Sunday, December 28, 2008

Heirloom Garand

Several years ago, my grandmother gave us my grandfather's old M-1
Garand. We set it aside and it was not touched for years, except for
a friend cleaning and oiling it. I recently decided to get the
equipment and practice to make the rifle useful.

My brother, father, and I went to a gun show this weekend. They had a
lot of fun just looking around, and so did I. But I was also on a
mission to gather up what I needed for the Garand. I got a carrying
case, ammunition, paper targets, and a repacking kit that included six
clips and a bandoleer to hold them. Sometime soon I will get a
cleaning kit and maybe some more ammunition. I am still deciding if I
want to get a bayonet for it.

I have loaded all of the clips. Then I will go back into the woods to
practice shooting. I know where there is a deep ravine cut into red
clay that will make a very safe shooting gallery. I will set up the
targets in the side, make sure there are no rocks near them, and then
go to the top of the ravine and shoot down. I know that I will never
win any marksmanship awards, but I would like to practice until I am
comfortable with the weapon and my accuracy.

Friday, December 26, 2008


Okay, it has been almost three weeks since I posted anything. First I
had final exam week, and then I was home for the holidays. It is
amazing how much less time I spend online when I am on vacation. I
basically just check my email once a day and glance over the RSS feeds
to see the news headlines.

This shows how our habits depend on the situation. If something is no
longer convenient, or we are no longer exposed to environmental
stimuli that cause us to think about it, we are less likely to do it.

Monday, December 8, 2008


I cannot even begin to count or describe all the ways that this is
horribly wrong:

I'll just comment on how this is another example of why you need to
make people pay the real price for things. If you give something away
for free, then people will be astonishingly creative in finding ways
to destroy or abuse it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"Health Halo"

This is a good article:

It illustrates yet another example of how people can become infected
with magical thinking: when they think that a food is 'healthy' they
lose the ability to make accurate judgments.

" 'People who eat at McDonald's know their sins,' Dr. Chandon said,
'but people at Subway think that a 1,000-calorie sandwich has only 500
calories.' His advice is not for people to avoid Subway or low-fat
snacks, but to take health halos into account. "

The more interesting finding is that adding a pack of crackers to a
meal will cause people to reduce their estimate of calories in a meal
if the crackers are labeled 'Trans Fat Free'. The presence of a
'healthy' food somehow made them think that the entire meal would be
less fattening.

Actually, that is not accurate. When I wrote 'people' I should have
written 'Americans'. Foreigners did not make the same mistake.

My mother, a nurse, has told me about a similar, but far more lethal,
mistake that her patients often make. People who have diabetes need
to avoid sugary foods, and their doctors and nurses try to teach them
how to do this. But these people often buy foods that are labeled
'Low-Fat', thinking that it will be healthier. This is exactly wrong.
Processed foods with a 'Low-Fat' label will almost always contain
extra sugar to make up for the loss of the fat. Diabetic people
should be eating foods with more fat and less sugar, but a belief that
'Low-Fat' means 'healthy' causes these patients to harm themselves.

As the article mentions, the root of the problem is food fads, social
conditioning, and lack of basic scientific knowledge. So beware of
the 'Health Halo' and remember that more food will always turn into
more fat.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Random thought: cliche

When people say "Don't bite off more than you can chew" they are
usually advising you to bite off less.

But you can also solve the problem by improving your chewing technique.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Scientific Method

A lot of people do not understand the basics of what science is. I
will attempt to state it as simply as I can:

The scientific method means that a theory can be disproven by the
facts you observe in reality. If there is no possible observation
that could disprove a belief, then that belief is not scientific.

Science means looking for things that might prove your belief wrong.
People who are constantly looking for reasons to justify or explain or
defend something are never being scientific.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Russian Population

I'll be pretty busy for the next couple of weeks, so I'll just post
the occasional link:

Russia is still capable of nuking the planet, and it is likely to
cause all manner of minor trouble in upcoming years, but it will never
again be a real power. Its days are numbered; it is nothing but a
shell of its former self and the collapse will continue to accelerate.

All they have now is oil. In a few decades, we will develop
technologies that will greatly reduce the demand for oil, and then
Russia will truly be history. Their only hope is a complete change of
government and social norms, but that looks extremely unlikely. The
people in power are extremely good at keeping power, and it seems that
there is no popular will to change anything.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Quotes: Economists, Violence

Random quote from The Economist, slightly paraphrased:

"Economists are at their best when they are thinking the unthinkable,
challenging conventional wisdom and doing other things that are
anything but reassuring."

And now, here's a thought of mine that is almost, but not quite,
entirely unrelated to the above:

"A society can only survive if it has a sufficiently large number of
people who are able to resist violence but who will not initiate
violence. Making people less able or willing to defend themselves is
just as bad as increasing the number of people who will start

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Local Honey

The state of South Carolina cut our budget a lot, and one of the
programs that had its budget slashed was the Student Organic Farm.
Today they had a Farm Festival to raise money.

The pricing structure was well-designed and incentive-compatible: The
event was free but parking was $5. I heartily approve of this plan as
an economist, an environmentalist, and someone who doesn't mind

I hung around a little bit, said hello to someone I knew, and bought
some honey. Organic food is usually a waste of money, but locally
produced honey is worth paying for, especially when it is the really
dark kind. Actually, It wasn't that expensive. I paid $8 for 32
ounces of the stuff.

I will keep it in my desk drawer and just eat it with a knife when I
want something sweet. In my experience, high-quality honey is wasted
when you mix it with oatmeal or cook with it. Honey is like wine: you
cook with the cheap kind and drink the good kind.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sweet Potatoes

The sweet potato harvest came in recently. They are a quarter a pound
at Wal-Mart, and about the same at other grocery stores. I, of
course, picked up a supply. Sweet potatoes are the perfect grad
student food. I put them in the Crock Pot when I go to school, and
eat them when I get back.

As I was getting my potatoes, an old black lady was also stocking up.
She was not bothering to use the little flimsy produce bags, but was
instead filling up grocery bags with sweet potatoes. This was a wise
move on her part; when I took my potatoes to the register the bag
broke. I estimate that she had over 50 pounds of sweet potatoes in
her grocery cart. Economic crisis or not, she and/or her family will
eat well, and cheaply, for the next few weeks.

This little incident certainly provides perspective on the current
difficulties. In any other time, an 'economic crisis' implied that
you had real difficulty purchasing enough food to keep your family
alive. No matter how bad things get, we will not be in that
situation. Even at their normal price of a dollar a pound, nobody is
too poor to buy 20 pounds of sweet potatoes a week, and that is a lot
of nutrition.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Future Shock 2

There is a woman walking around with an artificial organ grown from
her own stem cells:

True, it is a very simple organ, and they needed the tissues of a
donor organ to make it work, but I have no trouble believing that the
technique, once demonstrated, will be rapidly improved and expanded.
Expect more and more reports like this in the next few years.

Also, expect health care costs to continue to rise. Sooner or later
people will start to see lab-grown replacement organs, and the
associated replacement surgeries, as a 'right'. I predict that the
Baby Boom generation will go through about a dozen replacement organs
per person before they die, and taxpayers will be expected to provide

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ivory Tower Part 2

Earlier I complained about a macroeconomics teacher who, in the middle of interesting times, was only talking about mathematical models. In our last class, that teacher discussed current events, and did a good job of it. Of course, some of the other students complained.

This is the same teacher from the Fractional Children episode. When discussing my term paper recently, he mentioned that my low grade on that teat was 'perversity' and that he would take that into account on the final grade. So apparently he has a kind of honor that makes him count off on the test for doing it differently, but then will allow him to fudge the final grade in my favor to compensate.

You Can't Win

No matter what you try to do, they will find ways to get you...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Framing Bias: Market Movement

I just checked Google Finance and say that the markets are down about
2.5% today. My first thought was "Nothing interesting or unusual

I was about to move to something else when I realized the absurdity of
my thoughts. Any time before this summer, a 2.5% drop in markets
would have been something to think about and comment on. But now I
accepted it as being normal. This shows how easy it is to let our
thinking, and our perception of normality, be influenced by recent
history. This chronic failure in human thought is referred to as the
'framing bias.' We judge things in the context of the immediate
situation, or what came just before.

It takes great knowledge, skill, and discipline to escape the
short-term mindset and see things with an extended awareness. But it
is very important to do so.

Thrift and Food

I just realized that I earn more money each month in interest than I
spend on food. Granted, most of that interest is locked in an IRA
that I cannot touch for decades, but it is still an odd feeling.

On a related note, I read that stores are seeing an increased demand
for rice and beans as a result of economic conditions. This is bad
for me, because it means that my diet will get a little more

Social Conformity

This is a good summary of the psychology of evil:

Friday, November 14, 2008

Random Observations

Another Hazard of Martial Arts Training:

I was putting together a new office chair earlier. The instructions
said to make sure the screws were tight, so I twisted the hex key
until I couldn't twist it any more, like I have always done in the
past. This particular chair had no 'hand tighten only' warning, but
most sets of instructions do, and for good reason.

I generated enough torque to destroy parts of the chair. When
attaching the arms, I drove the screw head deep into the plastic,
digging a circle that was not supposed to be there. When attaching
the back, the metal socket was ripped out of the wood frame as I
tightened the screw too much.

I will have to be more careful when doing things like this in the
future, especialy if it is cheap stuff from China. I need to learn
to stop at the right amount of resistance. It seems that if your
hands count as lethal weapons, they also count as machine tools.

Now, more random thoughts and quotes that have been accumulating on my
note paper:

When it comes to living a moral life, philosophy is much less
important than impulse control. Psychopaths can easily pass written
tests on ethics or moral philosophy. Virtue is a matter of actions
and habits, and all of the thinking in the world is useless if you
cannot properly control your own behavior.

Evolution is not some mythical quest toward perfection. It is nothing
more and nothing less than a contest to see who can have the most
grandchildren. Most people over 50 instinctively know this.

The world is full of things that would be wonderful if they were true.

A cult is defined as any group that has no sense of humor. If you
have the ability to laugh at yourself, then it means that you possess
the introspection, awareness, and humility needed to prevent yourself
from being dominated by a doctrine.

There are two types of thinking you must avoid:
1) "Everything was planned."
2) "Life is random."
Conspiracy theories and fatalism are equally wrong. Everything
happens for a reason, but that reason is rarely human intention.

Teachers do not exist to give people information about a topic. When
it comes to transmitting information, a book is just as good as a
teacher. The purpose of a teacher is to point out what you do not
know. Seeing the limits of our own knowledge, and the shape of our
ignorance, is very hard to do on our own. A good teacher will reveal
these things to you so that the learning process may begin.

I have an oregano plant and a rosemary plant in my windowsill. One
time, a kid asked me why I had them. I told him that I eat them. He
seemed stunned by this. Even now, he sometimes asks me if I am still
eating the plants. The concept appears alien to him. This surely
says something about our world.

I recently bought a pair sandals for $5 at Wal-Mart. Solid footwear
shipped from the other side of the world now costs less than a few
pounds of apples. We really do live in an odd world.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beginner's Luck

Last night I had the chance to play real games of poker for the first
time. I have played around with friends or family a few times, and I
knew the basic rules, but I had never played with actual chips or
proper betting rules. It was a friendly game, but we followed all of
the official rules.

It was a $10 buy-in, nickel-ante, dealer's-choice game. I expected to
lose the $10, but figured the night would be worth it. There were
four of us: me, another econ grad student, the husband of an econ grad
student, and some poor sap who was clearly out of his league. He had
played poker quite a bit, and knew a lot of interesting variants, but
his mind just didn't have the ability to keep up with our ability to
calculate probabilities and strategies.

I played fairly well, despite occasionally forgetting things. I found
that I could be completely rational about the game; I don't remember
ever getting emotional in any way. Nobody seemed to be able to read
me or figure out what I was thinking. My strategy was one of ruthless
mathematical calculation: trust the odds, calculate expected values,
and act accordingly, mostly ignoring the signals generated by other
players. It seemed to work.

The format of the night was extremely good for my kind of thinking.
Every round, we would change the type of game being played, so all of
the strategies and odds would change. This favored rapid calculation
rather than experience or study. If we had been playing one of the
more common variants all night, I would probably have been at a severe
disadvantage; these players probably knew all of the ideal strategies.
I seem to remember that when we played common games like Texas
Hold-em, I didn't do as well. And when I called five-card draw, I did
pretty well, because I have the most experience in that format.

Here is an example of how I approached the game. After some time, my
$10 stake had slowly grown to about $18. We were playing a version of
Texas Hold-em where the appearance of any face card causes the entire
hand to be removed from play and re-dealt, but with the pot intact.
The pot was about $4, two players had folded, and the remaining one
went all-in for $12. I had nothing good in my hand, but I thought for
a bit. I figured that he was probably bluffing, and even if he wasn't
there was a good chance for a face card to show up and randomize
everything. Given that the winner would be random, I was facing a 50%
chance of losing $12 and a 50% chance of winning $16. Those seemed
like good odds, so I called. Also, I didn't want to set a precedent
of allowing him to claim pots like that. It turned out that he was
bluffing, and that a face card did show up to force a re-deal. I
ended up winning the $28 pot with a pair of twos.

If he had waited until the last card had been flipped, I might have
folded, because the potential randomness would have been reduced a
lot. But he was not adjusting his bluffing strategy to the change in
the game rules.

After that, I cashed in, putting $20 in my wallet and leaving about
$14 in chips. This amount didn't change for a while, and then I lost
it calling another all-in. I had a full house, but it wasn't enough.
I bought another $10 of chips, leaving my wallet with the money I had
come in with. My pile of chips started to grow steadily again. I had
a run of good luck, and my slow and precise incremental betting
strategy never scared people into folding until it was too late. I
hardly ever won through other people folding; it usually turned into a
showdown and I usually won. I ended the night by using a hand of four
jacks to clean out the table. I am now $36 richer.

I know that I had a run of ridiculous luck. I don't expect that to
ever happen again. But it is nice to know that I can play the game
fairly well.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My Vocabulary

I am trying to keep this blog accessible. I don't want to use any
academic jargon. I know that I should keep the vocabulary and
sentence structure as simple as possible in order to communicate well.

But when your idea of fun is getting into an argument with a
philosopher, you tend to have a warped view of communication. On that
note, here is a copy of an email I sent to a philosophy professor.

Background: I am constantly working to convince the philosophy people
that it is a good idea to use the framework of economic thought to
make judgments about the world.

Subject: Cost-Benefit And Moral Duty

I understand what you were saying last night about the use of
cost-benefit analysis. It does seem that using a cost-benefit
framework to guide our actions is different than using a framework of
moral duty to guide our actions. I agree that moral duty comes first,
and a system that can only justify itself using its own tools is
flawed. But the cost-benefit analysis is not a source of moral value;
it is a tool to enable you to implement your existing moral duties.
Using these analytical tools does not imply taking a utilitarian
calculus as a source of value.

I agree that we have a moral duty to preserve the health of the
planet. But we also have a moral duty to help human beings live
fulfilling lives. At some point, these moral duties conflict with
each other. Resources are scarce, and we have to choose which moral
duty to advance with them. The cost-benefit analysis allows you to
implement your moral duty to save the planet while causing the least
collateral damage to the moral duty of advancing the human quality of

Monday, November 10, 2008


This is amazing. The Internet is still a wild place:

"By hijacking a working spam network, US researchers have uncovered
some of the economics of being a junk mailer. "

"The team ... took over a chunk of the Storm network to make it easier
to run their study."

That is the most impressive, audacious, outrageous, and awesome thing
that has been done in the name of science in a long time. Only
computer scientists would be so bold. They will probably win the Ig
Nobel* for this.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sociology and Economics

I went to a Sociology talk last week; a professor was presenting a
paper on work-life balance. It started off fairly well; he had a
decent data set and a passable model. But then it fell apart. He
didn't really know how to work with the numbers, and his logic started
to get muddled, so he didn't get any useful results. But the real
howler was something he wrote on the last slide:

"We need theories to explain how people make trade-offs when they
cannot get exactly what they prefer."

The entire field of Economics is devoted to how people make decisions
in the face of scarcity. Anyone who sat through an introductory Econ
class could give you several useful theories to explain how people
make trade-offs when they cannot get exactly what they prefer.

The entire premise of that question reflects a mind-boggling
misunderstanding of reality. Do sociologists really believe that the
normal state of affairs is for everyone to get exactly what they want?
Do they believe that every social fact they observe in reality is
there because someone wanted it to be there?

But, in defense of Sociologists, I have seen equally bone-headed
statements in Economics papers. In fact, we often make the very same
mistake. There are some people who take the Efficient Markets
Hypothesis and rationality assumptions way too far, and assume that
any economic behavior we observe is a 'revealed preference' and
corresponds exactly to what people chose to do to maximize utility.

This is why you need to study outside your field. Economists can
explain how people make reasonable choices and what happens as a
result. Sociologists can explain why people are often constrained by
social forces so that they are unable to think rationally, and what
happens as a result.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Subcontracting the Dirty Work

One of the slow-moving and barely-noticed trends in recent years is
growing Chinese involvement in the Third World. Rather than buying
raw materials from American and European companies, the Chinese are
getting them directly at the source. They make deals with governments
and send people in to build mines and wells.

The few people who notice this trend and comment on it typically see
it as a threat. They see it as representing a decrease in the power
and influence of America, and an increase in the power and wealth of
China. They suggest that this new Chinese activity is to be worried
about, and possibly opposed.

I argue that this is not the case. The Chinese, for various reasons,
will have a comparative advantage in resource extraction. Their
future dominance of the industry is practically inevitable. We should
think about dealing with the consequences, and not preventing it.

Western firms are increasingly being constrained by government
regulations and activist pressures. They have to follow a strict set
of rules regarding things like bribes. The firms are constantly being
questioned about things like human rights and environmental policy.
In some cases, they are even facing lawsuits in American courts
regarding things that government soldiers did on their property.

Chinese firms have no such constraints or problems. Their people and
government want the companies to go out and bring wealth to China in
the most effective way possible. The Chinese are too busy trying to
improve conditions at their home businesses to care about the things
that the companies to to foreigners.

Ironically, the Third World governments often prefer China's method.
Americans and Europeans insist on all kinds of complicated paperwork
and conditions, while the Chinese mainly talk about business and
money. As a result, the Chinese are easier to deal with. They bring
wealth and development without so much bureaucracy.

However, the Chinese are learning that things are not always so easy.
Recently, some Chinese were killed by militants in Sudan. This is
only the latest in a string of attacks on Chinese workers in nasty
parts of the world. I suspect that the Chinese will not tolerate this
for long. The people of China are very nationalistic and assertive,
and still very sensitive to attacks on their people or power.

The Chinese had been making the naive assumption that they would not
be attacked because they are not Western. They apparently believed
that we were hated because of the history of imperialism, and deserved
to be attacked for that reason. They are encountering a simple truth
of the world: people get attacked because they are targets. If you
are working in a lawless place and have something to steal, you will
get targeted.

I expect that, in the near future, the Chinese will begin to move
aggressively to protect their people and investments. I also expect
that these difficulties will not deter the Chinese from investing more
in raw materials production. I predict that, as the Chinese will use
an increasing amount of military and diplomatic resources to project
their power, their companies will eventually become more effective at
dealing with these difficulties and extracting the resources.

I believe that, in a few decades, there will be very few American or
European companies doing dirty work in dangerous places. They will
sell their overseas operations to Chinese companies. The lack of
legal problems, regulatory constraints, or activist pressure, combined
with the explicit support of an aggressive government, will make the
operations much more efficient and profitable.

Really, this will be a win-win situation for both America and China.
We will get all the resources we were getting before, we will get them
more cheaply, and we will have the emotional comfort of knowing that
our countrymen are not forced to risk their lives or get their hands
dirty. The Chinese will expand their economy and get richer.

The losers, of course, will be the inhabitants of the poor countries
of the world. They may think that the USA is a militaristic imperial
power, but they haven't seen anything yet.

However, if I were to be really cynical, I might say that Chinese
imperialism will be a good thing for them as well. Fascism is usually
better than anarchy. I would rather live in Tibet than Congo. If the
Chinese manage to install puppet governments that maintain law and
order, the people could be better off.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life Is Not Fair

I just found out that I got the highest grade in the class in our
Econometrics midterm.

This is my weakest subject. I don't really understand the material
that well. I didn't study nearly as much as my classmates. It makes
no sense for me to be the top of the class. I had been expecting to
get a low B on the test.

"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet
riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but
time and chance happeneth to them all."

A similar thing happened on the Macroeconomics midterm last week. I
got the highest grade, despite being less proficient at the math and
spending less time working. But that one can be explained by my
decision to use an unconventional approach to the problem solving, a
decision that gave me a bad grade on the first Macro midterm.

The only way to make these events appear fair would be to assume that
all of my philosophical musings, meditation, introspection, and
psychological investigation are somehow improving the way that my mind
functions. I may spend less time studying economics, but I spend a
lot of time studying cognitive processes. But that stuff doesn't
really count as hard work; I do it because it is fun and interesting.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Opposing Ideologies

I finished Jasper Fforde's third book yesterday. It is better than
the first two, and does not require that you read the other two first.
It has more of a Lewis Carrol feel than the other two, and is
generally more coherent.

There is a scene in the book where somebody creates a large explosion
by tying a copy of 'Das Kapital' to a copy of 'Mein Kampf'. This is
quite clever, but it bothered me for two reasons:

1) Several months ago, I had the idea of generating explosions in a
magical land by tying opposing books to each other. Now, if I use
this in a story, it will look like I copied it.

2) Communism and Fascism are not opposites. They are almost
identical. The historical struggle between the two types of nations
was simply a contest between two gangs of power-mad dictators.

Both systems rely on the suppression of individual will and individual
liberty. Both of them are centered around the worship of the state,
the collective and the 'greater good'. Both of them are totalitarian;
all economic, social, and political decisions are made by a small
group of people in the government. Both of them lead inevitably to
secret police, detention camps, and zero respect for life, liberty,
individual dignity, and freedom of thought. Both of them create wars
and death on a massive scale.

If you really wanted to see an explosion, you would tie a copy of
'Atlas Shrugged' to a copy of The Koran.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Book Recommendation: Jasper Fforde

On the advice of a friend, I have read the first two novels by Jasper
Fforde: 'The Eyre Affair' and 'Lost in a Good Book.' I highly
recommend a certain kind of reader.

If you are the kind of person who knows a lot about classic
literature, and has a love of the unexpected and absurd, then these
books are definitely for you. If you don't have a lot of literary
knowledge, but like the works of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett,
then you will also enjoy the books. They are funny,
thought-provoking, and an overall good read.

From what I have seen, you need to start at the beginning. There are
a lot of details about the world and incidents from the plot that will
make no sense unless you have read the books in order, and have a
fairly good memory.

For example, in the first book, there is an incident where the main
character asks a time traveler to go back and investigate the true
authorship of Shakespeare's plays. The time traveler later reports
that Shakespeare did not write the plays; he was just an actor. But
the time traveler also reports that none of the other suspects were
the author either. In fact, there was no evidence that anybody was
writing the plays. So the time traveler hands a copy of "The Complete
Works of William Shakespeare" to the young actor.

In the second book, the main character is again talking to the time
traveler and mentions that there are 33* Shakespeare plays. The time
traveler says, "That's odd, there were only 18 plays in the copy I
gave him." Main Character: "He must have written more. That might
explain why so many of the comedies seem to have the same plot."

That little exchange is a small aside to a conversation about a
different topic, and it shows up without any explanation. It is also
a good taste of the kind of things that happen in the books.

I do have one note of warning. Don't think about things too much.
Just go along for the ride. There are several definite plot holes and
inconsistencies. This is a fairly common symptom of an author who has
way more creativity than logic. But the faults are usually fairly
minor, and the books are definitely worth reading.

Also, you may want to have Wikipedia handy as you are reading these
books. There are a lot of things that you will want to look up.

I just checked out the third book from the library, and plan on reading it soon.

*The actual number of Shakespeare plays is 38. This was not a mistake
of the author; these books take place in an alternate reality.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Censorship and Savagery

Some time ago, I heard an Indian professor talking with somebody, and
somehow the conversation led to him saying something like this:

"People do not respect our culture. There is a popular American movie
that shows Indians as savages eating monkey brains. This was wrong.
That did not happen. Because of this, that movie is banned in India."

He was referring to the second Indiana Jones movie. This disturbed me
at the time, but I didn't say anything. The incident stuck in my
mind, though, and began to collect thoughts the same way that a spider
web collects bugs and leaves. Here is the result. If I had a quicker
mind and a braver soul, I would have said something like this:

"I don't care if your ancestors ate monkey brains. My ancestors ate
squirrel brains and hog testicles, and I'm not afraid to admit it.

The thing I do care about is the fact that you and your culture would
support censoring this movie. Why do you feel threatened by a
depiction of an evil nobleman in the 1930's eating monkey brains? The
movie portrays the normal Indian people as good. If the depiction of
the palace food is a lie, it is a lie about a dead aristocratic
tradition. How can you interpret this as a slur on your modern

By supporting censorship of something you feel offends you, you are
showing that you do not understand or respect the value of free
expression. Freedom of thought is one of the most fundamental
principles of the ethical system of the modern world.

Savagery is not defined by what you eat or how you amuse yourself. It
is defined by how you react to thoughts and ideas that challenge your
self-image and beliefs. Civilized people react by thinking about the
truth of the matter, and then stating their own thoughts. They
understand that their thoughts might be wrong, so it would be wrong to
use force to impose them. They also trust that the best way to fight
lies is with truth, not with force. Savages, however, react to
anything they do not like by killing the messenger.

Censorship is savagery. It is the use of power to subvert the will of
other human beings, to impose your thoughts on the world by force of
arms. Like many forms of savagery, censorship is often justified in
times of war, when an enemy has initiated deadly force against you and
your survival is at stake. But it cannot be justified for a simple
insult, even if that insult is a lie.

By supporting this censorship, you have revealed yourself to be a
savage and damned your culture in my eyes."

In the process of writing this blog post, I looked up information
about censorship in India. Apparently the ban on the Indy movie was
only temporary, but the Indian government still censors things to this
day. Most of the things it censors are documentaries critical of the
government, but it has also banned things like 'The Satanic Verses'
and 'The Da Vinci Code'. I have no idea why they would ban the latter
one; it only insults Christians. And as far as I know, no Christian
nation ever tried to ban this book. (Requesting that tax dollars not
be used to purchase something is not censorship.)

As I review this blog post, I realize that reading an Ayn Rand novel
is hazardous to your writing style. Nobody talks like that in real
life. But if I wrote a book, my characters would start talking like
this if I did not watch myself.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Rationality and Cunning

It's official: kids these days are dumber:

I particularly like the following quote from the article:

"Britain's unusually early start to formal education may make things
worse, as infants are diverted from useful activities such as making
sand-castles and playing with water into unhelpful ones, such as
holding a pen and forming letters."

The author completely serious. Numerous sources agree that the best
way to build good critical thinking thinking skills is to go out and
interact with reality. Excessive classroom education produces kids
who only know how to memorize and repeat things. Their education is
artificial, increasingly disconnected from reality. They are simply
performing random tasks for incomprehensible reasons.

This kind of thing ties into some thoughts I have been mulling over
regarding different types of intelligence. Specifically, think of the
difference between rationality and cunning.

Rationality what people usually mean when they say 'intelligence.' It
is the ability to proceed logically through a set of procedures,
carefully weighing alternatives. It is what IQ tests measure. It is
the kind of thing that gives you good grades in school and makes you a
useful corporate drone. There is some critical thinking involved, but
it is not really essential.

Cunning, on the other hand, is a very different type of intelligence.
It is kind of like a cross between wisdom and survival instinct. It
is the ability to identify and solve problems quickly, almost
subconsciously. It is the ability to gather information about reality
and convert that information into action. It is the ability to put
resources to their most effective use. Most importantly, it allows
its possessor to do things that, at a gut level, make sense.

This kind of intelligence that is either ignored or actively
discouraged. Cunning allows people to break rules, to question
stupidity, and to frustrate the system. However, for almost all of
human history, cunning was far more important to survival than
rationality. Cunning lets you prosper in a complicated and
unpredictable world. Rationality lets you prosper in a regimented,
stable society.

I'm sure any teacher who has been around for more than a few years
knows about this distinction, even if they would not use the words I
am using. They will have students who are very cunning but not at all
rational, or students who are very rational but have no cunning. The
former often drop out and then go on to lead successful lives, while
the latter often stay in school forever, becoming an integral part of
the ivory tower community.

Possibly as a result of this self-reinforcing loop, our educational
culture, and most of our society, seems devoted to nurturing
rationality above all else. Rationality is seen as the only measure
of intelligence. But this is clearly misguided. Cunning is a vital
skill, and it becomes even more important as the world becomes more

I think that the disconnect between rationality and cunning helps
explain a few notable cultural divides. One of the biggest is between
the academic world and the business world. Academia is based almost
entirely on rationality. Successful business executives must be
cunning. Rationality is less important; a cunning person can easily
hire rational people for tasks that require rationality.

But academics often do not respect cunning, or even know of its
existence, because they do not know how to measure it. By their
standards of intelligence, businessmen are stupid, because they
possess less rationality than academics do. So the academic concludes
that businessmen simply get lucky, or that they are cheating somehow.
They then feel perfectly justified in taking money away from
businessmen and giving it to rational people, in order to improve the

Of course, this rarely works. Cunning people are usually better than
rational people at managing money.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Data and Identity

Sometimes my knowledge of computers gives me a unique way of looking
at philosophical problems.

We were discussing identity. Philosophers have all kinds of questions
that force you to think carefully about your beliefs The professor
asked us, "Suppose you were sent through a teleporter from one end of
the world to another. And as you do, the teleporter makes an
identical copy of you. Now imagine that a mad scientist wants to run
all kinds of torturous experiments. Do you want him to lock up the
original, or the copy?"

I said, "It doesn't matter. I have no preference. They are both me."

This seemed to startle everyone. Most people say that they would
prefer that the copy be tortured, but they are unable to justify this.
It is generally seen as a puzzle. I see no puzzle.

Think about a computer. You don't really care about the machine; you
care about the programs and data on the computer. If you copy all of
the data to a new machine, then nothing has changed. You now have two
identical computers. If one of them got destroyed, you would not
really care.

Yet the people all seemed to think that identity was somehow connected
to their physical body. So I proposed a modification to the plan. I
said, "Imagine that the copy of you is flawless, but that the original
is damaged in the process. Your ability to do everything you consider
important in life, from making money to doing research to loving your
family. You are, literally, half the person you once were. Now, do
you want the original or the copy to be the lab rat?"

The philosophy teacher thought about this for a while, and said, "My
work is important. I think I would take one for the team and let the
copy take my place in the world."

He still didn't get it. It seems self-evident to me that the copy
would gain all rights to his identity. The copy is now more like him
than the original. By any sensible definition of identity, he should
think of the copy as 'me' and the original as 'other.'

But if you don't work with computers and data transfers much, you
wouldn't have the insight that I do into data and identity. It seems
perfectly natural to me to define people in terms of data rather than
a physical body.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Class and Car Purchase

What does your vehicle say about your social class?

Lower Lower Class: You have no car.
Middle Lower Class: You acquire an old clunker for free and fix it up yourself.
Upper Lower Class: You acquire a sensible economy car for cheap and
fix it up yourself.

Lower Middle Class: You take out a loan to buy an old clunker.
Middle Middle Class: You take out a loan to buy a sensible economy car.
Upper Middle Class: You take out a loan to buy a fancy, conspicuous car.

Lower Upper Class: You buy a sensible economy car by writing a check.
Middle Upper Class: You buy a fancy, conspicuous car by writing a check.
Upper Upper class: You have people to buy cars for you and drive you around.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Imaginary Education

A main part of my job as a TA involves working directly with the
results of our country's education system. This has been extremely

One guy who came in for tutoring was incapable of dividing 800 by 400
in his head. He had come in to my office for help with a problem, and
our problems are usually designed so that you can do it without the
aid of a calculator. That's the theory, anyway. The problem required
finding the percentage change of something, which meant doing the
aforementioned calculation. I was guiding him through the problem,
and when we got to that part, he said, "I can't do it; I don't have my
calculator with me." I said, "You've got scrap paper; do it by hand."
The words did not seem to register. He looked at me like I had asked
him to calculate a cube root by hand.

Now, this guy admits that he is not good at math. But he got acecpted
to a big-name university, one of the top 30 in the nation. This year,
we accepted about 3,000 incoming freshmen out of over 15,000 freshman
applications. Half of the incoming freshmen were in the top 10
percent of their high school graduating class, and they have an
average SAT of 1226.

My aunt is an elementary school teacher with a couple of master's
degrees in education. I asked her at what grade students would be
expected to divide 800 by 400. Her answer: second grade.

So we have a guy who got into a high-quality, selective university,
and he can't do second-grade math reliably. I'll give him the benefit
of the doubt; maybe he could have done it if he really had to. But
this learned helplessness, this dependence on machines to do math, is
endemic among the freshmen I am teaching.

I toyed with the idea of giving a five-minute math quiz in class one
day. I'd hand out a paper with 100 simple arithmetic problems, give
them five minutes, prohibit calculators, and see what the results are.
When I mentioned this to my aunt, she pointed me to some websites
that have math testing materials for elementary school tachers. None
of the tests fit what I wanted to do, but I say something that
literally stunned me: a test on imaginary numbers meant to be given to
fifth graders. My aunt confirmed that the standardized tests do
indeed include imaginary numbers.

This is ridiculous. Nobody except mathematicians and electrical
engineers, and maybe computer programmers, needs to know anything
about imaginary numbers. I was first introduced to imaginary numbers
in an elective class in my senior year of high school, at a
math-oriented magnet school. I am studying a math-intensive research
field, and I will never, in my professional career, ever use imaginary
numbers. There is no possible justification for trying to test
elementary school students on this stuff.

Clearly this is a symptom that the people who make these tests are
losing contact with reality. What were they thinking? Maybe it was
along the lines of "Advanced mathematicians use this stuff, and it is
technically possible to make the kids memorize it, so if we teach it
we are teaching high-quality math." This is of course rubbish.
Making kids memorize the rules for manipulating complex numbers does
nothing to teach the fundamental concepts. The brains of little kids
are simply not equipped to grasp the concept of 'The square root of
negative 1'. I can barely understand the meaning of the concept. I
would be pleasantly surprised if a fifth grader even understood the
concept of the square root, and knew how to use it.

Is it any wonder that kids ignore or forget basic math lessons? If
the imaginary numbers are any indication, they have been subjected to
cargo-cult math lessons their entire life. They may be able to
memorize a routine and pass a test, but the system has clearly put
very little effort into teaching them how to actually use math. Math
is a set of tools that you use to understand reality. If you don't
understand that, then you will always be hopeless at it. If you don't
know how to connect math to reality, than the math is useless.

I have opten complained about how algebra is a requirement for getting
a high school diploma, even as there is almost no effort to teach
basic financial literacy. I would guess that only about 10% of the
people on the planet actually need to use algebra in their jobs. But
everyone needs to know about interest rates, compounding, and the time
value of money. And if you don't take business courses in college,
you will never learn about these kinds of things. One of the main
reasons for the economic mess we are in now is that people simply do
not understand what it means to borrow a lot of money.

Now, algebra does help you work with the interest rate equations. If
you don't have algebra skills, you have to learn half a dozen formulas
instead of just one or two. But people are much better at
memorization than symbolic manipulation. Most people simply do not
possss the kind of mind that is required to be comfortable with
algebra, and it is foolish to expect them to learn this esoteric skill
at the expense of things that you need to know to live a good life.

Teaching imaginary numbers in elementary school is far, far worse than
teaching algebra in high school. Instead of something that 10% of the
population needs, it is something that 0.01% of the population needs.
It is also worse than useless. The kids, if they have any sense, will
forget everything they ever learned about imaginary numbers right
after they take the test. This creates horrible habits. Not only do
they learn to forget the useless routine of the week, they also learn
to forget the basic life skills that they will really need.

I have seen more and more evidence that our education system is
completely failing to provide students with a useful, science-based
mapping of reality. Instead, it all seems to be devoted to putting
random facts and arbitrary routines into short-term memory. Now,
memorizing facts is important. Facts are the bricks that you use to
build the structures in your mind. But you need something to connect
that knowledge to, so it becomes long-term knowledge. Facts without
context are soon forgotten.

Education should be about teaching people how to understand and work
with reality. I have seen little evidence that our system
accomplishes this.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cultural Superiority

From BBC News:

"The body of a 20-year-old Iraqi girl turned up recently in a small
Sunni town south of Tikrit. Her own family had killed her.

She had been having an affair with her cousin, but that was not the
problem: cousins often marry in this part of the world. But they had
decided to have sex and he had persuaded her to let him film this
"just for us".

Of course, he could not resist showing the tape to his friends, to boast.

The pictures started to circulate in this small town and her family
found out the couple had been sleeping together.

Honour demanded that they murder her - not him, naturally.

The US army officer telling me this story said his soldiers had wanted
to find the boy involved and give him a good beating.

The officer, too, was furious, but also resigned to the situation.
After more than a year here, he knew only too well that Salahaddin
province was never going to be Kansas. "


Some cultures are better than others. This is a simple fact. By any
standard of value you care to name, a civilization that organizes
itself by Enlightenment values* is superior to a civilization that
organizes itself by primitive tribal superstitions and taboos. It has
been hundreds of years since this kind of thing happened with any
regularity in Western society.

Clearly, there are a lot of things we still need to improve. We are
still dealing with the effects of a history of brutality, repression,
and toxic social structures. But at least it is mostly history. In
America, this kind of savagery is a tragedy. In most of the rest of
the world, it is a statistic.

I know that, in many cases, the USA is not the best exemplar of
Enlightenment values. And there are many social issues, like the
liberty/equality trade-off, where there is no unequivocably superior
state of existence. I would estimate that America is the fifth or
sixth best country on the planet, in terms of culture. There are a
few places that are a little better, about dozen that are about equal,
and a couple dozen that are almost as good. Most of the rest are
cesspools of violence, corruption, and rotten habits of thought.

This does not imply that the people who live in those cultures are
inherently worse than us. People are people, all driven by the same
basic psychology. There is no racial difference in overall mental
ability or tendency toward violence. But people are all very
malleable. They soak up the culture they are born into. People who
are born into bad cultures will usually become bad, and the only way
to fix that is to change the culture.

This has been done. Before 1945, Japan was a fascist, militarist,
god-emperor-worshiping theocracy that sent its young men on suicide
bombing missions. We changed that by breaking the existing power
structure and imposing liberal democracy by force. It was the biggest
social experiment ever attempted, and it worked.

Of course, the situation in Japan was much more friendly to outside
change. The culture and power structures were very centralized, while
Iraq has a horribly complicated web of small-scale, local, tribal
power structures. But the fact that we have been unwilling and unable
to change the culture in Iraq for the better can be seen as a symptom
of the decline of our civilization.

Most of the mess in Iraq is the failure to commit sufficient resources
to the job. War is hell. It should only be undertaken in order to
avoid an even worse hell. If you do go to war, you must go in with
excellent strategy and overwhelming force, so as to end it as quickly
as possible. A half-assed war is the worst possible option, because
it generates all of the problems of war, and it costs more in the long
run, and it fails to change the world in your favor.

But the bigger problem is that Americans have lost confidence in the
values of our civilization, forgotten what they are, or, even worse,
actively opposed them**. In the late 1940's, nobody had any
complaints about forcing Japan to accept a constitution that was
mostly a copy of ours. It was seen as the natural and inevitable
thing to do. Partly this was due to racism and egotism, but there was
also the justified belief that our way of organizing society was
better for all of the people in society. We should recover this
belief, and celebrate it.

A lot of people might read this post and think of me as a bigot. It
is true that a vast number of bigoted people in our history have
talked like this, and that a sense of superiority is a very dangerous
thing. But if you have something valuable, you should treasure it.
Our culture is a rare and valuable thing. I am not a superior human
being because I was born into our culture. I am just lucky. And I
want every human being in the future to share my good fortune.

*Reason, the scientific method, rule of law, respect for life and
liberty, legal protection of individual rights and freedoms

**There was once a time when being a liberal meant that you were
trying to make society better. Now, it seems like being a liberal
means saying that no society is better than any other. There are far
too many people who exaggerate the problems in our society while
ignoring the far worse problems elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Random Notes and Quotes

These things have been accumulating on my note paper. They are not
worth writing a full blog post on, so I'll put them all up now so I
can clear the clutter off my desk:


Office Conversation:
"It must be really bad to not have a sense of humor. How do they cope?"
"A feeling of superiority is a substitute for humor."

The best way to beat the odds is to make yourself better than average.

It takes a dirty mind to sound innocent all of the time. People who
really are innocent often say dirty things because they do not know
the double meanings. You have to know all of the innuendo and slang
in order to avoid saying them.

On average, people who are wrong use stronger language than people who
are right. This is because the kind of people who know the truth are
usually the kind of people who are careful with their language. This
means that people who judge opinions by 'strength of conviction'
usually believe the wrong people and things.

Supporting a few 'unfit' individuals is a small price to pay for
maintaining the long-term genetic diversity of the human race.

Too many simplifying assumptions makes a theory worthless. Too few
simplifying assumptions makes a theory impossible to work with.

A patient evil person is easily mistaken for a good person. An
impatient good person can easily cause a lot of evil.

The interest rate is the reward for patience or the punishment for impatience.

Economics is the study of what happens when people make rational
choices. It has much less predictive value in situations when people
are unwilling or unable to act rationally.

Math proofs say nothing about reality. They are only show the
self-consistency of a language system.

Beware of anybody who judges reality against an imaginary perfect world.

An economist understands people the same way a bridge builder understands cars.

I looked for economist jokes online, and found very few original ones.
Almost all of them were recycled lawyer jokes or scientist jokes.
That, in itself, is an interesting result: An economist is someone
about whom you can tell both layer jokes and scientist jokes.

For a certain definition of rationality, animal behavior is always
more rational than human behavior. There is more selection pressure,
and less room for error.

You will never make money if you assume that everyone else is rational.

"Politicians always talk about 'a level playing field.' They have
never seen a level playing field. You don't want a level playing
field; the water never drains off." - My Micro Professor

Macroeconomic growth models are based on the assumption that people
maximize their happiness. This is fundamentally flawed because it
does not have an evolutionary perspective. Assuming that behavior is
passed onto children, the only behavior we will see in the long run is
behavior that maximizes the number of successful children. Behavior
patterns that focus on anything other than children will quickly
disappear from the population.

Intelligence is what you know. Wisdom is your ability to define the
limits of your knowledge.


Whew. Unfortunately, that did nothing to clear my desk. Each sheet
of notes had exactly one topic that deserves to be expanded into a
full blog post...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Collectivism and Causality

I hate collectivism. I hate almost everything about the mindset that
would sacrifice individual initiative and liberty for the sake of some
group. I believe quite strongly that individuals should make their
own choices and shape their own lives.

But I also hate hero-worship and scapegoating. Rather than finding
one person to praise or blame for any event, I prefer to look for
scientific, technical, institutional, or systemic causes. I believe
that most events and situations are not the direct result of human
intention, but are instead caused by the chaotic combination of a lot
of different, and often random, events.*

How can this be reconciled? It would seem that one part of my mind is
embracing collective causality and responsibility even as another part
rejects it. But I believe that my two beliefs are a sensible, and
indeed inevitable, combination.

First, there is an important distinction to be made between the source
of value and the explanation of events. Collectivists believe that
the group is the source of value; I believe that any group is simply a
sum of individuals and that individuals are the true source of value.
This is completely compatible with a belief that the events in the
world are caused by the sum of actions of millions of individuals, and
not merely the will of one person or a small group.

It is also important to note that hero-worship and scapegoating are
not actually about the individuals. They are about the needs of the
group. People who blindly follow charismatic leaders are not judging
the leader's merits as a human being. They are seeing the leader as a
symbol, an avatar of their collective needs and desires. Similarly,
people who condemn scapegoats are rarely judging the scapegoat as a
human being. Rather, the scapegoat is seen as a symbol, a
manifestation of something that is wrong with the world.

I believe that there is actually a correlation between the
collectivist mindset and hero-worship and scapegoating, and that these
two behaviors both arise from the same psychological fallacy: The
belief that people can impose their will and intentions directly onto

It is a nearly universal superstition that things in the world are all
caused by conscious design. Primitive people believe that the wind
blows or the rain falls because some sentient power willed the event
to happen. This belief has been mostly discredited. But it has been
a lot harder to discredit the belief that social and economic events
are caused by direct intention. Economists study economic events the
same way that physicists study atmospheric events. We know that there
are certain laws that govern the behavior of the system. An
individual, even a politically powerful one, has about as much chance
of changing the economy as he or she does of changing the weather.**

And yet, people continue to believe that economic and social events
are all the result of somebody's intention. They assume that bad
events are the result of evil intentions, and that good events are the
result of good intentions. They believe that it is possible to
magically transform an intention into an economic or social reality.
Usually, they also believe that the government is the tool for doing
this. This leads to the conclusion that you can fix the world by
agreeing on common goals, and then putting someone with the right
intentions into a position of power in order to make those common
goals a reality.

Of course, the world is a lot more complicated than that. Things
happen for a lot of different reasons, and people in power soon find
that their ability to change the world is limited by, among other
things, the basic laws of economics and the basic facts of human
behavior. Things happen that nobody ever intended, and the more you
apply power in an ignorant way, the more likely you are to cause
seriously bad unintended consequences.

My belief in the limited power and capabilities of individuals
actually strengthens my belief in individual liberty. I may have a
small ability to control the circumstances of my life, but everybody
else has an even smaller ability. Life is extremely unpredictable and
chaotic, but this means that decisions must be made quickly and on the
spot. Individuals have more ability to manage their own lives than
any outside agency. The ability of the people in a government agency
is even more limited than the ability of people living their own

So what should we do? We need to learn how the world works. We need
to study how laws, rules, institutions, habits, psychological quirks,
history, and society combine to generate the effects we see in the
world. And then we need to use that knowledge to make sure that
government does the job it was meant to do: provide a legal and social
framework that allows individuals to live the best lives they can.

PS: I was going to include some discussion about how moral judgments
are shaped by beliefs about intentions and effects, but that will have
to wait for a later date. In the meantime, give this question some
thought: Do you base your moral judgments on the intentions behind a
person's actions, or the effects of those actions? This is a question
that gets more challenging as you think about it more.

*For example, many people think that gas is expensive because the oil
companies decided to make it expansive. Economists know that this
belief is nonsense. Gas prices are the result of market forces, the
combination of supply and demand, which comes from the collective
decisions of millions of people.

**Individuals can change the weather, if they work hard enough. You
can seed the clouds to make it rain, and a factory can easily cause a
nasty smog. But in the end, natural forces determine the overall
pattern. The same thing is true of meddling in the economy.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hedge Fund Chat

Earlier today, the manager of a hedge fund talked to our economic department.

He talked about how crazy things were, and how the businesses were
being wiped out by lack of credit. You have to be able to borrow
money to make investments, and when you cannot borrow, it is
impossible to do anything. Even if you have an almost-guaranteed
profit from investing in a business, you cannot do it. Banks are
forcing them to repay their loans immediately, which means that they
have to keep selling all of their assets to stay solvent. This drives
prices down, and makes the whole cycle worse. Even I knew most of
this already, but it was good to hear an insider's perspective.

Hedge funds have special contracts; investors are only alloweed to
withdraw money on certain dates. And when investors start to pull
out, they will go bankrupt and/or be forced to sell off all of their
assets. The big date to watch out for is November 15; he predicted
that a large percentage of the hedge fund industry, including his own
company, will disappear that day or shortly after. That will cause
bad things to happen in all kinds of financial markets.

He also mentioned the gallows humor that sets in on a Friday afternoon
after losing money all week. The joke going around the banking
industry is that "The last two weeks have killed more Jews than

After the meeting, he went to meet the dean of the college about
something. We speculated that he was asking for a job.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Turing Test

Recently, a computer almost passed the Turing Test. It managed to talk to people via text chat, and convince almost 30% of the examiners that it was a human.

Personally, I think the Turing Test is hogwash, for two reasons:

1) It is not a test of artificial intelligence, it is a test of computer programmers' ability to write a program that succeeds at a narrowly defined task.

2) If you took a random sample of people and told them to play with Ouija boards, I would not be surprised if 30% of them thought they were communicating with a sentient entity.

I will not be impressed until a computer manages to successfully administer a Turing Test. Sentience is, among other things*,the ability to make judgments about the sentience of other entities.**

*Sentience is also the ability to be comfortable with self-referential paradoxes.

**Yes, I am aware this statement, when combined with Reason 2, implies that people who use Ouija boards seriously are not sentient.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Scripture Conference

The pastor at my church knows how to take advantage of being near a
college campus.

Today I got an email basically saying "Our normal Monday night bible
study is canceled. Instead, we will be going to a discussion being
held by the University's philosophy department. They have a Jewish
professor, an Eastern Orthodox priest, a Catholic Priest, and a
Lutheran pastor doing a round-table conference on authority and
interpretation of scripture."

I decided to skip karate and go with them. I'm glad I did; It was a
good event. The four panelists gave introductions, then opened the
floor for questions. There were a lot of people there. Some of the
random students would ask ignorant questions like "How do Jews believe
they get saved?"* and then our pastor, or one of his pastor friends,
would ask an insightful question about something like the description
of canon or the fundamental source of scriptural authority.

Memorable quote: "When you look at the epistles of Paul, you are
really reading somebody else's mail."

*Most Jews do not believe in any kind of afterlife or salvation.
There is no mention of heaven or hell in the Old Testament. The
religion is all about your actions and character in this world,
studying and following the Law of God in order to life a proper life.

Information Flows

Our football team has had a fairly disappointing year. Rightly
or wrongly, people blame the head coach and have been calling for his
dismissal. They have been complaining about how much he was paid, and
that he had a long-term contract.

At the end of the big economics class, right after the professor
dismissed the class, some guy stood up and announced "Bowden got
fired!" About half the class started cheering. The professor did not
seem to mind.*

As I was walking back to my office, I noticed a greater than usual
amount of people talking on mobile phones, and overheard at least two
comments about the dismissal. One of them was about how the
university had to pay to buy out his contract. I estimate that
everyone on campus who cared about football knew the fact within the
hour of its announcement. Out of curiosity, I checked Wikipedia
shortly after I got back to my office. It had already been updated.

I decided to get in on the action. The homework assignment that I
give out tomorrow will include the following problem:

Problems 18-20 use the following information. You are a football
coach. You are currently working at C--- University, and you have
a contract promising you $2 million per year for the next three years.
You are paid a lump sum at the beginning of the year. (The first
year's salary is not discounted). The interest rate is 10%. You know
that you could get a job at another school that paid $1 million a year
for the next three years, in lump sums at the beginning of each year.
18. What is the net present value of your C--- contract?

19. What is your opportunity cost of working at C---?

20. If C--- decides to buy out your contract and dismiss you, how
much must they pay you?

* Texting on cell phones and messaging in laptops are endemic in the
class. The professor makes no attempt to stop it, as long as it does
not disrupt other people. But if your cell phone rings, he will make
you stand up and apologize to the class.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Artist Reception

They have a new sculpture display in the campus gallery.

The center of the display is a wooden boat, painted white, hanging
from the ceiling. There are hundreds of mechanical birds clinging to
the sides and bottom of the boat. When the viewer turns the sculpture
on, the birds all start pecking on the boat for a couple minutes.

It sounds silly, but it is an effective and mesmerizing piece of art.
And the more you see it, the better it gets. Each time you activate
it, the pattern of pecking is randomized, so the experience is unique.

Yesterday the artist was giving a presentation on his work and this
piece. People were asking him about the art:

Guy: "How many birds are there?"
Artist: "279"
Gut: "Is there any significance to that number?"
Artist: "Yes, I chose that number for a very specific reason." He
paused, looked at the boat, and continued, "This looks right."

Later, he was talking about how he randomized the birds:

"I have a computer running in there with a random number generator.
But the thing about random number generators is that they are not
completely random. Sometimes the same sequence can repeat itself. I
didn't like that, so I added analog circuits between the computer
output and the birds. There are capacitors and resistors to modify
the signals sent to to the motors in the birds. And if you use really
cheap capacitors and really cheap resistors, their performance is
unpredictable. So that gave me the true randomness I was looking for;
each activation is guaranteed to be completely unique."

I got a chance to chat with the artist for a while. He asked what I
was studying; being an economist at an art gallery is usually a good
conversation starter. Here is one random snippet from the

Artist: "I always thought economics was just random and chaotic, but
then I saw a movie about some guy who was always seeing patterns in
everything, what was his name?"
Me: "John Nash"*

The artist was a clever guy; anyone who knows about electrical
engineering knows that getting analog circuits to do what you want is
always a tricky task. But he always seemed to say that he wasn't very
smart, or that the best things in his art were just random accidents.

It was a good conversation. I usually enjoy talking to artists. Most
of them have a good understanding of how complicated the world is and
how limited our knowledge often is. They are interested in new ideas,
open to new knowledge, and are relatively free of the dogmatic
intellectual arrogance that you often find in academics.

*I have not seen 'A Beautiful Mind', but I know its effect on popular
and artistic culture. It seems to be the source of the few accurate
things that artsy types know about economics. One of these days I
will have to watch it, so I can talk about it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


This article on cholesterol is recommended by a biologist. It is a good read:

The overall conclusion of the article matches one of my personal mottoes:

Think like an angel.
Eat like an ape.

Future Shock

Sometimes the future sneaks up behind you and pokes you in the back.

I just read that they have a working, operational computer network
protected by quantum cryptography:

I knew the theory of quantum cryptography, but as far as I knew it was
just theoretical, the kind of thing that might happen in ten or twenty

There are a lot of things that, as far as I know, are ten years in the
future. But now that I stop to think of it, most of my in-depth
technical and engineering knowledge was obtained between ten and four
years ago. So over the next few years, there will be an increasing
number of things that show up in reality that my mind had placed
firmly in the category of 'future'.

I think that future shock is worse for people like me with some
technical knowledge. If you didn't know about quantum cryptography,
your reaction to this news would range from 'Who cares?' to 'Hey look,
the smart guys came up with another clever thing.' But if you had
read about the topic years ago, you would have some idea of how much
work and effort and knowledge went into it, and how incredible it is
that we have it.

Things seem a lot more amazing when you are accustomed to reading
about them in the future tense.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I have tutored in various subjects before, and given presentations in
various topics, but this is the first time in my life that I have
taught a class over a period of time. It is defintiely a learning

Actually, I am not teaching the full class. Twice a week, a professor
gives a lecture in a lecture hall to about 300 students. Once a week,
the teaching assistants meet sections of about 20 students. Our job
is to answer questions, do some additional lecturing, and give quizzes
and homework.

Most of the class is freshmen. This class is specifically designed to
train and test critical thinking skills. For most of the class, this
is a completely new experience. They have all excelled in high school
via some combination of rote memorization and raw intelligence. This
class requires a completely new way of operating, and it is a little
traumatic for many of them.

For example, the ideal test taking strategy all through high school is
as follows: Read the question, then read the answers, then choose the
answer that most closely resembles something written down in your
textbook or lecture notes. This strategy specifically coached in some

In this econ class, that simply will not work. The tests are
specifically designed to trick people using such a strategy. Many
questions are exact copies of a statement in the textbook, but with
one key word changed to reverse the meaning. Other questions require
some kind of multi-step problem solving, and the answers are often
formatted like:
A: statement
B: statement
C: statement
D: Both A and B
E: All of the above

So you have to make a decision about the correctness of every statement.

I have told the students that their test taking strategy should
change. I recommend that they cover over the answers, not even
looking at them, and then see what facts they can deduce from the
information presented in the problem. This usually involves drawing a
picture and/or doing some math. Then, only after they have an idea of
what is true and known, they should look at the answers and decide
what is right.

They are still at the point in their academic careers where the best
way to teach them how to do something is to have them memorize a
sequence of operations. This usually works, but in order to really do
well on the tests, you really have to master the material. Usually I
have no hope of teaching this.

One student, however, is a third-year engineering major. A recent
conversation went something like this:

Him: "I don't really understand this elasticity of demand stuff. I
know how to calculate it, but I don't really see how it connects to
the graph.
Me: "The elasticity is the reciprocal of the slope of the demand curve
graphed in log-log space."
Him: "Okay, thanks. It makes sense now."

Obviously, most students would never understand that statement at all,
and I would never use class time to attempt to explain it. But I was
able to connect to his math knowledge to explain something.

This is an example of how I can usually do a good job of tutoring
people individually. However, my lectures are no better than average,
and I need to figure out how to improve them. I guess it is a matter
of experience. But the ideal use of class time for me seems to be to
give lots of practice tests in order to convince them to study on
their own, pay more attention during the professor's lectures. and/or
come talk to me individually.

Friday, October 3, 2008

End of Ramadan

On Thursday I was invited to an event run by the Muslim student
association to celebrate the end of Ramadan. It consisted of the
traditional feast, and a speech by a local imam talking about the
basics of the religion. The person who invited me was a Libyan
exchange student in the Econ department.

I got into a discussion with a mechanical engineering student from
Jordan. Actually, he and his family were originally from Palestine.
He originally went to some university in Ohio, but then moved to
our university, which he likes a lot better. Being in the worst part of
Cleveland is not a fun experience for anybody, especially a foreign
student. People he knew were robbed, and he saw someone who had been
knifed by a panhandler. Here, by contrast, is a utopia filled with
nothing but friendly, helpful people.

Yet, oddly enough, He said that before he came here, he had 'the wrong
idea' of the USA from movies. He thought America would be a 'bad,
dangerous' place. He did not say that Cleveland fit his expectations;
apparently his fears were even worse then the reality he experienced

I asked him about the Wahhabi sect*. Here is exactly what he said:

"They are very strict. They don't think."

Later, he said something like:

"There are a lot of people who use the religion to try to cover up the
problems in their lives. Instead of looking in their hearts, they
find an excuse to blame other people."

He said that the Wahhabi muftis are becoming less and less popular as
people realize how out-of-touch they are. Maybe he was just trying to
say what I wanted to hear, but it seemed like he really did view them
as ignorant hicks.

Related note: One of the presenters at the education conference a few
weeks ago mentioned that most terrorists do not come from the
madrassas (religion schools) They come from state universities. He
said that it was not the result he wanted to find, but the data show
having more knowledge of Islam makes one less likely to be a

* The branch that supports jihad, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorists.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hopelessly Adult

I finally had some free time recently, after a long stretch of being
very busy. What did I do with my time? What was it that I wanted to
do with my evening, more than anything else?

I gave my apartment a really good cleaning.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fractional Children

One fourth of our macroeconomics midterm was a question about the
number of children a household would choose to have. It gave some
mathematical functions describing budgets and preferences, and asked
us to derive a model.

I got a very low score on this question. I went to ask the professor
about it, and the conversation went something like this:

Prof: "You were supposed to model the number of children as a
continuous variable."
Me: "But that wouldn't make any sense. This question was about an
individual decision, not a societal average, and kids only come in
integer quantities."
Prof: "We always work with continuous variables on these kinds of problems."
Me: "I had no way of knowing that. Was there anything wrong with my
math, given the assumption that you can't have a fraction of a kid?"
Prof: "Your math looks fine. But I'm not giving you any credit for
it. I've given a question like this to hundreds of students like
this, and you are the only one to assume that the number of children
has to be discrete."

I don't know what is worse, the professor's attitude, or the fact that
I am the only student who ever stopped to consider that you can't
choose to have a fraction of a child.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Education Choice Conference

Today, they held a conference on school choice in our
building. I went between classes. The conference was organized by
the same guy who taught the Atlas Shrugged class, in conjunction with
the Friedman Foundation.

One of the most interesting things was a British lady presenting
evidence on private schools in the slum areas of India and Africa.
She and her team went into the communities and found hundreds of
private schools that, according to official figures, did not exist.
She tested the students, and found that they were doing better than
students at the state schools. The parents were willing to pay
substantial fractions of their income for schooling, and, despite
being illiterate and unable to speak English themselves, did a fairly
good job of holding the schools accountable for learning.

However, that one of the main ways the parents held the schools
accountable was how well the students at that school did on state-run
standardized tests. This fact was not discussed much. Everybody
there basically had the attitude of 'What is the best strategy to get
the government out of education as quickly as possible?' I was one of
the least Libertarian people in the room. It was a strange
experience. After one presenter said that the government should pay
for school, but let parents do whatever they wanted with the money, I
spoke up and said,

"What about the rights of the taxpayer? If I am paying for something,
I want to know that the money is not being wasted. There should be
some minimal safeguards to make sure that the education is actually
doing something productive and preparing people to be good citizens."

Yes, I know that the current system is a huge mess, and does not meet
those goals. I am always arguing for school choice whenever I get the
change. But even a Libertarian will (usually) agree that the function
of government is to prevent its citizens from abusing each other, and
that the state should do something to prevent the abuse and neglect of

One of the presenters had a good quote on that subject:

"Children are beings with human rights, but they do not have the
ability to make decisions about those rights."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Atlas Shrugged: Final Verdict

Note: This thing has been sitting around a long time in draft form. It has been almost two months since I read the book.

I finished reading Atlas Shrugged, and I have had some time to think about it. I will review the book on two levels: the surface literary value and the deeper philosophy behind it.

The first two parts of the book are fairly good. The decay of the society, the central mystery of the book, and the lives of the characters are chronicled well, and the filibusters do not get too extreme. However, at the start of the third part the book clearly veers into a tired old formula that I have seen in way too many places. The book becomes Yet Another Utopian Fantasy built upon the insidious premise of: "You can make a perfect world by gathering up all of the right people, letting the rest of humanity go to hell, and then building a new Eden from the ashes."

By the end of the book, it is quite clear that the heroes' plan has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, but that's all right, according to Rand, because these people were following a 'philosophy of death' and so deserved to die. Never mind that one of the people who gets killed is a sympathetic, hardworking childhood friend of the main character. They never even considered pulling him out of the dying world. Even though he perfectly followed the philosophy of the heroes, he apparently wasn't enough of an √úbermensch to be allowed into the Brave New World.

The quality of the writing also goes downhill; everything seems contrived for the sole purpose of making a point. Even Rand's apologists admit this. So what is the core philosophy that the book exists to promote?

Most of the core axioms of Rand's philosophy (reality exists, humans use logic to learn reality and create wealth from it) are clearly true. And much else that Rand says is clearly a useful way of thinking and looking at the world. However, she uses these axioms to generate a lot of conclusions that become ever more extreme and ever less defensible, like a rickety tower build on a foundation of solid bricks.

She clearly has the mind of a philosopher, and not a scientist. Thus, she tumbles into the predictable intellectual traps that philosophers and intellectuals constantly fall prey to. I'll explain this by talking about the basic epistemology of science.

A scientist is someone who observes reality and uses that data to build models of the world. A hypothesis must be tested by observation. A scientist is always willing to accept new information about the world, and is always willing to change mental models based on the information received.

The following two quotes are very instructive:

1) The map is not the territory.
2) All models are wrong, but some models are useful.

Scientists always know that the mental models they form of the world might be incorrect or even wrong. No human mind can ever contain a full and accurate model of the world, for the simple reason that the mind is a small part of the world, and so the mind must contain less information than the world. Therefore, by definition, all of our mental maps or models are a reduced, simplified versions of reality.

A scientist knows that the scientific method can never deliver a final, ultimate truth about the world. The best it can do is repeatedly fail to reject a hypothesis. Once a hypothesis has withstood many, many challenges, you can assume that it is a useful way to generate predictions that have a high probability of coming true. However, you have to accept that reality could throw you a curveball at any time, and you have to be willing to update your mental models to account for the new information the world throws at you.

A scientist knows that reality is messy and confusing, accepts this fact, and attempts to improve our understanding of that reality.

A philosopher, by contrast, believes that ultimate truth can be generated by a process of logic based on definitions. While the core axioms may be based on reality, everything else is generated in the philosopher's mind, by an iterative process, from the axioms. The only thing a philosopher cares about is internal consistency; there is no understanding that you need to check your mental models against reality.

And so, time and time again, a philosopher will generate a model of the world using the philosophical process rather than the scientific method. The results rarely have any connection to the real world. And yet the philosopher falls in love with his or her mental model, because it is so beautifully self-consistent and clean.

Often, other people also fall in love with the philosopher's model. People want easy answers, and a philosophy often gives it to them. The philosopher and/or the followers then attempt to use the philosophical model to explain everything about reality. Rather than accept the facts of reality, they start to bend and twist the facts so they fit in the model.

Eventually, they reach the point where they decide to alter reality so it fits the philosophical model. Sometimes they obtain enough power to actually attempt this. The results of this attempt are almost always a disaster. Ironically enough, Atlas Shrugged shows the horrible human cost that is inflicted whenever a group of philosophers attempt to reshape the world in their image, even as it cheerleads this very process.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Samaritan's Purse

Yesterday, I went to the Samaritan's Purse Mission Update, a conference given for people who work at or support the charity. Immediately after that, we went to the Low Country Festival, a big revival-type event run by Franklin Graham.

The lunch was standard luncheon fare, but the dessert was boysenberry cobbler, pecan pie, and vanilla pudding. It was a nice touch. I haven't eaten vanilla pudding since I was a little kid.

I talked with a guy who has done a lot of work for Samaritan's Purse abroad. He was in the military, and then he created and ran a distribution company, and now he is retired and does logistics work for the charity. We chatted about various things, but mostly Sudan, where he just finished building a hospital:

Me: "So do you run into any other charities?

Him: "They are all over the place in Juba, the capital, but nobody is out in the rural areas where we are working.

Me: "I thought the capital of Sudan was Khartoum."

Him: "That's the capital of North Sudan. South Sudan is mostly autonomous, and everybody knows they will vote for independence soon."

Hopefully that will happen without more violence, but I doubt it.

Then, there were various speakers talking about the work they are doing and how it gets done. Franklin Graham was one of them. His talk seemed weak and muddled, but that wasn't a problem. I figured that his mind was on the preaching that he would be doing later that night.

After the conference, we went to our seats at the Festival. It started off with a lot of music, mostly from contemporary Christian groups.

I realized something about popular music by watching the lead performer of one of the groups. He spent almost no time or effort singing or generating music. Instead, what he did was work the crowd. He got people to move around, dance, wave their hands, etc. I realized that this was the key skill nowadays. Musical talent is not necessary or sufficient, the thing that makes you a big-name performer is the much rarer ability to manipulate large numbers of people.

So there was a lot of yelling, singing, loud noise, and flashing lights. John Calvin would not have been pleased.

Then Franklin gave the message. I quickly realized that he is not a natural-born speaker like his father. Maybe it was because I have heard it all a hundred times before, but I was not impressed; the message seemed no better than what any preacher could do.

But something happened, because lots of people came down to the floor to talk with the counselors.

I drove over seven hours yesterday. It keeps getting easier. I remember when a three-hour drive would knock me out.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ivory Tower

This incident illustrates one of the reasons many people dislike the
academic world:

We are in the middle of the biggest economic crisis for 70 years. All
kinds of things are happening. The news is piling up faster than we
can process it. Old assumptions about the world are being called into
question. Ideas are being tested. Things are happening that will
affect the economic, social, and political environment for decades.
Clearly, it would be very valuable to talk about what is happening, to
use our knowledge to discuss and make sense of the world.

So what does the professor in my macroeconomics class say when he comes in?

"Today we are going to derive the Turnpike Theorem."

So we spend an hour and 15 minutes artfully rearranging Greek letters.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Economic Mess

One of my friends asked me for my take on the recent government
takeovers and the general market mess. I'll repost it here:

I'll use an ecology analogy. These big financial institutions are
kind of like plankton in the ocean. Everything else relies on them.
They form the basis of the entire food web. If they die off, the
entire system is in danger of collapsing. The worst case scenario is
that you would no longer be able to get any loans, use any credit
cards, write any checks, withdraw any money from the bank, or collect
on insurance claims. That scenario is highly unlikely, but there
would be problems on a smaller scale.

Basically, the government is trapped. Nobody wants to get involved in
this; they already refused a bailout once. Also, the term 'bailout'
is misleading. All of the stockholders and management are being
punished for their bad decisions. What they are really doing is
bailing out the rest of the financial system. They are protecting
people like you and me who have money in the bank and bought

It is the equivalent of arresting a drunk driver and locking him in
jail for a while. It costs money to keep him in jail, but you do it
to keep him under control and prevent other people from getting hurt.
It is only a 'bailout' in the sense that it uses tax dollars to stop
the drunk from killing himself.

If you want to read a more in-depth article, see:

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Quote: Consciousness

Consciousness is the ability to escape determinism. Consciousness
allows you to escape the destiny that your genes or society or
situation would write for you.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Unearned Wealth

Unearned wealth will always be defended more than earned wealth.

People who earned their wealth honestly know that they could earn it
again. The amount of effort they put into defending their wealth has
an upper limit: the amount of effort that it would take to create the
wealth anew. But people with unearned wealth, status or privilege
know that they could never regain it, so they will defend it to their
dying breath.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Awesome fact of the day: The Economics department library has a copy
of Kurt Vonnegut's short story collection "Welcome to the Monkey

Not-so-awesome fact of the day: My classmates do not seem to know who
Kurt Vonnegut is.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Quote: Path

Simple people stay on the path because it is the path.
Smart people find the fastest route to the destination.
Enlightened people stay on the path in order to avoid killing the grass.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Quote: Hell

"Hell is a world without standards."

If you can rely on nothing to guide you, then any sort of logical or
even sentient thought becomes impossible. You become a mere sensation
machine. Note that the need to survive is a standard, perhaps the
most exacting standard of them all. Only humans can make this
standard meaningless.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

SEC Football Game

I went to a football game yesterday. The dojo finally had
some spare tickets from the ticket pool; undergraduates all get free
tickets and can give their tickets to a club so the whole club goes to
the game together.

They were playing The Citadel. It was the traditional 'Invite a weak
team so we can smash them' start of the season. I was secretly
rooting for Citadel, because of their underdog status and the fact
that they are a military school. (And also the fact that I sometimes
like being contrary.) The final score was our team 45, Citadel 17, but
Citadel did really well in the first quarter. It took us most of
the game to fully adjust to the way that Citadel was playing; it
seemed to me that we were being outmaneuvered and our first touchdowns
were due to luck or brute force.

The halftime show was all about military stuff. They had the military
bands, and they honored fallen soldiers and a Medal of Honor winner
from WW2. It was the best part of the game, in my opinion.

After the game, lots of people went to the field and started throwing
footballs around. I went down, and started looking up at the stands,
in order to try to imagine what the players must feel like when they

I'm glad I finally went to a game, but I have no desire to do it
again. It is an odd sensation to be surrounded by people who care
deeply about something, when you have zero emotional involvement in
that thing. I experience this a lot, but it never gets easier. I was
not expecting to be excited by the game or "the most exciting 25
seconds in college football" (When the team runs down the hill onto
the field) or anything else, but the whole thing really seemed to be
boring and juvenile. It was, to my mind, exactly like a high school
football game writ large.

Random Observations:

I had to throw away my water bottle at the gate, presumably for
alcohol control. During the game, several people were pouring things
from hip flasks or tiny vodka bottles into their concession stand

After the game, each goal post was guarded by over half a dozen armed
Pickens County police officers.

The tailgaters must have thrown away enough food to feed a dozen third
world villages for a week.

The emotional power of a rifle stuck bayonet-first into the turf with
a helmet on top of it is amazing, especially with 'Taps' playing. I
was almost choked up.

In the fourth quarter, when we were clearly going to win, The Citadel
made a rather impressive touchdown play. I clapped for them and got a
lot of dirty looks from my friends. I tried explaining that our
victory was assured, we lost nothing from the score, and I was simply
admiring their skill. But the consensus was "Any point they score is
bad. We want to crush them."

There were an incredibly large number of chants, rituals, etc. that
everyone seemed to know. A touchdown, or being on defense, or a punt
all seemed to trigger some automatic group response. Watching 60,000
people wave their fists in the air and chant something will always
have a bad connotation in my mind. Being in the middle of it, even
when it is your friends, is worse. It sends a message of "You are a
stranger and do not belong here" straight to my limbic system.

I really, really dislike it when large numbers of people start
grabbing each others' shoulders and swaying. I cannot explain why,
but it seems very wrong and alien, even worse than the normal sports