March 29, 2004
One of the moments in scientific history I thought went somewhat un-trumpeted was Joule's work in Thermodynamics. Let me explain -- it's not that it's gone completely unnoticed (not at all), it's just been covered up by the more media-friendly falling apples and E=mc^2-ing.
But what about Joule? Isn't it important that a brick falling into water can 1) do work (this was already known) 2) create heat (a fact which I'm going to assume was known, but was not formalized)?
The second point interests me in particular, namely because of its "irreversible" nature. "But Sudeep!" you cluck your tounge disapprovingly "A brick dropping into water isn't irreversible! You can always pick it out again!" You can, of course, and I encourage you do so (unless, of course, underwater carpentering is some sort of new-fangled class you just happen to be involved in during J-term, in which case I feel obliged to warn you that it's just a bad idea -- back to the subject), however, I still maintain that this is an irreversible process. Why? Confer the second law of thermodynamics: Stated one way, the disorder of the universe is continually increasing -- I won't go into the other statements. However, to be quick about it, when a brick is being dropped, there is an increase in the entropy of the universe -- an irreversible process.
What amazes me, however, is that these irreversible processes, in small steps, can be used to approximate reversible processes. Take for instance, pumping a bike tire. Push down hard and quickly (an irreversible motion), and it's very difficult/almost impossible to go all the way down. Now, try pushing down slower -- now slower, and so on. The idea behind this is that there's smaller and smaller amount of irreversible work being done per unit time, approximating the reversible filling of the inner tube of the bike wheel. Filling the wheel, however, would take forever were we to do this completely reversibly.
Irreversible processes can approximate reversible processes.
I should take a moment to apologize to my room mates at this point, who (I can only imagine) have been looking ever more disparagingly at the burned or undercooked bags of popcorn I've been leaving in the trash, and on the counter -- in my defense, I have been eating a large majority of this popcorn, however, an explanation of my new dietary habits follows:
None of these explanations really made much sense to me until recently, while studying for a thermodynamics exam (this past exam period). Having not eaten for quite some time, I got home somewhere at 1am, and proceeded to make popcorn for myself, only to understand reversible pressure-volume work approximated by irreversible processes.
Let me explain: without too much argument, I think it's appropriate to approximate the "explosion" of a popcorn kernel to an irreversible process (I'd even go as far as to call it a bomb calorimeter, but that's unfamiliar territory as of now). However, consider the expansion of the popcorn bag. A "relatively" closed system, it's in thermal equilibrium with its surroundings -- the microwave. In addition (assuming of course, the microwave is a closed system -- not a bad approximation), the pressure-volume expansion of this bag is created 1) from the energy release (as water vapor) from the popcorn, 2) from the actual popping of the popcorn. Thus, the reversible pressure-based expansion of the popcorn bag is driven by the (infinitessimally?) small irreversible pressure-volume expansions of its kernels....an elegant demonstration if ever there was one!
...sadly, it didn't do me a lick of good on my thermo exam...nor does it act to credit Joule to any extent (I imagine) in claiming he revolutionized the popcorn industry...
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This is probably a bad time to mention this, but I've got to admit that I've always been a bit unclear about this entire "blog" thing.
Of course, there is a certain charm tied to the entire ordeal: the pandering of political views, the opportunity to propose pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-philosophical, wholly-unfounded works of genius, a forum for using grotesquely large words -- yes, yes, it's all in good fun. But there's still a sort of confussion -- maybe not confusion...maybe more a need for clarification:
1) "Blog" -- buh? What etymological Titan brought forth this mess of a word? Sure, the evolution is clear (at least to people of my age who were able to see all this come to fruition a few years back): "web"+"log" = "weblog" --> "blog" --> "blogger," etc. But what about the good old names? Online diary? Web diary? Online journal? Hypertext log?
2) Exactly to whom am I writing, if anyone? This is particularly troubling, since it would seem that if I'm not interesting to one person, there's a virtual ocean of other choices for entertainment -- and the vicious cycle repeats itself....although, if it is a web log, what would people be expecting exactly? What I had for breakfast? When I watered my daffodils last? To be sure: nothing, and about a week ago, if that was concerning you.
I guess that's about it. That's embarassing. I was expecting a few more questions, but just like visiting office hours, you always forget on the brink of asking. So it goes.
Nonetheless, thank you, Will, for those kind words of introduction, and thank you all for having me (although I suppose it's your choice to read or ignore as you choose -- aye, which Fates have conspired?). With probably not too much luck it will be a fun quarter.
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John Holbo and Belle Waring (of John and Belle Have a Blog) now have not one blog, but two. (Or 17/15 blogs, depending on how one counts). They are now regular members of Crooked Timber. Since I already read Crooked Timber and John and Belle as often as they have new posts, this won't actually change my reading habits, but if you were only reading one of the two, it's worth tucking into the other.
UPDATE: Jacob Levy notes that this puts Crooked Timber one blogger ahead of The Volokh Conspiracy. Maybe Volokh should go trolling for somebody to assimilate.
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Dahlia Lithwick, writing about the Supreme Court arguments in Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, writes:
True, most of us just choose to celebrate the purchase of a new car with imprudent sex in the backseat.
The first person pronoun, the offhand comment, make this more information about Ms. Lithwick's sex life than I was expecting when I started the piece.
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Via Our Girl in Chicago, I find this TNR taking-apart of John LeCarre. I never finished the one LeCarre novel I started (don't remember which one), so I don't have much stake in the article's main project, but I need to flag this tossed-off line:
This is the tone, and the philosophical posture, inherited from Greene and, further back, from Hemingway, in which what masquerades as thought is actually just the ratification of permissible male reticence.
The author goes on to toss a little bit of data out on Hemingway (still totally unconvincing to Hemingway-lovers) but drops the Greene point entirely. Which is probably just as well, since he was only going to dig the hole deeper.
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He wants me to bring his laptop to the hospital so he can catch up with work and email people. I've let his law firm know what's going on, so he doesn't have to do anything right now. When I left the hospital today he told me several times to bring his laptop. I'm not sure if I should or not. On the one hand, I'd like for him to feel normal and having his computer would help him feel less "out of touch". On the other hand, I don't think that doing work, or reading 1000 editorials and working on his blog is good for him at this point. His right arm and hand feel weak and he might be frustrated if he's not typing at the lightening speed he's used to.
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Ted Cohen (my Philosophy and Literature professor this quarter) doesn't seem to share Alex Tabarrok's high opinion of Richard Posner (see his interview directly below). [Disclaimer, etc.] From class today, explaining why Martha Nussbaum might be a guest lecturer later on, but Posner would not:
We won't be able to get Richard Posner because he writes a book a day, but you can't do that if you take time out to think.
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This week we are pleased to bring you another interview in our 20-Questions feature. This time we question Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason who blogs with Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Read on as he discusses and how to prepare yourself for (what I call) the apocalypse, the fiscal health of the United States, and his direct line to God.
1: What prompted you to start blogging?
My co-blogger Tyler Cowen got very excited about the possibilities while blogging at Volokh.com and he convinced me that with an early lead we could dominate the market in econ blogs!
2: George Mason University has a reputation for a strong libertarian/conservative bias. To what extent is this fair, and to what extent does it matter?
Sure, the economics department and the law school at GMU have a libertarian/conservative bent (not bias! :) ). But the primary difference between GMU and other econ departments is not in ideology but in the types of questions that people at GMU find interesting. We have people who specialize in law, politics, history, culture, development and other areas and who are open to a wide variety of methods. You would think that economists would understand the benefits of specialization, comparative advantage and trade. Yet the top economics departments are virtual clones of one another. Deviation from the norm is vital for the health of any discipline - we need more diversity.
3: You are the research director of the Independent Institute. What sort of contributions has the Independent Institute made to academic debate?
The Independent Institute has published a number of important books. I'll give you two examples. Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy by William Watkins is on the Alien and Sedition Acts and the responses to them by Madison and Jefferson. Under the Federalists, newspapers and the mail were monitored for seditious statements, editors were fined and imprisoned and non-citizens who opposed the government were forced to leave the country. All of this is wonderful history, but Watkins goes further and treats the Resolutions as important documents in constitutional law. The Resolutions and their history help to explain the nature of U.S. federalism, the first amendment, checks and balances and the proper approach to such contemporary issues as medical marijuana and the USA Patriot Act. Reclaiming is a nice example of how solid academic research can contribute to public policy.
Another recent important books include Winners, Losers & Microsoft by Stan Leibowitz and Stephen Margolis. Winners received a huge amount of attention because of the Microsoft trial of course but in one sense this was misleading because the book is really about the economics of high-tech industries - lock-in, increasing returns, path-dependence and similar issues. The Economist said it was the best thing to read on these issues and I think anyone would agree that it is one of a handful of key pieces.
Of course, you also shouldn't miss my own edited book Entrepreneurial Economics: Bright Ideas from the Dismal Science!
4: You've spoken favorably of David Friedman's Law's Order, and called the economic approach to law "the most lasting and important of all the analytical approaches to law that arose in the 20th century." Do you think the economic analysis of law is better carried out by those trained as lawyers (like Richard Posner) or those trained as economists?
I've said that Richard Posner is the only person alive who deserves both a Nobel prize and a seat on the Supreme Court! So Posner really is a category unto himself, as are many pioneers. More generally, in the early years of the L&E movement there were easy pickings for economists interested in the law - places where a little economic reasoning went a long way. Today, however, the issues are more subtle and the trend is towards PhD/JD programs - we have just stared one at George Mason. If I had to summarize I'd say you need training in law to ask the right questions but training in economics to give the right answers.
5: Other than pursuing bail-jumpers, what parts of law enforcement do you think might be effectively privatized?
The commercial bail system works well for bail jumpers and similar systems could also be used to handle probation and parole, a topic discussed by Morgan Reynolds in a book that I edited called Entrepreneurial Economics: Bright Ideas from the Dismal Science.
The evidence is now clear that private prisons of equal or better quality can be run at lower cost than public prisons. See my recently edited a book on this subject, Changing the Guard for more.
Looking farther afield, commercial law was for centuries handled by the law merchant - i.e. arbitration by a private judge. Delays and inefficiencies in the public courts are now encouraging a return to private judges for private law. It will be interesting to see how far we move in this direction. Bruce Benson and others discuss these issues in The Voluntary City.
6: Which American cities come closest to the ideal of the voluntary city?
Well, most of them are still a long way off from the ideal! Private governance is all around us, however. A condominium association, for example, is a mini-city with its own constitution. It's much easier to leave or move from one condominium to another than to leave a city and the founders of the condominium association have a much better incentive to write good political rules than do the founders of most nations so it's interesting to compare the political rules that govern condominiums and similar associations with the rules that govern cities and nations.
Dare I mention that many condominiums do not give one-person, one-vote but assign votes according to square footage or condo value?
7: You support moving the FDA to a voluntary
rather than a coercive system. How could a voluntary system control the distribution of dangerous drugs to children and ignorant consumers?
Well, the question is somewhat loaded. FDA regulations increase the time it takes to bring a drug to market and raise the costs of development. Some of these extra costs have benefits but after studying the issue I believe that the net effect is to cause increased death and morbidity.
At www.FDAReview.org, Dan Klein and I analyze these issues at much greater length including examining a variety of reform proposals such as making greater use of approval information from other countries all the way to eliminating FDA requirements for efficacy testing.
8: You have argued that elected judges succumb to pressure to redistribute wealth from out-of-state defendants to in-state plaintiffs. What should we do about this-- cease to elect judges, reform tort law, or something else entirely?
Eric Helland and I find that awards against out-of-state defendants are much higher in states that use partisan elections to select their judges than in other states. Not every judge behaves in this way but forum shopping means that plaintiff's lawyers can bring cases in small districts where they know the presiding judges personally and have helped to fund their election campaigns.
Although the costs of elected judges can be high they may have benefits as well, especially in acting as a check on government power in criminal cases. So I'm not quite ready to come out against elected judges per se.
It's probably a good idea to move class action cases to the Federal courts (appointed judges but with lifetime tenure). This is where these cases belong in any case because they deal with national issues but right now it's quite easy for a lawyer to bring the cases in whatever state and county they judge best for their interests ("defeating diversity" in the language of the law.)
I wish there were an easy fix like making losers pay or capping awards but more fundamental reform requires a change in legal culture.
9: While the proposed mars mission has failed to inspire you, you have expressed support for the Hubble Telescope, among other things. How should the government decide which public goods to fund?
If we could restrict the government just to funding public goods that would be a good first step!
10: Do you really agree that the U.S. "is in worse long-term fiscal shape than Brazil"?
Many people find that comparison difficult to believe but it really is not so difficult to understand. Brazil has a younger population and fewer problem with social security and growing medical payments. That doesn't mean that Brazil is a better place to live. Rich people can go bankrupt almost as easy, sometimes even easier, than poor people.
11: You've suggested what established adults should do to prepare themselves for the economic apocalypse (mortgage their houses, invest in art, get tenure). But what can/should those who are just finishing college or graduate school do to avoid being caught high-and-dry?
After years of study and thought, I have a come up with a fool-proof 7-point plan to weather the coming financial apocalypse. Will you be one of the many caught in the flood or will you plan ahead and save your future and that of your children? It's not too late - financial security is still possible. My 7-point plan to save your financial future can be had for just 3 easy payments of $29.95. Don't delay.
Seriously, I have never used the term apocalypse and I am not a financial planner. What I do think is that over the next several decades taxes are going to go up very severely and there will be cuts in social security, Medicare and Medicaid. My advice, is save more than you think you will need and try to save with assets that will be hard to tax.
12: Do you think that a Kerry presidency would be better for our long-term fiscal health than a second Bush presidency would be?
Kerry is obviously no fiscal hawk. Having said that I do think a Kerry presidency would be better for long-term fiscal health but not because of him. Kerry would be good because Republicans are a wonderful opposition party. When in the opposition they talk a great line about free trade, federalism, and fiscal discipline but don't expect them to follow through. Remember, no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.
13: While you insist that you are "not Eeyore!", you certainly have had some gloomy posts. Would you call yourself a "dismal scientist"?
No, it isn't me that's gloomy it's everyone else that is excessively
happy! Or as Larry Kotlikoff puts it "if you aren't scared about the enormous generational storm we're facing, you must be on a particularly high dose of Prozac."
Actually one of my motivating interests is making the world better - that's where the revolution in Marginal Revolution comes from and so in that sense I am optimistic that things can change for the better.
14: What would you say to a bright and math-savvy undergraduate student who greatly enjoys economic analysis and "thinking like an economist," but is bored to tears by both hard-core empirical work and complicated theory (neither of which bear much relationship to the kind of fun stuff you blog about)?
If you go to graduate school be prepared to be bored for at least the first two years. After that it gets much more interesting. And believe it or not the boring stuff will help you to do the fun stuff. (And the boring stuff becomes a lot more fun when it turns out to be useful!) Sure, it's overdone at most places but math and hard-core empirical work have their place.
Intuition is a tricky thing because most of our intuitions are wrong. For most of us, it's only by training ourselves on the boring stuff that we develop good intuitions which we can then use to blog!
15: Has anybody taken you up on Tabarrok's Wager, and if not, have you found any other use for your direct line to God?
Alas, no one has taking me up on my wager. Fools.
16: What do you think we can do to decrease public/political opposition
to organ markets?
The main force in favor of financial compensation or other incentive plans for organ donation is the relentless worsening of the situation. (I know, Eeyore again.) Every year the shortage becomes more severe and nothing that we have tried so far is working. Eventually people learn. Organ socialism will some day go the way of Russian socialism.
17: In an interview with the Washington Times, you said, "Blogs become interesting when other people read them and comment on them. You get a dialogue going." If that's so, why doesn't Marginal Revolution have
Two reasons. First, for the same reason I don't give out my home telephone number - it's just too much effort to deal with spammers, rude people, and responding to mistakes. Second, for the same reason I don't let my students run wild in classroom discussions - discussion is good but a free-for-all doesn't benefit students and it doesn't benefit readers.
18: You have suggested that the duration of a patent term should vary with the cost of the research involved. Is a similar system for copyrights feasible? Should romance novels be entitled to the same copyright terms as comprehensive biographies?
In a sense, copyright is even more out of control than patent law because it's too long for all works, major and minor. The economist's brief in the Eldred case was really quite remarkable in that 17 economists from across the political spectrum, including five Nobel prize winners, all agreed that copyright extension was a bad idea. Thus, I'd be in favor of across the board reductions and am not so worried about making distinctions among copyrighted works.
19: When not teaching economics, or blogging about economics, what do you do with yourself?
I have two boys - a five year old and a 2 year old. They keep me busy.
20: Do you read fiction? If so, what kind of fiction do you read?
The usual suspects among libertarian, economist bloggers! Right now, I am reading Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series which is magnificent, great literature, a great read and not as well known as it should be.
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If you're the prayerful sort, please offer one up for our friend Stuart Buck. I have the privilege of knowing Stuart personally, but he's got a lot of readers and fans in the blogosphere who will no doubt be grieved to hear what's happened to him. He suffered two strokes over the weekend, and is in the hospital in Arkansas near his folks. Lawyer Stuart had just moved with his wife and two small children from Dallas to his Arkansas hometown last week ... and now this. I don't have any specifics on his condition, except that I'm told he can speak. Stuart is all of 29. He's a good man, and he and his wife and kids need all the prayers or good wishes we can muster. Pass it on.
It's hard to know what to say, given how badly suited the internet is to much formal correspondence. Thus far, there's no news on Mr. Buck's blog, and I doubt I'll be the first to hear it if it is true. Still, I'll be sure to relay anything I do learn. It's the sympathy and worry one can feel at moments like this that debunk the notions that the internet is somehow the enemy of community rather than its friend.
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Roger Schmidt has a fascinating piece in the summer 2003 issue of the Raritan Review entitled "Caffiene and the Coming of the Enlightenment" (found through the Wilson Quarterly's Periodical Observer).
He links the opening of the coffee shop to the birth of a new literary form:
One stays up "whole nights" to read uninterrupted for hours on end, a scholar's dream, but not until the advent of caffeine could such desires be consistently realized. And with the rising tide of caffeine came books, an undifferentiated flood of reading matter out of which the "novel" was born, that genre that so distressed the conservative literary establishment. The history of caffeine consumption cannot be extricated from the history of literary consumption, especially of the novel, and both are implicated in the historical devaluation of sleep as a meaningful activity. It is hard to imagine the common reader progressing enjoyably through the nine hundred pages of Tom Jones or the seven volumes of Clarissa without the aid of artificial stimulants. Nor can one easily imagine how the common reader met the demand for time such long works impose, except by reading into the night—indeed by reading in bed, "a dangerous practice," according to Samuel Johnson's friend, Sir John Hawkins, alarmed by this new trend.
The article contends that insomnia was a new complaint with the coming of caffeine, and so too the notion that what had previously been seen as a reasonable, or moderate, amount of sleep was really a great waste of time. When sleep was more valued, dreams and the world in which dreams existed were quite valued. (Are dreams seen as useless? I have a habit of writing down mine, and I know I'm not alone in this. Graham Greene even published a compilation of his dream notes, which don't make for a particularly good read, except for spotting the similarities between those and events in his novels.) Schmidt notices that being asleep at the wrong time became seen as common: "William Hogarth's prints show people falling asleep at all times of day, in all positions—at the reins of a wagon, behind a loom, at levees, on the judicial bench, under bulkheads, and—most commonly—in pews."
The latter was of great annoyance to clery. John Wesley (founder of Methodism) preached a 1798 sermon claiming six hours a night were sufficient, and attributing to oversleeping symptom that I would associate with undersleeping: unstrung nerves, melancholy, faintness. He also commissioned an extra-large tea pot from Josiah Wedgewood.
Schmidt points out that even furniture followed the new tendencies: before 1660, chairs were straight-backed, formed at harsh right angles; by the end of the century, chairs with slight curved backs, better for discreet naps, were seen.
In related news, a Vienna-style coffee shop has opened in Chicago, the Julius Meinl Cafe. Fittingly, "Unlike most coffee chains in the United States, such as Starbucks and Caribou Coffee, the Austrian version has waiters and waitresses. The shop also has a more American, traditional take-away service. 'Someone came in here and said what we are doing was revolutionary,' Meinl said. 'Imagine that, a coffee shop being revolutionary.'"
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I've now returned from a lovely time in New York, which means playing catch-up with Email and RSS Feeds. If you wrote to me in the past week, I hope to find your email and answer it. If I don't, feel free to contact me again and remind me.
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Spring is here, and brings with it mint juleps, panama hats, warm weather, and visitors (both real world and blogically). For the quarter, we're happy to provide a vacation home to Sudeep Agarwala. Sudeep is a University of Chicago student with passions for biology, classical music, classics, and much more, as well as a good friend. You can reach him at sudeep-at-uchicago-dot-edu.
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