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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Free Speech: Use It or Lose It

It always amazes me when someone will complain about the government on some issue, and then some blowhard comes back with, "You're lucky you live in a country where you have the right to criticize the government."

And the guy says it like the critic is a whiny teenager or something complaining to her parents about only getting the $300 cell phone rather than the $500 one she really wanted.

Do you think the government likes that we can mock them so openly? You've seen how choreographed Bush's public appearances were, where people in the crowd ask him "spontaneous" questions.

No, the reason people have liberties in this country is that a heck of a lot of people get outraged over stuff that would be no big deal in other countries. The government can't handle 85 different protests at once, so it picks its battles. There is a fluid front with our liberties on one side and the government's power on the other.

And we the people have been losing territory a lot in the past 100 years.

Every time someone writes a Letter to the Editor, complaining about the sexaholic Clinton or the warmonger Bush, it shows all of the people who read that section--and we're already isolating the group that the government must placate; the people who don't care about politics are irrelevant--that yet one more person confidently criticized the ruler of the country, and didn't get disappeared into the night.

That alone justifies the time it takes to write a Letter once in a while. And then if you're knowledgeable and articulate to boot?

Get writing.

Using This Blog for Something Useful, part 4

I have to bite the bullet and buy a new printer. I truly suspect that my current one works by housing tiny monkeys who transcribe letters per my computer's instructions, in exchange for bits of banana.

So I definitely want a laser printer, since I often have to print out 40+ pages at a time, and my time is valuable--I'm kind of a big deal.

The other thing though is that I will be printing a lot of graphs with colored lines etc., so it also needs to be good in that respect.

Any thoughts? It can't be ridiculously expensive, but on the other hand it's a tax writeoff so there ya go.

BTW if this is at all relevant, I have a Toshiba laptop running Vista.

More on Oil Prices

In this Townhall column I defend three of the government's favorite scapegoats for high oil prices.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Understanding on Immigration

I was reading Landsburg's Fair Play today, and he was pretty harsh about people who wanted to restrict immigration. (I'll probably review his book formally so no more commentary on it here...)

Anyway, today it struck me that one self-interested reason I could see current WASPs being afraid of immigrants who look different is that you then lose the camaraderie with the police. I mean let's face it, whitey readers, whether you realize it or not, you really do have a lot more leeway with cops.

We live really close in Nashville to where the seriously loaded/important people live; like Al Gore material. And I got a speeding ticket once and remarked to my wife how incredibly courteous the cop was. She said something like, "Well they're probably being careful since they don't know who they're pulling over."

I imagine if I my skin were darker and I had on a baseball cap, the officer would have been quite sure I wasn't a city building contractor who played golf with the mayor.

So back to the main point, if you suddenly become the ethnic minority in your community, you could be subject to real persecution. I.e. it's not simply, "Eww, I don't want to live next to people who cook that stuff for dinner." (Though I did have a white lady ask me on time when I told her where I lived during grad school, "Ugh, how you can stand the curry smell?")

Naturally, I don't think it's a great argument for restricting other consensual transactions, simply because you're worried that it will down the road indirectly lead to government oppressing you more. None of this has changed my personal views on the best policies in this arena.

But I still think it's a lot more than merely racism. Racism helps it out, for sure, but I think the utilitarian reasoning exists independent of that.

Finally, this is just another reason why the State is bad: It makes groups view each other with fear because that group really could hurt you if it seizes political power. In a free society, you wouldn't fear the police anymore than you worry that construction crews will use their big powerful machines to smash your house down against your will.

The police are scary not because they have guns, but because they have a monopoly.

I Excommunicate Tyler Cowen

Details here. If Gene didn't control this blog, his days would be numbered too. I am a fair man, but my justice is swift.

Finance Wizards Part I

When my Barron's article came out (May 12, 2008 issue), I bought the issue at the newsstand (that word has two "s"'s by the way.) Right before my article was a cool one interviewing a bunch of the pioneers in derivatives theory and practice. (Feel free to make cracks about LTCM.) At one point the moderator asked Robert Merton what he thought the most important trends in the future would be, and he gave this intriguing answer:

Market-proven derivative technology allows us to transfer enormous amounts of risk very efficiently. But much of the rest of the world doesn't distinguish between investing and risk transfer. Those two decisions can now really be separated, and that creates extraordinary opportunities.

Country risk could be managed on a massive scale with no capital flows, no trade flows involved. Look at sovereign wealth funds. A lot of people say that they provide a great way for a small country, say Singapore, to diversify its investments. But you don't need a sovereign wealth fund to transfer risk. For example, Taiwan, which is very, very heavily concentrated in chips, presumably has a comparative advantage in that sector, but has no control over the world chip market. So it bears a lot of concentrated risk.

What could it do to get out of part of the risk? Well, it could sell shares of chip companies. But that is a very inefficient way to transfer risk. Instead, they could sell calls on an index of world chip stocks and buy puts. This would synthetically sell off the risk. There would have been no capital flow, but they could transfer a huge amount of risk. How much? Let's say $10 billion--a big number, but one I think could be accommodated in that index, and if not in that, in swap form. (pp. 56-58)


Just to paraphrase what Merton is saying (I think): Obviously if you are a country with one major export, your position is more precarious than another country that has plenty of different exports. So you want to diversify away that risk. However, if you do this by selling off shares to your major companies (which are all concentrated in the same sector), and then using the proceeds to go buy stock of foreign-based companies that are in different sectors, that could involve a lot of transactions.

You could achieve your objective a lot more easily if there is a deep enough market in call and put options on the stocks in your country's corporations. You figure out the range you want to "lock in" for your stock price (for a given company), and then you sell calls with a strike price at the upper bound. Then with the revenues you obtain, you by put options with a strike price at the lower bound. If the total revenue and expenditures is roughly the same, there is no net capital flow in your country, so this operation won't affect your exchange rate. (In fairness, the equity scheme would also allow no net capital flows; I think Merton was getting too caught up with his sovereign wealth fund analogy.)

So now if the world chip market takes off, and stock prices rise above your upper bound, then people will exercise their call options and so your upside is limited. On the other hand, if the chips tank, you have puts that cap your losses at the lower bound price.

Now you might not lock in the exact range you want; it would depend on the relative prices of the put and calls. But the point is you could use them to greatly limit your exposure to the chip market, and since they are inherently leveraged you wouldn't have to use transactions as large as if you did it directly with the underlying stock.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Fruits of a Lifetime of Scholarship

The political arrangements of the Roman republic often appear, to modern eyes, to be an eccentric hodgepodge of institutions collected over time and kept around for their sentimental value rather than for any clear constitutional role they fulfilled. Listening to Garrett Fagan describe one of the more curious of those offices, that of the tribune (ten of whom were attached to the Tribal Assembly of the Plebs at any one time), I was amused by an example he gave as to how puzzling current scholars find the tribunate. He related how, at a conference, he listened to an esteemed, senior figure in the field of Roman history portray the development of his understanding of the office as follows (I quote from memory): "When I was a young scholar, just starting out, I was confident that I knew what the tribunate was all about. By the time I reached middle age, I began to have my doubts. And now, at the close of my career, I have no clue as to its function."

In Search of Falling Gas Prices

I gullibly try to make sense of the government's report on falling gas prices.

GG Trounces Charlie Gibson

Another classic post by Greenwald (HT2LRC). Charlie Gibson & Friends said they regret nothing about the media's coverage of the run-up to the Iraq invasion, because they asked tough questions about the Powell testimony. So Glenn the contrarian dug up some quotes that suggest otherwise.

I'm glad Greenwald's recollection of how people handled Iraq before it went to cr*p was accurate. (This isn't always the case.)

Anti-war.com Joins the Smearbund

Here.

And note: Bovard is not saying that 25 years ago Paul made some mistakes in whom he let write in his newsletters, as the Reason folks were. He's saying that right now Paul is selling out principle for a shot at speaking at the convention. Talk about Smearbundocity! But this will go unremarked at the LRC blog, because it's not from [T]Reason Magazine or the Cato Institute.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pair Share II

==> (0, 0), (2, 2), (7/4, 7/3), (-2, 2/3), (-1/4, 1/5), (1.001,1001.0).

What do all these pairs of numbers have in common? Only grade-school mathematics required.

Numeration is decimal (the conventional way).

Answer: All these pairs have equal sum and product. Here are equivalent formulations:

a> ==> m+n = mn.

b> ==> (m-1)(n-1) = 1

c> ==> m = a/b, n = a/c, where a = b+c.

Stay tuned for more on Fibonacci numbers and their ilk. Or maybe not...this hasn't been a good week for math posts. I understand that youall might be fresh out of intelligent comments, but that never stopped me when addressing your posts. What about woefully stupid comments? I don't see any of those either. Oh, well.

Can you get away with this?

I was sitting on a train from Lucerne to Milan talking with some folks from Costa Rica, and they told me how expensive it is to fly from Costa Rica to the US as opposed to the US to Costa Rica. I asked, 'Why not book in the other direction?'

They couldn't, they said, because the 'outbound' leg of their journey would have to be from the US.

'Well, make it that way. Let's say you travel to the US once a year for the latter half of June. Begin by booking a one-way ticket from CR to the US for June 15, 2008. When you get to the US, book a round-trip ticket, leaving the US on June 30, 2008, and returning on June 15, 2009.

Repeat every year.

Would it work?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Climate Change Skeptics Winning Hearts and Minds

I have to say that this kind of stunt--a "carbon belch day" in which people purposely waste energy--is not unstupid. I don't agree with Muslims either, but I don't spend my own money to insult them.

Samuelson Is Naked

According to this critic of neoclassical economics in Scientific American. His claims about mainstream economics are vaguely correct; on a Listserv we all wondered who the heck "Maria Edgeworth" was: we think the author surely meant Francis Edgeworth.

You know, I am getting a little fed up with this use of the word "scientific" as if it's synonymous with "true." They are different concepts. This guy keeps accusing mainstream economics of being based on "unscientific" assumptions. Now if you go and look at them, it's not stuff like, "Pareto thought the charge on an electron was such-and-such, but physicists now know that..."

On the contrary, this guy's issues are much broader and big picture. He is free to say the mainstream assumptions are false or even absurd or a good old-fashioned stupid, but "unscientific" doesn't really sound right to me.

Please tell me...

...that some kid with a terminal disease made a wish to write a commentary on Ron Paul/libertarianism for Wired. Surely this guy isn't a paid staff member?

Anyway, I was reading a cool Wired article about Thiel's funding of the Seasteading Institute (HT2LRC), and then I started following the related links at the bottom. That's what brought me to aforementioned critique of Ron Paul.

Now you're bracing for a rehash of the newsletters. Nope. This article makes such great objections as:

You can't be a good president in the 21st century when your chief concerns are the sovereignty of the American taxpayer and his right to bear arms.

Isolationism is no longer an option, and hasn't been for years. The world is too small and you can thank, or blame, technology for that reality. The stakes are far too high, as we've learned since Sept. 11, 2001, to act like we can do anything we damned well please anytime we damned well feel like it.

And this guy wants to pull us out of the United Nations. Terrific. The United States as rogue elephant. What a splendid idea.

He also equivocates on stem cell research, supporting it "generically" but again fobbing it off as a states-rights issue (like the old Confederacy, states rights is a major plank in the Paul platform). His chief concern isn't so much the morality of the research as who pays for it. That's a new one on me: turning the stem cell debate into a taxpayer-rights issue.

There are 300 million of us now, not 30 million, and we can’t all go running around unsupervised. This is where libertarian ideals get a little unwieldy. Besides, we’re not all John Waynes, saddled up and gazing with flinty eyes across the prairie. Some of us can barely cope. Sometimes, Ron, them dad-gum polecats in Washington jest have to step in and take charge. Dang it all.

And my personal favorite:

Avoid foreign entanglements? Who’s kidding whom here? If we avoid foreign entanglements what do we plan on doing for an economy?

OK I still sting from my goof on Cato below. Someone please tell me that this is a satire. I mean c'mon, this guy can't possibly think that Ron Paul's doctrine of free trade and avoiding foreign entanglements--and by the way, the writer quotes Paul on free trade, so I'm not supplementing that element of Paul's vision here--implies that we can't trade with foreign countries. He can't possibly think that, right? So then why is he wasting space with such a ludicrous argument? It's not particularly funny, and it's hard to distinguish from his other "serious" objections.

I think this guy's style is somewhat similar to Ann Coulter's, where you can rattle of a bunch of "am I being sarcastic?" rips, so that when someone points out how stupid they are, he can say, "Duh, I was kidding!"

But again, if this article were written by a 13-year-old with leukemia, then I apologize for the criticism. Yet the guy's byline suggests otherwise.

The Ship of Jason

In response to the responses to Bob's query about what our readers want us to write about -- and here I thought I started a blog so that I could write about whatever the heck I wanted to! -- I post a genuine philosophical puzzle, and one which I really don't know how to answer.

The paradigmatic example of the conundrum is 'the ship of Jason' (of Argonaut fame). Suppose at time x we can uncontroversially identify ship A as 'the ship of Jason'. But time passes. Gradually the Argonauts and their successors replace more and more components of the ship with newer instances of the same part. Finally, the day comes when every single bit of ship A that made it up at time x is gone. Is the vessel in question still the ship of Jason?

Next, let us imagine that someone scavenges all of the discarded pieces of the ship that had comprised it at time x, and uses them to assemble a second, perhaps somewhat decrepit, ship, and at time y proclaims 'Behold the ship of Jason'! If you decided that the totally refurbished ship introduced in the previous paragraph was still 'the ship of Jason', then what do you make of this new claimant to the designation? It, after all, is made up of precisely the same components as the ship that we agreed clearly was the ship of Jason at time x. It seems an abuse of common usage to hold that at time y there exist two ships of Jason, even though Jason himself had but one while he was alive. Nevertheless, we have at hand a pair of craft either of which, in the absence of the other, we would probably regard as sensibly designated 'the ship of Jason'. So how to resolve the embarrassment of there being two such vessels?

The puzzle does not, of course, only arise with regards to inanimate objects, and the problems to be solved by any philosophical analysis of person-hood are probably readily apparent. If you happen to be a materialist who still posits the real existence of individual human agents, then you are tasked with explaining why you are justified in talking about the 'same' person across a lifetime when that 'individual' at 70 is composed of entirely different bits of matter than she was at 10. If, on the ohter hand, you contend that there is some constant spiritual essence animating and uniting all of the diverse physical manifestations of 'an individual', then you face the difficulty of explaining how such an immutable entity can have any connection whatsoever with the ever-changing attributes of people as we un-philosophically experience our acquaintances in day-to-day life. At least at first glance, such an eternal absolute would seem to be categorically immune from being effected by temporal happenings, just as the Pythagorean Theorem is not impacted by the outcome of a war or the results from an election. Quite to the contrary, our 'folk' understanding of our fellow humans conceives them as continually transforming per the influence of new experiences. However, if that picture is mostly correct, then where is the enduring 'person' whom we are inclined, for instance, to hold responsible for a crime? If 'Joe 2008' contends he is 'a whole new man' from 'Joe 2007' who committed a murder, then, absent any plausible notion of how they are really still the 'same individual', how can we justify punishing 'Joe 2008' for a transgression of 'Joe 2007'.

How Do These People Get a PhD?

The economics mainstream and the Austrian heterodoxy often fiercely dispute the 'scientific' status of the views of the other camp. The Austrians accuse the mainstream of being wedded to unrealistic models that bear little, if any, relation to economic reality.

The mainstream, on the other hand, labels the Austrians (and other heterodox flavors) as being insufficiently rigorous, failing to cast their theories in a formal model that clearly explicates the predictions of a theory and that leaves its implications ambiguous.

But, for the moment, let's set that dispute aside. Whatever the merits of either team, I have not infrequently been struck by how feeble is the grasp of some tenured economists on any sensible theory at all. I once took a course -- at a university I will leave unnamed in the interest of not humiliating a pleasant man -- where the money and banking professor explained the persistence of inflation, in response to a student query, by offering an analogy to home appliances. "Think," he said, "of how, over time, your refrigerator wears out and becomes less and less valuable. Well, the same thing happens with money."

I really couldn't believe my ears. How could someone have earned a PhD in economic and yet put forward such a ridiculous explanation?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Pair Share

==> (0, 0), (2, 2), (7/4, 7/3), (-2, 2/3), (-1/4, 1/5), (1.001, 1001.0).

What do all these pairs of numbers have in common? Only grade-school mathematics required.

Numeration is decimal (the conventional way).

Stay tuned for more on Fibonacci numbers and their ilk.

Dumb Citgo Ad

On my way to the office I heard an ad for Citgo saying something like, "And because our stations are locally owned, every time you make a purchase at Citgo you know you're creating jobs in your community."

Riiight, because those dang absentee owners of rival gas stations refuse to hire employees who live locally. They fly in kids from Paris to pump gas in Idaho.

Searching Abroad for Monsters to Destroy

Every now and then I like to take time off from picking fights with Cato (unjustified) or Gene (always appropriate), and argue with people who say things like:

Why should we turn to economists for this? They are the ones who have been discounting environmental damage for well over a century. The paradigm of eternal growth is outright insane, and the dismissal of society-wide negative impacts has been disastrous time and time again. Any attempt to assess the “economics” of climate change should be scientific. It should not be the god-awful pseudoscience that has helped bring us to the climate problems we have today.

My Apologies to Cato!

Sorry for the earlier, semi-sarcastic post. My anti-Beltway bias blinded me to the fact that several Cato people did oppose the Iraq invasion before the fact, e.g. here. Brink Lindsey's famous defense of pro-war libertarianism (e.g. here) stuck out in my mind, but that's not Cato's fault; obviously the WSJ would promote views it agrees with.

So sorry Cato. I had erroneously remembered only the Mises Institute and Independent Institute publicly opposing the invasion.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cato Paper Says Libertarians Should Oppose War

I'm glad they're on board (.pdf), though I wish it had been earlier. Like, before the U.S. invaded Iraq.

UPDATE: Prompted by a comment, I did some checking and found, to my pleasant surprise, that Cato scholars had officially opposed the invasion. Sorry Cato!

Enjoy Your Tax Dollars

I stumbled across this pretty neat site about world oil facts while looking up something else. It's based on 2006 data, but anyway it is pretty neat. If you move the cursor around, you can get facts on 151 different countries, and if you move the cursor over the table at the right, it will rank the top countries by production, consumption, exports, and imports. Might be some surprises.

Gene, We Got Ta Give Em What They Want

Gene: "Hell yeah."

On Marginal Revolution, they put out a call for readers to give ideas for future blog posts. I was at first hesitant to do the same here, since it could be really embarrassing if only one person posted. ("Yeah, my request is that you and Callahan stop talking about things outside of your areas of expertise! And stop thinking you're 'clever,' you're not!")

OK now that I've got that off my chest....Anyone? Anyone?

RealClimate.org Scientist Stirs Up the Hicks

NPR broadcast a debate over whether global warming is a crisis last year. It's pretty funny at one part. If you download the edited version, at around 24:00 you can hear an exchange about cosmic rays. Gavin Schmidt, one of the lead contributors to the "consensus" website RealClimate, then says something like, "This is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. To the untrained layman, it sounds like you and I are now having a real debate about the science. But I know that that's not true, and so do you [the denier scientist]. But they don't know that you're leading them astray."

After the moderator asks Schmidt if he's saying the deniers aren't sincere, Schmidt gives an answer and the crowd takes offense. I can understand why, because (not in so many words, but almost) he basically said that he's mad that the scientists on the other side are purposely phrasing things in ways that they know the boobs in the audience won't be able to follow.

In the interests of objectivity, I should also say that I was aghast at Michael Crichton's opening remarks. He spent a lot of time on the hypocrisy of current alarmists, and how it's a travesty that we're focusing on climate change rather than fighting malaria or whatever. C'mon Crichton stick to the science. You can think people are hypocrites, liars, shills for oil/government in private, but all of that is irrelevant in a public debate. Or at least, it ought to be.

A Problem With Technical Stock Analysis?

I'm about 70 pages into (what I'm told is) the Bible in this area, Technical Analysis of Stock Trends (9th edition).

I can definitely understand its "classic" status. It is written authoritatively and defines terms carefully upfront. It has plenty of charts to show you exactly how to apply the concepts, and devotes space to objections. So as a neoclassically-trained economist, and one who has studied modern finance a decent bit, I was pleasantly surprised by the book's rigor.

On the other hand, it seems there is a basic problem right at the start. Now admittedly this is more of a philosophical issue; after all, they list impressive tables showing the results from employing basic Dow Theory from 1890 through the present. (N.B. here I'm a little skeptical because the book admits that actual Dow theorists can disagree in the heat of the moment about whether the market has reversed course, etc. So I'm not sure how much "art" went into the historical backtesting to call decision points. But even so, the results are pretty amazing; even if they're exaggerated by a factor of 3 there's still something there.)

Anyhow, the problem is this: Classical Dow Theory has as its primary tenet--and by the way, this amazed me; nothing is new in the social sciences!--that the stock market price right now fully discounts all available knowledge about the stock in question. So that's why (and here I'm paraphrasing a bit) the "fundamentalist" trader really can't hope to beat the market in the long run; other people can read those reports, look at the balance sheet, etc. That's why the true believer in Dow Theory thinks you need to look at the "market action" itself, in order to ride trends, if you hope to beat the crowd.

I have no problem with this point; in fact, as I alluded to in the interjection above, I was surprised at such an early statement (did Dow himself explicitly say this back before 1900?!) of the efficient markets hypothesis.

But the obvious question, of course, is why don't the technical analysts apply that same critique to themselves? How can it possibly be the case that drawing support and resistance lines, etc., can give someone an advantage in the market? How can it possibly be the case that the expert chartists know that we're in an uptrend, and that it would be really smart to buy stock ABC at such-and-such time?

To put it in other words, why doesn't the current stock price reflect all available information, including the information derived from the stock price's history?

Again let me reiterate, I'm not here writing off technical analysis. At the very least, if a big chunk of stock speculators believe in it, then every investor should at least be familiar with the terminology, etc.

All I'm doing in this post is questioning why someone who starts off with "the stock price reflects all available knowledge" would then spend time on a publicly available toolbox of techniques.

Earth at Night

Pretty neat. I think it makes those "carbon footprint" figures more understandable. This picture was obviously taken during a solar eclipse...

Movie Recommendation

Pick up Benito starring Antonio Banderas, an excellent account of the dictator's early career as a die-hard socialist. One tip: listen in Italian -- if you don't understand any, turn on the English subtitles. I started watching in English with my wife, who speaks almost no Italian, and she demanded to switch to Italian because the English dub-in actors were so awful.

One thing of interest: if you watch, ask yourself what modern libertarian figure Mussolini -- extremely charismatic, an ideological purist, constantly splitting with fellow travelers for being 'reformists', selling out to the state, committing [T]Reason to the cause -- reminds you of!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

OPEC Policy

Did you know that world oil production peaked in 2005, and since then has tapered off ever so slightly? (I did.) Did you know that since 2005, non-OPEC production is up, while OPEC production has declined to almost perfectly offset it? (I did not know that, until very recently.) Specifically, in 2006 non-OPEC production increased 0.47%, and in 2007 it increased 0.82%. In contrast, OPEC production fell 0.72% in 2006, and then another 1.12% in 2007. (If you're curious, you can construct the figures from this EIA chart [.xls].)

As you may have heard, oil prices have been shooting through the roof the last three years. So OPEC's behavior is rather strange, especially since Saudi Arabia is supposed to have most of the world's spare production capacity.

So what gives? One theory is that the Saudis are lying about their fields, and they are pumping as much as they can.

(BTW, you might wonder whether it really is an OPEC thing, or just individual members--like Hugo Chavez with his nutty nationalizations--throwing off the total. Nope, not according to these preliminary numbers [.xls]. Not only Venezuela, but also Iran and Saudi Arabia had drops from 2005 to 2006, and then again in 2007. Kuwait's output rose slightly from 2005 to 2006, but then fell hard in 2007. Interestingly, Iraq's went up in those last two full years, though its production had been decimated because of the US invasion. I didn't bother checking the other members of OPEC; I think this is enough to show that it's a general policy.)

Let's suppose though that the Saudis aren't lying, and that more generally OPEC consciously chose to scale back its production during 2006-07. I have a hard time coming up with a rational explanation for that behavior, based just on the economics of selling a depletable resource. I suppose if they realized that not only was there a quick adjustment in demand to the right (from China, India, etc.), but also revised their forecasts so that the rate of demand growth was permantly higher than they had forecasted in 2003 (say), then maybe their new optimal plan would lead to a reduction in current output.

But that's not the fun answer. I was talking about it with my friend today and we had somehow convinced ourselves that it made perfect sense, if you were a Middle Eastern sheik and wanted to keep the U.S. from invading your country for the next five years. I can't remember all the details, but some key observations:

* At the point when the US has weaned itself from foreign oil (whether through drilling liberalization, synthetic fuel, etc.), there won't be any reason for it to care about your country anymore. But you then will still have healthy demand from developing countries. So you don't really need to worry that $120 oil will accelerate weaning efforts by the US.

* In the meantime, the outrageous price actually makes the US more dependent on you. The US will be much less likely to bomb Iran, for example, when oil is already at $130, rather than if it were down at $75.

* Also in the meantime, you can use huge trade surpluses to accumulate dollar assets, giving you yet another means of leverage, and to buy all sorts of weapons to make it very costly for an occupation.

Kids Say the Darndest Things

I may have blogged about this before; I can't remember. In any event, after coming back from staying with his grandparents one time, our 3-year-old starting calling every piece of paper "five dollars." E.g. just today, he was pointing to a sheet of paper on which I was taking notes as "five dollars."

I suspect his grandparents let him read Rothbard's critique of the Federal Reserve, and so Clark now ironically calls every piece of paper money.

Clinton: If Shooting Whiskey and Protectionist Speeches Don't Work...

...there's always plan B.

Overcoming Tragedy

J.A. Adande is writing about Lamar Odom at ESPN.com: "In reality it's hard to think of him as an underachiever. He came from East Nowhere, and whenever he tried to move up he lost a mother, a grandmother and a baby son."

Holy schmokes! This apparently happened repeatedly -- note the 'whenever'. Damn, there goes another mother, grandmother, and baby son -- fourth such trio I've lost this year.

F-sequences

F-sequences 080517 Sat - 080524 Sat

0. Introduction. F-sequences are generalizations of the Fibonacci sequence, hence the name. There are many published investigations of the Fibonacci sequence, including some wonderfully counterintuitive findings; but little has come to my attention apropos generalizations thereof. Curious. (Work on such generalizations may be out there--my research was cursory.)

Some problems look complex and difficult, but on closer analysis they break apart and are easily solved. Some problems just continue to look complex and difficult however much analysis they receive. I have not given much time to characterizing the properties of F-sequences, but so far it looks like a Type II.

1. Definitions.

1.1. Term of a Sequence. Let a be a sequence. The nth term of a is a(n). Usually, a(n) is an integer, and usually, a(0) is the first term. A sequence initially infinite before recursion will have negatively indexed terms without limit.

1.2. Fibonacci sequence has the recursion a(n+1) = a(n) + a(n-1).
(0,)1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,...

1.3. Predecessor operators.

1.3.1. Let p(a) be an operator: p(a)a(n) = a(n-1).

1.3.2. Let q(a) be an operator: q(a)a(n) = {a(n-1) if a(n-1) exists,
0 otherwise}.

1.3.3. If a is understood from context, write {pa(n), qa(n)}.
Note that if a is not understood from context, {pa(n), qa(n)} make no more sense than {p3, q3}, since a(n) is then just a quantity.

1.4. F-sequence. Let P(x) be a polynomial in powers 0 and above of x with rational coefficients.

a is a {strict, loose} F-sequence iff a(n+1) = {P(p)a(n), P(q)a(n)} for some such P.

If a is strict, all terms specified for the initial recursion(s) must be defined initially, otherwise the sequence a is undefined; if loose, not so. If sequence a is loose and no terms are defined initially, the sequence is 0,0,0,...

E.g.: the Fibonacci sequence is an F-sequence, for which P(x) = 1+x.

2. F-sequences, cases.

2.1. P is of finite degree.
E.g.: P(x) = 1 - 2x - 5x^2 + 6x^3 = (1 - x)(1 + 2x)(1 - 3x).
a(n+1) = a(n) - 2a(n-1) - 5a(n-2) + 6a(n-3).

2.2. P is of infinite degree and a is loose.
E.g.: P(x) = 1 + x + x^2 + x^3 +..., a(0) = 1.
Sequence a is: 1,1,2,4,8,16,...

2.3. P is of infinite degree and a is strict; then (En)(Ak<=n)(a(k) must be defined initially). E.g.: P(x) = 1 + x + x^2 + x^3 +...
a(-n) = 2^(-n), n>=0. Sequence a is: ...1/8,1/4,1/2,1,1,2,4,8,16,...

3. F-sequences, properties.

3.1. WHEN does the limit of a(n+1)/a(n) exist?

3.2. When the limit of a(n+1)/a(n) exists, is it algebraic?

For case 2.1, it's trivial. For the remaining cases, I don't think that it is.

4. F-sequences, ratio of terms.

4.1. Assume that the limit of a(n+1)/a(n) exists. For simplicity, assume a is strict.
a(n+1) = P(p)a(n). Let {c(k)} be the coefficients of P.
a(n+1)/a(n) = c(0)+c(1)a(n-1)/a(n)+c(2)a(n-2)/a(n)+...
= c(0)+c(1)a(n-1)/a(n)+c(2)(a(n-2)/a(n-1))(a(n-1)/a(n))+...
Passing to the limit, r satisfies this equation: r = P(1/r).

4.2. Examples.

4.2.1. P(x) = 1 + 2x. r = 1 + 2/r. r^2 - r - 2 = 0. r = {-1,2}.
a(n+1) = a(n) + 2a(n-1).
a: 1,1,3,5,11,21,43,85,... r: 1.0,3.0,1.67,2.2,1.91,2.05,1.98,...

4.2.2. P(x) = 2 + x. r = 2 + 1/r. r^2 - 2r - 1 = 0. r = 1 ± sqrt(2).
a(n+1) = 2a(n) + a(n-1).
a: 1,2,5,12,29,70,169,408,... r: 2.0,2.5,2.4,2.417,2.414,2.4143,2.41420,... 2.4142135+.

5. F-sequences, further instructive examples.

5.1. P(x) = x + 2x^3. r = 1/r + 2/r^3. r^4 - r^2 - 2 = 0.
r = {±sqrt(-1),±sqrt(2)}. a(n+1) = a(n-1) + 2a(n-3).
a: 1,1,1,1,3,3,5,5,11,11,21,21,... r: 1.0,1.0,1.0,3.0,1.0,1.67,1.0,2.2,1.0,1.91,1.0,...

5.2. P(x) = 3(1 - x + x^2).
r = 3(1 - 1/r + 1/r^2). r^3 - 3r^2 + 3r - 3 = (r-1)^3 - 2 = 0.
r = 2^(1/3) + 1. a(n+1) = 3(a(n) - a(n-1) + a(n-2)).
a: 1,3,6,12,27,63,144,324,729,1647,...
r: 3.0,2.0,2.0,2.25,2.33,2.29,2.25,2.25,2.259,... 2.2599+.

5.3. P(x) = -3(1 + x) + x^2.
r = -3(1 + 1/r) + 1/r^2. r^3 + 3r^2 + 3r - 1 = (r+1)^3 - 2 = 0.
r = 2^(1/3) - 1. a(n+1) = -3(a(n) + a(n-1)) + a(n-2).
a: 1,-3,6,-8,3,21,-80,180,-279,217,366,-2028,5203,...
r: -3.0,-2.0,-1.33,-0.375,7.0,-3.81,-2.25,-1.55,-0.78,1.69,-5.54,-2.57,...

5.4. P(x) = 1 + x + x^2. r = 1 + 1/r + 1/r^2. r^3 - r^2 - r - 1 = 0. r = ?
a(n+1) = a(n) + a(n-1) + a(n-2).
"Cubic Fibonacci" a: 1,1,2,4,7,13,24,44,81,149,274,504,927,...
r: 1.0,2.0,2.0,1.75,1.86,1.85,1.833,1.841,1.840,1.839,1.8394,1.8393,...

5.5. P(x) = 1 - x + x^2. r = 1 - 1/r + 1/r^2. r^3 - r^2 + r - 1 = 0.
r = {1,±sqrt(-1)}. a(n+1) = a(n) - a(n-1) + a(n-2).
a: 1,2,3,2,1,2,3,2,...
Whatever initial values are chosen, sequence a is periodic with period 4.

5.6. P(x) = (1 + x)/2. r = (1 + 1/r)/2. r^2 - r/2 - 1/2 = 0. r = {-1/2,1}.
a(n+1) = (a(n) + a(n-1))/2. Write a[a(0),a(1)] to indicate initial values.
a[s+k,t+k](n) = a[s,t](n) + k. (Addition of any k simply propagates.)
So a[s,t](n) can be made to converge to any value.

5.6.1. E.g. a[0,1]: 0,1,1/2,3/4,5/8,11/16,21/32,43/64,... --> 2/3.
Proof: a[0,1](n) = b(n)/2^n. b(n) = (2^(n+1)+(-1)^n)/3.
a[0,1](n) = (2+(-1/2)^n)/3. lim a[0,1](n) = 2/3.

5.6.2. E.g. a[1,2]: 1,2,3/2,7/4,13/8,27/16,53/32,... --> 5/3.
Proof: a[1,2](n) = a[0,1](n) + 1.
lim a[1,2](n) = lim a[0,1](n) + 1 = 5/3.

5.6.3. E.g.: r[0,1] = (2/3)/(2/3) = 1. r[1,2] = (5/3)/(5/3) = 1.

Friday, May 23, 2008

An Unsung Music Hero

You've probably never heard of him, but he played on 'Walk on By', 'American Pie', 'Like a Rolling Stone', 'Aja', 'Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head', 'Piece of My Heart', 'Peg', and 'Soldier Boy'.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ellen DeGeneres Puts McCain in an Unlawful Stress Position

My wife tipped me off to this. I actually think DeGeneres (should I call her Ellen? I don't watch her show...) was really cool about this. In contrast, I believe Rosie O'Donnell was less than cool when she argued guns with Tom Selleck on her show. (Plus Selleck wasn't running for president.) What's really nice is that DeGeneres cracks a joke at the end to end McCain's misery.

I'm not really sure how I feel about the actual issue of gay marriage. In an ideal society there wouldn't be a government as we know it, and religious organizations could marry whomever they chose, while secular groups could have something analogous to getting married by a justice of the peace. Society wouldn't need to have a debate on it, just like society wouldn't have to decide whether 9-year-olds should be allowed in bars. (Of course "society" would decide in the loose sense in which society decides on the market price of a share of IBM.)

But that answer isn't really helpful for right now, and I don't really have an answer. All I can do is give my dad's favorite non-answer at a dinner party, "I feel strongly for both sides." It's like the prayer in school issue, or malodorous homeless guy in the public library issue. Both sides have very legitimate points, and with the government running things, there's no good answer.

You Get What You Give

That's the title of a peppy song (no embedding enabled for some reason) by the New Radicals. It is similar to the ending (except for the odd, "Her Majesty") of the Beatles' Abbey Road album, where they say:

And in the end
the love you take
is equal to the love
you make
aaaaa aaaaaaa.


It sounds so deep and just when the issue is love or satisfaction with the world. But when a free market economist says the wealth you take is equal to the wealth you make, he sounds like a jerk.

Why? Is it because Paul McCartney's voice is so much better?

Why Not? One More on Torture

Hey it's a sexy topic. It occurs to me that some people reading my last post might think, "Oh c'mon, the issue is, what do the U.S. guards actually do to these people, not whatever latent fears might lead the prisoners to obey! If the guard says, 'Roll over and bark like a dog,' and the detainee does it because he fears a beating, that isn't the same thing as if the guard actually gave him a beating! Man you pacifist wussies are something else!"

For those types of readers, let's just make sure we're all starting from the same place. Here are some nice photos from Abu Ghraib. And again, these are scenes where the U.S. personnel felt comfortable taking the photos; we can only wonder what scenes were so gruesome that they said, "You know, maybe we don't want to be snapping a shot of this."

Well, Blogger isn't taking my attempts to upload the photos. Maybe that is a sign I should allow viewer discretion. Anyway, click here if you want to see your tax dollars at work.

Speaking of Torture...

...here's something I've never understood. So that Wall Street Journal article I was talking about discussed things like stress positions, having guys get interrogated by females while the guys were naked, etc. The oddest one was they apparently put a leash on a guy and made him do dog tricks.

Now these things are unseemly, but I know a lot of people (probably most who listen to the same radio programs I do) are thinking, "Give me a break! Did you ever read about the Viet Cong's treatment of their prisoners? This isn't really torture."

Fair enough. But what puzzles me is, how do the Gitmo guards get compliance for these humiliating practices? I mean, if I'm in prison and the guard says, "Hey, would you mind doing dog tricks?" I'm going to say, "Thanks, I'll pass."

But if he says, "Do you want us to kick your teeth out?" I would definitely think about it.

So the issue isn't, "Is it too cruel to make someone do a dog trick, or strip in front of a female interrogator," but rather, "Is it too cruel to threaten or actually perform the punishments necessary to achieve obedience on these other humiliations?"

That's Not the Angle I Would've Taken

On page A3 of May 21's Wall Street Journal, there is an article discussing the results of a Justice Department inquiry. Apparently some FBI agents observed things at Guantanamo (and elsewhere) that not only would be illegal for them to do, but were in violation of rules the Administration had laid out for the military up to a year earlier (in response to public concerns from even prior interrogations). The agents refrained from participating in the dubious practices, and often left the room. Some FBI agents reported their worries to their superiors, who did nothing. Just to be clear, I am not drawing inferences here; everything I've just said is all in the Justice Department report and stated explicitly in the WSJ article.

So what title did the WSJ choose for this article? "Military Breaks Law"? "Justice Probe Confirms Detainees Tortured"? "FBI Officials Ignore Abuse"?

Nope. Here is the actual title:

Report Says FBI Didn't Use Harsh Tactics

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Using This Blog for Something Useful, part 3

OK, the possibility of my hard drive blowing up, and hence the loss of my computer calendar, never used to terrify me. But now it's getting to the point where it would really be bad, especially since I wouldn't know how bad until I missed an important deadline.

I regularly copy my Documents folder to a flash drive. Does anybody know which file I have to copy so that I could recover my default, no frills calendar? I have Vista. (Condolences may be sent to my gmail account.)

Rothbard Sums Up History of Liberty in 1989

I had to enter a bunch of business receipts into Excel, so I wanted to put something on in the background. I chose Murray Rothbard's address to the 1989 Texas State Libertarian Conference. If you haven't ever seen clips of Rothbard speaking in public, you should definitely let this play for a few minutes, even if it's just in the background. It's always immensely easier to get the tone of someone's writing if you've heard him/her speak.

(BTW he really starts getting laughs in the middle to end.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Personalism and Impersonalism

OK, I'm finally getting around to posting an explanation I promised in the comments section of 'This Just Wasn't the Year for Jesus'. Long ago, in a conversation with a Hare Krishna, I was introduced to a basic division in spiritual paths that has stuck with me ever since, between 'personalist' paths and 'impersonalist' ones. (Although it just happened to be a Hare Krishna whom I heard about this from, the distinction is not original to that sect, but pre-dates them in Indian theology.) The gist of the idea is that 'personalists' are focused on seeing the divine as an individual similar, in important ways, to a human person, while the impersonalists are focused on the divine as 'cosmic law', 'the great light of the void', and so on.

When asked to declare my 'religious affiliation', my answer is 'Mahayana Buddhist', since the teachings of that school happen to be the ones that have hit home the hardest for me, and not because I think it is 'the best' or 'the one true' path. In any case, Mahayanists are very alert to the foremost danger of a personalist path, which is the temptation to turn one's conception of God into a giant version of one's ego, so that, instead of achieving transcendence, the devotee winds up fortifying his ego and inflating it into a world-filling monstrosity. (There is absolutely no assertion involved that this is the inevitable outcome of personalism!)

That gives some background on the perspective from which I criticized Zach Johnson for crediting Jesus with his win in the Master's golf tournament last year. It was not that his remarks were so objectionable in themselves, as much as that they represent a small step towards the theistic ego-inflation exhibited, for instance, by our current president, whom, I suspect, really believes that he is president not because he got lucky in the Florida fiasco but because God wanted him to be president, and can no doubt justify all of his killing and usurpation of power because he was 'chosen'. Perhaps Johnson thanks Jesus for everything that happens in his life, such as getting stung by a bee or catching the flu, and not just the things he likes, but his declarations certainly are open to the reading that faith in Jesus is a way to achieve worldly success. (And hey, it's not only Christians who fall prey to that spiritual trap: There is that awful Buddhist sect that promotes chanting as a way to get nice cars and better jobs!)

Of course, the impersonalist path has dangers, too. One need only consider the typical sorts of complaints lodged against various Eastern gurus by traditionalist Westerners to understand what those dangers are. Impersonalist, rather than trying to follow principles of conduct laid out in detail by a personal God, rely on more general dictums such as 'Don't cause fellow beings unnecessary suffering'. While I think that a genuine application of such a rule would result in conduct not remarkably different than that of someone following the Ten Commandments, it is all too easy for the impersonalist to fudge things and wind up justifying all sorts of chicanery because 'no one is really getting hurt'.

Nor are the two routes, as I see them, really in conflict. They are both partial views of the divine. As Roderick Long has pointed out, the greatest Christian theologians have always held that regarding God as a 'person' is only a metaphor, since the divine transcends the distinction of 'is/is not a person'. None other than C.S. Lewis warned that reducing the divine to a comfortable image of a well-understood person denies the reality of the living God whose nature is beyond any of our conceptions of Him.

Lastly, in no sense are these musings intended to 'convince' anyone that all religious paths are equal, or that their own religion does not offer some special insight. I am a great admirer of Christianity, and am quite open to the possibility that I have missed something that my Christian friends have seen, a possibility to which I regularly devote serious attention. These remarks, rather, are offered in a spirit of dialog, in the hope of prompting the recognition that, even if one religion is in some important sense superior to others, we still have things that we can learn from each other. For instance, even if you are convinced that I am making a fundamental mistake in not recognizing Christ as the unique appearance of the logos in human history, it could nevertheless be true that my perspective still might offer valuable insights. Furthermore, I would suggest to members of the other great world religions that we are natural allies, as individuals who are convinced that there is something sacred and holy at the heart of the universe, even if we conceive that center differently, in the fight against the sophists and nihilists who would try to reduce human existence to the meaningless and random play of brute, material forces.

Ethanol Lobbyists: Friends of the Taxpayer

You know how ethanol is great because it keeps gas prices down (.pdf)? Well did you also know that there is currently a 54-cent per gallon tariff on imported ethanol? You might think this is pure protectionism for the ethanol industry, but apparently not, according to their spokesman:

“We simply believe American taxpayers ought not to have to further subsidize Brazil’s or any other nation’s ethanol industry when we are trying to build one in this nation. The tariff is there to protect the taxpayer, not the ethanol producer.”

(BTW he is referring to the fact that right now, U.S. refiners get a 51-cent exemption on excise taxes for blending ethanol gallons into their output. So without the tariff, the refiners would naturally get the ethanol [to claim the tax credit, and also to comply with federal mandates on how many gallons of ethanol need to be in the mix] as cheaply as possible, say from Brazil.)

That's Gotta Be Embarrassing

I've been known to make horrible predictions in the past. But at least they weren't yet proven false at the time I made them! (I guess they would be a post-diction in that case.) Anyway, this guy takes it well. More generally, the two guys at this Environmental Economics site are pretty cool.

As far as economists go, I mean.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Slimy Talk Radio

OK in the past week I have heard two great examples of the vast right-wing conspiracy, or rather, the vast right-wing smear machine. (I don't use "smearbund" because I don't really understand the term. It sounds like a technique for applying sauerkraut.)

So last week, the great American Sean Hannity had on some pastor (I think?) that said Obama and Jeremiah Wright had had a long romantic relationship. Hannity asked what the guy's proof was, and he said, "I have rock solid evidence, Sean, but I'm not going to share it with you today." Hannity gave a good 10 or 15 minutes to this clown, all the while "defending" Obama against baseless, ad hominem attacks that do nothing except discourage good people from running for office.

I suppose if I called up Hannity and told the call screener I had rock solid evidence that George Bush hung out at Michael Jackson's ranch, they'd give me 15 minutes of air time.

The other issue concerns the supposedly shocking statements of Tom Harkin that I just alluded to. I kept waiting for the host to repeat the horrible comments impugning the service of the guy who called in his show, but I had missed them. (I.e. he must have read them / played the clip earlier in the show, and now they weren't actually repeating what Harkin had said.) But at one point the host told the young guy something like, "And the thing is, because you volunteered Harkin thinks you're 'dangerous.' It's OK if the government forces you to fight for your country, but if you volunteer to do it Senator Harkin thinks you're 'dangerous.'"

Well I did a Google news search and I'm pretty sure these are the remarks that so upset my (state-level, not a national figure) talk show host. This attack on Harkin is about the most out of context thing I have ever seen, er, heard. Here is the part about why Harkin thinks volunteers, as opposed to conscripts, are dangerous:

"I think one of, one of the problems John McCain has, is that his grandfather was an admiral, his father was an admiral. He comes from a long line of just military people so I think his whole world view, his life view has been shaped from a military viewpoint, and he has a hard time thinking beyond that, and I think he's trapped in that," Harkin says.

"And I think that can be pretty dangerous. It's one thing to have been drafted and served or volunteer and serve for a few years or something and get out and get on with your life. Quite another thing when you know, you come from generations of military people, that's just how you're steeped, that's how you, that's how you learned, that's how you grew up, it's hard to shake those things."

On the US "Imperialist" Issue

I was listening to a talk radio guy (heaven forbid I hear any music that is modern) and a soldier called him up, complaining about Tom Harkin's comments. The host said something like:

"Well that's what the Democratic Party thinks of you. John Murtha thinks you're a bunch a rapists and murderers who go on a killing spree, and he didn't even apologize when that turned out to be a complete fabrication. John Kerry thinks you're too stupid to do anything but join the military. And Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, compares you to the Roman legions..."

At that point I was pulling into my office building's parking lot and there was a black woman going in, so I turned off the radio. On the off-chance the radio guy said something ridiculous, I didn't want to have to say, "I don't agree with him, really I don't! Some of my favorite comedians are black people!"

But anyway, I think it is wrong when today's conservatives say that the US can't possibly be an empire, because we are helping the countries we liberate. Well holy cow, don't you think the average Roman (and British subject in the 19th century) thought the same thing? They built roads for those savages, by Jove! (Gene please correct me if they didn't swear like this.)

Cantor set V

"An elementary example (due to Feng-Gao) of an R.E. set over [the real numbers] which is not decidable is the complement of the Cantor Middle [T]hird set in the unit interval. The demonstration is via [a] "machine" (and the fact the Cantor Middle [T]hird set is an uncountable totally disconnected set)."

--from the paper cited in commentary to Cantor set III.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Speaking of Persistent Popular Misconceptions...

which we were in the ID thread, what's up with the persistence of the idea that Einstein's formulation of E=mc2 led 'to the development of the atomic bomb and nuclear power', as I just read a book called A Perfect Mess? The energy released from atomic fission and fusion is due to the fact that the elementts in the middle of the periodic table tend to have lower potential energy than those above or below them -- I think Iron-56 is the trough -- so that converting a very light or very heavy element to one closer to the middle releases the energy difference. E=mc2 has no more to do with the process than it does with the release of energy from a fire -- which is to say it is useful in calculating the energy released, but not for understanding the basic process. In some alternate universe, the atomic bomb could have been developed before E=mc2 was discovered. And you don't need to study advanced physics to figure this out-- just have access to Wikipedia.

Taki's Mag Joins the Smearbund!

'Paul, it must admitted, gave the “smearbund” an opening via what appears to be the only significant lapse in judgment in his career: his (probably absentee) editorship of a newsletter in which stupid and/or offensive racial jokes occasionally appeared in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Paul is fallible.'

This appeared in Taki's Magazine. Because Taki is on the 'right' side of the libertarian divide, and hires people like Raimondo, this will, I guarantee, raise no hackles on the LRC blog. But the exact same words mentioned in a Reason blog post would have had a swarm of bloggers using there oh-so-clever '[T]Reason' moniker and talking about how the poster was 'a total loser'.

Early, Notable Open Source Programmer

I was listening to Garrett Fagan lecture on the Roman Revolution, when he said something like, 'Cleopatra used to move through the streets carried in a golden chair, while Antony walked beside her, along with her UNIX.'

I did not know Cleopatra had hacked her own UNIX version! Does anybody know if it was based on Free BSD?

With Great Power Comes Great Income

I finally watched Spider-Man 3. (Yeah yeah, I'm way behind, I know.) I thought it was really good, especially when Peter Parker has the black suit and is smooth with the ladies.

However, I wish the Sandman had read my article on Superman. Then he would have known that he didn't need to rob armored cars and banks to pay for medical treatment for his daughter! With his abilities, he could have hired himself out to a construction crew, say, and easily earned $10,000 / day. And if he got hooked up with firms working on a skyscraper, I bet he could charge them $50,000 / day.

(I'm assuming he's a hard worker who follows directions. But maybe he's lazy and doesn't take no cr*p from nobody, and that's why he turned to a life of crime.)

The Monster Within

I just poked EconomistMom in the eye again. I bet the people at that site think I am a troll. I'm not trying to be, of course; I actually think my comments (which have been ignored thus far) are cogent. But maybe that's what every troll thinks!

UPDATE: EconomistMom answered me, so maybe I'm not a troll after all. Then Gene jumps in to hit a lady (and a mom!). I think all three of us actually agree on the case of government increasing spending today by increasing the deficit. But where Gene and I differ with her is that EconomistMom (I presume) thinks it might not make our children poorer if we raise spending today and then raise taxes today to pay for it. I think what she has in mind is that if you raise taxes to pay for it, then you get government goodies today largely at the expense of private goodies today. Whereas if you finance with deficits, you get government goodies today and private goodies today, with less private investment.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Bad Movie Searches #6 & 15

OK, tonight's movie is The Client -- I'm justifying my recent spate of movie watching by listening to them all in French, BTW -- and I saw Susan Sarandon do something that has always bothered me, i.e., the 'movie search'. In this 'search, you go into a room took look for, say, a file, and execute the 'search' by randomly heaving things around the room and spilling the contents of boxes all over the place.

Is this a likely way to find something? Has anyone out there ever seen anyone search for things in such a fashion in real life? I never have. So why do people always search like this in movies?

Dembski and the NFL Theorems

OK everyone, I promise that this is the last ID post from me for a while. (If Gene posts on the topic though, I will almost certainly comment on the thread.)

Anyway, what I will quickly do here is summarize the No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems, and then William Dembski's attempt to apply them in the arena of the origin of life. Despite the official shrugging off by experts, I think Dembski has hit upon an incredibly powerful argument, and if he did nothing else worthwhile in his career (some might say this is true!) he would still be a genius.

OK so first let's go over the NFL theorems: Basically they show that no optimization algorithm can outperform another, over the entire domain of all possible problems. Now this is a shocking result, and if it doesn't shock you, you probably don't grasp what it is saying. So let me put the result in a concrete way, using an example that others (I think maybe the original authors?) have used.

Suppose the problem is to find the highest elevation on a landscape, where the surface is divided into a finite number of sectors. You have to choose a search algorithm to find that highest spot, where you start at some random location and can only see the elevation of adjacent sectors.

So the NFL says that, over all possible landscapes (and of course this is spelled out formally in the proof), there is no reason that any one search algorithm would do better than another. In particular, the algorithm that says, "Look around you, and go up the steepest incline" does no better on average than an algorithm that says, "Pick a direction at random and then head that way." Even more incredible, the first algorithm doesn't even outperform the algorithm that says, "Look around and go towards the lowest elevation available."

(I confess that this last part seems crazy to me; you would think it would be easy to show that the first algorithm weakly dominates the third, but apparently over the entire class of landscapes it doesn't. I asked an expert if he could intuitively explain this, perhaps by describing just one landscape where the third one does better, but he either never replied or admitted he couldn't put it into simple terms.)

OK so are we all set on what the NFL theorems say? The reason for their name is that of course, if you know something beforehand about the type of problem you want to solve--equivalent to knowing which subset of possible landscapes your algorithm will encounter--then it is easy to find algorithms that will outperform others. But there is "no free lunch"; you can't search a little bit to determine the type of landscape, and then pick the appropriate algorithm. (Because that would itself just be an original algorithm facing the entire domain of possible landscapes...) So you have to assume a priori knowledge of the answer before setting up the search, and hoping to have better than random chance of finding the answer.

I hope you now see where this is going. In the evolution debate, an ignorant creationist might say, "Random chance can't explain the complexity of life! Just watch a fetus developing in the womb! You call that a crap shoot??" But of course, the sophisticated answer is that Darwinian evolution doesn't rely merely on chance, it relies on random mutations which are then acted upon by natural selection.

So what Dembski tried to argue is that this is begging the question; it is trying to get a free lunch out of nature. The biologists would concede that mere trial-and-error could not, even with billions of years to operate, have possibly given rise to life as we know it. But Dembski then invokes the NFL theorems. Over the domain of all possible environments, why should we expect the algorithm of natural selection to "find" these complex arrangements of matter? Again, in general there is no reason to suppose that natural selection would do any better than random chance, unless the landscape for this "problem" (i.e. the conditions on earth over the last few billion years) happened to be in the subset of possible landscapes where natural selection outperforms random chance. And so, Dembski concludes, if you admit that it would be crazy to suppose chance alone gave rise to life, then the NFL theorems force you to admit that random chance + natural selection is also just as "lucky" for yielding life.

Now then, what has been the official response to this argument? Read Wolpert (one of the NFL authors) here, and biologist Allen Orr here (page 4). The official response is that the NFL theorems don't apply to biological evolution, because there is no fixed landscape. Rather, there are multiple creatures "optimizing" on a landscape that includes each other, so the landscape itself changes. In Orr's words:

Another problem with Dembski’s arguments concerns the N.F.L. theorems. Recent work shows that these theorems don’t hold in the case of co-evolution, when two or more species evolve in response to one another. And most evolution is surely co-evolution. Organisms do not spend most of their time adapting to rocks; they are perpetually challenged by, and adapting to, a rapidly changing suite of viruses, parasites, predators, and prey. A theorem that doesn’t apply to these situations is a theorem whose relevance to biology is unclear.

Now I think this is a crushing admission of defeat by Orr. Here's why:

(1) Is he conceding that random mutation + natural selection can't explain how a single line of organisms could adapt to a lifeless world?? That's problematic because for one thing, intuitively it is a lot easier to see how the Darwinian story would work in a fixed environment. If you admit that the theory shows it doesn't work there, then I think it's little comfort to say, "But technically the assumptions of NFL don't hold for co-evolution, so it's an open question whether mutation+natural selection work when there are other organisms at work." It's problematic for a second reason because co-evolution can only kick in after the origin of the first form of life!!

(2) I realize there must be some subtlety in the proof, but I don't see why you couldn't easily incorporate the other organisms as part of the original "fixed" landscape. The NFL theorems have a very abstract, broad specification of the class of problems. E.g. it would have been silly had Orr said, "NFL only applies to a fixed landscape, but in the real world there are volcanoes that sometimes erupt." I.e. a volcano that erupted 18,456 time units after the start of the simulation could easily be incorporated as just another dimension in the original fitness landscape; the problems in general aren't really just 3D surfaces where the object is to find the highest point. That was just an easy picture to illustrate the results. So, take any one organism's point of view, and consider all the other organisms as just part of the landscape to which it is adapting. I don't see how this changes the problem. (BTW the game theoretic co-evolution paper that Wolpert put out later really didn't look anything like evolutionary models; there are players engaging in a tournament and finding a "champion" etc. I'm pretty sure even Wolpert himself acknowledges that those later models don't have much to do with the evolution argument.)

Incidentally, I had a short email exchange with Orr back in the day. I asked him point (1) above, something like, "Doesn't it seem odd that you are apparently admitting that evolution couldn't explain creatures adapting to a fixed, inorganic world, while you are saying it is capable of explaining adaptation to an even more complicated world?" He didn't answer that email. (I'm not saying this as a shocking example of his cowardice, I'm just reporting that he never answered that question.)

OK I promise no more new blog posts on ID from me for a while... We can argue in the comments if you'd like.

UPDATE: I found Orr's stand-alone review of Dembski's No Free Lunch. This has a much stronger response to the NFL argument than the one I quoted above, though I think it is still fairly weak. Orr raises a bunch of other good objections to Dembski, though.

Geographical Malfeasance in Movies #23

In recently re-viewing The Raiders of the Lost Ark, I found myself cracking up at the car chase scene when one of Indiana Jones's foes, after chasing him through several miles of lush vegetation, plunges off of what appears to be a thousand-or-so-foot cliff. I haven't been to Egypt, but I'm pretty sure the only extensive areas of lush vegetation are in the Nile River valley, which I'm pretty sure is never a thousand feet above some land on its border!

Bad Policy Decision in History #17

After the assassination of Caesar, the Roman Senate vacillated as to whether it should support the 'liberators,' as the assassins called themselves, or the Caesarean party. As a result, they wound up handing out pro-praetorships, or provincial governorships, to members of both parties, which also meant giving them control of the legions in their provinces. As Garrett Fagan sardonically remarks, this amounted to making sure that both sides had plenty of arms and troops for the coming civil war.

Why Is God Hiding?

Spurred by our debates in some of the threads below, Micha posts a common question at his own site:

If God really did exist, why would God provide complex, statistical, scientific evidence for its own existence only in the micro-world of biochemical processes, and not instead, say, host his own public access television show called Jesus and Pals? Are microbiologists more deserving than the rest of us to bask in the knowledge and glory of the Divine? Or does God want us all to give up our day jobs and become microbiologists?

I realize I've been harping on this stuff for a few days now, so I'll keep my answer here brief.

1) God did try direct communication with the Hebrews. They weren't very obedient. Even though they were literally being led around by a column of fire, they still managed to make golden idols etc. Look, I personally believe that God has intervened in my life, and I think He is watching over me. I still act like a punk. So this idea that, "We would all be 'religious' and the world would be a better place if God weren't so mysterious" is not as obviously correct as atheists believe. Of course atheists will laugh and say, "We're talking about reality here, not dumb stories in your dusty book," but the challenge Micha presents is obviously one for believers to grapple with. So I'm answering on behalf of someone who actually believes in this stuff, to show why there's no huge contradiction (at least on this issue).

2) About 2000 years ago there was a traveling group known as Jesus and Pals. I don't think everybody on the planet suddenly converted. In fact, they tortured and killed Jesus and some of his pals. Why would things be different today? If someone went up to Richard Dawkins today and said, "Hi, I'm the son of God and you and I need a sit-down," would Dawkins be receptive?

3) There already basically are shows about Jesus and Pals. I doubt Micha watches them.

4) So I hope I've demonstrated that the flippant, "I would believe if God came out and revealed Himself" isn't as compelling as it first sounds. (I used to think the same thing when I myself was an atheist.) In order to convince people in this more scientific age (versus 2000 years ago), surely a more compelling approach would be to embed evidence of His existence in nature itself. And it's not just microbiologists who get all the fun. Just skim this site to see what I have in mind. Again, you can scoff and say this is all ridiculous, but I don't think Micha's claim of internal inconsistency stands up.

The Aimless Shepherd

I just watched The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert DeNiro. I have never seen a movie he directed before -- he apparently has only done one other, A Bronx Tale. I must say, this film was shot wonderfully, had great acting... and basically no plot. I literally spent the entire film thinking, 'OK, this is a really good, if long, set up for the real action, which is going to start any moment.' Bobby, Bobby -- if you're going to make a spy movie, it's a good idea to include a spy story in there somewhere!

The other unpleasant thing about the film was Eddie Redmayne, perhaps the most physically off-putting actor I have ever seen in a major movie. I felt nauseous every time he came on the screen and I had to look at his pouting, self-absorbed face again.

GG Strikes Gold Again

I encourage you to read his recent post on tough-guy Thomas Friedman's declaration of war on Iran. But check out the 3-minute clip he posts of Friedman on the Charlie Rose show:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Scoffers of the New Metereology

In the May 10-11 WSJ, there was an obit of George Cressman, who inaugurated the practice (at the National Weather Service) in 1966 of using probabilistic forecasts. According to the story, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor ridiculed this newfangled approach:

"Tell me, every time there's a 50 percent chance of rain do I wear one rubber, and leave the other one home?"

Gene, didn't you raise similar sarcastic questions a few months ago on this blog? Oh wait, Catholics don't wear rubbers...

Ba-DUM. Thanks folks, I'm here through Tuesday. Please remember to tip your waitresses.

Roger Koppl on the Limits of (State) Forensics

Roger Koppl writes in Forbes on the surprisingly low accuracy of crime labs. Some scary stuff in there.

BTW here is my comment on the MR post from which I stole this link:

I loved the article, but I think Koppl doesn't push it far enough when he says the problem is monopoly, and therefore we need the government to require multiple tests, etc. That's like saying the problem with oil prices is OPEC, and that's why we need to ask Saudi Arabia to pump more.

Case in point: Koppl discusses a guy who was wrongly convicted of rape and held for four years. His compensation? $118,000. If those are the penalties the government faces for mistakes, no wonder they are so sloppy. In a voluntary system where people could patronize different legal frameworks (and yes we can argue about how/whether that would work), I think the fines might be such that the agencies that survived the competition fixed the leaky roofs over their crime labs.


Holy cow! I see now that someone responded to this brilliant comment, and actually called it "stupid." !!!! Out of the way, lads, I must fly!

Self-ownership revisited

In response to Gene's response to my response to a short novel I read, "Dirty Weekend" by [I think I remember, book no longer in hand] Helen Zawhiri: I left Gene a phone message that I had come across a short, interesting paragraph on ownership of self that I thought might interest libertarians. The novel is about a weak, unlucky woman who, she thinks on p.17, is incapable of any real self-defense, and, realizing that you can only own what you can defend, surrenders to the knowledge that she cannot own herself, but is in fact anyone's property for the taking. (Happily, she wakes up one particularly miserable morning to the realization that she has quite simply had enough, and spends the weekend murdering men, all of whom clearly deserve it.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I Love the Questions Tyler Cowen Raises...

...I just often hate his answers. Here he talks about the Master Creator's intentions for us.

Why Intelligent Design Is a Scientific Theory

In the comments to a previous post, Micha took issue with what I think is an absolutely crushing argument in the "Is ID scientific?" debate. To repeat the argument: Many orthodox biologists etc. (whom I shall call "neo-Darwinians" for lack of a better term) say that not only is ID wrong, it's not even worthy of being called a false theory. To them, to explain the first cell as being consciously designed (rather than searching for a story involving lightning, amino acids, etc.) is like explaining thunderstorms by the anger of Zeus.

This is too narrow a conception of what science is. My favorite way to demonstrate is the following consideration: It is certainly possible that life on Earth was seeded by intelligent aliens, who designed a cell with all sorts of sophisticated DNA etc., then set it loose here billions of years ago. Now just suppose that were true. How in the world would we humans ever figure that out? Why, through people doing the exact type of research that the ID people are doing. And a necessary component of that process of learning the truth would be to critique the Darwinian explanations, by saying, "Yeah, you can tell a nice story about photosensitive cells gradually turning into a human eye over millions of years, but you haven't actually listed each specific step."

Now in response to my argument here, Micah in the comments said that this is just pushing back the problem one step: Where did the alien designers come from?

We don't know, because we haven't observed them yet. As a Christian, of course, I think they were ultimately created in the mind of God, as was everything else. But the Darwinian story might work for them.

This is a misconception about Michael Behe's notion of "irreducible complexity." Behe doesn't simply say, "I believe Genesis so shut up." He doesn't even just say, "Wow organisms are complicated; must be God." No, what he says is that there are many organisms whose overall structure could not have arisen step by step, with each intermediate stage conferring reproductive advantage over the previous one.

Now maybe Behe is wrong about this; maybe it is just his lack of imagination. But the point is, if Behe is right about life on Earth, the aliens could have evolved the way neo-Darwinists say it happened here. And if Behe looked at their cells under a microscope, he might be able to say, "Oh, now these cells aren't irreducibly complex! See, they're just this simple pattern repeated over and over. I can see how the aliens could've evolved into their current form from the sludge on their home planet, given enough time."

So again folks, if you want to say the ID people are nuts, and that they're liars who care nothing of science and just want to push their religion on people, OK fair enough. But this claim that ID isn't "scientific" is goofy. It prevents us from ever learning the truth if the alien story just so happened to be true. In that case, how would we ever learn? From philosophers? Theologians?

Hey Barney: I Don't Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

From the May 9 WSJ article, "Mortgage Firms Cool to Principal-Cut Plan":

But mortgage companies may face pressure to use the program. "I want to put the servicers on notice," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said at a hearing last month. "If we see a widespread refusal on the part of servicers to cooperate voluntarily in what we see as an important economic problem...they can expect much tougher regulation in the future."

Cover Bands: The Pattern Continues

I have found in the past that I could stop grudgingly paying respect to bands for catchy tunes, because they ripped them off from someone much cooler. E.g. no need to think Vanilla Ice (Ice Ice Baby) is good, since he ripped off the tune from Queen/David Bowie (Under Pressure). There are a couple of more like this that escape me right now (maybe Dylan songs?), where I realized that someone much cooler had written the original of a song that I associated with more modern punks.

Anyway, I just learned that UB40 ripped off Red, Red Wine from Neil Diamond. Since I don't own a CD past 1985 (OK a bit of an exaggeration but not much), you'd think I would have known that. True story: My dad actually played with Neil Diamond back in the day, and has an autograph to prove it. ("Pat, you're a gas. --Neil")

Now for your enjoyment:

The Two-Door Paradox

Most large buildings in New York have a pair of doors at their entrance. But, almost always, one of the two is locked closed, and you can only enter the building through the other one.

I haven't been able to figure out the reason for this phenomenon. I entertained the idea that fire codes might require two doors where the owner wanted only one, but that doesn't seem to make sense -- what good is a locked door in case of a fire? So, why keep building two doors at the entrance to large buildings, only to keep one perpetually locked? And, given that the two doors are there, what advantage does the owner gain from sealing one of them off? The practice is so common that I cannot believe that there isn't some good explanation for it, but does anyone know what it is?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Today Was a Good Day, I Must Say

...I didn't have to use my AK. (Oh come on, I lived in Bed-Stuy for a bit during grad school. I have to keep it real.)

After some last-minute edits, including a nice quote from Steve Forbes on the back cover, my flat tax study is now posted (.pdf) at PRI's website. I encourage even hardcore Rothbardians to glance through it, especially the first few chapters. I bet you will be surprised at the power of marginal tax rate reductions; I know I was.

But much better than the publication of my study--a culmination of about seven months of work--was my toddler finally going pee pee in the potty. Unfortunately I now know what the next lecture topic is for my son.

Another Murphy Discusses Tax Policies

Some purists have gotten mad that I wrote a study for Pacific Research Institute on tax reform. (I.e. since the best tax rate is zero, I shouldn't be helping politicians fleece taxpayers.) It's a valid concern, but as this op ed clearly proves, it is a different guy doing this stuff.

(BTW the joke is that they got my middle initial wrong. If it has been changed back to "P" in the meantime, then what little humor there ever was in this blog post has been completely drained.)

Why Bill O'Reilly Can't Run for President

My wife sent me this video. I'm not sure I would want to do an internship with him. Note that not only is O'Reilly a jerk, but he's also a moron; look how long it takes him to parse the words on the teleprompter.

There Ought to Be a Law

...against book reviews where the reviewer doesn't include a single quote from the book, and against movie reviews where the reviewer admits he hasn't even seen the film.

Like John Derbyshire, I too haven't seen Ben Stein's Expelled--and that's why I'm not going to tell you whether it's good or bad. (Sounds reasonable, eh?) Just take a look at this thing. Now pretend for the moment that life on Earth really didn't originate out of "blind" forces. Yes, that could mean God did it from scratch, or it could mean that the Dawkins account happened on some other world, and then those beings seeded Earth with a cell they designed.

OK but the point is, just imagine for a moment that the people--the ones with the PhDs in biology and chemistry, yes they exist--who are questioning the orthodox views are right. In that mindset, Derbyshire's article is simply breathtaking. He repeatedly voices his outrage over the "sneering, slanderous" attacks of the Discovery Institute, in the same article where he himself openly calls them liars and fools. (You can say, "But they are!" and that's fine, but then the Discovery Institute people would say the same thing about their observations. An attack is an attack, whether or not it is correct.)

Anyway lest I be accused of the same sin of omission, here's a juicy excerpt from the defender of reasoned inquiry:

So what’s going on here with this stupid Expelled movie? No, I haven’t seen the dang thing. I’ve been reading about it steadily for weeks now though, both pro (including the pieces by David Klinghoffer and Dave Berg on National Review Online) and con, and I can’t believe it would yield up many surprises on an actual viewing. It’s pretty plain that the thing is creationist porn, propaganda for ignorance and obscurantism. How could a guy like this [Ben Stein] do a thing like that?

Later on:

And now here is Ben Stein, sneering and scoffing at Darwin, a man who spent decades observing and pondering the natural world — that world Stein glimpses through the window of his automobile now and then, when he’s not chattering into his cell phone. Stein claims to be doing it in the name of an alternative theory of the origin of species: Yet no such alternative theory has ever been presented, nor is one presented in the movie, nor even hinted at. There is only a gaggle of fools and fraudsters, gaping and pointing like Apaches on seeing their first locomotive: “Look! It moves! There must be a ghost inside making it move!”

The "alternative theory" is that these items were designed; hence the name, "Intelligent Design." Of course that doesn't count for Derbyshire; that's not a "scientific" explanation. OK but what if it's true? (Again, don't forget the possibility of aliens. This isn't merely Bible thumping.) And I'm going to go out on a limb--again, I haven't seen the movie either--and guess that Ben Stein and some of the people he interviews in the movie actually look at the natural world, just like Darwin.

Oh, one other thing: Derbyshire literally says that science itself was invented in northwest Europe in the late 17th century. (I went back and re-read it, since I didn't believe it myself when I just typed that.) How do you feel about that statement, Gene?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Momma Mia

The "Economist Mom" has started a blog. (Hat tip to the greenie economists.) I was going to criticize her for criticizing the Laffer Curve (without explaining why the episodes of revenues going up in the 1980s and even under George W. Bush don't count), but that got shunted aside when I saw this:

Deficit financing is a cost-maximizing budget strategy — because of the curse of compound interest. The choice is simple: Pay for it now, or our kids pay even more for it later. For example, the balance on a $1,000 loan swells to more than $3,000 when repayment is put off for 20 years, even under a relatively low interest rate of 6 percent.

I think this is literally a fallacy that Landsburg or Friedman dissected in one of their pop books. I posted a comment, asking her if only suckers take out 30-year mortgages.

If I really wanted to be a jerk, I could have asked if no company buys materials from Japan, because the prices there are like 100 times higher than here. This is the well-known "Japanese cost-maximizing strategy."

(Not only does she have a Ph.D. in economics, but apparently: "From January 2007 to April 2008 she served as chief economist for the House Budget Committee." Wow.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Boston Globe feature

An interesting piece on a young Austrian economist who is very interested in anarcho-capitalism and went to Hillsdale College. (Did I trick you?) For some reason the writer seems to think that the word democracy is defined as "stuff about society that I like." Strange. (HT2MR.)

Barrons Article on Mechanism Design

Another iteration of a theme I've been hitting since the "Nobel" for economics came out last year. This link is just to the free preview. If you are in Barnes & Noble this week check it out.

I've Found Him!

In books lie The Lord of the Rings, things are always passing "beyond the ken of man."

I always wondered, "Just who is this 'ken of man.'" Well, folks, I've found him.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Unfinished City

Sandy Ikeda on the character of New York.

Damned Multiculturalists

Leon Hadar excoriates globalists at Taki's Magazine.

I second his emotion with the following remarks:

Man, those multi-culturalists! I recall the story of one Jewish dude who apparently was not satisfied with his local folkways. He imported a melange of ideas from Greek philosophy and Eastern religion into his native inheritance and came up with some weird hybrid mix. His followers, after his death, immediately became "rootless cosmopolitans," trotting all around the Mediterranean world, asserting that the culture you came from didn't matter as long as you accepted their new "globalist" creed. They sucked into their "ideology" an obviously incompatible blend of Greek philosophy, Roman civic and political ideas, and Hebrew revelation.

Good thing that nonsense had no lasting impact on the world!

Those Peaceniks!

Clark Stooksbury reveals a shocking fact: the Nobel Peace Prize committee rewards anti-war activists!

One Bad Apple

OK, I'm sticking with Macs for now, because I was a UNIX programmer, Mac OS X is UNIX, and I can work smoothly at the command-line interface.

Otherwise, I think Apple's user interface group has lost their minds. For instance, if I'm getting my Mac mail on the Web, my session will time out after 30 minutes. OK, cool, there's some security concern here. But what happens? I'm presented with a dialogue box that says my session has timed out, with an 'OK' button. I click 'OK,' and am brought to a screen that says "Your session has timed out," and presents me with a button that says "Log back in." I click on that, and finally get to the login screen. Yo, yo, Apple dudes, why not send the logged out user straight to the login screen? The two screens in between do nothing but require me to click 'OK' twice. What the hey?

In the Mac OS X native mail application, the up or down arrow at first moves you between messages. That's OK -- let's shift the focus by clicking in the window pane showing the text of the current message. Then hit the up or down arrow -- CRIKEY, MATE! It still moves between messages, not within the current message. Didn't Apple develop this idea of one part of the UI having the focus, and that all user actions should relate to that focused area? What in the world has gone wrong with their software developers?