Saturday, March 24, 2012

spot the problem with this subject line

Sky and Telescope (an astronomy magazine!) sent out an email with the following subject line:

"Spring Solstice is here, along with new products from Sky!"


hubble deep field who?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Anti-vaccine limerick

Someone suggested the anti-vaccination movement for a limerick topic. Months later:

The anti-vacciners' convention
sadly neglected to mention
"Please do not go
if you have polio!"
Next year's will require resurrection.

[Update: slightly edited for better rhythm...]

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dear Berkeley,

Charles Murray writes [emphases mine]
The prerequisite for any eventual policy solution consists of a simple cultural change: It must once again be taken for granted that a male in the prime of life who isn't even looking for work is behaving badly. There can be exceptions for those who are genuinely unable to work or are house husbands. But reasonably healthy working-age males who aren't working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums. 
To bring about this cultural change, we must change the language that we use whenever the topic of feckless men comes up. Don't call them "demoralized." Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer. Equally important: Start treating the men who aren't feckless with respect. Recognize that the guy who works on your lawn every week is morally superior in this regard to your neighbor's college-educated son who won't take a "demeaning" job. Be willing to say so. 
This shouldn't be such a hard thing to do. Most of us already believe that one of life's central moral obligations is to be a productive adult. The cultural shift that I advocate doesn't demand that we change our minds about anything; we just need to drop our nonjudgmentalism
It is condescending to treat people who have less education or money as less morally accountable than we are. We should stop making excuses for them that we wouldn't make for ourselves. Respect those who deserve respect, and look down on those who deserve looking down on.
Social pressure/social image/reputation concerns are very important (I would say the most important, but as a social image researcher I'm slightly biased) means for enforcing social norms. I'm 100% in favor of a 100% nonjudgmental mind-your-own-business approach to anything that doesn't impact those around you, but it's entirely justified to express disdain towards those who are taking advantage of other people in some manner. If it became acceptable, too many people would do it.

[link stolen from MR]

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman - All the rave reviews are true.

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino - Mildly entertaining as a story. I didn't think the philosophical themes came across very well in the context; too contrived.

Launching the Innovation Renaissance by Alex Tabarrok - Excellent all the way through, and not overwrought, as the topic might tempt. You should read this (yes you.) I like the kindle mini-book thing.

How Much Government Is Good Government - (another kindle mini-book, because two of them are about equal to one real book, and I like lists of three :) a debate between Paul Ryan and David Brooks on the scope and purpose of government. They aren't too far apart from each other or from me so of course I enjoyed it, although I wouldn't call it a "debate".

Thursday, March 15, 2012

defining property rights

I've been wanting to blog this for a long time but luckily someone who is much smarter than me did it first so I can just link to it.

Paul Graham nails it in so many ways... Read the whole thing; it's not long.
It sounds ridiculous to us to treat smells as property. But I can imagine scenarios in which one could charge for smells. Imagine we were living on a moon base where we had to buy air by the liter. I could imagine air suppliers adding scents at an extra charge. The reason it seems ridiculous to us to treat smells as property is that it wouldn't work to. It would work on a moon base, though. What counts as property depends on what works to treat as property. And that not only can change, but has changed.
Exactly. Property rights, on the relevant legal margins, are arbitrary. This was obvious at the beginning of the era of piracy, when no one knew what the rules were, because we'd always made copies of tapes for our friends, and then hard copies of our CDs, and then digital copies of our CDs. Where were the defining lines? We didn't know because they didn't yet exist.

Then somewhere along the line, it became "just wrong"to make digital copies, and doing so was "stealing". What..? Shouting so doesn't make it so.
This is where it's helpful to have working democracies and multiple sovereign countries. If the world had a single, autocratic government, the labels and studios could buy laws making the definition of property be whatever they wanted. But fortunately there are still some countries that are not copyright colonies of the US.
Thank goodness for diversity, again. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

happy pi day!

So I got to say on the radio for pi day that pi is the circumference divided by the diameter of a circle. And  short story shorter, this got me thinking about why people like pi so much in the first place. I think it comes down to a combination of three things:

First, pi shows up everywhere in science. From the time you learn basic geometry in elementary school, pi is popping up in your school notebooks. Then you move on to trigonometry, calculus, Fourier analysis, and on up as complicated as you want to get, and that pi is carried along for the whole ride. Anything oscillatory turns out to be described with sine and cosine functions, which boil down to geometry of circles, so waves, pendulums, light, sound, planets, optics, electrical currents, et cetera et cetera, all involve pi. Then it turns out that that other famous constant, e, is also related to pi, so population growth, electric charge, compound interest, probability distributions, and anything else exponential in nature, also all contain pis lurking quietly in the background. And somehow, even when you get into the domains of pure mathematics that seem superficially disconnected from all of that other real-world stuff, pi keeps showing up. The sum of the reciprocal of each natural number squared? There's a pi in that. Is it any wonder that pi begins to feel like a familiar friend?

But that's not all, of course. Lots of numbers appear all over the place. 10. 2. Physicists have the speed of light. Chemists have Avogadro's number. Why don't these constants have the same appeal as pi? Unlike these other boring old numbers, pi is shrouded in mystery as a result of being irrational and transcendental. Its irrationality means that you can't write it down as a fraction, and that if you try to write down its digits, the sequence will continue forever without repeating. Transcendence is like turbo-charged irrationality. Not only can you not write it down as a fraction, you can't calculate it with any combination of whole numbers and algebraic operations like division and exponents and roots. You can get closer and closer the longer you try, but you can never quite get there. There's nothing to do but symbolize it with a Greek letter and forget about the fact that you can never be exactly sure what it represents.

But that's still not the whole story. e is also transcendental. The square root of 2 is irrational. i is certainly mysterious in its own way. There are plenty of other loved constants, but still none approach the popularity of pi. And that comes down to pure nostalgia. For many of us, learning about pi is the first time we catch a glimpse of the immense mystery of the universe and realize we can't hold on to it, put it in a box, and study it in all thoroughness. We have to content ourselves with squinting at it from many angles and then try our hardest to put together a coherent abstract picture in our minds. The mystery never ends, and for us mystery-junkies, the scientists, that first glimpse into the infinite abyss is an unforgettable moment that continues to drive us throughout our lives. And even after we come to terms with all our numerical friend implies, each time we casually say hello, a tiny part of our subconscious mind is reminded of that deliciousness of discovery.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

bottom-up and top-down thinking

I majored in math in college, which meant I spent a lot of time reading carefully through textbooks that started with very simple definitions and carefully built enormous beautiful structures out of those basic puzzle pieces, one step at a time. Then my task was to put some pieces together myself, by proving results on homework sets.

To prove something, you have to have a strong and thorough understanding of all of that foundational fodder that it's built on. Otherwise, there will always be black boxes in your understanding and in your proof.

If you're trying to understand something intuitively, though, black boxes are fine. If one black box seems to make sense, you can happily say you 'understand' that a higher level truth is true because the black box leads to it.

But if you've spent four years focusing on the agonizing details, it's really hard to switch to top-down thinking. For the longest time, every time I tried to look something math-related up on wikipedia, I would immediately get frustrated and discouraged, because nothing is ever presented in a bottom-up form. You get some discussion at the highest level, and have to click back on a dozen links to understand where it's coming from, and inevitably in those links you have to click on a dozen more each, and it never ends and it never meshes cleanly back together.

But as I've come to enjoy math as a tool and a hobby rather than as an end in itself, I've slowly gotten better at accepting black boxes. And slowly grown to love wikipedia.

And on that note, if you feel like learning something fun, go read about irrationality measures!

Monday, March 12, 2012

the many virtues of free trade

Dani Rodrik is arguing against a straw man.

Everyone cares about procedural justice, free trade advocates included. There are very good reasons that have solely to do with procedural justice, rather than efficiency, to favor free trade. (Bryan Caplan posted on this last week.)

It's much more deplorable to allow policies that keep millions of people in extreme poverty than to insist on free trade policies that may, in the short run, hurt some poor Americans, who will still be better off than those millions. The burden of proof is on those who wish to restrict freedom, and they would have to argue otherwise to meet that burden.

If you care about expanding the worldwide pie, you should probably favor free immigration and trade. If you only care about expanding the American-wide pie, you should probably still favor free immigration and trade. If you only care about procedural justice, you should favor free immigration and trade. If you only care about reducing worldwide inequality, you should favor free immigration and trade.

If you only care about reducing American inequality, then fine, you may be able to argue against free immigration and trade. But I don't see how wanting that, in particular, is much more morally defensible than wanting any other arbitrary thing.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

collaboration is inefficient

I hate that TED talks exist as videos but not transcripts, so I miss out on almost all of them, but the title of this one was enough to get me to watch, and it's very good: Susan Cane on the power of introverts.

This got me thinking again about the "madness for constant group work." Why is everyone so crazy about collaboration all of the sudden? When did the extroverts decide that their preferences are the objective best way to do things and start shouting it from the mountaintops, while the introverts quietly mind their own business as their way of life is bulldozed out of existence?

I don't know the answer to the second question, but I think I understand the former. Collaboration is just a more general version of the group brainstorming phenomenon. In a group, the new ideas are flying and interacting and reinforcing into groupthink tunnelvision, and it's exciting and things move quickly and directly of course this seems like an efficient way to get things done. But it's an illusion. If we could be simultaneously aware of all the progress that was being made by those same individuals working intently in solitude, that would seem clearly vastly more efficient.

(Ideas come up with by groups can only be as complex as can be communicated and understood by all on such a short timespan. Even if individuals work on their own and meet regularly to regather, which is an approach I generally support so long as the group meetings don't turn into agonizing marathons that are used as excuses not to do anything real on your own the rest of the time, two competing possibilities will be distinguished by simplicity, which leads to quicker understanding by the group, which leads to quicker adoption by the group. Not exactly the ideal choice mechanism.)

Extroverts thrive on the group madness. They love the constant stimulation and interaction. So they embrace the illusion and advocate like crazy for collaboration.

Introverts are exhausted by it. They shut down, hide in their offices, and quietly change the world one solitude-requiring deep idea at a time. Give them some room to breathe; stop the madness! (Fast forward to 16:30 in the video above :)