Showing posts from February, 2010

Libertarian Wack XXIV

So what does a libertarian say to his kid who claims that an Eight O'clock bedtime is slavery? A certain brand of Libertarian Wack equates any government whatsoever with slavery, on the grounds that it impinges on their right to do anything they want. These people don't understand the phrase reductio ad absurdum.

Entropy I

I wanted to put together a post on entropy, but I can't seem to get my thoughts organized.

Waldman via DeLong

I should really give up economist bashing. Economists themselves are so much better at it . Robert Waldmann writes: Zombie Economics: Just from the first two words of the title "Zombie Economics:" I assumed the book was about reanimation of refuted hypotheses. I'd say the point is not that economists have come up with a lot of false hypotheses. That's normal and just the way hypotheses are. The point is that the status of those so-called hypotheses is not reduced by empirical evidence. As noted by Quiggin, one problem is that they aren't hypotheses at all but rather statements so vague that they can't be tested. The other problem is that many economists draw policy implications of statements so vague that they can't be tested.

Review Review

If Wall Street and Math interest you, don't miss Peter Woit's review of The Quants . Some parts that I like: Patterson’s story emphasizes heavily the relationship to gambling. He writes extensively about Ed Thorp, who developed the theory of card-counting, did well with this at casinos, then moved on to the hedge fund business. Just about everyone profiled in Patterson’s book is described as having read and been inspired by Thorp’s 1962 book on card-counting (Beat the Dealer). ... ...The book has little to say about a more significant failure that involved a different group of quants, those responsible for the bad mathematical models used to justify the mortage securitization business. From what I can tell, there the story is that if there’s a lot of money to be made creating a financial instrument carrying large risks obscured by complexity, it’s not hard to find people willing to help you sell it by creating bad mathematical models of its behavior. I would like to see Wolfga

A History of Violence

1280 CE is not one of those years that jumps out of the history books at you, but eyeglasses seem to have been invented about then. Robert the Bruce was six years old,Thomas Aquinas was six years dead, and Marco Polo was in China at the court of Kublai Khan. Meanwhile, away from the center of the World, Native Americans were occupying the Gila Cliff dwellings in what is now New Mexico and Polynesian sailors were arriving in New Zealand, where they colonized it, killed off the megafauna, and became the very warlike Maori. A couple of hundred years later, about the same time that Columbus was sailing the Ocean blue, some of their descendants colonized the Chatham islands, became the Moriori and developed a rigorously non-violent and pacifistic society. Unfortunately, these Moriori traits did not serve them well when their Maori cousins arrived in 1835 and proceeded to exterminate their culture and all but a tiny number of them. We humans clearly have the capability of either warlik

Socially Useful

One of the interesting points of the previous topic is the question of what exactly is "socially useful." The answer depends on what you mean by "socially" and "useful." China reputedly spent tens of billions on the Beijing Olympics. Why? It spent all that because it wanted to signal to it's own people and the world that it had become a great power. Most major nations now invest quite a lot in their Olympic programs with the objective of increasing their prestige. They do this because they realize that they are in competition with each other and that prestige matters in that competition. Do a few olympic medals make it more likely that other nations will buy your products or decide not to try a miltary adventure against you? Probably so, and even if they don't, they appeal to our primitive instincts that equate prestigious with "dangerous." Humans tend tend to organize themselves into a heterarchy of social units, which both compe

Annoying Ideas

Is Steve Landsburg a closeted social democrat? I would never have guessed, but how about this statement? ...No, you’ve missed the main point, which is that markets work well when the reward to a supplier is commensurate with the social value of what he produces, and that tournaments (such as Olympic events) are classic examples of markets where that condition is not met. Now this sounds to me like something Paul Krugman might have said, but Prof Landsburg said it right here . What, you might say? You're quoting Landsburg again! What is your problem? I not a big fan of Landsburg's opinions, and he can't stand me, but he does turn out to have a lot of the ideas that are just annoying enough to get my attention. Ideas can be annoying because they are wrong, trite, insulting, or just boring. Such are the mosquitoes of the idea world. There is a more interesting type of annoying idea though, and that’s the one that undermines some tenet (or even tenant!) of one’s world view

Past and Future

[One of a series in my attempt to understand the latest dust up between Bee and Lumo] It seems clear that the (evolutionary) reason we have brains is to be able to predict the future, or at least to organize our response to the present, which amounts to the same thing. Prediction and control of the future is the full time business of essentially all of our institutions, including religion, state, and family. Science has proven a rather useful tool in that regard, and physics is one of the shiniest pennies in that coin purse – physics can predict the wavelength of certain radiations of excited atoms with phenomenal accuracy, and the evolution of the planets for tens of thousands of years. The principle which permits prediction is causality, the notion that the past determines the future. In classical physics, it is held that if we knew the past in sufficient detail, and could do the arithmetic, we could compute the detailed future. In practice, of course, that could only be done in part

Theological Politics

I'm not usually a big fan of theological explanations in the political arena, but is the current economic catastrophe God's punishment on the American people for stupidity? Indications are that they are thinking of electing a Republican congress again in 2010. I don't expect that God would have much trouble thinking up further condign punishments.

Conservation of Energy

It's hard to think of a fundamental scientific concept with more explanatory power than energy. It plays a key role in chemistry, biology, geology and even economics as well as physics and astronomy, where it originated. The word, or its Greek precursor appears in the work of Aristotle , but the modern concept of kinetic energy derives from the vis viva of Leibnitz (mass x velocity squared), which Leibnitz believed to be conserved. Leibnitz also anticipated the modern notion that energy lost to friction showed up as heat. Another century and a half or so was needed before the relationship could be proven and clarified. The power of the idea stems from the fact that energy is conserved. Considerable refinement and redefinition was needed to conserve the notion of energy conservation, though. New forms of energy had to be named and noted: gravitational potential energy, thermal energy, chemical energy and electromagnetic energy. The accounting proved well worthwhile, of course, sinc


A new and rather pathetic slander from Steve Landsburg targets former Harvard President and current Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers. I guess I should no longer be surprised by the puerile quality of the stuff that allegedly constitutes "tackling the big questions of philosophy using ideas from mathematics, economics and physics" a la Landsburg, but his latest stunt is more like tackling the small questions of invective using the ideas of the seventh grade playground. Here's today's schtick - put up a picture of mass murderer Amy Bishop and Summers and launch a few nasty slanders that seem to apply to the murderer and then make it clear that he's talking about Summers. Ho ho ho - what a pathetic little s**t, and no, I don't mean Summers. Of course it's pretty silly for me to be defending Summers, but Landsburg irritates the hell out of me, and that was true even before he banned me for making fun of his brand of psuedo-economics (

Area 53

The World's most famous physics experiment is the Large Hadron Collider ( LHC ) at CERN , in Switzerland and France. Billions of Euro's have been spent in the search for the mysterious Higgs particle, thought to play the major role in giving mass to the massive of the particle universe, but the target remains elusive. It's less widely publicised in the physics community, but a far larger and much more expensive experiment has been mounted in the Nevada desert at the site I call simply, Area 53. This experiment, like the LHC , has a single primary focus, in this case, the study of psychokinesis. Despite a major slowdown in the US economy, I can assure my colleagues that my recent visit showed that tens of thousands of investigators continue to passionately pursue this quest, and billions continue to be pumped into the search. Like the hunt for the Higgs , though, this quarry has so far remain hidden. All the investigators passion and ingenuity has not yet proven capab

Economists in Denial

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and whatever abysses nature leads, or you will learn nothing...................T H Huxley Few seem to be wise enough to heed Huxley's advice. It seems to be human nature to believe what we want to believe and ignore the evidence. This is a fault in anyone, but absolutely disabling in a scientist. The efforts of the Chicago School to protect its imaginary theory of economics are a good example of that flavor of folly. John Cochrane's puerile and argument poor attempt at a counter-attack on Paul Krugman was an unfortunate early exemplar. Now Cochrane and John Taylor's analyses of the Lehman failure ignore obvious facts, says the EofC who has a word for it: lying. It's generally hard to come to agreement when one side simply lies... Cut and paste doesn't seem to work for me at EofC, so you need to compare Cochrane and EofC paragraphs to see the divergence

Math Puzzle From Comments

Zephir gives us a couple of amusing puzzles in the comments, and asks: Does knowledge of math help or prohibit us in solving of paradoxes like this one? One Two The answer is of course yes. First a note on the puzzling aspect. In One, we get two versions of a 5x13 triangle on a gridded background. Each version is divided into two triangles (2x5, and 3x8) and two other figures. Even though the identical figures appear to be in each, the second has one empty square, so the total area for the sub figures of the first appears to be 32 and 33 for the second, but that's sort of alright since the big triangle should have area 32.5! So what's happening? The second puzzle has a somewhat similar theme (you need to look). I will put my answer in the comments, in case people want to try the puzzles before looking.

Mathematics and Technique

There are two sorts of truth, Bohr claimed. Ordinary truths, whose opposites are falsities, and great truths, whose opposites are also great truths. Now it should go without saying that one shouldn't take Bohr too literally, but these latter are the ones that interest me. Libertarians have some of these truths, I think, mixed together with a gross misinterpretation of the nature of the human condition. One of those confused libertarians links to this interesting great truth about the teaching of mathematics . Briefly, Paul Lockhart's Lament, as he styles it, is that mathematics is not being taught as one of the arts, as it ought. An emphasis on technique and memorization, at the expense of ideas, makes students dislike mathematics and resist learning it. I'm not sure the comparison with music that he chooses really makes his point: musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are hel

Please Shut Up Joe Biden

Boy do I hate listening to that guy. Maybe it's Obama's fault, but don't these gys know how to attack? I don't think that the AMerican people, however Christian they may be or profess to be, will tolerate a President who insists on turning the other cheek. "Iraq will be one of the great achievements of this administration." What a moron. What a stupid obscenity obscenity moron. Cheney gets on and attacks relentlessly, and all Biden can do is play extremely weak defence. ABC is happy to feed Cheney softballs and Biden is happy to lead with his chin. It was Bush-Cheney that ignored clear and repeated warnings to allow the worst attack on the US in history. It was Bush-Cheney who allowed bin Laden to escape (and flew his relatives out of the US on a special plane after 9/11, before any Americans were allowed to fly), it was Bush-Cheny who got us into the Iraq war and got tens of thousands of Americans killed and wounded in a wild goose chase for WMDs that

Another Point The Tenure Committee Might Want to Consider

Some people take bad news poorly . And we all need to remember that there are a lot of wackos out there. We are sort of used now to the distraught grad student going postal, but is seems truly peculiar when the Harvard PhD prof does. The other oddity here is that this was not her first killing. Was that first killing really an accident? Apparently there is some oddity about the police file being missing. UPDATE: It just gets stranger: She apparently shot her brother three times with a shotgun in 1986 , and the killing was ruled an accident. WTF? The law and parents must have conspired to put this murderer back on the streets, to kill again. Why and how?

That's Entertainment

This sounds like a really cool resort - and they say you can even take classes.

Another Relativistic Train

Landsburg returns to the subject of the relativistic train. It no doubt reflects badly upon my character that it pains me to note that this time he seems to get it right. UPDATE: As Arun points out in the comments, not really. There is a big magnetic field in Fred's inertial frame, and he would see it if he moved his charge or deployed a compass.] ... imagine a wire, made of protons that stay still and electrons that drift rightward; that drift is what we call a current. And imagine a nearby charged particle—call it Fred—also traveling rightward. Now relativity tells us that Fred is allowed to think of himself as stationary, and the protons (along with you and me) as drifting off to the left. Relativity also tells us that if passengers on a moving train say the cars are 100 feet apart, then an observer at the station will say they’re closer than that. In this case (according to Fred) you and I are the passengers moving with the train of protons, and if we say they’re an angstrom

Voyages of Discovery

One of the craziest things a person can do is to set off across uncharted seas with no clear idea of where he is going. Christopher Columbus was nuts. He ignored the advice of geographers who told him quite accurately that his ships would be worm-eaten flotsam long before he could sail all the way to China. Even crazier were the Polynesian mariners who discovered New Zealand, Madagascar, and Hawaii. Columbus at least knew that there was a China out there in the ultimate West - the Polynesian sailors could only guess what might await them. By comparison, our modern voyages to orbit and the Moon have been ridiculously cautious and conservative. Much exploration has followed the latter model - cautious trips along a coastline, and short voyages never far from land. Most scientists work that way as well - pushing the paradigm a little this way or a little that. Peter Woit and Lubos Motl don't agree on much, they do agree that that's the kind science they approve of. Einstein had

Fixing Congress

It's not going to happen, but Bob Kerrey has some sensible ideas about how to fix Congress. It would require a constitutional amendment: 1) Establish an open bipartisan national system of apportioning congressional districts. State legislatures are given this authority now. It is their gerrymandering of districts, which have contributed most to the polarized nature of congressional debates and to the sense that too few incumbents are actually at risk. 2) Set a limit of the number of terms that can be served. I’d say six in the House and two in the Senate should be enough to establish the continuity needed to maintain institutional memory. 3) Increase the qualifications for being able to run. Why not, for example, make everyone who wants to be a candidate for Congress take the same examination we give to men and women who want to become citizens? Shouldn’t each member of Congress know at least as much as a recent immigrant? 4) Create national rules for all federal elections. Take t

Snow Days

For me as a kid in Montana, one of the highlights of winter was a snow day. It took a pretty impressive manifestation of winter fury to close down the schools of hardy Montanans, but when drifting snow made country roads impassible to the school buses, it wasn't really worthwhile to keep the schools open for the townies. They even have snow days in Las Cruces, NM, though calling "snow day" for two or three inches of the white stuff seems pretty comical to me. For school kids, though, and teachers, those lost days have to be made up. One of the perks of being a government worker in Washington DC is the occasional day off for snow, inauguration, or other special event. The great Snowmaggedon event of 2010 has already gotten most Federal employees two and one half days off, and one can't be confident that the place will open up Wednesday either. Most employers can't afford to be so generous , though, so the days off for the Feds provoke considerable resentment.

I Beg To Differ

At some point in my undergraduate career I read a debate between Einstein and the philosopher Hans Reichenbach. Reichenbach argued that truth seekers of good faith couldn't agree to disagree if they were careful to define their terms. Einstein wasn't buying and I remember thinking that Reichenbach's argument was preposterous. Four plus decades have perhaps muddled my memories, but I think HR's point was that logical opposites could not coexist. The problem is that our ideas about reality are not based in some commonly agreed axiom system but on our individual and only partially articulable conceptions of the nature of the world. We tend to disagree about both foundational issues and the criteria for consideration of evidence that bears on such questions. The theory of relativity was thought to present a profound challenge to philosophy because it challenges our common sense notions of the nature of space and time. Quantum mechanics turns out to be even more diffic

So You Want to be a Genius?

If you want to be a genius, you probably need to start with some talent. Peyton Manning, who will go for his second super bowl ring tomorrow, is widely considered to be a football genius. Stefan Fatsis, writing in Slate, reviews the evidence , and throws in some discussion of the nature of genius. The 18th-century writer and naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, quoted in Nobel-winning neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal's 1916 book Advice for a Young Investigator, put it even more neatly: "Genius is simply patience carried to the extreme." As the privileged son of an NFL quarterback, Manning the genius is no "outlier." But his genius isn't innate, either; with his Opie face and boyishly parted, short, brown hair, Manning looks more like a dentist than an NFL superstar at first glance. In his forthcoming book The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, David Shenk tells the story of

The Disfunctional Senate

We learned today that Republican Senator Shelby of Alabama has put a "hold" on seventy presidential appointees in an attempt to extort some earmarks for a big campaign contributor. The obvious lesson from this is that the rules of the Senate are unworkable in an environment like today's extrem partisanship. It's a system built for gridlock. Let me suggest that there is another lesson too. There are way too many Presidential appointees (3000 or so) under the present system. One fourth of the way through the president's term of office, many senior jobs are still unfilled. Worse, because the appointees are political rewards, key jobs often go to gross incompetents - think "heck-of-a-job" Brownie, for example. Other countries manage to work pretty well with much smaller numbers of appointees. Senior civil servants should occupy most of those three thousand jobs. The Cabinet, a couple of dozen key aides, and the presidents own staff (who don't require con

A Child's Garden ...

American schools have found some pretty stupid ways to waste student's time. In some of our local high schools, for example, if you have a talent for football you can spend 25% of your academic time "studying" it. My fellow local citizens seem mostly content with a system that has brought in several State football championships. I've long been a critic of American education's tendency to be a fashion industry, with mostly bad consequences for students, so I should be a receptive audience for Caitlin Flanagan's Atlantic Monthly diatribe against school gardens . They are, it seems, an insidious anti-academic plot to prepare our children only for careers as lettuce choppers. In California now - and coming to a school near you soon - she claims, school gardens have become the focus of the curriculum, displacing algebra and The Crucible . I've seen sillier things - at least you probably won't get a concussion gardening - but I find Flanagan a bit hard to ta

Climate MSU

Lubos and Moncton demonstrate the simplest way to criticize their enemies, just make shit up . Lying is the cheapest form of argumentation, and one almost universally practiced by the climate skeptics.

Is Microsoft The New GM?

Dick Brass issues a harsh wakeup call to Microsoft in this New York Times Op-Ed . Oldsters like me who've spent our lives thinking of Microsoft as The Evil Empire are now vaguely embarrassed to be taunting what now looks like a pitiful, reeling giant. Seemingly beset by more agile rivals on every side, Microsoft continues to lurch through highly profitable years but fails to innovate, keep up, or look even slightly cool. Many of it's flagship products are losing market share and looking threatened. Brass: AS they marvel at Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, the technorati seem to be focusing on where this leaves Amazon’s popular e-book business. But the much more important question is why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future, whether it’s tablet computers like the iPad, e-books like Amazon’s Kindle, smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, search engines like Google, digital music systems like iPod and iTunes or


Cap and Trade is dead for this age of the world. Jim Hansen should rejoice - he got his wish. I am inclined to think a straight up carbon tax is a better idea anyway, though that's in no danger of happening soon, either. The big thing going for that is that the country really needs the money.

Bourgeois Physics

Clifford has a friend who thinks physicists are weird, …like Einstein, with crazy hair… For some odd reason Clifford thinks this opinion needs to be countered. So he points out that back before Einstein became famous, and started looking like a rock star, he had hair and a suit like any other government bureaucrat. Clifford, I think, has spent entirely too much time thinking about D-Branes.

So You Want to be a Bank Director

Wolfgang has found out just how simple it can be . The FED helpfully explains, just in case you might be missing: ...a basic knowledge of banking and what to consider in overseeing a bank." Kids, feel free to try this at home. Nothing can go wrong...

David Brooks Has A Message for Old People

The bottom line is Shut up and Die . Or maybe just "F*** Off!" Remember that scam where Reagan and Greenspan had everybody paying extra for Social Security and Medicare for 35 years so that they would exist when we got old? Well, Reagan and the Bushes spent it on wars, tax cuts for the rich, and missile defenses that never work, so its all gone. Don't expect any of it back. Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children. Second, they are taking freedom. In 2009, for the first time in American history, every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs, according to Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. As more money goes to pay off promises made mostly to the old, the young have less control. Third, they are taking opportunity. For decades, federal


Lubos reminds us (US readers) to catch The Big Bang Theory on CBS tonight. In the episode 1x14, Sheldon gets seriously stuck with a physics problem. Light cones, statistical physics, relativity, hexagons, and even carbon atoms seem to play some role here. :-) I guess he is trying to derive the Einstein approximation of GR out of some stochastic model - an entropic force, if you wish. After all, his IQ is just 187 so you shouldn't be shocked that he sometimes spends a night with a hypothesis that cannot work. Cheesecake ensues.