Friday, September 28, 2012


It seems that economics students are the sluts of (at least)the UK University system.

So it might come as a surprise that economics undergraduates have been found to be the most promiscuous students on campus. A survey of 4,656 undergraduates found that economics students had nearly five sexual partners since starting university, compared to less than two for those studying environmental science.

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Physicists aren't mentioned in either top or bottom five, but I'm pretty sure they are too busy with problem sets for sex.

A Causal Vacancy

Joe Polchinski takes up the subject of black hole firewalls in a guest post at Sean Carroll's place. I won't try to summarize his whole argument, except to say that one point is that several things generally believed to be true about black holes turn out not to all be mutually consistent.

The most annoying thing about black holes is that break down of space time at the classical singularity - call it the causal vacancy - my apologies to anyone who thought this might be a Jo Rowling post. The second most annoying thing is the (classical) non specialness of the horizon, which Polchinski calls the "No drama" hypothesis. Firewalls violate that idea.

I also like that Polchinski throws a bone to my favorite crackpot theory:

Actually, over the years many people have suggested that the black hole geometry ends at the horizon. Most of these arguments are based on questionable dynamics, with perhaps the most coherent proposal being Mathur’s fuzzball, the horizon being replaced by a shell of branes (though Samir himself is actually advocating a form of complementarity now).

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Polls & Stuff

For most of the past month or two most polls have shown a very narrow lead for Obama over Romney. Two polls have been outliers: Rasmussen and Gallup. Rasmussen typically gave Romney a paper thin lead and Gallup showed mostly ties. Readers of the Drudge report never saw anything but these two polls.

Now than most polls including Gallup show Obama widening his lead, it looks like Rasmussen or nothing for the Drudge crowd. If these circumstances continue to election day, some large group of voters is in for a real shock.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wonk if You're Horny

I think there has been a regrettable blurring of the line between "Wonk" and other members of the cognoscenti. Even Kevin Drum doesn't seem to see a lot of difference between say "Wonk" and "Nerd." The political press is a big problem of course, since they think than anybody who can count on more than four fingers is a Wonk, when properly the term is reserved for those who actually have some policy knowledge - though usually the numeracy required is minimal. Of course there are Wonks, like Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman who do know the difference between ordinary and partial derivatives.

Math nerds or geeks, on the other hand, really do know the difference between trivial and non-trivial fiber bundles, but might not know anything about economics, say. Steve Landsburg would be a good example here.

Galactic Gas

Recent research has revealed that our galaxy is surrounded by a huge halo of hot gas.

Carl Franzen September 24, 2012, 5:00 PM 5545

Scientists using NASA’s orbital X-ray space telescope Chandra have discovered that our own Milky Way Galaxy has a massive halo of superheated gas surrounding it, the agency announced on Monday.

It’s difficult to conceive of just how large the hot gas halo is, but NASA notes it could extend more than 300,000 light years out from its center, and have a mass equivalent between 10 billion suns and 60 billion suns, or just as many or more than all of the stars in the Milky Way itself, at a temperature “a few hundred times hotter” than the surface of our Sun (between 1 million and 2.5 million kelvin).

The source has not yet been clearly identified, but is suspected to be Fox News.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Fire This Time

Lubos has a long, interesting post about black hole firewalls. I won't pretend to understand the details but the critical question seems to be whether the semi-classical quantum gravity is a good description at the horizon. As it happens, these kinds of ideas find me a sympathetic listener, since they go along well with my favorite crackpot idea: that black holes don't really exist.

There are lots of reasons for that notion being crackpot, like the experimental fact of black hole existence and several independent theoretical reasons, but what I really mean is that I don't believe in the singularity at BH centers or that horizons are likely to be non-special.

The Lumonator has links (see above) to the relevant papers as well as a few terse comments.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Romney's Character

It's no secret that the NYT's Charles M Blow doesn't like Romney. Me either, but why do so many say stuff like:

I have no personal gripe with Romney. I don’t believe him to be an evil man. Quite the opposite: he appears to be a loving husband and father.

In my opinion, even pretty evil people are not utterly without redeeming qualities. But the fact Hitler loved his dogs and was considerate of his secretaries doesn't exactly save his character.

We have evidence that Romney was a bully and a punk as a teenager and as a young adult, a fairly nasty piece of work as a private equity operator in his thirties, and an unprincipled politician ever since. Behaving well toward his immediate family is not enough. Blow has rethought his analysis:

One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient. In fact, a man convinced of his virtue even in the midst of his vice is the worst kind of man.

Or among the most dangerous, at any rate.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Thane of Fife Had a Wife...

The same may be true of Jesus Christ. A newly discovered papyrus fragment points in that direction.

The quote about Jesus' wife is part of a description of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. In the conversation, Jesus talks about his mother twice and speaks once about his wife. One of them is identified as "Mary." His disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy of being part of their community, to which Jesus replies, “she will able to be my disciple.”

Not news - or perhaps welcome confirmation - for a minority convinced that Mary Magdalen was the wife of Jesus.

Where is she now, we might ask. Perhaps done in, or at least suppressed by the perpetual chastity crowd.

Sinister Moment

There was a moment in Romney's speech to the high rollers that I found a bit sinister, where he muses about the embassy takeover in Iran proving crucial in the 1980 Carter vs Reagan election. He says something to the effect of "if something like that happens, I will be ready to exploit it."

For some reason that reminds me of the creepy husband saying "if my wife should just happen to get murdered, forward the life insurance to my Cayman Islands account." I'm cynical and suspicious by nature but I found Romney's statement downright creepy. I would like to know exactly who was behind that anti-Muslim video, though, to be sure it seems a bit inept even for the likes of Karl Rove - and Romney's reaction was inept as well.

I worry more that Romney and his buddy Bibi might have some October surprise cooked up.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Slimy Idiot

I know that I should ignore the kind of idiot that writes for Fox News, but I was struck by what a tiny-souled slimy idiot Dinesh D'Sousa is.

It would be hard to find a more egregious example of willful misconstruction of the written word, but it's also pretty hard to imagine anyone dumb enough to be taken in by even by his out of context quote manipulation. I keep making that mistake, thinking Fox News drones might actually have functioning minds.

slimy idiot

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cyborgs and Thinking Caps

A lot of things can go wrong in the neural system that can mess up our lives. Some of the obvious ones involve severing of the nerves that carry brain signals to our muscles. Biology is working hard to figure out how to repair such connections, but electronic technology has also found some work arounds. If you can collect the nerve signal above the cut, an electronic signal can be sent to the muscle, or to an electromechanical system that replaces the function of the muscle. Paralyzed rats and even people have been show to be able to control virtual joysticks and real movements with signals collected from deep in the brain.

Many video games of the first person shooter (FPS) type place a high premium on so called “twitch speed” – the time it takes to go from identifying a target to pulling the trigger. It seems that it takes several milli-seconds to go from deciding to fire for the signal to be processed by the motor cortex and delivered to the muscle. “Thinking caps” or arrays of electrodes attached to the head can intercept the brains processing take advantage of the million times faster speeds of electronics to shave precious milli-seconds off these times. Another type of thinking cap can help you learn to be a sniper or drone pilot in record time.

US military researchers have had great success using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)– in which they hook you up to what’s essentially a 9-volt battery and let the current flow through your brain. After a few years of lab testing, they’ve found that they can more than double the rate at which people learn a wide range of tasks such as object recognition, maths skills, and marksmanship. …

When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up.

The experiment I underwent was accelerated marksmanship training on a simulation the military uses. I spent a few hours learning how to shoot a modified M4 close-range assault rifle, first without tDCS and then with. Without it I was terrible, and when you’re terrible at something, all you can do is obsess about how terrible you are. And how much you want to stop doing the thing you are terrible at.

Then this happened:

The 20 minutes I spent hitting targets while electricity coursed through my brain were far from transcendent. I only remember feeling like I had just had an excellent cup of coffee, but without the caffeine jitters. I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.

It was only when they turned off the current that I grasped what had just happened. Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot. And I can’t tell you how stunning it was to suddenly understand just how much of a drag that inner cacophony is on my ability to navigate life and basic tasks.

No word yet on whether or not these will be authorized for the SAT, GRE, NBA free throws or your comprehensive exams, but there are a bunch of problems in Jackson and Peskin and Schroeder I mean to get back to as soon as I get mine.

Other new neural prostheses have learned to speak the language of the brain well enough to send identifiable imagery to the brains of the blind.

Perhaps the latest and greatest advance of this type has been the development of subsystems which can apparently replace some of the “thinking” and decision making functions of the brain. The one I need right now is the memory enhancement technology recently tested on rats.

If this stuff works out, it could be game over for Faux News and the Republicans.

Decisions, Decisions

There is plenty of evidence that suggests that while people like to have choices, they don’t like to make choices. Some economists find this a paradox. Are the two inconsistent? I doubt it. Having more choices maximizes your long term freedom, while making a choice irrevocably closes off future options. If you order the banana cream pie, you can forget about the chocolate parfait and a lot of other choices.

Decision making is hard, especially when the stakes are high. It costs a lot of mental and psychic energy. Michael Lewis got the world’s most important decision maker to talk about his process. (As quoted by Andrew Sullivan):

Michael Lewis(full disclosure: old friend, former colleague) asked the president to "Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president." Part of Obama's response:

You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”

Some people seem to make decisions quickly and easily, relying on “gut” rather than brain. Mostly they seem to be reckless idiots.

Einstein and Feynman were a couple of others who made it a point to eliminate unnecessary decisions from their lives. Feynman always had the chocolate ice cream. Einstein dispensed with socks.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Tolerance and Timing

Either NPR or my local NPR station decided to run a story this morning on some Muslim woman who wanted to correct misunderstandings about her religion and feared that her sons would face discrimination in school.  I turned it off.  I was in no mood to hear about how Islam was a religion of peace, blah, blah, blah.  It's not that I was without sympathy, because American Muslims, with very few exceptions, have proven to be good citizens.  But there is the fundamental problem that hundreds of thousands of her co-coreligionists in other countries were currently attacking, burning and murdering in the name of that religion for transcendentally stupid reasons.

Tolerance cannot be a one way street, and if Muslims in much of the world are behaving badly, Muslims everywhere are going to be suspect at best.  Some primitive part of my brain thought "disrespect, you call that disrespect?  I'll show you disrespect", followed by turning Mecca into a large plain of radioactive glass. Oh my gosh - I seem to be thinking like a Romney voter.

To be sure, the grievances of Arabs are only incidentally related to religion, but they have really been leading with stupidity here.

Aid and Comfort

You have to love Mitt Romney, Faux News, and the rest of the Republican Party - if you are a Al Qaeda or other anti-American extremist.  Nothing can please them more than to have prominent American voices undermining our Nation and our diplomats around the world.

Americans have had a long tradition of sticking together in a crisis, but Romney, with his instinctive contempt for American values and the truth was quick ditch this tradition in the hope of eking out some advantage for his faltering campaign, whatever the cost to the country.  Extremists everywhere have been greatly emboldened by this show of disunity and inter-American acrimony.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bacile, Jones, Romney and al Quaeda

An idiotic film made by a man calling himself Sam Bacile and promoted by Quaran burner Terry Jones was the pretext of riots in Egypt that claimed an American flag and other riots in Libya that apparently served as cover for a murderous attack on the American consulate that killed an American ambassador and three other   Americans.

Al Quaeda and other enemies of America constantly seek for pretexts to stir up anger against us and Jones and Bacile are their willing accomplices.  Unfortunately, Mitt Romney doesn't seem much better.  He used these events to promote his candidacy at the expense of American security and that of our diplomats.

Bacile, the main provocateur here, seems to be a pseudonym.  He represented himself as a Jewish-Israeli American, but is likely someone quite different - quite possibly a convicted fraudster.  His funders are mysterious, but if the Republican campaign is involved, Romney is done for.

Monday, September 10, 2012


I would appreciate it if some people could try commenting with the new disqus system

Sunday, September 09, 2012


Well, I finished all the lessons in Duolingo, supposedly "mastering" all the topics.  I have also translated slightly less than 2000 web sentences.  There is no doubt that my ability to read Spanish has improved drastically, though hardly to the point of fluency in any sense.  Web translations are still usually brutally hard work, with frequent appeals to the dictionary.  I remain helpless at following real time Spanish conversations, in person or in the telenovela.  Needless to say, my speech production is pretty poor too.  Supposedly I have now learned 1400 and some words.

I took an online Spanish test and got "Advanced" ratings in everything but verbs (Intermediate), which remain a more or less impenetrable swamp to me.  I suppose I should study verbs more systematically, but am otherwise unsure where to go next.  Any thoughts?

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Krugman Still An Optimist

What I’ve been arguing for a while is that saving the euro requires two things: (a) large ECB purchases of peripheral bonds (or at least a declared willingness to do so, to cap yields), and (b) an indication that the ECB will be willing to allow higher inflation to make adjustment possible.
It looks as if we sorta kinda got (a), although the details are hard to interpret. Nothing on (b) yet, and market indicators of inflation expectations are still too low.
So, a step in the right direction, probably enough to buy a significant amount of time, but not enough unless more follows.
The difference from what Kevin and I said is that he seems to be ignoring the rather explicit promises that (b)won't happen.  Of course we could hope that Draghi is not serious about sterilization.

Kevin Drum Agrees

Euro still doomed.

This is Europe's fundamental problem. For years, capital has flowed out of the core (Germany etc.) and into the periphery (Greece, Spain, etc.), and this can't keep up forever. Basically, one of three things has to happen eventually:
  1. The fixed exchange rate area breaks up. In other words, Europe abandons the euro, the periphery countries readopt their old national currencies, and then promptly devalue them.
  2. The capital flow imbalances have to stop and turn around. This would require that Germany start running a trade deficit and the periphery countries start running trade surpluses.
  3. The capital flow imbalances have to be institutionalized permanently. This can happen either via permanent fiscal transfers from core to periphery (similar to the way the United States maintains permanent fiscal transfers from rich states to poorer states) or via central bank bailouts.
Let's take these one by one. European leaders swear on their mothers' graves that #1 won't happen. They say the euro is "irreversible." There's no sign at all that #2 will happen either. Germany has shown no willingness to abandon its cherished trade surplus, no willingness to tolerate higher inflation, and no willingness to pursue any other course that falls under the general rubric of "internal devaluation." And option #3 is off the table too. Europe's rich countries have demonstrated no desire to permanently subsidize their poorer neighbors, and their voters would revolt if they tried — something that's pretty understandable given the vast sums that would probably be required. Likewise, on the central bank front, today's ECB action is a temporary measure. No one thinks they can (or should) keep it up forever.

EurOppa Gangnam Style

The European Central Bank has promised to buy up as much debt as necessary to keep the Euro in business, but is that going to be good enough? I have my doubts. The problem is that I don't see anything here to ease the death grip of austerity on the South.

This is not a Bernanke style quantitative easing, because the ECB will offset its loans with borrowing of its own, or some similar strategy of sterilization. Germany seems likely to prevent any real action to deal with the underlying problem, but its caution will not decrease the long run risk that those loans to the South will go South along with the borrower's economies.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Too Bad Nobody Watched It But...

The Dems had some good early speeches, plus a great fragment of debate between Romney and Kennedy in their Senate contest that featured Romney loudly proclaiming his pro-choice, pro-abortion views, while Kennedy called him not pro-choice but multiple choice.


Only a few days remain in the Arctic melt season, but Arctic sea ice continues to collapse. Already this year's area is about half a million square kilometers below the 2007 season, which broke previous records by similar amounts.

We should probably care about this even if we aren't polar bears.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Everybody Loves Clint Eastwood

Including, apparently, Obama.

I'm not that big a fan.


At the Republican convention Paul Ryan blamed Obama for the closing of the Janesville, WI GM auto plant. Fact checkers pointed out that the official closing took place on Dec 23, 2008, before Obama took office. Today, George Will, claimed that the plant had continued to be open until April of 2009.

At the link, you can find a picture of the closing ceremonies on Dec 23, 2008.

In fact, a skeleton crew (57 workers) finished assembly of some vehicles until April of 2009 - and a few others continued to decommission the plant even after.

Sounds like another Ryan "two fifty something" marathon to me.

Stupidest Moment on Sunday Morning TV

George Will (who else?) calling Donna Brazile a racist.

Most unfortunate moment on Sunday Morning TV:

Brazile failing to use the moment to clock his sorry ass.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Paul Lyan

Kevin Drum takes a looks at Ryan's modus operandi in morphing his 4 hour plus marathon into a two fifty something marathon:

But if there's anything really telling about Ryan's character here, it's the fact that when he misrepresents himself, he doesn't do it in a small way. Ryan didn't just shave five or ten minutes off his time, the way some of us might if we were bragging about an old athletic accomplishment that no one could check up on, he shaved off a full hour, giving himself an extremely respectable, elite amateur time. This doesn't quite rank up there with Kim Jong-Il carding eleven holes-in-one on his first round of golf, or Pat Robertson leg-pressing 2,000 pounds at age 76, but it's in the same ballpark.

Keep this in mind when Ryan talks about his tax and budget plan and promises with a straight face that it will slash the deficit, benefit the middle class, protect the social safety net, and supercharge economic growth all at once: lying is easier when you tell a big lie. This is Ryan's oeuvre. His mistake was letting himself be lulled by Hugh Hewitt's blandishments and forgetting that even 20-year-old marathon times, unlike his rather spectacular economic claims, are pretty easy to verify.