Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ellsberg Interview

This interview is a good one to read.

As a matter of fact, Barack Obama has now, with the prosecution of Bradley Manning, indicted as many people for whistleblowing or leaks as all previous presidents put together. ... Two of whom are being prosecuted for acts carried out under George Bush and for which Bush chose not to prosecute

Any expansion of government power will inevitably be used by all kinds of politicians for all kinds of reasons.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Die Young, Live Fast

If you think that economists are cold-blooded when analyzing human behavior, you haven't seen anything yet:

The evolution of an underclass

Evolutionary theory predicts that if you are a mammal growing up in a harsh, unpredictable environment where you are susceptible to disease and might die young, then you should follow a "fast" reproductive strategy - grow up quickly, and have offspring early and close together so you can ensure leaving some viable progeny before you become ill or die. For a range of animal species there is evidence that this does happen. Now research suggests that humans are no exception.

I like the fact that these biologists also use the 'rational agent' assumption that economists favor:

"If you've only got two-thirds as much time in your life as someone in a different neighbourhood, then all of your decisions about when to start having babies, when to become a grandparent and so on have to be foreshortened by a third," says Nettle. "So it shouldn't really surprise us that women in the poorest areas are having their babies at around 20 compared to 30 in the richest ones. That's exactly what you would expect."

Old Dog, New Trick

Today I drove up to visit my parents. I was not in a rush, so I did a search for places along the way that sold Magic cards, and stopped by two of them on the way.

Some brief background: Magic is a collectible card game. Imagine playing in a fantasy football league where you have to own the football cards of the players you draft. Magic is kind of like that. Now imagine a chess game where you get to customize the starting pieces on your side. Magic is kind of like that too.

The game can either be very cheap or quite expensive depending on how you play. It is kind of like golf: you can drop tens of thousands of dollars on really expensive golf clubs, or you can get a full set of clubs at a thrift store for maybe $40. Magic cards are the same way. Magic is also like golf in that most people play as a hobby, but there are a few people who play in professional tournaments for large cash prizes. In order to win these tournaments, you need good equipment, but the best golf clubs and the best Magic cards will do nothing for you if you don't have the skill to play well.

Several times a year, they produce a new sets of cards and sell those cards in packs. Each pack has one rare card, three uncommon cards, and eleven common cards. You can get a box of 36 packs online for about $90 including shipping, and most card shops sell the individual packs for between $3 and $4. Buying a new pack is basically like buying a lottery ticket. In each set, there are about a dozen cards that are worth $10 or more, and sometimes a card can cost as much as $50. But if you don't get one of those chase rares, the cards in a pack are worth much less than $3.

Bulk common cards cost around 2 cents apiece online. Bulk uncommons cost about 5 cents and bulk rares cost about 20 cents. That is how I get most of my cards. For example, in my last ebay order, I got 2200 random uncommons, 50 random rares, and 1000 commons from a set of my choice for $50. Shipping added another $20 to that; bulk Magic cards are heavy.

You need 60 cards to make a deck to play with, so for $30 you can easily get enough cards for five or six people to make decent decks. This is basically what it would cost to buy a game like Risk, and a few thousand Magic cards will provide much more gameplay and entertainment than any board game.

One way to play is to mix all the cards together and then deal them out to all the players in bundles of between 9 and 15 cards. Each player will pick one card from this bundle and pass the remainder to the right, and then everyone picks another card and passes, and so on until all the cards have been picked. Then a new bundle is dealt out, and the process continues until everyone has enough cards to make a deck to play with. This is called drafting, and it got its name from the process of drafting sports players for teams. I often run drafts for my friends, and since the cards are cheap and people tend to get attached to decks they have built I just let them keep the cards.

This means that I am continually rebuilding my collection. Normally I buy in bulk online. But sometimes the random cards don't have exactly what you need to make a good collection of cards for drafting. Imagine a collection of football cards where there were hardly any quarterbacks or wide receivers. It would be really hard to make a well-rounded team. Ordering individual cards online is expensive, because of the labor of finding them and shipping them. So, to fill homes in the collection, I go to card shops.

Most places that sell Magic cards have massive boxes of common and uncommon cards, and they let you look through the cards for what you need. They almost always charge 10 cents for commons and 25 cents for uncommons. Typically they are very casual about this; they leave the boxes lying around for anyone to look through, and they don't bother to look at or even count the cards you get. Often they will let you trade in at 2-for-1 or even better, so at my favorite card shop I typically deposit a big pile of stuff I don't need, take a slightly smaller pile of what I do need, and then tip them a few dollars. Their collections also grow because some people will often rip open a pack, take the rare, and then dump everything else. When they do buy cards, they get them in bulk for prices even better than what I paid, so whenever anyone pays cash for a common or uncommon it is free money for them. (They never charge sales tax or give receipts.)

The first shop I visited was basically like this. I got 20 commons for $2. While looking through the cards, I found about a dozen rares mixed in. I pulled them out and gave them to the owner so he could put them in his rare binder later. He did not know how the rares had gotten in there, and he would have never known if I had taken them.

It was a really nice, fun place. Instead of trying to make all of their money selling cards or comics or collectibles, they had a coffee shop and used the games to draw people in to buy coffee. They deliberately positioned themselves as a good place to hang out, rather than a merchandiser. But they were mainly into tabletop miniatures wargaming, not Magic cards, so there was not that much for me. They do run Magic games and tournaments, and I probably would go if I did not have a lot of friends at school to play with regularly.

The second place I visited was a sports and hobby shop run by an old man. He kept the boxes of commons behind the counter, and charged 25 cents apiece for them. He kept uncommons in a binder and charged a dollar each for them. I looked through a couple of these binders; they were exactly the same kinds of cards that I got in my last bulk order, where I paid less than 3 cents each inclusive of shipping. When I asked to look through the commons, he flatly refused. He said that he did not like me. His exact words were, "Yew dunn rubbed me tha wrawng way."

This was an odd experience for me. I am usually good at getting along with people, and I have never been refused service in any establishment for any reason. I think he did not like me because, when he said that commons cost a quarter, I said "That's pretty high." He seemed to take it as a personal insult. Also, we had earlier spent a little time talking about card boxes; I was wanting to buy some from him and was commenting that the shipping is really expensive unless you buy in bulk. When I think back on this, he seemed insulted that I was contemplating buying anything online rather than from a local shop.

My guess is that he does not really know how the Magic hobby works. He may have never been in another store that sells Magic cards; he certainly does not know what the industry standard is for selling random cards. He probably paid way too much for a collection and then spent way too much time sorting it out. He probably thinks that Magic cards are like sports cards, where people like my dad will gladly pay three or four dollars each for random old cards to fill out a collection.

In his defense, it is kind of an odd hobby and you can easily end up overpaying for things. I certainly did when I started playing. There are some price lists and stores online that can reinforce the impression that all cards are really expensive. It is also possible that he does not realize that most cards suffer a serious drop in value after they are more than two years old and cannot be used in most official tournaments anymore.

There is another possibility. While I was looking through the binders, another customer came in and bought stuff. It took the guy a couple minutes, and several attempts with a calculator, to figure out how much the total was. This was the kind of calculation that I can do in my head in about 10 seconds. It was not the only indication that he was not that bright.

It is usually pretty obvious to most people that I am smart. A couple minutes of talking to me will normally let you know that you are dealing with someone fairly clever. If you are dumb and a businessman, then it can be a good strategy to automatically be suspicious of smart people. You are less likely to get ripped off that way. He may have thought that I was some kind of con artist.

But the odd thing is that, as he refused to let me see the box, he told me that I could come back in the night when his son was running the place. He said that his son was more willing to let people look through things. If he really thought that I was trying to rip the store off somehow, why would he invite me back and announce that I would then be served by someone more pliant and less suspicious?

Maybe he was just an ornery old codger who didn't feel like moving or getting a heavy box off the shelf. But he really was mean to me, far meaner than someone who was just having a bad day because of an ache in his joints or something. But he couldn't be that mean to everyone, or he would have gone out of business long ago. It is a mystery to me.

Of course, any real con artist would not have made him suspicious. They never 'rub people the wrong way'; they have a charisma that I never will.

I guess the moral is to never try to do business with an old guy in a new hobby. Or maybe it is that some people are just mean and ornery at random.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Eating Study

Earlier today, I finished the fourth session of a psychology study on eating behavior.  The first day was taking measurements and choosing which flavor to eat.  The second day was eating as much as I wanted from a bowl that had two cups in it; I ate almost the whole thing.  On the third and forth days I was instructed to eat all of one cup that had been cut into either 9 or 16 cubes, and I was supposed to eat each cube in one bite.  Before and after each snack I was asked to rate how hungry and full I felt, and after each one I had to fill out a big survey about the food.  While I was eating a sensor was attached to my wrist to see how it moved when I was eating.

I think that the main goal of the test was to see how the 9-cube and 16-cube snack differed.  I don't think it had much effect on me, because there wasn't enough food there to really change anything about how I felt.  160 calories of gelatin means almost nothing to my body, no matter how you slice it.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Never in the history of the world have women had so many amazing opportunities, and it makes not a whit of sense to squander them obsessing over our looks.

Capitalism always trumps beauty—because it trumps everything. As we continue to grow in power as workers, spenders, heads of households, and legislators, our economic power will force a change in this so-called beauty bias. But we have to be brave and continue to reject the conclusion that turning ourselves into Scarlett Johansson is the only way to get ahead.

I would like to make one observation.  Yes, we as a society need to abandon the idea that everyone needs to try to conform to a standard of beauty.  But it is also true that there will always be a minority of the population who have a comparative advantage in being beautiful: their looks will be their best asset, because they were not born with the ability to compete on the basis of intelligence or strength or discipline.  There will always be a place for such people in any free society and economy, and they should not be condemned for who they are.  Of course, it makes even less sense to try to copy them, but we run the risk of going too far in the opposite direction.

Debt and Power

Marginal Revolution was already pretty good, but it has gotten better recently.  Tyler Cowen does a good job of talking about important policy issues:

7. At some sufficiently high debt-gdp ratio, it becomes a foreign policy issue and a big one.  Postwar UK had a high debt to gdp ratio, and to this day it is a fine place, but that debt meant the end of England as a world power, for better or worse.  The U.S. for instance used financial issues to push England around and they basically had to give up on their overseas commitments.  A very high debt ratio here would mean the end of the U.S. as a global world power, again even if gdp does OK.  A global power needs the option of spending a lot more, quickly, without asking for anyone's permission.  Your mileage on a U.S. retreat from the global policeman role will vary, but it's the elephant in the room which hardly anyone is talking about.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Justice Failure

This is abhorrent.  It simply should not be happening in our country:

When the 20 agents arrived bearing a search warrant at her Ventura County farmhouse door at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday a couple weeks back, Sharon Palmer didn't know what to say. This was the third time she was being raided in 18 months, and she had thought she was on her way to resolving the problem over labeling of her goat cheese that prompted the other two raids. (In addition to producing goat's milk, she raises cattle, pigs, and chickens, and makes the meat available via a CSA.)

But her 12-year-old daughter, Jasmine, wasn't the least bit tongue-tied. "She started back-talking to them," recalls Palmer. "She said, 'If you take my computer again, I can't do my homework.' This would be the third computer we will have lost. I still haven't gotten the computers back that they took in the previous two raids." 

As part of a five-hour-plus search of her barn and home, the agents -- from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, Los Angeles County Sheriff, Ventura County Sheriff, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture -- took the replacement computer, along with milk she feeds her chickens and pigs. 
While no one will say officially what the purpose of this latest raid was, aside from being part of an investigation in progress, what is very clear is that government raids of producers, distributors, and even consumers of nutritionally dense foods appear to be happening ever more frequently.

Note that this is Los Angeles county.  Vast chunks of Los Angeles are urban wastelands, ruled by gangs and plagued by violent crime.  And yet the police choose to spend their time harassing a farmer for not labeling goat cheese properly.  She has never been charged with any crime, but they keep raiding her property and taking her possessions.  Her daughter will not grow up believing that agents of the state are little more than petty thugs, who break in and steal for no known reason.

Most examples of police overreach and draconian laws are clearly the result of popular pressure.  People want the government to get tough on crime, so they elect politicians who promise to do so, and the politicians pass ridiculously harsh laws:

Possession of a tiny amount (14-28 grams, or ½-1 ounce) yields a minimum sentence of three years. For 200 grams, it is 15 years, more than the minimum for armed rape. And the weight of the other substances with which a dealer mixes his drugs is included in the total, so 10 grams of opiates mixed with 190 grams of flour gets you 15 years.

But the pestering of small farmers who violate petty little administrative regulations is ridiculous.  No voter wants that, with the possible exception of owners of large agricultural firms.

This kind of behavior can only be explained if you look at the incentives of the police.  Tackling gangs is hard.  Patrolling the inner cities is dangerous.  It is much easier and more convenient to crack down on a harmless farmer.  The truly nauseating thing is that these police probably think that they are doing a good thing for the country.  This raid probably gave them a sense of accomplishment, a boost to their egos, in contrast to patrolling a crime-ridden area and not knowing if they are doing anything.

This kind of behavior will be endemic unless we get rid of petty little laws and exercise much better oversight of law enforcement.  If given the option, people will take the easy way out.  They will hassle farmers while an entire inner city rots away into third-world squalor.  We have to take this option away from them, and force them to do the job that police are meant to do: protecting the innocent from violent crime.

But I see no sign of this happening.  People keep feeding the Blind Idiot God of government bureaucracy, and it continues to grow ever larger and crush more and more innocents in its gelatinous maw.

Psychology Experiments

I just got paid $5 to eat food and get a free physical.

Well, technically, the food was Jell-O and it was not a full physical, just measurements:

Weight: 175 pounds
Height: 73.5 inches ( 6 feet 1.5 inches )
Body Mass Index: 21.6
Body Fat %: 13.4
Waist: 30.5 inches
Hip: 41.1 inches

The body fat was measured by a handheld electrical impedance device; I have never had this measurement taken before.  All of the numbers are what you would expect for a healthy athletic guy, with the exception of my waist-hip ratio of 0.74.  A normal healthy man is supposed to have a waist-hip ratio of about 0.9, while a normal healthy woman is supposed to have a waist-hip ratio of about 0.7.  But I have large leg muscles from running, and I am half Cuban.

The reason for this was a psychology department research study.  I've signed to to participate in a few of them.  It does not take long, it is interesting to see how they do the research, I get a chance to learn about myself, it gives me another reason to come to campus and do work, and the cash (and occasional free food) is a nice bonus.  The Jell-O thing was the first of four sessions; it will be interesting to see what they will be doing in those.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Benefits of Sweatshops

Garment Factories, Changing Women's Roles in Poor Countries

Mr. Mobarak, a Bangladeshi who has advised his country's government, found that the presence of apparel jobs appears to bolster school enrollments of girls, especially for young girls.

"A doubling of garment jobs causes a 6.71 percent increase in the probability that a 5-year-old girl is in school," Mr. Mobarak writes in a summary of his findings.

 To be sure, wages in Bangladesh's garment industry are among the lowest in the world. The minimum wage, which the government is expected to increase soon, is just 1,662 taka (about $23) a month. Labor groups are demanding a sharp increase and their protests and clashes with the police have periodically shut down factories in recent weeks.

Still hundreds of thousands of women flock to Dhaka and other garment hubs in Bangladesh every year because factories pay more than the women could earn in villages.

I hope that they do not succeed in raising the minimum wage.  That would mean unemployment, a lot less jobs, and a lot less social mobility.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Moral Licensing

University of Toronto behavioral marketing professor Nina Mazar showed in a recent study that people who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products. One of Mazar's experiments invited participants to shop either at online stores that carry mainly green products or mainly conventional products. Then they played a game that allowed them to cheat to make more money. The shoppers from the green store were more dishonest than those at the conventional store, which brought them higher earnings in the game.

Now comes word, via a large study by the University of Virginia (h/t Joseph Colletti), that surgical patients on Medicaid are 13% more likely to die than those with no insurance at all, and 97% more likely to die than those with private insurance.

The Virginia group evaluated 893,658 major surgical operations from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample database from 2003 to 2007. They divided the patients up by the type of insurance—private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and uninsured—and adjusted the database in order to control for age, gender, income, geographic region, operation, and comorbid conditions (having 2 or more diseases simultaneously). That way, they could correct for the obvious differences in the patient populations (for example, older and poorer patients being more likely to have ill health). 

The September 11, 2001, attacks have led to an intelligence community so large and unwieldy that it's unmanageable and inefficient -- and no one knows how much it costs, according to a two-year investigation by the Washington Post.
The Post article that appeared in Monday's edition says its investigation uncovered "a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine."

Six Flags

Yesterday our dojo went to Six Flags.  Normally I prefer to avoid amusement parks, but this was kind of a going-away party for two of the senseis, and they had a lot of coupons and season passes so it ended up being pretty cheap for me to go.

The Superman roller coaster was really good.  It is one where the rails are above your head.  You get in the seat, and then it tilts you forward so you are looking at the ground, so while the coaster is going it feels like you are flying around like Superman.  Obviously the way to ride it is to hold your right hand above your head while making a fist with it.  Right before the roller coaster started, the head sensei whistled the Superman theme really loud, which was a nice touch and drew applause.

We got to the park soon after it opened, and went straight to Superman, which is really far away from the gate, so we got to ride it twice with hardly any waiting.  But after that, they went to other coasters, which did involve waits, and then it started to rain.  So in the entire day, we only did six rides (Superman twice, Goliath, Batman, Thunder River, and the Dahlonega Mine Train)  

Thunder River is kind of fun, but none of the others were really worth the wait or the trip, even though the lines were rather short yesterday.  I have no desire to go to any amusement park in the future, but I might if someone wants me to go along.  I had more fun waiting in line with the dojo crowd then I did actually riding the rides.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I have been thinking about this blog post from an ambulance driver about dealing with an abusive man, found via Atomic Nerds, and about people's reactions to the story.

Before I start with my analysis, which will probably offend people, let me say that no woman should ever have to make these kinds of decisions, and that in an ideal world everyone would have a good partner that never hurt them in any way. But we do not live in an ideal world, and pretending that we do, or even that we can, will lead to serious errors. Nothing in my analysis changes the fact that his actions are wrong and evil, and should be altered. In fact, I conclude by proposing a method of altering his actions that should be far more effective than the current system.

When dealing with a situation like this, people always seem to assume that the woman is acting irrationally, that she has some psychological problem that prevents her from 'doing the right thing' and leaving the man. I am going to make the alternate assumption that the woman is a rational economic agent. Consider the following:

The woman is probably poor. The man may be a source of much-needed income.

The man is the father of her children, and we know from the story that they were very sad to see him taken away to prison. This implies that his presence improved their lives.

In many demographic groups, men of any kind are extremely scarce and hard to get. If she left him, she would probably end up with nobody, or someone even worse, or a string of temporary boyfriends. All of these situations would be much worse for her and especially for her children.

If it is known that she is single, she may start to get a lot of unwanted attention from even worse men. If she lives in a high-crime area, and her man is taken away, her chances of becoming the victim of a crime will likely go up.

It is possible that this man is a good partner and father when he is not drunk, and only becomes abusive when drunk. This is a common pattern among alcoholics. We do not know that alcohol was involved here, but the probability is fairly high.

For these reasons, and others, is is possible that the benefits of being with this man are greater than the costs of being beaten. It is possible that the woman, like millions of women before her, has decided that being with a man who sometimes beats her is better than facing a harsh world all alone.

It is arrogant and paternalistic for us to assume, based on extremely limited information, that her choice is irrational and that she would be better off without him. Respect for human autonomy means assuming that people are competent to make their own decisions about their own lives. Yes, we should give them advice and counseling, but making decisions for them, backed by the power of the state, is a bad precedent.

With that in mind, consider the actions of the police. They took him away to jail, making the children upset. If the man had a job, he will likely lose it as a result of the jail time. The woman had obviously decided to stay with the man. If we assume that her choice was rational, then taking her man off to jail hurts her. The post's author saw that taking the man to prison really hurt the children, but he blamed the man for this rather than the police.

Locking this man in a cage with other criminals is not going to make him less violent. If anything, it will make him more violent and more likely to be abusive. We need a better form of deterrent, one that will reduce the chances of this behavior. Here is how I think the situation should be dealt with:

The ambulance and police show up, take statements, and document the injuries. They then tell the children, "What your dad did to your mother was wrong. We need to punish him and teach him a lesson. He will be back in an hour."

If the behavior was alcohol-related, then the treatment is fairly obvious. Find out what his favorite drink is and procure a sample. Then strap him into a chair in the back of a van, so he is looking at the drink. Hook electrodes up to him, carefully calibrating the voltage and placement for pain but not injury. Turn off the lights. Wait a bit, then shine a light on the drink so it is the only thing he sees, then turn on the electricity. After a few seconds, turn off the electricity and the lights. Repeat until his brain permanently associates the drink with pain, then release him.

If he was not drunk, things get a little more complicated. Maybe you could make a recording of him threatening to hit the woman, and use that as the association with the electric shock. I'm sure a psychologist could think of an effective method of classical and/or operant conditioning to change his behavior patterns.

Is this torture? Yes. Is it more torturous than being sent to jail? Probably not. A short sharp round of really painful psychological conditioning should be at least as good of a deterrent as jail time, while causing less long-term physical and mental damage to the criminal. It would have a lot of other advantages over jail. The man would have no chance to learn criminal skills, make contacts with criminals, and be immersed in a criminal culture. If he has a job, he would not be taken away from it. He might be a bit dazed the next morning, but he can still show up for work. And it would be a lot cheaper.

It does have the 'disadvantage' that he is allowed to go back to his partner instead of being taken away from her for a long period of time. It certainly would be a good idea to give her counseling while he is being conditioned. But the choice to separate them should be hers, not the state's.

This system would actually make women more likely to call the police for help. One of the reasons that women put up with abuse is that they know that the man will be hauled off to jail if she reports him. She does not want that to happen, and her choice may be rational. If it became known that abusive men were punished via psychological conditioning rather than jail time, then women would probably be a lot more likely to call for help. Instead of taking him away for years and removing any benefits he provides, he is returned to her after a quick round of punishment. And if things go well and the conditioning sticks, he would be less likely to get drunk and violent.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Government Power

I've noticed something interesting about the typical conservative and liberal views of government power and actions.

Many right-wingers spend their time fighting the expansion of domestic government power.  Their assumption is that government power is bad, and that if unchecked the United States will become a tyrannical socialist state.  Yet these same people are strangely unconcerned about government power that is directed against people who are not American citizens.  If anything, any criticism of an aggressive foreign policy is denounced as unpatriotic.  And they also tend to dismiss stories about unfair treatment of minorities in our society.

Left-wingers, on the other hand, are quick to point out the ways that our government abuses powerless people, both abroad and in our country.  They are full of stories of imperialism and domination of foreigners and minorities.  And yet, despite believing all of these stories about the harm done by government, they tend to have the belief that more government intervention is the best way to solve all kinds of problems, from environmental damage to wealth and educational disparities.

Both of these belief sets make sense, in a way.  The right-wing belief set is based on the assumption that all people can and should handle their own problems, that the proper role of government is to form a barrier between citizens and outsiders, and that outsiders are inherently dangerous and should be kept in their place for the good of the country's citizens.  The left-wing belief set is based on the assumption that government is inherently responsive to the will of the people, that can be used to do what the public wants, that all people deserve to be treated fairly, and that any government abuse of a group of people is a sign that the people of the country wanted to hurt that group.

I believe that any government system should safeguard the rights and liberties of all people, that bureaucracies pursue their own goals at the expense of the will of the people, that government power is inherently dangerous, and that easily spins out of control unless the proper safeguards are in place.  Given that we live in a democratic society, and that our people have some control over the government, one would naturally expect that the worst abuses of government power would be directed against people who cannot vote in American elections.

With that in mind, read this article about the economic sanctions of Iraq.  It summarizes a book that describes how our government caused massive death and suffering among innocent civilians, while failing to accomplish anything.  If you are a liberal, please keep in mind that this is the government that you would give more power to, and that there is no fundamental difference between the people who did this and the people you would put in charge of our health care system, education system, and economy.  If you are a conservative, read this as proof that your worst fears about government power are fully justified, and that The Blind Idiot God of bureaucracy can cause massive damage if it is allowed to roam free.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sitting Still

Sitting still is harmful in itself, even if you spend time exercising:

 What was unexpected was that many of the men who sat long hours and developed heart problems also exercised. Quite a few of them said they did so regularly and led active lifestyles. The men worked out, then sat in cars and in front of televisions for hours, and their risk of heart disease soared, despite the exercise. Their workouts did not counteract the ill effects of sitting.

Your muscles, unused for hours at a time, change in subtle fashion, and as a result, your risk for heart disease, diabetes and other diseases can rise.

Regular workout sessions do not appear to fully undo the effects of prolonged sitting.

This is very important.  It should also be obvious.  If you take any organism out of its natural setting and make it live in ways it is not used to, all kinds of health problems emerge.  The human body is meant for constant, low-level activity, with occasional periods of high activity.  Sitting still is completely unnatural, and unhealthy.

And yet we train children from kindergarten to do just that.  At the age when they should be playing, running around, and learning social and technical skills by watching what their elders do, we put them in a big box and make them sit still for hours on end while someone talks to them and makes them do strange things with symbols.  Anyone who follows the healthy biological instinct to get up and move around, or at least fidget in the seat to make the muscles move, is punished, made to feel shame, and in extreme cases, dosed up with addictive mind-altering chemicals.

As a result of this training, most people are socialized to ignore their biological instincts and feel comfortable sitting still for long periods of time.  Thankfully, I managed to avoid internalizing this social norm.  When working at a computer, I am constantly moving around.  I shift to different sitting positions, lean back and forward in the chair a lot, and occasionally stand up.  Every so often I will get up and start walking around.  I will take any excuse to move around.

However, for people who have lost these instincts or must work in a more public area, the problem of unhealthy sitting is a hard one to fight.  Most of us have jobs that require us to be sitting for long periods of time, and the social norms from elementary school are still strong.  People will look at your funny if you fidget while you work, and may think that you are not a good worker.

But there are things you can do.  When the head of our dojo worked a desk job with some other guys, he got them all in the habit of doing ten push-ups every hour on the hour, no matter what they were doing.  It was good exercise, and would have helped with the muscular inactivity problem.

And you have a lot more control over your free time.  You may have to sit at a desk all day, but when you get home you do not have to sit in front of the television.  Television may be mostly harmless for people who have physically demanding jobs, are moving around all day, and need to relax, but it is a disaster for people with desk jobs.  If you have been sitting all day, then when you get home you need to do something, anything, that makes you move around.  Don't just set up a time to exercise.  Make movement part of your life.  For example, you could prepare meals that require a half hour of chopping up and mixing ingredients, and think of that time as a kind of fun exercise.  Clean up the house more often, and think of that too as useful exercise.  

If nothing else, just get up and walk around a nice place.  The evidence shows that constant amounts of low-level activity is as important as an exercise routine, and it is probably easier and more fun once you get in the habit of doing it.

Army Casualties

Here's a fact that may surprise you:
During a pre-departure briefing this spring to about 360 troops at Contingency Operating Base Adder in southern Iraq, Colonel Newell paced in front of them, saying he felt uncomfortable about their impending return to Fort Bliss.

"I have a little stress over sending a brigade home," he said. "The sad truth is that it is safer for me to keep you in Iraq drawing combat pay with people trying to kill you than it is for me to take you back home."

given the brigade's record at Fort Bliss of suicide, murder, assault, drunken driving and drug use, its troops are statistically at greater risk at home than while deployed in Iraq. During the past year, only one of the unit's soldiers died in combat, but in 2008, the last time the brigade was home from Iraq, seven soldiers were killed and six others committed crimes in which at least four civilians and soldiers from outside the brigade died in a little more than a year. 

Note that this is the worst brigade in the army on these measures; its selection for the article is typical of journalists focusing on the most extreme and shocking cases.  

But its main point is still a fact: If you are the kind of young man who joins the armed forces, then being in combat is about as dangerous as living a civilian life.  This is not true during the spikes of intense fighting that make the news, but it is true over longer periods of time.

In the past, war used to be something big.  It meant killing enough people to have effects on demographics, and it meant spending so much money that the government was in danger of bankruptcy.  Our modern wars are but pale shadows of this.  The number of Americans killed in recent wars is an actuarial rounding error compared to the numbers killed in things like car crashes and medical malpractice.  The amount of money we spend on the military in the middle of two different shooting wars, as a percentage of GDP, is lower than it was in the middle of the cold war.  The wars have had almost zero economic impact on our country.

In addition to this, the collateral damage we cause has decreased by at least an order of magnitude.  The number of innocent civilians killed accidentally over an entire decade is lower then the number of innocent civilians killed deliberately in a single night of firebombing major Japanese and German cities during World War 2.

This trend will probably continue.  Unless something happens to dramatically alter the structure of modern civilization, wars will get cheaper and cheaper for everyone involved, until they are almost indistinguishable from police actions that target organized crime.  

Before the 20th century, a soldier was more likely to die from a disease or infection than from a combat-related cause.  During the 21st century, we will likely return to this state of affairs.  So in the grand scheme of things, the idea that a soldier has the most to fear from enemy fire is a strange and temporary thing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Effort in Saving Lives

Robin Hanson is one of the best modern thinkers out there.  He is incredibly good at spotting the inconsistencies and hypocricies in our society, asking thought-provoking questions, and proposing logical solutions.  Here is his latest:

Consider the vast legal apparatus we maintain to reduce the US's ~30,000 annual car crash deaths. This includes a vast complex of traffic laws, such as re speeding and stop signs, auto safety rules and tests, and huge police forces and courts devoted to enforcing all this.

Now consider that catheter-related infections at hospitals killl a similar number of folks, and can be almost completely stopped via a simple five step procedure, and yet we have almost no related legal apparatus.


Insurance, the N.R.A., and State Power

In the health care debate this year, for instance, the N.R.A.'s lobbyists worked with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, to include a little-noticed provision banning insurance companies from charging higher premiums for people with guns in their homes.

This is a blatant misuse of state power.  Insurance companies should be allowed to charge any premium their accountants say makes sense.  If people with guns in their homes have more insurance claims on average, then the insurance company should be compensated for the higher risk.  It is completely ridiculous to assume that the insurance companies are unfairly discriminating against gun owners.  Any company that did so would rapidly lose all of their gun-owning customers to an insurance company that charged fair rates.  This new law will force all people who do not own guns to subsidize the people who do own guns.  If the insurance companies cannot charge gun owners for their higher risk, then they have to raise rates for everybody to cover their costs.

Insurance rates are absolutely the best way our civilization has for putting the proper price on risky behavior.  You cannot expect people to calculate all of the long-term costs and benefits of all of their actions.  But insurance companies are full of professionals who do just that.  If these companies were free to set rates at will, then this would send an immediate signal to people about the costs of their actions.  People might not know the true costs of smoking, and they may not trust government messages, but they will pay attention if life insurance and health insurance rates are much higher for smokers.  By transforming an uncertain future cost into an immediate present cost, insurance companies can provide an incredibly valuable information service to consumers.

But we have a plethora of laws that prevent them from doing this.  Insurance companies are explicitly banned from putting a proper price on risky behaviors.  There are only a small number of behaviors that they are allowed to accurately price.  This means that people have no incentive to stop their risky behaviors, and everybody suffers as a result.

If insurance companies were allowed to accurately price risk, then there would be less need for government intervention into risky actions.  If people had to pay the true costs of drinking alcohol or owning guns or consuming too many calories, then there would be less of these actions, and also less demand for government intervention with respect to these actions.

Our current state of affairs comes from people not understanding what prices are.  If the insurance company charges then a higher price for owning guns, they see it as unfair or an insult.  They do not see it as an accurate signal of the costs of their actions, which it will be if there is any competition in the insurance market.

Note that I am very much in favor of the right to bear arms.  The state should not prohibit law-abiding citizens from owning weapons.  It is, and should be, a fundamental legal right.  But exercising that legal right has costs, and I hold it as a fundamental principle that people should pay the costs of their actions.  The state should not prevent people from owning guns or smoking or doing drugs, but it should also not prevent insurance companies from charging the appropriate price for these actions.  People should be allowed to do anything they want, provided that they are willing to pay all of the costs of their actions. 

Preventing people from doing things is bad, but artificially shielding them from the costs of their actions is just as bad.

Beauty and Information

Here's a good quote:

beauty is always in the eye of the socially-dominant beholder

There is so much truth in that.

That quote is from this article about the economics of supermodels.  The article is actually written by a sociologist, but she gets the economic concepts right.  The author is also a model herself, according to the site that linked to the article

Monday, July 12, 2010

Court System

Many Libertarians have this amazing, naive faith in the court system to get things right.  They reject legislative or executive rule-making on the grounds that all questions of harm and liability should be handled in the courts.  They do this despite the fact that the courts are often hopelessly incompetent in technical matters.  A system regulated by technocrats in some administrative agency will be much better than a system regulated by judges and lawyers.

Here is an example of how the courts fail to fill their basic function of criminal justice.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Money Attitudes

This article brings up a lot of interesting points about how people think about money.

First, it demonstrates how little children are, by nature, vicious greedy little monkeys obsessed with social status.* 4-year-old daughter a few weeks ago stomped her feet, turned red and demanded to know why we did not own a summer house.

...most questions about salary spring from the schoolyard. "There is so much comparison going on there," he said. "Who is best looking? Who is most popular? And money just plugs right into that system. Who has the richest parents?" 

Second, it has an excellent technique for teaching children the value of money and the costs of things:

Given a particular request to return to a beloved but expensive vacation spot, David Blackburn of Montclair, N.J., stole a lesson from kindergarten class, where his son had been learning about bar charts.

The two sat down and sketched out some things the boy was familiar with, including one week's allowance ($1.25), a Lego set ($20) and sushi for the family ($60). But a night for four at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., was so expensive that it required a few extra pieces of paper to graph it in proportion. "His eyes got big," Mr. Blackburn said. "And he asked a lot less about going to Mohonk."

More parents need to do things like this.  It shows that children can be taught about costs, if you take the time to do it right, and the rewards will be large.  I also approve of the $1.25 weekly allowance for a kindergartener.  That is about the right amount of money for them to be handling.

But what I mainly want to talk about is not something that just involves children.  It is a pervasive problem that infects way too many adults:

Indeed, the problem with disclosure [of salary] in this context is that many younger children will immediately tell someone (or everyone). And the automatic social reflex is often a flash of shame among people who hear the number and make less, Mr. Kessel noted, or arrogance among those who make more. Who truly wants to put others in either situation?

I have never understood why people have such a hang-up about salary.  This paragraph shows an attitude of judging the worth of people by how much money they make.  People who make more money feel or are made to feel inferior and those who earn more are assumed to be superior.

I say this as someone who studies money-related topics for a living: Judging the worth of anyone by how much money they make is stupid, and the reluctance to talk about how much money people make is a serious mistake.  The salary someone earns should not be seen as an integral part of someone's identity, it should be viewed as a choice that they make in life, no no more important than their choice of hobbies.

Leaving aside the fact that marketable skills are only loosely related to your worth as a human being, there are two reasons why people of identical skill might earn different salaries: the labor-leisure trade-off and compensating differentials.

The labor-leisure trade-off is a fact about how people choose to spend their finite amount of time.  They can either work to earn money or they can take time off.  In order to enjoy anything in life, you need both time and money.  Some people prefer to consume things, like world-class restaurant food, that are very expensive but take very little time out of your day.  Other people prefer to consume things, like backpacking trips through the mountains, that are rather cheap but take a lot of time.  The gourmand will choose a job that pays more and takes more time, while the adventurer will take a job that pays less but gives more time off.

The compensating differential is the fact that unpleasant jobs will pay more than pleasant jobs, even if the skills required are identical.  Suppose that a company needs two customer support people, one to take orders and the other to deal with complaints.  Dealing with irate customers is an unpleasant experience, so everyone would prefer to be the one taking orders, so the company will have to pay more to the person who deals with complaints.  (If they do not pay more, then the people who apply for the complaints job will be less skilled and competent than the ones who apply for the order-taking job.)

Note that these two factors need not be part of the job itself, but can also reflect the required training for the job.  Engineers earn more, partly because engineering students in college tend to be assigned more work than people in other majors.  People who prefer to earn more money become engineering students, while people who prefer to consume more leisure time in their college years do not.

So the fact that someone earns more money does not necessarily mean that they are more skilled.  They might have an unpleasant or dangerous job, or a job that requires a lot of time.  The people who earn less might be choosing a lifestyle of relative ease and comfort, rather than one of expensive consumer goods.

Most people understand this.  And yet, they still refuse to talk about salary.  It is the one thing about themselves that they will not share.  At the company I used to work for, people would gladly discuss all manner of private things like medical problems, family conflicts, and sexual adventures.  But they absolutely refused to say anything about their salary, despite the fact that we all had jobs requiring very different skill sets, amount of time at work, and unpleasantness to deal with.

Whenever you see a social norm like this, you should think to yourself: "What group of people are most helped and harmed by this?"  That group of people will have an incentive to perpetuate the norm.  In this case, the reluctance to talk about salaries is harmful to employees and beneficial to employers.  It means that the employer has more information about salaries than the employees do.  In any negotiation or bargaining situation, information is vital.  This social convention of refusing to talk about salaries means that employers have a massive information advantage in salary negotiations.  They know much more about what you are worth than you do, and this can often allow them to take advantage of you.

When comparing salary with your peers, there are three possibilities.  You could learn that you are making more than you are worth, less than you should be getting, or the right amount.  The odds of learning you make too much are very low, because the company simply would not have retired or retained you at a salary above the fair value.  So the only real possibilities are learning that you make too little or just enough.  It might cause some temporary pain to learn that you are underpaid, but once you have this information, you can use it to get more money, or look around for a better job.  And knowing that your salary is fair would be much better than living with uncertainty.  No matter what the situation is, employees can only win by comparing notes.

Unions are aware of this fact.  Whatever you think of them, it cannot be denied that they are quite good at extracting resources from employers for the benefit of the union workers.  Union jobs tend to be characterized by well-known pay scales, while non-union workplaces are characterized by secret salaries and individual negotiations.

It has been speculated that one reason women make less than men is that they are less aggressive in salary negotiations.  This would probably change in a hurry if they knew what everyone else was making.  From this point of view, then, the social norm of refusing to share salary information is a tool to keep women down.

*The neurotypical ones, at least.  Non-neurotypical children are vicious greedy little monkeys obsessed with something else chosen at random.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Funny Quote

This, I believe, also explains why in highly egalitarian Australia, child-rearing consists of turning the tykes loose barefoot in the backyard for 12 years and hurling them slabs of meat thrice daily. They seem to turn out pretty well, actually.

from a blogger at The Economist
I checked the comments to see if anyone would take offense at this.  Nobody did, but one commenter said that "The Australian stereotype presented in this article is out of date." and talked about how things are not like that any more.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Crime and Punishment

This story reminds me of how messed up the standard view of criminal justice is.  Everyone seems obsessed by what is going on in the mind of the defendant.  The decision to put him to death or not was based entirely on speculations about what was going on in his mind at the time of the crime.

This is wrong for several reasons.  It is fundamentally impossible to know what is going on in someone else's mind, and even if you could know it, the information has very little value.  Arguing about intention or guilt or culpability makes about as much sense as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Both are exercises in the discussion of unobservable things that have no value in explaining the events we observe.

This obsession with intention is a natural consequence of a system based on the idea of 'punishment'.  The argument is that if someone had a certain state of mind during the crime, he is guilty and mush be punished, but if he had a different state of mind, he is diseased and should not be punished.  The fact that questions of punishment, and of who deserves to be punished,  devolve into this kind of philosophical hair-splitting is an indication that the entire concept is flawed.

The purpose of a criminal justice system is to prevent crime.  Period.  All decisions about what to do with someone who has committed a crime should be based on preventing future crimes, and nothing else.  There are two aspects to this.  There is the chance that the person who committed one crime will commit another if released into society.  Then, there is the effect that the sentence will have on other people who might be considering committing a crime.

For example, suppose there is a woman who has killed her husband after discovering he cheated on her.  Aside from this one incident, she is perfectly law-abiding, and we know that she is no threat to anyone who is not married to her and a philanderer.  If we ignore questions of precedent, then it is perfectly logical to simply release her and forbid her from marrying anyone.  After all, society gains nothing by sending her to jail.  She will not commit any crimes.  The only reason to impose larger costs to her is to deter future women who are in that same situation.  If we send her to jail, then we are implicitly assuming that other women in a similar situation will rationally weigh the costs and benefits of killing the husband, and that the prospect of going to jail will discourage the women from committing the murder.

However, this deterrent becomes useless if she can get out of jail by claiming any kind of mental condition that can be faked or has an unclear diagnosis.  Future women will then kill the husband and fake the condition, or hire a sympathetic doctor to diagnose it.  And if the condition is unambiguous, the situation becomes even worse.  People who know they have the condition will feel free to commit crimes, knowing that they will not be punished.  If this happens with any regularity, then society will demand that all people with the condition be identified and pre-emptively locked up.

The only rule that makes any sense is for all people who commit a crime to get the same sentence, regardless of mental state, medical condition, or circumstance.  The punishment should fit the crime, and it should apply to all people equally. 

This will mean that the mentally incompetent will get sentenced along with everyone else.  The way to make this not be a bad thing is to treat all jail time, not as punishment, but as a medical quarantine.  Really, we should just assume that anyone who is observed to commit a crime is mentally defective in some way.  We should treat them as if they had, through no fault of their own, gotten some really nasty and really communicable disease and had to be locked up to protect other people.  The concept of 'jail' should cease to exist, and be replaced with humane asylums.  With a proper emphasis on compassion and treatment, we can try to cure whatever is wrong with them, making them less dangerous.  And if they do have to be locked up for the rest of their lives, as will often be necessary, there is no reason to torture them in the process.

I think that the focus on punishment exists because we all know that jails are horrible, horrible places.  Even if you ignore the humanity and rights of the convicts, it is a fact that jail tends to make people more, not less, likely to commit crimes.  They fail at their primary purpose.  This is to be expected, because it is a well-known fact that putting people in really bad environments causes them to become dysfunctional, insane, and/or criminal.

People want to believe that the world, our government, and our society are good and just.  This is a known psychological flaw.  When faced with information about the horror of jail, people look for an explanation that allows them to continue believing that the world is just.  They usually settle on "Criminals are bad people and they deserve what is happening to them."

Monday, July 5, 2010


The concept of a 'superstimulus' is an important one to understand, and not just from an academic sense.  You encounter superstimuli every day, and how you respond to them is a big factor in your quality of life.

In biology, a stimulus is anything that provokes a reaction from an organism.  We have a lot of instinctive behavior patterns that determine how we respond to various stimuli.  For example, sweet food is a stimulus.  Our instincts tell us to seek out and consume sweet food, because in a state of nature a sweet food is going to be something good and healthy like fresh fruit or honey.  

However, our instincts do not know that humans have learned how to refine sugar and produce lots of it very cheaply.  We have the ability to make artificial foods that are far sweeter than anything found in nature.  Our instincts, working through the taste buds and the pleasure centers of our brain, tell us that we should eat as much as possible of these hyper-sweet foods.  These artificial foods, the ones that fool are instincts, are superstimuli.

A superstimulus is anything that people are attracted to because it is an artificially enhanced version of something that their instincts tell them to seek out.  A candy bar is a superstimulus.  An airbrushed picture of a fashion model is a superstimulus.

Recreational drugs, like caffeine and heroin, are an even more extreme form of superstimulus.  They work by directly stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain, which are normally stimulated by doing healthy or productive things.

In order to live a healthy life, you should train yourself to identify and avoid superstimuli.  They are almost always harmful, and if you become habituated to them, you enjoy natural things less and less.

As technology advances, we are learning how to make more and more kinds of superstimuli.  This robot baby seal is a perfect example, an artificial creation that mimics something natural.  People are strangely attracted to it, because it is designed to push just the right buttons.  Expect more and more of this kind of thing in the future.  This one is mostly harmless because it replaces animals*, but in a few decades we will have superstimulus robots that replace people by  imitating, and exceeding, all of the qualities we look for in our friends, like kindness or attention or beauty.

I expect this to cause troubles and societal changes at least as big as the widespread availability of junk food.  Today, the healthy people are those who are smart enough to avoid junk food.  In the future, the psychologically healthy will be those who are smart enough to avoid robot companions.

*Nobody knows exactly why people are attracted to 'cute' fuzzy animals in the first place.  I personally think that it is due to some kind of flaw in our brains, and that our pets are themselves a superstimulus.  I have noticed that keeping pets is often a substitute for taking care of children and grandchildren.  They seem to satisfy the instinct for nurturing in the same way that a candy bar satisfies the instinct to eat sweet food.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Most people have never heard of Somaliland.  The northern bit of Somalia has basically declared independence, and, without much help from anybody, managed to create a relatively free and safe democracy.

We could do an amazing amount of good by recognizing Somaliland as an independent country, and giving them a little bit of support.  We would be rewarding good behavior, and helping establish a good democracy in a region that really needs one.  But while we spend vast amounts of money on a failing and corrupt regime in Afghanistan, we are giving nothing to people who really deserve it.  

We won't even acknowledge their existence, even though they have far more right to call themselves a nation than many other places.  Our State Department is incredibly attached to the artificial national boundaries drawn up by the European colonial powers when they carved up the rest of the world.  As a matter of policy, we need to encourage these borders to change.  We need to encourage the formation of new nations, allowing people to break free of the chains of the past.

Well-functioning societies must grow organically.  They cannot be imposed form outside.  The only way to get good nations is to let them grow, by the work and wishes of their own people.  The people of Somaliland have, against all odds, managed to create something resembling a free democracy out of the chaos and lawlessness of one of the worst places in the world.  We should give them the help and support they need to survive and grow.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Plantation House

I like looking at historical houses.  My friend and I went to one today, a plantation owner's house that was built in 1812.  Like most houses owned by the wealthy of that time period, it is much like a modern middle-class house.  Everything: the size, the furnishings, the decor, all are about what you would expect a middle-class family to have.  Obviously things look different, and there is a different style and culture to it, but I am talking functionality when I make this comparison.

I have commented on this before.  But here is a number to put this technological progress into perspective.  The man who owned that house owned assets worth $52 million in today's dollars.

52 million dollars, and his possessions were comparable to that of a middle-class household today.  Of course, he had lots of servants to order around, but we have an array of technological 'servants' that are just as good, maybe even better.