Friday, June 30, 2006

Speaking of Pollinization Services...

that was a famous example of an externality in economics textbooks for many years. Bees, it was said, provide pollinization, a good, but since the beekeeper can't charge for it, there will be an "insufficient" number of bees kept. The people who kept repeating this apparently had never looked in the yellow pages and seen that the beekeepers do charge for the service, all the time.

Surgeon General...

points out dangers of secondhand government.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Lexical Problems

051014 Fri 1830 Novato, CA rev. 051015 Sat 1750 (c) 2005 by Walter Bloch



Consider the following (famous) algorithm A applying to positive integers n:

A[n]: if n = 1 then terminate;
If n is even, then A[n/2];
otherwise A[3n+1].

For any n, there are three possibilities:

The sequence terminates, e.g.:
9, 28, 14, 7, 22, 11, 34, 17, 52, 26, 13, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1.
The sequence repeats a number and loops forever.
The sequence is nonterminating and nonrepeating, and so is unbounded, since under a ceiling a repeat is inevitable.

For any n, in fact, the sequence terminates; last time I checked, this was unprovable.

How can I google to check for progress, when I have forgotten the name of the sequence?


This example is from life; it inspired me to think about this and the related questions. It illustrates the point well enough, but it is not a perfect example, as it turns out.
Carol von Haden immediately found the Collatz Problem (1937), also known as Kakutani's Problem (I knew him at Yale in the '50s) (see
The search key she used after reading the first version of this communique?
"9, 28, 14, 7, 22, 11, 34, 17, 52, 26, 13, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1"


“Hemiplegia” is paralysis of one side of the body, e.g., including left arm and left leg.

What is the word W for paralysis of top or bottom half, e.g., left arm and right arm? This is not hemiplegia. “Hemiplegia” and W are not synonyms or antonyms. Theirs is a related relation, we could say “transposes” using matrix terminology,
or think of a 180-degree rotation about a 45-degree axis. Thus we wish to find the transpose of “hemiplegia.” But lexicography has no word that Ask Sam would understand, so how do we frame the question?


Mangor, n. (obviously) the taste, aroma, or quality of being mango.

Mangid, adj. (obviously) having the taste, aroma, or quality of being mango.

But if it isn’t obvious to me, how can I look up nonwords in the dictionary?

These problems are clearly related (somehow), and indeed are aspects of a single problem, although I despair of describing them as such.

1 Injured in Attack on NRO

See here for the details.

Speaking of Bees...

I know some people who are "vegans" and won't eat honey because it "exploits the bees." I wonder if it has ever occurred to them that bees can, you know, fly, and if they don't like the deal they are getting from Mr. Beekeeper that they can just leave? And Mr. Beekeeper is scaring off predators, treating their diseases, and even driving them around in a truck nice and close to flowers in season. (Beekeepers often provide pollinization services to fruit farmers.)

Maybe the bees are exploiting him.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Pick, Pack, Pock, Puck

Well, now PUCK is really almost out -- maybe 3 weeks from availability -- I'll try to whet your appetite again. This is the publisher's blurb from the back cover:

Incorporating realism, science fiction, fantasy, and Joycean wordplay, PUCK expresses the universal theme of the ways in which an encounter with the central mysteries of existence can leave one’s life profoundly altered.
Weaving motifs from Egyptian, Irish, Greek, Tibetan, and Norse mythology into his narrative, author Gene Callahan draws us into the journeys of Dr. Morris Fitzmaurice, a brilliant chemist who is tormented by demons that may or may not be his own. After discovering the cure for psychosis, Dr. Fitzmaurice is nervous and uncomfortable with all the attention he receives. As he feels
increasingly isolated by his status, his drug and alcohol consumption also increases, further deteriorating his mental stability.
Tracing a pattern as complex and rich as our inner lives, Callahan’s unique and evocative tale follows Dr. Fitzmaurice as he encounters one bizarre phenomenon after another, inviting you on a dizzying ride that is alternately comic, tragic, enlightening, and mystifying.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Courtesy Works

I've been reading a bunch of technical and pop finance books lately. The following anecdote is from Emanuel Derman's My Life as a Quant:

One day in late 1994 the tension between traders and quants led me to do something particularly stupid. I had spent all day dealing with impatient demands for systems support that I couldn't provide. That evening I took a limo out to Kennedy airport to catch a flight to Vienna, where I was scheduled to give a talk on implied [binomial model] trees at a conference...Boarding my plane, I sat down in my business-class aisle seat and finally relaxed. I was frustrated by the constant battles at work, and swore that I would be pushed around no longer.

As I unwound before takeoff, a family of three boarded the plane at the last minute and began taking their seats, none of which were contiguous. The father, a gentleman of about fifty, took the window seat on my right, his son sat across the aisle from me, and his wife sat farther towards the front of the plane. As I flipped through the pages of the OTOB conference program, the father asked the flight attendant if there were a set of contiguous seats...Finally, after about ten minutes of unsuccessful agitation, he turned to me and asked if I would switch aisle seats with his son. Still smarting from being pushed around all day, I remembered my "no more Mr. Nice Guy" promise to myself. I was seated in the aisle seat I had requested and I wasn't about to give it up for anyone. Turning to him with misplaced firmness, I said, "I'm sorry but I'd rather stay where I am."

As we took off for Vienna, I was appalled at my pointless recalcitrance. Both my seat and his son's seat were on the aisle. I was gaining nothing by being stubborn. And worse, I had now condemned myself to sit for ten hours next to someone to whom I had been unnecessarily objectionable. Guilt began to overwhelm me as I debated with myself how to undo what I had done.

While I writhed, I continued looking through the conference schedule. Then, I noticed, the man on my right extracted a similar schedule from his briefcase and began to look at it, too. I glanced at his face again, and suddenly realized I was sitting next to Bob Merton himself, the developer of continuous-time financial modeling, a Harvard professor and also a partner at Long-Term Capital Management.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Those Incredible Bees

1) Honey bees may break off from their former colony and swarm out in spring to find a new nest. They gather on a tree branch in a big ball of bees. From there, "scout" bees head off to evaluate potential hive sites. (Does it have a pool? How are the neighborhood schools?) The scouts report back to the swarm and perform a dance that indicates the direction of the site, the distance to it, and how excited they are about it. How is a decision reached? Each scout visits the sites reported by others. If they like it better than any they've seen before, they cease dancing about those other sites and start dancing abbout the new one. When all the scouts are dancing about the same site -- Bob's your uncle! The hive takes off for that one.
2) Individual bees "major" in certain flowers and "minor" in others. When a bee first begins to forage, it flits from flowers of one species to another. It may take up to twenty seconds to determine how to get into a flower and reach the nectar. Within seven trips, however, it will have chosen one species as its major flower, and will be able to reach the nectar in roughly two seconds. It will also choose a minor flower as backup, in case it cannot find its major in bloom one day.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Jim Henley on the Hudson Decision

'The second is less prominent. It’s the “realistic” so-called libertarians who show up in one or other forum to chide the movement for marginalizing itself by pursuing the “fringe issue” of drug prohibition. But realistically, drug prohibition is the whole political ballgame. It drives the aggrandizement of police power and the paring of civil liberties. It establishes precedents that generalize to other law enforcement issues. It exemplifies and undergirds the principles of the Loco Parentis state. It is everything any libertarianism worthy of the name must not only oppose, but make central. There is no area of American life where the state said more clearly, “We must be free to kill you with impunity to protect you from making bad choices.”'

Read the whole thing.

Meanwhile, in This Universe...

I was setting up a printer today when I had to stop and puzzle over the line in the setup guide reading, "Place the media in the media tray." My confusion cleared when I realized that what they were calling "the media," most of us call "paper."

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Economia para la Gente

Economics for Real People is out in Spanish.


I have accepted Gene's kind invitation to this blog. I'll read your posts with interest. I'll post nonvacuously the moment I receive a deathless idea from the void.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

God's Plan Continued

In response to my blog post on God's plan, a few people gave the typical atheist objection. Inasmuch as neither Gene nor others is posting much lately, I paste my reply here, in the hopes that 50 (rather than 5) people read it:


Bob is actually saying that evil doesn't really exist. It's all an illusion.

Where did I say that again? My browser must be broken.

Suppose a person kills and tortures all your kids. You must cheer up! It's the best thing that could have happened. Send the murderer some flowers in jail while you are at it!

Over the years, as I've wrestled with this problem, do you really think that the problem of evil never occurred to me? Is your sarcastic response really nothing more than this? "Bob thinks he has solved the problem of evil, such as Adolf Hitler. But Bob has conveniently overlooked the possibility of a murderer."

Let me try this approach. From your sarcasm, I'm guessing that you might possibly be a materialist (just as I used to be). If so, then you think the state of the universe in the next moment is at least related to the physical configuration at this moment. (Naturally depending on your views of quantum physics, there is more or less exact determinism involved.)

Now, exactly how should God (if we pretend for the sake of argument that He exists) alter the present reality, such that no one can murder my family? Make sure that when you change physical laws, you don't e.g. prevent the chemical processes that allow us to breathe.

(For onlookers, my point is that we can't just pick and choose tiny aspects of reality that we don't like. EVERYTHING all fits together. Yes, this is indeed the best of all possible worlds, but there are a lot of things that God had to consider of which you and I are ignorant. And yes, as I acknlowedged in the original blog post, this is not intended to convince atheists.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Holy Shirt!

The world bench press record is approaching 1000 pounds. But do you know how they lift that much? I had no idea such things existed.

Alternate-Side-of-the-Street Parking and Spontaneous Order

My neighborhood in Brooklyn, like elsewhere in New York City, has Alternate-Side-of-the-Street Parking regulations. What that means is that twice a week, for three hours, a particular side of the street must be free of parked cars so the street sweepers can clean it. Two other days the same thing happens on the opposite side.

Now, my neighborhood has no excess parking spaces -- its pretty much chock full of cars all the time. But for 12 hours a week, half the parking spaces in the area are unavailable. So where do the cars go? At least where I live (I understand this is not a citywide practice), they go across the street. But didn't I say that side is already full-up? It sure is -- the people from the other side double-park and block entire streets of cars in for three hours.

So don't the people who are stuck get mad? No they don't, because they know it will happen, and it happens in a very predictable way. The street sweeping here occurs between 8am and 11am. Nobody double parks before 7:55. If you need to get out, you have until then to do so. And everyone who double parks moves back by 11:05. It's like you've signed an agreement, by taking a spot on the free side that morning, that you don't need your car between 8 and 11.

The amazing thing is, this isn't an official system at all. The double parking isn't even legal. These rules are not posted anywhere. No city commission worked them out. You just learn them when you move to the neighborhood -- and if you're not clever enough to do so on your own, someone will help you: "Hey, pisan, whadaya doin still friggin blockin me in at 11:10?!"

Monday, June 05, 2006

God's Plan

No doubt one of the strongest arguments against the major religious faiths goes like this: If God is omnipotent, then why does He allow so much suffering? E.g. a bunch of people emailed me after my religious LRC articles and wanted to know why "your loving God allowed the Holocaust!"

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, but (as you may guess) there are many different issues involved and one could write books on it. Rather than do nothing, however, let me give a snapshot of my current view. Naturally this blog post won't convince an atheist, but it may resonate with believers who haven't known what to do with this challenge.

First, let's acknowledge that it is a problem. For Bible-believing Christians (or orthodox Jews), it's even worse. Not only does God allow humans to do evil things, He even (in the Old Testament) ordered the Israelites to slaughter infants. Whoa!

Nonetheless (for the believer), there has to be an explanation. For Christians, we know this quite easily: Jesus certainly felt that the Father was holy and moral, and Jesus certainly knew the scriptures and what had happened in the past.

Now here's where I simply hope that the reader has had experiences like mine: Have you ever thought a person's behavior was totally inexplicable, but then as you learned more of the situation, it became a lot more coherent? Indeed, have you ever thought back, say, to kids you knew in high school (or whenever) and hated at the time, but now you realize they were right and their scoffers (including you at the time) were dead wrong?

Or try this route: I don't care who you pick, be it Adolf Hitler, a serial killer, or George Bush (if that's your politics): If you watched a movie of this person's life, by the time he did the horrible things, you would totally understand and expect it. I.e. in the context of this person's experiences, his behavior would make perfect sense. It's not as if you'd be shocked at the serial killer's first murder, if you had seen a history of his life up till that moment. (Don't be thrown too much by the analogy; I'm not saying you would think these people did the right thing at the time, just that you'd totally understand why.)

Okay: When it comes to understanding the motives for God's actions, the relevant history is, all of time. So if you can see that humility should make you reserve judgment on people because you didn't know all the facts, can you possibly imagine what sorts of considerations God makes when deciding what to do??

Conclusion: If you are a Christian, when you die you will be in paradise. And one aspect of that is that you will fully comprehend--and totally agree that it was the most moral thing to do--why God ordered the Israelites to sack entire cities, why He didn't zap Hitler with a lightning bolt, etc. Granted, I have no idea how some things are going to make sense, but that's part of the excitement for the Christian: Some day it really will make perfect sense; you will realize that God created the best of all possible worlds.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Weather Nonsense ends an article sensibly debunking the idea that forecasters can predict what area of the country will be hit by a hurricane with the following dictum:


This principle is absurd. Resources are scarse, and it is ludicrous for everyone everywhere to prepare equally for all risks. Should the residents of Labrador prepare for a hurricane "equally" to those of the Bahamas? After all, there's some chance, however small, that a hurricane will hit Labrador. And ilkewise, per this principle, the residents of the Bahamas should prepare for blizzards just as well as those of Fargo, ND.

What utter rubbish.

Regrets Only, Please

Compare the following:

Situation A: You have won two tickets (that would sell for $50 each) to a concert for free in a radio contest, but today, the day of the show, you find you would rather do something other than attend.

Situation B: You have purchased two tickets to a concert for $50 each, but today, the day of the show, you find you would rather do something other than attend.

Would you be more likely to go to the concert anyway in Situation B than A? I think most people would. And yet it seems to violate "economic rationality" -- the $100 is gone, and therefore shouldn't influence one's choice: "No sense crying over spilled milk."

I've come up with two ways to reconcile the typical choice with economic rationality. Any ideas out there?

EDIT: Fixed the problems Bob noted.

Doing a PhD?

Here's an interesting study on how your initial job placement effects your later career prospects.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Front Porch Anarchists?

A friend tipped me off to this site. The book looks interesting, but I consider myself more of a backyard anarchist.