Thursday, August 31, 2006


A Bush speech that I buy.

His goals and threat assessment are both good.

His methods are wrong. But still, I'm amazed to find myself in such agreement.


Dubious hope

From the Financial Times, in a piece about the pending California greenhouse gas emission bill:

The United States is the world’s largest producer of the heat-trapping gases that many scientists link to extreme weather like violent hurricanes and rising sea levels.

But Bush pulled the United States out of the 160-nation Kyoto Protocol to cut greenhouse gas emissions in 2001, arguing that it would hurt the economy and unfairly excluded developing nations like China.

I, like the author, think global warming sucks. But from the facts he presents in the article, it’s not clear that American emissions caps would have much impact on the phenomenon. Suppose that each year, every country in the world was producing one unit of pollution, except that the US was producing two. The US would then be the world’s largest producer of pollution. But reducing our emissions by 25% (which is what Gov. Schwarzenegger hopes to achieve by 2020) would have no effect.

Monday, August 21, 2006


Most of life is an exercise in prioritization

(At various scales, that is.)

I’ve thought that since I was ankle-deep in economics, but I only just verbalized it. It feels deep, so I wrote it down.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


What scares Greg Mankiw

"So Lamont seems to think the U.S. economy is suffering and the primary reason is competition from poor workers in China.

This rhetoric scares me. Wages, benefits, and labor and environmental standards are primarily a function of the level of economic development. Complaining about poor countries' low wages and benefits is essentially blaming the poor for being poor."

Here’s his original post.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Male / Female Ratios: Where to hang out at school

I like meeting people at colloquia. They’re smart, they care about something, and the food for conversation is already on the table. So far I’ve only met men. I think that’s because they’re generally the only people at the conferences I’ve been attending (physics, math, economics, computer science …)

A professor of mine at CSU Northridge said that when he went to Penn he learned to hang out at the history department, where the female/male ratio was more favorable. I’ve been contemplating trying that out, but the onus of experimenting in person with different departments on campus looked intolerable. Instead I visited the National Center for Education Statistics, which has already done all that work, far better than I could have.

I’m sure a few of my imaginary readers are thinking, “How crass. This guy’s brains are all under his belt.” If that were the case I would not publicize my (two hours of) research. I think the world would be a happier place if more women knew where to find me(n) and vice versa. Disequilibrium confers an advantage on those privileged with information; I’m acting against my own interest, for the greater good.

Some of what I learned follows quite accurately those stereotypes I never took seriously enough. For instance:

High female/male ratios in
· International studies
· Biomedical stuff
· Ethnic studies
· English lit
· Most languages
· Education
· Communications
· Psychology
· Everything to do with animals

Low female/male ratios in
· Engineering
· Computer science
· Most mathematics
· Military science (sic.)
· Other stuff that I’ve forgotten (do you keep track of the places you failed to find something?)

There were also a number of surprises. For instance, despite my mentor’s advice, history is not a high-female discipline (although it’s better than economics). Neither is religion. Probability / statistics majors are 2 to 1 female, though the rest of math skews strongly the other way. The arts skew female, but not as much as I thought. A number of sciences have more women than men: planetary science, astronomy, analytical chemistry, geochemistry, neuroscience.

[The trends I found hold precisely at the undergraduate level, and vaguely beyond that. For high-female disciplines, many of the ratios stay very similar at the master’s level, and most seem to drop, though not necessarily below unity, at the PhD level. To illustrate, in “American/United States studies/civilization” the female/male ratio is 1.9 at the bachelor’s level, 1.8 at the master’s level, and 1.12 at the Ph.D.

My data came exclusively from Table 252: “Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by sex of student and field of study.” I have not done my homework – I assume they surveyed the whole country, but for all I know Kentucky could be the only state represented. If I had found a table that takes into account regional differences, future life circumstances, family medical history, etc. I would have jumped at it, but I think this is as good as I’m going to find.]

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Score one for Microsoft

There’s a little paperclip-with-eyebrows that tries to help you out in MS Word (and Excel, and Outlook …) that I find really annoying. It makes a bunch of noise and distracts me, and I never use it. I didn’t know what to call it, so from the Word help menu I typed “Shut up.” One of the suggestions it came back with was “turn off the Office Assistant.” I pursued that option and it worked.

Friday, August 04, 2006


Free books!

At lunch the other day I was talking to someone about my experience at the MSU library. I hadn’t found a book, and tried to tell the front desk it might be missing. They dismissed my suggestion, saying “It’s probably in the library, just not on the shelf where it’s supposed to be.” My lunchmate said, “Doesn’t that mean the book is lost?”

If the book were on a different shelf (as opposed to on a desk or something) he would be right. Of course, libraries probably go through all the shelves every now and then, checking to make sure everything’s in order. But what a pain! That must take forever, so they can’t possibly do it very often.

It’s work better suited to a machine. So here’s my suggestion: Put a UPC sticker on the spine of every book, and then occasionally send grunts around with UPC guns to read the spines of all the shelved books. Dump that data into a computer, and tell it to look for any out-of-order entries.

At any place where misplaced books are a significant problem, this measure would effectively increase the library’s stock of books.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Wannabe string theory

I read in Gerard Hooft’s book “In Search of the Ultimate Building Blocks that string theory may end up involving knot theory. If so, there would be beads on the knots.

It tickles me to compare that to music theory. Harmony takes place on a necklace with twelve spots for beads, and you can only load a few beads (seven or so) onto it at a time. Then you color them “on” and “off”, and shift them around …

I don’t know why this comparison fascinates me so much, but it does. It’s manifestly useless. String theory isn’t even about strings, but rather high-dimensional analogues to them. I don’t think (nuclear) physics has anything to gain from music, or vice versa. Still, I’m really happy that human art and the laws of physics could be taking place on similar playing fields.

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