Showing posts from October, 2010

Further Adventures of the Inept Autodidact

It has many times been convincingly demonstrated that I have zero talent for languages. Failed attempts to learn Latin, Russian, German, Spanish, and Japanese litter my history. I, however, am also not one to learn very well from my mistakes, so I am once again attempting Spanish. Rosetta Stone (Latin American) is my main tool here, but I also got this cheap beginning Spanish Reader for my Kindle. I am beginning to suspect that it might not be too current, since its Chapter on the US lists the population as 110 million! Also our money includes \$5,\$10, and \$20 gold pieces as well as \$1000 bills. What is cool is the fact that I can set my Kindle Spanish-English dictionary as primary and use it to quickly define words that I don't know, or find the conjugations of irregular verbs. It has been a lesson, however, in the limitations of the Kindle interface. I find the five-way navigation button a bit clumsy. A touch screen please.


Bee's new post is entitled This and That - I was briefly afraid that those might be the new names of epsilon and delta - but it is definitely in the don't miss category for it's pitiful story of an obviously talented lad who just couldn't make up his mind what he wanted to do with himself, switching aimlessly among majors. I liked Ed, but felt sorry for him, too, because, for all his potential, he lacked focus. He had been a history major in college, and a linguistics minor. On graduating, though, he concluded that, as rewarding as these fields had been, he was not really cut out to make a living at them. He decided that what he was really meant to do was study economics. And so, he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at the University of Wisconsin. And, after only a semester, he dropped out of the program. Not for him. So, history was out; linguistics, out; economics, out. What to do? This was a time of widespread political activism, and Ed became an aide to S

System and State

The notion of a system and its state is a fundamental one in physical science and engineering. Both the words system and state derive from a Proto Indo European base word meaning to stand , and we use them in senses that have varying degrees of precision. In general, a system is a collection of things that "stand together," and the state of that system is the "way they stand together." In physics, a system might be a single elementary particle, a bottle of gas, a star, or the universe, and by its state we mean mean some collection of variables that specify that state. For an electron, for example, its charge, mass, velocity and position. In classical physics the state variables tend to be measurable numbers, what the quantum pioneers called c-numbers. Things become more abstract in quantum mechanics. The state of a quantum system is specified by something that we call a ray in Hilbert space . It's worth noting, though, that even the classical description is a

Clark's Malthusian World

Malthus had the insight, which also proved crucial for Darwin, that Man and other creatures produce more offspring than can survive to adulthood if the population is to maintain a steady, or nearly steady state. Scarcity of resources ultimately limit the population by increasing the death rate until it matches the birth rate. Gregory Clark, in his book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, argues that the vast bulk of the human race has lived in Malthusian equilibrium for all its long history before 1800 and the onset of the industrial revolution. Modern humans may have numbered no more than 10,000 individuals 70,000 years ago, when the population apparently passed through a major bottleneck, and probably never exceeded a few million during our long careers as hunter gatherers. (This and other population estimates from Wikepedia ) Over the next seventy thousand years, our geographic range, technology, and numbers expanded dramatically. By 1800 there were some one

Creepy Travel Commentary From Tyler Cowen

Do other people find Tyler's paragraph below as creepy as I do? We saw a dead guy on the side of the highway; apparently he was struck down by a passing car. Ill-advised pedestrian walks are a problem for many El Salvadorans in the United States as well . "More guns, less crime" I joked to Alex as we drove through the center city.

Arrow's Result

Many of the concepts of economics have a certain resistance to popular explanation. Arnold Kling nominated Arrow's (Nobel winning) Impossibility Theorem as a particular challenge. Tyler Cowen , Alex Tabbarok , and Steve Landsburg each took up the challenge: you can find their stuff at the links - I found them all incomprehensibly cluttered with irrelevant details. The basic notion involved is that when several people set out to choose among a set of alternatives, it's impossible to find a voting system that aggregates individual preferences yet satisfies all of some specified and plausible seeming fair decision rules. This probably won't surprise anybody who has tried to cooperatively plan a Thanksgiving dinner. As I said, I couldn't follow the reasoning in the links, but Wikipedia is pretty clear, and has both formal and informal statements of problem and proof. Tyler also links to this fairly simple yet detailed proof.

Across the River Cam

Just in case I decide to run for office sometime, I wanted to be able to claim an elite U background, like Christine "I am a muggle" O'Donnell (Oxford, correspondence course, sometime). I have now been to Harvard. Of course I didn't learn anything, except where to find the restroom near Anna's, nor did I enter any of the other buildings, but I was there for the "Head of the Charles." It's a pretty place, if not very close to my idea of what a University campus ought to look like. When we were approaching the Harvard square T-stop, I noticed that the guy in front of me looked like a cross between the real and movie Mark Zuckerbergs. Later I figured out that everybody at Harvard looked like Mark Zuckerberg except maybe for the Asians. OK, I'm sure that wasn't really true, but I did feel slightly freakish. Though there were lots of other tourists there to read the three lies and rub the toe of John Harvard's boot. I stopped by MIT too.


Via Kevin Drum , Clair Berlinski's How Elite Are You? 1. Can you talk about "Mad Men?" Not intelligibly . 2. Can you talk about the "The Sopranos?" Not without making a face. 3. Do you know who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right?" No 4. Have you watched an Oprah show from beginning to end? No 5. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga? No 5. How about pilates? I think I learned about Pontius Pilate in Catholic School. I don't know his family. 5. How about skiing? I really miss it. 6. Mountain biking? There are a few mountain bikes in my garage, none of which I have ridden lately . 7. Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is? Yeah . 8. Does the acronym MMA mean nothing to you? It didn't . 9. Can you talk about books endlessly? If I could find somebody to listen . 10. Have you ever read a "Left Behind" novel? Eew. No thanks . 11. How about a Harlequin romance? Nope 12. Do you take interesting vacations? They interest me . 13. Do you


Outsourcing my current dismay to Paul Krugman: Falling Into The Chasm.

Supreme Crooks

Maureen Dowd retrospects on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Thomas. A new fact has come to light, namely that there apparently were other women willing to testify to Thomas's exploitative sexual proclivities, but who then Senator Biden refused to allow to testify. Dowd also notes that Thomas's wife has shamelessly abused her connection to the Justice for financial gain. Thomas and Scalia both have a history of accepting pricey favors from persons with business before the Court, or likely to have business before it. If they were GS-12 civil servants instead of Justices, they would be out on their ears or in the slammer. And this is what the American people are about to vote for more of. We may have officially transitioned into the too stupid to survive class.

Not Dead Yet...

I was recently involved in an exercise simulating an attack by a crazed gunman, which I coped with by locking my door and continuing work. Eventually, though, soldiers in body armor with fake machine guns rousted me out. Because I had a real world broken foot, I was evacuated with the simulated casualties and taken to triage. There I was evaluated and tagged with a ticket proclaiming me Dead/Dying - an especially serious stress fracture, I guess. I kept the souvenier, but I'm not actually dead yet, though I do expect to be travelling and posting very lightly for a couple of weeks. I have noticed that I seem to have at least occasional readers from five or six continents, and I figure you probably didn't all get here by mistake - though I could be wrong. Anyway, if anybody would like to say something about themselves and why you read my stuff - if you do that is - I would like to hear about it. If you want to share what you like or hate about this site, the subjects I wri

Burgery in Progress!

Econ Prof Steve Landsburg recently waxed wroth about internet trolls who spend time refuting arguments others never made . Since I think that the gentleman himself tends to indulge in that sort of rhetoric whenever his mind turns to Paul Krugman - pretty often - I thought it only fitting to honor him with the eponymn. It only took a couple of days before he provided us another example: a veritable (Lands)burgery in progress . The subject of this particular burg is the following graph due to Paul Krugman . Bear in mind that Krugman is responding to those who said government spending exploded after Obama took office, is explicitly considering only the time after the fall of Lehman (Sept 15, 2008), and is considering all government (federal, state, and local) spending. Krugman points out that there is no explosion of spending in 2009, despite the ramp up of countercyclical programs like unemployment insurance. Next the critique: Now, what I’m seeing here is something like a 25% incre

First Miner Up!!

Finally some good news from somewhere.

Wagner, Nietzsche and Hitler

Wolfgang accuses me of not knowing much about Nietzsche or Hitler. Perhaps not, but I know a little, and I can google. In particular, he thinks I misunderstand the Nietzschean superman. Let's review a bit of what he said in Zarathustra: The strong men, the masters, regain the pure conscience of a beast of prey; monsters filled with joy, they can return from a fearful succession of murder, arson, rape, and torture with the same joy in their hearts, the same contentment in their souls as if they had indulged in some student's rag.... When a man is capable of commanding, when he is by nature a "Master," when he is violent in act and gesture, of what importance are treaties to him?... "The Blond Beast" was another Nietzschean epithet idolized by him and borrowed by Hitler. The "Lords of the Earth" was an FN expression that occurs frequently in Mein Kampf. Nietzsche also prefigured Hitler's "final solution." From The Will to Power :

David Hasselhoff - Your Car is Ready

Google has the robo-car almost ready to go . I can't wait. Anyone driving the twists of Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles recently may have glimpsed a Toyota Prius with a curious funnel-like cylinder on the roof. Harder to notice was that the person at the wheel was not actually driving. The car is a project of Google, which has been working in secret but in plain view on vehicles that can drive themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver.

Riding Rockets: Book Review

If you've ever felt the pull of the romance of space travel, Riding Rockets by R. Mike Mullane is a book I heartily recommend. Mullane was a West Point graduate and Air Force aviator with 134 combat missions in Vietnam when he applied to be an astronaut. He was a flight test engineer, not a pilot, and his astronaut class was the first to include mission specialists selected from flight engineers and civilian scientists. Mullane's book is a darn good read for entertainment and an even better one for information. Military aviators aren't exactly famous for opening their brains for the world to view, but his book is strikingly candid and revealing. One of my favorite parts is his story of his childhood obsession with space and his devotion to Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestelle's Conquest of Space . I also fell under that spell and tried my hand at building rockets and making rocket fuel - as a hole burned into our basement ceiling once testified. Mullane, though, had the de

Distilled Frenzy

. . . the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back............... J M Keynes A Hitler might be Nietsche distilled, but nowadays the madmen tend to rely on distilled Beck. Byron Williams, Oakland freeway shooter. I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind.

The "Burg"

Steve Landsburg: The Internet seems to have bred a peculiar subspecies of troll that cheerfully devotes enormous effort to refuting arguments nobody ever made. While they seem to have infinite time to construct these pointless rebuttals, these troll-types seem to have no time at all in which to actually digest the arguments they think they’re rebutting. They start with a guess as to what someone else might have said, and seem all but incapable of entertaining the notion that they might have guessed wrong. Is there a name for these people? “Crank” and “troll” are too general. If it were up to me, we’d reserve the word “Bozo” for this purpose, but it too is already in more general use. We need a new word! Give me your suggestions! Well, since you did ask: in light of the many pixels he has wasted refuting arguments Paul Krugman never made, I suggest the eponymn "landsburg," or just "burg" for the word he seeks.


From the Lumonator: It's organic and carbon is cheaper than silicon because you don't have to deconstruct anyone's microprocessors or artificial breasts to get the stuff. Lubos is talking about solar panels made of rubrene and being funny, but in fact silicon, despite being quite a bit less abundant in the larger universe than carbon, is several hundred times more abundant in the Earth's crust than carbon, and dirt, or at least sand, cheap. Nice pure crystals for optimal solar panels are not so cheap to manufacture of course. As a person who has recently considered equipping my house with solar panels I do have to say that efficiency can be an important concern. My roof has a limited amount of real estate suitable for mounting solar panels, so to get the optimal amount of energy I need high efficiency panels even here in relentlessly sunny New Mexico.

Unions and Merit Pay

Many of the usual suspects are taking a crack at the question of why teachers unions oppose merit pay and what can be done about it. Here, for example, are Megan McArdle , Matt Yglesias , Tyler Cowen , and Bryan Caplan . To me, they mostly miss the point - though at least one commenter is more astute. Caplan gets my cluelessness award: I don't doubt that unions tend to oppose merit pay, but the reasons are unclear. Profit-maximizing monopolists still suffer financially if they cut quality; the same should hold for unionized workers. Why not simply jack average wages 15% above the competitive level, and leave relative wages unchanged? Or to put the puzzle another way: Once you've secured a raise for all the workers in your union, why prevent employers from offering additional compensation for exceptionally good workers? Megan: Unions are set up to minimize frictions and maximize benefits for the bottom 55%. That's how they work everywhere--in schools, and out. That's how

China Syndrome

After decades of explosive economic growth, China is feeling its oats and starting to throw its weight around . No more Mr. Nice China seems the order of the day, so it issues threats against any US action to reduce our massive trade deficit, reasserts old claims to Indian territory, and beats up on Japan. The West, and the world, made a gigantic bet that if China were brought into the world economic and political community it would learn to play nicely - whatever that means. China has changed itself from a decrepit socialist basket case into an marvel of state capitalism, but it has kept the same old Communist Party apparatus in firm charge. The leaders decided to abandon the Party's rationale for existence but kept the power. That totalitarian grip is evident in the paranoid and vicious reaction to the selection of Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace prize. So why, exactly, did the US and the world tolerate and encourage the emerging superpower and allow themselves to become so d

About Curvature

What is curvature? We have an intuitive notion that some curves are curvier than others, so how have mathematicians sorted this out? I have been reading The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions by Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis. It turns out that the notion of curvature, and in particular, Ricci curvature, is fundamental to all the considerations therein. From my deeply shallow and mostly forgotten studies of general relativity I recalled that the Ricci tensor was (a) an index contracted Riemann curvature tensor and (b) an essential component of the Einstein tensor . Neither bit of intellectual flotsam gave me any significant insight into what Ricci curvature really was. For me to understand something, I need to have a mental picture that can be expressed in familiar notions. The simplest notion of curvature is that we associate with a circle. We have an intuitive notion that a smaller circle is “more curved” than a larger one. We

Religious Threats

Many think that the threat of having Sharia imposed upon us by Muslims is serious enough that we must deal with it by expelling them, but let's remember that's not the only religious threat we face. If the Episcopelians manage to get control of the country, we will all be forced to worship the Queen of England, or, if prediction may be ventured, even Prince Chuck. Catholics are far worse. They worship a former Nazi who made his bones running the Inquisition - yes that Inquisition - and covering up clerical child abuse. On the positive side, if we ran them out of the country, we would lose some real loser Supreme Court Justices - not you Sylvia. On the negative, depending on how strictly affiliation was judged, my family and I might have to go back to Ireland, or somewhere. How about Mormons? They are a native religion of America, to be sure. A few words on that subject: Glen Beck, Orin Hatch, and the White Horse prophecy. If we let the Jews take over - the stuff they haven

Reality Vision

The Social Network is an excellent movie, but it shouldn't be mistaken for reality. Some who have investigated have found some major holes in the factual structure created by writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher's movie. Check for example Luke O'Brien or Nathan Heller in Slate. Heller, who lived a couple of rooms down from Zuckerberg when they were both freshmen, recognizes neither Zuckerberg nor Harvard in the movie: I recognized their Harvard, but only from Love Story and The Paper Chase, not my experience. Heller didn't like the movie, but I did and most critics seem to agree. Perhaps the real Harvard and real Zuckerberg are more compelling, or maybe not. The trouble is that a clearly biographical movie that gets a lot of facts wrong is a kind of crime against reality. I'm ambivalent about the result. Of course maybe fellow Harvies like O'Brien and Heller need to defend their territory. Or maybe Zuckerberg or some other insider will write

State of the Nation

Paul Krugman tells us a lot about where we are today. A note to Tea Party activists: This is not the movie you think it is. You probably imagine that you’re starring in “The Birth of a Nation,” but you’re actually just extras in a remake of “Citizen Kane.” True, there have been some changes in the plot. In the original, Kane tried to buy high political office for himself. In the new version, he just puts politicians on his payroll. I mean that literally. As Politico recently pointed out, every major contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination who isn’t currently holding office and isn’t named Mitt Romney is now a paid contributor to Fox News. Now, media moguls have often promoted the careers and campaigns of politicians they believe will serve their interests. But directly cutting checks to political favorites takes it to a whole new level of blatancy. Arguably, this shouldn’t be surprising. Modern American conservatism is, in large part, a movement shaped by bill

A Good Word For Rick

Josh Marshall has a good word for Rick Sanchez . Sanchez may have been all the things Stewart and friends called him, but he did, it seems, occasionally ask tough questions. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, famously tosses softballs even to guests he pillories when they aren't on stage.


Our war in Afghanistan seems increasingly disconnected from common sense. When top leaders discuss our war aims they seem to be speaking Martian: "We need to reverse the momentum of the Taliban long enough to stabilize...." "We need to persuade the Pakistanis that we can be counted on..." to do what I have no idea. We are after al Quaeda and the Taliban, but both have moved HQ to Pakistan. Meanwhile our troops continue to take casualties fighting an enemy embedded in the population. It's asymmetric warfare, they tell us. I wonder at our leaders grasp of the concept. Meanwhile the Pakistanis play a curious double game - a double game that everybody recognizes. On the one hand, they give us secret permission to assassinate al Quaeda leaders, on the other they publically protest it. They actively harrass our supply lines when we get to aggressive in our pursuit. How about we give them a stark choice - hand over the people we want or face war. Not an invasi

Human Nature

Kevin Drum is looking for fundamental aspects of human nature that people don't pay enough attention to. I'm sure that there are a long list but he offers these two for a start: 1.Loss aversion: people really, really hate to lose something they already have and will forego even favorable risks to avoid it. 2.Regression to the mean: an especially strong performance is likely to be followed by a weaker performance and vice versa. I'm going to ignore the second, because it seems to me to be both obvious and misleading. Obvious in the sense that your best day ever is likely to be better than most of the next days. Misleading in the sense that extraordinary performance is often an excellent predictor of very good future performance. I'm especially interested in those that run counter to the fundamental assumptions of classical economics, and the first fits that bill. Kevin's commenters offer a number of elaborations on that idea. One is that we tend to strongly pr

Human Sacrifice

If we can stop worrying about the threat of Shariah for a moment, spare some worry cells for the growing threat posed by Druids. As you may recall, they were fond of burning to death human victims in their sacrifice rituals. It seems that they have already been recognized as an official religion in Britain - I don't think we do that here, but they have got to be a major threat. Of course whoever wrote the story is some kind of .... You can now breathe easily Lord of the Rings fans, for Druidry, the ancient belief that worships deities that assume different forms in nature, was recognized as a religion in Britain for the first time Saturday and granted charitable status. WTF? I don't think LOTR has much in common with Druidry.

This Week: Town Hall

Christianne Amanpour hosted a town hall on Islam in America on ABC's this Week . It was a very good event, with lots of points of view represented, several of them of them idiots like Gary Bauer and Junior Graham. It was a little discouraging to watch their tactics and see how effective they were. The basic technique is equating all members of a group with the worst members of the group, or the worst deeds of a member. It's an amazingly effective technique - not surprisingly, since that's been the way we have started wars for millenia. Thankfully there were some members who spoke clearly for the Constitution and American values. Unfortunately, appeals to reason have little power over those who are hysterical over the prospect that American Muslims are about to introduce stoning for adultry in the US. Perhaps they should worry about the Christians and Jews among us - it's their Bible that the Muslims got it from.

The Social Network

Who thought a movie about intellectual property could be so gripping. Jesse Eisenberg is spectacular as Mark Zuckerberg.

Rick Sanchez and John Stewart

The WaPo covers CNN's firing of Rick Sanchez. "White folks usually don't see it. But we do -- those of us who are minorities and women see it sometimes, too, from men in authority." Sanchez paraphrased what he said a CNN executive had once said to him: "I really don't see you as an anchor, I see you more as a reporter. I see you more as a John Quiñones -- you know, the guy on ABC. . . . Now, did he not realize that he was telling me. . . . An anchor is what you give the high-profile white guys, you know. . . . To a certain extent Jon Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert are the same way. I think Jon Stewart's a bigot." Later in the interview, Dominick noted Stewart is Jewish, which he said is "a minority as much as you are." "Very powerless people," Sanchez said, with a laugh. "He's such a minority, I mean, you know. . . . Please, what are you kidding? . . . I'm telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart,