Thursday, May 26, 2011

A matter of balance

Which two objects (two balls, two fishes, two triangles, two bars, or a combination thereof) must be hanged in the place of the question mark in order to keep the system in balance? (Ignore the weight of threads, but do not ignore the weight of the bars.)

[Source: Kurzweil Duch Mathe, Johannes Lehmann]

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

We don’t need no education, part 2

[a re-post, brought about by this post]

(Part 1 was a post on giving birth and has nothing to do with science.)

One can hear from many people that learning science is bad for your soul. I agree. Having a sample size of 1, I can confirm: it is.

Then there is an argument that a Jew needs to know enough to survive in this world. A Jew needs to get to work in Lexington, while he lives in Brookline; so, he needs a car (ever tried mass transport in Boston area?). So, he needs to know how to drive a car. Doesn’t mean he has to be a mechanic or watch TopGear on Youtube, right?

But here comes the question: how much education is enough?

Let me give you an example. Most frum families have little kids. Most frum families at one point or another come to a fork in their lives where they have to make a decision: to own a microwave or not. There are two ways a modern Jew can answer this question: 1) write to Igros, 2) see what the secular world has to say on microwaves.

At this point, a frum Jew comes across this study by Reynolds et al. (2006). You can read the study on the web-site, but since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll just post the picture:

So, based on this picture, what does a person with no scientific education above 5th grade level conclude? Microwaves, like organic chemistry or theory of evolution, are the work of the devil. Indeed.

Now, I could tell you my thoughts, but since I work in science industry, and my older sister works in microwave industry, some could think I am biased. So, I will quote some statements from this here website. Let’s see:
I took two people, fed one an egg breakfast every day, the other toast and jam.
Guess what, the toast and jam guy died. I guess toast and jam kills people.
Sample size is everything...

By "double blind", you mean both the experimenter AND the plants need to be unaware of what is being administered? [OK, this comment is just for fun.]

Microwaves heat by exciting water molecules (or other molecules). Although things can be heated unevenly and complex molecules could (possibly) break down if they were heated enough, WATER does not change with a microwave. If you microwave distilled water, and cool it down again, it is STILL distilled water. Any "scientific" experiment which shows otherwise has an error and in this case there are many possible sources.

A plastic container introduces hydrocarbon residue in a microwave which could affect growth. One plant is not nearly enough. Try 50 of each. Then do it again.

1947 called, they want their poor understanding of technology back.

You know, "Think about it" isn't really a good substitute for actual evidence. My stove is black, the color of death; think about it!

Hooray little girl who will learn about control as she gets older!
OK, I am having way too much fun, so I will stop. The point, of course, is very simple. If you flip a penny and it lands on heads, then flip a quarter and it lands on tails, it’s not a reason yet to write to the Scientific American about the correlation of the size of the coin and the side of landing. You need to repeat your experiment, oh, I don’t know, maybe one hundred times.

But my point is not about the science. Or microwaves. Well, a little about the microwaves. My point is: we live in this world. Here is an example of a question that Chanie and her husband Berl might ask themselves: should we feed little Mendel and Mushkie food heated up in the microwaves? How should they get the answer?

Personally, I would just write to the Igros.

* * *

Update. From the study’s Discussion section:
On top of that she was wanting the microwaved ones to do poorly, and although most scientists would dismiss the idea, it is possible that her thoughts toward each plant had an effect as well.
I would not dismiss it. Of course, cynics would say that it’s possible that the little girl didn’t water the plants equally (either consciously, because she is a cheater, or unconsciously). But I think this proves that when you think bad thoughts about your neighbor, and his beard doesn’t grow as fast as your friend’s (or his wife’s sheitel becomes all frizzled), you are to blame.

The problem, illustrated

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. This is a visual illustration of the source of the disagreement between American and Israeli "political leaders" over the security of Israel.

Bibi and Barry in their 20s (source):

Update: interesting video:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

US Navy: a public good?

USS Constitution Ship in a Bottle 11 model ship

In the previous post, I asked the following question: was US Navy a public good that it was necessary for the US government to provide? After all, it was created to protect American public from the raids by Barbary pirates that hurt US trade that everyone presumably benefited from. And American post-revolutionary merchants were presumably too poor to hire protection themselves.

Three answers to this argument.

1. First answer (source):
Nobody "forced" Americans to begin to build a navy in the 1790s. Government officials and seafaring merchants decided to do so and to deploy this force against (among others) the pirates to whom the government had been paying protection money. They might instead have continued to pay off the Barbary raiders. Or they might have rested content to let the merchants of other nations, perhaps Great Britain, which already had a large navy, handle the shipping of American goods in the Mediterranean. The fact that U.S. leaders resorted to force does not demonstrate that they chose the best option. This option did, however, socialize the costs of engaging in the Mediterranean trade, spreading it across all American taxpayers largely for the sake of the traders who had an immediate interest in the matter.
        This historical affair might well serve as a lesson applicable to one foreign-policy episode after another in the following sense: the national government's power, created at the national citizenry's expense, was employed to resolve by armed force what amounted to a special-interest economic problem. Stephens's examples of U.S. participation in World War I and the so-called Tanker War conform to the same template. Here is what governments do best: concentrate the benefits and disperse the costs, or, with similar effect, privatize the gains and socialize the losses. National leaders, all too often beholden to one special interest or another, speak as if "we" Americans all have the same interest in knocking down some group of foreigners, but such is rarely the case.
So, there you go. The simple point is: there is no way to tell, at this point, that this was the best thing to do for the "American public". (Whether it was a moral thing to do or not is a separate point.) In order to build a navy, US government taxed other businesses and private citizens. Who can say that North Atlantic trade was more crucial and irreplaceable for the "American public" than the services which did not happen (or happened in lower quantities and qualities) as a result of taxation?

2. It is still not clear to me that it was the case that building ships for defense of merchant fleet was economically impossible until I see specific figures of how much it would cost to build and man a frigate vs. building and manning another merchant ship and that the merchants indeed did not have money to spend on this. I sent a letter to a historian asking about this, and he just reiterated that it would be too expensive without providing actual figures and sources. Then he criticized Fox News. I remain unconvinced.

The reason why American merchants did not raise a private navy could be political: they knew that if they waited and lobbied long enough, American government would take care of the problem (at the taxpayers' expense): either by paying off the pirates or by raising a navy.

3. In response to the question "Why did in nine years of piracy and after eleven trade ships captured by the pirates, did the merchants not raise money for protection?", one can also ask the opposite question: "Why, after nine years of piracy and eleven captured ships, did the American merchants continue sending their ships to the Mediterranean?" Apparently, it was worth it to them, either in actuality or in potential. It's not like the merchants could not go into some other business. So, basically, to make their business more profitable and safer, they convinced US government that their business is a "public good" and therefore, American citizens should be taxed to improve it.

Just like American banks and US auto industry convinced American government that, somehow, American cars are a public good that needs to be protected. Because, G-d forbid we say that, for whatever reason, US auto industry provides inferior product to the American consumer and this product must be handled by Japanese auto industry. No! Americans must drive only American cars. And sell their molasses and raw materials to Great Britain only through American merchants.

I mean, as long as we declare outsourcing evil and protecting "domestic industries" good, maybe the first step should be financing American-born customer service representatives. Everyone knows that when you speak to those Indian representatives, they don't understand what you're saying, and you don't understand what they are saying.

4. Perhaps by allowing British merchants handle the commerce, American merchants could have looked into new venues of profit, thus expanding the trade or economy in general in new areas. This is the classic anti-Luddite argument: yes, machines (computers, Chinese, Indians, robots) take our jobs. But the new capital results in industry expansion and creation of new kinds of jobs. Same way: yes, Walmart drives mom-and-pop stores out of business. But, you could also say that it forces them to start thinking about what kind of unique service they can provide for the customers that Walmart cannot. In the end, the customer benefits.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A pirate’s life for me

(the original founder of the Pirate Bay, working on the side as an unlicensed speech therapist for George VI)

“I understand everything. Except that wig.” (Azoy)

What should we think of privateering? Larry Sechrest provides a perspective.
The claim that all legitimate defense functions can and must be privately supplied flies in the face of certain economic doctrines that are almost universally accepted. Almost all economists declare that there are some goods or services that will be provided in suboptimal quantities — or not provided at all — by private, profit-seeking firms. These "public goods" allegedly bring benefits to all in the society, whether or not any given individual bears his or her fair share of their cost. This "free riding" by some persons diminishes the profit incentive motivating private suppliers. Therefore, to make sure that such highly valued goods are provided, the government serves as the principal, or often the only, supplier and taxes all the citizens in order to finance the production and distribution of the good. [...] 
The purpose of this paper is to challenge just that sort of statement. The attack on national defense as a public good that must be provided by the state will be two-pronged. One part, the briefer of the two, will raise theoretical questions about public goods in general and national defense in particular. The second part will be devoted to a detailed survey of privateering, a form of naval warfare conducted by privately owned ships which lasted from the 12th century to the 19th century.  What privateers were, how they operated, the legal customs that grew up around them, how effective they were, how profitable they were, and why they disappeared will all be addressed. The common employment of privateers during wartime will be offered as empirical evidence that defense need not be monopolized by the state.
Don’t be lazy. Read the paper. I am still looking up information on Barbary campaign, but here is one bit I saw:

The Barbary campaign was simply a way for the merchant class to get its defense costs subsidized by American tax payers. It was the beginning of the long tradition of the American military advancing the interests of American businesses around the world. 
If America had been a free society, American vessels would have paid to fly the flag of a foreign power that either a.) had relations with the Barbary States or b.) would provide protection from them. In the 12th Century the English navy did exactly that. It paid Genoa to allow its ships to sail under the protection of Genoa's flag, the St George's Cross, which eventually became the flag of England as well. 
In the absence of State subsidized navies, private merchant defense navies would be created which merchants would hire.
I am still verifying the claim that American merchants tried to raise/borrow money to build a private defense fleet and were not able to do so. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Moscow, 1931

A post from Tyoma Lebedev's blog, showing 1931 photographs of Moscow colored by hand. (Warning: don't click on his blog to see other posts. A lot of past-nisht stuff.) Source of the pictures is here.

Did you know that once upon a time, Kremlin was white?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bounty hunters

Dog The Bounty Hunter - Oakley Thump

Coming home from work, I was listening to a surprising interview on NPR. The show was about bounty hunters. This was not the surprising bit, however. Nor was what was said about the bounty hunters surprising to me personally. What I was surprised by was that they aired that on NPR.

The host of Freakonomics Radio explained that more than 25% of felony defendants don't show up on the court date. Which results in a loss of time/money for the police, lawyers, prosecutors and judges. (Well, the civil servants don't really lose money, unfortunately, but the "society" that pays them to show up for nothing loses money.)

The second statistics is that police has 50% success rate at catching the people who jump bail.

The third statistics is that private bounty hunters have 97% success rate.

The NPR guy asked the Freakonomics Radio guy: What's the difference? Is it that the bounty hunters are scary, muscular, tattooed, rude, long-haired men with dogs that make more impression on the criminals than the muscular, non-tattooed, rude, short-haired policemen without dogs? The FR host answered: first of all, most bounty hunters do not look that way at all. It's a stereotype created by the movies and television shows. They have to deal with police; they have to deal with judges, lawyers, families of the criminals, etc., and thus have to look presentable.

Second of all, what makes them different form the police is incentive. If a police officer does not catch a fugitive, nothing will happen to his job, as long as he does most of his duties passingly well (which is not much in most places) and is not too brutal. On the other hand, if he catches a fugitive, he gets no raise to his salary. After all, he is doing his job.

A bounty hunter who catches a fugitive gets 10% of the bail. If he doesn't catch him, he gets paid nothing. This also makes sure that the bounty hunters have more incentive to go after the more dangerous criminals (who have, presumably, more bail posted for them) and that different bounty hunters specialize in criminals of different caliber (just like car salesmen specialize in different cars: old used Fords vs. brand new BMWs).

I would also add that another reason is competition. Bounty hunters compete with each other, and good bounty hunters drive the bad ones out of the market. Now, even if you gave police officers incentive (e.g., if the officer catches the criminal, he gets 10% of the bounty) and even if you allowed them to compete (i.e., any officer could catch any given criminal), you would still have the people in charge of catching criminals limited to the pool of officers. Some of them may be good — but you just don't know how good until you allow them to compete with the rest of the market.

Another benefit is specialization. Cops are busy... well, they are mostly busy giving speeding tickets, looking for people driving cars with outdated inspection stickers, and playing solitaire on their laptops (as one of my colleagues observed one doing another day), and eating doughnuts, and tasering Black ladies, but presumably they are also involved in solving and preventing crimes. So, they may not have as much time to look for fugitives as the bounty hunters — the professionals who stick to one specific job in order to do it well.

The bottom line is: a job for whose performance by so-called "civil servants" you pay money out of your taxes is done better by private individuals. This, as I said, is not so surprising to me. What's surprising is that they aired it on NPR.

Now, think about all the other jobs that are paid for out of your taxes. Mail. Fire protection. Building roads. Directing traffic. Teaching. Dispersing your taxes to charity and welfare. Defending you, inside and outside the country? Running the government? Well, let's not touch the last two for now. But for all the rest — leaving aside the argument whether you should be forced to pay for those services (if you're not immediately receiving benefit from them), ask yourself this: even if we say you should be forced to pay for them, wouldn't your money work better if it paid private individuals and companies competing for it, in a free-market fashion?

In other words, ask yourselves this question. Let's say rich people should be forced to pay for the poor people's medical bills, housing, medical and education bills, etc. People should be forced to give charity. But a) why should the government be in charge of dispersing that charity?, and b) wouldn't the charity work better if taken care of by private, competing organizations, who would have real financial incentive to do their jobs well and who would compete with each other?

I.e., a person would have to pay certain amount of his money to charity, just like today. But instead of paying it to taxes, he would pay private charity organizations — and it would be his choice which organization to pay. And the organizations would compete with each other for the type of services they provide, as well as for the effectiveness and quality of the service. And the "tax payers" would vote with their money.

There would not have to be one single type of food stamps of public education program as today — whichever one the majority in the government voted for. They could be as many varieties as the market would sustain (just like today there is a number of companies providing cell phone service). I.e., if I think that kids in public schools should pray in the morning and say a stupid formula in allegiance to a piece of cloth and you don't, we don't have to try to win the majority in the government. We can donate money to different charities that fund different kinds of schools (or directly to the schools themselves), and both of our views will exist in the society  represented by privately provided services — as long as there is enough demand for providing that kind of service. Just like today, I don't have to convince you that AT&T is better than Cingular — we can agree to disagree and sign up for different versions of the cell phone service.

I've posted this 1999 video before, but I'd like to do it again:

And I ask the same question: who do you think will spend your money better — this guy, or a local pencil pusher, whose strong skills are in... umm... what is it that the politicians are skilled at again? Oh, right. "Policy". "Influencing education more than one classroom at a time". Right...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Ministry of Truth

Bill Clinton complains: too many people online say all kinds of provocative things which are clearly false. Yeah, sure, most official News agencies long ago report the "truth, down to its innermost depths", but online people still use their heads — to lie, of course.

Therefore, he proposes: let's create a Ministry of Mag... I mean, of Truth. That would report things "as they are". Only facts. Apparently, it will be sort of the same thing as BBC or NPR.

From Wikipedia article about the Soviet newspaper Pravda:
As the names of the main Communist newspaper and the main Soviet newspaper, Pravda and Izvestia, meant "the truth" and "the news" respectively, a popular Russian saying was "v Pravde net izvestiy, v Izvestiyakh net pravdy" (in the Truth there is no news, and in the News there is no truth).
[source: arbat]

Sunday, May 15, 2011

the myth of "natural" monopoly

Read the article from

of nodes and parallel universes

[a re-post]

Both thoughts I am going to present are just imaginations, fantasies. They have nothing to do with anything I have learned anywhere (although they were inspired by some Chassidus and somewhat by Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams). Nor do I necessarily think that's how things are.

* * *
Imagine the five-dimensional space of the Universe as a system of nodes. A system of connected worlds that looks like a subway, through which your personal universe is going through. Most of the time it's a straight line, as far as you're concerned. But sometimes the train comes to a fork. At this junction, you have an ability to make a decision; you have freedom of will. Whatever decision you make will decide what the universe be like. If you decide to put the pencil on the desk, it will be the universe with the pencil lying on the desk. If you throw it into the trash bin, it will be a completely different universe.

And then the train keeps rolling.

By making decisions, you create the worlds; or, rather, you bring out of oblivion of potential one particular world that does exist in reality. Of all the different nodes connected to your current node, one particular node lights up; the rest stay gray. So far so good.

Now, imagine that G-d knows all the possible paths, all the possible nodes, all existing in potential, in parallel, in the gray dreamy sea of possibility.

Imagine that the network of the nodes is constructed in such a way that a certain number of key nodes necessarily exist; you must pass through them, whatever your journey to that station was.

Now comes the tricky bit. Imagine that for G-d, it does not make a difference which of they gray nodes became silvery lit up, and which remained gray. To Him, the sea of nodes never changes and stays the same. To you, the universe in which you live is the reality, and what could've been is a dream. But to Him all the possible universes are an ever-existing reality. And He knows them all equally.

And no decision of yours ever makes a change in that Knowledge.


* * *

This part is not related to the first part, above.

Imagine the same kind of network, except each node is not dependent on decisions you made, but is in fact a different reality. In this reality, the used car you're planning to take a look at turns out to be nice, and cheap, and in good condition, and just for you. And in this reality, this car turns out to be a piece of junk, and you've just wasted your time and money on the subway.

Now, imagine that based on the decisions you make in your life, G-d pushes you into one reality or the other. It's not always visible; it's not always evident, and it's not always linear. But sometimes it is. And because of that little piece of loshon horah that you decided to say you were directed into the universe where that first date went horribly, and both of you decided to walk away. While in the parallel universe, the parallel you (who kept his mouth shut) has a relatively good time, goes on with the shidduch, marries and lives happily ever after.

Or not.

Imagine your life, yourself as a little car, being bounced from one silver dot on the map to another. The different universes, different parallel worlds that you visit. Sometimes due to your decisions, sometimes not. With endless sea of gray dotes stretching out to eternity all around you.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Radio soup

I have a problem. I bought a used car, which doesn’t have an auxiliary cable output to plug in into my smartphone. It does have a tape player (into which I can put the tape gizmo that connect to my smartphone), just like my old deathtrap of a car had, but that’s where the problem lies: the tape player makes loud knocking sound.

The solution to the problem is to buy an FM transmitter, which will connect to my smartphone either through Bluetooth or a cable and at the same time will transmit to one of the FM channels, allowing me to listen to my smartphone through the radio.

Until I bought it, however, I have to listen to the radio, since I generally don’t like driving in a car in silence.

Here is another problem: we are in the middle of Sfiras Ha’Omer. Which means I can’t listen to music. Which creates the same problem as the years ago, before I started listening to Chassidus on mp3 player: I have to listen to a talk radio station, not music one. Which back in the day left me only with NPR (in New Orleans, we used to call it National Palestinian Radio), before I discovered Rush Limbaugh station. Sfiras Ha’Omer few years ago coincided with the Lebanese war. I was so disgusted with the liberal media’s coverage of it that I decided I’d rather listen to all the mechanical problems that my engine had than to that drivel.

Well, today I gave NPR another try. And then Rush Limbaugh station (which I am not sure was airing the Rush at the moment). And then NPR again...

NPR: a new movie with Will Ferrel. “Those were the times when my mom could leave me alone in the car when she’d go grocery shopping. And I would listen to those songs.” “Can you sing one right now?..”

Rush: Democrats suck... (Another problem, which is a general problem with Conservative radio hosts: they tend to sound not like normal polite human beings, but like captains of cargo tankers.)

NPR: Some Black farmer talking about how Mississippi river is killing his corn. Freedom riders in the South.

Rush: Democrats are crooks.

NPR: Now that Osama is dead, maybe we can pull out of Afghanistan?

Rush: The Democratic Congress person is wrong. There are not ten million “undocumented people” in this country. First of all, there are one hundred million...

NPR: Syria presents a problem. On the one hand, its leader is killing its citizens. (Thought: so does the American government, with the war on drugs. And government-run roads. And the socialist tunnels whose ceiling falls down on the cars. But whatever...) On the other, Syria — especially being so close to Israel — presents a stabilizing force in the region. (Here comes the star of the program...) Therefore, although the government is dictatorial, repressive and murderous, without it, there would be chaos. Trumpets. (And people would eat each other alive. We know.)

Rush: ...Second of all, they are not “undocumented workers”. They are illegal aliens. They are invaders of this country!

Doctor Who: We are not fighting an alien invasion. We are leading a revolution.

(starting 0:09)

The last two bits (the one from NPR and the one from Rush) hit it home: these are statist fish swimming in a statist soup. They can’t even imagine that there is anything else possible...

Is there a libertarian radio station? Maybe I’ll just go to BestBuy and buy this.

(I could also use my headphones, but that would require not leaving them at home in front of the computer...)