Sunday, January 25, 2009

Big numbers

via, this interview with Zimbabwe's central banker:
In November you shut down Zimbabwe's stock exchange. Will you open it again?
The stockbrokers were creating a money supply that wasn't there. I printed Z$1.5 quadrillion, but the exchange was operating with Z$100 sextillion. So I said, "Who is doing my job?" Unless there is more discipline and honor, the exchange will stay closed. I can't be bothered. I don't know when it'll open. It's a free market, a business which must be allowed to succeed or fail.
But it gets better, as they attempt to outdo astronomy in the orders of magnitude department:
In the absence of credible official statistics, Hanke developed a hyperinflation index for Zimbabwe and in an article in the December 2008 issue of the financial magazine, Forbes Asia, put the annual inflation rate at around 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent - 65 followed by 107 zeros. "Prices double every 24.7 hours," he noted. "Shops have simply stopped accepting Zimbabwean dollars."
I don't believe I've ever seen the words "quindecillion" or "novemdecillion" used before, certainly not concatenated. Whether this number actually means anything in the context of economic reality is another thing -- it's about 2^365, so was probably calculated on the questionable assumption that prices can continue to double every day for a year. It seems that people would just stop using the currency long before then, and indeed they are starting to, but on the other hand the government just issued a Z$ 100 trillion banknote, which will probably be available on eBay for US$10 in a few months.

[Update: I'm not the first to notice that economics far outstrips the natural sciences in the size of the exponents it can generate:

There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.

-Richard Feynman, physicist, Nobel laureate (1918-1988)


Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I gotta say, I'm having a bit of an allergic reaction to the pomp, circumstance, fawning, gushing, and self-congratulation. My cynicism modules are revving up.

But only a bit. On the whole, it's a great day and I wish the new President a lot of luck. He's going to need it.

I guess I will attempt to turn my cynicism into detachment. Observe the civic ritual, how it sacralizes power, how it operates to the People's Romance as a marriage ceremony does to a more conventional romance, how it acts as a Schelling point for the coordination of sentiment. One can be a bit suspicious of this process while still joining in the celebration. That is the methodology of the anthropologist, the participant-observer.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Nothing to say about this extraordinary moment in history that hundreds haven't already said. Here's what I said a year ago:
MLK day today. A time to remember that religion can, on occasion, be a force for good. I am pretty much an outsider to religion, but I have to admire it's ability to organize and deploy what Gandhi and MLK called "soul-force". The soul may be a fiction but clearly it's a fiction that can have effects in the real world.
Here's a piece in the Times Book Review that reveals that King extemporized the "I have a dream" part of his famous speech. In an age where so many billions of words stream by on screens, barely registering, it is worth appreciating what the right words at the right occasion can do.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


If you watch 24, as I have to admit I do despite it being a really crappy show (junk food is addictive) you are thereby morally obligated to watch these too:

Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure

Taxi to the Dark Side

Torturing Democracy

Alfred McCoy interview (author of A Question of Torture

And read What to Do About the Toturers? from the NYRB.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

OGU vs. MU

This blog has lately seemed to be in some danger of turning into a theological debating society. To avoid possible sanctimony, I present as an antidote Mr. William S. Burroughs:
Consider the One God Universe: OGU. The spirit recoils in horror from such a deadly impasse. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. Because He can do everything, He can do nothing, since the act of doing demands opposition. He knows everything, so there is nothing for Him to learn. He can't go anywhere, since He is already fucking everywhere, like cowshit in Calcutta.

The OGU is a pre-recorded universe of which He is the recorder. It's a flat, thermodynamic universe, since it has no friction by definition. So He invents friction and conflict, pain, fear, sickness, famine, war, old age and Death.

His OGU is running down like an old clock. Takes more and more to make fewer and fewer Energy Units of Sek, as we call it in the trade.

The Magical Universe, MU, is a universe of many gods, often in conflict. So the paradox of an all-powerful, all-knowing God who permits suffering, evil and death, does not arise.
-- from The Western Lands. Reading Burroughs is very much enhanced by having heard his W.C. Fields-esque delivery, so here is the almost-seasonally-appropriate video of A Junky's Christmas, narrated by the author.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Is science left- or right-handed?

Secular Right is a relatively new blog devoted to non-religious conservatism. It appears they are censoring my comments for no very good reason, so I'm rerouting around the censorship by reposting here.

Anyway, the question was Who is pro-science, the Left or the Right?, and some data was presented to attempt to quantify this question. I replied (these comments were not censored):
These statistics are too coarse to be meaningful. The left is not unified, nor is the right. There are certain strains of anti-science and anti-technology on the left, broadly construed, but these charts won’t tell you anything interesting about it.

There is a strong undercurrent of anti-technological thinking in parts of the environmental movement, but it is not really left-wing in the strict sense. It owes more to romanticism than the Enlightenment values that drive the left, and while we tend to think of environmentalism as left-wing here and now, it could just as easily be linked to the extreme right (as it was in Nazi Germany). A preference for organic food and natural fibers does not necessarily correlate with a desire for the state to control the means of production, and in fact is more likely to be opposed to it.

As biotechnology applications becomes more widespread, I expect to see alliances between anti-science forces from the left and right sides of the spectrum. Call it the peasants-with-torches party.
Further on down the discussion, I mentioned:
I am surprised that nobody has referenced the very different science policies of Republican and Democratic administrations. Republicans have been radically anti-science: they’ve cut budgets, shut down important agencies (OTA), forced government scientists to adhere to politically-driven agendas, banned certain areas of research, promoted creationism and evidence-free faith-based programs. By contrast, the incoming administration has been naming prominent scientists to key posts, such as Steven Chu. I was at a New Year’s party with a bunch of experimental physicists and they were in ecstasy at the possibility of getting a science-friendly administration.

The two parties do not perfectly capture the essence of “left” and “right”, but it’s close enough. And it’s obvious which party is more in tune with science and scientists.
I still haven't gotten a reply to this, which leads me to think I'm wasting my time on that site, and must chalk up another failure in my quest for interesting arguments on the internet. They'd rather bitch about postmodernism in the academy, a trend which has approximately zero real-world consequences.

I later pointed out that, contrary to one commenter who said "what could be more conservative than a grounding in cold hard reality?", science departments, like almost all academic departments, skew overwhelmingly Democratic. Or, as Steven Colbert has said, "reality has a well-known liberal bias".

I'm disappointed, but not that surprised, that Secular Right is apparently going to be another right-wing circle-jerk and is not actually interested in evidence-based arguments about the real world. There are a number of obvious rejoinders to that last point (perhaps industrial scientists show less political bias; perhaps science departments are self-selecting for particular politics), but instead of making them my comment got sent to the trash heap. Oh well. I suppose I do have better things to do than pick political arguments anyway.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Social Media Notes

The blogosphere and new media are another war zone, we have to be relevant there.
-- head of the IDF Press Team, via

This ain't no disco! The Air Force has "Rules of Engagement" for blogging. The mind boggles. It looks as if they copied these from somewhere else, the block on dealing with "Unhappy Customers" is a bit off. They also have a Twitter feed.

Speaking of Twitter, I'm playing with it more lately thanks to a plethora of different intefaces, including TweetDeck, an Emacs interface!, Twitterrific on the iPhone. Nothing like being able to do something useless four different ways! I set up TweetDeck to collect all tweets containing "gaza", which seem to be about 10 a minute or so. Also "supervolcano", so I will be notified quickly if the world comes to an end. Plus I'm following Al Jazeera's Gaza feed and one put out by the Israelis. I still don't see the point. 140 character utterances can't help but be either grunts or at best fingerpointing via a URL to something interesting. People are actually arguing over Gaza in this format, which seems purpose-built to ensure that such conversations are going to be even more unproductive than they usually are.

I've gated this blog onto Twitter via TwitterFeed. This makes me feel peculiar in terms of identity management; the twitter version of mtraven has more connections to my real-world identity than this blog. Oh well, we'll see how it goes.

Of all the Social Media foo stuff I've seen, FriendFeed seems the most interesting and contentful. It brings in actual content items from just past the edge of your own network (ie, stuff friends of friends have posted).

Meanwhile, David Gelertner has proposals for using technology to create "parent-chosen, cloud-resident learning tracks" sounds just right to me, I've been talking about stuff like this for awhile, mostly to myself, but maybe it will happen.