Month: September 2009

Sentences to ponder

The Required Reports Prepared by State Agencies and Institutions of Higher Education is not itself listed in the Required Reports Prepared by State Agencies and Institutions of Higher Education.

That is from Texas, where they must file a report on all the reports they have filed.  Here is more.  That report is itself 580 pages and it recommends the abolition of 318 reports and the consoldiation of 58 others.  It is promised:

The next edition of this report will contain a full assessment of all required reports.

I thank Catfish for the pointer.

The Politics of Bearing Arms

Historian David Beito, writing at The Beacon, reminds us

The controversy about carrying guns in public is not new. In 1967, however, the political alignments on this issue were completely different. Many conservatives (and others) objected when the Black Panthers insisted on exercising this right. In response, Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act banning the carrying of guns in public.

Black panthers_1968

What I’ve been reading

1. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, by Michael Fried.  The text is weak (and mostly skippable), but still this had high value for me.  It's a look at how photography has become the centerpiece of contemporary art, starting with Jeff Wall and offering well-chosen color images from the leading creators.  I had been needing a book like this.

2. The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How American and Europe are Alike, by Peter Baldwin.  This book offers an onslaught of facts and statistics, toward the aim of showing that the United States and Europe aren't so different after all.  You also can read it as a critique of purely statistical reasoning.  At the very least, it's a good reference work even though I wasn't convinced by the central thesis.

3. Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell.  This is an exciting and prophetic book about taking the ideas of self-experimentation and self-recording to an extreme.  Record your entire life and then do…?…with the data.  Something, they'll figure it out.  Just record the recorders and run regressions on what ends up working.

4. The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot by Chip Brantley.  There is now a "go-to" book on the pluot and this is it.  It explains why plums vary so much in quality, why plums are usually bad these days, how the pluot was intended as a replacement, and why some stores call them plumcots.  I paid attention the whole way through.

5. The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez.  I loved the first part, about the guy's relationship with his dying father, but found the wartime blacklist story only "good."  Still, this is one of the better Colombian novels and I could imagine the author writing a truly great novel someday.  Here is one good review.

6. Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs.  Has any novel this year received better or more unanimous critical reviews?  The writing is smart, beautiful, and quirky and Moore is not afraid to let her main character be weird.  Still, I lost interest within one hundred pages and stopped reading.  I am willing to admit the fault may be mine and over Christmas I'll try it again.  Somehow I need more analytic structure in my fiction.  If you look at the Amazon reader reviews, they make related points.  Here is some background information on the book.  Do let me know if you loved it.

7. Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism.  My mouth watered at the thought of a popular (Norton) Joyce Appleby book on the origins of capitalism.  It is intelligent throughout but it wasn't teaching me anything so I put it down.  Skimming did not alter this impression.  It is more a disappointment than a bad book but it is a disappointment nonetheless.  All of a sudden she's afraid to take chances.

8. Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder.  It bored me and I stopped.  It's OK but I view it as an inefficient blend of narrative and mild information about East African ethnic cleansing.  Most critics praised it.

The new Pamuk book, due out in October, is phenomenal and is getting better each day.

Tyler Cowen and Russ Roberts podcast

I always enjoy chatting with Russ.  Russ describes the dialogue as follows:

Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and author of Create Your Own Economy talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts
about the ideas in his recent book. The conversation ranges across a
wide array of topics related to information, the arts, and the culture
of the internet. Topics include how autistics perceive information and
what non-autistics can learn from them, what Buddhism might teach us
about our digital lives, the pace of change in the use of technology,
Nozick's experience machine and the relative importance of authenticity
and what the Alchian and Allen theorem has to do with the internet and

Nova Scotia markets, not in everything

Maple syrup curry, which I have now seen on three restaurant menus in so many days.

Amateur crafts are extremely common, as in New Zealand.  It is a plausible claim that the blueberries here are the world's best.  Natives claim it has Canada's warmest winter.

At Peggy's Cove a ragged Scot-looking woman blew loudly into bagpipes, thereby competing for donor attention with a ragged Scot-looking woman punching an accordion and wailing, all to the detriment of the Coase theorem.

For a while George Washington held out hope that Nova Scotia would join in the rebellion against the British crown.  Later American ships attacked Lunenberg several times, starting in 1782, mostly for reasons of plunder.

In 1790 black Nova Scotians were strongly encouraged to move to what is now Sierra Leone.  There was a second "purge" of black residents in the 1960s, when the neighborhood of Africville was torn down and its residents were encouraged to leave.  Black residents were prominent in the history of Nova Scotia although it seems this is being forgotten.

Overall this is an underrated tourist destination (it is an easy direct flight from Dulles) and I recommend Lesley Choyce's Nova Scotia: Shaped by the Sea.

Don Boudreau is prominently represented in the Halifax museum collection.

They don't do much with it (avoid the cream sauce), but arguably Nova Scotia has the best seafood in all of NAFTA.  No way do they ship the good lobsters out.

What is conservatism?

I've already done What is Progressivism? so here is another installment.  This isn't what conservatives today necessarily believe, it's a retranslation of a mishmash of conservatism into a language which I can understand and, in part, present to others.  Here goes:

1. Evil is real and there exist evil nations in the world; the relatively virtuous Western powers require strong states to fend off such evils.  This distinct from "big government" in the sense advocated by modern liberals. 

2. In international affairs, in the twentieth century, the United
States in particular has been unselfish to a remarkable degree.  We
therefore should trust the United States with unprecedented power.  In
fact we have no alternative.  Some cultures really are better than

3. The spread of nuclear weapons, and other forms of WMD, to irrational, evil and undeterrable
powers is the number one foreign policy issue.  It runs the risk of
equalizing the balance of power between virtuous and evil agents in the

4. On the domestic front, education is the keystone issue.  Societies succeed if strong family structures support an emphasis on learning and acculturation.  While this does not rule out public sector education, if public sector education works the credit is not to be found in the public sector.

5. When in doubt, side with the laws and customs that have, over time,
been associated with the Western powers and their growth into powerful
and durable societies.  It's hard to judge a lot of customs using pure,
unadulterated reason, as Oakeshott and Hayek have suggested.  Defending traditional values is an enterprise which itself requires a mix of law and custom.  If you're focused mainly on "policy proposals," you are missing the point.

7. We do not have either the resources or the norms to remake society in the direction of a fully-comfortable-for-everyone social democracy.  We do need welfare states to keep a polity in running order, but we should be modest about what such regimes can accomplish.  They cannot overcome a fundamental lack of proper values as found in many poor or disadvantaged communities.

8. Fiscal conservatism is part and parcel of conservatism per se.  A state wrecked by debt is a state due to perish or fall into decay.  This is a lesson from history.  States must "save up their powder" for true crises and it is a kind of narcissistic arrogation to think that the personal failures of particular individuals — often those with weak values — meet this standard.

9. For conservatism, small government is a means, not an end.  It is a means to the values which lie behind Western civilization and it is a means toward the prosperity we need to live well and defend ourselves.  Capitalism is important but capitalism itself relies upon particular values held by the citizenry.

10. Responsibility is a more important value than either liberty or equality.

Here is Julian Sanchez on what such exercises might mean.  I don't know exactly what they mean.  For me they are a means of thinking through ideas.

Addendum: Arnold Kling comments.

“Speed shrinking”

It's a bit like speed dating, except you see a shrink or rather a series of shrinks:

Many receiving therapy became so engrossed in conversation that they
lost track of time. At one point, Lianne Stokes, the energetic emcee, a
freelance writer, became annoyed that a session had gone well past the
allotted time – about 30 seconds – and barked into her microphone:
“Move the line, people. Believe it or not, someone here has worse
problems than you do, if you can imagine.”

Monkeys need special music for…monkeys

I enjoyed this story:

Monkeys don’t care much for human music, but apparently they will groove to their own beat.

Previous experiments have shown that tamarin monkeys prefer silence
to Mozart, and they don’t respond emotionally to human music the way
people do. But when a psychologist and a musician collaborated to
compose music based on the pitch, tone and tempo of tamarin calls, they
discovered that the species-specific music significantly affected
monkey behavior and emotional response.

“Different species may have different things that they react to and
enjoy differently in music,” said psychologist Charles Snowdon of the
University of Wisconsin-Madison, who published the paper Tuesday in Biology Letters with
composer David Teie of the University of Maryland. “If we play human
music, we shouldn’t expect the monkeys to enjoy that, just like when we
play the music that David composed, we don’t enjoy it too much.”

Indeed, the monkey music sounds shrill and unpleasant to human ears.
Each of the 30-second pieces below were produced with a cello and
Teie’s voice, based on specific features from recordings of tamarin
monkey calls. The first “song” is based on fear calls from an upset
monkey, while the second one contains soothing sounds based on the
vocalizations of a relaxed animal.

There are MP3s at the link (enjoy!) and I discuss related themes — how it matters if we make philosophic aesthetics more empirical — in one chapter in Create Your Own Economy.  Hat tip goes to Christian Bok.

Simon Newcomb, the most important economist from Nova Scotia

Yes, Simon Newcomb (1835-1909).  Newcomb was a polymath and he made important contributions to time-keeping, astronomy (most of all; he was arguably the most famous American astronomer of the 19th century), statistics, mathematics, and economics.  He was especially good at coming up with new ways of calculating tables for almanacs and he was deeply interested in lunar and planetary tables.  He sought to bring the scientific method to research on parapsychology.  He even wrote a science fiction novel.  In preparation for my Nova Scotia trip I have been rereading his Principles of Political Economy.

In economics Newcomb is best known for producing the earliest version of the equation of exchange as a means of representing the quantity theory of money.  He had a remarkably good understanding of monetary velocity and the purchasing power of money, favoring a "tabular standard." 

The most interesting part of the text are the questions at the end of each chapter.  Many show that Newcomb knew more than the text itself let on.  Others are bizarre and would not be found in 2009.  How about this one?:

16. How does the modern system of production by large organizations operate upon the shiftless class who will never stick to a regular line of work?  Show why, when this class really wants to work, it is harder to get it than it would be in a primitive economy.

Despite its possible inappropriateness, it is nonetheless an interesting question about fixed capital and unemployment.  If you want insightful questions, here are a few picks, taken from a single page, chosen randomly:

Define what portion of the price paid for a coat goes to compensate the friction of exchange.

Does the proportion of the population engaged in intellectual pursuits tend to increase or diminish with the increase of wealth?

Is there any method of calculation by which we can approximate to the total population which the earth can sustain?  If so, state the method, and show what data are necessary to apply it.

Has cheap transportation of passengers and goods across the ocean tended to retard or to stimulate emigration?

I have seen many worse questions in contemporary principles texts.  He also formulated Benford's Law:

In 1881, Newcomb discovered the statistical principle now known as Benford's law, when he observed that the earlier pages of logarithm
books, used at that time to carry out logarithmic calculations, were
far more worn than the later pages. This led him to formulate the
principle that, in any list of numbers taken from an arbitrary set of
data, more numbers will tend to have the leading digit "1" than any
other leading digit

He was mostly self-taught.  He suffered problems at the age of seven and was removed from school and it seems he never returned.  Later his father tortured him with farm work to help improve his manual dexterity (it didn't seem to work).  He was an expert chess player and could recite large amounts of poetry from memory.  He started studying astronomy before he was ten.  Next week I will read his autobiography, available on-line.

Here are quotations from Newcomb; I have read that the "anti-flight" remarks are ripped from context and are misleading.  There is a crater, an asteroid, and a Canadian writing award named after him.

Here is Newcomb on libertarian ethics and wanting to be left alone

If you have any interest in the history of economic thought, or in 19th century North American intellectual history, you should read Simon Newcomb.  Here are some of his on-line works.  When he died, President Taft and many foreign dignitaries attended his funeral.  But today Newcomb is very much an underrated thinker and an underrated historical figure.

Newcomb's father once wrote to him: "You were an uncommon child for truth, I never knew you to deviate from it in one instance."

Markets in everything

Who says you can’t buy friends? An Australian online marketing
company is selling friends and fans to Facebook members after offering
a similar service to Twitter users.

Advertising, marketing and promoting company uSocial
said it was targeting social networking sites because of their huge
advertising potential. “Facebook is an extremely effective marketing
tool,” Leon Hill, uSocial CEO, said in a statement.

“The simple fact is that with a large following on Facebook, you
have an instant and targeted group of people you can contact and
promote whatever it is you want to promote,” he added. “The only
problem is that it can be extremely difficult to achieve such a
following, which is where we come in.”

The company offers packages for Facebook, the world’s number one
social networking site, that start at 1,000 friends up to 10,000
friends at costs ranging from $177 to $1,167.

“All we do is send them a welcome message or friend request from the
client. If they decide to go ahead and add that person as a friend or a
fan then they will; if not, then they won’t,” Hill told Australian

Here is more information and I thank Steve White for the pointer.

How to achieve artistic immortality

…now a Canadian writer is using science to create a poem that could live forever..

Christian Bök, an experimental poet and associate professor of English at the University of Calgary, is working on a piece he plans to encipher and insert into the genetic code of an "extremophile" bacterium, one that is tough enough to survive conditions that would wipe out the human race.

He notes that others have already stored enciphered text in strands of bacterial DNA, including the lyrics to It's a Small World After All.  But his poem will be the first that actually contains instructions for a protein or, as he sees it, a second poem.

That is from a piece by Anne McIlroy in the 5 September Globe and Mail; the article is not yet on-line.  "Each letter of the alphabet is assigned to a tiny piece of DNA that codes for an amino acid…", which limits the vocabulary.  It is noted that the author is having trouble coming up with the fifty words or so which deserve immortality.  Here is background information on the poet.  You can follow his tweets here.

I will make the more general observation that Canadian newspapers remain underblogged.