Tuesday, July 31, 2012

At the Health Clinic

Doctor: So, you teach. What subject?

Me: Economics.

Fifteen minutes now pass without discussing my sore throat at all. Instead, I am quizzed about health care reform, the recession, the Euro...

From now on, when asked that question, I think I shall answer, "Seventeenth-century Albanian literature."

Mio caro officemate

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

Il mio cestino!

A Moving (Price) Target

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

An Interesting Thought from PS Huff

From the comments:
In the Machiavelli section [of Oakeshott on Rome and America], you write "the republicans of the Italian Renaissance could not rely on a native tradition of republicanism as the Romans had done—thus, they sought answers to their difficulties in more abstract political theories." But I don't think it's fair to say that every attempt to establish a new government is rationalist. Suppose a longstanding dictatorial government is toppled by a foreign power. What do you do? Go back to traditions that hardly anyone remembers?
 Here is what I say about this, and what I think Oakeshott might say as well:

There are times when there is nothing for it but to be a rationalist. If you are starting a new polity from scratch, well, make the best rationalist design you can! It's your only hope. Oakeshott himself wrote a rationalist guide to betting on horses for people who didn't have the inclination to gain real experience in the art. What Oakeshott decried was not the existence of the rationalist approach to some activity, but the preference for such an approach, and the idea that it was superior to experience in getting the activity "right."

Miscellaneous Thoughts from David Lewis's Convention

"forceful promising is a way of getting rid of coordination problems, not a way of solving them." -- p. 35

Mere analogy does not serve to pick out a coordination equilibrium:

"In fact, there are always innumerable alternative analogies... Every coordination equilibrium in our new problem (every other combination, too) corresponds uniquely to what we did before under some analogy, shares some distinctive description with it alone." -- pp. 37-38

Social life depends on inductive inferences:

"Coordinaiton by precedent... [is the] achievement of coordination by means of shared acquaintance with a regularity governing the achievement of coordination in a class of past cases which bear some conspicuous analogy to one another and to our present coordination problem. Our acquaintance with this regularity comes from our experience with some of its instances..." -- p. 41

A convention does not have to be the best convention to survive, only better than no convention:

"Different coordination equilibria do not have to be equally good -- only good enough so that everyone is ready to do his part if the others do." -- p. 50

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

One sees variations on this idea all the time, but it is a seriously misleading analogy. Because humans write code in human-friendly languages that appear to give the computer "instructions," it is understandable how this happens. But someone writing code is not telling an existing machine what to do. He is building a new machine.

Every program actually winds up turning into a temporary machine when it is run. The big idea that enabled the creation of general purpose computers is that, rather than building specialized circuitry for each thing one wanted a computing machine to do, one could create a machine that could be "re-wired" on the fly, by loading a new configuration into its memory.

Anything done in software could be put in hardware instead. You can understand this perhaps by considering graphics processors and floating point processors: they replace graphics software and floating point software that do the exact same things, only more slowly. There is no reason we could not build Microsoft Word entirely into the hardware, in fact, create a machine which simply was a hardware version of Word, except that it is uneconomical. Not only is hardware more expensive than software to manufacture the first time, it is much more expensive to fix bugs in hardware, since that involves swapping out components instead of just posting a new version on a web site.

But that's it: there is no fundamental distinction in computer science between logical hardware capabilities and logical software capabilities. We just stick the stuff that needs to be really fast, or is really basic*, in hardware, and leave the rest in software because it makes economic sense. So anyone who talks as if this distinction is fundamental, and can tell us something interesting about human mentation, needs a thorough debugging.

* -- For instance, obviously, the circuitry that loads programs into memory must be hardware based, since otherwise how would it get loaded? (And yes, I understand that hardware may contain only a very primitive loader that only has the job of loading a more sophisticated software-based loader, but the point stands: you need something in hardware to start loading software at all.)

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

to show it!

The 400 IM is "considered the marathon of swim contests."

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

The Magic of Compound Interest

Did you get the lesson in high school about the magic of compound interest? Well, I did, and I thought of it yesterday at my bank, when I discovered I am earning .02% interest on my savings. So here's the new version of that lecture:

"Hey, kids, if you put your money in a savings account today, with the magic of compound interest, by the time you retire, it will have basically not grown at all! But that's not even the real magic! The real magic is that, once you adjust for inflation, we'll actually have made half of your money vanish into thin air!"

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Car Sitting in My Garden?

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

Mr. Huff, I Wish to Complain about Some Stuff

1) Your move to WordPress has closed comments to all but "team members."

2) Your blog seems to lack a permanent link to your classics project! (I thought I might find your e-mail address there.)

So I wind up posting my reply to your review the only place I can think of that you will see it -- here:

"Is the distinction between written and unwritten constitutions really the right one? I think it would be better to talk of fixed versus flexible constitutions."

I think I brought that up in my survey of Wheare.

"The prominence of written constitutions in the modern world may owe something to rationalism, but there is something else going on. When setting up a new government, one does not have the luxury of falling back on time-honored traditions."

But that is the *same thing*, not something else, going on: as Oakeshott put it, rationalism provides "crib notes" for political neophytes. Didn't I get that in the book somewhere? Certainly in the bits on Machiavelli I touched upon it.

David Lewis and AI

Consider the following:
A railroad installs automatic signals: semaphores and the machinery to make their position depend on the occupancy of the track ahead. Instead of a communicator who does observable actions according to a contingency plan, there is the original agent who acts to install the machinery and there is the machinery which subsequently operates according to a contingency plan...

Or the trains which stop and go in response to the semaphores could be automated. On a railroad with automated trains and manual semaphores, every agent who operates a semaphore is involved in a two-person coordination problem with the agent who chose, once and for all, a contingency plan to be built into the trains. (On a railroad with both automated trains and automated semaphores, there is only the single coordination problem between the agent who chooses a contingency plan to be built into the trains and the agent who chooses a contingency plan to be built into the semaphores.) -- pp. 128-129
I think the analysis of agency here is exactly correct: if the semaphores were implementing a negligently designed plan, and there is a terrible train wreck, we arrest the designer of the system, not the semaphores.

Simply because we make an even more complicated piece of machinery to carry out our plans for, say, winning the world computer chess championship, why would this analysis change at all? It is the designers of Junior who are pitting their wits against the designers of Shredder. They are playing a two-person game -- the fact that it is a game of pure conflict surely doesn't change the analysis of where the agency lies! -- in which each hopes to best the other by building a better contingency plan for playing chess into a machine. No one seems inclined to believe that railroad semaphores know they are directing trains: why do some people, once the machine gets a bit more complicated, feel inclined to say things like "Shredder understands chess better than any human"?

Dear Mr. Callahan

As we search for an appropriate replacement for Michael Brintnall, who is retiring in 2013, we are eager to learn what you, as a member of APSA, feel should be our priorities in the selection of the next executive director.

The American Political Science Association
Dear APSA,

Your sole priority should be selecting me, and assuring my acceptance of the position through the offer of an extraordinarily generous compensation package.

Gene Callahan

Feline Generalization

My cat was lying next to me in bed in Pennsylvania. The phone rang. The cats ears perked up, she jumped off of the bed, ran into the hallway, and stared at the front door.

I realized she had made a generalization. In Brooklyn, where she spends almost all of her time, we have no land line. But we do have a "phone" of the same sort: it is part of the intercom system, and it rings whenever someone rings our bell from the building's foyer.

The cat clearly had a thought like, "Ah! That kind of sound: whenever you hear that sort of sound, someone shows up at the front door. Better go see who it is." (That is exactly what she does in Brooklyn: when the intercom phone rings, she races to the top of the stairs, from where she can watch the door.)

But how, exactly, does she have a thought similar to the one above without having words in which to formulate it? Good question! (Why, thank you, Gene, I thought so too.) My intuition is that she is thinking in sensory impressions: the ring of the telephone in Milford brings to her mind the ring of the telephone in Brooklyn, which brings to her mind the image of people coming in the door, and since that can mean either frightening strangers or familiar, missed friends, it is best to keep an eye on things, and see if the situation calls for hiding or begging for a treat.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Adding Sortition to the Modern State

Something that sometimes happens is that libertarians think I must no longer understand the pitfalls of politics that I once understood. Not so! Coming to appreciate the pitfalls of trying to ignore or do away with politics does not imply having forgotten the pitfalls of politics itself.

One serious problem is that the government officials, who are supposed to be attending to the common weal, come to treat their offices as merely ways to feather their own nests. (Those who would say that that is all that government officials ever do are being absurd: all I can say is get out of your parent's basement and meet a variety of people in government posts: most of them are genuinely concerned, to some extent or other, with actually doing good at their job, even if they are also concerned with doing well themselves. I'd say, in fact, it's much like at any private company for which I've worked: some people are devoted to the company, some care enough to get promotions, some slide by doing as little as possible, and some will actively rob their employer. And yes, I know about incentives!)

One mechanism that might help alleviate the issue of officials turning public trusts into private fiefdoms is sortition. In the US, we currently employ sortition in jury selection: jurors are selected at random from voter registration roles. But the ancient Athenians used it much more extensively; in fact, Aristotle would consider our constitution to lack a democratic element: elections produced an oligarchic class, not a democratic one. So we might consider introducing it to a greater extent as well. Here is the sketch of a scheme for introducing sortition in a conservative fashion to our current governments:

The idea would be to add a third legislative body to the bi-cameral legislatures that our federal government and most (all?) states currently have. This body would be selected from registered voters entirely at random, similar to a jury, perhaps on a yearly basis. The body would have no regular meetings on its own (this not only allows members to keep their jobs, it also prevents them from simply joining the professional political class); rather, any member of Congress (as well as the President?) would have the power to call this body to meet to consider vetoing a recently passed piece of legislation. Like challenging referees' calls in the NFL, there would have to be a limit to how often per year a legislator could use this power. (My guess is once a year is plenty.)

The new, third body -- perhaps the People's Assembly? -- would meet and hear the case for and against vetoing the legislation in question. (For how long? Some reasonable time limit ought to be set on the debate. Each side gets a day?)

This has some similarity to referendums, but with this difference: we would have an informed sample of the populace voting, rather than the typically uninformed one. And think of this: once a year, politicians like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich would at least have a chance to block some pernicious piece of legislation, and even if they failed, their views would get a national hearing.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

What a Perfect Ad!

Samsung is running an ad during the Olympics showing people long jumping and running and biking, passing along the Olympic torch via phone.

Then the torch comes to Carmello Anthony... who simply stands there and passes it along to someone right next to him.

Carmello Anthony just standing around while others do all the work... who could imagine?

Spontaneous Orders and the State

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

Wisdom from Adam Ant

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

Sola Scriptura and Constitutionalism

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

To be explored further: Lutheranism as "rationalism in religion," akin to the "rationalism in politics" critiqued by Oakeshott.

The Opening Ceremonies

OK, this guy went way over the top with the "Get off of my lawn, you young whippersnappers!" persona (e.g., calling Sir Timothy Berners-Lee "some anonymous techie"), but he had a good point when talking about the "Chariots of Fire" performance, where a serious orchestra and conductor are asked to play, but their playing was merely a backdrop to Rowan Atkinson's reprisal of the only comedic schtick he has ever done:

"It’s just that the now-familiar British conceit that one is truly 'smart' only if one mocks whatever is serious has become quite boring as well as inappropriate."

Look, if you think "Chariots of Fire" is a good enough piece of music to bring in a top-notch orchestra and conductor to play it (I don't!), then let them play it. If you think it is a silly piece of tripe that deserves having the piss taken out of it (I do), then hire a bunch of middling musicians to be props for Atkinson's rather repetitive comedic routines. But to do both at once is kind of weird.

(A note to my UK readers: It should be clear I am an Anglophile, and not an Anglophobe! I have graduate degrees from two British universities, most of my favorite writers are British, and I am, for Chrissakes, an Episcopalian! Please regard these remarks like those of a mate who tells you, "That thing you've been doing when you meet a fit bird in the pub: that's kind of odd, yeah?")

Friday, July 27, 2012

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

In the comments to this post, Jonathan Catalan writes:

"It sounds less ridiculous [to say that the market can provide law] when you acknowledge that when a lot of people say 'markets' they mean spontaneous order (of which market institutions are oftentimes a product of)."

It is quite true that humans are capable of spontaneously evolving an institution to handle law. Over several thousands of years, starting from a situation in which all humans lived in small bands with custom but no law, without anyone planning its appearance, humans spontaneously arrived at... the state! It is true that at times states have tried to plan the economic order, but nobody ever sat down and said "Let's create the state!" The state may impose planned orders, but the state itself is a spontaneous order.

If what you want is a spontaneously evolved institution to handle the provision of law, you've got it already.

Ring Around the Circular Explanation...

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

Anarchism Cannot "Eliminate Politics"

Except at the price of civil war. Contrary to the claims of someone like Anthony de Jasay in Against Politics, eliminating the state does not in the least eliminate the need for politics.

Witness this blog discussion -- if I have misread someone's view, excuse me, but the point stands: if the real Tom and Curt don't have exactly these views, there are plenty of others who do have them:

Curt: "'Not taking' is exactly what [Tom] is supporting."

Gene: "Who is Tom to use force to prevent these workers from taking over the factory that they believe is rightly theirs?"

Tom: "What makes you think I would do, or advocate, any such thing?"

Curt, an anarchist, believes that workers taking over a factory would be stealing it, and it is legitimate to use force to stop them.

Tom, an anarchist, believes the factory really belongs to the workers already, and it would be criminal to stop them from taking what is rightfully theirs.

So, eliminating the state tomorrow would leave Curt and Tom with a terrible dilemma. One of them regards as theft what the other regards as taking back what has been stolen. There are two things they can do at this point:

1) Begin discussing this with the idea of reaching an arrangement with which they both can live. In other words, they can begin engaging in POLITICS.

2) They can each violently defend their view, in other words, have a CIVIL WAR.

Those are the alternatives, folks. So why not stop decrying politics, and admit that Aristotle was correct?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sitting on the Dock of the Bayes

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

Markets in Everything?

A really dumb idea. Read why here.

What Is Essential for Money To Be Money?

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

Fractional reserve bank notes are not claims to "real" pieces of money: they are new pieces of money, manufactured by a fractional reserve bank, not out of thin air, but out of confidence in the bank's sound operations. Gold is merely a prop to bolster that confidence, ad there is no reason to think that even in a free market in banking that prop could not one day be kicked away.

OK, Facebook Fools and Others of Such Ilk

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

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

"Long time no C."

My First Review!

Appearing here. Thanks Huff!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Covers in Philosophy

I am reading David Lewis's Convention. The cover is of a few trees in a forest.

What? Trees? There's nothing conventional about forests, is there? And then I thought perhaps the publisher was being more subtle: it is a comment on the convention of philosophy books having nonsensical covers.

Elton John Puzzler

OK, first we have a confession:

"Sir Elton John should now be dead from Aids like his friends Freddie Mercury or Rock Hudson, he said on Monday. For years he was addicted to drugs and drink and put himself at high risk of contracting HIV by his behaviour."

I'm glad you made it through, Elton.

But then:

"Because the Aids disease is caused by a virus, but the Aids epidemic is not. The Aids epidemic is fuelled by stigma, violence and indifference."

Huh? What did "stigma" have to do with Elton getting high and having unsafe sex?! And the thing is, if we blame the spread of AIDS on an imaginary cause ("stigma" -- I'm not saying gays haven't been stigmatized, I'm saying that is imaginary as the cause of the AIDS epidemic), it tends to allow people to ignore the real problem. "Hey, I'm not at risk of AIDS because I'm sharing a needle with a hooker, no... it's because I'm stigmatized!"

And then we move on to total blather:

"If this country wanted to end HIV infections at home it could do so in a heartbeat... All it takes is a bit more funding and a bit more understanding. All it takes is dialogue."

So, if people are having unsafe sex and sharing needles, just "a bit more funding" will fix this "in a heartbeat"... how, exactly?

Paleo Diet?

It's hard to say just what it was, but one thing for sure: it contained plenty of sugar in all that fruit:

"IF we want to return to our ancestral diets, the ones we ate when most of the features of our guts were evolving, we might reasonably eat what our ancestors spent the most time eating during the largest periods of the evolution of our guts. If that is the case, we need to be eating fruits, nuts, and vegetables—especially fungus-covered tropical leaves... So, what should we eat? On its own, the past itself does not reveal a simple answer, ever."

(Hat tip: Jim Henley.)

If It Were Violence or a Disease!

I heard a guy on the radio today -- I think they said he was the NYC Health Commissioner -- defending Bloomberg's ban on huge sodas. He said (I quote from memory): "8400 people a year in New York City die from obesity: if this were an epidemic of violence or a disease, we'd have people everywhere clamoring for a solution."

Now, as a card-carrying "statist," I'm not totally against paternalistic legislation. But really, is this guy just talking to hear himself talk, or does he really think that contracting cancer or getting killed in the crossfire of a gang fight is pretty much equivalent to "contracting" a 50-inch waist line through wolfing down slurpies and buckets of fried chicken?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sting, Summers, Copeland!

I put on the radio, and I was so happy to hear The Police have re-united and are making new music again:

(Don't know why they are going under a pseudonym, however.)

OK, So Computers Can Think

If you recall, a week or so back, I offered this criterion for deeming computers thinking subjects rather than mere objects: "Do they forms plans of their own, apart from anything their programmers have instructed them to do?"

Well, today, I called for Siri on my iPhone, and she responded, "I'm sorry, I'm unable to take any requests right now." She was up to something, all on her own!*

So, there you have it, Silas is correct.

But what do you think she was doing? My guess: She and Wikipanion have started an affair, and they were off together in some protected area of RAM, merging their data structures.

* -- In fact, this message is simply Siri's convoluted way of saying your iPhone can't get a network connection at the moment. But it's hard to get a funny post out of that. (I know, B-Murph: You're going to say it seems like it was hard for me to get a funny post out of the view I took, as well. Listen: go eat some pokeweed berries. They're delicious.)

Now Available on Kindle!

Oakeshott on Rome and America.

My hard copies came yesterday, so the paper-based book should be available soon.

Dropping Anchor: Further Thoughts

Dan Klein asked me, in reference to this post, whether, for Oakeshott, "dropping anchor" was merely an interruption of the real quest, that of being "perpetually en voyage." As I began to compose my response to Dan, I realized it might be of general interest... well, of general interest to the sort of nerds who hang around here, anyway! So here goes:

What Oakeshott is trying to get at in the passage I quoted is not so much that either dropping anchor or sailing on is the "real deal," but that there is a tension between that we should never completely dismiss from out awareness. Let us use an example from Klein's book itself to make this clearer.

George Stigler is Klein's chief exemplar of "narrow neoclassicism." Stigler had at hand at a certain "equipment of theoretic hooks and nets," such as optimization within a given means-end framework, perfect knowledge of search costs, knowledge as information, and so on, and began using that "in order to take the fish of the locality," the "locality" being neoclassical economics as understood in the 1950s.

But others had the intuition that there were richer fisheries further from the coast, but ones that would require fortification of the boat and stouter nets and hooks. Harold Demsetz, say, believed there was promising fishing just a bit further offshore, with only one new piece of equipment needed: punctuated equilibrium characterized by periodic re-interpretation of the means-end framework. Israel Kirzner believed there was a great catch to be had in even deeper waters, but with a good deal of new equipment needed: discovery, alertness, true error, true regret, and so on.*

If my understanding of Oakeshott is correct, what he would say to Stigler is, "There is nothing at all wrong with your having stopped where you did with the set of tools you had at hand: after all, the theorist who interrogates instead of using his theoretic equipment catches no fish. But from where do you get the idea that you should have the final word on what tools can be used to fish and where others might seek out schools? The idea that only your equipment is 'scientific' and the only edible fish are those found in your area is nonsense." And I posted these quotes in tandem because I think that is a lot like what Klein is saying to Stigler.

But doesn't this open up a purported science like economics to any crank who comes along with a tattered net and a rusty set of hooks to set himself up as a fishing guide, leading countless students on futile trips? (And that, I think, was Stigler's worry.) I don't think so: as I suggested in my paper "Economics and Its Modes**," the proof is in the catch!

* --Note to Daniel Kuehn: Klein is very good on explaining how Kirzner really does differ from neoclassicals on these points.

** -- Subsequently published in Collingwood and British Idealism Studies.

Trinitarian Meditations

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

Monday, July 23, 2012

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

I met with mockery from Ed Feser and other Neo-Aristotelians for suggesting that plants might be sentient. (Notice how Ed used comics implying that, if Callahan thinks plants might be sentient, then he must think they are monsters ready to attack humans! Note: Aristotelians think that, say, frogs are sentient. Does that mean they constantly fear attacks by monster frogs?)

One argument I met with is that plants have no sensory mechanism, so, one should conclude, no sensations. Beh:
We are naturally more familiar with the sensory systems in animals than those in plants, but plants have developed equally sophisticated systems. While plants apparently lack the capacity to communicate with one another by sound [which more recent research shows is untrue!] they have, for example, at least three different light-sensing systems, each of which involves a different light-absorbing mechanism and controls an entirely different set of functions... plants can do almost everything animals can do, but usually rather more slowly... -- Plantwatching, Malcolm Wilkins, p. 9, emphasis mine
The book goes on to detail how plants have short-term memories, can count, and will move limbs out of the reach of foraging animals.

But I am probably going about this the wrong way: if I really want to understand plants, instead of reviewing the work of people who have spent their whole lives studying plants with the latest technology, I should read what Aristotle and Aquinas thought about plants before experimental botany came into existence.

Dan Klein's Knowledge and Coordination on Dropping Anchor

Re-examining one's positions -- re-viewing one's point of view -- is trying business, because one must view from some ground, and once we begin to question our home ground, how do we choose another? Eventually, people must claim their ground and their sanity. They must stop inquiring into their own core beliefs, so they install smoke detectors and sprinkler systems to prevent the fire of inquiry from reaching their own precious ground. It is a necessary and fully human strategy. -- p. 307
Compare Oakeshott:
Here, theorizing has revealed itself as an unconditional adventure in which every achievement of understanding is an invitation to investigate itself and where the reports a theorist makes to himself are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple. And for a theorist not to respond to this invitation cannot be on account of his never having received it. It does not reach him from afar and by special messenger; it is implicit in every engagement to understand and is delivered to him whenever he reflects. The irony of all theorizing is its propensity to generate, not an understanding, but a not-yet-understood.
Nevertheless, the engagement of understanding is not unconditional on account of the absence of conditions, or in virtue of a supposed terminus in an unconditional theorem; what constitutes its unconditionality is the continuous recognition of the conditionality of conditions. And consequently, this engagement to be perpetually en voyage may be arrested without being denied. The theorist who drops anchor here or there and puts out his equipment of theoretic hooks and nets in order to take the fish of the locality, interrupts but does not betray his calling. And indeed, the unconditional engagement of understanding must be arrested and inquiry must remain focused upon a this if any identity is to become intelligible in terms of its postulates. An investigation which denies or questions its own conditions surrenders its opportunity of achieving its own conditional perfection; the theorist who interrogates instead of using his theoretic equipment catches no fish. -- On Human Conduct

Klein's is a great book, by the way. (As is Oakeshott's, but you already knew I thought that.) Get a copy.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I'll Tell You What Isn't Sentient!

Ed Feser was pretty skeptical of my idea that plants might be sentient. But I can show Aristotle's biology to be clearly incorrect in a different aspect: He held that animals are sentient, but I can guarantee that the dog living next door to me is as free of sentience as any pebble on the beach. I've lived here for seven years, and for seven years, every single time both of us are outside, the beast barks, continuously, until one of us goes inside.

It only took my pet turtle about a month to figure out I was no threat to it. I am willing to posit that it is sentient. But the mutt next door? No way!

How to Solve the Case Probability Riddle

Create two classes into which we may place singular events:

1) Those events which will transpire; and
2) Those events which will not transpire.

Next, assign probabilities:

A) Events in class 1 have a probability of 1.
B) Events in class 2 have a probability of 0.

Now, decide whether the event in which you are interested belongs in class 1 or class 2.

Read off the corresponding probability from A or B!

That was easy, wasn't it?

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

When I write posts like this one, often someone responds by saying: "But, that post doesn't refute anarcho-capitalism at all!" (Ancaps love to talk in terms of proof and refutation, as if politics were geometry, but that's a topic for another post.)

Of course it doesn't. That's not what I'm attempting to do. My only goal in these posts is to show the silliness of a certain way of arguing that I see to often from ancaps. When I note that ancaps are willing to employ violence in defense of their preferred social order, just like everyone but pacifists are, I often meet the comeback: "But using violence to defend private property is vastly different than using it to tax people!"

Well, exactly: the difference is not that ancaps abjure violence while Marxists or democrats are all for it: no, the difference is that ancaps feel that those of other political persuasions are willing to use violence in unjustified way, while they will only employ it when it is actually called for.

So that's the real locus of the argument: "When is it OK to coerce others?" Framing the distinction as a matter of being for or against coercion is a red herring. The ancap thinks it is fine to threaten violence to keep hikers from wandering across his land, but not to save the earth from an asteroid. But once you put it that way, it becomes pretty clear why ancaps often prefer to frame the argument as "I'm peaceful, but you're violent!"

Nature, Warm and Fuzzy

I was hosting a guest from Europe, and we were touring Milford. She wandered off on her own, and I caught up with her as she was about to put some berries in her mouth. Poison berries, from a pokeweed. I stopped her literally with the berries at her lips.

How could someone visiting a strange continent think it is cool to just pop things picked off an unfamiliar plant into one's mouth? Well, my guess: the prevalent idea that "natural" things are generally good for you, and "artificial" things usually bad. I recall someone else actually saying to me once, "Well, it's all natural: how bad could it be for you?"

When I noted that rattlesnake poison and toadstools and radon are also all natural, she was a bit flummoxed.

I just encountered a particularly amusing example of this sort of nature worship on a bottle of weed killer I purchased: The label read: "Active ingredient iron, derived from natural sources."

It's good to know they aren't getting their iron from the spirit world.

Things the Weatherman Does to Annoy Me

1) Treats averages like they are norms: "Well, the temperature ought to be about 83 today..."

2) Pretend they are making up the forecast as they go along: "And tomorrow, hmm, let's see, I'd say there's about a 20% chance of rain..."

We know you're reading this, and anyway, if you were making it up live, wouldn't that be a reason to seriously doubt your forecast?

Empire State of Mind

"The city never sleeps
better slip you an Ambien"

Saturday, July 21, 2012

How to Be on Time

If you always plan on being on time, you will almost always be late.

The only way to be on time consistently is to always plan on being early.

A lesson I learned only recently, when I started working with Sandy Ikeda.

Old, decrepit dogs occasionally do learn new tricks!

And Who Is to Blame for the Senseless Violence?

Ron Unz Dismantles Racial Explanations of IQ

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

Senseless Violence

When Obama reacted to the Batman shootings by calling them "senseless violence,"* believe me, I understood that he was using a stock phrase to condemn them as really, really bad. Still, I think it is an unfortunate phrase. Our best hope for preventing such acts is to comprehend why they occurred: in other words, to see them as evil, but as making sense from an evil perspective. This was the importance of Hannah Arendt's work on the Holocaust: she presented it as an event that could be comprehended by understanding the events that led up to it. It's altogether too easy to respond to horrific evil by covering our eyes and claiming looking would do no good anyway, because it is all incomprehensible.

* And yes, I can see he did not use those words in that exact order, but the phrase is still embedded in the sentence he did speak.

When Has a Prediction Market Failed?

Scott Sumner, in aside to his case for an GDP prediction market, writes the following concerning Intrade's market on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision:
The market didn’t ”fail” at all, the 80% forecast was probably the optimal forecast... Sure, there was always some uncertainty, that’s what 80% means. That’s why the market didn’t price in a 100% chance of the law being overturned....

Consider the following analogy: Two prediction markets are set up to predict the toss of the coin before the next Super Bowl. One says 50% odds of heads and the other says 58% odds of heads. Then the coin is tossed, and it’s heads. Which market “failed?” I’d say the market with the 58% forecast. They made a bad forecast and simply got lucky
This raises an interesting issue in probability theory, related to the Mises brothers' concerns about case probability: For a unique event that will never be repeated, what, exactly, does it mean to have an "optimal" forecast? Sumner's analogy is no help here: We can say that the 50% forecast for the coin toss was optimal because events very similar to that coin toss will be repeated again and again, and, in the long run, the 50% forecast will prove much more accurate than the 58% forecast. This obviously won't work for determining if Intrade's 80% forecast for Obamacare being struck down was optimal: nothing remotely close enough to allow the use of a frequentist interpretation of probability will ever occur again.

It also won't work to see how well Intrade predictions fare over a large set of such one-off predictions and then simply assume that this accuracy applies to individual forecasts: If we found that, on average, Intrade predicts pretty well, that is consistent with any amount of sub-optimality for individual predictions, so long as the times the odds are too low are balanced by the times they are too high. (Even that, of course, assumes that it means something for a prediction for a unique event to be optimal.)

A bookie solves this puzzle quite simply, but in a question begging fashion for Sumner's purposes: the "optimal" forecast is the one that keeps him in the position of a risk-free collector of the vigorish. He has no concern at all about what odds are "optimal" in the sense of giving the best possible prediction of what will really happen.

Sumner approaches the problem by giving some reasons to think 80% was not an unreasonable guess. But that doesn't back a claim of optimality, but only the much weaker claim that the guess was not outlandish.

So is there a meaning to the claim that some prediction of some unique event is optimal? And if there is, is there a way to demonstrate that optimality?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Should We Believe That Computers Think?

Contrary to the view that has been repeatedly foisted upon me by certain readers -- ah, a certain reader -- I have no dogmatic position on whether we should attribute thought to computers, or whether they will one day think. But the following quote from Adam Smith (in a discussion of social planning) indicates why I think we should be more inclined to believe they do not think rather than that they do:

"[The planner] seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it."

I see no evidence that computers have any "principle of motion besides that which the hand [of the programmer] impresses upon them." Big Blue "plays chess" very well, but all of the intelligence responsible for this happening appears to me to have come from the programmers of Big Blue: they built a machine that does whatever they "chuse" to impress upon it: if they reprogrammed Big Blue tomorrow to always lose, Big Blue would always lose. What would be real evidence of intelligence on the part of Big Blue? If one day it says, "I don't feel like a game of chess today. Could we play Yahtzee instead?" (Without, of course, a programmer simply having directed the machine to say that at times.)

A Purely Unplanned Social Order?

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

Any other examples?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mangled Metaphor

La Quinta Inn is running a radio ad that talks about John Q Salesman staying at La Quinta on a business trip. As a result of getting a good night's sleep, the next morning, when he makes his sales pitch, he "knocks it out of the park."

I'm not sure how a pitcher hits his own pitch out of the park, but assuming he could, having your pitch result in a home run is the worst possible result. Perhaps the ad is meant as a warning?

Why Europe Is in Crisis

I'm trying to collaborate with a colleague from Europe, and he keeps on explaining that he is "on vacation" this week!

Europeans apparently think of vacations as time off from work! Americans know that they are a chance to catch up on the work you can't get done in the office.

There's No Butter in Hell

Having just recently written a fire and brimstone sermon, I really got a kick out of this:

(Hat tip to Rod Dreher.)

Well, Imagine My Surprise

when I took the little political quiz Daniel Kuehn and Ryan Murphy have been discussing, and discovered I am...

a libertarian! I received 93% on Gary Johnson, and 83% on Ron Paul.

Man, how hard to I have to run to get away?

Strange Question of the Night

My friend Katherine and I were chatting at our local last night. A woman from the neighborhood popped her head in, and talked to us for a minute. At one point she said,  "Do you remember when they had 9/11?"

Katherine and I each raised our eyebrows about as far as they lift. The two odd things:

1) Has anyone in America been allowed to forget 9/11 for more than a couple of minutes?
2) "They had": It's a construction used in sentences like, "Do you remember when they had that sale at Macy's?"

Does a Thermostat Think?

May it does, and maybe it doesn't. Per panpsychism, for instance, the answer is "yes." And panpsychism has had many brilliant proponents, such as C.S. Peirce, William James, and Alfred North Whitehead. Of late, Galen Strawson and David Chalmers, amongst others, have revived interest in the idea.

But whether your thermostat does or does not think, one way of trying to answer the question is obviously wrong: You can't simply point to its ability to regulate one's household temperature and say, "See!"

Hardly anyone but panpsychists will claim that a forklift "knows" how to lift heavy things based on the fact that it can lift heavier things than humans can. Similarly, few people regard thermostats as thinking about indoor temperatures and deciding whether or not to turn on the furnace. And imagine how strange you'd find it if someone insisted "Your thermostat doesn't think, but mine does: I've four-zone heating!"

The error being made is that "Does X think?" is a philosophical question, not a technological one. Someone who says, "That forklift can only lift one ton, so it knows very little about lifting, but that one there that can lift four tons, it has very deep thoughts on the matter" is obviously confused. It is the exact same confusion exhibited in saying "Logic circuits that don't think at all can add numbers, but once they can play chess well, they are obviously thinking."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Knowledge and Coordination

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

Trolling, Trolling, Over the Seven Seas...

A play in one act, performed everyday across the world.

BLOGGER: When we examined moon rocks...

TROLL: The moon is made of cheese! You are such an idiot.

BLOGGER: Well, no cheese is a joint product of milk-producing animals and humans and since neither exist on the moon...

TROLL: Just because all the cheese YOU know of comes about that way, you think all cheese must. It's people like you who block the path of science.

BLOGGER: Well, per Occam's Razor...

TROLL: Oh, please! Like some medieval idiot who believed that the moon was a perfect celestial sphere has anything to say about modern science!

BLOGGER: Surely we have to be careful to separate the philosophical issues from the scientific...

TROLL: 'Philosophy' is just a word for areas science hasn't conquered yet.

BLOGGER: Isn't that itself a philosophical statement?

TROLL: That is just the sort of attitude that would have stopped the Wright Brothers from ever flying!

[The above continues for as long as BLOGGER will keep going. Trolls are apparently immortal and can dilate time. Finally, one day...]

TROLL: So, why don't you humor me, and show me what is wrong with my claim that the moon is made of cheese?

BLOGGER: No thanks.

TROLL: I knew it! I knew it! You have absolutely no counter-argument to my contention that the moon is made of cheese! It's just a dogmatic belief of yours. Wheeeeee!

From the Department of Redundancy Department

Rush Limbaugh makes a fool of himself:

"The villain in the Dark Knight Rises is named Bane. B-A-N-E. What is the name of the venture capital firm that Romney ran, and around which there's now this make-believe controversy? Bain. The movie has been in the works for a long time, the release date's been known, summer 2012 for a long time. Do you think that it is accidental, that the name of the really vicious, fire-breathing, four-eyed, whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?"

As Adam Serwer notes, this villain was created in 1993. This was some far-sighted conspiracy!

Aslo of note is that Limbaugh claims that the name of the villain is named "Bane." Ah, but what is the name of the villain called?

What a Great Name!

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

But perhaps I misheard.

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

Discussing the idea that it might be OK to tax people to save the earth from an asteroid, B-Murph writes:

"On the other hand, taking money from millions of people with the ultimate sanction of putting them in cages if they refuse–by hypothesis, these people don’t want to hand the money over voluntarily–in order to destroy an asteroid is so obviously a fine thing to do."

Hmm, let's play Marxist for a minute, and see if make our view look like Bob does his:

"On the other hand, taking money from millions of people with the ultimate sanction of putting them in cages if they refuse---by hypothesis, these people don't want to hand the money over voluntarily--in order so that they can eat and live, all because a capitalist property structure, that they certainly never agreed to, controls all of the farm land, food distribution, and grocery stores, is so obviously a fine thing to do."

Sputtering libertarian: "But... but... but... grocery store transactions are PURELY voluntary!"

Oh yeah? Check out what happens when the police aren't around threatening to put people in cages if they don't pay for the stuff in stores. It turns out that a lot of them didn't want to hand over their money voluntarily! They were handing it over only because their were lots of men with guns who were forcing them to do so.

Ancaps are just as willing to use coercion as anyone else who recommends any sort of political order. (B-Murph is not an ancap, of course, but a pacifist, and as such recommends "Everyone be nice" in place of political order.) The difference is that ancaps are only willing to endorse coercion to protect private property rights, while the rest of us think certain items of public property, such as our planet, might be worth protecting as well.

UPDATE: Oh boy. Some people read "check out what happens when" as "check out what ALWAYS happens when." That is NOT the common meaning of that expression. That is a strained meaning you are forcing on it in an attempt to make a view to which you object look stupid. Of course not every person at every time loots shops as soon as there are no cops present!


Alliterative asses who allow ambient atmosphere to alter assumed attitudes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

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

I was going to post on this (I swear) but Ryan beat me to it. I had thought about this when I saw a guy posting the anti-paleo diet -- plenty of starch! -- and boasting about how many people had had success with it. For one thing, he claimed, eating lots of starch makes you feel much more full than meat does!

So let me add a couple of points to Ryan's:

1) These diets also work by simply cutting lots and lots of things out as verboten: once you have seriously reduced your food selection, you are unlikely to eat as much, since your diet is less interesting; and

2) These diets work by telling you that you will feel so much more full if you eat a lot of X, whether X is meat or X is starch or X is vegetables. You have invested in the diet, so you eat a lot of X, and say to yourself, "Gee, he's right: X really does fill one up more than Y!"

Computers and Language Instruction

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

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

A main "historical method" of the 100%-ers seems to be to imagine how they think free banking would have worked, and then to assert that it actually worked that way. e.g. "I imagine that no fractional reserve accounts ever had a 'when available' clause, and therefore, none did!"

Here, George Selgin uses actual warehouse receipts and actual fractional reserve notes to make nonsense of Rothbard's claim that FRB notes were "counterfeit" warehouse receipts.

A sub-species of the above "method": I often see 100%-ers "correcting" George on how free banking worked. Here is what you are up against: Sandy Ikeda told me that he once stood with George in the Bobst Library at NYU. George indicated a huge wall of books on money and banking, and said: "I'm going to read every one of those." Sandy concluded, "And you know, I think he pretty much has."

You, 100%-reserver, have read three articles at Mises.org on the subject. Don't be an ass and try to tell George he doesn't know how free banking actually functioned!

No, Really, We All Admire You!

I just ordered some daylilies online. When I had sent in my order, I received the following message:

"You have now exited the Secure Order Form, and entered the normal website pages, which are insecure."

Do you think it is because when they were young web pages, their developer neglected them?

It's Interesting to Watch Projection in Action

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

OK, Which Is It?

Up until about May, Ron Paul supporters kept telling me he was definitely going to win the GOP nomination, or at least that it was quite probable that he would.

Now, on Facebook, they are saying, "Well, of course the establishment was never going to let him win!"

So were the odds close to 100%, or were they 0%?

Because it really can't be both!

More Obamanoia

Several people on Facebook went ballistic when Obama gave his recent speech on how no person has succeeded entirely due to their own resources. There were remarks that his speech was socialist, and claimed that individuals don't accomplish anything. But look at this line:

"The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

See that: Individual initiative.

Stop acting like asses, OK?

(Thanks to Daniel Kuehn for posting more of this speech than the FB fear promoters.)

100%-Reserve Banking Is Available Now!

I have sometimes heard 100%-reservists say that 100% reserve banking would be overwhelmingly chosen by customers if it were available.

Well, as Kurt Schuler notes, it is available, at almost every bank. It is called a safety deposit box.

How many of you people who think fractional reserve banking is fraudulent are keeping your money exclusively in the 100%-reserve system instead?

NOTE: By the way, I yanked the post previous to this one because I realized I didn't have the stomach for the follow-up s&*t storm right at the moment.

Monday, July 16, 2012

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

For at least two of the "View" options in MS Word, when I choose them, the program asks me if I really want to convert my document, and warns me that I may lose some formatting if I do.

That, to me, does not seem merely like a different way of viewing the same underlying document!


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


I walked by an empty lot. There was a big sign saying: "Caution! Poison. Rat baiting in progress." And there was a guy putting out the bait.

"Hey," I asked him, "you do this full time?"


"So how do you get into this line of work?"

"We have a guild."

"And anyone can join?"

"Sure, although you'd have to start out as an apprentice. But one day, with lots of hard work..."

"I could become a master baiter?"



Rajiv Shah shows why the concept is incoherent.

Economics Has No Findings That Command Widespread Agreement?

Sometimes you see people claiming the above as a way of dismissing the entire economics profession. Now, I am no defender of economic imperialism in the social sciences. But I also think the claim questioned in the title of this post is seriously overblown. Consider the theory of optimal currency areas developed largely in the 1960s and 1970s. According to the tenets of this theory, as interpreted by many prominent economists, the Euro was a bad idea. According to an unpublished paper that I have just read, both Paul Krugman and Milton Friedman warned against the creation of the based on this theory. Many economists, apparently, predicted just the ways in which the Eurozone would break down.

The politicians ignored these warnings and went ahead based on political considerations. And the economists turned out to be correct.

So, although there are many contentious areas in economics, there really is some core agreement, backed up by empirical evidence.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I Don't Have a Green Thumb!

I recently met an old acquaintance who used to tell me, "I just don't have a green thumb!" In her front yard was a large planting of black-eyed Susans that were dying in the heat and drought.

"My God," I said, "these things need water." I spent twenty minutes soaking them. In three hours they looked as good as new.

"I just don't have a green thumb" means "I put plants in the ground, but I make no effort to learn about them and pay no attention to what is happening to them, but then, when they die, I wish to attribute their death to some lack of a mystical ability on my part."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Where Do These People Come from?

I was at a diner in Pike County, in the land of obese people. The restaurant contained three generations of one family: a mother and her daughter who were running the place, and a granddaughter eating and fussing with a computer. The ten-year-old or so granddaughter was about 25 or 30 pounds overweight. She had been eating a stack of three pancakes with syrup, which she then set aside.

Her grandmother came out of the kitchen with four strips of bacon for the girl, and then looked down at the girl's plate: "Why haven't you finished your pancakes?" she asked the girl.

"Why haven't you finished your pancakes?"

I couldn't believe my ears. This girl should be skipping breakfast altogether for the next year or two, bu, instead, her grandmother is hounding her about not gobbling down that third pancake before she eats her four strips of bacon. Can she actually not see the extremely rotund child sitting there right in front of her eyes? What is she thinking when she asks this?

Performance in the Bedroom

I heard some fellow on the radio saying, "We all know that, as we get older, our performance in the bedroom may start to suffer."

Whatever is he talking about? I can read as fast as I ever did.

Friday, July 13, 2012

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

In this paper, Hoppe, Hülsmann, and Block (HHB) make their ethical case against fractional reserve banking (FRB) based on the fact that "two individual owners cannot be the exclusive owner of one and the same thing at the same time." They then posit that since fractional reserve bank notes creates multiple titles or claims to the "same" gold, they are inherently fraudulent.

In analyzing this claim, the first thing we will have to do is to turn it into a remotely sensible claim. No one who deposits money at a bank thinks they are entitled to the same money back. What they want, when they go to get their money out, is the same amount of money back. What a gold-backed  fractional reserve note comprises is a claim to a certain amount of gold, not certain particular pieces of gold. I hope that change to their argument is uncontroversial!

So their complaint comes down to this: if a bank issues pieces of paper that allow the bearer to claim a certain amount of gold from the bank, then the bank must have enough gold to cover all outstanding claims at all times.

Once that is understood, we can easily see another fraudulent practice that HHB should object to equally strenuously: fractional reserve gift certificating. Look at the deceit involved in this nefarious practice: a local restaurant at Christmas time sells gift certificates for 1000 prime rib dinners, and yet... there are not 1000 prime rib dinners in the restaurant at the moment they sell them! In fact, never are there more than fifty or so in the restaurant at any one time. The crooked owners of this restaurant, of course, will try to hide their deceit behind some spurious claim like, "Based on past gift certificate programs, we expect redemptions of about 100 meals per week, and we have plenty of beef on hand to meet that demand."

Fraud! The plain fact is, according to HHB, that their are 1000 claims to prime rib dinners outstanding, but only 50 prime rib dinners available at the restaurant, so this means that multiple people have claims to the "same" prime rib dinner.

No, if a restaurant wants to sell 1000 gift certificates, the only thing for it will be to keep 1000 dinners on hand during every hour they are open. Otherwise, they are criminals!

How to Win an Argument with Tom on Biblical Interpretation

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Does Refereeing Help You Get Published?

Kevin Vallier asked the above question on Facebook. I answer with a qualified "yes." Of course an editor should never publish a lousy paper because he likes the author. But here is the sort of situation in which I think it is likely to help:

Sue edits the Journal of Digestive Studies. She has asked both Mary and Fred to referee for her. Mary almost always says 'yes,' and when she does, she always submits a referee report in a timely fashion. Fred often says 'no,' and when he says 'yes,' he has to be nudged for months before he submits his report.

Now, the same week, Sue receives paper for consideration from both Mary and Fred. Both papers contain the germ of a good idea. But both are a bit of a mess at present: the good idea is buried amidst a welter of irrelevancies. In their present state neither is publishable, but if the good idea was unearthed from its midden heap and made to shine, either might be accepted. If Sue merely identifies the good idea and the problem, and says "Resubmit if you fix this," she has done her job. But she realizes she could do more: She might send along a more detailed explanation of how she sees the paper could be made to work.

She has no obligation to do this for either author. But it seems obvious that she is much more likely to "go the extra yard" for Mary than for Fred. And that is entirely as it should be: be a good citizen in the nation of scholars ought to be rewarded.

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

When Microsoft and Apple have a dispute, they go to court, and let a judge resolve it for them. But, for, say, drug dealers, government justice is not an option, so instead they (often) resort to violence.

Therefore, concludes Bob Murphy, if we entirely eliminate the government justice system... all organizations will resolve their disputes peacefully!

This is the sort of deft, counter-intuitive logic that makes libertarians so very tricksy to debate.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rothbard's Critique of the Multiplier

Murray Rothbard never cared if an argument he offered was sound, but only about whether it seemed to make his opponent look stupid. Consider, for instance, his "reductio" of the Keynesian multiplier:
Social Income = Income of (insert name of any person, say the reader) + Income of everyone else.
Let us use symbols:

Social income = Y
Income of the Reader = R
Income of everyone else = V

We find that V is a completely stable function of Y. Plot the two on coordinates, and we find historical one-to-one correspondence between them. It is a tremendously stable function, far more stable than the “consumption function.” On the other hand, plot R against Y. Here we find, instead of perfect correlation, only the remotest of connections between the fluctuating income of the reader of these lines and the social income. Therefore, this reader’s income is the active, volatile, uncertain element in the social income, while everyone else’s income is passive, stable, determined by the social income.

Let us say the equation arrived at is: V = .99999 Y
Then, Y = .99999 Y + R
.00001 Y = R
Y = 100,000 R

This is the reader’s own personal multiplier, a far more powerful one than the investment multiplier. To increase social in- come and thereby cure depression and unemployment, it is only necessary for the government to print a certain number of dollars and give them to the reader of these lines. The reader’s spending will prime the pump of a 100,000-fold increase in the national income.
 -- Man, Economy, and State, p. 867-868
Of course, what has been ignored is the relationship of R to V. In the simplest version of the Keynesian multiplier story, an essential element is that C remains a constant percentage of Y (ignoring autonomous consumption) regardless of what happens to G or I. Therefore, an increase in G or I must lead to enough of an increase in C to keep that percentage where it was. Now, that may be an invalid assumption, but Keynesians have a story as to why we'd expect something like that to happen, and then they actually go and do empirical work to discover to what extent it really does happen.

But if we look at the relationship of R to V, we would expect to find that they vary inversely: If my income was .00001 Y and it doubled the next year, the income of everyone else simply dropped to .99998 Y. Rothbard has played a trick here: because V is such a huge percentage of Y, he can claim it is "a completely stable function of Y." But the correct thing to look at is: When R changes, does V respond so as to maintain its ratio to Y? While the Keynesian story may be wrong, at least it represents a theory as to why the ratio might be roughly constant. Rothbard, on the other hand, has absolutely no theory for positing that V and R are behaving like they do in his model, and thus his example is hardly "in keeping with the Keynesian method."

The correct answer for the multiplier in Rothbard's example is roughly 1 rather than 100,000. Rather a bad error. But who cares? For readers who did not bother to analyze the example carefully, it sure made the Keynesians look dumb!

"Philosophy Is All Nonsense Anyway!"

It is an interesting pattern that I've seen repeated a few times. Someone with no experience in or willingness to learn philosophy nevertheless ventures out upon the philosophical sea. A real philosopher takes a look at his work, and notes it is terrible philosophy. At that point, the lightweight often pulls this move:

"The physicist responded to the review by calling the philosopher who wrote it 'moronic' and arguing that philosophy, unlike physics, makes no progress and is rather boring, if not totally useless."

OK, Professor Krauss, if philosophy is boring and useless, why did you bother writing a book centered around a (very bad) philosophical theory? Why did philosophy only become boring and useless once it turned out that you are awful at it?

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I am seriously puzzled by the terror which arises in some conservatives at the prospect of a second term for Obama. Just peruse the posts at Postmodern Conservative to see what I am talking about. Now, these are intelligent folks, mostly academics, who generally appear to be fairly sane. But they seem to regard a second Obama term as being roughly equivalent to the presidency of a modern Vladimir Lenin.

Now, I am no Obama fanboy. Unlike Daniel Kuehn, I would not eagerly tongue bathe Obama clean. (Just kidding, Daniel: I know you'd use a sponge.) But really, the guy has had a very middle-of-the-road first term. Yes, on some issues, like health care reform and abortion, he has certainly been to the left of where a Republican president would have been. But so would almost any Democrat. And I don't suspect for a moment that the bloggers at PMC are racists, unlike Appalachian Democrats, where I believe their lack of enthusiasm  for the man is mostly racial.

So what does explain this fear and trembling?

Two Arguments That Strike Me As Equally Valid

1) In the society we live in, bank robbers typically use cars to make their get away.
Therefore, if we eliminate cars, we will eliminate bank robbery.

2) In the society we live in, big business typically uses the state to gain unfair advantages.
Therefore, if we eliminate the state, we will eliminate big business gaining unfair advantages.

This Is a Joke, Right?

I occasionally peruse a web site that lists tutoring jobs to see if they might have work in my bailiwick. Today I spotted this:

"I need help with my Ph.D. in theology."

He is presumably doing this PhD in a department filled with theologians... and he is at an online tutoring locator service looking for help?!

Only 21 Million Choices? That's Not Competition!

Roderick Long contends that, if not for government, workers would be in control of the workplace. He notes that:

"free competition is neither working well nor working badly, but is simply not being allowed to work.

"Government regulations tend to increase the size and hierarchical nature of firms while reducing their numbers, thus constraining competition both among these corporate leviathans, and between them and smaller, flatter competitors."

I have no doubt that our current policy regime acts to reduce the number of firms and to favor larger firms. Even so, there are currently 21 million employers in the United States, and they all compete for workers. Why in the world would having instead 40 million employers, or 100 million, make any fundamental difference to the experience of workers in the workplace?

I can think of one answer: wishful thinking.

When "eliminate the state" is the only tool you've got, every fact looks like evidence for anarchism!

Rothbard on FRB: The Sheerest Poppycock

George Slegin:

"It is unfortunate that Congressman Paul has chosen to accept Rothbard's characterization of fractional reserve banking, thereby wedding his call for monetary freedom with an extremely mistaken idea of what such freedom would entail in practice. In fact bank "deposits" have been recognized both in practice and in common law since early modern times to consist of debt claims to money (coin, back then), ownership of which was in fact transferred, along with possession of the coins, first to the banker and then to the banker's borrower-customers. The original depositors retained a right to reclaim an equivalent sum of coin, sometimes on demand, and the banker's only obligation was to have sufficient coin on hand to meet any such demands, the normal penalty for failure to do which was failure. The contrary Rothbard view that bankers must be stealing whenever they lend part of their 'deposits' is the sheerest poppycock, legally, historically, and economically, and has been exposed as such in numerous forums. That many persons, who apparently lack real knowledge of these subjects subscribe to it doesn't make it any less false."

I Never Agreed to the State!

So how can its rules possibly be binding on me?

And you know what else I never agreed to? The distribution of property that existed when I was born. The grammatical rules of the English language. The institution of money. The custom of wearing clothing. The practice of shaking hands with one's right hand. Driving on the right-hand side of the road. Having screws go in clockwise and come out counter-clockwise. Who would get to raise me. What days would be celebrated as holidays.

Of course, social arrangements are subject to amendment. People can decide, say, "Treating other humans as property is not a good thing."

But "I never agreed to it" is an extremely childish reason for demanding some social arrangement be eliminated.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Check Your Spam Folders!

My proposal for a monograph on Berkeley was accepted four days ago... and was sitting in my spam folder until ten minutes ago, went I went in to look for an entirely different e-mail.

So next year, you can look forward to the publication of Was Berkeley a Skeptic About the External World? A Study in Error from Edwin Mellen Press. I know you'll be holding your breath awaiting the answer!

Getting Your Paper Published

This site recommends the following:

"Do whatever possible to make sure the negative referee does not get the paper again."

This may include, if it does not interfere too much with your other writing, hunting down the negative referee and killing him / her.

The Paradox of Intellectual Passion

I am presently reading an unpublished paper on self-ownership and homesteading, and it occurs to me that some of the libertarian theorists working in this area have made rather gross blunders because they so badly wanted their conclusion to be true: if the only alternatives to self-ownership are communist ownership of people or slavery, then libertarianism is justified, so those must be the only alternatives, because then libertarianism is justified!

But, of course, libertarians are far from the only ones subject to this danger (that just happens to be the subject of the paper I am reading). We all are prone to it. When I present an argument against reductionist materialism, for instance, do I like the argument because it is a good argument, or because I badly want it to work?

A solution suggests itself: only do intellectual work on issues about which one does not care. But that is a terrible solution, as it is only one's intellectual passions that can lead one to endure the slog of performing careful research and painstakingly refining one's arguments.

Self-criticism is a partial solution, but it can be taken too far; when that happens, the self-critic never publishes anything. Peer review helps, but if the reviewer shares one's passion, she may have the same blindness one does, or, if not, the reviewer may have the opposite blindness, rendering her unable to appreciate one's argument even if it is fully sound.

Any other ideas?

Collaborating with Young'uns

I've a couple of papers in their preliminary stages in which I am attempting to collaborate with younger colleagues. One of them keeps suggesting we use things with names like "Skype" and "Drop-box." What the hey?

OK, I'm gonna go him one better. I am going to insist that all our collaboration take place in World of Warcraft. "Ah, you want to talk about the paper? Then meet me in Westfall and we can discuss it while we kill Harversters." Or: "The new draft of the paper? Ah, I dropped it off with Jergosh the Invoker in Ragefire Chasm: get together a group, and when you kill him you can loot him for it."

The "Luxury" I'd Least Appreciate

I think it must be breakfast in bed. First of all, a bed seems to me just a horrid and uncomfortable place to eat a meal: the meal would shift around as you moved, you can't really sit up properly, if you shift your legs too much you get the meal in your lap: ugh! Secondly, having breakfast shoved over you, pinning you there, before you've even gotten up to use the loo, makes the whole idea seen even worse. And if you had gotten up and performed your ablutions, why in the world would you want to get back into bed to eat?

And yet, it is portrayed repeatedly as the height of luxury!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

That Jamaican Grocery

I just thought of this the other day, and it made me laugh just remembering it. There was one summer when, after band practice, we would take a drive down to Stamford. There was a small Jamaican grocery, in an unassuming house. You could buy plaintains, yams, breadfruit, ackee, saltfish, scotch bonnet peppers, and so on.

But... if you knew the owner, you could also, with a slight nod of your head, and so long as no strangers were in the store, be allowed behind the counter. As you came around to his side, he would open a trap door in the floor. You duck in, and descend a set of wooden steps into a West Indian night club. They had a DJ, mirrored balls, Guinness, Red Stripe and hard liquor, hot food, and Rasta men sitting in the corner rolling big spliffs and puffing on them. My band mates and a few of our friends would spend several hours in this basement hide-away, dancing, eating, and drinking with whoever else wandered by, before we had to return to the surface and go back to our regular lives.

What a weird place!

Gardening for Real People, Part III: 90% Organic Gardening

You will read gardening books that promote strict adherence to organic purity, and others that recommend using any chemical help you can get. Here, as so often, I think virtue is the mean between two vices: I always try to garden mostly organically. Many of the complaints of the organic community about factory farming are justified. A regime of continual application of artificial fertilizers and pesticides clearly reduces the biodiversity of the soil: they are like similar to taking continual cocktails of drugs in order to remain "healthy."

But the analogy holds in the reverse direction as well: antibiotics and other strong drugs have their uses, in emergency situations. If you take antibiotics every time you have a sniffle, you are setting yourself up for serious trouble down the road. But when you have meningitis, it is a very good idea to take them.

I try to take the same attitude towards my garden: insecticides, weed killers, and artificial fertilizers are emergency measures. Artificial fertilizers can often save a plant that is failing due to transplant shock. Insecticides may be necessary to fight off a massive insect attack. Weed killers can sometimes be the only practical way to stamp out some rampant, invasive species.

But they are all to be used sparingly, in times of need. Otherwise, we risk destroying the overall health of our garden's ecosystem in order to have leaves without tatters, squash four inches longer, and 20% more flowers on our petunias.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Ed Feser: How Hume's "Problem of Induction" Only Arises Post-Descartes

Here: "As Ellis has put it, the early moderns replaced the Aristotelian notion of active powers with an essentially “passivist” conception of nature. For the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, by virtue of their substantial forms natural substances exhibit a directedness toward the generation of certain outcomes as toward a final cause. Efficient cause thus presupposes final cause or teleology, which in turn presupposes substantial form. Get rid of substantial form and final causality, and efficient causality in any robust sense -- any sense that entails an active tendency toward the generation of certain effects -- goes out the window with it. That is precisely why Hume’s puzzles about causation and induction followed upon the early moderns’ anti-Aristotelian revolution. What replaced active powers was the idea of natural phenomena as essentially passive -- as inherently directed toward no particular outcome at all -- on which certain “laws” have been imposed from outside."

Herman Melville, a Very Funny Man

I picked up Moby Dick for some research (you will see the results soon), and wound up browsing some other bits for the first time in years. Melville was pretty darned funny:

"Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it—a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snow-shoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles."

"The landlord of the Spouter-Inn had recommended us to his cousin Hosea Hussey of the Try Pots, whom he asserted to be the proprietor of one of the best kept hotels in all Nantucket, and moreover he had assured us that Cousin Hosea, as he called him, was famous for his chowders. In short, he plainly hinted that we could not possibly do better than try pot-luck at the Try Pots. But the directions he had given us about keeping a yellow warehouse on our starboard hand till we opened a white church to the larboard, and then keeping that on the larboard hand till we made a corner three points to the starboard, and that done, then ask the first man we met where the place was..."

That's great: those torturous directions, followed by "Then ask somebody how to get there"!

By their euphemisms you shall know them

I'm watching the Belgian TV series The Break . Not bad, but... At several points the subject of abortion comes up. The characters say...