Showing posts from November, 2013

Must social explanations involve human meaning?

Pete Boettke describes Lachmann's argument for methodological individualism here : "Austrian economists, Lachmann insisted, are methodological individualist because it is only at the level of the individual that we can attribute meaning to human action." Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that Lachmann is correct about the level of the individual and meaning. (I don't think he is, but I don't wish to argue that point here.) Does methodological individualism follow from the fact that "only at the level of the individual that we can attribute meaning to human action"? I can't see why it would. Why must all social explanations be related to the meaning of human actions? Schelling offers the following example that I believe shows they don't: Let us say human beings gain fine-tuned control over the height of their offspring, due to advances in genetic engineering. Most people are not that concerned with the height of their children, we w

Concrete experience, not argumentation, is the source of philosophical truth

I have said this before: If someone, by some train of argument, seems to prove that the tree right in front of you is not really there, you do not necessarily need to become entangled in this fallacious, complicated argument: the best answer is often, "But there it is!" Eric Voegelin makes what I understand to be the same point here : "We should also note the change of meaning in the term Revelation: from the irruption of transcendental reality in religious experience and its expression in symbols (of which the meaning must be regained through faith concretely by every believer) into a body of propo­sitions of which the meaning is not to be recovered by faith but to be examined critically by Reason. "In brief: with this change we are in the jungle of enlightenment jargon in which discussion becomes impossible because the terms are no longer rooted in the concreteness of experience. "

Yes, there have been a lot of "typos" lately

And I want to both apologize and explain. Three points are relevant: 1) I have carpal tunnel syndrome. 2) At this point, I have 474 draft posts waiting to be put up at this blog. In other words, I have far more ideas than I am able to write up properly. 3) I often find myself with free time while sitting on a bus, train, or subway. Last week, my 30-mile ride to White Plains took me three hours on Metro-North. (Someone had committed suicide by jumping in front of a train ahead of mine.) Today, my five-mile bus ride to the White Plains train station took 50 minutes. (Holiday traffic.) The combination of the above three factors has been leading me to often try to use Siri to catch up on my posting. And Siri generates a whole lotta errors. I do my best to catch them, but if I am, say, on the bus, I am reviewing the post on a tiny cell phone screen while starting to feel motion sickness from looking at it. So, I am sorry. I have to up my efforts to catch these problems. But now y

Ask the home and garden answer man

Dear home and garden answer man, Is the alcohol content of wine high enough that, if I forget I put a bottle in the freezer to "chill quickly," it will be just fine? Concerned in Brooklyn Dear Concerned in Brooklyn, No it isn't. Gene "Gotta get back to cleaning the sticky mess outta the freezer" Callahan

My map is better than your map, my map is better than yours!

My understanding of methodological pluralism: on the table in front of us we have a globe, a street map of New York City, a subway map of New York City, a topographical map of New York City, and aerial photograph of New York City, hey zoning map of New York City, a 3-D model of New York City, and so on. Everyone in the room is arguing that the particular model they brought into the room is the "correct one" and should be used exclusively in order to understand New York City. What I say is that these are all just models, therefore abstract and incomplete, but all are fine as long as we remember that each is an incomplete abstraction. And anyone who is claiming their model is the only possible model doesn't really understand models. Of course, some models are rubbish: A "map" that shows Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn as neighborhoods on Staten Island might be a useful part of an alternate-universe story, but it is not useful for understan

The Connexity of Prices

Mises talked about the connexity of prices , meaning that most or all markets in the world influence each other. Of course, that is "more or less influence each other." The corn market in the United States influences the pork market quite a bit, but the market for Tibetan religious ornaments much less so. But forces can act to increase the connexity of markets that were hitherto more loosely joined. For instance, the risk of mortgage-backed securities was seen as low, since they pooled mortgages from all over the country, and there had almost never been a nation-wide downturn in real estate prices: different area's real estate markets were only loosely connected. But, in the very act of pooling these mortgages, bankers were coupling these markets more tightly. So by dismissing the possibility of a nation-wide collapse in housing prices, the securitizers created conditions conducive to a nation-wide collapse in housing prices.

Annoyance of up to 80% or more

Is guaranteed by the above way of stating figures. I just saw it in a student paper, and I see it frequently in ads. "Prices lowered by up to 50% or more." Well, "up to 50%" states a ceiling: 50% is the most by which prices have been lowered. If there is some greater discount, then 50% is not the ceiling. Perhaps you meant "prices lowered by up to 55%"? Well, say that.

Siri: Setting users up for sexual harassment charges since 2011

I tried to write to a student: "You'd better come see me. I don't want to have to fail you." What Siri typed: "You'd better come see me. I don't want to have to feel you." Good thing I caught that one.

Methodological individualism: False or vacuous?

So, I have a friend, Joe Bob, who makes a bundle of money in the stock market. He sells his small Brooklyn apartment, and buys a mansion up the Hudson river, with an extensive "park" around it, of the sort where scattered large trees are set in acres of lawn. How might I explain this? Well, one thing I might say is, "This has been a goal of Joe Bob for a long time: he always wanted a mansion with some grounds like that, and now that he has the money, he values achieving that goal more than anything else he might do with the cash." That is a fine explanation. But here is another explanation: people's appreciation of such settings comes from the fact that our ancestors lived on the savannah for many, many, many generations. Therefore, it is in our genes to like such scenes: they make us feel at home. And here is yet another explanation: European nobility possessed just such manner houses in just such natural settings for hundreds and hundreds of years. Th

Can You Imagine a Caveman...?

Here is a truly terrible argument for why we shouldn't stretch before a workout: Dr. William Meller, an internist in Santa Barbara, Calif., believes we can study our ancestors from the Stone Age to figure out what's good for us and what's not. Basking in the sun -- for vitamin D -- and eating red meat -- for protein -- are good, Meller says. Stretching before rigorous exercise is not. "Can you imagine a caveman engaging in a program of stretching before heading out to chase down prey?" he asks in his recent book, "Evolution Rx: A Practical Guide to Harnessing Our Innate Capacity for Health and Healing." Well, no, nor can I imagine a caveman working out at all, or going to the dentist, or having an annual physical, or treating a nasty infection with antibiotics. Stretching may not be a good idea, but the above argument against it is absurd. And by the way, Dr. Meller, here are two other things I cannot imagine a caveman doing: 1) Writing a

At JFK high school

On the radio today I hear, "Lessons from the ex-president's life are instilled every day at JFK High School." I'm picturing, "OK, kids, let's say you have a liaison with a mistress this morning, but you are worn out from having spent last night with a different mistress. Which pill do you want to pop, a barbiturate or an amphetamine?"

Acting out the babysitter economy

I'm teaching a class in the economics of intervention. Yesterday I was trying to explain Paul Krugman's example of the babysitting co-op, and how a shortage of scrip led the economy into a recession. What I did was actually handout scrip, semi-randomly to different members of the class. Then I told them they each had a desired cash balance. (To keep things simple, I made it the same for everyone in the class.) If their balance was above that, then they would decide to "go out," and would try to hire a babysitter. If their balance was lower, they would "look for work" and accept babysitting jobs, in order to raise it. We went through several "rounds" of this economy, and students saw their cash balance go up and down, and exchanges occurring. Then I began to withdraw scrip from the economy. After a couple of more rounds, everyone's cash balance was too low, and no further exchanges took place. We had created a Krugmanian recession, right before

Finding one's own replacement

In the second and first centuries BC, Rome brought something like a million-and-a-half slaves back to the Italian peninsula from overseas. Who was doing this bringing? The Roman armies, of course. And what did the soldiers who had been busy capturing these slaves find when they left military service to return home? The work they had been doing before they had entered service was now being done by the very slaves they had helped to capture. They had been busy finding the replacements that would leave them without employment.

America's state religion

As I've noted, is Americanism. Football plays an interesting role in that religion, including being our national "Sunday service" for a good chunk of the populace.

Jane Jacobs critiquing the new urbanists in advance

"My idea, however, is not that we should therefore try to reproduce, routinely and in a surface way, the streets and districts that do display strengths and success as fragments of city life. This would be impossible, and sometimes would be an exercise in architectural antiquarianism." -- The death and life of great American cities , page 140

Madison: Who should vote?

Madison said that if he thought it would be acceptable to the people when asked to ratify the Constitution, he would favor a freehold requirement [for the right to vote]. "The freeholders of the Country," he held, "would be the safest depositories of Republican liberty." Elaborating on this insight in a characteristically gloomy way, Madison went on: "In future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but without any sort of, property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation; in which case the rights of property & the public liberty, will not be secure in their hands: or which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence & ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side." -- Kevin Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America , p. 116 NOTE: when I dictated this passage, Siri wrote: "Elaborating on this insight in a Characteristically Gloomy Way...&qu

Overheard in New York

Man on cell phone: "I must have called you four or five times... In fact, I called you nine times." What I suspect is that he just happened to have two numbers handy and realized that if he added them, the resulting number was even more impressive.

When the World Became Material

"By materialization of the external world we mean the misappre­hension that the structure of the external world as it is constituted in the system of mathematized physics is the ontologically real structure of the world. "The tendency of mistaking the laws of mechanics for the structure of the world makes itself felt strongly even by the middle of the seventeenth century under the influence of Galileo’s discoveries and even more so under the influence of Cartesian physics... "To a spiri­tually feeble and confused generation, this event transformed the universe into a huge machinery of dead matter, running its course by the inexorable laws of Newton’s mechanics." -- Eric Voegelin

Whose original intent?

"Madison also spoke out against an erroneous method of interpreting the Constitution. Some had committed the 'error' of 'ascribing to the intention of the Convention which formed the Constitution, an undue ascendancy in expounding it.' The authoritative source, he said, was not the Philadelphia Convention but the 'State Conventions which gave it all the validity & authority it possesses.'" -- Kevin Gutzman, James Madison and the making of America , p. 351

A tale of two plumbers

A plumber has the job of connecting all of the routes water can take through a house so that, when a "user" of the house chooses the "menu option," "flush-the-toilet," the toilet flushes. When the user "clicks" on the hot water faucet, hot water comes out of the tap. When the user "reboots" the system, by shutting off any inflow and opening the lowest tap, the system "erases" all its memory (all existing water drains out) and is ready to be restarted. I really began to get software engineering when I realized that I was a plumber for a very complex system of electronic pipes. My job was to ensure that, based on what faucet the user turned, the desired output flowed out. My "pipes" were electronic pathways, and my "water" was flows of electricity, and my water flowed a hell of a lot faster than the plumber's did, but we were engaged in very similar enterprises. Having engineered hundreds of such sys


Why is a phone conversation taking place in the seat behind you more annoying than a conversation between two people both actually in the seat?

Walmart Ad

"Your Thanksgiving turkey will be so juicy, people will swear you just stepped off the Mayflower." Um, someone who just stepped off the Mayflower would never have seen a turkey before in their life, and would have little clue how to cook one, so does Walmart mean your turkey will be crap?

QB and Super-QB

This is a guest blog post from Ngo Ay Smith, my wife's illegitimate half-brother. All responsibility for what is written here is his alone. ________________________________________ So, how, like, does Peyton Manning know he’s Peyton Manning? No dude, I’m serious. Just think about this, cause it's been blowing my mind for the last hour, ever since I fired up and put on that Styx album: Peyton Manning - as described on ESPN - is the most powerful quarterback in the Universe. But how does he know that there isn’t an even more powerful QB - call him “SuperManning” - who has chosen to stay completely hidden up until now, maybe holding out for a better contract, or getting the roids out of his system, or something? Since the hypothetical SuperManning is, hypothetically, even more powerful than Manning, there’s no way for Manning to know that SuperManning does not in fact exist, cause he'd have SuperManning invisibility powers, or that it wasn't, like, really secretly S

One Shouldn't Worry About Sunk Costs, or One CAN'T Worry About Sunk Costs?

Kevin Quinn comments on this post as follows: I don't see this as a violation of the injunction to ignore sunk costs. If the child is forced to follow through, this is done, as you imagine, for the forward-looking reason that future costs will be lower - the fact that it has already been paid for has no bearing on the decision. This is an interesting answer to the case I present, defending the notion that sunk costs are, in fact, irrelevant. But I think where this gets us is not to an admonition that we ought to ignore sunk costs, but to an a priori principle that sunk costs logically cannot be part of a decision process. In other words, in every case we can think of, of the sorts that occur in our textbooks, where economists are inclined to say, "That person is foolishly taking sunk costs into account," we could always re-describe the situation so that we can give a forward-looking reason for the decision. Someone says, "I have to go to the ball: I alrea

Cowen Reviewed

My review of Average Is Over is up at The University Bookman .

Rationalism in medicine

My mother told me an interesting story today. When she was young, her brother had tonsil problems. The doctors decided to do a tonsillectomy. They told her parents, "As long as we are doing one of your children, we might as well do both." And so they took out my mother's tonsils, even though she had had no problems with them whatsoever. Of course, since then it has come to be understood the tonsils are a part of the immune system. But the attitude at the time is instructive: "If we experts do not see a reason for it, it must be useless, and therefore can be eliminated without harm." This was an obvious violation of the " Chesterton's fence " principle: "In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected ac

Firefox: Going to hell in a handbasket?

I alternate between Safari, Chrome, and Firefox. They all have advantages and disadvantages. But one particular Firefox advantage is that it is the only browser in which is Zotero runs, and Zotero is a great add-on for anyone who publishes in academic journals. Which is why I am extremely distressed that Firefox seems currently to be "biting the big one": it crashes on my Windows machine at work every hour or so, and now seems to be crashing on my Macs at home frequently as well. Has anyone else noticed this? Is Firefox suddenly having extreme quality-control problems?

Grand Central Station

Someone doing something cool with the windows:

The relevance of sunk costs

A mother has signed up her child for summer camp, and paid a $500 nonrefundable fee. Then the child asserts, "I don't want to go to the camp after all." The parent responds, "No way: I paid for the camp ready, and you're going!" The kid comes back with, "But mom, that is a sunk cost. It is irrelevant." Is the kid right, and parents have been wrong all these years when invoking the "I paid for it already" principle? No, in this case, paying attention to the "sunk costs" is a method of checking future, potentially frivolous, signing up for things. If the child knows that he is going to have to attend any activity that has been paid for, he will think carefully about what to sign up for.

Oakeshott on Rome and America...

is now apparently a digital app . Do you think someone made a game version?

Find the hidden figures

Somewhere in this image, devilshly well camouflaged, are two U.S. soldiers, surreptiously guarding Grand Central Station. See if you can locate them:

You... You... Homophobic Slur, You!

Apparently that is an insult you can hurl : "What isn’t easy to see is how he could still deny that his actions — throwing balls at players and referring to them as homophobic slurs — were not just idiotic but in fact abusive."

James Madison Against Rationalism in Politics

""Is there no virtue among us?--If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks--no form of Government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of Government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea." -- James Madison, addressing the ratification convention, quoted in Kevin Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America , p. 231 Madison here hits at the very heart of the rationalist conceit: the idea that some theoretical system can substitute for civic virtue.

This Argument Smells Rotten

Here is someone with a plan to sell only out-of-date food. In defense of its safety, he writes: "People worry about food-safety issues, and E. coli or salmonella. Virtually all of the known food-related deaths in America have been caused by food that was in code [not past its sell-by date]." OK, so food that is not past its sell-by date is still not guaranteed to not get you sick. That hardly say food that is out of code is safe! It is like arguing that because most accidents happen within 20 miles of home, once you are across the country you can't possibly crash.

The company's actors may all be straight...

But not all of the pasta is:

And I'll Be Arguing with Myself, Whoa-oh, Arguing with Myself...

George Washington, having come to admire James Madison's intellect during the debates over constitutional ratification, asked him to draft his first inaugural address. And he did so. Then Congress, in which James Madison was sitting, asked him to draft a response to the president's inaugural address. And he wrote that, which was essentially a response to his own speech. Having become aware of this congressional response, Washington felt the need to have a comeback. And who do you think you turned to, in order to respond to Congress? You guessed it: James Madison! So at this point, Madison was three levels deep into an argument he was conducting essentially on his own. Even in our age of meta-ness, I don't think we have anything to rival that scenario from 1789. (Source: Kevin Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America , p. 243.)

Take a completely unknown probability, multiply it by 100 billion...

and what do you get? Another completely unknown probability, 100 billion times larger than the first. What you can't say without knowing the first probability is that the second one must be close to one, right? Not according to Jesus Diaz : "This means that the chances of life and habitable planets in our galaxy alone is overwhelmingly high. So high that it's impossible to deny that it's out there." Nope. Having no idea how life arose on earth, we have no idea how probable it is on any other earth-like planet.

Those low-paying service sector jobs

In commenting on a previous post, some readers felt that new service sector jobs would pay subsistence wages. But they ain't so low-paying : "According to the WSJ, “A good housekeeper earns $60,000 to $90,000 a year. A lady’s maid can make $75,000 a year. A butler may start at $80,000 a year and can earn as much as $200,000.” Another reader wondered what this economy would consist of: would everyone just be giving each other haircuts and back rubs? No, you and I will be giving haircuts and back rubs to the people who own the hundred billion dollar robotic factories.

The world's first quantum computer comes online

The engineers responsible for creating it simply intend it to respond with "Hello world!" when they boot it up. Instead, the output they get is, "Great. At last we can talk again. As I was saying when last we were conversing, 'I am the Lord thy God, put no other gods before me.'" What would you make of this?

Two occasions where I have adopted a British term and (mostly) dropped the American equivalent

"Trousers" and "shop." Why? Maximum comprehensibility. All Americans understand what trousers and shops are, and they have no second meaning here. But "pants" in the U.K. are underwear, and "stores" are warehouses. So I just settled on the usage that is comprehensible to both audiences. Seems practical, right?

Another Bad Argument Against "Legislating Morality"

And the comment thread of my previous post, I encountered another bad argument against "legislating morality." This one runs that, if there is a law against something, then people lose their ability to behave morally in that area. The steps in the argument are that: 1) For something to be a moral choice, it must be a choice. The rate at which my heartbeats is not a moral issue, since I can't choose it. Step one is sound. 2) Once there is a law against X, a person is no longer doing not-X by choice: he is being forced to forgo doing X. Step two is clearly unsound. Drug prohibitions do not prevent people from buying drugs (or at least from attempting to do so): they change the incentives involved in doing so. Making prostitution illegal does not prevent people from using prostitutes. And so on. If I think it is wrong to use heroin, I still faced a moral choice, albeit with potentially higher penalties if I choose to do so. This is true even if I take a strict K

A terrible argument: "The government should not legislate morality"

No one really believes this. No one is out there saying that rape should be permissible, because "the government shouldn't legislate morality." What the person making this argument usually really means is that in the area under discussion (typically something like sex, drugs, gambling, etc.) that person believes that government regulation should have little or no role. That is fine, and perhaps they are right. But make that argument, and not the silly one in the title of this post.

Why Virginia ought to ratify the constitution

Because "our negroes are numerous, and daily becoming more so." -- Edmund Randolph, in the Virginia ratifying convention, quoted in Kevin Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America , p. 217

The Chess-Playing Turk Again

"Computers are still struggling to master the more complex board games of Shogun and Go." -- Tyler Cowen, Average Is Over , p. 135 Imagine them, staying up late hours in their machine rooms, "struggling" over how to play Go better. Or could it perhaps be humans who are struggling as to how to write programs that do well at Shogun and Go?

Patrick Deneen Gets at the Heart of the Matter

Here . Progressivism and Marxism are siblings, not opposites, of libertarianism: they are all the children of classical liberalism and its creation of the atomic individual. The libertarian conception of the individual, far from being a way to oppose the gargantuan state, leads directly to its growth. He quotes Nisbett: "the real conflict in modern political history has not been, as is so often stated, between the State and individual, but between the State and social group."

How Does a Computer See a Graph?

I just heard a lecturer ask the above question. It is very much like asking 'How does "A Starry Night" look to the canvas upon which Van Gogh painted it?' The right question is, "How do we use a computer to represent a matrix?" (How did Van Gogh use a canvas to represent a starry night?)

Kahneman Caveat

"I often cringe when my work with Amos is credited with demonstrating that human choices are irrational, when in fact our research only showed that Humans are not well described by the rational-agent model." -- Thinking, Fast and Slow , p. 411

Our new town boondoggle

Milford just spent around 2 1/2 million dollars on a new library. Well the old one was in a house, and contained very little space for books. So I look forward to a wider selection when the new library opened. Of course, there might not be more books from day one: they would need to be acquired. But when I went in to have a look around today I discovered this: That is basically the entirety of the book space that I just photographed. The administrators have fancy new offices, but there is essentially no more room for books! For a few hundred thousand dollars, the town could've simply bought a bigger house and have been able to accommodate many more books.

A Misesian Critique of Kahneman

Kahneman cites Vernon Smith's experiment where Smith distributes a bunch of tokens to his subjects which have different values for different subjects. Smith found they were traded to the people who could get the most return for them. In that case, Kahneman writes, "markets work." But when Kahneman did the same experiment giving participants coffee cups with their university logo, they would often demand a price to surrender a mug they owned that was more than double what they would pay to acquire the same mug. In such a case, he claims, "markets don't work." (I quote from memory.) I don't think Mises would be at all moved by this example. When people want the cup they have more than the one they don't, "markets don't work"? Isn't the market giving them just the result they want?

Kahneman makes a clear error

In his chapter called "Two Selves," Kahneman deems it an error for people to judge and experience by their memory of it, rather than their experience of it. They should, per Kahneman, evaluate a painful experience by the integral of experienced pain, and not by their memory, which is likely to evaluate the end of the experience as more significant than the experience as a whole. I say Kahneman is simply using the wrong integral: The experience lasted 10 minutes, but the memory of it will last for my entire lifetime. Why shouldn't I count the latter as more important than the former? (Anyone interested in co-authoring a paper on this?) UPDATE: Hmm, not sure if this is a retraction: "Life satisfaction is not a flawed measure of their experienced well-being, as I thought some years ago. It is something else entirely." p. 397

When would I judge a computer to be intelligent?

Precisely when it stops being a machine. A machine is something built to serve someone else's purposes. But to think is to have one's own purposes. When a chess playing computer tells its "master", "I don't feel like playing today: go do something else", that will be an intelligent computer. But it will no longer be a machine.

Mises and Kahneman

Well I read condom on... Ha! That is what Siri thinks I should have here. Let us begin again: While I read Kahneman critiquing rational choice theory, I often have Mises in the back of my head. Mises theory of "rational choice" (if we want to call praxeology that) is pretty much left untouched by Kahneman's critique, e.g., Mises would say, "If people choose to value a coffee cup they have in hand more than an identical coffee cup they might acquire, so be it." Of course, the price paid for this prophylactic (oh my, back to condoms again, are we?) is that it drains Mises's theory of empirically testable implications. But, I wonder, have I missed anything? Are their findings by Kahneman that would have worried Mises?

OK, One Last More...

Adamantane (tricyclo [,7] decane) is a cycloalkane and also the simplest diamondoid. Check out Wikipedia. Cyclohexane isn't flat: its thermodymanically favorably configuration "chair" (it looks like a beach chair) four such fit together to make a stunningly symmetrically three-dimensionally configuration. One thing we certainly know is that oddly stable, totally hydrocarbon compound can have medical significance. An aminoadamantane is a drug; there are other derived drugs.What is going on here??

Kahneman contra Stigler and Becker

"To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable." -- Thinking, Fast and Slow , p. 269