Showing posts from November, 2010

Not Impressed With Obama

Is Paul Krugman impressed with Obama's freezing of federal worker's salaries? I'm going to say not favorably:
Yep, that’s exactly what we needed: a transparently cynical policy gesture, trivial in scale but misguided in direction, and in effect conceding that your bitter political opponents have the right idea..
It could be that Obama is just very conservative economically, heavily influenced by the Chicago School at which he taught.
I tend to think though, that this battle is not one he wanted to fight anyway, so acting first might not have been a terrible idea, but Krugman's point that Obama is doing nothing to construct a credible narrative for intervention in the economy seems indisputable.

The Slaves of Defunct Eonomists

I really like this essay by Delong: The Four Horsemen of the Teapocalypse, and the associated comments. From the comments, this quote from Warren Buffett:
“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Shorter Harry Potter and the GoF

In retrospect, it was not such a hot idea for a few dozen Death Eaters and their wanna bees to get snockered on fire whisky and stage a major riot at the Quiddich World Cup. Right in the middle of several thousand heavily armed fellow wizards. Hit simultaneously with hundreds of stunning spells, a number were killed instantly, but enough survived to reveal the identities of the ring-leaders.

It wasn't an auspicious start to the big V's comeback plans, but nonetheless his agent managed to penetrate the ludicrous security effort mounted by Hogwarts School's nearly senile headmaster. When the Goblet turned out to have been hexed, though, even Dumbledore's slow suspicions were awakened, and a casual seeming conversation with the Defense-against-the-dark-arts teacher revealed his rather imperfect memory of his many decades of interaction with the headmaster. Veratiserum and legilimency quickly got to the bottom of the plot and He who must not be named got a rather unpleasa…

Banners of the Tribe: Social Studies

Brad DeLong has a long, interesting post on the recent semi-centennial celebration of the Harvard Social Studies program: The Social Studies Major 50th Anniversary Celebration Party and Bitter Internal Ideological Power Struggle There are many highlights and low, but here is one that caught my eye (from a Luncheon talk):
I will give you an answer, by telling you another story, this time from my years teaching at Columbia. In 1968, as some of you will recall, the students occupied several buildings and brought the university to a screeching halt for two weeks. The next semester, I was teaching a course in which I was anguishing over my inability to find, in the text of Kant's GROUNDWORK OF THE METAPHYICS OF MORALS, an absolutely valid a priori proof of the universal validity of the fundamental moral principle, the categorical Imperative. After class one day, one of the students came up to talk to me. He was one of the SDS students who had seized the buildings, and I knew that he wa…

Europe: Banking Toward Disaster?

This is the way the World ends,
not with a whim
but a banker .......................The Vast Waistband (or something).

The rumblings from the Euro zone grow louder [Worse than a crime]. The story is familiar. Banks borrowed a lot of money from each other, from ordinary rich people, and others, and lent it out to a bunch of yet others (including again each other) who can't afford to pay.

Because banks and bankers have a lot of (other people's) money they find it easy to make friends with politicians. This kind of warm personal friendship tends to pay off when the proverbial s*** hits the fan, as politicians discover an urgent economic necessity to save bankers asse[t]s. Thus, in Ireland, the government decided to put the whole nation on the hook for the unwise investment choices of Irish banks. The problem is that Ireland has the total population of a medium large American city and no particular national resources or other wealth, so they really can't afford that. Diverting suc…

Don't Miss: Special Relativity, Simply Explained.


So a scruffy looking guy walks into the diner, opens up his red and black plaid jacket, and reveals several sticks of dynamite strapped to his chest. He holds up his hand to show the spring loaded detonator, walks over to the counter, picks up the salt shaker and throws it, hitting the waiter.

"Give me a cup of coffee," he says, "and one of those cinnamon thingies."

It seems like a small price to pay, so the staff accomodates him. Unfortunately, he moves into a booth and starts tinkering to build a more powerful bomb - a nuke - while continuing to be obnoxious and extorting free food.

Such is the situation South Korea finds itself in. At the moment, the crazy guy's capability is pretty much limited to blowing up Korea, but he has his sights on the world, and Japan, at least, is very much at risk.

If the South, and the world, fail to respond, the bad behavior will continue and likely escalate, if world history is any guide, and any response risks catastrophe. At the…

Maxwell's Demon

You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place, your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage .....................John von Neumann to Claude Shannon, as quoted by Sean Carroll in From Eternity to Here.
Luboš is busily increasing the entropy of the blogosphere, and his target again is Sean Carroll. At the center of the dispute is Maxwell's Demon. Maxwell cooked the little guy up to test some ideas of statistical mechanics. Imagine a box containing a gas of molecules, with a small hole leading to an empty box and a little guy standing at the hole with a little door he can shut. His job is to open the door when he sees an especially fast molecule coming along and close it for the slow molecules (the other way around would work similarly).Sean's (imaginary) crime was to (truthf…

Evil Genius

I was driving home listening to the overture to some Wagner opera, Tannhauser, I guess, and it occurred to me that nearly every science fiction story of the cruder type featured an evil scientist bent on taking over the world. How about evil artists? Are they common in reality or fiction? Wagner certainly fits the profile - a very bad man who wrote very good music.

Now I've met a few evil scientists, but none of them actually seemed bent on taking over the world. Mostly they seemed to be focussed on making associate professor or some similarly mundane ambition. Wagner, though, was the sort to be bent on world domination.

The Banners of the Tribe

Humans evolved living in small groups, and I suspect that a lot of our mental wiring is still optimized for this sort of thing. We live in groups, large and small, because that gives us an advantage over those who don’t have a group, and because we need the group for protection against other groups. Thus small groups of humans outcompeted solitary families, and once agriculture arrived, big groups outcompeted or exterminated most of the small groups. The invention of agriculture changed our way of living, but probably hasn’t had time to completely rewire us.

Small groups are typically bound together by ties of kinship, but beyond a critical size, that doesn’t really work. Thus large groups of humans (tribes, chiefdoms, nations) needed to invent other kinds of social glue, starting with identification as such a clan, tribes, and so on. The largest kind of grouping, the civilization, requires the strongest adhesive, and I suspect that religion evolved mainly to fulfill this role.

It’s pre…

Mac(ro) Daddies

Macro economics is a historical science like geology, paleontology, or astronomy, but without their solid underpinnings in the deep theory and rich experimental history of physics, chemistry and biology. So it behooves the economic Mac Daddy to try to extract whatever historical lessons there may be from the ongoing experience of the world. Ireland ought to be a nice object lesson in something or another. A few short years ago it was the latest poster child for free market radicalism: no business taxes, minimal capital regulations, and a booming economy. Now that it's the latest Euro basket case, what lessons can be drawn therefrom? Tyler Cowen (no social democrat he) has some candidates:
1. The Irish had some excellent economic policies, but they needed to regulate their banks more. They were simply too optimistic and too sloppy.

2. Irish troubles could have been contained, at some point over the last two years, had Ireland not been on the euro. They would have devalued, defaulted,…

Know How: Ball Bearings

One of my favorite science fiction books when I was a kid was Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. It’s been a few decades, but I seem to recall a party of intrepid adventurers being stranded on a volcanic island, where they managed to reconstruct modern (1860) technology more or less from scratch. There are a few reasons why this wouldn’t work, starting with the fact that volcanic islands don’t have iron ore, but the problem is still interesting. The modern world is utterly dependent on thousands or millions of technological devices, so I thought I might start finding out how a few of them were made.
One pretty important invention that we probably don’t think much about is the roller bearing, but it plays a critical role in all sorts of machinery. Marble players and others have long admired the shiny and seemingly perfect spherical roller bearing. So how do you make one?
If you have played with wax or clay, you probably have a clue. If you roll that piece of wax between your palm…

HP & The Deathly Hallows, Pt I

OK, so I will buy this movie when it comes out. I will probably get a BluRay player so that I can see it in detail. I might even go see it in the theater again. But I'm not happy.
Yes I know that DH is the darkest of the books and the darkest of the stories. It's nice that the kids grew up to be good looking and able to act. It's nice that Britain has lots of improbably good-looking and wild scenery.

I just didn't expect the movie to be so damn flat. One of Rowling's strengths as a story teller is that she knows how to modulate the mood. Director David Yates - not so much. This was a one-tone symphony. The trouble with unrelieved gloom is that it starts to look just boring.
As usual, most of the professional reviews that I've read take exactly the opposite view - they mostly love the movie, the cinematography, and the music. There was music?

My family disagrees too. The professionals don't like the first two movies - my very favorites - so clearly my point of …

Data: Current Expenditures

Look now at all current expenditures: FRED again

Note that while detrended federal expenditures do uptick sharply, the uptick is almost entirely matched by decreasing (detrended) State expenditures, and only brief and modest bumps above the long term trend appear in the combined data.

Government Spending

Someone, I think, claimed that there had been a "huge" government stimulus since 2008. Let's look at the numbers. Graphs are of government consumption and net investment. Red is total, green is State and local, and blue federal.

These don't include transfer payments which move money from one part of the private sector to another. Nor do they include 2010. From FRED, again.

Output Gap

One trouble with economic arguments is that sarcasm and tribal loyalties always come into play at which point logic goes out the window. So let me start with some data. Here is real US GDP from 2000 to present. (Saint Louis Fed Data).

Macroeconomists have elaborate models for computing the output gap, but a good approximation can be seen just by extrapolating the line from the (relatively slow growth) Bush years before the crash. Note that (a) the GDP was in free fall before TARP and the stimulus, and (b) resumed slow growth during and after. Just sayin'.

Deep Matters

Wolfgang talks about deep matters concerning the incomprehensible comprehensibility of the world here. I recommend it, but I've got to respond to his included drive-by on Paul Krugman. He links to this author, who begins:

Paul seems to only have one card these days, but he does play it very, very well.

It's the "nothing is ever enough card" and he got it out again in Sunday's NY Times.

The way it works is this:

(A) Lobby for any and all expansionary policies.

(B) Then, when an expansionary policy get proposed or enacted, pitch a fit and say that it's way too small and will never work.

(C) When said policy doesn't work (which of course could well be because the policy is bogus) scream "I told you so" over and over at the top of your lungs.

Let me see if I understand the charge here: (a) Krugman was guilty of correctly predicting the severity of the crash when his freshwater critics were chorusing "don't worry, it's all right." (b) …


I think that our politics might be a good bit more civil if duelling hadn't been abolished. I can think of a few Faux News (and other) personalities who would be pushing up enough daisies for royal wedding.

Physics and Neoteny

Steven Jay Gould claimed that neoteny, or the preservation of juvenile characteristics in the adult, was a potent source of evolutionary change. I've often read that we humans developed our size extra-large brains to deal with the challenges of language and small group interpersonal relations - e.g., understanding and generating gossip. Plausible as that seems, in the early part of our lives we need to devote some brain power to understanding the behaviors of the other animate and inanimate contents of the world. In some cases, though, normal development is arrested, and the child may fail to outgrow that juvenile behavior even into adulthood, in which case they become what are called scientists, or, in severe cases, physicists.

It's a recalcitrant problem, and treatment options are few, invariably focussing on ameliatoration rather than cure. Remissions, frequently brief, often occur if the victim gets a girlfriend/boyfriend, or wife.

Traditional best practice recommends p…

The Lost Weekend

I haven't posted for a while. Blame Belette who introduced me to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

At least he could have warned me that I would be left hanging (literally) in mid-air...

A sample:
The Professor turned and looked down at him, dismissive as usual. "Oh, come now, Harry. Really, magic? When you say that rationality is your favorite thing ever and read so much about it? I thought you'd know better than to take this seriously, son, even if you're only ten. Magic is just about the most unscientific thing there is!"

Harry's mouth twisted bitterly. He was treated well, probably better than most genetic fathers treated their own children. Harry had been sent to the best elementary schools - and when that didn't work out, he was provided with tutors from the endless labor pool of starving students. Always Harry had been encouraged to study whatever caught his attention, bought all the books that caught his fancy, sponsored in whatever math or…

Probably Not

Captain James Kirk certainly was a silly sentimentalist. Imagine him keeping that old fraud Spock on the payroll despite repeated demonstrations of incompetence in his supposed expertise. Whenever a dangerous mission loomed, Spock could be depended on to pull one of his patented fake probability predictions out of his ... - usually something like a 99.99973% chance of failure. In one way I couldn't blame him - Kirk was a total klutz, always going off half-cocked and without a clue. Still, I couldn't resist my own predictions, namely that Spock was off by about 99.99973%. The poor dolt had no head for figures.

Of course this post is actually about Steve Landsburg - I think he might miss me - who has a series of posts on the question of what should constitute a "reasonable doubt" in a murder trial. There is a certain amount of amusement to be obtained by doing his arithmetic, but fundamentally he is just making Spock's mistake - assigning arbitrary numbers whe…


This headline caught my eye:
Lichtenstein Sells for $42.6M
Not bad, I thought, for a whole country, even if some of my neighbors do have bigger back yards.

Cutting I: Death Panels

One of the proposals of the deficit commission is to raise the social security retirement age, in response to changes in life expectancy. The problem is that life expectancy is lengthening mostly not because people are getting old more slowly but because we are getting better at keeping old people alive. A sixty-nine year old today is essentially just as affected by senile degeneration as his sixty-nine year old paleolithic ancestor - but he has fewer dire wolves to fight off.
It might make more sense, and be more humane, just to decrease the death age.

Words, Words, Words

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all

James is amused by the American media:
It does amuse me as an external observer to hear terms such as "socialist", "Marxist", "Maoist", "Nazi", "Fascist", etc bandied around in some areas of the US media, seemingly interchangeably and without any justification. Also, in the US it seems that "conservative" is good and "liberal" is evil? How is liberal defined?
To which I say, if you think it's so damn funny why don't you just take back Rupert f*****g Murdoch - whose minions are among the worst practitioners. I'm pretty sure, though, that this business of trying to tar your opponents with whatever word of bad reputat…

Physics of Quiddich

It seems that quiddich has become something of an intercollegiate sport, albeit in an attenuated form. (Or on the fight fiercely side, Harvard) Somehow, I don't think the sport is quite ready to get off the ground yet.

At least not without some mechanical muggle help. What's needed is a way to add some levity to the proceedings. Perhaps you've seen a Dyson fan. This very cool device appears to be just a sort of metallic ring that produces a rather laminar wind flow with no visible fan blades. I envision a gigantic version mounted horizontally, encased by a transparent wall surrounding the quiddich pitch. A person sitting on a broom is not very stable aerodynamically, so I think some winglets above the player would be needed for stability and to get vertical speeds to some reasonable rate. What would that rate be?

Non-magical flying requires that the flyer's weight be balanced by the transferring downward momentum to air at the rate, dp/dt = mg. At optimal angle …

This Should Cheer Us Up

According to NPR, trade courts have found the US guilty of illegally subsidizing our cotton farmers. Brazilian cotton farmers sued over the violation of our trade agreements, and Brazil threatened retailiation against a wide array of important American exporters.

Cotton subsidies, it seems, were too sacred to be dropped, so the US compromised by paying off Brazilian cotton farmers to the tune of $147 million per year. So now US taxpayers subsidize the American and Brazilian cotton industries - whoopee. How long till everybody gets on this bandwagon.

More Religious Strife

How much religious strife is just the battle for control of land and resources?

Arundhati Roy on Kashmir:

A good example of how occupation and violent resistance interact.

Unclear on the Concept

Bee thinks that Americans are unclear on the concept of socialism. True Dat? says:
so·cial·ism   /ˈsoʊʃəˌlɪzəm
1. a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.

For reference.

School Day Anxiety

My high school class is having its (big Roman numeral) reunion next year and I decided to go, but now I'm having performance anxiety. It's not just that I've gotten old, fat, and uglier (though that's part of it). Worse is the fact that I'm reminded of all my deficiencies back when - all the stupid, dorky, uncool, or otherwise uncouth things that I did in my youth. It's possible, I thought for a minute, that everybody feels that way about high school, but I doubt it. How about the football captains and cheerleaders who ruled the HS world? They, I suspect, look back on halcyon days.

It's not like I had a good excuse. I participated in football, basketball, and track, albeit in undistinguished fashion, was only bullied enough to be able to call it a rounded high school experience, and had popular siblings. I was pathologically shy, though. Oddly enough I found it entirely doable to speak to an audience of a hundred or a thousand but was utterly unable …

Republican Goals

The principal Republican goals we hear about: repealing Health Reform, repealing regulation of Wall Street, and big tax cuts for the rich all seem to be at best minimally popular, even with those who voted Republican this time. It seems to me that if Obama and the Democrats have any guts whatsoever, they can exploit and demonize these efforts. Unfortunately, Obama has yet to show any hint of fighting instinct - we shall see if he can get beyond "Can't we all just get along?"


Like other States, Texas is feeling our economic pain, and casting around for stuff to cut. the governor has floated the idea of eliminating Medicaid. That might be an interesting experiment, since it would probably trigger the flight of Medicaid patients to other States and perhaps a nationwide collapse. I wonder if anyone has analyzed how this might work.

Nancy Pelosi

I am a bit puzzled over how the right managed to so successfully demonize Nancy Pelosi. Sure, the last several Republican Speakers caught some flack as well, but they were each caught in public or private scandal - e.g. Newt's habitual womanizing, his disgraceful treatment of his cancer stricken wife, and his ridiculous shutting down of the government - not to mention his persecution of Clinton for sins he was more guilty of himself. Nancy, I'm pretty sure, hasn't done any of those things.

What she did do was pass legislation that offended insurance companies and Wall Street. And that did it??

Anybody have a better idea?

Religion and Violence

Wikipedia has a list of countries by murder rate. The top nineteen nations are all mainly peopled by practitioners of the same great world religion. Care to guess which religion that is?

If you guessed "Christian," you would be right. The twentieth nation on the list, Madagascar is mainly indigenous religions, but Christians are a strong second. The US is a bit lower than the average, and rather more than ten times less murderous than the worst country - El Salvador. It's also more than ten times as murderous as the safest nations.

The twenty least murderous nations include nine Muslim nations, eight European Christian nations, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Of course some countries' statistics may be more reliable than others.

Emergence of the Classical World

A persistent puzzle of quantum mechanics is the emergence of the classical world from its quantum substrate. How is it that the world of everyday experience appears to follow classical rather than quantum laws? This was a mystery to the founders of quantum mechanics, and ultimately they mostly adopted the so called Copenhagen interpretation, which just sweeps the mystery under the rug by declaring that two must be kept separate, pushing all the weirdness into the measurement process.

Over the last three decades an alternative interpretation, known as consistent histories or de-coherent histories, introduced by Robert Griffiths and further developed by Roland Omnes, Murray Gell-Mann, and James Hartle, has attracted widespread interest and support. Its great virtue is that it does away with the Copenhagen division of the world into quantum systems and classical measurement apparatus. All get treated on the same quantum mechanical basis.

The most mysterious quantum phenomena are those asso…


A blogger, this one at least, is a person who can't learn anything without developing an urgent impulse to communicate it. Have you ever wondered how an oxygen concetrator works? (If not, you can safely skip the following) An oxygen concentrator, if you are wondering, is one of those devices you see people with clear plastic tubes in their noses using - recognizable by it's own characteristic raspy breathing - sort of a pssst, pssst, pssst with a period of a few seconds. As its name indicates, it concentrates oxygen from the air and delivers it to the wearer, usually an ill person, but also to some pilots flying at high altitudes.

Knowing that air is 78% nitrogen and about 21% oxygen, how does it do that? What difference between the molecules is being exploited to do the separation. This stumped me, so I had to look it up, but if you don't know the answer, try to guess.

It turns out to be molecular size. Oxygen atoms, with 8 protons, are about 5% smaller than the 7 proto…

Now What?

The Plutocracy got most of the Congress it wanted. Let's see what they do with it.

There seems to be some stepping back from the apocalytic rhetoric of shutdown...

Big tax cuts for the rich and endless deficits seem built in ...

Hilbert Space: Reply to James

I wanted a bit more space here, since you guys are teaching me a lot.
James wrote: The most common states in your Hilbert spaces don't actually live there: such as position and momentum states. Rigged HS combines a nice space (physically realistic - nice and smooth), with your HS, and the nasty (generalised functions usually) dual of the nice guys.

James, I don’t dispute your mathematical point, and perhaps I misunderstood it, but when you said that position and momentum states don’t live in the Hilbert space, I assumed that you meant that it was position and momentum eigenstates that didn’t live in the HS. My point was that real physical systems can’t be prepared in position or momentum eigenstates (i.e., with infinitely precise position or momentum) – they are always superpositions with some uncertainty in both position and momentum. Those superpositions, I think, can and do live in the Hilbert space – or am I totally confused on this point?

I hadn’t heard of a “rigged Hilbert sp…

A View of Hilbert Space

According to quantum mechanics, physics takes place in Hilbert spaces. Bizarre as this notion might be, we have learned to live with it as it continues to be verified whenever experimentally tested. Surely, this abstract identification of a physical system with a state vector in Hilbert space will eventually be found to be incomplete, but in a presently unimaginable way, which will involve some other weird mathematical structure. That Nature uses the same mathematical structures invented by mathematicians is a profound mystery hinting at the way our brains are wired.
Pierre Ramond in Group Theory: A Physicist's Survey.

The Green Wave

I see the great green wave rising and Numenor looks doomed - at least to two more years of utter folly.