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Showing posts from 2016

Top Financial Stories 2016

I generally ask myself at this time of year what were the biggest stories of the past twelve months in business/financial news. 

Of course, I choose the ones I do largely because they illustrate an important theme, and in the list below I'll spell out and boldface the theme. Yet the theme itself isn't the story.

January:  Collective bargaining. The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Jan. 11th about public sector unions, mandatory fees, and the economics of the free-rider problem. In the spring, after Scalia's death, it splits 4-4 on the subject.

February: Economics of crude oil. Iran takes a stand-offish posture toward the efforts of other oil-producing nations to cut production, wants to get itself back to pre-sanctions levels.

March: Smartphones and privacy. The face-off on iPhone encryption and the demands of the FBI go before the U.S. Congress as this month begins.  Later in the month, FBI backs away, says it may have found another way.

April. Rise of Social Media. Twitt…

Et Tu, Avner Greif?

The citation practices of an academic of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Not perhaps the most obviously compelling subject for a blog post. The practice of ostracism in Mediterranean ports in the middle ages.  Likewise. But ... put them together?

I've just been mucking about in the "history" of the wikipedia page on Avner Greif -- a page I first created, though years ago. I created that page out of fascination with a certain work of Greif's to which I'll return, but there have been many changes to the page since I last paid attention. I've noticed quite a bit of contention about his citation practices, and about whether he is shorting someone else out of credit for her accomplishments in the field of institutional economics.

Hmmmm. Where do we start? Oh, here's a place.!

"Institutional economics" flourished in the 1920s and '30s and boasted such luminaries as Thorstein Veblen and John R. Commons. It sees (mostly hierarchical) institu…

Snoopy's Christmas

Am I violating someone's copyright? Heck, I'll live dangerously. 

The news it came out in the First World War
The bloody Red Baron was flying once more
The Allied Command ignored all of its men
And called on Snoopy to do it again

The Allied Command has a rather low opinion of its own men. Snoopy's flying-ace fantasy on top of his doghouse was firmly established in the pop-cultural consciousness well before The Royal Guardsmen did this in 1967. But Snoopy always seemed to lose his imagined battles with the Red Baron. He'd go down in flames, shouting "Curse you!" That was the running gag. So how had the Allied Command developed its confidence in his ability to do "it again" -- if "it" means anything they should want done? 

Apparently, they were confident in his abilities because they had listened to an earlier Royal Guardsmen tune. But let's stick to this one. 

Was the night before Christmas and forty below
When Snoopy went up in search of his f…

String Theory Defended

I'm feeling lazy, in a Christmas-holiday sort of way, so today I'll just observe that Physics World has named its 2016 Book of the Year.

It's a book with a philosophical dimension, about which I will say something if I'm feeling more ambitious next week at this time.

The winner:Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon.

For now, I'll just insert a cartoon about hinting gently at the sort of skepticism against which string theory requires a defense.

Antonio Damasio, Part II

Yesterday I discussed Damasio's book Descartes' Error, and the use it made of the James-Lange theory of emotion. As I promised, I move now to Damasio's 1999 book, The Feeling of What Happens, which moves on from matters of emotion and rationality to the related but distinct issue of consciousness.

Consciousness, he says, is a chain rather than a single link. It is the collective noun for a number of closely related facts, each more rare in the natural world than the one before. The following are the links in the chain:

1) non-conscious neural signalling gives rise to
2) a proto-self, which permits the development of
3) a core self, which is only here-and-now, but which when added to memory becomes
4) an autobiographical self, which finally permits something that may be distinctively human ...
5) extended consciousness, (which he also calls "consciousness post-language") and finally,
6) conscience.

Damasio devotes a good deal of effort to giving separate meaning…

Antonio Damasio, Part I

Damasio is the head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

He's made something of a reputation in philosophical circles for his writings on mind/body issues, starting with Descartes' Error (1994).

The title of that 1994 book suggests the thesis: that any separation of mind from body (and concomitantly, any separation of intellectual judgment from emotional reaction) is erroneous. Damasio hypothesized that rationality requires emotional input.

In part this was a development of the James-Lange theory of the emotions.  That theory, you will recall, is this: our body instinctively reacts to a situation (by blushing, for example).  The emotion we feel (embarrassment) is not the reason for the blushing. A sensory stimulus of some sort is the reason for the blushing. The emotion is a consequence of the bodily reaction.

Damasio said that James was "well ahead of both his time and ours" in this respect, and that he had "seized u…

Gettier Gets Far Too Much Credit

There is an old theory of knowledge known as the JTB view: the view, that is, that knowledge is "justified true belief."

Edmund Gettier gets a lot of credit for weakening the hold of JTB upon conventional wisdom, in his brief article of 1963 in the journal ANALYSIS, arguing that there are cases in which all three circumstances are met, but which one wouldn't ordinarily speak of as "knowledge." 
Some people believe Gettier gets more credit than he deserves. Alvin Plantinga has written:
According to the inherited lore of the epistemological tribe, the JTB [justified true belief] account enjoyed the status of epistemological orthodoxy until 1963, when it was shattered by Edmund Gettier... Of course there is an interesting historical irony here: it isn't easy to find many really explicit statements of a JTB analysis of knowledge prior to Gettier. It is almost as if a distinguished critic created a tradition in the very act of destroying it.
Also, Bertrand Russe…