Thursday, December 29, 2005

Terry Goodkind: Chainfire

Terry Goodkind's Chainfire tries very hard to be libertarian (it's nominated for the Prometheus Award); the main characters talk constantly about self-determination. But most of them, along with all the minor characters, celebrate self-negation in one form or another. And the narration makes it clear that the acts of self-negation are healing, joyous, uplifting acts. I don't recommend this book.

I didn't enjoy the previous book from the series that I read (Naked Empire), but it was harder to explain what didn't work for me in that book. (And I wasn't yet blogging reviews.) This book makes the divergence between the (often pro-freedom) character's words and the feeling presented by the world itself more apparent. This is a world of magic, and the main character is preordained to save them all from an enemy who is using magic and military might to take over the world in the name of the greater good. It's nice that the villains represent a bad idea taken to its logical extreme, and that the protagonists are trying to preserve self determination. It's wonderful that the protagonists understand what they are fighting against and what they are trying to preserve. It's unfortunate that the religious faith that undergirds the hero teaches his followers to chant

"Master Rahl guide us. Master Rahl teach us. Master Rahl protect us. In your light we thrive. In your mercy we are sheltered. In your wisdom we are humbled. We live only to serve. Our lives are yours."

Sometimes they repeat the chant multiple times on the same page. It's clear that it's not an empty litany either. When Rahl asks his military forces whether they are willing to accept his orders, even though he's abandoning the role that is assigned to him by prophecy, their response is to chant "We live only to serve. Our lives are yours."

For me, the time spent attending to the villain's torture and depravity detracts from any positives in the book as well. I don't get a kick out of seeing characters on either side suffer, and I don't need the details to be gory in order to be convinced that the bad guys are bad. And when one of the good guys (who just happened to have been one of the most evil before seeing the light) tortures one of the (current) evil doers in order to find out what she knows about the "ticking time bomb", I see it as a not-well-hidden argument for torture. To add to what I said in a recent post , we already know why some people think torture is sometimes justified. Even if there are such cases, they don't constitute an argument that routine degrading treatment is or should be acceptable.

This book is much too long for what turns out to be an inconclusive chapter of a long saga. At the end of the book, Master Rahl has figured out the solution to the problem that has been driving him the entire course of the book, but hasn't resolved the issue. If we're supposed to be left hungering for the next installment, it didn't work for me.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Garbage in, more Garbage in

MarkM has argued for years that the polically correct focus on recycling was seriously misguided. It has been driven as much by a belief that we're running out of room as by the belief that plastics, being petroleum-based, are a non-renewable resource, and that trees aren't renewable at the speed we're using them up. MarkM argued that the free market will respond with rising prices if there's a shortage of raw materials and find new sources, or send us price signals that will tell us what materials to use as substitutes. And there's plenty of space to dispose of rubbish, and it won't be long before we figure out how to use new technology to harvest useful feed stocks out of the dumps more cheaply than we can at this point.

I thought that MarkM was mostly right, modulo politics. My thought was that local politics in most areas was making it increasingly difficult to set up new dumps and increasingly expensive to operate existing dumps that would eventually fill up. That leaves all the politicians, in the short run, without a palatable solution that can be implemented by short-sighted politicians who are driven by the next election. This, I thought, would lead to an increasing crunch on room at the dump, an inability to ship the stuff further away, where we know there's plenty of room if the value of getting rid of it all rises high enough. So, while I thought it was caused by lack of planning and easily remedied if the market was allowed to take care of it, I was willing to not kvetch too loudly when people got on their high horse about the moral imperative of recycling.

Well, it turns out that MarkM was more right, even taking short-sighted politicians into account. According to a short piece by Jeff Taylor in Reason, dump operators have improved the efficiency of handling waste enough that the capacity of reasonably well run ones don't decline. Simple techniques can lead to rapid enough decomposition of the organic waste that many dumps no longer project a date at which they will run out of room. And of course, the market speaks as well: costs for dumping average $35 per ton nationwide, a level that apparently hasn't risen significantly over the last decade or more.

And I'm willing to argue that we aren't running out of petroleum or trees if anyone wants to fall back on that point, so it looks like I'll have to start taking MarkM's side more vociferously.

Perhaps I should point out that MarkM, as is his way, doesn't argue with people about this, he just refuses to pay any attention to containers marked recycle. If you ask him why, he'll explain, but that's about as far as I've seen him go.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Slow light again

Remember Mercury Delay lines ? No, I wasn't there at the time, but it's an odd bit of technology that hackers like to tell one another about. The UNIVAC I (and other early computers) used this technique to store electronic pulses of information to be used later. The basic idea (and metaphor to be emulated) is that you find a way to send bits out on a slow loop so they'll return at a known time in the future when you'll be ready to use them again. Originally used in WWII radar to remove static objects from images, they were eventually used as generic (short-term) memory.

Well there's new work on slowing down the speed of light that may bring this metaphor in reach again. Remember in 1999, when scientists used clouds of ultracold sodium gas in a Bose-Einstein condensate to slow light down to "walking speed"? Well, the current work uses a silicon crystal full of holes to slow the light. When they send small currents through the crystal, temperature changes in the crystal vary the delay that is applied to the passing light. This means they can vary the delay, making the delay lines more versatile.

Everything Old is New Again.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Clemency for the Exceptional case

I look at it from the economist's point of view. One of the things we should take into account is the effect of relative incentives on people's behavior. I don't know a lot of details about Stan Tookie Williams, but it is apparent that he stands out as someone who has turned himself around while in jail awaiting the death penalty. If we want to encourage good behavior on death row, then clemency for the best behaved is one of the few carrots we have to offer. If Williams isn't a candidate for clemency on the basis of behavior, the only avenue out for others on death row is to be found innocent or to find a loophole like an incompetent attorney. Some inmates can hold onto one of those hopes, but others can't. If there's no decent hope to avoid the death penalty, then there's no reason for them not to try to cause as much havoc as possible while they wait. That seems like the wrong incentive.

Just to be clear, I think capital punishment is justified for some crimes. (And murder during a robbery certainly qualifies.) In most cases, in the current setting, it appears to me to be too expensive to be worth pursuing: we spend so much money taking their cases through the legal obstacle course to get final approval that we'd be better off in most cases just giving them 15 life sentences. But Williams' case has made it through the gauntlet, and that obstacle course has been passed.

The questions the Governor should ask are whether clemency should ever be granted for good behavior, and whether Stan Tookie Williams' turnaround isn't one of the best examples available.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Tax Panel and Real estate investment

The President's Tax reform advisory panel submitted some proposals early in November. The proposal that caught my eye was the suggestion that the home mortgage interest deduction should be reduced. Rather than breaks for loans up to $1M, the number would fall to the average housing price in a region. I kept seeing descriptions of this, and all the money it would bring into the treasury.

I'm interested, of course, because I'm now a real estate investor. We now own two 4-plexes in Arizona, and continue to look for attractive properties. So I kept wondering, as I read all these media reports, whether the panel had suggested changing the taxes on interest for investors as well. Non-investors don't seem to have noticed, but interest on investment property is also deductible, but it's a completely different section of the tax code. Here's the scoop:

Home mortgage interest
interest you pay on a loan secured by your main home or a second home. The loan may be a mortgage to buy your home, a second mortgage, a home equity loan, or a line of credit.
Investment Interest
If you borrow money to buy property you hold for investment, the interest you pay is investment interest. You can deduct investment interest subject to the limit discussed later.

The limit was harder to locate, but here it is:

Limit on Deduction
Generally, your deduction for investment interest expense is limited to the amount of your net investment income.

I had to look pretty hard, but I eventually found a short paragraph describing the proposal's affect on investment interest:

Individual investors would be able to deduct the amount of interest incurred to generate taxable investment income. The deduction for investment interest would be limited to the amount of taxable investment income reported by the taxpayer.

That is to say, the panel's proposal would make no change in the deductibility of interest on investment property. This is one of the two largest factors making real estate such a lucrative investment. The other is that it's easy to leverage at 5 or 10 to one: Banks will lend you 80 or 90% of the money that it costs to purchase property. There are markets that are growing in value at 5-10% per year, and have decent prospects to continue growing. In most (outside of California), rents are sufficient to cover the expenses (including the mortgage.)

You have to put up the down payment, but then the property pays for itself, and you get both the appreciation and the amortization. Even if a market has a downturn (which is rare, and when it happens is usually reversed in a few years), if your cash flow is positive, you can wait it out. If you have an 80% loan, and the propterty appreciates at 5% a year, you are making 25% per year from the appreciation. Meantime, the rent, by paying down the mortgage, is also increasing your equity each year.

Obligatory libertarian statement on taxes: I don't consider it immoral to take advantage of tax incentives that provide ways of not having to pay taxes.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Tortured Logic

There's been enough discussion of the Bush administration's attitude and tortured logic on the subject of torture that I feel compelled to comment. It seems pretty well agreed by all those with relelvant experience that torture is ineffective in producing reliable information. Torture subjects will confess to whatever they think the torturer wants to hear to get it to stop. Water boarding and other techniquest that some reports have described as "merely psychological" are completely inhumane. The descriptions make it clear that the subject ends up in complete fear for his life. The distinction between how much pain is produced, and undergoing a genuine feeling of suffocation is pure sophistry and it's despicable. The idea that some kinds of treatment, while forbidden under the "cruel and inhuman" provisions of the constitution, are acceptable in some circumstances is foul and unworthy of any civilized people. It is also counter-productive for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, it's unlikely to procure useful information, and second it gives others an argument to hide behind when they want to torture our friends. Torture does have an effect, and that is to degrade, and to the extent it is publicized, to scare some people away from contact with potential torturers. I don't think anyone is arguing that the US wants to achieve those effects in Iraq or Afganistan. Once you become convinced that torture is not an effective means of interrogation, no justification remains. If we renounce torture because it is inhumane and ineffective, (and it is both) our enemies cannot torture and claim to be civilized. If we (our government) use torture, our opponents can torture in an attempt to convince us and our allies that we don't want any of our soldiers there. As long as we don't fully renounce torture, the arguments about whether we're any better than Saddam or Zarquawi will distract the people of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East from finally making the decision that they want to be in control of their own future enough that they'll actively work to subvert the insurrection. Some of the discussions I've seen on-line have claimed that the last argument remaining to the torture proponents is the "ticking time bomb" argument. But if we don't believe that torture produces informative confessions, then that argument is vacuous. And I don't think anyone has claimed that any of the torture in any of the prisons maintained by the US in Iraq, Afganistan, or Cuba is justified because we need information quickly. If there were any force behind the ticking time bomb argument, it would only apply in the first few hours someone is in custody. After that, it's pure savagery. Torture is wrong. Officials at all levels of our government and our military should be promulgating the message that it's counter to our ethics and counterproductive in both the short and long term. The descriptions I've seen of interrogation techniques that are "cruel and inhuman", but somehow arguably acceptable when applied overseas make it crystal clear that they are torture.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Great Divergence, Kenneth Pomeranz

Kenneth Pomeranz adds The Great Divergence to the growing list of books trying to shed some light on why the west has been so comparatively successful economically. His point of view is novel, and he does a good job of showing that there's something important missing from the other explanations: up to about the 1700s, the standard of living and growth trajectories of the economies of China, Japan, and India apparently were comparable to the economies of the strongest countries in western Europe.

That's not enough for Pomeranz, though; he wants to convince us that the important difference was Britain's access to coal deposits, and to the new world's agricultural productivity. Without coal, Pomeranz argues that Britain's technological growth would have been curtailed, and without access to the new world, Britain would have been subject to some kind of cross between a malthusian and a mercantilist disaster. Britain would have been unable to increase its agricultural productivity in order to free workers to move to the factories, and wouldn't have had a ready market for its growing manufactured goods.

The explanation falls short, however, since it doesn't seem likely that the east would have exploited these resources if they had discovered them. We need an explanation that starts a step earlier: why were the western countries racing to discover new markets and resources? Why were they poised to exploit foreign resources when they found them? Why were the asian countries so insular, and how long would it have taken for them to change if the western countries hadn't made contact first? It's possible that the lack of an external market would have slowed growth, but it seems likely that the technologocial growth path would have continued, albeit in some other direction. And the malthusian argument has lost most of its force. (See my previous post for agreement and disagrement.)

Even if you are interested in the argument, I don't recommend the book. Pomeranz goes into excrutiating detail to convince us that the eastern and western economies were comparable. I often found myself reading the third or fourth or tenth paragraph past any argument I could reconstruct trying to figure out why he was telling me how many calories peasants in some country had access to, or how many hours a day they had to work for a pair of pants. I'm really glad to see that someone has found access to a deep source of historical data about how ordinary people lived their lives in countries that haven't been described well in the history I've had access to. But Pomeranz is not the one to make it come alive. I needed more road signs as he was telling me all this so I could remember which economy he was talking about, and what part the details had to play in his larger argument.

And if you are interested in the argument, it looks like Brad DeLong is well tied into that community, and can both provide connections to the literature, and tell you which historians are onto a relevant lead. He has a detailed analysis of Pomeranz that simultaneously gives him more credit, and knocks down the argument that the New World is really the key.

Population Growth still seen as a Liability

Tyler Cowen recommended an interview at the Richmond Fed of Robert Moffitt, a labor economist from Johns Hopkins. Most of the interview was about the surprisingly good (but unheralded) outcomes from welfare reform. Most of the interview was about the surprisingly good (but unheralded) outcomes from welfare reform. I was surprised to see Moffitt claim that the mainstream view (represented by the NAS) has moved to agreement with Julian Simon that population growth is actually beneficial in most cases:

RF: There are some who have argued that population growth will ultimately lead to severe social and economic problems. I'm thinking of people like Paul Ehrlich, for instance. And then there are others — Julian Simon probably being the most prominent example — who have argued that population growth has unambiguously positive effects. Let us assume that these two positions define the extreme positions of the debate. Which one do you find more consistent with the evidence?
Moffitt: Although I have done work on the economics of fertility, I have not done work on this specific question. However, I have followed the debate fairly closely. As far as I can tell, the best work on that issue can be found in a couple of volumes put out by the National Academy of Sciences that examined how population growth affects a whole host of issues, including the environment, health, per-capita income, and others. And when you look at the data, it's fairly hard to find major negative consequences of population growth. You can build models where this might be the case, but the empirical evidence seems fairly straightforward, and it is closer to Julian Simon's view than to Paul Ehrlich's.
I think that economists have generally been persuaded that population growth, on average, has positive effects — and so, too, have demographers, a group that used to include a pretty large number of population growth opponents. Also, I think most people would agree that we do not face a "population bomb" except, possibly, in Africa, and AIDS has changed things rather dramatically there. Quite the opposite: In many developed countries, population growth is now below the replacement rate.

So I went off to find the NAS studies Moffitt referred to. I was disappointed to find mostly articles reiterating scientists' concerns about the effects of population growth. Joint Statement by fifty-eight of the World's Scientific Academies:

Representatives of national academies of science from throughout the world met in New Delhi, India, from October 24-27, 1993, in a "Science Summit" on World Population. The conference grew out of two earlier meetings, one of the Royal Society of London and the United States National Academy of Sciences, and the other and international conference organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Statements published by both groups expressed a sense of urgent concern about the expansion of the world's population and concluded that if current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity of the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent irreversible degradation of the natural environment and continued poverty for much of the world.

And later: The Earth Is Finite

The growth of population over the last half century was for a time matched by similar world-wide increases in utilizable resources. However, in the last decade food production from both land and sea has declined relative population growth. The area of agricultural land has shrunk, both through soil erosion and reduced possibilities of irrigation. The availability of water is already a constraint in some countries. These are warnings that the earth is finite, and that natural systems are being pushed ever closer to their limits.

The first pages of Google hits include a couple of copies of a 1997 Joint Statement by NAS and the Royal Society of London whose first paragraph ends with this:

It has often been assumed that population growth is the dominant problem we face. But what matters is not only the present and future number of people in the world, but also how poor or affluent they are, how much natural resource they utilize, and how much pollution and waste they generate. We must tackle population and consumption together.

Summary: Without evidence, many believe that population growth is a problem, but it's not the biggest part of the problem. Population growth remains a problem to be addressed.

The National Academies Press ties teaching about Population Growth to evolution (which it is trying to teach in a science based way). The main messages concern limits to growth and carrying capacity. Population growth is exponential. Living organisms have the capacity to produce populations of arbitrarily large size, but environments and resources are finite. No mention of the effects of increasing population on standards of living or development of new technology.

Sigma Xi (The Scientific Research Society) 1991: This forum concluded that global trends in population growth and environmental degradation are on an unsustainable course, but it's not too late to change direction.

Admittedly most of these references are 5-10 years old, but google couldn't find anything more recent, even when directed to the NAS site. Bottom line: I couldn't find any evidence to support Moffitt's claim. I'm disappointed, but not surprised.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone

RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone feels like a juvenile, in the sense of Heinlein's Juveniles, but that's mostly because the viewpoint character is a rebellious teenager. Jeremy wants to be a rock star, sculpting visual images for the audience while his favorite band sings about freedom. The major obstacle is that he lives in a repressive surveillance society that monitors people's movements, and controls what they buy, read, view, and ingest. Every facet of his life is monitored and controlled by one repressive bureaucracy or another.

In the style of all such juveniles, the band and all records of their existance disappear from sight, so Jeremy has to escape from his home town and undergo a harrowing journey in order to track them down. Along the way, he adopts a dog, and has the requisite eye-opening adventures in the big city. He joins up with the revolution, finds the band, and stares down some government goons, and joins the band.

I describe the book as formulaic, but Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman carry it all off quite well. Jeremy is quite sympathetic, and he does visibly mature through the story. The government is a lot scarier than anything that we've yet seen in America, but all their attitudes and prohibitions are straightforward extrapolations of current governments. As with Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, the point is that what enables the abuse is unprotesting acceptance by the populace.

RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone ends with Jeremy having a personal happy ending, able to live underground, having achieved his dream of joining the band, and (possibly) having gotten the girl. But nothing has really changed for the larger society. This is the one weak point of an otherwise strong candidate for this year's Prometheus award. Oh, and I prefer positive visions to dystopias when I'm voting, but dystopias aren't disqualified by any means.

Footnote: a couple of people suggested not listening to the CD before reading the book, since the clash with their musical tastes spoiled the effect for them. There are two cuts on the CD, representing "heavy metal" and "classic rock" versions of the song "Rebelfire". I didn't mind the classic rock version, and have added it to my iPod. Listening to it first wouldn't have spoiled anything for me. Caveat Auditor.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Rocket Racing League

It sounds like science fiction, and I haven't read about it in the newspaper or any of the blogs I read regularly, but the BBC and several other media outlets are reporting on it, so it must be true. Peter Diamandis, the money behind the X-prize, which encouraged more than a half dozen teams to work on development of vehicles that could safely and repeatedly reach the edge of space, has announced the next step in private space development. He's starting the Rocket Racing League, a race series that will bring exciting competitive rocket races to airports around the country and eventually around the world.

They had a public demonstration at the X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo in Las Cruces at the beginning of October, and later in the month showcased a test flight of the EZ-Rocket:

October 21, 2005 - The Rocket Racing League™, announced the successful completion of a detailed performance flight test research program for the EZ-Rocket rocket plane culminating in two exciting and aggressive public demonstration flights. The EZ-Rocket, precursor to the X-Racer™ now under development, made three flights out of Las Cruces, NM at the 2005 X PRIZE Cup events, two of these on the same day. The flights included three successful engine relights during flight and a maximum altitude reached of 8,756 feet. This accomplishment is a significant milestone for the vehicle and for the Rocket Racing League.

The point (obviously?) is to get people excited about space development. The league will fund develpment and production of ten initial rockets. The first few should be able to start racing in 2006, and the full fleet should be going in 2007. Diamandis hopes that other groups will develop their own rockets and enter them in the series. The rockets will be operated by independent companies, and will compete for a final cup annually in New Mexico.

I think these guys have the right idea. It will only take a few billionaires to put enough money into developing visible civilian applications of space to move development forward far enough that space development will be commercially viable. And making it sexy and exciting, and apparently dangerous will attract attention. The Rocket Races will look edge-of-your-seat scary, but if they can keep it actually safe, people will be happy to take trips to space, and spend time in space hotels.

And that'll lead to enough serious development that more commercial applications will become affordable, and other uses will drive development of yet more vehicles and technology.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Lincoln's Dreams, by Connie Willis

Lincoln's Dreams, by Connie Willis, is a well-constructed story, with multiple levels of parallel meaning on display simultaneously. It reminds me strongly of one of my Dad's photos of leaves floating on the surface of a pond, with the trees reflecting off the surface in some places, and the rocks on the bottom showing through in others. Jeff Johnston does research for Broun, a writer of civil war novels, whose current project has gotten him involved in the dreams Lincoln suffered from after losing his son. Annie, a beautiful young woman who has been having nightmares full of civil war imagery comes hoping for an explanation from Broun after not getting help from a sleep clinic. Jeff takes her under his wing after recognizing a few of the particular battles that appear symbolicly in her dreams.

Willis weaves together the draft of Broun's latest civil war novel, snippets of history that Jeff and Annie find while clarifying the images in the dreams and chasing down leads for Broun, and Jeff and Annie's disturbing trips to the Virginia battlefield memorials that confirm that the dreams are rooted in history. The pair come to trust and care about each other as they slowly uncover the clues that may have mortal consequences in the present, while the civil war soldiers in the draft novel simultaneously cross and re-cross the same battlefields looking for their units or waiting for the next skirmish.

The whole thing was made just a little more resonant for me because I read the book while on a quick trip to Virginia. I was driving my own circles daily between Alexandria (where I was staying with my sister) and the Arlington and Fairfax campuses where the George Mason economists I'm working with have their offices and run their experiments. I've spent enough time in the area that the occasional memorial sign I drove past reinforced the familiarity of all the infamous battlefields the characters visited awake, asleep, and fictional within the story.

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New propulsion form for tiny creatures

Science News reports that some MIT mathematicians videotaped tiny water-walking insects using surface tension to draw themselves toward the edges of water surfaces without moving their legs.

For the same reason that cereal clumps together in a bowl full of milk, or bubbles gather at the edges of a drink, surface tension pulls together deformations on the surface of any liquid. The insects stop walking when they near an edge (where the sloping meniscus can create a hill they'd be unable to climb) and instead take a posture that deforms the surface, drawing them toward the nearest edge. The article concludes by saying

The new results and related research may have important applications not only for understanding biolocomotion but also potentially in nanotechnology.
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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Charlie Stross has been hanging around the extropians email lists and it shows. His latest book, Accelerando, (like his earlier book Singularity Sky) is replete with matrioshka brains, characters who live out at least portions of their lives in simulations, people who fork their identities across multiple bodies or software agents and reintegrate the separated memory streams, planet terraforming, and AIs with undiscernible motivations. He weaves it all together into a rousing tale.

The apparent popularity of the novel (the short stories that comprise the sequential vignettes of Accelerando were nominated for quite a few awards) makes me think there's a chance that all the inside references and barely expanded concepts might be familiar enough to most SF readers. To me, it read as a novelization of the best years of the extropians list. All the things that people worried about and all the possible scenarios that people worked through in great detail are visible in at least passing views in the final fleshed-out forms they reached on the list. If the concepts he relies on aren't too SL4 for most readers, it should do quite well, because it's a fun read.

The first part ("Lobster", "Troubadour", and "Tourist") follows the adventures of the peripatetic Manfred Macx as he flits around the world economy, inventing wildly and giving away his patents to deserving charities, or whatever custodian will most piss off his various creditors. In later chapters, the various members of his household and its progeny scatter to the distant corners of the universe along with the rest of expansive humanity. Macx's is not a nuclear family in the conventional sense, so the splintered factions head off in many directions and several combinations, which enables them to be present as humanity and post-humanity inhabit near-earth space, explore farther out, begin turning most of the solar system into computronium, and become less and less recognizable. Necessarily, the story mostly follows characters who have opted to remain more or less human, though, as in Marc Stiegler's Gentle Seduction, the gradual changes accumulate rapidly.

The book is nominated for the Prometheus award, but any libertarianism it displays is subtle enough that some on the nominating committee, while admitting that it's a good read, have whether it deserves a place as a finalist. The book has an air of freedom, and I'd like to argue that, though the libertarianism isn't front-and-center, the book presents a society that works without any central government, and that shows its characters and political factions getting along without resorting to governmental force.

In the first three chapters, we see a fair amount of commerce and crime, and most of the enforcement is privatized, or limited to (threatened) court enforcement of contractual terms. The subplot in which Manfred frees the music is about changing the rules for ownership of property, which some may see as akin to theft, but it seems to me that it's a sensible exploration of alternative choices. If technology makes the old schemes unenforceable, ceding increasing amounts of force to the state (or to property owners) in order to maintain rights that have always been inventions of the state in any case (patent, copyright, trademark) is probably the wrong approach from a libertarian point of view.

Chapter 4 ("Halo", ") starts out with Manfred's daughter, Amber, escaping the clutches of her mother by emigrating to the asteroid belt. She ends up the head of a voluntary justice association that people subscribe to because it's better situated to their problems. The characters refer back to this period throughout the rest of the story, and it's clear that it serves as a reminder that voluntary arrangements work better.

The story ends with a transhuman superintelligence (the cat, Aineko) needing something from Manfred, and having to negotiate with him to get it. It's clear from the power arrangements that Aineko is used to manipulating events so people want to help her, but in this case, she needs a willing assistant, so she offers Manfred something he's wanted all along: to be left alone to live his own life. It seems plenty libertarian to me.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Mandelbrot: The (mis)Behavior of Markets

Benoit Mandelbrot's latest book is on finance, which is apparently where he started. The book's argument is that markets are less well-behaved than we've been led to believe by the standard financial theories. And by this he means that the "Random Walk" approach, even as it tries to tell us that we can improve our returns by reducing our risk profile, is leaving us open to crashes that happen far more often than the standard theory says. The book presents a pretty convincing case that fractals (what else were you expecting?) are a better model for the behavior of markets than the normal distribution and its bell curve. If market behavior is fractal, then large upswings and large downturns happen much more frequently than you would expect from a normal distribution.

I expected the book to include some hint of how to structure an investment profile for those who bought the basic argument, but that was completely missing. There were hints that major investment firms can find ways to take advantage of Mandelbrot's claim that good and bad events come in bunches, but no indication of how an individual investor with a modest portfolio could do the same, or even where an individual should look for shelter from wild events once you are convinced that they are more frequent than the standard theories say. Modern Portfolio Theory, even while cautioning individual investors that the market is unpredictable, tells you how to allocate your funds to weather the storms.

To some extent, I read the theory as telling us that wild ups and downs are common enough that the gambler's ruin will overtake you much sooner than you would expect even though markets generally trend up, and you can arbitrage away a fair amount of risk by spreading out your bets. If the fractal argument is correct, you need three or four times as many (uncorrelated) stocks in your portfolio in order to average out the expected downturns that can wipe you out. Since the standard model suggests 10 to 30 stocks, the numbers quickly get prohibitive for individual investors to do anything other than invest in diversified mutual funds.

I'm happy to say that this lack of direction doesn't bug me as much this year as it would have a year or two ago. I'm moving most of my investments out of mutual funds and into investment real estate. It does take a fair amount of time to learn how to find, evaluate, and manage properties, but my current belief is that the returns will be better, and that volatility is much lower in real estate than in stocks or mutual funds. But that's not the subject of this review.

If your investments are in the stock market, even if they are in diversified mutual funds, even if they are in broad-based index funds, you should read and understand Mandelbrot's argument. The bottom line is that modern portfolio theory's recommendation to diversify and rebalance regularly is more important than ever.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Spirochete Genes are Everywhere!

Edge's John Brockman likes to ask provocative questions. At the beginning of this year, he asked "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" He got many interesting answers from many interesting people, but two were good enough that I edited them down to be short enough to use in my signature line. The precis for Lynn Margulis' answer looked like this in my signature:

All sensory cells [in all animals] have in common the presence of
... cilia [with a constant] structure.  It provides a strong
argument for common ancestry.  The common ancestor ... was a
spirochete bacterium. 
  --Lynn Margulis ( 

The blog gives me the opportunity to quote the whole thing where a few more people might read it. Margulis wrote:

Our ability to perceive signals in the environment evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors. That is, we, like all other mammals including our apish brothers detect odors, distinguish tastes, hear bird song and drum beats and we too feel the vibrations of the drums. With our eyes closed we detect the light of the rising sun. These abilities to sense our surroundings are a heritage that preceded the evolution of all primates, all vertebrate animals, indeed all animals. Such sensitivities to wafting plant scents, tasty salted mixtures, police cruiser sirens, loving touches and star light register because of our "sensory cells".

These avant guard cells of the nasal passages, the taste buds, the inner ear, the touch receptors in the skin and the retinal rods and cones all have in common the presence at their tips of projections ("cell processes") called cilia. Cilia have a recognizable fine structure. With a very high power ("electron") microscope a precise array of protein tubules, nine, exactly nine pairs of tubules are arranged in a circular array and two singlet tubules are in the center of this array. All sensory cells have this common feature whether in the light-sensitive retina of the eye or the balance-sensitive semicircular canals of the inner ear. Cross-section slices of the tails of human, mouse and even insect (fruit-fly) sperm all share this same instantly recognizable structure too. Why this peculiar pattern? No one knows for sure but it provides the evolutionist with a strong argument for common ancestry. The size (diameter) of the circle (0.25 micrometers) and of the constituent tubules (0.024 micrometers) aligned in the circle is identical in the touch receptors of the human finger and the taste buds of the elephant.

What do I feel that I know, what Oscar Wilde said (that "even true things can be proved")?

Not only that the sensory cilia derive from these exact 9-fold symmetrical structures in protists such as the "waving feet" of the paramecium or the tail of the vaginal-itch protist called Trichomonas vaginalis. Indeed, all biologists agree with the claim that sperm tails and all these forms of sensory cilia share a common ancestry.

But I go much farther. I think the the common ancestor of the cilium, but not the rest of the cell, was a free-swimming entity, a skinny snake-like bacterium that, 1500 million years ago squiggled through muds in a frantic search for food. Attracted by some smells and repelled by others the bacteria, by themselves, already enjoyed a repertoire of sensory abilities that remain with their descendants to this day. In fact, this bacterial ancestor of the cilium never went extinct, rather some of its descendants are uncomfortably close to us today. This hypothetical bacterium, ancestor to all the cilia, was no ordinary rod-shaped little dot.

No, this bacterium who still has many live relatives, entered into symbiotic partnerships with other very different kinds of bacteria. Together this two component partnership swam and stuck together both persisted. What kind of bacterium became an attached symbiont that impelled its partner forward? None other than a squirming spirochete bacterium.

The spirochete group of bacteria includes many harmless mud-dwellers but it also contains a few scary freaks: the treponeme of syphilis and the borrelias of Lyme disease. We animals got our exquisite ability to sense our surroundings—to tell light from dark, noise from silence, motion from stillness and fresh water from brackish brine—from a kind of bacterium whose relatives we despise. Cilia were once free-agents but they became an integral part of all animal cells. Even though the concept that cilia evolved from spirochetes has not been proved I think it is true. Not only is it true but, given the powerfulnew techniques of molecular biology I think the hypothesis will be conclusively proved. In the not-too-distant future people will wonder why so many scientists were so against my idea for so long!

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Cell Phones and Economic Growth

There was an article in the Sunday New York Times on the rapid expansion of cell phone use in Africa. (Thanks to Norm Hardy for the pointer.) Many people have commented on the implications of cell phones vs. land lines in developing countries, but a new implication struck me on reading this one.

The general background is that in many developing countries, it's easier to install the infrastructure for cell phones than for land lines. No copper wires required, just occasional cell towers. That makes a huge difference when the consumer uptake at the beginning will be sparse, and will grow over time. Many things make installing the copper wires problematic, including political instability, lack of property rights (whose permission do you need in order to put up a line of phone poles or to dig a trench?), spotty infrastructure (roads, for instance) as well as the overall expense.

Norm commented on the possible applications for micro-currencies (think DSR) based on the fact that the phones have the ability to transfer prepaid air minutes phone-to-phone. But what I saw was a rapid ramp on person to person commerce that can grease the wheels to growing trade at the grass roots level. For many years, I have been contributing to Trickle Up, a charity (like Grameen Bank) that makes microfinance loans to the poorest of the poor all over the world. The promise of these organizations is that they give people a chance to start a business, which gives them money to send their children to school, or patronize other tiny local businesses, which ought to be able to kick a tiny local economy in may places.

The NYT article mentions one particular case where access to cell phones improves the prospects for very small scale entrepreneurs: fishermen who are able to choose the best market for their catch before heading to a particular port. It's easy to imagine that coordination on that scale: choosing markets, deciding what to harvest or when, taking orders for build-to-suit could help many small businesses to run more efficiently, which would make it more attractive to operate a business, and could inject more money into a local economy, providing an opportunity for organic local growth.

According to the article, cell phone use is exploding even more than the (presumably optimistic) providers' projections indicated. They calibrated their estimates according to official GDP numbers, not realizing that cell phones would make an even bigger difference in the heretofore informal economy, which the official numbers don't include.

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Monday, October 10, 2005

Catalogues I Regularly Read

I thought I'd mention two catalogues that I actually read cover-to-cover whenever they arrive. I get plenty of catalogues that I file for when I need something (Mac stuff, cameras, fruit and nuts, hot sauces), and several that I throw away without opening. These two have a high enough hit rate that I actually page through the whole thing seeing what's interesting and new. I'm not going to mention things like Laissez Faire Books that everyone already knows about.

One is Levenger, "Tools for Serious Readers". They have furniture, innovative office supplies, stationary, carrying cases and more. I've probably purchased things from them a dozen times. Before the era of the Palm, I used their note cards and carrying case for my calendar, contact list, todos, etc. They have wonderful variations on paperclips, papercutters, and notepads that are the perfect answer to many minor problems. Their bags are well-designed (need a computer carrying case?), they have great side tables for books, as well as lap desks to make working in an easy chair more comfortable. They spend too many pages on fancy fountain pens, but their reading lights can't be matched in any of the lighting stores I've looked in over the years.

The other catalogue I read is Daedalus Books. They sell remainders, and seem to have good taste. I regularly find interesting history, science, occasionally science fiction, and general non-fiction. For many years, I carefully read all the pages of children's books looking for good new stuff to read to the nieces and nephews, but they're mostly past that age at this point. A few years ago, Ted Kaehler mentioned that he'd been reading a lot about the history of espionage in WW II, and I found that Daedalus had one or two of those most months, so I've been reading them as well.

When you know what you're looking for, searching on-line works well enough, but when you want someone to recommend things that you hadn't realized you needed, there's still no substitute for a paper catalogue. I can do a much more thorough job of perusing the pages of Daedalus than any book store or library I've ever been in, and I don't know of any stores that can change their inventory every month, or have as high a hit rate as Levenger.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Joss Whedon's Serenity

We went to see Serenity last night with some friends. Half of the group had seen all the episodes of the TV show from the DVDs, and half hadn't seen any. (I'm in the latter group.) All of us were familiar with Joss Whedon's work from Buffy and Angel. Everyone enjoyed the movie, so if anyone was worried that the movie might not have been able to reach those who hadn't seen the TV show, this may be a relevant datapoint. Of course, all of us are libertarian or somewhat libertarian, so that may skew the sample some.

What a good movie! I thought the story was very well told. Joss included enough information to catch us all up with the characters and the milieu, and the action came fast and furious. The characters were well motivated; we were quickly shown who had a crush on whom, which characters had long standing friendships, and so on. The conflict was interesting, the antagonists were powerful, but beatable, and there were plenty of mysteries to solve.

I'm not going to try to do an in-depth review of the themes and subtexts. There are people who are far more into this than I, and I'm sure there were subtleties in the interactions between characters that weren't apparent from the movie. But it was still fun to watch, and the themes that Julian Sanchez Reason described were apparent even though I wasn't already immersed in the canon. River Tam voices the laissez-faire creed in the movie's preface: "People don't like to be meddled with." It's clear that that's the conflict right from the start, and keeping out of the way of a meddlesome government is Mal's goal. When he finds out that he's gotten hold of something with deeper implications, he struggles with it, but finds that the only way to live with himself is to do what he can to ensure that the alliance won't continue meddling.

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Saturday, October 01, 2005

Eric Baum: What is Thought?

There was some substance to Eric Baum's What is Thought?, but it didn't add much to my understanding of the title question. Baum's has been working in AI, writing software systems, some of them reasonably successful. He argues that intelligence can be recognized in any system that acts effectively based on a compact representation of the world. The evolution of more successful creatures was a continuing process of discovery of better representations of the nature of the world. He takes it as a given that the mind is a program. (Which is part of why he didn't add much to my understanding of what thought consists of.)

His main argument seems to be that thought and the mind are the result of evolution producing better and better representations. This is neither surprising nor new. He makes little attempt to explain how the mind works beyond the fact that it uses analogies. Apparently he thinks this is fundamental and important. His focus is on economy of representation, and he apparently believes that reusing representations is the source of power. I'm not sure why this doesn't seem more powerful to me, since I often say that the source of the power of OOP is in the re-use that polymorphism gives you. I think the difference is that he didn't show any mechanisms by which the mind could be re-using modules. He shows how modular tools can be re-used in other architectures, but he doesn't say what the architecture of the mind is.

The valuable contribution of the book is in its description of the Hayek system that Baum developed with colleagues at NEC Research. This was a general learning system based on evolution and agoric feedback. The design of this system made possible the evolution of separate agents that could work together to reach a goal. I haven't heard of other systems that were successful with this combination of goals, though there have been other attempts. The aspects of the approach that seem crucial to the success were that one agent at a time was allowed to make changes, and the agent was chosen at any point by an auction among the agents. The agent who wins an auction pays the winning bid to the previous agent, and afterward gets paid the price bid by the next winner. The agents are charged rent when they're not running, and for cpu when they are running. Randomly mutated copies of the more successful agents are added to the population over time.

It's not obvious how you get this economy started, but once it's going, each agent competes to raise the value of the current state of the world so its successors will bid more than the previous state was worth. As long as there's an agent who can produce a final state of the world that is valuable according to some external metric, everyone can earn a living wage along the way. The problems he applied this ecology to included a simple blocks world problem, Rubik's Cube, and the traveling salesman problem.

According to someone familiar with the literature, the only other systems that tried to use markets in a similar way made the mistake of choosing as the next active agent by a lottery proportional to agents' bids rather than simply choosing the highest bidder. This reduces the link between agents that can cooperatively solve the problem, enabling less effective agents to intervene and destroy any order that has been built up. The clean approach in Hayek seems much more likely to work for long chains of agents, and to give evolution a better opportunity to discover shortcuts and more efficient approaches.

If you have a system that works, but not well, modified agents can attempt to shortcut the working path. If they reliably do better, the bypassed agents can wither away. If the new agent is unreliable, both paths can stick around long enough to compete, and possibly combine with an intermediate version that has a better model of when the different plans are applicable.

His discussion of the evolution of language in chapter 13 was particularly unsatisfying. He pointed out that language can't start growing beyond the level of innate language (which seems to exist in many creatures, from honeybees to vervets) until you get both the ability to learn to produce new words and the ability to learn new words. He ends up not explaining how evolution surpassed this hurdle; instead treating it as the reason why it was so rare for evolution to produce the ability.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Investing in Real Estate

I've been trying to figure out how to start talking about Real Estate without losing any audience I might have. I will start out by talking about the reasons to believe that the returns are higher and more reliable than other investments. As I go, I'm going to have to note various topics that I'll address later. I expect you to be sceptical, because I was too, at first. But the promised gains were good enough that it was worth setting the scepticism aside long enough to look at the evidence. The evidence was good enough that Janet and I have been taking classes and reading books for the last year and a half, and have been buying real estate over the last six months. We now have tenants in Phoenix, and our property there has increased in value by about the amount that it cost us to purchase it.

Real Estate Returns

Real Estate investors expect returns of 12% per year, minimum, not counting serious calamities, and not accounting for (often expected) supernormal returns due to rapid appreciation. Unlike stock market investments, you can investigate the recent performance of an investment, and then expect to reach that metric reliably. Some of the reasons that real estate returns are reliable are (compare these to stocks market investments or running your own business)

  • you can get insurance to cover property losses;
  • you can look up rental rates and vacancy rates before you buy
  • tenant don't like to move; most of the time they just keep paying the rent
  • the bank initially owns 80%; they verify that the property is worth the price

One of the main reasons that real estate returns exceed other investments are that individual investors are in competition with businesses and institutional money (REITs, for example) for properties, which sets the returns, but individuals can get bank loans with 10 or 20 percent down, which multiplies your expected returns by five or ten. In addition, the government insists that you account for your property as if it's losing value every year, and gives you a tax deduction for the depreciation even though the value is usually increasing.

The bottom line is that it's not hard to find investment properties for which the rental income will be within a hundred dollars plus or minus of covering all your expenses, including the mortgage. So you gain equity even before you take appreciation into account. And appreciation is pretty reliable--there are few areas where annual appreciation changes much from year to year. The worst historical cases that I know of were times when housing prices dropped 10 or 20 percent. And it's much more common that appreciation rates change by only a little bit in any locality from year to year.

Much more commonly (though not at all common), homeowners get upset about a crash of their local market because appreciation drops from double digits to single digits, or goes slightly negative. But if you are an investor, you can liquidate, accept a minor loss on top of the gain you've earned over some number of years, and reinvest somewhere where appreciation continues. Or just wait it out while the renters continue to fund your equity and the market recovers. The renters who funded the run-up still need a place to live, so prices and investment income don't fall by much.

Here is a list of some topics that I ignored in order to get started.

  • Bubble Babble, and why it doesn't bother investors
  • Bay Area real estate (buy your own home if you can, but don't invest here)
  • "Risky" loans (manage your mortgage; if equity increases faster than debt, you're ahead)
  • Resources for learning more about Real Estate
  • Resources for investigating properties and markets

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Monday, September 19, 2005

Blame Finding Commission Won't Hear About This

I don't usually flaunt my scepticism, but there's a great story on Real Clear Politics (thanks to Catallarchy for the pointer) about all the things that went right in the aftermath of Katrina. My scepticism is about the congressional investigation into what went wrong. Do you think there's any chance they'll invite any testimony about the decentralized ad hoc community that went in and did what they could?

It does turn out that many of them were government rescue squads, military and national guard helicopters, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and so on, but that's because those are the groups that had the ability to come out in force, not because central direction or an any disaster recover plan called for it. Each of those groups acted on their own, without much coordination other than talking to other people who were helping out, and moved as quickly as they were able.

The official from-the-top reaction was slow in getting started and gave the wrong orders when they gave any, and stranded, abandoned, and hindered people more often than they helped for the first few days. Private actors helped when they could (often it was only people acting alone who could get around the official barricades). The larger organizations (the Red Cross and WalMart were notable) were prepared to help, and did what they could when officials didn't get in the way.

If that message gets aired in the congression blame finding commission, there would be some danger of a resolution to decentralize our disaster planning and management. I don't expect this message to be part of the testimony.

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

EscapePod: Science Fiction PodCast

One of the podCasts I've been listening to is Escape Pod, "the Science Fiction Podcast magazine." Stephen Ely reads (or has someone else read) a new science fiction short story a few times a week. They're usually around a half hour long, though he also throws in "flash" fiction which can be as short as 5 minutes. Ely has also rebroadcast a couple of interviews that he's appeared on, but that's rare, and not the point of the podcast.

I don't remember any clunkers, and there have been a few really good stories. Some of the stories take standard settings or well-known situations and give them a new twist. I particularly liked Seamstress, which took another look at the work that gets done behind the scenes in order to keep a Fairy Godmother stocked with gossamer dresses, glass slippers, and tantalizing appetizers.

Ely's taste is consistently good, and his readers do a good job of animating the text. I haven't had to replay segments in order to hear what was going on, and any stumbling over words has been edited out very professionally. He's aiming for upbeat stories, since he expects a lot of his audience to be listening during their commute, and he doesn't want to leave us on a down note to start the day. It seems like he has hit the mark with this focus.

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Gen LaGreca: Noble Vision

Gen LaGreca's Noble Vision is a nominee for the Prometheus award. At this point, I think it has a decent chance of winning. It's a well-written, if mildly strident, medical thriller. The protagonist, David Lang is a neurosurgeon, who has developed a new technique for regrowing damaged nerve fibers, but he's up against the obstinate might of New York's new state-wide managed health care system. The conflict arises when Nicole Hudson, a dancer he admires, has an accident and will be permanently blind without his new treatment. The treatment doesn't have government approval, and there isn't time to apply for a waiver if Nicole's sight is to be saved. Additional conflicts between Lang and his wife, brother, and father (all doctors or medical administrators) are used to show how the government health care system co-opts and compromises the integrity of everyone it touches.

The book's Randian sense of life is evident early on as we see Nicole escaping from an uncaring child care system and emerging as a sensational ballerina on Broadway. She plays Pandora in ballet telling the story of Prometheus, titled "Triumph", but in this version "Prometheus and Pandora, armed with fire and hope, chase [humanity's] woes back into the box and save the human race". Lang is captivated by her performance, and sees the show again for an emotional boost whenever events in his life are getting out of control.

Lang is the classic Randian hero, refusing to bow to the state's demand for conformance with the system, and willingly courting ostracism in order to pursue his dream. There are only a few speaches on the unjustness of it all, and the reasons why socialized medicine inevitably leads to uncaring bureaucrats making trade-offs for its disempowered subjects are more often demonstrated than pontificated.

Several other subplots are woven skillfully through the story. Each adds to the drama, tension, or romantic vision. LaGreca shows that the boundaries between really venal but well-meaning politicians and well-meaning politicians who have compromised on some of their values in order to achieve others is really gray. In her world, none of these compromises achieves the higher goals. Compromises always accept a loss to one value without any longer term benefit.

I prefer classic escapist science fiction in exotic settings, but if there aren't any well-written and clearly libertarian entries this year, Noble Vision is likely to get my vote.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Recovering from Katrina

A couple of thoughts about New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

Thinking ahead to any eventual attempt to rebuild, it seems clear that people won't be allowed in until it's safe to walk the streets. Unfortunately, the rescuers are currently going house-to-house checking for survivors and the dead, and that means they're having to bust down doors and break windows in order to get in. That's going to make officials even more leery of allowing people back into the city, unless they can ensure that unattended property will be safe. With the survivors scattered across several states, it's going to be very hard to coordinate the return to any neighborhood.

Many people undoubtedly want very much to get just one trip back to their old house to recover keepsakes and valuables. Even houses that were flooded to the eaves will have a few valuable or sentimental items that could be salvaged, cleaned up, and treasured or sold. But officials can't let them back until the evacuation is complete, the water is drained, and the buildings are secured again. What are they going to do, schedule individual trips with each of the 400,000 ex-residents to visit their home and try to salvage a little? Even if anyone wanted to try to plan such a thing, there's no way to get in touch with all those who fled, and no obvious contact for the refugees who want to find out what the plan will be.

I don't have a solution, just ruminating on another aspect of this huge tragedy.

One more thing: I've been getting into real estate investment over the last year or so. It seems obvious that many property owners in New Orleans would have decided not to move back, and many of htem are desperately short of cash. And there are always speculators in the world who can afford to take a flyer on property that is currently undervalued, and might become more valuable later. But it seems likely that anyone who offers to buy property in New Orleans for its current worth will be lambasted for taking advantage of the disaster. But the owners are desperate to sell, and the property's value is truly unknown and unknowable at this point. Perhaps the thing that will dampen speculation, and slow down the transactions until things are clearer (to the detriment of those desparate to get access to any value remaining in their property) is that the real estate industry, and the property transfer offices at the county level won't be prepared to handle the transactions until things dry out.

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Hacker's Diet;The only diet book I ever read

Many years ago, I read an on-line copy of John Walker's The Hacker's Diet. It takes an engineering approach to dieting. You need to understand the problem in order to affect a solution. He starts out by pointing out that the hard part about dieting isn't deciding what to do, it's sticking to the plan. And sticking to the plan is a problem of motivation and feedback.

One of the first steps is to realize that the reason it's hard is that in order to lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories than your body is using each day. Your body has a natural mechanism designed to correct this deficiency: hunger. In order to succeed, you need a motivation stronger than hunger, and a feedback mechanism stronger than the one that evolution provided you with. The book helps provide the motivation, but you have to maintain it on your own once you've finished reading the book.

The main contribution of the book is that it proposes some techniques for tracking your weight that can act as the feedback you need in order to be know each day how much you can eat and how it will effect your goals. Without it, the most constant reminder you'll get is your body's built-in reminder system that you haven't eaten recently. The most important of the techniques is weighing yourself every day, and keeping track of your weight. If your tools let you know your weight and how it has changed over the last few days, and you pay attention to what they say, you can take that into account when deciding when or how much to eat. If you don't know, then hunger will be the likely driver, and your body has a different motivation than you do.

When Walker wrote the book, he supplied a set of Excel spreadsheets to use. I used them for several years, tracking my weight (nearly) daily on paper, and occasionally transfering the numbers to Excel. But then Walker released a program for the Palm called EatWatch around the same time as I started carrying a Palm Pilot all the time. Now I record my weight in EatWatch every morning, and immediately know how the trend is moving, and whether it's time to cut back for a few days.

Most of the time, my weight stays in a fairly narrow band, and I can eat by habit. I have cold cereal for breakfast, and Janet plans most of the dinners. I pay a little more attention at lunch, ordering more or less depending on whether my weight has been trending up or not recently. But after a vacation or a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas (no bathroom scale, and bountious meals on someone else's schedule), I know to be a little more careful until I reach the target band again. If you don't weigh yourself every day, you don't know to correct until your clothes fit too tightly.

With this tool, I can tell whether I can have desert with no consequences, or how long it will take me to get back to where I want to be. Sometimes I splurge, knowing that I have the tools to gradually work it all off.

Hacker's Diet also contains some advice and suggestions about exercise and the part that can play in losing or maintaining weight. That hasn't affected me as much, since I'm active by choice. But people who need a reminder to be active might find EatWatch's tools for monitoring your exercise to be useful as well.

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Book Review: Meridian: Worlds Apart

The author, James Wittenbach, sent this book to the LFS for review, and suggested that we might be interested because "strong currents of libertarian philosophy run through it". It's not from a major publisher, and the lack of editing shows. There are numerous repeated words, many misspellings, and sentence fragments in the narration where they are obviously not intended.

Those errors and distractions notwithstanding, it's a good read. The background is that humanity's galactic commonwealth fell apart over a 1000 years ago, leaving each separate world to get by on their own. Two planets, Sapphire (individualistic) and Republic (collectivist) have restored contact and joined forces to send ships out exploring in an attempt to regain contact and recreate a broader community. The author plans to write several novels in this setting (see the website for details). It's not a bad set-up for a series, but it's not well enough executed to justify much confidence that more will make it into print.

The contrast between Sapphire and Republic are supposed to drive some of the conflict, and create interesting conflicts between the characters. Unfortunately, a military expedition under constant pressure (the ship itself seems to be rebelling from the start) and in battle isn't' the best setting to show the differences between them.

The human civilization on Meridian, the planet visited in this book, has been taken over by an alien species that has managed to assimilate the human population. The explorers manage to avoid a similar fate, but it's mostly due to superior technology and luck, rather than character or the advantages individuals have over unthinking slaves. It's a fine read, though not a great one, and the libertarian themes aren't strong enough for me to recommend it to the attention of the Prometheus nominating committee.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

An Empire Of Wealth

The reading group discussed John Steele Gordon's An Empire of Wealth last night. This was a fun read, though surprisingly disjointed in its presentation of economics for a book recommended by Tyler Cowen. The reading group decided to read this book based explicitly on that recommendation. We had initially decided not to read it, partly because it seemed too lightweight, but when a few of us saw Cowen's review, we changed our minds and added it to our list. We choose several months worth of books at a time, so it's taken us 8 months to get to this one.

Cowen called it "the best single volume treatment of American economic history I have read, highly recommended", and it did provide a great review of the evolution of commercial culture in the US, as well as an overview of American History in general, with a focus on the business community and its interactions with government. But for all that, the economics was very inconsistent. Gordon gave similar praise and damnation to market-based solution, socialist innovations, and Keynesian approaches. Each time a problem arose in American History, he would talk about what the government did, or how the market reacted, or what some influential individual did.

He summarised his discussion of monopolies, in the context of Standard Oil with:

As the grip of Standard Oil relentlessly tightened on the oil industry, prices for petroleum products declined steadily, dropping by two-thirds over the course of the last three decades of the nineteenth century. It is simply a myth that monopolies will raise prices once they have the power to do so. Monopolies, like everyone else, want to maximize their profits, not their prices. Lower prices, which increase demand, and increased efficiency, which cuts costs is usually the best way to achieve the highest possible profits. What makes monopolies (and most of them today are government agencies, from motor vehicle bureaus to public schools) so economically evil is the fact that without competitive pressure, they become highly risk-aversive—and therefor shy away from innovation—and notably indifferent to their customers' convenience.

Gordon falls back on monetarist explanations when it's convenient (pp265):

The immediate cause of the new depression [in 1893]—as in most previous ones in this country—had been over-expansion due to the lack of a central bank to tap the brakes when needed

but later on the page says "The gold standard has one big advantage as a monetary system: it makes inflation nearly impossible." And finally, in his discussion of how the US managed to produce an astounding quantity of munitions of all kinds for WWII, he says

The United States accomplished this awesome feat of industry by turning the world's largest capitalist economy into a centrally planned one, virtually overnight. Central planning has always proved dismally inefficient at producing the goods and services needed by a consumer economy (largely because the consumers have so little say in what is produced). But central planning has done far better at producing the instruments of war.

Gordon never considers the question of how a market economy might do if set to the task of preparing for war, or how the market might be harnessed to that purpose. Since central planning produced surprisingly good results, he accepts the conventional assumption that that's the only approach that could have worked.

Gordon is at his best when explaining how people built businesses and how the businesses built the infrastructure that helped the country grow. When he tries to generalize about causes, he makes it clear that he doesn't believe in any general rules. This leaves the reader without an organizing principle. Gordon seems to have explained everything that happened, but the explanations conflict with one another, so the naive reader would be left grasping at analogies in order to decide how to apply any lessons they thought they might have picked up.

But at the end of the day, I have to agree with Tyler Cowen that this is the best single volume treatment of American economy history I've come across. Tom Bethel's Noblest Triumph is much broader, Burton Folsom's The Myth of the Robber Barons is focused on a narrow period, Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism is three volumes, and not limited to the Americas.

An Empire of Wealth succeeds as history; it's quite readable, and brings up many interesting episodes that should be much better known. The story of New York State's grant of a monopoly on the steamship trade within the state and the ensuing competition in the market and in the courts hasn't been mentioned in anything else I've read.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

Shortages and Price Controls

Catallarchy reports that Hawaii has passed price controls on gas at the wholesale level. According to some of their comments, Florida is considering following suit.

It's easy to predict that shortages will soon follow, and if the legislature doesn't backtrack on the controls, there will soon be calls for rationing. The only thing that would stop shortages would be if Hawaii's suppliers are locked into that market and can't choose to deliver marginal barrels to other markets. I doubt that this is the case, but California's experiences with local pollution regulations and an inability to get marginal barrels redirected here to deal with short-term situations makes it seem possible.

It's hard to believe that anyone could make this mistake, but I guess legislators don't know any more about economics than the general public.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Radio Economics PodCast

I've been listening to PodCasts recently. There seem to be three categories that most of the ones I listen to fall into: Real Estate, Economics, and Science Fiction. I've listened to a few different podcasts in the Real Estate and Science Fiction categories, but I only found one Economics PodCast that caught my eye.

RadioEconomics has host Dr. James Reese, an economist at the University of South Carolina, Upstate interviewing various economists. My favorite so far was Don Boudreaux, the chair of the George Mason Econ Department. (broadcast 8/11/05) I've been working on Prediction Markets with some economists at George Mason, and I've been a fan of their style of economics for a while, so I was interested in finding out what the department chair had to say. Boudreaux talked about his own interests as well as those of the department in general. He was quite frank in claiming that every one of the Economists at GMU is a vocal fan of the free markets. At the end of the PodCast, Dr. Reese asked what other departments around the world were most like and most unlike the GMU department, and Boudreaux didn't shy away from naming other departments that are probably doing good work, but which Boudreaux doesn't have any personal interest in.

I also enjoyed the interview (7/26/05) with Gary Becker and Richard Posner, authors of the Becker/Posner Blog, one of the blogs I read regularly. There are some older podcasts I intend to go back and listen to, including (7/15/05) with Skip Sauer of I listened to most of the interview with Michael Perelmanof CSU Chico last night while walking the dog. He's an unrepentant socialist. He didn't do a good job of defending his viewpoint. He presented several factors that have led to the bad name that central planning has gotten among economists, and several apparent ineficiencies produced by market economies, but no specific proposals to improve any situation, and nothing to show why his proposals would work better than the failed experiments of the past.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Puzzle: PQRST 14

PQRST has a good puzzle contest that they run quarterly. The 14th iteration was last week, and it seemed tougher than usual, though I didn't have as much time as I sometimes spend. I thought puzzle #7 was particularly clever; and no math is required. If you're into puzzles, give it a try.

Divide the whole grid into smaller geometric shapes, following the grid lines or the diagonals of the square cells. Each shape must have exactly one symbol inside, which represents it. Rectangle symbol cannot be contained in a square. Trapezoid has two sides parallel, but its other two sides are not parallel.

The solution will be posted at PQRST in a week or so if you can't get it.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Strange Orbits

I read Science News, both on paper and their electronic newsletter. The online newsletter has a section called MathTrek that's not included in the magazine, with fun math-based tidbits. This week, they talk about unusual orbits that have been calculated; they're possible, but unlikely to ever occur naturally. Charlie McDowell's animations are a good selection of interesting ones. I particularly like "8 on a Daisy". But I was surprised not to find any explicit mention of Cruithne (pronounced cru EEN ya) or 2002 AA2 9 there. Paul Doherty has a good discussion of Earth's Three Moons. (Wikipedia denies that Cruithne is a moon, but I couldn't find anything there that explained the distinction.)

While the orbits that Science News talks about are prettier, Cruithne and 2002 AA2 9 are real objects, and in some ways their orbits are even more bizarre. The mathematical constructs are (mostly) regular trefoils, flowers, and figure eights, and contain 4 to 99 bodies. Cruithne and 2002 AA2 9 co-orbit with the Earth, and seem to have relatively stable orbits. Both travel at roughly the same distance from the sun as the Earth, with roughly the same period. They both follow a pattern from an Earth-centric perspective, travelling faster than the Earth till they almost catch up, then slowing down for many years until the Earth catches them, and they start the cycle again. Cruithne has a highly inclined orbit (20°) and is about 5 km in diameter. 2002 AA2 9 travels in a continuous spiral around Earth's orbit.

Friday, August 12, 2005

I Don't Climb Alone

Hal Murray sent me a pointer to this trip report of a solo on a hair-raising climb on Sykes' Sickle. It reminded me of Desperate Days in Blue John Canyon, which I watched in early July. (You should realize that we never watch TV. My dad had recommended that I watch the program, and it was probably the first time in 10 years that we watched broadcast TV. Maybe the third time in 20 years.)

After watching Desperate Days, I wrote a note to my dad thanking him for the recommendation and commenting

  1. If you're going alone, tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back.
  2. leave a note visible in your car saying where you're going and when you'll be back.
  3. Don't go dangerous places alone. (Slot canyons are dangerous when you're alone.)
  4. Take more food and water than you think you'll need.
  5. Carry a whistle. (Probably wouldn't have done him any good, but you can whistle a lot longer than you can shout, and they can be heard much further. He could easily have whistled every hour if he'd had a whistle.)
  6. If a rock falls and pins your arm, cut your arm off. He should have done it much sooner. I hope I'd be able to do it if it had been me. I wouldn't have been there alone, but (as in the movie "Touching the Void") sometimes something bad happens and you end up alone.
The solo climber mentioned above didn't break these rules: he had a friend watching from the ground. What he did is still too scary for my. I don't think I would climb anything above about 5.6 solo, and if there's exposure (serious risk of falling a long way if you make a mistake), which there was here, I'd be even more conservative than that. 5.6 is about the level that someone in reasonable shape can climb with just a few pointers. 5.9 (the rating of Sykes' Sickle) is hard enough that PD's nephew, Dan, only reached it at then end of a summer of climbing indoors every week. And he was excited about having done it, too.

Anyway, the Sykes' Sickle climber wondered where the line is between safe enough and crazy when climbing solo. I think he's way on the crazy side of the line. I continue to think that technical climbing is not a solo sport.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

First review: Reflex, by Steven Gould

I read a lot. I read a lot of science fiction (broadly construed). I'm also part of a mostly extropian/libertarian reading group. The reading group reads history, science, economics, biology, psychology, evolution, and more. I'm a member of the finalist commitee for the LFS Best Novel awards, so I read a lot of SF that I evaluate for libertarian viewpoints. Now that I have a blog, I'm going to start trying to write at least a short review of most of what I read.

Reflex, by Steven Gould, is a fine novel. It tells the story of Davy Rice, a natural teleport. He doesn't know why he can jump, he just can. He's been working for the NSA for years, but someone has figured out his weaknesses, and figured out how to kidnap and control him. The story follows Davy and his wife, Millie, as they work to find a way out of the trap.

The story is well-told, the characters are interesting, their struggles are convincing. Davy shows great personal strength: he is adamant about not subjecting other people to harm even when it's the only way to save himself. The morality displayed in the story is quite admirable. The bad guys we meet are venal, but completely in thrall to hidden characters who are apparently evil. The good guys have superhuman powers along with weaknesses their enemies know how to exploit. They are also extremely moral, though they are willing to threaten and kill those who have demonstrated they are their enemies.

The libertarian aspects rest mainly in that the government agencies Davy and his wife have to work with are internally divided, and can't be relied on to keep a secret, protect a source, or follow through on a commitment. It's hard to rank this book, since it's the first of next year's nominees that I've read. It's compatible with libertarianism, but not strong on teaching the weaknesses of governments or the strengths of private actions. The good guys are very moral, but they're merely defending themselves from bad guys who are trying to force them to support their evil plots.