22 August 2011


Regular readers here will have noticed that I have far too many ideas to contain on only one blog. Fortunately I've been asked to help carry the Quantum Pontiff's torch, along with co-bloggers Charlie Bennett and Steve Flammia. So you can read my quantum thoughts there. I'll keep this blog for non-quantum posts, so keep checking back here every 12-18 months for another paragraph or two.

15 May 2011

Democratic voter vs Democrat

I vote mostly straight Democrat, but wouldn't call myself a Democrat since my views are pretty far from those of the typical Democratic politician. Like many, I vote for them because I prefer them to the Republicans. Does that make me a Democratic voter? Or a Democrat?

Typically in the US, someone like me is a called a Democrat. Similarly, people who vote Republican are called "Republicans" rather than "Republican voters" or "Republican supporters."

In the UK, the dominant parties are Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, while people are referred to as Conservative voters, Labour supporters, and so on. It's hard to even think of a noun associated with members of the Labour party (ok, well it's Labourites, but that's not used much). On the other hand, like in the US, party affiliation is also pretty stable, and there are still plenty of unquestioning supporters of each party.

But on the whole I like this use of language much better. Often the Democratic and Republican parties agree on things that the majority of Americans disagree with, and it'd be easier to talk about this if we didn't pretend that the entire country was made up of Democrats and Republicans.

12 January 2010

why not assassinate Hitler?

Reading a comment from a reader of Krugman's blog about the recent death of Paul Samuelson made me rethink my attachment to utilitarianism. You know the train scenarios for utilitarianism?
Scenario 1: You're standing next to a fork in the traintracks, with access to the lever that changes the direction the train will take. The train can not be stopped, and if left as it is, it will run over and kill 5 people standing at the end of the tracks. If, however , you pull the lever the train will change directions, killing the 1 person standing at the end of that fork. What do you do?

Scenario 2: The situation with the train is the same, however this time you're standing on a bridge over the tracks. There's only one direction the train can go, and at the end there are 5 people that will be killed. You know that the only way to stop the train is by throwing some sort of heavy object in it's path. The only heavy object at your disposal at the moment happens to be the very fat man standing next to you. What do you do?

Most people pull the lever in scenario 1, but refuse to kill the fat man in scenario 2. But the consequences of pulling the lever and killing the fat man are the same! So are we all just cowards? Somehow we have an instinct against violence that is hard to overcome. The discomfort of the situation leads many people to change the rules. For example, here is one response that totally refuses to accept the premises:
In both scenarios, I'd run down and tell morons from moronville to not stand on train tracks even when a train is coming.

But, if forced into the only given options, I would pull the lever in scenario 1 so less people would be killed (unless it was like, 5 old people and 1 child or something). In the second I would not throw the extraordinarily fat man into the tracks. Fat and already-in-danger-of-dying he may be, anything heavy enough to stop a train's momentum like that would cause the train to violently stop and derail. Many more than 5 people would die and be seriously injured that way.

Here is a slightly more realistic example. Suppose you lived in Germany in the late 1930's and found yourself with a chance to kill Hitler. Suppose further that you either wouldn't get caught, or else wouldn't mind sacrificing yourself for the greater good. And of course, assume that you agree with today's consensus about the Nazis being evil.

Of course, it'd be great to stop the deaths of fifty million people. So shouldn't you go for it?

I think you can make an argument against killing Hitler even on utilitarian grounds. The problem is that the future is never clear. This is why we don't like to kill the fat man, and why doing so wouldn't be defensible in court: in practice, we're never really sure that the train wouldn't have stopped anyway, that other methods of stopping the train aren't possible, or that killing the fat man would help instead of even leading to some worse outcomes. The only time we really know for sure is in a thought experiment, which is why these experiments feel so artificial.

But c'mon! It's Hitler! Nobody likes Hitler. What could possibly be bad about killing him?

Well, what if popular opinion otherwise would have turned against the Nazi party, and killing Hitler drew more popularity to the party? Certainly Hitler wasn't the only Nazi evildoer. And even in hindsight it's hard to know what would have happened. More importantly, Hitler made many mistakes in fighting the war, often related to not listening to the advice of his generals. A different leader might have been much more effective, and not much less evil. Indeed the British studied the question and decided to cancel their assassination plans because, as one British officer put it, Hitler's incompetence made him "of the greatest possible effort to the British war effort." And the German generals who tried to assassinate him were arguably more motivated by Hitler's incompetence than by his warmongering.

Of course, if you're just some random German barber in 1940, you might not know all this. But that's the point! We never know exactly what the consequences of our actions will be. In what seems to be even the most clear-cut case for murder, the situation gets murkier and murkier the more you look into it. And often we have to make decisions without looking into them. Personally, I hadn't even heard the arguments about Hitler's incompetence until a few years ago, and before I had heard them I thought killing Hitler would have been a purely good thing. So for most of my life I was (probably) totally wrong about this question, despite knowing more about WW2 than most other parts of history. Extrapolating to the future, this means that I shouldn't overstate my certainty about things which today I confidently believe.

Finally, let's come back to the comment on Paul Samuelson:

Samuelson was just another Eichmann. He is responsible for propagating a destructive economic dogma.
Whoever wrote this is convinced that Samuelson's economic theories (or maybe his contributions to linear programming) made him an evil person, maybe even evil enough that we would have been better off if he had been assassinated earlier. Obviously whoever wrote this is a nutjob, but they clearly don't think so. They probably think that they alone have the moral clarity to see that Scenario 1 equals Scenario 2.

But the problem is that any of us could be that nutjob. And that's why we shouldn't kill people, even if we're utilitarians and are really pretty sure that it's all for the best.

28 September 2009

vegetarianism and animal welfare

Based on a conversation with Charlie Bennett.

There are two reasonable assumptions that imply a surprising conclusion: vegetarianism increases human welfare at the expense of animal welfare.

  • Assumption 1: Living things are generally better off existing than not existing. The only exceptions involve constant pain of some kind, and are generally rare.
  • Assumption 2: Animals in factory farms may sometimes be worse off than if they were in the wild, but their lives are not so terrible as to be worse than non-existence.
To accept these assumptions you don't need to believe that factory farms are humane (only that a pig would rather be on a farm than not exist), or that abortion/birth control is immoral (since the loss your descendants experience by not existing is balanced by the benefits to everyone else).

To test assumption #1, I think suicide is the wrong way to think about it, since that has many other cultural associations. Rather, think about reincarnation. Morpheus offers you a red pill or a blue pill. Neither pill will have any effect until you die at the end of your natural life. At that point if you've taken the red pill then you have no afterlife. If you take the blue pill, you get reincarnated as a newborn piglet in an industrial farm somewhere in Utah, where you share a cramped space with 100,000 other pigs. (And after this, no more reincarnation.) Which pill would you take? If you prefer the blue pill, then I would say you accept the above two assumptions. (Apparently, the Talmud does not accept them, claiming that "It would have been better for man not to have been born, but now that he is born, let him look to his deeds." But let's leave this to the side for now.)

In this case, a higher rate of vegetarianism means that fewer animals will be raised and eaten, and as a result the Earth will be able to support more people. (Ok, so assumption #3 is that we reach an equilibrium without blowing ourselves up.) Thus human welfare will be higher, since there are more of us, and animal welfare will be lower since there are fewer animals.

What are my personal views? Well, I agree with the above two assumptions, and I prefer people to animals, so I think that vegetarianism is the more moral choice. However, I'm a hypocrite, so I eat meat.

15 July 2009

the protection racket

Many laws are justified by the need to protect ourselves from our own supposedly bad or coerced decisions. We have laws against drug use, prostitution, suicide, and so on. (And that's just for adults!) One problem with these laws is that we're often bad at making decisions for other people, usually because we don't take time to understand their situation. For example, we may want stop people in poor countries from moving to the cities to work in bad conditions, but this could be based on not understanding rural poverty.

Another problem is that "X is illegal" often slides into "X is immoral" and then "people who do X are immoral" and finally "people who do X are not fully human." (Or maybe the causality goes in both directions.) So that we get a "war on drugs" that is conducted with the same regard for human life as most wars are.

An only semi-relevant image that I was looking for an excuse to post. (Not the most relevant image, but I wanted an excuse to post it.)

But even well-meaning and compassionate thinkers, like Bob Herbert, get seduced by the idea of protecting people from their own supposedly bad decisions. Here is an article he wrote on legalizing prostitution. (This is even before Eliot Spitzer; I have a long backlog of blog posts.)

My reply articulates what I think is wrong with laws against prostitution.

Dear Bob Herbert,

I want to thank you for your excellent column on the under-discussed problem of everyday misogyny. Your focus on systematic aspects of culture was a welcome exception to the media's usual habit of viewing everything through the lens of a single scandal.

However, I don't think it's right for you to say that legalized or decriminalized prostitution is a step backwards for women. Obviously, decriminalization doesn't fix everything, but you should consider:

  1. That many organizations of sex workers and their advocates favor decriminalization. See for example among many other examples.

    You (and I!) should be careful of speaking on others' behalf, when they themselves may have different opinions about what's best for themselves.

  2. This recent study of (criminalized) prostitution in Chicago [S.D. Levitt and S.A. Venkatesh. An empirical analysis of street-level prostitution. 2007] indicates several serious problems with the criminalized regime. It indicates that prices are low ($30-80 per sex act), meaning that the law isn't seriously restricting the availability of prostitutes (just as drug laws have failed to restrict the availability of drugs). It also found that 3% of sex acts by prostitutes without pimps were given to police in order to avoid arrest. The article calls these "freebies," but they should be called acts of rape, that if not formally sanctioned by the state, are entirely made possible by laws ostensibly in place to protect women. Finally, the article observed that prostitutes were victims of violence on average once per month. While legalization wouldn't stop this, it is undeniable that it gives them much greater access to legal remedies.
  3. The above problems are inherent to any system in which prostitution is criminalized. However, the problems with Nevada could be addressed by further reforms: (a) the illegal prostitution in Las Vegas is partly because it is illegal within that county; and (b) many decriminalization advocates say it is better to allow prostitutes to work independently rather than only as part of brothels. Farley makes compelling points about PTSD, abuse and other problems facing prostitutes in legal brothels. But her research has been criticized for focusing on a non-representative sample of only the most marginalized prostitutes, and it not at all clear that legal prostitution is always as grim as she reports.
It's still great that you highlight the abuses of women under legalized prostitution in places like Nevada. But I wish you would devote a proportionate amount of ink to the places like Chicago where hypocritical prohibition often leaves women even worse off.

03 December 2008

all self-serving generalizations are wrong

I had meant to write a post reviewing the excellent Re-Imagining Rwanda by Johan Pottier, which I found a shocking corrective to my prejudices about who were the good guys and the bad guys in the DRC. But since I've meant to write this post for about two years, perhaps I should at least post a letter I wrote to the NPR show On The Media.

First, an aside. While on the subject of how country X discusses atrocities committed by group Y against victims Z, I'll mention some interesting differences in how the US and UK teach about the Belgian colonialism in the Congo. If you don't know this story, I highly recommend the book King Leopold's Ghosts by Adam Hochschild, which I'd also like to review here, but realistically won't: the brief summary is that in the early 20th century, Belgium killed about half the people in the Congo.

American schools don't teach about this, just like pretty much every other topic about Africa. Embarrassingly, I've read dozens of books about the Holocaust, but learned about the Belgian Congo only a few years ago. In the UK, though, everyone knows the story of the Belgian Congo. My theory is that the British view themselves as better colonialists (more humane, efficient, etc.) than the French and other Europeans, and so enjoy learning about the failings of the other colonial powers. As partial evidence for this I'll quote from yet another great book that I should review here but probably won't: David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.

...British Cairo particularly misunderstood ... [that] the Moslem Middle East ... was not willing to be ruled by non-Moslems. Behind enemy lines there were Moslems who were dissatisfied with the Young Turk government, but they proposed to replace it with a different Turkish government, or at any rate a different Islamic government. They regarded rule by a Christian European power, such as Britain, as intolerable.

... Accurate reports... indicated that... most Syrians ... objected to the prospect of being ruled in the postwar world by France, and since [Ronald] Storrs [(Kitchener's Oriental Secretary)] and his colleagues took it for granted that the Arabic-speaking peoples could not govern themselves, the only possibility left was the one advocated by Storrs. [incorporation into British-ruled Egypt.]

Seen in that light, reports that the Syrians considered the Germans and Turks to be Zionists and the French to be detestable meant that the Syrians must be pro-British. Summarizing a memorandum submitted by a Syrian leader who called for Arab independence, [Gilbert] Clayton [head of British intelligence in Cairo] stated that "it is to England, and to England alone, that both Syrian Christians and pan-Arabs are turning."

To be fair to the British, this is the same sort of arrogant mistake that Americans make all the time, e.g. assuming anti-Soviet mujahideen are our allies.

Anyway, here is my letter to On the Media.

Dear OTM,

I'm writing about a story broadcast on April 4, 2008 about a disarmament campaign run by the Rwandan government for FDLR fighters in Congo. (Apologies for writing so long after the program, but I am a podcast listener.) I have both a complaint and a program suggestion.

While I think your story was excellent, I think your editorial framing of it was unbalanced and misleading. In particular, you seem to uncritically follow a narrative in which the RPF and Tutsis are heroes while the Hutus are villains. I am referring here to this part of the introduction to the story:

Bob Garfield: Tutsi rebels ended the slaughter and pushed the genocide's perpetrators, an extremist group of Hutus, into neighboring Congo... Today the remnants of the genocidal forces are known as the FDLR... The FDLR live like parasites among the Congolese. They are a source of strife that has cost five million lives.

Brooke Gladstone: For years, Rwanda's Tutsi government has used proxy rebel groups in Congo to hunt them down. ...

While this framing is in some ways reasonable-after all, extremist Hutus did perpetuate a genocide and the RPF did stop it-it is also misleading (and even somewhat inflammatory with the word "parasites"). For example, it was not only the genocide's perpetrators who fled to Zaire, but many noncombatant Hutus also became refugees. And while the FDLR have definitely been a source of strife in the DRC, they are far from the only cause of all the fighting or human rights abuses there. Brooke Gladstone alludes to this in her mention of 'proxy rebel groups,' but again this implies that Rwanda's involvement in the DRC has been limited to stopping extremists and genocidaires, when in fact it has been far greater and morally murkier; for example, the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma have brutalized civilians as much as any other armed group there.

I'm writing about this not to ask for an on-air correction (it is a little late for that, for one), but because your framing in the April 4 story mirrors common mistakes of reporting on Rwanda by Western journalists and aid agencies. An excellent discussion of these systematic errors can be found in the 2002 book Re-Imagining Rwanda by Johan Pottier, a professor of Social Anthropology at SOAS (part of the University of London). His thesis is that a combination of factors (lack of time, ignorance of historical context, guilt over failing to stop or properly report the 1994 genocide) has led many Westerners to uncritically accept the RPF's framing of the subsequent conflict in the DRC.

Since your program is dedicated to critically examining US media, I think you would be in a good position to do a story on the way the conflicts in Rwanda and the DRC have been represented in the US and Europe. Prof. Pottier's book would, in my opinion, make a good hook for the story, but no doubt there are others you could find as well.

23 October 2007

Outside In

How to turn a sphere inside-out (but not a circle).

click for video

From the geometry center.

05 May 2007

I'm bored.

I'll admit it. I am terrified at the prospect of being trapped for more than a few minutes alone (like on a train or plane) without something to read or write.

Sure, being alone with my thoughts can be pleasant. Sometimes they slide dreamlike into each other and into unexpected and interesting territories. But like dreams, they're usually just out of reach of language and memory. And when I try to fix them in one place, or direct them, they end up in these aggravatingly useless circles, which I know I could easily straighten out with a pen and paper.

I shamelessly project these preferences on others too. I love how my dad will bring two books to the beach just in case he finishes one. I can't help but notice that subway riders in NYC read far more than those in Boston, and I can't help but feel a little surge of affection for New Yorkers every time this happens. Sitting in a Bristol doctor's waiting room with a pleasantly long manuscript to read, it was distressing to see how many other people had not even magazines for the hour-long wait. A mentally retarded guy in maybe his early 20's was in the waiting room too, and wasted no time in going to the children's area and playing with the sliding blocks. I respected that. (The toy with the marbles looked particularly fun.) And of all the atrocities committed by the US/UK in the GWOT one of the most vivid in my mind was when they banned books on transatlantic flights. Torture, massacres, dispossession---these I could understand---but what kind of twisted mind would ban books "just until things settled down"?

However, a recent paper titled A desire for desires: Boredom and its relation to alexithymia suggests that I shouldn't be so smug:

the bored individual is unaware of emotions and externally-oriented. Furthermore, although the bored person typically complains that the external world fails to engage them, the present findings suggest the underlying problem may be in the person’s inability to consciously access and understand their emotions. The present findings and accompanying literature review challenge the simplistic notion that boredom is never more than a trivial annoyance resulting from an under-stimulating environment.
This is only statistical correlation, I know, but perhaps should be occasion for introspection. On the other hand, that sounds boring, so I think I'll skip it.

30 April 2007

women's underwear

A recent post at I Blame the Patriarchy was hilarious enough to remind me of why I started reading the blog in the first place:
I mean to say that in report after gruesome report on torture tactics sanctioned by the Secretary of Defense and employed by American sociopath-imperialist forces in hell-holes like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, one reads ceaselessly of “snarling military dogs,” “stress positions,” “deprivation of light and auditory stimuli,” “20-hour interrogations,” “sleep deprivation,” “forced to perform tricks while tethered to dog leash,” “waterboarding, and “forced to wear women’s underwear on head.”
The rest of the post continues with an excellent discussion of why this last atrocity is so particularly degrading. Instead of commenting further, I'll recommend you check it out yourself.

Instead, I'd like to add my own story to this under-discussed field.

A few years ago I was buying undershirts in a K-mart. It took me a while to find them because they weren't with the other plain T-shirts, but were in the [Men's] "Underwear and Socks" section of the store. By this time I had thoroughly explored the K-Mart clothing department. Strangely, while there was a Women's Socks department, there were no signs for Women's Underwear. Instead the place to buy women's underwear was called "Intimate Apparel." (You can see this replicated in their online men's and women's catalogues.)

Hopefully any comment I could make here about how only women are thought to be gendered and about the pervasiveness of raunch culture would be superfluous. But could I be alone here in being shocked? Has the rest of the clothes-buying world long since gotten used to this? Or maybe is one of those quotidian horrors (like American TV news) that only becomes less appalling through wearying repetition.

In the next episode, I do a gendered reading of the tanktop. For women a perfectly respectable, if informal, summer top; for men, it is vaguely obscene without a shirt over it. Stay tuned!

29 December 2006

I'm part of a movement!

Who knew that even by neglecting my blog, I could be joining a 200-million strong online movement?
The firm has said that 200 million people have already stopped writing their blogs.


"A lot of people have been in and out of this thing," Mr. Plummer said.

"Everyone thinks they have something to say, until they're put on stage and asked to say it."

However, just to show I haven't totally slid into apathy, here is a letter I just wrote to the NYT about what's missing from their recent Ford hagiography.
To the editor,

Much of your coverage of the Ford presidency was nostalgic and moving, but I was disappointed that you neglected to mention Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor, which used mostly American weaponry, killed an estimated 200,000 out of 700,000 people and led to a 25-year occupation. The day before the invasion, Ford and Henry Kissinger were on a state visit to Indonesia, where Indonesian president Haji Mohammad Suharto asked for "understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action." Ford responded with "We will understand and will not press you on the issue," while Kissinger asked only that the invasion wait until Kissinger and Ford had returned to the U.S.

Aram Harrow

I should point out that I didn't know of Ford's involvement here until I learned it from Jon Schwarz and Dennis Perrin, although my first letter to the The Tech (which was actually published!) was inspired by my realization that even in 1998 the Clinton administration was illegally arming and training the Indonesian military.

So now will I join Bernard, Carla, Julia, Michael, Dan, Fafblog and all of my other fellow no-longer-bloggers? Or will I turn to page 123 of some book and flesh out all of those drafts on book reviews, freedom of information, math problems, anti-nationalist mockery and women's underwear? All I know is that I'm not going to promise anything.

01 October 2006

if you live in the U.K.

Watch this show tonight on BBC2 at 8pm. In the U.S., you'll have to wait another month or so.

It's called Battle of the Geeks, and the premise is that in each show two crack teams of inventors/engineers (a.k.a. "geeks") compete to perform a different task in a different part of the world. This show takes place in the second largest canyon in the world: the Fish River Canyon in Namibia. Each team was given an egg

and their task was to get it as close as possible to a target on the other side of the canyon, about a kilometer away with a vertical drop of 200m. Without breaking it. The target in the photo is the red-and-purple X on the left. It's 10 meters across, which should help give you a sense of scale.

You can find a much more detailed description, with better photos, from my friend Jeff's account of being on the show.

25 September 2006

unglorious problems in quantum information

Along the lines of Scott's 10 annoying problems in quantum information (now happily only 8), I have a handful related to universal gate families.
  1. Let V be an imprimitive gate in U(d2), meaning that it cannot be written as a product of two gates in U(d). We know that V and V-1, together with U(d) x U(d) (i.e. all local gates), can exactly generate all of U(d2) [quant-ph/0108062]. But if we don't have access to V-1 then we only know how to approximate all of U(d2). Without the subgroup structure, general tools like quant-ph/0209113 can't be used. This is clearly an absurd situation, but show me the simple proof that V and U(d)xU(d) are exactly universal (which remarkably, I could actually make use of in a proof) and I'll agree that I'm being dumb.
  2. Does the Solovay-Kitaev theorem still hold if we aren't given inverses? Obviously, yes, but can we prove it? Even without giving an efficient construction of the approximating sequence?
  3. Some univeral gate families (e.g. (1 +- 2 i \sigma_j)/sqrt(5) where j ranges over x,y,z) have the property that a sequence of length O(log 1/eps) can approximate any gate to within accuracy eps. This matches the Omega(log 1/eps) bound from counting epsilon-balls. Does the O(log 1/eps) upper bound hold for all universal gate families? Solovay-Kitaev only guarantees O(log^(3+o(1)) 1/eps) sequence length, but it probably makes the sequences longer than it has to by requiring that everything be poly-time.
This last one is actually something that real mathematicians have considered, but not solved. But the first two I'm almost too embarassed to ask them! I mean, come on, people: we can pull this together.

A different sort of unglorious problem is the kind that someone else has solved, but couldn't be bothered to write up. Watch this space later for Shor's construction of higher-accuracy embezzling states and Kitaev's O(t) quantum communication simulation of e^{-itZZ}. Or more realistically you could corner me or Debbie at a conference some time and ask for an explanation.

automatic 401k enrollment

[This post starts slow, but the interesting point is at the end.] 401K's are a great deal (employer matching funds, tax-free interest), and make sense for pretty much everyone who's not completely desperate for cash. But people don't take them very often (40% of low-income workers, 50% of workers in their 20's). And it's probably not (just) because people don't want to save; it's more that they're paralyzed by inertia and having too many choices. This is evidenced by the fact that when people are enrolled by default in 401k's, most people (like 80%) stay enrolled and continue making whatever the default contribution is. (The sheep-like trust here reminds of this English guy I met who doesn't wash vegetables because "if they had toxic chemicals on them, the store wouldn't be selling them to us.")

Recently a new bill made it easier for employers to automatically enroll their employees in 401k's mostly by shielding them from lawsuits if the investments don't perform well. According to marketplace

[Harvard retirement scholar Brigitte Mandrian] expects more employers will migrate to automatic 401k enrollment. But slowly, cuz it's pricey. More employee savings means more matching funds from their bosses.
This is the weird part. Employers are doing something which costs them money, and, though it helps their employees, it only helps the employees who didn't really care about the benefit they're getting. The people who are excited about getting 401k's are probably the ones who'll enroll even if it's not the default. Could it be that the companies really do care about the welfare of their employees? Explaining Safelite Auto Glass's decision to automatically sign up their employees to invest 2% of their pay (matched by the company), Brenda Downing says:
We had a significant number of associates not saving at all. We were concerned they weren't going to be OK at the time they retired.
Is corporate benevolence really the only answer here? This is making my head hurt.

15 September 2006

no seriously, don't profile

Sarcasm may have obscured the point of the last post. Profiling makes even less sense against organized terrorists than against criminals. Why? The age/ethnic mix of terrorists that we see now is in part a reaction to the security that they'll face. If young men are always searched then female suicide bombers will be recruited, and the defenses will be worse off than if they screened passengers randomly. This isn't just a game theory exercise:
On April 17 1986, a young woman presented herself at Heathrow's gate 23 for that morning's El Al flight to Tel Aviv. She had cleared the airport's own security check-in procedures, but to El Al's security staff something didn't appear right. A search of her hand luggage revealed 1½ ounces of Semtex and a detonator, hidden in a calculator.

The young woman was Anne Murphy, a white, Catholic girl from Dublin. The explosives had been planted by her boyfriend, Nezar Hindawi, a terrorist with links to the Syrian government.

Of course, I'm starting to give the impression that we should worry about terrorism, when in fact doing so has surpassed the war on drugs as one of the worst acts of collective hysteria since McCarthyism. For example, think of dying prematurely as an enormous waste of time (like reading blogs! but worse.) The average adult has about 300,000 hours of waking life to expect, and a 1 in 13,000,000 chance of dying on the average U.S. domestic flight (this was true in 1990-1999 entirely from accidents, and in 2000-present almost entirely from 9/11, as there's been only one fatal accident during that time. Your chance of dying on a developing world flight is 1 in 1.5 million, regardless of carrier. These and other fascinating facts found here). If you're risk-neutral, avoiding this risk should be worth two minutes of your time. By this argument, two minutes is also a good baseline for the amount of time that airport security should be willing to waste per passenger. The last point is the crudest part of the argument and shouldn't be stretched too far, since it's based on the risks we currently see, which might change in the extreme case of airports completely eliminating screening. Needless to say, I think we're far from that point. (Incidentally, google for probability terrorism dying to see how a little math knowledge can be an upsetting thing.)

The time vs. death comparison seems a generally useful one because it avoids all the problems in comparing lives with money. Another place it's obviously relevant is in speeding. The probability of dying while driving is supposedly proportional to the fourth power of your speed. In the U.S., drivers die at a rate of about 15 per billion miles and are seriously injured at about 10 times that rate. If we assume the fourth-power law and that everyone is driving 65mph (assume a spherical cow...), then increasing speed by 1mph will save 0.84 seconds/mile and increase the chance of being killed/mile by about 9.2 x 10-10. Multiply by 300,000 hours and you get just about one second, which is pretty close to the amount of time saved. To account for injury, one method is to examine the number of disability-adjusted life years (DALY's) lost. In 2002, 1.18 million died in traffic accidents and 38.4 DALY's were lost, which comes to about 33 DALY's/death. This means my "50 years/death" was an overestimate and increasing 1mph actually costs closer to 0.65 "disability-adjusted life seconds"/mile. Even if we assume there's another car involved half the time, this is close to a tie, meaning that 65mph is close to optimal. On the other hand, this still hasn't included property damage (which ranges from 1% of GNP in developing countries to a stunning 2% in rich countries), higher gas consumption and the fact that speeding tickets waste time too. So I think this means that

  1. we shouldn't speed Moderate speeding is a little dangerous, but not unreasonably so.
  2. Applying the 300,000 hours argument to airline security can't be totally absurd since it leads to different conclusions in different contexts.
  3. I should stop wasting so much time writing silly blog posts.
p.s. I look forward to Ilya's theory of driver safety profiling in the comments!

Update: Thanks to Aaron in the comments for pointing out mistakes in my driving calculations (now corrected); I had represented driving as 10 times more dangerous than it actually is.

14 September 2006

terrorist profiling

People get all worked up about this idea, but think about the benefits:
  • People spend on average less time in line.
  • Terrorists get caught more often.
Of course some people will get unnecessarily searched, but that's happening already! And just think of the absurdity of the status quo, when airport screeners waste their time searching uneducated young men and aren't left with enough time to catch the older, more educated, threat.
Suicide bombers who are older — in their late 20’s and early 30’s — and better educated are less likely to be caught on their missions and are more likely to kill large numbers of people at bigger, more difficult targets than younger and more poorly educated bombers.

... Whereas typical bombers were younger than 21 and about 18 percent of them had at least some college education, the average age of the most successful bombers was almost 26 and 60 percent of them were college educated.

Experience and education also affect the chances of being caught. Every additional year of age reduces the chance by 12 percent. Having more than a high school education cuts the chance by more than half.

There are many examples where young or uneducated terrorists made stupid mistakes that foiled them. Professor Benmelech recounts the case last April of a teenager from Nablus apprehended by Israeli soldiers before carrying out his bombing because he was wearing an overcoat on a 95-degree day. Mr. Reid, the failed shoe bomber, had only a high school degree. Would an older terrorist with more education have tried to light a match on his shoe (as Mr. Reid did) in plain view of the flight attendant and other passengers who proceeded to thwart his plan? Would a better-educated terrorist have been more discreet? We will never know.

The research suggests, however, that there may be a reason that the average age of the 9/11 hijackers (at least the ones for whom we have a birth date) was close to 26 and that the supposed leader, Mohammed Atta, was 33 with a graduate degree.

The solution is simple. Passports could be linked to electronic education records and every year of education could increase the expected length of screening by an extra 12%. Liberals will whine about unfair treatment, but winning the war on terror is about being effective, not pleasing a few politically-influential constituencies.

30 July 2006

Our Troops

I finally met one.

On a recent flight from San Diego to Newark I sat next to a Marine around my age who had done one tour in Iraq towards the start of the war, and now was about to start a second one. Even though over a million U.S. troops have been to Iraq or Afghanistan in the last five years, this is the first time I've talked to one.

And he wasn't happy about the idea of going back. I didn't feel like grilling him, but he talked only about how things had gotten more unpredictable and dangerous since the start of the war: "You never know who's going to want to kill you. Someone might come to a checkpoint five times and be all friendly each time, but then the next time will try to blow you up."

In particular, I didn't feel like asking him about the overall futility of the U.S. presence there, but elsewhere in the Middle East he was sharply critical. We were talking about evacuations of foreign nationals from Lebanon and he talked with disgust about how the U.S. military later billed the people it rescued for the costs of the helicopter flights. This bothered him not because of the principles of action-movie heroism, but for reasons I'd associate more with Chomsky: "Really the [U.S.] government should be responsible for the costs [of the rescues] since they're the ones who created the situation by arming Israel, and giving the green light without which this invasion wouldn't have happened." I mentioned our recent expedited delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel and he responded with something like "well, duh."

What made the conversation sad was how he already seemed to want to block out the upcoming Iraq episode from his life. He talked about how he had liked living in California, and said many times that Iraq was "not going to be fun." When I responded to his talk about unpredictability by saying "yeah, I read recently that now Sunnis are the ones who are more supportive of the U.S. presence since they're afraid of getting dominated by the Shi'a. It's pretty crazy how quickly the situation shifts over there," (Billmon discusses this topic with more bite.) he only said "I haven't been briefed about that yet. They'll do that soon, I guess. [He was headed to Indianapolis for two weeks before shipping out.] All I know is that you can never tell who's on your side."

I liked this guy. We had a (to me) hilarious exchange about California. He was from North Carolina, but said CA was surprisingly nice and that "all those things they said about it were totally not true."

me: Um, yeah, I like CA too. But what things do people say about it?

him: You know, about the people there.

me: Wondering how to translate 'effete' into non-ironic. You mean that they're elitist or something?

him: vague words to the effect of Well, that they're not good people then exact words that I'm not going to forget that they're practically like foreigners over there. But actually I found almost everyone to be really nice and I'm gonna miss living there.

me: Sorely tempted to remark that while I had earlier said I liked living in England, it is true that they're not just "practically like" foreigners over there. Instead I told my favorite California chill story, which I include here for completeness. I was riding a bus in SF when the driver got out, went into a fast-food store, came out with a drink, saw someone he knew, gave them a hug and chatted briefly before getting back in the bus. And the people riding the bus didn't lynch him on the spot!

I might be extrapolating here, but I liked how he was open-minded enough to question the (anti-CA and pro-war) prejudices he had been raised with. I hope that in Iraq he doesn't get killed or end up killing anyone else.

technically he should be the one to report this bug

A recent mozilla bug-tracker post opens with the line: This privacy flaw has caused my fiancé and I to break-up after having dated for 5 years.

The free-ranging mixture of the personal and technical (e.g. "Steps to reproduce bug: 1. Create 2 unique Windows XP user accounts. 2. Log into one and open Firefox. ... 9. Break up with fiancé.") gets only more amazing in the responses, ranging from the "let's see how the personal problems complicate the technical issue":

I don't know if you still have access to the computer you and your ex-fiancé shared, but it sounds like Firefox was sharing a profile between the two Windows XP user accounts. How is that possible -- were both users administrators or something? Were bookmarks separate?
to the sisterly
Honey, I would think you would be the LAST person to be bothered by this [bug, presumably]. Not only did was he using your computer to be unfaithful, he wasn't smart enough to cover his tracks, and you got to know about it BEFORE buying the goods. If you're really THAT upset about finding out, take him back and pretend you never knew, or hold it over his head and use it to keep him in line.
to the creepy
Maybe this was a huge wake-up call after 5 years... maybe he's not the guy you thought he was... maybe its been 5 years of deception... Or, maybe it was just minor 'reveal' and not evidence of deep, serious transgression...just a 'white lie' where he was covering up some fantasy needs...and the 'white lie' need only be a bump in a long, long road and you can see if you can turn it into a growing experience..a call for a whole new level of openness in your relationship..

If the relationship is otherwise a complete wash, what is there to lose? Get it all out on the table.. Tell him he might as well say what he REALLY wants in his life.. what would his 'fantasy perfect male existence' be? Get it stated, honestly and openly for once.. And then see whats what..

Best of luck..

to the philosophical:
Really it's not that big of a deal that firefox saves the list of not saved passowrds. Browers are supposed to do this kind of thing. Anyway it would be the cheating boyfriend's job to run a cleaner to clean the history and cache.
Also included are an unrelated anti-Windows rant, a response consisting entirely of a Jesus quote, and much much more.

04 April 2006

Is it too much to ask that...?

cous-cous be steamed 2-3 times instead of just dumping boiling water on it and fluffing it with a fork? I mean, really, people.
When I feel like laughing or crying I google recipes for couscous. The vast majority are junk. ... Of course I'm delighted that couscous is becoming increasingly popular in different parts of the world and it's none of my business to tell someone what they can or cannot do with couscous.

If you want to eat delicious couscous it must be steamed at least 2-3 times. There really is no other way. ... If you are chef who has published such a recipe I really hope you don't prepare it like that in your restaurant. ...

Okay, I've been googling more. It looks like every Tom, Dick and Harry site has a couscous recipe! Maghrebis and couscous fans UNITE, email them, tell them how couscous should be prepared!!!!

From an Algerian cooking blog that's making me hungry, linked from an article about Bague de Kenza (Since I was buying for my whole department, I instead went to a cheaper place in the 18th called El Andalousia; also tasty, but of course I can't compare.)

But my point isn't about cous-cous, it's about what motivates people to begin an impassioned rant. Recently on the BBC I heard part of a Distinguished Lecture by this gentleman:

This year's Reith Lecturer is the eminent conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, a leading cultural figure of our time. His remarkable career spans more than five decades. He has worked with all the world's great orchestras and now holds the posts of Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and General Music Director of the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin.

He is also co-founder, with the late Edward Said, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which brings together young Arab and Israeli musicians. "Music", argues Barenboim, "lies at the heart of what it is to be human".

Should be good, eh? And the theme of the lecture?
In this lecture recorded in front of an audience at the Symphony Center in Chicago, Barenboim tries to rescue the neglected sense - the ear - and launches his own campaign against muzak.
He descibes his experience in writing to American Standard (you know, the company that makes toilets) to complain about their choice of Mozart's Requiem as the soundtrack for one of their toilet commercials. Apparently confusing him with a more common kind of letter-writing nutjob, they sent back a form letter saying that they weren't aware of the religious significance of the music, but were responding to complaints in the next round of commercials by replacing it with one of the highlights from something by Wagner which "music experts had assured them had no religious significance whatsoever."

I laugh, but I get far more comments about the exponential letter than anything else on this blog.

26 February 2006

illegal aliens or self-leveraging entrepreneurs?

What does it mean to cross into another country, stay illegally either avoiding border guards in the first place or overstaying a tourist visa, find a series of short-term jobs that pay cash, all while staying out of sight of the government whenever possible? According to a popular NYT article , it means "having international experience under your belt" (about which "employers are enthusiastic"), demonstrating that you are "inquisitive, flexible and adaptive---valuable skills in today's workplace," and, (contrary to what the cynics say), "it's not a money-making move," but rather "It puts you in a position to leverage yourself."

At least for some people. Meanwhile, Congress is starting to consider a guest worker bill for immigrant labor from south of the border. What are some of the key provisions for the budding Mexican entrepreneurs?

Applicants would be sponsored by employers — though they would be allowed to switch employers during their time here — and would undergo background checks and medical screening.


The draft bill would also authorize millions of illegal immigrants who arrived in this country before Jan. 4, 2004 to remain here indefinitely, along with their spouses and children, as long as they registered with the Department of Homeland Security, paid back taxes and remained law-abiding and employed, among other conditions.

Elsewhere in the paper, the Times editorial page argues that in "a nation that insists on paying as little as possible for goods and services, and as long as it remains impractical to send lawns, motel beds and dirty dishes overseas," we need a more humane and reasonable immigration policy. It says that "Congressional action is long overdue," and closes with
Laws that make it a crime to help illegal immigrants find work will make outlaws out of local leaders whose only crime is to want to live in orderly, humane communities.

Setting up a hiring site with bare-bones amenities like benches and bathrooms is not an indulgence of lawlessness. It is a common-sense tactic to help prevent the exploitation of workers, to rein in unscrupulous contractors and to impose some order on the chaos. It is smarter and more humane than the cruelty of harassing legislation that hopes, somehow, to make all those men and women disappear.

In other words, taking a practical approach to migrant labor as a solution to our demand for low wage, unregulated, seasonal work isn't about coddling illegal immigrants; it's the only realistic and humane solution to prevent them turning into a social problem for us and our communities.

(Not that I don't agree with the policy position of the NYT in both cases: I think living abroad as soon as you're able to be independent of your parents is a good idea, and most of the immigration reforms proposed right now would help people. It's just the terms of the debate, and the implicit assumptions that shape them, that are fucked up. This sentence lightly revised 9 July 2008.)

On a vaguely related note, I have at least one more data point supporting this essay: a white Parisian woman I talked to who distinguished the Maghrebians (French citizens living in Paris of N. African descent) from the French. As in, les Maghrebins in this neighborhood of Paris do X, but les Français living there do Y. I still love it here! And in my very limited experience, I still see a decent amount of social mixing between natives and immigrants. But I had to point this out.

12 February 2006

Senegalese recipes

general principles: Almost everything is in big pots on high heat. Use lots of mustard and garlic, and add the mustard early so it infuses the onions.

fish balls

Mash up pepper, garlic, parsley, Maggi (basically bouillon cubes, but the Senegalese version has MSG too), tuna and a little flour---in that order---in either a food processor (Western version) or a giant mortar and pestle (Senegalese version). Form into little balls (it helps to rub your hands with oil for this) and deep fry in batches, turning only once or twice through the whole process. Remove from oil with a slotted spoon when each side is done.

Next, dice onions and fry in the leftover oil (preferably peanut oil) until light brown, then mix in a good deal of mustard (something like smooth Dijon) and keep cooking for a few minutes. Meanwhile you should be boiling some vegetables (like eggplant, cabbage and carrot) in a sepearate pot. Once the onions have absorbed the mustard, add the vegetables and just enough of the water to cover them (using water that's been boiled means tap water is fine). Add salt, more Maggi and a little vinegar. Boil till everything is soft enough, then add the fish balls, and cook on low a little more. Serve with (short-grain) rice.

Fermented lemon juice: Add salt to lemon juice and let it sit in the sun for awhile. Here I've only tasted the final result.

Yassa chicken

Again, food process peppercorns, then garlic. Then combine with (optionally fermented) lemon juice, Maggi, lots of mustard, and a little water and boil chicken in this. Once the chicken is nearly cooked, remove it from the marinade and grill it on both sides. Meanwhile boil vegetables separately (carrots, eggplant, "African eggplant", whatever). Meanwhile, slice onions and fry in a ton a of (peanut) oil until brown. Then add mustard, cook for a little while, add the chicken marinade, the vegetables and, if necessary, some water. When the chicken has been grilled on both sides, add that too, but cook on low, and only long enough for the chicken to absorb some of the sauce. Optionally separate chicken, vegetables and sauce for serving. Serve with rice.


Mix flour, salt and yeast, then add just enough water until it's nice and doughy. Knead well, brush with a little oil, and leave covered in a warm place; then repeat. Prepare tuna as for fish balls above, but cook in oil for awhile, then mix tomato concentrate with water and cook in this mixture until most of the water is gone. Then let it cool. The tuna should be breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, but by the end it may be necessary to further shred it. Grab a small ball of dough and flattened on an oiled surface, put a little bit of tuna in the middle, fold over, and press the edges shut with a fork. Deep fry in batches until golden brown, turning once or maybe twice. Sometimes served with a tomato-onion sauce, but instead this recipe combines the tomato with the tuna.

These really are tasty, but I'm not sure my sketchy description is good evidence for this. A shout-out goes to our femme de menage Yaye, for among other things, cooking all this, and then having the patience to teach me. At some point, Shefali will enter a recipe for Mafe into the comments and I'll update the post.

09 February 2006

Her voice is full of money

"She's got an indiscreet voice," I remarked. "It's full of---"

I hesitated.

"Her voice is full of money," he said suddenly.

That was it. I had never understood it before. It was full of money---that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it... High up in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl...

From The Great Gatsby.

This same idea (substitutability of desire) can also be illustrated using more scientific language. The link is via Tyler Cowen, who also argues that in general, fiction and science have more in common than one would think.

Update: After reading that last paper, I can say that you get everything you need out of it from the abstract, or even just spending awhile thinking about the title and its implications. To me the overlap can be seen by looking at the questions: how do you argue that your claims are true, that they are interesting and/or that they generalize? In both cases a blend of precision and ambiguity is necessary, a specific insight together with a claim to reflect a larger truth, etc... The differences between a novel and a scientific paper then come from different definitions of truth, interestingness, and so on. We can see this by looking at how these concepts have changed over time: for example, many early English novels were meant to scare girls away from sex, so they were much more didactic and specific than, say, a Salman Rushdie novel. The "interest" of these novels is clearly related to their educational/social value; in some ways not so far from a modern social science paper, but with a more condescending relation between author and reader. Similarly the concepts of truth and universality change over time and across fields. But these are just the sort of things I was hoping were explored in Cowen's paper! I'm not actually going to go through them myself...

27 December 2005

Economics and the Public Purpose

Review of Economics and the Public Purpose by John Kenneth Galbraith

I realize that the title seems to suggest that reading the U.S. tax code would be more interesting, but Economics and the Public Purpose is actually a great book. The writing is wonderfully crisp and engaging, and the ideas are something that everyone needs to become familiar with, even if they sometimes overreach a bit.

Galbraith is a famous liberal economist, born in Canada in 1908 and somehow still alive. He wrote this book as part of a series which also includes The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society. I haven't read anything else by him, but if I do, I'll blog about it, and perhaps one of you can tell me about his other writings? Economics and the Public Purpose was written in 1970, and arguably the corporate climate has changed since then in ways that invalidate some of the book's arguments; however, I think most are still applicable.

As the title implies, the book is framed as a critique of economics (or as he calls it, "neoclassical economics") for not serving the public purpose. In particular, neoclassical economics assumes various things about markets that (a) are false and (b) obscure and thereby naturalize and strengthen existing power structures. These assumptions survive because of (b) and also because of their conceptual simplicity. Here are a few:

ideas from neoclassical economics
  1. Firms always try to maximize profits. (It might seem paradoxical that profits are zero in perfectly competitive markets, but this isn't a big problem either in theory or practice.)
  2. Sovereignty rests with consumers, whose tastes/needs dictate demand curves, and nature, which dictates supply curves. In particular, firms have no sovereignty, since if they try to do anything other than maximize profits they'll be replaced. (Even a firm in a monopoly position will be forced by its shareholders to maximize profits. Its shareholders have to, because they're mutual fund managers who will be fired if they don't. Or because if not, some aggressive new manager could borrow a few billion dollars, perform a hostile takeover and make higher profits. You get the idea...)
  3. Similarly for government. All government ultimately responds to voter will. Or maybe voter plus lobbyist will, and maybe voters are dumb, but still government officials have no meaningful agency of their own to exercise.
I've of course phrased these in ways where it should be obvious what's wrong with them.
problems with neoclassical economics
  1. Agency problems mean that corporations/governments are run in practice by managers (which Galbraith calls the 'technostructure') that are distinct from owners/voters. Monitoring is imperfect and costly.

    This idea has been enormously productive in economics, political economy and elsewhere. For example, perfect credit markets make persistent poverty hard to explain, since the higher marginal product of capital in India (or wherever) should cause American investors to prefer it to loser GM stock. This would mean that a country's starting amount of cash should dictate only its level of consumption, while production moves to wherever it's most efficient (assuming free trade). The problem is that prospective borrowers don't have collateral, and it's too hard to keep them from disappearing with the money they've borrowed. As a result, everyone invests (inefficiently) in rich countries and poor countries stay undeveloped. Microcredit seems like a good, if limited, answer to this problem.

    There are actually a lot of other interesting stories of agency problems, but I'll save them for another post, so I can focus on what Galbraith is talking about.

  2. Firms no longer try to maximize profits. Instead their first goal is growth, as long as profits are high enough to avoid bankruptcy or a takeover. This is because profits (mostly) go to owners, but the technostructure mostly benefits from growth, through promotions, increased market power and better job security. (Arguably corporate shakeups in the last few decades have weakened this argument, though much of it still rings true.) The only time profits become an issue are when there's the possibility of takeover, shareholder revolt, or some other kind of external threat, which is not too often if things are going decently.

    Some people have a hard time believing this point. If so, here's a useful thought experiment. Would you rather run a small dry cleaning business that gets 20% returns on capital, or be the CEO of GM in a year where the company loses 1% of its value?

  3. Firms no longer react passively to consumer demand, government regulation and market prices. Instead they can shape these with advertising, lobbying/regulatory capture and by using their market muscle to dictate prices. Advertising and lobbying are obvious. Regulatory capture is when the corporate technostructure links up with the government technostructure and helps shape government action; the most famous example is the military-industrial complex, but the same principle applies to the FCC, EPA, FDA, etc...: Congress can pass laws, but the implementation has to be left to bureaucrats who can never be perfectly monitored and held accountable. Finally, having a large market share (the result of a focus on growth) means that large corporations have a good deal of freedom to negotiate their own prices. However, while a neoclassical monopoly or oligopoly should charge higher prices (and have lower sales, but higher profits), we actually see lower prices (and higher sales) since firms use their market power to promote growth rather than profits.
So (neoclassical) economics gets it all wrong. So what? What's so bad about implicit rule by the technostructure? (I should point out that Galbraith often reads like Chomsky. He has the same sweeping and blistering critiques of ideology and orthodoxy, and is refreshing in many of the same ways. Both are good remedies to Thomas Friedman, for example. Of course, he's frustrating in some of the same ways too; sometimes he treats the reader as though we've never read anything other than the standard party line, c.f. Goldstein's book. One of their main differences is that Galbraith is a liberal and Chomsky is a radical, so that Galbraith proposes solutions that, though counter-cultural, are more technical than revolutionary.)
Why rule by technostructure is bad
  1. Inefficiency: Like in USSR-style state capitalism, prices and levels of production are set arbitrarily, and therefore inefficiently. If we presuppose that a free market will maximize total welfare (first law of welfare economics), then this is in general suboptimal. However, Galbraith gives more specific and interesting problems.
  2. Underdevelopment of the market sector: First I should explain that Galbraith refers to large corporations as the "planning sector," meaning that they can exert control over prices, consumer demand, gov. regulation, etc., as opposed to the "market sector," which consists of small firms that don't have this power. Many economic activities naturally fall within the market sector and resist organization into large corporations: personal services, local businesses, artists that can't deliver standardized products, etc..

    Since the planning sector is stronger than the market sector, they get to treat the market sector like a poor stepchild, for example passing price increases on to it as they see fit. Also, the market sector is vulnerable to inflation and interest rate fluctuations in ways that the planning sector is not, as large corporations are often able to finance expansion using profits rather than debt.

    So we have less art, medicine and child care than we should, though these arguments always seem a little dicey to me. More compelling is...

  3. Overdevelopment of the planning sector: We overconsume things produced by the planning sector, like cars and Coke.

    It seems like this can't totally explain problems like suburban sprawl, though. Is it the planning sector's fault that we have too many cars and too few trains? Well, sort of, in that one part of the planning sector (car manufacturers) muscled out another part (trolley manufacturers, or whatever). But it's not like some general tilt of the playing field away from the planning sector and towards the market sector would help this.

    More interesting is that we overconsume period. Or rather, we overconsume products and underconsume services and leisure (i.e. work too hard). This is relevant to the planning/market distinction because many services naturally fit into the market sector (because small/local businesses are involved), while manufactured products tend to come from the planning sector. Advertising is one mechanism that makes this possible. Advertising has many different effects: encouraging consumption of a particular brand (Saab), encouraging consumption of that class of products (cars) and encouraging consumption in general as a solution to problems (angst, need to express personality but not knowing how). (Or I could mention the rush credo for pre-frosh weekend: "rush MIT, then rush Greek, then rush AEPi," with "rush college" left implicit.) A car company without much market share can only take advantage of building brand awareness, while a large company also benefits from new drivers entering the market, since they'll get a decent fraction of them. Thus, we expect the planning sector to advertise more heavily than the market sector. Not only is this part of their advantage over the market sector, it also encourages consumption of products in general as a road to happiness.

    However, advertising is only the crudest way that the planning sector shapes public thought. Beyond telling us what to consume, it also tells us what to think.

  4. Shaping ideology: This last point is tricky, because large corporations of course don't have Thought Police (for the most part) and outside of their marketing departments, don't usually try too hard to shape public thought. However, ideology follows power, and so it's inevitable that our values will be shaped by the planning sector: the difference between serious/frivolous, respectable/eccentric, etc...

    One example is the different way that we view science/technology and art. Advanced technology is naturally suited to the planning sector, because it relies on standardization, mass production, specialized labor, and so on, while art is not, since it's usually better if it's individually produced. Before the Industrial Revolution, art and science were considered comparably valuable, and as science and engineering became more useful to people in power, social values changed accordingly. On the other hand, maybe people just respect money, and that's why executives have higher status than performance artists. But that can't fully explain why we think some jobs should be higher paid than others; it's considered natural for artists to be poor, and in fact there's often the suggestion that their art is better if they don't expect to be paid for it (i.e. they don't "sell out"). No one would ever suggest doing the same for scientists, even if most scientists are similarly motivated more by interesting work than by money.

The way that the planning sector shapes ideology is worth dwelling on, since it's the first obstacle to reform. Galbraith uses the term convenient social virtue to describe values of the planning sector that have been internalized by mainstream culture in ways that make things cheaper, easier or more profitable (hence convenient) for the planning sector. For example, the military needs to convince millions of people to enlist and get salaries much smaller than civilian contractors doing similar jobs. This can be done on the cheap by promoting the virtues of patriotism and serving one's country; equivalently, one might say that soldiers are compensated partly by their salary, partly by their social role, which lets them be proud of themselves and gives them respect from the rest of society. For example, Vietnam vets complain that they were cheated out of the post-war respect that they considered their due. And compare the reactions of soldiers and of corporate lawyers when the work they do is criticized: soldiers need the cultural compensation in a way that people with higher pay and better working conditions never would.

Patriotism also has the side benefit of helping the government convince the population to go along with its policies, especially wars. Iraq is a good example, but in general, the political system in the U.S. finds wars almost irresistible. Dwelling on this point turns the idea of government responding to voter preference (e.g. the median voter theorem) on its head, in the same way that Galbraith critiques consumer sovereignty. It's far from a new idea (recall the Goering quote: "Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy,..."), but it's interesting how Galbraith unifies his critiques of modern capitalism and of modern democracy. Similarly, the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt famously said that "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception"” (e.g. who declares a state of emergency).

There are many other examples of the convenient social virtue, and how it enables the system to be run more cheaply. Teachers, for example, could be underpaid initially because other jobs were closed to educated women, and later by representing teaching as a form of national service, as in Teach for America. Similarly for social work. (To see this, observe that if these jobs had competitive salaries, we wouldn't need to think of performing them as "service.")

Another of Galbraith's examples is the idea of the hard-working small business owner. He says that while those with comfortable jobs in the planning sector wouldn't accept unpredictable unpaid overtime, this is a natural part of the life of a small business owner. They put up with it because of the status afforded to entrepreneurs, rather than for the financial benefit. This one seems kind of dubious to me, mostly because I've forgotten his argument as to why it should help the planning sector, but also because even highly-paid people in the planning sector (like consultants) often work long hours, and because there are natural reasons for small businesses to be more flexible than large ones in many things, including demands on their workers.

Finally, he describes patriarchal consumerist family life ("the American way of life") as a convenient social virtue that's key to most of the others. The idea is that maintaining a high level of consumption requires women to stay at home to organize it all (an assertion which I don't think has aged well), but also that suburban family life encourages consumption through competitive pressure. It's seen as virtuous for women to take care of kids and do housework (w/o much pay) and for men to work hard to support their families. (An alternative choice might be for both parents to work part-time, reduce their consumption of goods and raise their consumption of services, including outsourcing housework. Or the traditional family might be rejected altogether.) Neoclassical economics overlooks all of these issues by making the "household" the unit of analysis rather than the individual.

The problem with this whole "convenient social virtue" discussion is that agency often gets confused, and it oversimplifies to say that the planning sector both benefits from and creates these convenient social virtues. The examples Galbraith gives are good starting points, but a Foucault-style critique is probably more appropriate. For example, The Wages of Whiteness is one long examination of how White supremacy became dominant in 19th century America; White pride is mainly considered a convenient social virtue for lower-class White workers (i.e. they receive social/psychological "wages" from their Whiteness), but the book goes on to say some nonobvious things about the origins of this racism. If/when I blog about it, I'll explain in more detail.

This post is getting long, so I'll skip to the punchline.

how to make things better
He starts with a section called "The Emancipation of Belief," which says that we need to actively resist advertising and propaganda that supports the values that come from the planning sector, instead of imagining that we're protected by cynicism about the more outrageous claims of advertising. Of course, this isn't really a personal project, and he's a little vague about how to pursue it with most of civil society in the hands of the planning sector, but it's a good start. And he also says that universities are a good place to organize around, since the economic necessity of critical thinking in universities will preclude any 1984-style repression.

The next step is to use the state (specifically the legislature) to restore economic parity between the planning and market sectors. This means easy credit from the central bank (since the planning sector finances expansion with cash and only the market sector needs credit), precisely targeted price and wage controls (since the planning sector is already controlling prices and wages), a universal living wage (he responds to the claim that it'll encourage unemployment by saying that unemployment is preferable to degrading low-wage work once you've rejected the convenient social virtue which says otherwise), and various other liberal reforms. In an era of New Democrats, New Labour (with new New Deals), etc., it's refreshing to hear such an unapologetic and compelling defense of big-government liberalism, even if it's not all completely convincing.

Most of his arguments are still relevant in one form of another, and the writing is infinitely better and more enjoyable than the brief summary I've given above. Read it!

15 December 2005

Les causes des émeutes en France

For my evening French class I wrote a short piece about the riots in France. Since it's as interesting as anything else I post here, and since pretty much all my writing ends up either here or on the arxiv, I thought I'd share it. Plus, this way if I said anything stupid about France, someone here can correct me.

read French version of essay

Commençons avec les problèmes economique des immigrés et leurs descendants. C'est commun dans tout le monde que les immigrés arrivent pauvres, et soubirent la discrimination d'emploi et d'enseignement. En suite, c'est plus sur que leurs enfants manqueraient aussi de l'argent et de l'enseignement. Peut-être a cause des garanties d'emploi en France ce sera plus difficile de trouver l'emploi pour ceux qui ne sont pas déjà bien branchés. Et peut-être le fait que le systême d'enseignement français demande a une jeune âge des decisions importantes donne une avantage aux enfants avec des parents instruits? D'un autre coté, France a une système de protection sociale mieux que la plupart du reste de la monde. Mais peut-être ces programmes ne suffisent pas pour des communautés entières.

C'est improbable que tous les causes des émeutes sonts economiques. Le racisme est commun partout, mais en France elle est mélangée avec un nationalisme dangereux. Les vues racistes sur les français descendus des arabes ou des africains n'est pas qu'ils sont inférieurs, mais qu'ils ne sont pas vraiment francais. Ces vues sont associées avec la croyance du 19ème siècle qu'il y a une vraie identité française qui est culturelle et raciale, est qu'il faut la protéger des menaces étrangères. La forme la plus dégeulasse vient de la Front Nationale, dont les partisans disent que les immigrés (généralement non-Européens) constituent ce menace. Mais les formes de nationalisme defensifs plus bénins essaient aussi à protéger les fromages français contre les réglementations Européens, la culture populaire française contre l'Hollywood et la langue française contre l'empruntage des mots étrangères.

D'un autre coté, le nationalisme française essaie à éffacer les differences a l'intérieur de la France. Il n'y a pas de statistiques raciales, des lois contre la discrimination raciale, et surtout il n'y a pas une compréhension de l'identité comme quelque chose fondamentalement multiculturelle. Un exemple célèbre est la phrase ``nos ancêtres, les Gaulois,'' qui apparaissait dans les livres scholaires aussi tard que les années cinquantes dans la France et dans ses colonies. Malgré le fait que la plupart des français blancs ne sont pas descendus des Gaullois (leurs ancêtres etaient plutôt allemands), cette mythe culturel dit que les citoyens français avec des ancêtres africains (ou arabes, or portugais) ne sont pas vraiment français.

Cette contradiction en l'identité française est une raison que les émeutes sont si inquiétantes; elles sont un signe qu'il faudra laisser tomber les idées de la purété raciale et culturelle pour que on ait une société inclusive et democratique.

see my notes (in English) for the paper

for example, many immigrants arrive poor, face job + education disc. and pass on poverty and lack of education to their children. perhaps job security in france makes this worse for those without jobs? and perhaps the fact that the education system forces early decisions may also give an advantage to children with educated parents, and may make it harder to escape poverty, especially for culturally marginalized groups. on the other hand, france has better social programs than many countries; [remainder changed to ``but maybe these programs aren't enough to help entire communities.''] however, it is possible that they merely ameliorate the worst effects of poverty w/o helping people rise out of it. the problem of unemployment is not just a lack of income, it's also a lack of social integration.

codeterminted, but probably more significant is the problem of racism, here blended with french nationalism. racism directed against people of arab/african descent is not so much that they are inferior, but that they are not ``french.'' correspondingly, there is a strong notion of french identity that is reminscent of the 19th century ideas about racialized nationalism. on the one hand, we see frequently the idea that french culture, language, society and identity are under threat from the outside. the ugliest form of this is from the national front, who argue that immigrants constitute this sort of threat, and today call for their deportation. but milder forms of defensive nationalism also try to protect french cheese from EU regulations, french popular culture against Hollywood, french language against borrowing words from other languages.

on the other hand, french nationalism tries to erase differences within its borders. no statistics of race, no laws against discrimination, and most of all, no understanding of french identity as fundamentally multicultural. even in the 19th c, racial purity was a myth, and as late as the 1950's textbooks (in both france and her colonies) referred to ``our ancestors, the Gauls.'' (and even white French mostly have German ancestry - "nos ancêtres, les Gaullois" and general sentimentalizing of the Gauls were only invented ca. 1789 b/c they fit the politics of the time.) but these myths are the reason that french citizens whose ancestors are from africa (and not Gaul, poland, or portugal) are not considered french.

this refusal to acknowledge race is also why the riots are so troubling; they are a sign that ideas about racial/cultural purity will need to be dropped in order to establish a democratic and inclusive

Earlier I also prepared a talk for the class, which summarized a talk I had heard a year earlier about first & second-generation female Arab immigrants in France. Here are my semi-grammatical notes (in French), but you should really just google the prof I heard the original from to read more.

Pour mon discours, je vais resumer une conference que j'ai attendu l'année dernier. La conference s'appellé "des beurettes -- aux descendantes d'immigrantes nord-africains" et c'était donnée par Nacira Guenif-Souilamas, qui est une sociologiste a l'université de Paris.

Le mot "beurre" est verlan - on l'obtien par renverser les syllabes du mot "arabe" - et "beurette" veux dire une femme arabe. Déjá en regardant les mot, on peux voir que, quand on parle des jeunes arabes, souvent on s'occupe seulement avec les jeunes hommes arabes. On voix ca aussi avec la discussion sur les émeutes maintenant. Mais les jeune femmes francaise-arabe ont leurs propres perspectives, et leurs propres problemes.

La lecture que j'ai attendu était fondé sur des centaines d'entretiens que prof. souilamas a fait avec des jeunes femmes qui étaient nées en france avec des parentes nord-africains. Je vais concentrer sur seulement une de ses arguments, qui est que les voix dominantes en france disent qu'il faut proteger les femmes arabes contre la sexisme de la culture arabe et musulman. Souilamas a dit ensuite que cette position n'aide pas beaucoup les jeunes femmes arabes. Premierement, etre émancipé de la culture arabe est souvent quelque chose que elles ne veulent pas. Souvent elles choisissent les hijabs (head-scarves?) que leurs meres ont abandonné, ou elles sont plus conservative sexuellement; peut-etre comme facon de s'exprimer et revendiquer leur identité (well, to express themselves by asserting their culture..). Deuxiemement, l'injoction de devenir francais enseigne aux jeunes femmes que leur culture ne vaux pas beaucoup; donc quand elles écoutent cette message, elles parfois acceptent et intériorisent cette racisme. Au meme temps, ca ne le rends pas plus facile assimilation, parce-que il reste encore la discrimation. Troisiemement, la sexisme qui vient des hommes arabes n'est pas souvent la problem la plus pire qu'elles ont. Souvent les hommes faisent pire en école et ont plus de chomage, et puis n'ont pas beaucoup de pouvoir pour maitriser les femmes. L'état, au contraire, peux enlever des droits plus facilement, comme la loi recu qui a interdit les hijabs dans les écoles. On n'osera pas interdire des practiques d'hommes, mais pour "proteger" les femmes, on enleves leur autonomie.

Tout ca n'est pas pour dire que c'est toujour mieux pour les jeune femmes arabe en france de choisir la culture arabe au lieu de la culture occidentale. Mais, ca sera idéale si elles avaient une vrai choix, et si elles seraient respectées n'importe quel choix elles ont fait.

02 December 2005

Experimental validation!

Publications are all well and good, but you only really know that you've arrived in physics when you (and collaborators) propose some "arbitrarily accurate composite pulse scheme" and some respected experimentalists actually implement it! "Hot damn!" you say? And rightfully so, but let's see their conclusions.
The more complex B4 and P4 sequences, although theoretically superior, do not perform well in practice.
Oh well. It can be hard not to take this personally, and feel, after long days in front of the blackboard/web browser, that as a researcher and even a person, I am "in practice quite poor," "less useful than initially expected" and even "highly sensitive to the presence of off-resonance and phase errors." Happily, though, I'm still "theoretically superior"!

On the other hand, I did recently propose a "bubble-collapse" theory that explained the noise electric kettles made, and after some pointless arguing about rival theories, designed and carried out an experiment that proved I was right. (Stir it and the noise goes away!) Nevertheless, it's probably good that I've moved to CS.

Beware the Phase Errors, my son!
The sigma_X that bites, the sigma_Y's that catch!
Beware the Homogeneous Broadening, and shun
The Far-Off-Resonance Bandersnatch!

p.s. If you're on a job committee for one of my collaborators, I should point out that our sequences are just optimized for one kind of error, and of course by ignoring others the practical performance will be worse. Our paper should be thought of more as introducing new techniques/frameworks for producing composite pulses than as providing ready-made sequences that can be put into experiments. But please read it yourself if you're not sure.

01 December 2005

reading is fun! (damental)

Proof that if you make your slogan jarringly annoying enough, people will remember it decades later.

But seriously, reading is a good idea, and I should be doing more of it. Soon I'll try to blogs review of the (embarassingly short list of) books I've read this fall. But here's the quick summary.

  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. It's ridiculous how I haven't read or seen this before! This play is so moving that I wanted to clap after finishing Act One, even though I was just reading a script. And it's still incredibly relevant (if a little patriarchal): for example, you could argue that Requiem for a Dream just updated it for the 90's. And it's so much better than On the Road, which seems to be a lot more popular.

    The rest are in order of increasing specificity and convincingness.

  • Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered by E.F. Schumacher. Classic 1970's critique of capitalism with a very Limits to Growth flavor. Argues that instead of prioritizing production through large-scale industry, we should focus on human fulfillment with smaller organizations. Nice ideas, but thoroughly missing is a look at the power relations that sustain the systems he criticizes. Without this, the whole thing starts to sound like those NYT editorials calling on the Bush administration to start respecting human rights. Plus the writing style often reminds me of management seminars and/or theology.
  • Economics and the Public Purpose by John Kenneth Galbraith. Classic 1970's defense of big-government liberalism. I would recommend it highly for the writing alone: crisp, witty, compelling and easy to read. I know the title makes it hard to argue this convincingly, but you really will enjoy reading this book. Anyway, I'll blog later about its contents in more detail, but for now will mention that its answers to the "why are things shitty?" question are much more specific and convincing than those in Small is Beautiful. It also proposes bold solutions that, while less convincing than the rest of the book (sometimes too radical, sometimes not radical enough, often dated), make a nice contrast with the usual alternative-less leftist whining.
  • The Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger. Explains how white working class racism emerged in 19th century America. Despite being much more academic and focussed than the above books, it's still very readable and engaging. I'll write later about how its specificity crushes Galbraith's arguments on the points where they clash. Also, almost all of its points are sadly still relevant today: how whiteness is constructed, why struggling separately against racial and economic oppression isn't likely to be successful, and how racism is so rarely about hatred. Again, the writing is inspiring; just check out the first few pages of the semi-autobiographical introduction (which you can do through amazon, or google book search) and you should be convinced to read the whole thing.
  • In the Shadow of "Just Wars": Violence, Politics, and Humanitarian Action. A collection of essays from Médecins sans Frontières staff, editted by Fabrice Weissman. Western political discourse usually misses the point so badly that it's offensive, especially when talking about poorer parts of the world. This book is an incredibly welcome counterpoint to that; but as it's late I'll keep this short. It discusses dozen humanitarian crises around the world, and critically reviews the responses to them. The results often aren't pretty, but I think we have a moral obligation to not to ignore them.
Wierdly, they all have a lot to do with money, though that wasn't my plan at the time.

Why have I read so little this year? I blame partly the thesis, but more the fact that I read too many blogs; for example, see this ironic blog post about how reading books is better.