Thursday, April 30, 2009

Libertarian Wack

Peter Thiel made a billion or so bucks on Pay Pal and Facebook. This essay suggests to me that the pain of having to pay taxes may have driven him over the brink - though he claims he always was.

A few of the other things that really piss him off: democracy, women getting the vote and the suggestion that he won't live forever.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cliff May

I caught this sorry torture apologist being interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Even if his message were not so dishonest and odious, his annoyingly chipmunklike chattering would still deserve exile to some dark place of silence.

NY Times Can't Count Either

Check this front page labor graphic graphic

Less than 100 days, much of it during the Bush administration, none of it plausibly affected by any action of the Obama administration.

... Mumbles inarticulately.

Mara Eliason, Idiot

I've never been impressed with the political acumen of Fox and NPR political hack Mara Eliason, but she can't count, either. This morning on NPR, about Obama's first 100 days:

Remember, this is only one tenth of his Presidential term.

Obama's term is scheduled to be 1461 days (365 X 4 + 1).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Conservatism as an Intellectual Handicap

Jason Linkins reports on a study showing that conservatives don't get Stephen Colbert - or perhaps humor at all.

...conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements. Conservatism also significantly predicted perceptions that Colbert disliked liberalism...

Surprising perhaps, but I can definitely see it. Irony apparently involves some sort of higher brain functioning that conservatives mostly lack - a sort of intellectual equivalent of Asperger's syndrome.

This could explain a lot - like why conservatives seem to think Rush Limbaugh is funny. And why they tend to be so nasty. Always being the one who doesn't get the joke must be rather humiliating. And what other theory could explain Ayn Rand?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Climate Beyond the Greenhouse

Motl, Barton and the usual suspects make a lot of the fact that the Earth seems to have frequently been a lot warmer in the past than it is today. We are solidly in the territory of the colder periods of the Phanerozoic. This is not mainly an effect of CO2, though current CO2 levels seem to be low by the standards of 50 to 600 million years ago.

The biggest effect on climate (aside from the very slow warming of the Sun) is the position of the continents. Our current cold spell, during which we humans and much other life evolved, started when the Isthmus of Panama closed 5 Mya. If it opens again the effect on climate is likely to be as important as a couple or 3 CO2 doublings.

These things are well known to climate scientists, and don't affect their arguments (assuming the worst plausible feedbacks - methane clathrate melting) don't occur. Those who believe that anthropogenic CO2 will end the planet, or even the human race, are likely to be dissapointed.

It probably will suck to be Bangla Desh, a Pacific atoll, Florida, or Holland though.

Torture Prosecutions

Tyler Cowen points out a probably fatal flaw in the idea of prosecuting the Bush war criminals:

At many blogs (Sullivan, Yglesias, DeLong, among others) you will find ongoing arguments for prosecuting the torturers who ran our government for a while. I am in agreement with the moral stance of these critics but I don't agree with their practical conclusions. I believe that a full investigation would lead the U.S. public to, ultimately, side with torture, side with the torturers, and side against the prosecutors. That's why we can't proceed and Obama probably understands that. If another attack happened this would be all the more true.

On top of everything else, major Democrats in Congress are likely complicit and the Democrats as a whole hardly made this a campaign issue in 2004; in 2008 the economy was their winning issue, not torture.

The public, or a large fraction of it, still believes in torture. Chances of a "Not Guilty" verdict are excellent. Inability to convict is a good reason not to try them.

There is one egregious crime that the public might convict on: The lies and betrayal that sent the Abu Ghraib guards to prison for crimes commissioned by Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, and Rice. They all knew the truth and they all lied or kept silent to send those guards to prison. Try them for that first.

Swine Flu

Tyler Cowen finds this:

Cities that instituted quarantine, school closings, bans on public gatherings and other such procedures early in the epidemic had peak death rates 30 percent to 50 percent lower than those that did not.

That is from a study of the pandemic of 1918-1919 and here is more, from 2007. The best place to follow what is going on in Mexico -- where such restrictions are now common -- is ElUniversal. People in Mexico are dying of the flu every day; what is the chance that only the benign version of the virus crosses the border?

It may be too soon to adopt such measures of panic - but not by much. It's easy to forget that our rapidly available weapons against the flu are only slightly better than they were in 1918.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Theep Dought

Avoid unneccessary discussions with crazy people. They are bad for the blood pressure - and insanity is contagious.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

David Broder is Not a Senile Idiot

Let me just challenge the conventional wisdom that David Broder is a senile idiot.

Broder has always been a partisan hack - and an idiot.

Persuasion II

Every once in a while, an apparently intelligent person writes something so gob-smackingly wierd and illogical that you know that they have to have a screw loose. Such people are frequently libertarians. Consider the case of Alex Tabarrok:

Intelligence Squared has held a series of debates in which they poll ayes and nayes before and after. How should we expect opinion to change with such debates? Let's assume that the debate teams are evenly matched on average (since any debate resolution can be written in either the affirmative or negative this seems a weak assumption). If so, then we ought to expect a random walk; that is, sometimes the aye team will be stronger and support for their position will grow (aye after - aye before will increase) and sometimes the nay team will be stronger and support for their position will grow. On average, however, we ought to expect that if it's 30% aye and 70% nay going in then it ought to be 30% aye and 70% nay going out, again, on average. Another way of saying this is that new information, by definition, should not swing your view systematically one way or the other.

Alas, the data refute this position. The graph shown below (click to enlarge) looks at the percentage of ayes and nayes among the decided before and after. The hypothesis says the data should lie around the 45 degree line. Yet, there is a clear tendency for the minority position to gain adherents - that is, there is an underdog advantage so positions with less than 50% of the ayes before tend to increase in adherents and positions with greater than 50% ayes tend to lose adherents. What could explain this?

Let's review. Alex sees some interesting data, forms a hypothesis about how it should behave, and finds hypothesis does not explain the facts. So far so good. It's what he says next that is completely nuts.

I see two plausible possibilities.

1) If the side with the larger numbers has weaker adherents they could be more likely to change their mind.

2) The undecided are key and the undecided are lying.

Notice that neither of these "explanations" is (1) compatible with his original hypothesis of randomness or (2) explains anything. There is also a serious element of innumeracy in his reasoning. Suppose, for example, that propensity to change one's mind was purely random. In that case, the proportion of majority and minority changing their minds would be the same for both groups, but the absolute numbers would be greater in the majority, leading to a change in just the direction seen. Oddly enough, Alex knows this, but rejects it for reasons incomprehensible to me.

I doubt that that is the full explanation however, and I find his starting hypothesis (of purely random changes) implausible. For one thing, I have read the debate topics. Essentially all of them are emotionally loaded, multi-faceted, and far from the primary concerns of the average citizen. I intend to consider this point further, but first let's give Alex a bit more rope:

Thus 2 is my best guess. Note first that the number of "undecided" swing massively in these debates and in every case the number of undecided goes down a lot, itself peculiar if people are rational Bayesians. A big swing in undecided votes is quite odd for two additional reasons. First, when Justice Roberts said he'd never really thought about the constitutionality of abortion people were incredulous. Similarly, could 30% of the audience (in a debate in which Tyler recently participated (pdf)) be truly undecided about whether "it is wrong to pay for sex"? Second, and even more doubtful, could it be that 30% of the people at the debate were undecided--thus had not heard arguments in let's say the previous 10 years that converted them one way or the other--but on that very night a majority of the undecided were at last pushed into the decided camp? I think not, thus I think lying best explains the data

Doh. Roberts was an appelate judge whose entire career was the interpretation of the law and the constitution, and the question of abortion is the most contentious constitutional issue of the past several decades. Most people don't frequent prostitutes, and even those who do have little motive to examine the morality of the question. I see no parallel here.

Tabarrok once more:

Some questions for readers. Can you think of another hypothesis to explain the data

How about this. When complex issues people have not thought much about are defended in debate, people replace prejudices with more informed choices. Because the issues are difficult, there is no clear cut right answer, and informed people are more likely to split half and half when the evidence on either side is approximately equal.
Can you think of a way of testing competing hypotheses

Ask people why they changed their minds.

And does anyone know of a larger database of debate decisions with ayes, nayes and undecided before and after.

Election debates and polls - though the debaters are rarely equal in those contests.

Shooting libertarian fish in a barrel.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Persuasion I

What's the best reason for changing your mind? How about because you were wrong? Maybe you didn't know the most relevant facts, or maybe you were making a mistake of logic. Watching a debate might offer some fact or explanation that persuades.

Mostly, though, we don't change our minds much on important matters, and when we do change, the change is at a glacial pace. Among the most significant changes of my lifetime were the change in racial attitudes and the change in attitude toward gay people. Relations between the sexes have changed greatly as well.

Each of these changes took place over at least one or two generations, and none of them has been very complete. Some of the change is just due to the older attitudes dying out with the people who held them, but not all or probably even most.

I vividly recall hearing of (or seeing?) an interview with an older Southerner who said he had been anti-black and had persecuted blacks all his life, but his perspective was now changed by the fact that he now had two half-black grandchildren. That might have been a Saul on the road to Damascus moment, but the glacial change is more common. People see attitudes changing around them, and that fact makes them more susceptible to change.

Fact and logic play a very minor role in such change, I think. What changes is mostly ones openness to hearing new fact and reason. The rise and triumph of abolitionist thought in England has to be a classic case. William Wiberforce and a few other passionate and persistent men and women changed the mind of a whole nation. They in turn had been persuaded, in part, by the eloquent testimony of ex slaves and that former slave ship captain who wrote "Amazing Grace" - a great movie, btw.

Rather similar events drove the much later abolition in the US, and the civil rights movement of my youth.

Such liberal changes are driven mostly by empathy. Conservative and reactionary change tends to be driven by fear. Anger plays for both sides.

Our attitudes are greatly shaped by those around us. That's one reason why the right-wing noise machine is so essential to the survival of reactionary Republicanism. If most of your fellow citizens think you are nuts, and your leaders continually lie to you, and they and you *are* nuts, its hard to maintain your attitude without a protective cocoon of social lunacy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Conservatives questioned about their opposition to marriage for gays usually claim to believe that it would threaten "their kind" of marriage. When asked to say how, they seem to become inarticulate. So are they just wrong? (as proponents of marriage equality claim)

My instinct is to guess no. Widespread fears usually have a basis in reality - which is not to say that they have a valid real justification. Conservatives usually come up with a variation of the slippery slope argument - the idea that "that way lies incest, bestiality," and people marrying their tractors. Stanley Kurtz gives this argument the old manly try in NRO here. I don't quite buy it, but I think that he is getting warm.

Those familiar with my thought know that I have a penchant for evolutionary psychology based explanations of social phenomena. One aspect of that argument is that religions are ubiquitous in civilization because they serve crucial social functions. Such religions always seem to be heavily preoccupied with regulation of sex and sexual morality, which suggests in turn that such regulation is important in defining the structure and function of societies.

This idea is hardly a full-fledged explanation, much less a justification for prohibition of gay marriage (or of marrying your truck), but it is a hint that tampering with any such institution has important implications for a society.

For those who want an example, consider the decline and fall of marriage and family among American blacks. That this phenomenon is intimately connected to educational, social and economic failure and associated criminality can hardly be doubted.

Libertarians, of course, are constitutionally immune to this sort of argument. It violates their religion - disproves it actually.

Anybody have a better argument? Or, better yet, a refutation? I would love to see one.

PS - None of this is to suggest that I object to tampering with established social structures. The point is, however, that such tampering has consequences, including possibly profound consequences. If tamper we must, we had better try to anticipate those consequences. The same caution applies to greenhouse gas emission and credit default swaps.

Hey Mr. Taliban

Some, at least, think that there is a realistic probability of Islamabad falling to the Taliban, and with it, probably, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. This prospect is pretty scary for nearby powers India, China, Iran, and Russia, not to mention the US, Israel, and much of the Middle East. Not only does Pakistan have lots (150?) of nukes, but it also has the capability to deliver them at some distance.

Should the Taliban triumph, it would give rise to the following scary movie scenarios:

a)Crazy Taliban attack India, the US in Afghanistan, Saudi Oil, Iranian Shia, or Israel.

b)India, the US, and/or Israel attempt to sieze or destroy nukes to prevent (a), probably failing and causing (a)

c)Big states decide first strike is only option to prevent (a), with all that implies.

The Bush/Obama plan for Pakistan doesn't seem to be working out very well.

Monday, April 20, 2009

KJ and I

Every week or three I get a call from my buddy KJ. KJ has kind of a one-track mind. He always has the same question: “I just need to check, what the serial number on your printer is?” Now at first I used to ask him why he wanted to know, and why, but his answers always seemed a bit vague, so I eventually decided that a more nuanced interrogatory might be needed. From our last conversation:

KJ: Hey, I just need to check, what’s the serial number on your printer?

CIP: Who is calling please?

KJ: This is KJ, my boss just wanted me to check what the serial number on your printer is.

CIP: Hey K! It’s been a while. I hope you haven’t forgotten about that beer you owe me.

KJ: What?

CIP: You know. From the kids soccer game against the Outlaws. Last Fall.

KJ: Huh?

CIP: So is Jamie going to stick with the Flame next year? The transition to under twelve is a biggie.

KJ: I’m from Dataline. I just wanted to check the serial number on your printer.

CIP: You aren’t the KJ whose son plays on the soccer team with my daughter?

KJ: Uh, no. (sounding a bit relieved).

CIP: Oh dear! This is embarrassing. I thought your voice sounded funny. My bad! What did you call for again?

KJ: I wanted the serial and model number of your printer.

CIP: Just a minute. Sorry!

(two minutes later, after reading my email)

CIP: Which one was that?

KJ: The one right there, close to you.

CIP: The one on the right?

KJ: Uhh… yeah.

(Pick up juggling clubs. Keep dropping. I really need to practice more if I ever hope to do torches! Finally one lands next to phone, knocking over two empty Coke cans.)

CIP: Uh K? I can’t find one on the right. Are you sure you didn’t mean the one on the left?

KJ: Oh… yeah, sure, I forgot. The one you usually print on. How many printers do you have there, anyway?

CIP: Let me check!

(Lunch time! Unfortunately, by the time I got back KJ seems to have lost the connection. Or at least I hope he didn’t have to listen to that beeping for very long, because the guy in the next office was pretty annoyed – and there is a wall between us.

I hope KJ calls back soon.

I forgot to tell him that I don’t have a printer.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


ABC's This Week had its balanced round table today: Conservative Cokie Roberts, professional right-wing liar George Will, professional right-wing airhead Peggy Noonan, and Sam Donaldson. After Will uttered forth his usual spew of bombastic nonsensical pomposity, this time on the subject of teabags, taxation and American history, Donaldson punctured it with a sentence: "the tea parties were about hating Obama."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Anger Management

The tea baggers are really angry people. Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and his billionaire sponsored (Coors, Koch) Astroturf organizations have succeeded in stirring up a lot of rage in at least a few people. So what is the real target of their anger? I have a lot of trouble believing that it's because Obama plans to raise taxes on those making over $250,000 per year to a few percentage points less than they were when Reagan was President. Most of them don't look like they have ever seen that kind of money.

There are a lot of people who are just crazy angry, of course, like the guys who shot up the schools, police, etc. Those people can be stirred to rage on almost any account. I have to think that it's mostly about race, though. They just can't stand it that a black man, expecially a black man who is clearly a lot smarter than they are, is President. There is a strong undertone of race hatred in much of what we hear.

Of course it doesn't help that history has passed them by.

Left-handed, Snot-nosed, Four-eyed Freaks

Bee has a post asking whether success in physics is more a function of talent or work. Put me down for talent, though nobody is going to be a great (or even mediocre) physicist without some work. Talent in mathematics and similar activities often shows itself at early age. It doesn't seem to be particularly dependent on training, or at least formal training, either.

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth by Benbow et. al. looked at the talent issue in considerable detail. Those who have studied the data have found a number of seemingly independent correlations that suggest a physiological basis. The mathematically talented, and especially the very talented, tend to be more myopic than either their families or the general population. They are also more likely to have allergies and be left-handed, and, overwhelmingly more likely to be male. All of which seems to suggest that the popular stereotypes are dead on.

Twenty year follow ups show that the early indicators of talent were good predictors of academic success and career accomplishment.

Talent is hardly all, of course. Without training and development it is unlikely to go anywhere. It is at least plausible that for equally talented individuals, hard work makes the difference. I think the real divider is something different though. Without passion, neither talent nor work is likely enough. Or maybe it would be better to say that without a profound interest in the subject, one is hardly likely to think or work hard enough to be a big success.

Chess is another area where the talent/work tradeoff has been looked at in detail. I will take a look at that later.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


With Captain Phillip's rescue and killing and capturing of his captors, the US has won a small victory in the war against the Somali pirates. Why is it so hard to prevent these piracies? We keep hearing that the area in question is large, a couple of times the size of Texas, but somehow the British did a fair job of suppressing pirates in several seas and oceans a couple of hundred years ago, with wooden ships powered by sail, without radio, radar, satellites, or aircraft.

It's a question of will. It would be easy to provide ships with armed crews and weaponry that could sink any pirates, but the shipowners don't want to. It would not be terribly hard to suppress the pirates at their source. Pirates could be followed back to their villages, and all of the boats of that village destroyed. If that didn't send a message, next time destroy every boat in a Somali harbor. There are various reasons not to adopt these measures, but ultimately it might be necessary. Either that, or set up a more formal system for paying tribute.

Old GOP Dead and Gone?

Some are now pronouncing the Republican party dead, a consummation devoutly to be wished perhaps, but I am not so optimistic. They clearly have gone batshit insane.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Crime and Pillishment

Some people feel strong compulsions to engage in very self-destructive behaviors, many of which are illegal. Kleptomania - stealing not out of need or greed but for the thrill of it - is a good example. I caught a story on NPR yesterday on a psychiatrist who achieved considerable success in treating kleptomaniacs with a drug developed to treat addiction.

I suspect that there are many other behaviors that might fit the same kind of pattern - certain risky sexual behaviors of prominent politicians, for example, and perhaps the crimes of Bernie Madoff. Perhaps the day will come when criminals are more likely to be sentenced to pills than jails.

This would be a terrible blow to those for whom "the instinct to punish is strong" to paraphrase Nietsche. Maybe they could develop a pill for them ...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Embarassed and Annoyed

Arizona State University is a big State school trying not nearly hard enough to live down its reputation as Hick U. Until recently, A-State's major distinction was its suitability for year around sun tanning and its major occasion for notoriety was its frequent presence at the top of the list of the nation's top party schools. The racist doofusses running the joint have now found another way to embarrass the Alumni, though.

This year's commencement speaker is President Obama, but those yahoos decided that he was too junior in the world order to deserve an honorary degree - that despite previously having awarded honorary's to a variety minor celebrities and real degrees to a million or so bozos like your humble servant(MS, PhD). Now honorary degrees are a disgraceful bit of bogosity at best, and those with any pride should decline one, but this really is too much.

Not sure what arm of the A-State octopus makes these decisions, but score another one for whichever redneck stupidocracy it happens to be.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Dirty Larry?

They call a cop dirty when he's on the take. Larry Summers is Obama chief economics advisor, and the chief economic problem he has to consider is sorry state of the big banks and the antics that got them there. It seems, though, that he has been feeding at their troughs.

Hedge fund D.E. Shaw & Co. paid Summers more than $5 million in salary and other compensation in the past 16 months, according to a financial disclosure form released by the White House yesterday. Summers served as a managing director at the New York-based firm. Summers, a former Treasury secretary, also earned more than $2.7 million in speaking fees.

Glenn Greenwald doesn't think that all that compensation passes the smell test, e.g.:

$135,000 paid by Goldman Sachs to Summers -- for a one-day visit. And the payment was made at a time -- in April, 2008 -- when everyone assumed that the next President would either be Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and that Larry Summers would therefore become exactly what he now is: the most influential financial official in the U.S. Government (and the $45,000 Merrill Lynch payment came 8 days after Obama's election).

It might be worth noting that Summer's ouster from the Harvard Presidency had as much to do with his support for economist-scammer Andrei Schleifer as it did about his suspicions of women's mathematical talents.

Whatever. Equally interesting to me is the (perhaps smokescreen flavored) story that Summers had to take a math test to get hired on at Shaw.

As director of the president's National Economic Council, Larry Summers is currently facing the world's biggest math problem. It was encouraging, therefore, to read in Monday's New York Times that, when he applied for a job in 2006 with investment firm D.E. Shaw, "Mr. Summers was asked to solve math puzzles. He passed, and the job was his."

It's hard to imagine Summers being subjected to the same brainteasers that entry-level quants have to answer. And a White House spokesperson confirmed that it wasn't the same series of questions. But he did have to answer analytical reasoning problems asked by a member of the company's executive committee. What kinds of questions does D.E. Shaw ask?

The New York-based firm is known for its rigorous, numbers-heavy interview process. Most applicants have sterling academic backgrounds. The goal, therefore, is to see if the person can apply the concepts he learned in school to the real world. "The question is, 'Can they get past their white papers?' " says Richard Rusczyk, a former D.E. Shaw trader who conducted dozens of interviews over four years at the firm.

The type of questions most interviewers ask—and those D.E. Shaw is known for—are those with no right answers. Here's an example:

Ten people are bidding on a stock at 90, while 100 people are offering to sell it at 91. What price is the next trade?

Interviewees often say that since there are more sellers than buyers, the sellers get to determine the price. That logic usually yields an answer between 90 and 91. That's exactly wrong. "They're not thinking about what's going on in the real world," says Rubczyk. In reality, when there are more sellers than buyers, the price falls. So the next sale would probably be in the mid- to low 80s.

"Some candidates would say you can't answer that question, because there's no formula," says Rusczyk. "If that makes their heads explode, that's a problem."

The next level of difficulty is the type of question with no answer at all. One such question, which Rusczyk has asked, is the famous St. Petersburg Paradox:

There's a dollar on the table. I'm going to flip a coin. If it comes up heads, I'll double the money. If it comes up heads again, I'll double it again. Whenever it comes up tails, we stop.

But there's a catch: You have to pay a fee to play. How much are you willing to pay?

The answer: infinity. You should theoretically be willing to pay any amount, since the probability on any given flip is that you win 50 cents. (On the first flip, $1 x 1/2 = $0.50. On the second flip, $2 x 1/4* = $0.50. On the third, $4 x 1/8 = $0.50. And so on.) So the potential winnings extend infinitely.

Of course, you can't offer the guy infinity dollars. So the interviewee is forced to either settle on a real world number—as much as the player can afford—or delve into marginal utility theory. Either way, the interviewer gets a sense of how the person's mind works. (This answer is understandably baffling to most people. See philosopher Ian Hacking wrestle with it here.)

The most difficult question of all is the kind that the interviewee must first get wrong before he can get it right. Rusczyk described a question in which the interviewer first explains the concept of a call option. (That's when you have a right but not an obligation to buy a stock.) He then asks a series of six or seven questions about the call option's price based on different market scenarios. The point is to create situations where academic math tells you to do one thing but the market tells you to do another. The ideal candidate follows the market. Eventually, you get to a stage where everyone gets the question wrong. "Then you ask them a leading question, after which they realize their last answer was wrong," says Rusczyk. "They'd then say, 'Where did I go wrong?' "

During his tenure at D.E. Shaw, only three candidates Rusczyk interviewed made it to the last question. "One is a partner [at D.E. Shaw], one took a professorship at Harvard, and one is in business," he says.

Rusczyk argues that these questions, while hypothetical, are very relevant to our current economic challenges. "Within financial markets, one of the big failures was assuming all these mortgages were more or less uncorrelated based on historical data," he says. In other words, models didn't take into account the possibility that housing prices would not keep trending up indefinitely. "That's kind of what the St. Petersburg Paradox is about. Theoretically, [the game] is worth an infinite amount of money. But in the real world, it's not worth infinity."

If the point of D.E. Shaw interviews is to make sure the person can repurpose academic models for the real world, their methodology might serve the Obama administration well. In the meantime, here's another one for Summers:

x = the economy

x + y = the economy not all screwed up

Find y.

How silly. Anyone can see that an additive operator won't work.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Geitner's Game

Brad DeLong's latest swig of Timmy's Kool Aid reduces me to incoherent fury. Fortunately, his commenters do a good job of exposing the fallacies he has incorporated. Meanwhile, Kevin Drum describes the plans the big banks already have for gaming the system.

US banks that have received government aid, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, are considering buying toxic assets to be sold by rivals under the Treasury’s $1,000bn (£680bn) plan to revive the financial system.

....Wall Street executives argue that banks’ asset purchases would help achieve the second main goal of the plan: to establish prices and kick-start the market for illiquid assets. But public opinion may not tolerate the idea of banks selling each other their bad assets. Critics say that would leave the same amount of toxic assets in the system as before, but with the government now liable for most of the losses through its provision of non-recourse loans.

The principle is simple: borrow money from the taxpayers to buy the toxics from each other at a high price, sell the toxics at their real nearly worthless value, and default on the no recourse loans from the taxpayers. Stockholder, bondholders, banks, every body wins - except for the taxpayers, who are left with the losses.

Meanwhile, it seems that the President has had a message for the bank CEOS:

"My administration," the president added, "is the only thing between you and the pitchforks."

And here's a message from the pitchforks: Out of my way, please!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Lumo vs. The Volcano

Maybe Lubos *is* the model for Sheldon Cooper. Lumo goes one-on-one against Boltzmann and his eggs (and brains) yet again. He makes a number of correct obsevations, but seems to think he is pointing out things that people like Sean Carroll don't already understand. I'm pretty sure that he is mistaken about that.

He conjures up some postulates to describe Boltzmann brainiacs:

there are infinitely many possible cosmological models

many of them describe the past of our Universe as one that contains an infinite (or nearly infinite) spacetime volume with a nonzero density of matter

in these infinite (or almost infinite) regions, all localized configurations of matter (microstates) such as those of eggs appear (nearly) infinitely many times

on the other hand, the evolution from a tiny, low-entropy Universe appears only a few times

it is thus infinitely (or almost infinitely) more likely that our life was born as a statistical fluctuation, from a Boltzmann egg, or our brain was directly created as a Boltzmann brain

because of this (nearly) infinite discrepancy between the priors, no finite number of arguments or experiments can change the conclusion that we are just a statistical fluctuation that evolved completely randomly

and so on...

Perhaps there are some who believe this, but I doubt that Sean Caroll is one of them. Moreover, says Lubos:

In the very same sense, if you accept the assumption that the high-entropy initial states are exp(10^{120}) times more likely than the low-entropy initial states, all the people who disagree with you, the heretics who believe thermodynamics up to its second law or even beyond ;-), are obliged to find an effectively infinite miracle that beats your effectively infinitely powerful argument.

Except that you're wrong in the very same sense as your Christian colleagues. The nearly infinite factors that you like to talk about do not measure the actual validity of your framework. They only determine how much blinded you are in your defense of your wrong dogmas.

Past and future: symmetries

The hypothesis that the Universe in the distant past should have a higher entropy than the current entropy is simply fundamentally wrong. It contradicts the second law of thermodynamics which holds according to all observations. It contradicts the proper theoretical derivations that are relevant for statistical physics and thermodynamics. Because the entropy increases with time, the entropy in the distant past had to be lower than today, not higher than today. Any retrodiction about the past that ends up with a qualitatively different conclusion is wrong - in the scientific sense.

Is there really any group of people who believe that our present regime of the universe did not begin in a low entropy state? Not many, I guess, if any. However, if you do the usual statistical mechanics and weight all states compatible with the known constraints on the initial macro state equally, then states of sufficiently low energy are very improbable, so it might be nice to have some explanation of why the initial state was such. You can simply note that it evidently was, or you can try to imagine an explanation.

Anthropicists and landscapers have been known to speculate that that a low entropy initial state evolved from some random prior state by means of a spontaneous fluctuation. The problem is that the probability of a whole low entropy universe evolving spontaneously from a fluctuation is extremely low (at least based on known physics and extensive entropy) compared to the probability of some small part of it fluctuating into a very low entropy state - a Boltzmann egg or Brain perhaps. That is the point of the Boltzmann Brain argument, and even though Lubos states this more or less explicitly in his postulates, he doesn't seem to grasp the implications. If you think that the universe evolved from an entropy fluctuation, there doesn't seem to be any known way to avoid things like Boltzmann Brains, which, improbable as they are, appear to be vastly more probable than the whole universe being a fluctuation. Thus you are left with three choices:
(a)Simply stipulate that the universe started in a very low entropy state and don't try to derive this fact from anything else.
(b)Go with the fluctuation theory, but accept that there are probably a lot more Boltzmann Brains and Eggs than whole coherent universes, or
(c)Try to find some other principle that might explain an initially low entropy state.

The trouble with (b) is that it's not really compatible with science - any given mental of physical state is more likely to be a fluctuation than a reality. Lubos gets this point, but he doesn't seem to get that the whole value of (b) is for discrediting the fluctuation theory altogether.