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Showing posts from November, 2007

The four anti-economic biases

My previous attempt at satire about boycotting Santa was inspired by this article on reason, which excerpts Bryan Caplan's book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. The article talks about how there are four basic biases with which most people are burdened:the anti-market bias - people believe that prices are set by the whims of CEOs rather than by market mechanisms of supply and demand; people don't believe that prices set by the market are fair; people believe that profits are an "unjust reward";the anti-foreign bias - trade between individuals is a non-zero-sum game and is good, trade among towns is a non-zero-sum game and is good, trade among regions is a non-zero-sum game and is good - but trade among countries is a zero-sum game and is dangerous;the make-work bias - people believe that there are a finite amount of "jobs" that need to be "preserved" and "protected"; andthe pessimistic bias - people be…

Boycott Santa! Free the elves! Support your local toy store

The festive season is upon us, and with this time every year comes the night when Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Father Frost or Father Christmas, whatever name depending on the culture he may be referred with, makes his silent visits under the cover of darkness to bestow prized gifts on children who have behaved well during the past year.

As every year, the majority of children who have been good have all the reasons to look forward to this magical night when rewards for their past good behavior will come into fruition. Yet, in our focus on Santa and his bounty, we tend to ignore the lives of those who do not stand to benefit from Santa's benevolence. In all our festive joyfulness, we tend to ignore that Santa's bringing gifts to children is not equitable to everybody - and by that, I do not mean the naughty children who do not receive his gifts. No. Dear reader, let us turn our minds and hearts towards the poor people who are truly and materially disadvantaged by Santa's annu…

Passive-aggressive economics

I watched my first two episodes of The Office today. It was hilarious... if in a painful way. It was somewhat like watching a train wreck: you know it's awful, yet you can't look away.

I don't know if real people actually have to live out their work lives in such offices. Some people say they do. Some people compare their workplace with the Dilbert comic, and say it's exactly like that. I can't say. I only worked in an office for something like 18 months of my life; it wasn't like that.

But is it possible that a great number of people are experiencing that kind of workplace? That they have a stupid bumbling boss like Michael from The Office, or a pointy-haired one like in Dilbert? And above these half-competent bosses are people who you hardly ever see, people who sometimes come and give you stupid trendy "motivational" pep talks, but who you feel don't really give a rat's ass about you? They pay you as low as they can, and if the going gets tou…

Amazon's "Kindle" book reading device

I want one. Awesome. It's too bad it only works in the States. If only Amazon would consider a version with WiFi in place of, or in addition to, the Sprint network's EVDO, so that you could use it worldwide, wherever there's internet access...

Link thanks to Larry O'Brien, who's already emailing publishers to ask about their support.

All hail the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

It is serious:The appearance of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on the agenda of the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting gives a kind of scholarly imprimatur to a phenomenon that first emerged in 2005, during the debate in Kansas over whether intelligent design should be taught in public school sciences classes.

Supporters of intelligent design hold that the order and complexity of the universe is so great that science alone cannot explain it. The concept's critics see it as faith masquerading as science.

An Oregon State physics graduate named Bobby Henderson stepped into the debate by sending a letter to the Kansas School Board. With tongue in cheek, he purported to speak for 10 million followers of a being called the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- and demanded equal time for their views.

"We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it," Henderson wrote. As for …

The pitfalls of harnessing evolution

Eliezer Yudkowsky has been writing fascinating articles on various aspects of evolution. Here's the latest:Sounds logical, right? If you take the hens who lay the most eggs in each generation, and breed from them, you should get hens who lay more and more eggs.

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Selecting the hen who lays the most eggs doesn't necessarily get you the most efficient egg-laying metabolism. It may get you the most dominant hen, that pecked its way to the top of the pecking order at the expense of other hens. Individual selection doesn't necessarily work to the benefit of the group, but a farm's productivity is determined by group outputs.

Indeed, for some strange reason, the individual breeding programs which had been so successful at increasing egg production now required hens to have their beaks clipped, or be housed in individual cages, or they would peck each other to death.

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And the fall of Enron? Jeff Skilling fancied himself an evolution-conjurer, it seems. (Not that he, like…

Idiot politicians - how the U.S. trade deficit is no catastrophe

The Economist's Free Exchange blog calls attention to Russel Roberts' short essay Why We Trade:To hear most politicians talk, you’d think that exports are the key to a country’s prosperity and that imports are a threat to its way of life. Trade deficits—importing more than we export—are portrayed as the road to ruin. U.S. presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to get tough with China because of “unfair” trading practices that help China sell products cheaply. Republican candidate Mitt Romney argues that trade is good because exports benefit the average American. Politicians are always talking about the necessity of other countries’ opening their markets to American products. They never mention the virtues of opening U.S. markets to foreign products.

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We don’t export to create jobs. We export so we can have money to buy the stuff that’s hard for us to make—or at least hard for us to make as cheaply. We export because that’s the only way to get imports. If…

Photos from a helicopter tour of St. Kitts

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A company (Leeward Islands Helicopters, apparently no website yet) just started offering helicopter tours of St. Kitts & Nevis this month, so about a week ago, my wife and I went for their 25 minute helicopter tour of St. Kitts. It was just awesome. We've been around the island several times by car, and there are nice vistas from several vantage points, but you just can't beat the view from a chopper. Here are some of the photos from our tour.

Golfview Estates with Half Moon Bay Villas in the backgroundSt. Christopher Club with the Atlantic beach in the foreground and the Caribbean beach in the backgroundSt. Christopher Club with Ocean's Edge Resort construction in the backgroundFrigate BayA view towards Conaree Bay, leaving MarriottGolf course with the Marriott building on the left and Half Moon Bay Villas on the rightFloating above the rainforestNeighboring St. Eustatius from above Brimstone HillBrimstone Hill Fortress with an outline of Nevis in the backgroundA view …

The weak versus the strong: the law of the strongest

The thread on Reason.com on limiting human population growth (whether or not to) prompted me to express some fundamental thoughts about the relationship between 'us' - Western civilization, you know, the tough guys, macho - versus some weaker groups that exist or have existed in nature, such as the animals and the indigenous people of continents 'we' overtook.

Julian Fondren made a decent case asserting that the survival of animals is up to people. He implies (without justifying) that all corners of the planet must be owned, and that if any species are to survive, it must be through directly serving humanity - i.e., the owners of the territory the animals occupy.

What about when a species needs a vast territory, such as the Atlantic, in which to flourish? We're currently seeing a tragedy of the commons, with fish species being overfished to extinction, that only someone owning the entire ocean could prevent.

Julian is making a biblical presumption that humans are mora…

Is curbing population growth necessary?

Following up to my previous post proposing a cap and trade system to curb population growth, I've now been convinced by the people at Reason.com that there's a good chance we don't actually need to impose a limit.

If we assume that we have the political strength to impose a global population growth curb, then we can probably also assume that we have the political strength to protect the Earth's ecosystems from people, regardless of how many people there are.

If that is the case, then the remaining issue at stake - in deciding whether to impose a curb or not - is whether everyone's quality of life is likely to increase more with a curb or without one.

In the past, people have always been able to stave off a Malthusian catastrophe through increases in technological efficiency and breakthroughs in science. In the early 20th century, famines were averted by the advent of tractors. The most recent threat of catastrophe in India was averted by the introduction of high-yield…

A cap-and-trade system to curb population growth

I've been arguing today with the good people (some more than others) at the Reason.com blog about the merits and demerits of the Chinese population control policies. This time, I'm on the side of the commies - by agreeing to the principle that there is a need for population control, more so than supporting their totalitarian tactics. I am perplexed by the futility and uselessness of commonly stated opinions such as Rhywun's, who says:Regardless of whatever resource limitations may or may not present themselves in the future, it is the height of fascist arrogance to tell a couple they may not have a child. Shame on you.Well, here's what I think.

I'm not worried that the human population cannot sustain itself at the current level, or even with many more people. What I am worried about is that doing so will require an utter transformation of this planet to a form devoted exclusively to sustaining humans; there will not be a place for any species less well organized tha…

Libertarians claim victory in elections

Wow! Sense prevails in the US?Libertarians were elected in Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—54 percent of the states in which Libertarians ran. Libertarians in Michigan won four of the five known races in that state where Libertarians were involved—a stunning 80 percent rate of victory.The one immediate explanation I can think of is that the sensible people who used to vote Republican because of their position on economics might have become disgusted by that party because it has obviously forfeited those leanings, and now are voting their true position - libertarian - instead.

The real liberals are those who advocate liberty not just in the social sphere, as the Democrats, but also in the economy. The economic kind of liberty used to be represented by the Republicans; but there used to be no way to vote for both. If the trend of Libertarians picking up pace continues, that could be a harbinger of good times to come in the States. At least - one may …

Heterosis may explain Flynn effect, height paradox

There is a paradox in IQ studies that has so far not yet been satisfactorily resolved. The paradox is that IQ has been shown to be determined largely genetically. Yet, over the past century or so, average IQs in developed countries have grown 3-7 IQ points per decade (known as the Flynn effect), which is too fast for genetic selection. Therefore IQ appears at once to be determined predominantly environmentally (the global trend) as well as predominantly genetically (other studies). This appears to be a paradox; both influences cannot simultaneously dominate.

Michael Mingroni argues convincingly that the cause for the Flynn effect in IQ is heterosis. Quoting Michael:Briefly, heterosis is a genetic effect that will cause populationwide changes in a trait whenever three conditions are met. The first condition is that the population in question must initially have a mating pattern that is less than completely random prior to the occurrence of the trend. Such a deviation from panmixia, or r…

"Journal of Geoclimatic Studies"

Something interesting just happened on the net. In an article that got quickly deleted, Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine linked to this "study", supposedly by researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Goteborg in Sweden, claiming to have found an exact correlation between global temperatures and CO2 emissions caused by ocean bacteria. I searched the net for other references to this site, but the only other one I could find had also been just recently posted and deleted. The website of the "Journal of Geoclimatic Studies" curiously lists only one issue on its website - which website was curiously registered just a few days ago on November 2 - and of the several "articles" listed for that "issue", the one about benthic bacteria is the only one available for reading. Meanwhile, John Fleck comments that "the University of Arizona doesn't really have a 'Department of Climatology'" as referred to in the &qu…

How evolution ignores our fanciful wishes

A fascinating article by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Excerpts:As an example of romance, Vero Wynne-Edwards, Warder Allee, and J. L. Brereton, among others, believed that predators would voluntarily restrain their breeding to avoid overpopulating their habitat and exhausting the prey population.

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Obviously, selection on the level of the individual won't produce individual restraint in breeding. Individuals who reproduce unrestrainedly will, naturally, produce more offspring than individuals who restrain themselves.

But suppose that the species population was broken up into subpopulations, which were mostly isolated, and only occasionally interbred. Then, surely, subpopulations that restrained their breeding would be less likely to go extinct, and would send out more messengers, and create new colonies to reinhabit the territories of crashed populations.

The problem with this scenario wasn't that it was mathematically impossible. The problem was that it was possible but very difficult.

The well-adjusted occasionally smoke pot

Over at Reason Magazine's Hit & Run blog, Jacob Sullum thus quotes from his book about drug use where it speaks of a 1990 study by Jonathan Shedler and Jack Block:Tracking a group of children from preschool until age 18, the two University of California at Berkeley researchers found that "adolescents who had engaged in some drug experimentation (primarily marijuana) were the best-adjusted in the sample. Adolescents who used drugs frequently were maladjusted, showing a distinct personality syndrome marked by interpersonal alienation, poor impulse control, and manifest emotional distress. Adolescents who, by age 18, had never experimented with any drug were relatively anxious, emotionally constricted, and lacking in social skills."

Shedler and Block did not conclude that a little pot is just the thing to help children grow up right. Rather, they found that "psychological differences between frequent users, experimenters, and abstainers could be traced to the earlie…