John Stuart Mill on knowing both sides

September 20, 2014


Time management tips for writers (and others)

September 20, 2014

Tyler Cowen wrote the following on his Marginal Revolution web log in 2004.

1.  There is always time to do more.  Most people, even the productive, have a day that is at least forty percent slack.

2.  Do the most important things first in the day and don’t let anybody stop you.  Estimate “most important” using a zero discount rate. Don’t make exceptions.  The hours from 7 to 12 are your time to build for the future before the world descends on you.

3.  Some tasks (drawing up outlines?) expand or contract to fill the time you give them.  Shove all these into times when you are pressed to do something else very soon.

4.  Each day stop writing just a bit before you have said everything you want to.  Better to approach your next writing day “hungry” than to feel “written out.”   Your biggest enemy is a day spent not writing, not a day spent writing too little.

5.  Blogging builds up good work habits; the deadline is always “now.”

Cowen was asked recently if he would like to revise the list.  He added these.

6.  Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t take drugs.

7.  At any point in your life, do not be watching more than one television show on a regular basis.

8.  Don’t feel you have to finish a book or movie if you don’t want to.  I cover that point at length in my book Discover Your Inner Economist.

I think I would take back my old #5, since I observe some bloggers who have gone years, ten years in fact, without being so productive.

via Do I wish to revise my time management tips?.

The Hank Funnies by George Dardess

September 19, 2014



Mike Connelly called my attention to a series of cartoons whose protagonist is our mutual friend Hank Stone.

Click on the links to see them.

The Hank Funnies, Episode #1

The Hank Funnies, Episode #2

The Hank Funnies, Episode #3

The Hank Funnies, Episode #4


The United Kingdom is still united

September 18, 2014

The Scots voted against independence by a ratio of roughly 55 to 45 percent.

My old editor, Bill O’Brien, used to tell me that a vote margin of more than 10 percentage points is a landslide.

Click on Scottish independence for coverage of the referendum by The Guardian.

Scotland inspires other European separatists

September 18, 2014
If every European separatist movement got its way

If every European separatist movement got its way.  Click to enlarge.

Scotland votes today on whether Scots wish to be an independent nation.  As the map above shows, theirs is not the only secessionist movement in Europe.

I don’t know how I would weigh the pros and cons of independence if I were a Scot.  I think that, in general, it would be a good thing if there were more and smaller countries, except for the fact it would give international banks and other global corporations more power to play each of them off against the other.


These eight European separatist groups are totally inspired by Scotland right now by Paul Ames for Global Post.

Scotland votes on independence: Links 7/18/14

September 18, 2014

_70049016_royal_mile_ivonSomebody once pointed out that the United Kingdom is not a nation, in the way that France, Germany and Italy are unified nations, but a union of three nations (England, Wales and Scotland) and a colony (formerly Ireland, now Northern Ireland).

Today the people of Scotland will vote on a referendum on becoming an independent nation.  If they vote “yes,” Scotland will become an independent nation.

Pro-independence Scots object to the right-wing policies of the UK government.   It is even more interlocked with corrupt City of London financiers than Washington is with Wall Street, and deindustrialization and financialization have gone even further than in the USA.

Scots tend to be pro-labor and supporters of the National Health Service and the welfare state.   They oppose London’s policies of austerity and privatization, and they would like to get control of North Sea oil.  But as a smaller nation, Scots would be a weaker entity in a world of superpower nations and giant corporations.   The rump United Kingdom would also be weaker.

British political leaders have promised Scotland greater autonomy – maximum devolution of authority, or “devo-max” – if they stay in the United Kingdom.  If that happened Wales and Northern Ireland would want greater autonomy, too.  England itself might demand home rule.

Read the rest of this entry »

What I learned from being wrong

September 17, 2014


A blogger named Lance Mannion issued this challenge to all those critics who think they’re smarter than President Obama.

Arguments [of many Internet doves] seem to me to be based on the assumption that we should get ourselves out of the Middle East no matter what because there’s basically nothing we can do to make things better and just by being in there we make them worse by stirring up suspicions and hatreds.  Those are the smart ones.  But I would think that since I’m inclined to agree.

I’m inclined to agree.  That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree.

There are others, though, who’ve based their case on the bumper sticker-profound idea that War is Never the Answer and plenty of others whose arguments are based on a vague and circular logic: “This reminds me of what George Bush did in some way I can’t put my finger on but it must be wrong because of that or else I wouldn’t be reminded of George Bush.”

17-40f10I’m not bothering with any arguments that are based on the assumption that whatever we do is wrong because we’re the ones doing it.

So I’m asking for help.

Should we do nothing?  Why or why not?  What should we do and how would that work?  And what I want to know, more than that you were right about Iraq in 2002, is if you think Bill Clinton failed morally and geo-politically when he did nothing about Rwanda.

Also what are your thoughts on Kuwait, the Kurds, Kosovo, Tora Bora, killing bin Laden, and Libya?

via Smarter than the President?  Not me.  I’m too smart not to know how dumb I am.

 I’ve been wrong more often than I’ve been right on all the issues Mannion mentions.  My claim is that, while it has taken longer than it should have done, I have learned something from my mistakes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Is the progress of science itself winding down?

September 17, 2014

Is progress in science itself winding down?  I don’t know, but I think it is possible.

I don’t know of any new scientific theories or discoveries in my adult lifetime that compare to Newton’s theory of gravitation, Darwin’s theory of natural selection or Einstein’s theory of relativity.  While I don’t have any basis for ruling out a new scientific revolution, I do have some thoughts about the possible limits of scientific discovery.

There have been two periods of scientific advance, one in ancient Greece and Roman and one in modern European times.

pic_7bwThe ancient Greek scientists did some remarkable things.  They figured out that the world was round, and made a good informed guess as to how large it was, based on nothing more than the science of geometry and observations that could be made with the naked eye.

What made the ancient Greeks different from other peoples is that they based their thinking on observation, reasoning from evidence and discussion among peers, rather than arguing from authority and hoarding knowledge.  And with Euclid’s geometry, they had a powerful new tool of thought.

What brought ancient Greek science to an end was partly that they made all the easy discoveries that could be made with geometric reasoning and naked-eye observation, but also, as Prof. Gilbert Murray wrote in Five Stages of Greek Religion, a failure of nerve.

Murray said the Greeks didn’t like where Greek science was taking them—the idea that the sun and moon were not gods, but that the sun was a ball of fire and the moon was a ball of rock.   They turned to the occult and to cults from Asia, much like the New Age philosophies today.

Science revived partly because of a revival of interest in Greek science during the Renaissance.  It also was aided by inventions that increased the power of observation.  The microscope and the telescope revealed worlds that no human being had seen before.   Arabic-Hindu algebra provided a powerful new tool of thought, to which was added the calculus and mathematical logic.  The process of testing theories by discussion of evidence became systematized.

It is possible that human powers of observation have, at least for now, reached their limits.  Scientists have discovered the structure of the atom, and of sub-atomic particles.   Aided by billions of dollars worth of equipment, they have confirmed the existence of sub-sub-atomic particles, such as the Higgs boson.  Maybe there are sub-sub-sub atomic particles, but it is hard to see how physicists could learn anything about them.

Astronomers seem to have reached the same limits in knowledge of the cosmos.

Physics is not the only science, of course.  Remarkable discoveries are being made in cognitive science and the study of the human brain, and this science is not so capital-intensive as astronomy or particle physics.

But that comes up against the other limitation—the failure of nerve.   Science reveals a strange world that is alien to human common sense, and in which human beings are not the center.

This has produced a backlash, reflected in the demand for teaching of creationism and its little brother, intelligent design, neither of which is based on discussion of evidence based on observation.

The backlash is covertly supported by vested interests who are threatened by scientific research—fossil fuel companies by climate research, tobacco companies by epidemiology.

Along with that, there has been a decline in support for curiosity-based science.  It does not have an economic benefit that is obvious beforehand.  There is an economic incentive to concentrate on research with a predictable payoff.

So even if scientific discovery has not reached its reality-based limits, the fear of scientific reasoning could bring about a cessation of scientific discovery.

I am not a scientist.  All this is speculation.  Maybe science has reached a natural limit, and all that remains is a filling in of detail.  Maybe science is an open-ended endless process.  Maybe someday there will be a Grand Theory of Everything.  The future progress of science may be represented by the straight line or the upward slope in the chart, and it may be represented by an S-shaped curve or even a bell curve.  This is unknowable, at least by me.

Why then do I write about it?  I think that whatever the future of scientific discovery, the moral values of science are important.  These values are objectivity, curiosity, free discussion and evidence-based reasoning, and they are worth defending against magic, mystery and authority.


Is there a creativity deficit in science? by Ben McNeil for ArsTechnica.  (Via Mike the Mad Biologist)

Science, Superstars and Stocks by Paul Kedrosky (2011)


Is progress in technology winding down?

September 16, 2014

Double click to enlarge

Is technological progress winding down?  I think it might be.   And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.

I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater.   They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.

Technological20progress20640x480What have I seen that is comparable?  Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel.  I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.

I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative.  The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still.  The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious.   Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.

Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made.   As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit.  It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.

The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas.   It is amazing to me that this is possible at all.  Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.

Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.

electricity_illustrationThis is all speculation.  I could be wrong.  This is not a subject about which I have deep knowledge.

I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent.   And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.

Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic?  It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.

The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality.   A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.

I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS].   This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.

Read the rest of this entry »

The passing scene: Links & comments 9/16/14

September 16, 2014

Ukraine Offers Amnesty to Rebels by Mike Shedlock on Mish’s Global Trend Analysis (via Naked Capitalism).

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine made a peace offer to separatist rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, consisting of amnesty to helps, help in rebuilding, free local elections Nov. 9, limited self-rule for at least three years and the right to use Russian in official documents.

To me, an outsider ignorant of internal Ukrainian politics, this looks like a reasonable offer.   But it is opposed by Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who came to power with the backing of neo-conservatives in the U.S. State Department.

Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent by Nick Bilton for The New York Times.  (Via Mike the Mad Biologist)

Most CEOs of Silicon Valley companies set strict limits on how much time their children can spend in front of computer screens or use social media.  Instead they encourage their children to read printed books and engage in face-to-face conversation.   Consumers of their products should follow their example.

Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks by Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore for The New York Times. (Via Avedon’s Sideshow)

Non-profit research organizations such as the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council are supposed to provide expert and objective advice.  But how objective can they be if they take money from foreign governments?

John Crawford Shooting: Open Carry for Whites, Open Season on Blacks by Albert L. Butler for The Root.

Doubts cast on witness’s account of black man killed by police in Walmart by Jon Swaine for The Guardian.

Police in Ohio shot and killed a black man in a Walmart store in Ohio because they thought the toy gun he was holding was real.  But Ohio is an “open carry” state.  If he had been carrying a real gun, it would have been perfectly legal under state law.


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