Archive for the 'Miscellaneous' Category

Breaking the Language Barrier

It’s said that Pythagoras had a man put to death for blabbing in a public bar that the square root of two is irrational. Today I hope I can post this without fear of reprisals. I don’t know who first drew this beautiful proof, which works equally well in modern English and in ancient Greek:

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Applied Bayesianism

When I was a child, my parents took me to Atlantic City every summer. And we would always make a side trip to Longport (three towns away) to collect seashells, because my Dad said that Longport was famous for the quality of its seashells.

Last week, on a whim, my wife and I went down to Atlantic City for a few days, largely because it looked like they were having nice weather down there. In a fit of ambition, we walked the entire 16-or-so-mile roundtrip from the Steel Pier area to the far end of Longport. Along the way, I noticed no difference between the Longport seashells and the Atlantic City (or Ventnor or Margate) seashells. Moreover, we met a lifelong Longport resident (and enthusiastic civic booster) who confirmed that she had never in her life heard that there was supposed to be anything special about Longport’s seashells.

Over my lifetime, I’ve accumulated a lot of advice from my father, some of which seemed to make sense. But in light of my trip to Longport, I’m re-evaluating.

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Truth In Advertising

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A Curious Oversight

Got a great idea but don’t want to start a business? The Wall Street Journal offers a menu of strategies — but omits my favorite: Buy a whole lot of stock in a company that you believe could profit from your idea, and then give them the idea for free. It’s imperfect, but so’s everything else, including starting a business.

Most great enterprises require plenty of innovation, hard work and risktaking. One of the reasons capitalism works so well is that it enables the innovators, the hard workers and the risk takers to be different people, by providing institutions that allow them to coordinate their efforts. The stock market is one of those institutions. This isn’t something I’d have expected the Wall Street Journal to overlook.

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The Ballmer Legacy

I just tried to log into my Hotmail account and got a message saying that for security reasons, I have to enter a code, which will be sent to the mobile number or email address of my choice. So I typed in one of my other email addresses, they sent me a code, I entered the code, and I logged into Hotmail.

We all see the problem here, right?

I think maybe all the smart people left Microsoft in embarrassment over MSWord.

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Non-Hansonian Prediction Markets

Having a baby? Want to predict its gender? offers just the product:

Does it work? Well, check out the distribution of customer reviews:

A delighted hat tip to our reader Mark Westling of, who remarks that

The most interesting comments are along the lines of “It was wrong so I only gave it three stars”.

and then goes on to propose a business model:

Offer baby sex prediction over the web, charge $75 (so consumers know it’s good), and offer a full refund if you’re wrong (upon review of relevant documents).

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Grammar Question

A friend asked this question in another forum. Maybe you guys can help:

Many of these towns have a road whose name comes from the next town over.

In the future, there will be companies whose workforces consist entirely of robots.

I’d prefer a book whose characters weren’t so stupid.

Are these correct uses of the word whose? On the one hand, we usually reserve the word “who” for people and use “that” for inanimate objects. On the other hand, the word “that” does not have a possessive form analogous to “whose”.

Every one of these sentences can of course be rewritten to avoid the problem (“I’d prefer a book with characters who weren’t so stupid”.) But the question is whether they sound okay to you as written.

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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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New Math

It was obvious the police department was running an investigation that paralleled mine, the two interesecting at more than one point.

—Sue Grafton, V is for Vengeance

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Some Days I’m A Super Genius

wileI want to build a large addition to my house. The town limits my above-ground square footage to the point where all I can build is a relatively small addition.

But underground square footage doesn’t count! So I toyed with the idea of building a 3/4-acre basement under my 3/4-acre yard.

This turns out to be rather expensive.

Therefore, I used my brain.

My new plan is to completely bury my existing house under an enormous mound of dirt, declare the whole thing a basement, and build a new house on top of it, with an internal staircase going down into the old house. The new construction can then be quite large, since I’m starting from zero above-ground square feet. A system of periscopes will preserve the views from the new “basement” windows.

This has got to be far cheaper than fresh underground construction. Dirt is notoriously cheap. That’s where the expression “dirt cheap” comes from.

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A Tale of Two Cities

The London subway stations have NO trash receptacles. The tracks look like this:

The New York subway stations have more trash receptacles than I can count. The tracks look like this:

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What Is the Title Of This Post?

I am filling out an online recommendation form for a student who is applying to graduate school at Berkeley. One of the questions is: “Rate the applicant in comparison to others you have known in a similar capacity.” My choices are:

(This is an actual screen capture from the actual form.)

Unless I select one of the options, I am unable to submit the form.

I find myself at a loss for snarky words. What ought to have been the title of this post?

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Blind Spots

beatlesThe other night at dinner, I was asked whether, when the Beatles came to the US in 1963, I had had any sense that something really big had happened.

Well, I was pretty young in 1963, probably too young to think about such matters. I remember having little interest in the Beatles, but being being very aware that they were something very big. Everyone was aware of that. But unless I am mistaken, pretty much nobody realized that we were witnessing something really big and lasting. More generally, I doubt that anyone at the time had any inkling of the long-term significance of rock ‘n’ roll. We knew it was popular, but we had no idea it would change the world. I’m not sure that in 1963 anyone knew that it was possible for music to change the world.

This led to the more general question: How quickly are great cultural watersheds recognized for what they are? In the few areas I know something about, I think the answer is “usually pretty quickly”. I remember 1910 even less vividly than I remember 1963, but I am pretty sure that it wasn’t long between the appearance of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the realization (at least among people who care about this sort of thing) that poetry had changed forever. In mathematics, at least in the past century (and I’m pretty sure for several centuries, or even millenia, before that), major paradigm shifts have generally been recognized very quickly. When a Serre or a Grothendieck upends the mathematical world, the mathematical world quickly knows it’s been upended.

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Cyclical Fluctuations


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(Larger and more easily viewable version here.)


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1) I just had an extremely pleasant walk around the Beale Street area in Memphis, which strikes me, roughly, as Bourbon Street without the urine. (Also without the trash and the high general level of obnoxiousness — though also of course without the magnificent architecture, etc.) Yes, I realize it’s also a different musical genre (though in both cases it’s a sub-genre of “too loud”). But it’s astonishing to me how clean the streets are here, and how well-behaved the crowds, compared to what I’ve seen in Louisiana. If they can do that here, why can’t they do it there?

2) This weekend marks the anniversary of a world-changing event — an event that might be of particular interest to readers of The Big Questions, both the book and the blog. Who can tell me what event I have in mind? (Hint: It’s an anniversary ending in zero.) I’ll blog the answer on Monday.

3) The discussion of the Allais paradox rages on in comments on multiple posts. For the few of you who have not yet tuned this out, my latest comment is an attempt to cut through the fog and identify the locus of some commenters’ confusion, or disagreement, or both. I think it will very much help focus the discussion if the dissenters could tell us where they stand on these questions. (My answers are all “yes”.)

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Causation versus Correlation


Data from 9,785 users of the dating site OKCupid reveal that iPhone users have 50% to 100% more sex partners than Android users, at every age.

This graph combines men and women, but the same pattern holds for each gender separately.

Explain this to me!

More info here (if you scroll down a couple of screens).

Stuff I Don’t Get

Here are some things I don’t quite get. Maybe someone can explain them to me.

1. All through 2008, then-Senator Obama kept telling me that “America’s reputation in the world is critical, not just to our security but to our prosperity”, and therefore American policies should be set with a decent regard for world opinion. Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, he keeps warning me that it will be disastrous if foreign interests are allowed to express their opinions in our political campaigns. How are we supposed to have a decent regard for foreign opinions if we don’t listen to them?

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