Monday, December 15, 2008

Crow vending machine

Welcome to my new co-blogger Katrina. As you might be able to tell by her first post, she's an amateur biologist. I'm an amateur economist, of course. So it's fun to stumble upon stories that combine both of our interests:

In June, Josh Klein revealed his master’s-thesis project to a flock of crows at the Binghamton Zoo in south-central New York State. The New York University graduate student offered the birds coins and peanuts from a dish attached to a vending machine he’d created, then took the peanuts away. Klein designed the machine so that when the crows searched for the missing peanuts, they pushed the coins out of a dish into a slot, causing more peanuts to be released into the dish. The Binghamton crows quickly learned that dropping nickels and dimes into the slot produced peanuts, and the most resourceful members of the flock began looking for more coins. Within a month, Klein had a flock of crows scouring the ground for loose change.
It's reminiscent of that old monkey economics study.

I recently finished Walter Williams' grad-level entry microeconomics course. On the last day, he reflected on a story from his graduate days. When he was taking the oral exam at UCLA, Jack Hirschleifer asked him, "Do whales have utility functions?" Williams replied that they do. Hirschleifer immediately countered, "Can you devise a test?" Well, it now appears that at least crows and capuchin monkeys have tested positive for utility functions. Don't be surprised when it's proven among other animals.

1 comment:

Katrina said...

Every time you mention utility functions, I think of that big Scottish assassin in Survive Style 5+ staring down a piece of broccoli, "Wot's your utility function in loife?!"