Category Archives: Intelligence

Eco on Thackeray

From this interview published in the Guardian:

UE: When people ask whether I’ve read this or that book, I’ve found that a safe answer is, “You know, I don’t read, I write.” That shuts them up. Although some of the questions come up time and time again: “Have you read Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair?” I ended up giving in and trying to read it, on three different occasions. But I found it terribly dull.

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Thoughts on the ontology of Prohibition and origin stories

I was thinking about the notion of Prohibition lately, and realized there was a valuable insight to be garnered from the telling of the Original Prohibition story, or at least the way I see it.

What I refer to as the Original Prohibition, of course, was Adam & Eve’s experiment* with the mind-altering “fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good & evil”. And here is the crux of the story. It is a story about free will, and about how divine and human will interact, and the consequences of your choices.

I have the suspicion that many people (on both the right and the left) receive this narrative and think that the lesson from the story was that God’s Prohibition was not strong enough. It was not strong enough because it did not work to prevent our prototypical human ancestors from making a choice that brought misery and the profane to human existence. If Adam & Eve could have been prevented from eating that fruit, perhaps, the human race would not be in this ambiguous, pitiable state of earthly existence. The divine would be the sole content of human experience, and who wouldn’t want that?

But having the freedom to choose involves the awkward notion of living with the consequences of your actions. Not the false, legal, human-created consequences (at least in consensual actions where there is no victim), but the consequences of living with the knowledge, and the impact of your free will.

I have the sense that people who support prohibitions on consensual, non-tortuous activity really have the mindset that if we can just engineer society to this end or that end that we can prevent all bad outcomes, all miserable outcomes. But this is the worst kind of foolishness. Society is best served by criminalizing tortuous behavior, not non-tortuous behavior. To criminalize non-tortuous behavior is to subsume the notion of free will and human choice beneath the spectre of a glorious and impossible future.

The end result of criminalizing consensual, non-tortuous behavior, is that you create markets and industries that are dependent on the existence of the law and the need for its enforcement and not the real demand for goods and services by individuals. Ultimately, you can criminalize the entire canon of human activity through some extension of the law. The phrase “slippery slope” is appropriate here.

This is the ugly machine of fascism. It is the request to abrogate your rights and your choices for the ever-greater pursuit of security. But it is an ontological abyss. From a vantage point above, one can see the Gulag below, the (in)evitable promise of the Soviet Dream.

*One might replace the Judeo-Christian origin story with any of the many other different origin stories of similar structure and plot for the purposes of this argument.

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Recommended links

I’m getting a lot of traffic from my postings on the Columbia Tribune comment threads, so I’m going to take the opportunity to plug a few of my favorite Missouri publications.

1. The Missouri Record: A former debater started this excellent publication that includes content from well known politicians and scholars on Missouri-specific issues.

2. The Show-Me Daily: I disagree with several of the scholars here on specific issues, but Missouri is really lucky to have a true free-market think tank doing work in this state. I could plug any number of specific authors as well, but I will note that John Payne has been doing excellent work on police brutality and SWAT raids and highly recommend his work.

Outside of Missouri publications, I will also note that I have read Marginal Revolution and the Volokh Conspiracy almost every day for the last 5-6 years and I highly recommend you do the same.

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Sunshine in Missouri, a blog written by an attorney who is interested in Missouri’s Sunshine law that allows open access to public records.

I had the rare thought while paging through that this is one of the few blogs I wish were updated more often.

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Wise words from Tyler Cowen

From Marginal Revolution:

Macroeconomics really is just a theory.  Politicians are reluctant to spend more money, in tough times, on the basis of a mere theory.  Advocates of fiscal stimulus make it sound as simple as solving an undergraduate homework problem and I think they sometimes genuinely do not realize how much the rest of the world, including politicians, views them as simply being very convinced by their own theory.  There are plenty of historical examples with confounding factors and I’ve linked to some of them lately.  One default hypothesis is that the ranges of fiscal policy being discussed, whether looser or tighter, aren’t going to matter much one way or the other.

I would recommend anyone who takes theory out into the real world to read those words carefully. I find the sentiment is good grounding particularly for econ people who don’t understand why even intelligent politicians don’t make economically sensible policy choices.

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Senator Lindsey Graham on torture

From a Wednesday, May 13, 2009 hearing in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts:

I have been on the Armed Services Committee where we did a very thorough investigation of these interrogation techniques and how they came about. The Levin report is a good one. It is there to be read. I will take a back seat to no one about my love for the law and the desire for my Nation to be a noble Nation. The moral high ground in this war is the high ground. It is not a location. The enemy we are fighting, Mr. Chairman, does not have a capital to conquer or a Navy to sing or an Air Force to shoot down. It is an ideological struggle, and the decisions made in the past have had two sides. We did get some good information that made us safer, but we also hurt ourselves. We damaged our reputation, and we did some things that I think were not going to make us safer in the long run if we kept doing them.


The Chicago Open Chess tournament 2010

I’m sponsoring a friend (who I’ll identify through his American name, Justin, since I’m not sure how to spell his name right) in the Chicago Open chess tournament that started today in Chicago. Here is the tournament webpage for those interested in updates, and he’ll be emailing me with commentary later on this weekend.


China fact of the day, brain drain edition

…Between 1978 and 2007, more than one million Chinese students would go abroad to study, only 30 percent of whom ever returned.

That’s from Bruce Gilley’s chapter “Deng Xiaoping and His Successors (1976 to the Present)” in Politics in China: an Introduction, edited by William A. Joseph (2010).


Sexual differences: mating behavior in high status and low status males

From the Guardian:

There is a large body of primate research on the evolutionary origins of aggressive male sexual jealousy, covering the strategies of rape, harassment, intimidation and monopolisation of time – referred to as “mate guarding”. Males usually behave in these sexually coercive ways around fertile females they want to impregnate. These strategies can be observed in all ape species, but less so among gorillas, who live in harems with a dominant silverback male. Sexually aggressive male behaviour has evolved as an adaptation to living in multi-male, multi-female societies where there is a lot of choice in mating opportunities but also a lot of sexual rivalry.

These sorts of sexually aggressive male behaviours are more often exhibited by low-status males. High-status males who have repeatedly shown kindness, and are high status due to their mix of good genes for intelligence and physical stamina, are more likely to have females soliciting them for sex rather than their having to harass or rape in order to mate.

The article cites this article from Animal Behavior. Here is the abstract:

In a wide range of animal species, males coerce females to mate with them, either by physically forcing them to mate, by harassing them until they mate or by punishing persistent refusal to mate. The first section of this paper argues that the possibility of forced copulation can generate arms races between males and females that may have substantial costs to both sexes. In the second section, it is suggested that sexual harassment commonly represents a ‘war of attrition’ between the sexes; existing game theory models that may apply to sexual conflict over mating decisions are reviewed. The third section develops a simple prospective model for the evolution of intimidation by punishment in situations where males can raise the probability that females will accept their advances in future by punishing them for refusal to mate. Where the benefits of sexual coercion to males are high, all three male strategies may develop to a point where they have substantial costs to females. In the final section, evidence that female behaviour is adapted to minimizing these costs is reviewed.

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On opening theory

Check out the wikibooks on chess opening theory. Fascinating stuff. I prefer a variation on the Sicilian Defense and play it almost by rote in most informal games that I play, but there are some interesting games to study this summer.


Godel, Escher, Bach summer reading club

This summer I want to try something novel and worthwhile. I’m going to start a Godel, Escher, Bach reading club/group blog with the general intention of doing some serious and worthwhile analysis of the concepts in the book, most centrally of course being Godel’s third incompleteness theorem.

The inspiration for this effort is simple: I’ve been reading, and re-reading GEB for several years, and there is still much in the book that I have only the barest understanding of. What better way to gain understanding than to make reading and analyzing this book a collaborative effort?

Invitations are open to anyone who’s interested. You have to have your own copy (or access to a copy) and you have to be willing to commit to keeping up with the readings and contribute some commentary. Let me know formally by leaving your information in the comments or by emailing me at Basically I’d want to know your name, email, what your interest in GEB is, and what strengths you bring. It would be useful to know what educational institutions or other organization you might be affiliated with, too, but that’s up to you.


If you haven’t seen a college policy debate round before, watch this, but read first

One of the most intellectually rewarding and challenging parts of my life has been my participation, in high school and college policy debate, first as a competitor and then a coach. Unfortunately this is an activity that is poorly understood by non-debaters because it is a hyperspecialized, academically rigorous activity. The popular impression is that people argue in some sophisticated, rhetorically eloquent format. While this is true, it is an inadequate characterization of policy debate, especially college policy debate on the NDT/CEDA circuit.

It is true that the best debaters argue in sophisticated, elegant ways. But policy debate has also evolved in some ways that make even sophisticated, eloquent argumentation inaccessible to the general population. College policy debate specifically is an activity that promotes hyper-specialization in the technical aspects of debate. Most noticeably, the existence of a stable judging pool has allowed debaters over the last 3 decades to increase their rate of delivery so as to maximize the argumentative potential of the round. Coterminously, college debate has also developed incredible intellectual diversity and any varsity level debater of merit has the ability to fluently argue a staggering amount of topics with very little in-round preparation.

What this functionally means to you is that college policy debate is an activity where competitors speak at speeds of up to 250-300 words a minute. Very few non-debaters can comprehend, let alone understand, speech at that speed. But this is only a matter of familiarity; I am told that the human brain can theoretically comprehend speech input that is twice as fast.  Here is an example. This is the second speech given by a negative team (in this case, from the University of Iowa) during a debate round against an affirmative team from Harvard.

If you watched that speech without being able to distinguish more than a couple scattered words, play the video again and focus. Don’t worry about understanding initially; let your ear get attuned to the rhythm and cadence of the speaker and you’ll start being able to form a coherent impression of what he says. His speech is a finely structured, efficiently presented set of arguments that are impressively developed with both cited evidence and intricately developed analytical arguments. This is the part of debate that is most like pure science, with its hyper-specialized nomenclature and development.

Yet in a grander sense debaters who are able to perform at this level are also very multidisciplinary thinkers. To be a good policy debater one must be able to incorporate an understanding of the technical aspects of argumentative structure with an understanding of a very broad set of positions and the ability to adapt to accelerated communicative norms. And let us not forget the intensive research load; by the time a debater has spent 2 or 3 years competing seriously in college policy debate, they have done work equivalent to a masters in international relations or domestic policy.

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Chaos theory and economics

I’m working on a long post on extending the implications of work done by Edward Lorenz (1963) on chaotic outcomes from deterministic systems to economics. For those of you unfamiliar with the subject (and who have an idea of fun that doesn’t include reading academic mathematical papers) Lorenz examines a simple system of 3 deterministic equations that describe convection in the atmosphere. His key insight in this examination is that changes in the parameters generate vastly different systemic behaviors, some of which are chaotic and unpredictable.

The general lesson for meteorologists that Lorenz isolates is that you can’t predict some of these weather systems past some specific time frame (I think a week or so). More generally, Lorenz’s work is foundational in chaos theory, fractal dynamics, and nonlinear systems.

Where I propose to extend this work is in following Benoit Mandelbrot (1963) who finds evidence of chaotic behavior in cotton prices. Mandelbrot was also Eugene Fama’s instructor at the University of Chicago and this work plays a key role in the development of the  efficient market hypothesis. I also am inspired by Stephen Wolfram (2002, A New Kind of Science) who suggests that there are extensive applications for the tools used by nonlinear dynamical studies of cellular automata in modeling economies and interactions. I won’t delve into it here, but Douglas Hofstadter’s seminal text on Godellian incompleteness (1977, Godel, Escher, Bach) is also worth reading for the deep and rich insights into cognition and systems theory.

My interest in this subject was triggered from the notion that institutions are fundamental parameters in describing and understanding economic interactions. Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Shleifer, and Robert Vishny (LLSV) are foundational in the study of legal origins and economic development but I am hard pressed to think of work outside of that literature that engages institutional interactions, development, and outcomes.

I suggest that properly understand the dynamics of interactions and change are key in understanding the nuances that make political ideologies untenable at the margin (and this is a statement that I want to make in context specifically of the 3 major strains of thought competing for space today: liberalism, conservativism, and libertarianism). There are many places where these ideologies allow for computationally equivalent outcomes but this is poorly understood.

Stay tuned. Oh and here’s the famous Lorenz Butterfly, which is the phase space portrait of the dynamical system that Lorenz (1963) analyzes:

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My op-ed in the Missouri Record on Rex Sinquefield

…was published today and you can clickthrough here. Here is an excerpt:

A couple of months ago Grass-Roots Organizing (GRO) held an anti-big banks rally sponsored by a progressive local activist organization. I am generally in favor of breaking up big banks or adopting some kind of regulatory approach that limits the systemic risks that large, complex institutions created.

But a second message from GRO had a decidedly different tone. Along with the opposition to big financial institutions whose ignorance and malfeasance brought our economy to a very ugly place, there was also a diatribe against Rex Sinquefield, a multi-millionaire retired investment banker. Rex (and his wife Jeanne) have liberally funded politicians on both sides of the aisle to promote a policy agenda that includes increased school choice, more transparent and data-driven governance and reform of Missouri’s tax system. There are legitimate debates to be had on these policies but if you disagree with Rex Sinquefield on his political agenda or his methods, it is unfair to conflate these disagreements with opposition to big banks and financial deregulation.

There are two arguments for that thesis. The first, and obvious one, is that opposition to big banks is not premised on the same assumptions of opposition to the “Fair Tax Proposal” or school choice. The second and more important argument is that Sinquefield represents a school of thought that is diametrically opposite to the ideology that captured the financial services sector and brought the global economy to the brink of collapse. Moreover, the harshness of the criticism thrown his way is stunning; it is demonstrably true that Sinquefield’s political agenda around the state does not represent efforts to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the politically weak and powerless.

I am assured by friends that the rest of the piece is worth reading, especially for those with an interest in Missouri politics. There is also a discussion of Sinquefield’s former company, Dimensional Funds Advisors, which is very interesting to me as an economics student.

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On Puzzles

Puzzles are instructive, Mr. Gardner found, for they teach us to appreciate hidden structures of the world that are not owned by any particular discipline and are potentially useful to all. He saw the world as resembling not a magazine, where the subject of each section bears little relation to that of the next, but a well-written novel, where ideas introduced in one chapter are apt to reappear—transformed, modulated and extended—in others. He taught his readers to see the world in the same way, inculcating in them an openness and alertness to the often surprising possibilities of the world, and the desire to seek them out.

That’s from the WSJ. The story is about the reclusive mathematician who wrote Scientific American’s puzzle column between 1956 and 1981 and the cultish math-geek gatherings that now happen in his honor every two years. The entire story is worth reading and includes notes on cognition, neuroscience, and even references the indomitable Stephen Wolfram.

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