Sunday, December 29, 2013

Photography Color and Texture Series

I've been posting some personal photos on Facebook that people have been enjoying. They focus on texture and color over shape and perspective. When context and scale are removed, you're forced to pay a lot more attention to the patterns you're seeing to make sense of it. It's enforced mindfulness. (I don't always tell you where they're from; see if you can figure it out.) This is the opposite of the clear planist functionalism of Haida art. Here are a few of my own favorites; if you'd like to see more, send a friend request to me here.

Sunlight through lake ice and fishing hole, Mille Lacs, Minnesota

Original 1700s wall decoration, Mission San Miguel, California

Lake Louise, Alberta

Halfway up the butte, Monument Valley, Arizona

Summer sunset, San Diego, California

Mud and ice, Goblin Valley, Utah

Early summer snow on woodpile, Tahoe Rim Trail, California

Maximus the stupid cat

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ways That True Conservatives Will Cut Spending

Conservatives in Congress in the past few years have claimed to be deficit-driven, and have been elected on such platforms. And this is excellent. If we have to put our nickel down on possible reasons the United States wouldn't be around in a century, near the top of the list is our inability to control our spending or match it to our revenues. This can't go on forever. China will only loan us so much money. The inability of smaller municipalities to control themselves highlights this problem, but at least the poor bastards in San Bernardino (and many other cities) can move, and still be in their home country.

We need some grown-ups to make some cuts, and hurt some people. Conservatives, we need you to recognize that when you make these cuts, you will hurt some people, and some of them will be in your district. Otherwise you will never really make any cuts, and we will either find other grown-ups, or the country will fail.

We voters can be forgiven for thinking that conservatives aren't serious about this, because even when they're given the chance to do it, they don't. (As a voter, I very much want them to.) Sure, they're good at stunts, but somehow that doesn't translate into the serious work of cutting individual programs piecemeal, if that's the only option open.

Put another way: we hear a lot from supposed fiscal conservatives about government pork, until it's in their district; and when we try to cut those, well, that's hurting America. (Or whatever you have to say to conceal that you're never really going to cut anything.) Yes, we all know this happens, conservatives, because all those pork dollars go to the big donors who, in turn, are the source of your campaign contributions. But we voters are sick of hearing "conservatives" repeat "cut spending" and then doing nothing, and this basic fact is getting harder to hide from. You're either going to have to actually do something, or admit that you're just a spender who pretends to be a fiscal conservative for votes.

What are some things that grown-up non-hypocrite fiscal conservatives can cut?

- Make the military budget cost less by auditing the DoD. The savings here make non-medical entitlement reform look like the drop in a bucket it is. In some cases even after the Army said it didn't want tanks, it was forced to take them by Congress. Way to go conservatives!

- End the drug war, and tax the proceeds. You're paying to keep a lot of people in prison and out of productive jobs. You're paying cops with big pensions. You're paying for border security, that has to be there as long as drug money is flowing south into Mexico, along with the weapons that money buys down there. Don't wait for the drug/police complex to ask you to spend less money on them. It's the police and the cartels that benefit from our tax dollars. If you refuse to do this, you're again showing us you're not serious about cutting spending.

- Stop farm subsidies. This is the most egregious, and the one that there's no good reason for, other than you have friends back home. Any legislator who renews farm subsidies does not believe in the free market.

- Add expiration dates to regulations. Regulations cost business money and become obsolete, but industries spring up around these regulations and fight to avoid having them changed or removed. Unless what you're really doing is supporting your friends back home, you should support this proposal, which has been around for awhile now with a lot of conservative intellectual firepower behind it.

- Measure legislator effectiveness. Unless conservatives think the other guys are more accountable than you, conservatives should ask for projections to be put on bills - how much will this cost? How much will it save? How long will it take? - and then have there be some effect if the actual result is way out of bounds. We penalize contractors who screw up (I hope), why not stupid lawmakers? Don't you expect that they're on the other side of the aisle anyway?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Convergence of State-Level Gas Prices Over Time: Pennsylvania and California

I've noticed since I've lived in California that as gas prices have risen, the absolute difference in gas prices between California and much of the rest of the country has remained relatively constant. This means that the percent difference between California and other states' prices has shrunk. In other words, if you're paying a dollar a gallon in California and 75 cents elsewhere, that's something. If you're paying $4.75 in California and $4.50 elsewhere, who cares. Assuming that cost of living differences remain constant over this time, other states will fill gasoline taking a bigger bite of their budgets. And that's more or less what has happened since the late 90s, using Pennsylvania as an example:

Data is from the Energy Information Administration website and doesn't extend past February 2011 for some reason.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Statement On Running for President.

Such an idea never entered my head, nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.

- Zachary Taylor, during the Mexican-American War

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pancho Villa's Death: Or, Parallel Histories in Different Languages

If you're here for the alternate history part, skip to the last two paragraphs. If you want "legitimate" alternate histories, here's the most recent one.

History often seems to have gone differently, when you read accounts of the same events in different languages, especially (obviously) when the people who speak these languages are on opposite sides of the events in question. Even on Wikipedia the differences between articles are often striking. A shining example is the article about Pancho Villa, and in particular the section about his death, in Spanish and English. In particular, the less a detail supports national identity, the more likely it is to be glossed over (how many Japanese can talk in detail about Pearl Harbor; how many Americans can talk about the causal events of the War of 1812 or the Mexican War?) Do note in the English version (later) Villa's self-conscious and self-referential last words, among the best in history. But first, the Spanish version:
Álvaro Obregón became president of Mexico and when he had consolidated his position, he promoted and openly tolerated some plans to rid himself of Pancho Villa. During Huerta's rebellion that sought to prevent the imposition of General Calles, fearing that Pancho Villa again took up arms, he decided to kill Villa.

Villa was assassinated in an ambush on the afternoon of July 20, 1923 on his way to a family party in Parral. Calles asked Col. Lara to carry out the killings, and as a result, he was promoted to general and received fifty thousand dollars. No doubt American elements intervened in the elimination of Villa.

Neither did they let Pancho Villa rest at death. They beheaded his desecrated corpse and local helpers intervened with necrophilia, and the American Handal was paid five thousand dollars by the king of the American press Hearst for Villa's head, changed into a gruesome trophy.


Somehow the necrophilia and Hearst head-collecting are missing from the English version, which is a lot heavier on the type of mundane and sordid details that often turn out to explain much of history:
On Friday, 20 July 1923, Villa was killed while visiting Parral. Usually accompanied by his entourage of Dorados (his bodyguards) Pancho Villa frequently made trips from his ranch to Parral for banking and other errands. This day, however, Villa had gone into the town without them, taking only a few associates with him. He went to pick up a consignment of gold from the local bank with which to pay his Canutillo ranch staff. While driving back through the city in his black 1919 Dodge roadster, Villa passed by a school and a pumpkinseed vendor ran toward Villa's car and shouted "Viva Villa!" - a signal for a group of seven riflemen who then appeared in the middle of the road and fired over 40 shots into the automobile. In the fusillade of shots, nine Dumdum bullets hit Villa in the head and upper chest, killing him instantly.

One of Villa's bodyguards, Ramon Contreras, was also badly wounded but managed to kill at least one of the assassins before he escaped; he would be the only person who accompanied Villa during this assassination who survived. Two other bodyguards, Claro Huertado and Villa's main personal bodyguard Rafael Madreno, who were with him also died, as did his personal secretary Daniel Tamayo and his high-ranking Colonel Miguel Trillo, who served as his chauffeur. Villa is sometimes reported to have died saying: "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." However, there is no contemporary evidence he survived his shooting even momentarily, and his biographer, Katz, confirms that Villa died instantly; Time Magazine also reported in 1951 that both Villa and his aide (Tamayo) were killed instantly. The next day, Villa's funeral was held and thousands of his grieving supporters in Parral followed his casket to his burial site while Villa's men and his closest friends remained at the hacienda in the Canitullo armed and ready for an attack by the government troops. The six surviving assassins hid out in the desert and were soon captured, but only two of them served a few months in jail, and the rest were commissioned into the military.


While it has never been completely proven who was responsible for the assassination, most historians attribute Villa's death to a well planned conspiracy, most likely initiated by Plutarco Elías Calles and Joaquin Amaro with at least tacit approval of the then president of Mexico, Obregon. At the time, a state legislator from Durango, Jesus Salas Barraza, whom Villa once whipped during a quarrel over a woman, claimed sole responsibility for the plot. Barraza admitted that he told his friend Gabriel Chavez, who worked as a dealer for General Motors, that he would kill Villa if he were paid 50,000 pesos. Chavez, who wasn't wealthy and didn't have 50,000 pesos on hand, then collected money from enemies of Villa and managed to collect a total of 100,000 pesos for Barraza and his other co-conspirators. Barraza also admitted that he and his co-conspirators watched Villa's daily car-rides and paid the pumpkinseed vendor at the scene of Villa's assassination to shout "Viva Villa!" either once if Villa was sitting in the front part of the car or twice if he was sitting in the back.

Despite the fact that he did not want to have a sitting politician arrested, Obregon gave into the people's demands and had Barraza arrested. Barraza was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison, The following month, however, Barraza's sentence was commuted to three months by the Governor of Chihuahua; Barraza eventually became a colonel in the Mexican Army. In a letter to the governor of Durango, Jesus Castro, Barraza agreed to be the "fall guy" and the same arrangement is mentioned in letters exchanged between Castro and Amaro. Others involved in the conspiracy were Felix Lara, the commander of federal troops in Parral, who was paid 50,000 pesos by Calles to remove his soldiers and policemen from the town on the day of the assassination, and Meliton Lozoya, the former owner of Villa's hacienda whom Villa was demanding pay back funds he had embezzled. It was Lozoya who planned the details of the assassination and found the men who carried it out. It was reported that before Barraza died of a stroke in his Mexico City home in 1951, his last words were "I'm not a murderer. I rid humanity of a monster."
Here's something you might not have known: that at the time he died, Villa had intentions of running for president of Mexico, or attaining the office by other means. Just imagine how just and peaceful a Villa administration would have been! And think also of all the people who said that with a time machine they would go back and kill Hitler (a unique take on that here). Maybe Barraza was a time traveler, but instead wiped out someone who was even worse than Hitler - that is to say, in the future Barraza came from, he wiped out someone who had been even worse, but in the future we're now living in, was eliminated. The question is, once you go back in time and successfully kill the genocidal dictator before they ever do their thing, and you survive - then what? Try to convince everyone that actually, you're from the future and this guy you murdered was going to turn out to be absolute evil? Or just keep things down to a dull roar and enjoy your life in an increasingly divergent alternate history, and maybe mention it in passing later in life? In any event I recommend we check Barraza's later bets and stock picks for uncanny accuracy.

Is It Acceptable for American States to Oppress People?

"Volunteers" - "free" men - for a Confederate Army in the War of Northern Aggression...or was it Southern Oppression? Somehow the volunteers didn't feel more free than before.

Libertarianism in the U.S. has taken a strange turn. For one thing, people who call themselves libertarian in a rural area versus a metropolitan area are likely to have very different sets of opinions. Rural libertarians quite often are very much against allowing gay people to marry, allowing people to worship as they choose or not worship at all, or allow individual discretion in the consumption of mind-altering substances. But somehow, somewhere, these people claim they're the ones really in favor of freedom. Many an urban libertarian has told a rural resident that no no no, libertarians are in favor of gay rights, religious freedom, and drug decriminalization, and then been asked, "So how are you a libertarian then?"

The Civil War still looms large in rural libertarians' often provincial minds as well, which is why they appear to favor state government oppression instead of Federal oppression - that's what "States' Rights" really means. Another translation of States' Rights is, "Decisions should be made in a forum where the people with whom I culturally identify are the majority. At the national level, urban blue-staters outnumber people who think like me, so I shouldn't have to agree with them. However, in my state, people who think like me are the majority. So people in my state should have to agree with me."

The Federal government's limitation of rights remains their bete noir, and that's not a bad place to start. But it's the inter-level hypocrisy that's so glaring. What's confusing is that apparently, state-level oppression is okay. Washington D.C. tells the country what religion they have to be? Or passes a law demanding service of some kind? A distaster. (And in this, they're correct.) But if Utah or Texas forced Mormonism or Baptism on their people - well, that's okay. Why this reverse state worship, as Reason magazine labeled it? If socialists were Christians, these rural libertarians would be Satanists.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

No Relationship Between Population Size and Per Capita Income

I had always been curious about this, thinking that perhaps there would be a positive correlation; being part of a big country opens up a big market to you, and (one might reason) if a population can function as a large unified country, that means that somehow, culture and institutions are functioning well and this will affect economics. But this is not the case. There was no relationship between population and per capita income, which also implies that over time there is no relationship between population and growth rate.

Of course there are population outliers, but even after I took out all the countries with populations of over 100 million (there are 12) no relationship appeared. In any event, from a policy-making standpoint, it's not clear what this would've meant anyway. (Quick! Join together with bigger countries so we'll get higher GDP!)

There has been work done on population growth rate (below, source), showing a negative relationship; interesting but not surprising, likely relating to demographic transition. Additionally, one of the effects of being in a country is that of the same currency across the population, so a separate question would be whether monetary union regions grow faster than non-union regions, but there are far fewer data points there.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Graphic Tool for Inmigration, United States, 2012

At the site where it's published you can mouse over individual states to see the flows for that state. Note that each line between a pair of states is the total exchange regardless of direction. Below is a freeze-frame of California, which again has a net loss; this correlates with the interesting fact that in 2010, for the first time since the Gold Rush, CA had more native-born residents than migrants.

Orchid Series, High Speed Photography/Paint/Gravity, Fabian Oefner

I posted this because it looks bizarrely like a diagram of a two-subunit protein. Macro-hemoglobin? From Wired; more here.

International Mobility of Twitter Users

Hong Kong, Austria and Belgium are the most mobile (cross international boundaries the most) and the US is the least. No big surprises there; in Belgium, no offense, if you miss your train stop, you're in another country, but if you live in Kansas then leaving your home country takes considerably more effort. This is the beginning of a national travel index. By this I mean: while traveling, I run into people from Israel and New Zealand all the time. Those countries are a) not that close to where I live or most of the places I've traveled and b) have a combined population of less than ten million. So some index of per capita travel rate and distance from home would give us an idea. With everyone out traveling, one wonders in Israel and New Zealand how there can be anyone at home minding the store!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Seal Imitates Art

When I ran across this sad fellow on the beach in Malibu some years ago, for some reason I had the urge to drape a melting clock over him. I know it's a bit of a stretch but it reminded me quite strongly of Persistence.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The "Food Desert" Idea is a Useless or Harmful Myth

The narrative of the food desert goes something like this: grocery stores are where you get produce and healthy food. Grocery stores are physically difficult for some Americans to get to, often because of distance. These Americans rely on convenience stores and fast food and suffer obesity and related health problems as a result.

This is no longer a tenable idea.

1) The image above is from a food desert map discussed on Wired, which uses line length and thickness to represent distance from grocery stores. You will note that the thick long red lines in grocery-stores-are-far-away-land are exactly where people are fittest (Rocky Mountain states) and the most grocery stores are in the Piedmont South and Black Belt, exactly where people are most obese. If you're trying to show that food deserts cause people to be healthy, you couldn't do a much better job than this map.

2) As if that's not enough, there has also recently been work (two studies in this article) showing that the idea that low socioeconomic status neighborhoods in American cities are not, after all, food deserts.

The food desert-obesity connection is a myth, and people should stop believing in it.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Comments on Haidt's Righteous Mind: Moral Convention vs. Universal

It's good; you should read it. There are multiple good reviews elsewhere, but suffice it to say, he builds a case using empirical psychology data with some evolutionary psychology arguments that human morality is built on six different foundations, and the differences between individuals and groups are mostly differences between how much we emphasize each foundation (rather than completely ignoring them). There is a clear problem that arises in the context of a globalized world, one that he didn't address, perhaps deliberately.

That is: the only way to tolerate differences in your neighbor's values, is either 1) not be in a position to do anything about it anyway, or 2) not consider your values to apply to all humans. And the only two way to accomplish #2 are a) consider your neighbors to be less than human or to otherwise believe their moral character is irrelevant, or b) admit that your values are provincial.

Haidt draws a strong distinction between the WEIRD experimental subjects that have produced most moral psychology data so far (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) who are actually quite strange relative to most humans, and maybe even relative to most other people in their own countries. He points out that secular WEIRD individuals place most of their morality on the harm/care foundation, neglecting others like authority and sanctity. He doesn't make an explicit value judgment to either the more "complete" traditional moralities vs. the harm-based WEIRD morality, but he does recognize that oppression and unhappiness can arise more easily from strongly authority and sanctity-based morality. Our WEIRD morality is strange precisely because it's not a natural condition of human minds and in each of us who hold it, is a product of long education and conditioning. Have we made a mistake, or might this be progress? After all, individuals suffer, and groups don't, and if individuals suffer because of arbitrary commitments made in morality-space by their culture, it's hard to see why that's acceptable. Someone is depressed because they happen to be part of a culture that says homosexuality is impure and the prophet said so and can't be questioned?

I am obviously reacting to such moral systems with my WEIRD harm-based morality. And here is the problem: people with these very different moral systems meet each other, in trade, in tourism, on the internet, and increasingly, as next door neighbors. Haidt does point out a difference bewteen universals and social conventions, but both of these become problematic. For one thing, when there is a group with sacred practices mandatory for its members, but not for the greater population, it's unclear how it's not dehumanizing the outgroup by dismissing their ignorance of said practices. For example, Jews circumcise boys and do not allow pig products to be consumed, but it's fine if gentiles do it. It seems that either people notice the difference from what they're doing compared to what they're Christian neighbor is doing, and on some level don't take their own rituals too seriously; or they do take them seriously, and don't consider the outgroup worthy of the same level of consideration. (Well of course you say, it's an in-group ritual, that's the point; but my point is it's different when you're one tribe of people surrounded by the desert, versus interspersed with other people that behave very differently who you have to constantly acknowledge. It's probably no surprise that assimilation becomes an issue.)

On the other hand, when something is considered a universal, in a globalized world we have the opposite problem. Where next door neighbors are either forced to on some level consider their neighbors inferior or just not take the rituals seriously, a universalist can only work to spread their value to everyone. Again, when it's the neolithic and you're an isolated city-state this doesn't present such a burden. But if you have (for example) a major prohibition against creating images of your prophet (let's just call him, oh I don't know, Allah) and then you see one such image in a cartoon from another country, it doesn't matter where it is or whether it's a Muslim country; you feel obligated to act on it.

Loyalty, Optimization and Corporate Empires

Peter Turchin's War and Peace and War analyzes patterns of empires in history, extending the work of Gibbon's Roman history and especially the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, in particular his idea of asabiya, or solidarity. Turchin argues that everyone's recent favorite whipping boy, the rationalist concept of Homo economicus, cannot explain how states can fluorish or fall; that there has to be a social glue which is not simply aggregate self-optimization. This (Khaldun and Tuchin state) is asabiya. In a recent article he argues that this can also explain the decline and fall of corporate empires like Microsoft.

There are some problems with Turchin's very interesting book, and it's interesting to apply asabiya to corporations, but I think it's not needed to explain the free-rider problems of big companies. It's certainly true as Turchin says that small-ish companies, as they are making the transition to larger ones, often has plenty of knaves weaseling their way in. If you've ever been present during this transition you've no doubt seen this first-hand.

The problem here is that you can still explain this in terms of the behavior of Homo economicus. The founders and the few people who come after them understand what is needed for the company's success, act in plain view of all the other (few) employees with the risk of termination and a damaged reputation, and understand that their own behavior has a big impact on that success. That is to say, when even a rational low-asabiya individual comes into a small company, they know that if they free-ride, it will hurt the company badly and soon, and everyone will know it. As the company gets bigger, it gets easier for free-riders to hide, and their free-riding hurts the company less and over a longer-term.

It's also worth asking how there could be asabiya in an organization that just appeared? The closest thing to this is the camaraderie that emerges at small companies (which is not a bad thing) but that camaraderie is less about some abstract idea of the company and more about a social connection between the founding few individuals. And asabiya to the founders in place of the company as a whole can and does end up damaging the quality of decisions and therefore the fortunes of the company as a whole.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Strange But True Naval Battles

It turns out that Japan was not the only place the Yuan Mongol Navy lost (more here); but perhaps even stranger than that, there was a World War I battle between the British and German navies - off the coast of a Chilean island in the Pacific. This was the mechanism through which British naval advantage erased the late-starting German ambitions in the Pacific and East Asia. (The U.S. and German navies had almost come to blows in Samoa several decades before, during the Samoan Civil War.)

More familiar to Americans, there was also a battle between Union and Confederate vessels off the coast of France.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Without Constraints, How Do Humans Behave?

Cross-posted to my geek blog as well as Cognition and Evolution.

Life on Earth evolved in an environment of constraints: resource limitations, disease and predation all put lids on behavior and reproduction. Consequently, the mechanisms to deal with those constraints have no "brakes", because nature provided them. There's no reason to have tight control on over-eating, because such a situation rarely arose. There was no reason to protect reward circuitry in general from overstimulation. But now we're starting to remove those constraints. Solve food scarcity, and we get obesity. Go straight to the reward center (without a real external reward), and we get heroin and video game addiction.

This is the biggest problem we face in any post-scarcity world, or (more broadly) in any world where our behavioral regulation is freed from the constraints that sculpted it for billions of years, whether in reality (because there really is more than enough food) or virtually (because you can just shoot up and feel good). This problem has even been advanced to explain the Fermi paradox, since whatever behavior regulation intelligent aliens evolve, presumably when they solve their own constraints, they will run into the same problems - perhaps with species-destroying consequences. The more complete and effective a representational system is*, the faster and greater the instability it creates in the system.

You might think of a science fiction story where curious and powerful aliens have put humans in a kind of terrarium where the weather is always fair, there's always enough to eat, there's no physical danger, and where there is always another territory to move into, with no loss of security, if you burn too many bridges with the ones in this one. That is to say, someone looks at you the wrong way, or your significant other mildly irritates you - why stick around? The aliens have guaranteed there will be another handsome gentleman/pretty lady waiting for you when you get to the new territory. And when you get there you wonder idly if these are real humans also in the experiment, or were whipped up and memory-programmed by the tissue replicator twenty minutes before you got there; or maybe you were, before your new mate got here. But you're taken care of; does it matter? (California sometimes feels like it's almost there.) In a world of limitless security and resources and even others' company, why ever tolerate the least inconvenience?

A scenario similar to this that happens in the real world is the strange discomfort of working alongside someone who is wealthy independent of their jobs. Why are they even here, people might ask resentfully - and indeed, from anecdotal experience, when these people get annoyed, they quickly leave, because why not? They have security and more territory.

So what happens to people when all the constraints are removed, when they're both wealthy and not subject to censure by broader political forces? That is to say, how do humans behave when all the brakes are off?Predictably. From "The Prince Who Blew Through Billions" by Mark Seal, from Vanity Fair in July 2011:
On the brother of the Sultan of Brunei, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, who has "probably gone through more cash than any other human being on earth.": "The sultan's biggest extravagance turned out to be his love for his youngest brother, Jefri, his constant companion in hedonism. They raced their Ferraris through the streets of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, at midnight, sailed the oceans on their fleet of yachts (Jefri named one of his Tits, its tenders Nipple 1 and Nipple 2), and imported planeloads of polo ponies and Argentinean players to indulge their love for that game, which they sometimes played with Prince Charles. They snapped up real estate like Monopoly pieces—hundreds of far-flung properties, a collection of five-star hotels (the Dorchester, in London, the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, in Paris, the New York Palace, and Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel, in Los Angeles), and an array of international companies (including Asprey, the London jeweler to the Queen, for which Jefri paid about $385 million in 1995, despite the fact that that was twice Asprey's estimated market value or that Brunei's royal family constituted a healthy portion of its business).

"Back home, the sultan erected a 1,788-room palace on 49 acres, 'which is without equal in the world for offensive and ugly display,' in the words of one British magnate, and celebrated his 50th birthday with a blowout featuring a concert by Michael Jackson, who was reportedly paid $17 million, in a stadium built for the occasion. (When the sultan flew in Whitney Houston for a performance, he is rumored to have given her a blank check and instructed her to fill it in for what she thought she was worth: more than $7 million, it turned out.) The brothers routinely traveled with 100-member entourages and emptied entire inventories of stores such as Armani and Versace, buying 100 suits of the same color at a time. When they partied, they indulged in just about everything forbidden in a Muslim country. Afforded four wives by Islamic law, they left their multiple spouses and scores of children in their palaces while they allegedly sent emissaries to comb the globe for the sexiest women they could find in order to create a harem the likes of which the world had never known."
This reads like an account of what each of us would do if we found out tomorrow we were in a simulation, with power over said simulation. This is what happens when the brakes are off. If you object that this is an exception or an extreme example - I guarantee that this behavior happens more among the fabulously wealthy and powerful. Well of course, you again object, other people can't behave that way! But then if the tendency wasn't there, why should it happen at all? And (more to the point) do you seriously think you would be any better-behaved? Of course you would; you're biologically and/or morally superior to these folks and would never let that kind of thing happen. (Also note that lottery winners, with a sudden random infusion of karma or whatever you call the points in our game - that's right, "money" - are known for going off the rails, and being more miserable and more likely to go bankrupt than the general population. Also, see "athletes from poor backgrounds suddenly signed up to multi-million dollar contracts in pro sports".)

An astute observer will say, "So what if people descend into depravity? If you're in a simulation or the aliens' zoo or you're royalty and don't hurt anyone, if you're happy with harems and Ferraris, fine!" That would be fine. But the problem is these people often seem not to be happy. Here it's hard to get data, but they are not invariably happier than other humans and in fact often have considerably troubled emotional lives. Again, they're using nervous systems built for an environment of resource and social constraints. It should not be surprising that they experience boredom, restlessness, and emptiness. In fact in the developed world it's not just the ultra-wealthy that experience these things. That said, it's sure better than starving or being eaten by tigers, but it seems those are our two alternatives: obese or at best bored, versus running from predators, starvation, and stronger neighbors. Yes, I fully recognize the pessimism of this position.

So, there's an addition to Malthus here. Malthus merely pointed out that when all constraints are relaxed but one, that constraint will limit (and his rule concerned, specifically, energy input as the unrelaxed constraint, but you can imagine for example a dense population of well-fed non-preyed-upon humans being periodically cut down by plagues). The addition is that when all constraints are relaxed, the system becomes unstable, whether that system is a cell (cancer) or an individual. The more powerful the system - which can be approximated by how fast it can change - the faster it will become unstable.

*The first representational system to evolve on Earth was the gene: the proteins it codes for are indirect mirrors of a DNA strand's environment - and as the environment changes, the genes change. As life became more complex, systems appeared that became able to more and more rapidly and/or accurately reflect parts of the environment beyond the replicator: the cytochrome P450 system which is a remarkably non-specific but effective metabolism system (which is how most drugs are broken down even though life on Earth has never seen these molecules before) and the immune system, which produces high-affinity molecules with a process of directed by limited somatic mutation. The ultimate such system however is the development of large numbers of cells signalling with ion channels, which can represent much more information much faster, and in humans has expanded to allow the assignment of arbitrary symbols to novel relationships (language). While we still can't assume that our language-enhanced nervous systems can represent every possible state external to themselves (any more than the immune system can do so), it's still by far the fastest-acting system and the one most likely to spell its own demise. As an aside, it's probably no surprise that plants that have begun to evolve "behavior" of a sort - the carnivorous plants - also use ion channels. Assuming causality is unidirectional, what happens first matters, and therefore so does speed.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Clever Consumers: Terrible For Ad-Based Revenues

Have you ever clicked on an ad that was embedded in an RSS feed? Ever? I never have. In general, the kinds of people who use Readers are pretty good at filtering - at using technology that does it for us, and at having cognitive strategies that let us sort what we actually see. We're not the kind of people advertisers dream about. Advertising relies on being able to redirect attention, and (usually) cause us to make irrational decisions.

And now Google Reader is gone. I imagine that over the next few years, we're going to lose a lot more free, ad-supported services that we good-filterers, high-information users enjoy, because we're terrible advertisees. I still haven't paid for Newsblur but I think the days of free, high-information (not data-intensive) services will soon be past.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Yuan Mongols' Other Naval Defeats

Japan wasn't the only place that turned back the Mongols. That powerhouse Java sent the Yuan packing in 1293 - in the midst of a civil war. (This is real, but previous alternate history here.)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Guillermo Bert, Lukutuwe (Textile)

This design is made in the style of the Mapuche (in Chile) by an American artist. Once in a home on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala I saw several hanging tapestries with symbols in them that looked very much like writing - there were 20 or 30 of them and they repeated but not at regular intervals. I asked the guy whose wife made them if this was a form of Mayan writing and he said no, but it made a huge impression on me.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Late 1800s Political Science Fiction

Cross-posted to Speculative Nonfiction.

Here's an interesting old science fiction book: Better Days: Or, a Millionaire of To-morrow, by Thomas and Anna Fitch. This should rank with Bellamy's Looking Backward. Set in the authors' near future of the 1890s, in it a wealthy industrialist develops bombs powerful enough to level cities, that can be launched accurately from zeppelins or boats. To be clear, this is a utopian work - although it involves an early prediction of the nuclear age, the authors assume it would necessite a global detente. The authors correctly understood some of the political ramifications: that these weapons would have to be regarded in a special category and their manufacture restricted by international agreement so that they did not proliferate; and so he also predicts a version of the League of Nations. What he failed to predict was how this would be accomplished; by a cartel of countries who openly have such weapons, and a secondary cartel of those who everyone knows has them but don't openly declare them. The book features various heads of state realizing and announcing that they must cease prosecuting wars and allow various of their territories to return to home rule to avoid their own capitals being destroyed by other states or even small groups of revolutionaries who make the explosive agent ("potentite"). If it's that easy, it would seem his international non-proliferation police wouldn't be able to do their jobs. U-235 is harder to make than potentite and we still seem to be nervous about Iran. We should be glad it was nuclear weapons and not potentite! (Or microwaved sand as Nick Bostrom speculated.)

Above: Coronado is the north-pointing peninsula at top, and the islands are to the south.

Of local San Diego interest: the initial tests for the various heads of state are carried out from Coronado, long before it was selected as a naval airfield. Unfortunately the Coronado Islands are destroyed in the demonstration. (Although last time I looked out the window of Hillcrest Hospital I could see them just fine; so for this and other reasons, this is alternate history now I guess.) The authors were possibly more interesting than the book; the husband seems himself like a character made up for historical fiction. Thomas Fitch was an attorney and politician who served in the legislatures of no less than four of the states and territories of the time (California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona), which explains why his knowledge of the Western U.S. of the time was more than the caricature we often see from contemporary writers on the East Coast. In his legal career he also represented Brigham Young and Wyatt Earp. He proofread Mark Twain's manuscripts and hung out with Leland Stanford. Finally and most significantly, as an orator, he was credited with keeping California in the Union. Even if you can't forgive his book's inconsistencies and failed predictions, I think he did okay.

Resilience To Stress Differs Between Individuals

"I can handle a hundred thousand men in battle, and take the City of the Sun, but am afraid to manage a lot in the swamp of San Francisco." -William Tecumseh Sherman

Monday, July 8, 2013

Good Libertarian Attacks on Rand

Cross posted to Speculative Nonfiction.

These should have their own special genre; one which deserves our attention. 1984 was Orwell's answer to what he saw as the developing problems with socialism, and (as an understatement) it is an important work.

Before giving you the sharper points of another writer's attacks, what is good about Rand? What do people get out of it?

- The power of capitalism to eliminate human suffering.
- The power of the individual; it's not surprising that young people establishing their own identities are the ones to whom this most appeals, and (I would argue) it's important that young people have things that reinforce their confidence in themselves and their goals and values.

The piece in question is by David Brin. The most interesting argument he makes is that (in his view) Rand is clearly influenced by Marx in terms of her teleological thinking. He misses a chance to mention her infamous standing-on-one-foot answer, which was a ripoff of Rabbi Hillel. She borrowed at least once, either (most charitably) unaware that she was doing so, or assuming that her audience would not be familiar with these sources. (Which itself says something else about her.)

A point worth disagreeing with, not just here but with other writers, is that it's not a valid criticism to say that her novels lay out a plan for bringing Rand's values to the world. Not because the world in Atlas Shrugged is a great one, but because the novels don't claim to be a blueprint for what the world should look like and the actions to take to get there, even with a 70-page monologue. (I'm unfamiliar with her having made this claim in non-fiction. If you're aware of any such claims, please point me to the evidence and I'll change my position.) Compare to Marx, who in a non-fiction manifesto, laid out a plan for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Lenin followed fairly closely.

(Another article that Brin links to makes the argument the Atlas Shrugged is part of trilogy. Interesting non-fiction plot twist in that one.)

Other weaknesses that have always appeared to me likely because of my background: a lack of familiarity with evolution and in one case a distrust of how it could have produced an intelligent animal; a strange proclivity to imply heritable positions in her characters (all while decrying decadent monarchies elsewhere); and implicit assumptions about gender roles including disparaging comments about possibly gay characters. To the last point, defenders might say "But this was the 1950s; you can't fault someone for being a product of their times," to which an appropriate response is "But this is someone who was claiming the absolute, correct and final version of morality; if she missed something, that makes it irrelevant whether or not the ambient culture produced those blind spots." When you claim to have produced the final answers, rather than improving the process to get the answers, these are the kinds of problems you're open to. (Defenders might also say that homosexuality is morally wrong, and then the discussion devolves to a more profound level about the origins of morality, and that species of defender will have a hard time showing themselves in this case to be on the side of reason and not irrational authoritarianism there.)

A final problem that Brin mentions is the inverse state worship that afflicts objectivists and libertarians, but this is not unique to Brin's critique or to Rand. Suffice it to say the state is not the only institution ever conceived which can make humans suffer.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Increase in Net Worth of Politicians While They're in Office

An article on a legislator's improbable increase in wealth during his time in office can be found here. This isn't generally used as mud-slinging ammunition, because it's true of many (most?) high-level politicians from both parties.

Is this information easily available? It would be interesting to put together a chart of everyone in Congress in terms of change over time in office of wealth, and then compare that to the average American in their same age bracket, from their home districts.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Buddhist Colony in Ptolemy's Alexandria: Alternate History #6

For the previous installment, see Alternative History #5: Colonial Japan. For the next installment, see Alternative History #7: German-Led Native Shock Troops in California. Want to see how we might already be living in an alternate timeline, created by a time traveler who went back to kill a dictator who we (of course) don't recognize as such? And what do the patterns in alternate histories we choose to write say about us?

From the Parisian Mahayana Seminary lesson book, Year of the Buddha 2332:

'In the Gandhari original [gospel letters from the Buddhist kingdom of India] Antiochos is referred to as "Amtiyoko nama Yona-raja" (lit. "The Greek king by the name of Antiokos"), beyond whom live the four other kings: "param ca tena Atiyokena cature 4 rajani Turamaye nama Amtikini nama Maka nama Alikasudaro nama" (lit. "And beyond Antiochus, four kings by the name of Ptolemy, the name of Antigonos, the name of Magas, the name Alexander" [1]

"It is not clear in Hellenic records whether these emissaries were actually received, or had any influence on the Hellenic world. Some scholars, however, point to the presence of Buddhist communities in the Hellenistic world from that time, in particular in Alexandria (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria). The pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae may have drawn inspiration for its ascetic lifestyle from contact with Buddhist monasticism, although the foundation and Scriptures were Jewish. Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have also been found in Alexandria, decorated with depictions of the Wheel of the Law.[2] Commenting on the presence of Buddhists in Alexandria, some scholars have even pointed out that "It was later in this very place that some of the most active centers of Christianity were established"'.
This was in fact copied from Wikipedia" (today, Year of the Buddha 2556.)

It's a bit odd that a Semitic religion ended up dominating Europe, and a blue-eyed Indo-European's religion ended up dominating East Asia - although oddly, not the land of his birth south of the Himalayas). But in the third century B.C., the Indian Buddhist King Asoka tried. After his conversion, he improved trade routes and sent missionaries throughout South Asia and the ancient Near East. In this he was like a Buddhist Constantine and Paul rolled into one; imagine a Buddhist New Testament with books named after letters to the evangelized city-states, like Alexandrians and Bactrians and Persians (instead of Romans and Galatians and Ephesians). The top image is from Wikipedia, on Buddhism and the Roman Empire. The bottom image is an evangelical Buddhist inscription in Greek and Aramaic - by Asoka, from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Contact between Buddhists and the classical Near East always seem like a bit of alternate history to us modern Westerners.

Of course some of these monuments and markers have been destroyed by our throwback friends the Taliban, but they're just doing what good fundamentalists of all stripes do: think of the Spanish missionaries destroying Mayan texts, or early European Christians censoring and smearing classical materialist works, or any number of political book-burnings in the twentieth century. This brings up an obvious question: if Buddhism had its champion in a Asoka, then where are the Buddhist temples in Athens and Afghanistan today? The answer is obvious in retrospect when you consider religion as just another set of customs. If your philosophy (whether it appeals to the supernatural or not) is not traveling along at the head of a conquering army, or the merchants and diplomats of a powerful empire, the odds are against you if you don't have another trick, like getting endorsements from people in positions of power. (Scientology had the smart idea of spreading into people who have both influence, and weak intellectual immune systems.) It also helps for your philosophy to be intolerant of syncretism and pluralism, and here Asoka was too nice. He felt bad for having prosecuted a bloody war prior to his conversion, and while he did favor Buddhism, he did not punish non-Buddhists. Buddhism eventually did reach the rest of Asia - southeast Asia in Asoka's lifetime, and then China a few centuries later - by "organic" diffusion along the silk road or from missionaries sent out by the religion itself.

Again the differing history of religion in the Far East and the Middle East/Europe is interesting. It might not be anything about the pre-existing culture or geography or political systems of the regions, but rather the coincidental content of the religions themselves. Two innovations that the three Abrahamic religions happened to produce were 1) actively excluding other belief systems and 2) early in their history, successfully infiltrating existing secular powers. Indeed the Abrahamic religions got progressively better at this as time went on. The Jews kept mostly to themselves except during military occupation, then the Christians grew to dominate Rome after a few centuries, and finally Mohammed seems to have conceived Islam as a means to political and military power right from the start. Islam - Abrahamic religion v3.0 - was the best one so far. It's also probably no coincidence that it's the cultural and geographic crossroads of the Middle East where these innovations appeared. A religion that isn't a strong competitor right out of the cradle isn't going to get very far in a place like that!

So there was no Gupta army storming west out of India to force Buddhism onto the Persians and Greeks and Romans, partly because Buddhists are not required to exclude other beliefs. Fair enough; and incidentally, some of the Mongol armies were Buddhist, and some followed an indigenous Mongolian religion, but again, neither of these required conversion. If you paid your taxes the Mongols didn't care. That's why Russians today don't follow the sky god Tengri. (The euphemism "indigenous religion" just means "a religion that's not one of the few indigenous religions that escaped the ethnic group that created them and then spread globally".) But this leaves unanswered the opposite question, which is why India and China aren't Christian or Muslim today. If Alexander had crossed the Indus - or a Chinese-Turkic empire had controlled the Middle East - then very likely whatever religions appeared in this region would have spread east at least as much as they spread west. (In a stable, united post-Alexandrian Eurasia, my money is on a prophet appearing and spreading his faith a little earlier in history.) But we should also remember that we're still in medias res of the global diffusion of ideas, and it's possible that the monotheistic, active-excluding religions just haven't had enough time to crowd out the tolerant ones with tolerant leaders. That is to say, the world's gardens haven't yet all been colonized with the most hardy invasives on offer. Of course, the parts of Asia that came into contact with Abrahamism v3.0 are, in fact, Muslim today.

In closing, modern Korea is a much more interesting case. One half of it has its own brand of exclusive Korean-nationalist communism - originally a European philosophy; how syncretic - which tolerates no (other) religion - and the other half appears very much like it's in the process of becoming Christian, complete with politically ascendant creationists trying to impose restrictions on what is taught in biology classes. And all of this in less than a century.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Map of the U.S. With Literal Place Names

I was surprised that they went out on a limb for Arizona, which doesn't really have an accepted etymology. But Saint Heelholder for San Diego is specific enough that I'm going to have to look that up. There's a full map but to see it you have to go the creators' site. (And here's a map of a 124-state U.S.)


Your blogger, God-like Cat-Valley

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Post-DOMA Gloating and Prediction Challenge

This is truly a sad moment in America's history. But now that DOMA is dead, I guess social conservatives will understand that I am now forced to abandon my monogamous relationship, and run out and have constant casual group sex with every woman I see. After all, it's not my fault! The reason that this decision is a tragedy (and a danger!) for everyone is that marriage has been so degraded by this decision that none of us can be held responsible for our sexual behavior any longer, and this communist fascist Muslim atheist weak-willed dictatorship we now live under is responsible.

In all seriousness: I challenge social conservatives distressed by this decision to publicly make a prediction about what will happen, now that DOMA is gone and marriage equality will go forward. For example, the concern about pedophilia and bestiailty - anyone want to put a date on that?

Monday, June 24, 2013

The First City in the World, Today

Hey, you wanna talk about urban decay, well Detroit's got nothing on this place! [rimshot.] This is Eridu in the Fertile Crescent.

View Larger Map

Saturday, June 15, 2013

David Brooks: We Need Competing Status Hierarchies

This is cross-posted to my atheist blog, The Lucky Atheist.

Brooks has a piece about status hierarchies that oddly and very specifically focuses on religion. He claims religion plays less of a role in American life than it did decades ago. (That assertion needs its own defense, but that's not what this post is about.) His thesis seems to be that the decline of religion in public life is bad, because it leaves us with only one status measurement, that being career success. While the latter is certainly an important determinant of status (if not the most important), organized religion is far from being the only competitor.

It's increasingly recognized that it's better for individuals and societies to have multiple overlapping status domains, but there are more than two domains to choose from. And we already have natural experiments in this regard - do people in less religious countries feel more marginalized somehow? Or is there a difference within the U.S. between the more and less religious states? Do the "less successful" people of Washington State feel worse about themselves than the ones in Oklahoma? Somehow I have difficulty imagining this.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Are People Less Likely to Become Colonists Now?

As compared to a few centuries ago? Certainly. Humans in general today are less likely to strike out to a new land and become colonists. Why is this?

(This is cross-posted to my science fiction and fact blog, Speculative Nonfiction.)

1. The environments that are available to us are harsher. Seasteading? The Antarctic? The Moon or Mars? Virginia may have had a bit more malaria than England but it has a) solid ground, b) it never drops below -50 C and c) it has a 21% O2 atmosphere. Consequently, it takes a more complex and developed economy to allow survival in the harsher land. Jamestown wasn't self-sustaining until the third ship full of people and supplies arrived. (More on Jamestown and Mars here.) And think: how big would a colony in Antarctica have to be in order to be self-sufficient, and make all the equipment they need to survive, not to mention to trade with the rest of the world? (See below for places more amenable to humans than Antarctica, but still not filling up with colonists, in some cases despite the local government's attempt to draw them.)

2. There is a bigger skills gap between the median person and what a colonist needs to know. Even if that island that appeared above the ocean had a nice temperate climate, few of us (especially in the developed world) would be able to take advantage of it. In Jamestown, people plowed and planted fields, hunted, chopped wood, and built small structures. That's pretty much what they were doing at home except for the building part. Even in the developing world, the gap between the skillsets required of someone living day-to-day versus what they would need to do in a terra nova is much wider than what the settlers of the New World faced, or the Polynesians that expanded across the Pacific, or the Norse who made it to Vinland.

3. We're just more comfortable today. Yes, there are still people in desperate poverty, but not as many of us three centuries ago. The median human is much happier, and if they move, they have more information about which countries offer better opportunities, rather than helping to build a country from scratch.

The exceptions I alluded to above are Siberia and the Canadian interior and the Australian Outback. That's a significant chunk of the Earth's land surface. Seriously, if you think that there is no more wilderness and no more frontiers, just buy a few coats and a hunting rifle and move to the Yukon. West Australia is the size of America's Western and Pacific time zones combined and has a population of 2 million, 1.5 million of which are in one city, and a Mediterranean climate near the coast like California, and massive mineral wealth - and the Australian government has been desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get people to settle it. In any of these places you can quite easily meet Daniel Boone's requirement of refusing to live anywhere that you can see the note from your neighbor's chimney. But you won't do this, despite any belly-aching you might have done along these lines. Why not? Because you have a good life already and you have no idea how to hunt, that's why.

Why Do Government Services Often Suck?

There are several forces operating that make government institutions less effective than they might otherwise be.

One is that governments are bigger, and the bigger an institution, the more administrative friction (in large part due to the free rider problem). Of course, this is not unique to government; if you've ever been at a large university or corporation, you've seen this operate as well.

A second problem is that as society becomes more complex, the services that agencies provide become more specialized, and less comprehensible to most citizens; in the old days when specialized information was mostly the province of the professional class, this was pithily summarized as "All professions are conspiracies against the laity.". This problem is particularly bad for services that are used infrequently and/or by a small number of people and/or that are unglamorous. Consequently there is no feedback from past users who have had bad experiences to future users making decisions. (Family law courts, for example, score at least two out of three in that list.) This feedback loop damages markets and cripples competition, which sometimes helps the laity, cutting out middlemen and de-mystifying opaque language to benefit consumers, not without resistance from established interests of course.

A third problem, unique to government, is that of guaranteed lack of competition. The free rider problem becomes more severe because the free riders know that even if the building they work in is physically destroyed or a customer is harmed, it doesn't matter - you still have to go to the DMV (or wherever) somewhere, sometime, and they'll still have a job. Of course, there is always competition on some level, and there is here too, in the sense that if a government functions so badly that it collapses due to civil strife, invasion by foreign powers, starvation or insolvency, then the agency employees stop getting money. This is an unpleasant competition mechanism, although it was the de facto way that (for example) Rome got new Emperors, in the absence of succession rules. Recognizing this unpleasantness, the founders of the U.S. put in a provision for a peaceful transfer of power which does in fact cost some government employees their jobs - but not the vast majority. So if you hate your local DMV enough, you can vote for a governor from another party, and you'll get a new secretary of transportation, but very likely the mean lady at desk 18 will still be there.

One possible solution to this problem would be a more extensive application of the ideal of overlapping status hierarchies. Humans react badly to loss of status, but as long as we're all moving in multiple spheres (family, work, church, your golf buddies, your cooking class) damage to status in any one realm is mitigated in terms of damage to your overall status. The problem to solve here is that ultimately, all animals including us need control of a specific physical territory, and where you appear in one of those territories (and the cultural allegiances that you invariably develop) are involuntary. It would be nice to say, "You know what, I live in San Diego, but California's DMV sucks, so I'm going to go to the one from Missouri. And our environmental laws suck too so I'm going to have open bonfires in my yard with my friends, as is permitted in Mauritius, which is the law I'm choosing to follow." But you still live in San Diego and have no choice but to cooperate with your physical neighbors, who probably don't want the smoke and wildfire risk. San Diego burns down, not Mauritius. Interestingly, to some degree we do in fact allow these arrangements with incorporation and litigation law, and it's probably no surprise that non-physical-geographical solutions have emerged in business, that is, in purely voluntary associations of cooperating individuals with much lower average costs of "emigrating" (quitting or selling out your share). I submit that a solution allowing these arrangements to apply to all government policy would be the greatest political innovation since modern democracy. It would improve government profoundly. Right now the quality of government appears to rest on the cultural values of the country the government is running and how well-suited they are to being a modern nation-state. If you're Finland or Korea, that's good news. If you're Sudan, not so much.

Emigration is arguably another way in which governments do face competition, but there are considerable barriers that decrease the effectiveness of freedom of movement, namely that there is invariably a large cost to emigration - the DMV would have to be pretty bad before you moved to Missouri or New Zealand - which leads to Coasian non-global optima in the quality of policy and services. This is discussed in the previous post in the context of charter cities. Charter cities are arguably another solution to this problem. The idea is to apply putatively more effective laws from another polity in a small enough chunk of territory that people in surrounding polities would have a realistic choice of where to work and do business (the model being Hong Kong of course).

A final problem regarding the brute fact that governments are based on the physical control of territory, and here Chairman Mao deserves a point for honesty: these organizations (governments) maintain their monopoly over territory with force, period. Again this is a forced move, since by basing organizations on physical territory and emotional allegiances that can't be opted out of, there are members of the group who are non-voluntary or who are irrational, and who you can't "fire". Hence armies and police. It is likely that the violence institutions will be used to preserve the status quo, so I fully expect that if Thiel et al's seasteading initiative is realized, it will be a few years at most before the nearby country finds an excuse to attack them, likely for trade in something considered contraband in the attacking country (drugs, weapons, gambling, prostitution) and likely in as morally inflammatory a way possible, to engineer sympathies against the seastead. (I'm picturing military units storming the structure and the President at the time reading a statement about child prostitution, or funneling drugs to America's children.) I'm not familiar with the details of the current proposal but I hope they have taken this into account.

Charter Cities and Costs of Emigration

It was in doubt for some time; translated story here. I will be visiting but not living. But I wonder how many libertarian types will even put their money where their mouth is to that degree. Here is an article which points out that even though we now have annual indices of economic freedom by country, at which New Zealand* and Hong Kong frequently beat the U.S., American libertarians do not respond by moving en masse to Auckland (and an economist writes about this here as a revealed preference); further discussion here. Another way to ask this (if you're libertarian) is: when Peter Thiel et al get their seasteading proposal off the ground or at least in the water, would you move? If not, why not?

Charitably, you might say that this hesitance results from there always being a nonzero transaction cost to emigrating. Practically speaking, you are familiar with the customs of your country (not to mention the language), you have a social and professional network, not even mentioning the inescapably human, irrational connection to the land that programmed you in childhood into the adult you became and the utility cost that losing that imposes. There is clearly a Coasian local optimum type-solution operating here.

For that matter, American states differ considerably in their economic freedom too, but again it's still rare for people to in-migrate for abstract economic freedom - I know of exactly one, and that's likely one more than you - even with the cost of migration dramatically lowered. When people in-migrate it's almost always for a concrete opportunity, i.e. a transfer or new job waiting for them.

Rather than highlighting the insincerity of people's convictions about socioeconomic justice, to my mind this only emphasizes the importance of internal self-correction mechanisms. Freedom of movement - "love it or leave it" - will only eliminate severe polity-inflicted-suffering (that tramples on libertarian economic freedom or any other values) that goes above and beyond that considerable barrier. Consider large-scale emigrations in history, and they generally have not been people trying to improve their lives a little. They were escaping wars and famines and genocides and dictatorships, not marginally improving their local economic freedom index.

*RE New Zealand, a young friend just moved there on a whim and within a week he was working (legally) for the government and had met the mayor of Auckland in the course of his job. So I asked him if he'd had to set this all up ahead of time, and his answer was "No. They offer a visa called a working holiday visa to U.S. citizens under 30 years old to come travel and work for up to a year. It is an incredibly easy visa to apply for and get with practically no red tape. We got our visas like nine months ago, and when we got here we didn't have anything set up. You have to apply for your IRD number (SSN equivalent) once you're here and it takes about two weeks to come and then I just signed up for a temp agency and lucked out by finding work really quickly." Now that's a country serious about economic freedom and attracting the right immigrants.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Map of U.S. Legislator Polarization

It's good to put political data into easily understood visual or numerical form because it separates politics from the partisan, tribal-identification reactions we all have, not to mention it helps us give more effective performance evaluations to the people we're choosing to write laws for us. Here Seth Masket shows Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty's data. Darker means more polarized. Blue is how left-polarized Dems are, red right-polarized GOP.

Masket notes that CA, WA and CO all have very right Republicans and left Democrats. I think the commonality here is these are all states with large proportions of in-migrants from elsewhere in the U.S. who are disproportionately young renters in large cities, and also (in contrast) very large swathes of low population density land with multi-generation residents who own their homes and work in agriculture or resource extraction. (Original post here.)

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Bad Stripe as Boundary Zone

The Bad Stripe is an area of the U.S. running roughly east-to-west from West Virginia, through Kentucky and Tennesee to Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. It is Bad because human development indicators, economics, and general indicators of flourishing and happiness are depressed there relative to the rest of the U.S. (Note: it is not just the Black Belt - it is considerably inland and upland of that.) This pattern frequently jumps out of maps of the U.S. showing demographic or economic data, and one thing that has become clear is that the Bad Stripe is a boundary zone between trade regions, religions, and now dialects (previous language boundary shown here). And here we see it again: witness the border of y'all, which runs right through the Bad Stripe.

By Joshua Katz at UNC, via Business Insider.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Who Among Us Would Not Say The Same

Cross-posted from my outdoors and trail-running blog.

An interesting short piece at Reason about Gary Johnson:
One of the worst things you can say about Johnson is that he's a little too honest sometimes. Another is that he always seemed to want to be doing something other than campaigning. On Jan. 29, 2012, for instance, Johnson, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney were all working crowds in Florida. On Jan. 28, Gingrich and Romney were working crowds in Florida, and Johnson was hiking in Taos, New Mexico. Can't say as I blame him, but the act of running for president does require a delusional belief in one's own significance that Johnson doesn't seem to hold.

...he does [say] that reaching election day last year "was kind of like being let out of prison."
It's sobering to think that Teddy Roosevelt was able to go camping in Yosemite with John Muir, while he was in office - but if someone is that much of a normal, whole human being today, their chances of getting elected are probably close to zero.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Emperors and Constitutions: Illusions of Continuity?

A quirk of Japanese history is the survival of the Emperor, for over two thousand years. This, despite multiple violently-ascendant governments in that interval, most of which relegated the Emperor to a figurehead who spent his days in a pleasant court in Kyoto writing poetry while the military rulers ran the country. This seems strange to just about everybody outside of Japan. If you take over a country, the first thing you do is stamp out all vestiges of the old order, right? Especially the figureheads of the old authority!

There may have been a method to their madness. Once the institution of the Emperor had survived one or two of these changes of the guard, keeping the Emperor around - with no power or ability to muster forces of his own - might make sense. It gives a false sense of stability by presenting a continuous succession of figureheads, giving the new government immediate legitimacy.

A cynical view of the longevity of the United States Constitution might stir similar thoughts. The democracies of the world frequently throw out their previous constitutions and write new ones even without violence, often multiple times per century. In fact, imagine for a moment that there is a European country that has kept the same document, unchanged, since the eighteenth century. Certainly this would seem curious; and the government in question, dishonest about how they're executing this ancient parchment, or (more charitably) maybe they're just a rural backwater where nothing much has changed. Certainly this latter situation does not obtain in the U.S. It might be the case then that the true function of the Supreme Court is to interpret challenges to the U.S. Constitution in whatever ways create the fewest ripples with respect to modern sensibilities. Activist judges or not, it would seem that "living documents" guarantee a certain amount of non-elected legislating.

A related question would be the relationship of currency stability (say, month-to-month fluctuations) over time relative to constitutional turnover. Do countries that explode their parliaments or set up new governments have less predictable currency values over time?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Why You Should Avoid News

Great piece, available here. One of the points is that it makes us passive, a conclusion which this argument also converges upon. "News" here is not just the constant novelty, which is a source of many of the problems, but the way that what we call news is assembled, the motivations of the distributors, and the reinforcement of our own biases with this form of information. My favorite non-obvious point is that new "sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement".

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Chargemasters and Used Cars

Recently there's been a lot of discussion about the use of chargemasters in hospitals. It's an often baseless fiction used for bargaining, and the growth in healthcare costs has been attributed to it. This bothers people, not without reason.

Other industries use price shrouding, but this is something altogether different. The situation is most similar to car salesmanship. Opaque pricing, line items that no one can explain, made-up additional charges, and initial prices that everyone knows are not the final prices. This results in consumers generally not being happy at the end of the car-buying process, and a poor reputation for car salespeople. Why is this? Is it just totally path-dependent cultural inertia that has made the pricing in these industries so bizarre and (some would say) unethical? Or is there something inherent to each that encourages it? There are similarities and differences.

In both, people are making large infrequent purchases. They're spending a lot of money without experience in this specific domain. Furthermore they may not know what they should be paying in the first place; this problem is worse for healthcare consumers. When you buy a car you can get some idea what this Toyota model is going for in this area by doing research online, although the salesman hopes you haven't, and you'll have some ballpark idea even without that research - whereas in the hospital, you certainly have no idea what a paracentesis should cost in your city. What probably makes things worse is that most hospital admissions are not planned. If you're in the hospital, it probably wasn't on your calendar ahead of time (unless you were getting an elective surgery, but that's still a small minority of patients.)

Another problem comes from a collision of values, between trade and the value of human life. We see this every time trade - a dispassionate, utility-calculating way of thinking - collides with a highly limbic behavior, involving immediate pleasure or pain, family, tribal identity, or human life. You can see this best illustrated by the goods and services that are most likely across polities to be banned on moral grounds, or those which are socialized. Healthcare is one of those. (If this collision is still not clear: can I pay you $20 to hop on one foot for 1 minute? Sure, I would take that deal. Okay, now what's the price to sell your child? Disgusting and we shouldn't even be discussing it, right? There's the collision.) To begin with, even when they have time, people don't look up hospital quality ahead of time (let alone cost) as with other businesses - we spend more time on ratings sites for restaurants. For one thing, if your kid needs an operation, do you ask yourself "Is the extra $12,000 at the slightly more highly rated hospital across town really worth it?" If you do, you might feel guilty - anyone who has ever negotiated wedding or funeral costs has had a similar experience. But the other side of the coin is that healthcare providers are not trained as profit maximizers, but as life maximizers and pain minimizers. The ED physicians and nurses have no idea what's on that chargemaster, and they don't care. The system would be a lot worse if this were not the case - that is, if hospital physicians were compensated like car salesmen - because they could take much more horrible advantage of patients if they were incentivized. That said, there should be no surprise that healthcare costs go up, because the service providers are ignorant of the cost and there's no feedback loop.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Business Using Government to Stifle Competition

A smartphone app in New York that would let people find and hail cabs is being profoundly retarded by the city. No doubt such an app would be of great benefit to people hailing cabs and to individual cab drivers, but a disaster for cab companies (and dispatchers). Is there anything more to this story than cab companies protecting their interest at the expense of citizens, and the the city eagerly using regulation to do this for them?

The established businesses are very good at having to avoid defending their behavior; no matter what they say their motivation is, it's pretty obvious that they're acting exactly the same as they would be acting if they were just defending their interests at all costs. The state liquor control board in Pennsylvania has been doing much the same thing.

Regulation is often the friend of big business.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Urbanization in the U.S. and Canada

Australia is often used by demographers as an example of a highly urbanized country, but the contrast between Canada and the U.S. is perhaps more interesting, because we're on the same continent.  And indeed, looking at a biggest cities comparison list of both countries, it's striking: of the 3 biggest cities in North America, 2 are in Canada. But as you include more cities of decreasing size, the % of Canadian cities in the rank list converges toward 0.1.  (Y axis is cumulative % of Canadian cities in the list of biggest cities in North America, of cities with at least 100,000 inhabitants.)  Canada's smaller population is enriched for bigger cities.

Even better than the rank list is the difference in urbanization, i.e. the percent population in cities by size.  And there it's even more striking:  Canada's biggest city alone contains 16.2% of the country's population.  To get to that level of % urbanized population in the U.S. you have to add up the first 60 cities.Y axis is % of population in cities, counting cities of decreasing size up to that point (again, as far down as cities of population 100,000).

Climate?  Less of a homesteading policy in Canadian history?  Less aggressive property purchase incentives in the automobile era?  Or Canadian agriculture taking off only post-mechanization (and hence never requiring settlement by large numbers of people in the first place) since the climate is harsher?  The thing to do to start distinguishing between these alternatives would be to generate a 3D surface of this last plot with historical data to see if there are any obvious inflection points.  And with the last possibility, the question is whether the prairie provinces have areas losing population in the same way that the post-mechanization Midwest has in the U.S.  (More on agriculture and settlement of central North America here.)