Friday, February 28, 2014

One course at a time...

I am going to be the difference, cure violence, perhaps even be touched by a nurse! It is my first-year experience and my imagination beyond measure that will see me through while I'm working toward a world without cancer.

You know why? Because tomorrow starts here!


Talk about being spread thin

The conductor just announced that to exit the train at my station, a passenger "must be in the front four cars."

Hey, I may have gained a few pounds, but I'm not that large yet!

Drunk Tank Pink

Dear editors,

Did one of you asked me to review the book with the above title?

Because Penguin Books just sent me a free copy in the mail, and right now I have no idea why.

Sincerely yours,
Enjoying my free book in Brooklyn

Just a URL

My wife was looking over my son's shoulder at the computer. "What's that?"

"It's just a URL."

"No, try it!"

"It's just a URL."

I imagined how the poor URL felt:

I'm just a URL
Difficult to spell
People know the site I'm displayin'

Paid for every click
Hope my link they'll pick
It's for eyeballs I'm prayin'

There will come a day
The site will pass away
Then what will they say about me?

When the end comes oh well
They'll say just a URL
The web goes on without me

OK, This Is Sheer Idiocy

I know I am an evil "statist," but really, I don't think the State is our salvation or anything of the sort, and often it screws up really badly.

Or really, really badly, as when a Texas town just spent $60 million on a new high school football stadium. Now, that number alone fills me with despair: while I don't think that all taxes are theft, I do think that for the most part people ought to be left to spend their money as they see fit, and taxation should only be used to take care of true collective action problems. So if the town had had a severe problem with lots of destitute people living on the street, and it spent $60 million to give them all decent housing… well, it would sound a little excessive, but maybe that would be okay. But for a football stadium? For a high school? And I assume all of these kids are already reading beyond grade level, are computer programming experts, understand the history of Western civilization, can speak a foreign language fluently, and are getting into great colleges? Every one of them? And so the only thing left to spend $60 million on is a football stadium?

But here is the real kicker: The stadium, just completed, is already broken. It can't even be used.

While this is gross government-level stupidity, I don't think eliminating the town government and making this community ancap would fix this. No, in a "pure free market," this crew would just be out purchasing hammers with which to whack themselves in the head.


MathMan, in the comments here, is surprised to discover my Hindu/Buddhist leanings. Let me share a story with you.

I have read a fair amount of Hindu and even more Buddhist literature. Besides my less structured readings, I once taught a comparative religions course, and as part of my prep work, I went through a semester long course on Buddhism on CD, and a semester long course on Hinduism on CD. I always considered reincarnation as a quite plausible hypothesis, and I have thought that it could fit in with the Christian concept of purgatory quite nicely. (In this synthesis, reincarnation would be the way purgatory is "implemented.")

But an experience with one of my children profoundly influenced me on this topic. This particular child was very angry for the first couple of years of his/her life. (We will just go with "his" henceforth, to avoid awkward exposition.)

While puzzling over this, at one point, rather unbidden, an image came to me: it was of him living a previous life as a high roller, having a good time, and then suddenly having had this life cut short in an accident right at its peak. (I actually saw a sports-car crash in my mind.) I never said a word of this to him, of course, as he was only two-and-a-half. Nor had I discussed religion with him in any depth, and, in particular, I don't recall any discussions of the concept of "God."

Then one day he had particularly acted up. I pulled him aside, and said, "What are you so angry about?"

He offered an explanation relating to the particular events that preceded that incident.

"No," I said, "I don't mean right now: I mean what are you angry about in general?"

He looked at me quite seriously for a moment, and then responded, "I am angry about what God did to me."

Again: he was two-and-a-half. This really happened.

We report, you decide.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why do cashiers…

when giving you your change, first put the bills in your outstretched hand, and then place the coins on top of the bills? This is pretty obviously the wrong order: you can easily grasp the bills with the coins underneath them, but it is very hard to grasp the coins with the bills underneath them.

Let's Stop Talking "Historical Bollocks"

You know the story:
1) how the rise of Christianity destroyed Greco-Roman science;
2) how it threw us into the "Dark Ages";
3) how the church carefully monitored every scientific idea, holding back science for centuries; and
4) it was only with the overthrow of Church authority that science began to advance again.

Unfortunately, every single point in the above narrative is false, has been known to be false for many decades, and is acknowledged to be false by essentially all professional historians of science. When I studied the history of science at King's College in London, right away the lecturer, who as far as I could tell is an atheist, began debuking the above story, since it is the main obstacle to learning the actual history of science for most students.

Here is another actual historian of science noting the same problems with the commonplace narrative, and also noting that the above story is "Far from reflecting the latest considerations of the historical experts on the subject..."

1) "This thesis, the rise of Christianity equals the collapse of western science, is unfortunately highly popular amongst those of the Gnu Model Army who prefer to follow their own prejudices rather than to study history. Science in Antiquity already began to collapse in the middle of the second century CE with a general decline in intellectual activity within an increasingly turbulent and unstable Roman Empire i.e. before Christianity as a religion even existed. Rome didn’t fall in a day, to coin a phrase, but declined over a period of a couple of hundred years and science declined with it. Science wasn’t dead but it was already smelling funny when Christianity first began to be a social and political force in the fourth century."

Whatever killed off classical science, it wasn't Christianity!

2) "For a start historians have long since dropped the term Dark Ages preferring to refer to the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the rebirth of urban culture in Europe as the Early Middle Ages... Of course Jason use of the derogatory term Dark Ages is deliberate as he wishes to place the blame for their existence in Western history on the rise of Christianity."

I.e., the term "Dark Ages" is propaganda, not sound historical analysis.

3) "Jason’s next statement, 'It was the chilling effect of the Church’s constant policing of acceptable and unacceptable thought' is put quite simply historical bollocks and attributes to the Church far more control than they ever had. Removal of this non-existent control is certainly not the reason for the scientific revolution or even a condition for its taking place. The reasons for the acceleration in the acquisition of new scientific knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are multitudinous and highly complex and any changes in the attitude of the Churches, don’t forget the Reformation, played at best a minimal role in the process."

4) "When did this decline in learning begin to be reversed and why? The reversal started in the eighth century as Karl der Große (that’s Charlemagne for the English) conquered and united a very large part of Europe and had himself crowed Emperor. Karl was an illiterate heathen barbarian but he introduced the first European Renaissance, the Carolingian Renaissance. Why? Because he was converted to Christianity and his Christian advisors, foremost Alcuin of York, taught him the importance of learning, education and what could best be described as proto-science. Christianity did not kill off science in the Early Middle Ages but it was responsible for reviving it."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oblivious to the concept

Mark Anthony Signorelli gets this right:

"One answer would be that modern disbelievers, under the influence of their positivist assumptions, simply have no idea what earlier thinkers meant by the concept of God."

This is so much the case that when I discuss the standard, millenia-old idea of God here, readers accuse me of "redefining the word"!

And this quote is nice, too: "An atheist is just someone who has failed to notice the perfectly evident necessity of God’s existence."

Private security firms...

Turn on the "protected." Who could have imagined?

Lousy Error Messages

Programmers (I am sometimes among this crew of miscreants!) are often terrible at informing users about what has gone wrong in an interaction. I have previously offered the example of text boxes on, say, an application form, that have a limit on the number of words acceptable. Almost every time I encounter one in which I've gone over the limit, the program responds, "Over the limit of X hundred words." Realize that the programmer who put up this message just counted the number of words in your message (say 700), saw this was over the limit (of say 500), and then... totally failed to tell you "You are 200 words over the limit"! ("I don't get paid to count the words for you, MF!")

Tonight I ran into an equally uninformative error message in programming in iPython. I tried to run my program, and got this:

Syntax error       ^

OK, by the looks of the message, it is a "syntax error" to type the letter "y" into a Python program.

What was really happening was that I had not turned on "automagic," and therefore I should have been typing:


OK, parsing is hard, and maybe the programmer at that point wasn't really sure what had gone wrong. Fair enough, but then don't stick in that little caret pointing at the letter 'y' implying "Here you are: that little 'y' is the offender here!"

Monday, February 24, 2014

Prepositions are hard

In learning Italian, getting the prepositions right has been a maddening effort for me. I really think there is no way to get this through rules: you just keep at it until 'a' or 'in' or 'per' or 'di' etc. seems natural to you in the right spot.

But even among speakers of English across the globe the question of what preposition to use is not easy, as shown by this group of linguists fighting over whether they were dining 'on the weekend' or 'at the weekend.' And for Americans 'X is different than Y,' while to Brits, 'X is different to Y.'

What does evolution tell us about the value of human beings?

Nothing, of course,  but some people seem desperately to want to believe otherwise.

The theory of evolution is a fine scientific theory. It is a very good explanation of the historical process by which the current diversity of species came to exist on the earth. But, of course, as a scientific theory, it addresses the phenomenal level of existence; it has nothing to say about the substantial level whatsoever.

What Bob rightly objects to in this post is people who want to take a valid scientific theory and extend it to realms in which it has no applicability, such as metaphysics or ethics. It is as though, upon seeing a wonderful new plumbing fixture, someone concludes, "You see! I told you homosexuality is a sin!" Or encountering an innovative lightbulb, they exclaim, "It is as I thought: the universe is an indifferent place, devoid of meaning."

A particularly startling claim was made in the comment thread to Bob's post, and found some backing there. "Evolution," this line runs, "may not have proved there is no God; but it has certainly shown that humankind has no unique role in the living world."

This line of reasoning is so preposterous that, as I mentioned above, desperation is the only explanation for why someone might adopt it. Let us look at some similar "debunkings" of uniqueness claims based on identical reasoning:

Leonardo: The Mona Lisa is unique among my paintings in its excellence!

Debunker: No way: you painted it with a brush on a canvas, just like almost every other painting.

Sports analyst: LeBron James is a uniquely talented basketball player.

Debunker: Uh-uh: He was born from the union of the sperm and egg of two human beings, just like every other basketball player.

Automobile writer: The Lamborghini is unique among cars.

Debunker: What an idiot! Don't you know that the "Theory of Factory Manufacturing" forever discredited the idea of some uniquely great car?

There you have the entirety of this "idea": if the mechanical means by which X was brought about is very similar to how Y was brought about, then X can't have any special quality or value that Y doesn't have!

Once you really analyze what is being said, it is so shockingly silly that a truly monumental will to believe (in reductionist materialism, in this case) must be behind its being said at all.

Leviticus on what is due the poor

"Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God." -- Leviticus 19:9-10

The context of the quote is the Lord laying down a series of laws to Moses for the Israelites. This passage declares that the poor have a right to this minimal subsidy from the better off, and that the better off have no right to withhold it.

The Bible, at least, does not endorse the view that any property taking without the consent of the property owner is theft: sometimes, others have a right to part of one's property.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Very Interesting Employment Figures

From Livio DiMatteo.

Here is what I found fascinating: the second graph -- what a beautiful way to display this data! -- and what it shows: from 2009-2013,  among advanced economies, only Iceland, Estonia, and Ireland have had better increases in their employment growth rate than the United States.

So everyone who is complaining about US unemployment remaining high under Obama: I would stop.

UPDATE: Correct "employment rate" to "employment growth rate."

Pop history of science is often pretty terrible

An actual historian looks at a pop "history" of science column and discovers it is about as accurate as an explanation of evolution that says, "And one day a fish grew legs and walked up onto the land."

And Christie even missed a problem with the pop history account, in which Potter wrote: " the young Newton, sent home from school at Cambridge to avoid the plague of 1665, was sitting under a tree one day, saw an apple fall to the ground, and, in a flash of insight, came to understand the workings of gravity."

Christie notes that "the flash of insight" part is absurd, and it took Newton another twenty years to put his thoughts in publishable form.

But the problem Christie misses is the idea that Newton ever "came to understand the workings of gravity": he did not. He devised a formula describing how objects under the influence of gravity would behave. But he had no model or theory of how gravity was producing this behavior, a fact which he readily admitted himself.

Reductionism does not succeed even for simple physical phenomena

Here is a great anti-reductionist paper, in which the author demonstrates that:

* Temperature is not equivalent to the particular mean molecular kinetic energy of a collection of molecules, since any collection will always have such a mean but it still may not have a temperature:

“The appearance of the temperature as an argument in the Boltzmann distribution function
ni = n0e-Ui/kT
is therefore precisely what it seems to be, a macroscopic determinant of a microscopic condition without which a gas does not have a temperature.”

* Water is only a collection of H2O molecules in its gas phase. Even the purest of liquid water will contain many hydrogen and hydroxyl ions. So even such a simple substance as water does not reduce to H2O.

The situation is worse with more complex molecules:

"For example, methyl ether and ethanol share a Hamiltonian, the quantum mechanical description of their energetic properties. Nevertheless, they are very different molecules. Ethanol is extremely soluble in water, whereas dimethyl ether is only partially soluble in water. Ethanol boils at 78.4°C, while dimethyl ether boils at 34.6°C. Drinking ethanol leads to intoxication, while drinking dimethyl ether has no such effect. Given that quantum mechanics cannot tell us why a given collection of atoms will adopt one molecular structure (and set of chemical properties) or the other, Hendry argues that chemical properties cannot be recovered from quantum mechanical properties (1998, 2006b, 2010a)."

There are still reductionists who argue that chemistry in principle could be reduced to quantum mechanics. But if someone tells you the chemistry has been reduced to quantum mechanics, they have no idea what they are talking about.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book review work flow

1) Walk into Barnes and Noble and scan new release section.

2) Find book of interest.

3) Think of which of my eight review outlets is the right target for this book.

4) Photograph book cover and mail it to that editor along with text "Need a review?"

5) Receive answer.

6) Send editor my address.

Fifteen minutes after walking into Barnes and Noble and seeing the book for the first time, the publisher is sending me a copy!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

More predator-prey business cycle theory

Again from this paper:

"Information asymmetry among the economic players generates an incentive for non-cooperative strategies. Specifically, we assume that the producers’ control on the means of production of the companies allow them to extract rents from them at the expense of the sector of investors that do not enjoy such control (the creditors), who in turn impose limits on this “predatory activity” by subjecting the corporate leadership through creditor controls, resulting in dynamic process analogue to the classical Lotka-Volterra Predator-Prey model."

Defining a bubble

From a very interesting paper using a predator-prey model to capture the business cycle:

"From a financial markets viewpoint, the implication is of course that everyone could be buying a stock that each one of the investors privately thinks is overvalued, but which nevertheless keeps soaring because the purchase decision is not made on the basis on one's individual assessment of the asset value itself but of everyone else's assessment: in short, this interpretation says that, in a financial 'bubble', an asset price would go up because everyone is buying it, and everyone would buy it because it is going up, regardless of its fundamentals."

This definition seems sound to me, and contra Scott Sumner, it shows how we can have a bubble even if we cannot reliably profit from the fact that it exists: we have no idea how long people will keep buying an asset because everyone else is buying it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

We don't need more condos!

The Long Island College Hospital has been threatening to close for some time now, as it loses millions of dollars per month. Some people in the neighborhood I've been very worked up about this--I don't know why, as it is a terrible hospital. In any case, I just saw posters around the neighborhood saying "Governor Cuomo, we need a hospital, not more condos."

Two observations:

1) I bet these same people complain about how housing costs in our neighborhood are getting out of hand.

2) My neighbors protesting the closing of LICH, of course, already have housing in the neighborhood. To someone who wants to move here but can't find a place, a few more condos might not seem like such a bad idea.

In My Ongoing Effort to Make Sure No One of Any Political Stripe Likes Me...

I will now defend Hayek against the ignorant attack of E.J. Dionne, who recently wrote: "In [Hayek's] view, the policies of Franklin Roosevelt led down what Hayek called the 'Road to Serfdom' and were thus objectively comparable to those of Hitler or Stalin."

Note the weasel words "objectively comparable." Even Dionne is not quite so brazen as to claim that Hayek thought these policies were "objectively the same." But then just what is "objectively comparable" supposed to mean? That they can be compared by some objective criteria? Well, any set of policies can be so compared!

Dionne means to imply that Hayek thought Roosevelt's policies were the same as those of Hitler or Stalin, but without actually saying it, so when someone points out he is talking rubbish, he can retreat with "I just said comparable!"

What is wrong with mixed metaphors?

They are the spice that adds a different beat to the music!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Best product upgrade ever?

Ordinary potato chips --> kettle-cooked potato chips

It is like they are a whole different food. My only objection: the producers leave the hyphen out of "kettle-cooked."


Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Circulation of the Elites

"You are right, the idyll of peace and virtue of which our philosophers sing is about as real as a fable. But look what lies hidden behind these words, and you will see that an oligarchy is arising, ready to defeat and replace the one in power. The victory of the new oligarchy is certain because energy and strength are on its side." -- Vilfredo Pareto, The Rise and Fall of Elites, pp. 38-39

Reading Pareto just give me a whole new perspective on the libertarian "movement." Of course a world of entirely voluntary interactions is a pure fable. That many people like believe this fable is understandable: what really needs explaining is the large amount of funding behind it. But looking at all the talk of a world of peaceful cooperation as a smokescreen for the rise of a new oligarchy makes it comprehensible.

"I am fighting for a world without coercion" is going to motivate many more people than is "I am fighting for a world in which the Koch brothers and Peter Thiel rule."

Friday, February 14, 2014

I Can't Watch Shows at *That* Volume!

As I adjust the volume on my TV at night, trying to keep it as low as possible, for sleeping others, while still audible, for me, I find there certain numbers at which I just cannot rest.

Let's say that 30 was just a bit too loud.  I can turn the volume down, but I can't turn it down to 29. At 29, I feel I am teetering on a pyramid supported only by 1 at its basis. A volume of 29 is completely unstable! But at 28, ah, now that's comfortable: I've got 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14 all holding me up. There is a volume with which I can relax on the couch.

Sometimes, it is not easy being me.

Did You Mean "*Dis*analogy," Steve?

Landsburg's whole post was an exercise in deliberately missing the point of what your opponent is saying, but this part was especially bad:

"I am dismayed by Father Wildes’s blindness to the clear analogy between being forced to work someone else’s land and being forced to serve someone else’s lunch."

Okay, there indeed is something about these two situations that is analogous: both parties are being placed in a legal situation in which they are forced to choose between two options, each of which they would rather avoid.

This slave is being faced with the choice: pick cotton or die.

The restaurant owner is being faced with the choice: serve people of all races lunch, or... don't run a public dining establishment.

So, while there is some analogy, the situations are far more dissimilar than they are alike. No one, after all, is forced to run a public dining establishment. (No one is forced to live either, but that is sort of a sine qua non for doing anything else.) One does not even have to run a public dining establishment if one wishes to prepare food for a living. One could, for instance, open a private club that includes a restaurant of some sort, and private clubs can allow in whomever they choose. Or one could take a job working as a cook for a wealthy family, of whatever race one chooses. Only if one chooses to run a public dining establishment is one obligated to serve people of all races indiscriminately.

And it is not as though the idea that public establishments might be regulated by the public was some shocking new notion that was just born with civil rights legislation. For instance, from the American founding well into the latter half of the 19th century, there was not really anyone questioning whether the public had a right to regulate public businesses, for instance, as to their opening hours, or as to whom they might not serve. The only real argument was whether such regulation should be done at the federal or at the state level, with "state-level" usually winning.

Take that, Samson Corwell!

I was once accused of holding Singapore up as a model. Well, I don't, but this guy sure does. (I simply do not know enough about the place to have a strong opinion.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Known Unknown Subjects

Criminal Minds seems to abuse the term "unsub." One of the agents just presented a "list of unsubs," everyone of whom was a known and named subject, and not an unknown subject at all.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

No, Plato Did Not Think Taxes Were Some Sort of Permitted Theft

It was refusal to contribute to public expenses that for him was clearly a crime:

"But as regards attendance at choruses or processions or other shows, and as regards public services, whether the celebration of sacrifice in peace, or the payment of contributions in war-in all these cases, first comes the necessity of providing remedy for the loss; and by those who will not obey, there shall be security given to the officers whom the city and the law empower to exact the sum due; and if they forfeit their security, let the goods which they have pledged be, and the money given to the city; but if they ought to pay a larger sum, the several magistrates shall impose upon the disobedient a suitable penalty, and bring them before the court, until they are willing to do what they are ordered." -- The Laws, Book XII

By the way, the point of this post is not to prove or even argue that any or all governments can justifiably collect taxes: that is a separate argument. No, what I am doing is illustrating the fatuousness of the common libertarian charge that claims "Statists think that theft is okay when the government does it."

No, what "statists" generally think is that all citizens of a polity have an obligation to contribute to public expenses (whether or not they ever "contracted" to do so), and that the failure to fulfill that obligation invites legal remedy.

They Forgot to Include "No Belts" in the Fourth Amendment

But Plato did not:

"If a person wishes to find anything in the house of another, he shall enter naked, or wearing only a short tunic and without a belt, having first taken an oath by the customary Gods that he expects to find it there; he shall then make his search, and the other shall throw open his house and allow him to search things both sealed and unsealed." -- The Laws, Book XII

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Surprising fact of the day from the History Channel

Vikings had wings:

This probably explains a lot of their raiding success.

The final straw

I've had it! I woke up today and realized I had just been dreaming about a series of Internet ads. What's even worse is that I suspect Google had placed them in my dream, and the NSA knows I had been looking at them.

Chris House's Idea of Science

I mentioned Chris House's model of science in a previous post. But now I want to comment on a different aspect of its oddity. (And my goal here is not to pick on House, but on the view of science he has presented, because I think it is too common.) If you recall, House's model is this:
The scientific method goes something like this: 
Formation of hypotheses
If you can follow these steps then anything (even economics! even macroeconomics!) can be studied scientifically.  When economics is at its best it truly is a science. 
The aspect I wish to point out in this post is that ever achieving any success at explaining anything plays no part, for House, on whether any endeavor is scientific.

Want to do "scientific" astrology?

* Observe that the planets, moon, and sun move around in the sky relative to the "fixed stars."
* Form an hypothesis: "When the moon is in the seventh house / And Jupiter aligns with Mars / Then peace will guide the planets / And love will steers the stars."
* Test the above.
* Form new hypothesis: "When the moon is in the second house / And Saturn aligns with Venus / Then war will guide the planets / And hate will steer the stars."

Obviously, one can go on like this forever, and according to House, what one is doing "truly is a science."

Similarly, macroeconomics should not be judged on whether it ever achieves any major successes. So long as it keeps following the above steps, it is a science.

This strikes me as idolatry of method over results.

Economic Schools of Thought

A great post from George Selgin, who pretty much captures my answer when asked "Are you an X economist?"

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Professional Writer Penned the Following Sentence

"Lopez is interested to see how differently it is to walk for the first time."


Hints from Heloise...

uh, ahem, I mean "Life Hacks"!

Something that really works for me: I cook quite a bit. A great time saver and mass preventer has been to put a large Tupperware on the counter near my cutting board. I can generally prepare an entire meal before it's filled. Instead of a dozen trips to the trashcan, I make one. If the scraps are all vegetable, I will often bag them and throw them in the freezer, to feed to my worms at a future date.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Self-refuting lyrics?

OK, what about "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer"?

In the first few lines, we are told that we know the names of all the "traditional" reindeer. (The tradition does not stretch back all that far, but never mind that.)

Then we are asked, "But do you recall / the most famous reindeer of all?"

Now, wait just a second. I can see where we could recall the names of many reindeer, but forget the name of "the most important reindeer of all," or "the most noble reindeer of all," or something like that.

But isn't the phrase "the most famous reindeer of all" pretty much equivalent to "the most recalled reindeer of all"? So, if it is a given that everyone knows the names of all those other reindeer, but doubtful that they know Rudolf's, isn't that pretty good evidence that he is not "the most famous reindeer of all"?

I just wanted to get that off my chest, so I can get back to exploring the commonality among social cycle theories.

Language Is a Political Matter

The ancient Greeks famously classified any people who do not speak Greek as "barbarians."

The people of Ireland call the language spoken there before English became widespread "Irish," while the English referred to it as "Gaelic."

Calabrians and Sicilians are told not that they speak their own languages, but that their Italian is very bad.

The same sort of dynamics are now playing out in China, vis-à-vis Cantonese.

Vico's two-population model of city formation

"The origin of cities, which developed from extended families which included both children and servants. We find that cities were naturally founded on two communities, the nobles who commanded and the plebeians who obeyed: for these two parts make up the entire polity or law of civil governments. I shall show that the first cities could not have arisen at all merely on the basis of simple nuclear families." -- New Science, pp. 16-17

Is this the Tidy Bowl Olympics?

What is that blue stuff they have put all over the snow? It is not so much the blue stripes themselves that are disturbing, but the way they run and leak down the slope. All I can think of when I see it is what happens when you flush if you have one of those toilet sanitizers installed.

Vico on the basis of civil society

"Hence, devine providence organized human society according to the eternal order that, in commonwealths, men who use their minds command, while those who use their bodies obey." -- New Science, p. 13

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Why Did Urban Crime Rates Drop the Last 20 Years?

There have been a number of explanations put forward, new policing techniques and the waning of the crack epidemic among them. But I think the most important explanation has been largely overlooked: planners (mostly) stopped mucking about poor neighborhoods.

To understand my point here, consider Jane Jacobs:
Statistical people are a fiction for many reasons, which is that there treated as if infinitely interchangeable. Real people are unique, they invest years of their lives in significant relationships with other unique people, and are not interchangeable in the least. Severed from their relationships, they are destroyed as effective social beings--sometimes for a little while, sometimes forever. 
In city neighborhoods, whether streets are districts, if too many slowly grown public relationships are disrupted at once, all kinds of havoc can occur--so much habit, instability and helplessness, that it sometimes seems time will never again get in it's licks.
She goes on to quote Harrison Salisbury:
When slum clearance enters area it does not merely rip out slatternly houses. It approves the people. It cares out the churches. It destroys the local businessman. It sends the neighborhood lawyer to new offices downtown and it mangles the type skein of community friendships and group relationships beyond repair. 
It drives the old-timers from their broken-down flats or modest homes and forces them to find new and alien quarters. And he pours into a neighborhood hundreds and thousands of new faces... (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, pp. 136-137)
The heyday of these vast urban renewal projects was the 1950s. The 1960s saw race riots ravage many American cities and crime rates begin to soar. By the 1970s the urban renewal mania was dying out.

Neighborhoods, even ones as badly built for urban life as the large-scale housing projects of the urban planners' dreams, eventually repair themselves. Man is an animal meant to live in a polis. People find a way to cope.

And the crime rate drops.

Friday, February 07, 2014

A Bad Term for an Important Concept

"expectations, a manifestation of subjectivism" -- Ludwig Lachmann, Expectations and the Meaning of Institutions

Most economists today are "subjectivists": that is, they believe that, say, value, or expectations (as above) are "subjective" phenomena. This idea is often associated the Austrian School, but it is held widely outside that school.

The term "subjective" is an unfortunate choice for what is being talked about here. For instance, my expectations have a subjective aspect, in that they are my expectations and not yours, and in that they are expectations about an uncertain future, rather than matters of "mere" fact. But they have an objective aspect as well, in that, so far as they are articulable at all, I can state them in our common language and share them with you (so they are not merely mine), and that, in so far as they are expectations and not mere fantasies, I mean them to be my best guess as to a future, objective state of the world.

Michael Polanyi did a pretty good job of getting at this dual aspect of what economics is prone to call "subjective" phenomena with his concept of "personal knowledge": our knowledge is ours (and hence its subjective aspect) but it is an attempt to assert a truth valid for everyone (hence its objective aspect).

By the way, if you wonder why I worry about this term, consider the ease with which some of the less astute readers of Mises and Rothbard have slid from regarding value as subjective from the economist's point of view to regarding all moral principles as purely personal preferences with no basis in fact.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Today is a day that will go down in history

My inbox right now fits on one screen!

How is this for a foreign way of thinking about an ideal state?

In The Laws, Plato offers a somewhat bizarre criterion for the right population size for the polis: maximize the ways the total number of citizens can be divided into equal-sized groups:
Let’s assume we have a convenient number of five thousand and forty farmers and protectors of their holdings… divide the total first by two, then by three: you’ll see it can be divided by four and five and every number right up to ten. Everyone who legislates should have sufficient appreciation of arithmetic to know what number will be most use in every state, and why. So let’s fix on the one which has the largest number of consecutive divisors. Of course, an infinite series of numbers would admit all possible divisions for all possible uses, but our 5,040 admits no more than 59… which will have to suffice for purposes of war and every peace time activity, all contracts and dealings, and for taxes and grants. (Penguin Classics, 2004: 159-160)
There you have it: the ideal state should have 5040 citizens, because 5040 can be evenly divided by so many integers!

The "Hot Hand" Vindicated

Mungowitz posts a link to an interesting paper vindicating the fact (rather obvious to anyone who has played sports!) that some times you are more "on" than others. Money quote:

"We argue that this difference is attributable to endogenous defensive responses: basketball presents sufficient opportunity for defensive responses to equate shooting probabilities across players whereas baseball does not."

Yup: one thing masking the hot hand, in the way the original "debunking" was done, is that in basketball the defense quickly sees that a player is hot, and adjusts to defend them better. In baseball, only one player is "up" at a time, so you really can't shift extra defense to that player, and here the "hot hand" shows up robustly.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Importance of Dates to History


"There is a clichéd view of history encouraged by bad teaching that presents the subject as the memorising of long lists of dates that somebody has designated as being significant, 55 BC, 1066, 1492, 1687, 1859, 1914 etc., etc. Now whilst in reality history is much more concerned with what happened and why it happened than with when it happened dates are the scaffolding on which historians hang up their historical facts for inspection."

I tell my students this every time I teach historical material: importance of these dates is not that you know exactly which year Luther broke with the Catholic Church or Constantinople fell, but that one understands the sequence in which such events took place. Otherwise, history becomes similar to trying to watch Memento.

The Church and Science

Interesting post here:
In 1618 the Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grassi showed by observation and parallax measurement that the comet of that year was indeed supra-lunar driving another nail in the coffin of the Aristotelian theory of comets. Galileo, who due to illness had been unable to observe the comet, was urged by his claque to enter the arena with his opinion on the nature of comets. Galileo then famously launched an unprovoked and extremely vitriolic attack on Grassi condemning his work and defending what was basically a version of the Aristotelian theory. It was one of Galileo’s less glorious moments, far from using mathematic to criticise a doctrine of Aristotle’s Galileo was defending Aristotle’s theory of comets against an astronomer who had used mathematic to disprove it.
So, in this case, someone from the Church was disproving a theory of Aristotle's while Galileo was dogmatically defending it.

Life is usually not as simple as we like to make it out.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Teleology and biology

Contra Noah Millman, who recently claimed, "we can’t rely naively on an Aristotelean teleology which we now know has no empirical basis" (God knows what he meant here!), teleology pervades modern biology, and there is absolutely no sign it can be gotten rid of. Take this report of recent sloth research in the NY Times: I find at least the following uses of teleology in explaining what the sloths are up to, with the key teleological words highlighted:

"[the three-toed sloth] has carved out a remarkably ingenious mode of life in the treetops" (Something is ingenious in that it achieves an end very economically.)

"Why then does the sloth take such a risk every week?" (For what end?)

"They started by trying to understand what would compel the sloth to brave the dangers of a weekly visit to ground zero." (To what end would it do so?)

"Rather, they assumed, it was to favor a critical component of the sloth’s ecosystem, the pyralid moth. The descent to the sloth’s midden affords the pregnant moths in its fleece a chance to lay eggs." (The behavior has the end of helping the pyramid moth.)

"The researchers guessed that the sloths might be eating the algae from their own fur, and that this could be the purpose of the whole system." (No comment needed.)

"But the invention of giving over its fleece to algae farming would go a long way to solving its problem of limited nutrition." (The solution to the problem is the end that the system moves towards.)

And it has been decisively demonstrated that such language cannot be being translated into mere descriptions with the teleology yanked out, without a huge loss of meaning. When the scientists conclude that the purpose of the sloths coming to the ground is to help the moths that is not equivalent to saying that it just happens that their doing so helps the moths. Because the sloths descending to the ground also happens to help the jaguars that sometimes eat them, but no scientist would ever say that the sloths descend to the ground with the purpose of feeding themselves to the jaguars. Helping the moths is what the behavior is for, while helping the jaguars is an accidental byproduct of the behavior.

"Hey, who you sayin' got no purposes? You just stay right where you are for about a week or so, and I'll hurry right over there to kick your butt!"

A brief sketch of the Keynesian "vision"

A reader asked me for the above. I thought I'd drag this up from the comments and make it a top-level post, to prompt commentary. So, here goes:

1) Aggregate demand need not equal aggregate supply. (In an economy with temporally lengthy production process and plans made for the far future, Say's Law holds only under special conditions.)

2) The investment portion of aggregate demand is volatile, and depends upon investor's "animal spirits" more than on "fundamentals."

3) On the other hand, for the consumption portion of aggregate demand, the average, marginal propensity to consume out of income is fairly stable.

4) Thus, when investment plunges, aggregate demand is likely to fall far short of aggregate supply.

5) Producers are likely to adjust to this situation through cutting back on production rather than by making price adjustments, so that the economy spirals down into a recession.

As I see it, for someone who wants to intelligently reject Keynesian economics, here are the possibilities vis-à-vis each point above:

1) Given that Say himself conceded this point to Malthus in the last edition of Traité d'économie politique, I would not fight this fight on this battlefield, anti-Keynesians, if I were you.

2) This is a place where one might empirically dispute Keynes's claim: perhaps investors are more rational that he gave them credit for.

3) Again, a point for empirical testing: perhaps consumers actually do some sort of consumption smoothing a la Milton Friedman, or adjust to downturns in some other way.

4) This, of course, links back to point one. The logical arguments put forward to show that this just can't happen in general simply define away the possibility of an aggregate demand shortfall. Defining away the problem your opponent is pointing to is a good way to become known as intellectually shifty, but not a good way to win honest observers of the dispute over to your side.

5) Here is the final spot for a genuine argument against Keynes, and once again it turns out to be an empirical matter: do price adjustments take place rapidly enough in a largely unfettered market that quantity adjustments will play a relatively minor role? If so, a recession will never really build any momentum.

NOTE: I have limited the above to the purely "positive" aspects of Keynesianism, leaving any policy recommendations to the side. It would be quite possible to accept all five of these Keynesian points above, while rejecting his policy recommendations, perhaps because one thinks that actual governments will royally screw up attempts at aggregate demand management.

Aristotle on handling envy and distributive justice

You must've seen this a number of times: some libertarian dismisses complaints about inequality by saying, "What does it matter if inequality is growing, so long as the poor are getting wealthier in an absolute sense? To worry about one's relative wealth, to resent another for doing even better than one is doing oneself, is simply envy."

There are two things to note here: first of all, not all worry about increasing inequality is based on envy. Republican theorists throughout the centuries worried about great economic inequality because they felt it made republican politics impossible: the very rich could easily buy the allegiance and votes of the very poor, who would not act as independent republican citizens, but as clients of their wealthy patrons.

But let us grant that some of the worry about inequality is based on end. That does not mean we can dismiss it lightly! Here is Aristotle on the issue: "Inequality is everywhere at the bottom of faction, for in general faction arises from men's striving for what is equal."

To lessen the effects of faction, Aristotle recommends balancing the two sorts of civic equality: numerical equality and value equality. Numerical equality consists of giving a strictly equal share of goods to all citizens; value equality grants larger shares to those of more merit in proportion to their merit. As Aristotle sees it, a one-sided emphasis on numerical equality will produce a revolt on the part of the meritorious, as they feel they are unjustly being denied a greater share of the goods of the polity that their merit ought to earn for them. But a one-sided emphasis on value equality will produce a revolt on the part of the masses, who will find the principle of the equality of all citizens in the polis to be flouted by tremendous wealth accumulation in the hands of a few.

This is mature politics: we don't deny the existence of envy, but try to manage it in order to produce the best social order possible, given the real, flawed human beings that must compose it. Perhaps, say, by allowing the (economically) meritorious to earn what they can in a competitive market, but then redistributing some of those earnings to those who fare less well in that competition?

The State Is a Natural Object

"From these considerations it is evident that the state belongs to the class of things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. He who is without a state, by reason of his own nature and not of some accident, is either a poor sort of being, or a being higher than man: he is like the man of whom Homer wrote in denunciation: 'Clanless and lawless and heartless is he.'" -- Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Section ii

Anarchists often like to point to the decline in character of various states over time as making a case against the state tout court. But Aristotle documents this sort of decline at great length: he would be unmoved. Claiming that because states, like all natural objects, are subject to decay and corruption, therefore we should eliminate them, is like saying that because our bodies decline with old age, they should be eliminated!

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Stupid Super Bowl Tautology Winner

"Is there anything more American than America?"

That it was delivered by Bob Dylan probably made it worse.


On the high holy day of Americanism. Days of celebration and feasting, a binge of consumption this evening, paeans to our military heroes, riotuous musical celebrations: an ancient Roman would have had no problem identifying our most important religious holiday.

Factoid: "[Football] Game telecast's accounted for nine of the 10 most-watched programs in 2013" -- NY Times Magazine, Feb. 2, 2014


"Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part." -- St. Augustine, Confessions

"In the attics of my life
Full of cloudy dreams unreal
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me

"I have spent my life
Seeking all that's still unsung
Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see
When there were no strings to play
You played to me

"In the book of love's own dream
Where all the print is blood
Where all the pages are my days
And all my lights grow old
When I had no wings to fly
You flew to me

"In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me" -- Robert Hunter, "Attics of My Life"

UPDATE: My suspicions are confirmed: in response to a listener's query about this song, Hunter replied, "I guess the best I could say is that 'you flew to me' is an affirmation of the concept of grace."

Saturday, February 01, 2014

For your dining pleasure

My friend Neil Ganic, famed for throwing a live lobster on a customer's table in response to complaints the lobster dish "isn't fresh," is featured in the NY Times today.

The best constitutional change?

My suspicion grows that sortition would be the best among practicable changes to the American Constitution. How about this for a way of eliminating the pain of our three-year long presidential campaigns? Choose the president by drawing lots among the 100 US senators and 50 state governors. Have the person serve a single three-year term. Repeat.

Sure, we might get some presidents worse than those we are likely to get with an elective system. But surely we would get some better presidents as well. And just think: no primaries, no conventions, no campaign ads! That has to be worth it.

Killing the Spirit

"The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world -- immanent action, the farther...