Saturday, April 28, 2007

In old news. . .

I forgot to link this week-old story about popularity. Basically the idea is that popularity influences outcomes, over and above the effects of "quality." Which should be obvious to anyone who's been paying attention to anything at all for any period of time.

See also, this book. Read more.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Unwarranted cohesion

Every once in a while, when I'm watching TV, I'll have to comment about the stupidity of a commercial or show. Usually this is because the media in question contain either an unnecessary self-contradiction or a blatant disregard for facts. (Of course, much advertising is meant to mislead; it's not as if I point out every little thing that's ridiculous.) And, aside from a handful of friends, most people want me to shut up. They're content to suspend their disbelief and ignore the blatant idiocy to keep themselves entertained. In general, I find mockery of such idiocy (like, say, bad physics) much more entertaining. But most people disagree and I get told to shut up a lot.

So it's nice to find similar people around the internet. Take this delightful post by Eliezer Yudkowsky, for example. He begins:
In L. Sprague de Camp's fantasy story The Incomplete Enchanter (which set the mold for the many imitations that followed), the hero, Harold Shea, is transported from our own universe into the universe of Norse mythology. This world is based on magic rather than technology; so naturally, when Our Hero tries to light a fire with a match brought along from Earth, the match fails to strike.

I realize it was only a fantasy story, but... how do I put this...


He continues to tell the history of the discovery of the chemical reactions involved in producing fire, and concludes:
Matches catch fire because of phosphorus - "safety matches" have phosphorus on the ignition strip; strike-anywhere matches have phosphorus in the match heads. Phosphorus is highly reactive; pure phosphorus glows in the dark and may spontaneously combust. (Henning Brand, who purified phosphorus in 1669, announced that he had discovered Elemental Fire.) Phosphorus is thus also well-suited to its role in adenosine triphosphate, ATP, your body's chief method of storing chemical energy. ATP is sometimes called the "molecular currency". It invigorates your muscles and charges up your neurons. Almost every metabolic reaction in biology relies on ATP, and therefore on the chemical properties of phosphorus.

If a match stops working, so do you.

My guess is that, if he were talking about this point after watching a movie adaptation of the novel with some friends, most people would want him to quit analyzing it so closely. After all, it's fantasy, blah blah blah. But I think it's delightful. Read the whole thing. Read more.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Do government subsidies make people fat?

The New York Times thinks so.
That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

Keep this in mind when considering paternalistic arguments for food regulation.

Via Tyler Cowen. Read more.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

And I get to write a paper on this nonsense tonight!

William Greider is, once again, attacking free trade. But this time he's found some allies who can talk the talk with economists because they know all the buzzwords, and therefore his position has been vindicated! Except that his friends are high places are, much like he is, totally clueless.

Julian Sanchez has the most entertaining take on the article:
Leaving aside its merits, you do have to wonder how congenial the Gomory/Baumol theory really ought to be to traditional trada-hatas, however. On Grieder's account, the nut of the idea is as follows: Trade really is a mutually welfare-enhancing "win-win" between rich industrialized countries and poor developing ones. But over time, this means that wages and productivity in these poorer countries rise, raising the cost of imports, while infrastructure improves, making them more attractive investment targets for corporations. The gains from trade to the majority in the richer country, so the theory goes, therefore begin to drop off.

If you buy all this, what's the upshot? It seems to be that trade with poor developing countries is dandy, and trade with wealthier ones is what ought to be limited. More to the point, that trade with the poorer countries needs to be explicitly designed to depress wages and deter infrastructure improvements so that workers and consumers can reap a larger long-term share of the gains from trade. Does this sound familiar? It should: It's the old Marxist-Leninist horror story about how capitalism and international trade supposedly worked already, giving workers just enough to subsist upon and continue producing, but never enough to permit them to get in the game themselves as competitors. So, to recap, now that we know capitalism doesn't actually function in the way described in Marx's dire predictions, The Nation demands a national industrial policy to make it work that way.
Read more.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Abstraction and large themes" indeed

H&R links a nice little entry on a recent Obama speech:
"There's also another kind of violence that we're going to have to think about. It's not necessarily the physical violence, but the violence that we perpetrate on each other in other ways," he said, and goes on to catalogue other forms of "violence."

. . .

There's "the violence of men and women who have worked all their lives and suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them because their job is moved to another country."

Since I always have trouble not flying into a fit of rage and calling anyone who would hold such a despicable view a horrible racist, or at the very least an imbecilic jingoist, I'll just quote Radley Balko:
Does this also make the poor people in developing countries who take outsourced jobs complicit in the "violence?"

Even if it doesn't, even if Obama didn't really mean to compare poor people competing for work internationally to mass murderers, he and every other bleeding-heart liberal advocating crackdowns on outsourcing are complete hypocrites. Apparently they only care about poverty within certain legal boundaries, all the unfortunate souls living outside of which can take a hike.

What was that catchphrase again? Something about making the rich richer and the poor poorer? Wasn't that supposed to be a bad thing? Read more.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

More Sex Is Safer Sex

That's the title of Steven Landsburg's newest book. I noticed it in a store the other day and flipped through the first chapter to get an idea of his reasoning. Thankfully the argument also appeared in a Slate article of the same title:
Suppose you walk into a bar and find four potential sex partners. Two are highly promiscuous; the others venture out only once a year. The promiscuous ones are, of course, more likely to be HIV-positive. That gives you a 50-50 chance of finding a relatively safe match.

But suppose all once-a-year revelers could be transformed into twice-a-year revelers. Then, on any given night, you'd run into twice as many of them. Those two promiscuous bar patrons would be outnumbered by four of their more cautious rivals. Your odds of a relatively safe match just went up from 50-50 to four out of six.

But aren't their more cautious rivals now less cautious? Doesn't that factor in eventually? He continues. . .
Or consider Joan, who attended a party where she ought to have met the charming and healthy Martin. Unfortunately Fate, through its agents at the Centers for Disease Control, intervened. The morning of the party, Martin ran across one of those CDC-sponsored subway ads touting the virtues of abstinence. Chastened, he decided to stay home. In Martin's absence, Joan hooked up with the equally charming but considerably less prudent Maxwell--and Joan got AIDS. Abstinence can be even deadlier than monogamy.

Which strikes me as off. Why does he assume Joan's desired amount of sex as fixed whereas Martin changes his mind readily on sight of a silly ad? Actually we can model sexual encounters any number of ways:
1) Landsburg's case--Joan desires one sexual encounter that night. She is risk-taking and will hope for the best. Too bad if there are fewer clean guys there!

2) Joan desires one sexual encounter that night but is extremely risk-averse. She cannot know sexual histories but she can screen potential mates according to factors that would have gotten them less sex. (In other words she can pick the nerdiest guy she sees.)

3) Joan desires only sex with a man she loves--this is the "conservative hopeful" model. Joan will only fall in love with someone she has dated and therefore knows his sexual history better. The spread of STDs is minimized.

4) Joan desires a partner with the most sexual experience because he will be the best at it. She looks for signals and picks Maxwell. This model probably works better in a dating market than a one-night-stand sort of setting.

5) Joan is just a tease. Martin saved himself some sexual frustration by avoiding the party, but Maxwell bears the brunt of her behavior. Cosmic justice is satisfied.

6) The Martins of the world have more sex, but the Joans have more sex too. A new equilibrium is reached in which everyone's having more sex and the disease's rate of spread is unchanged or increased.

I could go on forever. Landsburg's example really only fits if Joan's and Maxwell's sexual demands are fixed, Martin's isn't, and Joan is completely ignorant of not only sexual histories but even basic signaling. And gosh, what happens to the story if we start with Joan having AIDS and Martin and Maxwell being clean?

The point is, the whole thing is an empirical question rather than an intuitive one. People have different personality types and we can't generalize what effect ratios of sexual risk will have on the actual rate of spread. Of course, the necessary data is nigh-impossible to gather. So maybe it's better after all to go with his plan of subsidizing condom production. Read more.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

No alarms and no surprises

From H&R, as so many of these links are, an item about FEMA's overcompensation for past failures:
Up to 6 million prepared meals stockpiled near potential victims of the 2006 hurricane season spoiled in last summer’s heat when FEMA ran short of warehouse and refrigeration space.
Read more.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oh, those statisticians

I'm finally in a blogging mood again. The world rejoices.

From Charles Brunie's retrospective on Milton Friedman:
On that same drive, Milton told us that during World War II, he was working in the Advanced Mathematics Department of the Statistical Research Group for War Purposes. The U.S. learned that the Germans had developed the jet engine and a plane—the ME 262—that went faster than the manually operated machine guns on our latest Boeing bombers could track them at close range. Milton was asked to determine the best materials with which to make jet-engine blades. “It was a simple statistical problem, concerning how long the blades would last,” he recalled. “Using known properties of various metals, I designed two alloys: one that would last six months and the other nine months. MIT was asked actually to make the alloys: one lasted three weeks, the other six weeks. That certainly lowered my conviction in regression analysis.”

I've always found that the more I understand professional econometric papers, the less I respect their authors. Read more.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Will Wilkinson's long-awaited paper on happiness and public policy has finally been published. I know what I'm doing after class. Read more.

Do your research

Radley Balko, one of the most vocal and important critics of the war on drugs, receives a humorous email. Read more.