Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reality Bites

Toyota Motor has announced it will move 2,000 employees from Southern California to Texas.

The move is a victory for Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and his campaign to woo businesses from California. Toyota considered several sites in the United States before deciding on the Dallas area, where taxes, real estate and other costs are considerably lower than California’s.

Federalism is the strongest bulwark against socialism.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Creation Myth

Why Are We Here?

"Daddy, why are we here?" my daughter asked me one evening when she was four years old.

"Well, because it's time for bed and we always tuck in and read a bedtime story here at this time," I said, rather hoping she wasn't trying to begin an existential philosophy discussion.

"No daddy, I mean what made us?"

"No one knows for sure, sweety.  Many people believe that there's a thing called God that created everything."  Even though I'm not religious, I decided to take the easy way out.

"Is that what you think too?" she asked.

"No, I don't," I said, not wanting to be dishonest, but definitely dismayed that she just didn't ask more about the deity concept for which there are a lot of standard and easy answers.

"Why do you think we're here?"

"Well, I think it's like if you watch the static on the TV, eventually you'll see your favorite movie."

"What's static?"

Damn, I had forgotten that TVs don't have static anymore. "Umm, well, huh, let me think about how to answer your question a little better and I'll get back to you."

"Okay, daddy."

As a result of this interaction, I decided to formalize my own personal Creation Myth, though I never shared it with either of my daughters.  But, lucky you, I'll share it with you instead!

I Love Lucy

To me, any good Creation Myth has to, at minimum, have both humor and chocolate as part of the narrative, without which, the universe would be a cold and empty place and not worth even thinking about.  And so we'll start with my favorite 3 minute segment of the I Love Lucy show where Lucy and Ethel work on a chocolate factory line.

The purpose of this 3 minute segment is to ask how long would one have to watch random static on an old-style TV before you saw this sequence?  Or, in more modern terms, a close-enough question is on a 1920 by 1024 monitor with 24 bit color at 30 frames per second connected to a random number generator, how many 3 minute segments would you have to watch to have 99% chance of seeing Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory?  You'll see why these questions are important a little later.

So I started calculating away but the number of random episodes was so large that my calculator started smoking and then died.  I then downloaded a high-precision package to my computer and it still couldn't do it.  That shows how infrequently people do these sorts of calculations.  Fortunately, I found a wonderful shortcut (especially footnote 6) and was able to help me calculate the answer to be approximately 10700,000,000,000 episodes.

That seems like a really big number, and it is in terms of human experience.  It's a 1 with 700,000,000,000 zeros after it.  If you started writing the number when you were born and were able to write several hundred zeros per second, you might finish writing it by the time you died.

Essentially Zero Relative to Infinity

But even numbers like 10700,000,000,000, huge as they are, are essentially zero relative to infinity. Or its close cousin eternity (which is just infinity along the time axis).  That is to say, no matter what number we can come up with, no matter what number we can calculate (not using infinity or dividing by zero or a couple of other cheats), no matter what number we can represent on paper, that number will always be much, much closer to zero than to infinity.

An informal proof: come up with any humongous number, call it X.  Create a new number, Y, by rounding X up to the nearest integer and then applying the factorial operator to it (i.e. Y =⌈X⌉!).  Now, while X is a humongous number, it's a teeny, tiny, puny little fraction of Y.  In other words, it's much, much, much closer to zero than to Y, or essentially zero compared to Y.  And Y is essentially zero relative to infinity.  How do we know?  It's just some other humongous number, like X above, so we can apply the same logic recursively to it.

Infinity and eternity take things that are essentially impossible and turn them into something that will almost surely happen.  The probability that you could sit down in front of the TV with the random number generator connected to it and see the I Love Lucy segment is pretty much zero.  But an immortal being would almost surely see the I Love Lucy segment on the random TV and almost surely see it many times if he was sufficiently patient.

In The Beginning

In my Creation Myth narrative, there is no beginning or end.  Things like, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth...," and " some moment all matter in the universe was contained in a single point, which is considered the beginning of the universe," just don't work for me.  They're fine creation myths, of course, and many people believe in the Judeo-Christian Genesis creation myth or the Big Bang Theory creation myth constructed by the priests of science, but they ring very, very hollow for me, and I definitely don't "believe in" them.

My Creation Myth narrative has all dimensions being infinite in both the plus and minus direction.  It also has an infinite number of non-orthogonal, non-linear dimensions, and no time dimension, but I'm neither going to get into that, nor defend that, in this post.  For this post, assume the 3 more-or-less orthogonal, somewhat close to linear physical dimensions, and the time dimension which we all experience.  And assume they're all infinite in both the plus and minus directions.

Why Would There Be Nothing?

Now we need to get back to a variant of my daughter's original question.  Why is there something?  As opposed to nothing?  My answer below is admittedly a non-answer, but hey, I also admit this is a Myth, not some sort of factual compendium for explaining existence.

The concept of "nothing" has no meaning without the concept of "something."  You can't have one without the other.  It's a yin and yang sort of thing.

And that leads to my belief that there's actual neither really "something" or "nothing" but rather just noise - that which is fluctuating randomly between something and nothing. In all the systems I deal with, noise is the natural state of things.  Neither a perfect signal, nor perfect quiet, as both are too ordered to be a natural state.  Just the static that you saw on old TVs or the static you heard on old radios.

Overall, not quite "something" and not quite "nothing."  Just noise, just randomness.

Noise of the Universe

In the universe, in my Creation Myth, the noise is ripples around the zero energy level.  They're tiny ripples, but every once in a while, they randomly have enough oomph to create matter/anti-matter virtual particle pairs, which, almost all of the time, recombine and dissipate back into the noise.

Since this is a Myth, I'm trying to avoid using scientific concepts whenever possible.  However, in this case, what I'm describing is something like the concept of vacuum energy and virtual particles.  Not exactly like that, but the gist is close enough if you need something more to stimulate your imagination.  And since this post is nothing but imagination, I figure there's no reason not to tap into other people's feverish imaginations as well.

So every once in a while, the noise has enough oomph to create very short lived particles, even less often it has enough oomph to create them and push them apart such that they don't immediately recombine, at least under certain conditions.  How often does this happen in any localized spot in space?  I have no idea, but it doesn't matter a bit, because no matter how long between particle creation events, the time is essentially zero relative to infinity.

How long would it take for 1080 such particles and anti-particles to form in reasonably close proximity with the particles all going one way and the anti-particles going another (I picked 1080 particles since that's approximately the number of particles thought to be in the universe that are observable by us)?  A really, really, really, long time, but that time is still essentially zero relative to infinity.  So it would almost surely happen.  Again and again and again.

And that's the gist of my Creation Myth.  Random energy fluctuations and infinity conspire to create possibility.  Watch the TV with the random number generator connected and eventually there will be something interesting to see.  Not in human time frames or even galactic time frames.  But relative to infinity, lots and lots of interesting stuff to see.

I call random creations of large numbers of particles (1080 for example) relatively close to each other Large Cosmological Events (LCEs). There have been an infinite number of LCEs like the one in which we exist, just separated very, very far apart in space and time.  They are usually separated by such large distances and time that we can't observe any evidence of other LCEs, though it may be that some of the particles and bits of energy in our portion of the observable universe are particles that originated in a different LCE a really long, long time ago.

Generally, all of the energy and matter dwindle away back to the background noise level way before they could be detected within other LCEs.  Our LCE will also dwindle away to nothing and then in this part of the universe, nothing of interest will happen again for a very long, long time.

Noise And The Big Bang

As I mentioned above, I don't find the Big Bang Theory very convincing.  But my Creation Myth doesn't exclude it as a possibility.  If you need some Bang in your Myth, either the particles swirl down into a point singularity and from there the Big Bang Theory can take over or there could have been a huge random energy spike in the vacuum right at the point of the Big Bang, essentially creating all of the particles at once at more-or-less the same point.

Noise and Deities

My Creation Myth doesn't preclude deities either, as long as deity is defined as extremely advanced conscious entity that has figured out how to utilize the vacuum energy of space to sustain itself for eons.  The deity would have originated as an intelligent life form on some planet or something somewhere in a Large Cosmological Event and then transformed itself to survive the eventual dissipation of the matter and energy of the local universe that allowed it to form and evolve.

While the deities would eventually dwindle to nothing and die due to being corrupted by the noise of the vacuum, it's possible that they might survive long enough occasionally to encounter one or more LCEs and the resulting habitable planets at some point.

Noise and Life

I've seen statements like "we now know the odds against the spontaneous generation of life are astronomical."  I don't personally subscribe to that analysis, but even if life is extremely unlikely in any one Large Cosmological Event, given an infinite number of them, life will almost surely happen in some of them.

In addition, the possible deities mentioned above might seed life as they drift through space and encounter LCEs, making life occur much more frequently than it would via random chance.

Thus, some life may be a mix of Creation and Evolution.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Party Coachella Music and Arts Festival 2014

Someone recently pointed out that the subtitle of this blog indicated that there would be posts on partying and since there hasn't been a partying post in many, many years, due to popular reader demand, I'll do one now.

My wife and I and our 2 kids attended Coachella, a venue that offers 150+ bands spread over three days across 6 stages with 80,000 attendees.  I personally saw around 30 bands which is easily more than I've seen in the entire rest of my life.  I had earplugs, but still have some residual hearing loss, hopefully not permanent.

At 55, I was definitely in the oldest 1% of the age distribution, and it was more than a day before I saw anybody else that I was fairly sure was older.  My youngest daughter, at 14, was easily in the youngest 1% of the age distribution.  I'm guessing the median age was around 21 and the average age around 24.

So what the heck were oldsters like my wife and I doing at Coachella?  Well, our 17-year-old daughter (almost 18) really wanted to go with a bunch of friends, and we decided to let her, but we wanted to be close by just in case something bad happened.  And hey, since we were going to be close by, why not attend the festival?  And since my wife and I were going, we kinda had to bring the younger daughter as well (who was more than happy to do so).

We all had a really good time!  I had a much, much better time than I expected.  Generally, I don't like crowds and I don't like loud, but the crowds were remarkably tame and friendly and I got used to the loudness really quickly.

I think the crowds were tamer than I expected for two reasons: I think a fairly large percentage of them had that marijuana mellowness and because the festival is pretty expensive ($400 a ticket, plus expensive food, plus expensive lodging or camping, plus expensive transportation), it ended up catering to a bit of a more richer and refined group.

I found the alcohol versus marijuana thing interesting.  Backpacks and other bags were searched each day as we entered the festival grounds and pockets were patted down.  They were incredibly strict about bringing in any sort of liquid including sealed bottles of drinking water.  So it was extremely difficult to smuggle alcohol in.  On the other hand, they didn't search anywhere near thoroughly enough to find less voluminous drugs like marijuana and once on the grounds, the festival staff didn't put any effort at all in to prohibiting or even limiting illegal drug use.  I'm guessing this was purposeful since alcohol is a rowdy and aggressive drug and marijuana is a anti-aggression drug and much better for crowd control.

I normally wouldn't care at all about drug use except the resulting clouds of smoke (tobacco, marijuana, and smells I'd never smelled before and have no idea what they were) coupled with the natural dust of the desert setting was a bit of a respiratory nightmare and my lungs and sinuses were pretty irritated by the end of each day.  It's also a good thing that I don't have to pass any drug tests for my jobs because I'm not sure I could pass given all the second hand smoke I inhaled.  I'm wondering if those who do have to pass drug tests for their jobs could get away with going to things like Coachella?

The sound systems were great, especially on the main stage, and that's why it made the "loud" easy to get used to.  It was really nice to hear a lot of contemporary music, though I probably won't run out and buy any of it.  A lot of it was pretty good, though there was an interesting conflict between the live shows and what I hear on the radio.  A good example is Ellie Goulding, a singer whose music I find downright boring on the radio, but she sounded incredibly good at Coachella and was probably my favorite act out of the 24 bands I heard (though Muse, Beck, MGMT, Cage the Elephant, and Naked and Famous were very close runners up).

The people watching was fairly fun too.  Since it's a hot desert setting, women typically wore bikinis with coverup or shorts or some combo.  Men wore shorts with or without a t-shirt.  I was surprised by the remarkable lack of body hair on the men and my wife pointed out that they were probably waxing their chests (and/or backs). I knew that body builders going to competitions did that, but I didn't realize that it had become popular among non-body builders. Ouch! Well, I guess women also wax things which I think shouldn't be waxed, so what the heck, but definitely count me out!

Anyway, it was a great party and I might even choose to do it again someday.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Case Against Free Trade

I'm generally for allowing trade to occur between entities with as little interference from government(s) and others as possible.  I'm pretty vocal about that, so people are often very surprised when they learn that I'm NOT for completely free international trade.

Let's start with a specific definition for Free Trade found by typing "Free Trade Definition" into Google:
free trade noun
noun: free trade; modifier noun: free-trade 
1. international trade left to its natural course without tariffs, quotas, or other restrictions.
I'll focus on tariffs because that's my preferred way of "restricting" trade.  A tariff is just a tax.  Taxes are required for governments to operate.  Even radical libertarians think that at least a minimal government is required for civilization to flourish and therefore, taxes of some sort (or multiple sorts) need to be collected from somewhere.

I've yet to see a good argument why the tariff sort of tax is less legitimate than any other sort of tax such as the sales tax, income tax, real estate tax, estate tax, capital gains tax, health tax, etc.  To the extent that revenues from tariffs can replace those other taxes, I don't think that tariffs are any more onerous for an economy and society than any of those other taxes.  In addition, tariffs are a fairly efficient tax in that there are a limited number of ports where goods can enter the country, as opposed to income tax where 300,000,000 individuals in the United States alone have to file.

Trade enables specialization.  Specialization leads to efficiency and innovation and enhanced wealth creation, leaving the trading entities better off overall, potentially far better off.

But I think that the incremental advantages of trade diminish as the scale increases.  Two people trading with each other are much better off than each doing everything for himself, 100 people better off than 2, a million better off than 100, etc., but it may break down at some point.  500 million may be better off trading with each other compared to restricting trade within groups of 50 million, or maybe not.

How about 5 billion versus a half a billion?

My guess is no.

Consider the approximately half billion people in the North America Free Trade Area (NAFTA).  It contains labor from first and third world countries, at least some of nearly all natural resources required for any economy, and extensive diversity of people and geography. I think that NAFTA and the trade that occurs within it is a good thing and very beneficial for the countries that are members.

But I think that if we expand beyond NAFTA, the adverse effects of the chaotic nature of trade will begin to overwhelm the benefits of specialization and economies of scale provided by trade.  As a result, I think that NAFTA should impose across-the-board, uniform tariffs on all goods coming into it and that the Eurozone and other free-trade areas should do the same.

A description of the chaotic nature of markets is provided by Professor David Ruelle in his book Chance and Chaos:
A standard piece of economics wisdom is that suppressing economic barriers and establishing a free market makes everybody better off.  Suppose that country A and country B both produce toothbrushes and toothpaste for local use.  Suppose also that the climate of country A allows toothbrushes to be grown and harvested more profitably than in country B, but that country B has rich mines of excellent toothpaste.  Then, if a free market is established, country A will produce cheap toothbrushes, and country B cheap toothpaste, which they will sell to each other for everybody's benefit.  More generally, the economists show (under certain assumptions) that a free market economy will provide the producers of various commodities with an equilibrium that will somehow optimize their well-being.  But, as we have seen, the complicated system obtained by coupling together various local economies is not unlikely to have a complicated, chaotic time evolution rather than settling down to a convenient equilibrium.  (Technically, the economists allow an equilibrium to be a time-dependent state, but not to have an unpredictable future.) Coming back to countries A and B, we see that linking their economies together, and with those of countries C, D, etc., may produce wild economic oscillations that will damage the toothbrush and toothpaste industry.  And thus be responsible for countless cavities.  Among many other things, therefore, chaos also contributes to the headache of economists. 
Let me state things somewhat more brutally.  Textbooks of economics are largely concerned with equilibrium situations between economic agents with perfect foresight.  The textbooks may give you the impression that the role of the legislators and government officials is to find and implement an equilibrium that is particularly favorable for the community. The examples of chaos in physics teach us, however, that certain dynamical situations do not produce equilibrium but rather a chaotic, unpredictable time evolution.  Legislators and government officials are thus faced with the possibility that their decisions,  intended to produce a better equilibrium, will in fact lead to wild and unpredictable fluctuations, with possibly quite disastrous effects.  The complexity of today's economics encourages such chaotic behavior, and our theoretical understanding in this domain remains very limited.
A graphical example of "tipping" points in a chaotic system is shown by the bifurcations in the following graph:
The system is perfect stable for r < 3, enabling a false sense of security and ability to predict the system response for other values.  By r = 3.6, the system has become completely unstable and unpredictable with rapid further increases in instability as r increases from there.

There are many real-world physical examples of this such as turbulent versus laminar flow of a fluid in a pipe where linear increases of pump pressure lead to more-or-less linear increases in flow rate until a certain flow rate is hit, after which the flow becomes turbulent and massive increases in pump pressure give little or no increase in flow rate. Eventually the pipe will burst from the pressure.

In the economy, chaotic effects are manifested in things like shifting comparative advantages between regions leading to the collapse of whole industries and sub-economies.  Examples include: steel shifting to Asia, gutting the U.S. steel industry and leaving the badly damaged rust-belt in its wake; and accelerated devastation of Appalachia from the changing economic viability of coal and farming.  Each of these examples were exacerbated by rent-seeking unions, government and environmental regulations, less than optimal management, technological innovation, and foreign subsidies, but the chaotic nature of markets still played a significant role and these other factors are an inherent part of the chaotic global political economy.

As the chaotic effects increase, investment risk also increases.  It's easier to get investment for a venture that can provide a positive ROI and an exit strategy in a short time frame than for ventures that have a longer time horizon.  This is partly inherent in the risk assessment and its effect on the subjective discount rate used in Net Present Value calculations which penalize longer time horizons.  However, a substantial part of the risk analysis takes the chaotic nature of markets into account.

I have personally experienced this sort of effect.  I may have a high degree of confidence that I'm the only one working on a certain innovation in a given region, but I'm unable to predict the status of this innovation world wide.  Investors, however, want to know if there's a chance they'll be blindsided by some competing group in India, or Israel, or Ireland, or Italy, etc. and if so, will be far less likely to invest.  I think that part of slowing of worldwide investment is partly due to this sort of phenomenon.  There's a lot money sitting, doing nothing, with nobody willing to pull the trigger to invest that money, because that money will be wasted if competing entities are working on the same thing.

Resilience is affected by chaos as well.  In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami damaged a portion of the northeast coast of Japan and this affected the global supply of motor vehicle parts:
Located in the disaster region and adversely affected by these forces are a number of manufacturing facilities which are integral to the global motor vehicle supply chain. They include plants that assemble automobiles and many suppliers which build parts and components for vehicles. Some of the Japanese factories that were forced to close provide parts and chemicals not easily available elsewhere. This is particularly true of automotive electronics, a major producer of which was located near the center of the destruction.
While efficiency is increased by global trade, the above example shows that resilience is not.  Concentrating manufacturing in one or a handful of facilities to benefit from economies of scale leaves the world economy more vulnerable to natural and man made disasters.

Trade and fluid flows have similarities.  When fluid flows become turbulent, backing off the pressure helps. In a more complex fluid system, adding baffles can help.  Tariffs are essentially baffles in this context.  A 20% across the board tariff would enable redundant manufacturing of various products in different and independent regions, reducing chaos, increasing resilience.  While possibly somewhat less efficient, if the manufacturing is shut down in one region due to an earthquake, tsunami, meteor strike, political unrest, invasion, war, etc., the impact on the rest of the world economy will be mitigated.

In summary, I think there are issues of scale when it comes to free trade. I see no reason why tariffs are any more onerous than other types of taxes, and the chaotic and fragility effects are reasons to use across the board tariffs to restrict international trade.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Quote of the Time Since the Last Quote of the...

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. Jonathan Swift.
I have little doubt that Swift meant this in a derogatory manner.  But I take this quote as a bit of positive advice.  Many things, such as subjective preferences, have nothing to do with reason, though sometimes we attempt to rationalize such preferences after the fact.

I hate the color pink. Ugly, ugly, ugly, in my subjective opinion.  I didn't reason my way into that preference and nobody can reason me out of it.  Swift's quote points out that it's pointless to try and that it's a good idea to figure what things are just preferences to avoid silly debates - like arguing about my aesthetic revulsion to the color pink.

Friday, April 04, 2014

New Format

Due to popular reader demand for various features, with great trepidation, I'm going to upgrade the blogger template for Great Guys tonight at approximately 8:00 PM PST.  Supposedly I can always go back to the older template, supposedly everything'll be backed up (and I'll back up everything by hand that I have reasonably easy access to), supposedly it won't lose any comments, supposedly we'll have access to more features, and supposedly it'll be better.  Blogger has been bugging me (and probably my co-bloggers too) to do this for about 5 years.

Just in case, if you have any pearls of wisdom in the comments that are critical to well-being of the human race, please make a copy of them (I'm not backing up comments - in theory, there's no need to).

This might be a long weekend.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Laugh or Cry?

Via Instapundit, an article titled "What Can Educators do to End White Supremacy in the Classroom?" was published on April 1st. It's a perfect parody of what some people on the right (ummm, like me), when they get way too carried away by their paranoid delusions, might imagine people on the left thinking and saying.  I assumed it was an April Fools Hoax and found it hysterically funny (I can laugh at myself with the best of them), but in the extensive comment section below the article, people were taking the article seriously.

Some people will take a really good hoax seriously, but it got me wondering, so I emailed the author and asked him about it.  His response:
The article is not an April Fools Day joke. We attended multiple sessions at the conference and reported on a few of them.
Here are some excerpts from the article:
One attendee, a teacher and the diversity director at his school, spoke about the activities he is implementing and said it is important for teachers and administrators to discuss social justice with their students. Radersma echoed his sentiment.
"If you don't want to work for equity, get the fuck out of education," Radersma said. "If you are not serious about being an agent of change that helps stifle the oppressive systems, go find another job. Because you are a political figure."
That explains a lot about the state of our educational system.
Radersma also argued the first step is realizing that all white people are carrying the signs of oppression.
"Being a white person who does anti-racist work is like being an alcoholic. I will never be recovered by my alcoholism, to use the metaphor," Radersma said. "I have to everyday wake up and acknowledge that I am so deeply imbedded with racist thoughts and notions and actions in my body that I have to choose everyday to do anti-racist work and think in an anti-racist way."
We're all raceaholics.  Who knew?
Radersma said she taught a lower-level English class at the high school and her students were exclusively people of color. However, she said the Advanced Placement course in her school was almost all white and Asian students. Her principal observed class one day and commented on the difference in students between the two courses. 
That experience, and the fact that her boss did not know how to tackle the problem, led her to leave the classroom and work toward her Ph. D. Radersma told the group she realized the problem was the institutionalized racist structure of education and her white privilege was causing the racial achievement gap.
Yup. Institutionalized racism.  That's the only possible explanation.  But apparently not against Asians.
"Who's at fault? My white body is at fault," she said.
Her white body may well be at fault for some of the ills in our educational system, but I don't think "white" is the operative word and probably not "body" either.
"I can't teach students of color nearly as well as a person of color can."
Is that because 2+2 doesn't equal 4 for a person of color?
The conference was paid for in part with taxpayer dollars.
Yup.  Because there's nothing more worthwhile than something like this conference to spend the money on.

So are you laughing or crying?