Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy (premature) New Year's!

That is all.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Setting circular anti-IP cliches straight

In a recent discussion on intellectual property (IP) on the Mises blog, I saw Stephan Kinsella advancing (again) a circular argument against IP: that it claims rights in already-owned property. But he very dispute is about which ownership rights people have in property!

I know what you're thinkin: "meh, dog bites man ... what else is new," right? Well, what's interesting is that my standard foil, Peter Surda, actually agrees with me that this specific point is circular, even as he generally agrees with Kinsella in his opposition to IP. Here's what Kinsella said in response:

Peter, I don't think it's circular because our view of property rights is grounded in a Lockean homesteading view as applied to scarce resources. Under that view you can perform any action you want so long as you do not invade the borders of (i.e., change the physical integrity of) another's Lockeanly-owned scarce resource, without his consent. How is this circular?

What follows is my response on the blog, with some hyperlinks for context:


The circularity lies in your assumption about which rights you gain by doing how much homesteading, and it is in no way obvious how the rights must work the way you think they do.

Say I homestead a plot of land. How far above and below does that homesteading entitle me to? Yes, you can justify a specific amount, but that's the point: you have to justify why your rights extend to that boundary (abstract or otherwise), not just assume that your land ownership implies ownership of the airspace through which planes fly, and then argue that "airplanes necessarily violate the property rights in already-owned land" ... which, when you think about it, is pretty much what your IP case is.

But that's just the beginning: does homesteading the land entitle you to block (non-nuisance) concentrated sound waves from passing through your land (e.g. ultrasound)? And of course, back to the ol' chestnut: does the land ownership entitle you to block every single frequency of the EM spectrum passing through?

Now, there are many cases where you can assume that homesteading entitles you to certain rights. However, here, the very debate is about which rights you are morally entitled to by virtue of homesteading what. And in that case, it is in fact circular to assume a certain level of homesteading-based rights, since you're trying to prove what the homesteading-based rights are in the first place, which people dispute!

Note that since this is the central argument of Against Intellectual Property, its circularity isn't very encouraging when judging its merit as an argument against IP.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Silas Barta, information theorist by night

UPDATE 12/17/09: Steven Landsburg, after responding several times in the comments section here, posts a defense of his position on his blog, although without mentioning me or Bob Murphy. Hey, I can understand: if I were in his position, I'd hide the existence of me and Bob too!


Bob Murphy invokes my expertise on information theory to criticize (yet) another bizarre argument from Steven Landsburg, that the natural numbers are more complex than human life. Here's the mistaken part of Landsburg's reasoning:

...the most complex thing I’m aware of is the system of natural numbers (0,1,2,3, and all the rest of them) together with the laws of arithmetic ...

If you doubt the complexity of the natural numbers, take note that you can use just a small part of them to encode the entire human genome. That makes the natural numbers more complex than human life. Unless, of course, human beings contain an uncodable essence, like an immortal soul

Naturally, I don't necessarily agree with the broader theological points Bob makes in his reply, and such issues will remain even scarcer on this blog than on his. However, I will expand on point I made in discussion with Bob.

The error in Landsburg's line of reasoning is: the fact that you can use instances of X to build Y does not mean X is more complex than Y. Just the opposite, in fact: in order to describe Y, you must describe X as a substep. Like in the analogy I gave, you can use bricks and mortar to build a house, but that means it's the house that's more complex. To fully specify the house you must describe not only the bricks and mortar, but the form they take as a house -- how they're supposed to be put together.

As for arithmetic and natural numbers, it's their lack of complexity that makes them so useful. By appealing to it, you can make sense of a diverse array of phenomena. The more complex arithmetic were, the less helpful it would be in making sense of things.

Just to be clear, this doesn't mean it's easy to learn math (different people have different problems in different topics and levels), or that you can't do anything complex with math. The point is that no amount of complexity produced in using arithmetic could ever imply arithmetic's complexity, for the same reason that no matter how complex a house you make with one kind of brick, you can't make the brick more complex.

But of course, Landsburg's errors don't end there. He wants to go so far as to say that by merely encoding the genome in base 4, you've described human life. That's certainly the impression people get from discussions of DNA in the popular media and movies like Jurassic Park. Hey, all you need is a string of letters made up of A,G,C,T, and you've described someone completely!

To put it mildly: that's not how it works. First of all, you need to say what the letters actually mean. And then, even if you know that much, all you have are empty labels -- suggestively named LISP tokens. So you know that C is cytosine? Okay, but what's that? Now you need to describe where the carbons and nitrogens and oxygens go to make up cytosine. But wait -- what's this "nitrogen" thing, anyway? And so on.

Don't worry -- the process terminates: once you've described the generative model that puts all of these concepts together in a way that yields a description of human life as its output.

Needless to say, you're using more than a few integers by that point!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

World's newest space agency: Reuters

I normally don't pay much attention to photo credits, but I had to do a double-take on this one. An article in the Telegraph has a satellite picture of the sun. Of course, to get that kind of picture, you have to get pretty close, exist in a high temperature environment, and have photography equipment capable of significantly attenuating the EM radiation thrown off from the sun

And who do they credit for the photo? NASA, right? No, we get:

Professor Henrik Svensmark argued that the recent warming period was caused by solar activity. Photo: REUTERS

Um, yeah dude. I think Reuters got that photo from someone else. With the budget cuts the media have had to make in the past few years, they can only afford near-earth satellites. Deeper-space probes are just out of the question.

ANYWAY, since I haven't posted on Climategate, or for that matter, anything in a while, here are my thoughts: It's absolutely disgraceful, the way the scientists in question have acted. Disclosure of your data does not mean that skeptics get to go on a multi-year scavenger hunt to find your raw data and then play guessing games about which sources you threw out and why.

The very fact that you have to make a post like this one in order to summon forth all the data is proof that you weren't being transparent enough.

There's also clear evidence that the scientists didn't seem to understand that you can't contort one data source to look like another and then call it two independent sources of data. Eric S. Raymond has done a tremendous job at exposing the tricks in the code, which explains exactly why the insular climate science doesn't want critics poring over their work

Oh, and just a hint: when you only allow people you approve of to review your work, that's not science.

PS: Recall that my outrage at many libertarians has been to their reactions *conditional* on AGW being real, and that outrage remains.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Sarcasm, applied properly

In case you've been living in a cave for the past few weeks -- or rely on the mainstream media for your news -- you've probably heard about climate scientist Joe Romm's expose of the shoddy work on global warming in the new book SuperFreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. (Excellent compilation of the discussion in the blogosphere and some mainstream publications.)

Long story short, it's like the kerfuffle a while back between me and Bob Murphy about his own, um, imprecise commentary on global warming, except that the mistakes by Levitt and Dubner were much bigger, they got called on their shoddiness by a lot more people, and they continued to dig themselves much deeper that Bob ever tried to. To top it off, they deliberately misrepresented one of their experts (Ken Caldeira added the quote you see to his web page in contradiction of a position attributed to him in the book after he found out what was in it.)

(Note: this isn't about "rah rah let's cut carbon emissions" vs. "those durn whiny hippies". Regardless of your opinion on the issue, Levitt and Dubner's handling was extremely shoddy, and exactly the kind of thing that neither side should want, even and especially if you agree with their policy positions.)

With that in mind, take a look at this post on the Freakonomics blog, where Levitt complains that he's unfairly portrayed, in his university's alumni magazine, as someone not tackling the "big questions" and who's ruining economics.

Yep, this is one of those times when only Silas-grade sarcasm will do. Here's what I posted:

Well, it's a good thing you've moved on from sumo-wrestling into important issues like global warming, where you've carefully researched the issue, accurately represented expert opinion, and presented an even-handed, informative discussion of the issue that helps sustain the University of Chicago's excellent reputation.

Needless to say, the comment didn't make it through moderation.

By the way, it's my birthday today! Wish me a happy 28th if you haven't already!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Paul Krugman actually allows criticism on his blog!

I had heard bad things about Keynesian economist Paul Krugman not allowing comments on his blog that are too critical, but that turned out not to be an issue. In a recent post he argues that the gold standard is obviously flawed because economic recovery during the Great Depression was highly correlated with going off the gold standard. Nevertheless, my usual criticism of this point got approved for others to see. It's this comment, which I'll repost here:


I’ve known about this correlation for a while, but I think it’s misleading, regardless of the merits of a gold standard.

Think about it this way: at the time, people expected their money to be convertible at a specific rate into gold. “Going off the gold standard” is therefore a roundabout way of saying “robbing people of their wealth”, because it amounts to expropriation of their gold holdings.

So this correlation (between going off the gold standard and recovery) reduces to the observation that “when times are bad, taking rich people’s stuff and redistributing it can making things look a lot better in the short term” … which isn’t so impressive when you look at it that way.

The real question is, *discounting* for the usual effects of looting the rich, did it make the economy better off than it would have been without such capricious, revolution-like activity?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Setting Callahan Straight -- on reductionism and the history of science

In a recent post on his blog, Gene Callahan tried to defend the "mysterious vital force" hypothesis from the clueless reductionists, saying that hey, it was a good idea at the time, and might even show some promise today.

After I explained that the "vital force" of the 18th century used to "explain" life (in the way that the "train force" explains the motion of trains) was not scientific in the way that gravitational force was, the exchange started to get lengthy. So, he did was all pursuers of the Truth do: he closed comments.

And this isn't the first time for Callahan to use argumentum ad closum: in a previous exchange where "TokyoTom" was the critic, he did the same thing, and TokyoTom recounts the pre-cutoff (and pre-coverup!) exchange on his blog.

So, since I can't post on Callahan's blog for that discussion, I decided to post my response to his latest comment here. So, take a gander at the discussion thus far, and read my response below. Let's hope it's just a "blog malfunction" this time, too!


Now, of course, this is not an explanation, just like Newton's force laws do not "explain anything," as the Cartesians ceaselessly pointed out.

And the Cartesians were dead wrong to argue this. Generating a model that correctly predicts the paths of celestial bodies (and bodies in vacuums, and falling bodies on earch with a high mass/drag ratio, etc.) is an explanation. The alternative -- your alternative -- results in such absurdities as "Okay, okay, sure, you were able to accurately predict celestial motions, material strengths, rocket propulsion capabilities, air properties, blah blah blah ... but you don't truly understand what it means to fly to the moon and return safely. Yeah, you have a 'model' that accurately predicts all that stuff, but you didn't truly [*suggestive emphasis*] explain it."

What else could you want from an explanation? The satisfaction of Gene Callahan's personal aesthetic standards? Or your presuppositions about things that have to be there?

Descartes and other mechanists developed models showing how gravity and magnetism could be reduced to the motion of particles alone -- Descartes, for instance, posited a flow of little screw shaped particles drawing iron to magnets.

And that would be a *different* explanation. It may be a better or worse explanation. But "reducing to particle motions" is not a requirement for an explanation, especially if it's wrong or unnecessarily long. Newton's model remains an explanation in that it constrains our expectations.

At the time, vitalism was a sound scientific hypothesis, and the vitalists expected to find good force laws just like for gravity, etc.

And they had no basis for such an expectation, even before an experiment, since "the vital force" is an "explanation" for everything, and therefore nothing. No matter what experiment they performed, it would be consistent with a "vital force". That was how they actually used the term.

me:"Your claim was stronger because you are saying that now, even given all the scientific knowledge we have, there still remains hope for the vital force "hypothesis"..."

you:All sorts of scientific hypotheses get revived after being "soundly rousted" earlier.

Right, but about the issue we were discussing: My claim, the one you're responding to here, is that the position you do endorse ("Vitalism may turn out to be a fruitful hypothesis") is a stronger claim than the one you excused earlier vitalists for believing (that it's reasonable given the limited evidence so far).

Yes, theories do get revived after being discarded. But as for the point that I was actually discussing there, it's irrelevant; the fact remains that you are making a stronger claim.

Now, with that said, scientists are indeed looking for causal phenomena and more general laws they may not have noticed before. But they keep a *broad* outlook. There are many, many shorter hypotheses to rule out before positing an additional, ontologically-fundamental "vital force" -- if in fact the "hypothesis" claims anything at all.

Oh, and what do you think about the complete overthrow of reductionism in quantum mechanics, where the behaviour of "atomic" particles turns out to be not atomic at all, but dependent instantaneously on the state of all other particles they have interacted with throughout their entire history, so that ultimately their state depends on the state of the entire universe?

Now you're just showing more ignorance of science on top of ignorance of reductionism. It was the philosophers, not physicists, who fell into the trap of thinking of particles, rather than an amplitude distribution over configurations, as being ontologically fundamental entities, and so were seduced to believe, "hah, I can say that you can never prove two electrons are identical, because that's an issue of epistemology, which I'm an expert in, rather than physics", which is wrong.

Reductionism of the kind I (and Drescher and Pearl and Jaynes and Hofstadter) endorse was never predicated on the existence of "atomic particles". Rather, it identifies where such hidden assumptions come in.

What modern quantum physics shows is that the wave equation is deterministic, and each point need only look at its immediate neighbors to iterate to the next state. See the excellent work of Gary Drescher in Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics, or, for an online source, Eliezer Yudkowsky's quantum physics sequence.

Monday, September 21, 2009

My new kitty!

Last weekend, I adopted a little black male kitten that a friend of mine had found and was taking care of. He (the kitten, I mean) will be joining my other cat, Cordie, whom you may remember from her younger days. Cordie's a lot bigger now, though, and is playing mommy for her new friend.

Here are some pictures of the most adorable kitty ever! (Click to enlarge.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What a Bayesian causal network on Newcomb's problem might look like

Explanation of Newcomb's problem.

ADDED: Oh, and here's the long discussion that led me to draw the network above. Click the picture to enlarge.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What "interference" with radio signals really means, and its implications for property rights

A common confusion often arises: people talk of the "interference" with radio tower transmissions, without understanding what physical process the term refers to. This misunderstanding makes it hard to see the logic in my analogy between intellectual property and rights to radio frequencies.

In a recent debate on intellectual property, I finally decided to set the record straight, and what follows in this post borrows heavily from what I said in the debate.

First, how does radio communication actually work? I'll admit that I don't know the answer all the way down to the nuts-and-bolts level. But I can explain it from the perspective of information theory.

Radio communication works, to the extent that it works, because a listener can perform a measurement, and thereby learn something about the source, i.e. the message transmitted. (This "something" they learn is called the "mutual information" between the two points, and is equivalent to so-called "Bayesian evidence".)

And when it comes to your radio, what is that actual measurement? Setting a dial on it that changes a circuit's properties so that it resonates when the surrounding area is filled with electromagnetic (EM) waves around a certain frequency. And when it resonates, an electrical signal in the radio follows a certain pattern that's correlated to the signal the radio tower is sending. Your radio then converts the circuit's electrical signal into sound that is meaningful to you.

All of this functioning relies on an assumption: that by performing the measurement, you do in fact learn something about the source. That assumption is violated when more than one tower transmits with enough intensity at the frequency you perform a measurement on. In this case, no measurement result tells you anything about either source: the transmitted waves overlap each other, coming across a gibberish on your radio. (In the lingo, there's no "mutual information" between you and either source.)

So whenever you talk about "interference" with radio communication, what you really mean is "violation of an assumption some parties were using to communicate which, when violated, makes them unable to communicate."

To understand the significance of using the term "interference" in this way, let's look at a more practical, intuitive example with the same dynamic, but unrelated to the EM spectrum.

An Illustrative Example

Let's say that I live in a small village where I have a few friends. I want an easy way to communicate to them that I expect a rainstorm today. So, I work out an "encoding scheme" with them in advance: if they hear me hit my gong before 8 am, I predict rain. If they don't hear me hit my gong, I don't predict rain. So, instead of having to tell them all individually, I can just hit the gong. They'll hear it, and they'll get a message from me. By "measuring" the sound they hear before 8 am, they learn the "signal" I'm sending.

So far, so good.

But there's a little snag: my friends will hear a gong sound as long as anyone hits a gong not just me! So, our communication scheme only works as long as we can rely on no one else hitting a gong before 8 am. If we can't rely on that, I can't send them the message, at least not as reliably. Because when they hear a gong, sure, it could be me, but it could also be anyone else with a gong. Hearing the gong sound is no longer a reliable sign that I think it will rain.

So there you see it: our communication system can be defeated by "interference" from other people, either because they're trying to set up their own similar system, or because they just like being mean. But this "interference" simply means: violating an assumption that we, rightly or wrongly, thought we could rely on.

And how does this relate to radio communication? Simple: the existence of the gong sound before 8 am is just like a radio signal within a given frequency range: it can provide information to others, but only if others don't try to use the same means to communicate.


So do you think people should be able to "homestead" such "communication assumptions" like that? Should I be able to assert rights as "the only one who can hit a gong in this area before 8 am"? (Or, to be less greedy, the right to hit a gong in this area in a certain five-minute window, with a certain rhythm.) Your answer to that question tells you a lot about how you should look at other issues.

For example, how about asserting rights as "the only one who can broadcast radio waves in this area within a particular frequency band"? How about asserting rights as "the only one who can distribute books containing Harry Potter stories"?

Hey! That last one kinda sounds like intellectual property rights...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Update on Billy Mays

Turns out he died of heart disease. (HT: Megan McArdle)

In honor of Billy Mays's characteristic style, and because I don't know the appropriate waiting time for stuff like this, I feel like I have to write the following:


Genial pitchman appears

"Are you suffering from clogged arteries?"

[footage of attractive middle-aged actor clutching chest and wincing]

"Does your doctor tell you to cut back on the foods you love?"

[footage of stereotypical doctor grimly advising attractive patient, who appears to be saddened]

"Well, now you can plow STRAIGHT THROUGH that build-up with Arta-cleanse! Using its patented formula, you can clear out those harmful deposits that put you at risk for heart disease!"

[computer simulation of large artery with ugly-looking blockage that is being magically washed away with pretty fluid]

"Powered by nature's very best ingredients, Arta-cleanse gives you INSTANT results you can SEE! Just watch!"

[Pitchman goes over to attractive middle-aged woman sitting down, injects syringe into upper inner right right arm]

"Watch as Arta-cleanse works its way through the system to BLOW AWAY all the nasty build-up that drags down your mood and strength!"

[camera zooms in on woman's arm, as discoloration propagates through arm where vein is located]

"In just MINUTES you have a cleaner, meaner, healthier circulation, or your money back!"

[camera cuts away to woman jogging, then to her blood pressure being checked, with a good reading showing up on a conspicuous monitor]

"But wait! Order in the next ten minutes and we'll throw in this free tourniquet that will make the injection even easer! And that's not all. Call within the next FIVE minutes and we'll DOUBLE your order for FREE! All this for just $29.99."

"HERE's how to order!" [points at camera]


You BETTER pay me royalties if you make that video! >:-(

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Billy Mays, RIP

The famous pitchman Billy Mays has passed away at his home in Tampa. Famous for promoting OxyClean, Orange Glo, and the Hercules Hook, among other things, he became well known in the "as seen on TV" world.

I won't deny it, I loved that guy. His genial manner, his voice, his hand motions... and I've been using OxyClean to get out stains for a while. Er, well, the generic brand now, but still.

If you need a refresher, here's a characteristic video:

ADDENDUM: Here is a comic I made about Billy Mays and posted on a forum around two years ago. All in jest, of course.

Note the characteristic hand gestures ;-)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fun with graphics and the environment!

Well, the Environmental Defense Fund has a cute graphic out (HT: Free Advice) promoting "green jobs":

The basic idea, as you probably figured out from the graphic, is that mandating pollution caps will give people something to do, thus reducing unemployment. They don't put it that way, of course, but that's the idea, and it's a rehash of the Broken Windows Fallacy.

This justification for pollution restrictions misses the point, of course. Assigning well-defined, sustainable pollution rights is a good idea, for the same reason that assigning rights to any scarce resource is a good idea: because of justice and efficiency, not because it would add another task for people to do.

In light of all of that, I decided to pull a SomethingAwful and put different words into the graphic, in an attempt to criticize my nemesis Bob Murphy's (of the Free Advice site linked above) sudden love of Coasean extortion payments when it comes to pollution. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Now, find what question from a previous post that's an answer to.

Spot the common professional economists' error

From James Hamilton:

When academic economists talk about inflation, we often think in terms of a single-good economy in which the concept refers unambiguously to an increase in the dollar price of that good.

If you can't wait for me to give you the answer, just go to the link and find my link. Well, I don't give it there either.

Anyway, all I can say is, if you make this kind of error at the beginning, don't expect me to put a lot of faith in your analysis...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Government loan to Chrysler now a gift

So it turns out that all that money the government "loaned" to bankrupt Chrysler doesn't have to be paid back, making it a gift, a handout, a chunk of free money. (Incidentally, this is one of my complaints about the whole vocabulary of discussing the crisis. Companies whine about how they need "liquidity" or "credit" or "short-term working capital". No. They need free money. More on that some other time.)

It just gets worse with every passing day. First, it was, "Don't worry guys, we're just giving loans to troubled companies, they'll pay them back, it's not like we're favoring anyone here!"

And now they throw all that to the wind, making it a $7 billion gift to failing Chrysler to cover up its complete inability to meet its obligations, and draw in people who had nothing to do with the management of Chrysler. (A friend and I dubbed it the "bridge loan to nowhere".)

Gee, when do *I* get my $7 billion loan that I don't have to pay back. I'll make sure to pay taxes on it! (Anyone think Chrysler's going to do the same for their "lobbying income"?)

A version of this is cross-posted as a comment at Naked Capitalsim.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On the "Felony Stupdity" in the NYC Flyby

Apparently, I'm not the only one stunned by the "felony stupidity"in the decision yesterday to fly an Air Force One standby with fighter jet escorts at low altitute through New York City. To begin with, to fly over the city that actually endured a terrorist attack from low-flying jumbo jets, a few weeks' worth of warning are certainly called for.

And for what? Apparently, because their file photos of ... aircraft, I guess? ... were out of date. Yes, the indignity of having insufficiently new pictures of your aircraft flying near the Statue of Liberty!

I would estimate this whole venture cost the government $500,000 (a coworker with more experience in this kind of thing puts it at $2 million), when you take into account wages of those participating, fuel and security costs, coordination with other agencies, etc. Then you take into account the costs imposed on bystanders (panic, evacuations), which I'll conservatively estimate bring the total cost to $10 million.

With that in mind, do you know what's really outrageous? They could have accomplished the same thing at a sliver of the cost. Here's what they should have done:

1) Set aside $100 instead of $500,000. Plus maybe a few days of wages for government workers.
2) Go to and start a contest for whoever can photoshop the aircraft they want onto the background they want, promising an award of $100 (tax free!) to the winner. Allow them to use the existing stock photographs of the Statue of Liberty area and aircraft (obviously excluding classified photos).
3) Spend a few days sorting through the hundreds of high-quality entries that are indistinguishable from what you'd get through a photo of the real thing.
4) Spend a few more hours removing the "clever" captions SA users added to their entries, like "Your government at work!" and "9/11 looked something like this".
5) Tell President Obama that you just saved the taxpayers $500,000 minus a rounding error, so he can start up another debate in the blogosphere.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Another interesting thermodynamics result

Here's another interesting insight on thermodynamics and information theory to add to my previous: I realized why "joules per kelvin" is a measure of entropy. Not exciting? Wait, you'll see.

In the previous post on this topic, I mentioned all the parallels between entropy in information theory and entropy in thermodynamics. Also, some properties can be calculated by their information-theoretic definition or their thermodynamic definition, such as the thermodynamic availability, which can be calculated as the Kullback-Leibler divergence, a measure from information theory. But what's interesting is that this value can be expressed in terms of bits, or in terms of Joules per Kelvin, which has units of energy over temperature, with a simple constant multiplier for conversion.


You see, there's the hard part: why on earth would bits -- which measure how much memory your computer has -- possibly refer to the same property as "Joules per Kelvin", the way that inches and meters refer to the same property?

And that's where we get to the interesting part. First of all, what is temperature? It's not how much internal energy something has, but rather, it's internal energy per degree of freedom. In this context, a "degree of freedom" is a distinct way that something can be modified at the molecular level. A single-atom molecule may be viewed as having three degrees of freedom, since it can translate in three dimensions. Once the molecule has shape, however, it can rotate in addition to translating. So, two different substances at the same temperature can have different internal energy, because one of them may be stuffing that energy into more degrees of freedom.

So where does that get us with Joules per Kelvin and energy per unit temperature? Well, watch what happens when you expand out temperature in the entropy expression:


= energy * degree-of-freedom/energy

= degree-of-freedom (!)

So there you have it! Once you expand it out, energy per unit temperature is simply a roundabout way of saying "degrees of freedom".

Now you may ask, "Nice, but that still doesn't explain what that has to do with bits." But then, what is a bit but a binary degree of freedom? When you have memory of n bits, then there are n values that you can independently set to one of two possible values, making it likewise a measure of degrees of freedom. (Note that this capability allows you to store 2^n possible states.) And informational entropy, in turn -- also expressed in bits -- is the logarithm of the number of possible states a system can be in, making it proportional to the degrees of freedom as well.

The two lessons to take away are that:

1) The number of degrees of freedom a system has depends on the arbitrary choice of what you count as a degree of freedom, just like the number of "units of length" something is.

2) Whichever consistent method you use of counting degrees of freedom, the number of degrees of freedom is proportional to the logarithm of the number of possible states.

Mystery solved! (No, I don't know if this discussion is given in any textbook treatment of the issue.)

Oh, and: Happy Saint Patty's Day!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Well, I took the plunge and installed Ubuntu (again)

Three years ago, I tried to install Ubuntu. Let's just say it went so badly that I'm not even going to give the details for fear that someone I chewed out at the time will notice the similarity between my case and "that jerk on the Ubuntu help site three years ago" and target me for reprisals.

Needless to say, it actually worked this time, since I was smart enough to install it on a completely different computer as a hedge against failure (instead of merely trying to isolate it to a partition on a secondary hard drive) and because the development crew has gotten its act together.

And I have to confess, I enjoy it for the most part. There's still a lot to get used to, and a lot of settings to configure, but I was amazed how easy it was to get wifi working, to install Firefox plugins (note how I don't snidely call it "liarsux" anymore?) and how many Free (yes, "they" want you to capitalize it), useful programs come bundled, and yet the system has no bloat ... everything is fast. Unlike on Windows, there isn't a huge list of processes of questionable purpose running that you can't shut down.

I've also gone back to using Vimperator which I had blogged about before, which means that yes, I made this post without ever using the mouse. But of course, like with most user interface design, the half-genius Herr Stubenschrott had to ruin his own code's functionality. Previously, you would hit the 'f' key and a bunch of key commands would pop up over the links like "ds". Then, hitting "ds" would activate the link. But now, they're all numerical, like "24", which makes it much less convenient.

Stubenschrott, in his defense, now permits you to call up a link by typing the first few letters of it, which I had suggested allowing before ... but it kind of defeats the purpose when the key commands blot out the first two letters! And the entire link becomes highlighted and impossible to read! Fortunately, someone wrote a script that converts it back to the old way.

All in all, a seamless, enjoyable transition so far. Now, to move over the old hard drives, files, and email...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The IP debate heats up again!

Well, did you miss my posting, guys? I know one fellow who did. STS welcomes "Andras", a commenter on the Mises blog, who has single-handedly revived my older, ultra-arrogant post that presented the serious problems with libertarian anti-IP (intellectual property) theorizing. Apparently, the default setting on Blogspot is that posts don't expire, so they can always get more comments, and I saw Andras's comment there because I kept coming back to it to link that post. Note that in addition to the initial post, I summarize in a later comment, my three biggest problems with opposition to IP in the context of libertarianism. Take a gander!

Andras understandably dislikes the pro-IP groupthink (though he doesn't use that term specifically) on the Mises blog. But, there's reason to be happy. I've noticed a sharp change in the general form of IP discussions there. They used to be a few people against hordes of fanatical IP haters. But now, there is significantly more balance, and far more people are making reasoned refutations of the standard (but wrong) anti-IP arguments. Here's a short list from the past month:

Why People Don't Believe In Paying For Music. Hint: Its All About Deflation.
A Book That Changes Everything
Hayek on Patents and Copyrights
Hayek, IP, and Knowledge
Authors: Beware of Copyright
The Universals of IP Theorizing
Matsushita and the Patent
Does Innovation Require Property in Ideas?
Dangers of Copyright Exhibit
Dissecting Boldrin and Levine: An Alternate View of Intellectual Property

Two things to keep in mind: a) these aren't all the IP posts in the past month, and b) I'm linking these not to endorse the argument at the top, but to show the more numerous and well-reasoned criticisms the Mises blog gets now.