Monday, November 30, 2009

Through a Glass, Darkly

Paul Krugman has a vision of the future, and it's not exactly a rosy one.

...economic half-measures have landed the Obama administration in a trap: much of the political establishment now sees stimulus as having been discredited by events, so that it’s very hard to come back and scale the policy up to where it should have been in the first place. Also, with the apocalypse on hold, the deficit scolds have come back into their own, decrying any policy that actually involves spending money.

The result, then, will be high unemployment leading into the 2010 elections, and corresponding Democratic losses. These losses will be worse because Obama, by pursuing a uniformly pro-banker policy without even a gesture to popular anger over the bailouts, has ceded populist energy to the right and demoralized the movement that brought him to power.

Krugman is a pessimist, and I tend to like that in a practitioner of the Dismal Science. You need some kind of counter-balance to the hucksters and con men you see on CNBC.

History has presented Obama with some awful choices. The financial panic engineered in part by Bush, and the giant deficits engineered almost entirely by Bush and Rove combine for a trap that's hard to escape. Add in the hash Bush made of our foreign policy and its easy to see most timelike paths leading to doom or at least to gloom.

Can some kind of jobs program (a) pass the Congress, and (b) turn things around? Possibly.

Beastly Genius

Well my respect for MacArthur genius award winners just took a big hit. Tina Brown's Daily Beast claims to have gotten some people they thought were smart - who seemed to be mostly academic politicians and media celebrities - to nominate 100 plus people for the category of smartest of the decade. Next they found 40 MacA awardees who had nothing better to do than read their resumes and rank them, resulting in a list of the 25 supposedly smartest people of the decade. I think you can get an idea of the flavor of the result from the first five names you encounter on the list: Roger Ailes, David Chase, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Michael Bloomberg, and Karl Rove. Four terrorists and a rich guy.

The list is bottom up, Letterman style, but it doesn't get much better. There are a few people on the list I consider fairly smart, like Jobs and Chu, and others who have had at least one really good idea, like Brin, Page, and Bezos - all of whom had their good idea in the previous decade, btw. Mostly smart means rich on this list, but rich because they had a good idea. I guess Arianna Huffington's good idea was marrying a rich gay guy and getting him to go into politics.

Maybe the twenty-oughts weren't a good decade for doing anything important, but if anything important was done, it probably wasn't done by any of these people. A decade isn't really long enough to see the importance of a thought, of course, which is why all the people on the list for their smart ideas had them more than ten years ago, with the possible exception of one or two like Steve Jobs who have, or at least recognize, lots of good ideas.

But Karl f****ng Rove? Being on a list with him can't be much of an honor. Even for al-Zawahiri.

Afghanistan: Uh Oh

Andrew Sullivan doesn't like what he thinks he is going to hear from Obama on Afghanistan.

So instead of staying in neo-colonial occupation against an insurgency that now feeds off US intervention with no real strategy, we will stay in neo-colonial occupation against an insurgency that now feeds off US intervention with lots of super-smart defenses of the indefensible. Great.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

CRU: Sorry Cassandra

Climate scientists have gotten a good dose of the Cassandra syndrome lately. Cassandra, you may recall, was the Trojan seer who saw through the subterfuge of Odysseus and warned her city against the tricky Greeks. Her curse was to see the truth but not be believed. So lately it has been with those warning of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

A well-financed and politically connected group of professional doubters, liars and ideologically motivated crackpots have taken advantage of the public's short attention span and an apparent slowdown in the recent pace of warming to persuade much of the population that AGW isn't worth worrying about. A couple self-inflicted wounds by AGW Cassandras haven't helped either. First, Al Gore turns out to be pretty darn confused about basic geology and physics. Now, the CRU at the University of East Anglia lets a bunch of emails get hacked and is very slow-footed in responding.

What I have seen, mainly in the denialosphere, is hardly very incriminating, but it does give some plausibility to interpretations that some data was suppressed, that some researchers really don't like the lying snakes of the denialosphere, and that there is some concern about the limitations of the model predictions.

To me, none of this is remotely surprising. People say stuff in email that they shouldn't. Any decent scientist starts the day by doubting his favorite theories. Experimentalists like to keep their data under wraps until they are sure they understand it, especially if they have reason to doubt the conclusions. And a lot of us really do get angry at the professional shills, ideologues, and crackpots that dominate the legions of denial.

Despite this, I have seen nothing from them that seems to cast much doubt on the conclusions of the IPCC.

George Monbiot takes the imbroglio more seriously, and has called for at least one head to roll.

It’s no use pretending that this isn’t a major blow. The emails extracted by a hacker from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia could scarcely be more damaging(1). I am now convinced that they are genuine, and I’m dismayed and deeply shaken by them.

Yes, the messages were obtained illegally. Yes, all of us say things in emails that would be excruciating if made public. Yes, some of the comments have been taken out of context. But there are some messages that require no spin to make them look bad. There appears to be evidence here of attempts to prevent scientific data from being released(2,3), and even to destroy material that was subject to a freedom of information request(4).

Worse still, some of the emails suggest efforts to prevent the publication of work by climate sceptics(5,6), or to keep it out of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(7). I believe that the head of the unit, Phil Jones, should now resign. Some of the data discussed in the emails should be re-analysed.

Hiding data is bad, and destroying evidence is worse - and both are likely illegal. Trying to prevent the publication of faulty analysis and incorrect science, though, are quite reasonable. We don't want the literature cluttered with errors. The whole purpose of the peer review process is to do just that. On the other hand, the history of science is full of valid papers that were suppressed because of some referee's mistaken prejudices, but because so much hangs on our conclusions about climate science there is a special obligation to ensure that all reasonable points are aired in an open and aboveboard process.

Monbiot doesn't think that the actual scientific (as opposed to public relations) case for AGW has seen serious damage:

But do these revelations justify the sceptics’ claims that this is “the final nail in the coffin” of global warming theory?(8,9) Not at all. They damage the credibility of three or four scientists. They raise questions about the integrity of one or perhaps two out of several hundred lines of evidence. To bury manmade climate change, a far wider conspiracy would have to be revealed.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mac(ro) Daddies

Brad DeLong wonders, perhaps rhetorically, Why Are Good Macro Policies Political Losers? Brad argues that the bailout and the stimulus prevented much worse things from happening, and wonders:

So we have a big puzzle: Just what is going on in America? Good policies that are working to boost production and employment without causing inflation ought to be politically popular, right?

Brad conjures up some possible reasons - an incompetent press, Chicago crackpottery, and the systematic dishonesty of the Republican party, but he somehow misses the giant beam in his own eye: employment and production have not been "boosted." Employment has continued to decline. Desperate people aren't interested in theoretical economics, they want results. It's easy to be complacent if you have a nice sinecure, but not so easy if you are the one losing job, home, or business.

DeLong's dismissal of the bonuses paid to the criminals who engineered the disaster as "a rounding error" is an astounding feat of political obtuseness for somebody who thinks he is teaching economic history. Trade and the economy ultimately depend on us being able to trust that we aren't being cheated. Being obviously cheated is a dagger in the heart of that trust. A couple of DeLong's commenters sum up the key points:
albrt said...

Perhaps your "good macro" policies are political losers because your definition of "macro" assumes that it doesn't matter who actually receives the benefits and who actually pays the bills, so long as a sufficient quantity of money is inserted into the economy. The rest of us have noticed that, despite this carefully neutral economic theory, it's always the bankers who receive the benefits and always the rest of us who pay the bills.

It took us multiple trials to figure that out, but now that we have figured it out we are not OK with it.

And Maynard Handley adds some psychological and anthropological perspective:

...Are you unaware that groups punish individuals who cheat, even at a cost to themselves, and that this behavior is not foolish, it is, in the grand scheme of things, eminently sensible, a way to limit future cheating?...

It was, for example, a very serious blunder for Geithner to not even insist on symbolic haircuts for AIG's CDS customers.

At some point Obama, the great strategic thinker, thought it was more important to have the trust of Wall Street than Main Street. Picking Wall Street's boys, Geithner and Summers, may or may not have mollified Wall Street. Main Street is not happy.

To Jail

Tyler Cowen notes the irony in the fact that Dubai, which is currently shaking world financial markets because of its inability to pay its debts, imprisons debtors.

With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills). Some are said to have maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield.

Kinda makes one nostalgic for the good old days when a non-performing sovereign debtor would be disciplined by pulling up a few men-o-war to shell the capital city.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Abstract Art

I had missed Bee's beautiful post on causal diagrams. Highly recommended. A quote from the introduction:

I once witnessed a physicist explain the universe to an artist. The artist had approached the physicist to learn how to understand extra dimensions, a concept, so he explained, that would undoubtedly enhance the depth of his artwork, and be of great inspirational value for his quest to capture the contextuality of essence. Or maybe essence of contextuality. Or something like that. Either way, the physicist took a piece of chalk and drew a line on the blackboard. "That is our universe," he said...

The science part is even better.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Memory: Up is Down

George W Bush and his minions spent the first eight months of his Presidency mocking and ignoring urgent warnings of an imminent terrorist threat. When the most devastating terrorist attack in American or World history occurred, they used the occasion not to kill or capture the perpetrators, but to pursue another foreign war. The family of the ringleader was hustled out of the country in private jets, and the President continued to kiss up to the country that financed the attacks.

In a feat of historical revision worthy of 1984 or at least Joseph Stalin, it seems that memory of these events has now completely disappeared from the Republican mind. Josh Marshall's TPM catches Bush Spokesgirl Dana Perino claiming that no terrorist attacks on the United States occurred during W's term of office. Naturally the Faux News interviewer agreed.

In the up is down world of Republican politics, this is not an exception. I have heard the same absurd claim made on television by at least two other Republican flacks, and repeated by idiots of my acquaintance.

Jews and Palestinians

American Jews who go to Israel frequently get what I call the "propaganda tour" - a highly fictionalized account of the origin and construction of the Jewish state. In this version, Zionists came to an unpopulated land, turned it green with native ingenuity, and thereby attracted a nuisance crowd of Arabs eager to catch the crumbs that fell from their tables. The real story of how land and water was acquired from Palestinian farmers, sometimes by purchase, sometimes by the familiar connivance's of European political economy, and sometimes by force and fear gets lost. The final struggle, where the Palestinians were utterly defeated in war and slaughtered and expelled from their lands is told as an epic with heroes on only one side.

Americans have seen this western, of course. We acquired our own land by a longer, more brutal, and far more drastic genocide. The story itself is at least as old as civilization.

In our modern scientific age we like to try to peer beneath the legends to see the facts, but when the contenders are still both alive and swinging, that gets difficult. Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has dared to take a look and stir up the predictable hornets nest. His book
The Invention of the Jewish People
, a best seller in Israel for months, is now out in English. It's doubtful that a Jewish professor, or any professor at a major university in the US, would have dared to write such a book.

Patricia Cohen discusses the book and its story in The New York Times.

Despite the fragmented and incomplete historical record, experts pretty much agree that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70, for instance. What’s more, modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity.

Other theories, like the notion that many of today’s Palestinians can legitimately claim to be descended from the ancient Jews, are familiar and serious subjects of study, even if no definitive answer yet exists...

Professor Sand, a scholar of modern France, not Jewish history, candidly states his aim is to undercut the Jews’ claims to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute “a people,” with a shared racial or biological past. The book has been extravagantly denounced and praised, often on the basis of whether or not the reader agrees with his politics.

For me, most of this argument is beside the point. Every nation, except perhaps for a few isolated cultures, is an artificial construction. Jewish identity doesn't depend on literal descent from Abraham but on shared religious and cultural history. On the other hand, Palestinian's claim to Palestine doesn't depend on whether or not they are direct descendants of those who lived in Israel in 70 AD. What I do believe in is that the truth, if not freeing us, can at least make our choices clearer.

Of course the religious fanatics and fabulists, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, won't pay any attention anyway.

Number of the Beast?

Counting is one of those skills that was long thought to be uniquely human, though ravens are now reputed to be able to count to seven. It seems that this avian skill is eclipsed by that of some of the truly anciently civilized, though. It seems that in addition to celestial navigation, certain Saharan ants have mastered a specialized form of counting. NPR's Robert Krulwich has the story, a cartoon video, and a picture of an ant on stilts!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. In the interim, evidence for Darwin's theory has become overwhelming, but there has been little evidence of the human race evolving intelligence.

Some of the evidence can be found here and here and almost any place else that news is published. The empire of the ignorami marches on.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


The continuing dismal employment numbers are finally getting political attention. George Will advocated the Republican solution on ABC's Sunday morning yak today: cut unemployment benefits. My guess is that Democrats may lack enthusiasm for that idea.

I personally like the idea of a new version of the WPA, with a pre-1940 style emphasis on jobs training. From the cited Wikipedia article:

Until ended by Congress and war employment during 1943, the WPA was the largest employer in the country. Most people who needed a job were eligible for at least some of its jobs.[3] Hourly wages were the prevailing wages in each area; the rules said workers could not work more than 30 hours a week, but many projects included months in the field, with workers eating and sleeping on worksites. Before 1940, there was some training involved to teach new skills and the project's original legislation had a strong emphasis on training.

This would be anathema to conservatives, of course, but there would probably be push back from unions as well. They would prefer that all new jobs be union jobs, and would have strong support from the construction industry.

A conservative proposal with more intrinsic merit is the idea of a rebate or suspension of payroll taxes. This is a twofer for them since it would both undermine Social Security and promote their beloved anti-tax theme. I like another idea, embraced by some conservatives (those with positive IQs who are not running for office) is the idea of replacing payroll taxes with a carbon and/or
value added tax. A gradual transition to such a regime would tend to stimulate employment.

How about a WPA, combined with a temporary rebate on payroll taxes, with the replacement taxes to kick in gradually?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gravity X 3

Newton's theory of gravity is a darn good theory. If you want to calculate the trajectory of a projectile or the orbital path of an interplanetary vehicle, Newton's your man. Ditto if you want to calculate the pressure at the center of the Sun. Of course your answers might be ever so slightly off - which is where...

Einstein's theory gravity, AKA General Relativity, comes in. It's a bit unwieldy with a whole potfull of nonlinear partial differential equations, but it can fix up those orbits. It can even let you calculate the pressure at the center of a white dwarf or a neutron star. It also tells you how to fix up your clock times in the presence of strong gravitational fields. What it can't do is tell you what's happening at super strong fields at the Planck length, or at the center of a black hole.

Really good theories make nice testable predictions, usually with important practical consequences, like keeping your GPS satellites synchronized. String Theory is not that good yet. We can't test its gravitational implications, and, so far as I can tell, its descriptions of real black holes are still incomplete. So what can it do? Well there is one other virtue a good theory can have, and that's to serve as a fruitful source of ideas for other areas of physics. Sean Carroll says:

One of the reasons why string theory is so popular among people who have thought about it very carefully is that it really does lead to new things. It really is fruitful. It's not that you have make some guess like, oh, maybe space time is discrete or maybe the universe is made of little molecules or something like that, and then you say, okay, what do you get from that? By making this guess that instead of particles there are little strings, you are led to thinking if I put that into the framework of quantum mechanics I get 10 dimensions. Then, oh, it also needs to be supersymmetric. There are different kinds of particles that we actually observe in nature and if we try to compactify those extra dimensions and hide them, we begin to get things that look like the standard model. We are learning things that make us think that we are on the right track.

Sean has a lot of other stuff in his article, including a discussion of a question that has often vexed us - the entropy of the early universe, and why it's important. I recommend the link.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Free Trade

Steven Landsburg, having recently dissed Paul Krugman, tries to do a little penance by praising this essay Krugman wrote [some time ago] in defense of Ricardo and free trade.

Landsburg thinks the issue in question can be deduced from pure logic:

Take, for example his essay on the widespread failure of intellectuals to grasp Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage (the basis of the case for free trade). Instead of simply bemoaning the problem like the rest of us, Krugman makes a valiant and useful attempt to identify its root causes.

He starts with an analogy I’m also fond of (I’m not sure which of us has been using it longer): The theory of comparative advantage is like the theory of evolution by natural selection—to those who understand it, it is simple and compelling; yet non-experts can find it remarkably difficult to grasp.

In The Big Questions, I argue that this analogy ultimately breaks down: The theory of evolution is compelling largely because of the evidence that supports it, while Ricardo’s theory is compelling largely because of the logic that supports it. It’s not too surprising that a first-rate physicst or literary critic could be unfamiliar with a body of evidence, but it’s a little more unsettling when that same physicist or literary critic can’t follow a simple chain of logic.

I wrote the following comments:

Economists are always frustrated that others (even intellectuals) can’t accept the compelling logic of Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage: I find it ironic that Krugman would think comparison with natural selection is appropriate.

I am pretty sure that I do understand Ricardo’s argument, and I’m also pretty sure that I understand why most non-economists instinctively reject it. The essential logic of comparative advantage is that both trading parties do better if they specialize since they can thus each get more goods. The problem with this idea is that the logic of our evolution teaches us that the struggle for existence is a nearly zero sum game.

If the wolf and the coyote cooperate in the hunt [or trade rabbits for deer] then they may each get more game, but they also hasten the day when the supply of wolves and coyotes is larger than the available supply of game can feed. The wolf knows (at some instinctive level) that it’s better for his long term progeny for him to lose some game in order to deprive the coyote of the chance to compete with him.

Similarly, the trade between China and the US brought the US a great bundle of cheap stuff (TV’s etc) and built China from a backward, impoverished country into an economic superpower – good for both in the short run. It also turned China from a minor competitor to a formidable rival in the struggle for energy and, ultimately, existence. From the standpoint of strategic evolutionary competition, that tradeoff was a disaster for the US.

In practice, most economists seem to act as if Darwin had never existed. They don’t understand why most people are skeptical of comparative advantage because they aren’t taking into account that those people’s brains were wired by evolution. When we live in a world where the only way nations interact is through trade, or where the struggle for existence has been repealed, Ricardo will get pride of place. Until then, I’ll stick with Darwin.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Global Warming Indeed!

The Lumonator catches Al Gore displaying a curious misunderstanding of geothermal and geological fact. I guess there are some subjects not covered in a Harvard education.

Being even older than Gore, and well into semi-senility myself, I tend to be rather more forgiving of some kinds of brain farts, but this is a bit extreme for a guy who spends his life flacking this stuff.

Unfortunately, there do seem to be a lot of people running the country who don't really differentiate among "thousand", "million," "billion," and "trillion." Speaking of differentiation, I would support a constitutional amendment restricting national political office to those who can pass a fairly rigorous calculus test - say AP Calculus at the 4 level.


I caught an episode of the PBS series "Becoming Human" the other day. The subject was Homo erectus, our ancestors who lived for a couple of million years from roughly 2 million BC to 50,000 BC. The transition from earlier ancestors to H erectus involved a major change in size, locomotion, brain size, and diet. The larger brains required more nutrition and a longer childhood for the brain to grow outside the womb. The extended childhood almost certainly involved the development the characteristically human trait of empathy.

Empathy, the ability identify mental and emotional states of others, is a very fundamental human trait that provides much of the glue that holds society together, but its also a trait that seems to be largely absent in a fair number of people. Sufferers with autism, and various disorders of the autism spectrum are prominent examples. This is an extremely severe social handicap, but some, at least, of the afflicted nonetheless lead productive, creative, and even highly successful lives.

Paul Dirac, numerous mathematicians, and perhaps even Newton (not to mention Dr. Sheldon Cooper) seem to have fit the category. Perhaps the disconnection from ordinary human affairs provides both a spur and an opportunity to focus on the abstract.

Ayn Rand looks like another plausible candidate. Certainly she displayed notable lack of empathy as both child and adult. In Anthem, even the scenes in which the hero is tortured are curiously lacking in affect and emotional impact.

It seems surprising that a person without understanding of others emotions could become a charismatic personality, but perhaps it really isn't. Those of us tossed by the emotional storms of life can admire the peculiar calm of a Mr. Spock. The cold blooded thinker can learn to push the buttons of emotional response even if they can't feel the emotions.

I think I have heard that sociopaths are typically lacking in empathy. I wonder if that also fits cult leaders and pimps. That would make a collection: prophets, pimps, sociopaths and mathematicians. And, oh yeah, conservative economists - or am I being redundant?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Diversified Evolutionary Portfolio

Yet about a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry the variant that Bakermans-Kranenburg studied, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression.

Why should such apparently disadvantageous traits be preserved in evolution? David Dobbs, writing in The Atlantic says that new work, and new hypotheses, explain the apparent paradox. The key point is that genes that are unfavorable in some situations may be very favorable in others. Children who seem to thrive under any conditions are thought of as "dandelions," while those requiring specially favorable circumstances are "orchids."

Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.

It's a long article, packed with interesting information about the genetic underpinnings of the behavior of humans, and, not quite incidentally, rhesus monkeys.

Friday, November 13, 2009


The 1930's and 1940's, with depression sandwiched between war, rumor of war, and war again, were fertile ground for dystopic visions. The rise of sinister incarnations in Communism and Facism provided a collectivist theme for those visions. Ayn Rand's Anthem had the same collectivist inspired theme as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, and a publication date between them, but can't otherwise bear comparison to Huxley's richly prophetic vision or Orwell's nightmare masterpiece.

Anthem is a slight fairy tale, set in a grey future where the ultimate villain is the first person plural pronoun. Where technology has been set to sinister purpose in 1984 and become relentlessly dehumanizing in BNW, in Anthem it has nearly disappeared. Not to worry though: the hero, working alone (in an abandoned sewer) in his spare time, outdoes those ubiquitous local housewifes of the internet ad who earn a fortune with their computers. In a few short months he rediscovers that which took Coulomb, Volta, Galvani, Ampere, Faraday, Franklin and Edison a few centuries of collaborative effort - enough electromagnetism to make a generator and an electric light.

I shouldn't ruin the suspense by mentioning that there isn't any suspense, or that our hero overcomes every slight difficulty he encounters as effortlessly as he conquered the physics of electromagnetism. This is a fairly tale, but not even one in which the hero needs any particular wit to triumph. Accident or personal decision is enough for any worthy objective he can conceive to become reality. (Unworthy objectives, like doing something altruistic, are just as summarily punished.)

Anthem lacks the usual badges of literary merit. Characterization is utterly missing except for the hero, who is drawn without a trace of subtlety. Plot is minimal. Evocation of place and setting is, well:

It is dark here in the forest. The leaves rustle over our head against the last gold of the sky. The moss is soft and warm.

I guess they had a different kind of moss in that forest from any I ever slept on.

Nevertheless, Anthem has managed to achieve some influence in the world. How can I explain it? Rand is not a terrible writer, just a very limited one, and she is certain that she has an urgent message to convey. Its simple mindedness could be a virtue for its target audience. Just wish and let it happen. Blame every inconvenience in your life on others. Escape the oppression of the expectations of parent, teacher, church and state. Rand does seem to have a genius for resentment.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Harder Than String Theory

From Peter Woit at NEW, Ed Witten tackles a topic harder than string theory.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

No Way Back

Lubos takes on the second law, once again. Suppose we have a current state which we identify with an ensemble of compatible physical systems [UPDATE: Lubos points out that the usual term is macroscopically indistinguishable microstates - I had forgotten that]. If we evolve that ensemble of states forward in time, entropy increases for all but a tiny fraction of the systems making up the ensemble. What if we use the time symmetric laws of physics to evolve that same ensemble backwards, in the opposite time direction?

Once again, entropy increases for most of the systems of the ensemble. Lumo's paradoxical sounding explanation: that other way isn't really backwards in time, it's forward too!

This was a major brain warp for me, so I had to try rephrasing it. My version: representing a system by an ensemble of compatible states and identifying the future state of the system with the typical evolution of states in the ensemble is a good way to predict the future but a lousy way to retrodict the past. The asymmetry is not so glaring if we remember that the ensemble is not the real physical system, it's just a representation of our current knowledge of the state of the system. Forward or backward evolution of the microstates doesn't matter, since each gives a possible future.

In short, I'm pretty much a convert.


Paul Krugman is confused by the right's choice of epithets. He wonders why the wingnuts don't call him a commie any more.

A curious fact — one that I can attest to based on my own inbox, and is also borne out by more general observation — is that “Nazi” is the preferred term of abuse from today’s right wing. We get signs saying “Obama=Hitler”, not Obama=Stalin. I get mail calling me a “dirty Nazi scumbag”, not a Commie or pinko.

What’s going on? It really doesn’t fit, as far as I can tell — and bear in mind the long-running love affair of the National Review with Francisco Franco. You’d really think critics of Comrade President Obama would prefer the Soviet comparison.

There are many other bizarre aspects to modern right wing epithets. What's up with calling Obama a "racist?" Don't they grasp how preposterous, absurd, and stupid it is to compare health insurance to Dachau? And why is Glenn Beck wearing an SS uniform on the cover of his new book?

I have a certain Orwellian theory. It is that Limbaugh, Beck, et. al. get a kick out of showing how stupid and credulous and mind enslaved their tea party lackeys are. Anybody got a better idea?

Sunday, November 08, 2009


As a Vietnam era draftee who eventually became pretty anti to the Vietnam war, I reserve a special scorn for the chickenhawks - the draftdodgers and draft avoiders who cheered the war from the safety of their own deferments. One of the scandals of Vietnam was the way deferments were handed out like Halloween candy to the priviledged and connected. Jack Kemp, later a Republican Congressman and Vice Presidential nominee, was too crippled to be drafted but not too crippled to play eight more years in the NFL.

This list of the deferred seems to include every Neocon nutbag and Republican: Abrams, Alito, Allard, Ashcroft, Bauer, Bennett, Bloomberg, Blunt and don't get me started on Bush. And that's just some of the A's and B's. Of course Cheney, Delay, Frist, Will and a swarm of others are on the list too. There are Democrats too, like Al Gore - though he enlisted and served in Vietnam, and Bill Bradley.

In World War II the privileged mostly served and sometimes died with the rest of us - think of the Kennedy children and Bush Sr., for example. In Vietnam they mostly got a pass, and now, military service is done by hired professionals and volunteers, making the country more and more detached from the reality of war.

Anyway, it pleased me a lot to see Markos Moulitsas (of Daily Kos) chase chickenhawk congressman and anti-immigrant windbag Tom Tancredo off the set of MSNBC's The ED Show.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

John Galt Has Been Located

It seems that he turns out to be a Hmong tribesman, living somewhere in Upland Southeast Asia. From a review by Tyler Cowen:

The subtitle is An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia and the author is James C. Scott of Yale University. Here is a summary from the Preface:

...I argue that the [Southeast Asian] hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys -- slavery, conscription taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare. Most of the areas in which they reside may be aptly called shatter zones or zones of refuge.

I believe that this says most of what I always wanted to say about civilization and its libertarian discontents.


I'm still gagging on the punch line to Tyler Cowen's love letter to Ayn Rand:

The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism -- the greatest force for human good ever achieved -- rely on the driving human desire to be excellent.

Now it happens that I think that capitalism (or at any rate, a mixed economy with a significant dose of capitalism) is the best economic system for an industrial economy. It did manage to keep chugging on when various variations on socialism ran aground in the twentieth century.

How, though, can a not always idiotic guy like Cowen come up with such preposterous load of crap? I think I understand the logic. Capitalism has been the dominant economic system for the past two hundred years. Those two hundred years have seen a vast burst of technological progress and improvement of the standard of living for a large fraction of the people. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is the usual name of this logical fallacy. If you attribute everything good that happened in the last two hundred years to capitalism, and everything else to something else, capitalism looks pretty good.

It's far more plausible though, that capitalism was more an effect than a cause of the profound changes that have taken place in the world during that period. Most important, in my view, was the technological burst that came out of the scientific insights of the previous two hundred years. That technological progress coincided with and facilitated tremendous advances in political freedom and equality. Public education created a workforce capable of exploiting the technological revolution.

Attribution all progress to capitalism is a lot easier when one ignores all the pesky details, expecially the extent to which large scale government action facilitated and drove that progress. The Asian transformation of the past fifty years has been one of the most dramatic, and capitalistic ideas have played a role, but of China, India, Japan, and Korea, which practices anything ressembling neoclassical capitalism? Let's go with none of the above. Neither did the economic transformations of the US and Britain take place without a lot of state intervention in their economies.

Modern economic progress has a lot of ingredients: technology, trade, education, finance, and, yes, capitalism, but don't trust the ideological fanatics who try ignore all the details. And don't trust anybody who can write a sentence like Tyler's.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Obligatory We

Compulsory labor conscription is now practiced or advocated in every country on Earth..............Ayn Rand

And, I would add, in every civilization that ever existed. I, at any rate, can't think of any obvious exceptions. There were pretty dramatic differences in scale and scope, to be sure. A couple of fundamental circumstances constrain the nature and character of human interactions: the struggle for existence, and the need for cooperation. Every mammal is dependent for some period of infancy, but many live almost totally independently for much of their lives. Humans aren't like that. We are obligatory social animals, and lone individuals can't compete against a band or tribe.

Once men adopted agriculture, higher forms of society developed and with them came obligatory cooperation, with societies unwilling to adopt such being killed out by those that did. Such enforced cooperation doesn't sit well with human nature, so it was almost always limited in scope. The dystopian fantasy of Rand's Anthem has occasionally been approached but never achieved.

Enforced cooperation was the great bugaboo of Ayn Rand's thought and literature, but she ran her own circle of sycophants like an oriental despot. Her vision had no room for dissent or independent thought and consequently, no room for reality. Her fantasy is thus condemned to remain a fantasy, but it exerts a powerful pull that I don't fully comprehend.

Somehow this intensely elitist philosophy seems to have a lot of its appeal to those who look a lot like losers in the game of life.


The Fort Hood killer seems to have had time bomb printed on his forehead. What were his superiors thinking? I wonder what the heck his OER looked like.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Once More Into The Breach

Prompted by a new paper by Brian Greene et. al., Lumo once more takes on the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its implications for the early universe. The whole long dicussion is quite fascinating, not least because it looks to me like Lubos is struggling not only against Greene but with his own uncertainties - acting, that is, exactly like a good physicist ought to.

Here is the part that got my attention. First Greene et al.

The status of [Boltzmann's H-theorem] is less settled than often claimed, because it requires the so-called 'molecular chaos' assumption, doubts about whose applicability have not been firmly laid to rest.

This is precisely where my own doubts arise, but Lubos has an answer. Once again, the argument looks pretty good - until I back off and start wondering if it's not just begging the question. In the traditional sense of assuming that which is to be proven. It seems OK in a hand wavy kind of way, but I sure wish he could show a logical proof, with all assumptions explicit.

Greene again:

So the central problem of the arrow of time consists in finding a justification for the so-called past hypothesis - the assumption that the universe had low entropy at early times.

Greene, like Penrose and (maybe) Sean Carroll, wants to find some cosmological reason why the universe has to start in a state of low entropy. Lubos doesn't like this, but he seems to have deleted an earlier version in which he compared this (favorably) to wondering why an elephant doesn't have 486 legs and (unfavorably) to speculations about why the fine structure constant is what it is.

Of course there are good biological reasons why elephants didn't evolve with as many legs as a millipede, and there may well be consistent physical theories in which the fine structure constant is other than it is. It seems similarly reasonable to me to speculate that there might be some more "fundamental" or "natural" reason for the universe to have started in the special state that it apparently did start in.

Lumo can't help going off the rails a bit:

While it's manifest that the authors of similar papers are bothered by the very validity of the second law and they would indeed like the entropy to be higher in the past...

Jeez Lumo, why do you have to spoil a really good discussion by saying something lame like this. Nobody "wants" the entropy to be higher in the past, and Greene et. al. aren't bothered by the validity of the second law. What they are trying to do, perhaps quite unsuccessfully, is come up with a principle that explains the initial state in terms of some simple mathematical idea - that's a lot of what cosmology is about. That observations and the second law imply that the initial state was of low entropy is uncontroversial, but it's not an explanation, any more than saying that an elephant has four legs explains why it has four legs.

Perhaps there is no possible explanation, but it seems silly to deny the possibility that there might be such out of hand. On the other hand, it is perfectly sensible to critique a suggested explanation, as Lubos has here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

TBBT & Football

On this week's episode of The Big Bang Theory Leonard is upset because Penny is having a football party and he hasn't been invited. He decides that she is afraid of being embarrassed by him in front of her friends. After wangling an invite, he undertakes some intensive football education, but ...

I guess I shouldn't have had that kind of problem since we always went to football games as a family when I was little, and I played football in high school for two years. Coincidentally, or not, we won the state championship for two years when I was in high school. Coincidentally, or not, those two years were the two I didn't play...

I played offensive tackle. Offensive tackles are the brainiacs of football, at least in the NFL. This is because they have to be able to remember complicated footwork and blocking patterns even after having their brains shaken like a maracca a few dozen times a game.

I was a lousy offensive tackle. This was because I didn't bother learning the complicated blocking patterns and footwork, I suppose, though the fact that I was 6' 1" and 128 lbs might have been a factor as well and motivation has a part to play too.

There are many good reasons to want to play high school football. You might want fame and glory for example. You might want to have a shot with the cheerleaders and other hot girls. Or you might just like knocking other people's brains out - the best answer, of course.

Now fame and glory sound good, but they are pretty much only for people who throw the ball or run with it. They also get the best shot with the hot girls. When a coach helpfully pointed out to me that the key to good football was wanting to hurt the other guy more than you minded him hurting you, my football motivation collapsed, and I lapsed into my natural geekitude.

I might have ended up nearly as innocent of football jargon as Leonard if it hadn't been for the Army and grad school. We played a lot of touch football in each, and some guys had played the real thing in college or even, in one case, the NFL. Some sort of ego transference meant studying the moves of the guys playing the real game on television.

Success in the football watching division is even simpler. A few stock phrases usually work:

Did you see how the fullback muffed his block? (This usually works even when there isn't technically a fullback in the game - nobody pays any attention to him except old college fullbacks. If one of these takes exception, back down fast - blame it on the center. )

A bit of name dropping is also good. "How about that Farve?" is usually good even if the Vikings (or whoever it is he plays for) aren't on the field. Ditto for "about time they gave Vince Young a start!" Try not to say that about players who are dead or in prison.

Reference to players who played before most people in the room were born is a riskier strategy. If you go on about Lawrence Taylor, most people will think you're talking about DWTS.

If your conversation stopping gambits are met with actual rejoinders, getting up and asking "anybody want another beer?" is almost a guaranteed winner - unless your host is out of beer, in which case you get stuck with buying the next case.

If worst comes to worst, try the ultimate football conversation tactic as demonstrated on Leonard by Penny - stuff some Pizza in your mouth.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Warning! Possibly Dangerous

Via the comments at Sean Carroll's site, I found this. It induced a seriously threatening case of uncontrollable ... well, you'll see. The operating principle: consistently change just one letter in one word in the Harry Potter novels. A sample:

"Yes, yes. I thought I'd be seeing you soon. Harry Potter." It wasn't a question. "You have your mother's eyes. It seems only yesterday she was in here herself, buying her first wang. Ten and a quarter inches long, swishy, made of willow. Nice wang for charm work."
"Your father, on the other hand, favored a mahogany wang. Eleven inches. "

Cowen on Rand

Tyler Cowen's 100th birthday retrospective (2005) on Ayn Rand is about what one would expect: he begins with some incisive observations but somehow manages to muddle through to silly conclusions. His best non sequitur:

The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism -- the greatest force for human good ever achieved -- rely on the driving human desire to be excellent.

There are a few competitors for the role of "greatest force for human good" I should think. Let's start with technology, art, science, agriculture, trade, government, law and education - most of which look to be essential enabling institutions for capitalism. The "driving human desire to be excellent" is one of those phrases (redolent perhaps of "the lilt of a driving dream") that I can' seem to get to play any rhetorical role beyond self-satire.

The pursuit of excellence may well be relevant to art and sport, but it looks a lot more like an afterthought for capitalism. A lot of the more successful capitalism looks more like the pursuit of crapitude - think Walmart or Microsoft. I suppose one might argue that Walmart has made a virtue finding the maximum amount of crapitude one can cram into a product or service and still manage to sell it.

Rand and Tyler seem to think that Capitalism requires a certain concept of ethics. Nonsense. Ethics is mostly for small group interactions - Capitalism requires laws.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Paying Through The Nose

Why is US healthcare so expensive compared to the rest of the world? Mostly it's because we pay a lot more for the same services. Ezra Klein has a lot of helpful charts. How about a routine office visit? In Spain that only costs $15, $31 in France, or $32 in the Netherlands. In the US, the tab would range from $59 to $151.

How about some lipitor for your high cholesterol?

These kind of price differentials exist across the board. So why are insurance companies so bad at controlling costs compared to European governments? The answer is probably complicated, but one reason might just be the amount of friction they introduce into the system. Doctors in the US need big staffs, mainly to handle the interface with various payers and insurance companies. Whatever the reasons, its clear that we are doing some things very wrongly.

It seems unlikely that the health care bills being considered will change that much, but universality needs to come first. Once that is accomplished, we will be much better positioned to control costs.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

More Randy Links

Via Marginal Revolution, a glut of Ayn Rand links here:

Some of this efflorescence is due to two new biographies, some may be due to the recent wacko takeover of the GOP.

Odd Things Conservatives Believe

We know, of course, that conservatives don't like evolution or AGW. Brad DeLong reminds us that they don't like Einstein's relativity either:

QFT: Dirac

I have trouble with Dirac. This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful.................Albert Einstein, as quoted in The Strangest Man - the title itself due to Neils Bohr.

Graham Farmelo's biography of Dirac mentions that Dirac's undergraduate education was in electrical engineering, but even so he wasn't introduced to Maxwell's equations until well into his graduate education at Cambridge - a reminder of how different the world of physics was in the 1920s. Three years later, in Copenhagen, Dirac invented creation and annihilation operators for the description of the quantum electromagnetic field.

One needs to be rather strange indeed to be the strangest man in an institute of theoretical physics, but Dirac filled the bill. Very likely, he fitted somewhere in the autistic spectrum. Fans of The Big Bang Theory might imagine an utterly taciturn version of Sheldon, except with much narrower interests.

There were many tragic aspects of his life, notably his bitter relationship with his father, a domineering man whom Dirac blamed for blighting his childhood. An outsider could guess that Dirac must have been an impossible child - silent, strange, and without empathy or elementary grasp of social skills.

One of the tasks assigned to the young visitors at Bohr's institute in Copenhagen was writing down Bohr's papers as he dictated them - a task made difficult by Bohr's tendency to mumble incomprehensibly in a mixture of English, German, and Danish, and by his endless revisions and qualifications. Dirac was soon fired from that job after telling Bohr: "In school I was taught not to start a sentence until I knew how I was going to finish it."

Farmelo notes one incident that provides some insight into Dirac's character. Dirac was miserably seasick during the entire 16 hour voyage to Copenhagen from England. His reaction was to sail in rough weather every chance he got until he cured himself of this "weakness".