Monthly Archive for May, 2010

Weekend Roundup

Following three (count ‘em: one, two, three) spirited discussions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one exploration of the perils of absentminded driving, and a snarky observation about the state of psychiatry, I am taking a long holiday weekend. I’ll return on Tuesday.



dsmThe Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, widely known as the bible of psychiatric medicine, is under revision and the American Psychiatric Association is accepting public comment at a new website.

Medpage Today reports that the revision has already been changed several times in response to these comments. These include several areas within the Sexual and Gender Identities categories, and modifications to the criteria for adjustment disorders and eating disorders.

By contrast, the American Physical Society is not asking the general public to weigh in on the prospects for supersymmetry, nor is the American Economic Association surveying the general public on the properties of dynamic stochastic general equilibria. So much for any pretense that psychiatry is a science.

Hat tip to Tom Amoroso, who called this to my attention though he might not endorse this commentary.

Absentminded Musings

Here are some thoughts on last week’s absent-minded driver problem.

First a recap of the problem, with a bit more detail than last week:

Each day, Albert leaves his office (at the bottom of the map), gets on the Main Highway and attempts to drive home to his house on Second Street. If he turns too soon (onto First Street) or if he overshoots (going all the way to the north end of the Main Highway), he is mauled by dinosaurs.

Obviously, Albert’s best strategy is to go straight at the first intersection and turn right at the second. Unfortunately, both intersections look identical. Doubly unfortunately, Albert can never remember whether he’s already passed the first intersection.

Continue reading ‘Absentminded Musings’

Civil Rights Act—Some Final Words

One final word on this 46 year old topic:

Monday I insisted that all reasonable people should be at least mildly disturbed by the diminution of property rights implicit in a ban on whites-only lunch counters.

Tuesday I cited an excellent comment from Jonathan Pryor suggesting that a whites-only lunch counter is itself an indirect assault on property rights insofar as the owners expect taxpayers to foot the bill for enforcement of the whites-only policy (say, by calling the police when unwanted visitors show up).

There are circumstances in which I think Pryor’s argument clearly applies. I cited the case of the man who keeps a barrel of Hershey bars on his front lawn and expects the police to stop children from filching them. Surely this man is imposing a burden on the community over and above the assertion of his own property rights. But I also gave several other examples that gave me pause about the applicability to lunch counters.

This in turn brought forth an insightful comment from Ken B, who points out that the Civil Rights Act itself called for a lot of taxpayer-financed enforcement. The act was passed, blacks sat down at lunch counters, owners attempt to evict them, the police were called.

Continue reading ‘Civil Rights Act—Some Final Words’

Civil Rights and Wrongs

I had planned to get back to our friend the absent-minded driver today, but yesterday’s post on Rand Paul garnered (at least) one comment so good that it deserves to be highlighted.

I said yesterday that the 1964 Civil Rights Law (forbidding racial discrimination in places of public accommodation) infringes on property rights and that all reasonable people ought to be disturbed by that, even if their ultimate judgment is that the benefits of the law outweigh its costs.

Our commenter Jonathan Pryor responded, in effect, as follows (I am paraphrasing):

When you open a restaurant and announce that you won’t serve blacks, you’re not just announcing that you won’t serve blacks. Instead, you’re implicitly announcing that whenever a black person comes in and asks for service, you’re going to call the police and ask the taxpayers to subsidize the cost of your taste for discrimination. You have no property right to those taxpayer dollars.

My first reaction was: This is an excellent point, which I haven’t seen raised before. For the most part, that’s still my reaction. Still, this argument cannot be definitive as a matter of principle, because the same argument applies in many cases where we clearly reject its conclusion. After all, when you open a restaurant, you’re implicitly announcing that whenever a naked person asks for service you’re going to call the police and ask the taxpayers to cover the cost of removal. For that matter, you’re going to call the police every time you get robbed. But we don’t conclude that it should always be illegal to open a restaurant.

Continue reading ‘Civil Rights and Wrongs’

That’s Rich

“It’s now crystal clear what the Tea Party stands for” says Frank Rich midway through a column that makes it crystal clear what Frank Rich stands for, and it isn’t pretty.

Whatever you may think about the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a whole, it indisputably narrows property rights by allowing politicians to dictate the policies of private businesses. Not only is it perfectly reasonable to find that at least a little disturbing, it’s perfectly unreasonable not to find it a little disturbing—even if your ultimate judgment is that it’s a necessary means to a desirable end. Even avid supporters of the Patriot Act ought to acknowledge that it raises legitimate concerns about privacy, even avid supporters of capital punishment ought to acknowledge that it raises legitimate concerns about false convictions, and even avid supporters of the Civil Rights Act ought to acknowledge that it raises legitimate concerns about property rights.

Frank Rich, who equates Rand Paul’s expression of those concerns with nostalgia for the Confederacy, thereby makes himself as scurrilous as those who equate reservations about the Patriot Act with being “on the side of the terrorists”. The “gotcha” game is bad enough when a single thoughtless remark becomes the pretext for dismissing an entire movement. Here the pretext is a single thoughtful remark.

If we are to discredit everyone who is capable of subtler thought than Frank Rich, then there is no hope for the level of public discourse.

Weekend Roundup

I am amazed and delighted by the many excellent responses to my call for arguments about religion. These will be very helpful to me as I prepare for my debate with Dinesh D’Souza. Keep them coming!

Commenters also had a lot to say about the puzzle of the absent-minded driver. It seems to me that some of the analyses falter by being less than crystal clear about their assumptions: How much can the driver remember (e.g., if he updates his strategy at the first intersection and then arrives at the second, does he remember his original strategy or his updated strategy?), how much he can commit to (e.g. if he updates his strategy at the first intersection, can he commit to sticking to the new strategy at the second? can he commit to the method of updating he’ll use at the second?), how much he can anticipate (e.g. what does he believe about his future updates?), how smart he is (can he use his knowledge of his current strategy to figure out whether he’s already updated and hence what intersection he’s at?) and how sneaky he is (e.g. might he purposely adopt a bad strategy in order to trick his future self into updating to a good one?). I have what I think is a useful way of forcing puzzlers to be explicit about their assumptions, and had planned to post it on Monday, but I keep revising it, so it might be a few more days.

The Internet to the Rescue

Two Russian girls arrive in DC as part of a travel exchange program for which they’ve paid about $3000. The program promises them jobs on arrival but fails to deliver. Instead, they are instructed to travel to New York City to do “hostess work” in a place called the Lux Lounge. Their American friend, currently in Wyoming, pleads with them not to go, but after some initial hesitation they board a Greyhound bus to New York, insisting that everything is fine.

Where can the panicked friend turn? To the Internet, of course. He posts a plea for help. Commenters jump into action, contacting police and social service agencies, pooling information to figure out what bus the girls are likely to be on, and arranging to have them escorted to a police station. A couple of hundred comments later, the girls are safe and sound. One commenter adds:

This is the best use of the Internet that I, personally, have ever seen. I’m so proud to be a member of this community.


Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

The Absent-Minded Driver

Until last week, I had never heard of the paradox of the absent-minded driver, but I was recently told that it has some relevance to my encyclopedia article on quantum game theory. That plus the fact that I am a notoriously absent-minded driver myself made me think I should check out the original source. Here’s what I extracted:

Each day, Albert leaves his office (at the bottom of the map), gets on the Main Highway and attempts to drive home to his house on Second Street. If he turns too soon (onto First Street) or if he overshoots (going all the way to the north end of the Main Highway), he is mauled by dinosaurs.

Obviously, Albert’s best strategy is to go straight at the first intersection and turn right at the second. Unfortunately, both intersections look identical. Doubly unfortunately, Albert can never remember whether he’s already passed the first intersection.

Continue reading ‘The Absent-Minded Driver’

The Better to Hear Your Comments With

My 17 year old stepson is learning Photoshop. For his first effort, he…..well, let’s say he sharpened up this picture of his mom and me:

Meanwhile, the responses to yesterday’s Religion on Trial post have been terrific. Keep them coming.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.


Religion on Trial

I’ll be giving a couple of talks at this summer’s FreedomFest on economic growth, the power of incentives, and why More Sex is Safer Sex. More provocatively, I’ll also be going head to head with Dinesh D’Souza in a session called “Religion on Trial: Is God the Problem?”. Dinesh will argue that religion makes the world a better place, and I’ll argue the opposite. We’ll each call on the testimony of witnesses (in my case, Michael Shermer and Doug Casey). After our closing arguments, a jury of twelve, chosen from the audience, will deliver a verdict.

Dinesh has done this before; I haven’t. So I’m calling on you guys to help me out here by giving me your best arguments—either on Dinesh’s side, so I can practice rebutting them, or on my side, so I can plagiarize them.

Remember that the ultimate question is whether religion makes the world a better place, not whether religion is true. (On the other hand, truth becomes relevant if you’re arguing that religion makes the world a worse place by making people believe false things.) So what have you got for me?

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

Weekend Roundup

roundup2We began the week with another triumph of capitalism, then moved on to a deep unsolved problem in arithmetic—which you, the reader, have an opportunity to help solve. On Thursday, we were honored with a guest post from the provocative Sup Specie Aeternitatis, offering evidence as to the sincerity of Al Gore’s proclaimed beliefs on global warming. We ended with a neat trick for weeding out job applicants.

I’ll be on the road this weekend so I’m taking Monday off. See you Tuesday!

Toward a More Efficient Labor Market

In Chapter 9 of The Big Questions, I lamented the great duplication of time and effort that occurs each spring when the top academic departments are all evaluating the same handful of job candidates, and I wondered why departments don’t free ride by simply announcing “We’ll take anyone with an offer from (say) Stanford”.

An anonymous math department chairman reports on his own strategy for cutting down on the workload. He believes that one of the most important determinants of a successful career is luck. So each year, he randomly rejects half the applicants without even reading their folders. That way, he eliminates the unlucky ones.

From an Eternal Perspective

My favorite new blogger is the pseudonymous Sub Specie Æternitatis, who I discovered when he left a particularly thoughtful comment on the Fair and Balanced thread here at The Big Questions. A little Google-stalking later, I was immersed in his blog. Before much longer, I was in love with it.

Not only is Æternitatis a great writer; he’s also a gracious colleague who (after I introduced myself by email) agreed to let me reprint one of his incisive commentaries as a guest post here. So without further ado:

Al Gore’s Revealed Beliefs

A Guest Post


Sub Specie Æternitatis

It is reported that former Vice President Al Gore just purchased a villa in Montecito, California for $8.875 million. The exact address is not revealed, but Montecito is a relatively narrow strip bordering the Pacific Ocean. So its minimum elevation above sea level is 0 feet, while its overall elevation is variously reported at 50ft and 180ft.

At the same time, Mr. Gore prominently sponsors a campaign and award-winning movie that warns that, due to Global Warming, we can expect to see nearby ocean-front locations, such as San Francisco, largely under water. The elevation of San Francisco is variously reported at 52ft up to high of 925ft.

There being very little reason to suppose that the Pacific Ocean would (or could) rise much less in Montecito than in San Francisco, it follows that Mr. Gore just paid nearly $9 million for property, which according to his professed beliefs, will likely soon be literally under water and hence worthless both as a residence and for resale.

Continue reading ‘From an Eternal Perspective’

ABC at (Your) Home

abclogoYesterday I told you about one of the deepest problems in arithmetic. Today I’ll explain how you can help solve it.

We’re on the hunt for ABC triples. A brief recap: We start with an equation of the form A+B = C, where A, B and C have no factors in common. We find all the primes that divide A, B or C, multiply them together and call the result D. The goal is to find examples where C is bigger than D.

If I start with 2+243=245, the primes are 2 (which divides 2), 3 (which divides 243), 5 (which divides 245) and 7 (which also divides 245), so D = 2 x 3 x 5 x 7 = 220, and C (that is, 245) is bigger than D. Success! We’ve found an ABC triple.

We want more. A full understanding of ABC triples would allow us to solve some of the hardest open problems in arithmetic. More importantly, the reason we’d be able to solve those problems is that we’d understand arithmetic itself a whole lot better.
The first step is to find a whole lot of examples to help researchers guess at the underlying patterns.

That’s where you come in.

Continue reading ‘ABC at (Your) Home’

The ABC’s of Arithmetic

abc123Some of the hardest problems in arithmetic are those that relate multiplication to addition. For example: Is every even number the sum of two primes? This is most assuredly a hard problem—mathematicians have been tackling it for centuries and so far nobody’s solved it. And it relates multiplication to addition. As soon as you talk about primes, you’re (implicitly) talking about multiplication, and of course when you talk about sums, you’re talking about addition.

Or: How many ways can you write the number 2 as the difference of two primes? You can write 2 = 5-3, or 2 = 7-5, or 2 = 13-11. That’s three so far. How many more are there? The betting is that the answer is “infinitely many”, but nobody knows for sure. This problem has stumped some of the best and the brightest not just for centuries but for millennia. And again it relates multiplication to addition. (Well, it relates multiplication to subtraction, but of course subtraction is just addition in reverse.)

The ABC problem has only been around for a few decades, but it’s in many ways the most interesting and important of the bunch. Tomorrow I’ll explain how you can help solve this problem. Today I’ll explain what the problem is.

Continue reading ‘The ABC’s of Arithmetic’

Triumphs of Capitalism

Lifted from craigslist, with a hat tip to my sister:

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

Weekend Roundup

roundup4On Monday, we talked about what women want (hint: they prefer larger, and we’re not talking about wallets).

On Tuesday, we talked about beautiful folk songs; thanks to those who pointed me in new directions.

On Wednesday, we asked why job growth has been so sluggish compared to previous recessions.

On Thursday, I linked to a remarkably thoughtful and literate Fox News clip on immigration policy, featuring the fiery Don Boudreaux.

And on Friday, we lamented the economic illiteracy of local television reporters.

I’ll be back on Monday with more.

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Journalism Majors

Alright, this is hilarious. Or pathetic. Or hilarious in a pathetic sort of way. Or something.

Last week in Boston, a water main broke, rendering tap water undrinkable (unless it was boiled). This inspired the journalism majors at Boston station WHDH to produce some highly emotional footage about two tragic side effects—side effects which, as far as it was possible to tell based on everything they teach in journalism school, were entirely unrelated.

First, we had the report on price gouging, featuring a woman weeping—-weeping!—-because her son had been charged $1 a bottle instead of the recent sale price of $3.99 for a case of 24. Then, we had the entirely separate report on frustrated consumers who had visited five stores and/or waited in long lines to buy bottled water. Apparently nobody at WHDH thought to ask how much longer those lines might have been if prices hadn’t risen.

Nor, apparently, have the folks at WHDH ever learned that the whole point of prices is that they adjust quickly to changes in market conditions, and that that’s a good thing. Even the convenience store owner who is a pure altruist and refuses to profit from a crisis would be well advised to raise the price of water and donate the proceeds to charity, rather than allowing all of the available water to be snatched up by whoever happens to arrive first or elbow everyone else out of the way.

Continue reading ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Journalism Majors’

To My RSS Readers

This morning’s post contains some imbedded video from Fox News that looks fine on the blog but shows up as a pointer to the wrong video in the RSS feed. Here is a link to the correct video.

Fair and Balanced

Having linked recently to a Fox News segment hosted by a close evolutionary cousin of a sea cucumber, I am delighted to balance the scales with this clip of a thoughtful and literate three-way conversation about Arizona’s anti-immigration statute, featuring Judge Andrew Napolitano, the journalist Jack Hunter, and my hero, George Mason University’s inestimable Don Boudreaux.

The Jobless Recovery

Mark Skousen, the editor of Forecasts and Strategies, and the proprietor of FreedomFest (where I’ll be speaking on multiple topics this July) sent me the above graph, highlighting just how very jobless this recovery has been, even compared to what we saw after the severe recession of 1981. (There’s been nothing nearly as bad in the intervening three decades.)

What accounts for the difference? The glib answer is “Obama versus Reagan”, but there are plenty of alternative stories. I find some of those stories more convincing than others, but the one thing I’m sure of is that I haven’t put in the kind of hard thought or careful study that entitles me to a strong opinion. I’d be interested, though, in hearing what you guys think.

A Musical Interlude

guitarWhat is the most beautiful folk song you’ve ever heard?

Herewith I offer a list of 25 of my top candidates, with links to brief audio clips. For this purpose, I am defining a “folk song” to be something that would likely be filed in the “folk” section of a Barnes and Noble music department.

Note that the criterion is “most beautiful”, not “favorite”, though of course there’s quite a large overlap between the two.

I am aware that my choices might be colored by the circumstances in which I first heard these songs as well as by their intrinsic merit. I also acknowledge, without a shred of embarrassment, that some might consider the overall tenor of this list to be shockingly lowbrow. Nevertheless, I believe every song on this list to be stunningly beautiful in its way.

Do tell me what I’ve overlooked.

Continue reading ‘A Musical Interlude’

What Women Want: It’s Not Just Wallet Size

If you’re planning to lie about your weight on an online dating site, you’d be well advised to shade downward if you’re a woman and (more surprisingly) upward if you’re a man.

That’s one apparent lesson of the data in this recently published paper by three careful researchers. If I’m reading their tables correctly, they say roughly this:

Taking as given your reported age, height, race, weight, income, attractiveness, education, marital status and so forth, there is some class of users who have about a 50/50 chance of contacting you. Now if you are a 5’4″ woman and you subtract 11 pounds from your reported weight (lowering your body mass index, or BMI, by about 1), then you’ll hear not from 50% of that class but from almost 60%. On the other hand, if you are a 5’10″ man and you *add* 7 pounds to your weight (adding about 1 to your BMI), you’ll hear from about 53%.

Moreover, these effects fall off very slowly, so that even very thin women gain from underreporting their weights, and even very heavy men gain from overreporting. The effects also fall off very slowly with BMI differences, so that even quite heavy men prefer thinner women, and even quite thin women prefer heavier men.

Continue reading ‘What Women Want: It’s Not Just Wallet Size’

Weekend Roundup

roundupHaving taken Monday off for the briefest of honeymoons, I returned on Tuesday with an apparently too-cryptic post that required an addendum to make its meaning clear. Thanks to everyone who sent good wishes and congratulations. I am feeling extremely fortunate.

When I announced last week that I’d be taking a couple of days off, readers took the occasion to raise some issues in the foundations of mathematics. This inspired me to write a long-intended post correcting some elementary errors that frequently come up in these discussions. At least one very confused and feisty commenter jumped to the conclusion that I was saying something controversial and that is was his duty to disagree, loudly and repeatedly.

Thursday’s post was about the magic of the past and the technology of the present, which seem roughly equivalent. And on Friday we took on Arizona’s new immigration law and one of its more fatuous defenders.

With no life-changing events scheduled for the coming weekend, I expect to be back, as usual, on Monday.