Assorted links

by on November 4, 2012 at 12:57 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. GMO labeling and rent-seeking.

2. On-line education to become an Orthodox rabbi.

3. What do you see when you look out the NYC-D.C. Amtrak window?

4. This guy wants to minimize the number of incumbents, as a way of jumping off his indifference curve.

5. Scientific psychological study of the NYT paywall.

6. Are asteroid belts part of The Great Filter?

Ranjit Suresh November 4, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Speaking of online education Orthodox rabbis, it turns out Jewish colleges, including yeshivas and Jewish seminaries, received a majority of Pell Grants for religious schools in 2010. And of the top ten college recipients of Pell Grants, six were yeshivas. An odd result considering the number of Christian affiliated religious institutions in this country.

The common sense notion that it makes no more sense for taxpayers to subsidize Talmudic schools as it does for them to fund madrasas seems to have been lost on the feds.

http://forward.com/articles/164946/yeshivas-score-huge-pell-grant-windfall/

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 2:23 pm

There are Jews poor enough for Pell Grants? I thought we were all rich. :)

That’s a good article, and surprising if true. By sheer numbers I would expect Christian schools to have the lion’s share of funding.

I suspect that most recipients would be new immigrants.

I am ambivalent about federal funding. I believe that the external benefits are near zero, and thus government has no interest in subsidizing higher education. However, I did need and did use subsidized loans to attend Columbia. I suppose I could have gone to a cheaper law school. Also, although I do quite well in my line of work, I’m not utilizing the degree that the government subsidized. I paid back my loans with work and cash, so in my case it worked out. A lot of students in proprietary colleges do not get meaningful employment from their degrees. Nevertheless, for some of them this is the only way to afford college besides joining the military.

So Much For Subtlety November 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm

The common sense notion that it makes no more sense for taxpayers to subsidize Talmudic schools as it does for them to fund madrasas seems to have been lost on the feds.

Well a lot fewer Talmud students have blown themselves up lately much less flown a plane into the World Trade Center.

But this is a good example of the distorting effects of the welfare state. One that we can discuss with a minimum of racial ill feeling. The Ultra-Orthodox could choose to make a living and fund their own damn schools. Where they are not giving welfare they do just that. But where some idiots are willing to work hard to support them, they will divert a large number of young men into Talmudic studies. It is not that they can’t find jobs – what is the unemployment rate among the Frummies these days? – or that they are locked out of the workplace by discrimination. It is that they choose not to as long as someone else pays for it.

So you have to ask the question – why should the rest of us pay so that someone can study the Talmud?

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Why should the rest of us pay so that someone can study anything?

The Talmud makes as much sense as most of the liberal arts.

So Much For Subtlety November 4, 2012 at 9:06 pm

I don’t disagree with you – but perhaps not in the way you mean.

The superficial answer is because there is an end to avoiding grown up responsibilities through the liberal arts. And McDonald’s is always hiring. That is different from someone who intends to spend their entire life studying Sartre. Someone who studies French may actually make a useful contribution one day. It would certainly come in handy when trying to explain you’re just the maid.

The deeper answer is that I think less damage is done to Western civilization by the study of the Talmud. I would rather pay for Rabbinical students than for anyone doing po-mo or Cultural Studies. But surely the sensible solution is to fund neither?

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Actually, i think we are sympatico on this issue. The economist in me always wishes to measure costs and benefits, and I lean toward efficiency rather than equity. Nevertheless, I cannot escape the reality that my own education was funded through subsidies. While that does not handcuff me to continued subsidies for all generations to come, I must at least consider the possibility that there are social gains and equitable considerations that are not always met through private means. I can tolerate small inefficiencies.

I paid back my loans and provided service for my grants, so I suppose I feel less guilty about it, not that I had an informed and well reasoned objection at that time. When free money is placed before an 18 year old, he’s inclined to take it without much protest. :)

As for what to fund, absent a clear and objective measure of external benefits, the process becomes too polluted by political considerations and normative judgment. So perhaps no subsidy is better than subsidizing everything.

As for the value of the degree, if the skils are at some point marketable, then all of the gains are internalized. The benefits are paid for by the beneficiaries.

I loved your comment about the French maid. :)

Ranjit Suresh November 4, 2012 at 11:44 pm

For most people, including trained economists, who read this blog, to hear that Talmudic studies might be more profitable than investigating the depths of po-mo discourses might seem plausible. I assume that these intelligent readers have not read the Talmud, or for example have not read the Mishnah in Meseches Shabbos which declares that you can only open a barrel on Shabbos to eat dried figs. However, you are not allowed to break open that barrel even then if your intention is to create a vessel. No, if you cut open that barrel with the intention to create a new vessel, you’re as damned as the fellow in Islam who refuses to go to Hajj. I confess this appears at least as arcane as the most P.C. of po-mo orthodoxies.

Let’s be clear. For Christians and post-Christians who are unaware – the Talmud is *not* the Old Testament. Instead it is a collection of oral Rabbinic laws and traditions which Christians have nothing to do with.

Willitts November 5, 2012 at 12:37 am

Amazing how many scholars of Judaism there are here who didn’t require a Pell Grant. I suppose we’ve resolved that issue.

Rahul November 5, 2012 at 2:20 am

To a “post-Christian” why should it matter whether the Talmud is or isn’t the Old Testament?

Miguel November 4, 2012 at 11:08 pm

Israel is finally having to address the issue of large numbers of Talmudic students on welfare.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/09/us-israel-politics-ultraorthodox-idUSBRE8680LK20120709

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 2:08 pm

How about a timely and lively discussion of the economic impact of Daylight Savings Time? I for one approve.

There’s an apocryphal saying that ‘Only a [fool] would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket and sew it to the bottom of a blanket and have a longer blanket.’

The quote is obviously false when your most productive hours are done by daylight. The quote, attributed to some American Indian, suggests this is contrary to their wisdom. To the contrary, I would wager that indigenous tribes who don’t even have nor follow clocks coordinate their activities according to daylight, in effect resetting their ‘clock’ every day. Or, metaphorically, removing a row of cloth from the blanket each day whilst sewing a new one to the bottom each day.

I think the quote is more apt to other economic phenomena such as income redistribution. Only a fool would believe it would enlarge national income much less social welfare. It ignores the incentive effect for production, work ethic, and human capital accumulation.

Mark Thorson November 5, 2012 at 10:09 am

An American Indian said it? It must be profound wisdom, indeed. Probably one of those sage Indians like Chief Seattle, Asa Carter, or Elizabeth Warren.

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2008/03/going_native.html

Rahul November 4, 2012 at 2:13 pm

#2 Wonder if they power down their servers for the Sabbath……

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Hah, excellent question. Maybe they have Christians run their servers.

Rahul November 4, 2012 at 3:43 pm

http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/richard-feynman?before=1322858586

Reminds me of this story narrated by Feynman:

“While I was at the conference, I stayed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where young rabbis – I think they were Orthodox – were studying. [...]

And then one day – I guess it was a Saturday – I want to go up in the elevator, and there’s a guy standing near the elevator. The elevator comes, I go in, and he goes in with me. I say, “Which floor?” and my hand’s ready to push one of the buttons.

“No, no!” he says, “I’m supposed to push the buttons for you.”

“What?

“Yes! The boys here can’t push the buttons on Saturday, so I have to do it for them. You see, I’m not Jewish, so it’s all right for me to push the buttons. I stand near the elevator, and they tell me what floor, and I push the button for them.”

Well, this really bothered me, so I decided to trap the students in a logical discussion. [...]

My plan went like this: I’d start off by asking, “Is the Jewish viewpoint a viewpoint that any man can have? Because if it is not, then it’s certainly not something that is truly valuable for humanity … yak, yak, yak.” And then they would have to say, “Yes, the Jewish viewpoint is good for any man.”

Then I would steer them around a little more by asking, “Is it ethical for a man to hire another man to do something which is unethical for him to do? Would you hire a man to rob for you, for instance?” And I keep working them into the channel, very slowly, and very carefully until I’ve got them – trapped!

And do you know what happened? They’re rabbinical students, right? They were ten times better than I was! As soon as they saw I could put them in a hole, they went twist, turn, twist – I can’t remember how – and they were free!I thought I had come up with an original idea – phooey! It had been discussed in the Talmud for ages! So they cleaned me up just as easy as pie – they got right out.”

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 4:31 pm

The situation reminds me of the story, perhaps apocryphal, that Jews became prominent in banking because of usury laws in Christianity.

I would have loved to have heard those arguments. I was born into a Jewish family and still self-identify as a Jew. But I was to be married to a Catholic woman and it was important to her, her family, and her church that I be of the same faith.

I searched my soul for a year. I was not dogmatically attached to Judaism although it remained a part of my identity. I liked the values and teachings of the Catholic church and felt right at home in mass. In fact, it was not really very different than synagogue. I tried to justify for myself that my holy books were just a subset of the Christian holy books, and that Jesus was a really nice fellow to follow. It was also entirely plausible that Jesus really was the Hebrew messiah.

To my great surprise, it was a conservative rabbi who convinced me to convert. He spoke of God’s love for all mankind, the kindred spirit of Christians and Jews, and that no religion has a monopoly over God.

Then he said, “if i had met a woman who looked like your fiance, i would have converted to Islam for her.”

I laughed more than i can ever remember, and i have never regretted my decision. My family and I attend mass each week, but my daughters get the added significance of Passover at Easter time. My parents and family really appreciate the dual religious and cultural environment. Having lived in Quebec, they were accustomed to being a religious minority and, by necessity or desire, tolerating or accepting the practices of another faith almost compulsorily.

The rabbi realized that he was not losing a disciple. He was gaining a family devoted to the love of God, and that is mitzvah. Put that into the context that Judaism is a dwindling religion, and you understand the rabbi’s abiding love for the Will of God rather than building a church for the exaltation of men. The irony that I joined just such a church is not lost on me, and i pray that my own story enlightens the views of Catholics in my parish. Catholicism is, i believe, also dwindling so the church must some day face this revelation. Whatever brings us closer to God is holy.

anon November 4, 2012 at 5:23 pm

The rabbi realized that he was not losing a disciple. He was gaining a family devoted to the love of God, and that is mitzvah.

A very wise rabbi. Mazel tov!

So Much For Subtlety November 4, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Put that into the context that Judaism is a dwindling religion, and you understand the rabbi’s abiding love for the Will of God rather than building a church for the exaltation of men.

So you are saying he was reconciled to the gradual extinction of Judaism in the United States? The only problem I have with this is the odd word “conservative” to describe the Rabbi. Liberal I could understand. But Conservatives have come to this? Maimonides did not even accept the Christian God was the same God as the Jewish God. He allowed Jews to be forcibly converted to Islam, but prohibited it for Christianity – and specifically Catholicism – because the Trinity was polytheism.

I don’t want to criticise your choice or your beliefs, but I find it hard, and a little depressing, to see how anyone could not notice the difference.

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 9:44 pm

I did not mean politically conservative. I meant Masorti which blends beliefs and traditions with contemporary society.

No, i did not mean to suggest that he is resigned to religious extinction. Rather, he did not engage in proselytizing or evangelism or measure the strength of his religion or beliefs by the number of its adherents. He didnt base his advice on the belief that my decision was leading to eternal damnation nor did he take insult in rejection (which i have not done).

I understand your argument, and i can only go so far in interpreting the expressed beliefs of one man. Perhaps American rabbis have a different perspective as do American priests.

Maimonides was very much a man of his own age, watching the encroachment of Christianity and Islam on his beliefs. The 13 Principles of Faith certainly seem at odds with my situation as interpreted by Maimonides. In a more enlightened view, they are harmonious.

Because Judaism has no central authority, there can be no promulgation of dogma, so the Talmud and the Midrash as well as other commentaries influence interpretation. Many Jews consider the revelation of God and not merely the word of God as a means of experiencing God. The rabbi was saying, I believe, that he and I were experiencing God through the love and devotion I have for my wife and she for I. Her acceptance of my proposal was never conditioned on conversion. It was just something she valued, and I have found value in it.

As for the view of the Trinity as polytheism, I have never met a Catholic who believed that. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all viewed as one. i leave for others to interpret it as they see fit. Many Christians and Jews view Catholic rituals as idol worshipping. Catholics certainly dont believe they worship idols. So they are blind because they do not see?

I was never much of a scholar on Judaism although the principles of hermeneutics played no small part in my decisions to attend law school.

You seem to know more than I, and i appreciate your thoughts without taking insult.

To November 4, 2012 at 2:29 pm

5. What paywall ? ;)

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 2:42 pm

6. It is unlikely that Earth is the only place in the universe that has life, but those who rely on the vastness of the universe as their argument fail to recognize the infinitesimal likelihood of favorable conditions for life, especially intelligent life.

Earth is a Goldilocks planet. It has a molten iron core that generates a magnetic field which retains our atmosphere. It has a relatively large moon that stabilizes its orbit. It has the moon and Jupiter as asteroid and comet deflectors and collectors. But it took a lot of asteroid strikes to build the Earth’s mass and populate its water supply. It is just the right distance from just the right type of sun. And we are living in a relatively calm geological period between cataclysmic cycles in our planet’s natural environment. The importance of the asteroid belt is yet another “just right” condition.

It is nothing short of miraculous that intelligent life developed here. The cosmic coincidence of infinitesimally improbable events occurring as they have unfolded is humbling. Every breath is a gift from God.

The parameters of the Drake Equation need to be reconsidered.

ET November 4, 2012 at 5:35 pm

“but those who rely on the vastness of the universe as their argument fail to recognize the infinitesimal likelihood of favorable conditions for life, especially intelligent life.”

Could you note some citations? All the exobiology pieces I’ve read have noted that, given our current understanding of stellar and planetary conditions, Earth is nowhere near Goldilocks enough to justify your claim – especially given recent revelations about other solar systems, and some knowledge of the diversity of life. But this isn’t my field of expertise.

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Not my field of expertise either.

Coincidentally, the most recent MR post is on hyperscience which explains my point nicely. Exobiologists WANT to find extraterrestrial life. It is external validation for their preconceived notions. If we fail to find such life as we venture forth, then we just havent been looking hard enough for their liking or funded enough for their liking. Their scientific results are tied too closely to their expected financial compensation and their notoriety.

A REAL scientist searches for extraterrestrial life and may hold strong beliefs on its existence, but he should be agnostic and ambivalent about finding such life under a particular rock on Mars. They are not.

The recent ‘revelations’ are also a little too convenient for the funding of the discoverers.

The mere existence of the Earth’s iron core, the result of a monstrous collision that likely also spun off our orbit stabilising moon is sufficient to demonstrate that the conditions for life are rare indeed.

BTW, I don’t doubt that there is life out there. Maybe even on Mars. I have greater scepticism about the existence of intelligent life, and i believe that estimates from the Drake Equation are inflated by orders of magnitude.

Earth is most certainly Goldilocks or we wouldnt be having this conversation. The question at bar is how wide the Goldilocks Zone is. Exobiologists look at extremophiles on Earth as evidence. Such evidence is at best suggestive. The fact that they exist in extreme conditions on a planet KNOWN to have abundant and diverse life weakens the argument somewhat. Many of them think it is conclusive. I was among the first sceptics to question signs of life found on a Martian meteor in Antarctica. The chances of ‘contamination’ were too great, and ultimately I was right. It burst their bubble to be wrong, but it wouldnt have hurt my feelings to have been wrong. It would be nice if i were wrong.

prior_approval November 5, 2012 at 2:53 am

‘Exobiologists WANT to find extraterrestrial life. It is external validation for their preconceived notions.’

Or, previously, there were biologists that refused to accept that life could exist in extreme conditions fatal to their preconceived notions of what life could tolerate.

Meet the extremophiles -

‘In the 1980s and 1990s, biologists found that microbial life has an amazing flexibility for surviving in extreme environments – niches that are extraordinarily hot, or acidic, for example – that would be completely inhospitable to complex organisms. Some scientists even concluded that life may have begun on Earth in hydrothermal vents far under the ocean’s surface.[3] According to astrophysicist Dr. Steinn Sigurdsson, “There are viable bacterial spores that have been found that are 40 million years old on Earth – and we know they’re very hardened to radiation.”[4]

Most known extremophiles are microbes. The domain Archaea contains renowned examples, but extremophiles are present in numerous and diverse genetic lineages of both bacteria and archaeans. Furthermore, it is erroneous to use the term extremophile to encompass all archaeans, as some are mesophilic. Neither are all extremophiles unicellular; protostome animals found in similar environments include the Pompeii worm, the psychrophilic Grylloblattodea (insects), Antarctic krill (a crustacean) and Tardigrades (water bears).’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extremophile

awp November 4, 2012 at 7:10 pm

“It is unlikely that Earth is the only place in the universe that has life”

Don’t we have to have more than one positive observation before we can start talking about likelihood?

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Not really. Existence is easier to prove than uniqueness even in the absence of observation.

Liberty Risk November 4, 2012 at 3:21 pm

#6: I’m not sure exactly what to call it (Existential Bias?) but I often catch myself being extremely irrational when evaluating studies like this one. I feel desperately compelled to believe and find support for any idea that places potential great filters in our species’ past. This tendency probably makes me overestimate the probability of the simulation scenario and underestimate the probability of finding microbial life on Mars, but it’s difficult to get a feel for how much.

JVM November 4, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Bear in mind that we are so unclear on the components of the great filter that results like this should only cause a tiny adjustment to your beliefs about the great filter. There’s a lot of filter behind us and a lot of filter in front of us.

Honestly wherever the points of greatest filtration may be, I hope it’s a really strong filter because otherwise there is almost certainly an alien invasion fleet headed our way. Sometimes I think the real reason we haven’t encountered advanced alien life yet is that wise civilizations don’t broadcast their existence all over the universe basically just begging any race of hyperintelligent trans-biological robots to come colonize them.

Willitts November 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Yes, survivorship bias is one reason to be skeptical of all the improbable Goldilocks argument i made earlier.

But you speak of filters in front of us too. Intelligent life is almost certain to end here within this geological era, and we are not likely to find other intelligent species before our time passes. Likewise, they may have all died a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The window for intelligent life is open only very briefly. It is amazing we survived the last Ice Age.

Im not too confident we will find and reach other habitable planets or terraform others before catastrophe comes. Life is extremely resilient and it appears to be much more of a stable chemical equilibrium than previously thought. But intelligent life takes time and stable conditions in which to develop. Our uniqueness on this planet is evidence for such a hypothesis, although that too is influenced by survivor bias.

Ive always marvelled at the coincidence that our moon is just the right size and distance to block out the photosphere of the sun during periodic eclioses, permitting us to see the corona and to observe light bending. Aside from its functions of sustaining life on Earth, the moon is also inspirational to intelligent species. It helps with measuring time; not a trivial feature.

Becky Hargrove November 4, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Thanks for link #3.

critic November 4, 2012 at 7:06 pm

I think the folks at the NYT haven’t left the greenhouse lately. Try the train ride into Paris from DeGaulle.

Peter November 4, 2012 at 8:28 pm

All you need to know about the NYT paywall, works with any page: just delete everything in the URL after the question mark, including the question mark itself, and you can read the page for free.

Rahul November 4, 2012 at 11:35 pm

I just press the Stop Button at the right time. Yes, you need decently fast reflexes.

Ctitic November 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm

This is stealing, pure and simple. Brecause the NYT (which I don’t particularly like) can’t protect its property totally doesn’t make it less wrong to steal it.

Hopaulius November 6, 2012 at 11:22 am

From the abstract: “Results suggest that people react negatively to paying for previously free content, but change can be facilitated with compelling justifications that emphasize fairness.” I wonder whether Wall Street Journal readers would be similarly repelled by the profit motive and compelled by the fairness motive.

Engineer Dad November 4, 2012 at 9:11 pm

“Some natural and organic and other food special interests are utilizing this legislation to obtain market share that they otherwise would not be able to obtain through the marketplace.” – Matt Bogard

Whole Foods a provider of eco-friendly, high priced, foods that gradually eliminates the cause of obesity at its source.

Shop Whole Foods and stop obesity!

“If the California voter joins Whole Foods and votes for Proposition 37, then together we can eradicate another of man’s self destructive practices once and for all.” -John B. Elstrott

Engineer Dad November 4, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Satire.

ShaneM November 5, 2012 at 2:42 am

#6: Almost weekly we see a new astronomical finding “that’s entirely NOT what we expected.” To conclude that asteroid belts are rare based on current system formation theory seems premature. We can’t even explain how some of the things in our own solar system are the way they are.

Mike Brown and Sedna – it’s orbit can’t be explained by traditional theory. http://www.mikebrownsplanets.com/2010/10/there-is-something-out-there.html
A moon of a moon of a moon – maybe? Iapetus http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/12/13/iapetus_ridge_cracked/

freethinker November 5, 2012 at 5:10 am

About online training of Orthodox Rabbis: I wonder how the online students will react if they come to learn that the authors of the online lessons are a) women; b) heathen and c) not only violate kosher laws but even eat pork everyday and break the sabbath with glee. Something like this actually happened with deference to a book on Sikh religion. A Sikh friend told me he was terribly distressed when he came to know that the author of an authoritative book on his faith is an atheist and committed sacrilege by drinking whiskey and wearing shoes while reading the Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs!

Marcos November 5, 2012 at 7:22 am

http://www.equinoxpub.com/blog/2012/11/5592/

“We are taught to do things that god likes us to do and stay away from things that god would punish us for, labeling some actions, in other words, as ‘endorsed by god.’ Just like any good marketer must create branding for a good or a service, religion’s marketers too must seek to create good faith among the masses.”

Lucas November 17, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Howdy, i read your blog occasionally and i own a siamlir one and i was just curious if you get a lot of spam remarks? If so how do you protect against it, any plugin or anything you can recommend? I get so much lately it’s driving me crazy so any support is very much appreciated.

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