Monday, August 31, 2009

Crooked Timber of Humanity

This is a good story about random human follies.

And in a related note, here's my thought for the day:

Trying to convince a politician to stop supporting a stupid but popular policy is like trying to convince the manager of Wal-Mart to stop selling cigarettes.

And I'll also give a review of Fritz Lang's movie 'M'.

This is a good movie.  Although it was made in 1931, in a foreign country, it feels very modern.  Aside from a few odd camera angles, and the fact that all the men wear hats, it does not seem like a foreign film or period piece.  This may be partially because Fritz Lang helped set the standard for what movies should be.

The plot is driven by the unsolved murders of children.  The police respond with a clumsy and heavy-handed crackdown on the 'usual suspects', making life difficult for the local criminals.  They decide to hunt down and kill the murderer partially in order to defend themselves, and partially because they honestly want to stop kids from being killed.

The criminal underworld is portrayed as being amazingly organized; even the beggars have an organization that is capable of giving them all orders about where to go and what to watch out for.  They are interested in keeping society stable, they see their occupation as a job like anyone else's.  (This may have been the inspiration for the guilds of assassins, thieves, and beggars in the Terry Pratchett books.)

At the climax of the film, the criminals capture the child killer (Peter Lorre) and set up a show trial in the basement of an abandoned brewery.  He is given a defense lawyer and a chance to plead his case, but it is clear they plan on killing him no matter what.  He and his lawyer plead for him to be given mercy and turned over to the law, while the head criminal argues that he is a beast who deserves no mercy.  He has already been released from an asylum once as being 'harmless'.

I mostly agree with the criminal mob.  The defense lawyer says that 'No one has right to kill a man who is not responsible for his actions'.  The crowd starts yelling, and one of them yells, in German, 'He is no man.'  This outburst was not subtitled, but I think it should have been, because it is an important point. 

The lawyer's statement is nonsense.  Anything that is not responsible for its actions should not be considered a human.  The whole reason humans are special, the reason we are given more rights than animals, is because we are sentient.  That means we understand who and what we are how our actions affect others; we have the ability to control our actions and are expected to do so.

If you encounter a bear, wolf, or tiger, you assume that it will kill you without thought if you do the wrong thing.  You cannot reason with it, you know it is guided only by instinct.  We try to preserve their animal rights and let them live in peace, but of one of them starts killing people it will have to be destroyed.  It is perfectly logical to treat anyone who has an uncontrollable compulsion to kill the same way.

Now, I do not support the death penalty.  I agree that cases like this should be handled mainly by doctors.  But you should never let a misguided notion of justice do things that put the innocent at risk.

Questions about law and order are a lot easier to deal with if you stop thinking of prison sentences as being for 'justice' or 'punishment' and think of them as 'medical quarantine'.  Questions of 'guilt' or 'responsibility' are pointless; the simple fact is that people who are likely to cause damage to society should be isolated from society.  Almost everyone will agree that it is right to lock up anyone who is carrying a virulent disease that will spread and kill people.  It doesn't matter that the person locked up is innocent and does not deserve to be imprisoned.

Of course, we try to make sure that the conditions of medical quarantine are as good as possible.  The same should be true of prisons.  There is some truth in the idea that criminals are who they are because they were warped and twisted by growing up in a rotten environment and culture.  The fact that they may not be responsible for their actions does not change the fact that they should be locked up, but it does mean that we should not be unnecessarily harsh.  The current situation of prisons means that people who go through them end up even more warped and twisted, making them an even greater threat to society.

This is a hard problem.  If you lock someone up with a bunch of criminals, they turn into even more of a criminal as they absorb criminal culture and skills.  But if you lock them up alone, they quickly go insane.  I've never understood this.  I would much rather be locked up alone than with a bunch of criminals.  But I guess most people need human contact and can't handle solitude.  And of course, you can't lock them up and force them into extended contact with normal people.

I guess the ideal situation would be to lock them up with a bunch of human-like robots who are programmed to follow the proper set of cultural norms.  That should satisfy the need for human contact, while teaching them how they should act in society.  That way, when they have served their time and are released, they should be able to fit back into society ( I am talking here about normal criminals, not the truly insane, like the one in the movie.  I drifted off topic a little.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Drug Legalization

The news from Portugal

Drug use has remained flat or even decreased, and most of the associated problems have decreased significantly.

Okay, technically, it isn't legalization.  If the police catch you with drugs, they take the drugs away, make you see a doctor and a social worker, and maybe fine you.  But you don't go to jail or get a criminal record.  It is treated as a medical issue rather than a legal one.  Our country should have this kind of respect for individual liberty and social justice.  Hopefully things will change soon.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Three Links

This blog post discusses the placebo article I linked to yesterday, with more good info.  The author shows that the placebo effect is stronger when the trials are more rigorous.  Bad science tends to make the 'real' treatment look better.

This post talks about a research study that showed how easy it is to get people to sign false confessions.  I would like to see more discussion about whether they actually believed they were guilty, or if they were making a cold calculation to make their life easy.  I suspect the latter, because far fewer people were willing to falsely claim that another person was guilty of cheating.

This article
talks about the literacy of the Internet generation.  It argues that writing ability is much better than it used to be, and makes several good points:

"Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again."

But now, people do a lot of socializing via the written world, and they tend to be good at it.

I have been happy with the communication skills of my students.  I expect a lot of them and grade quite strictly, and they still manage to do fairly well.  I know that I am teaching at an (almost) elite college, and that I am seeing the better students of the generation, but from what I see there is nothing wrong with the literacy of kids today.  Some of them may be hopeless at math and abstract reasoning, but that's nothing new.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


This is a good article about the placebo effect.  It seems to be getting stronger over time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Iron Law of Scarcity

Scarcity is an essential assumption in economic thinking.  The entire discipline is built around the assumption that human desires will always exceed the resources available.

Some people assume that future technology will eliminate scarcity, and talk about 'post-scarcity economics'.  They are mistaken.  It is true that a lot of things that are currently expensive will get arbitrarily cheap, but scarcity will never disappear entirely.

This is easy to realize if you compare our current prosperity to the life of people 1000 years ago.  Hundreds of things that were very expensive to them, from specific items like wire to paper, to general categories like food and energy, are incredibly cheap.  A minimum wage job, or even disability payments from Social Security, would allow you to live a life that is far better, in terms of material goods and comforts, than a medieval aristocrat.  And yet most of us still manage to run out of money.

There are many predictions dating from earlier in this century that technological progress would result in a 21st century where people worked 10 hours a day or less, and/or where there was massive unemployment.  And it is true that we would only have to work 10 hours a day if we all accepted the standard of living they had in the 50's.  But we want more, so we keep working.

But let us assume that technology becomes arbitrarily advanced while following all known laws of physics.  Imagine a world where computers can fabricate almost anything for free using dirt, rocks, and spare biomass, and that we all have robot servants to cater to our every whim.  Imagine uploading your brain to a computer network and living in any world you desire.  What could be scarce in such a world?

Several things, it turns out.

Energy may get very very cheap, but we will never have an infinite supply.  There is a limit to the amount of energy that the sun puts out.  New technologies have a habit of generating new energy needs.  No matter how energy-efficient your technology is, doing anything useful will eventually generate waste heat, and recovering energy form that waste heat would violate the laws of thermodynamics.  Even if we built a dyson sphere to capture the entire solar output, there would be a limit on the amount of energy available.

Rare elements will always be scarce.  Nanotechnology cannot turn lead into gold.  The only way to turn one element into another is to hit the nucleus with a stream of particles, and hope that the particles are absorbed or that they remove bits of the nucleus.  This is a very messy and energy-intensive process.

Real estate in meatspace will always be scarce.  People will want land for privacy, or simply to play with.  Even if we used the mass of the outer planets to construct a ringworld, people would desire more space than is available.  It may seem ridiculous that we could use up so much space, but it is easy to imagine that everyone would want a private forest, mountain, jungle, coral reef, etc. as a personal playground.  The only way that real estate would not be scarce would be if we had the technology to instantly teleport to any place in the galaxy and create new planets at will.

We will always need a way to allocate the limited supply of energy, rare elements, and real estate.  That means either a market or some kind of central planning.  Either way, you will need some kind of price system or credit allocation mechanism, which means money.

But suppose we find new laws of physics, and surpass all of those hurdles.  Suppose we could teleport at will to any place in the universe, instantly convert any kind of energy into any kind of mass, or even create new universes.  Will it be enough?  No.  No matter what arbitrary level of technology we possess, there will always be one scarce resource: the attention of sentient beings. 

If you want a human to do something for you, you will have to pay that person somehow, to compensate for the loss of his or her time.  Even if people are immortal, there will be things they would rather do than serve you.  And people will want services that only other humans can provide.  In fact, the easier it is to fulfull our material desires, the more we will focus on social desires, like talking to popular people and getting into the good clubs and parties.

We will not be able to get everything from AI beings.  Either they are inferior to people in some way, in which case people still have value, or they are indistinguishable from people, in which case they will also have desires and will want to be compensated for their time.  It is not possible to serve all desires by making AI slaves, or AI entities that have no desires and only exist to serve.  Modifying them enough to make them work for free will always be enough to make them sub-human in some way, and people will want to interact with real people.

So there would be an economy built around social desires and interaction.  People will pay you to do things like teach them or entertain them, and you will use the money to purchase services from other people.  Scarcity, and economics, will exist as long as anything resembling humans exists.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Effects of Government

This is an amazing fact:

"Kenyan architect and town planner Mumo Museva took me to the bustling Eastleigh area of Nairobi, where traders have created a booming economy despite the place being almost completely abandoned by the government.

Eastleigh is a filthy part of the city where rubbish lies uncollected, the potholes in the roads are the size of swimming pools, and the drains have collapsed.

But one indication of the success of the traders, Mr Museva said, was the high per-square-foot rents there.

"You'll be surprised to note that Eastleigh is the most expensive real estate in Nairobi." "

from this BBC article

Think about that for a minute.  A filthy slum has the best economy and the highest rental rates in the entire city.  Why?  Because government officials do not go there.  The government is so corrupt and rapacious that people would rather work in a lawless filthy slum then be subject to it.

Of course, the person who write the article was amazingly clueless.  He should have written 'because of' instead of 'despite' in the first line.

Improved Vaccine Delivery

Immunizations could be getting a lot better in the near future.  They are testing aerosols and skin patches that should work better than injections.

Yay Science!

Tech Support Guide

This is so true.

But in defense of the 'not computer people', it takes a bit of training and experience to build up the skills to just poke around at random and get something useful without messing up things.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Capsaicin, it Burns!

About two hours after chopping up some homegrown jalapeno peppers for a bean dish, the index finger of my left hand, and parts of the thumb and middle finger, are burning.  Repeated hand-washing does not seem to help, but grabbing a bottle full of cold water does.  I have chopped up plenty of hot peppers in the past, but this is the first time this has ever happened to me.

It seems that homegrown peppers are unusually hot this year.  Normally I can simply eat jalapenos, enjoying a mild tingle.  But when I ate a tiny bite of pepper at a friend's house a week ago, it burned for a while.

Maybe there is something about the weather that makes the plants make more capsaicin, or maybe the people selling seeds switched to a hotter variety.  Either way, I am now acutely aware of the folly of humans who make a sport out of eating a compound that plants use as a chemical weapon.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Twitter is an interesting communication medium; it forces you to be brief in your observations.  From time to time, I will experiment with posting short, twitter-style posts, or 'tweets', like so:

Copies of 'Cosmo' litter the econ grad student workroom.  Ayn Rand would not approve.


Here's another example of how my opinions are different than most people's in many ways.

I have a negative view of the restaurant and agriculture industries.  Restaurants are typically a waste of money, serving food that is loaded with empty calories and little nutrition.  The agriculture lobby is responsible for horrible public policy that wastes loads of taxpayer money while raising obesity rates in our country and causing much pain and suffering for poor people on other countries.

I don't really like the retail industry, except for the parts of it, like Wal-Mart, that deliver needed goods efficiently.  A lot of stores exist to get people to waste money on luxuries in search of social status.

I don't like the sports or film industries either.  I recognize, intellectually, that there is nothing wrong with them, that they are providing a service people want, but to my way of thinking it is a massive waste of money, and that people's time would be much better spent reading books or furthering their education.

I don't see anything wrong with the airline industry.  They don't create the demand for travel, they just serve it as best they can.  People are constantly complaining about bad service, but if they really cared about service they would fly first class or otherwise base their purchasing decisions on something other than price.  Yes, it used to be much more pleasant to fly.  It also used to be a lot more expensive.  You get what you pay for.

I don't have much of a problem with drug companies.  Yes, there is some unethical behavior, but they have been responsible for a lot of good things.  I dislike the attitude of people who want to fix all of their problems with pills rather than changing their behavior, and maybe drug company advertising is responsible for that, but in general the drug companies have caused a vast improvement in health and longevity, while being much cheaper than things like surgery or hospital stays.

Ditto banking companies.  Very few people realize how useful it is to have a good financial system.  When it was working properly, it brought vast amounts of wealth into this country.  The recent mess, while it should have been avoided, is a relatively small price to pay for a long history of economic growth.

And finally, oil and gas companies.  Why on earth would anybody dislike them?  It makes no sense.  They are doing their best to provide us with a resource that we really need.  Any ecological damage they cause is insignificant compared to habitat loss due to farming and development.  Yes, they can cause problems when they work in places where you can bribe and corrupt local officials.  But if we weren't getting our gas from them, we would be getting it from the even worse, and more wasteful, operations of petro-states.

One vague trend I notice is that the population surveyed seems to like the providers of unnecessary luxuries, while hating people who provide necessities.  That seems backwards to me, but I understand it.  People feel entitled to certain things, and they get upset when their expectations are not met.  But when it comes to optional purchases, they only buy what they like and they end up with mainly positive experiences.

I am much more willing to cut people some slack when they are doing work that needs to be done, while I am more critical of anyone that works on optional luxuries.  The former are meeting demands that already exist, while the latter are usually in the business of artificially generating demand for their stuff.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Modeling and Rationality

This is kind of a complicated story, but it is a good lesson in how mathematical or economic modeling can help you realize that people are not really crazy.

I read this article, and my initial reaction was that the people surveyed were insane:

"Unknown to the participants, everyone was offered a fictitious candidate partner who had been tailored to match their interests exactly. The photograph of "Mr Right" was the same for all women participants, as was that of the ideal women presented to the men. Half the participants were told their ideal mate was single, and the other half that he or she was already in a romantic relationship.

"Everything was the same across all participants, except whether their ideal mate was already attached or not," says Burkley.

The most striking result was in the responses of single women. Offered a single man, 59 per cent were interested in pursuing a relationship. But when he was attached, 90 per cent said they were up for the chase.

Men were keenest on pursuing new mates, but weren't bothered whether their target was already attached or not. Attached women showed least interest and were slightly more drawn to single men."

My thoughts were as follows:  How can you possibly expect that anything good will come of getting involved with someone you have convinced to leave a relationship?  That person will have proven him or herself to be unreliable and untrustworthy.  Why would you want someone who will most likely leave you whenever someone better comes along?

But the people were assuming that the people in a relationship were of higher quality.  This makes sense, if you assume that other people want the same thing as you and that all of the singles have been tested by someone else and found wanting.

Ideally, you would want someone who is both honorable and of high quality, but those people are assumed to be unattainable.  So they had a choice of high-quality people with no honor, or low-quality people with unknown honor.  I actually drew out several graphs, with different assumptions about statistical distributions of honor and quality, before I came to the conclusion that it was almost always rational, under those assumptions, to try to poach from the taken people rather than take a chance on the singles.

Now, I will never use this strategy, for several reasons.  First, I care a lot more about honor, both in me and other people, than the average person.  Second, I believe that relationship happiness depends mainly on how well you match each other's personal references, rather than an absolute scale of quality.  And third, I believe that many people are single not because they have been repeatedly rejected, but because they have not felt the need to chase a relationship and/or have not yet met the right person. 

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Driving and Control

It is a well-known statistical fact that driving is far more dangerous than flying, on a per-mile basis.  Tens of thousands of Americans die each year in car crashes, while only a few dozen die in plane crashes.

And yet people often prefer to drive.  They feel that driving is safer.  The reason is that they feel better when they are in control of the situation.  Everyone thinks that they are above average, that their chances of dying in a car crash are lower because they are a better driver.  This control fetish shows up in lots of places.  People often have a desire to be in charge of things, and think that things will be better if they are.

I have never understood this.  I hate driving.  I would always prefer to be a passenger rather than a driver, even if I know that the driver is less competent than I am.  The increased chance of getting in a crash is outweighed by the annoyance and discomfort of having to be the one in charge of driving.  I want a car that drives itself, as soon as possible.  Even if the computer driver is more likely to get me killed than I am, I want it.  I would rather sit back and relax, and have something else do the work.

And yet, I know that most people are the opposite.  They want to be the one in control, even if the computer is safer.  They don't want to trust anyone or anything else.  This makes no sense to me.

In general, I have never understood the desire for control.  Why do so many people want it so much?  It often seems that people desire power for its own sake, rather than for anything that it might provide.  Why do bureaucrats fight so tenaciously to have more responsibility assigned to their agencies?  Why do bosses insist on micromanaging things?  They are only creating more work and stress for themselves, and everyone else.

I guess people like to think that they are important, that things would fall apart if they did not personally supervise it.  Just remember: The graveyards are full of indispensable people.  Life will go on, no matter what you do.  And the less you try to do, the more likely it is that you will enjoy life.

(Note: If you have an explicitly assigned responsibility to do something, than you should do that thing to the best of your ability.  I am only talking about things that are not part of your job description.  And if they are part of someone else's job description, than it is especially important not to interfere.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Health Care and Markets

The more I look at the health care issue, the more I realize that most of the evidence shows that people are happier and healthier with government provision of basic health care.  I have known for a long time that our system is basically rotten, but I had assumed that the socialized systems had just as many problems.  But this was wrong.  Despite what certain conservative groups say, other countries consistently deliver heath care that is better and cheaper.  Almost everyone who has experienced foreign systems likes them better.

Yes, foreigners have worse survival rates for certain cancers and rare diseases.  Yes, Americans babies born extremely premature have higher survival rates, and different standards for what counts as a live birth make our numbers look worse than they really are.  Yes, our health care system is handicapped by having to deal with the consequences of horrible lifestyle decisions by Americans.  But there are mountains of statistical evidence and personal stories to show that their way is far better at dealing with the majority of medical issues.  Their people are healthier, they spend less money, and they feel much better about the experience.

I support free markets, but I have learned that they have their limits.  The general rule seems to be this: The free market cannot deal with anything that people see as a right.  Markets only work when people are willing and able to make choices, and people will not make rational choices about things that they think they are entitled to.

It would be nice if people did not feel entitled to medical services, but that's not the world we live in.  I think that, at some level, this sense of entitlement means that most people are actually happier with rationing than markets.  It is far better (for most people) to be told 'You can't have this because a panel of government experts have decided that it is not worthwhile' than to be told 'You can't afford it' or 'Your insurance company won't pay for it.'  When the denial comes from what is seen as a fair political process, it is seen as the will of society, so the sense of entitlement goes way and people do not feel cheated.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Me and Martial Arts

I was never very athletic growing up, but I was always active and fairly healthy.  I played baseball in elementary school, ran and jogged for almost all of my life, and often went on long hikes with my family.  When I started college, I was tall and had good legs and cardiovascular fitness, but my upper body was weak and I looked scrawny.

I don't remember exactly why I started martial arts training.  I do remember that my college required everyone to take three fitness classes, and I wanted to do things that I had never done before.  I ended up taking several things, including karate.  I liked karate so I joined the club and started practicing with them.

I'm not sure why I liked karate so much.  Looking back, I realize that it was not a good dojo, at least compared to what I am now accustomed to.  Maybe it was because martial arts training, whether good or just mediocre, sits in a unique spot on the health and fitness spectrum.

With any competition-oriented physical activity, newcomers are judged solely on how useful they are to the team.  Anyone who does not come in already possessing the right physical attributes and skill set is quickly made to feel unwelcome.  The goal is winning a contest, not personal development.

By contrast, almost all dedicated fitness programs have no clear goal.  You show up and go through the motions, and nobody else cares how well you do or makes any effort to help you develop, aside from nagging you to keep going with whatever the workout of the day is.

But martial arts training accepts anyone and helps them on a path of personal improvement that results in real skills, not just calorie burning or muscle toning.  I must have been attracted to that spirit of development, the culture of self-improvement and mind over matter.  Here was a group of people that was willing to teach me how to make my body do new things, and was focused on something more than winning the next game or burning up calories.

Martial arts training will improve your life in a variety of ways that normal exercise routines cannot, even if you never get in a fight.  The improved balance, coordination, and knowing how to fall can prevent many injuries.  And the blocks you learn can stop more than punches and kicks.

Several years ago, my father and I were building a shed in the back yard.  We had finished the walls but not the roof, and there was a 4x4x16 piece of lumber resting on the walls that was to be used in the roof.  I was working inside the frame when my dad bumped it.  The massive chunk of wood slipped off the walls and came directly at my head.  I did a basic one-handed hard style upper block, and then caught the wood after it hit my arm and guided it, soft-style, into an underarm carry.  I was holding the lumber safely under my arm before I consciously realized what had happened.  My karate-developed reflexes had saved me, working faster than thought.

When I started grad school, martial arts was already part of my life and I wanted to continue it.  I checked out several of the martial arts programs there before settling on Cuong Nhu.  I chose Cuong Nhu because I liked the people and the culture.  They were people I wanted to hang out with, and they focused on safety, fun, and personal development.

I have seen a lot of growth and development in my time at Tiger Dojo, not just in myself and in the other students, but in the senseis as well.  I know that I am part of a style that emphasizes lifelong learning.  One of the tricks to living a good life is to accept yourself as you are now, without anger or negativity or shame, while still recognizing that you can always be better.  Martial arts in general, and Cuong Nhu in particular, is a great way to learn and practice this skill.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Movie Review: House of Flying Daggers

There is a noticeable trend in Chinese martial arts movies: The further back in time a movie is set, the more magical the martial arts will be.  Movies set in the modern day or near past, like Fearless, generally obey the laws of physics.  If the plot is set in the far distant past and involves something like the Monkey King or Buddhist relics, then you should expect anyone and everyone to throw around mystical chi powers at will while treating gravity and other physical laws as a mere suggestion, like speed limits.

House of Flying Daggers is set about a thousand years ago in historical China, so it falls halfway between these two extremes.  The melee combat is generally realistic, but everyone is acrobatic enough to climb up bamboo stalks like a monkey, and anyone with martial arts skills can use bows, throwing knives, and other projectile weapons with impossible accuracy.  There are plenty of 'yeah right' moments, but the setting, visuals, and choreography are so beautiful that you accept it as magic and go with it, like Legolas's arrow-shooting in Lord of the Rings.

In many ways, the movie reminds me of the epic Technicolor fantasias of 60's Hollywood, like Cleopatra.  Everything is beautiful and colorful, the characters are larger than life, the plot is driven by their passions, and historical accuracy is simply not a priority.  The ending is not a happy one, and feels like it came from some Shakespearean tragedy.

Chinese movies often remind me of old Hollywood history.  While Japanese films are on the cutting edge both artistically and culturally, it always feels like the Chinese are stuck in some period of our past.

One nice thing about the movie is that there is no obvious propaganda.  While the narration at the beginning says that the government is corrupt and the rebels are noble, the policeman turns out to be the good guy while the rebels are all either corrupt or heartlessly vicious.  There is no nationalistic message, aside from a message that war and chaos ruin people's lives and prevent them from being happy.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Outside Looking In

It is always amusing and educational to see a foreigner who haa lived here for a long time talking about the USA.