Friday, August 28, 2009

Time's Arrow

Time flies like an arrow,
but fruit flies like a banana

The arrow of time has been understood for 100 years says Lumo, except, apparently, in the Caltech Cosmology department. Forgetting that for a moment, is it understood by Motl?

I find him a bit hard to understand when he's in his rage against the heathens polemical mode, but he and I have been in this rodeo before, so I'm just going to say that he seems to utterly miss the point in his critique of Sean Carroll and colleagues. The problem Sean addresses, and the Lubos tries to sweep under the rug, is that of how a direction of time emerges from time symmetric laws of microphysics.

Boltzmann was perhaps the first to struggle with this, and his answer was the so-called H theorem. Loschmidt pointed out that his proof in fact assumed something equivalent to what he was trying to prove. Lubos discusses a more recent attempt by Weinberg to prove a quantum field theoretic version of the H theorem. I couldn't really follow his discussion but there was at least one really interesting point - Weinberg apparently relates it to decoherence.

I couldn't entirely follow his next point either, but he helpfully summed it up:

Whenever you calculate the probabilities of evolution from one "macroscopic state" (being identified with an ensemble of similar microscopic states) to another, it's important that you sum over the microstates in the future, but you take the average over the microstates in the past.

So what does this mean? I'm not sure, but the obvious interpretation leads to some strange statistics. In the classical consideration of the interaction of a system with a heat reservoir one derives the density of states leading to the famous Boltzman factor. It is intrinsic to this derivation that microstates be counted the same way in both the initial state (or past state) and the final (future) state. The Lumo prescription, averaging over the initial states, appears to count only one state for each macrostate (or energy value). This guarantees that entropy increases in the future but produces a very non-Boltzmann distribution function.

So perhaps this isn't what he intends. What is clear is that his method of counting states one way in the past and another in the future amounts to a very violent imposition of time assymmetry - imposing the the very condition that he purports to demonstrate as a precondition. He admits essentially as much in the comments. So what's his point? That he wants to dis Sean C?

That's about all I get out of it. One more turn chasing his tail around the circle.

Stratospheric Cooling

Neutrino - thanks for the correction on the lapse rate. Do I get part credit for the average lapse rate being between the wet and dry adiabatic lapse rates?

Stratospheric cooling is a complicated subject, but the dauntless Captain Imperio will attempt to oversimplify it. Think of this as a tale where our hero (the stratosphere) maintains a radiative quasi-equilibrium with three heat reservoirs: the Sun (hot), the Earth below (a little warmer than our protagonist), and space (damn cold). The ozone in the stratosphere absorbs heat from the Sun, mainly in the form of ultraviolet radiation, but infrared and visible play a role as well. It radiates heat to space, almost entirely in the form of infrared, and it receives some infrared from the Earth. Stratospheric temperature is determined by the balance of those processes.

While UV absorption is done by ozone (O3), infrared absorption and emission is the province of the greenhouse gases, especially CO2. If stratospheric ozone is depleted (as it has been over the past decades), it absorbs less solar UV, and that cools it. An increase in CO2 makes the stratosphere both a more effective radiator and absorber of infrared radiation, but since it radiates more IR than it absorbs, on balance it cools the stratosphere. The effects vary quantitatively with height, so it is possible to separate out how much each effect contributes to stratospheric cooling. A more detailed discussion is here:

Extended contemplation of figure 3 is recommended to those who would seek the higher enlightenment. When you understand why each part of the figure is the color it is, you have attained qualitative stratospheric cooling Zen. (Make sure that you grok 1050 cm^-1) Playing around with Dave Archer’s MODTRAN pony ( also helps.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Greenhouse Gases at Work

My latest attempt to oversimplify greenhouse gas physics.

On a cold day, we put on a jacket and a hat. They don’t change the amount heat our bodies produce or the balancing amount we release into the atmosphere, but they do make the path for heat to escape more insulating, producing a larger temperature difference between our skin and the atmosphere. The effect of greenhouse gases is very analogous – they don’t change the amount of heat emitted or the temperature at which it is emitted, but they do change the temperature back where the Sun’s heat is being absorbed – at the surface.

In a similar fashion, greenhouse gases insulate the planet. they don't change the amount of heat the planet absorbs from the Sun, and they don’t change the amount of heat the planet radiates. That amount has to balance the energy absorbed from the Sun. They do change the atmosphere's impedance to heat flow, thereby changing the temperature difference between the places where solar energy is absorbed (mainly the surface) and where it is radiated into space (mostly high in the troposphere.)

Because the atmospheric resistance to radiant heat flow (the opacity) has increased, an increase in greenhouse gases causes the effective radiating surface (the average height from which photons escape into space) to move upward. Since the same amount of energy is being emitted, the temperature at the mean radiating height stays approximately the same. Because the Earth’s troposphere cools in a predictable fashion with height (approximately adiabatically), if you increase the mean radiating height but keep the mean radiating temperature the same, the temperature at the surface has to increase. This is the core of the inaccurately named “greenhouse” effect. Maybe it should be called the "warm blanket" effect.

Beach Party Bang-Go

Glenn Greenwald is a relentless crusader for civil rights and the Constitution and hence a national treasure. The flip side is that he is a moralist and a scold who never seems to have a happy thought - except possibly at the misery of one of his enemies.

Joe Klein would not exactly make my list of saintly Americans, but I wouldn't put him in the Heydrich, Cheney, Umbridge class either. Glenn Greenwald has a stricter standard. Here he is doing a tag-team hat dance on Joe Klein's head with Aimai of NoMoreMisterNiceBlog. You want to watch out for those beach parties.

Time's Joe Klein was at a beach party last weekend and was confronted about his recent, vague statement that "there are Democrats who are so solicitous of civil liberties that they would undermine legitimate covert intelligence collection." The person doing the confronting was Aimai of NoMoreMisterNiceBlog -- who also happens to be the granddaughter of I.F. Stone (which ends up being relevant to the confrontation) -- and she masterfully recounts the revealing and hilarious Klein outburst that ensued, during which, among other things, he accused me of being "evil," a "crazy civil liberties absolutist" and "crazily anti-national security."

Much of this is just standard Klein. He's been "accusing" me for years of being what he calls a "civil liberties extremist" or "monomaniacal on the subject of civil liberties" -- as though that's some type of insult, when I view it as being exactly the opposite. For reasons I recently explained -- in response to to Michael Massing's Chuck-Todd-echoing accusation in The New York Review of Books that I fail to take into account "practical considerations" when advocating various views -- it's impossible to believe in constitutional principles and the rule of law without being "extremist" and even "absolute" because that is the nature of those guarantees.

A lot of Greenwald's and Aimai's anger seems to be aimed at Joe Klein's real and perceived offenses past, but there also seems to be a lot of "he called me names" first. A moralist, and Greenwald is first a moralist, goes off the track when he starts confusing personal enmity with his causes, and Greenwald is walking pretty close to that line here.

Greenwald has done great work, and continues to do great work, but his combination of devotion to ideological purity and insistence in nursing old grudges is starting to erode his cause. Unlike the Republican wackos, he is outraged (mainly) by real outrages against decency and the Constitution, but he really doesn't seem to understand at all that "the perfect is the enemy of the good." Obama, like Lincoln, understands that same statement with every fiber of his being.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Arun and Lee are discussing certainty in the comments, and I would like to expand on a couple themes they have introduced. First Lee:

I guess my point is that it seems like I have determined my strongly held beliefs, the things I feel certain about, through a completely rational process. I feel very definitely that I’ve read the expert opinions, critically analyzed the available information, carefully considered the alternatives, and have come to an independent and correct decision as to what is right. I think I’m more the norm than the exception in this feeling. However, things like religion, politics, moral values, economics, and a whole host of other things that I feel very strongly about are not very amenable to experiment and/or are too complex to model with any degree of accuracy. It doesn’t seem to me that there can be any real expert opinions in these areas; there can just be opinions.

So why do I feel so certain about the correctness of my beliefs when there is no particularly rational reason to feel certain? Even realizing the above, why will I continue to feel that people who are certain that I am wrong are either misinterpreting the facts, missing key concepts, are not critical thinkers, uneducated, easily mislead, naïve, ignorant, stupid, or in some cases downright malevolent? I find those questions interesting and a little unnerving. I think it is likely that the feeling of certainty must play some vital role in what we call consciousness.
Lee 08.23.09 - 3:28 pm #

[and subsequently] I’m not so interested in a meaningful dialog about the issues I mentioned above in an effort to find the truth. I’m already quite certain of the truth, just as most Fox viewers are already quite certain of the truth before they ever tune Glenn Beck or others of his ilk in.

I’m more interested in the feeling of certainty itself. It’s an amazingly strong feeling. It’s my observation that if someone feels certain about something, the probability of getting them to change their mind through argument is very small regardless of the rationality the arguments put forward. And that seems to be true even if the parties are intelligent, educated, thoughtful, and well intentioned. At least in some cases it seems to trump familial bond. It is not unusual for father to fight son or brother to fight brother in a civil war even though the father and son or brothers may love each other dearly.

I’m interested in why certainty seems to have been a more important evolutionary attribute than rationality.
Lee 08.24.09 - 1:37 pm #

Let me borrow a term from the behavioral economist Dan Ariely: "anchor." We all make use of certain intellectual and other "anchors" in our thoughts. Their job is to serve as points of reference and refuge in the confusing landscape of experience, and it's a crucial role. What should you do if you are lost? Look for a landmark! Our intellectual and emotional anchors are our landmarks.

Let us put ourselves for the moment in the place of some of the great discoverers. What were the anchors of Einstein, Lorentz, and the others trying to understand the laws of Special Relativity? Hardly any could have been more fundamental than our classical intuitions of time and simultaneity. It was Einstein's great triumph that he was able to free himself of this anchor and find a more universal one. Earlier and later explorers faced similar challenges in both the theoretical (causality and the quantum) and the mundane (the round Earth).

These stories show the anchors in the role of something dragging us (or others) down, but it's clear that their positive role in organizing our experience is far more crucial. "Relative" space and time lasted only a moment before Minkowski discovered a sturdier anchor: absolute spacetime. How could we begin to organize our physics (or chemistry or biology) without the second law of thermodynamics?

I am convinced that such "anchors" are a fundamental and crucial character of human thought. As such, I am convinced that they are a product of biological evolution. I am talking about "anchors" generically here, not any particular anchors. Those particular anchor each of us clings to are products of personality, culture, experience and what have you, but I would be quite astonished to find that many people can do without them.

Let me briefly note a comment of Arun in the same thread:

In general, how do you (and CIP sometimes) make these almost terrifying leaps that something has an explanation in evolution?

I think that I am far more guilty than Lee in this respect, but let me explain my own point of view. Darwin's theory of natural selection is right up there in my pantheon of anchors along with mathematics, conservation of energy and the Second Law. I firmly believe Theodosius Dobzhansky's dictum that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Add to that that human nature is an aspect of biology and natural selection becomes the natural starting point forany attempt to explain an aspect of human nature, especially an aspect that appears to be universal and fundamental to our survival.

Detainee Abuse

One reason I thought Bush should have been impeached was his decision to let low level soldiers take the rap for the crimes he and Cheney commissioned. Now it looks like Holder and Obama are looking to do the same thing with abuses perpretrated by the CIA - holding the low level torturers soley responsible for the crimes of Cheney, Yoo, Addington and Bush.

Some hack from Duke's so-called "Law School" was on NPR trying to explain and defend this outrage this morning. What an incoherent fraud. His logic - Congress wrote the law in such a way that anyone who relied on a justice department opinion could not be prosecuted, so that Yoo, who wrote that opinion, has a perfect defense in relying on a justice department opinion. Steve Inskeep asked an obvious question "So if Yoo had said murder was OK, it would have been OK?" The puke from Duke evaded the question.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pity for the Super-Rich

Who can resist the tragic tale of a fabulously wealthy tech entrepreneur who managed to lose all but the last few million through a series of borrowed money bets on risky real estate? The NYT builds a three part story on the decline of the super-rich on John McAfee's misadventures, claiming that it represents a vast turnaround in the fortunes of the super-rich as a class. That may make for a more dramatic title ("Rise of the Super-Rich Hits a Sobering Wall") than "How I Lost $96 Million in Real Estate") but is it real?

The real numbers don't exist yet for the decline in fortune of the top 0.01% and the top 1%, but the guesses cited in the article look more like a speed bumps than a wall. Between 1973 and 2007, the share of the national income garnered by the richest 0.01% went from a bit less than 1% of the total to 6% of the total - from roughly 90 times the average to 600 times the average. The great recession of 2008-2009 has knocked that back to something closer to the 3-4% they were making in 2000. Recessions do hit their incomes disproportionately because so much of their income comes from stock market capital gains, which don't exist in the midst of recession. During the 1999-2000 recession, for example, they went from 5% share to 3%, but bounced back to 2007's all time high of 6%.

No doubt some rich people, like McAfee, lost a bundle, but calling the current reversal a new trend is ridiculous. The losses of Bill Gates and the Waltons are paper losses, and the declines in their stock market valuations are very likely to be quite temporary.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wooly Bully

Bullying is a subject of persistent interest to victims, former victims, and parents of children who are bullied or seem likely to be bullied. The editors of SLATE like it too. Their latest article is this one:
Bullies. They can be stopped, but it takes a village.

Bullies, it seems, are pretty shrewd in picking their targets – they pick on the weak, those who can’t or won’t mount effective resistance. Personality, social isolation, and physical characteristics are all potential victim markers.

In the first Harry Potter book, Harry is routinely terrorized by his large and thuggish cousin. The cousin’s parents tolerated and encouraged this bullying, a circumstance that is all too common in real life, where parents and teachers look the other way or even encourage the bullying. Harry is a very unlikely victim though. Brave, resourceful, athletic, proud and charismatic, he is an almost perfect bully repelling force. Being possessed of some of Voldemort’s dark powers could hardly hurt either.

I grew up in a neighborhood without other boys near to me in age, and when I entered school I became a target of some bullying – I knew how to play with girls but not other boys. As a shy and socially inexperienced person I was probably a natural target. It didn’t help that I was a bit of a slow learner. I eventually figured out that I was bigger than the other kids and stronger than most, so that I pretty much escaped the victim trap.

That kind of natural immunity is purely luck, of course. Most victims don’t have that option. So what can parents (or victims) do if they don’t have the knack for getting a bloody horse’s head to show up in the perpetrator’s bed? The strategy the authors advocate has been tested and works, but it involves getting a whole lot of people, especially parents, teachers, and students, to sign on.

It’s easy to imagine that there are a lot of communities, including my own, where this would be a very hard sell.

That might leave home schooling and/or karate lessons.

Mysteries of the Universe

One of the enduring puzzles that the universe presents me with is this: why are so many people willing to pay so much for people to lie to them? To be sure, it's a bit more obvious why people pay to have someone lie for them, but people do have to pay with their time and sometimes cable subscription fees to get Fox News (and other sources of systematic misinformation).

I guess that self delusion remains one of our most potent recreational drugs.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

George Bush's Real Life Death Panel

"Death Panels" are often considered to be absurdly hypothetical, but let's not forget who brought us the real life versions: George Bush and the Texas Republican Party, acting, of course, on behalf of the health care establishment. The link is to the column of Steven E. Landsburg in Slate. Of course it wasn't quite a panel of the sort the WSJ imagines, since medicine was hardly the point.

Tirhas Habtegiris, a 27-year-old terminal cancer patient at Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano, Texas, was removed from her ventilator last month because she couldn't pay her medical bills. The hospital gave Ms. Habtegiris' family 10 days' notice, and then, with the bills still unpaid, withdrew her life support on the 11th day. It took Ms. Habtegiris about 15 minutes to die.

WaFM: Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson demonstrates that he can't figure out when to stop digging.

In the Beginning

I am the sort who reads prefaces, introductions, and acknowlegements. I think that I do this not out of conviction, but our of a certain dimwitted compulsiveness, because the time spent is rarely rewarded. In some cases, authors use an introduction to say things best left unsaid.

Imagine, for a minute, that Jo Rowling had begun HP and the Philosopher's Stone with a few pages noting that she wasn't describing a real person or a real society and that novels, especially fantasy novels, were fiction, more precisely called lies. It might not have inflicted a fatal wound on Harry, but I can't imagine that it would have helped. Rowling avoided that mistake.

Ursula K. LeGuin, in The Left Hand of Darkness, was less wise.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Libertarian vs. Python

I'm a bit addicted to libertarian bashing. Perhaps this is a reaction to my own struggle to resist the pull of the dark side - but this time I want to step aside in favor of a libertarian who takes on aspects of his own belief system. That would be laudable in and of itself, but when Mark Thompson manages to do so in Monty Python quotes, one must bow in awed wonder. A sample:

“All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Hat Tip to Tyler Cowen.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Norma Desmond and Citizen Kane

...managed to bring a bit of tragedy to grandiosely reclusive eccentricity. Hugh Hefner can't quite manage farce. Alex Tabarrok takes a look at the life of a Hefner girlfriend - he only reads the economics parts, of course, e.g.:

One key sentence "In fact, Girlfriends were not allowed to become Playmates because Hef had found that they tended to flee the Mansion as soon as they collected their $25,000 Playmate cheque."

If you follow the link to the book review in the Telegraph you can find some boring details:

...First, there was a strict curfew, so unless you were out with Hef, you had to be back in the hutch by 9pm. had to live in the extraordinarily dingy Playboy mansion, where all the furniture was falling apart, the mattresses were stained and the carpets were covered in dog poo.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Particle Physics Plush Toys

Worried that your five year old isn't getting introduced to the really important stuff in kindergarten? Maybe you need to give her some of these particle physics plushies.

H T Tyler Cowen.

The Base

The CEO of Whole Foods may have forgotten where his bread is buttered - or confused his base with the Republican Party. I know that I will be doing my best to refute that notion.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


In the middle 1970s, the top 0.01% of income earners (the top one in 10,000) collected slightly less than 1% of the total income. That amounts to not quite 100 times as much as the average American. Via Brad DeLong, the latest numbers take them all the way up to collecting 6% of the total, or 600 times the income of the average American. The very rich have good reason to love Reagan and Bush.

No wonder they can afford to hire hacks like Will Wilkinson to spread counterfactuals about the matter.

Pants on Fire

A few Republicans have publicly recoiled from their party becoming the party of lies and hysteria, but they are the exception. Most have embraced it. The die was cast for them at least as early as the Bush administration, probably by the time of "whitewater." Paul Krugman notes this from the New York Times from January, 2008:

Any Democrat who makes it to the White House can expect the same treatment: an unending procession of wild charges and fake scandals, dutifully given credence by major media organizations that somehow can’t bring themselves to declare the accusations unequivocally false

The lies themselves are what astound me. The birth certificate and the "death panels" are not plausible lies or even obscure ones, they are preposterous "Earth is flat" types of lies. A tiny bit of research suffices to refute them, but they are pushed endlessly by a large chunk of the media and right wing politicians.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Invisible Hands

Adam Smith's most memorable phrase may have been the "invisible hand" of free market economics. Free markets, he argued, allocate resources with maximal efficiency. The centuries since have provided ample evidence for his idea, and the current century in particular has clearly demonstrated the limitation and inefficiencis of centrally planned economies.

So what are the enemies of the free market? The most important one is government. As Smith recognized, merchants will do their best to recruit the government to suppress competition and guarantee them large profits. It's only slightly ironic that the most successful manipulators of government have been those who shout most loudly in favor of "free enterprise."

David Cay Johnston's Free Lunch is, as I have previously mentioned, a long catalog of such abuses. Enron was the pioneer in getting state utility regulations turned into direct pipelines from taxpayer's wallets to its own, but plenty of others followed where it led.

The scam depends upon the fact that utilities have natural monopolies. Very few people have any choice about whom they buy their power from, so the current owner of your electric power grid could potentially charge almost any fee it wants. States responded to this circumstance by regulating the prices such monopolies could charge. This resulted in a system where monopolistic utilities were effectively guaranteed a modest profit in return for providing their service. Obviously this falls somewhat short of free market ideals, and there are many of the expected impediments to innovation and efficiency.

Enron had the bright idea of separating the power distribution facilites from the power generation facilities and connecting them with an auction system, supposedly to increase competition. As Adam Smith could have predicted, Enron in fact had no such ambition. Instead it used the politicians it had bought (including much of the Texas legislature and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission via George W Bush) to rig the rules of the auction in so as to promote collusion, decrease competition, and, especially to free the power generators from the grip of state regulators and their regulated profits. The result could have been predicted: any enormous run up in electrical rates, blackout and brownouts (orchestrated to justify the prices) and massive profits for those who could afford to buy a State legislature or two (Warren Buffet being perhaps the most prominent of these scam artists). The perpetrators do their best to keep their own hands invisible too. Their essential ally is government secrecy. So why should the actions and deliberations of state utility regulators be kept secret? Only to protect the crooks who are stealing us blind.

At one level, this is the result of government officials not doing their jobs, but at a more fundamental level it is the result of the enormous disparity in wealth that exists in this country. The enormous financial power of a Buffet or Walton makes State and federal legislators easy prey. An outraged citizenry is the only useful weapon against them, but with all major sources of news in the hands of the same oligarchs, they aren't easy to rouse from their slumber - or rather, they are easier to rouse to fight purely imaginary bogeymen than real dangers.

Conservative Logic

I am increasingly convinced that the main quality one needs to be a conservative is the ability to believe two mutually contradictory things at the same time. How else to explain the repeated examples of people who fear that government involvement in health care will threaten their Medicare? Or the apparently quite serious editorialist in Investors Business Daily who proclaimed that Steven Hawking could never have survived under the Bristish system of totally nationalized health care, since he would have been denied care because of his disability.

Hello! How much do you think any investing advice you might get from that publication would be worth?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Niall Ferguson is an Ass

Or so Brad DeLong sets out to demonstrate at considerable length. He persuaded me.

The starting point:

Is James Fallows allowed to be this snarky?

"Black, and very, very lucky." - James Fallows: have had my disagreements with Niall Ferguson, as chronicled several times -- here, here, here, and here. But I had thought they were simply on the merits -- how to interpret the financial and strategic tensions between China and America, whether there was any serious historical parallel to be drawn between the rising China of Hu Jintao and the rising Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm. (Ferguson said Yes; I said No.)

Everything about such discussions is conditioned by Ferguson's constant reminders that he is a professional academic historian and therefore deserves deference for whatever historical connections he sees. This morning in the Financial Times he once again shows off the insight that professional training can bring. The essay on American politics begins:

President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky. And that pretty much sums up the 44th president of the US as he takes a well-earned summer break after just over six months in the world's biggest and toughest job.

Brad assembles a lot more evidence in what follows.

One problem with being a Harvard professor is that you can get pretty damn stupid or crazy before people starting pointing it out.

The Thane of Fife had a Wife

How about the God of Israel? Maybe so, says Robert Wright.

She didn't fare better than Lady MacDuff, though, once the monotheist PC police got through with her.

One oft-claimed difference [between the pagan gods and Yahweh] is that whereas the pagan gods had sex lives, Yahweh didn’t. “Israel’s God,” as Kaufmann put it, “has no sexual qualities or desires.” It’s true that there’s no biblical ode to Yahweh that compares with the Ugaritic boast that Baal copulated with a heifer “77 times,” even “88 times,” or that El’s penis “extends like the sea.” And it seems puzzling: If Yahweh eventually merged with [the Canaanite god] El, and El had a sex life, why didn’t the postmerger Yahweh have one? Why, more specifically, didn’t Yahweh inherit El’s consort, the goddess Athirat?

Maybe he did. There are references in the Bible to a goddess named Asherah, and scholars have long believed that Asherah is just the Hebrew version of Athirat. Of course, the biblical writers don’t depict Asherah as God’s wife—this isn’t the sort of theological theme they generally championed—but rather heap disdain on her, and on the Israelites who worshipped her. However, in the late twentieth century, archaeologists discovered intriguing inscriptions, dating to around 800 BCE, at two different Middle Eastern sites. The inscriptions were blessings in the name not just of Yahweh but of “his Asherah.” The word “his” puts an intriguing spin on a passage in 2 Kings reporting that, near the end of the seventh century, Asherah was spending time in Yahweh’s temple. A priest who didn’t favor polytheism “brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.” In the next chapter we’ll see what a crucial moment in the evolution of monotheism this was.

Via The Daily Dish.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Robots Are Coming!

Gregory Clark worries that robots will take all our low skill jobs, and that it will mean more taxes for the favored few:

No, the economic problems of the future will not be about growth but about something more nettlesome: the ineluctable increase in the number of people with no marketable skills, and technology's role not as the antidote to social conflict, but as its instigator.

The battle will be over how to get the economy's winners to pay for an increasingly costly poor.

This is a prospect to strike terror into the heart of the dumbest libertarian. Patrick Appel makes the error of reading Ryan Avent and Will Wilkinson. Alas, pooling their ignorance does not manage to produce a wisdom of crowds effect.

Ryan Avent brings his powerful analytical mind to bear:

The ranks of the unemployable will only grow over time, [Clark] says, potentially leading to a world in which the bulk of the population sits around idle, supported by the few skilled workers who are still smart enough that machines can’t duplicate their work.

But this is silly. Why? Machine and robotic resources aren’t free; they’re resource constrained just like everything else is resource constrained. We have the tecnological know-how to replace millions of human workers with machines right now, but we don’t because the expense of building, programming, operating, and maintaining the machines is too great. It’s not worth it. As demand for human labour falls, the price of human labour will also fall making the hiring of humans more attractive. Meanwhile, as demand for robot labour increases, the price of robot labour will also increase (since the stuff robots are made of is scarce), making the use of a robot for any given task less attractive. There will then be some market equilibrium which will, in all likelihood, involve plenty of employment for low skilled workers.

The notion that a little more immizeration will make unskilled workers competitive with robots shows an utter disregard for the history of the last half century. Robots are made mostly of cheap materials: steel, plastic and silicon. The price of computing has fallen a billion-fold in a bit more than a generation, and it's dragging a whole world of machines with it, especially robots.

It is difficult and expensive to build and program a skillful robot, but one only needs to do it once (or a few times). IBM spent many millions building a chess robot that could beat the world champion, but now fifty bucks can buy you a much more powerful one that runs on your laptop.

Nor is the difficulty of building and programming robots necessarily formidable. An associate and I recently taught a bunch of high school students to build and program simple robots that could find their way through a maze. Lessons, building, and test took well under three hours. Once the necessary scaffolding is in place, programming is not so hard at all.

He does have one point:

It seems probable to me that machines will begin replacing doctors before machines begin replacing, say, streetsweepers.

An exaggeration, to be sure, but he is right in thinking that the low skilled are not the only targets. It's little noticed, but airline pilots have already been largely displaced in many of ther functions. Replacing train drivers with machines that won't get distracted by texting their girlfriends is overdue.

Fortunately, we have Will Wilkinson for comic relief. He tries to get a running start with a little willful distortion:

Gregory Clark’s basic assumption would seem to be that some people are born idiots.

...Which seems incontestable as long as Will Wilkinson is around.

Is that unfair? Well, sure. In fact some of what Wilkinson says is pretty evident and would make sense if he could just get his libertarian lenses cleaned enough to stop distorting Clark. He thinks, for example, that the industrial revolution didn't wind up impoverishing workers, and that a similar result might obtain in the future (well, maybe, but how?) He also thinks that high skill individuals might face the same fate and that all the profits would go to the slave owners capitalists who owned the bots.

I have a lot of doubt about a scenario that has robots smarter than us content to be our slaves (or the slaves of a few rich people).

The robots are coming (are already here) and they will profoundly distort economic relationships. Will humans survive in any capacity? TBD.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Identity Crisis

From the NYT, a nice article on our sense of self and its vulnerability to brain injury.

Doctors have known for nearly 100 years that a small number of psychiatric patients become profoundly suspicious of their closest relationships, often cutting themselves off from those who love them and care for them. They may insist that their spouse is an impostor; that their grown children are body doubles; that a caregiver, a close friend, even their entire family is fake, a duplicate version.

Such delusions are often symptoms of schizophrenia. But in the last decade or so, researchers have documented similar delusions in hundreds of people who are not schizophrenic but have neurological problems including dementia, brain surgery and traumatic blows to the head.

A small group of brain scientists is now investigating misidentification syndromes, as the delusions are called, for clues to one of the most confounding problems in brain science: identity. How and where does the brain maintain the “self”?

It's a long article full of clues for those interested in what constitutes self.

Saturday, August 08, 2009


Right wing radio and television, aided and abetted by a significant portion of the Republican Party, continue to spread the most preposterous lies about the proposed insurance reform bill. Most of these lies are so absurd that they appear humorous to sensible persons: euthanasia, killing disabled children, and even grinding up people for food. Meanwhile, the people spreading these lies have organized disruptions of public meetings, threatened congressmen with death, and waved Nazi signs and slogans.

The usual idiots and fanatics are happy to jump on the bandwagon. For a looney tunes sample, check out our old buddy. He thinks security guards breaking up a fight are thugs assaulting a citizen and that keeping tracking of the misinformation others are putting out is "police state tactics." One of his commenters is cheerleading for the right wing thugs to add assassination to their tactics.

Bush and Enron

David Cay Johnston's Free Lunch is a catalog of outrages so infuriating that I can't stand to read more than one or two chapters at a time. The Enron chapter is a reminder of the degree to which George Bush was the creature of Ken Lay and Enron. Lay built Enron largely by buying and paying for Texas politicians, and Bush was a prime beneficiary. Lay and his minions lavished money on an politician whose only credible political asset was his name and played key roles in making him first Governor and later President.

It's also a reminder of the degree to which the Bush administration was a criminal conspiracy, even separate and apart from his actions and inactions in the international arena. Lay's money bought him more than access. He told Bush whom to appoint to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and got what money paid for: a FERC that totally ignored its responsibilities and instead concentrated on covering up the crimes of Enron, even after those crimes had been exposed and prosecuted.

Bush and Cheney - it's hard to tell the extent to which Bush was merely Cheney's puppet - consistently promoted criminality and criminals, but they and their criminals tended to be as stupid as they were corrupt. Despite the vast amounts they stole, the criminal front men manged to blunder away most of their ill-gotten gains.

Got to love those Republicans.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Tyler Cowen reads R. Preston McAfee on editing an economics journal:

Pretty much 100% of kooks are theorists; you won’t meet a, say, physicist or physician with a Great Economic Idea that involved running regressions or doing lab experiments, although occasionally there is a table illustrating a correlation between some economic variable like lawyers or fluoridated water and per capita GDP.

This surprises me. The physics crackpots crackpot physicists I have known have been all too eager to run regressions - lying with statistics is still the cheapest game in town. I also wondered what an economics "lab experiment" looks like. Bear Stearns, perhaps?

It also occurred to me that at Caltech an economics prof is likely one of the untermenschen, and a reflexive swipe at physicists is perhaps obligatory.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Selfish Meme

One of our most fundamental notions is our concept of self. Somehow the billions of neurons and trillions of synapses synthesize a "self" out of their connections and operations. For neuroscience this presents a difficult challenge: how do the many systems and subsystems of the brain cooperate to produce a unified concept of self? I don't know the answer, and I'm pretty sure neuroscientists don't either, but I have an analogy.

Internet computer games like Altitude need to seamlessly integrate the worlds of multiple players scattered all over the world. Each player has a copy of the "world" of the game, complete with terrain, other players, projectiles the players are firing at each other. Each player is controlling an aircraft and constantly inputting commands to speed up, slow down, fire projectiles, etc. The "worlds" are not exactly the same, since each player has a priviledged position on his own game map, but the game would fall apart if the various players worlds failed to maintain consistency. That consistency is maintained by a steady stream of messages updating each players map in response to every game event.

Our brains must do something similar when we integrate sounds, smells, and visual information with memory to construct a model of our world. These models too are constantly updated. Sometimes the two distant headlights are a truck and sometimes they are two motorcycles. Sometimes tha flashing lights behind you are a policeman and sometimes they turn out to be an alien spaceship.

Identifying an unfamiliar object by touch is a good test case. While in a cluttered environment, close your eyes and start grabbing things. Most, I found, could be identified nearly instantly - not too surprising considering that I'm in my computer room. The less familiar the environment and the objects, the more difficult the task becomes. The kinds of information we need to integrate are pretty various: size, shape, texture, relative location, whether the object is easily moved or not, its resistance to pressure.

Brownshirt Tactics

The Republicans seem to think that they can effectively oppose health care reform by harassing, intimidating, and shouting down Congressmen trying to talk to groups of their constituents.

This morning, Politico reported that Democratic members of Congress are increasingly being harassed by “angry, sign-carrying mobs and disruptive behavior” at local town halls. For example, in one incident, right-wing protesters surrounded Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) and forced police officers to have to escort him to his car for safety.

This growing phenomenon is often marked by violence and absurdity. Recently, right-wing demonstrators hung Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-MD) in effigy outside of his office. Missing from the reporting of these stories is the fact that much of these protests are coordinated by public relations firms and lobbyists who have a stake in opposing President Obama’s reforms.

These tactics are straight out of the facist playbook. By deliberately obstructing citzens and government officials carrying out their lawful business they are breaching the piece as well as attempting to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights to assemble and petition their government.

I doubt that Americans will want to put up with this. I hope the press will publicize these criminals and their offenses.

I've Got A Secret

Kevin Drum talks about Paul Krugman talking about "speculation based on private information." It's easy to make a buck if you know the winning numbers for the lottery before you buy your ticket - unless everybody else does too. Krugman:

crashing the economy and fleecing the taxpayer aren’t Wall Street’s only sins. Even before the crisis and the bailouts, many financial-industry high-fliers made fortunes through activities that were worthless if not destructive from a social point of view.

And they’re still at it. Consider two recent news stories.

One involves the rise of high-speed trading: some institutions, including Goldman Sachs, have been using superfast computers to get the jump on other investors, buying or selling stocks a tiny fraction of a second before anyone else can react. Profits from high-frequency trading are one reason Goldman is earning record profits and likely to pay record bonuses.

On a seemingly different front, Sunday’s Times reported on the case of Andrew J. Hall, who leads an arm of Citigroup that speculates on oil and other commodities. His operation has made a lot of money recently, and according to his contract Mr. Hall is owed $100 million.

Asymmetric information explicitly breaks the efficient market hypothesis. When brokers take advantage of such information they cheat their customers and poison the possibility of markets operating efficiently. In the Market Magic version of reality, dishonest brokers are driven out of business by being out competed by honest brokers. No doubt something like this happens in the long run - but Bernie Madoff did manage to look good for quite some time. It's even better if the taxpayers pick up the tab for the cheaters mistakes.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Do You Believe in Magic?

Andrew Sullivan is just one of the myriad free marketers who does:

$20 a gallon is about the only thing that could unleash the genius of the market in energy innovation. And nothing else will really do anything to abate climate change. Bring it on!

Well a lot of technology will be economically feasible if gasoline reaches $20, but I don't believe that markets create innovation. What they can do is offer an arena in which known ideas can attract the resources that permit implementation.

The notion that markets innovate or foster innovation is almost entirely an ignorant superstition. This doesn't diminish the importance of free markets. Without free markets Steve Jobs' brilliant ideas would have been strangled at birth by the dead hand of Microsoft.


A number of prominent scientists have been notoriously secretive. This secrecy seems to have been inspired both by the fear that others would steal their ideas and that they themselves might be proved publicly and embarrassingly wrong. Bee has a clever post suggesting that they had the right idea.

Her point is that infant ideas may need some coddling and protection before they go out into the rigors of intellectual debate. Too much information can choke off creativity.

This principle is not new. A lot of brilliant ideas were had by people who had limited knowledge of the state of the current science. Feynman and James Watson remarked on it.

A closely related notion is a key principle of "brainstorming." No one is permitted to criticize the ideas created during the initial phase.

So go ahead and keep your big idea secret until you are ready to spill the beans. Of course you might get scooped by someone more forthcoming.

Clearly the rules need to be slightly different for data obtained with communal resources.