Showing posts from September, 2010

Mathematical Reality

Steve Landsburg (OK, I can’t help myself - I can’t quit you Steve. He’s frequently wrong but often writes about interesting stuff) is arguing that the universe, and its contents, are mathematical objects. 1. A “mathematical object” consists of abstract entities (that is, “things” with no intrinsic properties) together with some relations among them. For example, the euclidean plane that you studied in high school geometry consists of points, together with certain relations among them (such as “points A, B and C are collinear”). Mathematical objects can be very complicated. Mathematical objects can have “substructures”, which is a fancy name for “parts”. A line in the plane, for example, is a substructure of the plane. 2. Every modern theory of physics says that our universe is a mathematical object, and that we are substructures of that object. Theories differ only with regard to which mathematical object we happen to be a part of. Particles, forces and energy are not just described by

Penny, Penny, Penny

Fans of Kaley Cuoco and The Big Bang Theory were distressed to hear that she suffered a broken leg in an equestrian accident . Our best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery. Geeks (and maybe short guys) got a vicarious thrill, though, from her announcement that she and co-star Johnny Galecki (Leonard) had secretly dated for two years. She has announced that they remain friends, but that she won't date any more actors. Geeks of the world (and others) shouted "I'm not an actor!"

We Know All the Laws Underlying Everyday Phenomena

....and always have. Sean Carroll is only responsible for the first part of that claim. His claim is falsifiable, and he supplies a standard: What would be a refutation of my claim that we understand the laws underlying everyday phenomena? Easy: point to just one example of an everyday phenomenon that provides evidence of “new physics” beyond the laws we know. Something directly visible that requires a violation of general relativity or the Standard Model. That’s all it would take, but there aren’t any such phenomena. Some point out that we have heard this story before, in the 1890s, say. Sean has a counter. A century ago, that would have been incredibly easy to do; the world of Newtonian mechanics plus Maxwell’s equations wasn’t able to account for why the Sun shines, or why tables are solid. Now we do understand how to account for those things in terms of known laws of physics. A century ago yes, but roll the wayback machine for another two or three decades and I say not. Remember,

Just in Time

WB reports that the UN has appointed an Ambassador to the Aliens. Apparently, it is a timely move. Astronomers say they've found the first planet beyond our solar system that could have the right size and setting to sustain life as we know it, only 20 light-years from Earth. "My own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent," Steven Vogt, an astrophysicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told reporters today. "I have almost no doubt about it." I was confident that we would be ready. We've done such an excellent job in protecting the planet in other respects.

Everybody Does It

If we make a list of more or less universal human activities, and lop off the obviously primal – eating, sleeping, raising children – a prominent member of the items left is gossip. It’s one of the most common things we use language for. Pretty clearly it plays some important role in our cultural economy. Can we say what that is, exactly? At one level I suppose we could say that sharing gossip is our version of the grooming behavior engaged in by some of our relative species – a bonding and alliance building activity. I don’t that’s the real point though. I think that the information shared is more fundamental. All gossip is political, in the sense that it is ultimately about power relationships in the society. Most of the content is about who is doing what to/with whom, and hence about how this affects power relationships. If gossip is about politics, in this sense, it also *is* politics, since the communication of information (or misinformation) is not disinterested but can s

Why "Why?"

We humans have a fascination with why questions: why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there air? Why did the chicken cross the road? Why am I writing about an interrogative pronoun? In this case, the immediate provocation was this by Hawking and Mlodinow via Steve Landsburg : To understand the universe at the deepest level, we need to know not only how the universe behaves, but why. • Why is there something rather than nothing? • Why do we exist? • Why this particular set of laws and not some other? So say Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book The Grand Design, and so say I. I sympathize with the sentiment, but I also question its propriety. They tell us that one of the fundamental steps in human cognition occurred when we started modeling other’s thought processes. Once we start thinking about what others are thinking, a very fundamental aspect is that of motivation. Why, for example, is Joe-Bob talking to my enemy Duke? Are they plotting against me? Once we

Morning Snooze

On Fox, this morning, they show the clip of the black female Obama supported who said she was exhausted trying to defend him. Give me something, she begged. Brit Hume said people are angry because of Obama's agenda (true, doubtless for Repubs) and Juan Williams said they are dissappointed because Obama has let the Republicans capture the narrative and won't fight back. I'm with Williams, of course. Obama is supposed to be smart. Does he really not get that he needs to be a fighter, or is it just to foreign to his nature? He is finally attacking the Republicans plan, but he needs to present an alternative, and not just the sissy stuff he has been doing this summer.

Bullied Into Political Correctness

(A response to Arun) Most of us try to avoid a lot of behaviors that aren't illegal. Many of those behaviors were acceptable in what passed for polite society a generation or three ago. I'm talking here about behaviors related to what we might call "political correctness." The most common examples are from everyday speech. Use of demeaning racial, sexual, and religious language was not long ago routine, even in the press and other media. These terms were insulting, but they were also part of a pattern of discrimination and intimidation. Burning crosses escalated into voter intimidation and lynching. These behaviors are much less common today, and I would like to think that's because we have become better people, but the fact is that to a large extent we have been "bullied into political correctness", mostly by the disapproval of our fellows. There are at least two kinds of reasons for avoiding an offensive behavior - first, common decency and resp

Robotic Abuse

I wasn't pleased when I learned that Chuck Lorre had a new show about fat people. I was afraid this meant that some of the writers for The Big Bang Theory might be deflected onto the new show. I don't know if this happened or not, but the first episode of the new season of TBBT is out and it doesn't look promising. This one was written on autopilot - Sheldon's first date and one long masturbation joke. More physics jokes and fewer twelve year old jokes, please.

Ms. Rosenbaum, Again

From Kung Fu Monkey . -- There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs. Via Paul Krugman .

College I: Who Goes and Why?

Some popular reasons: Prepare for a career My parents would kill me if I didn't Experience a wider world Beats working Meet people and find a partner Party! Learn and find my path in life Anybody have more?

Home Town Hysteria

Republicans in my county are openly stoking racist hysteria. No action is too contemptible for a vote. From KFOXTV:

Plenty of Clues

In retrospect I should have seen it. In the Candidates debates McCain repeately baited him, but Obama kept his cool and played rope-a-dope. I didn't like it, but it did seem to work, and he got elected, with more than a bit of help from the Republican demolition of the economy. As President, it became ever more frustrating when he responded to every provocation by finding yet another cheek to turn. We thought, maybe, that we had a dog in the fight, but it seems there isn't any fight in the dog.

Mikey Likes It!

I'm talking about Peter Woit, and his review of the new book by Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis. It's available for Kindle, so I will be ordering The Shape of Inner Space

The Suffering Rich

It seems that a certain Chicago law professor is outraged at the sacrifices he might be forced to make if Obama doesn't reduce his taxes like he would like to for the rest of the suffering working stiffs. Mr. Henderson, it seems, is forced to get by on $455,000 per year, and the grinding misery of his poverty is a heavy burden. Brad DeLong (or DeLing), feels his pain, but thinks he forgot to plan for some things when he voted for GWB. Paul Krugman looks at the roots of his psychic trauma and find rising inequality at the top.

Respect: A History of Violence

There is a religion whose holy book records its God commanding human sacrifice and large scale genocide. These are hardly isolated incidents but part of a pattern of intolerance and violence. So do we owe the adherents respect and toleration? Whether we do or not, we have little choice, since this religion with its multiple branches forms the largest community of believers in the World. Although those acting in its name still perpetrate the occasional mass murder, for the most part its worst deeds seem to be behind it, at least for the moment. That said, some of its fringe elements continue to whip up interreligious hatred and violence. I am referring, of course, to Judaism and its Christian offshoot. Of course some other religions have similarly violent histories and traditions. Notable among them is the "cousin" religion of Islam. Like the JC religions, Islam centers its faith on a Holy book and claims descent from Abraham. Like them, it has a tradition of inter and

God vs. Darwin

(Reading The Origin of Species , Chapter Four): God has had million s of opportunities since 1859 to prove Darwin wrong. Darwin knew nothing of the mechanism of inheritance and he didn't know the causes of natural variation. Consequently, his speculations of the common descent of all life would all have come tumbling down if the mechanisms of heredity had turned out to be incompatible with common descent. A few little tweaks of the genetic code here and there could have guaranteed that something like special creation had happened. Darwin had no idea of the manifold ways molecular genetic would confirm his intuitions, but he had already assembled formidable evidence against the idea of special creation. He tellingly notes that cave adapted species on different continents resemble not each other, but their local relatives. Facts like this have an obvious explanation by natural selection but appear arbitrary and pointless in a special creation scenario.

If I were a micro blogger

I would have to sit around trying to raise my pithiness quotient while lowering the lamotronic index. About Lady Gaga's meat couture: Who let the dogs out? Christine O'Donnell in 1999: Come on! Didn't every fun loving college kid spend a little time on a Satanic altar? I don't think many Montanans were surprised. (By snow in September)

B. R. Myers and Tyler Cowens Don't Love "Freedom"

It seems that not quite everyone loves "Freedom." Cowens Myers Now, I suppose, I will have to read it.

Virtual Reality

The so-called Standard Model of physics, which culminated in its modern form about three decades ago, represents the triumph of quantum field theory, itself conceived about 80 years ago. Quantum field theory embodies quantum wave particle duality in a mathematically satisfying way, but doesn’t exactly settle the thorny question of interpretation. Quantized fields are the underlying reality, but particles are what we detect. Most doable calculations in quantum field theory are done by a mathematical technique called perturbation theory, and Feynman and others showed that perturbation theory has an intuitively appealing visualization in terms real and virtual particles – real particles being the ones that show up in our detectors. Interactions between particles are really interactions between quantum fields, but in perturbation theory, those interactions are visualized in terms of the exchange of so-called virtual particles. This visualization is not just a handy mnemonic – the particles

Once More Into the Breach

I really do believe there is a justification for privileging investment income - I just don't think that Landsburg's argument is it. Saving and investment are the key to capital accumulation, and capital accumulation drives economic progress. Consequently, it's an activity worth encouraging.

Writing Wrongs

In answer to Lee's comment, let me attempt to clarify my critique of the Landsburg . It is an essential element of his argument (see previous post) that the calculation of the burden on Bob include hypothetical profits from opportunity forgone. If Bob had paid no taxes and chosen to make the same shrewd investment with his other fifty cents, he would have managed to acquire $2 when his investment paid off. Since he wound up with just 95 cents, SL calculates his tax burden at 1.05/2.00=52.5%. We can construct a hardly less plausible hypothetical for Alice, who consumed her 50 cents. She might have decided in that consumption to buy herself food, for example, thereby fitting herself to earn another buck while Bob's ship was coming in. Suppose, though, she hadn't had to pay the 50% income tax. Then she might be able to feed her spouse and he could go out and work the next day too. Hence, her (their combined) tax free income would have been $3. Thanks to income tax, though, she

Getting it Wrong

An encounter with a Landsburg . The New Yorker arrived today, leading off with this letter to the editor about income tax rates: …The very rich pay at significantly lower rates, because most of their income consists not of compensation for services but of capital gains and dividends, which are capped at a fifteen per cent rate. This is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and you can’t begin to think clearly about tax policy if you don’t understand why. Even if capital gains taxes were capped at one percent, income subject to those taxes would be taxed at a higher rate than straight compensation. That’s because capital gains taxes (like all other taxes on capital income) are surtaxes, assessed over and above the tax on compensation. It always pays to think through stylized examples. Alice and Bob each work a day and earn a dollar. Alice spends her dollar right away. Bob invests his dollar, waits for it to double, and then spends the resulting two dollars. Let’s see how the

Meet The Press FAIL

Meet the Press today had a panel that included Reza Salam and Republican Spokesman Mike Murphy. Salam led off with a thing about how he, as an American Muslim, felt about the kind of demagoguery that demonized American Muslims and equated them with al Quaeda. Others remarked on how Bush and Obama had tried to emphasize that our war was not a war against Islam, that bigotry was running rampant, and some idiot suggested that maybe Obama could go to a mosque (Doh!) and finally Mike Murphy weighs in with some crap about our war with Islamofascism. At that point I would have liked Salam a whole lot better if he had stood up, marched over, and tried to beat Murphy's Christofascist face into a bloody pulp. David "boy vampire" Gregory would have been more impressive if he had helped, or at least called out the asshole.

Disfunctional Families

A large fraction of the people I know seem to believe they come from disfunctional families. I suspect that art has given us an absurdly strict definition of a functional family. My definition: a family is probably functional if it produces children who survive to adulthood. Happy families are doubtless rarer.

Modern Fiction Bleg

Every happy family is the same. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way......Leo Tolstoy Which may explain why unhappy, or as we say now-a-days, disfunctional, families are a more popular subject for novels. It occurred to me that perhaps I ought to read some contemporary fiction on my Kindle. From the NYT's Michio Kakutani I learned that Jonathan Franzen's new novel - apparently the novel of the Summer - Freedom is "galvanic" and that his prose is both "visceral" and "lapidary." I recollect that Galvani was the guy who first noted that he could get a dead frog's leg muscle to contract by zapping it with some electric current. Viscera, of course, are those hidden internal organs, whereas the lapidary, I seem to recall, is concerned with the polishing of stones. Now I can understand why a family might get a bit unhappy if someone was conducting galvanic experiments on their viscera in order to polish their stones, but despite my interes

Gummy Prose

I am perhaps not the only one to notice that my prose tends to get gummed up with pointless interjections - thoughy , one might say. I will, however, try to do better, though, probably, perhaps, if I get around to it, whatever.

Darwinian Economics

Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult - at least I have found it so-- than to constantly bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, I am convinced that the whole economy of nature, with every fact on distribution, rarity, abundance, extinction, will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood..............Chuck D., Orig. of Spec. Of course Malthus was there first. For man as well as mouse, increases in abundance are quickly consumed and used to increase population. For us as well as for the wild flowers, the bitterest competition in the struggle for existence is the competition against the members of our own species. Hardly any principle of economics is so ancient, so clearly demonstrated, or so widely ignored as this Malthusian trap. Nor does any fact or principle grate so harshly against the idea of a larger ethics. The ancients mostly recognized this fact and embraced its grim consequen

Darwin and the Industrial Revolution

Reading Origin of Species, Chapter II. In this chapter, Darwin, having previously discussed artificial breeding and its results, talks about variation under nature. He more than once uses a locution I found interesting: the manufacture of species. The word manufacture has the literal sense of to make something by hand, but here he has begun to talk about the manufacture of those species by impersonal forces of nature rather than by the hand of man or God. It's interesting, I think, to speculate about the role that the development of organized methods of manufacture at the center of the industrial revolution might have played in freeing the mind from the notions of special creation. Technology, by placing some distance between the literal hand and the items it created, might play that part. There are lots of other notions borne by the intellectual winds of the time which might claim equal or greater credit, of course.

Ruthless Efficiency

I swiped the title from Steve Landsburg. He has an excellent post which, among other thing, outlines a clear alternative to the concept of the "local golden rule" I outlined in a previous post. I sometimes think that I probably really shouldn't have pissed him off so thoroughly - we could have had some good discussions, if we didn't kill each other first. Here he is on his moral conception: People are dying so that you can read this blog. Your internet access fees could more than double the income of a $400-a-year Ghanaian laborer. People are starving to death, and there you sit, with resources enough to save them (and with reputable charities standing by to effect the transfers), padding your own already luxuriant lifestyle. That’s a choice you made. It’s a choice almost everyone in the First World makes. It might or might not be a horrific choice, but it’s one for which we easily forgive each other. ... Someday you might find yourself strolling through a desert with

שנה טובה

And happy birthday to Pink. Some of my best relatives are Jews, but I really think that I ought to start the New Year off with a few (mostly non-political) provocations: (e)Is being prestigious really all that good an idea? Doesn't it tend to attract the wrong sort, like the present author and all these people (d)Isn't this lunar calendar thing a bit on the lame-oh side? (c)If we have to drink alcoholic Kool Aid, couldn't it at least be carbonated? (b)Is it really disrespectful to put propellers on our beanies? (a)Writing and reading backwards: Isn't it really just showing off?

H is for Humble Pie

It is somewhat humbling to realize that Rae Ann gets about as many hits on her blog site as I do, despite the fact that she has only posted twice in the past year.

Michael Lewis on Greece

Another gem via Tyler Cowen. This Michael Lewis article on the Greek financial mess is a don't miss it if you care at all about such things. Lewis is the author of The Big Short , The Blind Side (the book upon which the Sandra Bullock movie was based) and a number of other good books. He's a great writer with an instinct for the financial jugular and the human stories behind the money grubbing.

Dr. Michael Burry

Remember Dr. Mike Burry, the one-eyed neurosurgeon turned stock-picker who was the first to figure out the impending collapse of the mortgage backed securities market? Tyler Cowen posts a link to a this Bloomberg story on him. He has closed his hedge fund - got fed up with investors - but he talks to Jon Erlichman and Dakin Campbell about what he's putting his own money in these days and what he thinks of the economy. The story profiles him a bit, but there is much more in Michael Lewis's The Big Short.

The Pschohistorian Speaks

I suppose that it became inevitable after the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that corporations, as legal persons, had the First Amendment right to spend whatever they wanted to buy elections. Sooner, or later, they would expect to be allowed to serve as officers of the government. Still, it was a bit of a shock when President Palin tried to appoint Exxon-Mobile to replace the last retiring liberal justice on the Court. As it happened, that effort came to naught when Palin quit after two years to become a panelist on the Fox network's "So You Want to be the American President" reality show. But the die was cast. WalMart became the Senator from Arkansas in the 2018 election and soon Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley got the New York Senatorial positions. Bloomberg became Mayor of New York after its founder's retirement in 2020. Other banks found themselves scrambling to get out of town to nail down their own States. Some tech startups found themselves in the embarrassin

Tough Times for String Fanboys

I have been a bit of a string fanboy ever since I first heard of them from Murray Gell-Mann several decades ago. There has been good news and bad in the interim, but it's getting harder to keep the faith. The real concern for me is the apparent bullshit being peddled by the practitioners - I can't judge any technical questions, but a lifetime has activated my bullshit detectors. The latest shot comes from Hawking and Mlodinow's new book. I haven't read it, but Peter Woit has some excerpts, comments, and links to reviews . Can't decide if i want to read it or not.

Cat's and Dog's

Obama complains that special interests treat him like a dog. A dog or a pussy?


Steve Landsburg has up what I like to think of an as answer to some of my critique of his post on economic efficiency. I don't want to deal with that now, though, because I got distracted by his Consequentialist theory of morality, which he calls the Economist's Golden Rule - see his book on the Big Questions . Briefly stated, he says an action is moral if it leaves the world a "better" place. You might not be too astonished to learn that often enough, this can be interpreted to mean that he who has the gold, rules. I have a visceral dislike of Consequentialist ethics, and as usual, Landsburg has a gift for stating, and endorsing one of its conclusions in the most offensive way possible. Suppose, says he - I'm working from memory here - that you are in control of a two position toggle switch. If left in the current state, you know that one billion people will get a brief, mild but painful headache. If you flip it, the one billion will be spared, but one in

Make Them Fear the Teeth!

Obama complains (David Kurtz). The President departed from his prepared remarks in Milwaukee to address how he's treated by the powerful interests in DC: "They talk about me like a dog. That's not in my prepared remarks ... but it's true." Video soon. My suggestion: more snarl and more growl from the POTUS.

Origin of Species

I recently started reading Darwin's Origin of Species, - a Kindle freebee by the way - and it's interesting to see him struggling in the first chapter with the limitations of his knowledge. As he sees clearly, there was an awful that lot he doesn't know, and nothing in his ignorance was more fundamental than the fact that he did not know anything about the mechanism of heredity or the generation of variation. That knowledge was nearly a century away when he wrote, but the instincts of the great scientist are already much in evidence. He knows about the occurrence of "sports" in horticulture and guesses that there is a connection with the details of breeding. One of the favorite lines of the anti-Darwinist is the claim that Darwin is not predictive or falsifiable. The absurdity of this claim is demonstrated every time a new discovery becomes a piece to set in vast puzzle map Darwin set before us. Thousands and quite likely millions of discoveries since Darwin

The Disappointed

Obama looks set to launch his new economic stimulus plan, and it looks to be anemic, loaded with Republican ideas, and probably dead on arrival. Brad DeLong feels our pain: To put forward a weak, ineffective, Republican idea for further stimulus that then does not pass seems the worst of all possible worlds. Will this President never get a clue?

Classics: Stendahl

One advantage of Kindle is that a lot of old classics are available free. I found a list of the 100 greatest books weighted toward older stuff and got a few celebrated oldies. One of the first I read was The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendahl (an alias of Marie-Henri Behle). For some reason, the title always had a grip on me. Our hero is a charming and rather feckless younger son of a wealthy Italian noble, who manages to offend his father, elder brother, and the Austrian government by trying to enlist in Napoleon's cause - just barely in time to make it to Waterloo. With the help of his beautiful and talented Aunt, he manages to scramble from scrape to success to more drastic scrape all the while making his way by charm, enthusiasm and general stupidity. One thing our author is good at, and that is keeping some ironic distance from his characters. Consequently, I think, they are not as real or as engaging as such heroes and heroines as Tom Jones, Pyotr and Natasha, or Jane Ey


Cristianne Amanpour put together a good panel today for ABC's This Week and had some good questions. The dialog was good enough that I had to force myself to pay attention to her bangs today - not bad BTW. Paul Krugman and Tom Freidman, and Friedman made more sense than he has for years - more sense than he has in any of the last 8 FU's. The subjects were the economy, politics, and the Middle East. Friedman pointed out that the Obama Presidency had utterly failed to construct a narrative and that they had proven more inept at getting their message out than any recent presidency. Obama's recent Oval Office address on the so-called end of combat operations in Iraq was a case in point. It was only the second of his presiency and should therefore have said something momentous. He did not, and the talk was inevitably redolent of "Mission Accomplished." Obama came to office with a reputation as a communicator. He has failed to live up to that reputation, and tha

ET - Check Your Messages

It's not even April, but via Wolfgang , we learn of Kerala's "red rain" and it's putative content of extraterrestial life. If true, of course, it's the biggest news since Darwin. I've read the Tech Review story, and the original ArXiv article and to me, it reeks of psuedo-scientific optimism. The interesting part for me is not what's there (electron microscopy, replication studies and fluorescence data), but what isn't, namely chemical and biochemical analysis. Also, although the authors show an increase in numbers of "cells," they fail to comment on whether there has been an increase in their mass - that would be far more persuasive.

The Big Short: Review

I'v e already mentioned, here how much I liked Michael Lewis's The Big Short while I was reading it. Finishing it only reinforced those positive vibes. The book is mostly the story of the few far-sighted individuals who saw the catastrophe coming and invested in such a way as to bet against the great mortgage securities scam. The featured characters all made big bucks from their bets, but most were somehow scarred by the experience. They had bet against the world, and the world resented it, even, seemingly, the parts of the world that they had made a ton of money for. The one-eyed neurosurgeon who had been the first to see clearly closed his fund and lost interest in financial markets. The guy who had been in the South tower on September 11, 2001 had a recurrence of the nightmares and symptons of that time. Perhaps the biggest irony was the way the rain fell on the just and the unjust alike. Those who foresaw the catastrophe made millions (or, in a couple of cases, bill

Economic Efficiency

Uwe Reinhart has been explaining what economists mean by efficiency: Steve Landsburg is quoted and responds: How do economists judge efficiency? A popular method is the so-called Kaldor-Hicks criterion. Consider the following scenario due to SL: a rich man likes to play loud music and his poorer neighbor likes his peace and quiet. If the poorer guy would be willing to give up his quiet for $1000 and the rich guy would be willing to pay $10,000 to pollute the world with noise, KH says that an ordinance prohibiting noise is inefficient, and in fact produces a dead-weight loss (a favorite term for SL) of $9000 since the rich guy loses a benefit he values at $10 k and the poor guy only gains something he values at $1 k. More efficient, say the believers, would be l