Saturday, January 30, 2010

Calculating Probabilities

When it comes to religion I tend to use the  'three kinds of people" model. Roughly speaking, you're either a theist, an atheist, or an agnostic. Which of these three is the most defensible position? Which makes the most sense? Which is most consistent with science? What criteria should be used to evaluate your argument for your position on the question of whether there is a god?

I'm not sure that I know the best arguments for each of these three positions, but here's my best shot at evaluating them.

Theists have a problem when it comes to science. They're probably just never going to have anything like scientific evidence for their position. Depending on the particular brand of theism, it may be logically impossible for them to have evidence. For example, one form of theism says that god, being omnipotent and omniscient, can manipulate the universe such that his presence is simply not detectable by scientific means. If you're that kind of theist then it's no surprise to you that science isn't finding god. You're problem, then, is an epistemological one: how do you know that there is a god? Do you have some method for creating knowledge that is different from science? Or do you just choose to believe, even though you don't actually know?

Atheists also have a problem when it comes to science, and for exactly the same reason. The proposition that there is a god who can hide the evidence of his own existence is completely unscientific. It cannot be addressed by science. Atheists will tell you that the claim that there is a god is similar to the claim (without evidence) that there is a teapot in orbit. However, these claims are not similar. The god-claim is an attempted explanation of observed phenomena: there is a universe, there is life, there are sentient beings. The god-claim says these things are here because god made them. The teapot claim has no connection to observed phenomena. Atheists say that we can dismiss the teapot-claim because the probability that it is there is vanishingly small. Without evidence of the teapot, or a reason why it should be in orbit, this is absolutely correct. But we can't make the same argument against the existence of god because, 1) if the god-claim is true then we should expect to find no evidence of god (a weak point, but not able to be defeated), and 2) the god-claim explains things that are currently unexplained, or inadequately explained. Ultimately, the problem with the atheist position is also an epistemological one: how do you know there isn't a god?

Agnostics take the easy way out. They admit that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a god, but also admit that this doesn't mean that there actually isn't a god. As a result, agnosticism embraces a wide spectrum of people from near-believers to near-disbelievers.

So, a question for those of you who are theists: Do you admit that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a god? And if so, what method for creating knowledge have you used to discover that god exists?

A question for atheists: If you reject the proposition that there is a god, not because you can prove there is no god, but because you believe that it is highly improbable that there is a god, then how do you compute the probability that there is a god?

Agnostics get a pass.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

There must be a shortage of editors

But it's a good thing, if you're easily entertained.

The perfect visual for your topic

I received this little gem in a newsletter:

I don't know how they found it, but they managed to procure just the right picture. 

The best poorly-worded headline today

Judge asked to halt planting of genetically modified sugarbeet seeds in Oregon

If you insert a few commas, you get:

Judge, asked to halt planting of genetically modified sugarbeet, seeds in Oregon

which makes a lot more sense.  (Doesn't make it any more newsworthy, though.)

These never get old

I believe this is Korean. I also believe that translators in foreign countries must let these through intentionally without correcting them so that we can enjoy them.  After all, the spelling and punctuation are perfect.

On a different note, Robert may not allow me access to his blog if I keep this up.  More serious posts are forthcoming.  I hope you enjoyed these for now.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Data Visualization Goes Wrong

It's Jennifer again, and I'm happy to see a combination of two of my favorite things: creative visualizations, and fonts.

I love fonts.  I am a font geek.

So I was very pleased to see a chart illustrating how much ink common fonts use relative to one another, here

...That is, until I reached the end of the short article, beneath the pen graph: "Simple, understandable & clever."

Um, not exactly.

The chart uses clear plastic pens displaying varying levels of ink as a bar graph.  Cute, yes. Clever, definitely.  But not simple and not completely understandable.  Unfortunately, the data visualization choice could at a glance be read as saying the exact opposite of what it intends.  I loved it until I saw the problem.  If you're going to go through the trouble of gathering and presenting information, shouldn't you try hard to make sure that misinterpretation of this sort is not likely to happen?

Do you see it?  Do you agree with me?

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's a great day for links!

This is Robert's wife, Jennifer, standing in for Robert today.  He is very busy lately and doesn't want his poor blog to be neglected any longer.  And though I'm finding his shoes far too large and eloquent, I shall attempt it regardless.  So, begging your oversight for not being quite up to the usual standard, here is a small but worthwhile collection of links for your perusal:

Here's a great article over at Falkenblog with some interesting advice.

And some lovely and laughable pictures, respectively, at BLDG BLOG (naturally) and my favorite at Strange Maps.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Next Big Coordination Problem

The costs of coordination are falling, rapidly. Our old models for how to organize and leverage the efforts of multiple people across disciplines are being outmoded.

The bureaucratic model has been universally adopted as the standard form for business organization because it has been highly successful. It's a model that has been under development for literally thousands of years. The bureaucratic model emphasizes command and control, and explicitly defines the rewards (payment) for participation. Within a bureaucracy each person has a specific role, and specific pay. The primary benefit of the bureaucratic model is that it manages the (traditionally high) costs of coordination involved in getting hundreds of people to work together on the same problem.

The wiki model, including the open source movement and crowdsourcing, seeks to revolutionize how people organize. The wiki model uses technology to lower the costs of coordination, making it practical to capture value from contributors who don't wish to join a bureaucracy, but do wish to contribute on their own terms. The wiki model lets contributors take on any role they wish. And, the wiki is efficient at capturing value in extremely small increments, one contribution at a time, as opposed to the bureaucratic model which requires the establishment of a formalized, contractual relationship before value can be captured.

A hallmark of the wiki model is a blurring of the distinction between professional and amateur contributors. For example, nearly all Wikipedia contributors are amateurs while Google utilizes both a large professional bureaucracy  and the efforts of users to index the web. Unlike the bureaucratic model, in the wiki world people often contribute their effort for free.

This is a problem.

It's a problem because it means that there will not be enough contribution. Technology and the development of the wiki model have lowered the costs of coordination, but those costs still are far from zero. The most important costs of coordination have always been, and still are, the costs associated with transacting for value. The genius of the wiki model is that it captures the value of amateur (unpaid) contributions. But, it's not going to replace the bureaucratic model until it can also capture professional contribution, and this means getting payment to flow from users to contributors.

The revolution is not going to arrive until professional contribution can be bought and sold at the margin. The death knell of the bureaucratic model will be the development of a system that makes it easy to purchase discrete units of professional contribution, instead of having to hire professionals.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Walking Through Walls

The following is an excerpt from an essay by Eyal Weizman on the unusual tactics used by the Israeli Defense Force during their 2002 invasion of Nablus (quote from Brig. General Aviv Kokhavi). Hat tip to the excellent BLDBLOG.

"This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all, it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret the alley as a place, like every architect and every town planner does, as a place to walk through, or do you interpret the alley as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do.

This is why we opted for the methodology of moving through walls. . . . Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. We were thus moving from the interior of homes to their exterior in a surprising manner and in places we were not expected, arriving from behind and hitting the enemy that awaited us behind a corner. . . . Because it was the first time that this methodology was tested [at such a scale], during the operation itself we were learning how to adjust ourselves to the relevant urban space, and similarly, how to adjust the relevant urban space to our needs. . . . We took this microtactical practice [of moving through walls] and turned it into a method, and thanks to this method, we were able to interpret the whole space differently! . . ."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Trade Deficit Bad?

As always, please explain to me where I’m getting it wrong.

The common argument, repeatedly endlessly by reporters and politicians, is that if we import more than we export then that’s bad. It’s bad for American workers because they’re going to lose their jobs if we don’t buy what they make. It’s bad for our long term prosperity because we’re sending all of our money to foreign countries. And it’s bad because it means we’re losing! We’re being outcompeted by our economic and military rivals, e.g. China.

It’s a pretty compelling argument, on the face of it. But there’s something confusing about the whole thing, something that doesn’t quite add up.

When I buy a shiny new Japanese-built car my dollars go to the manufacturer in Japan, and I get the car. But the manufacturer can’t use my dollars to buy things in Japan; the law says you can only use yen to buy things in Japan. So the manufacturer who built my new car has to either spend those dollars in the US, or trade them to someone else who wants to spend them in the US. Those dollars are claims against goods and services in the US – they have to come back to the US in order to be spent.

So every time I spend a dollar buying some imported good, that dollar goes to the foreign company that sold me their product. But eventually that same dollar comes back to the US to be spent on something here. It HAS to, there’s no other place for it to go. So how can we even have a trade deficit? Every dollar spent by Americans on imports eventually comes back as spending on domestic goods, services … or investment.

Investment is the thing that balances the trade deficit. Investment doesn’t show up in imports and exports (when I buy stock in a business, the business stays where it is), so it isn’t counted when computing the trade deficit. So, the reason that America has had a trade deficit with the rest of the world for decades is because Americans have been buying imports while the rest of the world has been buying ownership in America.

What does it mean that the rest of the world is buying ownership in America? Primarily it means two things: 1) Foreign investment in American companies, and 2) Foreign investment in US Federal debt. The rest of the world wants to invest in America because America is a good bet. American companies are enormously productive, and the American government doesn’t default on its loans.

Is it a bad thing that foreigners have been buying ownership in American business? No! American businesses use that investment to innovate and grow. Is it a bad thing that foreigners own US Federal debt? No! The US Treasury sells bonds according to policies that it believes are in the best interests of the US financial system and economy.

The primary effects of the trade deficit have been that Americans have enjoyed low prices for goods and services of all kinds, and have benefited from high levels of direct foreign investment. The real risk is that one day the trade deficit will go away as investment shifts from the increasingly regulation-bound US, to freer markets.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Creeping Anarchy

I think it was my good friend Justin who recently pointed out to me that one Anarchist viewpoint is that societies are largely self-organizing -- and government is a sham. There's something interesting in this argument, though I am not yet ready to accept it in total. It's an empirical statement, and as such it's either right or wrong.

I DO think that our would be overlords are generally helpless to impose unpopular policies, thanks to our democratic institutions. And no matter how you poll it, healthcare reform is hugely unpopular.This recent AP News blurb documents the likely shedding of still more features from the planned healthcare legislation package. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't that mean there is no meaningful healthcare reform left in either of the bills? Sure there's that thing about how the states should maybe do something about the lack of competition in the market for health insurance, but that doesn't count, especially compared against what was planned but has since gone missing: the public option, a requirement that large companies provide health insurance, regulation of insurance, elimination of the tax break on employer provided plans, meaningful provision of aid for the poor, any means for containing costs, and funding.

I think this all has to do with the fact that,

"...rules are hard to change (because they) reflect the values that are embedded in a culture."

Sound wisdom.

Productivity and Effects on Labor

If productivity increases because of new technology, will demand for labor fall?

I think it's complicated. If the market for a particular product is saturated, (e.g. there is plenty of supply of toasters to meet demand) then an increase in productivity will mean that fewer people will be necessary to maintain the current level of production. Demand for labor to produce that product will fall if productivity increases.

But consider a product that is useful and valuable, but that is too expensive to produce. Because of the high price most people use some substitute product that is cheaper. E.g. mobile phones during the 1980s. New technology that increases productivity for this kind of product will drive an increase in demand for labor to produce the product, as the market for the product grows.

Paul Rako discusses how increases in productivity cause the value of the output of each worker to increase, thereby supporting higher wages. I think he's kind of right, but that the mechanism isn't direct. The price of labor depends less on the value of the output of a particular job title at a particular business, and more on the value of output of labor altogether for the entire economy. To look at it another way ask your self the question: What is the difference between high wages and a low cost of living? If I work in a factory making widgets, and management brings in new machinery that enables me to make more widgets every hour, do I get a raise? Probably not, especially if the new equipment is just as easy to operate as was the old equipment. On the other hand, if my favorite auto manufacturer is making nicer cars for less money today than it was five years ago, that's value that has raised my standard of living even though my productivity may not have changed in five years.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Intuitive Explanation of Who Pays the Tax

Non-intuitive explanation
When a tax is levied against a transaction, both parties to the transaction end up bearing some of the burden of the tax. Whether the buyer or the seller pays more of the tax depends on who has the greater elasticity.

Intuitive explanation
If I want to buy a new boat, but the government just put a new luxury tax on boats, will the boat dealer be able to pass the tax along to me or will he be forced to eat the tax? It depends on who wants to do the deal the most. Of course the seller will do his best to pass the tax on to me, but if he’s desperate to sell boats, and so are his competitors who are also trying to sell me a boat, then he’ll lower his price to get me to buy – effectively eating the tax himself.

It doesn’t matter who officially pays the tax. For example, officially I pay my income tax. But in a tight labor market (when there are lots of jobs and companies are having a hard time finding enough employees), my employer might be the one who is effectively paying the tax. Let’s say that I’m working for a company during a time when employers are desperate to hire people, and the government increases the income tax. My current employer doesn’t automatically raise my salary to compensate me for the increased taxes, so he’s effectively forcing me to eat the tax. However, if another company offers me a position doing the same kind of work for more money, then I can either take the new job, or try to extract a raise out of my current employer. In that kind of market I can effectively force the cost of the tax onto either my old employer or my new employer, because they need me worse than I need them.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lost Decade?

I keep hearing reports that the 'naughts' have been a lost decade. Setting aside for a moment that ten years is an arbitrarily chosen length of time, with arbitrarily chosen starting points, I still can't really see a good justification for such a judgement. Have we really made no progress for ten years? Are we really no wealthier?

The blue area is the 'lost decade'. The boom and bust are clearly visible, however, by the measure of this graph we have continued to increase not just our wealth, but the rate of growth of our wealth throughout the past decade (notice how the trend line is bending upwards). But, let's cancel out the effects of population growth just to make sure.

OK, so the rate of growth of wealth on a per capita basis isn't increasing as much a it might have seemed from the previous graph, but wealth per capita is definitely going up. Lost decade? I just don't see it here.

In fairness, my numbers only go through July of 2009, so the graph might dip a bit more at the very end, but I haven't heard any news that the past 6 months have dramatically worse than the year prior, so we should still be in the general vicinity of the trend line.

This last graph shows again that the past ten years don't look remarkably different from any 10 year period since the 1950s. Substantial volatility in the per capita growth rate, but generally positive. Here's the source for my data for all three graphs.

Maybe these are not the right measures, or maybe there's something deceptive about these graphs. If so, please help me to understand why the past ten years have been a lost decade.

Intuitive Explanation of Comparative Advantage

I'm going to try to come up with intuitive explanations for as many important concepts that voters should know about as possible. Maybe you can help me? Here's one:

Comparative Advantage

Non-intuitive explanation

International trade provides big gains to countries by letting them specialize in what they do best. Imagine there are two countries and that they both need paper products and circuit boards. If one country is better at making paper products and the other is better at making circuit boards, then each country should specialize in the product that they are best at producing, and then trade. However, if one country is better than the other at making both paper products AND circuit boards, does that mean that the country with the advantage in both kinds of production should make both kinds of products, and not trade with the other country? No! The country with an advantage in both products should specialize in the higher value product, and then trade with the other country for the lower value product. That way, the country isn't wasting valuable resources making a low-value product when they could be using those resources to make a high-value product. This will actually benefit BOTH countries. Both countries will have more paper products and more circuit boards to consume than if they don't trade.

Intuitive explanation

A successful cosmetic surgeon wants to redesign her kitchen. Not only is she a top surgeon, commanding in excess of $200/hour (on average, with different rates for different services), but she is also a highly skilled interior designer. In fact, she can produce designs that are as good as what her local professional interior designer can do, and she can do it in less time than he can. He charges $75/hr, and it will take him 8 hours to produce a design for her kitchen. She can produce a design of similar quality in 4 hours. The surgeon is very devoted to her family, and is unwilling to use her spare time in a way that takes her away from them, so if she re-designed her kitchen herself, she'd have to take time off work to do it. Should she create the design herself, or pay the professional designer to do it?

If she does the work herself, she will lose $800 worth of time at her practice as a surgeon (4 hours creating the design multiplied by $200 per hour). If she hires the professional designer she will pay him $600 (8 hours creating the design multiplied by $75 per hour). Therefore, she should hire the professional designer and save $200. This option is better for her (she saves $200), it's better for the designer (he gets a commision he wouldn't get otherwise), and it's better for her patients who need surgery (she will be able to serve more patients).

I'm Sorry, Professor Caplan

...but I had to laugh at this line in response to how it must come across to the average guy on the street:

"But think about how fun and enlightening cartoons about price controls and public choice would have been!"

In fairness, I agree with him. I just think you'd better take some pretty good visuals with you when you go into the pitch meeting.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Make the World Easier to Understand

I think Bryan Caplan has a great idea here: Find intuitive explanations of complicated or technical concepts, so that more people can understand them. After all, you may enjoy feeling superior to your uneducated neighbors, but as voters they are setting policy for the community you live in.

Here's an example from the comments on Bryan's blog (my rephrasing):

Technical concept - Raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment for minimum wage earners.

Intuitive explanation - If I like bananas, but the government says that the grocery store has to charge $3 per banana, then I'm going to buy fewer bananas.Similarly, if I'm McDonald's and I want to hire cashiers, but the government says I have to pay them $20/hour, then I'm not going to hire as many cashiers (or open as many restaurants because they won't be as profitable).

I bet YOU can improve on this example.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

And the Pursuit of Happiness

Maira Kalman is wrapping up her year-long exploration of the roots of Americanism. If you haven't already seen what's she's done, this isn't a bad place to start.

Night Silence Desert

This album remains high on my list of all time favorites. Mohammad Reza Shajarian is a very talented singer, and his partnership with Kayhan Kalhor only makes sense. Track 10 is the best.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Citizens of the World

This is something I've wanted to blog about for a long time but haven't been able to put my thoughts in order. I might still not be there, but I'm going to give it a shot.

I love America. I'm proud to be part of this nation of immigrants and freedom, innovation and individuality, community and law. I'm an American. But I'm a human first.

I'm not a constitutional scholar so I can't speak to the intentions of the framers, but it seems inconsistent with the ideals that they encoded into the first law of the nation that the Constitution should apply to American government only within the boundaries of the States. Whatever the precedents may be, I believe that serving representatives of our government should be bound by the law of this land, wherever they are.

Here on American soil we don't believe in diluted ideals. We believe in and practice the freedom of discourse in a way that is not replicated in other western nations. We do not proscribe the wearing of the burkha in public universities. We protect the right of the Klan and of neo-Nazis to argue their misguided and hateful views, because we believe that no ideas are so dangerous that they can't be talked about. We applaud criticisms of our government, of our bigotries, and even of our traditions and culture, when such criticisms are levied with honest intent. And even when they aren't, we protect them.

On American soil we defend the right of all people, even non-citizens who are here illegally, to due process and equal access to the rule of law. We welcome far more immigrants than any other nation. We believe that YOU should reap the rewards of your hard work, and your creative ideas. We believe that every person, and especially every child, should have access to the best health care, and to a high quality education.

On American soil we hold our representatives in Congress to these ideals stubbornly, fiercely, and even foolishly at times. We believe in these ideals.

But outside the borders of the States we tolerate evil and cruel acts against humans, committed by our agents. We permit an abridgment of the rule of law. We condone the use of propaganda and misinformation, and the suppression of free discourse. We allow our tax dollars to support corrupt regimes. We lend our support to barbarous tyrants.

We do these things in our strategic interest. And in so doing we reveal a shallowness in our ideals that permits us to refuse to admit the humanity of persons who live far from us, and who are strangers to us. Yet they are the same people we welcome into our neighborhoods and our workplaces, our churches and schools, when they apply for the right to immigrate to the United States.

I don't propose a radical change to the law. I only propose that we extend the rightness of our laws to all of our actions, and to the actions of our government, wherever it is operating. I am an American, but I am a human first. What is right for the best and worst Americans is surely right for the best and worst of our neighbors abroad.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Like my good friend Justin, I'm looking for some advice on grad school. I'm currently in progress toward a Master's of Engineering in Systems Engineering, and I'm thoroughly enjoying the program. I want to pursue a PhD next, but I'm not sure what kind of program I want to enter or where I'd like to go to school.

My goals in pursuing a PhD are as follows, though not necessarily in this order:

  • Learn and grow and enjoy my studies.
  • Learn how to do, and actually do, meaningful research. 
  • Meet more people who are both intellectual and practical - people who care about results as well as ideas.
  • Increase my career choices - this is not about money, it's about being able to do work that is meaningful and significant.

    My primary interests are in the concept of emergence (how organization emerges from complexity), and in how to engineer emergence. That's very broad with applications ranging from public policy, to international development, to organizational management, to the design of transportation (or other) systems.

    My question is, which programs at which schools are most likely to help me achieve my goals, and allow me to study and do research relating to the engineering of emergence? The way I see it, there are many kinds of programs that touch this concept at least tangentially, and any of those might work for me as long as I was given a measure of freedom to emphasize my interest. And there are a few programs that either directly approach the topic of emergence (for example, the Systems Science program at Portland State University), or provide tools that are pertinent (economics, probability, etc.).

    Where I go to school matters for a lot of reasons, but most importantly because of the second two items on my bulleted list above. I want to work with high quality people and I want my degree to open doors for me. That said, there are some boundaries that I would like to stay within (though I'd consider going beyond them for the right program or the right school). Ideally I would like to stay in the western U.S., and I have a strong preference for the Pacific coast states. I'd also like to avoid the Los Angeles basin if at all possible (but I'd go there for the right program).

    What insights do you have into schools, programs, and faculty that might be useful to me? What cautions can you provide about whether or not pursuing a PhD is likely to help me achieve my goals?
    Copyright 2009 REASON POWER POLICY