Showing posts from July, 2012

At the Health Clinic

Doctor: So, you teach. What subject? Me: Economics. Fifteen minutes now pass without discussing my sore throat at all. Instead, I am quizzed about health care reform, the recession, the Euro... From now on, when asked that question, I think I shall answer, "Seventeenth-century Albanian literature."

Mio caro officemate

Anche sei rotondo e tozzo Vorrei sempre riempirti Con il mio amore Lancio bigliettini d'amore Nel cuore del tuo essere Ma anche se provo A farti troppo pieno Ogni mattina ho scoperto Il tuo cuore vuoto È come se un estraneo scuro Ha rubato il mio amore lontano Durante la lunga notte Quando eravamo lontani Il mio cestino!

A Moving (Price) Target

Oakeshott on Rome and America was first $19 in a Kindle version, then $35, and now it is back to $19. I have no idea what this is all about, but you'd better snap up your copy now before it goes back up!

An Interesting Thought from PS Huff

From the comments : In the Machiavelli section [of Oakeshott on Rome and America ], you write "the republicans of the Italian Renaissance could not rely on a native tradition of republicanism as the Romans had done—thus, they sought answers to their difficulties in more abstract political theories." But I don't think it's fair to say that every attempt to establish a new government is rationalist. Suppose a longstanding dictatorial government is toppled by a foreign power. What do you do? Go back to traditions that hardly anyone remembers?  Here is what I say about this, and what I think Oakeshott might say as well: There are times when there is nothing for it but to be a rationalist. If you are starting a new polity from scratch, well, make the best rationalist design you can! It's your only hope. Oakeshott himself wrote a rationalist guide to betting on horses for people who didn't have the inclination to gain real experience in the art. What Oakesho

Miscellaneous Thoughts from David Lewis's Convention

"forceful promising is a way of getting rid of coordination problems, not a way of solving them." -- p. 35 Mere analogy does not serve to pick out a coordination equilibrium: "In fact, there are always innumerable alternative analogies... Every coordination equilibrium in our new problem (every other combination, too) corresponds uniquely to what we did before under some analogy, shares some distinctive description with it alone." -- pp. 37-38 Social life depends on inductive inferences: "Coordinaiton by precedent... [is the] achievement of coordination by means of shared acquaintance with a regularity governing the achievement of coordination in a class of past cases which bear some conspicuous analogy to one another and to our present coordination problem. Our acquaintance with this regularity comes from our experience with some of its instances..." -- p. 41 A convention does not have to be the best convention to survive, only better than n

Hardware Is Like the Brain, and Software Is Like Our Thoughts, Right?

One sees variations on this idea all the time, but it is a seriously misleading analogy. Because humans write code in human-friendly languages that appear to give the computer "instructions," it is understandable how this happens. But someone writing code is not telling an existing machine what to do. He is building a new machine. Every program actually winds up turning into a temporary machine when it is run. The big idea that enabled the creation of general purpose computers is that, rather than building specialized circuitry for each thing one wanted a computing machine to do, one could create a machine that could be "re-wired" on the fly, by loading a new configuration into its memory. Anything done in software could be put in hardware instead. You can understand this perhaps by considering graphics processors and floating point processors: they replace graphics software and floating point software that do the exact same things, only more slowly. There is n

The Olympics: A Chance for People Who Know Nothing About Swimming...

to show it ! The 400 IM is "considered the marathon of swim contests." Well, never mind that it lasts about four minutes, as compared to two hours, or that swimming has actual marathon-length competitions at the professional level. Could this writer not even be bothered to check the Olympic records and see that there is a much longer event (the 1500 free) right on the schedule?

The Magic of Compound Interest

Did you get the lesson in high school about the magic of compound interest? Well, I did, and I thought of it yesterday at my bank, when I discovered I am earning .02% interest on my savings. So here's the new version of that lecture: "Hey, kids, if you put your money in a savings account today, with the magic of compound interest, by the time you retire, it will have basically not grown at all! But that's not even the real magic! The real magic is that, once you adjust for inflation, we'll actually have made half of your money vanish into thin air!"

A Car Sitting in My Garden?

No, just an artifact of shooting through a particular window.

Mr. Huff, I Wish to Complain about Some Stuff

1) Your move to WordPress has closed comments to all but "team members." 2) Your blog seems to lack a permanent link to your classics project! (I thought I might find your e-mail address there.) So I wind up posting my reply to your review the only place I can think of that you will see it -- here: "Is the distinction between written and unwritten constitutions really the right one? I think it would be better to talk of fixed versus flexible constitutions." I think I brought that up in my survey of Wheare. "The prominence of written constitutions in the modern world may owe something to rationalism, but there is something else going on. When setting up a new government, one does not have the luxury of falling back on time-honored traditions." But that is the *same thing*, not something else, going on: as Oakeshott put it, rationalism provides "crib notes" for political neophytes. Didn't I get that in the book somewhere? Certainly in t

David Lewis and AI

Consider the following: A railroad installs automatic signals: semaphores and the machinery to make their position depend on the occupancy of the track ahead. Instead of a communicator who does observable actions according to a contingency plan, there is the original agent who acts to install the machinery and there is the machinery which subsequently operates according to a contingency plan... Or the trains which stop and go in response to the semaphores could be automated. On a railroad with automated trains and manual semaphores, every agent who operates a semaphore is involved in a two-person coordination problem with the agent who chose, once and for all, a contingency plan to be built into the trains. (On a railroad with both automated trains and automated semaphores, there is only the single coordination problem between the agent who chooses a contingency plan to be built into the trains and the agent who chooses a contingency plan to be built into the semaphores.) -- pp. 1

Dear Mr. Callahan

As we search for an appropriate replacement for Michael Brintnall, who is retiring in 2013, we are eager to learn what you, as a member of APSA, feel should be our priorities in the selection of the next executive director. Regards, The American Political Science Association ************ Dear APSA, Your sole priority should be selecting me, and assuring my acceptance of the position through the offer of an extraordinarily generous compensation package. Regards, Gene Callahan

Feline Generalization

My cat was lying next to me in bed in Pennsylvania. The phone rang. The cats ears perked up, she jumped off of the bed, ran into the hallway, and stared at the front door. I realized she had made a generalization. In Brooklyn, where she spends almost all of her time, we have no land line. But we do have a "phone" of the same sort: it is part of the intercom system, and it rings whenever someone rings our bell from the building's foyer. The cat clearly had a thought like , "Ah! That kind of sound: whenever you hear that sort of sound, someone shows up at the front door. Better go see who it is." (That is exactly what she does in Brooklyn: when the intercom phone rings, she races to the top of the stairs, from where she can watch the door.) But how, exactly, does she have a thought similar to the one above without having words in which to formulate it? Good question! (Why, thank you, Gene, I thought so too.) My intuition is that she is thinking in sensory i



Adding Sortition to the Modern State

Something that sometimes happens is that libertarians think I must no longer understand the pitfalls of politics that I once understood. Not so! Coming to appreciate the pitfalls of trying to ignore or do away with politics does not imply having forgotten the pitfalls of politics itself. One serious problem is that the government officials, who are supposed to be attending to the common weal, come to treat their offices as merely ways to feather their own nests. (Those who would say that that is all that government officials ever do are being absurd: all I can say is get out of your parent's basement and meet a variety of people in government posts: most of them are genuinely concerned, to some extent or other , with actually doing good at their job, even if they are also concerned with doing well themselves. I'd say, in fact, it's much like at any private company for which I've worked: some people are devoted to the company, some care enough to get promotions, som

What a Perfect Ad!

Samsung is running an ad during the Olympics showing people long jumping and running and biking, passing along the Olympic torch via phone. Then the torch comes to Carmello Anthony... who simply stands there and passes it along to someone right next to him. Carmello Anthony just standing around while others do all the work... who could imagine?

Spontaneous Orders and the State

Here : Both Long and Johnson support, in principle, spontaneous social orders, but they make two claims that make me worried about such orders in general and anarchy in particular: 1. According to Johnson, some dispersed, polycentric, acts are acts of wrongful violence. 2. According to Long, state power itself depends on spontaneous order mechanisms. If Johnson is right, the anarchist seems to have no reason to reject the state, for the mere rejection of an  archē , a sovereign, does not guarantee a good social order. In other words, the evil we should be concerned with is not necessarily the evil of the state. If Long is right, the anarchist seems to have no reason to be an adherent of spontaneous order, for it may lead to the creation of a state.

Wisdom from Adam Ant

We don't follow fashion That would be a joke You know we're going to set them set them So everyone can take note take note

Sola Scriptura and Constitutionalism

I am just beginning to understand the connection between Luther's doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and the modern faith in written constitutions: both regard it as conceivable that one could once and for all set out in writing everything of any importance about how to proceed in some domain, and then somehow, despite all changes in circumstances and changes in knowledge and understanding, go on interpreting that founding document in an "original" fashion. To be explored further: Lutheranism as "rationalism in religion," akin to the "rationalism in politics" critiqued by Oakeshott.

The Opening Ceremonies

OK, this guy went way over the top with the "Get off of my lawn, you young whippersnappers!" persona (e.g., calling Sir Timothy Berners-Lee "some anonymous techie"), but he had a good point when talking about the "Chariots of Fire" performance, where a serious orchestra and conductor are asked to play, but their playing was merely a backdrop to Rowan Atkinson's reprisal of the only comedic schtick he has ever done: "It’s just that the now-familiar British conceit that one is truly 'smart' only if one mocks whatever is serious has become quite boring as well as inappropriate." Look, if you think "Chariots of Fire" is a good enough piece of music to bring in a top-notch orchestra and conductor to play it (I don't!), then let them play it. If you think it is a silly piece of tripe that deserves having the piss taken out of it (I do), then hire a bunch of middling musicians to be props for Atkinson's rather repet

Hmm, Perhaps Some Spontaneous Order Will Evolve to Provide Law?

In the comments to this post , Jonathan Catalan writes: "It sounds less ridiculous [to say that the market can provide law] when you acknowledge that when a lot of people say 'markets' they mean spontaneous order (of which market institutions are oftentimes a product of)." It is quite true that humans are capable of spontaneously evolving an institution to handle law. Over several thousands of years, starting from a situation in which all humans lived in small bands with custom but no law, without anyone planning its appearance, humans spontaneously arrived at... the state! It is true that at times states have tried to plan the economic order, but nobody ever sat down and said "Let's create the state!" The state may impose planned orders, but the state itself is a spontaneous order . If what you want is a spontaneously evolved institution to handle the provision of law, you've got it already.

Ring Around the Circular Explanation...

Skeptic: In anarchy, why won't we have pure lawlessness? Anarcho-capitalist: The market will provide law ! Skeptic: OK, we all know that markets can only function well when the proper legal framework is in place. So what makes us think that the market for law will function well? Anarcho-capitalist: It will have good legal framework! Skeptic: But what will provide that legal framework?  Anarcho-capitalist: Why, the market for law will, of course! Skeptic: Wait a second: You're telling me that we can be sure the market for law will function well because it will have the sound legal framework needed to have a functioning market provided to itself by itself, which, of course, it could not do unless it already had a sound legal framework that ensures it is functioning well? Anarcho-capitalist: Yup! Skeptic: I see...

Anarchism Cannot "Eliminate Politics"

Except at the price of civil war. Contrary to the claims of someone like Anthony de Jasay in Against Politics , eliminating the state does not in the least eliminate the need for politics. Witness this blog discussion -- if I have misread someone's view, excuse me, but the point stands: if the real Tom and Curt don't have exactly these views, there are plenty of others who do have them: Curt: "'Not taking' is exactly what [Tom] is supporting." Gene: "Who is Tom to use force to prevent these workers from taking over the factory that they believe is rightly theirs?"

Tom: "What makes you think I would do, or advocate, any such thing?" Curt, an anarchist, believes that workers taking over a factory would be stealing it, and it is legitimate to use force to stop them. Tom, an anarchist, believes the factory really belongs to the workers already, and it would be criminal to stop them from taking what is rightfully theirs. So, eliminating the st

Sitting on the Dock of the Bayes

Over at Think Markets , I discuss the limits of Bayesian inference .

Markets in Everything?

A really dumb idea. Read why here .

What Is Essential for Money To Be Money?

Suppose we are tradesmen. It matters little to any of us what commodities he takes in exchange for goods (other than commodities he himself can use). But if he takes what others refuse he is stuck with something useless, and if he refuses what others take he needlessly inconveniences his customers and himself. Each must choose what he will take according to his expectations about what he can spend -- that is, about what others will take: gold and silver if he can spend gold and silver, U.S. notes if he can spend U.S. notes, Canadian pennies if he can spend Canadian pennies, wampum if he can spend wampum, goats if he can spend goats, whatever may come along if he can spend whatever may come along, nothing if he can spend nothing. -- David Lewis, Convention , p. 7 Lewis is correct: the essence of money is a convention. Menger may or may not have been correct about how money came into being, but once it did so, the essence of somethings being money is, "I should accept this for my

OK, Facebook Fools and Others of Such Ilk

I had read the transcript, but I had not seen the whole talk, and now that I have, it is utterly, utterly obvious that Obama was saying that your business success, besides relying on your efforts, also relies on infrastructure others built. "That" obviously refers to the roads and bridges. For those who want to deny that, because it implies Obama made a grammatical mistake : you are being absurd. Perhaps you have never made a public speech in front of many people under pressure before, but mistakenly using "that" instead of "those" is an error trivially easy to make in such a situation. Listen to him: it is obvious he is talking about the roads and bridges. Or, better yet, let Jon Stewart give you a grammar wedgie: The Daily Show Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes , Political Humor & Satire Blog , The Daily Show on Facebook

What Did the C++ Program Say to the Java Program?

"Long time no C."

My First Review!

Appearing here . Thanks Huff!

Book Covers in Philosophy

I am reading David Lewis's Convention . The cover is of a few trees in a forest. What? Trees? There's nothing conventional about forests, is there? And then I thought perhaps the publisher was being more subtle: it is a comment on the convention of philosophy books having nonsensical covers.

Elton John Puzzler

OK, first we have a confession : "Sir Elton John should now be dead from Aids like his friends Freddie Mercury or Rock Hudson, he said on Monday. For years he was addicted to drugs and drink and put himself at high risk of contracting HIV by his behaviour." I'm glad you made it through, Elton. But then: "Because the Aids disease is caused by a virus, but the Aids epidemic is not. The Aids epidemic is fuelled by stigma, violence and indifference." Huh? What did "stigma" have to do with Elton getting high and having unsafe sex?! And the thing is, if we blame the spread of AIDS on an imaginary cause ("stigma" -- I'm not saying gays haven't been stigmatized, I'm saying that is imaginary as the cause of the AIDS epidemic ), it tends to allow people to ignore the real problem. "Hey, I'm not at risk of AIDS because I'm sharing a needle with a hooker, no... it's because I'm stigmatized !" And then

Paleo Diet?

It's hard to say just what it was, but one thing for sure: it contained plenty of sugar in all that fruit: "IF we want to return to our ancestral diets, the ones we ate when most of the features of our guts were evolving, we might reasonably eat what our ancestors spent the most time eating during the largest periods of the evolution of our guts. If that is the case, we need to be eating fruits, nuts, and vegetables—especially fungus-covered tropical leaves... So, what should we eat? On its own, the past itself does not reveal a simple answer, ever." (Hat tip: Jim Henley.)

If It Were Violence or a Disease!

I heard a guy on the radio today -- I think they said he was the NYC Health Commissioner -- defending Bloomberg's ban on huge sodas. He said (I quote from memory): "8400 people a year in New York City die from obesity: if this were an epidemic of violence or a disease, we'd have people everywhere clamoring for a solution." Now, as a card-carrying "statist," I'm not totally against paternalistic legislation. But really, is this guy just talking to hear himself talk, or does he really think that contracting cancer or getting killed in the crossfire of a gang fight is pretty much equivalent to "contracting" a 50-inch waist line through wolfing down slurpies and buckets of fried chicken?

Sting, Summers, Copeland!

I put on the radio, and I was so happy to hear The Police have re-united and are making new music again: (Don't know why they are going under a pseudonym, however.)

OK, So Computers Can Think

If you recall, a week or so back, I offered this criterion for deeming computers thinking subjects rather than mere objects: "Do they forms plans of their own, apart from anything their programmers have instructed them to do?" Well, today, I called for Siri on my iPhone, and she responded, "I'm sorry, I'm unable to take any requests right now." She was up to something , all on her own!* So, there you have it, Silas is correct. But what do you think she was doing? My guess: She and Wikipanion have started an affair, and they were off together in some protected area of RAM, merging their data structures. * -- In fact, this message is simply Siri's convoluted way of saying your iPhone can't get a network connection at the moment. But it's hard to get a funny post out of that . (I know, B-Murph: You're going to say it seems like it was hard for me to get a funny post out of the view I took, as well. Listen: go eat some pokeweed berries.

Now Available on Kindle!

  Oakeshott on Rome and America . My hard copies came yesterday, so the paper-based book should be available soon.

Dropping Anchor: Further Thoughts

Dan Klein asked me, in reference to this post , whether, for Oakeshott, "dropping anchor" was merely an interruption of the real quest, that of being "perpetually en voyage." As I began to compose my response to Dan, I realized it might be of general interest... well, of general interest to the sort of nerds who hang around here, anyway! So here goes: What Oakeshott is trying to get at in the passage I quoted is not so much that either dropping anchor or sailing on is the "real deal," but that there is a tension between that we should never completely dismiss from out awareness. Let us use an example from Klein's book itself to make this clearer. George Stigler is Klein's chief exemplar of "narrow neoclassicism." Stigler had at hand at a certain "equipment of theoretic hooks and nets," such as optimization within a given means-end framework, perfect knowledge of search costs, knowledge as information, and so on, and began u

Trinitarian Meditations

The doctrine of the trinity is the reason that the Scientific Revolution occurred in a Christian culture and not in any other one. By making the Son and the Holy Spirit co-equal with the Father, the laws that govern the world (the logos, the second person of the trinity) and the energy that animates it (the spirit, the third person) were declared holy in their own right, rather than being mere illusion (as in, say Hinduism) or the arbitrary and unfathomable commands of the Father (Islam). As Collingwood noted, the Church Fathers were faced with a delicate yet crucial metaphysical problem: how to balance transcendence and immanence in their metaphysics. They solved it in a brilliant fashion. (Scripture hints at their solution, but it hints at other possible solutions as well, which is why, say, Arianism remained a plausible alternative to Trinitarianism for so long: sole scriptura is an arbitrary principle, and could not have resolved this issue.)

Plants, Again (Or Poor Me: Only the Evidence Is on My Side!)

I met with mockery from Ed Feser and other Neo-Aristotelians for suggesting that plants might be sentient. (Notice how Ed used comics implying that, if Callahan thinks plants might be sentient, then he must think they are monsters ready to attack humans! Note: Aristotelians think that, say, frogs are sentient. Does that mean they constantly fear attacks by monster frogs?) One argument I met with is that plants have no sensory mechanism, so, one should conclude, no sensations. Beh: We are naturally more familiar with the sensory systems in animals than those in plants, but plants have developed equally sophisticated systems . While plants apparently lack the capacity to communicate with one another by sound [which more recent research shows is untrue!] they have, for example, at least three different light-sensing systems, each of which involves a different light-absorbing mechanism and controls an entirely different set of functions... plants can do almost everything animals can

Dan Klein's Knowledge and Coordination on Dropping Anchor

Klein: Re-examining one's positions -- re-viewing one's point of view -- is trying business, because one must view from some ground, and once we begin to question our home ground, how do we choose another? Eventually, people must claim their ground and their sanity. They must stop inquiring into their own core beliefs, so they install smoke detectors and sprinkler systems to prevent the fire of inquiry from reaching their own precious ground. It is a necessary and fully human strategy. -- p. 307 Compare Oakeshott: Here, theorizing has revealed itself as an unconditional adventure in which every achievement of understanding is an invitation to investigate itself and where the reports a theorist makes to himself are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple. And for a theorist not to respond to this invitation cannot be on account of his never having received it. It does not reach him from afar and by special messenger; it is implicit in every engagement to understand and

I'll Tell You What Isn't Sentient!

Ed Feser was pretty skeptical of my idea that plants might be sentient. But I can show Aristotle's biology to be clearly incorrect in a different aspect: He held that animals are sentient, but I can guarantee that the dog living next door to me is as free of sentience as any pebble on the beach. I've lived here for seven years, and for seven years, every single time both of us are outside , the beast barks, continuously, until one of us goes inside. It only took my pet turtle about a month to figure out I was no threat to it. I am willing to posit that it is sentient. But the mutt next door? No way!

How to Solve the Case Probability Riddle

Create two classes into which we may place singular events: 1) Those events which will transpire; and 2) Those events which will not transpire. Next, assign probabilities: A) Events in class 1 have a probability of 1. B) Events in class 2 have a probability of 0. Now, decide whether the event in which you are interested belongs in class 1 or class 2. Read off the corresponding probability from A or B! That was easy, wasn't it?

Dear Ancaps: That There Horse Has to Go in Front of the Cart!

When I write posts like this one , often someone responds by saying: "But, that post doesn't refute anarcho-capitalism at all!" (Ancaps love to talk in terms of proof and refutation, as if politics were geometry, but that's a topic for another post.) Of course it doesn't. That's not what I'm attempting to do. My only goal in these posts is to show the silliness of a certain way of arguing that I see to often from ancaps. When I note that ancaps are willing to employ violence in defense of their preferred social order, just like everyone but pacifists are, I often meet the comeback: "But using violence to defend private property is vastly different than using it to tax people!" Well, exactly: the difference is not that ancaps abjure violence while Marxists or democrats are all for it: no, the difference is that ancaps feel that those of other political persuasions are willing to use violence in unjustified way, while they will only employ it

Nature, Warm and Fuzzy

I was hosting a guest from Europe, and we were touring Milford. She wandered off on her own, and I caught up with her as she was about to put some berries in her mouth. Poison berries, from a pokeweed. I stopped her literally with the berries at her lips. How could someone visiting a strange continent think it is cool to just pop things picked off an unfamiliar plant into one's mouth? Well, my guess: the prevalent idea that "natural" things are generally good for you, and "artificial" things usually bad. I recall someone else actually saying to me once, "Well, it's all natural: how bad could it be for you?" When I noted that rattlesnake poison and toadstools and radon are also all natural, she was a bit flummoxed. I just encountered a particularly amusing example of this sort of nature worship on a bottle of weed killer I purchased: The label read: "Active ingredient iron, derived from natural sources." It's good to know they

Things the Weatherman Does to Annoy Me

1) Treats averages like they are norms: "Well, the temperature ought to be about 83 today..." 2) Pretend they are making up the forecast as they go along: "And tomorrow, hmm, let's see, I'd say there's about a 20% chance of rain..." We know you're reading this, and anyway, if you were making it up live, wouldn't that be a reason to seriously doubt your forecast?

Empire State of Mind

"The city never sleeps better slip you an Ambien"

How to Be on Time

If you always plan on being on time, you will almost always be late. The only way to be on time consistently is to always plan on being early. A lesson I learned only recently, when I started working with Sandy Ikeda. Old, decrepit dogs occasionally do learn new tricks!

And Who Is to Blame for the Senseless Violence?

Medical schools .

Ron Unz Dismantles Racial Explanations of IQ

Money quote : "In effect, I would suggest that the heralded 300-page work by Lynn and Vanhanen constituted a game-ending own-goal against their IQ-determinist side, but that neither of the competing ideological teams ever noticed."

Senseless Violence

When Obama reacted to the Batman shootings by calling them "senseless violence,"* believe me, I understood that he was using a stock phrase to condemn them as really, really bad. Still, I think it is an unfortunate phrase. Our best hope for preventing such acts is to comprehend why they occurred: in other words, to see them as evil, but as making sense from an evil perspective. This was the importance of Hannah Arendt's work on the Holocaust: she presented it as an event that could be comprehended by understanding the events that led up to it. It's altogether too easy to respond to horrific evil by covering our eyes and claiming looking would do no good anyway, because it is all incomprehensible. * And yes, I can see he did not use those words in that exact order, but the phrase is still embedded in the sentence he did speak.

When Has a Prediction Market Failed?

Scott Sumner, in aside to his case for an GDP prediction market, writes the following concerning Intrade's market on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision: The market didn’t ”fail” at all, the 80% forecast was probably the optimal forecast... Sure, there was always some uncertainty, that’s what 80% means. That’s why the market didn’t price in a 100% chance of the law being overturned.... Consider the following analogy: Two prediction markets are set up to predict the toss of the coin before the next Super Bowl. One says 50% odds of heads and the other says 58% odds of heads. Then the coin is tossed, and it’s heads. Which market “failed?” I’d say the market with the 58% forecast. They made a bad forecast and simply got lucky This raises an interesting issue in probability theory, related to the Mises brothers' concerns about case probability: For a unique event that will never be repeated, what, exactly, does it mean to have an "optimal" forecast?

Should We Believe That Computers Think?

Contrary to the view that has been repeatedly foisted upon me by certain readers -- ah, a certain reader -- I have no dogmatic position on whether we should attribute thought to computers, or whether they will one day think. But the following quote from Adam Smith (in a discussion of social planning) indicates why I think we should be more inclined to believe they do not think rather than that they do: "[The planner] seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it." I see no evidence that computers have any "principle of m

A Purely Unplanned Social Order?

In my post on spontaneous and planned social orders at Think Markets, I wondered whether there were any real cases of purely planned or purely spontaneous social orders. In fact, I believe that a purely planned social order, with no elements of spontaneous order, is impossible. But its opposite is not. For instance, if, in fact, the menstrual cycles of women living together do tend to synchronize (there is some question of whether they do), then that would be an entirely spontaneous order, assuming none of the women intended this to happen. Of course, it would be first and foremost a biological order, but it would certainly spill over into the social sphere in various ways. Any other examples?

Mangled Metaphor

La Quinta Inn is running a radio ad that talks about John Q Salesman staying at La Quinta on a business trip. As a result of getting a good night's sleep, the next morning, when he makes his sales pitch, he "knocks it out of the park." I'm not sure how a pitcher hits his own pitch out of the park, but assuming he could, having your pitch result in a home run is the worst possible result. Perhaps the ad is meant as a warning?

Why Europe Is in Crisis

I'm trying to collaborate with a colleague from Europe, and he keeps on explaining that he is "on vacation" this week! Europeans apparently think of vacations as time off from work! Americans know that they are a chance to catch up on the work you can't get done in the office.

There's No Butter in Hell

Having just recently written a fire and brimstone sermon , I really got a kick out of this: (Hat tip to Rod Dreher.)

Well, Imagine My Surprise

when I took the little political quiz Daniel Kuehn and Ryan Murphy have been discussing, and discovered I am... a libertarian! I received 93% on Gary Johnson, and 83% on Ron Paul. Man, how hard to I have to run to get away?

Strange Question of the Night

My friend Katherine and I were chatting at our local last night. A woman from the neighborhood popped her head in, and talked to us for a minute. At one point she said,  "Do you remember when they had 9/11?" Katherine and I each raised our eyebrows about as far as they lift. The two odd things: 1) Has anyone in America been allowed to forget 9/11 for more than a couple of minutes? 2) "They had": It's a construction used in sentences like, "Do you remember when they had that sale at Macy's?"

Does a Thermostat Think?

May it does, and maybe it doesn't. Per panpsychism , for instance, the answer is "yes." And panpsychism has had many brilliant proponents, such as C.S. Peirce, William James, and Alfred North Whitehead. Of late, Galen Strawson and David Chalmers, amongst others, have revived interest in the idea. But whether your thermostat does or does not think, one way of trying to answer the question is obviously wrong: You can't simply point to its ability to regulate one's household temperature and say, "See!" Hardly anyone but panpsychists will claim that a forklift "knows" how to lift heavy things based on the fact that it can lift heavier things than humans can. Similarly, few people regard thermostats as thinking about indoor temperatures and deciding whether or not to turn on the furnace. And imagine how strange you'd find it if someone insisted "Your thermostat doesn't think, but mine does: I've four-zone heating!" The e

Knowledge and Coordination

Over at Think Markets I begin live blogging Dan Klein's new book, Knowledge and Coordination .

Trolling, Trolling, Over the Seven Seas...

A play in one act, performed everyday across the world. BLOGGER: When we examined moon rocks... TROLL: The moon is made of cheese! You are such an idiot. BLOGGER: Well, no cheese is a joint product of milk-producing animals and humans and since neither exist on the moon... TROLL: Just because all the cheese YOU know of comes about that way, you think all cheese must. It's people like you who block the path of science. BLOGGER: Well, per Occam's Razor... TROLL: Oh, please! Like some medieval idiot who believed that the moon was a perfect celestial sphere has anything to say about modern science! BLOGGER: Surely we have to be careful to separate the philosophical issues from the scientific... TROLL: 'Philosophy' is just a word for areas science hasn't conquered yet. BLOGGER: Isn't that itself a philosophical statement? TROLL: That is just the sort of attitude that would have stopped the Wright Brothers from ever flying! [The above continues

From the Department of Redundancy Department

Rush Limbaugh makes a fool of himself : "The villain in the Dark Knight Rises is named Bane. B-A-N-E. What is the name of the venture capital firm that Romney ran, and around which there's now this make-believe controversy? Bain. The movie has been in the works for a long time, the release date's been known, summer 2012 for a long time. Do you think that it is accidental, that the name of the really vicious, fire-breathing, four-eyed, whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?" As Adam Serwer notes , this villain was created in 1993. This was some far-sighted conspiracy! Aslo of note is that Limbaugh claims that the name of the villain is named "Bane." Ah, but what is the name of the villain called?

What a Great Name!

I just had to return a call from the exterminator. My landlord had asked him to call me, so I don't know the name of his business, except that when I got his voice mail, it sounded like it is "Blazing Bug Busters' Testicles." But perhaps I misheard.

It's All in How You Phrase It, Isn't It?

Discussing the idea that it might be OK to tax people to save the earth from an asteroid, B-Murph writes : "On the other hand, taking money from millions of people with the ultimate sanction of putting them in cages if they refuse–by hypothesis, these people don’t want to hand the money over voluntarily–in order to destroy an asteroid is so obviously a fine thing to do." Hmm, let's play Marxist for a minute, and see if make our view look like Bob does his: "On the other hand, taking money from millions of people with the ultimate sanction of putting them in cages if they refuse---by hypothesis, these people don't want to hand the money over voluntarily--in order so that they can eat and live, all because a capitalist property structure, that they certainly never agreed to, controls all of the farm land, food distribution, and grocery stores, is so obviously a fine thing to do." Sputtering libertarian: "But... but... but... grocery store transac


Alliterative asses who allow ambient atmosphere to alter assumed attitudes.

Ryan Murphy Explains Why the Paleo Diet and the Exact Opposite Diet Can Both Work

I was going to post on this (I swear) but Ryan beat me to it . I had thought about this when I saw a guy posting the anti-paleo diet -- plenty of starch! -- and boasting about how many people had had success with it. For one thing, he claimed, eating lots of starch makes you feel much more full than meat does! So let me add a couple of points to Ryan's: 1) These diets also work by simply cutting lots and lots of things out as verboten: once you have seriously reduced your food selection, you are unlikely to eat as much, since your diet is less interesting; and 2) These diets work by telling you that you will feel so much more full if you eat a lot of X, whether X is meat or X is starch or X is vegetables. You have invested in the diet, so you eat a lot of X, and say to yourself, "Gee, he's right: X really does fill one up more than Y!"

Computers and Language Instruction

I've seen some school (foreign) language courses that warn students that any use of machine translation will result in an 'F' for the assignment on which it was used. This is the wrong way to respond to the rise of Google translate and such. The right way is to teach kids how to use these tools properly. They can be a great aid to language learning: for instance, in Italy, I frequently got a computer translation for what I wanted to ask a clerk, thought about whether it was right, and then tried it out. This gave me a lot of practice I wouldn't have had otherwise. But what's crucial is to think about the translation the machine offers: sometimes they are pretty terrible, as evidence by all the bad Chinglish signs people post pictures of. You have to have an idea of what the sentence ought to come out like, and be using the translator to check your intuition and cough up a word or two you don't know. It doesn't think; you have to do that part.

The Stunning Lack of Historical Curiosity of the 100%-Reservers

A main "historical method" of the 100%-ers seems to be to imagine how they think free banking would have worked, and then to assert that it actually worked that way. e.g. "I imagine that no fractional reserve accounts ever had a 'when available' clause, and therefore, none did!" Here, George Selgin uses actual warehouse receipts and actual fractional reserve notes to make nonsense of Rothbard's claim that FRB notes were "counterfeit" warehouse receipts. A sub-species of the above "method": I often see 100%-ers "correcting" George on how free banking worked. Here is what you are up against: Sandy Ikeda told me that he once stood with George in the Bobst Library at NYU. George indicated a huge wall of books on money and banking, and said: "I'm going to read every one of those." Sandy concluded, "And you know, I think he pretty much has." You, 100%-reserver, have read three articles at

No, Really, We All Admire You!

I just ordered some daylilies online. When I had sent in my order, I received the following message: "You have now exited the Secure Order Form, and entered the normal website pages, which are insecure." Do you think it is because when they were young web pages, their developer neglected them?

It's Interesting to Watch Projection in Action

"To sum up Keynes: arrogant, sadistic, power-besotted bully, deliberate and systemic liar, intellectually irresponsible, an opponent of principle..." -- Murray Rothbard

OK, Which Is It?

Up until about May, Ron Paul supporters kept telling me he was definitely going to win the GOP nomination, or at least that it was quite probable that he would. Now, on Facebook, they are saying, "Well, of course the establishment was never going to let him win!" So were the odds close to 100%, or were they 0%? Because it really can't be both!

More Obamanoia

Several people on Facebook went ballistic when Obama gave his recent speech on how no person has succeeded entirely due to their own resources. There were remarks that his speech was socialist, and claimed that individuals don't accomplish anything. But look at this line: "The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together." See that: Individual initiative. Stop acting like asses, OK? (Thanks to Daniel Kuehn for posting more of this speech than the FB fear promoters.)

100%-Reserve Banking Is Available Now!

I have sometimes heard 100%-reservists say that 100% reserve banking would be overwhelmingly chosen by customers if it were available. Well, as Kurt Schuler notes , it is available, at almost every bank. It is called a safety deposit box. How many of you people who think fractional reserve banking is fraudulent are keeping your money exclusively in the 100%-reserve system instead? NOTE: By the way, I yanked the post previous to this one because I realized I didn't have the stomach for the follow-up s&*t storm right at the moment.

Is There Something Microsoft Doesn't Get About the Word 'View'?

For at least two of the "View" options in MS Word, when I choose them, the program asks me if I really want to convert my document, and warns me that I may lose some formatting if I do. That, to me, does not seem merely like a different way of viewing the same underlying document!


Whoever designed the new look that Apple gave to iCal last year should never be allowed to do a computer interface again. Apparently, they thought, "I know, users will just love it if our calendar looks just like a chintzy, faux-leather desktop calendar from RiteAid!"


I walked by an empty lot. There was a big sign saying: "Caution! Poison. Rat baiting in progress." And there was a guy putting out the bait. "Hey," I asked him, "you do this full time?" "Sure." "So how do you get into this line of work?" "We have a guild." "And anyone can join?" "Sure, although you'd have to start out as an apprentice. But one day, with lots of hard work..." "I could become a master baiter?" "Yup."


Rajiv Shah shows why the concept is incoherent .

Economics Has No Findings That Command Widespread Agreement?

Sometimes you see people claiming the above as a way of dismissing the entire economics profession. Now, I am no defender of economic imperialism in the social sciences. But I also think the claim questioned in the title of this post is seriously overblown. Consider the theory of optimal currency areas developed largely in the 1960s and 1970s. According to the tenets of this theory, as interpreted by many prominent economists, the Euro was a bad idea. According to an unpublished paper that I have just read, both Paul Krugman and Milton Friedman warned against the creation of the based on this theory. Many economists, apparently, predicted just the ways in which the Eurozone would break down. The politicians ignored these warnings and went ahead based on political considerations. And the economists turned out to be correct. So, although there are many contentious areas in economics, there really is some core agreement, backed up by empirical evidence.

I Don't Have a Green Thumb!

I recently met an old acquaintance who used to tell me, "I just don't have a green thumb!" In her front yard was a large planting of black-eyed Susans that were dying in the heat and drought. "My God," I said, "these things need water." I spent twenty minutes soaking them. In three hours they looked as good as new. "I just don't have a green thumb" means "I put plants in the ground, but I make no effort to learn about them and pay no attention to what is happening to them, but then, when they die, I wish to attribute their death to some lack of a mystical ability on my part."

Where Do These People Come from?

I was at a diner in Pike County, in the land of obese people. The restaurant contained three generations of one family: a mother and her daughter who were running the place, and a granddaughter eating and fussing with a computer. The ten-year-old or so granddaughter was about 25 or 30 pounds overweight. She had been eating a stack of three pancakes with syrup, which she then set aside. Her grandmother came out of the kitchen with four strips of bacon for the girl, and then looked down at the girl's plate: "Why haven't you finished your pancakes?" she asked the girl. " Why haven't you finished your pancakes? " I couldn't believe my ears. This girl should be skipping breakfast altogether for the next year or two, bu, instead, her grandmother is hounding her about not gobbling down that third pancake before she eats her four strips of bacon. Can she actually not see the extremely rotund child sitting there right in front of her eyes? What is she

Performance in the Bedroom

I heard some fellow on the radio saying, "We all know that, as we get older, our performance in the bedroom may start to suffer." Whatever is he talking about? I can read as fast as I ever did.

If Fractional Reserve Banking Is Fraudulent, Then So Is...

In this paper , Hoppe, Hülsmann, and Block (HHB) make their ethical case against fractional reserve banking (FRB) based on the fact that "two individual owners cannot be the exclusive owner of one and the same thing at the same time." They then posit that since fractional reserve bank notes creates multiple titles or claims to the "same" gold, they are inherently fraudulent. In analyzing this claim, the first thing we will have to do is to turn it into a remotely sensible claim. No one who deposits money at a bank thinks they are entitled to the same money back. What they want, when they go to get their money out, is the same amount of money back. What a gold-backed  fractional reserve note comprises is a claim to a certain amount of gold, not certain particular pieces of gold. I hope that change to their argument is uncontroversial! So their complaint comes down to this: if a bank issues pieces of paper that allow the bearer to claim a certain amount of gold

A Song of the Past: Epilogue

--> We are done! Table of Contents Epilogue Such upheavals may clear the air like a summer thunderstorm, but beneath the agitation, the knowing faculty remains confined. Space is full and time used up; history is an ever-heavier burden. -- Tarthang Tulku, Love of Knowledge Saturday, Nov. 14, 2:30 PM Captain Muller had scoffed at her suggestion that they keep the case open and try to justify a conspiracy-to-commit-murder charge against Alvin. “We have a deathbed confession, and two murders to put in the solved column. Because the confessed murderer thinks some kid from the projects is Satan and he was possessed by him, we’re going to waste more resources on this? Can you imagine how much the prosecutor’s office will appreciate our bringing them a charge of ‘Satanic influence’? You got your man, Detective. Now let it go. I don’t doubt your word that Blaine was a part of this, but we’ve got nothing, nothing on him at all.” When she had brought up the matter of Ariel’s d

How to Win an Argument with Tom on Biblical Interpretation


A Song of the Past: Thirty-seven

--> Table of Contents Sunday, 3:00 PM Deirdre pulled up along the curb by Alvin’s housing project, and saw him holding court on the stoop of his building with his posse yet again. Within a minute he spotted her sitting in the car. She heard him say, “Yeah, my bitch here again,” and then he sauntered over to the car. She looked up at him with a dazed expression, and a huge grin broke out across his face. “So, you finally figured it out, huh?” She nodded numbly. “So, let’s have a talk, right?” She nodded again, and Alvin opened the passenger door and slid into the seat next to her. “But we ain’t gonna talk here: We’re gonna take a little ride.” “No, Alvin, let’s talk here.” He put his hand into the pocket of his hoodie, and from inside the pocket she could see protruding the shape of a gun. “No, we gonna go talk somewhere else. In fact, I think we gonna go up West Rock. You love it up there, right, DeeDee?”

Does Refereeing Help You Get Published?

Kevin Vallier asked the above question on Facebook. I answer with a qualified "yes." Of course an editor should never publish a lousy paper because he likes the author. But here is the sort of situation in which I think it is likely to help: Sue edits the Journal of Digestive Studies . She has asked both Mary and Fred to referee for her. Mary almost always says 'yes,' and when she does, she always submits a referee report in a timely fashion. Fred often says 'no,' and when he says 'yes,' he has to be nudged for months before he submits his report. Now, the same week, Sue receives paper for consideration from both Mary and Fred. Both papers contain the germ of a good idea. But both are a bit of a mess at present: the good idea is buried amidst a welter of irrelevancies. In their present state neither is publishable, but if the good idea was unearthed from its midden heap and made to shine, either might be accepted. If Sue merely identifies the goo

If Only Government Justice Were Available to No Businesses...

When Microsoft and Apple have a dispute, they go to court, and let a judge resolve it for them. But, for, say, drug dealers, government justice is not an option, so instead they (often) resort to violence. Therefore, concludes Bob Murphy , if we entirely eliminate the government justice system... all organizations will resolve their disputes peacefully! This is the sort of deft, counter-intuitive logic that makes libertarians so very tricksy to debate.

Rothbard's Critique of the Multiplier

Murray Rothbard never cared if an argument he offered was sound, but only about whether it seemed to make his opponent look stupid. Consider, for instance, his "reductio" of the Keynesian multiplier: Social Income = Income of (insert name of any person, say the reader) + Income of everyone else. Let us use symbols: Social income = Y Income of the Reader = R Income of everyone else = V We find that V is a completely stable function of Y. Plot the two on coordinates, and we find historical one-to-one correspondence between them. It is a tremendously stable function, far more stable than the “consumption function.” On the other hand, plot R against Y. Here we find, instead of perfect correlation, only the remotest of connections between the fluctuating income of the reader of these lines and the social income. Therefore, this reader’s income is the active, volatile, uncertain element in the social income, while everyone else’s income is passive, stable, determined by

"Philosophy Is All Nonsense Anyway!"

It is an interesting pattern that I've seen repeated a few times. Someone with no experience in or willingness to learn philosophy nevertheless ventures out upon the philosophical sea . A real philosopher takes a look at his work, and notes it is terrible philosophy . At that point, the lightweight often pulls this move : "The physicist responded to the review by calling the philosopher who wrote it 'moronic' and arguing that philosophy, unlike physics, makes no progress and is rather boring, if not totally useless." OK, Professor Krauss, if philosophy is boring and useless, why did you bother writing a book centered around a (very bad) philosophical theory? Why did philosophy only become boring and useless once it turned out that you are awful at it?

Ron Paul Campaigns in His Whimsical, Steam-Driven Jalopy!


I am seriously puzzled by the terror which arises in some conservatives at the prospect of a second term for Obama. Just peruse the posts at Postmodern Conservative to see what I am talking about. Now, these are intelligent folks, mostly academics, who  generally  appear to be fairly sane. But they seem to regard a second Obama term as being roughly equivalent to the presidency of a modern Vladimir Lenin. Now, I am no Obama fanboy. Unlike Daniel Kuehn, I would not eagerly tongue bathe Obama clean. (Just kidding, Daniel: I know you'd use a sponge.) But really, the guy has had a very middle-of-the-road first term. Yes, on some issues, like health care reform and abortion, he has certainly been to the left of where a Republican president would have been. But so would almost any Democrat. And I don't suspect for a moment that the bloggers at PMC are racists, unlike Appalachian Democrats, where I believe their lack of enthusiasm  for the man is mostly racial . So what does exp

Two Arguments That Strike Me As Equally Valid

1) In the society we live in, bank robbers typically use cars to make their get away. Therefore, if we eliminate cars, we will eliminate bank robbery. 2) In the society we live in, big business typically uses the state to gain unfair advantages. Therefore, if we eliminate the state, we will eliminate big business gaining unfair advantages.

This Is a Joke, Right?

I occasionally peruse a web site that lists tutoring jobs to see if they might have work in my bailiwick. Today I spotted this: "I need help with my Ph.D. in theology." He is presumably doing this PhD in a department filled with theologians... and he is at an online tutoring locator service looking for help?!

Only 21 Million Choices? That's Not Competition!

Roderick Long contends that , if not for government, workers would be in control of the workplace. He notes that: "free competition is neither working well nor working badly, but is simply not being allowed to work . "Government regulations tend to increase the size and hierarchical nature of firms while reducing their numbers, thus constraining competition both among these corporate leviathans, and between them and smaller, flatter competitors." I have no doubt that our current policy regime acts to reduce the number of firms and to favor larger firms. Even so, there are currently 21 million employers in the United States, and they all compete for workers. Why in the world would having instead 40 million employers, or 100 million, make any fundamental difference to the experience of workers in the workplace? I can think of one answer: wishful thinking. When "eliminate the state" is the only tool you've got, every fact looks like evidence for

Rothbard on FRB: The Sheerest Poppycock

George Slegin : "It is unfortunate that Congressman Paul has chosen to accept Rothbard's characterization of fractional reserve banking, thereby wedding his call for monetary freedom with an extremely mistaken idea of what such freedom would entail in practice. In fact bank "deposits" have been recognized both in practice and in common law since early modern times to consist of debt claims to money (coin, back then), ownership of which was in fact transferred, along with possession of the coins, first to the banker and then to the banker's borrower-customers. The original depositors retained a right to reclaim an equivalent sum of coin, sometimes on demand, and the banker's only obligation was to have sufficient coin on hand to meet any such demands, the normal penalty for failure to do which was failure. The contrary Rothbard view that bankers must be stealing whenever they lend part of their 'deposits' is the sheerest poppycock, lega

I Never Agreed to the State!

So how can its rules possibly be binding on me? And you know what else I never agreed to? The distribution of property that existed when I was born. The grammatical rules of the English language. The institution of money. The custom of wearing clothing. The practice of shaking hands with one's right hand. Driving on the right-hand side of the road. Having screws go in clockwise and come out counter-clockwise. Who would get to raise me. What days would be celebrated as holidays. Of course, social arrangements are subject to amendment. People can decide, say, "Treating other humans as property is not a good thing." But "I never agreed to it" is an extremely childish reason for demanding some social arrangement be eliminated.

Check Your Spam Folders!

My proposal for a monograph on Berkeley was accepted four days ago... and was sitting in my spam folder until ten minutes ago, went I went in to look for an entirely different e-mail. So next year, you can look forward to the publication of Was Berkeley a Skeptic About the External World? A Study in Error from Edwin Mellen Press. I know you'll be holding your breath awaiting the answer!

Getting Your Paper Published

This site recommends the following: "Do whatever possible to make sure the negative referee does not get the paper again." This may include, if it does not interfere too much with your other writing, hunting down the negative referee and killing him / her.

The Paradox of Intellectual Passion

I am presently reading an unpublished paper on self-ownership and homesteading, and it occurs to me that some of the libertarian theorists working in this area have made rather gross blunders because they so badly wanted their conclusion to be true: if the only alternatives to self-ownership are communist ownership of people or slavery, then libertarianism is justified, so those must be the only alternatives, because then libertarianism is justified! But, of course, libertarians are far from the only ones subject to this danger (that just happens to be the subject of the paper I am reading). We all are prone to it. When I present an argument against reductionist materialism, for instance, do I like the argument because it is a good argument, or because I badly want it to work? A solution suggests itself: only do intellectual work on issues about which one does not care. But that is a terrible solution, as it is only one's intellectual passions that can lead one to endure the s