Tuesday, December 08, 2009

While Thinking About Climategate, Copenhagen

Freakonomics recently had a nice article on Climategate as a Rorshach test. Original coverage here. For the record, I originally read Climategate thinking, "One the one hand, a lot of academics have these sort of aggressive private conversations about their dissatisfaction with their data. On the other hand, the data really should have been released years ago if we're going to set global policies based on it."

Fossil fuels have undeniably bad side effects, but cheap energy means cheap everything. Not just luxury goods, but also cheap food on the table and cheap clothes on the backs of a ton of impoverished folks around the world. Research facilities, schools and hospitals all benefit from cheap power. Moves to reduce access to cheap energy will work like a consumption tax on everything. Consumption taxes are regressive, so ultimately higher energy prices end up as just another way to rape the poor.

Not only is cheap power good for the poor, it also has conservational benefits. We often substitute water for power and vice versa, reduced use of one necessarily means increased use of the other in agriculture and manufacturing. (See NYT journalist Charles Duhigg's work on water conservation for details).

So granting that fossil fuel consumption leads to terrible harms, reduced access to cheap energy leads to terrible harms as well.

There's a scene in Gore's film where he says that moving off carbon it's a question of rich people getting piles of gold or global annihilation. That's an unfair picture on both sides of the analysis, and it trivializes the problem.

But here's the part of the story that excites me. Solar, unlike any other power technology, responds to Moore's Law. As Ray Kurzweil points out, we are generating twice as much of our power from solar panels every couple years. While every other power generation technology is increasing linearly, or stalling out in competition with cheap-as-in-nearly-free coal, solar is doubling its deployment every two years. In a decade and a half, we can generate all the world's power through then super-high-density solar collectors. We're talking about collectors that are one hundred times as effective per square inch as current technology.

Even if the doubling doesn't continue, we have a finite amount of improvements to make in this technology before it will always be more efficient than coal.

So at Copenhagen, we can fight human nature and tell folks to stop using the cheap mountains of energy beneath their feet, and in so doing, punish the people who are worst off around the world. Or we can try to pour resources into hastening the day when we have ubiquitous cheap (as-in-unmetered) solar power for rich and poor alike.

I'm not a global warming skeptic, I'm just for option two.


The FT is discussing climate in advance of Copenhagen. Found here, or here (alternate link).

In it, Martin Wolf makes two arguments especially worth noting.

1) "[I]t is not enough to argue that the science is uncertain. Given the risks, we have to be quite sure the science is wrong before following the sceptics."

This is a bit like Pascal's Wager, so let's revisit Pascal's Mugger. Suppose I write Mr. Wolf a letter saying that I have uncovered new data which shows me a way to avoid global catastrophe, but I need $100 to do so. It's uncertain that I'm telling the truth, but the risks I outline are horrendous. We'll see if Mr. Wolf is willing to bear this small cost after performing the probability calculus.

This is not to say that carbon consumption has no risk, but we're now determining how aggressive our response should be, so we need concrete analysis and a concrete timeline. Must we radically deindustrialize tomorrow or face the destruction of the world? Or, as India recommends, can we put this whole thing off 40 years? If we take the most uncertain model simply because it has the most dire consequences, we will undoubtedly make the wrong decisions about how to proceed.

2) The World Bank suggests that costs of carbon reduction to the poor will be low.

Well, not exactly. The World Bank has pointed out that the poor consumer spends far less on power than the rich consumer. But the World Bank has also noted that poor consumers spend far higher percentages of their income on power.[PDF, p11] We should measure the impact to a consumer not in raw dollars, but in how much additional income must be diverted to overcome this new cost. I stand by my assessment that blanket increases in energy prices hurt the poor more than anyone else.

In principle, I agree with Mr. Wolf that with any abatement, "the cost should fall on the wealthy." But this is easier said than done. The factory and merchant who supply low cost clothing to the poor, might themselves not be poor. The research facility which designs and manufactures solar panels might itself not be poor. The hospital which admits poor patients might itself not be poor...

Also notable, Superfreakonomics has some climate coverage which has raised some eyebrows, you can find out more on their blog. Here's a post responding to criticisms, explaining how they came about.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Are Professional Sports Diseased or Dying?

The incomparable Wright Thompson (a fellow Mizzou alumnus), has a fascinating story on ticket prices and their effect on the social contract held between sports teams and their fans.

As a sports fan I agree with the general tone of the article. While owners and athletes quibble over who should be portrayed as the greediest, the fans are continually asked to pay more and more exorbitant prices. If fans unite in solidarity attempting to leverage demand against supply to drive down prices, owners can simply move the entire franchise to another attention starved city (see Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (NBA) or Jacksonville, FL (NFL)).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Breaking News: Boris Yeltsin was a Drunk

If there were any questions as to why relations with Russia have become noticeably more difficult since Bill Clinton left office, it could be the foreign policy of the Bush administration.

...Or it could be that Boris Yeltsin likes to walk around the U.S. in his underwear.

I guess we'll never know.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

No Such Thing as "East Coast Bias"

One thing that is consistently brought up when critiquing the sports media is the concept of an 'East Coast Bias'. I've long held this to be less a stereotype and more of a truism. I have found today that this concept is false. Kind of. Deadspin (one of the most vitriolic websites in all of sports) had the writers of the now defunct FJM website on as guest editors. They enlightened me today with their deconstruction of multiple articles claiming the greatness of Derek Jeter (and his deservedness of the AL MVP ----- baseball, people).

It became clear to me (combined with the knowledge that the BBWAA gives writers in each city hosting a MLB franchise two votes) that an 'East Coast Bias' does not exist. In its place, there is merely a lack of rational, well-crafted sports writing on the East Coast.

At least in baseball.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Newcastle United Football Club and Relegation

Following a team through relegation has its upside: you get to see your team win. Solid consolation.

Newcastle somehow got crushed by Leyton Orient in the preseason, but now that the league has started, they lead the table with 13 points (4-1-0).

UPDATE: ESPN360 offers a wide variety of live sports online, from Eurobasket to Australian Rugby. The Football League (the second highest league in the UK) is available, and access is free on college campuses. I can watch Cardiff City play Newcastle United Sunday morning legitimately and for free.


One of my favorite comics is released as a film tomorrow. It's called Whiteout. There aren't any tights.

Mercury News suggests it's among the worst films of all time.

The Orlando Sun doesn't have anything good to say either.

I liked the comic because Greg Rucka made the protagonist stunningly vulnerable. She is not some superhot action hero; it's not Charlie's Angels. She's a normal person doing a job. She does not come through the experience unscathed, emotionally nor physically. Her motivations are complex and feel realistic as she gets pulled into something a little over her head.

Apparently whatever was good in the comic was ditched for the film and replaced with a shower scene.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Why The Webapp Model Has Already Won

Users might have mixed feelings about webapps vs. desktop apps, but developers do not.

Desktop apps, your men are already dead.

Friday, September 04, 2009

David Goldhill's Health Care Piece in the Atlantic

Ok, health care discussions are hitting overload, they are getting dull and wearing everyone out. But I always like a piece that takes a viewpoint outside of those most prominently discussed and argues that viewpoint carefully.

How American Health Care Killed My Father

I wouldn't say the article is controversial, it just argues that the health insurance industry creates perverse incentives, and discusses some reasons for that. It is interesting that this is widely acknowledged, yet not the target for reform.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

People are Strange: Reason #2

A Bank of America branch manager in downtown Tampa Bay, Florida refused to cash a man's check because he would not submit a thumbprint (standard operating procedure for BoA).

The man was born with no arms.

Note: The worst part of the situation was the refusal by the bank's manager to admit wrongdoing. The extended article from the St. Petersburg Times notes the bank manager stating (paraphrased) "We offered him two alternatives to the thumbprint - open an account or bring your wife in".

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Disney Buys Marvel

Well, Disney is buying Marvel.

The day Wolverine teams up with Mickey Mouse in a wacky crossover is coming.

Android Developer Fears Poverty, Loneliness

Larva Labs posted sales numbers for its apps, comparing the viability of the Android Marketplace with the iPhone App Store. Conclusion: Unlike the untold riches to be found in the App Store, the $60/day they get from Android is not helping them buy "that summer home."

First, it should be noted that Android only has 1/5th the market share of the iPhone, and it has been out for under a year (the iPhone was released in June of 2007). So all of these complaints should be taken with a grain of salt when looking forward. But even assuming this is a fair assessment of the long term...

1) $60/day might not let you retire, but as passive income off a simple JAVA game tossed out in a few weeks? It's nothing to sneeze at.

2) There are probably plenty of folks funneling money into overvalued apps in the iPhone App Store, but it isn't obvious to me why these sort of disposable games deserve a summer home's worth of compensation.

Larva Labs listed some shortcomings of the Android Marketplace contributing to their struggles. Among their concerns: it is hard for users to find pay apps, since there are so many highly rated free apps dominating the Android Marketplace.

This did not immediately strike me as a massive problem. If you are producing what others gladly produce for free, you should not expect extravagant returns. If highly rated free software is dominating the platform, wonderful. People who own Android-capable devices get entertained for free, and the fine minds at Larva Labs are suddenly available to address second rate problems of the world, like curing cancer.

Despite the clear advantages I see in this aspect of the Android Marketplace, the commenters remain overwhelmingly sympathetic to Larva Labs. One commenter echoed frustration with the Android Marketplace, because it was far too easy for users to receive a refund on his products. (The Android marketplace allows a 24 hour period after installing an app to completely remove it and request a refund.) So the Android store encourages devs to make apps people actually want to keep using, rather than novelties that will be used once. Here again I think a virtue is being mistaken for a flaw.

Larva Labs closes with a bit of a threat: "I’m sure Android will be on a lot of phones at some point in the future, whether it’ll be possible to target it profitably as a small developer I’m not sure."

If not, guess we'll have to tough it out with all those highly rated free apps. Maybe one of those will synthesize a tiny violin.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Wikipedia's Trustworthiness Mesaures Will Fail

Wikipedia is implementing a measure of trust, by highlighting recently edited content in bright colors.

I worry about all moves of Wikipedia to bake in reliability of content, because they all seem to degrade the key virtues of Wikipedia. However, I think this change is an especially bad idea.

This change gives vandals a new method of attack. Suppose you cannot get your text into the article, because your viewpoint on 9/11, the holocaust, or the moon landing is too... exotic. Under this change, even if you can't get your views into the article, you can flag the mainstream view as unreliable. You can simply replace text periodically with anonymous duplicates, rendering an entire long standing article suddenly unreliable.

The highlighting might also provide a target for unreliable edits. It's hard to say how it will play out, but any push on editing is ill advised. Either the bright orange signal of untrustworthiness will cry out to readers for perpetual conflicting edits. Or maybe the ecosystem will push the other way, and users will see a far greater need to edit long standing "reliable" text which provokes minor quibbles.

The game theory analysis of Wikipedia as it stands is very good. Opposing editors stand roughly in equipoise, with little ability to set their position in stone without external review. When there is a skirmish over the facts, an appeals process is instituted, and a record of that process is kept with the article. These disputes on the vast majority of articles are settled over time with a rigorous appeal to uninterested third parties and external evidence. A few major articles become perennial targets for debate, but those articles get certain levels of protection and greater scrutiny by established editors.

This new method gives more power to minor editors. It allows either side, even if it cannot win the battle of text, to permanently mark any content unreliable. The rules of the game are counterintuitively being shifted in favor of the vandals.

Mostly, I distrust moves to bake in reliability because they cater to a vocal group who do not now and never will use Wikipedia. Anyone who actually uses the site on a day to day basis intuitively understands when content is reliable and not, through a quick glance at history or the size and scope of the article. Independent reviews of the quality of Wikipedia find it comparable to the quality of Britannica. The stylistic problems of Wikipedia, which I've noted before, are far more prominent to anyone remotely acquainted with the service. Changes like this, insofar as they are an attempt to appease Wikipedia's critics, will inevitably fail. Unlike an article on Wikipedia, the opinions of these critics are not open to revision.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Town Hall Anger Has Not Subsided

The Kansas City Star has an excellent piece on the possible roots of the anger directed at health care reform. The thrust of the story focuses on the fact that despite government's best intentions, many Americans lives have gotten worse - and because of this there is an ever growing distrust of government and belief that government does not solve people's problems effectively. This is highlighted by stories of flaws with the 'Cash for Clunkers' program, falling approval ratings for Obama, and perceptions that Wall Street benefited more than Main Street (see - Bailout; banking and auto industries).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Smartphone text input: Radial Menu?

I wonder if texting via some sort of radial menu would be faster than the teeny QWERTYs on smart phones.

I'm thinking of something like this:

You'd navigate the wheel with your thumb. The top menu is on top of the image, two submenus are displayed below, they would activate as soon as you made the first part of the gesture.*

It may be counterintuitive to dream of replacing one press with a few swipes, but I'm thinking Fitt's Law might make the radial menu faster than thumb typing on tiny keys.

* Maybe it'd be preferable to have you confirm the gesture by returning your thumb back to the center of the radial, I'm not sure. In the first method, a "k" would be typed by dragging your thumb down on the text area, then pushing it straight up again. In the second method (the "confirmation" version of the radial menu), a "k" would be "down-(center)-up-center". The "confirmation" method could highlight the part of the radial currently selected, to give better user feedback, and it would be better for smaller touchpad areas.

It might also be faster to organize the keys by frequency, so instead of "A-E" you'd have "ETAON"

Free trade ruling a win for free speech in China?

The free trade infrastructure is currently the best framework to ensure other states actually comply with international standards on certain issues. The offenses are complaint driven, and there are clear penalties for violations.

Now we see the free trade framework from the GATT and WTO extended to cover free speech in China, by forcing it to allow certain books and publications (and CDs/DVDs) into the country.

My fantasy: bureaucratic sprawl extends the jurisdiction of the WTO to cover human rights abuses as well, and maybe international aggression, or "having crazy dictators".

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Meghan McCain vs. The Far Right

Meghan McCain is feuding with Coulter and Malkin.

Malkin said that Meghan McCain should just get it over with and leave the Republican party.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't think anyone would care. But this raises an interesting question. What would a split in the Republican Party look like?

The first view that springs to mind is that a moderate Republican party would just split the base of the right, leaving it powerless, giving total control to the Democrats.

I don't think this is accurate.

A moderate Republican party (or moderate Democratic party) would pull some people from the original party, but would also pull a number of people across the aisle from the other party. It would become very attractive to those sick of political hyperboles, and it would be very attractive to the conflicted moderates who make up the bulk of the electorate.

The moderate party might gain immense power in its ability to exchange votes on key issues with either other party. They could temporarily trade factional alliance at any time to give either party the majority, becoming the all important swing vote in US politics.

There would be obstacles, sure. New parties are magnets for fail. But if a few high profile individuals made the move, it might gain credibility and momentum.

Another worry is that the right-left axis isn't really a linear spectrum. Meghan McCain's position on homosexuality is in some ways more liberal than Obama's. Once you stake out your moderate viewpoint by hammering out specifics issue by issue, you probably no longer look moderate, but look like a hodgepodge of positions that give everyone something to be upset about. But hey, that's how the two parties we have work now, I think that limitation could be overcome.

At the end of the day, I think Malkin's correct. Meghan McCain should leave the party to support a small government party that's socially liberal and fiscally restrained. Only then would Coulter and Malkin realize how isolated and extreme their views have become.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Banning Laptops from Coffee Shops?

Wall Street Journal has a story, picked up by Chris Matyszczyk at cnet, about coffee shops discouraging laptop use.

Could these trends ever become widespread?

The economics here are the same as air conditioning, free parking, or the IKEA ferry, or any other service extended for free to intice patrons. A business provides free parking to encourage patrons to buy their primary goods. There are some differences, wifi has a more regular cost of upkeep, for one, but even parking lots will require periodic service and repair given time. Each one provides a benefit that will be attractive to customers not really interested in buying your products, but just interested in the service.

So long as the business attracted exceeds the cost of upkeep, you'll want to keep paying for the service. It will run into adverse selection problems. You have three options:
1) keep the service open, knowing that the business you attract outstrips its cost, despite free riders
2) ditch the service
3) try to exclude the free riders ("these spaces reserved for customers only" signs, limited access to the internet or regulations about staying with laptops during peak hours)

None of these solutions is clearly the best for all situations. The value of each approach is dependent upon a number of variables (how much business is attracted, how much you might alienate potential customers by attacking free riders, how much the cost scales with greater use...). Even from cafe to cafe, these factors will vary.

So I don't see one approach, like banning laptops, becoming the universal response in all cafes, without some big shift in the fundamental economics.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Health Care: Paying More and Receiving Less

The rationale for health care reform is largely rooted in the claim that Americans pay more for health care while receiving less.

A few weeks ago, Marginal Revolution pointed out that the "amount we spend" comparisons never consider the cost of subsidizing medical education in places like France.

The Becker-Posner blog now argues that US health outcomes are not worse once you control for the variables not related to health care quality.

Disconcerting. I was all on board for health care reform, now I'm not sure if we don't pay less and get more.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Ideal Office UI

I just spent a big chunk of time trying to add a header to only some of my pages in a document in OpenOffice.

In the end, it wasn't too hard: Insert a page break using the menu, not ctrl+enter. That insert page menu allows you to select a new style for your new pages. If you do so, the headers on the new section won't infect the old section or vice versa.

The slowest part of this process was bouncing between the help article and the document. So I propose the following new Office UI. Instead of any menus, just throw an empty text box up top. Type in a command, like "rotate" or "landscape" or "print preview" or "preview" or "bold" and a list of suggestions will drop down, like in FF's AwesomeBar. Commands should have plenty of aliases. Pressing Enter before a command is selected will load more information on commands related to what you typed, maybe with an option to add what you typed as an alias for another command.

Commands will also take modifiers. Typing "bo" will bring up "bold", "borders" and I don't know, "boil" or something. You can tab to select "bold", then you get to type "selection" or "next/previous x characters/sentences/lines/paragraphs/pages" or "page x" or "instances of (wildcard)". "Selection" will probably be the default noun for most commands, but "Current page" or "Whole Document" might be the default for some layout options.

The better iteration might even have no menu bars above your work window, but a command box that pops up when you hit the menu key, or win/super key.

I can see the UI revolution approaching! Somebody call Aza Raskin.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Forbes on Search

Forbes features a solid article on the search industry. Nothing revolutionary, but noting some of the obstacles keeping the small guys out of the game, why it's different from the search wars of old.

Mostly, the dataset of "the web" grows every year, and so becomes harder and harder for small, new players to index with time.

Some small, targeted search engines have emerged. Real estate, travel, sporting events... Seeing competition on that angle might have as much to do with grabbing a manageable dataset as it does with yielding more targeted results.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Henry Louis Gates Jr. Arrest - An Oversimplification

There are two sides to every story and neither side is backing down. What follows are the facts of the case:

1. Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrived home tired after a long trip from China.
2. He found his door jammed and asked his driver to help him open the door.
3. A neighbor called the police reporting a potential break-in.
4. The police arrested Gates Jr. on the grounds of disorderly conduct.

This doesn't seem to be too hard to piece together:

A prominent Harvard history professor who is friends with the President, editor-in-chief of a premier African-American academic/cultural blog (The Root), and just finished shooting a documentary for PBS was tired after extensive travel, was mistaken by a nosy but impersonal neighbor, and arrested by a police officer lacking sufficient patience.


To put it in "Thomas Terms":

(Ego^Fatigue) + Poor luck / Lack of Patience = MEDIA FRENZY

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Google's War Plan

An insightful note discusses how free apps like the upcoming Google Wave fit into Google's overall strategy. Remarkable for a slashdot comment, the note is worth reading.

The basic outline is that Google is actively trying to drive down the marginal profits on a number of desktop apps. Google's offerings all work independent of platform. If you can change your OS without changing any of the apps you use, then the MS OS monopoly becomes far less entrenched.

This approach is intimately wedded to the ideas expounded by Chris Anderson in his article, Free!, recently expanded to a book, which argues that Moore's Law pushes down the costs of all the digital products we use, and examines the consequences.

The Course of Medical Bankruptcy: Why Getting Insurance at Work Doesn't

Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren analyzes medical bankruptcy.

Surprisingly, most of those entering medical bankruptcy had health insurance which covered their problems at the beginning of their illness. Inevitably, such individuals lose their job halfway through their illness (perhaps due to their long absences from work, or an inability to continue heavy labor after developing a heart condition). Employment based coverage lapses. Attempts to secure new coverage, even after finding a new job, ultimately fail due to preexisting conditions.

Employer based health insurance is a very bad idea, regardless of how many payers are in the system. Denials due to preexisting conditions seem the other major source of trouble.

Maybe a public option will address these problems, catching those who are being pushed out of the system.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Is it sensible to believe something you can never observe?

Imagine a world, world A, where things proceed normally most days, but every so often, time freezes completely. There are no effects to this freezing of time. Outside observers from another world, world B, are able to witness this event, but unable to communicate it to the inhabitants of World A.

Is it reasonable on World A to believe that occasionally time freezes, to no lasting effect? The first instinct of a logical positivist or Bayesian might be, "no, it's senseless to assert something that cannot be verified, measured or observed and has no lasting effects." Despite my usual affection for these stances on epistemology, I think we can imagine a situation where we might reject this barrier to knowledge, after extending the original hypothetical slightly.

World A, we'll say, proceeds normally for 2 years, but then freezes for a full year every 3rd year. It resumes the pattern the following year, such that it is frozen on years 3, 6, 9 and so on. World B has a similar condition, in that time proceeds normally on it for 3 years in a row, but every 4th year, time freezes. You know this, because you are a scientist observing Worlds A and B from your world, World C.

One day, you build a device to communicate these findings to Worlds A and B. They reply that this is interesting news, as they have seen your world freeze itself on occasion. After working out the math,* it is ascertained that your world freezes every fifth year.

Someone is always watching to make observations for the next several decades, confirming the patterns of freezing in this new era of inter-world communication. And because there is an observer gathering evidence, leaving a lasting record, so far, we haven't caused any problems with those original rigid theories of epistemology.

One day, though, 60 years later, all the worlds freeze at the same time. In that 60th year, we have an event which no one in the system can observe. The event has no lasting effect on the system. And yet, this "system freezing" event seems perfectly reasonable for the inhabitants of the system to believe.

I'm still trying to recall the original source of this hypothetical, it is certainly not my own. I know it is somewhere in one of A. C. Grayling's texts on philosophy...

*No world would observe this simple pattern of the others directly, because the observer would miss a chunk of the observed world's pattern while the observer's world slept. The actual patterns, if interested, would be as follows, and you might imagine a sort of Copernican revolution as they attempted to simplify these patterns:

C watching A sees:
12 year cycle where A sleeps on years 3,5,8 and 10.
C watching B sees:
16 yr cycle, B sleeps yrs 4,7,10,13

B watching C:
15 yr cycle, C sleeps yrs 4,8,12
B watching A:
9 yr cycle, A sleeps yrs 3,5,7

A watching C:
10 yr cycle, C sleeps yrs 4,7
A watching B:
8 yr cycle, B sleeps yrs 3,6

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Further Stimulus?

Obama is pushing for further stimulus. It might be good to trot out the arguments we saw on this back in January.

Princeton Economist Paul Krugman has laid out the numbers for his pro-stimulus analysis here. He relies on Okun's Law, which details the relationship between unemployment and GDP. It suggests we need a much larger stimulus than is in play (probably much larger than is politically feasible) to truly correct the economy. Krugman has suggested we need something close to a 2 trillion dollar stimulus.

Also from months ago, Kevin Murphy put forth the best anti-stimulus argument in the field. Freakonomics mentions here. Here's his argument from his slides:

A Framework for Thinking about the Stimulus Package

  • Let G = increase in government spending
  • 1-α= value of a dollar of government spending (α measures the inefficiency of government)
  • Let f equal the fraction of the output produced using “idle” resources
  • Let λ be the relative value of “idle” resources
  • Let d be the deadweight cost per dollar of revenue from the taxation required to pay for the spending
When Will the Stimulus Add Value?
  • The net gain is the value of the output produced less the costs of the inputs and the deadweight loss
  • In terms of the previous notation we have: Net Gain = (1-α)G –[(1-f)G + λfG] –dG
  • Net gain = (f(1-λ) –α–d)G
  • A positive net gain requires that: f(1-λ) > α+d
  • Difference of opinion comes from different assumptions about f, λ, α, and d

[Murphy's] View:
  • α likely to be large
    • Government in general is inefficient
    • The need to act quickly will make it more inefficient
    • The desire to spend a lot in a short period of time will make it more inefficient
    • Trying to be both stimulus and investment will make it even more inefficient
  • 1-f likely to be positive and may be large
    • With a large fraction of resources employed (roughly 93%) much will be drawn from other activities rather than “idle” resources
    • Ricardian equivalence implies that people will save to pay for future taxes reducing private spending
  • λ is non-zero and likely to be substantial
    • People place positive value on their time
    • Unemployed resources produce value through relocation (e.g. mobility & job search)
  • d is likely to be significant
    • Wide range of estimates of d
    • Estimates based on the analysis of taxable income imply d≈0.8
  • With these parameters the stimulus package is likely to be a bad idea.

Both of these arguments seem persuasive, and both are somewhat technical, so I'm not really sure how to dig in and rectify them. I'll try.

Krugman believes that α is likely to be -.5, that for each dollar of spending, you get one and a half dollars of economic productivity. This assumption may seem strange based on Murphy's very common sense suggestions for why α should be positive and high, but Krugman relies on the "widely cited estimates of Mark Zandi." He suggests that d from payroll tax cuts can be close to .3, but that the value of business tax cuts are uncertain, suggesting maybe 0 deadweight loss from business taxes. He thinks that a high d on payroll taxes pushes for him though, because he's hoping to cut payroll taxes as part of his stimulus. Here's a key difference. It's implied from this reasoning that Krugman believes that you can't just crunch the numbers and follow the best dollar for dollar option, but that there's some value to spreading out the pain. If we can pay a little more in taxes when we're well off in a few years than we would have paid right now, then we'll be better off because we smoothed out the costs of this recession. That seems intuitive and reasonable. We should probably add some variable, s, to Murphy's equation to measure the value of smoothing costs over time. But we can just leave s out for now, as Murphy appears to believe s is 0, and realizing that Krugman's case might look slightly better to Krugman than this analysis implies, due to a high rating of s.

It's not clear what Krugman thinks about f, how much of the stimulus would target idle resources. But you could address f directly, if it was a major concern. You could provide tax rebates or subsidies to businesses who hire employees that are registered with the government as unemployed. The longer they have been on the rolls, the greater the stimulus. The risk here is greater overhead to police cheating, but you could lightly police the program, knowing that even if 75% of those stimulated were complying (much lower than tax compliance rates), you'd be on the right track of focusing your stimulus towards f.

Of course, you wouldn't want to target f if you believed λ was more substantial. But it's a hard sell that this high level of unemployment is a great boon.

So, plugging some numbers into f(1-λ) > α+d, the condition under which we get positive net gain, we have:
.75(1-λ) > -.5+0 (or replace the 0 with .3, if you use payroll taxes to finance it on the back end)

We weren't sure what λ was in Krugman's estimation, but I believe he thinks it is very low. With so many unemployed, that seems reasonable. Of course, it looks like Krugman would support the stimulus whenever λ < 1.66, a figure which seems unlikely (or we would pay large groups of people to never work).

My intuitions lie with Murphy on the right side of the equation, but with Krugman on the left, making the question of stimulus much closer than I originally thought, certainly much closer than the voices from the right and left make it sound.

Notably, these arguments are pretty much unchanged from before. Krugman's analysis kicks in whenever there's high unemployment, and Murphy's analysis applies in all conditions. It'd be interesting to see Krugman and Murphy debate the particulars of alpha, lambda, f or d. Or it'd be nice if anyone has revised their opinions about alpha, lambda, f or d by measuring the effects of the last stimulus.

I feel obliged to link to some articles against the stimulus by Forbes and Penn Jilette which were fun to read, even though they avoid the heavy lifting above. More than anything, I'd really like to see Murphy and Krugman debate the particulars of the variables above.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Health Care

Bill Moyers discusses health care with a former health insurance PR man.

NPR ran a special comparing care around the world a while back, some figures from that report are captured here.

I worry that outside of NPR, the picture of state funded care becomes really distorted. The Moyers interview cites Sicko, and seems to suggest that foreign state sponsored care is utopian. It also points to scare tactics used by opponents of national care who suggest state sponsored care can only be a horror story.

More of a middle ground is shown by the NPR figures. It seems like every country has its own solution with its own set of unique perks and problems. In Japan, you have universal coverage with some copay and increases to taxes (8%, including employer contributions), but you have doctor shortages and overuse of care problems. In France and Germany, you're looking at a 10-15% hit to wages to fund the programs. In the UK, costs are kept down through aggressive comparative effectiveness decisions. We can toss the US in here as just a different approach with different problems, coverage gaps and rising costs as well as low health care indicators. Cost per person for care is almost twice as high.*

I'm most attracted to the UK model, and I have real questions as to whether or not any more aggressive model could work when every decade or so the party in power will want the whole system to fail.

Those to the left of me seem attracted to a French or German model. Beyond my worries about getting a system to work under Republican administrations, I worry a lot about the costs. A high cost program would be funded through substantial wage taxes, which in turn lead to some combination of wage reductions and unemployment. Those effects disproportionately affect the poorest workers, the very group we are trying to help.

To the right of me, the current rhetoric has been attacking a public option for "rationed care." I'm surprised this is taking hold, since I always thought rationed care/refusal to cover certain procedures prompted the most public outrage in the current health care system. Moreover, unlike the outraged public, I think aggressively rationing care is essential to reducing the sort of wage effects that will most harm the working poor. I think rationing care through comparative effectiveness research helps us make better care decisions than we might on our own.

Several studies have shown that increased health care does not correlate with increased health outcomes. Some sources on this problem: Overcoming Bias discussion of largest health care cost study ever conducted, the RAND study, in parts one and two, which gave a bunch of random people free care and compared them to a bunch of similar people with pay care for several years. An NPR discussion of the lack of link between health care costs and results region by region. NPR report on drug coverage with conflicting results. The New York Times recently addressed this issue in the context of Prostate Cancer. No matter what the eventual plan, lets hope that increased cost effectiveness research is a big part of it.

*On costs:
When taken as a percentage of median income, the US expenditures on per capita healthcare are just over 10%, perfectly comparable to the income tax rates funding health care in other countries. Greg Mankiw explains how some cost differences are "artifacts of labeling". Cost comparisons are not as straightforward as they appear. Maybe this throws a wrench in my optimism over cost research.

Twitter Not for Teens

This isn't really news, demographics have consistently reported Twitter as a 20-30 something phenomenon.

I don't think it's very surprising either.

Twitter is best used as a news aggregator, and teens don't care about news. Also, unlike Facebook, no one will follow you on Twitter if you're not saying something valuable or linking to something interesting. I think teens need the false sense of relevance provided by services like Facebook, where you get to cram your thoughts down the throats of everyone you have ever met.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Three Sources of Awe

It's weird, but I'm a little amazed that these exist. Not Carl Sagan amazed, but I still think that characters you can stack on top of one another are a neat idea. ̼⌂̺͛ᴖ̲̿ᴥ̲̿ᴖ̺͛⌂̼

Unicode doggies aside, the stars still probably reign as the best source of awe sense ancient times:

(There are a lot of similar videos on youtube. I recommend those discussing the Hubble Deep Field, if you can track them down.)

Though the wonder of the Internet is starting to become a serious contender:

And the general pace of human progress is also worth a marvel or two:

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

More Research Suggesting Patents Do Not Encourage Innovations

I've blogged before about the Bossaerts et al paper that found improved productivity of a commons relative to a patent system, now more research joins that trend with a radically different study from Prof. Torrance of the University of Kansas School of Law.

Press Release.

The paper is being released under a Creative Commons license on SSRN, so everyone can access it.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Old Movies

We were wondering the other day whether or not some older films get hyped far beyond how good they are. I'm not sure, others seem to have fallen off the popular radar for no good reason.

In way of a small, completely unscientific sample, I recently saw four 'classics', and I was more or less split on them. They included a silent film, "Pandora's Box", war films "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Paths of Glory", and finally "The Man Who Would Be King".

Pandora's Box: Silent film showcasing Louise Brooks. Louise Brooks is strikingly attractive, sure, but a cute girl does not make a film great on her own.* I don't think Pabst deserves heaps of acclaim for his direction of this droning epic. The director seemed constantly unsure of himself, lingering on scenes well after the action had gotten its point across. The audience doesn't need a 40 second shot of a girl kicking and banging her fists to get that she's pouting.

The Bridge on the River Kwai: Alec Guinness is absolutely great in this film. Still, gross historical liberties and a plot that goes well out of its way to make the British look like saps tanked the experience for me.

Paths of Glory: Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick bring this one home with the help of maybe 9 other fantastic performances. A really deep film showing more aspects of war than any other three war movies combined. Characters and narrative are why I love film, and here they are at their absolute top.

The Man Who Would Be King: Adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story, essentially a buddy film for Sean Connery and Michael Caine. It's set a century or more ago in the region of Kafiristan, the one area of Afghanistan that the Taliban could never completely control. The place has an interesting history worth reading more about. Performances from the two leads make it seem as though they'd been making films together all their life. A little lightness along the way, but it still manages to speak weightily about topics as deep as imperialism and human frailty.

Any other classics come to mind that are consistently overrated or overlooked? Maybe we can get a consensus one way or the other in the comments.

*Chungking Express makes you fall in love with a dark haired girl with a short haircut too, but there the cinematography is wild and thrilling, and the stories are good too. Or maybe Faye Wong's just better than Louise Brooks. Silent film fans, Asian film fans, FIGHT!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

People Are Strange: Reason #1

I am hoping to start a new series here, titled "People Are Strange". It's pretty self explanatory, but I would note that the only order these are placed in is chronological. By this I mean to point out that in no way do I believe that the following post is the best or most illustrative reason why people are strange any more than then the next is second best/illustrative. I'll just post them as I find them.

People are strange.

Andre Rison nickname: Bad Moon
Michael Jackson's Thriller: Zombies attack under the light of the moon?

Andre Rison race: African American
Michael Jackson race: African American (insert joke disrespectful of the deceased here)

Andre Rison: Played at Arrowhead Stadium for the Chiefs
Michael Jackson: Played at Arrowhead Stadium for his Victory Tour in 1984.

If anyone knows an obvious connection between the two that I am missing that would warrant an Andre Rison jersey being placed 'in memoriam' at his boyhood home, let me know and I'll print an apology.

Second guessing engagement

I felt that one of the exciting ideas proposed by candidate Obama on his path to becoming President Obama was the idea of engaging the taboo regimes of Cuba and Iran in diplomatic talks.

While I still feel this is the correct path to take with Cuba (who appears to be far down the list of threats to our nation), I am beginning to second guess engagement with Iran (at least as timing is concerned). Note that Ayatollah Khameinei's friday sermon alluded to a letter from the U.S. in the same speech he declared Iran's election issue closed and Ahmadinejad the winner. The two are not necessarily related, but it is neither ridiculous nor irresponsible to posit that the President/State Department's decision to engage Iran had something to do with Ayatollah Khameinei's decision to keep Ahmadinejad in power.

Again, the main rub here is timing. There may have been a reason why President Obama decided to act before the election, in the first six months of his presidency, and that reason may have been rational, but I am not leaning towards granting him the benefit of the doubt here (hindsight being 20/20). He could have waited until after the election, and saved himself face by not having to withdraw his party invitations and ridiculously being compared to his predecessor.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Path Off Carbon

Some premises...

1) Carbon based fuels have historically had an absurdly high level of net energy potential compared to alternative sources of energy. (This is also evidenced by our very reliance upon them.)
2) Poor but growing nations with massive populations currently sit on mountains of this incredibly cheap and effective energy.(1, 2 [pdf])
3) The reductions of carbon necessary to reverse global warming amount to radical change, if any reversal can be effected at all. Worse still, feedback systems may render any small reduction in carbon use a waste of effort.
4) Meanwhile, solar use doubles every two years. Advancements in this technology respond to something like Moore's Law, generating exponential returns on investments. Wind power and nuclear (1, 2) show similar potential to outstrip the energy efficiency of carbon based fuels under certain circumstances.
5) But technological investments are costly, and require spare economic resources. (Er, hmm... this?)
6) Unfortunately, carbon reductions and offsets reduce our consumption of cheap inputs, thus lowering overall economic efficiency. (Gore claimed otherwise, but his explanation of how using different sources of energy can fuel development and improve economic growth is an example of the broken window fallacy.)
7) Moreover, local reductions of consumption make such fuels cheaper globally; while higher local consumption raises the basic price of these fuels and drives investment in cheaper alternatives.

The paradoxical conclusion:
The path off carbon requires aggressive consumption of carbon, either to power the research facilities studying alternative nuclear reactions, to fund the factories building the solar panels, or simply to deplete the cheapest sources of oil and coal to accelerate the cost competitiveness of emerging energy sources.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Computers vs. Go

Freakonomics links to a Wired article discussing the progress of Go-playing computers, and speculates as to when computers will be able to outperform humans at financial markets.

If I had any money, I would definitely invest it with a hedge fund manager named Hal. If computers could outperform human financiers, would planned economies suddenly make sense again?

For a darker picture of surrendering our financial markets to automation, you might check out Cringely's unique take on the origin of the financial crisis.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Netflix Losing Ratings?

Netflix seems to be losing some of my ratings, something I only realized after playing with the Netflix Ratings Grabber.

Can't find any information on this topic yet, maybe a server is down for them.

This makes me worried, database management seems like a core thing they do; it seems like they would want to be good at that.

Supreme Court: Mr. Popular? You lose.

The New York Times had an interesting piece on Supreme Court tendencies which boils down to: the side that receives the most questions loses 86% of the time.

Two interesting pieces from the article:
1. The reality of judicial questions is that the justices are attempting to persuade colleagues through their questions and the responses they ellicit.
2. Using the Dictionary of Affect Language, the study looked at the tone of the question and found that:

Only the unpleasant words, the study found, have predictive power. The lawyer who hears more pleasant words is not more likely to win. But the lawyer who hears more unpleasant words is more likely to lose.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Things Wolfram Alpha will Tell You in One Click

1. sum(x,1,100), x^2

2. D Flat Mixolydian Scale is also known as "Khamaj Thaat" (and what it sounds like).

3. A graph of the overlapping lifespans of Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, and Stephen Wolfram.

Sadly Alpha does not know that 1, 4, 9, 6, 5, 6, 9, 4, 1, 0 is the periodic cycle of the terminal digit of integer squares, something mathy it might learn by consulting the OEIS.

Also, google currently provides better results on "aleph null", which Alpha just can't interpret (even in other forms, like aleph-0, etc). Google's third link for aleph null gives an excellent overview of the topic, by sending you to the Wolfram Math article on it.

Still looking for others.

UPDATE: Fixed the link to the terminal digit of squares to reflect the actual search term, thanks EP.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Guest post - Heather Tuttle's beauty pageant response

EP: When I read Thomas' post on beauty pageants, I remembered that I had at my disposal a wealth of knowledge regarding pageants - my good friend Heather Tuttle. An avid viewer of the Miss America pageant, she was my best hope for a reasoned response to Thomas' titillating theme. It took some time, but she came through as expected; below is her response.

Since before I can remember, following the Miss America pageant was a female tradition in my family. One of first memories of my great-grandma is her precise prediction of the Miss America winner. For years, I have religiously watched the pageant and take pleasure in predicting the winner. Other pageants are fun to watch at times, but I don’t plan my life around watching them like I do for the Miss America pageant. This is because the Miss America pageant has always been different. The fact that the pageant is the largest scholarship organization for women has always been key for me. When I was little, I was convinced that me becoming Miss America was the only way I would be able to have the money to get a top-notch education and make a significant impact in the world. Every year when ‘studying’ the contestants to predict my winner (I know, it’s obsessive and may seem a bit strange, but that’s the tradition), I always take into consideration her educational endeavors/achievements as well as the causes she represents. The Miss America organization requires contestants have platforms they are passionate about and will work toward while holding the title of Miss America. The Miss America crown enables a woman to make a real difference in the world. As Miss America, she is a role model, a voice, and has the ability to make positive change. For example, Miss America 1999, Nicole Johnson, helped raise millions of dollars for research and treatment of juvenile diabetes. In 1998, Kate Shindle made significant changes politically in an effort to address HIV/AIDS. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent woman who keeps up on current events and is interested in making a difference in the world I live in. It is for this reason that the Miss America pageant has always been a sincere interest of mine.

I will agree that recently pageants (even the Miss America pageant) and their contestant have seemed to stray away from their former educational and scholastic focus. In the past five years, the Miss America pageant has been booted from network TV to an array of different cable networks due to lack of ratings. Each year, they change the host and aspects of the competition to try to entice viewers. Mix this with the prospect of a ditzy, unintelligible, rambling answer from a contestant and you’ve got ratings. It’s a sad reality. During the past few years I must say, I have not enjoyed the pageant watching or my preliminary preparation nearly as much as I once did simply because the candidates don’t seem to be the caliber they once were. Still, each year there are contestants out there who are involved in the pageant process simply because of their passion for a cause and their desire for scholarship. This is why I still watch and am an advocate of the pageant. Each year, these intelligent women do make the cut (securing some scholarship money) but they don’t necessarily make it to the very top. In my opinion, this unfortunately has to do with ratings. I know Bert Parks turns in his grave every time this happens.

So, in answer to your quandary- contestants who rise to the top of the pack (the girls who end up representing pageant contestants live on national television) are not the well-rounded, intelligent women they once were. Ratings have forced pageant organizations to adapt requirements and format thus creating more of the traditional ‘beauty pageant’ where the glamorous bikini bod takes the crown regardless of her scholastic aptitude or her advocacy for change. The fact that I hail from two of the three states used in your example of not-so intelligent beauty queen answers is embarrassing. It definitely gets me thinking that maybe I should have indeed subjected myself to the pageant life when I had a chance. My leg wrestling talent would have taken pageants in a whole different direction!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The EU Bearing Brunt of Global Downturn

The Economist discusses how the EU is weathering the global financial storm (the ship is sinking).

The article hints at two theories as to why this is so:

1) Mercanitlism. If you rely on exports, a positive trade balance, then you get the worst of it when the consumer nations cut back to essentials.

2) Rigid labor markets. If a country does not allow employers to fire workers in a downturn, then its companies will just take on huge losses until they go under.

Anyone have an opinion on which cause is more significant?

Friday, May 15, 2009

True Blood Season Two

True Blood Season Two begins soon. The promotional poster involves a little blood on a black background, or perhaps another image...

There's a promotional video here, featuring a new single by Bob Dylan (that's right, he turns 68 next week, and he is still releasing singles.)

The show has good moments and bad, but I'm amazed how seriously it takes itself. I'm hanging on to see how the show reveals that Sookie Stackhouse's great grandfather is a fairy prince.

Miss America/USA... Getting Dumber Over Time?

When I saw Miss California discuss gay marriage, I was not struck so much by her opinions as by how her answer lacked any sense of composition. She seemed to double back on herself: "The greatest thing about America is choice, especially when that choice is not being gay." What?

It seems like just the other day Miss Teen USA gave an eloquent discussion of the pressing educational need for maps.

This made me start to wonder, are we all getting dumber?

I looked at one or two question rounds from years past. It wasn't long until I found 1995's Miss Minnesota discuss Affirmative Action. (It's at 2:50).

Dr. Joyce Brothers: Do you think your career prospects would be affected if Affirmative Action were dismantled?
Miss Minnesota: Huh. ... Could you repeat the question?
Dr. Joyce: ...
Minnesota: (Confused look). Um... I think that if you stand strong in what you believe, you should use that in all aspects of your life, including your career. I know I do. Thank you.

Yeah, when Dr. Joyce says "Affirmative Action", I'm pretty sure she is not talking about the power of positive thinking.

Verdict: Pageant contestants aren't always the brightest diamonds in the tiara. I know, shocking.
We are not getting dumber over time. We have always been this way, but now there's YouTube.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Lies in the Shadow of the Statue?

Some pics from the weaving in last night's episode of Lost:

The bit at the top to me looks something like "ΘΞΟΙ ΤΟΣΑ ΔΟΝΞΝ ΟΣΑΦΡΣΣΙ ΣΜΣΙ ΜΞΝΟ???..."

The bit below, that Ben touches, seems like "ΤΟΙ ΟΔΒΙΑ ΔΟΙΕΝ". TOI = "Namely" according to google translate, Greek to English. The rest translates to gibberish, so I'm probably getting a lot of characters wrong there.

When asked what lies in the shadow of the statue, Richard says something that sounds to my ears like "aliqui nos omis(?) odvabit(?)", or "Some of us omis(?), it will rejoice(?)". That doesn't make a lot of sense yet either...

Exciting episode. Criminal that we have to wait so long for the resolution, but the season finale did hook me again. It may be useful to prepare for the final season by brushing up on the story of Jacob and Esau.

UPDATE: translations in the comments, and here, the lostpedia. Also notable, the episode began with Jacob cooking a "red herring" on a "black rock". Har har.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wrong to Pay for Sex? Participants Say Yes!

The proposition debated (a few weeks back) was "It is wrong to pay for sex."

MacKinnon had a good closing speech. Especially stinging was her observation that no one ever made the prima facie case for the sex transaction. Would've been nice to hear a "generally, there's a (pareto) mutual benefit from economic exchanges" from Tyler Cowen. Still, I think his strategy was well formulated. The affirmative won with anecdotes that mixed paying for sex and abuse of women. The only possible response is to sever those two components, to ask which component is really providing the "wrongfulness" in those examples. Clearly, the abuse of women is wrong on its own, leaving us to wonder what we learn about the morality of "paying for sex" taken independently of other moral wrongs.

Cowen did a fair job of pointing out a few cases where paying for sex might be benign. MacKinnon slipped in a response about how neg was fighting for 3% of prostitution cases. That was pretty rough without rebuttal.

I think there's a response, and I think it's found in Tyler Cowen's early discussion of fishing. This is a profession that is incredibly dangerous, and often very exploitative of immigrants. We do not conclude from this that "Fishing is wrong." The 3% shows that the wrongfulness isn't inherent, but coincidental, anecdotal, albeit frequent or typical.

(I'm still not sure why Lionel Tiger was there.)

Ultimately, I think the question depends on whether "It is wrong to pay for sex" means "The wrongfulness of prostitution is in the paying" (where Cowen wins) or "Paying for sex has typically lead to great harm" (where MacKinnon wins). At the end of the day, I became convinced that the proposition was not decidable in its current form.

The audiences overwhelmingly shifted towards Aff. Even men taken alone moved that direction. Audiences in these often move towards the more controversial position, but here, I think they moved towards the mainstream.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Zeleny's Surprising, Troubling, Enchanting and Humbling Question Buried by Times

I'm glad the softball got kicked to the rear of the paper.

The lameness of that question was probably heightened by the fact it came on the heels of Michael Sherer's probe on the state secrets privilege.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jon Stewart vs. Cliff May

Continuing our ongoing series on torture, Jon Stewart's extended interview/debate with Cliff May on Torture is pretty interesting, the three parts are up here.

I thought the most philosophically interesting part of the conversation hit in the third clip. Cliff May points out the incongruity of claiming that torture is impermissible, while shooting suspected terrorists in Pakistan with Predator missles is. Stewart responds that different rules apply when people are "on the battlefield."

I think the distinction Jon is trying to make is that captured agents are "defanged," and that it's less humane to mistreat people who cannot harm you.

Where I disagree is when high level terrorists have direct knowledge of impending attacks. By withholding this information they are threatening specific harm, the harm of those attacks going unaverted.

One possible response might be that the harm threatened is through an omission, "not telling," rather than an act, like "shooting at you." But the act/omission distinction doesn't hold very much meaning in this situation. The person in custody is the very same person who set the harmful course into effect (through planning and encouraging future terrorist attacks). It's like at the end of Dark Knight, where Batman says "I can't kill you, but I don't have to save you," after Batman has basically completely engineered Ra's al Ghul's demise. The moral distinction between acts and omissions is sometimes meaningful, but becomes silly when the omission is "preventing a harm I already caused."

But even if we agree there's a gap between training camps and prisons, and that a captured individual is simply off-limits by virtue of his capture. When our intuitions tell us that to prevent an attack it's ok to drop a bomb on 20 "suspects" rather than torture one confirmed high level terrorist, our intuitions are telling us something at least somewhat puzzling.

Condi Rice vs. The Student

Condoleezza Rice struggles at civility responding to a student's question about torture. I get the feeling Bush Administration officials could have used more practice responding to challenging questions. via FP Passport.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bush Administration: Torture Not Actually Helpful, Just Really Fun

I can understand why some people would oppose torture no matter its effectiveness. I can understand those who believe torture would be acceptable if preventing some greater harm, but unacceptable if ineffective. I cannot begin to understand why anyone would lie to suggest torture was effective when they knew that it was not.

Torture for the sake of torture? That's like supervillain evil.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

PEP 8: Hard Coding Poor Style?

PEP 8, the style guide for Python, contains a great deal of sensible advice for writing readable code. The discussion of comments, explanatory prose sprinkled throughout a program, insisted upon some interesting conventions.

1. "You should use two spaces after a sentence-ending period."

The two space rule is no longer standard practice. In fact, the vast majority of contemporary style guides recommend one space.

2. "When writing English, Strunk and White apply."

The linguists at Language Log blame the Elements of Style for Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice. The style advice is at times vacuous (e.g. "Omit needless words", "Be clear"), at other times simply incorrect (avoid adjectives and adverbs, 'none' takes the singular, never begin a sentence with 'However', etc.).

The recommendations on the readability of code in PEP 8 reflect that they were compiled by experts at that craft. The above recommendations drift into the readability of prose, and appear decidedly less authoritative. To be fair, I doubt these conventions are carefully followed. I was mostly struck by the hubris of providing a rule in a programming guide about an authoritative source for English grammar or style.

Commercial Radio's Swan Song

Dan Lybarger has a piece on how local radio (and maybe conglomerated journalism more widely) has failed us all, with some memorable examples.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

rc3 on the Dilemmas of Environmentalism

rc3 has a neat post on some dilemmas in environmentalism.

The closer:

Higher commodity prices create incentives to limit waste, but also make increasingly invasive extraction methods economically feasible. There was a recent article in National Geographic about mining for gold in the face of rising gold prices that exemplifies this problem. Rising commodity prices lead directly to habitat loss, which is the primary cause of species extinction.

The linked article from Mother Jones is not bad either. Industry primarily controls our rate of waste, waste is costly, and industry is highly sensitive to cost. Perhaps not the intention of the author, but it certainly appears by the end of the piece that markets reduce waste far more effectively than environmentalists.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Contra Hard IP (styled after Kevin Murphy)

France made me consider stating my concerns with hard IP protections in another way. Here's a tentative sketch of an argument, inspired by Kevin Murphy's analysis of the stimulus earlier this year.

Kevin Murphy developed an equation including all the meaningful variables he could imagine to evaluate the social utility of any stimulus. I'm going to attempt a similar approach to determine the social utility of hard IP. (Note: I have no reason to suspect Kevin Murphy would endorse the following argument, he simply inspired it.)

By "hard IP," I mean any regime which confers monopolistic control upon IP creators.

So let's lay out a few relevant variables!

u2 = social utility conferred by the consumption of all IP produced under hard IP controls, and that
u1 = social utility of all IP produced without hard IP

There's an argument that u1 > u2, because it has cheaper inputs. Lawrence Lessig argues [1, 2, 3] that culture would be improved if we encouraged this type of cultural sampling and remixing. Bossearts et al. demonstrate in a recent Science article how collaborative IP models can encourage an even greater number of scientific discoveries than the hard IP of patents. Softer IP allows many more interested consumers to access the most useful intellectual properties. It increases utility by, and this may be a misuse of this term, reducing producer surplus. The utility of intellectual products would not be limited to those willing to pay.

Let's set these arguments aside for now and assume u2 > u1, as hard IP advocates insist. Let's suppose that higher quality products are incented by hard IP, and these products are of such higher quality that this quality increase outstrips any other gains u1 might confer upon society. The difference here, (u2 - u1), will measure the relative increase in utility flowing from intellectual products when moving from a soft IP society to a hard IP society. This increase is disputed, but let's assume it exists.

Let us also take...
c = total cost of all protected goods sold
g = deadweight loss of government resources used to police the property controls

We should prefer hard IP iff:
u2 - u1 > c + g

It may be tempting to exclude c from our analysis (and I'd actually like an economist to weigh in on its consideration). You might say, "well, that money is going to IP creators, so that cost is not really 'lost' from the system." I worry that objection is just a form of the broken window fallacy. Costs are costs, you can't wipe them out by following the money to see what later good it does. The purchasers of IP in a hard IP regime spent those dollars on IP rather than diverting those dollars to some other productive activity, so they suffered a cost due to the hard IP regime.

We know that c > u2, because IP provides monopolistic protections. Monopolistic rents inevitably exploit consumer surplus, resulting in a deadweight loss. So if these monopolistic inefficiencies are "m", then c = (u2 + m).

So, back to the math, we should prefer hard IP when:
u2 - u1 > u2 + m + g, or:
-u1 > m + g

Some who attack a soft IP solution might insist that the quality of created content under any alternative system would descend so as to be nonexistant. So let's set u1 at 0, to humor this camp completely.

Under that assumption, we should prefer hard IP so long as:
0 > m + g

The only way we would want to prefer hard IP is if the government cost of such a regime was negative, or that the benevolent individuals owning these properties never extracted any monopolistic rents, but instead provided sub-profitable discounts on their products.

I especially worry about the role of "g" in small territories who are required to implement hard IP regimes before joining the WTO.

This gives a rough sketch of my skepticism of our current "strong" IP regime. This argument is a bit of a work in progress, so I welcome anyone to suggests variables I may have left out, or inappropriately assessed. It's a radical conclusion, suggesting we'd be better off with no IP than IP protected by government enforced monopolies, so please help me refine the analysis if you can.

UPDATE 4/16: edited for consistency in terminology

France's Assembly Rejects Sarkozy's Plan to Kick Copyright Violators Off the Internet

The NY Times provides the details.

Apparently the political tactics involved were pretty animated. The Assembly is a 577 member panel. The measure failed by a vote of 21 to 15. The conservative proponents sat alone waiting for the vote, expecting it to pass without opposition. The socialist party rushed in a small coup at the last minute to catch Sarkozy's group off guard.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Some Highlights from TIME's 25 Best Blogs of 2009

Because I know you are all too busy to click through a list of 25 that TIME refuses to put on one page.

  • Generacion Y: a blog written about harsh political realities in Cuba, written from within Cuba. The prose alone merits a read. On the normalization of relations between Obama's US and Cuba: "What will the party militants think if they’re ordered to accept those whom, until recently, they hated? How can David look good in the photos if, instead of the stone and the slingshot, he sits down to talk to Goliath?"
  • Bad Astronomy: a blog on astronomy. Check out this piece on a picture of the Shuttle docking with the ISS that an amateur astronomer took from the ground.
  • Detention Slip: A collection of completely sensational stories about schools. Shootings here, teachers assaulting kids there, drug use everywhere, it all runs together fairly quick.
  • /Film: A welcome alternative to the smarmy, conflict of interest ridden cesspool that is "Ain't it Cool News."
  • Pop culture blog Bleat didn't blow my mind, but it did link to this excellent free movie creation site, Xtranormal. Xtranormal provides a series of tools for you to direct a movie using pregenerated character animations, and utilizing text to speech for the voices. The results are, well...

  • "Moon" Trailer

    Sam Rockwell as a lunar miner, Kevin Spacey as a crazy robot, what's not to love?

    Hopefully the movie won't be scuttled by heavy handed political commentary about energy companies.

    Traveling Through Time? A few things to remember...

    Also, a handy guide to a few of our most useful and profound inventions so far.

    Saturday, April 11, 2009

    Terminator Ends, Probably For Good

    Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles wraps up the season. The numbers suggest it was the series finale.

    The show consistently exceeded my expectations. The writers constantly included little moments to prove they were one step ahead of the audience. A character might say something odd, or make a mistake, another character would inevitably call them on it just as the snarky comment was coming out of your mouth. In this final season, the writers did an excellent job of building to a few surprises, and making you feel like you should have put it all together long ago.

    While there were some action sequences, the most notable thing about the show is how grimly it painted the life of John Connor. It stayed near the tone of the first film, not the latter two. In one episode, a psychologist compares John Connor's behavior to that of a combat vet, someone with PTSD. In another, John gets in a fight with another kid and nearly snaps his neck, to the horror of all onlookers. John Connor is not a Christ figure, he is this side of an anti-hero built to fight a coming terror, and you never forget how awful his life is.

    The dream episode and the UFO bit were a bit of fluff, but it all tied together rather nicely; at the end of the show, everything fit. Compare with Battlestar Galactica, hailed as a triumph even while so many plotlines (Lee's prostitute, the little kid following Starbuck around in season one) were simply dropped as soon as they got in the way.

    The finale of Battlestar Galactica swung 2.364 million viewers. The Terminator numbers for the final episode: 3.6 million. I understand that our expectations for network and cable are different, but it's a sad world where we consider the former a smash success and the latter a failure.

    Of course, every time I read the Nielsen blogs, I get depressed. The Wire will never be seen by as many people as NCIS. Moreover, almost all television pales next to the unstoppable power of WWE RAW.

    Tuesday, April 07, 2009

    Death of Blockbuster, Ascent of Netflix

    Is this related to this?

    Has Cringely Sold Out or Just Lost His Mind?

    A few months ago, Robert X. Cringely shook off the editorial chains of PBS to operate independently. Since that time, he has insistently pushed a number of new sites or technologies:

    * Home Account, a mortgage management site Cringely personally helped create (described by one commenter as "a huge dissapointment")
    * Parrot Secrets, a $70 book for parrot owners (described by many commenters as an outright scam)
    * Neokast, a media distribution service that sounded revolutionary, but never got off the ground.

    Cringely can't be expected to get everything right, and sometimes his claims are unpopular at one time but appear brilliant years later, so I might be willing to forgive these three endorsements.

    It's in his latest column where he reaches the apex of absurdity. He claims that Antek Metal Foil Drives could give Google an 85% gain in power efficiency, and that they know this, but that they are choosing not to pursue the technology because they secretly hate him. It started out as a really well informed, rational column, but somewhere towards the end it simply slips off the moorings.

    Please, Cringely, go back to PBS, or just hire someone to tell you to rewrite a third of your columns. We really need your perspective, but you really need an editor.

    Experimental Gaming

    The Guardian lists the hottest Experimental Games in a recent article. Interesting list. Many focus on letting the player interact with the very sequence of events, like changing the course of time, or becoming the storyteller.

    So far, gaming has occasionally tried to emulate the storytelling power of films and novels. This level of empowerment might provide a storytelling direction gaming can explore that no other media can follow.

    Sunday, April 05, 2009

    Alternatives to Patents

    Intellectual property law involves extending monopolies to individuals to reward them for creative effort. Monopolies are notoriously inefficient, but they are considered a Hobson's Choice for the development of new pharamaceuticals: you can get results with monopolies or not at all. (Patent monopolies sometimes lead to startling ethical results, like when genetic researchers shut down cancer-screening nonprofits).

    Finally, however, economists have tested an old model for incenting solutions to complex problems without patents.

    Indeed, in the market setting more people solved the problem on average [than in a patent based system]. There are two possible explanations. First, the winner-take-all nature of the patent system may have deterred some of the weaker participants from exerting effort. Second, and more interesting, is that the prices in the market system did in fact incorporate information about the optimal solution - thus market prices may have given people hints about the optimal solution, much like seeing a partial solution to a jigsaw puzzle.
    -Bossaerts et al. via Marginal Revolution Click through to see how it all worked.

    My worry is how the WTO is exporting IP regimes by tying IP protections to development opportunities for poor nations. These nations have to develop complex IP protection infrastructures that often besiege their local foundling judicial systems, pushing ordinary justice to the side to protect the desires of multinational corporations. This global assumption that strong IP is the only way forward prevents different countries from even experimenting with other medical research systems. Even if the patent system proves to be the best system there is, it's unfortunate that we must completely trample any experimentation in this area.

    For a "patents aren't so bad, at least not in pharma" counterpoint, consider this piece from Reason on The Tragedy of the Anticommons.

    Carbon Regulation Skepticism, Variations One and Two

    There are two major threads of climate change skepticism. The first argues that climate change is not real, while the second just argues that it's not worth preventing. (Considering the second thread, carbon regulation skepticism might be a more accurate label for these two positions.)

    The first thread, hard climate change skepticism, raises scientific objections which are mostly laughed at. The CATO Institute recently put out a full page ad in the New York Times, the the Los Angeles Times, and a few other papers, arguing that the science behind climate change is largely exaggerated.

    Politifact raises some problems with this argument. For starters, the ad's citations do not support the ad's claims.

    Defending the ad, we have the NRO explaining how sometimes biased minority positions are actually correct. As a post on The New Republic notes, this was not the most persuasive followup.

    Ryan Avent describes this as an existential crisis for libertarianism. Libertarians look like fundamentalists when, forced to choose between science and their beliefs, they begin attacking the science. It appears as dogmatic and absurd as, say, suggesting that condoms should not be used in the fight against AIDS.

    The soft climate change skeptics aren't necessarily committed to a rejection of global warming at all. Inspired by the Chicago-school libertarians, this group is just interested in the full cost-benefit analysis.

    These economics minded individuals realize that cheap, abundant energy is currently pulling most of the world out of poverty and despair (also recommended: Hans Rosling on how industrialization and high populations can be wonderful things). Cheap energy powers everything we aspire to do, whether it be feeding the poor, distributing life saving drugs, or even researching and developing cleaner energy sources.

    Because of these benefits to cheap energy, and because fossil fuels still have an extremely high energy return on investment (despite the warning cries from the peak oil/peak coal communities), there are real economic costs to carbon regulation. These are costs climate scientists are not accustomed to evaluating. If we want to approach climate change by changing our energy portfolio, these costs must be scrutinized, weighed against the benefits. Now, as that NRO article points out, people operating outside their discipline can sometimes get things right, but it's still nice to involve the econometricians at this stage, just as we involved the climatologists earlier.

    For instance, ask an econometrician if green energy investments might actually help the economy, and they will tell you that this is basically the broken window fallacy. They might also tell you that increasing energy costs primarily affect the poor, and they might ask how many people should we be ready to starve to keep temperatures more stable.

    If you believe climate change will lead to irreversible apocalypse, your answer should be "as many as it takes." If that's the ultimate implication of a position, one would hope it was open to a thorough debate regardless of the apparent consensus.

    This "soft skepticism" has proven persuasive. I would be surprised if CATO's tack persuaded anyone.