Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Personal Pique

I'm sure that Yale and similar institutions are mostly filled with bright students, and that they can get a good education there, but they also seem to be damn good at inculcating asshole-ness. Here is the normally bright and frequently perceptive Matt Yglesias:

A summer intern who's just finished up her third year at Yale doesn't have any kind of particular credentials, but we know that she probably has very good SAT scores and sounds like an exceedingly normal person. A young woman who got a 1600 on her SATs and has been spending the past three years working at 7-11 and watching Open Yale Courses videos sounds like a huge weirdo.

This screams pretentious asshole on so many levels it overflows my outrage buffers.

I'm not sure how good Yale's weirdo filters are, but their wealth and privilege filters are very effective - and that's what Yglesias is really talking about. I doubt that many people learn much from Open Yale, which appears to be just a certain amount of pablum dispersed with little thought and no credentials, but edX and Coursera are turning out real courses and producing real learning.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Human Animal/Machine

To a man with a hammer, it is said, everything looks like a nail.

For a man (I have one particular man in mind here) with a little knowledge of control theory, a number of things start looking like hybrid autonomous systems. Like people, for example. Such systems have some key weaknesses, which can be traced back to their switching hybrid character. In particular, while a whole bunch of individual behaviors may be well regulated, when the switching character of the hybrid system is accounted for, instabilities can develop.

I trace a number of our characteristic human failings to the fact that the some of our control systems are being driven outside their design parameters. More on this later perhaps.

I had addiction in mind.

Interestingly enough, some of these problems can be ameliorated with a procedure based on computing Lie Derivatives of the appropriate function at some critical control points. So do you suppose that our brains have built in Lie derivators somewhere?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Next Blog

From time to time I push the Next blog button. This is usually a mistake.

Stupid About Energy and CO2

People, and Governments, do a lot of dumb things to fool themselves into thinking they are doing something other than what they are actually doing. I've probably mentioned before how idiotic I think it is to protest against the Keystone pipeline. Preventing the pipeline from being built will not prevent the Athabasca tar sands from being exploited or reduce global carbon emissions. It will, in all likelihood, increase them by the amount of energy required to transport the oil across the ocean.

Via Marginal Revolution, Valery Karplus writes in the New York Times about the similar stupidity of CAFE standards on fuel economy. Her studies, and those of her MIT colleagues, indicate that reducing emissions through CAFE standards costs the economy at least six times as much (likely more) than a similar reduction achieved through higher energy taxes.

The way to reduce carbon emissions is to tax carbon emission (or extraction). Every other way is just a gimmick to avoid revealing the true economic cost of CO2 reduction. That applies, by the way, to the particular gimmick favored by liberal economists, like Paul Krugman: Cap and Trade. The irony, of course, is that the gimmicks increase the real cost.

Not that I believe are politicians are likely to step up to the plate on this one.

It's true that such taxes are regressive. Guess what. So are are the other gimmicks, and they are more regressive, since they cost more. Moreover, it's easy to rebate some of the taxes to low income people to overcome the regressive effect - use it to pay for their health insurance, for example. You can't do that with CAFE standards or even (conveniently) with Cap and Trade.

Pole Dancing: QC Style

Via Alex Tabbarok at Marginal Revolution, this nice video of two quadcopters playing catch with an inverted pendulum. The inverted pendulum is a classic problem in elementary control theory (a fact I recently learned in my Coursera "Control of Mobile Robots" class).  Juggling an inverted pendulum with flying robots is a classic case of hybrid control - in effect, various separate control algorithms cooperatively managing the overall control problem of catch and balance while managing not to collide with each other or anything sol id.  This sort of hybrid automaton is exemplified by robots (or people, or animals)with complex behaviors.

Friday, February 22, 2013


One uncomfortable image I can't get out of my head is that of the Indian villages and cities made bone-yards by England's industrial revolution and export of cheap textiles to India.

I think we can see the outline of the next bone-yard (hopefully virtual) here in the US. The disintegration of the American college and university system is likely to proceed much faster than anyone is now guessing. I expect 30 or 40 per cent of American colleges to vanish in the next twenty years. The enrollment of the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC), which was zero less than two years ago, is already in the millions - 15-20% of total US post secondary education. The first courses have been accepted for college credit.

I have now taken courses from several MOOCs and the overall experience, to me, is superior to conventional classroom learning - despite or perhaps because of the 40,000 students in one of my classes. This is going to be an area of truly turbulent change.

Terror in India

Another terror attack in India, and it's at least plausible that it has it's roots in Pakistan. So what is India to do? It could perhaps foment terrorism in Pakistan, but chances are it wouldn't even be noticed in the vast mass of Pakistani on Pakistani terrorism.

It does seem clear, though, that Indian counter terror efforts have two left feet. Governmental incompetence is a continuing theme.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Makers and Takers

A favorite conservative meme is the notion that society is divided into makers and takers, in which they always manage to identify the rich as the good guys. In reality, that's nearly upside down. The way to get rich, or to be rich, has always been to live by the fruits of somebody else's labors. This isn't quite true, since for some of the wealthy, the most crucial part of the labor was their own - authors and inventors, for example. Even for them, though, what they consume was made by somebody else.

Our Robotic Future

Robots are learning to do things that only people used to be able to do. There is a reasonable chance that robots are going to be better than humans at most current jobs in a couple of decades, and moreover, that there will be very few people who are capable of doing jobs robots can't.

Once most economic production is in the hands of robots, who gets the fruits of their labors? The way things are structured now, the owners of capital. Actually, we are probably seeing that great redistribution already.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


The big boys in the Massive Online Open Course business have each announced big expansions. edX, the MIT-Harvard originated MOOC has added six new universities in France, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, and the US for twelve total. Coursera has expanded even more dramatically, adding twenty-nine widely scattered new schools. New courses will be available in a variety of languages.

The biggies still not in the game - Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale come to mind - must be wondering if they are going to be left out.

Of course it's still not clear if anybody knows how to monetize this game, and especially whether the Universities are supplying the new educational model with the rope to hang them.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Art and Anti-Art

The collision of art and the modern world has not been such a happy one. As progress in science exploded, artists became infected with progress envy, and that turned out to be a problem. Nobody could write better symphonies than Mozart and Beethoven, nobody could sculpt better than Michelangelo, and nobody could paint better than those old Dutch guys. This prompted a bunch of experiments challenging the old forms, some of which managed to be interesting, but most of which turned out to be trash.

For my money, music and literature got the worst deals, with guys pounding a keyboard with dead fish and calling it music in the one case and postmodern literature in the other.

Jay MacInery, reviewing Infinite Jest in the NYT, noted that at about page 480 one might get the urge to shoot the author, or oneself. OK, I'm at 527, and homicide is a little beside the point, since the author took care of that business himself, but this book really does seem to be sort of a nasty joke on the reader.

The books many fans praise the author's humor, but to me very little of it is funny. There are a great many shaggy dog stories culminating in lame country. I am genuinely puzzled what it is that these fans like about it. Of course I felt the same way, if less strongly, about Gravity's Rainbow and Ulysses.

Empire: Book Review

Niall Ferguson's Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power is much better on the rise than the demise. Also, the so-called Lessons for Global Power are little more than a few paragraphs of moralizing on behalf of an activist or perhaps neocon American foreign policy. Overall, the book betrays its origins in a television series in a rather superficial treatment of many points, especially the loss of the empire.

One cardinal point that deserved more consideration was the inherent contradiction between imperial exploitation and the notions of free trade and self government at the heart of the British ethos. Ferguson blames the post World War II imperial collapse on the financial effects of the conflicts with other empires and especially on U.S. opposition, but I think that's way too simple.

The case of India is probably most instructive. India was the cash cow of Empire and the source of many of the soldiers for its other imperial adventures. The vision Macaulay and some other British had articulated was that after the Indians themselves had learned the virtues of the English system of laws, Britain would stand aside and let them achieve independence. Many Indians took up this challenge, and a large class of those educated in English law and Western science emerged, but Britain failed to carry out its end of the bargain.

The "white" colonies gained a large measure of independence after the English absorbed the lessons of defeat in America, but India and Ireland - the very first colony - were excluded from the deal, as were the newer colonies in Africa and elsewhere.

Ireland is another instructive example which Ferguson discusses only in the most superficial way. The real problem with Ireland was the colony of Protestants that England had implanted there. Before Macaulay had gone to India, he had been key to extension of civil rights to Catholics and Jews in England, but 100 years later Catholics in Ireland couldn't be trusted with the kind of self-government extended to Canadians, Aussies, and New Zealanders. Why not? Because that would have toppled minority Protestant rule. Even now, nearly 200 years later, the colonists are a continuing problem.

We have a somewhat parallel problem today in America's pseudo colony of Israel. Our dedication to its support keeps us sucked into a whole range of problems we really don't need. Of course this is not something Ferguson would notice.

My other posts on Niall Ferguson's Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power can be found here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Imperial Benefits

Suppose a burglar comes into your house, steals the TV and your laptop, but then, unaccountably also does the dishes and vacuums the carpet. You probably won't be grateful, even though that isn't quite as bad as breaking the dishes and torching the carpet.

"Benign" colonialism, of the type the British eventually pretended to practice and sometimes actually did, is like the burglar moving into your house, regularly stealing your cash and eating your food but incidentally doing the dishes and vacuuming the carpet, sometimes also keeping out other burglars in the process.

Smarty Pants and Genius Genes

Via Tyler Cowen, it seems that China is taking a serious look at the genetics of IQ.

At a former paper-printing factory in Hong Kong, a 20-year-old wunderkind named Zhao Bowen has embarked on a challenging and potentially controversial quest: uncovering the genetics of intelligence.

DNA samples from the super smart are being scarfed up and fed to 100 powerful gene sequencing machines. Evidently, the effort is patterned on a previous analysis that elucidated some of the genetics of height. Apparently it took DNA from about 10000 people to isolate 1000 genes that make you tall.

"People have chosen to ignore the genetics of intelligence for a long time," said Mr. Zhao, who hopes to publish his team's initial findings this summer. "People believe it's a controversial topic, especially in the West. That's not the case in China," where IQ studies are regarded more as a scientific challenge and therefore are easier to fund.

The roots of intelligence are a mystery. Studies show that at least half of the variation in intelligence quotient, or IQ, is inherited. But while scientists have identified some genes that can significantly lower IQ—in people afflicted with mental retardation, for example—truly important genes that affect normal IQ variation have yet to be pinned down.

Zhao is looking for IQ equivalent of the 6'9" person, those with IQs of 160 and up - four standard deviations above the mean, or about 1 in 30,000. Obviously, these people are pretty rare, so finding them is a task in itself.

One part of the plan called for shifting to saliva-based DNA samples obtained from mathematically gifted people, including Chinese who had participated in mathematics or science Olympiad training camps.

Another involved the collection of DNA samples from high-IQ individuals from the U.S. and other countries, including those with extremely high SAT scores, and those with a doctorate in physics or math from an elite university. In addition, anyone could enroll via BGI's website if they met the criteria.

The SAT maxes out below 4 standard deviations, so I'm not sure what this criterion amounts to. Prestigious U is also a bit vague, but readers in that category can apply, I suppose. AG, at least, should qualify.

Romesh Chunder Dutt

Arun has been beating me up for quoting Romesh Chunder Dutt. If I interpret him correctly, he implied that anything good Dutt said about the Brits was prompted by fear of prosecution for sedition - though he had a lot to say that was far from complimentary. Wikipedia has some interesting biographical details:

He entered the University of Calcutta, Presidency College in 1864, then passed the First Arts examination in 1866, second in order of merit, and won a scholarship. While still a student in the B.A. class, without his family's permission, he and two friends, Beharilal Gupta and Surendranath Banerjee, left for England in 1868.[2] Only one other Indian, Satyendra Nath Tagore, had ever before qualified for the Indian Civil Service. Romesh aimed to emulate Satyendranath Tagore's feat. For a long time, before and after 1853, the year the ICS examination was introduced in England, only British officers were appointed to covenanted posts.[3] The 1860s saw the first attempts, largely successful, on the part of the Indians, and especially members of the Bengali intelligentsia, to occupy the superior official posts in India, until then completely dominated by the British.

At University College London, Dutt continued to study British writers. He studied law at Middle Temple, London, was called to the bar, and qualified for the Indian Civil Service in the open examination in 1869,[4] taking third place. . .

Dutt entered the Indian Civil Service, or ICS, as an Assistant Magistrate of Alipur in 1871. His official career was a test and a proof of the liberal promise of equality to all her Majesty's subjects "irrespective of color and creed" in Queen Victoria's Proclamation of November 1, 1858,[6] which often contrasted with an implicit distrust of Indians, especially from those in positions of authority within the elite colonial administrative system.

A famine in Meherpur, District of Nadia in 1874 and another in Dakhin Shahbazpur (Bhola District) in 1876, followed by a disastrous cyclone, required emergency relief and economic recovery operations, which Dutt managed successfully. By December, 1882, Dutt achieved his appointment to the executive branch of the Service, the first Indian to achieve executive rank. He served as administrator for Backerganj, Mymensingh, Burdwan, Donapur, and Midnapore. He became Burdwan's District Officer in 1893, Commissioner (offtg.) of Burdwan Division in 1894, and Divisional Commissioner for Orissa in 1895. Dutt was the first Indian to attain the rank of divisional commissioner...

Dutt retired from the ICS as the Commissioner of Orissa in 1897 while only 49 years of age. Retirement freed him to enter public life and pursue writing. After retirement in 1898 he returned to England as a Lecturer in Indian History at University College, London where he completed his famous thesis on economic nationalism. He spent the next six years in London before returning once again to India as Dewan of Baroda state, a post he had been offered before he left for Britain. He was extremely popular in Baroda where the Maharaja, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III and his family members and all other staff used to call him the Babu Dewan, as a mark of personal respect. He also became a member of the Royal Commission on Indian Decentralisation in 1907.[8][9]

While still in office, he died in Baroda at the age of 61 on November 30, 1909.

There is also an important quote from his economic history:

Poverty and low wages were among the indirect products of colonial rule. Romesh Dutt traced a decline in standards of living to the nineteenth-century deindustrialization of the subcontinent and the narrowing of sources of wealth which followed:

India in the eighteenth century was a great manufacturing as well as great agricultural country, and the products of the Indian loom supplied the markets of Asia and of Europe. It is, unfortunately, true that the East Indian Company and the British Parliament ... discouraged Indian manufactures in the early years of British rule in order to encourage the rising manufactures of England . . . millions of Indian artisans lost their earnings; the population of India lost one great source of their wealth.[13]

Saturday, February 16, 2013

More IJ

Since I've been feeling bitter and dissing on David Foster Wallace lately, I ought to share a paragraph I really like, where one of our protagonists (Don Gately) visits another Boston AA group.

The Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink Group seems to be over 50% bikers and biker-chicks, meaning your standard leather vests and 10-cm. boot heels, belt-buckles with little spade-shaped knives that come out of a slot in the side, tattoos that are more like murals, serious tits in cotton halters, big beards, Harleywear, wooden matches in mouth-corners and so forth. After the Our Father, as Gately and the other White Flag speakers are clustered smoking outside the door to the church basement, the sound of high-cc. hawgs being kick-started is enough to rattle your fillings. Gately can’t even start to guess what it would be like to be a sober and drug-free biker. It’s like what would be the point. He imagines these people polishing the hell out of their leather and like playing a lot of really precise pool.

Wallace, David Foster (2009-04-03). Infinite Jest: 0 (p. 444). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

Our lagomorphic friend has a post on new estimates of climate sensitivity from paleoclimate studies. The Earth, for those of us not old enough to remember the actual events (say 600 Myrs) or too old to remember our geology (somewhat less), has had an up and down climate history, temperature-wise. Right now is down, but appears to be going up fast, mainly because there is now more CO2 in the air than there has been for millions of years, and that CO2 is rapidly rising since we keep on burning gigatons of carbon. A very crucial question is how much temperature increase do we get from increasing CO2.

Since the temperature effect of CO2 is nearly logarithmic, it makes sense to define this so-called climate sensitivity as the temperature increase due to a doubling of CO2. The estimates determined from the paleoclimate data, says Herr Rabett, are 2.2 C - 4.8 C. These numbers are pretty big compared to some previous estimates, and would produce dramatic shifts in our climate patterns.

It's Fun... see how bad bad writing can be...........Joe, in Sunset Boulevard.

Or torture to read it. Infinite Jest has plenty of it. Man could this dude have used an editor.

The Economic History of India

Englishmen can look back on their work in India, if not with unalloyed satisfaction, at least with some legitimate pride. They have conferred on the people of India what is the greatest human blessing — Peace. They have introduced Western Education, bringing an ancient and civilised nation in touch with modern thought, modern sciences, modern institutions and life. They have built up an Administration which, though it requires reform with the progress of the times, is yet strong and efficacious. They have framed wise laws, and have established Courts of Justice, the purity of which is as absolute as in any country on the face of the earth. These are results which no honest critic of British work in India regards without high admiration...Romesh Chunder Dutt

On the other hand, he adds, they robbed the place blind, with terrible consequences. He published this 105 years ago, in his The Economic History of India, still a valuable resource for the years from 1757 to 1857. A companion volume takes the history up to the end of the Victorian age.

Two particular crimes were central to the economic damage inflicted - the land tax and the repression of domestic industry in favor of British production. He notes that in most cases, the British did not increase the land tax rate (compared to their Mughal predecessors) but they collected it more efficiently, effectively increasing the rates.

Of course modern critics are not likely to give the English as much credit as Dutt did.

Bad Astronomy

Slate magazine had the bad luck to post an interview their Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait did entitled How We Know An Asteroid Won't Slam Into Earth Today on 15 February, the day, ahem, in which a ten-thousand tonne asteroid happened to slam into Earth. Of course they weren't talking about that asteroid, which nobody saw coming, but it's 35 times bigger cousin, which did miss us, if a bit narrowly (17,000 miles).

An asteroid of the ten kilo-tonne scale tend to deposit most of its energy in upper atmosphere as it blasts through it at hypersonic speeds. Going faster than the speed of sound means that air molecules in front of you don't have time to get out of your way, so they pile up in an increasingly massive lump in front of you, like wet snow in front of a snow shovel, until enough momentum is transferred to slow the whole train down.

How much energy does one of these guys have? Consider a generic 10^7 kg asteroid moving at 2 x 10^4 m/s. Then kinetic energy K = (1/2)m*v^2 = 2 x 10^15 Joules or just about half a megaton, reputedly the size of the thermonuclear weapons on our missiles, and 50 or so times as powerful as the Hiroshima blast.

The asteroid did a bunch of damage, but it didn't destroy a city, why not? Probably partly because it didn't directly target one, but mostly because most of the energy deposition was pretty high in the atmosphere, probably ten or more times higher than the Hiroshima bomb.

Other things being equal, a bigger asteroid deposits more its energy lower in the atmosphere. Dinosaur-killer scale asteroids carry nearly all their energy right into the Earth's crust, and a 20 Megaton event like the one that missed would likely carry its energy low enough to be a city smasher.

The planet probably encounters a 1 kilometer scale asteroid - with a mass of a few gigatonnes - every few hundred thousand years. A bad boy like that would pack multi-thousand megaton equivalent energy, but would likely be far more destructive than an equivalent superbomb because of it's immense momentum. It would plow into the planet at barely diminished speed, and send enormous fountains of lava over tens or hundreds of thousands of square miles.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Family Tree

It appears that researchers have identified a bunch of genes that seem to help parse the human family tree. One of the first to get a good look is one called EDAR. The distinctive variant seems to have evolved about 35,000 years ago, and is found mainly in East Asian populations and American Indians. The methods used to elucidate it's consequences were high tech - inserting the gene into a mouse genome.

Gaining a deep insight into human evolution, researchers have identified a mutation in a critical human gene as the source of several distinctive traits that make East Asians different from other races.

The traits — thicker hair shafts, more sweat glands, characteristically identified teeth and smaller breasts — are the result of a gene mutation that occurred about 35,000 years ago, the researchers have concluded.

The discovery explains a crucial juncture in the evolution of East Asians. But the method can also be applied to some 400 other sites on the human genome. The DNA changes at these sites, researchers believe, mark the turning points in recent human evolution as the populations on each continent diverged from one another.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why 3D Printing?

So you can print books without ever having to open them?

Though it's apparently useful for printing artificial organs, built from cloned cells - and even artificial burgers.

Investment Opportunities

A spat between Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen over why corporations and wealthy individuals are sitting on mountains of cash. Krugman says insufficient final demand. Cowen says "Great Stagnation" produced lack of investment opportunities.

I'm not sure that there is any difference worth mentioning between these two points of view. If there is not enough final demand because those with money aren't hungry and those who are hungry don't have money, redistribute, or at least create incentives for those with the cash to spend it.

Wealth taxes are one way to do that, but a bit of inflation might be better. If your money is decreasing in value, maybe you should buy something now instead of later. That's especially true for government expenditures. This notion was understood, even if imperfectly, in ancient Mesopotamia, though of course those with money still find it difficult to comprehend. Their method was debt "jubilees" which wiped out consumer debts, but inflation is more systematic.

Harbingers of Imperial Doom

Live blogging Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson.

After World War I, the British Empire had one last spasm of expansion, scarfing up big chunks of the formerly Ottoman Middle East, German's African colonies, and more of the Pacific. The Imperial impulse was largely exhausted though, and the Empire was starting to cost more money than it made. The lesson of the American rebellion had been absorbed much earlier and resulted in the white and protestant colonies winning a large measure of self-rule and independence - privileges not extended to the earlier colonies of Ireland and India.

India had played a major role in the British war effort - one million Indian volunteers had fought for Britain, and many of the English educated Indian intellectuals, including Gandhi, had supported it. After the war, first Ireland and then India had asked for the same deal that Australia, Canada, etc had got. The new Arab colonies had been promised independence.

Britain refused to deliver on any of these accounts, and initially peaceful demonstrations in Ireland and India had culminated in massacres in Dublin and (on much larger scale) Amritsar. This kind of bloody repression was not exactly new in Imperial history, but after initial public applause, it quickly evoked disgust. Even arch-imperialist Winston Churchill was outraged by the wanton slaughter of unarmed civilians at Amritsar. Imperial confidence had been shaken, and Britain could neither muster the will to reform (or dissolve) the Empire, nor the military effort to defend it.

Of course all this was embedded in a world exhausted by World War I and badly damaged by the Great Depression. Ferguson has some interesting things to say about the economics, but there are also right-wing idiocies like:

Rising real wages led to unemployment: at the nadir of the Depression in January 1932 nearly three million people, close to a quarter of all insured workers, were out of work.

Ferguson, Niall (2008-03-17). Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (p. 272). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why Read An Annoying Book?

I ask myself, why do I read, and continue to read, books that I don't really much care for? Books like Gravity's Rainbow, Atlas Shrugged, and Infinite Jest, for example. It's partly curiosity, I expect, rather like climbing up a difficult and brush obstructed trail to get to a mountain top or at least some sort of overlook. Maybe there will be something worthwhile at the end.

Such questions are tied up with the question of why we read at all. Saying, "for entertainment" is too simple. We humans, or a lot of us anyway, want to understand our environment and especially other people. The more alien a point of view is, the more challenging the effort to understand it. Something like twenty million copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold, and a fair proportion of the readers have fallen under its spell. I had read a little of AR before I tackled AS, and enough about her to know I was extremely unlikely to be a fan. I did want to know what made the devotees tick, though, so let me say a word about what I concluded.

Resentment. Resentment of government, taxes and all those other irritations most of us take for granted, but more importantly, I think, resentment of people who see the world so differently from the fanboys/girls. A favorite charge thrown at Rand heroes by their despised relatives is that they lack "human feeling." Rand's characters most famous speeches are aimed at the philosophy of the Sermon on the Mount. I hesitate to call Rand's character's autistic, but they are singularly lacking in compassion. Her heroine casually murders a minor character for lacking decisiveness. They lack not only compassion but fail even to appreciate it's existence. Emotionally speaking, they are the blind in a world of the sighted.

This resentment is a central feature of her novels - at least the two I read - and might well be the inner reality of the zillions of Randophiles that pollute our national discourse.

Did I mention that Infinite Jest was the actual subject of this post? I don't claim to have diagnosed it yet.

Book Review Made Simple

Lumo has a review of James Weatherall's new book called The Physics of Wall Street: A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable. It seems that Weatherall was a former student of his, who impressed him with arrogance, laziness and insufficient devotion to the ST religion. Despite these character flaws, he does seem to have achieved a couple of PhDs and gotten a large number of favorable reviews of his new book.

The Lumonator's is not one of these. Dr. Motl's review does have a disparaging reference to Ed Frenkel's positive review and extensive quotations from a highly negative review by somebody named Aaron Brown. I haven't read the book - yet anyway - so I won't comment on it's merits myself.

So far as I can tell, Lubos hasn't read it either.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Keys to Glory

I don't see the Keystone pipeline fight as an important one in the global warming battle. Whether it is built or not is highly unlikely to affect the development of Canadian tar sands. This is a largely symbolic fight, highly unlikely to do much to slow carbon emission and certain to energize opponents.

If you want to slow carbon emissions, carbon taxes are the way to go. They won't be popular, but people aren't buying the gimmicks either.

Milepost 314

Actually page 314 of Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.

Many good novels might be over by page 314 - maybe even most of them. Plus some dozens of pages of end-notes. Wallace is quite capable of writing engagingly, and frequently will, but he's also very good at being annoying. Most of his characters seem to be freaks, suicidal, severely drug damaged or combinations thereof. The dialog he constructs is usually ridiculous, or at any rate very unlike anything I have ever encountered from actual human beings.

He does suck one in though, but not in a "what an interesting world, I'd sure like to be there" way. More like an "exactly how did this gruesome car accident occur?" way. At any rate, I seem to be stuck here, so I suppose I need to see what, if anything, happens.

My Kindle dictionary can't find most of the obscure words he is so passionately fond of.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Hierarchy Problem: Compactification

There is an old joke which rates various branches of knowledge from more fundamental to less. The basic schema is something like math -> physics -> chemistry -> biology -> psychology -> philosophy where the punchline is that you compactify the whole schema by boundary identification, i.e. adding philosophy -> mathematics.

Lubos has a new version of the primitive schema with string theory -> QFT physics at the top and religion and mass delusions at the bottom. He forebears taking the inevitable step of boundary identification of religion and mass delusions subsuming string theory, but how can we resist?

Math & Physics

Fans of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest like to attribute mind boggling erudition to the author. He certainly has a large and pretentious vocabulary. He has a lot to say about drugs, tennis, rehab, and suicide. I will assume he actually knows about those things, because I can't critique him on those accounts. The claim that he understands higher math and science seems pretty dubious, though.

At one point he claims that the odds of a 54-54 tie in 108 tennis matches are 1 in 2^27. If the players are roughly equally matched, they are actually a bit less than 8%.

VERY MINOR SPOILER: A central character supposedly commits suicide by cutting a hole in the door of a microwave oven and exploding his head - in less than ten seconds. A typical microwave oven produces about 700 W of microwave power = .16 kcal/sec. At that rate, it's going to take a hell of a long time to heat several kilograms of water to the steam point, and the subject is going to get really uncomfortable first. He would find it roughly equivalent to trying to incinerate himself under a 700 Watt heat lamp.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Hot and Cold

The planet used to be a lot hotter than it is now. There used to be a lot more CO2 in the air than there is now. It was hotter in the Eemian interglacial than it is now, and the polar bears survived. All arguments used by our deniolator friends.

And all true.

Of course, the further we go back, the harder it is to read the record, especially of CO2, but we have reasonable data about both planetary temperatures and CO2 for 450 kiloyears or so. The temperature record we can tell a lot about for a long time, and the fact is that it's now colder than for the vast majority of the last 500 Megayears. The last five million years have been a pretty cold period, thanks to the series of glaciations probably kicked off by the formation of the Isthmus of Panama.

However, it is worth noting that we, our crops, our domestic animals, and our geographic distribution all did evolve during this really cold period. If we look at the last 450,000 years, we are now very near the peak temperature that has occurred in that period - only a few brief interglacials (like the Eemian) got perhaps a degree or so warmer than the present. In those periods, the oceans rose by several meters, making Scandinavia an island and flooding big chunks of land.

More significantly, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere during this entire period was always much less than at present. Present evidence is that the CO2 levels we would be left with even if all fossil emissions stopped immediately would bost our current temperatures to or past those interglacial peaks.

Of course, that still might leave us well short of the temperatures and CO2 concentrations of 5 million years ago, but those temnperatures would plunge us into a really different world.

Twelve Steps

Wolfgang has once again taken the pledge to disconnect from the intertubes, and as much as we will miss him, it would be unkind not to provide a bit of moral support. As it happens, I have been reading a great deal about detox and rehab programs (Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace), so I thought I would supply him with a suitably adapted twelve steps program:

(1)We admitted we were powerless over the intertubes - that our lives had become unmanageable.

(2)Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

(3)Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Krugman as we understood Him.

(4)Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

(5)Admitted to Krugman, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

(6)Were entirely ready to have Krugman remove all these defects of character.

(7)Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

(8)Made a list of all blogs we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

(9)Made direct amends to such blogs wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

(10)Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

(11)Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with Krugman as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

(12)Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to blogaholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.


Tuesday, February 05, 2013

GS Skynet

Econobots we know and love.

Part of a great New Republic book review/analysis by Michael Lewis:

The giant Wall Street firms have taken on lives of their own, beyond human control. The people flow into and out of them but have only incidental effect on their direction and behavior. The firms may not be intent on evil; they aren't intent on anything except short-term profits: they're insensible. If anyone attempted to seize control of one of these strange machines and impose upon them a clear moral direction, the machine would hit its own button and he would be ejected.

Stop and think once more about what has just happened on Wall Street: its most admired firm conspired to flood the financial system with worthless securities, then set itself up to profit from betting against those very same securities, and in the bargain helped to precipitate a world historic financial crisis that cost millions of people their jobs and convulsed our political system. In other places, or at other times, the firm would be put out of business, and its leaders shamed and jailed and strung from lampposts. (I am not advocating the latter.) Instead Goldman Sachs, like the other too-big-to-fail firms, has been handed tens of billions in government subsidies, on the theory that we cannot live without them. They were then permitted to pay politicians to prevent laws being passed to change their business, and bribe public officials (with the implicit promise of future employment) to neuter the laws that were passed—so that they might continue to behave in more or less the same way that brought ruin on us all. And after all this has been done, a Goldman Sachs employee steps forward to say that the people at the top of his former firm need to see the error of their ways, and become more decent, socially responsible human beings. Right. How exactly is that going to happen?

If Goldman Sachs is going to change, it will be only if change is imposed upon it from the outside—either by the market's decision that it is no longer viable in its current form or by the government's decision that we can no longer afford it...

And much more.

Monday, February 04, 2013


Despite the unenthusiastic reception of my last venture into economic engineering, let me persist a bit. Econobots are already very busy, so I gather, doing microsecond trading and carrying out similar missions. Why not put them to work on macro policy?

Instead of putting out some crap about aiming for, say, 2% inflation, and then screwing around with some monetary policies which might or might not approach that goal, why not turn it over to the Macrobot? Turn the task over to a PID controller and let her go.

My theory is that the real reason is probably the fearsome whine emitted by the bankster crowd. If Mario Drahi or Ben Bernanke promises firm action the rentiers know that if they screech loud enough, Ben, or Mario, or Abe will pull his punches. PID controllers are less accomodating.

Sunday, February 03, 2013


Republicans, or maybe just the same dopes who thought Beyonce was not singing the national anthem, think Obama might be faking his credentials as a skeet shooter. Personally, I sort of hope they are right. There is a real threat that skeet may go the way of the passenger pigeon that once flocked in hordes. Ask yourself, when did you last see one in the wild? How many bird watchers even have this rara avis on their lifetime lists?

Book Review: Zameer Masani's Macaulay

I've already written a plethora of posts on the subject Zameer Masani's book on Macaulay(Macaulay: Pioneer of India's Modernization [Kindle Edition]), but I have now finished and should sum up. I found the portrait of Macaulay and his times fascinating. Clever Tom, as he was known to his family and many others, was a prodigy. Much of his life was devoted to politics, and in an ages of speeches, he was a dominant force. Most of what he accomplished in life was by virtue of his speech or writing.

He was an imperialist and a cultural chauvinist, but he saw himself as an agent of virtue. Born in modest circumstances, he died a wealthy baron. Some of his wealth was acquired as a result of very well paid service in India, but the bulk came from his writings, which were wildly popular in England, America, and Europe.

Masani clearly approves of many Macaulay's actions in India, the most important of which were the establishment of open schools taught in English, the writing of the legal code, and insistence that native Indians be on equal legal footing with the colonists. Macaulay's opponents blame him most of all for his role in replacing much of Hindu culture with Western culture, and Macaulay would certainly plead guilty to that.

Masani credits Macaulay with doing a lot to unify India and preparing the way for India to participate in the global economy.

The rest of my commentary can be found here or here.

An extended critique is provided by Arun.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

PID Control

I think it was Banerjee who asked me to write something about engineering, so that the engineers could beat me up. Here is my first try. It stems from the class in Control of Mobile Robots that I am taking from Coursera and Georgia Tech.
One of the most common control strategies for simple systems is so-called PID control, where the P stands for proportional, the I for integrating, and the D for derivative. The essence of the strategy is that you measure an error in your system behavior, and generate a correction control signal that is proportional to the error, its integral over time, and its derivative.
My quasi-philosophical question is this: does the value of this strategy have anything to do with the fact that so many laws of physics take the form of second order differential equations?
UPDATE: Second question. Suppose we replaced the Fed's Open Market Committee with a PID control robot which attempted to maintain a 2% inflation rate. What do think would happen?

Macaulay vs the Hindus

Perhaps no aspect of Macaulay's character is more surprising to the modern mind or more obnoxious to his enemies in India than his overt hostility to Indian religion and culture. It's also hard to imagine why this frank admirer of pagan Rome and Greece found superficially similar practices in India so offensive. Masani provides a clue:

Though far from puritanical by Victorian standards, Macaulay was particularly outraged by what he considered the sexual immorality of Hindu iconography. His revulsion may well have been exaggerated by his own long suppressed sexuality. ‘Emblems of vice,’ he railed, ‘are objects of public worship. Acts of vice are acts of public worship. The courtesans are as much a part of the establishment of the temple, as much ministers of the god, as the priests.’ His greatest rage was reserved for the worship of Shiva, whose temple at Somnath Ellenborough was proposing to honour. Referring to the phallic cult of shivalingams, Macaulay declared: ‘I am ashamed to name those things to which he [Ellenborough] is not ashamed to pay public reverence. This god of destruction, whose images and whose worship it would be a violation of decency to describe, is selected as the object of homage.’

Masani, Zareer (2012-11-16). Macaulay: Pioneer of India’s Modernization (Kindle Locations 2737-2742). Random House India. Kindle Edition.

Size of the Earth

It is a testimony to the far vaster scale of our planet in Macaulay's time that his voyage home from India took nearly six months. He chose his passage for comfort rather than speed, but in those days at the dawn of steam power, such long journeys still depended on the wind.

When he traveled about in India, roads did not yet exist that could accommodate a carriage in the countryside.

Macaulay the Critic

Macaulay was a hypercritical person by temperament, a trait that combined with his talent for invective to be really useful in producing enemies, but it also carried many an argument for him. His chauvinistic attitudes were another obnoxious trait. He hated Versailles and considered it a vast waste of money. Italy didn't live up to his expectations, and the exteriors of its great cathedrals couldn't match Saint Paul's in London. When he got back to London he found the interior of Saint Paul's wanting by comparison with the Italians.

It's very easy to see why the man would be resented in India. His bad tempered rhetoric was often turned on its literature, social organization, music, the character of the Bengalis - though the architecture did make an impression. Of course he was even more critical of most of his fellow Britons abroad.

Even more obnoxious was the fact that he didn't bother to try to understand the literature and art that he dismissed so cavalierly. There are hints that he was aware of the imbalance. He allowed that Indian literature might be equal to the Greek, Latin, and English classics he loved "in poetry" but he couldn't abide its cosmology and what he considered its scientific deficiencies. He thought that the picture of the Earth as "floating in a sea of butter" was ridiculous.

Masani makes the case that the man was better than his rhetoric. He disliked women, except for his sisters and nieces, but fought for women's rights. He allowed that Indian judges might be more corrupt than English ones, but insisted that the rich and the English should be subjected to them just like the poor and Indians, the better to root out and expose that corruption. He disliked despotism, including the despotism of the institution he worked for, but saw his mission as preparing the Indians to outgrow that despotism while pointing out that waiting for despots to stop enjoying their role was a fools game.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Macaulay and the Law

Macaulay's legal efforts were perhaps as significant as his educational. When he arrived, he found that Indian law was a jumble of older Islamic laws and fragments of British law. Different laws applied in different cities and different laws applied to different persons. Indians were effectively prevented from pursuing legal action against Europeans by a legal system that afforded the Europeans special privileges. The death penalty applied to many crimes including breaking a tea cup in another persons house, apparently even accidentally.

A couple of his more controversial laws removed press censorship and established legal equality in civil law. The latter especially outraged his compatriots.

He also designed an extremely progressive set of laws for the nation which were long considered a model of concision and simplicity. They were not enacted in his lifetime - mostly due to opposition from his countrymen - but according to Masani, still form the core of Indian law. Despite his progressive inclinations, they left considerable scope for local custom.


Other things being equal, it would seem highly desirable not to be conquered, and if conquered and ruled by foreigners, to be rid of them. The ratio of Englishmen/Indians in India was rarely much above 1/1000. Unlike the native Americans encountered by Cortez and Pizarro, the natives of India were if anything less vulnerable to disease than vice-versa. Moreover, the technological advantage of the English was slight or non-existent until well into the nineteenth century.

So why did India suffer itself to be and remain conquered?

Quantitative Easing, My Ass(ets)

A slightly more complete answer to Wolfgang and the others if any following such matters. I ragged on WB for predicting something untoward at the gas pump (inflation?), allegedly due to Bernanke's policy of quantitative easing (QE).

I thought I ought to remind myself of what QE is: The Fed buying financial assets like government bonds and mortgage securities. What should we expect from that and why?

Well the supply of nice financial assets is decreased, and so their price goes up, which means (and I always have to think this part through) that interest rates go down.

The why part is even easier. If the problem is insufficient demand (and it is), then too many are saving, and too few are spending. Of course interest rates are already near zero, but now it's even harder to find places to stash money. That makes assets more attractive by comparison, and drives up their prices. Ben wants to drive up asset prices, but he really wants make people spend that money. You might as well buy that house, car or yacht right now, because you sure as heck can't earn any interest on your money. It's even better if people can develop some fear of inflation - a powerful incentive to buy now what's going to be more expensive tomorrow.