Friday, March 21, 2014

Crime and Punishment: If We Could Create Hell, Should We?

This is also posted at my religion and morality blog The Lucky Atheist.

Sam Harris has in several places discussed his moral thought experiment of a pill that would make prisoners think they'd been tortured when they really hadn't. This is why a recent piece in Aeon about length of punishment was so interesting. First it asks if it's ethical to extend someone's life so they could serve a thousand year sentence; then it asks if it would be ethical to change their consciousness so they thought they had served a thousand years, or least much longer than they actually had. (Star Trek fans will recognize an episode of Deep Space 9 here, where exactly this happened.)

More broadly, the moral issue they're getting at here is whether some kind of hell is permissible or even to be encouraged, once we can create it. (Again science fiction has been there: Iain Banks readers will recognize the central question of Surface Detail, where virtual reality hells are used to punish brutal dictators.) It would also be interesting to ask theists about this. Assuming a situation where everyone (theist and atheist) agrees that a particular person's actions are suitably heinous, shouldn't we begin their punishment as soon as possible? If Hell is a real place that bad people go to, why wait?

Leaving aside the more mundane questions that we can ask of our prison right now - who wants to feed a bad guy for a thousand years, and does knowledge of a thousand year sentence actually deter behavior (utility calculations don't seem to affect bank robbery rates, for example) - I think it's obvious that we should focus on how to prevent terrible behavior in the first place, instead of how to make punishment after the fact more severe. Instead of creating virtual hells, shouldn't we focus on creating a real heaven? If you have the science to make someone think they're living a thousand years, what about the science to keep them from becoming a serial killer in the first place? Here people might object that if we choose that path, surely there's something scary about tampering with human nature and free will, to which I answer: you better have a very, very clear argument then. If we weigh the very concrete suffering experienced by Ted Bundy's victims and their families against this amorphous threat to human nature, I think engineering better behavior wins hands down.

In a way, up until now we've been fortunate, because this hasn't been a choice that it's within our power to make. But once it's within our grasp, if we don't face the facts head on and make an explicit decision based on our values - if we muddle through pretending we still don't have that power, or we just let inertia be our guide - then we're being profoundly immoral. Maybe not this particular decision, but many decisions like it, are going to have to be made already in this century.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wealth and Coastline, Part 2: The United States

Previously I showed that the average income in the set of 138 countries for which I had income data, countries that do have some saltwater coastline is $13,562, vs $9,040 for those with no coastline. This is not surprising, to the extent that you'd expect places with globally linked economies established by their historical presence on the seas to do well, as you would expect for places that were non-extractively colonized (they'll often be the same places, i.e. the U.S.) So it might be worth asking, is there a similar effect in the U.S.?

Yes. In general, the coastal states have higher per capita incomes than the landlocked states. But the scatter plot is interesting. There's a U-shaped trend to this data, of distance of each state capital from American saltwater, versus per capita income (U.S. Census). I say "American saltwater" because there are two states (New Mexico and Arizona) where it's faster to go to the Gulf of California. Even including that as the closest saltwater doesn't change much.

You notice the income minimum at 607 miles from saltwater? It's not just a curve artifact - if you look at the states with capitals 500-700 miles from saltwater, they have a lower per capita among them ($24,141) vs the country as a whole ($28,051). These 7 states with capitals 500-700 miles are the sparsely populated and therefore small service economies of the northern Rockies (Utah, Montana, Idaho), as well as part of the Bad Stripe in the Appalachians (Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana), and post-industrial Michigan. Is there something worse about being 600 miles from the sea, as opposed 1000 or more? (6 states: Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota, the latter the furthest at 1,235 miles.) But it's possible that it's just a historical accident, as with the supposed effect of rainfall at 100 degrees west longitude causing the population to drop off toward the west. In the case of 100 degrees west, Americans had settled to about that distance inland when the rail lines were completed. (Read the history of towns in western Texas and you will usually see a discussion of which rail line it was on; true for most of the Frontier Strip.)

Also of note: I used driving distance to saltwater, but this is not a great approximation. Even if we were going to use driving distance to saltwater regardless of country, you couldn't include Hudson Bay as North Dakota's closest, because you can't drive there! And just because you can drive to coastline doesn't mean there's a port there, or geography that allows ports to be built. Furthermore, the Great Lakes states are de facto on saltwater because canals and locks connect shipping all the way through to Minnesota.

If you count states in the discrete category of whether they're landlocked and how landlocked they are (1 state away from saltwater? 2 states?) it's clear that the median income of saltwater states is higher - $29,551 vs $26,073. However, among the landlocked states, the U-shaped curve appears again: for the land-locked states, there's no trend for more isolated = lower income; if anything it's the opposite (isolated means the more states you have to go through to get to saltwater from there). The only state 4 states away from Saltwater is Minnesota which at 30,656 has a higher PCI than the median of the coastal states., the better its income. (1 state away, $25,275; 2 states away, $26,695; 3 states away, $26,545.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What Do the Patterns in Alternate Histories Say About Us?

For the most recent alternate history (a Buddhist Colony in Ptolemy's Alexandria) go here. This post is also cross-posted to my speculative fiction blog.

Alternative histories have tended so far to be about events in European (or Western) history, because they're written mostly by European-descended people, and mostly by English-speakers at that.

But that's kind of obvious. So even forgetting the (so far) Western focus of what-if fiction, there are two clear patterns that betray some of our assumptions. And the first obvious pattern is: alternate histories are about violence transpiring differently. How many alternate histories involve policy decisions or inventions happening out of order? It's not usually: what if Newton and Leibniz had not developed calculus, or antibiotics had never been invented (or been invented in pre-Mongol-sack Baghdad)? No, the large majority of what we see are the effects of different outcomes of battles and wars. What if Hitler won, what if the North lost Gettysburg, what if Alexander or Jenghiz had not turned around at India and Austria. And this is depressing; because it means either that history is mostly determined by violence, or (even if it's not true) it means that we at least believe that history is mostly determined by violence.

Yes, there are a few stories about political decisions (what if the Ming had not called back the treasure fleets is a favorite) but it's really mostly about if people had killed and dominated each other in a different way.

You could also argue that what we see commercially is not an accurate reflection of our beliefs about history. It's the same answer for why in speculative fiction, dystopias far outnumber utopias. There's clear conflict and thus they're easier to write.

The test at Sitio Trinidad, 1845, Jornada de Muerte, Nueva Mexico. The test was witnessed by governor Manuel Armijo and president Santa Ana, both of whom lost their vision as a result. (It seems both fission and high speed cameras were developed in nineteenth century Mexico but not dark glasses, go figure.) Despite this setback, the dreaded bomba santabarbara was smuggled in wagons and assembled in Austin and San Antonio and led to the end of the decade-long revuelta tejana and ultimately, the conquest of Alto México (previously the "United States".) Sure it did.

The second pattern, or really observation that students of history can make about this sub-genre: even with battles won or lost differently, it's very hard to find believable changes that affect the outcomes. Sun Tzu was right, the battle usually is won or lost before it begins, and even if the tide on one battlefield had turned, the currents were running one direction or another. For example, so what if Lee won at Gettysburg? A big setback for the Union to be sure, but the Confederacy was screwed from the start in terms of their population and economy. To really get big changes, you have to make major shifts long before the obvious change - the kinds of changes that would have given the South a fighting chance would have had to begin many years before the actual war. Case in point: someone once asked me what might have happened if, in the Mexican War, the Mexican factions had unified against the U.S. as an external threat, and the U.S. lost its first major foreign war and gained no territory. (Or if the U.S. had decided to actually press its 54'40" claim.) A suddenly unified and organized 1840s Mexico is (unfortunately for patriotic Mexicans) only marginally harder to imagine as the first atomic bomb being engineered a hundred years early at Los Alamos by by Mexican scientists. Such a story might actually make for some really interesting Latino steampunk fiction, but might as well also include unicorns.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

World Series and Superbowl Ratings: How Much Do Home-Team Markets Influence Them?

This is cross-posted to my outdoor and sports blog MDK10 Outside Next up: how much does winning actually correlate with the franchise making money?.

It's been said that it's a television ratings disaster when the World Series comes down to two teams that are from smaller markets, and/or closer together. That is, the thinking goes that if St. Louis plays Kansas City, it's a Midwest series and people outside MO and KS don't care, and consequently a ratings disaster. Yet somehow this same concern isn't expressed for the Superbowl, which always seems curious.

I'd never seen actual data on this. So, I got data for all Superbowls through 2013, and all World Series from the same period (starting in 1968).

The inputs I looked at (i.e. things that could influence viewership) were as follows: 1) total combined home market size of each team in the championship (i.e. greater metro area)[a][b], 2) driving distance between the two teams, and 3) time zone distance between the two teams. The logic for using home market size is obvious. The idea behind using distance is that the farther apart the two teams, the greater ratings might be because the broader the appeal of the game (i.e. maybe people in L.A. don't care about Seattle, but if Seattle is playing some East Coast team, well that's different, and ratings would be better; vs. if the championship were between San Diego and Los Angeles, maybe people in the Northeast wouldn't care, and ratings would be worse.) I also looked at time zone distance for this same reason.

My outputs were: 1) absolute viewership, and 2) viewership as a percentaqge of national population. Because the average audience can change over time, I also tried looking at each year in comparison to the 11-year moving average that bracketed the year (average calculated from 5 preceding and 5 succeeding years). I then looked at scatter plots of the data.

The answer is that there is no relationship. That is, the television ratings of both the World Series and the NFL are NOT influenced by home market size or distance of the competing markets from each other. So if the A's and the Giants play each other, fine! (Not counting any earthquakes that might be induced thereby.) So it turns out that demography is NOT destiny, at least not in football and baseball ratings. The highest R^2 for a linear trend anywhere in these comparisons was a worthless 0.08; there's no point in showing you some uninformative crappy scatterplots.

Just for grins I also looked at ratings against the Excitement Index calculated for the playoffs since 2001 (were the games snoozefests or edge-of-your-seat games); if there were exciting playoffs, there might be better ratings. Again, no relationship.

It's clear from the graphs below (total viewership over time, then % of US population viewing over time) that even if baseball isn't more sensitive to geography, it has other issues.

[a]In cities which have two teams I ran two versions, one which assumed that everyone in the home market would follow their home team when it's in the championship, and another that assumed only half the sports population would support each team.
[b]It's clear that there are some strange geographic distributions of fans around the country, but for simplicity's sake I just used metro area population to get a number for home market.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Altitude and Population Density

Cross-posted to my outdoors blog,

We typically go to mountains to get away from it all, especially other humans. I'd always wanted to investigate the relationship between population density and elevation. Surprise! Such a relationship exists. The higher you go, the lower the density; in fact the relationship is even stronger than exponential. Even more interesting than that is understanding why. But first: figure below is from Cohen and Small 1998:

Note the bump at 2,300 m and again at 4,000+. 2,300 is mostly people on the Mexican Plateau, and 4,000 is Tibet + the Andes.

I plugged in data just for ~250 cities in the state of Utah, and got a worse R^2 than I saw for Cohen and Small's data (0.25 vs >0.9 for theirs), but this isnt' that granular; when I tried to do the same thing using mean elevations and population densities for the 50 states it was a mess. I think it would work a lot better at the county level.

So why is this? You might be tempted to speculate that it has to do with the limits of human physiology. That is to say, the higher you go, the more uncomfortable people are (thin air, cold) and the less adaptable, right? It's hard to imagine (for example) that Las Vegas at 665 meters would be a more comfortable place at a lower elevation. And physiologically, as it turns out, in the second half of the twentieth century medical anthropologists studied people in Tibet and the Andes extensively for their physiological adaptations to altitude - the underlying mutations for which have now been characterized (and in the Tibetan case have all occurred in the last 3,000 years!). But the idea that a few hundred meters of elevation will start impacting physiology and population growth falls apart both in terms of common sense and as a direct implication of other work. Any decrease in fertility caused by altitude would cut right at population growth - but this turns out not to be a big concern even for Himalayans living much higher.

You could also argue that the world's large cities tend to be seaports, which are at low elevation, so it's ease of transportation that gives us this bias toward lower elevations; but this is more true for New World that got settled by the sea than the Old World that got settled by land, and people must be pretty lazy if what's keeping them at sea level is their ancestors having gotten off a boat there a few centuries ago.

Terrace farming in the Himalayas.
I bet they would rather just have flat fields.

Beyond some historical accidents, the answer is likely to be mostly "agriculture". The overall population distribution we see in the world today basically reflects how early people in a certain part of the world adopted agriculture and how effective it was, given the crop and the climate, and escaped the Malthusian cycle; hence the highest densities being in a band running from east, southeast, and south Asia. The Middle East started early and although the marginal environment was also a driver for state formation, it was still marginal, and the Fertile Crescent just can't compete with the Ganges or the Pearl River. (So it can be accurately said that on average, humans are Asian; hence this map). So the relationship between elevation and population is really about where agriculture is better, and it's better at lower elevations for many reasons. Otherwise it's hard to understand the Mexican bump at 2300 meters, where (guess what) agriculture was first invented in the New World.

So, if someone ever thinks of a way to do agriculture as easily in the mountains as on flat lands, the days of undeveloped remote mountains are over.


Cohen JE and Small C. Hypsographic demography: The distribution of human population by altitude. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 95, pp. 14009–14014, November 1998.

Goldstein MC, Tsarong P, Beall CM. High Altitude Hypoxia, Culture, and Human Fecundity/Fertility: A Comparative Study. American Anthropologist 85(1), March 1983.