Archive for January, 2009

A phenomenon “raging like wildfire” throughout social networks is nothing more blasé than a chain letter. In the current iteration, folks are asked to write a note listing 25 things about themselves and then tag the note with 25 friends. These friends are then to write up their own list of 25 things, tag another 25 friends, and on it goes in perpetuity.  I’m not sure what the point is, but I think Bernie Madoff somehow made billions off of it.

Armchair economics theorizing might tell us that the type of people who engages in this activity is either those who derive a relatively large satisfaction from the activity and/or those who incur a relatively small opportunity cost by engaging in the activity. This would lead us to postulate that those chain latter devotees whom we’ve all gotten to know a teensy bit better in the past few days are likely to be either relatively self-involved or are leading relatively dull lives. They may even have both bits going for them. Thus, we arrive at an unfortunate equilibrium where those who are most likely to participate in chain letters are the least likely to have anything worth writing about.

Then, if the armchair is comfy and time is rife, we might theorize about the type of person who does economic analyses of those who participate in chain letters. Unfortunately time is not rife, however, as packing must be done for Pennsylvania. Nonetheless it’s probably safe to conclude that that type of person would be a pretty righteous dude.

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Just overheard at the grocery store :

Hey Mom, they have your favorite kind of water!

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As occurred to me jogging northward on Forest Lake Way:

When we are ruthless we are often right.

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To Be, or To Not Be?

THE NY Times has an op-ed by renowned psychologist Steven Pinker espousing his theory of why Roberts screwed up the oath:

On Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Flubber Hall of Fame when he administered the presidential oath of office apparently without notes. Instead of having Barack Obama “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States,” Chief Justice Roberts had him “solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.”


How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? Conspiracy theorists and connoisseurs of Freudian slips have surmised that it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama’s vote against the chief justice’s confirmation in 2005. But a simpler explanation is that the wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling.


Among these fetishes is the prohibition against “split verbs,” in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like “to,” or an auxiliary like “will,” and the main verb of the sentence. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly.” Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that “I will always love you” but “I always will love you” or “I will love you always.”

As for me, I have rarely separated the verbs in my writing and find that to never split an infinitive is usually quite easy.

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Bringing Order to Chaos

About a year ago when I read Richard Dawkin’s explication of Darwin in The Blind Watchmaker, I was stuck by how analogous the basic mechanisms of natural evolution and economics were. Now I can be sure it was no coincidence:

Ideas evolve by descent with modification, just as bodies do, and Darwin at least partly got this idea from economists, who got it from empirical philosophers. Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire who begat Hutcheson and Smith who begat Malthus and Ricardo who begat Darwin and Wallace. Before Darwin, the supreme example of an undesigned system was Adam Smith’s economy, spontaneously self-ordered through the actions of individuals, rather than ordained by a monarch or a parliament.


Darwin’s debt to the political economists is considerable. In his last year at Cambridge in 1829, he reported in a letter, ‘My studies consist in Adam Smith and Locke’.

Having gone to a private religious school from kindergarten through high school, I never studied evolution in an academic setting. When I began reading Dawkin’s book, however, his description of evolution made intuitive sense due to my economics study. Where economics is based on the invisible hand and innovation, I realized, evolution is based on natural selection and random variation .

This is my favorite excerpt from the article:

Today, generally, Adam Smith is claimed by the Right, Darwin by the Left. In the American South and Midwest, where Smith’s individualist, libertarian, small-government philosophy is all the rage, Darwin is reviled for his contradiction of creation. Yet if the market needs no central planner, why should life need an intelligent designer? Conversely, in the average European biology laboratory you will find fervent believers in the individualist, emergent, decentralised properties of genomes who prefer dirigiste determinism to bring order to the economy.

I love inconsistencies like these. If I can appreciate the economics notion that order can emerge spontaneously “as the product human action but not of human design,” surely I can appreciate evolution’s notion that nature’s complexities can emerge without a designer (and vice versa). Yet many, even vaunted members of the scientific academy, accept one and not the other.

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I began watching the inauguration rather late the ceremony, tuning in at the tail end of Warren’s purpose-driven invocation. Soon I was ruing my lack of foresight as entries for a liveblog popped into my mind.

To wit:

  • The relief on Biden’s face when he got out the more complicated lines of his oath.
  • Chief Justice Robert’s subtle sabotage.
  • The odd American practice of simultaneously noting our wonderful peaceful transition of power and marking the occasion with cannon fire.
  • Obama’s generous use of metaphor (e.g. the still waters of peace, the bitter swill of segregation, the specter of a warming planet), some of which he mixed well before cooking.
  • And much much more!

In all seriousness, however, what I saw of the inauguration deserved no better than a middling grade in terms of performance and production. Indeed, some of it, namely the poem and benediction, were embarrassingly bad.  On the other hand, John Williams’ arrangement of Aaron Copland titled “Air & Simple Gifts” was quite good, but then again I’m a sucker for melody and the cello.

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Optical Illumination

One thing I missed in Germany was my desk and comfy office chair, which served me well during the last bit of college. Now that I have them back, I am reminded of the accompanying All-Seeing Eye that shines above as I labor beneath its watchful gaze:

It never blinks...

It never blinks...

How often when writing a blog post have I slumped in my chair and lowered my lids only to be confronted by the Dijon cyclops, urging me to productivity…

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