Wednesday, February 28, 2007
One of the world's greatest geniuses was John von Neumann, who was responsible for pathbreaking innovations in a series of fields, including game theory, set theory, quantum mechanics, the atom and hydrogen bombs, and the computer. This wikipedia article seems like a good summary (although I can't follow some of it). It is hard to imagine what his IQ was.
Von Neumann was also an eccentric -- to say the least -- and the article captures some of that:
Although von Neumann unfailingly dressed formally, he enjoyed throwing extravagant parties and driving hazardously (frequently while reading a book, and sometimes crashing into a tree or getting arrested). He once reported one of his many car accidents in this way: "I was proceeding down the road. The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles per hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path." He was a profoundly committed hedonist who liked to eat and drink heavily (it was said that he knew how to count everything except calories), tell dirty stories and very insensitive jokes (for example: "bodily violence is a displeasure done with the intention of giving pleasure"), and persistently gaze at the legs of young women (so much so that female secretaries at Los Alamos often covered up the exposed undersides of their desks with cardboard.)
In addition, Von Neumann's political ideology was, in his own words, "violently anti-communist, and much more militaristic than the norm". He favored a first strike against the Soviet Union, "believing that doing so could prevent it from obtaining the atomic bomb."
Update: More on von Neumann:
At the age of six, he could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head and converse with his father in ancient Greek. His interests were not confined to mathematics, and accounts tell of him reading all 44 volumes of the universal history by the age of 8.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Responding to the kind of arguments I have quoted concerning global warming skepticism, Judge Posner writes:
The global warming skeptics point out that there are natural climate fluctuations [and] that anticapitalists are enthusiastic beaters of the drum for action against global warming . . . . These points are correct, but do not support the skeptical position. The existence of natural climate fluctuations increases the risk from human-caused global warming, because increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide increase the amplitude of the fluctuations. The fact that the motives of some of the people who are worried about global warming are political is irrelevant to the scientific issues, not only because scientists use apolitical methods of testing their hypotheses, but also because there are politics on both sides of the global warming debate: if leftwingers exaggerate the danger of global warming, rightwingers belittle them excessively.
Let me respond to these points. Posner has made a great deal of the first one: that natural fluctuations might combine with human caused global warming to cause a truly catastrophic increase in temperatures. I have no reason to question Posner's claim, but he fails to draw a distinction here. If there are natural fluctuations, then the global warming we have observed so far might not be due to human causes. So the natural fluctuations increases the possibility of a worst case scenario, but also decreases the possibility that the observed fluctuations are actually the result of human activities. He should acknowledge this. How one should respond to these fluctations is a more difficult matter than Posner acknowledges in his post.
Posner also claims that "scientists use apolitical methods of testing their hypotheses." Well, yes, except when they don't. Or put differently, there is a long history of "scientists" reaching scientific results with practical conclusions that turned out to be wrong. And this is most likely to be the case when the practical conclusions are a matter of political debate. Whether it is being in favor of eugenics, advocating that women not breast feed, predicting population explosions, or recommending that people eat low fat/high carb diets, the supposed "apolitical methods" are problematic. They are subject to biases of overconfidence and also the problem of extremism, which occurs when a "consensus" is used to keep people quiet. (See, e.g. some of Cass Sunstein's work on deliberation.) And these problems seem especially apt in a "science" like climate change where the models are so complicated and where, as I understand it, there is not much opportunity for real testing of whether the models can predict.
My sense is that Judge Posner prides himself on being a conservative who is not ideological -- who can fairly take science into account when it cuts against his ideology. His hostility to libertarians and Hayek falls under this category. But ideological mistakes are not the only mistakes. Failing to recognize the limits of science and experts is an important one and I believe Posner falls prey to it here and generally.
Here is a Microsoft website that offers satellite views as well as maps of most of the world. For many - not all - places in the USA, there are also "bird's eye views": photos from 100 feet up or so, that let you look from various angles at where you live. Or where you lived as a kid. Cool.
Monday, February 26, 2007
I haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth. I assume the title is meant to refer to the fact that global warming is an inconvenient truth that must be addressed, even though we wish we didn't have to. It is this aspect of the title that bothers me, because it seems to me that, for many people in the environmental movement, global warming is a Convenient Truth. As David Friedman said, and I quoted a couple of days ago:
Global warming provides arguments for things that a lot of people, mostly left of center, want to do anyway—shift lifestyles away from automobiles towards mass transit, reduce consumption of depletable resources, and the like. Environmentalism is in part a real argument, in part a religion, in part an aesthetic; the second and third parts make people too willing to accept the first.
Saying it is an inconvenient truth, like they feel real bad about cutting back on these aspects of modern life, is just spin.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
From Greg Mankiw. One notable piece of advice is:
Avoid activities that will distract you from research. Whatever you do, do not start a blog. That will only establish your lack of seriousness as a scholar.
Hard to say to what extent he is speaking tongue in cheek. Perhaps not at all, if one remembers it is for young professors.
Saturday, February 24, 2007