "Nothing really going on to justify pulling them - YET." Am I getting more paranoid in my old age or does the guy really need that boat payment?

It's Called Civilization

Human culture seems to have undergone some sort of major phase transition when we started living in cities. Progressive citification has only intensified in the last century or so as technology has permitted a smaller and smaller number of farmers to feed the rest of us. So what's so special about cities? Are they more than just a convenient way to stack a lot of people in a small amount of room? It may not have taken a physicist to intuit the answer, says Jonah Lehrer, writing in the New York Times Magazine , but if you want the insight codified in some equations, a physicist, namely Geoffrey West, is the man. West used to think about physics, but the cancellation of the Super Collider in 1993 caused him to look for new worlds to think about. His first big score was in biology, West has been drawn to different fields before. In 1997, less than five years after he transitioned away from high-energy physics, he published one of the most contentious and influential papers in modern b

Back to "The Burg"

Steve Landsburg brings us this little post-Channukah present : I think he mangles the logic and presents a totally bogus answer.* Let's read it: •Here’s the wrong answer: Every birth has a 50% chance of producing a girl. This remains the case no matter what stopping rule the parents are using. Therefore the expected number of girls is equal to the expected number of boys. So in expectation, half of all children are girls. {OK, Compare paragraph below} •Pretty convincing, eh? So why is it wrong? Well, actually, most of it is right. Every birth has a 50% chance of producing a girl — check. This remains the case no matter what stopping rule the parents are using — check. Therefore the expected number of girls is equal to the expected number of boys — check! But it does not follow that in expectation, half of all children are girls! { Yes, Steve, it does!! } •To see why not, let me tell you about the families who live on my block. There are 3 families with four girls each (and no boys)

Bad Trippin'

What's up with the recent weather related travel debacle in Europe? Five inches of snow shuts down the biggest airports in Europe. Should we attribute it to a typical failure of those damn European socialists? Not exactly. Actually this one is more like a typical failure of greedy and short-sighted capitalists. Clive Irving has the story of Heathrow and other British airports. It seems that after the Brits noticed that airports could be made into shopping malls, they turned airports over to the British Airport Authority, which, despite the name, was a private company, rather than a government entity. As a result, the BAA became a prized, highly profitable business, much admired beyond the U.K. It caught the eye of an ambitious Spanish multinational—until then a specialist in building highways—called Ferrovial. In 2006 Ferrovial bought control of the BAA. Then the problems really began. Passengers complained of poor maintenance, filthy toilets, chaotic security lines, and poor commu

Speedy Projectiles

When I wrote earlier about viscosity and speedy bullets , Guest flogged me for my explanation of penetrating power. I thought it was about the speed of sound, and he said "pressure" and made me figure out why. That's all in the comments to the linked post. I knew that speed of sound had to be involved though, so I needed to think that through as well. Here what I came up with while trying to go to sleep the other night. It is pressure that melts the solid (by compressing the material until the intermolecular forces cease to bind, but the speed of sound is important too. Excess pressure is radiated away at the speed of sound, in the form of sound waves, but when the disturbance (hypervelocity projectile, say) is moving faster than the speed of sound, pressure does not have time to be radiated away. Thus, excess pressure accumulates ahead of the projectile and does its melting work until the projectile slows below sound speed and permits it to radiate away. All that is

The Senator Who Lived

Harry Reid has been the target of oppobrium from right and left lately - accused of not being able to lead, follow, or campaign. The upshot of the lame duck makes him look a bit more like the master strategist, though. Ezra Klein of the WaPo on the lame duck: Sen. Lindsey Graham summed up the session by saying, "When it's all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch."

To Whom It May Concern

I apologize for ever implying that Ginny might not be a suitable life partner for HP and that Ron was dull. No doubt Jo Row knows better. ---------Uncle CIP

Second Responders

It seems that the administration has praised John Stewart for kicking Congress in the pants hard enough to revive the 9/11 first responders health care bill. Meanwhile, the same President, who campaigned for better health care for our wounded veterans, especially those who are victims of traumatic brain injury (TBI), presides over an administration that continues to deny those veterans the gold standard of that care, cognitive rehabilitation. The reason for denial is simple: it's expensive. The Pentagon convened a large panel of experts from both civilian and military medicine, and they unanimously recommended cognitive rehabilitation, but the Pentagon didn't like the answer, so they had a pet contractor write a report disagreeing. Every outside expert reviewing the contractor report found it deeply flawed, but with that report in its pocket the Pentagon continues to deny the wounded the best treatments. NPR and Pro Publica report the details.

Republicans Hate...

... Hispanics slightly more than they hate gays . But they really hate 9/11 first responders . ... the Senate voted against the cloture vote on the DREAM Act: 55-41. The Senate on Saturday cleared the way for a final vote on a bill to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" law, putting the 17-year effort to end the ban on gays in the military just hours from completion. Senators voted 63 to 33 go proceed to debate on the bill. Fifty-seven members of the Senate Democratic caucus and six Republicans -- Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio) -- voted yes. Four senators -- Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) -- did not vote. Shepard Smith excoriated the Senators who are holding up the so-called "Zadroga Bill" to assist 9/11 first responders who suffer from medical problems as a result of their t

Viscosity II: String Theory

Non-experts might want to read Viscosity I first . String Theorist and blogger Joseph Djugashvili has a post on what string theory has to say about viscosity, and in particular, about the ratio of viscosity to entropy density. My first reaction was “Say what?” Why should string theory have anything to say about viscosity? It’s a long post, with several interesting references and a number of the standard boring rants, but I won’t attempt to summarize – go read it yourself. Getting back to the question, recall that viscosity is all about transverse transfer of momentum. At low energies, transverse forces have a long time to act, so it’s not implausible that viscosities could become arbitrarily large, and they do. Conversely, it’s also not really surprising that transverse momentum transfers should saturate at high energies. Consider the case of a bullet smashing into a steel plate. If you have an ordinary bullet, and a reasonably thick plate, as the bullet hits it transfers momentum to

Viscosity I

The most fundamental property of a fluid is (doh!) flow. Under application of a force, a fluid deforms continuously. That doesn’t mean that fluids don’t protest a bit, however. Pushing through a fluid usually produces a resistance – you need to do work to make it flow, and a flowing fluid produces forces on objects that it flows past. Of course fluids have mass, and changing the velocity of a mass requires a force, but I’m not talking about that kind of inertial force at the moment, but about the frictional force a fluid moving at constant velocity exerts on anything it flows past. That frictional quality is called viscosity. We are familiar with very viscous fluids like honey, and much less viscous fluids, like water and air. Imagine stepping into a shallow but swift flowing stream. You feel a force as you insert your foot. That initial force can be explained purely on inertial grounds – you have forced the stream to change direction to flow around you. If the fluid were frictionless,

Economics: Disease and Cure

Humans appear to have been practicing medicine since before civilization. Early medicine was based on a mixture of experience, folklore, and superstition. This or that herb or practice sometimes helped this or that condition. Surgery gradually improved with knowledge of anatomy, and the discovery of bacteria gave insight into the nature of many kinds of disease. Advance beyond superstition and nostrum required understanding of how the machine worked at the cellular level and below, though. Economics, I think, seems firmly lodged in the era of superstition and nostrum. Neoclassical economics has developed elaborate mathematical models, but they lack predictive power and depend on approximations that are too unrealistic to support them. The first requisite for a scientific approach to a cure is to identify the disease and its process. It’s at this point that neo-classicism meets its most fundamental challenge – its optimization assumptions essentially deny the possibility of disease. In

The Compromise: Once More

My current opinion is that Obama made several mistakes, but this compromise was not one of them. If a fight was going to be made, it had to be made last Spring or Summer. The Republicans have little incentive to fold right now, and will have even less after the end of this Congress. If there were no tax deal, and no unemployment extension, the drag on the economy would have been very likely to stifle the economy, and it would have been very hard to pin the blame on the Republicans. That said, the fight has been postponed. Obama's choices are to let the Republicans drive or to prepare for war now. If he's not in full warpaint by this time next year, we are truly screwed. One thing he said this week scared the hell out of me - somebody asked him about a "line in the sand" and he said that they will find out that he has a lot of lines in the sand. That sounds like a plan for disaster. What we need is for the President to articulate a clear and sensible strategy, s

Meditation on a Theme by ...

Tyler Cowen. Looking around at my overflowing bookshelves, my son once said: "I think you have all these books because you are trying to convince other people that you're smart." After thinking about for a second or two I replied: "No, I think I'm trying to convince myself that I'm smart." Maybe it would be closer to say that I overestimate my intellectual ability to assimilate the books that I buy. I'm going to guess that the really smart guys in physics don't buy many physics books. Feynman, Fermi, and Landau reputedly rarely read scientific papers - they just needed to hear the idea and then they worked it out for themselves. Math might be a slightly different matter. Whoever we are though, we rarely lack the instinct to try to impress each other. It's probably a key instinct in our organization as a social species. Feynman and Gell-Mann made spectacles of themselves in their juvenile versions of dominance displays at Caltech Physics

I Throw My Hands Up In The Air Sometimes...

I think it's frustration over not being able to get this idiotically addictive Taio Cruz song out of my head...

Republican Scientists

There hardly exist any , reports Daniel Sarewitz. Only 6 % of scientists self-identify as Republican. There is probably a bigger percentage of blacks in the Ku Klux Klan than that. He wonders why, but Kevin Drum isn't so puzzled : Of course scientists are hostile toward Republicans. As far as they're concerned, Republicans are troglodytes who don't believe in evolution, don't believe in climate change, want to ban stem cell research, and don't want to fund the NSF. They'd be crazy not to be hostile toward Republicans. My guess is that relatively few scientists are ideologues of right or left, and that there would be, will be, more Republican scientists as soon as Republicans stop being no nothing dumb shits ... like than's going to happen anytime soon.

Compromise II

Despite the bitter complaints of those like Krugman and me who wanted a fight, tax cuts and deficit cutting have been pushed to the 2012 election. There is a logic to this, but there is also a peril. What expectation can there be that the fight will turn out any better then? The logic: this is a fight that the President could not win, with a much more Republican Congress coming in. The peril: if the economy continues to limp, and the Democrats remain as inept as they have been, the same battle will need to be fought two years hence, on more unfavorable political terrain. TBD: Obama as fox or rabbit. If we are lucky, Krugman (and I) will have to admit that Obama is smarter than we are. Let's hope so.

Presidential Compromise

I don't like it, but at least he got a small stimulus out of it . Kicking this can down the road does not look like a good idea to me. Europe's can kicking looks even worse. We cannot go on like this. The crisis in the euro zone is the single largest threat to the fragile global recovery we are now seeing. And this is not just a problem for Europe. It matters to us in Britain, as well as to the United States and Asia. At last year’s Group of 20 meetings in London, the participating countries agreed to stabilize the international banking system and to stimulate the world economy. Further progress was made in Pittsburgh six months later. There was real political will to do what was necessary. That momentum has now been lost, and it will not be regained without greater involvement from the major economies. Decisive action, confronting the underlying causes of this crisis, is now imperative. Don't expect leadership from Obama or Merkel.

Digital Invariance?

Hypothesis: The combined IQ of a smartphone and its owner is an invariant of the motion.

(Is It Really a Vitamin?)* D

Wolfgang asked: I try to increase my intake of vitamin D to reduce cancer risk. The best would be long outdoor exposure to the sun. Unfortunately, this would increase the risk of skin cancer. So why can the human body not synthesize this vitamin (without sunlight)? What kind of intelligent design is this? So what's special about sunlight, in particular, sunlight in the UV? Energetic photons, that's what. My guess is that it's either hard or very inconvenient to store a big enough chunk of energy to complete some crucial part of the synthesis - and sunlight is a widely available resource. Wikipedia says: The photosynthesis of vitamin D evolved over 750 million years ago; the phytoplankton coccolithophor Emeliani huxleii is an early example. Vitamin D played a critical role in the maintenance of a calcified skeleton in vertebrates as they left their calcium-rich ocean environment for land over 350 million years ago. "Because vitamin D can only be synthesized via a phot

Deep Down Quantum Mechanics

The Born probability law, says Brad DeLong, is the Deepest Mystery of Creation. He follows that up with: “Let me just say that Eliezer Yudkowsky is a bad man for writing almost-comprehensible weblog posts about them ...” I’m always interested in deep mysteries, and even though I’m not quite ready to endorse Brad’s assessment, it is indeed pretty mysterious. It says that the probability of measuring a certain value for a state variable of a quantum system is proportional to the squared modulus of a complex valued vector. To be slightly less abstract, assume that the variable in question is the location of a particle, in which case the complex valued vector becomes just a complex function, the so-called wave function of the particle. In classical mechanics we could specify the same position, deterministically, by giving the position and momentum of the particle. If you know only probabilistic information about the classical system, then the probability of some measured value can be

Exobiology OMG: NASA Discovers Little Green Men!

OK, strictly speaking, what they discovered was that some men could turn kind of green if fed a suitable poisonous diet. Or even more strictly speaking, that some bacteria could incorporate some Arsenic instead of Phosphorus and still survive , and, apparently, reproduce. Interesting, but, at least in the press release, it’s not clear that arsenic has taken over the crucial physiological functions of phosphorus either in the DNA or the ATP cycle. Most disappointing announcement from the government since the last time Obama spoke.

N-Dimensional Chess

Conventional Democratic wisdom, at least until recently, was that Obama was playing 3-dimensional chess, and we peasants just couldn't appreciate the subtlety of his moves. Lately, though, it's starting to look like the man is playing in a couple fewer of dimensions and can't quite figure out why his pawn can't move any more. Is there any area in which he hasn't disappointed? Even his triumphs, health care and the stimulus, were born crippled and badly advertised.


It's not a secret that my disgust with Obama has been growing, but this crap with Peter Orzag, a former cabinet member deeply involved with the bank bailout, negotiating for a position with Citibank pushed me over the edge. If this isn't a crime, it sure as hell ought to be.

Advising the White House

Brad DeLong , on the wise words of a former Chairman of the White House's Council of Economic Advisors: I think that one of Christie Romer's predecessors as CEA Chair, Stanford economist and Republican Mike Boskin, says it best. Being Chair of the CEA and advising all the political appointees in the White House is, he says, a lot like teaching Econ 1 at Stanford. Only at Stanford your students do their reading, pay attention, and ask deeper and more thoughtful questions.

Greetings From the Transgalactic Ambassador

Only speculation, of course, but NASA claims to have some exo-biology announcement planned for tommorow: At least one guy seems to be pooh-poohing the sensational: But Alexis Madrigal, science editor at The Atlantic, disagrees. "I'm sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I've seen the Science paper. It's not that." he said. News via Wolfgang .

Not Impressed With Obama

Is Paul Krugman impressed with Obama's freezing of federal worker's salaries? I'm going to say not favorably: Yep, that’s exactly what we needed: a transparently cynical policy gesture, trivial in scale but misguided in direction, and in effect conceding that your bitter political opponents have the right idea.. It could be that Obama is just very conservative economically, heavily influenced by the Chicago School at which he taught. I tend to think though, that this battle is not one he wanted to fight anyway, so acting first might not have been a terrible idea, but Krugman's point that Obama is doing nothing to construct a credible narrative for intervention in the economy seems indisputable.

The Slaves of Defunct Eonomists

I really like this essay by Delong: The Four Horsemen of the Teapocalypse , and the associated comments. From the comments, this quote from Warren Buffett: “There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said , “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Shorter Harry Potter and the GoF

In retrospect, it was not such a hot idea for a few dozen Death Eaters and their wanna bees to get snockered on fire whisky and stage a major riot at the Quiddich World Cup. Right in the middle of several thousand heavily armed fellow wizards. Hit simultaneously with hundreds of stunning spells, a number were killed instantly, but enough survived to reveal the identities of the ring-leaders. It wasn't an auspicious start to the big V's comeback plans, but nonetheless his agent managed to penetrate the ludicrous security effort mounted by Hogwarts School's nearly senile headmaster. When the Goblet turned out to have been hexed, though, even Dumbledore's slow suspicions were awakened, and a casual seeming conversation with the Defense-against-the-dark-arts teacher revealed his rather imperfect memory of his many decades of interaction with the headmaster. Veratiserum and legilimency quickly got to the bottom of the plot and He who must not be named got a rather unpleasa

Banners of the Tribe: Social Studies

Brad DeLong has a long, interesting post on the recent semi-centennial celebration of the Harvard Social Studies program: The Social Studies Major 50th Anniversary Celebration Party and Bitter Internal Ideological Power Struggle There are many highlights and low, but here is one that caught my eye (from a Luncheon talk): I will give you an answer, by telling you another story, this time from my years teaching at Columbia. In 1968, as some of you will recall, the students occupied several buildings and brought the university to a screeching halt for two weeks. The next semester, I was teaching a course in which I was anguishing over my inability to find, in the text of Kant's GROUNDWORK OF THE METAPHYICS OF MORALS, an absolutely valid a priori proof of the universal validity of the fundamental moral principle, the categorical Imperative. After class one day, one of the students came up to talk to me. He was one of the SDS students who had seized the buildings, and I knew that he w

Europe: Banking Toward Disaster?

This is the way the World ends, not with a whim but a banker ....................... The Vast Waistband (or something). The rumblings from the Euro zone grow louder [W orse than a crime ]. The story is familiar. Banks borrowed a lot of money from each other, from ordinary rich people, and others, and lent it out to a bunch of yet others (including again each other) who can't afford to pay. Because banks and bankers have a lot of (other people's) money they find it easy to make friends with politicians. This kind of warm personal friendship tends to pay off when the proverbial s*** hits the fan, as politicians discover an urgent economic necessity to save bankers asse[t]s. Thus, in Ireland, the government decided to put the whole nation on the hook for the unwise investment choices of Irish banks. The problem is that Ireland has the total population of a medium large American city and no particular national resources or other wealth, so they really can't afford that. Diverti

Don't Miss: Special Relativity, Simply Explained.

Abstruse Goose via Sean Carroll .


So a scruffy looking guy walks into the diner, opens up his red and black plaid jacket, and reveals several sticks of dynamite strapped to his chest. He holds up his hand to show the spring loaded detonator, walks over to the counter, picks up the salt shaker and throws it, hitting the waiter. "Give me a cup of coffee," he says, "and one of those cinnamon thingies." It seems like a small price to pay, so the staff accomodates him. Unfortunately, he moves into a booth and starts tinkering to build a more powerful bomb - a nuke - while continuing to be obnoxious and extorting free food. Such is the situation South Korea finds itself in. At the moment, the crazy guy's capability is pretty much limited to blowing up Korea, but he has his sights on the world, and Japan, at least, is very much at risk. If the South, and the world, fail to respond, the bad behavior will continue and likely escalate, if world history is any guide, and any response risks catastrophe. At

Maxwell's Demon

You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place, your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage ..................... John von Neumann to Claude Shannon, as quoted by Sean Carroll in From Eternity to Here . Luboš is busily increasing the entropy of the blogosphere , and his target again is Sean Carroll. At the center of the dispute is Maxwell's Demon. Maxwell cooked the little guy up to test some ideas of statistical mechanics. Imagine a box containing a gas of molecules, with a small hole leading to an empty box and a little guy standing at the hole with a little door he can shut. His job is to open the door when he sees an especially fast molecule coming along and close it for the slow molecules (the other way around would work similarly). Sean's (imaginary) crime was to (tr

Evil Genius

I was driving home listening to the overture to some Wagner opera, Tannhauser , I guess, and it occurred to me that nearly every science fiction story of the cruder type featured an evil scientist bent on taking over the world. How about evil artists? Are they common in reality or fiction? Wagner certainly fits the profile - a very bad man who wrote very good music. Now I've met a few evil scientists, but none of them actually seemed bent on taking over the world. Mostly they seemed to be focussed on making associate professor or some similarly mundane ambition. Wagner, though, was the sort to be bent on world domination.

The Banners of the Tribe

Humans evolved living in small groups, and I suspect that a lot of our mental wiring is still optimized for this sort of thing. We live in groups, large and small, because that gives us an advantage over those who don’t have a group, and because we need the group for protection against other groups. Thus small groups of humans outcompeted solitary families, and once agriculture arrived, big groups outcompeted or exterminated most of the small groups. The invention of agriculture changed our way of living, but probably hasn’t had time to completely rewire us. Small groups are typically bound together by ties of kinship, but beyond a critical size, that doesn’t really work. Thus large groups of humans (tribes, chiefdoms, nations) needed to invent other kinds of social glue, starting with identification as such a clan, tribes, and so on. The largest kind of grouping, the civilization, requires the strongest adhesive, and I suspect that religion evolved mainly to fulfill this role. It’s pr

Mac(ro) Daddies

Macro economics is a historical science like geology, paleontology, or astronomy, but without their solid underpinnings in the deep theory and rich experimental history of physics, chemistry and biology. So it behooves the economic Mac Daddy to try to extract whatever historical lessons there may be from the ongoing experience of the world. Ireland ought to be a nice object lesson in something or another. A few short years ago it was the latest poster child for free market radicalism: no business taxes, minimal capital regulations, and a booming economy. Now that it's the latest Euro basket case, what lessons can be drawn therefrom? Tyler Cowen (no social democrat he) has some candidates: 1. The Irish had some excellent economic policies, but they needed to regulate their banks more. They were simply too optimistic and too sloppy. 2. Irish troubles could have been contained, at some point over the last two years, had Ireland not been on the euro. They would have devalued, defaulted

Know How: Ball Bearings

One of my favorite science fiction books when I was a kid was Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. It’s been a few decades, but I seem to recall a party of intrepid adventurers being stranded on a volcanic island, where they managed to reconstruct modern (1860) technology more or less from scratch. There are a few reasons why this wouldn’t work, starting with the fact that volcanic islands don’t have iron ore, but the problem is still interesting. The modern world is utterly dependent on thousands or millions of technological devices, so I thought I might start finding out how a few of them were made. One pretty important invention that we probably don’t think much about is the roller bearing, but it plays a critical role in all sorts of machinery. Marble players and others have long admired the shiny and seemingly perfect spherical roller bearing. So how do you make one? If you have played with wax or clay, you probably have a clue. If you roll that piece of wax between your pal

HP & The Deathly Hallows, Pt I

OK, so I will buy this movie when it comes out. I will probably get a BluRay player so that I can see it in detail. I might even go see it in the theater again. But I'm not happy. Yes I know that DH is the darkest of the books and the darkest of the stories. It's nice that the kids grew up to be good looking and able to act. It's nice that Britain has lots of improbably good-looking and wild scenery. I just didn't expect the movie to be so damn flat. One of Rowling's strengths as a story teller is that she knows how to modulate the mood. Director David Yates - not so much. This was a one-tone symphony. The trouble with unrelieved gloom is that it starts to look just boring. As usual, most of the professional reviews that I've read take exactly the opposite view - they mostly love the movie, the cinematography, and the music. There was music? My family disagrees too. The professionals don't like the first two movies - my very favorites - so clearly my point

Data: Current Expenditures

Look now at all current expenditures: FRED again Note that while detrended federal expenditures do uptick sharply, the uptick is almost entirely matched by decreasing (detrended) State expenditures, and only brief and modest bumps above the long term trend appear in the combined data.

Government Spending

Someone, I think, claimed that there had been a "huge" government stimulus since 2008. Let's look at the numbers. Graphs are of government consumption and net investment. Red is total, green is State and local, and blue federal. These don't include transfer payments which move money from one part of the private sector to another. Nor do they include 2010. From FRED , again.

Output Gap

One trouble with economic arguments is that sarcasm and tribal loyalties always come into play at which point logic goes out the window. So let me start with some data. Here is real US GDP from 2000 to present. ( Saint Louis Fed Data ). Macroeconomists have elaborate models for computing the output gap, but a good approximation can be seen just by extrapolating the line from the (relatively slow growth) Bush years before the crash. Note that (a) the GDP was in free fall before TARP and the stimulus, and (b) resumed slow growth during and after. Just sayin'.

Deep Matters

Wolfgang talks about deep matters concerning the incomprehensible comprehensibility of the world here. I recommend it, but I've got to respond to his included drive-by on Paul Krugman. He links to this author , who begins: Paul seems to only have one card these days, but he does play it very, very well. It's the "nothing is ever enough card" and he got it out again in Sunday's NY Times. The way it works is this: (A) Lobby for any and all expansionary policies. (B) Then, when an expansionary policy get proposed or enacted, pitch a fit and say that it's way too small and will never work. (C) When said policy doesn't work (which of course could well be because the policy is bogus) scream "I told you so" over and over at the top of your lungs. Let me see if I understand the charge here: (a) Krugman was guilty of correctly predicting the severity of the crash when his freshwater critics were chorusing "don't worry, it's all right."


I think that our politics might be a good bit more civil if duelling hadn't been abolished. I can think of a few Faux News (and other) personalities who would be pushing up enough daisies for royal wedding.

Physics and Neoteny

Steven Jay Gould claimed that neoteny, or the preservation of juvenile characteristics in the adult, was a potent source of evolutionary change. I've often read that we humans developed our size extra-large brains to deal with the challenges of language and small group interpersonal relations - e.g., understanding and generating gossip. Plausible as that seems, in the early part of our lives we need to devote some brain power to understanding the behaviors of the other animate and inanimate contents of the world. In some cases, though, normal development is arrested, and the child may fail to outgrow that juvenile behavior even into adulthood, in which case they become what are called scientists, or, in severe cases, physicists. It's a recalcitrant problem, and treatment options are few, invariably focussing on ameliatoration rather than cure. Remissions, frequently brief, often occur if the victim gets a girlfriend/boyfriend, or wife. Traditional best practice recommends p

The Lost Weekend

I haven't posted for a while. Blame Belette who introduced me to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. At least he could have warned me that I would be left hanging (literally) in mid-air... A sample: The Professor turned and looked down at him, dismissive as usual. "Oh, come now, Harry. Really, magic? When you say that rationality is your favorite thing ever and read so much about it? I thought you'd know better than to take this seriously, son, even if you're only ten. Magic is just about the most unscientific thing there is!" Harry's mouth twisted bitterly. He was treated well, probably better than most genetic fathers treated their own children. Harry had been sent to the best elementary schools - and when that didn't work out, he was provided with tutors from the endless labor pool of starving students. Always Harry had been encouraged to study whatever caught his attention, bought all the books that caught his fancy, sponsored in whatever mat

Probably Not

Captain James Kirk certainly was a silly sentimentalist. Imagine him keeping that old fraud Spock on the payroll despite repeated demonstrations of incompetence in his supposed expertise. Whenever a dangerous mission loomed, Spock could be depended on to pull one of his patented fake probability predictions out of his ... - usually something like a 99.99973% chance of failure. In one way I couldn't blame him - Kirk was a total klutz, always going off half-cocked and without a clue. Still, I couldn't resist my own predictions, namely that Spock was off by about 99.99973%. The poor dolt had no head for figures. Of course this post is actually about Steve Landsburg - I think he might miss me - who has a series of posts on the question of what should constitute a "reasonable doubt" in a murder trial. There is a certain amount of amusement to be obtained by doing his arithmetic, but fundamentally he is just making Spock's mistake - assigning arbitrary numbers wh


This headline caught my eye: Lichtenstein Sells for $42.6M Not bad, I thought, for a whole country , even if some of my neighbors do have bigger back yards.

Cutting I: Death Panels

One of the proposals of the deficit commission is to raise the social security retirement age, in response to changes in life expectancy. The problem is that life expectancy is lengthening mostly not because people are getting old more slowly but because we are getting better at keeping old people alive. A sixty-nine year old today is essentially just as affected by senile degeneration as his sixty-nine year old paleolithic ancestor - but he has fewer dire wolves to fight off. It might make more sense, and be more humane, just to decrease the death age.

Words, Words, Words

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all James is amused by the American media: It does amuse me as an external observer to hear terms such as "socialist", "Marxist", "Maoist", "Nazi", "Fascist", etc bandied around in some areas of the US media, seemingly interchangeably and without any justification. Also, in the US it seems that "conservative" is good and "liberal" is evil? How is liberal defined? To which I say, if you think it's so damn funny why don't you just take back Rupert f*****g Murdoch - whose minions are among the worst practitioners. I'm pretty sure, though, that this business of trying to tar your opponents with whatever word of bad rep

Physics of Quiddich

It seems that quiddich has become something of an intercollegiate sport , albeit in an attenuated form. ( Or on the fight fiercely side, Harvard ) Somehow, I don't think the sport is quite ready to get off the ground yet. At least not without some mechanical muggle help. What's needed is a way to add some levity to the proceedings. Perhaps you've seen a Dyson fan. This very cool device appears to be just a sort of metallic ring that produces a rather laminar wind flow with no visible fan blades. I envision a gigantic version mounted horizontally, encased by a transparent wall surrounding the quiddich pitch. A person sitting on a broom is not very stable aerodynamically, so I think some winglets above the player would be needed for stability and to get vertical speeds to some reasonable rate. What would that rate be? Non-magical flying requires that the flyer's weight be balanced by the transferring downward momentum to air at the rate, dp/dt = mg. At optimal an

This Should Cheer Us Up

According to NPR, trade courts have found the US guilty of illegally subsidizing our cotton farmers. Brazilian cotton farmers sued over the violation of our trade agreements, and Brazil threatened retailiation against a wide array of important American exporters. Cotton subsidies, it seems, were too sacred to be dropped, so the US compromised by paying off Brazilian cotton farmers to the tune of $147 million per year. So now US taxpayers subsidize the American and Brazilian cotton industries - whoopee. How long till everybody gets on this bandwagon.

More Religious Strife

How much religious strife is just the battle for control of land and resources? Arundhati Roy on Kashmir: A good example of how occupation and violent resistance interact.

Unclear on the Concept

Bee thinks that Americans are unclear on the concept of socialism . True Dat? says: so·cial·ism   /ˈsoʊʃəˌlɪzəm [soh-shuh-liz-uhm] –noun 1. a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole. For reference.

School Day Anxiety

My high school class is having its (big Roman numeral) reunion next year and I decided to go, but now I'm having performance anxiety. It's not just that I've gotten old, fat, and uglier (though that's part of it). Worse is the fact that I'm reminded of all my deficiencies back when - all the stupid, dorky, uncool, or otherwise uncouth things that I did in my youth. It's possible, I thought for a minute, that everybody feels that way about high school, but I doubt it. How about the football captains and cheerleaders who ruled the HS world? They, I suspect, look back on halcyon days. It's not like I had a good excuse. I participated in football, basketball, and track, albeit in undistinguished fashion, was only bullied enough to be able to call it a rounded high school experience, and had popular siblings. I was pathologically shy, though. Oddly enough I found it entirely doable to speak to an audience of a hundred or a thousand but was utterly unable

Republican Goals

The principal Republican goals we hear about: repealing Health Reform, repealing regulation of Wall Street, and big tax cuts for the rich all seem to be at best minimally popular, even with those who voted Republican this time. It seems to me that if Obama and the Democrats have any guts whatsoever, they can exploit and demonize these efforts. Unfortunately, Obama has yet to show any hint of fighting instinct - we shall see if he can get beyond "Can't we all just get along?"


Like other States, Texas is feeling our economic pain , and casting around for stuff to cut. the governor has floated the idea of eliminating Medicaid. That might be an interesting experiment, since it would probably trigger the flight of Medicaid patients to other States and perhaps a nationwide collapse. I wonder if anyone has analyzed how this might work.

Nancy Pelosi

I am a bit puzzled over how the right managed to so successfully demonize Nancy Pelosi. Sure, the last several Republican Speakers caught some flack as well, but they were each caught in public or private scandal - e.g. Newt's habitual womanizing, his disgraceful treatment of his cancer stricken wife, and his ridiculous shutting down of the government - not to mention his persecution of Clinton for sins he was more guilty of himself. Nancy, I'm pretty sure, hasn't done any of those things. What she did do was pass legislation that offended insurance companies and Wall Street. And that did it?? Anybody have a better idea?

Religion and Violence

Wikipedia has a list of countries by murder rate . The top nineteen nations are all mainly peopled by practitioners of the same great world religion. Care to guess which religion that is? If you guessed "Christian," you would be right. The twentieth nation on the list, Madagascar is mainly indigenous religions, but Christians are a strong second. The US is a bit lower than the average, and rather more than ten times less murderous than the worst country - El Salvador. It's also more than ten times as murderous as the safest nations. The twenty least murderous nations include nine Muslim nations, eight European Christian nations, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Of course some countries' statistics may be more reliable than others.

Emergence of the Classical World

A persistent puzzle of quantum mechanics is the emergence of the classical world from its quantum substrate. How is it that the world of everyday experience appears to follow classical rather than quantum laws? This was a mystery to the founders of quantum mechanics, and ultimately they mostly adopted the so called Copenhagen interpretation, which just sweeps the mystery under the rug by declaring that two must be kept separate, pushing all the weirdness into the measurement process. Over the last three decades an alternative interpretation, known as consistent histories or de-coherent histories, introduced by Robert Griffiths and further developed by Roland Omnes, Murray Gell-Mann, and James Hartle, has attracted widespread interest and support. Its great virtue is that it does away with the Copenhagen division of the world into quantum systems and classical measurement apparatus. All get treated on the same quantum mechanical basis. The most mysterious quantum phenomena are those as