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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Attributing Agency

When do we categorize something as an agent? Discuss this over at Think Markets.

Stupidest Ad Campaign of the Year?

I vote for Microsoft's campaign for its new Windows phone. The campaign shows a bunch of people wrapped up in their phone and ignoring their son, their wife, basic sanitation, etc. The suggested solution to this problem is to get a new Windows phone, because they are so easy to use. Well, Microsoft marketing, let me reveal a little secret to you: NO ONE who is ignoring that lady in the negligee to use their phone in bed is doing so because their phone is hard to use! They are doing so because they are busy using it. The solution would be, say, to leave your phone out on the kitchen counter when your wife is seducing you, NOT to get a phone with a nicer interface and bring it in the bedroom.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Least Surprising Surprising Link of the Year

Tyler Cowen points us to this article, which contains:

"For instance, researchers have found a surprising link between daydreaming and creativity—people who daydream more are also better at generating new ideas."

This surprised someone?

If You've Never Read Darwin...

you then can just make up what he thought. I'm reading a philosopher right now -- don't want to go into details, as I'm reviewing the book for a magazine -- who declares that it is an implication of Darwin's theory of evolution that all life is the product of chance variations that arise randomly. Well, what did Charles himself say about that idea?

“I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations so common and multiform in organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree in those in a state of nature had been due to chance. This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation.” -- Origin of Species, Chapter 5

So Darwin thought the idea that these variations were chance was "Wholly incorrect," a mere product of our lack of knowledge of their true causes.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Maybe They Should Have Started with the Free-Town Project?

Reason Magazine reports of the progress of the Free-State Project:

"The Free State Project was proposed by a Yale PhD student in 2001... So far, the project reports that there are more than 10,000 participants, and almost 900 'early movers' have already settled there."

Hmm, let's see, roughly 700,000 people voted in New Hampshire in 2008. The Free-State Project has been going ten years, so, at about 90 people per year... I calculate that if the population stays level, libertarians will control the state by the time of the 5892 elections! If they had just started out smaller, with the Free-Town Project, they could have taken over Lebanon, NH, by, say, 2060.

This throws an interesting light on the people who show up on blog threads insisting "Liberty is an absolute value: There is no compromising over matters of principle!" What these people mean is that, "When I want to sound rough and macho on a blog, I will argue as if there was no compromising on the matter of liberty!" In real life, these folks compromise all the time. Think about it: Given the chance to build libertopia, only 900 libertarians have moved to New Hampshire! All of the rest of you have compromised: You thought about your job, your family, your friends, your neighbors, the weather, the real estate market... Now, I'm not being critical of you for compromising your principles: principles must be traded off one against another. That is the nature of human moral life. We cannot follow through on every principle 100% because they present us with conflicting demands. The fact that you have compromised is evidence that you are a sane adult. My only question is, why not, then, stop talking like an insane one?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott's Conservatism

Just got my copy today. Chapter Seven seems especially cool.

UPDATE: Having read some of the book now, I highly recommend Kenneth McIntyre's chapter on why neoconservatives have been hostile to Oakeshott.

I Rule! (Or at Least I Rule My Inbox)

Over the last several weeks, I have culled through my inbox, ruthlessly deleting e-mails I admitted to myself I never would address, addressing e-mails I knew I must to address, filing those that were merely informative, and so forth. As of right now, I have ten items in my inbox! You can't believe how this feels: it is probably the fewest e-mails I've had in my inbox since about a week after I got an Internet account in 1995.

The Blunderful Ron Paul!

Ron Paul has stirred up a tempest by inviting Tom Dilorenzo to testify at a hearing on the Federal Reserve. What is striking to me about this move is how tin-eared a politician it shows Paul to be. DiLorenzo is both 1) not an expert on monetary economics and 2) a defender of Southern secession. If Paul wanted to defend abolishing the central bank, he had available to him people like Larry White and George Selgin who are both 1) experts on monetary economics and 2) not defenders of Southern secession.

So how did he wind up with DiLorenzo and not Selgin or White? Perhaps as the congressman representing the Mises Institute district, he felt compelled to send props to the folks back at home?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fatuous Anarchists Taunt the Egyptian People

I'm not sure if this letter is more cruel, pathetic, or humorous. If there was the slightest chance that more than a dozen or so Egyptians were paying the least attention to these folks, the letter would be extremely cruel. What the Egyptian people need right now, and the very best we have any rational cause to expect will happen, is for them to get a moderately decent government that can establish something vaguely like the rule of law and not loot them too much. If any Egyptians were actually listening, to advise them to reject such a government and hold out for the fantasy land of these theorists would be a vicious act indeed.

It's also kind of pathetic in the level of self-centeredness the letter displays. The Egyptians are going through a traumatic upheaval right now, but that's not what is important: what is important is the comic book fantasies of these twenty people sitting back comfortably on their couches in the United States.

And the letter is humorous if you try to imagine what the signatories are thinking: Do they really see the crowds in Tahrir Square circulating this letter, slapping themselves on the head, and saying, "Allah be praised: we do not need a government after all!"

iPhone 4 Apps

My second day with my new iPhone 4 and I am quite impressed: the screen is worlds beyond the old one, and its performance is much snappier. "So," I thought, "what apps have I been missing out on that I really ought to get?"

I searched for "top iPhone 4 apps." When I discovered that the #4 productivity app was the "world tax calculator," and #2 and #3 are essentially pumped-up versions of the totally adequate calendar app that comes free with the phone, I realized that there is nothing out there I really need.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Please Think What I Thought, Not What I Said...

So, leg broken, I'm gimping around on my walker at B61, heading towards the bathroom, when I see my friend Joanna coming out of it. How nice, I think, I won't have to struggle with the door.

"Joanna, please hold it for me," I shout out.

A look of utter horror comes across her face. What went wrong? After about a second it hits me.

"No, no, hold the door for me!"

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pet Shop Birds

If you watch some of the original:


Then I think you'll really like the spoof:


But my question: What is the second guy in the original video up to? Watch around 1:41 where he starts to figure out, "Damn, their not going to let me do shiite in this video, are they?" (Although he did improvise a little two-second shuffle at about 2:27.)

The Heisenberg Principle in Mississippi

The Heisenberg Principle states, simplistically put, that things are uncertain. "Things" is important here: in physics, things are only things when they or their properties have been observed, in particular, their measurements; else they are at best irrelevant. To be said to exist, to contribute to the physicist's view of reality, they must be observable, and unobserved observables are merely extrapolations from observed observables. Furthermore, observation of a thing, the only source of its claim to reality, interacts with the thing observed, changing its properties and thus at once falsifying the results of observation. (Entanglement has since replaced direct disturbance in accounting for uncertainty in observation.)

In 1962, the Federal Government, in its methodical campaign to desegregate the South one institution at a time, enlisted a young black man, James Meredith, who had won in court the right to enroll at Ol' Miss, the all-white University of Mississippi. Attempts to enroll would not by themselves accomplish much, so along with James the government sent a large troop of marshalls, soldiers, various agents, and probably some attorneys general. An entire dormitory was demanded and (no doubt grudgingly) handed over for the housing of marshalls, soldiers, agents, attorneys general, and James. I have no doubt that they put James at the center of the building, with as many marshalls, soldiers, and walls as possible between him and the bullets that could well be expected.

In the fall of 1961, I received a telephone call from my best friend in high school. Our families lived on the same street in New Haven, CT. Joel went to Ol' Miss simply to drive his father insane, although he must have suspected that his likes and dislikes would find comfort there, and so they did: he loved it. Now he invited me to be a guest of his fraternity--Phi Kappa Psi forever!--for Homecoming Weekend. I explained that one weekend in Oxford, MS would consume more than my total entertainment budget for that year, if not for all the rest of college. But he convinced me that, if so, it would be more than worth it. He was right. It was the finest college weekend I would ever spend. Bellowing Dixie, I experienced patriotism for the first time. The Game was genuinely thrilling. I built much of their Homecoming lawn display, featuring a rocket that belched dense white smoke for hours, using chemicals pilfered from the lab.

Now when in 1962 I heard of James Meredith's adventure, I was electrified: I wanted to return to Ol' Miss, throw myself on the mercy of Phi Kappa Psi, and, using their frat house as a hideout, report the goings-on from my presumably unique perspective. No one--not at college, not at the local paper, nowhere--would finance the trip. I went anyway. There was a total news blackout. The entrances and exits on campus were guarded and no one was allowed in. There were no reporters anywhere around. Just me. I knew the terrain well enough to evade the guards, made it to the frat house, and explained my plan. Joel was gone by then, but they took me in. I promised them that if I got my news published (I did), I would send them a copy, so they'd know that I had told the story truly. For three days I roamed the campus, observing and interviewing everything and everyone except James, and the marshalls, soldiers, agents, and any A.G.s who might be on hand. I stayed away from them and their building, and strolled about as just another student; no one challenged me.

Finally, when my head was full enough, I was ready for what I knew would be my last interview. Once I had identified myself, I expected to be ejected at once, and so I was! Two government men drove me to Memphis immediately after. This service was not optional. At lunchtime, I headed for the dining hall. A cartoon from the 1950s made up of dots surrounding an empty circle with one dot at the center says it all: "Germs avoiding a germ that caught penicillin." The place was packed, but for a deserted circle centered on one table, where James sat with his guards. He was handsome and well dressed, and doing his best to seem at ease. I walked directly to the table, introduced myself, and did my short interview. There really wasn't much to say; I certainly was not going to get into, "And how do you feel, Mr. Meredith, at being the object of so much fear and hatred?"

And toward the end, one of the students at lunch outside the Circle of Death detached himself from his company and came up to us looking serious and resolute. He allowed as how, though he did not approve of this invasion, he respected Mr. Meredith's right to be here. They shook hands. He was the second student at Ol' Miss to interact with James. I was the first.

James Meredith must have graduated, because he became a lawyer. He is alive today, but no longer practices law.

Copyright (c) February 12, 2011 (110212) by W.Bloch, all rights reserved.

The First Shall Be Last, and the Last Shall Be First

Jackson, Wyoming was selected by Weather.com as one of the five coldest cities in the US. What shocked me the most in their description of the town was that the average last freeze date is July 10, and the average first freeze date is August 16. Man, that's a short summer!

Of course, since these are the average dates, sometimes the last freeze is later, and sometimes the first freeze is earlier. Which must sometimes present the residents with a dilemma, so that when they get a freeze on, say, July 28, you hear on the street, "Hell, Jed, what is this, a really late last freeze, or a really early first freeze?" I imagine the town sometimes paralyzed for days trying to decide.

SD Song for Egypt

We seen the last of Good King Richard
Ring out the past his name lives on and on
Roll out the bones and raise up your pitcher
Raise up your glass to Good King John

The Unbearable Lightness of Contemporary Citation Style, Part II

For millennia, people (on the human condition, see Plato 380 BCE, Aristotle 340 BCE, Aquinas 1200, Hobbes 1660, Marx and Engels 1856, Freud 1911, Arendt 1943, and Mises 1949) have written papers (see Gutenberg 1450) examining various aspects of social existence (on the topic of existence, note especially Plato 380 BCE, Aristotle 340 BCE, Aquinas 1200, Descartes 1645, Kierkegaard 1869, Sartre 1943, Camus 1954). In past centuries (for the concept of 'history,' consult Augustine 415, Vico 1700, Hegel 1820, and Collingwood 1943) scholars were often content (recent studies on happiness include Tom 2001, Dick 2007, and Harry 2010) to simply say what they meant (the concept of meaning has been analyzed by Plato 380 BCE, Aristotle 340 BCE, Peirce 1889, Frege 1894, Russell 1925, Ramsey 1936, Kripke 1977, Eco 1984, Sebeok 1987, and Davidson 2001) without citing a multitude of sources who had said something vaguely similar on some remotely connected subject in the past. Today (on modernity, see Strauss 1959, Voegelin 1973, and MacIntyre 1984), however, scholars recognize the need (theories of necessity include those of Leibniz 1700 and Ayer 1936) to fluff up their papers with dozens (the relevant works on number theory to the concept of 'dozens' are especially those of Gauss 1828, Riemann 1856, and Poincare 1898) of citations to works they have never even read.

This represents a huge step forward in scholarship (see the style of many contemporary journals for proof).

Friday, February 11, 2011

Why Are Medical Offices So Backwards?

I ask the question at ThinkMarkets. (I sure as heck don't answer it, however!)

What's a Resource, Anyway?

The macroeconomics textbook I'm using for my class this semester (Macroeconomics in Context) has a section on renewable and non-renewable resources. While it's nice they include this, their definition of a "sustainable economy" worries me. They define a "sustainable socioeconomic system" as "a system in which the overall quality and quantity of the resource base required for sustaining life and well-being do not erode."

That's fine as far as it goes, but my worry is, "How the heck are we supposed to know if this base is eroding or not?" I mean, we are running out of oil, or sooner or later we will be, but is that good or bad for sustainability? On the one had, current cars will become useless, but on the other, if burning oil is causing global warming, maybe it's very good if we run out of it.

Or what if some space aliens had shown up in 1600 and announced, "Citizens of Earth: under your ground are giant pools of disgusting black goo. We are a galactic service that cleans up planets such as yours contaminated with such foul goop." We let them "clean up," only to find, in the 20th century, that our economy is much less sustainable because the aliens have taken 90% of our oil.

What do we know about what will be a resource in 100 years? What do we know about what will be an unwanted waste product?

So, I wonder, is there really any sense in worrying about "sustainability," or should we just deal with obvious problems as they arise? ("Man, that pond smells like crap and all the frogs have died -- you'd better stop dumping that sh*t in it.") Sustainability oriented folks, I sympathize, I do: I'm just not very confident about our ability to get sustainability right.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Murray, Murray, Murray...

From Mises.org today: "For the use of mathematics necessarily leads the economist to distort reality by making the theory convenient for mathematical symbolism and manipulation. Mathematics takes over, and the reality of human action loses out."

Necessarily? So, since Rothbard used some mathematics in Man, Economy, and State, that means... oops!

Whose Is the MVI?

Who is the greatest intellectual of our time? My vote goes to Umberto Eco. Look at the range of fields in which he has done serious and important work: semiotics, medieval studies, Joyce scholarship, film criticism, literary criticism, aesthetics, philosophy of language, and a whole string of excellent novels. (And I'm probably missing a few items.)

Any other votes?

Baaaad Incentives!

Via Tyler Cowen, see this post on bank CEOs absconding with shareholders' wealth. I have been pointing out this sort of thing in papers, blog posts, and comments for some time. Contra some Austrian theorists who think that the business cycle is characterized by "mistakes" followed by "regrets" on the part of entrepreneurs, what we see in these actual cycles is "theft" followed by "skedaddling." Of course, the marks have regrets later -- they were the marks after all. But there is just no need to account for "systematic errors" on the part of entrepreneurs.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Holes in Linguistic Paradigms

wb 110209 Wed 1140

Whence the various holes in linguistic paradigms? Why just these holes? Random genesis? Linguistic drift? Other historical process? Something else?

I II III IV V VI
*anagraphy *anagraphic *anagraph anagram 0001 1
*graphy graphic graph *gram 0110 2
*phonography phonographic phonograph *phonogram 0110 2
biography biographic *biograph *biogram 1100 2
geography geographic *geograph *geogram 1100 2
cartography cartographic *cartograph *cartogram 1100 2
demography demographic *demograph *demogram 1100 2
pornography pornographic *pornograph *pornogram 1100 2
*monography ?monographic monograph monogram 0?11 2.5
?polygraphy polygraphic polygraph *polygram ?110 2.5
caligraphy caligraphic ?caligraph *caligram 11?0 2.5
mammography mammographic *mammograph mammogram 1101 3
mimeography mimeographic mimeograph *mimeogram 1110 3
photography photographic photograph *photogram 1110 3
tomography tomographic ?tomograph tomogram 11?1 3.5
serigraphy serigraphic serigraph ?serigram 111? 3.5
spectrography spectrographic spectrograph ?spectrogram 111? 3.5
epigraphy epigraphic epigraph epigram 1111 4
sonography sonographic sonograph sonogram 1111 4
telegraphy telegraphic telegraph telegram 1111 4

The 0/?/* tags are based not on formal lexicography (ha! another 1100, seems to be the commonest type), but on my own somewhat dubious judgements of oral American usage.

The -ic form seems to be the most often present. An exercise for the reader: add the -er form.

The Magical Beings Who Fetch for Us What We Need

My son was asking about what our turtle thought of us, as the turtle frantically begged for food from inside its aquarium. "Can you imagine," he asked, "that beyond this barrier you can't cross, there are these magical beings who can fetch for you what you really want and bring it to you across the barrier?"

"I don't need to imagine that," I replied.

"Why not?"

"I have just such beings in my life."

"You do?"

"Yes. They are called bartenders."

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Use Not, Waste Not!

One of my kids brought home some little suction-cuppy doo-dad from the NYC Department of Water (I didn't look up the name, so please don't complain if that's not quite it!) that admonished us to take shorter showers to conserve water. She stuck it on the glass shower stall. The first thing I did was to have her take it down. "I'm not," I explained, "going to have New York City bureaucrats badgering me in the privacy of my bathroom."

The second thing I did was to note their bizarre slogan: "Running water is wasted water."

So, the very department charged with supplying us with water is telling us that any use of their product whatsoever is wasteful! Why don't they just close the mains above the Bronx and stop all that waste tomorrow?

UPDATE: Now, you may be tempted to reply, "Gene, you know what they mean -- don't let water just run down the drain without using it." But think of the context: this is about showers! "Look, mate, I'm not failing to use the water, I'm bloody well showering, aren't I?"

The Market's Creed

I believe in the market, the coordinator almighty, creator of equilibrium and efficiency.
I believe in laissez faire, its only Son, our Lord.
It was conceived by the power of the Holy Mandeville and born of the Virgin Smith.
It suffered under socialist heresy, was crucified, died, and was buried.
It descended into the planned economy. On the third decade it rose again.
It ascended into the post-war boom and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
It will come again to judge the profits and the losses.
I believe in the Rational Markets Hypothesis,
The holy electronic exchange, the communion of entrepreneurs,
The forgiveness of greed,
The resurrection of the underpriced,
And profits everlasting.
Amen.

Il Pesce Nuota

Is what it said in my language learning program. But the fish didn't seem to be doing anything. And then it struck me that, to a fish, we probably seem to be "doing" whatever the "being in air" thing is to fish, all of the time, even when we are just sitting around.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Was Scorsese Messing with Us?

I've never watched the entire movie Goodfellas, but a caught a bit of it flipping through the channels tonight, and was shocked by one of the scenes I saw.

Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro are sitting around the table of someone's mother, and Robert De Niro begins shaking ketchup onto his pasta! Look, as an Irish-Catholic growing up with lots of Italians, my family had only second-hand knowledge of "proper" Italian eating, but in my entire childhood I do not ever recall anyone doing something as nasty as substituting ketchup for pasta sauce.

Was this supposed to be a joke of some sort?

Pop Quiz

What do you call a bunch of Irishmen who fill your yard with ice and snow?