Friday, February 27, 2009

Hans Rosling on Population Growth

I. Peak Population

Whenever you get a chance to watch a speech by Hans Rosling, take it. Last month he posted a video discussing the peak of population growth, and it's very interesting.

Rosling has spent most of his life working on health and development issues, currently he is closely involved with a project to help individuals around the world access and manipulate demographic data, at The site has some interesting ways of building graphs that allow you to see a large number of variables at play at once while still understanding what's going on. I like to imagine this makes Rosling the digital age's William Playfair (you know, the Scot who invented the line graph, the bar chart and the pie chart).

Much of Rosling's work (as a doctor, statistician, and public speaker) emphasizes ways to save children in the poorer regions of the world. Similar work caused Paul Ehrlich to raise a moral dilemma several decades ago in "The Population Bomb":

Treating only the symptoms of cancer may make the victim more comfortable at first, but eventually he dies - often horribly. A similar fate awaits a world with a population explosion if only the symptoms are treated. We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer.
In other words, if a high human population damages the environment, and leads to greater poverty, then isn't it misguided and dangerous for Hans Rosling to focus on decreasing child mortality in the developing world?

Rosling provides a response in last month's video which cuts right to the data. He provides interesting trivia and projections along the way.

Many who worry about overpopulation, including Ehrlich, rely on a Malthusian picture of population trends. Unchecked, they believe, birth rates will be high, and populations will grow until famine, plague or some mass extinction event pushes it back. The prevailing respect for Malthus is odd, because when Malthus applied his theory, he predicted that population growth would outstrip food supply in the mid-19th century. (It did not.) Neo-malthusians like Paul Ehrlich subsequently predicted mass famines in the 1970s. So why are Malthusians so often wrong? For starters, birth rates are not consistently high. Factors like increasing GDP and female literacy (among others) tend to push down population growth by lowering family size, even while longevity increases.

II. Sustainable Population

In the video, Rosling discusses where we can expect population to level off. Will that level of population be sustainable?

In evolutionary theory, "adaptive radiation" is used to describe how a species can aggressively fill out a new niche (in that case, through greater diversification). Even in the biological world, nature abhors a vacuum, a given species will quickly expand to find new boundaries. Over the course of history, mankind has faced some huge population explosions, despite no radical adaptive radiation, nor significant gains in territory. Such explosions might be worrisome at first. But if you look back through history, these population spurts often followed agricultural revolutions. It's not that we became more aggressive in breeding, but that we became more efficient at using the limited resources of this planet to sustain more people.

Of course global population will be sustainable once it levels out, because living well under sustainable levels is one factor which drives population growth, and also because the singularity is nigh.

This hits on a concept that I learned from the classic Sim City 2000: Sustainability is determined not by nature, but by technology. Or, the plough was just the first iteration of the arcology.

III. Further Consideration

* Emily Oster discusses how longevity can interact with other systemic social problems, like AIDS and development.

* Birth rates and longevity can be folded into median age, which may be a useful demographic indicator. The US has a median age around 36 years, while almost all of Sub-Saharan Africa has a median age between 14 and 20. We cannot expect Africa to follow a "build infrastructure, then profit!" path to development like the US or Western Europe. Most of the population in Africa is either too young to help build any infrastructure, or cannot expect to enjoy it very long. Increasing health outcomes is an accessible, meaningful, and perhaps obvious first step.

* You can make your own GapMinder graphs through Google Spreadsheets.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Steven Levitt on the Urban Healthcare Initiative

When Freakonomics author Steve Levitt, whose career is made on finding the flaws in various institutions, supports a program, you know it is doing interesting new work for the benefit of all.

He blogs this week on the Urban Healthcare Initiative, a plan to radically reform Emergency Care in Chicago, doubtless an area that could use some work.

Kosmix and Bobby Jindal

Kosmix is a new search engine attempting to penetrate the "deep web."

For a good starting place, check out their page on Bobby Jindal, my fav for the McCain VP, my fav for the Republican Party challenger in 2012, and to deliver the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union on Tuesday.

I'm not well equipped to measure their deepweb capabilities, but I notice two things right off:
1) Novel searches take a few seconds to process.
2) The page layout incorporates modern search engine usability ideas, like putting photos in one place, news articles in another, and wikipedia results and regular search results somewhere else. Deepweb is exciting, but usability seems like the next place search can gain the most ground the most quickly to me.

Erroll Tyler and Economic Liberty

Randy Barnett discusses the 14th Amendment a bit at the end, the same Randy Barnett who took California's Medical Marijuana case to the Supreme Court. Barnett is really good at crafting arguments that force the Supreme Court to either abandon a series of precedents or engage in radical social change. (They can be expected to squirm a bit, then opt for the former.)

I suspect Errol Tyler's claim that the 14th Amendment protects his right to earn an honest living will fail. If it succeeds, we may need to drastically overhaul commonplace regulations and laws across the country regarding licensure and access to professional organizations. Now, any overhaul that liberalized and harmonized professional licensure requirements throughout the Union would be for the good of all Americans, as I've whined about before, but I doubt such a change would come from the bench. I seriously doubt such a sound economic policy change would ever be realized in this country.

UPDATE: As much as I like to imagine him constantly harrying SCotUS with their inconsistencies, Mr. Barnett corrects that his activity in Raich should not be confused with a habit. He posts on this issue here.

Oscar Highs & Lows

- Sean Penn's "You commie homo-loving suns of guns! I did not expect this, and I want it to be very clear I know how hard I make it to appreciate me often." A good line against the moral majority. He then undercut that delicious bit of subversion by explicitly chastising those that voted for Proposition 8. Ladies and gentlemen... Sean Penn!

- Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix impersonation. Natalie Portman killed with the "You look like you work at a Hasidic meth lab" line.


- The fake kisses from the actresses nominated for 'Best Actress'. It would have been bearable if the women presenting weren't butchering the kudos delivered. The whole time the actresses nominated were tearing up and mouthing 'I adore you'. These actresses all truly deserved the Oscar.

- "The musical is back!" No, Hugh... it's not. No matter how hard you want to believe. Hugh Jackman's second musical number was fine when he and Beyonce weren't singing on top of each other...on purpose.

- The five person presentation for the major awards. I liked the concept and presentation, but most of the people presenting had zero charm, zero believability in the what they were saying, and on occasion a complete inability to deliver basic lines of gratitude.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

1999 in Film

Kottke provides an appreciation of Eyes Wide Shut, a film I'm still not convinced was really transcendent. But at the end of the post, he includes a list of why 1999 may have been the greatest year in film in a long time.

It's hard to argue with Run, Lola, Run!, Being John Malkovich, The Matrix and Princess Mononoke.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Ideal Ranking System

I consider Tyler Cowen a fairly brilliant guy, and he's influenced a lot of how I think about various issues. He's an economist, a gamer, and an academic, so he has a hell of a start endearing himself to me.

Because I hold Mr. Cowen in such high esteem, I was surprised to read his post today, which criticized Spin's move from a 5 point ranking system to a 10 point scale.

I almost exclusively read film reviews through the filter of Metacritic, which converts all the written reviews to a 100 point scale. I find the small scales typical of newspapers uninformative. There are a lot of 4/5 star films, or albums, or restaurants. That represents a huge range of quality, and I often want more information about items in that range.

A commenter suggests that these expanded scales are only good some of the time,

More granularity is useless if you are making no comparisons and just making a pure recommendation: Go see Coraline. Read The Hobbit. Don't read The Stand. Etc.
- Bob Montgomery

At first blush, that seems plausible. If a friend of mine asks me "Should I read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom?", and I reply, "87!" then I can see where that would be confusing.

If I replied, "I'd peg the chance you like it at 87%," I can see that as being a weird, resulting from questionable methodology, perhaps, but not less helpful than "Yes." Certainly not useless, as the commenter suggests.

I began with a commenter, because I worry that Mr. Cowen's thoughts here are... less developed.

"But say they give a new release eight, nine, or who knows maybe eight and a half stars? What exactly are they trying to say?"

This means that the album in question is better than a 7 star album, but worse than a 10 star album. I'm not sure where the difficulty lies in understanding such a system. Numbers mean what they always mean. This is not Crazy 8s.

I think that Cowen is trying to suggest that the main function of any rating scale is for the magazine to "put it's name on the line" with it's maximal review. A five-star scale then lets the magazine really go out on a limb for a lot of albums, where a ten-star scale lets a magazine softball some truly great works at a 9, reserving 10s for "safe bets".

This is not my intuition of how reviewing systems work. Probably due my experience with video game ratings. The video game magazine industry, for a long period of time, rated almost all videogames in the 7-9 range. This ruined their credibility for me and others. The fact these were basically trade magazines that shilled for the mainstream wasn't somehow disguised by the 10 point scale.

I now see reviewers as putting their name on the line with everything they write, and I'm no longer interested in giving them opportunities to hide their opinions in broad, imprecise scales.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I just learned that the Chinese phrase for US Dollars (above, pinyin Měi Jīn) literally translates to "beautiful gold."

What are the chances that explains Chinese over-investment in the currency?


Three problems:

1) Dollhouse's premise is ridiculous, and further, the creators knew it was ridiculous, as the skeptical FBI agents discuss how ridiculous it is in the first episode.

2) The scifi tropes are heavily recycled. Confused protagonist being mindfucked by a super secret organization? We're mining material from The Pretender here, maybe My Own Worst Enemy. That's a really bad sign.

3) The line, "Why don't you ask Echo? Oh, that's right, she can't remember!"

Is there any reason not to beg FOX to kill this?

UPDATE: I linked the title of the post to a solid L A Times review, which adds some other gripes, like the fact Dushku is not up to playing multiple personalities, if any.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Google and Microsoft and Domain Names

This was only a matter of time, and Google's apparently been offering domains for a while now. The major flaw plaguing the domain name business was lack of reputability of a large, well-known company. GoDaddy was clawing it's way up that chain, but can't compete with the visibility of MS or Google. Up til now, Google hasn't really pushed GoDaddy or the smaller players out of the spotlight here, but MS might change that.

If Google has one limitation, it's in pushing services on those who aren't looking for them. Meanwhile, MS's core competency may be putting products in the hands of unwitting consumers. If MS puts any effort in this area at all, it might encourage a little more aggressive marketing of domain names all around.

On the other hand, the major block to profitability for large companies, and the major reason small domain name registrars stay in the game is because of the lax rules on cybersquatting. If you are sitting on the right politician's surname in the right election cycle, you could walk away with thousands of dollars for almost no investment. If we had some way to free up unused domains, we might see a far greater utilization of the domain space.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Peak Oil Observation

Peak Oil is the theory that the world is quickly running out of oil, such that oil prices are likely to begin rising, never to lower again. You might suspect this is a hot topic when oil prices are very high, or at least when gas prices are very high, and that I'm bucking some trend.

But grabbing data on the number of searches on peak oil (Google Trends), the historical price of gasoline (DoE), and the historical price of oil (DoE), I noticed a few things:

* Searches for "peak oil" are not correlated with oil price.
* Searches for "peak oil" are not correlated with gas price.
* Searches for "peak oil" are somewhat correlated with recent rises in oil prices. (r = .144, p = .02).
* Searches for "peak oil" are very strongly correlated with recent rises in gas prices. (r = .278, p < .001).

This suggests peak oil searches may actually be a rough estimate of US anxiety about gas prices, but further:
1) The American public lacks the capacity to care about actual gas prices, because we have a very short term memory. We might easily handle $5-10/gal as long as we got there a few cents at a time. Perhaps a gas tax could be phased in slowly enough no one would notice. Maybe OPEC could start ratcheting up gas prices by very gradual adjustments in oil supply (rather than the more radical adjustments they seem to prefer).
2) Americans think sudden rises in gas prices are a sign we are running out of oil, even though gas prices have fluctuated throughout modern history, and so likely signify no such thing.
3) As gas prices now show signs of rising (even while oil prices are falling), this post on peak oil might be quite timely. Come ye frightened hordes!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Myth of Bipartisanship

The blogos is afire with discussions of bipartisanship, so I'd like to take a moment to point out the obvious:

Bipartisan politics are a myth. They do not exist. The term holds zero meaning.

When two parties disagree, how do you tell which one was disagreeing for partisan reasons? (Usually it's the party you disagree with.) And when two parties agree, isn't everyone being equally bipartisan?

Don't misread me, political compromise is virtuous. Some of our history's greatest politicians kept coming back to the Congress with new solutions that attempted to bridge the party gap and address everyone's concerns. Political compromise is not embodied by a simple insistence that the other party should break ranks more often. Political compromise is best captured in plans that split the dilemma between different agendas. Political compromise is about understanding those who disagree with you, not about casting them as villains for it.

On TARP, the current political dilemma is rooted deeply in economic theory. Some, like Paul Krugman, believe that urgency is imperative, and that the deadweight loss of tax-financed government spending and the inefficiency of government is zero or negative. Others, like Kevin Murphy*, believe that urgent action heightens the inefficiency of any program to a degree where any government action will be more harmful than no government action whatsoever. The dilemma is intractable, urgency is either helpful and necessary or damaging and harmful. Anyone waving the flag of bipartisanship right now either does not understand the core of the disagreement, or simply feels slander would be faster than an open discussion of ideas.

If there is such a thing as bipartisanship, these politicians are a long way from it.

*I cannot recommend Murphy's analysis highly enough, it includes more variables beyond those mentioned here, and helps shed light on the economic assumptions of everyone involved in this discussion, regardless of which side they are on.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Wikifights: Tranquilliser gun

Tranquilliser darts are not generally included in military or police less-than-lethal arsenals because no drug is yet known that would be quickly and reliably effective on humans without the risks of side effects or an overdose. Several police forces, including the Mexican police force, have used darts on humans.
-Tranquilliser gun, from Feb. 5, 2009

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Why aren't all books free? (Or why are they?)

The Baen Free Library is another example of a publisher trying to release some books in a free format, then seeing sales on those works increase. Cory Doctorow performed the same experiment years ago, and Tor publishing has entertained a similar experiment.

Many of these experiments have had lead to success stories and increased sales.

So why aren't all books free online yet?

And if there are good reasons not to allow people to read books for free, then why do publishers allow libraries to buy their works?