Month: February 2006

Can you swim faster in water or in syrup?

Here is the answer, obtained by experimentation.  This is a fundamental question of applied physics, namely when "viscous drag" becomes a dominant force. 

It is amazing how heavily this investigation was regulated:

The most troublesome part of the experiment was getting permission to do it in the first place. Cussler and Gettelfinger had to obtain 22 separate kinds of approval, including persuading the local authorities that it was okay to put their syrup down the drain afterwards.

iTunes fact of the day

I had thought classical music was flailing on-line, but perhaps I was wrong:

…classical music comprises twelve percent of sales on that site [iTunes]. Back in October I linked to a piece by Marc Shulgold in which Mark Berry of Naxos asserted that classical music accounted for six percent of all Internet downloads. We’ve been told for some years that classical music makes up only three or four percent of record sales overall. Something’s happening here, and Time, Newsweek, and Entertainment Weekly (to name three magazines that have dropped all classical-music coverage) don’t know what it is. For more, read Anastasia Tsioulcas in Billboard and Scott Timberg in the LA Times.

Read more here.  I suspect many people don’t want classical music to succeed on the Internet.  That would mean change.  Shorter pieces?  More celebrity-driven?  More pieces that can withstand poor sound quality?  More fusion and crossover?  Listeners who reassemble symphony movements to form their own medleys?  What is classical music anyway?  By the way, here are the classical grammy winnersNelson Freire playing Chopin deserved to win Best Instrumentalist.

The Great American Novel — my runners-up

1. Faulkner.  He came close to winning.  But which novel?  Absalom, Absalom is the deepest and richest.  But you need to read it at least twice in a row, and that makes it less of a story.  Here is the first pageAs I Lay Dying is the most enjoyable.  Read it through once, without trying to understand it.  Then read it through voice-by-voice.  Then read it through again.  Sound and the Fury and Light in August (Faulkner’s easiest major work) cannot be dismissed either.

2. Henry James – The Golden Bowl.  Are you interested in Girardian doubles, the triangulation of desire, self-deception, the use of gifts to imprison, the mediation of desire through objects, and the dynamics of marriages?  This was James’s last and best novel.  For my taste Portrait of a Lady is static and stands too close to the Merchant Ivory tradition.  Interestingly, I believe not one of you mentioned James in the comments thread.

3. Huckleberry Finn.  It seems more Shakespearian each time I read it.  Right now Yana is reading it and loving it.

A few comments: Fitzgerald is not quite there.  I am tempted to count Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as a novel, not a poem.  Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Nabokov’s Pale Fire are close, although my wife will not let me treat the latter as an American novel.  Philip Roth has many excellent novels but no one for me stands out.  Only the first third of Gravity’s Rainbow is wonderful.  I prefer Hemingway’s short fiction and most of all his sociological non-fiction on bullfighting.  Bellow is excellent but I wonder how much his books will mean to people one hundred years from now.  The dark horses you already have heard about.

Jane Galt as dictator

If I were in charge of the budget, we would massively reform entitlements, transforming Social Security into a system of forced savings combined with a means-tested fallback for those too poor to save, or whose investments tanked at the wrong time. We would kill the whole Medicare/Medicaid debacle, along with the tax deduction for corporate-provided health care benefits, replacing it all with catastrophic federal insurance for those whose medical bills exceed 15-20% of gross income (phasing out for those whose incomes put them in, say, the top .1% of earners) and another means-tested benefit for those who genuinely cannot afford to spend 15% of gross income on health care benefits. I would combine this with the Jane Galt Tax Plan to save the government a whole mess o’ money, while making the economy more efficient, and increasing the incentives for everyone, rich and poor alike, to create value for society. Forget Win-Win . . . that’s like Winwin!

Here is the link; there is much more.  Elsewhere in the blogosphere, it is also worth reading Dan Drezner on Asian exports.

The economics of mulch

FRANCIS: You’d better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new
circle, As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles
and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something
which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place
of the leaves.

ST. FRANCIS They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

Here is the link.  The economist cackles and sees a typical confusion between engineering and economic notions of efficiency.  Here is what you must do to turn your leaves into useful mulch.  I need Yana to show me how to work the TiVo.  How am I supposed to "add extra nitrogen" to my leaves?  And get this advice:

The second thing to do to guarantee leaf-composting success is to grind or shred your leaves. We will deal with this in detail later on, but let me tell you right now that it will make things simpler for you in the long run. A compost pile made of shredded material is really fun to work with, because it is so easily controlled and so easy to handle.

I am still laughing.  But wait, I am worse yet.  I don’t even know how to buy or use mulch.  I hire Guatemalan immigrants to perform the entire task for me.  For all I know they are out in my lawn right now, measuring out the nitrogen and adding it to my mulchable leaves, patting them into just the right shapes.  But even at $12 an hour, somehow I don’t think so.

Do recognize that modernity has brought considerable reforestation to the United States.

The Great American Novel — my pick

1. It must reward successive rereadings and get better each time.

2. It must be canonical and grip the imagination.

3. It must be linked to American history and letters in some essential way.

4. It must span the intellectual, the emotional, the religious, and the metaphysical.

5. It must be fun.  You must be sad when the book is over, and wish it had been longer than it was.

6. It must be about a large white whale and have numerous Biblical allusions.

That leaves us with Moby Dick at the top. 

The most indicative chapter for the book’s strangeness is "A Squeeze of the Hand."  Has anyone done a better literary treatment of a homosexual ******-****, much less when writing about whale spermaceti?  Excerpt:

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,  – literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,  – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Here comes the best part:

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.

Get the picture?  But do read the whole (short) chapter at the link, just in case you are confused about the context…

The method of the novel, if you can call it one, is madness.  It is a collage of impressions, tales, facts about whaling, erotic interludes, and observations about social science.  Occasionally the plot resurfaces but this can involve less rather than more tension.  Moby Dick also can be read as pure commentary on the Bible or Shakespeare.  Melville knew who his competitors were. 

I’ve talked to many people who find the book offputting.  Delve right in and embrace the strangeness.  Take the ostensible masculinity and interpret it, and all the other foibles, as over-the-top.  Dig out the implicit theology.  Think of it as a new literary model.  And best of all, read only one short chapter a day.

Tomorrow you get the near runners-up.  Do feel free to offer your first place picks in the comments.

The Law of Below Averages

I sometimes find evidence of cheating on exams but I rarely take action, I don’t have to.  Almost invariably the cheaters get abysmally low grades even without penalty.  Some people I know get annoyed when students without evident handicap ask for and receive special treatment such as extra time on exams.  I comply without rancor as the extra time never seems to help.  Over the years I have had a number of students ask for incompletes.  None have ever become completes.

I call this the law of below averages.

Addendum: Any student who attempts to take advantage of my lax attitude should first reflect on the Lucas Critique.  Comments are open if you have experiences to share.

Dark horse picks for the Great American Novel

Herman Melville – Mardi.  Guess what, another obsessive quest.  Imagine Melville retelling Dante, but hating Christianity and seeking to revise it.  This is no less conceptual than Moby Dick, anthropologically more sophisticated, and utterly metaphysical.  Fans of Herodotus should pick this one up.  Typee is also much underrated, it is more than just a popular novel.

Vladimir Nabokov – Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.  I had to read the first two hundred pages twice and I still do not quite understand them.  The book is a dizzying array of puns, word plays, criss-crossing plots and voices, a treatise on the nature of time, and a catalog of erotic perversions, including incest.  This is Nabokov at the peak of his powers, much better than Lolita.  Someday I might think it is better than Pale Fire.  And yes it is fun reading, whether or not you know what is going on.

Ender’s Game trilogy, by Orson Scott Card.  These books are about virtual reality, the brutality of youth, game theory, the nature of war, and the implausibility of speciesism.  One hundred years from now the series will still be changing people’s lives.

Some fat potboiler probably belongs here but I can’t bring myself to write down any particular title.  Am I too hooked into the analytical and the symbolically complex?

Soon you will get my winner and the runner-ups.  Natasha tells me her winner is Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, although she warns she read it in Russian when she was nineteen.  Comments are open; do not yet put down your winner, but you are free to list your dark horses.

Chicago fact of the day

The average wind speed down Michigan Ave.: 10.4 mph

The average wind speed in Boston: 12.5 mph

The average wind speed in New York City: 12.2 mph

The Windy City, anyone?  It turns out the name was adopted in the 19th century to promote the city’s beaches.  That is from Discover magazine, March 2006 issue, back page.

Update: Wikipedia offers a different perspective on the origins of the name.  Read this tooThe trail also leads to my childhood chess-playing friend Barry Popik.

Table talk — what is the best new work in economics?

We had lunch with Eric Helland yesterday, and the talk came around to a standard question: what is the most interesting work in the economics profession today?  Steve Levitt and the improved use of instrumental variables was mentioned.  Shleifer and Acemoglu.  World Bank data sets on corruption and governance.  I added the following:

1. Recent work showing the Industrial Revolution was a more gradual process than had been thought.

2. Neuroeconomics, albeit more on promise than delivery.

3. The work of Abhijit Banerjee and his MIT "lab" on randomized trials for developing economies.

I then grasped for another option and came up with:

4. A better understanding of the importance of peer groups; this is happening mostly outside of the economics profession.  I was thinking of that study which showed how much campus alcoholism can be reduced, simply by spreading information about how disgusting the other students find your drunkenness.

Those were my gut reactions rather than a well-thought out list.  My apologies to the thousands of unjustly excluded economists, some of whom read this blog.  I invite other econ bloggers to take up the same question.

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal

"Capitalism is not much loved," writes Clive Crook in The Atlantic.

Seen a movie lately? Watched television or read a newspaper? The culture that speaks to Americans, and hence to the Western world, radiates suspicion of free enterprise….

The point is not that such movies, or the culture more generally, argue that capitalism is evil. Just the opposite: it is that they so often merely assume, innocently and expecting to arouse no skepticism, that capitalism is evil….

It is difficult to see where any heightened
appreciation of the market system is going to come from. Economists,
presumably, ought to be supplying it. Unfortunately, in most cases,
communicating a sense of wonder is not among their gifts. In some ways,
teachers of economics are probably making matters worse. As practiced
in universities, economics continues to turn inward, with ever more
emphasis on math, quantitative methods, and narrow specialization. You
can make a case for that, but it silences the discipline on the thing
that matters most.

Crook is right of course but his piece would have been a lot better had he mentioned the book Americans found most influential in their lives after the Bible.

A blogging experiment

One MR reader has suggested that I blog more about topics I know little or nothing about.  Let us try an experiment.  The comments are open for your suggestions.  The first topic that is mentioned by three different commentators will be blogged about soon for a few days running, or for as long as I can manage.  Obscene and libelous options do not count, and perhaps I will have to rule out the physically impossible ("what is the best Serbian translation of War and Peace"?) as well.  Who knows, maybe Alex will join in with a post or two…

Addendum: Ladies and gentleman, we have a winner.  Read the comments.  If you feel you missed a chance to vote, I will run this experiment again soon.

Iranian nukes

If you want to argue for optimism, try the following:

Iranian nukes will create an Israeli-Iranian alignment of political interests.  Iran is more hated by the Arab states than is often let on.  Iranian nukes increase the chance that Arab terrorism will be directed against Teheran rather than Tel Aviv or Manhattan. 

Iran with nukes will carve out a greater sphere of influence, in part at the expense of Israel and America.  But it will seek to stabilize that sphere, and "Israel" and "stability" likely will be seen as complements.  Iran won’t want Iraq under the control of al Qaeda.  Israel and Iran would work together, albeit covertly, to limit further proliferation in the region.

Some of the Arab nations would find themselves forced into a de facto alliance with israel, if only to resist Iranian power.  This is not obviously a bad outcome.

Most politicians — whether religious fanatics or not — are pragmatic.  The status of a nuke could be a substitute for the status earned by Iran from supporting terrorism and bashing Israel.  More importantly, nuclear powers do not generally want to transfer much power to decentralized, hard-to-deter terrorists. 

Iran tends to be ruled by councils rather than lone maniacs, a’la North Korea, a far more worrying example.  Groups are conservative by their nature.  I am aware that the Iranian president sometimes sounds like Hitler, but the talk could be geared to appeal to the Iranian public

Yes I do fear nuclear proliferation — greatly in fact — but Iran getting nukes is neither a) a fact which causes me to up my priors on how bad proliferation will be (which is very bad), nor b) an undeterrable nukeholder.  They are a big fat sitting duck, and their history is to seek regional power against Arabs and into central Asia.

Let me sum up the underlying theoretical reasons for relative optimism: 1) the quest for status is often quite local in nature, 2) Arabs and Iranians often distrust each other, 3) it is not all about us; often the U.S., or Israel for that matter, is a symbolic token in local struggles rather than the real target, 4) politicians tend to be pragmatic, and 5) international political coalitions are often more fluid than the rhetoric of politicians would suggest.

Here is Thomas Schelling on Iranian nukes.

But if you wanted to argue it the other way, I would suggest the following:

1. Iran will face another civil war and the losers might lob a nuke at Israel as a kind of going-away present.

2. Israel feels secure with its current nuclear deterrent only because it knows that no hostile country has a counter deterrent against Tel Aviv.  If Israel felt less free to use its nuclear weapons, it would feel less secure.  It would be subject to repeated regional military taunts, which would eventually lead to war, nuclear or otherwise.  The new book The Bomb in the Basement: How Israel Went Nuclear and What It Means for the World — highly recommended by the way — is excellent on this issue.

3. Western crazies will someday sneak a small nuke into Teheran, leading to Iranian retaliation.

4. Iranian early warning systems may be unreliable, or subject to manipulation, and erroneously report an Israeli first strike.

Mandel and Setser on intangible values

Here is their exchange.  An excerpt from Mandel:

It’s a truism among trade economists that whether you run a current
account deficit or a current account surplus matters less than what you
do with the money. In that vein, pessimists have accused the U.S.
economy of importing capital in order to fund consumption.

But according to my argument, that’s not true. We seem to be
importing capital in order to fund an enormous amount in investment in
intangibles, including knowledge, training, brand equity and the like.
Then U.S. companies are using those investments to maintain their
competitive position in the global economy.

It’s a virtuous circle, rather than a vicious one. What’s more, it
has the additional virtue of being consistent with the facts, including
the much faster productivity growth in the U.S., that darned
unwillingness of the dollar to drop, and the continued high rate of
return of U.S. companies overseas.