Showing posts from July, 2012


Where did Yuri Milner get all that money that he gave away to 9 lucky physicists? Wired has an account . The story appears to be that he is a very successful investor, especially in Silicon valley. It's a bit short of detail in some interesting spots. One excerpt: The message seems clear: Milner may have invested in virtually every social media powerhouse, from Facebook to Twitter to Spotify. He might be the vanguard of an entirely new financial philosophy. He might be the most controversial money guy in Silicon Valley—sought after, feared, and derided in more or less equal measure. But at heart he is just a nice Jewish boy. And it seems he has a Macaroni factory back in Russia.


String Theory, Quantum Computing, and Cosmic Inflation share the distinction of being heavily hyped frontier subjects in physics that have yet to yield a lot of concrete testable results. Thanks to a new physics prize sponsored by Russian zillionaire Yuri Milner , 6 string theorists, 2 inflationistas, and a quantum computer are now rather rich - $3 megabucks each - however. Four of the physicists work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.: Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg and Edward Witten. They work on theories trying to tie together the basic particles and forces of the universe, particularly with a mathematical machinery known as string theory. The other winners are Andrei Linde, a physicist at Stanford who also worked on cosmic inflation; Alexei Kitaev, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology who works on quantum computers; Maxim L. Kontsevich, a mathematician at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies outside Paris

Mitt has Seen the Future...

And it seems to be socialized medicine, Israeli style . Speaking today to a small group of Israeli contributors to his campaign, the GOP presidential candidate—and supposed sworn enemy of government controlled healthcare—had kind words for the success of Israel’s healthcare system. When our health care costs are completely out of control. Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of the GDP in Israel? 8 percent. You spend 8 percent of GDP on health care. And you’re a pretty healthy nation” A healthy nation, indeed. With a life-expectancy rate that is the 4th best in the world (the United States is 38th) and a reputation for delivering high-quality care to all of its citizens by utilizing the most advanced medical technology available in a hospital system we can only envy from afar, Governor Romney is right to be impressed with the Israelis’ ability to deliver excellent care while keeping spending down to 8 percent of GDP as compared to 18 percent here in the Unit

Why Isn't Our Children Learning?

The answer, it seems, is Algebra, or so says Andrew Hacker, writing in today's New York Times. A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t... It seems - at least to Hacker - that the main reason kids drop out of high school and college is algebra. Another dropout statistic should cause equal chagrin. Of all who embark on higher education, only 58 percent end up with bachelor’s degrees. The main impediment to graduation: freshman math. The City University of New York, where I have taught since 1971, found that 57 percent of its students didn’t pass its mandated algebra course. The depressing conclusion of a faculty report: “failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor

Oh Dear

Paul Krugman unearths evidence that European Central Bank Chief Mario Drahi's grasp of economics may be as dubious as his grasp of aerodynamics. Drahi: The euro is like a bumblebee. This is a mystery of nature because it shouldn’t fly but instead it does. So the euro was a bumblebee that flew very well for several years. And now – and I think people ask “how come?” – probably there was something in the atmosphere, in the air, that made the bumblebee fly. Now something must have changed in the air, and we know what after the financial crisis. The bumblebee would have to graduate to a real bee. And that’s what it’s doing. One hundred years ago aerodynamicists didn't understand bee flight, so Drahi's ignorance on that point might be justifiable for an economist. Bees, of course, have had a few hundred million years to master aerodynamic tricks unknown to students of flight a century ago. On the other hand we might hope that he is more up to date on economics. Krugman: The

What's the matter with kids today...

It seems that half the blogs I follow are on to this Nature Scientific Reports article, first linked by Kevin Drum, on the decline and fall of popular music. The authors do some kind of fancy mathematical analysis on the million song database and discover that: Here we unveil a number of patterns and metrics characterizing the generic usage of primary musical facets such as pitch, timbre, and loudness in contemporary western popular music. Many of these patterns and metrics have been consistently stable for a period of more than fifty years. However, we prove important changes or trends related to the restriction of pitch transitions, the homogenization of the timbral palette, and the growing loudness levels. This suggests that our perception of the new would be rooted on these changing characteristics. Hence, an old tune could perfectly sound novel and fashionable, provided that it consisted of common harmonic progressions, changed the instrumentation, and increased the average loud


... is an economic system with some wonderful properties. Too bad it's so rarely tried.

What's a Mother to Do?

I seem to recall that Tyler Cowen recently wondered which explanation of the big slump was the right one: Krugman's insufficient final demand or Bernanke's global savings glut. Possibly it occurred to the famously erudite Cowen that they are the same thing, since I can't seem to find that post anymore.

Move Right Along...

...Nothing to see here folks. Last week Spanish and Italian bond yields leaped again and world markets spasm-ed. ECB chief Mario Drahi then stepped up to say, don't worry, we won't let the Euro fail. Amazingly, this did the trick. Skeptics wonder how many arrows Drahi has left, and when he is going to act instead of just talking. Prediction: Another major spasm before September. One of these days it might be the big one.

Euro Rant of the Week

The economic gods, if such gods there be, seem to have a well developed sense of irony. The number one tool in the ironic gods toolbox, Homer noted, is the Cassandra trick. Send the people a prophet who will speak truly but never be believed. In the case of the Euro, there were more than a few such prophets who noted that the ECB's prescription seemed certain to fail. The Euro center, which I will just call Germany, was terrified of getting stuck with the bill, so forced Europe to adopt policies which seem certain to ensure that Germany and everybody else gets stuck with a really large bill. In my mythological version of this story, when the weaker Catholic economies entered the Euro, Germany rushed to lend them big bucks, a bit careless of their ability to repay. The money went to inflate a housing market and buy lots of highways, roundabouts, Museums and other cool stuff. When the housing bust hit the world, tax receipts collapsed and a lot of bills became tough to pay. At t

Penn State

The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones, so let it be with Jo Pa. The NCAA has imposed a severe and severely humorous penalty on Penn State for the sins of a now dead coach and some other deposed officials. The humorous part is that the main penalty is imposed on those completely innocent. It's also pretty funny that they "took away" 100 wins from a dead but guilty coach. The NCAA would be a joke if it wasn't a force of such maleficence in the world. Nah, it't still a joke. They are annoyed because their designated football Saint turned out to have very clay like feet. Ironically, the crimes Paterno committed were in the name of protecting that reputation that the NCAA loved so much.

Robots are Coming

Luis von Ahn, the inventor or Duolingo, also invented Captcha, the software that allows you to filter out robot commenters, and reCaptcha, software that allows robots to solve Captcha type problems better than any human can. Just sayin'.

Deep Thoughts

People have a natural human tendency to think anyone who disagrees with them is either an idiot or an asshole. Anyone care to disagree?

The Class Warfare Election

Class warfare has been a frequent Republican rallying cry for the past several years. Paul Krugman doesn't exactly embrace the rhetoric , but he thinks Dems need to make the electoral case. The richest Americans pay income tax at a rate less than half that of what they payed in 1960. The rest of the 1% pay less too, but the middle class pays more. It's class warfare alright, and the middle class has been losing for a while. Romney has promised big additional tax cuts for the richest, while the lions share of Obama tax cuts would go to the middle class. The impact at the top would be large. According to estimates by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the Romney plan would reduce the annual taxes paid by the average member of the top 1 percent by $237,000 compared with the Obama plan; for the top 0.1 percent that number rises to $1.2 million. No wonder Mr. Romney’s fund-raisers in the Hamptons attracted so many eager donors that there were luxury-car traffic jams. What about

I haven't Posted Much

... Mostly because I'm too hooked on Duolingo right now, and it's eating up my free time. Political and economic demoralization might be a factor too.

Wholly Fictitious Dialog

Me: I don't think Altamont (December 6, 1969) was that funny. WB: I thought it was a riot. SC: Bazinga Altamont (December 6, 1969) was supposed to be the West Coast Woodstock, but it ended poorly. Because the stage wasn't elevated, the Rolling Stones gave the Hell's Angels $500 worth of free beer to sit on the stage and keep overly aggressive fans off. This combination turned out to be a sub-optimal choice. The fans were high on some mean drugs, and fights quickly broke out. Numerous fans and several performers were significantly injured in the mayhem, by each other and the Hell's Angels. The violence culminated when an enraged teen-aged fan, high on methamphetamine, charged the stage and drew a pistol, perhaps with the intent of killing Mick Jagger. One of the Hell's Angels stabbed him to death before he managed to do anything. Bad feelings ensued all around.

Another Helping, Bitte

Spain signs up for another plateful of Mrs. Merkel's famous crap sandwich. Hey, if austerity is killing us, we probably need more austerity. Matt Iglesias doesn't think this is likely to end well . For all the fancy chart wars around European austerity, I don't see how anyone can seriously deny that this kind of action is going to further crimp Spain's economy. In all modern advanced economies—including major exporters like Germany—the majority of employment is in local service provision. A big reduction in Spanish citizens' purchasing power will devastate those sectors without doing much of anything to directly bolster net exports. Interestingly Rajoy "did not touch pensions," seemingly a similar dynamic to what you see in the United States where GOP zeal for budget cuts is combined with promising to never reduce spending on the currently elderly. Once nobody works and the only people getting money are pensioners, then what? Somewhere I read that due

Full Service Organization

Feel like a shopping spree? A brand new 2 billion dollar mall is waiting for you. Need a book? They've got a publishing house for you too. Newspapers. Radiostations. A million acres of farmland, so they probably grow something you need too. Insurance? Got you covered. How about a nice vacation in a tropical theme park? Got you covered there also. The network of corporations that have all this stuff are all completely owned by one other corporation, which is owned, in corporation sole, by one man. They've got some universities too. That's not all, of course, most of their business is highly secret. I probably should have mentioned that they can also provide spiritual consolation, or at least spiritual something, as well. In fact, the chances are that they have a church in your town, at least if you live in the American West. For Mormons God and Mammon are on the same side. Such, at least, is the story Caroline Winter tells in her Business Week story called How t

Libertarian Kindling

Brad DeLong and colleagues explain why the George Mason Econ Department should be consigned to the eternal and temporal flames.

Some More Birther Nonsense

Lubos has picked up on some of the latest birther nonsense - the notion that Obama's Social Security number had originally belonged to someone else and that the the SSN he uses was only given to Connecticut residents. Both claims are false, though it is a bit curious that he has a Social Security number usually associated with Connecticut zip codes. Snopes has the gory details, including a plausible explanation for the leading digits of his SSN. More to the point, there would be no obvious point in his getting, much less using, a fraudulent SSN. SSN are not restricted to US citizens - I would bet that Lumo and Wolfgang probably have them, as they have both worked in the US IIRC. UPDATE: Lumo's commentators have also given relatively comprehensive explanations.

The Ether

And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the physicist’s pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name…………………………………. Not Quite W. Shakespeare We are, of course, talking about the Higgs particle – apparently found now, not quite a half-century since Peter Higgs lent them his name and gave to them their local habitation. To the uninitiated, the oddest thing about them is their ephemerality. Their work is everywhere, lending mass to this, that and everything, but it took decades and a ten billion dollar machine to find them. How could that be? That question is intimately bound up with the nature of that “airy nothing” mentioned earlier. It is sometimes said that Einstein killed the ether – the notion that space was pervaded by an invisible fluid that transmitted light – but the long term effect of his theory and quantum mechanics was to replace that space filling fluid with a different one that lived in space-time, the quantum

Another stupid grammar lesson

When Duolingo tried to tell me that "I enjoy this beer since yesterday" was grammatical English, I put in a complaint. I thought maybe they would try to fix their errant computer translator. Well, instead they sent me a note from an actual human, who asserted that the sentence in question made sense. It doesn't of course, though I suppose the problem is actually at the semantic level. Because "since", when applied to time, refers to a period that started in the past and ends in the present, it needs the present perfect tense. Unfortunately I couldn't complain to the author at her donotreply address.

What's New, Higgsy?

... everybody's talking ... ... I was lost, and now I'm found ... Or at least it walks like a duck. Well, it's nice to have found something, even if it did cost 10 GBucks. Bee notes that the last previous elementary particle discovery occurred when she was in high school. She also has a nice meditation on the present state of things. And so, strangely, on this sunny day for high energy particle physics, I feel somewhat blue about the prospects. It's been almost two decades since the last discovery of a particle that we presently believe is elementary, the top quark in 1995, which was the year I finished high school. It's been a long way and an enormous effort to that little bump in the above plot. There isn't so much more we can do with hadron colliders. If we try really hard, we can ramp up the energy a little and improve the luminosity a little. Of course what we want next is a lepton collider like the ILC that will complete the picture that the LHC deli


Duolingo is the brainchild of reCaptcha inventor and professor Luis von Ahn. His idea was to teach language on the web while recruiting the students to translate the web. It has a number of cute features, in addition to getting students into translating real stuff at an early stage. There are social network features, and my favorite, a video game like interface where you accumulate points and level up by completing lesson and doing translations. Leveling starts out a bit easy, I think - it only took me 400 points to reach level five, but level six required 200 more and level seven is 400 more. So far the vocabulary is fairly complimentary to Pimsleur.

Grammar Lesson

I wrote: Anderson Cooper has just announced that he was gay. and Wolfgang replied: Does this mean he no longer is ? This critique sent me into a deep grammatical funk. Wolfgang's point makes sense, but somehow, the alternate construction doesn't feel quite right. The funk eventually sent me to the inter-tubes, where I found: If the primary clause is in past tense, then the subordinate clause also must be. Aha! Ammo! Unless the subordinate clause expresses a general truth, as in "Columbus knew that the World is round." So is AC's gender orientation a "general truth" or just a special truth, as in: Wilma whispered that she wanted waffles. Beats me, but another filter might be the question of time frame. Wilma might have wanted waffles back then, but who knows about today. Anderson, I expect, is still gay. Here is another one: The Lord Chamberlain announced that the King was/is dead! Well, the guy who had been the King is presumably going to remain

From the Language Lab

...of the world's slowest language student. I have added Duolingo to my Spanish software armamentos. It joins Rosetta Stone - OK, but the picture book business eventually gets really boring - and my current favorite, Pimsleur, which is excellent but highly focused on travel situation Spanish. Duolingo is a free program on the web. At the moment, it has the truly annoying habit of capturing any access from my computer and plunging it into the middle of my lesson. Need to figure out how to sign the **** out.


Anderson Cooper has publicly announced that he was gay. Reputedly this fact was news to 3 of the 57 people who still watch CNN. Rumor has it that Wolf Blitzer will officially announce that he is boring next week.

David Brooks Smackdown

Via Brad DeLong, Samir Chopra: David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, and All I Got Was a Stupid Op-Ed Brooks finds that audiences ‘in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula’–reaching which, I presume, requires three weeks of hard hiking from the nearest trailhead–’singing word for word about Highway 9 or Greasy Lake or some other exotic locale on the Jersey Shore.’ Amazing. In Europe? When did they get television, radio, newspapers, magazines, or the Internet? This is pretty mind-boggling stuff. Here is an American rock star, surely the most obscure type of cultural figure there could be, and folks in Europe, a land separated from the US by a BIG ocean, know the lyrics to his songs. Dude, it was a business expense, OK?

Bad Weather

The old story about the frog allowing himself to be cooked when the temperature of the water he's in is raised slowly enough is apocryphal, but the notion isn't crazy, at least when applied to humans. We tend not to notice gradual changes. That's especially true when the relevant changes take place over generations. That's one reason the story of human induced (anthropogenic) global warming (AGW) has trouble maintaining traction. Extreme weather events tend to get attention, though. This Summer in the US we have had the massive fire events in the West and the big 29-30 June derecho event in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. Both have occurred in the context of record heat. Are these the signature of AGW? As usual, the considered scientific answer is maybe. We have had bad fire seasons before, and we have had severe derecho events before. The pattern of Western drought and intense heat we have seen is a prediction of global warming models, as is the kind of derecho

The WSJ on Jonathan Haidt

Holman Jenkins has a great article on Jonathan Haidt - not mostly about the book, but an interview about his ideas, especially those on liberals vs conservatives. ........As we sit in his new office at New York University, he professes an immodest aim: He wants liberals and conservatives to listen to each other more, hate each other less, and to understand that their differences are largely rooted in psychology, not open-minded consideration of the facts. "My big issue, the one I'm somewhat evangelical about, is civil disagreement," he says... In India, where he performed field studies early in his professional career, he encountered a society in some ways patriarchal, sexist and illiberal. Yet it worked and the people were lovely. In Brazil, he paid attention to the experiences of street children and discovered the "most dangerous person in the world is mom's boyfriend. When women have a succession of men coming through, their daughters will get raped,"