Thursday, January 20, 2022

A Priori Certainty vs Physics

I have recently had an extended conversation with some supporters of the Austrian school of economics about the differences between the way they do economics and the way I do. One thing they offered as part of what distinguished their school of thought was the idea that one can determine economic laws by logical reasoning based on axioms known with certainty, just as one could know facts such as the Pythagorean Theorem without measuring any triangles.

The interesting thing about that example is that it isn't true. Space is not flat,  not perfectly described by Euclidean geometry. If you measured sufficiently large triangles you might  find that the Pythagorean Theorem was false or that the angles did not add up to 180 degrees. That is one of several ways in which modern physics is inconsistent with things that seem to us certainly, even obviously, true. 

A second example is the way in which velocities add. If I am in a train going north at 50 miles an hour and walk towards the front of the train at four miles an hour I am moving at 54 miles an hour relative to the ground. That not only is obvious, it seems to be something that one could easily prove. It is not, however, true. At those speeds it is very close to true, but if the velocities are a significant fraction of the speed of light it is not.

That example is from special relativity but quantum mechanics offers others. The closest one can come to an ordinary language description of the double slit experiment is that a single electron, beamed at a barrier with two slits in it and a detector behind them, goes through both slits. The closest one can come to describing tunneling is that a particle can get from one place to another even though it is impossible for it to be between them.

These are all cases where our picture of reality, based on large objects moving slowly, turns out to be wrong. The only one of them where I can, with some effort, get the correct picture to make sense to me is the first. Once the implicit assumption (that simultaneity is defined independent of reference system) is pointed out, it becomes possible to understand why what seems obvious might not be true. 

As these examples show, something can appear to be known with certainty and yet be false. However clear the a priori claim, one should believe it with less than certainty. That is an argument for the importance of testing the implications of economic laws against real world data.

Many, perhaps all, Austrians would agree that even if an economic law is known with certainty its implications for the real world depend on uncertain real world facts, so the point may not matter much for the implications of Austrian economics, but I think it is relevant to the way in which many Austrians think about the difference between the schools. Recognizing that even one's most solidly held beliefs might turn out to be mistaken is, in that context and many others, a good thing.

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.(Oliver Cromwell

P.S. My current views on Austrian vs Chicago school are in a webbed chapter draft. Comments welcome.


Friday, December 24, 2021

A Niche to Fill

Computer software is mostly designed and written by young technophiles, fond of new and clever things. It is largely used by old non-technophiles of conservative tastes, people who would rather not have to learn a new interface and a new way of doing things every year, not even every decade.

That suggests the need for a middleman, a firm standing between software producers and users, providing the service of making life easier for the latter. Part would be pointing them at software that still works the way they are used to, part showing them how to configure the new version of a program to make it as much as possible like the old. Part would be telling them how to get at files written under software that no longer runs on their current hardware and operating system. 

I have come across a couple of solutions to that last problem but know of no way short of an extensive google search to find more. WriteNow is an elegantly written word processor not  available for decades — but OpenOffice can read WriteNow documents. MacDraw was long ago consigned by Apple to the trash heap of history, but EasyDraw, not the current version but one of the older versions still supported, can open documents created with MacDraw. There are doubtless many similar cases. If all else fails, the user who insists on sticking with his long obsolete software, perhaps a favorite game, could be given detailed instructions on how to emulate an old machine on a new one, along with any necessary software to do it. Running a program in emulation is considerably slower than running it natively — but current computers are a great deal faster than the machines the old programs were written to run on.

It looks like a market niche so far unfilled.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Project for Musk

Tesla has been working for years on self-driving cars. A simpler project with a smaller but still  significant market would be a self-driving wheelchair. The idea occurred to me talking with a woman whose husband suffered a serious stroke a few years ago, leaving him with a functional mind but imperfect control over his body. A motorized wheelchair would let him move around, but his vision is too unreliable to make that safe. If he could just tell his wheelchair to take him to the home office, or the dining room,  or ...

It should be much easier to make than a self-driving car, since a house is a much less complicated environment than the highway network — and it could be programmed to the map of a particular house. I haven't found any figure for total sales of motorized wheelchairs but there seem to be a lot of firms selling or renting them, so my guess is at least tens of thousands. And it would make people more confident in the ability of Tesla to solve the harder problem of a self-driving car.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Politics as a Spectator Sport: In praise of Manchin and Newsom

The United States Senate will cost me perhaps $11 for the year, but against that expense set the subscription price of the Congressional Record, about $15, which, as a journalist, I receive for nothing. For $4 less than nothing I am thus entertained as Solomon never was by his hooch dancers. (H.L.Mencken)

In which spirit, I note two politicians who, in the past week or so, have earned their salary. One is Gavin Newsom, my governor. Everyone else on his side has been responding to the ingenious piece of legal legerdemain by which the Texas legislature is trying to get around Roe, converting its restriction on abortion into a civil action by private parties, with outrage. Newsom has responded by pointing out that if Texas can use that device to get around Roe, California can use it to get around the Second Amendment.

The other is Senator Manchin, in his latest move against President Biden's $3.5 2.5 1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill. It isn't that Manchin is against all the good things that bill is supposed to do. He just wants to take the most popular part of the bill — I presume most popular with his West Virginia constituents — and make it even better. 

The child tax credit in Biden's proposal is for only a year, part of the attempt to make bill look less expensive by passing things for a year with the intent of continuing them forever. Manchin, in the spirit of generosity and honest labeling, wants it for ten years. 

Which will use up $1.5 trillion dollars of the $1.75 trillion that he has already gotten Biden to agree to.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Vaccination: Two Arguments

Vaccination against Covid reduces both the chance of catching Covid and the severity. Both provide arguments for vaccination, but different arguments. The first has so far been the main argument for pressuring people to get vaccinated, to reduce the infection rate and, hopefully, get us to herd immunity.

Unfortunately, protection against infections has turned out to be weaker than expected and diminishes substantially over time, which may help explain* why widespread vaccination has not led to a pattern of lower infection rates. Part of the reason may be behavioral. Vaccinated individuals are at much less risk of death or hospitalization, which may, probably does, lead them to be less careful to avoid contagion. And, because their cases are more likely to be asymptomatic, they are less likely to know they are contagious and take precautions against infecting others.

The most recent U.S. data on the new Omicron variety of Covid suggests that vaccination may provide no protection against it at all. Of cases identified so far, 79% were in fully vaccinated individuals, 21% in individuals who had also received booster shots more than two weeks before. For the U.S. population as a whole, about 60% are fully vaccinated, 15% have had booster shots. Judging by those numbers, vaccinated people, with or without booster shots, are more likely to get the disease, not less. The numbers are small enough so that could be chance variation and a more careful analysis should allow for different probabilities of a detected infection at different ages — children are both less likely to be vaccinated and less likely to get an infection serious enough to be detected than adults. But the numbers so far still suggest that vaccination provides little if any protection against catching the new variant. If so, the main argument for vaccine mandates is becoming increasingly irrelevant as Omicron spreads. 

Whether or not vaccination provides protection against getting the virus, it provides substantial protection against hospitalization or death. While protection against infection seems to be down to something like 50% after a few months, protection against severe cases remains high; that is the main reason that death rates have been substantially lower, relative to infection rates, than before. That is a good reason for me to get vaccinated and get a booster, and I have. It is a much weaker reason for me to insist on other people getting vaccinated.

A weaker reason, but still a reason. Under our present medical system, part of the cost of hospitalization from Covid is born by the patient or his insurance company but not all. Especially if hospitalization for Covid gets high enough to crowd hospitals, as it has in a few parts of the U.S. but not yet most, my hospitalization imposes a significant cost on other people. As people become increasingly skeptical of claims that herd immunity is reachable if we just vaccinate enough people, the argument for vaccine mandates shifts to keeping the hospitals from filling up.

That is an argument for requiring the vulnerable elderly to be vaccinated — but most of them already are. It is a very weak argument for universal vaccination, especially  for requiring children to get vaccinated. According to CDC figures, ages 0-17 have so far accounted for about one percent of all Covid associated hospitalizations. Protection against infection is an argument for requiring children to be vaccinated, since they can pass infection on to their much more vulnerable elders. Protection against hospitalization is not.

*The other explanation being the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

A commenter on the version of this post on FaceBook points at a study that found no relation between level of vaccination and infection rates across both countries and US counties as of seven days before September 3rd, which suggests that the behavioral effect of vaccination may be strong enough to balance the vaccine's protection, at least that long after vaccination.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Low Glycemic Bread

A change from my usual posts:

For some time I have been on a low glycemic diet. Bread made from white flour has a fairly high glycemic index and glycemic load. I found a number of recipes online that claimed to produce a tasty low glycemic bread and tried them. The best I would be willing to eat if I was  hungry and had nothing better available, but none, despite the claims on their web pages, was close to the quality of ordinary bread. I also bought one variety of low glycemic bread online — better, but still not very good. 

I decided to see if I could invent something better.

My standard bread recipe is a sourdough loosely based on a recipe in the King Arthur Flour cookbook. Sourdough bread has a lower glycemic index than yeast bread. Whole wheat flour has a lower glycemic index than white flour. Almond flour has a glycemic index of about zero. It also has no gluten, which means bread made with it (or coconut flour, or chickpea flour, or ...)  won't rise. 

The obvious solution is to add gluten. Wheat gluten has a glycemic index only a little lower than whole wheat flour but a much lower percentage of carbohydrates, hence a much lower glycemic load, which is what really matters. 

Here is the recipe for one loaf:

3/4 c whole wheat flour
3/4 c almond flour
1/2 c wheat gluten
1/3 c raisins
1 t salt
1/3 lb sourdough starter
1/2 c water

Mix together the flours and gluten.

Stir the sourdough starter into the water and add to the flours, stirring to mix. 

Let it sit for half an hour.

Add salt and raisins, knead smooth (this takes only a minute or two).

Let it sit for an  hour.

Fold it.

Let it sit for an hour.

Form into a boule (look up how to do it which is hard to describe but ends up with the dough in a ball). The one tricky bit is that you want to try to get all the raisins into the interior, since if they are on the surface they may burn. 

Cover and let it rise for two hours.

Put in a 450°F oven, bake until the internal temperature is 205°F.

Let it cool. Eat it.

It isn't the best bread I ever ate, but  better than most store bought bread. By my calculation the glycemic load from the flours and gluten is a little less than a third what it is for the two cups of white flour in a loaf of my standard bread. That does not include the raisins, which are the same for either recipe, but you can leave them out if you want — I like raisin bread.

All the News that Fits We Print

According to the New York Post and some other conservative media, Darrell Brooks, the man who drove his car into a parade in Waukesha killing at least six people, had pro-Hitler, anti-semitic and violently anti-white material on his social media account. Googling on [Darrell Brooks Hitler] I found no mention of it in any mainline source. The New York Times has a long story on Brooks with no mention of those facts — and the claim that "The suspect’s motivations are unclear." The Wall Street Journal has had multiple stories on Brooks but I cannot find any mentioning the social media.

It is possible that the conservative sources are lying but I think it unlikely, since if they were I would expect the NYT or other left of center media to call them on it. It looks very much as though the mainline media are deliberately hiding facts they don't want their readers to know.