Pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet.— Prof. Steven Landsburg

Once you get past the title, and the subtitle, and the equations, and the foreign quotes, and the computer code, and the various hapax legomena, a solid 50% English content!—The Proprietor

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Thinking Like a Lawyer

law school reading room

One of the promises made to students as they enter law school is that one day during their sojourn there, they will have an epiphany and grasp what it means to think like a lawyer. It is on that day, and no earlier, that they will cease to be mere law students, but become novice lawyers.

An Unwelcome Privilege

unbalanced scales

The existence of an effective, binding, civil justice system has two implications for you. The first of these is that, should somebody legally wrong you, you can sue them. The second is that, should you legally wrong somebody, they can sue you. This is often thought of as a cost-benefit balance. The capacity to sue is great, but being sued can be unpleasant. You take the bitter with the sweet, because on balance the latter outweighs the former.

That is incorrect. For both of these implications are benefits to you and, for most people, most of the time, the capacity to be sued is a far greater benefit than the capacity to sue.

The Current U.S. Immigration System Is the Best That Can Be Hoped For

The titular proposition, not endorsed by any politician or commentator the author is aware of,The closest parallel are some remarks unsurprisingly by Milton Friedman: Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as its illegal. is a peculiar one to be advanced here for reasons both personal and principled.

How to Easily and Cheaply Stop and Reverse Illegal Immigration

illegal immigrants

Exchanges may be mutually beneficial and yet never occur because of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If one party can costlessly renege on its promises after the other party has performed, the observed equilibrium will often be universal defection without any mutually beneficial cooperation. One of the greatest benefits of laws and courts is that there mere potential of suing for breach of contract is enough to move us to the cooperative equilibrium without even requiring very many such suits.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Intelligible Argument Against Citizens United

Justice Breyer

It has been noted, both here and elsewhere, that the popular bumper sticker arguments against the Citizens United decision—Money Isn’t Speech! and Corporations Have No Rights!—are legally ludicrous and would not be made by any competent constitutional lawyer.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

E = m c2?

E Not = m c 2

The titular formula is to many both the epitome and sum total of modern physics. It is regarded as the peak of human genius and the blueprint of the nuclear bomb.In some of these description, superlatives and awe seem to substitute for understanding. Surely, it covers blackboards in the lecture halls and offices of all reputable physics departments.

But surprisingly it does not. Even more surprising is the reason: this equation is universally agreed to be hogwash when the variables are interpreted in the way modern physicists find most convenient.That modern physicists know that \(c=1\) is a secondary reason for it merely renders the equation excessively verbose, rather than flatly wrong.

Is There Only One Electron?

electron positron annihilation and creation

Update October 26, 2015: A very good Pop Physics/Mathematics lecture by Prof. Robbert Dijkgraf The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Quantum Physics in Modern Mathematics is youtubed here. From about minute 19 to minute 22, Dijkgraf explains and offers some history on the theory discussed in this post, albeit without offering an answer to the reason the theory is rejected here. The whole thing is highly recommended as both accessible to the interested layman and offering some amusing details to the professional.

Note: This post contains a strong hint regarding the author’s proposed answer to a puzzle he once posted.

There is an amusing, if probably ultimately flawed, theory that seeks to explain the remarkable fact that of all the \(10^{80}\) or so electrons or so in the observable universe, every single one appears to have exactly the same mass and charge. Moreover, all the positrons (i.e., the electron’s anti-matter twin) also seem to have exactly the same mass and exactly opposite charge.

Sovereign Immunity as Irrebuttable Evidentiary Presumption

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford

The ancient doctrine of sovereign immunity to this day frequently shields the king’s men from legal liability for acts on his behalf. But this was not always how the doctrine was interpreted. Rather it was at times interpreted as an irrebuttable evidentiary presumption that the sovereign himself (i.e., the king) could not have formed a criminal intent. Under this view, the sovereign, no matter what the other evidence may say, will never be guilty of a crime.

It is in this form that the doctrine was on at least one celebrated occasion used not as a shield for a man of the king, but—in a gloriously perverse legal twistSo glorious that the author’s heart beats higher on reflecting that shares he with the authors of that twist the appellation of attorney.—as a deadly sword against a high-ranking king’s man.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Lunacy of France

Anatole France
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.«La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.»

This quote of Anatole France’sThis page of the Nobel Laureate’s most famous quotes is well worth reading to the connoisseur of well-spoken lunacy. For example, it was not the Marquis de Sade, but France who said that Suffering—how divine it is, how misunderstood! We owe to it all that is good in us, all that gives value to life; we owe to it pity, we owe to it courage, we owe to it all the virtues. is often cited as profound critique of the concept of neutral law applying equally to all without regard to status. It is said to rip the mask of hypocrisy from that notion and expose it for what it is: a mere rhetorical whip wielded by the 1% against the rest of us.

Today’s Speed of Light Is 1.5180 Dollars per Pound

Feynman diagram of photon/photon scattering

An article on pop physics, reportedly written by a retired Emory physics professor, is not entirely without merit or value, but it hangs itself of, and by, its subtitle question:

Light travels at around 300,000 km per second. Why not faster? Why not slower? A new theory inches us closer to an answer

To an interested layman this may seem a valid or even intriguing question. It is not.

Just Write!

Common-place, yet one thought sound, advice frequently given to aspiring authors:

Just write! Put words on paper or screen and share them with whoever may be willing to read them.

Do not allow yourself to be worried about imperfection. For that will only ensure that you never write.

Perfection, should that ever become a necessity, can wait until such time.

Such advice is more readily dispensed than followed. But the volume and imperfection of these pages in recent weeks should attest that the author at least made a valiant attempt to do so.

The Doppelgänger


Robin Hanson teaches economics at GMU. The author considers him to be something like a far more accomplished doppelgänger, for:

Taxes on Income, Red and Green

Red and Green Dollar

Prof. Landsburg recently posted a draft of his contribution to a FestschriftThe reader is urged to read the whole thing because, quite apart from the subject of this post, it has much news even for some who fancy themselves well-informed on the subject. For example, the author, while a reader and admirer of both McCloskey and the Greats of the Chicago School, had not known that he (as she then was) had been such a prominent and electrifying figure in it. for Prof. McCloskey:

Journalists—even bright and thoughtful journalists like Michael Kinsley—frequently justify the taxation of capital income with an appeal to the principle that everything ought to be taxed equally.

The notion of a general principle that everything should be taxed equally is pure blather, of exactly the sort that McCloskey warned us against at every turn. And if there were such a principle, it would still be incumbent on us to figure out exactly what the principle entails before jumping to any conclusions.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why the Author Is a Lawyer, Not An Economist

Richard Epstein and Angie Harmon

The titular question is one sometimes asked of this author. For it was through his interest in economics, including the reading of the works of the economist depicted on the left, that he first had an inkling that law might be a suitable profession.The works of the other person depicted also admittedly had an influence. While the author many years later had the good fortune to meet and work with the person on the left, he has not been so fortunate with respect to the person on the right.

Ancient Liberties

Roundheads and Cavaliers

The Great Schism which, to this day, splits political views across the English-speaking world and elsewhere, first arose in England when technological and social changes, perhaps inevitable, threatened to make the king (or, to say the same, the government) over-powerful. Those who take the side of the king and government in this centuries-long struggle were called at times and places Royalists, Cavaliers, pre-modern Tories, Progressives, Socialists, or even, bizarrely as they are in today’s North America, Liberals—all of these terms map onto each other with reasonable, if imperfect, accuracy. Those who took the other side were called at times and places Anti-Royalists, Roundheads, Whigs, Liberals, or, equally bizarrely, Conservatives.This does make it particularly galling to hear the most successful leader of the Royalist side in the U.S. history denouncing the resistance as Economic Royalists.

Genius and Insanity

Mad Hatter

One even somewhat familiar with the biographies of many of mankind’s greatest geniuses will be struck by the observation that an alarming fraction of them seem to have exhibited symptoms of mental illness, frequently quite severe. One need but think of Cantor, Frege, Nash, Landau, or Gödel.Newton’s name too probably belongs on this list.

The Perils of Memory


The author has found that the secret of having a well-stocked memory is to read and experience widely but, preferably, not to take notice of anything unimportant or, if that is unavoidable, to forget the unimportant as quickly and completely as possible.

This method is effective, but poses a substantial risk. For when and where one has read or seen a thing is surely unimportant and to be forgotten. But later, a vaguely remembered idea or concept may arise in one’s thoughts in a manner subjectively indistinguishable from discovering it oneself.

This has, on more than one occasion, led the author to embarrassment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Over the last year, in his spare moments between work and posting here, the author has been working on a game called Ascendancy of which he has been thinking off and on for the more than twenty years since he played Rich Skrenta's Olympia. It surely has no mass-market appeal, for it is no Farmville or even Dark Souls. Rather it appeals to a specialized taste for something like a grander scale Minecraft plus a bit of RobotWar minus the graphics.

But it occurs to the author that this is a specialized taste quite possibly shared by some of the readers of this blog. So he directs such gentle readers to the complete manual. The prototype code is nearly complete, but there is still much of work to be done with filling out the database; a task that could continue indefinitely. The comments and suggestions (including whether they would consider playing Ascendancy) of any reader are eagerly solicited in the comments section to this post.

The Best Part About Hitting Oneself in the Head with a Hammer


There is a fad, which the author was surprised to find even friends one otherwise respects to be engaged in, of natural childbirth. By that is understood to be meant a voluntary choice to give birth in the same manner our prehistoric ancestors did—without sophisticated medical assistance or pain relief. As one is reliably informed that human childbirth generally involves at least hours of substantial pain, and sometimes days of excruciating pain, one is rather surprised that any woman would volunteer herself for this ordeal. But whenever one inquires into what might motivate such a strange choice, one hears a variation of one or more of the following:

Continued Fractions Are Interesting

Farey Diagram

Continued fractions can be readily understood using only elementary mathematics, but they have many applications in solving problems in higher mathematics, such as Pell's equation. Yet, even many with more advanced mathematical training are only vaguely familiar with them.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ultrafinitism Is Interesting

Norman Wildberger

Lately one has been trawling YouTube for lectures on subjects in higher mathematics, physics, computer science, and economics. These lectures, like the ones from MIT OpenCourseWare (generally excellent, but limited), can be run in the corner of one's screen to refresh one's recollection, or perhaps even learn new ideas not covered in one's student days, while performing other tasks which do not require total concentration. In this course, one ran across the productions of one Norman J. Wildberger.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Administrative Notes

A few changes have been made to this blog that may be of interest:

  1. Readers interested in the content of the blog, but understandably unwilling to check the page frequently to discover when there has been one of the admittedly sporadic additions, can now subscribe via e-mail on the form in the right column. In addition, readers have always been able to subscribe to the full RSS feed.Caveat to readers using either e-mail subscription or RSS feed: The blog often contains typographical features, like equations or footnotes, which do not translate well into those formats and may appear as gobbledygook. Also, the author frequently edits posts after publication: to correct orthographical errors or solecisms, or to add explanatory footnotes or illustrations (but never to retract statements; in retraction is called-for, it will be in a new post). In those cases, it is recommended that the reader visit the actual blog where things display correctly and completely. E-mail and RSS subscriptions are still perfectly useful for other posts or as notifications that something new has been added.
  2. There is now a blogroll, also in the right column. Listing of a blog there indicates no more or less than that the author regularly reads it and recommends it to his readers. It does not imply that the author endorses all, or even most, of what is posted there.
  3. As part of these changes to the blog layout, the blog appears to have switched back to Blogger, rather than Disqus, comments. That was not the author's intention and comments appear to have returned to Disqus now. The author apologises to any commenters whose words were misdirected to Blogger comments and are now invisible. The author is diligently working on a solution to transfer all of these Blogger comments to Disqus.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Political Correctness and Hyper-Straussianism

Leo Strauss

There is a Straussian school of textual interpretation named after its founder, Leo Strauss, and which forms part of a larger framework of Straussianism.

At the core of Straussian interpretation is the insight, often forgotten by modern readers, that past thinkers, like Socrates, often lived under conditions which would have rendered some conclusions dangerous to state. The ruler or the religious establishment may take offense to some conclusions and punish the thinker should he openly state them, as indeed was the cause of Socrates' death.

Of Marriage, Taxes, and Punching

punching fist

Imagine a genie were to appear before you and offer a deal along the following lines:

If you accept this one-time offer, you will never have to pay income taxes at a marginal rate above that of the median tax-payer. Even if you earned millions and lived in a high-tax jurisdiction, like New York city or California, your total marginal income tax rate will remain at about the 10% the median tax-payer pays, rather than the 50% or 60% you might have to pay under current law in these jurisdictions.

But this deal also has a down-side: You will never be allowed to marry. Sure, you will still be free to cohabit with any person of your choice, procreate, raise off-spring together, and make any contractual arrangements that seem suitable to you and your partner. You, your friends, and others (such as your church) would even be free to call such an arrangement marriage. But the government never will.

The Sun Orbits Around the Earth

sun and earth

One commonSee, for example, here for the usually much more astute Ilya Somin embracing this fallacy. trope of reporting on the scientific illiteracy of Americans goes something like this:

When surveys ask American adults to pick between the statements (A) the earth orbits around the sun and (B) the sun orbits around the earth, a large minority of about 25% pick statement B, rather than the correct statement A. This proves how shockingly ignorant many Americans are of scientific issues.

That conclusion may very well be true, but the argument proves no such thing; rather, it is merely sneering of the semi-educated at the honestly ignorant.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Idea of My Year: Curry-Howard Correspondence

Curry-Howard Correspondence

Edited on September 20, 2015 to add footnote 4.

Curry-Howard Correspondence was first published in 1969, before the author was born, but the author only learned of it in the present year. That alone is enough to induce a desire to go back to everybody one has ever encountered, starting with one's mother and father, grab and shake them, and cry You knew I lived, breathed, thought! Yet, you allowed me to remain in ignorance that such beauty and cleverness existed. How could you have been so cruel and thoughtless? Regardless, it is the idea of the author's year. To rescue the reader from the purgatory that ignorance of Curry-Howard Correspondence is, let one make an inexpert attempt to explain it here.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Whose Side Are You On, Anyway?

Recent comments on abortion have provoked friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike to make the above inquiry and—in some of the less friendly instances—to imply that one is a renegade from a cause previously believed to have been shared. In the past, comments on climate change, immigration, homosexuality, crime, religion, and others, have caused similar responses.

One could, perhaps, just state one's ultimate conclusions—of which the author is in ample supply—add some venomous barbs for all who do not share them, and consider the job well done. Indeed, most commentary seems to fall squarely within that category.1

The Unconscious Violinist and More Realistic Hypotheticals

One argument—once very common, but perhaps less so today—in favor of an wide-ranging right to abortion was put forth by Prof. Judith Jarvis Thomson in A Defense of Abortion, said to be the most widely reprinted paper in the history of philosophy:

In Defense of the Sunk-Cost Heuristic

sunk ship

One of the perennial bugaboos of introduction to economics courses1 is the sunk-cost fallacy. The fallacy goes generally like this:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Abortion Should Be Between the Woman and...

While on a subject as conducive to reasoned and congenial debate as abortion, one might contemplate a position very commonly expressed by ostensibly moderate Pro-Choice politicians and commentators:

Now, I am not saying that abortion is a good thing. I just think that we should keep the heavy hand of the state out of it. The decision to have an abortion really should be between the woman, her partner, her doctor, and her priest.

This is apparently a position often taken to great success by politicians with mixed constituencies because it pleases the dimmer sorts of both libertarians (who applaud the denial of state authority) and communitarians (who appreciate the involvement of local groups, instead of mere atomistic individuals).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Not Everything Human and Alive Is a Human Life

One argument sometimes heard from intelligent, widely-read, pro-life advocates runs as follows:

A fertilized ovum is, by generally agreed definition, a living cell. Moreover, it contains the full set of genes which identify it as a human cell. Being human and living, it is definitionally a human life. Deliberately and without valid excuse causing the end of a human life is murder. Hence abortion is murder.

Drawing Borders in Sand

Line in the Sand

If one asks persons sympathetic to the causes of Arabs and Arab governments—a group including the vast majority of Western academics specializing in the subject—about the reason for the generally high levels of violence and poverty in Arab lands, one frequently hears a variation on the following theme:

Why Sub Specie Æternitatis?

In order to indulge my vanitysatisfy the insatiable curiosity of the clamoring masses, let me briefly explain why I chose this particular pseudonym. (The reason this blog is weakly pseudonymous was given below.) The author would like to say that it was his profound engagement with the thought of Aquinas, Spinoza, and Wittgenstein which inspired him to pick this particular nom de cyber. Sadly that would be a lie.

Monday, September 14, 2015

In Search of Fiction with a Particular Twist

This post requests the gentle and well-read readers' suggestions for fictions with a particular twist.

The fiction is most likely a short story or novel. It could be a movie, but due to the nature of the narrative that would be very difficult to do well. It is quite possibly genre fiction, most likely science fiction or mystery. As it relies on the trope of the unreliable narrator, it is unlikely to have been produced before the twentieth century.

Economic Illiteracy Grows at Twice the Rate of Inflation

A common trope in economics reporting is to claim that this or that figure had risen at some multiple, usually double, of the rate of inflation. For example, the New York Times reported:

The Paradox of the Lying Judge, Part 2

Cross Examination

Another post discussed what is commonly called the Paradox of the Unexpected Hanging. The conclusion was not that the judge might have been lying, even though he turned out not to be, and that the lawyer's argument is somehow flawed for not taking that possibility into account. The conclusion was that the judge most definitely was lying (or, used synonymously here, mistaken).

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Paradox of the Lying Judge

man hanged backwards

In the discussions of the pirate puzzle an interesting point was raised when Robert Murphy of Texas Tech mused1 that there may be an analogy to what is conventionally called the Paradox of the Unexpected Hanging.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

How an Alien Can Predict Humans

economist alien

Imagine you were an alien come to visit the earth to find out what makes humans tick. The purpose of your mission is determine what the humans will do in the future and, in particular, if in time they are likely to become a threat to your civilization. If so, your civilization will put an end to the human one before it becomes a threat.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Voluntary and Involuntary Unemployment

A recent post defined and used the term involuntary unemployment in the standard economic way. A person is involuntarily unemployed if and only if:

  1. The person is unemployed; and
  2. there exists a wage \(w\) for which that person would be willing to work; and
  3. there exists somebody else that would be willing to pay \(w\) for that person's services.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

How Ferocious Pirates Divide Gold

Post updated on September 10, 2015.

Steve Landsburg, a mathematician and professor of economics, blogs at The Big Questions. The blog's position near the top of my daily read of hundreds of RSS feeds bespeaks the excellence of its content. Anybody who enjoys this blog would doubtlessly enjoy The Big Questions at least as much.

Today, Prof. Landsburg posted a mathematical puzzle said to have been given in Google job interviews:

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Bullet in the Head

skull with gunshoot hole

A philosopher is a friend (or lover) of the Truth. One might think that this would be a curious distinction to claim as are we not all friends (or lovers) of the Truth and, hence, every man and every woman a philosopher?

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Philosophical Dialogue on Obligation (with Some Action)

drowning child

Two philosophers, A and B, taking a walk along a lakeside and debating their subject, when they notice a child apparently drowning in the lake. B is physically frail and cannot swim, but A is a strong swimmer and so immediately sets out to jump into the lake.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015