Thursday, May 30, 2013

The horrific hygiene standards of television cooking shows

I'm watching a guy fondle a raw steak with the hands he hasn't washed once during the show. Then he picks up the olive oil bottle with the same hand and pours the oil on the steak. He throws the steak on the grill, and then begins handling vegetables, still without washing his hands, with which he is going to make a raw salsa.



The key to a happy hotel stay

The most important thing: keep the maids out!

You get your room all nice and set up the way you want it, and in the morning they come in and eff it all up. The worst of it is, they keep tucking the sheets back into the mattress!

You know what I hate?

Hotels that fix the coat hangers to the closet rod so that you can't hang them up anyplace else.

Why do I dislike this? First of all, the implication seems to be that I traveled across the country and paid $150 to stay in your hotel room so that I can... steal some coat hangers!

Secondly, it defeats my usual way of unwrinkling my shirts: hang them in the bathroom while I take a long hot shower.



View from my window





People had built cities...

Long before the modern age. I think if you brought someone from ancient Rome to New York, they would be baffled by a lot of the particulars, but they would recognize that they were looking at a city.

But if you put them on the Polaski Skyway and had them gaze out at the Northern New Jersey landscape that one sees from there, I think that landscape would leave them utterly befuddled as to what in the world they were looking at.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Theory of Immoral Sediment

I need Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments for a workshop I am attending. So I found what looked to be a reasonable offer on a hardcover version on Amazon.

I got the "book," and the bastages printed 57 pages out of 400! Nowhere in the listing does it say "radical abridgement of the actual book." Yes, they do list the pages correctly, but I am not in the habit of checking that count before I order a book: I usually expect to get all the pages along with the cover!

These people selling books no longer under copyright on Amazon are often fraudsters, it seems. On another occasion I received a copy of Berkeley's Alciphron that was merely a photocopy of an old edition, and such a bad photocopy that it is essentially unreadable.

Close-up of the above "stuff"

Alien droppings?




Ok, Fetz, Name *This*

It looks like ice, but when I went to pick it up it feels like gelatin. I was definitely not eating gelatin on the porch recently! It stretches out in a little trail covering about 10 feet. So what could it be?







Ability to pay and betting as a sign of belief

Noah Smith points out that bets reveal belief less than portfolios do.

There is another factor he has neglected: Given I am an honest bettor, I want to be able to pay, should I lose, without starving to death or declaring bankruptcy.

Say I am a modestly endowed person, supporting a family, and someone offers me a one-to-a-billion bet that when I wake up tomorrow, all of my internal organs will be on the opposite side of my body from where they are now, but I will still be alive.

I think the odds of this happening are less than one-in-a-billion. If I win I get (say) a dollar, but if I lose I am ruined. And bringing in the possibility of bankruptcy only makes things worse for those who want to assert that our willingness to bet reflects our true beliefs: if I am not going to pay anyway, but declare bankruptcy instead, then I can make any old bet I that tickles my fancy: "Yes, I'll give you a googleplex-to-one odds in your favor, no problem."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Callahan's Principle of Vagueness Reduction

I think I may have blogged on this topic before, but as I'm in the middle of reading a paper that does executes the manuever in question, goddamnit, I'm going to blog it again.

Let's say in your empirical work you have five measurements, each of which are somewhat vague as to what they mean. This amount of vagueness is disturbing. What should you do? Enter into detailed analysis of what each of the five really means?

If you said yes to the above, you're unlikely to make it as an academic. That would take a lot of time and thought! No, the right way to handle these five vague, ambiguous variables is simple: average them! Now you only have one vague, ambiguous variable. And 80% reduction in vagueness, achieved in about five seconds. Can't beat that for a efficient academic work.

Dear Paper Author

When, in your introduction, you stop to note that in the section of your paper titled "Conclusion" you will be concluding, I start to think you suspect that your readers are morons.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Fighting the system is tough, but fighting reality is even harder

'Graeber refers to march planners and other organizers as “verticals,” and to him this is an insult: it refers not just to defenders of Kim Jong-un but to anyone who thinks a political uprising needs parties or leaders... Working with some like-minded activists, on the opposite side of the park, Graeber helped to convene a general assembly...'

In other words, in order to show that leaders aren't necessary, Graeber acted as a leader. Because, you know, they are necessary.

Paul knew some of the same programmers that I did

"Not in a written code, but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life."

Just trying to read the spaghetti code some of these guys wrote could kill you.

Voegelin on Ideologists

Here:

"I would say that after the experience of Hitler and Stalin, anybody who today is still an ideologist makes himself a silent accomplice in ev­ery atrocity committed in Auschwitz or in the Gulag Archipelago. Nobody has any business being an ideologist today after we know what it means."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Siri: Apparently no local learning

Siri does not appear to be learning anything at all about what I typically ask "her" to do. Although one of my most frequent "targets" for text messages is my wife, today, when I asked Siri to "Send a text to Elen Callahan," it took three attempts before "she" got what I was saying correctly. I also frequently send messages to myself, for instance, if I am driving and get an idea, I email it to myself. But every few attempts, Siri tells me "I don't see a Jean Callahan in your contacts"! And if I have no Internet connection, Siri does not function at all. I am baffled why no aspect of my previous interactions with the software seems to be cached locally.

So what are we to make of Apple's claim here:

"Apple claims that the software adapts to the user's individual preferences over time and personalizes results, and performing tasks such as finding recommendations for nearby restaurants, or getting directions."

The Wikipedia article on Siri (linked above) has no information about the architecture of the software. Any insights?

A Simple Demonstration

Plato famously showed in The Republic that justice cannot be equated with property rights (as many libertarians would hold it can). Here is another simple demonstration:

A person is annoyed that kids are making noise in the yard next door. So he goes to the window of his house, yells "Hey kids!" and begins to perform lewd acts in front of them and their parents, knowing this will drive them inside.

It would take an extremely convoluted reading of libertarian absolute property rights to interpret this as a crime under a system of justice operating with those as guidelines.

But this obviously should be a crime.

QED: Libertarian absolute property rights are a poor basis for a system of law.

UPDATE: I thought this was obvious, but since one reader was confused about it, let me make it clear: this post addresses those libertarians who uphold an absolute view of private property rights. Those who don't (e.g., Hayek), it does not address.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Caste in America

I had a little shock of recognition when I read Toynbee identifying America (at least at the time he was writing) as a "caste society," with blacks having the analogous position of the untouchables. I recalled the milieu of my childhood, and the general idea of who one could marry. Best, of course, was another Irish-Catholic. But most Catholics were considered pretty good choices as well. (Puerto Ricans? Maybe not.) To marry a Protestant was going to be awkward: how to bring up the kids? Still, you wouldn't be disowned. Jews were even a bit more iffy, but still generally not "You are now dead to me" territory.

No, the one group beyond the pale for potential mates was African-Americans. Marrying a black person really could get you disowned in many cases. Of course it happened, but the couple in question would often have a very difficult time fitting into either social group.

And, of course, up through the 1960s and sometimes beyond we had actual laws trying to keep this caste structure in place. But growing up, I was taught that "caste" was something bizarre and backwards that Hindus had, certainly not something that existed in the US!

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Tao

Other have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.
Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea.
Without direction, like the restless wind.

Everyone else is busy,
But I alone am aimless and depressed.
I am different.
I am nourished by the great mother.

Religious Tolerance

In an interesting comment, Toynbee notes that only one major religion has tolerance for other religions explicitly stated as a core principle by one of its founders or leading prophets.

Good thing evolutionary biology totally did away with the idea of teleology and a designer!

As evidenced, say, by this:

'As Professor Eiberg says, "it simply shows that nature is constantly shuffling the human genome, creating a genetic cocktail of human chromosomes and trying out different changes as it does so."'

Archaism and futurism

"Archaism and futurism are alternatives attempts to substitute a mere transfer in the time-dimension for that transfer in the field of action from one spiritual plane to another which is the characteristic movement of growth. In both, the effort to live in the microcosm instead of the macrocosm is abandoned for the pursuit of a Utopia which would be reached... without any challenge to face the arduous change of spiritual clime." -- Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, p. 431

Mangling Weber

Book browsing, I picked up The Economics Book (a slim encyclopedia) and began to flip through it. I happened to open to the section on Max Weber and Protestantism. In the two pages(!) devoted to Weber, I found the following presented as "conflicting cases," arguing against his thesis:

"Swedish social scientist Kurt Samuelsson argued that Puritan leaders did not truly endorse capitalistic behavior."

Yes, that would certainly conflict with Weber's thesis... if it was not exactly what Weber said, which was that Calvinism promoted "capitalistic behavior" despite the fact its leading thinkers in no way were endorsing it.

Next we have:

"The leading European power 16th and 17th centuries, and the first global superpower, was he thoroughly Catholic Spanish Empire."

Right. So what Weber posited was, "To become a global superpower, a nation must be Protestant."
Wait a second... that is nothing like what he said! So the point is... nothing?

"Other conflicting cases can also be found in the rise of the Asian countries that have never been Protestant, or even Christian."

Which certainly would represent conflicting cases, given that Weber never mentioned that "the spirit of capitalism" could breach the bounds of its religious origins and become effective in places that had never been touched by Calvinism.

Oh, wait a second yet again: now I recall that the above is exactly what Weber said! OK, never mind.

The entire two pages seems to have been written by someone who had read someone else's summary of someone else's book review of Weber's work. I doubt there is a single book in history about which more nonsense has been written than The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Is This So Retro It is Entirely Avant-Garde?

Reading an interesting article on retro-culture (with a great embedded video) led me to contemplate a unique fellow that frequents my neighborhood. The young man in question is I'd guess about 25. He shows up at the local, traditional music joint wearing a bolo, white dress shirt, and jacket.

And he is black.

And an Orthodox Jew who also always wears a yarmulke.

And a fantastic bluegrass, folk, and blues fiddle player, who will teaches pieces to other musicians with intros like "This is a Mississipi folk piece from the late nineteenth century."

Well, there a several retro elements at work here. But the whole package seems to contain such disparate retro elements that it is actually startlingly new.

Any opinions?

It's the Cervical Cancer for Me, Please!

"Cervical cancer served on beetroot carpaccio with mustard-honey dip" was recently being offered at a Polish restaurant. Apparently, until the British press picked up on this, 'cervical cancer' was how Google Translate was rendering the Polish words that meant 'crayfish tails.'

I use computer translation frequently. I just don't ever trust it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The genesis of social cycle theories

"The invention of this theory of cycles in the history of mankind was a natural corollary to the sensational astronomical discovery, apparently made in the Babylonic society at some date between the eighth and the sixth centuries BC, that the three conspicuous and familiar cycles--the day-and-night, the lunar month and the solar year--were not the only examples of periodic recurrence in the movements of the heavenly ; that there was also a larger coordination of stellar movements embracing all the planets as well as Earth, Moon and Sun; and that 'the music of the spheres', which was made by the harmony of this heavenly chorus, came round full circle, chord for chord, in a great cycle which dwarfed the solar year into insignificance." -- Toynbee, A Study of History, p 251

Shelley on Social Cycles

THE world's great age begins anew, 
  The golden years return, 
The earth doth like a snake renew 
  Her winter weeds outworn; 
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam   
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream. 
 
A brighter Hellas rears its mountains 
  From waves serener far; 
A new Peneus rolls his fountains 
  Against the morning star; 
Where fairer Tempes bloom, there sleep 
Young Cyclads on a sunnier deep. 
 
A loftier Argo cleaves the main, 
  Fraught with a later prize; 
Another Orpheus sings again,
  And loves, and weeps, and dies; 
A new Ulysses leaves once more 
Calypso for his native shore.

Toynbee's Cycle Theory

"We have seen, in fact, that when, in the history of any society, a creative minority generates into a dominant minority which attempts to retain by force a position that it has ceased to merit, this change in the character of the ruling element provokes, on the other side, the secession of a proletariat which no longer admires and imitates its rulers and revolts against it servitude. We have also seen that this proletariat, when it asserts itself, is divided from the outset into two distinct parts. There is an internal proletariat, prostrate tand recalcitrant, and an external proletariat beyond the frontiers who now violently resisted incorporation." -- A Study of History, p. 246

Meditations on The Republic: The Harmfulness of Radical Ideologies

As Plato taught us, all polities are like caves. Our puppet-masters cast shadows on the cave wall and teach us to believe these shadows are reality. Just read USA Today and watch an hour of the evening news and you will get to see the shadows of dozens of our modern idols.

The evangelists of radical ideologies have gotten part way to this truth. They recognize that the shadows that transfix most people are illusions, and that the icons used by the puppet-masters are artificial constructions. But they go wrong in thinking that the problem is this particular set of social arrangements. The implementation of their ideology will involve the carving out of a new cave and the inauguration of new puppet-masters wielding new icons. The people will sit in different sets of chains watching a different shadow drama on the a different cave wall, but the situation in essence will remain unchanged.

Radical ideologies:

1) If they catch on, lead to upheavals, which make the world much worse for a while, after which it becomes... roughly like it was before the upheaval.

2) Distract from the real problem. The problem is not The Capitalists, or The State, or Liberals. The problem is You. (Or me.) As Socrates said, the ideal city will not be built in this world. Therefore, what we should do is build an image of it in our minds, and let it guide our actions. This effort is inwardly directed, and consists in rightly ordering our own souls. In fact, this is the only secure route to positive social change.

But radical ideologies try to tell us the problem is really out there, that the ideal city can be built on earth, and that the real problem with us is them. Those are all lies. And...

3) They are traps. It is precisely those people who have begun to see the shadows on the cave wall for what they are who are most easily lured into a radical ideology, because the ideology seems to correctly diagnose the situation to which they are awakening. "Seems to" because, in fact, radical ideologies blame a symptom for the disease. The chains worn by the inhabitants of the cave, and the sway the puppet-masters have over them, are spiritual conditions, and can only be remedied by the περιαγογε, the turning around of the soul toward the light. An attack on the puppet-masters is a distraction, and will only lead, if it succeeds, to a new set of puppet-masters.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Monday, May 20, 2013

Since no one is guessing…

Virginia Woolf: "And what d'you feel about immortality, Maynard?"

John Maynard Keynes: "I am an idealist, and therefore on the whole I suppose I think that something may continue. Clearly the brain is the only exciting thing — matter does not exist."

Cities of the world

London is great, if a little nihilistic. San Francisco has unbelievable natural beauty. Philadelphia surprised me with how much I liked it.

Dublin is like a very big, friendly pub with some cool statues and manuscripts in it. Cardiff is like a somewhat smaller pub with more drunks. The Germanic cities I've been in (Amsterdam, Strausbourg, Zurich, Luzerne, Berne) are stunningly orderly, clean, and aesthetically pleasing.

I could go on, but the fact remains: I lucked out. I live in the best urban neighborhood on the planet. Well, best for me anyway. Every time I take a stroll in it I try to remind myself how nice the place is.

(And the place I live is in one of the pictures Wikipedia uses: I'm not saying which one.)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cross-cultural questionnaires

Storr cites studies that attempt to study trust as a factor in social capital, and thus in development. Typically, these studies ask questions such as, "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?" (Understanding the culture of markets, p. 39.)

But wait a second? Aren't what it means to "trust people,"or what it means that "you can't be too careful," themselves going to be culturally defined phenomena? Why should we blithely except that the "same" answer provided by two respondents from significantly different cultures mean the same thing to each of them?

In particular, won't someone from a "high trust" culture be likely to have higher standards for what it means to trust someone than would someone from a "low trust" culture? For the first respondent, trusting someone might mean letting them sleep in one's house. For the second, it might mean not fearing that the person will kill you if you meet them on the road.

Who is in charge?

Storr notes literature connecting the belief that one is in control of one's own fate with entrepreneurial success. However:

"A person's contingency and competence expectations, Harper explains, are largely culturally derived." -- Understanding the culture of markets, p. 41

Doesn't this present a bit of a paradox? It seems that others are in charge of my own sense that I am in charge!

No exiting to that exit

There's a lovely set of doors marked "Exit" just 20 feet from me. But between me and that door, there's another set of doors marked "No exit." And the only way to get to that "exit" from inside is to go through the set of doors that says "no exit"!

Understanding the culture of markets

I'm reviewing the book by Virgil Storr with the above title And so, as usual, I'll be blogging some remarks upon it as I go along.

The first thing I wish to note is that Storr has set himself an interesting challenge. On the one hand, he wants to take culture into account in a more robust fashion than current economics tends to do. He must do more than simply treat culture as another variable in a consumption or production function, because if he does not the reaction will be "Well, yes, we already do that."

On the other hand, by doing more with culture, he risks leaving the field of economics altogether and beginning to write what Eric Voeglin would call "philosophical anthropology." In fact, as related in the introduction, this is exactly what Israel Kirzner wrote to Storr about his work: Very good and interesting work, but it's just not economics.

As I am only in chapter 1 at present I don't yet know if Storr succeeds in steering his ship between this Scylla and that Charybdis. I will report back as I read more.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I think I may have blogged this before, but...

I am sorely puzzled by the percentages that weather forecasters give to the chance of precipitation.

They say, for instance, that there is a 30% chance of rain in Milford on Monday.

What does this mean? There is a 30% chance that a single drop of rain will fall somewhere within the borders of Milford on Monday? That 30% of the day it will be raining and 70% of the day it will not? That it is likely to rain in 30% of the area of Milford, but the other 70% will be dry?

Not a single one of the above formulations of a "30% chance of rain" strikes me as plausible. Yet if none of those are correct, just what does it mean to say that there is a 30% chance of rain in Milford on Monday?

To add to my confusion, when the Weather Channel predicts a 30% chance of rain, for that day they show a rain icon along with the prediction. But doesn't this prediction mean that there is a 70% chance that it won't rain? Why, on a day when the odds are 7-to-3 against there being rain, is a rain icon the correct choice for symbolizing what will be going on that day?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Footnote Protocol

Why do publications ever collect footnotes at the end of a chapter, or, worse yet, and the end of the book? The latter involves flipping back to the footnote section, finding the section including the page you are on, finding the footnote in the section, then (typically) flipping back, with one finger stuck there, to where one was reading, because by that point the context is lost.

As a reader I hate that format: it must be done for the convenience of the publisher, right? (I am thinking it makes layout easier to collect all footnotes in one spot.)

Anarcho-Capitalism Vindicated?

I constantly read history, and so I keep finding examples of situations for which I did not know there were any cases.

Here is one:

In a relatively self-contained piece of the earth's surface, law and order had been provided by the noble class. But that noble class began to lose its power and withdraw its services. Faced with a power vacuum, did the local populace simply let anarchy of the bad sort (social chaos) ensue? No, they spontaneously formed private defense agencies. Sometimes these defense agencies fought each other, but on the whole, they realized it would be better if they formed a network of organizations that would cooperate. By and large these inter-agency agreements did work, and individual agencies largely (not always!) refrained from fighting each other.

Does this vindicate the anarcho-capitalism vision? You decide: The land in question was Sicily in the wake of feudalism's demise in the early nineteenth century, and the network of private defense agencies came to be known as the Mafia.

Who said it?

"And what d'you feel about immortality, X?" I asked.

"I am an idealist," said X, "and therefore on the whole I suppose I think that something may continue. Clearly the brain is the only exciting thing — matter does not exist."

You can actually make two guesses here: who asked the question, and who answers. Oh, and of course the second speaker is being a little sloppy here: if matter does not exist, clearly he means "the mind is the only exciting thing."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

An Attorney Tells Us...

never talk to the police without an attorney present.

I have just started making my new video entitled "Never engage in transactions without hiring an economist to be at your side!"

If I could redesign the Macro I curriculum

First of all, I would clear out a lot of the clutter. Do Macro I students really need to be learning that 3% of our energy consumption is from biomass sources? That furniture manufacturing accounted for $7 billion of output in 2005? That the minimum for hours worked in a family business in order to be classified as employed is 15?

Instead, I would focus in like a laser on teaching them everything they need to know to understand a single macroeconomic model, like, say, the Keynesian cross. Then I would spend the last few weeks of the class comparing that model to an alternative, so that they could understand the differences.

I think that most students would actually remember my class five years later.

For my next trick, I will emulate Dwight Howard's free-throw style

I just caught a student plagiarizing. He actually cut and pasted in an entire paragraph, without any alterations, from…

Yahoo Answers!

That is like cheating on the final by sitting next to the guy with an F minus average and copying his answers.

UPDATE: Damned voice recognition: "white Howard"!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Oh the humanity!

(Hey, the above quote made no sense in its original context, so why need it make any in this one?)

The news was running back-to-back stories: in the first, it was reported that the Justice Department had been caught spying on news outlets.

The second announced that the Justice Department was launching a probe into the apparent targeting, by the IRS, of "Tea Party" tax-exempt groups.

Perhaps while the Justice Department investigates the IRS, the IRS can investigate the Justice Department?

I don't know where I am...

so how can I tell if I am home?

When the New York Islanders announced that they were moving their home rink from Nassau to Brooklyn, but keeping the same moniker, the local media exploded with reader and listener protests: "How can they keep that name if they are moving from Long Island?"

I wonder where these people think Brooklyn is: New Jersey?

Forced saving and forced investment

Wicksell postulates a process of forced saving when the money rate of interest is held below the natural rate, a process that maintains the ex post equality of savings and investment. Keynes turns that situation around, and postulates a process of forced investment (the piling up of inventories) when the money rate is held above the natural rate, a process that again maintains the ex post equality of savings and investment.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Reconciling Keynes and Hayek within the simple Keynesian cross model

The Keynesian cross model is, of course, a highly simplified abstraction of Keynes's work. Even so, it is not hard to add Hayek to the model, and thus to illustrate how their work is complementary, rather than contradictory.

Although highly simplified, of course, we can instruct undergrads as follows: Keynes was theorizing about the portion of the cross below where the aggregate demand line crosses the income equals output line, i.e. where savings exceeds intended investment. Hayek was theorizing about the portion of the cross above that equilibrium point, where intended investment exceeds savings. This is exactly the point made in the Shackle quote offered a few weeks ago on this blog. And, of course, the first region is characterized by the money rate of interest being above the Wicksellian natural rate, while the second region is characterized by the money rate being below the natural rate.

And note: Both the Keynesian story and the Hayekian story rely upon disequilibrium in the loanable funds market, albeit opposite cases of disequilibrium. Do the followers of either thinker really want to insist that while savings might exceed intended investment, or intended investment exceed savings, the opposite case never can occur? That strikes me as similar to someone who contends that while shortages can arise in the market, surpluses never can, or vice versa.

Haunted by models

We live in an age so bewitched by models that very smart people can think that, when they make a cup of tea, what they are really doing is "executing the algorithm for making a cup of tea." It is as though, after seeing a chart of the human skeletal system, they come to think of themselves as really being outline drawings of some bones, with their flesh and blood only being some sort of illusion hiding the real picture.

Falling Off a Cliff Is Not Terrifying, QED

This is easy to prove, at least by some people's standards:

1) Declare that Newton's law of gravity "captures" what falling is really all about.
2) Study Newton's law of gravity.
3) Not that "terror" is not a term appearing anywhere in the law.
4) Since that law "captures" what falling is really about, and terror is not part of that law...

QED: Falling off a cliff is not terrifying.

There are various distractions from the real problem here: talk about supervenience, dualism, and so on. The real problem is that the above argument mistakes an abstraction for reality: Newton's Law is something abstracted from various concrete experiences. It leaves out vast portions of experiences like falling off a cliff: it contains no colors whizzing by, no sounds of screaming, no feeling of vertigo, and so on. It is precisely leaving all these things out that makes it useful. Database records about a company's customers are useful in the same way: they record only certain abstract information about each customer. But the fact that customers in my database have neither livers, dandruff, nor favorite foods certainly does not mean the real customers don't!


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Murphy Argues for Private Police Services...

because the state's police screwed up.

But when policing was private, how did it do?

It turns out the English homicide rate in 1200 was roughly 20 times today's rate. (London had a record-low number of homicides in 2012, by the way.)

All that decline came during a time of pretty continuous state growth.

Correlation is not causation, and so on, sure, but does anyone really think this is just a coincidence, when we have such an excellent theory as to what happened? (The war of all against all, leviathan, etc.)

Friday, May 10, 2013

I Hate This Warriors-Spurs Series

I like the style of both teams so much, I have a hard time rooting against either of them.



Once a European and Twice an African

Once, all humans were Africans. It looks like that state of affairs may essentially re-establish itself one day!

I counted the first column of the page linked to above, and 22 out of the top 25 fertility rate countries are in Africa. And though I stopped counting, the next 25 is clearly over half African. Nor are differences minor: Everyone in the top 25 sees over 5 births per woman, while only a few European countries are even close to or just above 2 per woman (Ireland, Iceland, Albania, the UK, Sweden). The average for the EU as a whole is just above 1.5.

I knew this discrepancy existed, but I had no idea it was this vast! In 10,000 years, parents will be telling children horror stories about bizarre people in the past who had milk-colored skin with brown spots all over it, and hair the color of straw.

Free will and scientific abstraction

P.S. Huff was recently shocked when I said that it would make no difference whatsoever for my opinion as to whether humans have free will if some physicist should announced tomorrow, "My model shows the universe is completely deterministic."

Consider New York City and a mapmaker. The city is the concrete reality; the map is an abstraction from that reality. Suppose a mapmaker makes a map of New York and shows it to me and says, "See, your neighborhood is nowhere to be found on my map"? I think the correct reaction is, "Somehow, then it was missed by your abstraction. I live in the neighborhood. I have direct, concrete experience of its existence. The fact that it is missing from some abstraction does not shake my confidence in its existence in the least."

Sodomy and Usury

In honor of today's blog meme of the day, I give you:

Sodomy and usury live together in perfect harmony
Side by side in my liberal template oh lord why don't we?

We all know
That people sodomize where ever you go
There is a little loanshark in everyone
We learn to bang
We learn to give each other
Loans we need to survive
Together alive

Sodomy and usury live together in perfect harmony
Side by side in my liberal template oh lord why don't we?

But... Bad Things Still Happened!

I made a little post noting that having loads of decentralized power units did not work out so well for the ancient Greeks. In response, I have received several comments noting that, well, things were not perfect with centralized power either.

Who could believe it? When Macedon united the Greeks and stopped their "death struggles," the kingdom of heaven did not descend to the earth? But for the average Greek, on the margin, life was a bit less violent and chaotic.

And then Rome conquered Macedon. And bad things continued to happen! Of course, some good things, like the Pax Romana, also happened, during which the average peasant in the Mediterranean world had never had it so good. (Not to say it was great: just that it had never been better.)

"Ah," the critic parries, "but then the Empire fell apart, and look at the chaos then!" Well, what do you know: things in this mortal world pass away! Peace and order don't last. Appreciate 'em while you got 'em.

A final little jab: the Roman order broke down when a whole bunch of stateless people poured across the borders of the Empire. The Romans had become too peaceful, and actually had to resort to hiring one group of barbarians to fight for them against another, since the barbarians, being stateless, were used to fighting all the time.

Psst: Keynes was a fascinating economist and man

Nice piece here on the "Keynes kerfuffle."

Thursday, May 09, 2013

How Did That Lack of a Central State Work Out for the Greeks?


"The members of the Delphian Federation took an oath neither to destroy to the ground the city of a member polis when they fought among themselves, nor to cut off the water supply in war or peace... Such stipulations… however, should not be optimistically understood as the important beginnings of international organization. It is obviously out of keeping with elementary facts of Greek history if we interpret an agreement between small neighboring cities of the same stock and civilization not to exterminate each other in dispute over an acre of land as a great achievement in international law. There is no cause for enthusiasm when closely related cities agreed to leave a few houses standing and to stop slaughtering when half the population is killed. It is, on the contrary, cause for astonishment that such rules were about the best that could be achieved in the direction of national unification. The federations must be seen against the background of the death struggle that was permanently going on amongst the poleis." -- Eric Voegelin, Order and History: The World of the Polis, p. 123

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Libertarian Self-Parody

Eric Voegelin pointed out that leftist critics of the market economy had no need to create parodic straw men as targets: they had John Locke at hand.

And today, we have Roderick Long! Trying to explain why starving poor people should not pick an apple from a rich man's 1000 acre orchard1, Long lets them know:

"But the answer, from a eudaimonist perspective, is that it is more in one’s self-interest to die justly than to live unjustly..."

Yes, the poor have a perfect right to die of starvation, and, in fact, doing so is actually better for them than that they should become "predators" and pick an apple from the orchard of a man who has a million more apples than he can eat.

Marxists, Roderick has done all of your work for you.

1: The characterization of the argument at hand is mine, but if you look at the context I think you will see it is perfectly just.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Where is Philip K. Dick when you need him?

Can you imagine the dystopian, paranoid novels Dick could've written if he had lived to see half the population of the country walking around with their eyes, ears and minds constantly fixated on tiny electronic devices held in their hands?

Monday, May 06, 2013

History is not "part fact and part theory"

I don't think one really understands history unless one has grasped the below; it took me years from first encountering to feel I understood it:
In another way history resembles science: for in each of them knowledge is inferential or reasoned. But whereas science lives in a world of abstract universals, which are in one sense everywhere and in another nowhere, in one sense at all times and in another at no time, the things about which the historian reasons are not abstract but concrete, not universal but individual, not indifferent to space and time but having a where and a when of their own, though the where need not be here and the when cannot be now. History, therefore, cannot be made to square with theories according to which the object of knowledge is abstract and changeless, a logical entity towards which the mind may take up various attitudes.

Nor is it possible to give an account of knowledge by combining theories of these two types. Current philosophy is full of such combinations. Knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description; eternal objects and the transient situations into which they are ingredient ; realm of essence and realm of matter ; in these and other such dichotomies, as in the older dichotomies of matters of fact and relations between ideas, or truths of fact and truths of reason, provision is made for the peculiarities both of a perception which grasps the here and now, and of the abstract thought that apprehends the everywhere and always: the aisqhsiz and nohsiz of philosophical tradition. But just as history is neither aisqhsiz nor nohsiz , so it is not a combination of the two. It is a third thing, having some of the characteristics of each, but combining them in a way impossible to either. It is not partly acquaintance with transient situations and partly reasoned knowledge of abstract entities. It is wholly a reasoned knowledge of what is transient and concrete. -- R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, emphasis mine

Murphy is puzzled

If I say we do not need theory to interpret history, how can it be that I also contend that Lincoln's diaries are not a simple statement of the"facts," but require interpretation? Interpretation based on what, if not a theory?

Well, first of all, let us note that the term "theory" is overloaded. In one sense, we can use theory for something such as, "Well, I have a theory that Lincoln actually wanted to be martyred, which is why he went to the theater." Certainly historians must have "theories" like this, although I would prefer "hypothesis" here: they need to think about history, after all!

What I mean by saying historians do not need "theory" (and what I believe Mises meant when he claimed they did) is that they do not need what Aristotle would call theoria: abstract, general systems of timeless laws. For instance, Arnold Toynbee, in his A Study of History, develops a theory of how a civilization in decline will generate internal and external proleteriats, who will establish a new religion, which then becomes the basis of the new civlization that will rise on the ashes of the old.

Look, we needn't fuss over terminology: whatever you wish to refer to as "theory," there is clearly a vast difference between the theory1 about Lincoln described in the second paragraph and Toynbee's theory2. It is the second sort of thing that I claim the historian does not need.

How, then does the historian interpret Lincoln's diaries, if not on the basis of a theory2? He does so based on the other evidence available to him: Sherman's diary, and Lee's diary, and newspaper accounts, and bullets recovered from battlefields, and hospital records, and excavations of farmhouses, and coinage, and letters home from soldiers, etc. etc.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Marginalism in Song

I could tell you fancy I could tell you plain
You give something up for everything you gain
Since every pleasure got an edge of pain
Pay for your ticket and don't complain
-- Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter, "Silvio"

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Theory and history, part one

Mises famously held that history depends upon theory. As noted in this space many times previously, this is exactly backwards. The abstract is parasitic upon the concrete.

A simple example may be helpful here: I could not possibly form a theory that water freezes at low temperatues without having previously understood concrete instances in which it was getting colder and water froze.

However, Mises was a very bright man, and his error here is comprehensible once we consider the sort of "histories" of which he was thinking.

The historian, qua historian, has the job of determining what we can say, given the evidence available, about what really happened in the past. But, being human beings, he often seeks to go further: he wants to say, e.g., what "fundamental forces" were really responsible for these events. At that point, he has ceased to be an historian and has become a social theorist.

Which is fine, except that the theoretical framework he then employs is often nonsense. For instance, it is not unusual to encounter claims by historians such as, "After this plague, when so many died, the supply of labor fell, and so wages rose."

Well, OK, but didn't so many dying also lower the demand for the output of labor?

Unless we wish to become experts about this period, we must accept this historian's description of the "facts on the ground." People died, and later wages rose. But the historian in question chose to leave his area of expertise and offer a microeconomic analysis of what occurred. As such, any student of basic microeconomics should be able to see that he has made an elementary error: in analyzing an event that must necessarily shift both the supply and demand curves for labor, his analysis only considers the shift of the supply curve.

So what Mises really should have said was, "If you are going to theorize about history, don't do so based upon a crappy, half-formed theory."

Radagast, Fuzzy on the Concept

I was watching The Hobbit for the first time last night. One thing that struck me is that Radagast the Brown is a little fuzzy on the concept of "leading them away." He tells Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves that he will leave the orcs away, but what he actually does is lead them in circles around and around the dwarf party, so that in every direction the dwarves try to run, there are the orcs in front of them again.

Friday, May 03, 2013

The strange bureaucratic concern with "process"

The people of Newtown, Connecticut are considering what to do about Sandy Hook Elementary School. They have had a group studying the issue: should the school be repaired and reopened where it is? Should it be moved? If so, to where?
The study group has reached some preliminary conclusions.

Some locals have objected. The head of the study group responded (I quote from memory): "I am worried that these objections are coming from people who haven't gone through the process that we have."

If he just means these people don't know what they are talking about, why not just say that, if perhaps more diplomatically? What does "the process" have to do with it? Could not someone outside of the study group have gone through their own process of, say, living in the town for 50 years, and have reached a different conclusion than did the study group after they went through their process? Why is her conclusion worse than that of the study group simply because it emerged from a different process?

No, I think that this talk of "the process"is a way for bureacrats to tell non-bureaucrats "piss off, hey?"

QED


Scott Sumner is triumphant about the April jobs number. Monetarism has apparently now been as good as proven.

Can you imagine someone from the natural sciences putting forward a claim that a rival school (in Sumner's case, Keynesians) had been entirely vanquished on the basis of similar evidence?

Biologist Will Wintner: I have empirical evidence proving the rival school of cancer cell mutation wrong! I am triumphant!

Journal Editor: Ah, so this evidence is from repeated, duplicable laboratory experiments with tight environmental controls?

BWW: Well, no...

JE: Oh, clinical trials, then, dozens of them with hundreds of cases each and well-designed control groups?

BWW: Not exactly...

JE: So what is this evidence?

BWW: Well, I'm pretty sure I saw the mutation happening the way I think it does in nature.

JE: No control group to compare to?

BWW: Nope.

JE: No scientific control of the environment?

BWW: None whatsoever.

JE: Yes, and how many times did you see this happen?

BWW: Just once.

JE facepalms.

NB: My point is not that Sumner is wrong -- I don't know --but that this is going to be really convincing only for those who are already in his camp.


Thursday, May 02, 2013

Siri says…

"You're having an emergency? That's not my problem."

Sirisly: Some drunk or demented person stumbling onto the Hutchinson River Parkway today on my way home. I got on the phone: "Siri, dial 911."

"I'm sorry, I can't dial 911."

Did I say the wrong word? "Siri, call 911."

"I'm sorry, I can't call 911."

Others have discovered the same issue.

Apple, wtf?

Externalities, customs, and manners

While lecturing on externalities on Tuesday, it struck me that a significant role for customary manners is that they let us known which negative externalities it is OK for us to complain about, and which we must just let go. So, at a restaurant, if someone orders a dish that smells bad to us, we should just let it go: one is not allowed to complain about others choice of foods, since there is nothing "impolite" about choosing any menu item the restaurant serves. But if our neighbor buries his head in his bowl of pasta and begins eating like a dog, we may complain: the behavior is impolite, and we are permitted to ask that it cease.

People who get worked up about manners being arbitrary have missed the point: it is far more important we coordinate on certain standards of behavior than is what the particular standards are. Neither slurping nor not slurping soup is intrinsically good or bad: in the US one should not slurp it, and in Japan one should. Differing eating habits easily create annoyance and feelings of disgust, so the point is to have a standard so as to minimize such frictions.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Michael Bloomberg, Control Freak

So, some people are trying to restrict the New York Police Department's"stop and frisk" policy. Yesterday, on the radio, I heard Bloomberg responding to this by saying (I quote from memory): "This will make New York less safe. Don't people remember what just happened in Boston, or what happened here on 9/11?"

The first sentence is bad: the mere fact that a policy might lower the crime rate does not by itself make it a good policy. A policy demanding everyone except the police stay inside their own home all the time probably would lower crime, but it would be a terrible policy: public safety is not the only margin along which we seek to optimize policy! This policy subjects young, poor, minority males to random, warrantless searches. Crime is reduced for middle and upper class New Yorkers, at a cost to the searched. That is the real message lurking behind Bloomberg's line: "If you keep letting us do this to them, then you will be safer."

But the second sentence practically made me crash my car: Could "stop and frisk" have stopped the Boston bombing? Maybe. But 9/11?! Does Bloomberg really think New York City cops would have been able to reach up into the sky and frisk the hijackers?

Of course he doesn't: he is sloganeering. Invoking 9/11 whenever one wants more authoritarian government brings an emotional rush of assent to a certain portion of the audience. It is not accidentally illogical: it is deliberately designed to short-circuit thought. That is what political slogans are for, after all!

The incurable provincials

"If a system of institutions is well adapted to the general spirit of the people, it has become so strongly individualized, in the opinion of Montesquieu, that it it is unusable for any other people. (Montesquieu might be read with profit by the incurable provincials who believe that a system of government that has worked in one country is a panacea for the evils of the world.)" -- Eric Voeglin, History of political ideas volume 7, p. 167

Open Source Software and Skin In the Game

I have been tinkering in the Haskell programming language recently. Trying to up my game, I have begun reviewing and working on issues in th...