Friday, October 30, 2009

BB&T Fail: Objectivism Versus Reality

Some time ago, one of my friends in the Econ department said that BB&T had charged her a $5 'Inactivity Fee' on her account.  We all thought this was crazy.  It is perfectly fair for a bank to charge you a fee for doing something that causes costs or problems, but it is completely unreasonable to charge you for not churning your account.  The whole point of a bank is that your money sits there quietly while they use it to earn more money.

I don't know the details of this fee, and I don't care.  My friend is intelligent and financially sophisticated.  She has over two years of postgraduate education in Economics and her husband works at a bank.  If she says that the fee was senseless, I believe her.  If she says it made her angry enough to cancel her account, then that fact alone is enough to ensure that I will not do business with BB&T anytime soon.

I mention this because John Allison, Chairman of the Board of BB&T, recently came to our school to give a couple of talks.  One was to the Econ faculty about his experiences with the economic and banking crisis, and the government's reaction to it.  The other was a motivational speech to undergraduates.

The most interesting thing I learned in the faculty talk was that it is actually illegal to record government officials over the phone.  I was flabbergasted by this.  It seems to me that one of the most essential liberties in a free society is the ability to keep track of what agents of the state do.  If it is illegal to record what they are doing, and share this information with the press, then we have lost a fundamental freedom.  There was a big stink recently of someone being arrested in the UK for taking pictures of a policeman.  But according to Allison, our laws in this respect are just as bad.

But that issue is not the point of this post.  BB&T is.

Allison is known for being a die-hard Objectivist.  He gives millions of BB&T's money away to promote the works of Ayn Rand.  While his economic discussion was not overtly Objectivist, his presentation to the undergraduates was.  I wasn't the only one who noticed this; some guys sitting behind me were commenting on it.  It really was interesting the way he had distilled and repackaged Rand's philosophy into a ten-point self-help 'how to improve your life' talk.

One of the main points he emphasized was honesty, a complete willingness to face reality and adjust your behavior to it.  This in turn implies fair dealing, treating people right.  He talked about how the bank refused to make subprime or predatory loans, because he saw no value for the consumer in them.  This is true, and BB&T is by all accounts a well-run bank that has survived the crisis quite well.

But human nature being what it is, I am far less likely to trust everything he said now that I know his bank is violating his espoused values and hitting my friend with stupid hidden fees.

He would probably argue that he did nothing dishonest, that the fee was in the contract that my friend signed.  And legally he would be correct.  But people don't care what is written in long complicated documents.  That's not how they deal with reality. 

Those contracts are probably never read.  If you actually have the intelligence and education necessary to understand them, then your time is too valuable to spend reading them carefully.  Gossiping among your friends is a much better way to protect yourself from nasty surprises than reading the contracts.  Given the cost of our time, signing whatever is put in front of us and then complaining loudly to warn each other away from whoever mistreats us is the most efficient way of dealing with things.

This, by the way, is one of the main reasons that poor people don't use banks.  Many poor people have bad experiences with banks hitting them with fees they don't understand.  Those check cashing places and payday lenders are horribly expensive, but they are open and honest about their fees.  They charge a simple, easy-to-understand cut off the top, and never surprise anyone with hidden fees and complicated contracts.  This means that nobody ever feels cheated.  It could be argued that poor people are simply purchasing a higher level of service and convenience than people who use normal banks.

These facts lead us to two important contradictions in Objectivist philosophy.  The first contradiction is that they say that all things, including humans, must act according to their nature, but then they actively work to change or deny several important aspects of human nature.  The second contradiction is that they say that we should always act in accordance with reality, but they refuse to accept or adapt to the reality of how most humans think and act.

Objectivists, many economists, and most libertarians share the implicit assumption that all people are willing and able to read and understand complicated contracts, and that they have a meaningful choice among different contracts.  They believe that people should be bound by whatever is in the contract they sign, and that it is irrational to complain about anything in a contract you signed.

But people don't view the world that way.  They see the contract as just another piece of meaningless paperwork, especially if it is too long and/or complicated for them to understand.  The cost of reading it is simply much higher than the benefit.

This is especially true because nobody has any real choice about the contract they sign.  If you don't sign the contract, all you can do is go to another bank that offers a contract that is 99% identical.

So people's mental idea of 'cheating' or 'dishonesty' has nothing to do with the contract.  It is based on how the behavior of the bank or company matches their expectations.  Most of us have an idea of what a bank should and should not be doing.  We expect banks to act according to those expectations, those social rules.  When they don't, we feel cheated and get angry.  And we talk about who made us angry and warn our friends about them.  In the end, this is a much more effective policing mechanism than courts and a lawsuit.  A company can usually survive a court settlement, but a loss in market share will kill it.

'Objectivists' who do not understand this fact about reality or refuse to acknowledge it are doomed to failure.

In addition to this fact, most bankers just don't understand how their entire business model is a creation of the state.  The fundamental difference between a banker and a mafia loan shark is that the mafioso has to pay someone to hunt down and punish delinquent borrowers, while the banker can get the state to do it for free.  Banks have lower operating costs and can charge lower interest rates because the machinery of the state exists to do all their contract enforcement for them.

Given that the government is providing free kneebreaking services for the bank, it is perfectly fair for the government to have some input into how the bank is run.  At the very least, the government should be able to choose not to enforce certain contracts.  The government is a tool of the people, and it would be wrong for it to enforce contracts that harm the population at large.

I definitely support anything that makes deals more transparent.  Consumers should be told, up-front and in meaningful terms, what they are getting into.  Financial products should be labeled in a standard way, just like food products are, so people can compare them with minimal effort.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Correlation and Causality 3: Smoking

I personally believe that smoking is a noxious, loathsome habit, and that anyone who smokes is both stupid and rude.  But that does not mean I will tolerate bad data or journalism about smoking.  This chart and the accompanying text are extremely misleading, for several reasons.

The WHO data actually says that there are a few countries where over 20% of people over 30 years old die of smoking-related illnesses.  But that got turned into "Nearly one in five deaths in rich countries is caused by smoking..."  This is wrong in three ways.  First, a few countries got turned into 'the rich world'.  Look at the chart and you will see plenty of rich countries with lower listed mortality from smoking.  Second, the article omitted the important bit about 'people over 30'.  And third, dying from a smoking-related illness is very different than getting killed by cigarettes.

The research defines a 'smoking-related illness' as anything that smokers are more likely to have than non-smokers.  If someone who has ever smoked dies from one of those diseases, that person is recorded in the statistics as 'dying from a smoking-related disease'.  But this is wrong, because it confuses correlation with causation.

People who smoke generally have a lot of other bad habits.  Smokers tend to be more obese and less likely to exercise.  They generally have worse nutrition and more alcoholism.  The bad effects from all of these other things are getting mixed in with the smoking deaths because people are not doing the statistics right.

For example, delerium tremens would be classified in these statistics as a 'smoking-related disease'.  A random smoker is more likely to have DT's than a random non-smoker, because smokers are more likely to be alcoholic.  So if someone died from DT's, these numbers would add him to the list of people 'killed by cigarettes'.

If you run the numbers properly, you find that smoking actually kills about 150,000 people in the USA every year, instead of the 400,000 figure that keeps making the headlines.  And most of those people are very old when they die, meaning that smoking actually just took a few years off their lives.

So the government really should focus more on fighting crime than fighting smoking.  Yes, secondhand smoke is a problem, but you can fix it with the appropriate cigarette tax.  There is no need to keep lecturing people, who usually know the risks and are willing to cut their lifespan a few years to get whatever benefit they get from cigarettes.  The proper role of the state is to prevent innocent people from getting hurt and killed by the actions of others.  Cigarettes should be a low-priority concern.

Connections and Murder

Many people think, based on media reports, that random murders are common. But as this post points out, "approximately 75% of all homicides in the United States from 1995 to 2002 occurred between people who knew each other prior to the murder"

So the best way to avoid getting killed is to not get involved with the kind of people who are likely to be violent. Simple, time-tested advice.

Monday, October 26, 2009


This is an excerpt from a NY Times article on runaway teenagers:
Teenagers living on their own ... told of a harrowing existence that in many cases involved sleeping in abandoned buildings, couch-surfing among friends and relatives or camping on riverbanks and in parks after fleeing or being kicked out by families in financial crisis.

The runaways spend much of their time avoiding the authorities because they assume the officials are trying to send them home.

So, despite the fact that their lives are miserable, they put a lot of effort into avoiding being sent back to their parents.  The question we should be asking is this:

Is the situation of living with their parents objectively worse than being homeless, or is their fear of returning home irrational?

If the former is true, it means that some percentage of American parents are giving their kids a life that is worse than living on the streets.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Correlation and Causality: Flu Shots

We've known for a long time that people who get flu shots are a lot less likely to die during flu season compared to people who do not.  But is the flu vaccine really responsible for this?

Jackson's findings showed that outside of flu season, the baseline risk of death among people who did not get vaccinated was approximately 60 percent higher than among those who did, lending support to the hypothesis that on average, healthy people chose to get the vaccine, while the "frail elderly" didn't or couldn't. In fact, the healthy-user effect explained the entire benefit that other researchers were attributing to flu vaccine, suggesting that the vaccine itself might not reduce mortality at all.

That quote is from this Atlantic article, which has a good analysis of the (rather sparse) medical evidence behind vaccines.  It includes the following paragraph:

The annals of medicine are littered with treatments and tests that became medical doctrine on the slimmest of evidence, and were then declared sacrosanct and beyond scientific investigation. In the 1980s and '90s, for example, cancer specialists were convinced that high-dose chemotherapy followed by a bone-marrow transplant was the best hope for women with advanced breast cancer, and many refused to enroll their patients in randomized clinical trials that were designed to test transplants against the standard—and far less toxic—therapy. The trials, they said, were unethical, because they knew transplants worked. When the studies were concluded, in 1999 and 2000, it turned out that bone-marrow transplants were killing patients. Another recent example involves drugs related to the analgesic lidocaine. In the 1970s, doctors noticed that the drugs seemed to make the heart beat rhythmically, and they began prescribing them to patients suffering from irregular heartbeats, assuming that restoring a proper rhythm would reduce the patient's risk of dying. Prominent cardiologists for years opposed clinical trials of the drugs, saying it would be medical malpractice to withhold them from patients in a control group. The drugs were widely used for two decades, until a government-sponsored study showed in 1989 that patients who were prescribed the medicine were three and a half times as likely to die as those given a placebo.

I've known for some time that doctors are not scientists.  They generally know nothing about the scientific method: testing theories against evidence.  Their actions have almost nothing to do with data, or statistics, or how to truly uncover truth.  They simply guess, and then claim that their guesses are beyond questioning.  Studies have shown that the treatments doctors prescribe are based not on evidence, but on what other doctors around them are doing.

The only thing you can say in their defense is that all of the 'alternative medicine' out there is even worse.  What is it about medical care that makes people act so irrationally?

I found Jackson's vaccine study via Google Scholar, and read it.  It looks like a good piece of science, but there are a few things in there I do not know how to interpret properly.  I've asked one of the professors in our departments, a statistics expert, for his opinion on the article.  Unless he finds a serious problem in the study, it is probably safe to say that flu vaccines really don't do much to prevent mortality in people older than 65.

Note that the study only looked at death rates in old people.  It may still be true that vaccinating young people, who are most likely to spread the flu and have a stronger reaction to the vaccine, would prevent overall mortality.  I have seen many scientists write that our current vaccination strategy is flawed, and that we should focus mainly on the people who might spread it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Billion Trillion 2

Several people responded to my earlier post by defending the misuse of numbers.  But no matter what you think of the issue, you must agree that this guy is an idiot:

Mr Chiscolm sued Bank of America in Manhattan's federal court in August for "$1,784 billion trillion", in a complaint that boiled down to poor customer service.
Judge Chin called the complaint "incomprehensible", in an order released in court.

The fact that he was even allowed to file this complaint is a symptom of how our judicial system is being rotted away by frivolous lawsuits.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Vibram Fivefingers 2

Earlier, I posted my first reactions to my new shoes. 

That pair split a seam, and I sent them back to be replaced under warranty.  It took a couple weeks to get the new pair back.  I started wearing these on Fall Break, and for the past week or so, I have been wearing them around school, except on days when I am in front of the class teaching.

I am still very happy with how they feel, and would recommend them to anyone who likes the feel of walking barefoot.  But if you wear them in public, expect them to attract a lot of attention.  Most people have never seen or heard of shoes with toes.  People who don't know me often stare at them, or at least do a double-take, and people who do know me will often comment on them.

Reactions have ranged from 'So how do you like those FiveFingers?' to 'Toe socks? Really?'  They have been compared to ninja shoes and to frostbitten feet.

I quickly developed a fifteen-second explanation of what they are and why I am wearing them:

"These things were designed for outdoor and water sports.  They fit well and have good traction.  It gives me the health benefits of going barefoot: strengthening the joints and muscles in my legs.  Normal shoes sometimes make my knees ache."

Even strangers have started conversations.  Reenactors at King's Mountain, and sellers at an art show, asked me about them.  This makes sense; these kinds of people are more outgoing and more interested in something new and unique.

I have discovered one weakness in the shoes.  Be warned: Vibram Fivefingers are not good for kicking fire ant nests.  No matter how swiftly I kick them or what angle I strike the mound, there were always a few ants stuck between the toes or clinging to the fabric on the upper part of the foot.

Some people might be bothered by the lack of insulation.  When wearing these, your feet will be colder than normal.  For me, however, this is a big bonus, because my feet normally get too hot, especially when exercising.

China and Africa

An African writer comments on the Chinese presence in Africa:  The long and short if it is that they are ruthless bastards who know how to get a job done:

Here is an example of what I mean: A Korean company was building a highway westwards out of Accra for more than a year.

The work stalled because the authorities could not, or would not, pull down the structures demarcated to be pulled down and for which compensation had been paid.

Indeed, the gossip was that more people started putting up structures after the demarcation exercise so they could be paid compensation - but that is another story.

A Chinese company started building a highway northwards out of Accra.

Once the demarcation was done and the compensation paid, they waited for seven days and one fine Sunday morning, as people made their way to church, they brought out the bulldozers and by the time church was over, the houses and kiosks in their way had all been pulled down.

No amount of shouting or pleading or threatening impressed them - they claimed they couldn't understand English.

After a few days of shock, the communities resigned themselves and concentrated on the beautiful road being built for them.

Meanwhile on the western front, it took for ever before the project could be completed. And guess who got kudos for delivering the work on time?

As I have said before, the Chinese seem to have a comparative advantage in dealing with third world countries.  We should just stand back and let them do the dirty work for us.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Billion Trillion

In class yesterday, while giving a presentation, a student said, "You've all seen those drug commercials where they list like a billion trillion side effects.'

I hate it when people misuse math words like this. People who throw around the biggest math words they know as a synonym for 'many' are cheapening the value of mathematical notation as they reveal their own ignorance.  When I hear this kind of thing, I am reminded of the stereotype of a cave man, whose idea of counting is 'one, two, three, many'.  People who talk like this signal that their brains do not understand how to deal with numbers larger than the number of digits on their hands.

A billion is 10^9.  A trillion is 10^12.  A billion trillion is 10^21.  If you were to actually list a billion trillion items at the rate of one per second, it would take you 3 x 10^13 years, which is several orders of magnitude larger then the age of the entire universe.

Let me put this into more perspective.  Assume that you were only listing a trillion side effects, at the rate of one per second.  It would take you 30,000 years to finish the commercial.  Imagine that an Egyptian doctor invented a medicine in the First Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, with a trillion side effects.  That doctor starts giving a commercial.  He would be listing side effects as all the pyramids were being built, as the Old Testament was being written throughout the entire history of Israel, as all of the Greek city-states rose and fell, and as the Roman empire covered the Mediterranean and then collapsed in upon itself.  He would be listing side effects all during the Dark Ages of Europe, during the centuries of Viking raids, and during the centuries of the Middle Ages.  He would be listing side effects as Columbus sailed the sea, and all throughout the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, continuing through the lives of your grandparents, your parents, and for your entire life until today.

And as of today, he would have finished listing less than one-fifth of the side effects of the medicine.

Hopefully this will reveal the stupidity of throwing around words like 'trillion'.  So don't be like the person in my class.  Use math words properly, and respect their meaning.

Inheritance Laws

Americans have become accustomed to the idea that thay can decide what happens to their money and property when they die.  If they want to give it all to one kid, or to a charity, they can do so.  Choosing how to dispose of one's assets is seen as a natural right.

But our idea of inheritance is actually quite rare.  In most of Europe, there are very strict laws about inheritance.  Most of your estate must be divided evenly between all children.  It is actually illegal to reward good children by giving them more, or to give most of your money to a charity.

It gets worse.  If you give money to a charity while you are alive, your heirs can have the courts force the charity to return the money to them.  This is, to my mind, absolutely insane.  Any law that takes money away from a charity, money that was freely given by the person who earned it, and hands it over to some spoiled rich kid who never did anything to earn it, is mind-bogglingly stupid.  It violates just about every concept of rights and justice that you can think of.

The European laws seem to be the result of a fundamentally flawed concept of human rights.  They believe that all children have the right to their parents' wealth, and that it is wrong for them to be denied it.  This imaginary 'right' results in a direct violation of the rights of the parents and the charities to their property.

The lesson here is that whenever you give people a 'right' to something that was produced by someone else, the result is always this kind of perversity.

One last thought: This might be a factor explaining the low birth rate in Europe.  I know I would be less likely to have kids if I knew that I would be forced to follow these laws.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Technology and Equality

This is a good essay.  It is a bit long, and takes some time to get to the point, so I'll summarize and add a few comments.

There are two types of goods, material goods and positional goods.  Material goods are things like food, clothing, and medical care that directly improve the physical condition of our lives.  These things have gotten much cheaper as technology advances, and will continue to do so in the future.  Positional goods are things like famous artwork, admission to an elite university, or a lake house.  They mainly serve to improve your social status, and technology will not be able to make more of them.

As our material wants and needs are satisfied more and more cheaply, people focus more and more on positional goods.  If you are hungry, your goal in life is to get enough food.  We can, in principle, do this for everybody, making everyone equally well-off.  But material equality never actually makes people happy.  When material needs are met, they typically start chasing positional goods.  But we can't give these to everybody.  The number of positional goods is fixed.  This is inevitable.  If they weren't rare, they wouldn't be status symbols.

So as we get richer and more technologically advanced, society appears more and more unequal as it becomes harder and harder to give everybody what they want.  If the life goal of everyone in the population is to make sure they and their kids have enough to eat and a decent place to live, then everyone can be satisfied.  But if everyone's goal is to send the kid to Harvard, than 99.99% of the population will be disappointed.

So we should expect more and more complaints about income and social inequality, even as technology makes everyone's standard of living go up.

I'll add that material goods are probably less likely to inspire jealousy and zero-sum thinking.  If your neighbor has plenty of food, he hasn't taken anything away from you.  You can work and earn money and get just as much food.  But if your neighbor has a Picasso, then you cannot have it.  Hard work that creates material goods adds value to the world, making everyone better off.  But hard work that chases a positional good doesn't do anyone any good, because nothing has been added to the world.

Thankfully, this is a problem that individuals can easily solve on their own.  Train yourself to stop caring about status symbols and positional goods.  If you know how to be happy with the material comforts that are getting better and cheaper all the time, then the future will be a very enjoyable place for you.  But if you insist on acquiring things that your neighbors do not have, then the future will be an endless rat race for you.

Faith in Government

Until more people come to a more realistic, fact-based understanding of the government and the economy, little hope exists of tearing them away from their quasi-religious attachment to a government they view with misplaced reverence and unrealistic hopes. Lacking a true religious faith yet craving one, many Americans have turned to the state as a substitute god, endowed with the divine omnipotence required to shower the public with something for nothing in every department – free health care, free retirement security, free protection from hazardous consumer products and workplace accidents, free protection from the Islamic maniacs the U.S. government stirs up with its misadventures in the Muslim world, and so forth. If you take the government to be Santa Claus, you naturally want every day to be Christmas; and the bigger the Santa, the bigger his sack of goodies. This prevailing ideology constitutes probably the most critical obstacle to reductions in the government's size, scope, and power. Getting rid of this ideology will be diabolically difficult, if possible at all.

Also see my earlier blog post on this topic: Blind Idiot God

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Intellectual Honesty

Good scientific research has no agenda other than uncovering a fact about the world.  Most people who have a Master's degree or better in any real, data-driven science can quickly recognize the difference between real research and pseudoscientific junk.  Real science is what our civilization is built on; it is the cornerstone of our entire society.  It should be respected, for without a common set of facts we cannot communicate or do anything useful.

I know that having an advanced degree does not make you wise, and there are a lot of people who cling to their ideologies.  Even though they know what good research is, they do not apply that standard to everyone.  It is distressingly common to ignore the flaws in bad research that supports your beliefs, or to ignore the existence of good research that would make you question your beliefs.  It is also true that researchers sometimes sell out and twist things to support some agenda.

But whenever an academic who has lots of good publications and works at a good school is attacked by some politician or popular author with no real credentials, it is almost always the case that the academic is correct and the attacker is just some hack who is trying to make money or support a political agenda.

Let me give a specific example.  Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers are good, solid economists.  They'll probably never win the Nobel Prize, but they are definitely among the elite of the profession.  They recently published a paper called 'The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness'.  Here's the abstract:

The lives of women in the United States have improved over the past
35 years by many objective measures, yet we show that measures of
subjective well-being indicate that women's happiness has declined
both absolutely and relative to men. This decline in relative wellbeing
is found across various datasets, measures of subjective wellbeing,
demographic groups, and industrialized countries. Relative
declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness
in which women in the 1970s reported higher subjective well-being
than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap
is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men.

I've looked through this paper, and I can confirm that it is a good piece of research.  They use about 30 pages of high-quality data analysis to show that woman report less happiness today than in the past.

I would think that this is an ideologically neutral finding.  They are very careful not to engage in any idle speculation about why women are less happy.  They simply report the fact, and the world is a better place because they did.

But a lot of people don't like this fact, for whatever reason.  So the authors have often been attacked by people who know nothing about science.  One of the latest people to do so is Barbara Ehrenreich.  She has a new book coming out, with the claim that people are worse off because they are made to feel artificially happy.

I would think that Ehrenreich would find value in the research; it agrees with her thesis that people are not really better off.  But for some reason she has decided that she doesn't like it.  Perhaps this is because some people (not the authors) have used the paper to claim that feminism did not help women.

You can read some of the criticisms, and the author's response, in this Freakonomics blog post.  This is the intro:

One of the things I've learned from Levitt is that you need a thick skin if you are going to write about controversial topics. And since Betsey Stevenson and I wrote about "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," we've been called everything from left-wing fools to right-wing tools. But it can be a real kick in the guts when you learn that someone you thought you admired turns out to be simply dishonest. And that's how I felt when I read Barbara Ehrenreich's "takedown" of our research in today's LA Times.

Many of my readers probably know of Ehrenreich already, and don't like her, so they are not surprised by this.  But if you are thinking that this kind of ideologically motivated attack on real scientists, and a refusal to accept the honest facts that science produces, is a trait of the left, let me say a few words:

Biology is a much more reliable and more data-driven science than Economics.  Biology is directly responsible for most of the medical care that keeps us alive, and a lot of the technology and food that makes our lives better.  Biologists are good scientists, and they know what they are doing.  They make useful predictions about reality.

And they all know that evolution is a proven fact.  Evolutionary thinking is the core of biology, and has been for about 150 years.  It explains why plants, animals, bacteria, and viruses are the way they are, and it tells us how to work with the world around us.  For example, evolution explains why it is a very bad idea to misuse antibiotics.  We have seen things like MRSA evolve before our very eyes.  Analysis of the fossil record and genetics shows us that this same process has been operating for millions of years, to produce life as we know it today.

And yet, despite 150 years of hard work and good science on the part of biologists, a large fraction of the American population simply refuses to accept that evolution is real.  This fact often makes me despair of ever getting people to understand unpopular facts about economics.  The biologists have way better data than we ever will, and they still can't get people to abandon their preconceptions.

I see no conflict between religion and science here.  Replication with mutation is a very elegant process that produces organisms that are adapted to their environment and will be able to respond to an environmental change.  Given that life as we know it would be impossible without a changing world, life must have some way to adapt to change.  It is perfectly reasonable to assume that God set up the process, then pressed a cosmic 'fast-forward' button so that a billion years of evolution happened in a few days.

The Catholic Church will never escape the fact that they denounced and arrested Galileo for stating that the earth moves around the sun.  The modern opposition to evolution is just as foolish, and the church looks worse the longer it goes on.  In the long run, you cannot ever win a fight against a scientific fact.

Antique Mechanical Pedometer

A couple weeks ago, a friend game me an interesting an old mechanical device.  She hadn't looked at it closely, and thought it was a broken pocketwatch, but after studying it I saw it is not a watch, but a mechanical counter or meter of some kind.

It looks much like a pocketwatch, but the numbers on the dial only go to 10.  There is a big hand on the dial that looks like a watch's minute hand, and a smaller hand inside, with numbers from 0 to 100 in a circle.  The centers of the two circles are in different places.  When I took off the back, I saw a weight attached to clockwork, and something that is meant as an adjustment.  When I shake the device, it clicks and the counter (sometimes) advances one unit.

I sent emails to various people who might know what it was, including my cousin and a mechanical engineering professor here.  My cousin guessed that it was a pedometer.  Today the professor confirmed this.  He dated it to about the '30s or '40s, noting that the gears were made of stamped metal.  The workings reminded him of the cheap $1 watches of the time period, and he commented that 'pedometers are not rare.'

This was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing.  I had known that there was something of a health and fitness fad in the earlier part of the century, but I had no idea that it featured widespread use of cheaply mass-produced mechanical pedometers.

I wonder if any common thing from today will be lost in the mists of time like this.  What might we use that could only be identified by someone with a master's degree 70 years form now?

Hacker Heaven

When I saw this article, the first thing I thought was 'Hackers will have a lot of fun with this, unless it is secured really well.' 

Wi-Fi Direct will automatically scan for local existing hotspots and any wi-fi-enabled devices, such as cameras, phones and computers.

The Alliance says the specification will search for both consumer electronics and office applications, enabling devices to connect from across a home or workplace.

Tech companies are basically shipping computers that are programmed to automatically open connections with any machine that asks for it.  This could be a disaster.  If you get any computer or advanced phone next year or later, make sure that it is secured very well.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Showing kids a CD video teaching some simple relaxation exercises is a far more effective painkiller than drugs:

Among those who had used the CDs, 73.3% reported that their abdominal pain was reduced by half or more by the end of the treatment course compared with 26.7% in the standard care group.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Nuclear Batteries!

I want one.

Class and Food

Random Unscientific Observations:

The goal of lower-class food is to provide calories as cheaply as possible.
The goal of lower-middle-class food is to taste as good as possible.
The goal of middle-class food is to be healthy and practical.
The goal of upper-middle-class food is to signal one's social and environmental credentials.
The goal of upper-class food is to embarrass any non-upper-class person who tries to eat it.

A couple comments on the last two, because many of my readers have probably never been subjected to upper-middle-class or upper-class food, or they were and didn't know what they were dealing with or why.

Some people really don't care about taste or cost or practicality in their food.  They want to keep up appearances by sending the message that they are the 'right kind of person'.  So their food will probably be some combination of organic, 'fair trade', and whatever the latest food fashion is.  They may think that it is healthy and good for the environment, but it probably isn't.

Upper-class food takes the social games to an even more extreme level.  Its goal is to make anyone outside the social circle uncomfortable and/or to make them look bad, thus reinforcing the bonds of the in-crowd.  This kind of thing is typical of the upper class.  They love to invent arbitrary complicated rules, and make things artificially difficult.  Entry into the upper class requires that you spend a lot of time memorizing useless things and developing useless skills.  This has been true for millennia.  It allows them to feel superior to people who have to spend their time actually earning a living.

Here are some signs that you might be dealing with upper-class food:

1) There are no knives, no forks, and/or no plates.
2) You are expected to eat standing up.
3) The food is either very messy or too big to eat in a single bite.  By itself, this is fine, but in combination with points 1 and 2 it is a real killer.
4) There are no trash cans in the room.  You have to put everything on a tray that a waiter will carry off.

That's for receptions.  At the sit-down meals, they have different ways to mess with you:

1) There are way too many forks and knives and plates.
2) The food requires special unique skills or utensils to eat properly.
3) The place is swarming with way more waiters than is necessary.

And the universal attribute of upper-class food:  It is not healthy, good, cheap, or socially responsible.  Anything that the lower classes might actually choose to eat on their own is frowned upon, because they might know how to deal with it without looking and feeling bad.

For example, at the conference I attended recently, there was a reception with a 'light refreshments' buffet.  One of the things on this buffet was slices of hard toasted white bread, half the size of a slice of normal bread and twice as thick.  There were also a lot of sauces and dips that you were presumably supposed to eat with the bread.  If you tried to break the bread by hand, you would cover your clothes in a shower of crumbs.  If you tried to eat it without breaking it, you would either have to bite through the hard tough bread or stuff the whole thing in your mouth.  Both of these would be extremely unpleasant for both you and anyone who saw you.

I have no idea how we were supposed to eat this bread.  Maybe finishing schools teach you how to break bread without causing crumbs or getting your hands dirty. Maybe you weren't even supposed to try.  It could simply have been a a trap for the unwary.  I stayed with the fruit.  Even though the pineapple chunks were far bigger than was proper or comfortable, I was able to eat them in a single bite without any unpleasantness.

Gender Inequality 2

I got several responses to a glib offhand comment I made earlier this week* about clothing, and I'd like to post a couple general responses:

I know that there is plenty of inequality in outcomes, that there are still plenty of sexists lurking around, and that there are plenty of places in the world where women are denied legal rights.  My point was that in free Western democracies, the dress code is the only place you will find actual written rules, combined with very powerful and unquestioned social expectations, that put women at a disadvantage.

The evidence of human behavior suggests that men's clothing is superior to women's in terms of comfort, functionality, and practicality.  When women are allowed to do so, they often choose to wear trousers.  I don't think men lose anything by being denied the ability to wear skirts and high heels.  It is true that social comfort is subjective, but the fact that people have been trained to be comfortable in impractical clothing means that that they could easily be trained to be just as comfortable in practical clothing, so they would get the benefits of both.

It is certainly possible that these dress codes were designed and enforced by one type of woman, those who look and feel good in these clothes.  But it still has the effect of making life difficult for other women, who probably form the majority.

*Note to website or RSS readers: My blog is imported into my Facebook page, where people often comment on it.

Clever Brit

I would argue that this man has provided a useful service to society.  A price system is the best way to allocate a scarce resource.  If he hadn't taken initiative, then the parking spaces would have not been used properly:
From The London Times:

A Well-Planned Retirement

Outside England 's Bristol Zoo there is a parking lot for 150 cars and 8 buses. For 25 years, its parking fees were managed by a very pleasant attendant. The fees were £1 for cars ($1..40), £5 for busses (about $7).

Then, one day, after 25 solid years of never missing a day of work, he just didn't show up; so the Zoo Management called the City Council and asked it to send them another parking agent.

The Council did some research and replied that the parking lot was the Zoo's own responsibility.

The Zoo advised the Council that the attendant was a City employee.

The City Council responded that the lot attendant had never been on the City payroll.

Meanwhile, sitting in his villa somewhere on the coast of Spain (or some such scenario), is a man who'd apparently had a ticket machine installed completely on his own; and then had simply begun to show up every day, commencing to collect and keep the parking fees, estimated at about $560 per day -- for 25 years.

Assuming 7 days a week, this amounts to just over $7 million dollars!


And no one even knows his name!

From Atomic Nerds

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gender Inequality

Fashion is the last bastion of gender inequality.  Men are allowed to wear comfortable clothes with plenty of pockets to formal events.  Women are not.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Causation and Responsibility

Any good scientists knows that correlation is not causality, and any good science writer mentions this fact as often as possible, as I did recently.

But there is another very important point that is not mentioned enough.  I've never actually seen anyone state it in simple terms:

Causation is not Responsibility.

See if you can tell the difference between following two statements:

1) Abortion laws have been shown to have a statistically significant effect on rates of violent crime.
2) Legalizing abortion is responsible for the recent drop in violent crime.

The first statement is true, and the second is not, even though journalists often translate the first into the second.

The problem lies not with the actual words used, but with their connotation.  A lot of people have the idea that only one thing is responsible for most effects.  The human brain seems hard-wired to think in terms of simple narrative causality, and our legal system reinforces this notion.  But reality is messy and complicated, and there are usually a lot of reasons for things to happen.  There may be five or six causes that all work together to produce an effect, and the way that the causes interact can get very complicated.

Often, different scientific studies will show that different things cause the same effect.  For example, there are papers showing that different policing methods cause a drop in crime. Sometimes this leads to a dispute.  But it usually turns out that both papers are true.  One thing explains part of the variation, and another thing also explains part of the variation.  Knowing that one thing causes something does not imply that other things have no effect.

It is especially important to remember this fact when reading about the effect that genes have on life outcomes.  Yes, it is true that genes cause things.  You can make reliable predictions about peoples' life outcomes by looking at their genes.  But genes are not solely responsible; they may only explain a quarter of the variation.  The other three-quarters is environmental.  So no matter what your genes say, the choices you make and the situations you put yourself into will still be responsible for most of your fate.

Genes can often make your life harder, forcing you to work a lot to accomplish something, like a good body or social skills, that come naturally to other people.  But the fact that you have the gene that causes something like alcoholism or obesity does not change the fact that you are the one responsible or your life.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Rational Expectations

Even asking the unemployed to attend an interview with a job counsellor seems to raise their chances of finding work. A study in the American state of Maryland found that a compulsory four-day workshop on looking for a job reduced unemployment before the course was even held. The prospect of attending was enough to persuade some claimants to get a job.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Power of the People

Here's one group of people that don't like closed borders and barriers to trade:
A small flotilla of rafts fashioned from trailer tyres and stacked with sacks of corn floats by, in sight of customs officials. Their cargo is destined for Tecun Uman's bustling market, which overflows with crackers and bread made affordable by the recent depreciation of Mexico's peso against the Guatemalan quetzal. "It's illegal, but it's a job for these people," says Antonio Aguilar, the chief of Guatemala's national police in Tecun Uman. That is one reason why he leaves the 5,000 or so small-time smugglers in this area alone. Another, he admits, is that when one of his predecessors cracked down on smuggling, a mob burnt down the police station.

Candy and Violence

Eating candy daily as a child is correlated with adult violence.

This does not mean that candy causes violence.  Correlation is not causation, as the article does a good job of pointing out.  There are actually three possibilities, even though the article only mentions two.

Possibility 1) Candy causes violence.  Perhaps being spoiled as a child leads to poor self-control as an adult.
Possibility 2) Violence causes candy.  Perhaps violent tendencies cause the child to be bribed with sweets.
Possibility 3) Some other, unobserved factor is responsible for both violence and candy.  Perhaps bad parenting results in both spoiling and later criminality.

The only way to be sure would be to run a randomized controlled trial, giving candy to some children but not others, making sure the children are otherwise similar, and waiting to see what happens.  This would obviously be difficult.  Another way would be to find a natural experiment, something that changes the amount of candy consumed without changing anything else about the child's environment.  Perhaps you could find a time when the price of candy jumped because of a tariff or a sugarcane crop failure or something, and then look to see if that had any effect on crime down the road. 

Economists do that kind of thing all the time, but it requires both a lucky accident to give you the data, and really high-powered statistical techniques.  Simple linear regressions just don't do the job.