Showing posts from July, 2010

Textbook Example

If you have exclusive control of a product or resource in high demand, you can extract a monopoly rent from your customers. This is good for you, since you get rich, but generally less good for the economy, since it then produces less than it otherwise might. College textbooks are something of a textbook example. A naive observer might find it peculiar that a college textbook in elementary physics, which differs only minimally from its predecessors of twenty or even fifty years ago, should retail for $230.00, while an only slightly shorter and far more original string theory textbook/monograph sells for one third of that or less. Another oddity is that textbooks, even textbooks in subjects that are changing at the pace of continental drift, get new editions every couple or three years. These things happen because profs have students over a barrel - it can be hard or impossible to do a course without the textbook(s). If the prof isn't using his own book, what's his incentiv

Do We Really Need Dumber Doctors?

Anemoma Hartocollis has an article in the the NYT about Getting into Med School Without the Hard Sciences. For generations of pre-med students, three things have been as certain as death and taxes: organic chemistry, physics and the Medical College Admission Test, known by its dread-inducing acronym, the MCAT. So it came as a total shock to Elizabeth Adler when she discovered, through a singer in her favorite a cappella group at Brown University, that one of the nation’s top medical schools admits a small number of students every year who have skipped all three requirements. Ms. Adler became one of the lucky few in one of the best kept secrets in the cutthroat world of medical school admissions, the Humanities and Medicine Program at the Mount Sinai medical school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Because when I need to see a doctor I will be really glad that they blew off the scientific foundations of their discipline in favor of varsity tennis and a world tour. Among the current c

Belief Systems

Megan McArdle is a conservative economist/blogger with relatively rational climate skepticism (compared to the usual fact proof crackpots and idiots). You can read her post on the possible phytoplankton die-off. My untrustworthy summary: we might be doomed, probably can't do anything about it, but should have a hefty carbon tax. Of more interest to me was this comment from aka_scoop: I won't give serious consideration to the arguments of any eco-doom prophet who does not first demonstrate that he has invested all his money in a way that hedges against that which he professes to expect. The more extreme the predictions, the more extreme the investment must be. If these guys haven't spent all their money on -- I don't know -- oxygen tanks, canned food, firearms and property on very high ground, they should shut up. Because there's no internally consistent way that a person could actually believe such things while spending their lives blogging from costal cities...


I just got my first Kindle, so I'm a few years behind the techno-curve, but that's no reason that I shouldn't start talking about what a good e-reader really ought to be. First, everybody knows that the real bucks are in textbooks. Second, everybody also knows that current textbooks suck. They are bulky, heavy, hard to manipulate and search, and, worst of all, they just lie there, like the dead trees they are. So what should a good e-reader be? It's got to be sharp like a Kindle, colorful like an I-Pad, and it's got to be coupled to powerful educational software. Who want's to spend big bucks on a textbook only to still have to drag yourself out of bed at 11 AM to go to a lecture? A good textbook ought to store any lectures and display them on screen (or your television) when you're darn good and ready. References should be hot linked to the relevant portions of the referent. Equations, graphs, and data ought to be live, manipulable, and coupled. If

The Drake Equation

The Drake equation is an attempt to estimate the probability of contacting intelligent life on other planets, or, more generally, the probability that intelligent life exists on other planets. It is expressed as a product of a bunch of probabilities all of which were largely unknown when it was formulated nearly fifty years ago. Some of the more important were the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets that were Earth like, and the probability of life arising on an Earth like planet - all of which were squarely in the unknown category a half century ago. Many hundreds of planets have now been discovered around nearby stars, and a significant fraction of them are apparently Earth like in size at least. One investigator suggested something like 100 million Earth like planets in the Galaxy - about one for every 1000 stars. The probability of life arising on such a planet is still unknown, but there are increasingly strong hints that it could be substantial. That still le

Afghanistan End Stage

The latest news from Wikileaks confirms many of our fears and raises new ones. Not News: The Taliban has bases in Pakistan Not News: Elements of the Pakistani government (if not all of it) collaborate with them. Possible News: the Taliban may be acquiring more potent weaponry. Hardly News: We are financing the war against ourselves. The grim reality: There is no hint that anything that could be called victory lies ahead. We are probably fighting this war now because our political leaders lack the courage to end it with victory or retreat. Victory, if possible, would be messy. We would have to smash the Taliban in Pakistan, and quite likely the Pakistani military as well. Wholesale slaughter in the Northwest territories (soldiers, sheep, goats, and civilians) would likely be required. India and US bases in Afghanistan might get nuked. Retreat wouldn't be pretty either. al Quaeda would be emboldened. The mess George Bush left in his wake just gets deeper. America's future

But The Republican Party *Is* Racist

One of the topics on today's Sunday talk was the Shirley Sherrod affair, accusations of Tea Party racism, and race in America. David Brooks slithered out with the usual lamotronic responses in defense: everybody does it and I even saw Tea Partiers and actual Black People talking amicably on the mall. Not only that, but Sherrod was being racist when she said Andrew Breitbart wanted black people to be slaves again. Let's take up the last point first, and start by reviewing the facts, which no one on the panel challenged: Andrew Breitbart posted a dishonestly edited video which made Sherrod look like a racist, getting her fired and exposed to public opprobrium in the national press. I say that she's entitled to be angry and entitled to a few intemperate words in characterising the SOB. Now it happens that I doubt her diagnosis of his motivation. I think that it was equally sinister but more pragmatic: he wanted to inflame racial fears and hatreds in order to embarrass the gove

Close to Zero

Tyler Cowen and others are talking about the spectre of zero marginal product workers . Now I'm not precisely sure how he is using the term but I take it to mean that they can't produce enough of value to make it worth hiring them - given present circumstances. That seems almost tautological to me. If somebody could make money hiring them, why wouldn't they? The unemployed tend to unskilled or old, and they tend to live where a lot of other people are unemployed. It's not to hard to imagine a world, or at least part of a world, where most people don't have anything of value to sell. If most goods are produced by automated machinery, or by those willing to work dirt cheap on the other side of the world, many kinds of labor lose any value. For the time being, the wealthy and their better off minions may want or need various forms of service from the comparatively unskilled masses. Judges and policemen to protect their wealth, a few servants for style, and soldier

Abject Political Cowardice

Few things piss me off more than the way the Obama Whitehouse quails before every right wing lie or scam. The Breitbart led lynching of Shirley Sherrod is a case in point. Andrew Sullivan has the full video and some pointed commentary . The fact that Obama, or his people, leaped into lynch mode on the evidence of a hack and general scum dweller like Breitbart is the most disgusting part. Obama can't fire himself, but he ought consider firing Vilsack or whatever WH operative thought this was a good idea.

Pig Smackdown: Entropy of Oil and Water

Commenters took the pig to task for his criticism of Sean Carroll's analysis. I still think that he is misleading in saying that water and oil attract - true enough in some absolute sense, but when they are mixed they effectively repel each other. He is at least mostly right about the entropy though. The effective repulsion of the oil and water forces water molecules to surround the droplets of oil with highly ordered two dimensional structures to form clathrates. The two D water is much more orderly that three D water, so minimizing their area (the area of interface between oil and water) maximizes the entropy. See eg: garrettgrisham and also Arun's link in the comments. jpd also has a point, also covered in the gg link. It's the overall entropy of the universe that counts here, but that's hard to keep track of sometimes, so look at the Gibbs free energy (G=H-TV in my notation). See also Wikipedia: Gibbs free energy

From Eternity to Here: More Booknotes

Sean Carroll has set himself the very difficult task of explaining entropy in non-technical terms . I was with him for a while, but he loses me when he tries to explain unmixing of water and oil: ...water molecules tend to stick to oil molecules - and due to the chemical properities of oil and water, they stick in very particular combinations. So when the oil and water (or vinegar) are thoroughly mixed, the water molecules cling to the oil molecules in specific arrangements, corresponding to a relatively low entropy state. Not true and total bullshit quite right. Water and oil molecules are unmixed by two effects, and the more fundamental one is the effective mutual repulsion of oil and water molecules. Less important is gravity - oil has a lower specific gravity. The real problem, though, is that Sean doesn't want to acknowledge that we need to count energy states - simply coarse graining over spatial volumes is not enough here. The mixed state has higher energy (due to th

Shutter Island

Wandering among the shelves of the video store, I happened to pick this DVD off the shelf. Only I misread the title as "Shelter Island." Finally, I thought, somebody made a movie about those heroic days of Quantum Electrodynamics in 1947 and Martin Scorcese even directed. Not a bad cast - Di Caprio was obviously Schwinger and I suppose Mark Ruffalo would be Feynman. Max von Sydow - who - maybe Rabi and Ben Kingsley as Oppenheimer of course. But I couldn't figure out who was playing Bethe and Wheeler. Of course the movie turned out to be about something a lot more boring, so I put it back.

Spending Hawks

A certain type of right wing economist likes to worry that the real threat of government spending is not deficit but spending itself. John Tamny puts it this way: But what should worry us is the total level of spending by our federal government which serves as a massive tax on real economic activity in the present. Applying Fredric Bastiat's "seen and unseen" to nosebleed government outlays, neither the seen nor the unseen induce optimism. The "seen" in this case is gag-inducing waste including but not limited to Cash-for-Clunkers, corporate welfare of the bailout variety, and earmarks of recent vintage such as The Brige to Nowhere. The unseen, however, concerns the Microsofts, Intels and Googles that will never see the light of day thanks to an allegedly benevolent political class so eagerly vacuuming up capital that if left alone might find its way to ventures that are worthwhile. Unseen is how much higher our wages would be if our federal minders weren't

The Economy, Stupid

As usual, Paul Krugman nails it: Pundit Delusions . The latest hot political topic is the “Obama paradox” — the supposedly mysterious disconnect between the president’s achievements and his numbers. The line goes like this: The administration has had multiple big victories in Congress, most notably on health reform, yet President Obama’s approval rating is weak. It's not that he's too liberal - says Krugman. It's not the people disagree with him on the issues. It's not fear of the deficit. It's that the economy sucks. Well duh. There’s no point berating voters for their ignorance: people have bills to pay and children to raise, and most don’t spend their free time studying fact sheets. Instead, they react to what they see in their own lives and the lives of people they know. Given the realities of a bleak employment picture, Americans are unhappy — and they’re set to punish those in office. ...But what matters is actual economic results. The best way for Mr. Obama


Critics seem to rave, but I'm only slightly impressed. The combination of shoot 'em up action and psychological thriller just didn't seem to really gel for me. Most of the time I had only a vague idea why any of the characters in the various dream levels were doing whatever they were doing - or why I should care.

An Old Idea

Congress is currently wrangling over extension of unemployment benefits for those who have been out of work for more than 99 weeks. A lot of Americans don't think that its a good idea to pay people not to work, and I think that they have a point. The enforced uselessness of unemployment demoralizes and erodes skills and work ethic. Yes, paying unemployment benefits is a good way to inject money that will be quickly spent, but there is little other advantage to it. There is a better way, and its been done before. Reinstitute the Civilian Conservation Corps and a few similar programs. The jobs should be low wage and intrinsically temporary, but provide basic health insurance on favorable terms. First priority would go to those who had exhausted unemployment benefits or been unemployed longest. All members would be required to spend something like twenty percent of their time on skills training. Such a program would replace a lot of unemployment benefits and Medicaid, thus tremendousl

Governments are instituted...

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,... .......................Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence A worthy ideal, indeed, but more ideal than reality in general. Mostly, I think, governments are instituted to protect groups of people from rival groups of people. People have lived in competing groups since time immemorial, and before people, the same was likely true of their prehuman ancestors, as it is true of our closest animal relatives. With luck, your nation protects you from your fellow citzens as well as from external marauders. The combination of memory of the horrors of WWII and the threat of the Communist East persuaded much of Western Europe to form the European Union

Obama's Economics Blunders

I continue to be shocked at Obama's failure to lead on economics. Paul Krugman: John Boehner, March 2009: It’s time for government to tighten their belts and show the American people that we ‘get’ it Barack Obama, yesterday: “At a time when so many families are tightening their belts, he’s going to make sure that the government continues to tighten its own,” Obama said. “ We’ll never know how differently the politics would have played if Obama, instead of systematically echoing and giving credibility to all the arguments of the people who want to destroy him, had actually stood up for a different economic philosophy. But we do know how his actual strategy has worked, and it hasn’t been a success. You can't campaign for stimulus and belt tightening at once - not and make any sense anyway. My worst fear is that he actually realizes this, and has given up on trying to makes sense. After all, Bush and Palin never made sense in their lives and they seemed to do OK. Suppose Obama h

The End of the World as We Know It...

OK, I don't find this a particularly credible Doomsday Scenario , but just in case, a hearty f-u to all the environmental doubters out there. If the methane bubble—a bubble that could be as big as 20 miles wide—erupts with titanic force from the seabed into the Gulf, every ship, drilling rig and structure within the region of the bubble will immediately sink. All the workers, engineers, Coast Guard personnel and marine biologists participating in the salvage operation will die instantly. Next, the ocean bottom will collapse, instantaneously displacing up to a trillion cubic feet of water or more and creating a towering supersonic tsunami annihilating everything along the coast and well inland. Like a thermonuclear blast, a high pressure atmospheric wave could precede the tidal wave flattening everything in its path before the water arrives. When the roaring tsunami does arrive it will scrub away all that is left. And oh yeah, the methane could trigger all other sorts catastrophes,

Spain 1 Netherlands 0

It took 119 minutes but Spain finally won when the last Dutchman died of boredom - or maybe when they all had at least one yellow. Spain certainly passes and holds the ball well - Netherlands not so much. There should be a law against this kind of soccer though.

Fan Club

My PhD school, Arizona State University, in addition to being the largest public research university in the US, has a long and storied history, going all the way back to 1958. OK, there is some institutional continuity going back to Arizona State College (1945) and Tempe Normal School (1885), but the point is that it's old - though not quite so old as Oxford (1096) or even Harvard (1636). If memory serves, it has so far managed to attract a grand total of one Nobel (Memorial) Prize (2004) winner, Edward Prescott. I'm going to guess that Paul Krugman (2008) is not a fan: Still Crazy After All These Years Mark Thoma asks, “What happened to Ed Prescott?” The answer is, nothing. Sure, it’s ridiculous to assert that 1. Monetary policy does not matter. 2. Financial factors are the symptoms, not the causes, of the recent downturn. 3. The recession was due to an Obama shock, i.e. labor supply fell because US workers anticipate higher future taxes. But was it really any more reasonable

Damn - I Hate it that George Bush is Still President

White House Econo Crap


Wade + Bosh + James - a ton of offense, but will they have a team?

This Land is Whose Land...

Lumo - Pig, whether you like it or not, Israel is both a Jewish state and the only Jewish state. It's very clear that it means much more for the Jews than it does for the non-Jews, and this is true even for average Jews who live in other countries. The Israel-Jewish relationship is not "peripheral" by any stretch of imagination. In the same way, Israel is not "peripherally related" to Jewish kingdoms and tribal states that existed millennia ago; Israel is their modern continuation - something that may be hard to understand for someone whose national history is only 234 years old but something that is nevertheless true and important for historically rich places such as the Middle East. jpd - Pig, whether you like it or not, Ireland is both a Irish state and the only Irish state. It's very clear that it means much more for the Irish than it does for the non-Irish, and this is true even for average Irish who live in other countries. The Ireland-Irish relation

Arizona's Immigrant Problem

Arizona today is not the State I lived in 44 years ago. The problem is the darn immigrants - millions of them. Vast floods of immigrants, cutting down the orange groves, drowning the beautiful landscape and imposing their mores on the original inhabitants. There wasn't much to be done to keep them out - they were fellow Americans after all, and it was hard to begrudge them escape from the grinding cold of their previous existence in Iowa, New York, or Miami, and besides the Chamber of Commerce tripped all over itself welcoming them. I blame those floods of immigrants, though, for many of the State's current problems. They tended to be old, conservative, white, wealthy and away from their children and grandchildren - so they hated taxes, hated paying for schools, and brought their ignorant prejudices with them. The sleepy little Mexican towns of old Arizona were mostly on their way out by the time I got there, but there remained enough of the ambiance to give the place a ch

The Day Job

Despite my admiration for Sean Carroll as a writer and explainer of science, I came late to his new book From Eternity to Here . At any rate, I'm reading it now, and something in chapter four caught my eye. When we study special relativity in the way Einstein first presented it, it's hard to miss the homely and matter of fact concerns with how we go about making actual measurements and synchronizing clocks. Quoting another author, Peter Galison , Carroll points out that these matters were very much at the center of concern of the day jobs of Einstein and Poincare, two of the key originators of special relativity. At the time, key problems in the burgeoning world of relatively high speed travel involved keeping track where a train or ship would be be when. These concerns were central to both the French Bureau of Longitude where Poincare presided and the patent office where Einstein was a clerk.

Krugmanophobia Landsburgensis

Steve Landsburg is an economist with a bit of a Krugman fixation. He rarely misses a chance to bash him, and this post is a case in point. His target is This Krugman NYT Op-ED Paul Krugman is at it again, casting aspersions on everyone who opposes extended unemployment benefits while offering absolutely no positive argument for those benefits. Let me explain what would count, to an economist, as a positive argument. Perhaps Steve missed it, but Krugman does offer an argument, brief here, but explained in great detail in his other popular writings: One main reason there aren’t enough jobs right now is weak consumer demand. Now no economist, not even one of the far right, could miss the idea that the present crisis is one of a failure of final demand. The true believers might imagine that this is not the case, but they could hardly be so innocent of history as not to recognize this argument. So does Landsburg try to refute Krugman’s argument or confront it in any way? No and no – he inst

So What Did Israel Do For Us Lately?

... or ever, asks Thaddeus Russell. Not much, is his answer. Anybody have a persuasive alternate answer? UPDATE: here is what is probably Russell's most sensational claim: “There was not a single act of Arab terrorism against Americans before 1968, when the U.S. became the chief supplier of military equipment and economic aid to Israel.” Anybody have a counterexample?

Doomed to Repeat...

The New York Times has They Did Their Homework (800 Years of It) , a nice article on Rogoff and Reinhardt, the authors of This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly , a detailed economic look at bubbles and crashes through the last 800 years of history. Harvard professor Rogoff is an interesting character in his own right, a one-time chess prodigy, a master at age fourteen who quit high school at sixteen to become an itinerant pro in Europe, winning the GM title before returning to the US and college. In Catherine Rampell's NYT article the authors data focussed approach is contrasted with the theory minded approach that has recently dominated academic econ. He mentions economists frequently noted "physics envy" as a culprit. Of course I think he undermines his case there by telling his "favourite economics joke." ONE of Ken Rogoff’s favorite economics jokes — yes, there are economics jokes — is “the one about the lamppost”: A drunk on his way h

The Wrong Role

Obama seems to be a man bent on playing Lincoln, when the casting call clearly asked for an FDR. His instinct for compromise and tendency to turn the other cheek emboldens his enemies and dismays his supporters. The economy crumbles around us, and the Republicans see in it the scent of victory. Obama, who was supposed to be a great communicator, is instead the great and yawning silence. What's needed now is more like the great punisher. The economy calls for drastic action, but leaderless Democrats dither and Republicans obstruct with seeming impunity. If Obama wants to rise to the challenge of his presidency, "no drama Obama" needs to bring some fire and brimstone and pour it on his opponents. He has got to stop seeing his differences with the Republicans less as issues of debate and more of good and evil - when your opponent lies and distorts with every utterance, it's crazy to keep acting as if you and your opponent are having a difference of opinion. Gentle

Cat Shit Theory of Soccer

From Slate . Probably not for the squeamish cat lover: What if I told you that last week I predicted all eight winners of a round of the World Cup? And that instead of rankings or divination all I did was look up how many people in each team's home country had a tiny parasite lurking in their amygdalas? Would you believe me? A decade ago, Discover Magazine concluded that parasites ruled the world, and now I'm going to try to tell you that, at the very least, parasites rule the World Cup. Follow the link for an improbable but tantalyzingly suggestive story.

World Cup

The German blitzkreig (if I may call it that) annihilated what had previously looked like a very impressive Agentine team. Great speed, energy, and precision. Spain was a bit lucky to eke out a win against Paraguay. A Paraguay goal was called off on a perhaps dubious offside call. Spain - Germany should be a good game, but is hard to pick against the Germans at this point. That Brazil-Argentina final we all liked two days ago? Might be Dutch v. Deutsch today.

I would pay money to see

this: I’m Gonna Haul Out The Next Guy Who Calls Me “Crude” And Punch Him In The Kisser . But notice one more thing: the Economist’s blithe declaration that Mr Krugman’s crude Keynesianism underplays the link between firms’ and households’ behaviour and their expectations of future tax and spending policy. No fan of fisticuffs am I, but I would make an exception for a Krugman beat down on some pasty faced Economist columnist.

Mr. Keynes' Theory

"Take your medicine" said the wise men. "But it's bitter" we said. "Bitter and painful to swallow." "Yes," said the wise men. "It has to be bitter so that you know that you are being punished." "For the sins of whom are we being punished?" We asked. The wise men did not answer. Austerity is all the rage. Europe and the G 20 have proclaimed it. Whose ass is it that must be saved thereby? Bankers, I guess - especially German bankers maybe or maybe bankers everywhere. Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong are not quite lonely voices crying in the desert against it, but they are definitely in the minority. The lessons of Keynesian economics are being ignored they argue.