Monday, September 30, 2013

Great Lincoln Quote

Spotted this on the Daily Beast:

"We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten... " Abraham Lincoln, 1861

We know that turned out.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Krugman vs. the CEOs

Krugman is unimpressed with the contribution of Fix the Debt to our national dialog:

The thing is, I suspect that he’s typical. Corporate America is led by men who may be very good at their jobs (or not, in some cases), but have no grasp at all of the real issues facing America as a whole — the special problems created by an economy stuck in a liquidity trap, the paralysis caused by the radicalization of the GOP. They can throw lots of money at Washington, and it’s effective at tilting policies on microeconomic issues their way. But they have no influence on the big decisions, because they don’t even understand what those big decisions are.


Or maybe their interests just don't coincide with those of most Americans, and he can't understand because his paycheck depends on his not understanding.

Entitlements and Obligations

The deal on human society is that one exchanges certain obligations for some entitlements. Libertarians, at least the extreme ones, reject this notion. So do a lot of rich people who nonethesless feel entitled to the protections of armies, courts, laws, and special property rights. Some of those things benefit the non-wealthy, and a few even benefit the poor. The welfare state bargain is that society collects some of its surplus to provide for the non-wealthy.

That bargain is the core of the dispute between the House Republicans and the Democrats who currently control the White House and Senate. The Republicans pretend that the Affordable Care Act is wildly unpopular and that it will present great burdens for average Americans. This is pretty much a manufacturery of whole cloth - every other advanced country in the world has some form of universal or nearly universal healthcare and there is no case that I know of where those citizens have voted to eliminate it.

That's what Republicans fear - not that Americans will dislike the ACA, but that they will like it.

Imagined Realities of the Right

When imagined realities come into conflict, its easy to suspect the other guys of being dishonest or delusional. Since I identify as more liberal than conservative, I probably can't be a very good critic of liberals imagined realities, but maybe somebody else will be. Conservatives mostly seem to share a lot of opinions that I consider nuts. A big chunk of them, including most of the politically prominent ones either disbelieve in Darwin's natural selection or pretend they do. Most dismiss the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming. Large numbers of them believe that Obama is a Muslim, a socialist, a communist and was not born in the USA.

I don't know of many widely held liberal beliefs that are that far out of alignment with scientific and other evidence, but those are not the things that realy bother me about conservatives. The things that bother me about them are mostly matters of values. Some of these value differences allegedly have their origin in Christianity, like anti-homosexual ideas, but others are frankly anti-Christian. Jesus very consistently preached against the rich and in favor of taking care of the poor, but conservatives very consistently attack programs intended to benefit the relatively poor and consistently support policies that only benefit the rich.

My pet peeve at the moment is the conservative notion of the wealthy as the "job creators" and "wealth creators," and the associated notion that if we would only give them more money, jobs would magically appear. In reality, though, the wealthy now have the lowest taxes they've had for many decades, and the job creating they have done has been abyssmal.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Nietzsche and Rand

Provoked again by Wolfgang, I have dipped a bit more into Nietzsche, including the rather nice Wikipedia article, which among many other things discusses his unconvincing claims of descent from Polish Noblemen of the name Nitsky and variants of the spelling of the family name, none of which seem to include my default.

Rand was an early fan of Nietzsche, but later denied his influence on her thinking. The central notions she borrowed from him were those of the Superman as articulated in Beyond Good and Evil and Toward a Genealogy of Morals. Rand, like Nietzsche rejected Christianity and its "Slave Morality" which they thought sought to drag the "superior man" down to the level of the crowd, and worshipped an ideal man who was untouched by the opinions of others - who lacked, if I may borrow from Jefferson, "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." Ayn Rand probably went rather further in modeling her hero for The Fountainhead on a psychopathic murderer who cut up a child and delivered the pieces to her father in return for the ransom he had demanded.

Regular readers of this space may recall or recognize that their ideal morality was essentially a rejection of the morality developed by early humans in favor of the morality (or immorality) of chimpanzee society.

Of course Nietzsche was a subtle and frequently paradoxical writer, so attributing any particular view to him is likely to risk being contradicted by something else he wrote. Moreover, his legacy is a bit confused by editions of his work put out by his anti-semitic sister after his insanity.

One of his tragedies as a thinker, I believe, was his failure to understand or accept Darwin - a failure that was probably more moral than intellectual.

Rand's misfortune as a thinker was that she was a dishonest idiot.

Mythological Wars

Humans are extraordinary among animals species in having learned how to cooperate in ten of thousands, millions, and even hundreds of millions. That ability has made us the dominant and most consequential species on the planet. It's not quite unprecedented. Some extremely successful insects have managed the same feat. So, in a way, are the billions and trillions of cells that learned how to live together in a multicellular palnt or animal. Unlike humans, the others have elaborate genetic adaptations making their cooperation possible. Humans, though, are basically the same creatures who lived for millions of years in communities of a few dozen.

How we did that is a major theme of Professor Harari's. His answer is that we did it with the help of "imagined realities," elaborate mythologies structured to dictate, explain, and justify our interactions in society. Such mythologies are encoded in laws, politics, customs, religions, art and ethical ideals. It follows that revolutions, rebellions, and internal struggles - and many external struggles - of civilizations tend to be battles of competing mythologies.

These ideas give us a way to understand not only the religious wars that have convulsed societies for millenia but also many features of the political struggles in our own country. A nearly invariable thread in such struggles is that between hierarchy and egalitarianism. The participants in these struggles are notorious shape changers. Christianity, in it's origins, was radically individualistic for its time, but it was soon co-opted by the Roman Empire and re-created in that's empire's image as the Catholic Church in which form it persists even now. The radically egalitarian Republican Party of Lincoln has now become the aristocratic and racist party of Rand and Nietsche.

It's a familiar tragedy of history that egalitarian movements often, or perhaps usually, wind up replacing one hierarchy with another.

What's It All About?

Kevin Drum says it:

The Republican Party is bending its entire will, staking its very soul, fighting to its last breath, in service of a crusade to....

Make sure that the working poor don't have access to affordable health care. I just thought I'd mention that in plain language, since it seems to get lost in the fog fairly often. But that's it. That's what's happening. They have been driven mad by the thought that rich people will see their taxes go up slightly in order to help non-rich people get decent access to medical care.

That's a pretty stirring animating principle, no?

It's not just the poor, of course. It's anybody with a pre-existing condition, or anybody with a family member with such a condition. It's also a big chunk of the middle class - the self-employed, entrepreneurs who haven't yet made it big, etc.

Teaching to Mastery

I was listening to Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, on the radio this morning and was particularly struck by one point he made - the notion of replacing grades with teaching to mastery. It's a concept I had been interested in for a while, but it seems to me that computer aided instruction is what makes it really possible. It's not news to students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects that you learn more from doing the problems than listening to lectures. As a culture, though, we are so wedded to the notion creating a hierarchy (A,B,C,D,F) that we are far more likely to regard problem sets and exams as filters rather than as teaching tools.

One severe constraint on education has always been the amount of time it takes to administer, evaluate, and score exams and quizzes. That fact traditionally forced schools to allocate time in such a fashion that while a few students would have thoroughly mastered the material by the time it was time to move on a new subject, most would have only a partial grasp of the material and others would not get it at all. In subjects like math this is particularly destructive, since each level of math tends to build on preious lerarning, so being a little behind in addition leads to being quite a bit behind in multiplication and utterly at sea in fractions, for example.

The Khan Academy gets beyond that with technology, by having repeatable lessions stored on line and continuous testing of a concept until mastery is achieved. Grades are replaced by certifications of mastery that are arguably of more pertainancy. Knowing that a student got an A in elementary algebra (or quantum field theory, or whatever) really only tells us that she was a little better at it than some other set of students that she took the class with. Knowing that they have mastered a specific set of techniques is probably far more significant as a diagnostic. It's the kind of standard that the best have always demanded of themselves. Abraham Lincoln, for example, worked at Geometry until he could prove all the propositions of Euclid's first six books at sight.

The quizzes and exams of Coursera and edX permit the instructor to select how many times the quizz can be taken, and some instructors have taken to making those numbers large 100 or even 500 times. Of course that means that every persistent student can get a perfect score, which to me is an excellent idea. It would probably be better still if detailed track were kept of what kinds of problems students had trouble with, so that extra examples of that type could be given - something the Khan Academe already does.

That approach means taking a decisive step away from college as a tournament and toward college as an education to mastery. Grades would be replaced by badges of mastery. The tournament would hardly be abolished however, since the number and kinds of badges achieved would still vary.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Brad DeLong on QE

A couple of commenters have chastised me for underestimating the risks of QE. I asked, what risks? Attempts to answer me have apparently been defeated by the sinister DISQUS cabal. Brad DeLong asks much the same question:

Federal Reserve an[d ]other central-bank policymakers who believe that further extension of quantitative easing policies poses risks need to explain exactly what those risks are and why we need to guard against them now. If not--if the risks impelling the end of quantitative easing are left vague--then central banks will continue to fail to successfully build a firewall between their policies with respect to the size of their balance sheet and their policies with respect to the future path of interest rates.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Patriarchy

Prof Harari emphasizes that most human hierarchies were accidental products of historical circumstance which became solidified and maintained by myths - imagined orders. The most common hierarchy of all - men dominating women - appears to be an exception. Other imagined hierarchies are hierarchies of birth, religion, race and so on - all different with no consistent guiding principles. The patriarchy, however, is present in an overwhelming number of known societies, with variations of degree but rarely true reversals.

He concludes that this probably implies a biological basis, and presents three theories: superior male physical strength, greater male propensity to aggression, and different selective pressure on men and women due to the fact that women have to have the babies. Each theory is found wanting, and he concludes that it is an unsolved problem in gender politics.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Creation Myths

Prof Harari points out that civilizations tend to develop hierarchies. Technological changes produce surpluses and some small group manages to grab up all the surplus, while the great mass of the populace is immizerated. A lot of religious and cultural energy is expended on justifying this state of affairs. Hindus, he says, have some creation myths where the privileged were created from some higher parts of an ancient god while the less fortunate came from the feet. Afterlives are another scam of the same sort.

It seems to me that the modern equivalent is the "wealth creators" myth. Wolfgang links to a particularly egregious example.

The scam, of course, is the notion that the guy who winds up with most of the money created it. Walter White was a medium scale wealth creator, and on a somewhat larger scale tax arbitragers and pension swindlers like Mitt Romney convinces themselves that they "created" the money they accumulate.

Of course there really are wealth creators - inventors and technology pioneers - but they are rarely the ones who make the big bucks. And they almost never accomplish it alone.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Is Rafael Cruz a Fake Conservative?

Matt Yglesias and Brad DeLong have pointed out that when Ted Cruz read Green Eggs and Ham as part of his Fauxilibuster, he mananged to get the moral exactly wrong (the central character didn't like GE&H - until he tried them) - just like Americans don't like the ACA, he says.

Come to think of it, it kinda makes sense that he's a deep liberal agent.


One ring to bring them all

And in the darkness bind them

In addition to its role as an old timey courting practice, bundling is also a commercial strategy. From Wikipedia:

In marketing, product bundling is offering several products for sale as one combined product. It is a common feature in many imperfectly competitive product markets. Firms in telecommunications, financial services, health care, and information industries frequently offer products in bundles.[1] This is again common in the software business (for example: bundle a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a database into a single office suite), in the cable television industry (for example, basic cable in the United States generally offers many channels at one price), and in the fast food industry in which multiple items are combined into a complete meal. A bundle of products may be called a package deal or a compilation or an anthology.

It has been identified settings in which bundling can be used by firms to discriminate among consumers or to extend market power into a related product market.[2] Bundling in appropriate proportions is privately profitable, reduces a rival’s profits and overall welfare, and may drive rivals from the market.[3]

In addition to the examples mentioned consider a newspaper. By packaging a bunch of stuff you want (the sports page and the comics) with a bunch of stuff you might want (national and local news) and other stuff you might rarely want (classifieds, other ads) the paper achieved economies of scale. Other advertisement supported media have had similar models. The intertubes, the computer, and DVR make it possible to separate the advertising chaff from the grain. The consequent unbundling has devastated those industries.

Many people think that the next unbundling target might be the university. Traditionally the U has bundled beer parties and concentrations of attractive young people with practical material (like physics and math courses), slightly useless stuff (grouped requirements, humanities), really useless stuff (ethnic studies) and idle entertainment (theater, art), the ostensible reward for all of the above being a certificate called a degree, attesting supposedly to the fact that you learned something despite the beer and girls.

The Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) and other forms of distance learning challenge the notion that you have to spend four years on a specific patch of ground (campus) being subjected to all of the above in order to learn something. The magic ring that controls and animates the bundle, the degree, is at the heart of the upcoming struggle over twenty-first century higher education. As long as the residential university controls that ring of power, they can withstand the besieging forces of unbundling.

From Slate:

It’s nearly impossible to get into MIT, very expensive to enroll there, and exceedingly hard to graduate, which are some of the reasons why MIT degrees are so coveted. But very soon you’ll be able to take a series of online courses in computer science and earn an official certificate from one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world, all for only a few hundred dollars—and without having to meet any admissions requirements. MIT will be launching these XSeries Certificate programs in the next few months, including one in “supply chain management.”

MIT, in a press release, says the new programs are part of its effort to “reimagine the building blocks” of education as universities begin to deliver more of their content digitally.

Yet the program is also part of something much larger: the beginning of the unbundling of the American university. Much in the way that 12-song albums gave way to 99-cent iTunes purchases, universities are now under pressure to offer more ways to slice off smaller bits of education.

I love it, but then I’m not a professor at a university – probably the people most likely to join reporters and editors on the unemployment lines.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Varieties of Inflation

To the consumer, it's inflation when the price of something we use gets more expensive. If it gets cheaper, we usually don't notice. That's why economists rely on more scientific characterizations.

General increases in prices have several kinds of causes. One is an unpredicted scarcity of crucial goods, like energy or food. Those are volatile, and don't say much about the general economy anyway, however unpeasant they are for the population. More general inflation is too much money chasing too few goods. That usually means that the economy is running at full capacity, and unemployment is very low - so that wages go up and drive the price of everything else up.

The great bugaboo of inflationistas is runaway inflation. Essentially that only happens when goverments start (and continue) to pay for stuff with money they have neither collected in taxes nor borrowed.

There are other causes (capital flows, say) but the bottom line is that the bad effects of inflation are that it (a)confounds planning, (b)penalizes savers, (c)rewards debtors - which is not a bad effect if you are a debtor, and (d)makes it hard to borrow, because of (b).

Those who try to say inflation helps the rich and hurts the poor are mostly wrong. Savers are mostly rich. Many debtors are poor. Of course a, b, and d can hurt almost anybody, but their are times (of low aggregate demand) when inflation is an excellent thing for most of the people, because it pumps up spending and jobs.

Capitain Imperio Explains It All: QE

One of the bond gurus whose CNBC blather WB sent me to claimed that only 23% of Americans understand QE. I think he meant that only 23 basis points of Americans understood QE. In any case, the Capitain, as undeterred by the lack of any actual military or nautical rank as he his by his lack of relevant expertise ventures to clarify.

QE, or quantitative easing, consists of the Fed buying up a whole lot longer term government bonds. Recall that a bond is a sort of a contract whereby those with money agree to lend it to the government and the government agrees to pay it back with interest. The buyer of the bond is giving up his money for a promise of repayment, with interest. The key point to note here is that the price of the bond is inversely proportional to the interest rate. If people are really eager to buy bonds, the government gets its money for a low interest rate.

With that bit of basics out of the way, note that when the Fed buys bonds, what is actually doing is trading cash (which it, being the Fed, can manufacture) for the government promises to pay. It would be a mistake to call this "just printing money" though, since it's really trading one sort of store of value (cash) for another (government bonds). But it does make that store of value more liquid, and cash, unlike a government body, pays no interest. Of course, if the lunatics in the Republican House decide to default, those bonds lose their value and the whole scheme collapses.

Buying the bonds has two important economic effects - it drives down long term interest rates (since bonds become more expensive), and it pumps loose cash into the economy. Lower interest rates are stimulative, because it's cheaper to borrow to buy a house, car, or factory. Loose cash, not earning interest, is or ought to be a an incentive to spend or invest in the real economy.

The flaw in this notion is that if inflation is really low, it really doesn't cost one much to just keep your cash in barrels, Walter White style - and in fact there are a couple or three trillion bucks in actual currency, mostly dollars and Euros, floating around, not to mention much more in some kind of checking or similar account.

Add in a bit of inflation, and this suddenly become highly unprofitable. Now, inflation is eating away at what you don't spend or invest. if you accept the obvious Keynesian point that recession is caused by inadequate demand, you can see that the stijmulative effect can be powerful.

In any case, all that cash looking for a safe home is potentially hazardous. No sooner did the Fed announce no taper (decrease) in the QE and big amounts of capital sloshed into India, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

Which is one good reason to prefer fiscal stimulus.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


Arun has posted some video of the Fukushima tsunami that I hadn't seen before. The scene is a riverbank town. The most tragic aspect is that they had a considerable warning, with police and sirens, but many people chose to just gawk at the riverbank as the river first drained, gradually rose, and then quickly overswept the banks in a furious torrent, washing away cars, houses and the unwary people who had waited too long to seek higher ground.

Breakfast in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Went to a local restaurant to meet with a bunch of climate deniers this morning. As it happened, the restaurant had gone out of business, and their ringleader, the guy I really wanted to argue with, was out of the State. We found another restaurant, but not a whole lot of climate discussion took place. There was a lot of general grumbling about Obama ("a Communist, not a Socialist"), Michelle Obama's plot to make us eat vegetables, The Common Core ("written by Bill Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn") and Hispanics - the majority in our county and city.

Was I seeing a difference in Political Philosophy or a difference in sanity state?

War: Collective Punishment

Technically, collective punishments - punishing a group for a crime of some of its members - is a war crime. In reality, every war is either a form of collective punishment or naked aggression. The Islamic militants who attacked the Mall in Nairobi presumably imagined they were punishing somebody for crimes against Islam that still somebody else committed. In the case of suicide attackers, their is not much satisfaction in punishing the directly guilty. The indirectly guilty are hard to find, hard to extract from their refuges, and hard to convict when you can catch them.

On the other hand, it might be pretty easy to round up a lot of Muslims, almost all of whom are perfectly innocent of the crimes in question, and murder them. This is the logic of religious war and persecution. It's brutal, it's horribly unfair, but does it work? Does it actually discourage the crimes in question?

The answer of history seems to be: sometimes. If there is a balance of forces, or a near balance of forces, mutual murder can continue until both sides are exhausted. If one side has a great preponderance of force, the minority is likely to be cowed or exterminated.

Muslims in the world today are a huge minority, but relatively weak, both because of internal divisions and collective lack of economic and military prowess. The Muslim fanatics are eager for that battle of civilizations, as they have described it, but if it were to happen, they would be utterly defeated. So far, at least, the rest of the world is held back by its own divisions and some fairly recently adopted moral standards.

Political Philosophy

Lee has been talking to me about political philosophy and I've been resisting the term. Partly that's because I don't like being confined to a label, and partly it's because I don't think most people's views are all of a piece. Still, as a member of the "reality based community" (one label I'm happy to self apply) I have to admit that we humans do have a tendency to group ourselves into teams, and most people wouldn't find it hard to decide whether I was on the liberal or conservative team.

If there is one unifying theme to my political views it's hostility to the modern Republican party. It seems to me that they are deeply radical, in the sense of being willing to do great damage to the country in order to get their way, deeply mistaken about some crucial facts, and transparently in the service of a tiny group of the super rich.

A lot of my differences with the average Republican have to do with my belief that they are deliberately ignoring the facts. I get that gun owners love their guns, and I even think that I know why. But why do they insist that the CDC not collect data about gun deaths? Mostly because they know the data is going to hurt their cause, which means they want to preserve the lie at all costs.

There are a few things about which liberals are equally attached to imaginary realities. I don't sympathize with them either.

This post wound up not going anywhere, but I decided to publish it anyway. Think of it as the scraps left over from an unsuccessful attempt to synthesize some ideas.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Gnats and Elephants

Some things are a big deal, and others aren't. Whether or not we have some small intervention in Syria is probably a big deal for Syria, not so much for the US. It's a tough problem, with downsides in every direction, but it's not likely to affect the future of this country much. NSA's surveillance seems like overreach, and should and probably will be dialed back, but unless you are a terrorist or criminal, it's not likely to affect the average citizen much - it's not a big deal. The TSA is a much bigger deal. The Affordable Care Act, insuring tens of millions of Americans, is a pretty big deal. Government shutdown, knocking hundreds of billions off our GDP, is a pretty big deal. US debt default, likely costing trillions worldwide, is an enormously big deal. Global warming is likely a big deal in the long run, but the long run is a ways away still. The Keystone pipeline, affecting only whether Canadian crude gets refined in Houston or China, is pretty much a complete nothingburger.

Just in case anyone was wondering what their priorities ought to be.


It's crazy to think that there are no important differences between the American political parties.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Gauge Invariance

In discussing the amplithedron I made a point of mentioning that it's virtue (for the theory for which it works) is that it removes the gauge redundancy. Peter Woit has (quite rightly) chastised me for calling the gauge degrees of freedom a nuisance. Now of course they are much more than that. All the quantum field theories that work in the real world have local gauge symmetries, and those symmetries are essential for conservation laws, renormalizability and lots of stuff that smarter people than I understand.

The fact is, though, that they have a lot of redundancy in the sense that we have infinitely many physically equivalent descriptions of the same phenomena. That turns out to pose computational problems. Why, we might ask, would God make a universe like that? Arkani-Hamed and the amplituhedron authors conjecture that the redundancy is a consequence of a faulty fundamental description based on locality and unitarity. For one very special and non-physical QFT they seem to have shown that that is the case. If the notion is more widely applicable, it could be revolutionary.


Pinker Plinked - Again

Philosophy Prof Gary Gutting takes a whack at Stephen Pinker's essay on scientism, including a drive by on Pinker's weakest claim - that science plus "common sense" can give us morality, but he really really wants to complain that scientists don't give Philosophy enough respect. Physics, of course, is the worst.

I would certainly agree that most physicists, those of my generation anyway, don't have much patience for philosophy, at least not as a guide to our thought in physics. I expect biologists are much the same. We, I, don't have any problem with philosophers trying to comprehend physics and fit it into a world view, but I just don't think that they have anything to contribute in the way of insight. I think that's true in biology too, and increasingly true in the study of human nature.

The great philosophers of the past had some deep insights, but their intellectual tools were blunt. Introspection is a poor substitute for the experimental method, trying to understand human nature without understanding Darwin is hopeless.

The modern philosopher's I respect, like Daniel Dennett, seem to concentrate on explaining the implications of biology (or physics, or evolutionary psychology) to the public.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Anti-MOOC Panic

The flood waters in Colorado seem to have washed away my comments on yet another blog by a historian at a school (CSU Pueblo) I had never previously heard of. One thing these guys can't stand is dissent, even politely expressed.

I can't really blame them. They are trying so hard to convince themselves that MOOCs can't do anything right that any contrary message excites pure panic. They, the tenured profs, have a pretty good deal, even if they aren't exactly teaching at Harvard, and they have worked hard to get it. Of course that keeps them from understanding the real weaknesses of the MOOC or guessing the shape of education a decade or so from now.

Jonathan Rees, the proprietor of the blog aforementioned, likes to deride those who teach MOOC courses as "Superprofessors." It's intended as an insult, of course, but it has the ring of truth. Once upon a time, every podunk town in America had a pro or semi-pro baseball team. Television ended that, and the internet may well end a lot of the jobs at the less prestigious colleges. The global economy is a tournament, and in tournaments there is usually just the winner and the losers. Once students have the choice of a superb lecturer with an international reputation, will they want to listen to a substandard lecturer with a more obscure reputation, or even to a superb researcher who can't lecture?

To be clear, I by no means think MOOCs can replace all the funtions of a university. But they can replace some of them, and the change that produces will be dramatic - and traumatic.


I’ve been depressed about physics for some time. I hadn’t noticed much progress in either theory or experiment for a while, but a paper from last year by Nima Arkani-Hamed and co-authors has called attention to a remarkable new idea called (somewhat unfortunately, I think) an amplituhedron. I learned about it from this nice article in Quanta. The opening lines of Arkani-Hamed et. al’s paper:

The traditional formulation of quantum field theory—encoded in its very name— is built on the two pillars of locality and unitarity [1]. The standard apparatus of Lagrangians and path integrals allows us to make these two fundamental principles manifest. This approach, however, requires the introduction of a large amount of unphysical redundancy in our description of physics. Even for the simplest case of scalar field theories, there is the freedom to perform field-redefinitions. Starting with massless particles of spin-one or higher, we are forced to introduce even larger, gauge redundancies, [1].

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing realization that these re- dundancies hide amazing physical and mathematical structures lurking within the heart of quantum field theory.

The amplituhedron is a geometric object, the positive Grassmannian, which apparently encapsulates the physics minus the redundancies, with huge gains in computational and (maybe) conceptual efficiency.

The Grassmannian is a sort of generalization of projective space, and, if I understand correctly, positivity is linked to convexity of some underlying polyhedron and enforcement of nice conditions on the calculational results. If this works out, it could be the most important idea since superstrings, and maybe since Feynman diagrams.

It’s interesting that so many of the core ideas in the past century (or so) of physics have proven to be geometric. The amplituhedron has been described as a “jewel in infinite dimensional space” so it clearly fits the category. The sacrifices permitting elimination of the redundancies are locality and unitarity. Locality was already in a certain amount of danger, but I don’t yet understand anything about the sacrifice of unitarity.

On a less giddy note, wikipedia notes:

Since the N=4 supersymmetric Yang-Mills theory is a toy theory that does not describe the real world, the relevance of this theory to the real world is currently unknown, but it provides promising directions for research into theories about the real world.


UPDATE: Peter Woit casts a somewhat jaundiced eye on the whole thing here. And Lumo has a take here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Trolling thru Lumo World, I found this comment from LM:

I just fucking wrote that there can't ever be any 100% certainty that a black hole - or any metastable object, for that matter - existed.

In some theories at least, every object is metastable, certainly Lumo, and maybe protons and even electrons.

Gives a certain amount of aid and comfort to my favorite crackpot theory - namely, that black holes don't really exist. I also have a certain nutty enthusiasm for the notion that entangled particles are connected by Einstein-Rosen bridges - the so-called ER-EPR hypothesis.

The Digital Panopticon: It Knows If You’ve Been Bad or Good

Tyler Cowen was on NPR’s Morning Show last week, flogging his new book, Average is Over, and its rather dystopian view of our future. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve formed an impression of where it’s coming from. In the NBA this year, computers will track every movement of every player. Each detail of every movement will be tracked, in order, I imagine, to better analyze every defect in technique, style, and effort. The same kind of computerized tracking is becoming cheap enough to do much the same to ordinary workers in all sorts of occupations. Employers will know exactly who is doing how much for the firm, who can’t get going until his third cup of coffee, who takes ten minutes to fill out data form X instead of seven, and who looks like they tend to get sick when the crises are happening – not to mention everybody’s IQ, credit score, and grade school GPA.

Cowen sees this as a society which will reward high performers and punishes everyone else, destroying the middle class in the process. He sees an upside. Students from India, whom he claims outperform Stanford students in Coursera courses (some Coursera course or courses?) will have opportunities denied them in the past.

My own view of the trends is even gloomier. The high performers, those who prove the most able to serve the machine, will do better than the mass, probably, but the real rewards will be reserved for the lucky few who win the tournament of Capitalism. More and more, the only place that counts is first place. Facebook wins, because it was ever so slightly better than its rivals, or more likely just because it originated in a more prestigious address, and the rivals shrivel away.

So what’s to be done? Libertarian Cowen says, “Get used to it.”

I prefer an idea from the stone age: redistribution.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Domesticated Animal

The agricultural revolution was triggered by the domestication of a single large animal. This domestication took the beast in question from a life of foraging for his food in the outdoors, to unremitting labor, poor nutrition, and living in crowded, filthy conditions rife with disease. Being poorly adapted to his new life of hard labor, we can trace the results in arthritic and other changes in the skeletons that have been preserved. Over all, domestication was a bummer for the species in question, AKA H. sapiens. The domesticator, Triticum spp., fared better. Protected from predators and competitors, watered, and ceaselessly tended, wheat went from an obscure grass with a tiny range to one of the dominant species of the world.

Such, at any rate, is the story told by Professor Yuval Noah Harari. He can hardly be faulted at the literal level. To 'domesticate,' in its root sense, means to cause to live in houses. We do, but wheat doesn't, and the blame for that is the almost constant, backbreaking (literally, again) toil it requires to tend the infernal stuff.

Perhaps whatever adaptation was achieved to domesticated status will be useful to the new masters.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Fate of the Republic

The Republic is not a new idea in governance. One of our founding fathers, I forget which, decided to research the fates of the ancient Republics of Greece, Rome, less ancient Florence, and others. They all tended to devolve into oligarchies and dictatorships. The US seems to be following the scripts.

Larry, Larry, Larry, Larry

Larry Summers has withdrawn his name from consideration for head of the Fed. Presumably both he and Obama are annoyed about this. Summers, though, had made lots of enemies in Washington, including feminists, those who thought he was too close to Wall Street, and those who just doubted his temperment. Nobody doubted his intellect, and he had lots of fans among economists, but even liberals who liked him seemed to prefer Janet Yellen.

Mathew Yglesias suggests that Obama might just confound everybody by picking Timothy Geithner. That would probably really piss off a lot of people - especially those who thought Summers would have been a bad choice.

I remain a Yellen fan, but Summers would have been a lot better choice than Geithner. These days, though, Obama seems to have developed a real tin ear for informed public opinion, so who knows.

What's in a Name?

...A rose by any other name would smell as sweet..............

But would it really, Julliette? If Romeo had been named Flugh, would he have been as romantic a figure?

Many countries insist that given names be chosen from a specified list. The US isn't one of them, so imagination occasionally runs wild. Biblical names tend to be popular, and recent lists of popular boys names are strongly dominated by them. The same is true in Spain, slightly less true in Hungary, and largely absent in Sweden. In the US the most popular girl's names of 2012 contains only a sprinkling of biblical derivations - famous actresses seem to be a much bigger influence.

Unusual names probably have a few different origins, but we know that conventional names dominate in highly affluent neighborhoods. Unusual names, on the other hand, dominate in poorer neighborhoods, and especially among blacks of low economic status. Clebrities also are famous for their wacky baby names.

Giving your kid a peculiar name can be an attempt to give him or her something, especially if you have nothing material to offer. It can be an act of rebellion. I suspect, though, that it's usually a way to build cultural fences. The Puritan movement was an exceptionally rich source of weird English names. Joseph Norwood, writing in Slate, has some of the more colorful ones:

Praise-God. Full name, Praise-God Barebone. The Barebones were a rich source of crazy names. This one was a leather-worker, member of a particularly odd Puritan group and an MP. He gave his name to the Barebones Parliament, which ruled Britain in 1653. If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned. Praise-God's son, he made a name for himself as an economist. But, for some inexplicable reason, he decided to go by the name Nicolas Barbon. Fear-God. Also a Barebone. Job-raked-out-of-the-ashes Has-descendents Wrestling Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith

Names of that sort are cultural badges, proclaiming your membership in a group and definitively separating you from the larger culture. The same can be said of the tendency for some unusual "Black" names.

Jamelle Bouie has an article entitled Are Blacks Names ‘Weird,’ or Are You Just Racist?, but I think the article is confusing a couple of different phenomena. First of all, it's a simple statistical fact that black parents, especially those of low socio-economic status, tend to choose unusual names (statistically rare names) more frequently than affluent whites. He points out that plenty of white people also have peculiar names, and notes that many of them do quite well (as do some weirdly named black people - see, e.g., President, US). He has a point, though, when he says that the reaction of society to "ghetto" names can be racist. Of course that's unfortunate, but it's also predictable. Give your kid a name associated with a deprecated culture, and you might hinder his chances for advancement in a wider society. On the other hand, you might give her a leg up on name recognition.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Education as a Fashion Industry

Daliah Lithwick writes of going to her child's parent night and and having no clue what the school was telling her. Ms. Lithwick is an editor and writer, a graduate of Yale and Stanford Law, and presumably no dummy, whatever her attachment to some weird religious traditions. Why exactly did she find school personnel speaking in tongues?

at times yesterday I felt as if I were toggling between a business school seminar and the space program; acronyms alone—seemingly random sequences of letters like MAP and SOL and EAPE—were being deployed more frequently than actual words. To be sure, the teachers seemed as maddened by it as the parents were. Even if we can all agree about the singular benefits of “project-based learning across the curriculum," I am less than perfectly certain any of us knows what it means.

“Un-levelling.” We do that now. And “fitnessgram testing?” Possibly the new un-levelling.

She notes that the teachers didn't seem much clearer on the concepts than she was.

But let's answer the question of why this was all so incomprehensible. Because education is a fashion industry. It's a fashion industry for the same sorts of reasons women's clothing is. Clothing designers want to keep selling women new styles of clothes. Educational publishers want to keep selling new books, computer programs, and a plethora of mostly useless teaching aids. This requires that styles change frequently. In this they are aided and abetted by education schools where profs like to do mostly worthless research and get a cut of the profits on new educational products.

One of the first tasks in reforming education is to sieze control from the publishers. Is the new Common Core approach going to do that? Probably not, but it seems like a start.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chesterton Relevant to Today's Republicans

The revolution that arose out of what is called the Renascence, and ended in some countries in what is called the Reformation, did in the internal politics of England one drastic and definite thing. That thing was destroying the institutions of the poor.

................Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). A Short History of England (p. 71). . Kindle Edition.

Anyhow, what was first founded at the Reformation was a new and abnormally powerful aristocracy, and what was destroyed, in an ever-increasing degree, was everything that could be held, directly or indirectly, by the people in spite of such an aristocracy.

................Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). A Short History of England (p. 71). . Kindle Edition.

And today, Republicans work ceaselessly to destroy National Parks, public education, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare and of course, Unions. Everything, in short, that could be held, directly or indirectly by the people in spite of the aristocracy.,

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A History of Violence

Emphasis for (or against) ancient warfare is absent until about 20,000 years ago. The 10,000 years between then and agriculture are ambiguous. Skeletons collected from some parts of the world are nearly free of evidence of violent death at human hands (but remember only injuries to bones are preserved). Skeletons from other regions show a high incidence of human caused violence (embedded spear and arrow points), and probable evidence of massacres on the scale of entire bands.

Good Times: Creative Destruction

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Mainly depending on whether you were rich or not.

Via Matt Yglesias, Emmanuel Saez reports:

Top 1% incomes grew by 31.4% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.4% from 2009 to 2012. Hence, the top 1% captured 95% of the income gains in the first three years of the recovery. From 2009 to 2010, top 1% grew fast and then stagnated from 2010 to 2011. Bottom 99% stagnated both from 2009 to 2010 and from 2010 to 2011. In 2012, top 1% incomes increased sharply by 19.6% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 1.0%. In sum, top 1% incomes are close to full recovery while bottom 99% incomes have hardly started to recover.

No wonder the Romney Party likes the way the economy is going. But we may rest assured that the resources are being more effectively employed - buying Bentleys, building Yachts, and snatching up all those scarce private islands.


We are on the way to becoming the Eloi. Except for those of you who are becoming Morlocks, of course. On the whole, though, we are becoming smaller brained, more domesticated, more peaceful, and dumber.


Paleolithic man was perforce a polymath: tool maker, healer, botanist, hunter, survival specialist.

Harari links that an apparent shrinkage of average Homo sapiens brain size since then.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

War on the Poor

Lawyers and lackeys and money-lenders, the meanest of lucky men, looted the art and economics of the Middle Ages like thieves robbing a church. Their names (when they did not change them) became the names of the great dukes and marquises of our own day. But if we look back and forth in our history, perhaps the most fundamental act of destruction occurred when the armed men of the Seymours and their sort passed from the sacking of the Monasteries to the sacking of the Guilds. The mediæval Trade Unions were struck down, their buildings broken into by the soldiery, and their funds seized by the new nobility.

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). A Short History of England (pp. 69-70). . Kindle Edition.

Chesterton marks Henry VIII mostly for being the weak king and agent that loosed a rapacious new rich upon England. The commons were enclosed and siezed, the monasteries, great and small, which had among other things served to ameliorate the misery of the poor, were siezed and became the dwellings of nobility new and (more rarely) old. The trade unions and guilds were broken.

Anybody see any similarity to the present?

Classifying Religions

Professor Harari notes that the clues pre-literate man leaves to his thought and motivations (mostly art) are highly ambiguous. He mentions a few of the theories that have some inspiration in that art, including matriarchy, collective marriage, and societies pretty much like more modern versions. In any case he expects that they would have been highly varied, but with some consistent elements.

We don't know, of course, and probably never will. He not exactly clear as to why he thinks this, but he thinks their religions were animistic - attributing intention, personality, and sentience to animals, plants and other features of the natural world. Such religions seem to have been common among hunter-gather peoples encountered in modern times. It was a democratic and egalitarian spirit world, with no particular personality or object in charge.

That seems to have changed with the arrival of agriculture. After agriculture, all sorts of peoples, Aztecs, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Jews and others transitioned to what he calls "big god" religions. There develops a hierarchy in the heavens, and some gods are more important than others, sometimes (like the god of Jews and Muslims), kicking all the other gods out of the pantheon. That kind of hierarchy reflects the hierarchies that develop among the agricultural peoples, with their chiefs, kings and wealthy rent extractors.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Badly Broken


That's the stupidometer on my plotometer after the last episode of Breaking Bad.

OK, you've just extracted a damming confession from the most dangerous drug criminal in the SouthWest. So naturally, you, one other lightly armed guy, and the only good witness go out to arrest him. You don't call for backup, even though he's not going anywhere. You make the bust, and who do you call, in the presence of aforesaid gangster? Your idiot wife.

Next, two carloads of suspicious characters show up. Now do call for backup? Of course not.


Sunday, September 08, 2013

Physics of Cow Tipping

Picture yourself knocking down an NFL linebacker. Now imagine that he weighs 1500 pounds and has 4 legs planted firmly on the ground. If you think this thru you might understand the basics of cow tipping. The link has some further information on why cow tipping cain't hardly happen. If you want experimental evidence, and don't feel you can do the research yourself, check out Utube for examples.

Obama's Syria Plan

We have scotched the snake, not killed it. She’ll close and be herself whilst our poor malice Remains in danger of her former tooth......... Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act III, Scene 2.

I can't yet guess whether Obama's media blitz will sway the public or the Congress, but from what I know, it's a terrible plan. He plans to wound the snake and not to kill it. In practice, that means killing a few random Syrians without really interfering with Assad's ability to murder his people.

Obama seems to have a fatal attraction to this type of half-measure plan in all his policies.

Religion versus Science

Give me that old time religion, it's good enough for me.

I don't have a lot of sympathy for the approach of the scientific types who aggressively take on religion (Carroll, Dawkins, and especially, PZ Myers, for example), but I think one has to admit that this was a battle the religious started. The fundamental problem is that scientific ideas consistently challenge aspects of various religious world views. Thus the murder of Bruno, the persecution of Galileo, and countless crimes committed against less famous truth seekers.

This persecution has hardly stopped. Especially in the Muslim world, persecution of ideas continues to be a murderous business. Those who expose profitable fakery remain big targets in many places, as witness the recent murder of the Indian physician who had spent his recent years exposing various religious frauds.

In the West, the battle against science has become much less bloody, but the war continues apace. Let science challenge any superstition or popular nostrum and the campaigns begin.

Science keeps presenting ideas and truths that make us uncomfortable. We aren't the center of the universe. Humans may be smart animals, but aside from that, we are a lot like the other animals, and biology has a great deal to say about our individuality. The more we understand about DNA, the fewer places there are for superstition to hide.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Physics Gene

David Epstein hasn't written a book about talent and physics, but he has written one about talent in sports: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. Yao Ming, the Chinese and NBA center, was the product of a Chinese Basketball Association breeding program. In some sports the effect of talent is enormous. Stephen V. Roberts, reviewing the book in the Washington Post tells the following Epstein stories:

Donald Thomas was bragging to his pals on the college track team about his dunking skills on the basketball court. So they bet that he couldn’t clear 6-feet-6-inches in a high-jump contest. When Thomas sailed over a bar set at seven feet, the losers urged their coach to recruit him. Eighteen months later, he won the world championship.

Albert Pujols is one of the best baseball players of his age, but when facing Jennie Finch, a softball pitcher who threw underhanded, he struck out. Badly.

It turns out that hitting a baseball (or a softball)requires a lot of specific training as well as talent. High jumping, not so much. In either case, though, talent is crucial. Thomas was born with a giant achilles tendon that could store lots of energy. Professional sports (in the US that means both the officially professional sports and the professional sports played by colleges) have increasingly been looking at genetic analysis in picking the specific kinds of athletes they want, position by position in highly specialized sports like American football.

Talent isn't just physical. Sled racing dogs are some of the animal world's best athletes - ok, the world's best athletes, period. They are bred more for personality - desire - than any other trait.

It's impossible to expect that the same kind of selection will not, or is not, already being applied to humans in non athletic endeavors. One can imagine a future Harvard selecting its Freshman class by DNA instead of test scores (high school grades will still be important, but as an indication of learned skill and confirmation that the genes are expressed truly.)

"I'm sorry Dr. X., but your DNA says you would be a bad choice for a tenure award."

PS - Do you possess the irony gene? There are ways to test for it.

Friday, September 06, 2013


Sabine H. of Backreaction wrote about Special Relativity. Mostly she complained about certain violence popular science writer inflict on relativity, but one theme was that old question of whether one needs the General theory of Relativity for accelerated reference frames. Like all sensible persons she says no, but plenty of people who should know better don't agree. This led in turn to the equivalence principle, where plenty of more people who really really should know better (like authors of textbooks on GR) don't seem to grasp the notion that the equivalence principle refers to local equivalence of gravitation to an accelerated reference frame.

In a minute I will get to my point.

This led in turn to a debate in which Philip Helbig said, if equivalence holds, why doesn't a charge fixed in a gravitational field (say on the surface of a planet) radiate? I couldn't resist throwing in an ordinary mass on a planetary surface - would it feel Unruh radiation (the radiation felt by an accelerated object)? I was foolish enough to say that I thought the answer to the questions was yes, but I no longer believe that.

It seems that there are some subtleties here. One of them is that physicists can't even agree whether a uniformly accelerated charge radiates. See, e.g., Physics stack exchange here and Feynman's point of view (NO!) at Math Pages here. In any case, most don't believe that a charge on the surface of a gravitating body radiates, but, in any case, the energy flux is too small to measure - except maybe for neutron stars and black holes. It also seems likely that Hawking and Unruh radiation is only experienced when a horizon (or perhaps some sort of psuedo horizon) is present. Lumo makes a statement here, but provides few details.

Other arguments or opinions? Anybody? Bueller?

Origins of a Dynamic Culture

More distillations from the sayings of professor Harari, in his Coursera Course on The History of Humankind.

Of all the creatures on Earth, a significant fraction are social, but only a few of them can cooperate on large scale. Most of them are Hymenoptera. Especially ants. Ants cooperate on a very large scale, occupy some of the most profitable spots in the ecosphere, and can do some fairly fancy communication. They don't, however, have anything that could be called culture. Information transferred from generation to generation is almost certainly purely genetic.

Our somewhat large-brained (400 cc) fellow great apes cooperate on a very small scale, and even have a few elements of culture that can be transmitted generation to generation, but not much. Most aspects of their behavior are dictated by genetics and environment. The longest lasting species of our genus Homo, the pretty large-brained Homo erectus (1000cc), made some stone tools, and at least some knowledge of that tool making was probably transmitted culturally, but they couldn't cooperate in large groups and their culture was very static. They made the same tools 100,000 years ago that they made 1.5 million years ago. Even the Neandertal, with brains (1500 cc)larger than our own (1350 cc) don't seem to have been able to cooperate in large groups.

That seems to have been the pattern for our own species for the first 65-75% of its existence. That changed abruptly about 70,000 years ago. After that, change came from largely from culture rather than biology. Suddenly (in evolutionary time) we could cooperate in large groups, started inventing new technologies at a brisk pace, created art, carried out trade over long distances, and suddenly started crushing everything in our path.

One extremely promising candidate for origins of our sudden cultural dynamism may have been advances in our linguistic capabilities. Language that allows us to create stories and narratives facilitates communication among persons and transmission of knowledge other than by imitation. It seems likely that whatever language our fellow members of genus Homo had, it lacked some or much of the expressive power of our own.

Could that language development itself have been a purely cultural phenomenon? It seems unlikely. Today, at any rate, the whole infrastructure of language is biologically wired in us. Our children learn whatever language they are exposed to quickly and naturally. If large groups of them are not exposed to a single language, they invent their own, and the invented languages are full-featured, not some stripped down versions.

What seems more likely is that there was a gradual accumulation of genetic and cultural changes which didn't reach a critical mass until 70,000 years ago, at which point people, language and culture quite abruptly became modern.

Of course we don't really know.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Speaking Hypothetically

Anatomically modern humans first appeared 200 or 300 thousand years ago. For most of the time since, ten thousand generations or so, they lived as yet another unobtrusive species of the genus Homo, a middle of the food chain animal that was sparse in numbers, had a limited range in East Africa, and used the same old technologies for millenium after millenium.

About 70,000 years ago that changed rather abruptly. A host of cultural innovations occurred, including the sewing needle, watercraft of some sort, and perhaps most importantly, art. Quite abruptly our ancestors became top predators, spread over the world, and swept away the rest of the Human species and, eventually, half the genera of large mammals. What changed? How did it happen? It won't surprise even non-skeptics to learn that nobody really knows. There are some plausible hypotheses. Prof Harari thinks that language is the key. Human language is uniquely expressive. It's especially useful for gossip, one of the most crucial human communication functions in the kind of small bands people lived in for most of our existence. Best of all, he thinks, is its ability to express and allow us to comprehend hypotheticals.

Of course we lack any direct evidence that such language emerged 70,000 years ago, and we lack evidence that the other human species lacked it. The most important piece of indirect evidence is appearance of art. Art is inherently hypothetical, and some early art, for example a sculpture of a lion headed man, is prettly clearly hypothetical.

Today we know that language is essentially hard-wired into the human brain - full-featured language complete with hypotheticals. Was this the result of a series of abrupt mutations? We don't know, but at least potentially we can trace the genes for language eventually, and compare them with, say, the Neandertal genome.

Syria vs. the Voters

It looks like the American people are pretty strongly against intervention in Syria. Will that affect the Congressional vote? Probably. If the Congress votes against intervention, Obama should definitely not do it on his own.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Viewpoints on Syria

There are a number of lenses foreign policy choices need to be looked at through, and one of them is surely morality. One fake morality opinion that I don't approve of is what I call the "all the kids are doing it" meme. Just because our country condoned, promoted, or practiced some immoral act in the past - chemical weapons, slavery, genocide - is no reason to tolerate it now. The human race has a sorry history, but seeking the lowest common denominator is not the way to go. Now I happen to think use of chemical weapons is evil, mostly because it is so indiscriminate and so much more effective against civilians than soldiers, probably even more evil than other weapons of war, but that's not the point. Such weapons are prohibited by international treaties on the laws of war, and if such laws are never enforced they lack effectiveness, but that's only part of the point. One part of the point is that if the use of such weapons is tolerated, that use is sure to become more common.

The main part of the point though, is that our President, wisely or unwisely, explicitly promised that we would not tolerate it. Despite serving as a convenient humor platform for Jon Stewart, credibility matters in the world, as in matters to the degrees that millions of lives may hang by it. Jon may think this is seventh grade stuff, but I'm afraid he is entirely too innocent of how the larger world works. International politics is a lot more like seventh grade than it is like a college philosophy seminar.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Paying for It

I have been taking Yuval Noah Harari's Coursera course A Brief History of Humankind, which takes a long term view of the human story. Prof Harari is very much of the evolutionary point of view, and he frequently emphasizes that some of the deepest puzzles of human history are posed by those evolutionary questions.

What, for example, is the point of a big brain if you have only the most primitive tools and weapons, and are stuck down somewhere in the middle of the food chain. It's three per cent or so of our body weight costs us 25% of our energy usage, for example, and it is burdensome to carry around with all their accompanying packaging. Everything in evolution, he likes to say, has a cost. We pay for the big brain by needing to eat more and by sacrificing much of our muscles. We are incredibly puny, for example, compared to a chimpanzee of the same weight.

One argument he makes that I find less persuasive - so far, anyway - is that because humans have been top predators for only a short time, about 100,000 years, we haven't yet learned, or rather evolved, how to manage that position.

We Are Special

From the human point of view, we are the center of the Universe. That's probably why we like to create gods more or less in our own image. We also tend to resent anything that challenges that. That's why Bruno was burned at the stake, Galileo imprisoned, and Darwin remains excoriated by many who never read a word he wrote.

Darwin's great offense was applying the lessons of evolution to our own species. It remains a central point of contention even among those who purportedly belong to the intelligensia. The pointy end of Darwin's spear, these days, belongs mainly to the practitioners of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology - those who seek evolutionary roots for human behaviors.

It should be obvious that those disciplines remain speculative. Not only is human behavior complex and highly variable, but the specific genetic underpinnings are, in most cases, known not at all. Is this a good reason not to do the research? Hardly. Remember, Darwin knew nothing of genes or DNA. Is it a good reason to be skeptical of specific claims or hypotheses? Of course, but that means looking at the evidence as dispassionately as possible, not resorting to name calling.

Of course all that applies only to those who believe in science. If you take your truth from some other source, good luck to you.

Frost, Firms and Fences

SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a wall.........................Robert Frost, Mending Wall

Physicists call it entropy. But there are also lots of things that do love walls, including neighbors, cells, cultures, nations and firms. Which is to say, all those things that like to live in a state of relatively low entropy. We build fences to keep order in and disorder out.

Matthew Yglesias, my second favorite economics writer, writes about economist Ronald Coase and the theory of the firm:

Ronald Coase, one of the most distinguished economists in the world, died yesterday at the age of 102. He's well-known both for the depth of his insights and for the relatively accessible nature of his two major papers on "The Nature of the Firm" and "The Problem of Social Cost." I feel that the social cost paper gets discussed more frequently among the educated public because it seems to have important political implications, but it's also not always clear what those implications are (Kevin Bryan has a good discussion here) but the "Nature of the Firm" more tickles my fancy...

So why does that happen? If markets are so great, what's with all the bosses and colleagues and meetings and internal office politics?

Coase says that basically we have firms for the same reason that big-time law firms are so expensive to hire. It turns out that writing comprehensive enforceable contracts is really hard. To actually specify what will happen in every conceivable situation would be an enormous drag on resources. To cope with the real-time complexities of the business world, you need two things that markets and contracts can't provide. One is leadership. You need people who can survey a situation, think a minute, and then issue some directions that everyone carries out. Ideally those leaders will make the right call. But typically even picking a sub-optimal strategy will be better than doing nothing at all as you have additional rounds of discussion and bargaining. The other—related—thing that you need is teamwork and team spirit. A workplace where everyone is obsessed all the time with the exact parameters of their job rather than being willing to pitch in and solve problems is going to be a dysfunctional one.

Which is to say that even in a market economy, the most successful practitioners aren't going to be organized along market principles. Instead they're little islands of central planning.

I like the whole article, but principle is extremely deep. Markets are really good at allocating resources among competitors but not so hot at fostering cooperation. This is a huge blind spot even for many who love Coase.

Some have pointed to Microsoft's employee rating system as the reason Microsoft has seemed so slow and uncertain of foot in recent years. Because emplyees are being constantly rated against other members of their work groups, they are competitors more than cooperators. My own emplyer has a similar system, and completely aside from any effects on morale and cooperation, it sucks up a huge fraction of management time every year.

I'm not sure that good fences make good neighbors, but they do seem to be necessary for lots of purposes.

The DEA and The VMA

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Real Job Creators

Right-wing ideology holds that the rich are the job creators, and government should just concentrate on staying out of the way. Mariana Mazzucato, writing in the New Scientist, does some heavy demolition on that particular myth.

Yet it is ideology, not evidence, that fuels this image. A quick look at the pioneering technologies of the past century points to the state, not the private sector, as the most decisive player in the game.

Whether an innovation will be a success is uncertain, and it can take longer than traditional banks or venture capitalists are willing to wait. In countries such as the United States, China, Singapore, and Denmark, the state has provided the kind of patient and long-term finance new technologies need to get off the ground. Investments of this kind have often been driven by big missions, from putting a human on the moon to solving climate change. This has required not only funding basic research—the typical "public good" that most economists admit needs state help—but applied research and seed funding too.

Apple is a perfect example. In its early stages, the company received government cash support via a $500,000 small-business investment company grant. And every technology that makes the iPhone a smartphone owes its vision and funding to the state: the Internet, GPS, touch-screen displays, and even the voice-activated smartphone assistant Siri all received state cash. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency bankrolled the Internet, and the CIA and the military funded GPS. So, although the United States is sold to us as the model example of progress through private enterprise, innovation there has benefited from a very interventionist state.

The examples don't just come from the military arena, either. The U.S. National Institutes of Health spends about $30 billion every year on pharmaceutical and biotechnology research and is responsible for 75 percent of the most innovative new drugs annually. Even the algorithm behind Google benefited from U.S. National Science Foundation funding.

She has more, but it's not hard to find still more examples. In case after case, government has been either first funder or first customer. Of course private innovation is important, and in many areas dominant. But it's BS to claim that only private innovation counts. It's also interesting how many "innovators" made their bundle largely on the taxpayers dime.