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Evolving perspectives on temperature

Long before men and women became humans, even millions of years before they were polar bears ;-), these people experienced the sensations related to the heat and coldness. When it was warmer, they usually felt pleasant. When it was too hot, they started to sweat, melt, and evaporate. When it was too cold, they started to freeze over, and so on. You have probably heard about these phenomena. ;-)

Thermoscopes and their modernization

Before anyone would talk about science, it was instinctively understood that the environment had a property – one that we call the temperature today – that determined those feelings. Around the year Zero AD (the year didn't exist but its vicinity did!), ancient Greeks such as Philo of Byzantium and Hero of Alexandria began to realize that the warmer temperature makes you not only sweat but it also expands some materials.

In the early 17th century, people would begin to construct thermometers. A vessel with water that expands which you may observe as the elevated level in thin tube, and so on.

At the end of the 18th century, the industrial revolution started. While the heat was known to be vaguely related to the fires, this relationship became much more important and quantitative. People began to burn coal, produce steam engines, evaporate water, and use the vapor's pressure to do mechanical work, among other things.

The early 19th century saw the first expansion of thermodynamics, the phenomenological theory of thermal phenomena – if we use the modern terminology and classification of ideas. We may also pick a more practical jargon: thermodynamics was a practical science how to deal with all the heat engines.

It became clear that the warmer object may heat up a cooler one if and when they're in contact – while the initially warmer one becomes cooler along the way. But the opposite process cannot occur – a statement known as the second law of thermodynamics (in one of its most "practical" forms). If the opposite processes could exist, one could construct helpful machines, the perpetuum mobile of the second kind which would be able to produce energy while solving the (non-existent) problem of global warming at the same moment. At any rate, the real-world objects reach (almost) equilibrium after some time – the temperature of everything that's been in contact is the same.

Redefining the scales

The temperature may be operationally defined through a thermometer, as the height of a level of the fluid in the fluid-based thermometer, for example. However, any other function of the temperature\[

T\to T' = f(T)

\] encoded in an increasing function \(f(T)\) is an equally good measure of the temperature. In a sufficiently narrow interval around \(T_0\), any reasonable enough \(f(T)\) may be linearized so that\[

f(T)\approx a(T-T_0)+b

\] for some constants \(a,b\). The linearization may be viewed as an approximation; after all, generic enough liquids expand "nonlinearly" with the temperature. Various temperature scales with different values of \(a,b\) were introduced: the Celsius scale, the Fahrenheit scale, and so on. However, it was soon realized that there's also a sense in which some functions \(f(T)\) give a better scale than others.

Ideal gases – and the real-world gases are not that far from them (what's needed for them to be nearly ideal is that the distance between average atoms/molecules is much greater than their radius) – expand their volume linearly in the "absolute temperature" above the absolute zero, according to\[

pV = nRT

\] where \(n\) is the amount of gas in moles, \(R\) is a universal constant, \(p\) is a constant pressure. The volume \(V\) is proportional to the absolute temperature \(T\) if the pressure is constant. This special behavior of the gases – almost all gases – makes some temperature scales better than others. In particular, natural enough scales should agree that the minimum temperature (at which the gases shrink to \(V=0\), the vanishing volume, which can't quite happen because the real gases will condense before that, but let's neglect that) is \(T=0\).

Only the scaling, the unit of the temperature difference encoded in the slope parameter \(a\) above, may be adjusted. In particular, the Kelvin scale was chosen so that \(T=0\,{\rm K}\) is the minimum possible temperature and one kelvin as a temperature difference is the same temperature difference as one Celsius degree (1/100 of the difference between the freezing point and the boiling point of water – just one possible choice that reflects our positive relationship to water and nothing else).

Explanations why: the phlogiston?

But why are some objects warmer than others? For some time, especially between 1667 and 1753, people would believe that the heat was carried by a special liquid making everything "wet" in a special way (=hot). The liquid was known as the phlogiston. Mikhail Lomonosov "killed" the theory because he showed that if an object is heated, its mass actually doesn't change. So the hypothetical "phlogiston" doesn't really exist because liquids must weigh something.

A cool experiment and a sensible conclusion except that we know today that when you heat an object up, its mass actually does increase, so Lomonosov's claims were not quite right. ;-) I will discuss this point in the context of relativity below.

Statistical physics

The right explanation began to emerge in the second half of the 19th century: statistical physics. Hotter objects jiggle more violently than cooler objects. Things are made out of atoms and the energy per atom is related to the temperature. For example, monoatomic gases are composed of individual atoms and the energy of each atom is\[

E_{\rm atom} = \frac 32 kT

\] where \(k\) is Boltzmann's constant. In everyday units, the value of \(k\) is tiny which reflects the fact that atoms are tiny fractions of matter: the value is comparable to \(1/N_A\), the inverse Avogadro constant (the number of atoms in a mole – which looks like an OK macroscopic amount of stuff). The numerator \(3\) really arises because the atom may move in \(3\) different directions of space.

So the temperature became the energy per degree of freedom, more or less, or energy per unit entropy (or entropy change). I don't want to define these things too exactly here because I hope that you have learned them elsewhere or you will do so. ;-) The second law of thermodynamics is only valid approximately because there are many more ways how the energy may distribute itself uniformly among all the atoms that are in contact but it is still plausible, albeit unlikely, that the energy gets distributed very non-uniformly.

In statistical physics, the most natural way to see how the temperature enters physics is to look at the Boltzmann distribution (which is the starting point to derive seemingly more complex distributions including Maxwell-Boltzmann, Fermi-Dirac, and Bose-Einstein distributions but all of them are actually just applications of the basic Boltzmann distribution to various systems with a prescribed set of states)\[

p_n \sim \exp\zav{-\frac{E_n}{kT}}

\] which says that the probability for a physical system to find itself in a higher-energy state exponentially decreases with the energy of the state in such a way that every increase of the energy by \(kT\) corresponds to the reduction of the probability by the factor of \(e\approx 2.718\dots\).

Earlier in the 19th century, temperature was related to the total heat and the heat was found to be equivalent to work and mechanical energy etc. All these insights became more understandable with the development of statistical physics at the end of the 19th century.

Relativity partly restores the phlogiston

I promised you to argue that Lomonosov wasn't quite right: the mass of a warmer object is slightly bigger. What I was referring to was Einstein's special theory of relativity. We have already mentioned that the temperature is the energy per atom or per unit degree of freedom. But according to Einstein, any energy is equivalent to the mass via\[

E = mc^2,

\] the equation most frequently associated with Albert Einstein by the laymen. So if you increase the temperature of some monoatomic gas by \(\Delta T\), the energy of each atom grows and so does the mass of each atom:\[

\Delta E_{\rm atom} = k\cdot \Delta T, \quad \Delta m_{\rm atom} = \frac{k \cdot \Delta T}{c^2}.

\] Multiply the latter quantity, the increase of the atomic mass, by the number of atoms and you will see how much the total mass has increased. You will get a very small number of kilograms because \(k\) which is small is multiplied by \(1/c^2\) to get a "supersmall" change of each atom's mass but the result is surely nonzero. So the actual strategy to prove that there's no phlogiston wasn't quite right. But we know that the phlogiston is more "wrong than right", anyway. If the heat were a liquid, it would be composed of special atoms, too. But the heat is actually just some energized motion of the same atoms that existed even when the substance was cold.

Quantum mechanics: a younger sister of statistical physics

Quantum mechanics transformed thermodynamics and statistical physics in several "non-essential" technical ways. The states in quantum physics no longer form a continuum and particles of the same kind are indistinguishable from each other which are two reasons why things like the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution are replaced by the Bose-Einstein or Fermi-Dirac distribution.

In some sense, quantum mechanics generalizes a paradigm shift that occurred within statistical physics – a reason to call Ludwig Boltzmann a "forefather" of quantum mechanics. Statistical physics became the first branch of science that began to calculate the probability of various transitions and the probability that a statement about the physical system is right. So it no longer tried to identify the physical system with a "particular model or objective state" that we know. Instead, statistical physics admitted that there are things we do not know and we may calculate probabilities. It's probable – but not guaranteed – that the entropy will increase, and so on.

Quantum mechanics kept the same new principle. The probabilities were calculated from complex probability amplitudes using the usual quantum prescriptions. But quantum mechanics also implies that there cannot be any "particular model or objective state" of the physical system. Instead, physics is about determining the validity of propositions (more precisely, the probability that they're right). In classical statistical physics, such a "restriction of ambitions" of physics was just a practical matter: one could have imagined that some particular microstate was realized, anyway.

In quantum physics (including quantum statistical physics), it is wrong to even imagine that there's a particular microstate with an objective, fully defined (classical) information describing it. It's inevitable that physics may only calculate probabilities and even if the state of the system is as completely known as possible, there are inevitably properties of the system that are not known with certainty (because their operators don't commute with the operators whose values are known).

Quantum physics: the Euclidean time

The issues discussed in the previous section follow from the basic rules of quantum mechanics or statistical physics. You don't have to be ingenious to notice the mild modifications that quantum mechanics brought to the computational framework of statistical physics.

But there is one twist related to the temperature. Recall that the probabilities were decreasing with the energy in the Boltzmannian way\[

\rho = C \exp(-E/kT).

\] This rule is still valid in quantum mechanics if \(\rho\) is the density matrix (the state-dependent "operator of probabilities", if you wish) and \(E\) is the Hamiltonian (an operator). A funny thing is that this looks like the evolution operator (which also has the Hamiltonian in the exponent) except that the imaginary unit \(i\) is missing in the exponent.

In fact, the density matrix for the physical system at temperature \(T\) is mathematically the same thing (up to the overall scaling we have to choose to make \({\rm Tr}\,\rho = 1\)) as the evolution operator \(U\) shifting the time by the imaginary duration\[

-\frac{i E\cdot \Delta t }{ \hbar} = -\frac{E}{kT}\quad\Rightarrow\quad
\Delta t = \frac{i\hbar}{kT}.

\] The thermal expectation values are "traces" which means that this imaginary time (a coordinate in a spacetime that acquires the Euclidean signature \(({+}{+}{+}{+})\), therefore it is the "Euclidean time") becomes periodic. The thermal expectation values of various quantities in modern physics are calculated by looking at a Euclidean spacetime with a periodic time whose periodicity is inversely proportional to the temperature.

This seems like a mathematical masturbation to most laymen, I guess, but the link between a temperature and the Euclidean periodic time is something so direct that particle physicists consider this "periodic time" interpretation of the temperature to be as real as a cold piece of ice.

We may consider and calculate the thermal behavior of any system in physics. There are new issues with the temperature and new phase transitions arising in string theory and quantum gravity, too. Perturbative string theory implies strange things happening near the Hagedorn temperature. Quantum gravity in general implies that black holes have a nonzero temperature (which is why they Hawking radiate) proportional to the "gravitational acceleration" at the event horizon.

I don't want to get into details in this big-picture text. But the point is that a quantity that we viewed as a mundane factor making us sweat or shiver has been connected to energy, mass, probabilities, and even (Euclidean periodic) time by many special links that our cavemen, cavewoman, and caveperson ancestors could hard foresee.

And that's the memo.


I am no real Twitter fan or Twitter user, for that matter, as I find 140-kilobyte-long comments on an issue to be less demagogic and less superficial than 140-byte-long comments (despite my respect for concise formulations! Note that 140 characters is still way too much for most people), and my account is mostly used by a robot that links to new articles on this blog (I don't even remember what's the name of this Virtual American) but it's fun that Frank Wilczek became my 569th follower after I retweeted his very funny tweet encoding his opinions on the firewalls (which clearly agree with mine):
% Sorry for the "dark article". Unfortunately some science magazines have firewalls - to prove that they're not black holes, I guess.

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reader Tom Weidig said...

Great post but it's "heat" not "the heat". Heat is not a specific object that you can point to but a concept. All Eastern Europeans seem to make this mistake. Can you explain me why?

reader Eugene S said...

"Brrr... it's cold in here. Yo, man! Turn up the heat!"

reader Dream Chaser said...

Czech and other eastern European tongues do not have articles, so it is harder for us to use them without occasional mistakes.

reader Werdna said...

You've skipped over a bit of the history of the theory of heat. It wasn't until Antoine Lavoisier that the phlogiston theory of heat was completely rejected, and even then the caloric theory of heat prevailed for a time although you've jump over that straight to the mechanical theory.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Right, this is surely an example of a sentence with "the heat" that has shaped my feelings about this issue.

We don't use articles.

I have no idea how to internalize statements like "heat is a concept not object". They look 50% right, 50% wrong to me. Moreover, I don't understand why "concepts" should be written without "the". Almost none of these justifications just makes any sense to me. Native speakers of languages that use articles may think that they're rationally justifying something (they may have been trained to repeat these slogans as "justifications") but I don't think so.

The proof of Fermat's Last Theorem is also some concept, not an object, but it has "the", doesn't it? Czechoslovakia is a particular object without "the", isn't it? I just don't get anything here. It's about [the] memorization of [the] examples.

reader Werdna said...

How does one express ideas like the definite article as in "the one and only" rather than "this specific one of many" without The Definite Article?

reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL, "one" is "jeden", "and" is "a", "only" is "jediný", "one and only" is "jeden a jediný" and the word "the" in "one and only" is clearly redundant and plays no useful role in it, right?

"This" is "tento" is we point our fingers to some particular object. If we are not, there is no "this" or "tento" over there. "Specific" is "specifický" or "konkrétní", "one of many" is "jeden z mnoha", literally, word by word, but I just do not understand why I would add or not add any word like "the" in any of these phrases. What can they possibly mean?

A cat is drinking milk. The cat is drinking milk. What is the difference? In the first sentence, you apparently want to suggest that you know nothing about the identity of the cat. In the second, you want to pretend you know which cat it is.

However, in both cases, you still know something about the cat, namely that it is the cat that is drinking milk, and there are things that you do not know about the cat. So the situation seems to be the same in both cases. In practice, I use "a" when the cat appears for the first time, "the" later, so I was trained to use these redundant words in this way except that I do not understand what role either of them could possibly be playing, even in the simplest examples.

reader papertiger0 said...

It means he's busting your balls, or to be specific, he's busting you in the balls.

English class is taught in every year of grade school. Always hated it. Geography, physics, algebra, history, civics, these are all elective classes in America public school.
It's only P.E. and English that are obligatory.

Beyond it being a bit of arm twisting state coercion, which I balk at in any form to this day, English teachers irritate for a different reason that I could never quite put a finger on.
But you helped with this.

You can turn in a perfectly legible, logically consistent essay to an English teacher, and they will invent, from thin air it seems, violations of arbitrary and capricious rules to mark you down with.

The most famous English teacher in the world is Noam Chomsky.
He is their exemplar.

I don't think that's by mistake.

They're a vicious brood with sharp teeth. Keep your fingers away from the cage.

(At least when I bust your balls it's on substantive issues ;)

reader TheD.O.C said...

Come to think of it, I don't really know difference the articles make in this case. I never thought of it that way.

I heard (not sure whether it is true) that the Aboriginals do not use past tense. It is interesting to think, what language would be like stripped of all 'redundancies'. How deeply do these 'redundancies' affect the way we think? Hypnosis can remove (temporarily as far as I know) the concepts like the number '3' from the mind. Maybe all the symbolic logic we use in mathematics is a mere redundancy for another?

reader Werdna said...

I can understand compulsory English classes: people need to be able to communicate with one another, it's not really some horrible imposition, in my view. But I agree on PE, which is quite an imposition.

That being said I'm actually not in favor of compulsory education at all. But if you are going to go to school, you should learn to communicate.

It is a shame how bad a lot of teachers in general can be, though.

reader Werdna said...

In English, what I meant is that the definite article can be used to mean one and only, but with just the one word. I guess if you can still express the idea and it's less vague anyway it is sort of better.

reader papertiger0 said...

I'm with you on the need to communicate, but ...

Here's an example.

At the website Hotair Katie Pavlich posted a picture of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius being handed a copy of Web sites for Dummies, under the tag line "Kathleen Sebelius Gifted 'Web Sites For Dummies' book".

Look at the comment section. There are about five or six English teachers scolding/correcting/deflecting/diverting the conversation on the basis of the word "Gifted".

They aren't trying to communicate. They are doing the exact opposite.
Can't have people talking about Sebelius being an incompetent wannabe Nazi, so they flood the site with grammar correctors lamenting the woeful shape of the English language, and occasional calls for politics to reach a "higher plain" than this, very accurate illustration of who Kathy Sebelius is.

reader Werdna said...

Yeesh, that *is* unfortunate.

I'll be honest I do agree when the grammarian turns busybody they've gone too far. But in my own experience I had some good English teachers and some bad ones; what we need is a better way to weed out bad teachers in general.

reader Dilaton said...

Nice article :-)

I'd like and appreciate an expansion of the paragraph with the Hagedorn temperatur...

reader Vangel said...

"Fine. What is the money? Money is objects or

materials that guarantee that a person X – a physical person (human being) or a legal person (a company or an institution or a government) – that possesses the money will be able to use the money in the future to convince other persons, such as Y, to give or do certain things that are either needed for X to survive or that are making the life of X pleasant."

Money is just a circulating medium of exchange.

"... In other words, money is a tool that improves barter by allowing the persons to delay their consumption."

As I wrote above, money is a circulating medium of exchange. It can be anything but it must have certain qualities if it is to be picked by participants in a free market.

"But because the government promises a constant gold price and not an increasing one, it's obvious that it becomes increasingly attractive to buy the gold for this price once the "run on the gold banks" begins."

Please stop because you are absolutely clueless about money or its function. The free market wants money that can't be printed or created without effort. If you have a hard currency there will be no 'run' on the banks. All that you would have is a discipline that is imposed on the money printers not to keep inflating the supply of notes if they do not have the metal that is required to back them. This protects the purchasing power workers and savers because whatever commodity is chosen as money tends to retain its value. Hard currencies do not lose all of their purchasing power disappear but all fiat currencies do. The Federal Reserve Note has lost more than 90% of its value since Nixon closed the gold window as it has gone from $45 per ounce in 1971 to more than $1,000 per ounce today.

Your nonsense about bond buying being meaningless is also not factual because if it did not matter the Fed would not be doing it. The Fed is now in a bind. It has destroyed its balance sheet but its efforts have failed to stimulate real economic activity. The entire American economy is now dependent on financial speculation even as the general population is losing jobs, seeing its standard of living decline, and becoming more and more angry. Note that we have seen this type of story many times before. Japan tried it for decades and look where it is today. Zimbabwe did the same and it too is ruined. The US is in only a slightly better position because most central banks are just as clueless and just as desperate as the Fed and most economies are still struggling. But reality cannot be denied and sooner or later we will all have to face the consequences.

It would help you if you posted a little less about this and learned a little more by reading something that will teach you what you clearly do not know.

reader Vangel said...

Why is robbing savers of 2% of their purchasing power a good thing or helpful over the long run? Why is the transfer of wealth from workers, investors, and savers to the welfare/warfare state beneficial to individuals?

reader Vangel said...

It makes no sense at all. Inflation is theft by counterfeiting, something that is prohibited to the rest of us but permitted for the central planners who set our monetary policies. Central planning does not work except in some make believe world of socialists and national socialists.

reader John Archer said...

Nice! :)

reader John Archer said...

Tut tut, PaperTiger! You ended a sentence with a preposition. Go to the bottom of the class and fetch the cane!


Yeah, I hated those bastards too.

reader John Archer said...


Luboš, how do you say, "More than one is ... fewer than two are ..." in Czech?

It's fun beating up grammarians. Their logic is all over the place. Easy meat.

reader John Archer said...

Here's another one.

"Teacher, which is correct: 'The herd is grazing' or the herd are grazing'?"

Wait for the answer then kick the pedant in the teeth with the distinction between is set and its elements:

"No, you dumbarse. No herd can eat grass. Herd is an abstract concept, and abstract concepts don't eat grass, dummy!"

Either way, she's wrong. :)

reader Werdna said...

I made a narrow claim as to what I believe made sense, namely the idea that the rate should be consistent ie constant. Zero is a constant too, so one can maintain the claim that keeping a consistent rate makes sense within the stronger claim that a rate of zero is preferable.
I'm sympathetic to that idea, I think it has merit. My naive belief roughly aligns with it. So if perhaps the arguments were clearly explicated why there is an apparent disagreement here-with casting aspersions-I would rather enjoy it.

reader papertiger0 said...

This energized motion of the atoms is caused by what?
You left heat as an abstract without a causal agent.

Between a hand wave, and phlogiston I'll take phlo.

Why not think of heat as a river of oxides, enveloping us in it's waves?

reader Werdna said...

Heat is just the same thing that Work is, in a different form. It's the first law of thermodynamics. This is the thing we decide to call "energy" and it is a conserved quantity. Again, first law of thermodynamics.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Thanks, Milan, I don't really claim that they were complete fucktards. But there's really no qualitative difference between spot barter using some "non-essential" assets and a currency. The point is that if you reserve oxes or chicken or marten pelts or gold as something that makes you rich although you don't need them for immediate life, you are already creating a currency of a sort. But if no one asks you whether you're really using the chicken or anything or plan to eat them or just trade them, no one can distinguish spot barter from the usage of these objects as a currency.

reader d said...

given the subject matter of this post (a nice one, btw), and discussion in the comments sections, it's no surprise that our humble correspondent might at times feel frustrated enough to stop writing on real science ;)

reader Luboš Motl said...

I don't see in what sense "the" could possibly mean "one and only" in general.

For example, in your very comment, you talk about "express[ing] *the* idea". Does it mean that you are talking about an idea that is one and only? I don't think so. There are many possible ideas, in fact, [the] articles may express more than just one idea, and I don't even understand too well which idea you wanted to express by [the] redundant word. ;-)

The impression that your rule is also right and wrong approximately equally often may be demonstrated with any example of a set of words that may or may not use "the".

Take country names. The Soviet Union and the Czech Republic have "the", right? Russia and Czechia don't. But all these names represent countries that are "one and only" if interpreted in the majority way. Some of these country names have "the", others don't. Moreover, if you adopt a more general language which less important objects, it is not true that the Soviet Union is one and only. There were various other soviet unions across the world. But there has never been another Czech Republic except for "the" one. So the word "the" could be useful to differentiate "the Soviet Union" from other soviet unions like in Hungary 1919 but this can't be the justification for "the", either, because this justification of "the" is no good for the Czech Republic that has always been unique, anyway.

reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL, I am not sure why you want to translate the words or incomplete sentence (is it some idiom? Or do you want to talk about numbers like 1.5?) but it is translated word by word,

"Více než jeden je... méně než dva jsou..." - I don't see any subtlety in any of these sentences. The only complication seem to be [the] articles which seem redundant and arbitrary.

reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL, John, an equally hard problem.

I've seen many times that "a herd" or "the herd" or "herd" - pick whatever you want - is an abstract concept. But I just can't see how this sentence is anything else than "mostly a lie".

There is nothing abstract about a/the herd relatively to a/the cow, for example. A herd is damn too real. It's a group of cows or other animals acting in collectivist ways. In the same way, a/the cow is a collection of cells connected to a whole and acting to protect their common genes. What's a/the/_ difference here?

In Czech, a/the/_ herd has neuter gender but otherwise it is exactly the same kind of a noun as a cow, with the fully analogous rules how to make it singular,, plural, add "this" or "numbers" in front of it, and everything else that matters in grammar - despite the fact that the Czech grammar is rather complicated. I just don't understand any conceivable justification that would treat "cows" and "herds" differently. They're equally real, equally emergent, equally abstract, may be equally specific or equally unknown, sometimes "at least one", sometimes "one and only", I simply have no clue.

This is one of numerous examples of the fact that linguistics/grammar isn't a/the/_ science. The justifications of its rules don't really make sense. They're slogans and [the] children are forced to memorize them and pretend that they make sense except that they usually don't.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear papertiger, a/the good question. I subscribe to Werdna's comment but let me say it differently.

The thermal jiggling of atoms is their natural state of affairs. Once they jiggle, they can't just stop jiggling because the jiggling is kinetic energy and energy is conserved (just like in the law of inertia - things moving in one direction don't stop without the action of a force).

So at most, this energy is distributed equally between atoms, sort of - and this is the reason why a warmer object may heat up a cooler one.

If you ask historically where the energy came in the first place, it was soon after the Big Bang, after inflation, when "reheating" took place. Things were very cold before that but the overall kinetic energy of the inflaton was deposited to atoms.

But this isn't just "one" similar story or explanation in cosmology. One could find similar ones. The point is that it is absolutely normal - almost inevitable - for the temperature to be positive and for things to jiggle. On the contrary, you need quite some sophistication to reduce the temperature to T=0 and you really never get "quite" to T=0.

reader Luboš Motl said...

No one is robbiing savers of 2%. They are getting interest rates - or other returns if they choose other types of investment - and what the real returns on each of them is decided *by the market*, not by the Fed!

If there were a 15% inflation rate, it would *not* mean that someone is stealing 15% of real wealth from the savers. The interest rates would adjust so that they would be close to the 15% rate, too. The real returns would be absolutely the same as now!

This is just a fucking choice of a unit. Why can't people understand such a trivial thing?

If America switches from inches to centimeters, all the numerical values of lengths will increase 2.54 times. But that doesn't mean that you will be given 154% of your previously owned clothes for free. The numerical values of the length will be suddenly 154% greater but the meaning of the units will be 2.54 times smaller so you will have exactly the same length of clothes or anything as before. Can't you get *this* simple point? It is absolutely identical with the money.

reader John said...

I explained the second law's special status to my son by saying it's like another law that if you buy a lottery ticket you will always loose (except for the case where you win but we can safely ignore this case).

reader Smoking Frog said...

Tom - It's not only Eastern Europeans. Western languages differ in their uses of the articles. For example, English vs. Spanish: "heat is energy" is translates into Spanish as "el calor es la energia" (the heat is the energy); people address the president as "Señor El Presidente" (Mister The President); people refer to (say) Dr. Gomez as "el doctor Gomez" (the doctor Gomez).

reader Smoking Frog said...

Lubos - To understand the use of the articles, or to say that they're memorized nonsense, you can't be guided by your own guesses and the theories of commenters who may or may not know what they are talking about. You need to hear from a linguist. (I'm not one, of course.) But some things are very simple.

For example, the difference between "a dog" and "the dog" is that "the dog" refers to a dog which has somehow been identified in context, explicitly or not. If I were to speak of "a dog" to a guest in my home, meaning my dog, he would not understand me to be speaking of my dog.

The reason I don't say "this dog" is that I am not distinguishing him from other dogs which are implicitly or explicitly in context. The reason I don't say "that dog" is much the same, with some differences which I won't try to go into.

Different languages solve the problem of communication in different ways.

reader Smoking Frog said...

John - There's nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition, except in cases where it's clumsy. The idea that there's something wrong with it comes from a time not very long after the European languages had acquired written forms. Latin had been the universal means of communication, and someone thought the use of prepositions ought to be the same as in Latin. Winston Churchill, perhaps making fun of the "rule," once said about something, "This is the kind of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put."

reader Smoking Frog said...

"Gift" is both a noun and a verb. Dictionaries say so. Anyone in that thread who says otherwise is wrong.

reader Smoking Frog said...

Werdna, you're being too mild. People who complain about "grammar Nazis" are often right to complain, but this doesn't mean that grammar is unimportant.

reader Smoking Frog said...

Do you mean the Australian Aboriginals? There was an "authority" fairly early in the 20th century who said that the Hopi Indians had no tenses and no way of distinguishing past, present, and future. This was taught for decades. Later, when the Hopi learned of this teaching, they laughed; he had not learned the language well enough to know how they made the distinctions.

reader Smoking Frog said...

A cat is drinking milk. The cat is drinking milk. What is the
difference? In the first sentence, you apparently want to suggest that
you know nothing about the identity of the cat. In the second, you want
to pretend you know which cat it is.

Nonsense, Lubos. It's not pretending. "The cat" is a cat that is in context, but we could call it "a cat" if we were using it as an example of something, even though it's in context; e.g., "Here we see a cat drinking milk."

reader RAF III said...

I've been telling people for years that the odds of winning if you don't buy a ticket are about the same as if you do buy one. This seems to work a bit better than explaining that the expectation is less than the price of a ticket.

reader Eugene S said...

You know why sex with a teacher lasts so long?

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

reader Eugene S said...

The other well-known example is the Texan who came to Boston and asked, "Can you tell me where Harvard Yard's at?" Informed that he mustn't end a sentence with a preposition, he thanked that person and said, "Can you tell me where Harvard Yard's at, asshole?"

reader Eugene S said...

Right, the old debate between relativists (who think that differences in how languages express concepts affect and restrict thinking in different ways) and universalists (who think that these differences are but superficial) was more or less settled in favor of the universalists.

Occasionally it bubbles up again, for instance about a decade ago when news came in of the Piraha language. The Piraha are a tribe in the Amazon rain forest that count "One... two... many". They have no words for any quantity greater than two and cannot count beyond it. And they can't, or won't, be taught: an anthropologist who lived with them tried to and failed. Yet they are not intellectually retarded, they function well in their environment and interact with the outside world, trading with itinerant merchants for finished goods.

reader Eugene S said...

Take country names. The Soviet Union and the Czech Republic have "the", right? Russia and Czechia don't.
A good example! Someone might now say that the difference is obvious, namely that "republic" and "union" are generics which need to be qualified by the addition of "Czech" and "Soviet" plus the definite article whereas "Czechia" and "Russia" have no need of that. But then, why is it "the Gambia" and not "Gambia" (at least in British English?)

Epicycles upon epicycles upon epicycles.

And why has there not been a Keplerian revolution in language to radically simplify all this cruft and replace it with something orderly, systematic and hierarchical?

In part it's because of the haphazard way in which features of a language accumulate over time and the inertia that would have to be overcome. But equally as important is the function of language as a tool to distinguish insiders from outsiders, natives from immigrants, speakers of a more elaborated code from those who have not mastered all the rules and the even greater number of exceptions from the rules.

We should all learn Esperanto :)

reader Vangel said...

"I made a narrow claim as to what I believe made sense, namely the idea that the rate should be consistent ie constant. "

Why would the rate be consistent? In a free market the change in rates would reflect changing time preferences. It makes no sense that they would not change in a human society and no spin by the central planners will change the logic.

"Zero is a constant too, so one can maintain the claim that keeping a consistent rate makes sense within the stronger claim that a rate of zero is preferable."

How do you know what is preferable? From what I can tell you are not omniscient. Why not let the free market set the rates and get rid of the central planners that meddle because they think that they know better than anyone else?

Note that the Obamacare argument is exposing a similar issue. The government decided that it cannot let people decide on what kind of coverage is sufficient and forced them to meet a certain standard that excludes benefits that are not as generous or more generous than that standard. How is that working out?

I do not mean to question motives. My point is that Hayek was right about planners not being able to control what they think that they understand.

reader Eugene S said...

Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) is one of my heroes.

Although you misleadingly claimed that "the Austrians" (a term usually taken to include both Hayek and Mises) advocated for the gold standard, yet you were forced to admit that only Mises (and later, Rothbard) did.

As you are fond of handing out reading assignments, here is one for you: research why Hayek was not a "gold bug".

reader Cesar Laia said...

3 naif questions, probably covered somewhere else in this blog (in which case I can try to dig it when I have time):
1- How is noise treated in this data, in order to generate trends? It is obvious that many fluctuations are due to some minor and random effects, but they might have a large impact on the trends when the slope is almost zero given the short time span...
2- Probably related. I would expect that some periodicity should arrive from the data. This discussion is sometimes missing, I guess because there are not many reliable data from the past. But is there a periodicity that can be linked to things like solar activity?
3- Finally, how can all the data be related to things from the past such the warm period in middle ages or little ice age? Is it done?

reader Vangel said...

"No one is robbing savers of 2%."

Of course they are. If the free market rate would set the rate at 6% they are getting a third of the rate that they would otherwise get.

You my friend are still supporting the rule of central planners, whether you care to admit it or not. I have to tell you that at one level I am somewhat surprised.

"They are getting interest rates - or other returns if they choose other types of investment - and what the real returns on each of them is decided *by the market*, not by the Fed!"

But this is also not true. The Fed's liquidity injections affect other prices and the returns have nothing to do with free markets. Do you really think that a housing bubble, which ruined many people, could have been created without the central banks injecting massive amounts of credit into the system and regulators turning a blind eye to securitization problems that were evident to anyone with the ability to reason? Do you really think that Greek or American long bonds would have fetched such high prices in a free market?

What you are missing is the function of prices in coordinating resource allocation decisions. Socialism does not work because individual actors cannot get the proper information about demand through a market price system. The planners, who are usually the best and the brightest, don't know whether they should invest in opening up new mines or producing consumer goods. Without a market 'price' for various goods there is no way to determine what should attract more capital and what should be denied capital.

The best way to understand this is to actually read Mises' essay, "Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth," which was being cited by Václav Klaus many times even though Klaus was far more Keynesian and Monetarist than Austrian in his actions, if not his views. This essay was attacked by the Socialists from the time it was published in the 1920s until the fall of the USSR, when they finally admitted that Mises had been right.

It was no accident that Hitler sent the SS to take away Mises' papers when Germany gained control of Austria or why Stalin had those same papers sent to Moscow where they were to be examined to see if Mises had figured out a way to make a planned economy work. But thanks to Hitler and Stalin the papers were saved and scholars will be publishing new Mises material decades after the great economist died.

The best way to understand why you are wrong is to look at Mises', Master Builder example. I will provide that in the response below.

reader Vangel said...

Master Builder example...continued...

Think of a master builder who has access to a fixed amount of bricks, shingles, window panes, doors, copper pipes, etc., as well as the labor of many workers. Suppose that the individuals who are in charge of determining the supply of bricks makes an error and determines that there are 12% more bricks than actually exist. Our master builder looks at the amount of material that is available and creates the blueprint for a house. Because he does not know that the brick volume is overestimated, he creates a plan that cannot be carried out because there are not enough bricks to complete the house as designed.

It should be clear that the best time to learn of the error is early in the process. But suppose that the builder doesn't find out until the foundation are complete and the frame is up. If the builder can't go into the markets and get more bricks the builder will have to redo the blueprints and reduce the size of the house while leaving the foundations the same size and getting rid of material that cannot be salvaged. His finished house will be of lower quality and smaller.

Of course, that is a relatively benign condition. Suppose that the builder is kept being deceived because his subordinates want to keep working for as long as possible. When the discovery is finally made the builder will be ruined. Note that in this example the problem is not overinvestment, but malinvestment, of resources. The issue was not how many bricks should be used but the allocation on too many bricks to the first floor.

The Fed’s actions lead to deception of individuals who make decisions about investment. During the housing bubble individuals took on very large amounts of debt as they borrowed to consume imported goods. The talking haircuts on the financial sites justified the spending because the extra debt was offset by rising house prices. After the housing bubble have popped, Americans found themselves in the same position as our master builder who discovered that the number of bricks was insufficient to build the house. Instead of realizing that cutting consumption is prudent, the Fed flooded the system with liquidity. So instead of revising his plans because there weren’t enough bricks our master builder is deceived into thinking that the bricks that are needed will be there.

In a free market malinvestments created by artificially low rates would have to be liquidated so that the economy can start to recover as it bounces off a sound foundation. The government and central banks need to get out of the way. Sadly, that is not happening and all we are seeing is the propping up of a bond bubble that will not be containable once individuals figure out what is really going on.

reader Luboš Motl said...


1) there's no way to divide similar measured data (temperature as a function of time) into "signal" and "noise". It's the whole purpose of this method to calculate the slope, the linear regression

to make a guess about the slope of the trend despite the presence of the noise. The linear regression, see the link above, replaces the chaotic curve (for each interval) by a straight line "y = ax + b" where "a,b" are chosen so that the

sum (over x, time, in the interval) [ ax+b - yMEASURED(x) ]^2

is minimized. So that's why it's called the "method of least squares" in general.

2) There should be visible periodicities like the solar activity in these datasets (temperature anomalies) if they existed except that if one looks, he won't find any clearcut strong enough (significant) periodic signal in the data, like a 11-year or 22-year periodicity.

3) These satellite data only began in the late 1970s. They were no useful enough climate satellites before that. One may go back to 1850 or so with the help of weather stations that are less reliable and accurate. Only several cities in the world recorded temperatures 200+ years ago. If the satellite had existed for 2000 years, the extended graph would almost certainly show lower temperatures in the Little Ice Age and higher temperatures in the Medieval Warm Period.

reader Cesar Laia said...

My conclusion, therefore, is that the slope is zero within the the fluctuation. It is the only conclusion that I can take: no meaningful temperature change. Given that, it is really kind of pointless all the discussion about climate change with this set of data in my opinion.

I find, nevertheless, surprising that such type of periodicity is not strong in the data. In terms of modelling, I would always be tempted to fit the data including a sin(x) function, and afterwards I would try to see if there's some link. It's nonexistence is maybe an important result.

Of course, I think the Medieval Warm Period is crucial to understand how climate changes over time. If I was a climate scientist, I think that would be the topic that I would try to understand even if it is rather hard.

reader Vangel said...

I think that you misunderstand what I wrote. I do not believe that I wrote that Austrians presume to advocate any particular monetary commodity as the standard. They just want the market to decide what a currency would be backed by and argue that history would suggest that gold or silver would be that choice. For Austrians all that is required is the repeal of the legal tender laws and the rest takes care of itself as the market will decide what the circulating media of exchange should be.

As for Hayek, he is not exactly an Austrian in many of his later views. Both Mises and Hayek had a far larger tolerance for government than anyone who followed their arguments to their rightful conclusion could accept. Many Austrians consider him to be a statist even though they favour many of his arguments bout planning and design.

reader Eugene S said...

I'm pretty sure that you cited the Austrian school of economists in support of your advocacy of the gold standard or gold-backed money. That's why I asked you for references and as it turned out, you could only give me Mises and Rothbard but not Hayek.

market will decide what the circulating media of exchange should be
Then what's stopping you? My good man, define a rate of exchange -- 1 Vangel = x grains of gold -- and print your own currency! License the right to print Vangels, contingent on people putting the equivalent amount of gold into a repository. Get local merchants to accept Vangels as a medium of exchange. The power of free enterprise, the beauty of free association.

The gold-backed Vangel can then prove its superiority over fiat money in the marketplace.

reader Peter Fred said...

Lubos writes: "You will get a very small number of kilograms because k is multiplied by 1/c^2 to get a 'supersmall' change of each atom's mass....

Your certified colleague A. Dmitriev has obtained an easily measured change of weight of a test mass subjected to heat in several published studies.

In 1916 P.E. Shaw also found a change of weight of a test mass due to heat and he created quite a stir. Dmitriev (and I) easily confirm Shaw's finding but we do not get any reaction. We get ignored. As you well know Newton said, "You sometimes speak of gravity as essential and inherent to matter. Pray do not ascribe that notion to me for the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know." I subject my test mass to heat on the bottom and coldness on the top and I get a 4-9% increase in weight. My results get less attention than Dmtriev's. Alice got out of "Alice in Wonderland" by waking up. It is that difficult to face they facts of experiments that will get us out of the wonderland that we live in. You guys are up there with there with Galileo's colleagues who would not look through his telescope to see the phases of Venus and let him live out his days in house arrest.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Smoking Frog, I have heard those things 50 times even at high school, and I know this rule about the identified dog, but it doesn't make the justifications rational.

Linguistics isn't really [a] science. It's a retroactive justification of things that people randomly started to say in the past for no good reason.

reader Dilaton said...

Who ordered that folly :-(0) ... ?!

reader Werdna said...

I'm sorry, I got the impression *you* were saying that zero inflation was the preferred rate.

You are right that I am not omniscient, that's why I don't claim to know what the "right" rate prices should change on average over time is.

So please clarify how you can make a strong statement that inflation is "theft by counterfeiting", and *not* be saying that inflation should be at a constant rate of zero? Forget about who is setting it-after all, if the market chose to set the inflation rate as non zero, would that not *still* be "theft by counterfeiting?"

I'm sympathetic to the idea of letting the market decide things, very much so. I suspect the market deciding would prefer a zero or near zero rate. So if one prefers the market decide, are not one's preferences about the rate of inflation *the same* as the market's?

Put that another way: Do you think the market would *prefer* a zero rate, or a non zero rate? I know you don't know, I known you will say you can't *presume* to know. But if you are willing to guess as to the preferred monetary standard of the market, why not on the preferred inflation rate?

reader Werdna said...

Uh, probably because he'd get sent to a federal prison.

reader Vangel said...

"I'm pretty sure that you cited the Austrian school of economists in support of your advocacy of the gold standard or gold-backed money."

Then you should have no trouble providing me with an exact quote and a link to it. I am not saying that I many not have been sloppy when putting down my thoughts. But I am saying that it is foolish to state that the Austrians are foolish enough to presume that they can fill the role of central planners even as they argue against the impossibility of effective central planning.

"Then what's stopping you?"

The legal tender laws. They prevent the adoption of competing circulating monetary media.

reader Vangel said...

I am sorry if some of my statements may seem harsh. I am engaged in a debate with 'left libertarians' who keep changing the meaning of words and use faulty reasoning to justify claims that are not logical so I have a tendency to insist on a big more clarity.

"So please clarify how you can make a strong statement that inflation is "theft by counterfeiting", and *not* be saying that inflation should be at a constant rate of zero?"

Inflation is simply an increase in the supply of money. When demand for money increases there is nothing wrong with the private markets stepping up and providing more of it. That means that I do not think that it makes sense to argue that the supply of money should not change.

When I say inflation is theft I refer to the creation of money and credit by central banks that have the monopoly over money creation. I agree that the central banks should not create any inflation because printing of money is theft.

"Forget about who is setting it-after all, if the market chose to set the inflation rate as non zero, would that not *still* be "theft by counterfeiting?""

No. Markets respond to real demand by real individuals. They are not central planners manipulating expectations and creating money out of thin air. The Fed created $3 trillion out of thin air in nine months. That is theft and has nothing to do with the market.

reader Werdna said...

Okay I think I see where some of the confusion is coming from-the difference between inflation as an increase in the supply of money, and *price inflation* which is almost always what people think of when they say "inflation."
Moreover the only way I could be said to be robbed of anything is by price inflation since as long as my dollar could still buy the same amount of "stuff" I still own something worth just as much "stuff" and therefore haven't lost anything. So when someone speaks of inflation as theft by counterfeiting, it seems natural to assume they mean *price inflation* since merely increasing the money supply to meet money demand would create no price inflation.

reader BMWA1 said...

Time to put in Saltillo tile!

reader Eugene S said...

Why would he get sent to federal prison? Where do you get that idea from, I did not propose that he counterfeit U.S. dollars but that he add his gold-backed Vangel currency to the already populous zoo of complementary currencies, community currencies, alternative currencies, local currencies, and private currencies, all or most of which are legal to use by consenting adults.

The more the merrier and may the best currency win!

reader Rehbock said...

That sucks. :-)
I don't like carpet. It is far less easy to keep clean than wood and rock floors. I have never found any vacumn that worked as well or fast on the carpets as a broom on hard surface.
Anyway even the best of vacumns are not too good in my experience. If I were banning things it would be the ones that don't work not the only ones that do.

reader Eugene S said...

I think you mean grammar, not linguistics. Linguistics is a humanity but like the other humanities, it has become much more quantitative and more like science in some respects.

reader Gene Day said...

While I totally agree with you view on big-brother government, vacuum cleaners are uniformly of extremely poor design. Actually, you cannot use more than about 300 watts of moving air power in a household vacuum cleaner because the carpet would be sucked into the machine thereby cutting off the airflow. This means that if a vacuum cleaner had an efficient air path (assuming also that the machine is set at the optimum height off the carpet) and if the motor and impeller were efficient designs you could not use more than about electrical 400 watts in a good machine; it simply would not work. Two-motor designs would user more plower, naturally, but not much.

Because people have been led to believe that more electrical power means more mechanical power the manufacturers have no motivation for efficiency in their designs. In fact, inefficient motors and inefficient impellers (with shitty bearings) are much cheaper to produce.
I often marvel at the tortuous air paths and waste heat of current designs. I have one 1200 watt (bagless) machine with a small output port of about 50 sq cm and have observed the temperature of the outflow air to be about the same as a 1200 watt hair dryer. It is an air heater with a little cleaning power on the side. The mechanical efficiency (electricity to airflow power) of this machine is a lot less than 25% and that is typical.
If European buyers purchase an 1800 watt machine they are going to be heating a lot of air and doing very little work in comparison.
I have done a great many airflow calculations, Lubos, and I do know what I am talking about.

reader Gene Day said...

We, too, are facing plastic bag restrictions. I am pissed because we have three (indoor) cats and one big dog. Now we will have to buy plastic bags.

reader Werdna said...

Not true:

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Gene, you admit yourself that the efficient motors are more expensive.

How much money do I have to pay for a vacuum cleaner with the same output power but with 1800W of my vacuum to be reduced to 500W? If the extra price is more than 10 dollars, it is clearly no good because my vacuum cleaner will not consume more than 10 dollars for electricity in its lifetime.

If someone is forcing me by force and threats to buy a much more expensive vacuum, he is a criminal and should be executed.

reader Werdna said...

If manufacturers make shitty high power models why would they suddenly make really good low powered models instead of *even shittier* low powered models?

reader Eugene S said...

O.K., fine, you found one that has been declared illegal. Other alternative currencies, however, evidently are legal:

And even that Liberty Dollar may yet become legal if the guy wins his pending appeal.

My main point stands: Vangel should start an alternative currency that embodies the principles he believes in. If he feels excessively restricted by the applicable laws, then he will first have to work to get those laws changed... or move to a country that is less strict about the forms that alternative currencies may take.

reader Eugene S said...

What happened to Feedburner? The last TRF article to be updated to Feedburner was "Evolving perspectives on temperature" yesterday, the three articles since then haven't come online...

reader Luboš Motl said...

Interesting, the built-in comment counters stopped at the same point:

reader strictly speaking... said...


Time to get a roomba and compensate for the lower efficiency by vaccuming 24/7.

reader Werdna said...

I picked the Liberty Dollar because it is the closest thing to what you specifically suggested. It's not the *only* alternative currency that has been declared illegal, though.

Ithaca hours are pegged to the US dollar and aren't really anything at all like what you were suggesting he do.

reader RAF III said...

You shouldn't doubt the capabilities of the government.

They may soon eliminate many forms of cancer: .

This will surely help to solve the many problems of Obamacare.

reader Petr said...

I agree that ban of vacuum cleaners is stupid. However ban or taxation of plastic bags is welcomed by me. I live far from sea, but nearby woods and meadows are polluted by plastic bags too. Replacement of them by some organical material, that will last only short time is vital.

reader Shannon said...

I suspect this is the first's EU step to eventually ban carpet. But why?

reader Vangel said...

"Okay I think I see where some of the confusion is coming from-the difference between inflation as an increase in the supply of money, and *price inflation* which is almost always what people think of when they say "inflation.""

Correct. What I meant was that inflating the supply of money by creating it out of thin air is robbery. Frankly, I do not care when free markets drive up the price of goods because the price changes send a signal that coordinate factors of production to produce goods and services that are in demand. When the price of ice or baby formula goes up after a hurricane the price spike tells people outside of the stricken area to bring in more as quickly as possible and rations what is available so that those that need it most will have access.

At the same time price declines can work to send signals that there is too much of something. When there are too many technology companies that are burning through cash without hope of profit, too many shale producers relying on debt to fund capital destroying operations, or too many condos built in an area where there is insufficient demand the price can go down even if monetary inflation is still going on.

"Moreover the only way I could be said to be robbed of anything is by price inflation since as long as my dollar could still buy the same amount of "stuff" I still own something worth just as much "stuff" and therefore haven't lost anything."

Suppose the Fed doubles the supply of dollars tomorrow and hands them out. Your purchasing power just went down because the Fed robbed you by its counterfeiting operations. Surely you can see why money printing is equivalent to theft.

"So when someone speaks of inflation as theft by counterfeiting, it seems natural to assume they mean *price inflation* since merely increasing the money supply to meet money demand would create no price inflation."

Perhaps but what do you mean by 'price inflation'? After all, the Fed just blew up another housing bubble, made the bond bubble bigger, and got stock prices up to record levels. The cost of services, gasoline, oil, and food has also gone up. Yet, the 'reported' inflation does not account for most of these increases.

Not everyone has the same basket of goods and services so it is silly to pretend that a manipulated basket chosen and adjusted by the BLS is representative of what the average person is experiencing. And please do not try to give me that you have to adjust for improvements stuff. Yes, there are some improvements but the issue is what would people pay for those changes. I know that many would dump their new 'energy efficient' dishwashers and washing machines for older style machines that managed to clean their clothes properly and dry their dishes after the cycle was complete. That $5.50 CFL bulb may look like a good deal because it supposedly saves energy but it isn't a very good deal when it breaks and spews toxic chemicals in your home. That gasoline additive that was mandated by the EPA may seem to be an improvement but it isn't when it is found to cause cancer or to corrode your engine faster.

My preference is for a free market system. Note that producers in such a system would be more than happy to supply you with all of the higher cost items that progressives say that we would consume if only we were as smart as they are. As I wrote before, if the legal tender laws were gone you and Luboš would still free to use Federal Reserve Notes issued by the Fed without limit and the rest of us would have the option to choose our preferred media of exchange.

reader Vangel said...

The American government is hardly the first group of thieves to destroy the language for political reasons. Most of the world does not count the death of premature babies so its longevity statistics look better. I imagine that under Obamacare we might see the US government accept this 'improved' methodology.

reader Shannon said...

I agree. I must say I do like walking with my dirty boots inside my house... I hate when I go to some people where you have to remove your shoes before walking into their house. Sissies.

reader Eugene S said...

That wikipedia link... You're kidding, right?

On July 8, 2007, Cruz attempted to evict employees of a Palmetto Bay, Florida branch of the Bank of America. He was accompanied by 30 of his
followers, 10 of whom were dressed as armed guards, and he presented a "court order" supposedly issued by "The United Cities Private Court."
The "court order" referenced a pending $15.25 billion lawsuit against the Bank of America filed by Cruz in Miami-Dade County Court the month before. Cruz had claimed the bank had wronged him because an Orlando branch of Bank of America refused to cash $14.3 million in United Cities"bank drafts."[8]
Yeah. I guess his "currency was declared illegal". You might also say that John Wilkes Booth violated a local ordinance against making noise during a theater performance! Mr. Cruz is a Grade A USDA approved nutcase and a criminal, his "currency" is completely incidental.

In any case, happy that we now have determined Vangel's beef. It's that he feels burdened by federal "legal tender" laws that won't let him issue his own gold-backed currency. So, let him take his case to the public -- I guess he's decided to launch his campaign here -- and to Congress. Apparently Ron Paul is already working on his behalf, so his case is in good hands ;)

By the way, have you noticed how in recent mass shootings the killer is reported by the media as being furious about (among other things) "fiat money"? Let's hope this doesn't turn into a trend.

reader RAF III said...

And have you noticed how in recent mass shootings the killer is reported by the media as being in the Tea Party?
And have you noticed how none of them were?

reader Werdna said...

That he is a nutcase is irrelevant to the point.

reader Gene Day said...

Of course the government should stay out of all product design issues that don’t involve safety. In fact, if child safety is not involved the government should stay the hell out of that area, too.
I’m guessing here but I think a more efficient motor, in the range of 80% or so, would add a dollar or two to the direct product cost. This would increase the retail price by about 5 to 10 dollars.
You are quite right that vacuum cleaners (not used by professionals) consume an insignificant amount of energy.
Vacuum cleaners are very poorly made but the market alone can and should determine the optimum cost vs. quality trade-off.
Execution may be a bit extreme however.

reader Gene Day said...

I have never seen a government-mandated product design issue that did not in increase product cost significantly. This hits hardest the people who can least afford it and lowers the standard of living for everyone. In addition, many of these requirements even fail to achieve their aims.
I agree with Lubos that the motivation of these do-gooders is raw power.
Banning carpeted floors would increase housing costs, increase the noise level and cause elderly folks to fall more often, especially on stairs. Also, it would have zero benefit except for the bureaucrats that enforce the ban.

reader Rehbock said...

Execution may be too severe in case of vacuums but I think the dim wits who ban lights and the scum that have made toilets crappy....
And why is child safety the business of government?. That is what parents are for.

reader Dimension10 (Abhimanyu PS) said...

Huh? Banning Plastic bags?

What's this worry about plastic? The EU obviously doesn't realise that plastic is used as a substitute for many products that actually involve killing animals.

reader papertiger0 said...

Well, you know, some people have a way with words, and when you make your living through communication, you won't go far if you don't have...



reader John Archer said...

Thanks for that, Luboš.

Well, first off, I agree with you fully! :)

My target was slightly different though. Unfortunately I was too elliptical.

What I was getting at (and should have made clear) was the tendency for some grammarians to rationalise where it is unwarranted, and what I was really aiming here was the standard 'logic' used by the grammarian to force the conclusion on others that one should use the singular verb rather than the plural since 'herd' is singular. QED as he might say.

However, the grammarian is using an argument based purely on form here. So those are the rules then? OK. Excellent. This leaves him open to be played precisely at his own game and for his opponent to indulge in a bit of oneupmanship. With the shitty shift to set theoretical considerations (pure form!) I am playing him on his own turf, and in my view winning hands down. I won't back down from that claim either! :)

But then what this shows is precisely what you argue, namely that—if I may paraphrase you very loosely—grammatical 'logic' is pretty much crap and a lot is simply convention.

I generally go along with most grammatical conventions though, at least when and to the extent that I'm conscious of them, but I'm sure I occasionally indulge in the odd howler, mostly unwittingly I'm sure, but sometimes deliberately.

Of course, not all grammarians (or would-be grammarians) are narrow minded pedants running on clockwork but enough of them are and like to tell others what they can and cannot say. These are the game players. I say play them. Run yours studs down their shins. That's all. :)

On a final note, I should say that I don't hold real grammarians in low regard at all. On the contrary, I think they help things along a lot and I generally find their stuff useful. I like Fowler and have copy of his book ( In fact it's the sort book every civilised person should have on his bookshelf in the lavatory. It's just right for relieving those brief moments of boredom and improving one's mind while dropping the kids off at the pool. :)

Actually, I don't have my copy of Fowler to hand but I'm pretty sure he says "a number of are ..."—as in "a number of physicists are working on the problem..."—is the correct usage — plural verb here. And now it's my turn: QED. :)

reader John Archer said...

Smoking Frog,

Yep! I agree with you too, in all of that. I heard pretty much the same too, and the one about Churchill, a nice put down. :)

How are you on splitting infinitives? :)

Generally I don't do it, although I notice the occasional one slipping through. [Note to self: Tut tut!] There occasions though when it seems more than right, so I'll do it then.

I never watched much Star Trek but certainly old enough to have and I'm familiar with the criticism of its "to boldly go...". I think the critics are wrong and Kirk right with the intentionality ('boldly') closely coupled to the verb, which is where it should be in this case, in my view. I see it as one word, one notion.

Besides, "To venture fifth where no man has ventured forth before" doesn't really quite do it, does it? :)

reader Casper said...

In my experiments with leaving plastic supermarket bags lying randomly about the backyard, I have invariably found that they decompose in the weather fairly quickly. I assume that this is due to UV radiation. Therefore, while I am in no doubt that plastic junk in the ocean is a serious problem, it is surely not from plastic bags.

reader Luboš Motl said...

I dislike mess in the forests as well - and have worked several times to clean them, by the way. But could you please link to an image of the alternative bag you are referring to?

reader anna v said...

The past year or so the EU had required biodegradable plastic bags in supermarkets . They do biodegrade if you make the mistake of storing something in them for a year. The become tiny plastic fragments and dust. Even though I do not swear , a number of xxxxx have come out of my mouth in discovering the damage.

The other thing is maybe the fish are OK, but our sand gets a level of plastic sand, because those tiny fragments do not biodegrade fast enough.

reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL, you would really hate all of Czech cities because this is the universal etiquette here.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Oops, I know that annoying feeling or taste.

reader anna v said... It is biodegradable plastic , and we already have it in the supermarkets. I thought it was an EU directive, but maybe it was because we are a tourist country and floating bags are bad news for tourists in the sea.

reader TomVonk said...

Sure. Higher power doesn't necessarily mean higher suction except that it almost always does due to the most general laws of physics such as energy conservation, assholes.
That s all I have to say too.

reader petrossa said...

Industrial vacuumcleaners (the ones that can take water as well) fall outside the regulation, so just buy them. Problem solved.

reader Shannon said...

Lol. I had to do this when living in Sweden and in some friends house in the UK. I sooo hated it and this affected my mood each time. When people are about to remove their shoes when stepping into my house I always command them to keep them on no matter how dirty they are. They just wipe their shoes on the doormat.

reader Smoking Frog said...

Linguistics doesn't try to "justify" any particular way of talking. It tries to describe and explain ways of talking. By "explain," I mean, e.g., explain the meanings that various language features represent.
Articles: All languages have words or word parts that indicate degrees of definiteness. The Western languages do this with articles and the demonstrative adjectives and pronouns (this, that). The fact that the Slavic languages get along without articles does not mean that the articles are meaningless or irrational. There is a real difference between the meanings of "a dog" and "the dog." As I said, if I were to use "a dog" to refer to my dog in speaking to a guest, he would not understand me correctly. Of course, I could use "my dog," but I could not do it repeatedly, since he'd wonder why I was making so much of the fact that the dog is mine.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Smoking Frog, if you say "a dog", it means "some dog", and you want to emphasize that you don't care which dog it is. So it is indeed bizarre or incorrect to say "a dog" if you want to talk about a particular dog such as yours.

However, if you just say "dog" without articles, just like Slavic speakers would tend to do before they're exposed to the existence of articles in English, there is nothing wrong with it. One may say "my dog" or "our dog" but one doesn't need to. It's just "dog" and no real problems arise if the articles are omitted. The only reason why "give food to dog", referring to your dog - when everyone knows which dog is probably relevant in the sentences - sounds "wrong" is that English and other languages got used to [the] articles. There is nothing deeper behind it.

reader Smoking Frog said...

Eugene - I strongly favor the universalists, but not enough to say that language never constrains thought.

I thought I had read that the Piraha children could learn numbers, but not the adults.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Smoking Frog, some linguists may avoid attempts to rationalize features of the language that people got used to. But you - and Noam Chomsky - are not among them. You are clearly trying to rationalize them. The same is true about the comrade from MIT. But most features of the language are just random mutations, there is a lot of "junk DNA" in any language, to use a metaphor with genetics.

The fact that Slavic languages may work and do work without articles *does* prove that [the] articles are unnecessary. It does *not* imply that the appearance of [the] articles is lethal for the intelligibility of a language - English proves that it is *not* lethal - but they are not necessary, either.

reader Smoking Frog said...

OK, I don't know what to say.

reader Smoking Frog said...

Most split infinitives are OK with me, and modern authorities also hold this view, but there are cases where I think the splitting is bad. For example, it's bad to split an infinitive with the word "not," and it's bad to split it with an adverbial phrase.

reader Smoking Frog said...

Hah-hah, but there's no need of "at" in that sentence. It would have been better for the Texan to say, "Can you tell me where Harvard Yard is?" By the same token, the other person is stupid to think the problem is preposition-at-end-of-sentence.

reader Eugene S said...

You are clearly trying to rationalize them
I am? That's news to me ;)

In fact, I've pointedly avoided stating a rule, or set of rules that would tell one when to use the definite or the indefinite article or no article at all. That's because I am all too aware of the pitfalls that lie that way.

One has to be very careful in formulating the rule and very diligent in enumerating the exceptions -- and chances are that there will still be mistakes and omissions in something as seemingly simple as a/the. So, I leave that to the grammarians (and Peter Shor, LOL).

Of course you could excise "the" and "a" from English and people would still be able to communicate. We all know "Russian English" from watching Yakov Smirnoff on TV and telling "In Soviet Russia... " jokes ;)

Ebonics is proof that even a radically stripped down version of English will still be functonal. (Though I would not advise its use in writing for publication.)

Contingency -- historical accident -- and the desire to demarcate boundaries and privilege "insiders" over "outsiders" are the two main obstacles that have stood in the path of a rational organization of language.

reader Eugene S said...

About the children, that would make sense if indeed they have no congenital abnormality.

reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL, Eugene, I surely agree with you that you haven't formulated the rules when to use the articles of one kind or another (or no articles). No one else has managed to do such a thing, either! ;-) The rules that would avoid all mistakes would be so extensive that enumerating 1,000 examples and telling the person to find the "most similar example" to the situation he faces may be more efficient.

Right. Ebonics may be associated by some people with some negative connotations but when these things are carefully removed, there's really nothing "worse" about it in comparison with the official English.

Ebonics also tends to ignore much of the history of the language, the Latin roots of many things, and so on, but proper English is doing much of the same thing, too.

reader Eugene S said...

How can you answer so quickly? Do you cheat? What I mean is, does Disqus already show you my first and second draft the moment I start typing in the empty comment box?

reader Smoking Frog said...

I don't claim that the articles are necessary. I claim that they mean something. In that sense, yes, I'm trying to rationalize them.

More precisely, I don't know any Slavic language, so I don't know if Slavic languages have any features that compensate for the absence of articles.

reader petr said...

Ok, I should have used term "Biodegradable". Anyway even the old good paper is better material than plastic.
In more general view it is a fight of human rights. Is more a right to do anything I want or the right to live in a clean environment? Another similar issue is the discussion about right to check what people are using in their home heating and thus the right to check their homes. The truth is that in every town are few idiots that burn plastic and current law is mostly useless against them. And those few idiots spoil the air of the whole town.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Petr, it is surely not right to use the word "right" for someone's desire to choose his environment. One can't "demand" a completely clean or luxurious environment or absence of any morons in the environment and so on. A government may help to make such things true but they're surely not a "right" of anyone because it costs lots of money and an advanced enough society to achieve such things. If a society isn't advanced or rich enough to achieve such properties of the environment, they won't be achieved. But the failure to achieve those things wasn't a violation of a right or a moral failure of the society - it was a reflection of its being insufficiently wealthy and/or of its different priorities.

On the other hand, the ban on producing or selling or buying useful products is always a violation of the human freedom.

reader jean said...

The fact is that carbon dioxide emissions caused by humans are a major contributor to global warming and we should switch to more environment-friendly sources of energy . Anyone who says otherwise is a complete crackpot .

reader Luboš Motl said...

The only problem is that there has been no global warming in 2 decades, it's questionable whether there will be any in the future, it's unlikely that if a global warming reappeared, it would be bad for the environment, so for all these reasons, switching to carbon-free sources of energy is a symptom of irrationality.

If you can't live without insults against people who are far smarter and you and if you're trying to write a comment on the Internet despite your complete lack of intelligence and education on the issues, you should at least learn that there is no space in front of the period at the end of a sentence.

reader Jiri Moudry said...

"[Fed's] efforts have failed to stimulate real economic activity" - so you agree that the bond buying is meaningless?

reader Vangel said...

Not at all. While the central banks' creation of around $1 trillion globally over a nine month period has failed to stimulate the real economy it has been great for the transfer of wealth from the middle class and savers to the financial system and the rich. That is hardly meaningless.