Archive for the 'Blogging' Category

The Intellectual and the Marketplace

stiglerToday is the 100th birthday of the late George Stigler, who won a Nobel prize for his economics and would have won a second if they gave one for dry wit. This is not the best example of that wit, but it’s the one I remember most vividly: One day long ago I was walking across the quadrangle at the University of Chicago, when I felt a hand on my shoulder — a very large hand, because Stigler was a very large man (in the tall-and-lanky sense of large). He’d been away for a few months, so I was a little surprised to see him. Before I could say anything like “Welcome back”, Stigler asked me: “So, what’s become of that young lady you were squiring around before I left town?”. In a fit of circumspection, all I said was “Oh, she still exists”, and Stigler immediately replied, “Oh, how lovely. You know, I’ve never been a subscriber to this theory that says you should destroy them when you leave them.”

The Intellectual and the Market Place — Stigler’s classic defense of the marketplace against the discomfort felt by so many intellectuals — is well worth a quick read. Parts of it have been paraphrased so often by so many imitators that they’ve begun to seem almost trite, but none of the imitators has ever achieved Stigler’s panache. Besides, it’s been imitated so much precisely because there’s so much here worth saying. A few sample paragraphs to whet your appetite:

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Public Service Announcement

I’m traveling, and blogging is likely to be pretty light for the rest of the week. I won’t be gone long.

Public Service Announcement

Things have gotten a little busy around here (in entirely a good way), so blog posts are likely to appear a little less frequently for the next couple of weeks — maybe two or three times a week instead of the usual five. I hope yesterday’s puzzle will keep you entertained for another day or two. See you soon!

Thanksgiving Break

Along with half of everyone else who works at a University, I’m starting my Thanksgiving break a little early. I’ll see you all after the holiday weekend, hoping to find you well fed, healthy, and reflective of your blessings.

First Tuesday After the First Monday in November

I have my eleven spreadsheets. I have my three computers with their dozen open browser windows. I have the television I bought specially for this occasion. I have my XM Radio. I have my 20,000 calories worth of junk food. I have my remote control.

I also have my prognostications and my preferences, but I am not (quite) narcissistic enough to assume they’d interest you — especially when there is so much enlightened commentary available elsewhere on the net. I for one will be turning to Nate Silver for insights throughout the day.

I will go to the gym today, but aside from that I don’t expect to move much in the next 24 hours or so. Tomorrow, the web will be flooded with post-election commentary, with which I will not attempt to compete for your attention. I’ll see you Thursday, with something loftier to talk about.


Here’s where you’d ordinarily see our weekly roundup post. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get a web connection to my provider for the past several hours (though they’re definitely up and running); all attempts seem to stall while trying to pass through a downed machine in Chicago. Isn’t the whole point of the Internet supposed to be that there are multiple paths from everywhere to everywhere so this kind of thing can’t happen?

Be that as it may, I am logged into a shell account and posting this via lynx (if you don’t know what that means, you’re probably not as old as me), and the interface is far too painful to type anything substantive. So I’ll plan to post the usual roundup sometime tomorrow, after they’ve cleared the gunk out of the Intertubes.

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A Little Arithmetic

About a year ago, when I was a novice blogger, I posted a piece called “A Little Arithmetic”. The arithmetic all looked fine in my browser, but I failed to realize that it might not look fine in everyone’s. As a result, some of you found it unreadable. But I like to think it was worth reading, so now that I’ve figured out how to make it look nice, I’m posting it again:

The mathematician John Baez has been dazzling science lovers on the web for over 15 years with his weekly Finds in Mathematical Physics. (He was a blogger long before there were blogs). Baez recently gave a lovely series of talks on his favorite numbers (they are 5, 8 and 24) in which he mentions Euler’s observation that if you sum up all the positive integers (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + …) you get -1/12. (I promise, this is not a joke.)

Baez’s “proof” uses a little calculus, but I’ve reworked it into a form you can share with your middle schoolers—and better yet, have them share with their teachers.

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Off the Grid

I am traveling, my hotel has no wireless, and my ethernet adapter isn’t working.
So I have extremely limited net access and won’t be posting anything substantive today or tomorrow. I’ll be back Monday for sure.

PS—This means I’ll also be slower than usual re responding to comments, and that some comments might spend longer than usual in the moderation queue. I’ll do what I can toward checking in every now and then.


The Big Questions is hosted by, and I’ve been thrilled with their service. Last night, through no fault of their own, the folks at bluehost were down for several hours (apparently a transformer blew out at an electrical plant down the street from them). As a result, the site was down for several hours and I never managed to get a post up for this morning. We’re back now, though.

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Video Arcade

So after futzing around with one clunky inadequate free product after another, I finally plunked down an amazingly reasonable $59 for the AVS4you software suite, which unlike everything else I’ve tried, actually works, and works well. This has allowed me, pretty much painlessly, to re-create much better versions of some of the videos that I’ve posted here in the past. (Better, that is, in terms of quality, and in terms of format, and in terms of file size.)

There is still, of course, the inevitable tradeoff between better quality on the one hand and less bandwidth on the other. I think I’ve found the sweet point, but am still experimenting.

The current batch of experiments is here. If these download too slowly, or are frustrating to watch for other reasons (other than, perhaps, the content, which is another matter) I’d like to know about it. If they work for you, I’ll be glad to know that too.

PS: It seems crystal clear that these work much better (in the sense of not stalling) in .flv format than as, say, .mp4, even when the flv files are much bigger, and I have the vague sense that everybody in the world except me understands exactly why. Do educate me.

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All in the Details

jetblueIs there a name for this phenomenon? A firm sinks vast resources into an immensely complicated engineering project and gets most of it right, but gets one detail so glaringly wrong that it seems like they might just as well not have bothered. Lexus and Jet Blue come to mind.

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Back Tomorrow….

After several days in 105 degree desert heat, followed by 12 hours of travel, I think I am going to collapse now rather than blog. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be back with something substantive Tuesday morning.

Leavin’ On a Jet Plane

bellI’m off to Las Vegas and FreedomFest, where I’ll be speaking (probably) on why More Sex is Safer Sex, and debating Dinesh D’Souza in a specatacle billed as Religion on Trial. The religion debate will take place Friday July 9 at 5PM at Bally’s Casino and we expect it to be carried on both C-Span and C-Span 2, though I’m unclear on whether the coverage will be live. (Quite possibly it depends on what else that’s newsworthy is going on.)

All of which is my excuse for taking the rest of the week off from blogging. I’ll see you next week, and I’ll let you know how things went.

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An Immense Discovery

bastiat.smallA month ago, I prematurely celebrated the 209th birthday of the great economic communicator Frederic Bastiat. Today (unless I’ve screwed up a second time) is actually his birthday. A good way to celebrate is to read (or reread!) Bastiat’s little masterpiece Economic Sophisms; you will never see the world the same way again. Here’s a taste:

At a time when everyone is trying to find a way of reducing the costs of transportation; when, in order to realize these economies, highways are being graded, rivers are being canalized, steamboats are being improved, and Paris is being connected with all our frontiers by a network of railroads and by atmospheric, hydraulic, pneumatic, electric, and other traction systems; when, in short, I believe that everyone is zealously and sincerely seeking the solution of the problem of reducing as much as possible the difference between the prices of commodities in the places where they are produced and their prices in the places where they are consumed; I should consider myself failing in my duty toward my country, toward my age, and toward myself, if I any longer kept secret the wonderful discovery I have just made.

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I’m taking four days off for camping, ice cream making and general frolicking in the woods. See you all on Tuesday!

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Why I’d Rather Be Blogging

You guys—with your thoughtful, witty and relevant comments—have made me thankful I took up blogging. My (considerable) experience with the mainstream media suggests that you meet a much lower class of people there. Let me give you an example.

Once upon a time I wrote a Forbes column drawing an analogy between protectionism (which discriminates on the basis of national origin) and racism (which discriminates, of course, on the basis of race). (Of course the analogy isn’t perfect. For example, racism can be a solitary hobby, whereas protectionism by its nature forces other people to discriminate as well.) There were many responses, of which my favorite was Pat Buchanan’s screed containing both some hilariously misguided economics and a paragraph I’ve had posted on my office door ever since:

Now I do not know what parents pay to send their kids to the University of Rochester. But if the philosophical imbecility of Landsburg is representative of the faculty, it is too much.

Shortly afterward, I was scheduled to appear on John Gibson’s program on Fox News, where the following exchange took place:

This, in turn, led to a flurry of email. To give you the full flavor, and so as not to bias the sample, I am appending every single email I received on this subject, excepting only one relatively positive note from my mother.

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Blogging, Tic Tac Toe and the Future of Math

Blogging, as you might have heard, is changing the face of the media. It may also be changing the face of mathematical research. For the first time ever, a substantial mathematical problem has been solved via an accumulation of blog comments, all building on each other. Could this be the future of mathematical research?

Before I explain the problem, let’s talk a little about tic-tac-toe. As you probably figured out long ago, intelligent players of ordinary tic-tac-toe (on a 3 by 3 board) will invariably battle to a draw. But, as you probably also figured out, not every game ends in a draw, because not every player is intelligent.

On the other hand, if we blacken out the three squares on the main diagonal and don’t allow anyone to play there (so the game ends when the remaining six squares are filled, then every game is sure to end in a draw. There’s simply no way to get three in a row when you’re not allowed to play on the diagonal:

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Books, Books, Books

booksTyler Cowen started a blogospheric whirlwind recently when he posted the list of books that had influenced him the most and called on other econ bloggers to do the same. In short order, we got entries from Peter Suderman, E.D. Kain, Arnold Kling, Michael Martin, Niklas Blanchard, EconJeff, Bryan Caplan, Matt Yglesias, Jenny Davidson, Will Wilkinson, Matt Continetti, Ross Douthat, Mike Konczal, Kieran Healy, Ivar Hagendoorn, Scott Sumner, and no doubt others. [Update: Some of these links were wrong; I think they’re all fixed now.]

I’m late to the party, but here’s my list:

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Ten Score and One Year Ago

A month ago, I posted a portrait gallery of my personal heroes and invited readers to identify the faces; a few days later I posted the answer key.

To my mild surprise, the face that generated the most controvery—in both comments and email—was that of Abraham Lincoln, who was born 201 years ago on this day. Readers pulled no punches. ScottN wrote: “Lincoln is on a different list I have: People Who Caused the Most Unnecessary Deaths.” Peter wrote: “[Lincoln] was a tyrant and a racist to boot.” And the consistently provocative and thoughtful Bob Murphy wrote:

I would love to hear your reasons for including Lincoln. I have the same misgivings as the other commenter above, though I was going to introduce them with levity. (E.g. “I know you like math, Steve, so is that why you included the guy who maximized the wartime deaths of Americans?”)

I replied to Bob (and others) by email, with some sketchy thoughts and a promise to blog about Lincoln sometime on or before his birthday. With the deadline looming, I realize that I have little to add to those sketchy thoughts. So here, with only some minor editing, is the email I sent to Bob Murphy:

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Working Overtime

Yesterday’s post on child labor generated some great comments, and I’d like to respond briefly to a few of them here.

Jambaramba asked whether low wages for children are a result of their poor bargaining position. I responded that you can’t raise wages nationwide through bargaining. (You might raise them in one sector, but only at the cost of lowering them in other sectors, and overall you’ll make people poorer, not richer.) The only way to raise wages is to make people more productive. This means providing them with more and better capital and giving them opportunities to trade. Manfred followed up with a super comment elaborating on this point. I promise to blog about the supporting theory and evidence sometime soon.

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Both Sides of the Aisle

Interviews with Democratic Representative Barney Frank and Republican Senator Richard Shelby are the final installments in BigThink’s series of video interviews on “What Went Wrong?” during the financial crisis. (You’ll also find links to all the previous installments.) If you have a taste for politics, you can comment here on what you thought of them.

Happy Holiday

Happy Martin Luther King Day. I’m still traveling, taking the holiday off from substantive posting, and planning to be back
tomorrow, or possibly Wednesday, after which we’ll resume our regular schedule.

The Top Ten

toptenSince everyone else is doing end-of-year retrospectives, I thought I’d chime in with a list of the ten most-commented-upon posts here at The Big Questions blog in the year 2009. Now, this blog is only two months old, but we’ve already had roughly 75 posts, so a top 10 list at this point is perhaps not too presumptuous.

Of course, the number of comments may be a poor predictor of post quality. So after I give you the Top Ten, I’ll point you to a few others that I think equally worthy.

That having been said, the Top Ten are:

Finally, here are a few of my favorites that didn’t make the Top Ten for comments, though that might just mean they were uncontroversial. Or to put this another way—maybe these posts were so perfect that readers thought they had little to add!

I’m taking New Year’s Day off. I’ll see you Saturday.

Merry Christmas

I’ve landed a consulting gig doing real-time optimal path computations for a gentleman who is planning to tour a graph with several hundred million nodes this evening, so I’m taking tomorrow morning off. To tide you over, I leave you with this literary composition, which can be read multiple times for added enjoyment.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
Eeepps jksaagj effauyp dsajfjkd eepdoos

—Three quarters of an infinite number of monkeys

Do have the best of all possible Christmases.