Be sure to have any guests at your celebration of Isaac Newton’s birthday sign a Guest Liability and Indemnification Agreement (PDF) before you overfeed them.
Archive for December, 2004
The latest issue of my favorite investment advisory newsletter, The Whitebox Market Observer, has a good point about industrializing countries:
It is nonsense to think that China as a whole will become rich because the Chinese individually are poor. The ugly truth is that poor people don’t matter. They don’t matter as consumers because they don’t have any money; they don’t matter as producers because once they start producing they do not stay poor for long. Show me a persistently poor factory worker and I will show you a rotten factory, no threat to the U.S. or anyone else.
and goes on to note the similarities with Japan of the 1960s and Taiwan and South Korea of the 1970s, which started competing with U.S. companies using low wages to make up for their mediocre reputation for quality, and within about two decades switched to competing on quality.
Book review: Imperial Hubris : Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, by Anonymous
This disturbing book whose author has now identified himself as Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, claims that bin Laden is being effective at persuading Muslims to wage a defensive jihad against the U.S. by making straightforward arguments based on scripture and descriptions of U.S. actions toward Muslims that are close enough to the truth to convince many Muslims that it would be sinful not to fight the U.S. He is succeeding because he ignores such U.S. offenses as alcohol, gay rights, man-made law and nation-states, and focuses on U.S. meddling in the Mideast.
Book Review: The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100 by Robert Fogel
This book presents good arguments that hunger was a major cause of health problems everywhere a century ago, and that the effects last long enough that even the richest countries are still suffering from problems caused by hunger. His arguments imply that experts persistently underestimate improvements in life expectancy, and even with little improvement in medical technology life expectancy will improve a good deal because people born today have much better nutrition than today’s elderly had as children.
This goes a long way toward explaining the Flynn effect (even though the book doesn’t mention Flynn or IQ). It correctly implies the biggest intelligence increase should be seen at the low end of the IQ range, unlike a number of other interesting theories I’ve come across.
Another peculiar fact that the book helps to explain is the high frequency with which the tallest presidential candidate wins. Fogel’s arguments that height has been one of the best indicators of health/wealth suggest that this is not an arbitrary criterion (although it is probably a selfish I-want-to-ally-with-a-winner strategy that may be obsolete).
The book is mostly non-idealogical, but occasionally has some good political arguments (page 42):
government transfers were incapable of solving the problems of beggary
and homelessness during the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries,
because the root cause of the problems was chronic malnutrition. … At
the end of the eighteenth century British agriculture, even when supplemented
by imports, was simply not productive enough to provide more than 80 percent
of the potential labor force with enough calories to sustain regular manual
Readers may be surprised that I have not emphasized the extension of health insurance policies to the 15 percent of the population not currently insured. The flap over insurance has more to do with taxation than with health services. … Most proposals for extending health insurance involve taxing their wages for services they already receive.
See also Mike Linksvayer’s comments.
Book Review: What is Thought? by Eric Baum
The first half of this book is an overview of the field of artificial intelligence that might be one of the best available introductions for people who are new to the subject, but which seemed fairly slow and only mildly interesting to me.
The parts of the book that are excellent for both amateurs and experts are chapters 11 through 13, dealing with how human intelligence evolved.
He presents strong, although not conclusive, arguments that the evolution of language did not involve dramatic new modes of thought except to the extent that improved communication improved learning, and that small catalysts created by humans might well be enough to spark the evolution of human-like language in other apes.
His recasting of the nature versus nurture debate in terms of biases that guide learning is likely to prove more valuable at resisting the distortions of ideologues than more conventional versions (e.g. Pinker’s).
His arguments have important implications for how AI will progress. He convinced me that it will be less sudden than I previously thought, by convincing me that truly general-purpose learning machines won’t work, and that much of intelligence involves using large quantities of data about the real world to choose good biases with which to guide our learning.
Book Review: Commodifying Communism : Business, Trust, and Politics in a Chinese City by David L. Wank
This book does a good job of describing typical small business activity in a city that the author lived in for a couple of years.
I have long been puzzled by the reports that China has a booming economy in spite of widespread corruption and hardly any rule of law, when those problems seem to ensure poverty elsewhere.
This book does a good deal to resolve this mystery. It suggests that Fukuyama’s claim that “there is a relatively low degree of trust in Chinese society the moment one steps outside the family circle” is misleading because the Chinese notions of family ties aren’t as rigid as in the west. Family-style trust is more like a commodity that can be readily acquired by most people who have decent reputations, via friend of a friend type connections between people. And the networks of reputation do well at ensuring the reasonableness of corrupt or arbitrary actors.
It would be nice if we could copy the good parts of these aspects of Chinese culture, but I suspect that’s as hard as copying the social capital that Fukuyama describes in his book Trust.
Here’s one isolated provocative comment to which I haven’t figured how to respond:
The premise that inequalities stemming from differential access to political capital are reprehensible, while those stemming from imbalances in access to economic capital are not, is a value judgment that elides how political power is always implicated in the structure of markets.
Book Review: Innovation and Its Discontents : How Our Broken Patent System is Endangering Innovation and Progress, and What to Do About It by Adam B. Jaffe, Josh Lerner
This book presents a clear, concise and convincing argument that subtle changes in U.S. laws starting in 1982 have broken a patent system that was working reasonably well until then. It will be more effective at convincing the average person than most other attempts have been, both because of its style and because it shows that the changes which broke the system shouldn’t have been expected to help anyone other than patent lawyers. Their analysis will be useful in helping to avoid the takeover of other agencies by special interests.
Their description of how the system should be fixed is less impressive. Their summary of proposed changes strangely fails to include undoing the change in appeals court jurisdiction which they suggest was a primary cause of the problems. Their argument in favor of patenting software, business practices, etc. is more radical than they seem to realize, as it appears to imply that patents should also be extended to mathematical theorems, yet they act as if the burden of proof should be on their critics.
It is hard to believe their proposals go far enough. One suggestion I have is that, in return for higher salaries, patent examiners should be unable to work as patent lawyers for a year or two after leaving their job. This would reduce the number of examiners who can expect to be rewarded for patents that create disputes.
Their confidence that a traditional patent system is better than no patents is unconvincing (but they do a good job of explaining why it is hard to know what the best system is). They support their position by a few examples such as Xerox, whose copier wouldn’t have been invented as it was without patent protection. But it’s much harder than they imply to determine that a copier wouldn’t have been invented some other way a few years later.
Here’s an interesting paper (pdf) by economists Obstfeld and Rogoff on the prospects for the dollar, arguing that the differences in savings rates between countries will be important in the continuing decline in the dollar relative to other currencies. I don’t put too much faith in their attempts to forecast the size of the decline (in part because of the problems with measuring savings rates), but the basic ideas behind the paper seem sensible. It makes me wonder whether I have a big enough position in gold (the short-term outlook seems unclear, but my long-term outlook is that gold is a pretty good investment).