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Friday, February 25, 2011

Anti-financial populism

My latest at Research magazine: "Furious at Finance," on the long history of populist hostility to the financial sector. Excerpt:
The founders of the United States were sharply divided in their attitudes toward finance. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton famously disagreed over the latter’s initiative to create a central bank. Moreover, the agrarian-minded Jefferson distrusted banks in general and disliked the “new created paper fortunes” arising in the cities as Hamilton’s reforms promoted trading of Treasuries and equities.

Such differences helped give rise to political parties, with Hamilton’s Federalists (often seen as precursors to later Republicans) being much more pro-finance than Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans (later shortened to Democrats). However, even on the Federalist side, there were skeptics of finance, such as John Adams, who disparaged those who “moved money around” rather than doing real work.
 Others discussed include William Jennings Bryan, Father Coughlin, Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul.

UPDATE: I'm slated to discuss this article on the Gabe Wisdom Show on Tues., March 1 at 7pm ET.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Weekend games reading

Chess: "What Chess Owes Bobby Fischer," by Peter Worthington at FrumForum. My far weirder chess article "Searching for Bobby Fischer's Platonic Form," which I have to admit has nothing to do with Fischer.

Jeopardy: "Paging Dr. Watson: IBM to apply Jeopardy! victor's analytic skills to medical diagnoses," by Larry Greenemeier at Scientific American. "What Watson Can Learn from the Human Brain,' by Jonah Lehrer at Wired.

Catan: Can be done with knights now.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wild speculations

If you have more than a passing acquaintance with popular-level writing on science-related themes, you likely will have encountered some or all of the following ideas. What they have in common is that they are highly speculative extrapolations or flights of the imagination that often are presented as compelling interpretations or solidly established facts.

1. The Singularity. In the mid-21st century, exponentially advancing technology will produce a swift and all-encompassing transformation marked by superhuman intelligence and a transcendence of mortality.

2. The Multiverse. Our universe is just one tiny part of an ensemble of universes, containing innumerable other versions of our world and ourselves, such that somewhere John McCain is president, for example.

3. The Simulation. The reality we experience is a simulation run on a powerful computer by aliens or distant descendants of humanity.

4. The Fine-Tuning. The constants and laws of physics were set by a higher intelligence at precisely the right levels to enable life to exist.

These ideas tend to chafe against each other. The Multiverse and the Fine-Tuning are vastly different interpretations of the same underlying physics. The Singularity might lead to the Simulation, but if we already live in the Simulation, how confidently can we predict the Singularity or, for that matter, analyze "physics," given that any real physics would actually be in the simulators' world, about which we know nothing.

In fact, all of these scenarios charge into areas where present knowledge is sketchy at best. We have little indication of what other universes might be like, what forms life might take even in our own universe (let alone other universes), how consciousness arises in a material reality (or might arise in a simulated one), and what meta-laws might govern any multiverse or other reality beyond the universe we observe. Given all these uncertainties and perplexities, speculations such as those listed above, thought-provoking though they can be, are basically just a strange sort of entertainment.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ski break

Back from skiing at Gore Mountain, where I was pleased to find this blog getting the recognition it deserves. More to come.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Physics collides with politics

Over at FrumForum, my latest, on Rand Paul and the Energy Dept.: "Paul Plays Politics with Physics." Excerpt:
Sen. Rand Paul has proposed eliminating the Department of Energy. Other Republicans are pressing for significant cuts to the agency’s budget. This push has included little discussion — or evident comprehension — of what it would do to American capabilities in physics, or why that matters.

Paul would transfer DOE’s nuclear weapons activities to the Pentagon (which is probably a bad idea as it would eliminate the deliberate redundancy of having two agencies safeguarding the stockpile). Moreover, he dismisses DOE in a Wall Street Journal op-ed thus: “Many of its other activities amount to nothing more than corporate handouts,” such as subsidies for companies developing cleaner energy.

But much of what DOE does has nothing to do with either weapons work or corporate handouts. The agency spends billions on basic research aimed at understanding the physical world. Such research yields vast benefits in generating new technologies and powering the economy. But its large-scale, long-term nature places it beyond the scope of any company; if the government doesn’t do it, no one will.
Whole thing here.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Himalayan view

Here are some of the mountains near Everest, taken from a Buddha Air flight in 2009. (This is not the view from my driveway in New Jersey, recent snows notwithstanding.) I was reminded of such scenes by an intriguing show we saw the other week, In Search of Myths and Heroes, looking for a historical basis to Shangri-La. There certainly is plenty of space there for hidden societies.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

FinReg: a history

My latest article for Research magazine: "The Rise of the Regulators." Excerpt:
The 1913 Federal Reserve Act, creating a central bank and lender of last resort, marked a major step-up in federal involvement in the financial sector (expanding the previous role initiated by Civil War legislation that had allowed nationally chartered banks and set up the Office of the Comptroller of Currency). But Washington’s focus still was on stabilizing banks and the dollar, not on overseeing stocks and bonds.

The securities business thus remained lightly regulated overall through the Roaring Twenties. Industry touted its ability to self-regulate, as it had done since the 1790s by fixing brokers’ commissions. In 1922, the New York Stock Exchange imposed capital requirements on its member firms. Amid prosperity and rising stock prices, there was little public or political pressure for a tighter regulatory regime. Soon there would be.
Whole thing here.