Monthly Archive for August, 2012

The Final Night

— Thank God for the hurricane; I don’t think I could have taken four nights of this.

— Off to a weak start tonight with Connie Mack mouthing platitudes and the Gingriches not adding much.

— Jeb Bush should have been the nominee. In fact, he should have been the nominee back in 2000. He was great tonight.

— It is heartening to see Bush, Condi Rice and others pushing education to the forefront. Rice called it the civil rights issue of our time. Me, I’d rank it second after immigration.

— Too damned many musical interludes.

— I feel like it’s my job to be cynical about the tearjerker stories, but I have to admit they were very effective.

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I Brag and Chant (and Complain a Bit) of Ryan, Ryan, Ryan, Ryan

Notes from the second night of the convention:

— What follows will be in more or less chronological order, except that I want to say upfront that Condi Rice gave one of the greatest political speeches in American history, and if you didn’t see it, you should scroll most of the way down this post and watch the video right now. (And no, that does not mean I agree with everything she said.)

— It took Cathy McMorris Rodgers less than 30 seconds to segue from “We will send every American to college” to “We will shrink the role of government”. This is the kind of thing that makes people hold Republicans in well-deserved contempt.

— Rand Paul lived up to my almost impossibly high expectations. He was superb:

— Rob Portman was good, on both substance and presentation. He did commit the sin of defending free trade as a boon to producers, as if consumers were nothing more than potted plants, but that’s only a sin of omission, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect too much depth in a ten minute convention speech. What he did say was spot on:

— There were far far too many musical interludes.

— Did I mention far too many musical interludes?

— Unlike Paul and Portman, Tim Pawlenty relies almost entirely on substance-free one-liners. He leaves me feeling dirty.

— Mike Huckabee, like Pawlenty, starts off largely substance-free and often negative, but pulls it off better because he’s more likable. Then he moves on to big themes, hits them well, and comes off lofty. He’s one of the best orators in American politics:

— I keep hearing, from speaker after speaker, that if you’ve been successful through study, hard work and risk-taking, then “you built it”, and therefore deserve your success. Okay. But it’s also true that if you’ve been successful through study, hard work and risk-taking, you probably had the good fortune of being born into a family that encouraged study, hard work and risk-taking. Not everyone has that good fortune, and it would be nice to hear that acknowledged.

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Report Card

Here, for what it’s worth (and I’m sure it’s not worth much) are the grades I assigned to last night’s speakers. These are primarily for presentation, not content. They’re mostly quite high, which is unsurprising because of course these people were chosen largely for their skill as presenters. I’m sure that some of them would have gotten different grades if they’d spoken a half hour earlier or later, when I was worse or better fed. I am not prepared to defend these grades terribly vigorously, but maybe they’ll provoke some interesting discussion:

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You Pays Your Money…..

A few months ago, I sat in a Dutailier glider and discovered that I had lived half a century with no concept of how comfortable a chair can be. My wife had exactly the same reaction. So we’d like to buy a couple of those chairs.

Unfortunately, Dutailier no longer makes the model we sat in. Fortunately, they make similar models. Unfortunately, they make one hundred and thirty nine models, of which at least fifty-nine appear to be serious contenders for “model most similar to the one we sat in”.

Those customers who somehow manage to choose among these models are then offered a choice of 113 different upholstery fabrics, 22 different wood finishes, and 10 “model options” (including “glide only”, “glide plus multiposition lock”, “glide plus autolock” and “glide plus multiposition lock plus autolock”) for a staggering 3,455,540 possible chairs. (That’s an approximation, because some models come with more or fewer options.) Color me paralyzed.

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Conventional Wisdom

I became a lifelong political convention junkie in 1972, the year that George McGovern secured the nomination with a brilliantly executed ploy that nobody saw coming until it was over, and that even the sainted Walter Cronkite mistakenly reported as a disaster.

I was 18 years old. Most of the Democratic convention was held in the wee hours of the morning, and I went sleepless following the battle on black and white TV, jumping up every few minutes to twirl the dial to another network. All realtime analysis came from the anchormen, and at the crucial moment, the anchormen had no idea what was happening.

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The Visionary

I mentioned earlier this week that I’d been crafting a long post on the fabric of the Universe when I was sidetracked by relatively mundane political events. Now I’ve been sidetracked again by the entirely unexpected (to me) news of the death from melanoma, at age 65, of the Fields Medalist Bill Thurston, who devoted his life to understanding the shape of space.

One-dimensional topology is the study of curves and two-dimensional topology is the study of surfaces. Both subjects are quite well understood. Thurston was the king of three-dimensional topology, which gains additional interest from the fact that we perceive ourselves as living in a three-dimensional Universe. Three-dimensional topology attempts to classify all the possible shapes for that Universe.

One of course is also interested in four, five, six and many-dimensional topology, four dimensions being of particular interest because they can be used to model space together with time. But although three dimensions are more complicated than two and two are more complicated than one, it turns out that when you go much higher, a lot of things get simpler. Consider knots, for example. There are no knots inside a one or two dimensional space; a knot needs three dimensions in which to pass over and under itself. But in more than three dimensions, you can untie any knot just by pulling on its ends — roughly because the additional dimensions give it so much space in which to untangle itself. For those and related reasons, topology is often hardest in three and four dimensions — coincidentally (or maybe not) the very dimensions most relevant to the way we experience the world.

Thurston revolutionized three-dimensional topology in the 1980s with his geometrization conjecture, which says that any three-manifold (the three-dimensional analogue of a smooth curve or surface) can be cut up into pieces, each of which exhibits one of eight permissible geometries. The simplest of those geometries is the flat three-dimensional space you think you see around you, where you can draw three straight lines in mutually perpendicular directions and extend them forever. Another is the geometry of the three-dimensional sphere, which is an analogue of the two-dimensional surface of the earth, where any “straight” line eventually circles back to meet itself.

The geometrization conjecture was important, but what really mattered was the vast array of new techniques Thurston introduced for visualizing and understanding the structure of three-manifolds. When those techniques came on line in the early 1980s, he was widely acclaimed as the mathematician of the decade.

One thing that set Thurston apart was his insistence that mathematics is a human study, and that it’s the mathematician’s job to communicate not just theorems and proofs, but a unique way of thinking. Stories are often told of mid-twentieth century mathematicians (usually French) who, when asked a question about their work, would scribble a picture on the blackboard, deliberately stand in front of that picture to shield it from everyone else’s view, and then, having studied it a few minutes, erased the picture, turned around, and gave a purely formal explanation designed to obscure all of the motivation and insight. Nobody ever told a story like that about Bill Thurston. Here he is, talking about the mystery of three-manifolds; dip in at a random moment and chances are excellent you’ll hear him talking not about how he proved a theorem but about how he sees the world:

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In the Matter of Todd Akin

So there I was, putting together a long post on the fabric of the Universe, when Todd Akin came along and seemed to demand at least some brief commentary. A few remarks on that, and I’ll get back to the rest of the Universe in a day or two:

1) The exact quote, in response to a question about pregnancies resulting from rape, is: ““It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

2) It seems to me, from what I understand from news sources, that the female body does not in fact have ways of recognizing rape and preventing conception. I have absolutely no expertise in this matter; therefore my understanding might be wrong. Nevertheless, I’m happy to pass that understanding along.

3) It also seems to me that the phrase “from what I understand from doctors” says, in effect, “I am not an expert, so this might be wrong, but here’s what I’ve heard”. It is not unreasonable for people to make statements like this. In fact, I did it myself, just one paragraph back.

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I am buying a house, and am therefore faced with the choice between a 15 year mortgage at 2.875% and a 30 year mortgage at 3.49% (as of a couple of days ago; those rates have probably changed a little by now).

The main advantage of the 15 year mortgage is that it comes with a lower interest rate and, because I’m making larger monthly payments, it keeps my money out of the stock market, which is good if the market tanks. The main advantage of the 30 year mortgage is that it allows me to keep more money in the stock market for a much longer time, which is good if the market does well.

How should I weigh those factors? Economics tells me that I will solve this problem by forecasting the return on equities over each of the next 30 years, and computing, on the basis of my forecast, which mortgage will leave me richer in the long run. No, that’s not quite right. Actually, economics tells me that I’ll make many forecasts, assign each one a probability, and thereby compute two probability distributions for my future net worth and then choose the distribution I prefer.

Now let’s get serious.

Continue reading ‘Aaagh!’

Enough Already!

Today’s email brings a gripe from Mark Skousen, the irrepressible impresario behind FreedomFest, who could have avoided this problem by being born in the old Soviet Union:

I was in the large Stop & Shop grocery store here in New York to buy some items, including a new tube of toothpaste. I like Colgate, but I can never seem to get the same toothpaste product.

Now I know why. Guess how many different types and sizes of toothpaste Colgate sells?


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World’s Best Dad

Proof positive that I am not the world’s best dad:

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Just to be clear, that is not me in the video; it is somebody who is clearly a much better father than I ever was! Original YouTube version is here.

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The Greatest Story Ever Told

I gave a series of four talks last week at Cato University; only the first of them was broadcast by C-SPAN, and you can watch it here. (The title was “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, meaning the story of economic growth.)

Much of this material will look familiar to those who have watched other videos recently posted in this space, but I think it comes together a little better in this one. The remaining lectures contained more in the way of new material, and I’m hoping to be able to post at least some video excerpts in the near future.

There were a lot of fabulous talks at this event by such luminaries as Tom Palmer (here and here) and the extraordinary Robert McDonald, who held the audience in thrall with his gripping three-part series on the history of the American revolution (not, unfortunately, online, even in part).

If you missed it, there’s always next year!

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Paging Diogenes

Chapter 8 of The Big Questions is called “Diogenes’s Nightmare” and argues that: 1) In a world of honest truthseekers, there would be no disagreements about matters of fact; 2) In the world we inhabit, disagreements about matters of fact are ubiquitious; therefore 3) in the world we inhabit, there must be precious few honest truthseekers.

If you’re looking to ferret out one of those rare creatures, your best candidate might be a man who argues with eloquence and passion against subsidies for the industry where he makes his living. Meet David Bergeron.

David is the founder and president of Sundanzer, which supplies solar powered refrigerators worldwide, based on technology developed by David under contract to NASA. He also really really really understands why subsidizing solar technology is a terrible idea. And when I met him last week, he impressed me so much that I invited him to make a rare guest post here at The Big Questions. So without further ado:

Solar Subsidies: Misdirecting Industry and Consumers

A Guest Post


David Bergeron

In a recent Economist on-line debate, the affirmative motion “This house believes that subsidizing renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels” was surprisingly defeated.

In his closing remarks, the moderator softened his strident opposition to the negative case, even admitting that “subsidizing renewable energy, is wasteful and perhaps inadequate to address climate-change concerns.”

Beyond the Climate Debate

The debate, indeed, reopened the question whether anthropogenic greenhouse-gas forcing was a serious planetary environmental concern. But such focus short-changed what I think is the more important question for the Economist. Not only are the renewable-energy subsidies (such as for solar) wasteful and potentially insufficient, they are outright diabolical if indeed there is a looming environmental crisis.

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