Archive for the 'Personal' Category

ACT now!!

jamiewhyteIf you like The Big Questions, you really ought to know my brash and brilliant friend Jamie Whyte. After a brief but dazzling career as a philosopher at Cambridge university (he once won the prestigious Analysis prize for the best article by a philosopher under 30), Jamie distinguished himself as a management consultant, a foreign currency trader, and, via his frequent writing, an incisive and steadfast defender of rational thought and individual freedom. His little book on Crimes Against Logic delivers brilliantly on its promise to “expose the bogus arguments of politicians, priests, journalists and other serial offenders”, and his recent collection Free Thoughts (which, true to its title, you can read for free) is essential fare for anyone who cares about clarity of thought — or, because Jamie is as funny as he is brilliant, anyone who’s just looking for a good chuckle.

Now, in his most startling career twist yet, Jamie has become the leader of a political party in his native New Zealand — the ACT party, named for its forerunner, the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers. ACT stands unabashedly for individual liberty, the rule of law and the enforcement of well-defined property rights. It campaigns against corporate welfare. It’s even pro-immigration. And thanks to New Zealand’s system of proportional representation, it actually gets representatives into parliament.

After several years of turmoil, the party turned to Jamie’s leadership in February of this year. With the boundless energy that inspires awe in everyone he meets, Jamie is re-building the party and promoting a principled free-market agenda in the run-up to the September 20 general election.

actThe downside of being a principled politician — and the reason they’re almost vanishingly rare — is that it’s hard to raise funds when you won’t cater to special interests. ACT opposes both corporate welfare and legal favoritism for union members, which cuts out most of the usual big donors. Here’s where you can help, and I hope you will.

Never before (and, I expect, never again) have I encouraged my readers to support any political party with their votes, let alone their dollars. That’s because I’ve spent my adult life being seduced and abandoned by politicians who talked a good game and then caved in to expediency when the chips were down. But Jamie — and therefore ACT — is different. I know him as a friend, and I know that principles are his passion.

You can help make ACT’s vision a reality by visiting the donation page and giving generously. Remember that a New Zealand dollar is worth about 88 cents U.S., so if you’re an American, a “$100 donation” is actually $88.

A little more background on New Zealand:

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Social Notes From All Over


(Click picture to enlarge)

The undergraduate Finance and Economics Council here at the University of Rochester held an event at my house last week, which included pizza, informal chat with professors, a rationality test (out of 31 students, exactly one scored a perfect 5 and one scored a perfect zero), a selfie shot or two, and some time on the aerial silks, where three students were brave enough to go up in the air — and each of them accomplished more in under ten minutes than I accomplished in my first ten weeks. The evidence:


Demo Lance Floto
Front Salto Dive
_________________________________________________________

Juan Bernardo Tobar
Front Salto Dive
Lev Bokeria
Crossback Straddle

Thanks to Council president Shucen Wu for making this happen, to Zach Taylor for the video, and to everyone who participated. We should do this again.

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Public Service Announcement — Instructors’ Manual

If you are an instructor using the new 9th edition of my book Price Theory and Applications, you might share my frustration at the fact that Cengage, for reasons presumably related to its ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, has still not managed to release the instructors’ manual, though its been ready for several weeks now.

Fortunately, not too many instructors are affected, since most are still using the 8th edition (we expect most instructors to switch over starting in January, 2014). But if you are one of those instructors, please do email me (you can click on the “contact” tab at the top of this page) so I can send you copies of at least the first several chapters to hold you over until Cengage gets it act together.

(Note that this offer does not apply to students! Your email must come from a recognizable college or university address, where I can check via the web that you are currently teaching this course!)

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Fortune Comes a-Crawlin’


With great humility, I am honored to inform you that Eric Crampton of Offsetting Behavior has nominated me for sainthood.

Riffing off yesterday’s Acta Sanctorum post, Eric is asking for your help in making this a reality:

So, here’s the campaign for Saint Steven.

  1. Any of you who have any kind of illness at all pray to Steven Landsburg for intervention.
  2. If you do not receive divine Landsburgean intervention, don’t tell me about it.
  3. If you do receive divine Landsburgean intervention, please leave a record of such in the comments. Preferably with a link to a doctor’s note saying that your recovery was unexpected and pretty remarkable. This should happen in maybe 1% of cases.
  4. We submit the documented evidence of the successes, while ignoring the failures. Ta-dah! Saint Steven.

My hope is to beat John Paul II’s record of two reported cures, plus the toppling of one Evil Empire, or, at a minimum, the National Endowment for the Arts. Oh, and while I’m at it I have a couple of other worldly improvements in mind. Watch your step, Paul Krugman!

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Hi, Mom!

MomMy mother, who reads this blog, reports that she’s lost a few nights’ sleep lately, tormented by thoughts of Knights, Knaves and Crazies. Serves her right. Once when she and I were very young, she tormented me with a geometry puzzler that I now know she must have gotten (either directly or indirectly) from Lewis Carroll; you can find it here. If she remembers the solution, she should be able to sleep tonight.

Herewith, a proof that a right angle can equal an obtuse angle. The puzzle, of course, is to figure out where I cheated.

But wait! Let’s do this as a video, since I’m starting to fool around with this technology and could use the practice. Consider this more or less a first effort. If you prefer the old ways, you can skip the video and read the (identical) step-by-step proof below the fold.

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Or, if you prefer to skip the video, start here:

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Basic Confusion

Andre Weil was a towering figure in 20th century mathematics, his book on Basic Number Theory being just one of his many immortal contributions. (The title is something of a joke; this is a pathbreaking treatise at a very advanced level.)

None of which explains why today, fifteen years after Weil’s death, I received an email from the mathematical publisher Springer-Verlag that reads:

Dear Andre Weil,

We are writing today regarding your book *Basic Number Theory (ISBN: 978-3-662-05980-7), and to let you know about our plans
for an electronic archive, the Springer Book Archives.

Your author benefits at a glance:

- Your book will be digitized and become an eBook, published on SpringerLink, our online platform, and for e-reading devices such as the Kindle or iPad.

- Your book can never go ‘out-of-print’ and will be preserved for future generations of scientists.

- You will be provided with free access to the electronic version of your book once it is included in the archive.

- You will receive royalties, or can choose to waive them in support of charitable organizations such as INASP or Research4Life,
that help provide the developing world with access to scientific research.

Please go to the following website and select your preferred royalty option.

[URL deleted]

Yours sincerely,

[Etc.]

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Never Give Your Credit Card to the Wall Street Journal

Having just discovered a staggering $910 (!!!!) in unexplained and unauthorized charges to my MasterCard by the Wall Street Journal (no, these were not legit renewal fees), I have just spent what seems like the better part of four days telling my story on the phone to one customer service rep after another, each of whom has found a new way to lie to me. (“We’ll call you back by the end of the day” was the most frequent lie, followed by “we’re putting through a half-refund now and someone with higher authority will call you shortly to arrange the rest” — which turned out to be two lies in one). Finally, I decided to send an email with the whole sad story, asking for a refund and mentioning that I sure hope there won’t be any resulting confusion that interrupts my delivery service. I got an email back saying “Per your request, we’re cancelling your delivery service”. Today I had no newspaper — and still no refund.

Think of the top three worst customer service stories you’ve ever heard. Chances are excellent that versions of all three have cropped up along the way in this sordid saga, the details of which I will suppress because I’m sure they’re less interesting to you than they are to me.

But I will mention this: Aside from the lying, and the lying and the lying, there’s also the fact that absolutely nobody appears to keep any record of these conversations, so that each time I call, I’m starting from scratch, explaining the whole story to a customer service rep who won’t put me through to a supervisor until I rehash the whole thing, then waiting on hold ten minutes for said supervisor, who needs the entire story told from scratch again before connecting me to the department that’s really equipped to deal with this, where I wait on hold for another ten minutes before telling my story yet again and, 50% of the time, getting disconnected. When I call back, it’s back to Square One.

Oh, yes….and they’ve also studiously ignored my repeated requests/demands that they expunge my credit card number from their records, and refused to acknowledge my repeated notifications that they do not have my authorization to charge my credit card for anything ever again.

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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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Aaagh!

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.

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Hi, Sierra

sierra-and-family-smallOur occasional commenter Sierra Black is the subject of a 20/20 documentary scheduled to air on ABC tomorrow night (Friday the 20th) at 10PM Eastern Standard Time. You should watch it.

I’ve had the great blessing of getting to know quite a lot of you (some better than others of course) in the few years I’ve been blogging, but Sierra is one of the few I’ve met face to face. She and her husband Martin have more than once been guests in my home; my daughter occasionally babysits for Sierra’s daughters Rio and Serena. (The picture at the top was taken in my living room.) My family and Sierra’s camp together (along with quite a few other friends) every summer, and while we’re not always in close touch, we do keep track of each other. They’re good people.

The 20/20 program will focus on Sierra and Martin’s unconventional relationship choices. We here at The Big Questions are strong enthusiasts for all things consensually unconventional.

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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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Touched by Greatness

Roger Godement, 1970I continue to be bowled over daily by the high quality of the discussion at MathOverflow, and the prominence of many of the frequent participants. But this one was special:

A newbie poster asked for a pointer to a proof of the “de Rham-Weil” theorem. There’s a bit of ambiguity about what theorem this might refer to, but I had a pretty good of what the poster meant, so I responded that the earliest reference I know of is in Grothendieck‘s 1957 Tohoku paper — which led another poster to ask if this meant de Rham and Weil had had nothing to do with it.

This triggered an appearance from the legendary Roger Godement (had he been lurking all this time?), now aged 91 and one of the last survivors of the extraordinary circle of French mathematicians who rewrote the foundations of topology and geometry in the mid-20th century and changed the look, feel and content of mathematics forever. I tend to think of them as gods and demigods. Godement’s indispensable Theorie des Faisceaux was my constant companion in late graduate school. And now he has emerged from retirement for the express purpose of chastising me:

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Jamaica

I’m off to Jamaica, where I’ll be giving two talks on the theory and practice of economics. Expect blog-silence for
the next few days at least.

Meanwhile: Given that I plan not to travel far from Kingston, what are the things that I must see and do?

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Note to Continental Airlines

Your inability to construct a functional website does not fill me with confidence about your ability to fly me across the Atlantic Ocean.

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In a Fit of Pique

For God’s sake, don’t let your children subscribe to Sirius/XM.

Since May 4, when Sirius rearranged all its channel numbers, my radio has been badly confused. If I punch in station 23, it goes to the station that’s currently 23 for a while, then jumps to the station that used to be 23, etc. And certain stations, which according to the Sirius website are part of my standard package, are completely inaccessible.

Given my past experience with XM customer service, I knew this was not going to be an easy fix, so I’ve been putting off making the call. Today I had some spare time. Sure enough, I’ve spent over TWO HOURS on the phone with these people being alternately put on hold, lied to, put on hold, lied to some more, and put on hold again.

They claim the missing channels are missing because they’re “premium” channels not included in my package. Except that their website clearly identifies these channels as standard channels that *are* part of my package. They tell me that they’re instituting a fix at their end which requires me to leave my radio on for fifteen minutes before it takes effect; this gives them a convenient excuse to hang up and not be there fifteen minutes down the line when nothing has changed. When I complain about how long I’ve been on hold (the automated system always says the wait time is “about eight minutes” before stranding you for half an hour), they give me a direct number to call to bypass the queue. I call that number and am told that no, this number is only for radios installed on airlines or boats. I complain that I’ve just waited twenty minutes to get this message. They give me a *different* number to call, promising me that there is currently no wait at that number. Thirty five minutes later, I’m still waiting.

Ah, but what about just using the form on their web site? Well, you see, that form will not allow me to submit a query unless I give it the serial number of my radio — a serial number that it insists is wrong, even though I have *copied and pasted* it from the “My Account” section of their own damned website. Therefore my query cannot be submitted.

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The Honor Roll

On May 17 of this year, these fifteen World War II veterans were awarded the French Legion of Honor medal for their service in France. They were cited for their courage and their contributions toward the French liberation. Third from the left, in the light blue jacket, is my Dad.

Words like “awe” and “gratitude” cannot begin to describe what I feel toward these people, whose sacrifices secured the unprecedented safety, prosperity and freedom that have graced my life and so many others of my generation. In the world they created, those sacrifices have become (for people like me) unimaginable.

These are the giants who cleared my path through life. I’m glad to see them honored, though no honor can ever be enough.

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Star Drop

First time doing this move; that’s my daughter’s voice in the background telling me everything I’m doing wrong. Next time will be smoother:

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And a bonus picture:

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The Architect

47Through the 1970s — which is to say, yesterday — Dan Quillen barraged the field of algebraic topology with a stream of new techniques and concepts that not only invigorated the field, but ramped up its power to solve problems in geometry, arithmetic and other mathematical areas where you might have thought topology had no business sticking its nose.

The greatest of these great accomplishments was Quillen’s development of higher algebraic K-theory, a long-sought holy grail for mathematicians. Pre-Quillen, one had a sense that there ought to be a subject called higher K-theory, and a general sense of what it should look like, and reasons to hope that K-theory, if only we could figure out what it was, would be the great unifying theme behind much of mathematics, and a tool for translating insights in one field into useful techniques in another. Many had tried and failed to lay the foundations of the subject. Then Quillen, in one 63 page paper, not only laid the foundations but brought the subject to a state of maturity that, in the words of Hyman Bass, one normally expects from the efforts of several mathematicians over several years:

The paper…is essentially without mathematical precursors. Reading it for the first time is like landing on a new and friendly mathematical planet. One meets there not only new theorems and new methods, but new mathematical creatures and a complete paradigm of gestures for dealing with them.

Much of my mathematical youth was spent exploring that planet. I met Quillen only once, and very briefly, but great mathematicians, like great poets, reveal so much of themselves in their work that one comes to feel a certain intimacy just by studying them. In that sense, Quillen was my close companion many a year.

Dan Quillen died this week at the age of 70, after a five year battle with Alzheimer’s. Scouring the web for obituaries and other recent mentions, I found very little besides a brief article from a Gainesville newspaper about an Alzheimer’s patient named Daniel Gray Quillen who had gone briefly missing in June, 2010. Followup stories identify the missing man as “a senior citizen with Alzheimer’s”.

“A senior citizen”?!?!?! Part of me wants to scream: “Dammit, this is no generic senior citizen! This is Daniel Fucking Quillen, Fields Medalist, Cole Prize Winner, architect of higher K-theory, conqueror of the Serre conjecture, and one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century!”

Arguably none of that has any place in a short note about a man gone briefly missing, so my gripe is not with the Gainesville Sun. My gripe is with the Universe. If I were running the Universe, there’d be some level of accomplishment that confers immunity from death, deterioration and obscurity. I’m not sure exactly where I’d set that bar, but I’m sure Dan Quillen would have cleared it.

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What Was I Thinking?

It was said of me in graduate school that “He’s never happy unless he’s making a list”.

My compulsion to make lists has abated over the years, but it lasted long enough that I still find occasional relics lying around.

Recently I ran across the list reproduced below, dating, apparently from my zoology phase, when I was making lists that classified animals according to various criteria. But I was completely unable to recall what criterion had governed this particular list. What rule places the giraffe on the left and the dog on the right?

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I Bet You Paul Krugman Can’t Do This

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(Larger and more easily viewable version here.)

(My daughter is far more advanced and more graceful than I am. I hope soon to post video proof.)

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These Are the Good Old Days

This morning, I set my laptop computer and my Kindle down, one on top of the other, on what I thought was a sturdy tabletop, where they stayed for a minute or so before crashing to the floor. The Kindle is totaled, and the laptop hard drive is definitely wonky.

So I called Amazon, which will deliver me a replacement Kindle by this morning (approximately 20 hours after my call) at a heavily discounted price, even though my warranty was expired, and I called Dell (where I do have a warranty) to confirm that the hard drive was the probable locus of my laptop problems. Dell thought it surely was, and offered to have a technician on my doorstep this morning, but I preferred to pop in one of the three clones that I update once a week or so and keep in three separate locations. My computer’s working fine, and I’m using it to read my Kindle books while I wait for the new Kindle to arrive (which will probably be before you read this).

Sometimes the modern world works really really well.

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.

Diversification

With the economy still faltering and economists increasingly in disrepute, I’ve decided that prudence dictates the acquisition of a new marketable skill. How am I doing?

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(Larger version here.)

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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.

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As Much As Direction


Let us please learn new words that mean as much as direction: wife.

That single cryptic line is the complete text of a poem by Richard Brautigan that I first read almost forty years ago. I still don’t quite get it, but for some reason it’s always struck me as hauntingly beautiful. And, following a momentous weekend, it feels like the right thing to post today.

Edited to add: Apparently this post was as cryptic as the poem. One commenter writes:

You make it sound like you would like to get married but have not taken all necessary steps.

In fact, I took all the necessary steps this weekend. It was a lovely wedding.

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