Monday, April 18, 2011

Quotes of the day

One hundred fifty years ago today, Col. Robert E. Lee was offered the command of the United States army. ... But after the attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for 75,000 men, Virginia, Lee's home state, seceded. ... To many people today, it would see strange that Lee would turn down such a command and follow the apparently hopeless fate of the Confederacy. Although he was born and raised in Virginia, like Winfield Scott, he had spent much of his life serving the United States of America all over the continent. He disagreed with slavery, and believed that secession was unwise. ... It came down to his view of state sovereignty. Lee viewed himself as a Virginian more than an American. He would follow the choice of his state even though he personally disagreed with it. He viewed his service to the South not as a fight against the Union, but as a defense of Virginia.--Joshua Horn

Higher prices of foods mainly hurt the poor since poor countries and poorer families within a given country spend a much larger fraction of their incomes on foods than do rich countries, and then richer families within a country. For example, the share of national income spent on food is over 40% in India, less than that but still large in China, and under 15% in the United States. If families were spending 40% of their income on food, a 30% increase in food prices would raise by 12% the income they would need to maintain the same level of consumption of all goods. By contrast, a family spending only 15% of its income on food would only need a 4.5% increase in their income to maintain the same consumption basket. This simple arithmetic explains why the current rapid price increase in foods and other commodities, and past large increases in these prices, often caused great distress among poor families of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere in the world. ... during the current sharp run up in food prices, several food-exporting countries, such as Russia and Ukraine, have banned, or greatly restricted, the ability of farmers to export their produce. This lowers the price of food to urban consumers in these countries, and thereby helps the urban poor. However, such bans reduce the prices received by poor farmers of these countries. This reduces their incentives to raise their production of food, and makes these farmers worse off. It also raises the cost of food to families in food-importing countries, and thereby hurts the poor in these countries. Since farmers in developing countries are generally much poorer than those who live in cities and other urban communities, the poor may overall be made worse off when countries greatly restrict their food exports. ... An income subsidy approach has the advantage of allowing prices of foods and other goods to be determined by the forces of supply and demand. As a result, it encourages famers to grow more food when food prices rise, and also encourages poor (and other) consumers to reallocate their spending away from foods that rise most in price, and toward other foods and consumer goods.--Gary Becker

... many grand issues remain unresolved at the frontiers of physics: What is the origin of inertia? Are there extra dimensions? Can a Theory of Everything exist? But even at the undergraduate level, far back from the front lines, deep holes exist; yet the subject is presented as one of completeness while the holes—let us say abysses—are planked over in order to camouflage the danger. It seems to me that such an approach is both intellectually dishonest and fails to stimulate the habits of inquiry and skepticism that science is meant to engender. ... If Newton’s laws are at the bottom of everything, then one should be able to derive the second law of thermodynamics from Newtonian mechanics, but this has never been satisfactorily accomplished and the incompatibility of the irreversible second law with the other fundamental theories remains perhaps the greatest paradox in all physics. It is blatantly dropped into the first days of a freshman course and the textbook authors bat not an eyelash. ... the “God is a mathematician” viewpoint is one of selective perception. The great swindle of introductory physics is that every problem has an exact answer. Not only that, students are expected to find it. Such an approach inculcates our charges with an expectation that is, in fact, exactly contrary to the true state of the world. Vanishingly few problems in physics have exact solutions and a physicist’s career is one of finding approximations and hopefully not being too embarrassed by them. ... The equation that governs the behavior of any quantum system, Schrödinger’s equation, is as deterministic as Newton’s own, but as many people know, quantum mechanics predicts only the probability of an experiment’s outcome. How a deterministic system, in which the result is preordained, abruptly becomes a probabilistic one at the instant of measurement, is the great unresolved mystery of quantum theory, and yet virtually none of the dozens of available quantum textbooks even mention it. ... Physicists have indeed gone further than other scientists in describing the natural world; they should not confuse description with understanding.--Tony Rothman

As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.--Albert Einstein

You want to repeal health care? Go at it. We'll have that debate. You're not going to be able to do that by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we're stupid?--President Obama

Donald Trump has advocated for massive tax increases that display a stunning lack of knowledge of how to create jobs. His love for a socialist-style universal health care system and his alarming obsession with protectionist policies are automatic disqualifiers among free-market conservatives. This publicity stunt will sputter and disappear just as quickly as the ‘The Apprentice’ is losing viewers.--Chris Chocola

If the man who really should be the mayor, the next mayor of the city of New York, the great police commissioner Ray Kelly, chooses not to run, and if my former adversary [Eliot Spitzer] does run as an independent in 2013, I will run for mayor of the City of New York.--Dick Grasso

I want my son to watch "The Natural" someday, hear Roy Hobbs say, "Some mistakes you never stop paying for," and know that it's not just words in a movie. I want my son to know that you haven't lived until you've fought back, that you haven't won until you've lost, that you can't understand what it's like to relish something until you've suffered, too. I want him to understand that it's the 21st century, that we sit around picking our heroes apart all day, that we expect them to be superhuman at all times, that we get pissed off when they aren't, that it's hypocritical if you really think about it.--Bill Simmons

[Edward Wilson's] new argument, in a nutshell, amounts to a frontal attack on long-accepted ideas about one of the great mysteries of evolution: why one creature would ever help another at its own expense. Natural selection means that the fittest pass down their genes to the next generation, and every organism would seem to have an overwhelming incentive to survive and reproduce. Yet, strangely, self-sacrifice exists in the natural world, even though it would seem to put individual organisms at an evolutionary disadvantage: The squirrel that lets out a cry to warn of a nearby predator is necessarily putting itself in danger. How could genes that lead to such behavior persist in a population over time? It’s a question that bedeviled even Charles Darwin, who considered altruism a serious challenge to his theory of evolution.--Leon Neyfakh

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--Thomas Jefferson et al

We don’t think of love as a strength, but as a compromise of strength. And we certainly don’t think of the value of love in affecting mass, social change, and yet Napoleon realizes he and his work will be forgotten and other leaders will flicker and fade while the work of Christ carries on. And why? Because Jesus loved his men, and charged those men to take his message of love to the ends of the earth. I am wondering whether or not we think of the great commission as a duty, a charge, or a joyful expression of love?--Don Miller

Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Louis XIV strove in vain to secure this. They conquered the world, yet they had not a single friend, or at all events, they have none any more. Christ speaks, however, and from that moment all generations belong to him; and they are joined to him much more closely than by any ties of blood and by a much more intimate, sacred and powerful communion. He kindles the flame of love which causes one’s self-love to die, and triumphs over every other love. Why should we not recognize in this miracle of love the eternal Word which created the world? The other founders of religions had not the least conception of this mystic love which forms the essence of Christianity.--Napoleon Bonaparte

For three months, the Arab world has been awash in protests and demonstrations. It's being called an Arab Spring, harking back to the Prague Spring of 1968. But comparison to the short-lived flowering of protests 40 years ago in Czechoslovakia is turning out to be apt in another way. For all the attention the Mideast protests have received, their most notable impact on the region thus far hasn't been an upswell of democracy. It has been a dramatic spike in tensions between two geopolitical titans, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This new Middle East cold war comes complete with its own spy-versus-spy intrigues, disinformation campaigns, shadowy proxy forces, supercharged state rhetoric—and very high stakes.--BILL SPINDLE and MARGARET COKER

Can one person controlling an identity, or a group of identities, really shape social architecture? Actually, yes. The Web Ecology Project’s analysis of 2009’s post-election protests in Iran revealed that only a handful of people accounted for most of the Twitter activity there. The attempt to steer large social groups toward a particular behavior or cause has long been the province of lobbyists, whose “astroturfing” seeks to camouflage their campaigns as genuine grassroots efforts, and company employees who pose on Internet message boards as unbiased consumers to tout their products. But social bots introduce new scale: they run off a server at practically no cost, and can reach thousands of people. The details that people reveal about their lives, in freely searchable tweets and blogs, offer bots a trove of personal information to work with. “The data coming off social networks allows for more-targeted social ‘hacks’ than ever before,” says Tim Hwang, the director emeritus of the Web Ecology Project. And these hacks use “not just your interests, but your behavior.” A week after Hwang’s experiment ended, Anonymous, a notorious hacker group, penetrated the e-mail accounts of the cyber-security firm HBGary Federal and revealed a solicitation of bids by the United States Air Force in June 2010 for “Persona Management Software”—a program that would enable the government to create multiple fake identities that trawl social-networking sites to collect data on real people and then use that data to gain credibility and to circulate propaganda.--Andy Isaacson

My experience with my blank book, What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex, has lessons for all of us. It shows that if you have a clear idea, you deliver it well, and then shout about it loudly (and with the right tools), you can make anything happen – you could even get a blank book to the top of the bestseller charts. One small step for an Ideas Man, one giant leap for publishing.--Shed Simove

Perhaps [Henri] Matisse did suffer from fear and loathing like the rest of us, but there is no trace of them in his work. His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction. Nowhere in Matisse's work does one feel a trace of the alienation and conflict which modernism, the mirror of our century, has so often reflected. His paintings are the equivalent to that ideal place, scaled away from the assaults and erosions of history, that Baudelaire imagined in his poem L'Invitation au Voyage.--Robert Hughes
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