The Poor May Not Be Getting Richer: But they are living longer, eating better, and learning to read

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

The Poor May Not Be Getting Richer: But they are living longer, eating better, and learning to read:

To illustrate this point, Kenny compares what has happened to life expectancy in Britain and India. The average age span in both countries was 24 years in the 14th century, but Britain then began a gradual rise, and by 1931 its life expectancy was 60.8 years, compared to just 26.8 for its colony. Since then, though, the numbers have begun to converge — by 1999, Indians lived on average to 63, while Brits nudged upward to 77.

One of the main reasons for the gap-closing is the fall of infant mortality. In 1900 Britain, the infant survival rate was 846 per 1,000 births, compared to 655 in India. Today, 992 British infants out of every 1,000 survive, compared to 920 Indians.
[...]
Kenny notes: “Broadly, the results suggest that it takes one-tenth the income to achieve the same life expectancy in 1999 as it took in 1870.

Why does it take so much less money to get these results than it used to?

Consider the virtuous circle of agricultural improvements, such as the way discovering how to properly use inorganic fertilizers boosted agricultural production, which increased the calories available to families, which in turn meant they didn’t need their kids to work the fields full time, thus permitting them to go to school to become literate, which enabled them to more effectively adopt even better farming techniques, and so forth. Literacy makes educating people about the germ theory of disease a lot easier. Once-expensive medicines like penicillin eventually cost only pennies per pill. Although building infrastructure remains relatively expensive, technology can leapfrog entire costly steps, as has been demonstrated by the lightning-fast growth of cellular-telephone adoption from zero to 1.5 billion people.

The world’s poor have clearly benefited enormously from spillover knowledge and technologies devised in the rich capitalist countries.

Hiring Someone Else To Potty-Train Your Kids, Teach Them to Ride a Bike

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

This is what parenting is all about: Hiring Someone Else To Potty-Train Your Kids, Teach Them to Ride a Bike:

It has come to this: It is now possible to outsource most aspects of parenting.

The burgeoning industry of services aimed at harried parents, which began with the likes of birthday-party packages at gyms and pizza shops, has expanded to the point where you can now hire someone to assist with everything from potty-training your toddler to getting your teenage daughter to agree to a passably modest prom dress. ‘Fussy baby’ services in Chicago, Denver, Brooklyn and Oakland, Calif., help comfort shrieking babies. In the New York suburbs, an entrepreneur has built a flourishing business by taking over one of the most timeless parental rituals of all: For $60 an hour he teaches kids to ride a bike.

‘Childwork, as I would call it, is one of our economy’s growth industries, as affluent parents try to balance work and family, deal with ever intensifying anxieties, and give their kids a leg up in the race for success,’ says Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Houston, who specializes in childhood.

Robotic Death from Above

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

Robotic Death from Above summarizes the state of aerial drones:

Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV) will make today’s piloted planes seem like flying bricks by comparison, with advantages too long to list here. For starters though, no pilot means a lighter, smaller, and cheaper aircraft. Large canopies, pilot displays, and environmental control systems will disappear.

‘The UCAV offers new design freedoms that can be exploited to produce a smaller, simpler aircraft, about half the size of a conventional fighter aircraft,’ according to the Federation of American Scientists. It would weigh only about one-third to one-fourth as much as a manned plane. Costs will also be slashed. Boeing’s X-45 UCAV will probably be a third the price of the forthcoming manned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to the defense policy website GlobalSecurity.org.

Moreover, typically 80 percent of the useful life of today’s combat aircraft is devoted to pilot training and proficiency flying. Therefore a UCAV would require a fraction of the maintenance time and spare parts of a manned vehicle.

You can forget about pilot fatigue since controls can easily be handed off to somebody else. Pilot error will be greatly reduced since the controller will never be worrying about losing his own skin.

The Regulatory Roach Motel

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

The Regulatory Roach Motel present an excellent analogy:

Imagine that our country had a strange law under which foreign citizens were entitled to rent homes here at bargain prices. For a while, our housing market operates relatively well despite this law. While foreign citizens take advantage of it, their numbers are small compared to the masses of Americans who continue to pay market rates, and those rates are high enough to encourage the construction of needed new housing.

But suddenly there’s a new development. A quirk is discovered in the law that allows foreigners to sublet their rent-controlled units to Americans. In fact, they can rent and sublet limitless numbers of units in this manner. As these bargains become publicized over the Internet, more and more Americans get their housing by subletting from foreigners. Soon this form of renting takes over the entire rental housing market. At first it seems like a great deal for American tenants, but eventually it does what all price controls do — it destroys the incentive to produce more goods. Housing stocks deteriorate as existing housing falls into disrepair and no new units are constructed. As one economist has pointed out, “rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city — except for bombing.”

The drive to legalize drug reimportation is surprisingly similar to the imposition of rent control after World War II. There are currently several proposals to legalize the growing consumer practice of purchasing drugs from abroad at lower prices that what they sell for here. These cheaper prices do not result from lower production costs or economies of scale. They result from the fact that most foreign countries impose price controls on these drugs, and those controls are often backed up by the threat of breaking the drug’s patent if its manufacturer objects.

More Gas for Washington

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

In More Gas for Washington, Arnold Kling presents some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations to demonstrate the economics of super-fuel-efficient (500 mpg) cars:

A car’s annual fuel cost is ($/gallon) times (gallons/mile) times miles. So, if we drive a car 10,000 miles a year and gas costs $2.50 per gallon, then our annual fuel cost is $25,000 times the gallons per mile. If gallons/mile goes from .04 yesterday (25 miles to the gallon) to .002 ‘right now,’ our fuel bill goes from $1000 to $50 (assuming we do not increase our driving). Converting these annual savings to a present value by multiplying by 10 (corresponding to an interest rate of roughly 10 percent), we would pay $9,500 more for a car that gets 500 miles to a gallon than for a car that gets 25 miles to the gallon.

The auto companies sell 15 million vehicles a year. If they could get $10,000 more per car, that would be $150 billion more per year in revenue. If the economics of the fuel-efficient car do not work for $150 billion per year, then a $12 billion subsidy spread over several years is not going to make much difference.

Meanwhile, sending more money to Washington is like sending more coal to Newcastle.

The Man Who Shot Sin City

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

The Man Who Shot Sin City explains how Robert Rodriguez earned Frank Miller’s trust:

Rodriguez made Miller a simple offer: Come to Texas and shoot with me for a day. If you like what you see, we’ll make a deal. If not, the short film is yours to keep. Miller accepted and flew to Rodriguez’s digital back lot outside of Austin. Inside a massive soundstage outfitted with a 30-foot-tall green screen and the latest Sony hi-def cameras, Miller watched as actors Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton performed a scene lifted straight from ‘The Customer Is Always Right,’ a decade-old short story in the Sin City series. After the shoot, Rodriguez cut the footage in his editing bay, laid down a few special effects, and added music — all that same day.

Rodriguez uses new technology to work outside the system — not unlike Lucas:

With his own Sony HD cameras, a Discreet visual effects system, four Avid digital editing machines, and XSI animation modeling software, Rodriguez can make truly independent films — and for less money than traditional Hollywood directors. “It’s like going back to the old video days,” Rodriguez says, “when you could run around in your backyard and shoot a movie.”

The directors’ guild wouldn’t let Rodriguez list Miller as his co-director:

A week before Sin City began shooting, the Directors Guild of America called to inform Rodriguez that he and Miller couldn’t be listed as codirectors in the movie’s credits. It would be a violation of DGA rules. (This reg doesn’t apply to the Wachowski or Hughes brothers, who are granted DGA waivers for being “bona fide teams.”) Rodriguez was stunned when the DGA threatened to shut down production. Rather than dump Miller, Rodriguez resigned from the guild. “Down here in Texas, it’s like those rules don’t apply,” he says. “So if I leave, I can do anything I want and don’t have to worry about someone coming up behind me who’s still in the dinosaur age, saying, Hey, you can’t do that; you can’t make movies like that.”

I’ve been waiting to see Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars on the big screen for a long, long time:

Paramount Pictures had slated Rodriguez to helm the $100 million sci-fi epic A Princess of Mars, the first book in a series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which Tinseltown thinks could be the next megafranchise. But as a DGA signatory, Paramount can’t hire a nonunion director. Execs gave the film to guild director Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).

Filming a graphic novel can be a technical challenge:

“This movie wouldn’t even be possible if I shot it on film,” Rodriguez says, explaining how difficult it is to capture pure black and white on camera. His workaround: Shoot the actors against a green screen and add most of the backgrounds digitally in postproduction (“All of the guns and cars are real,” Miller points out). Even small details like Sin City’s signature “white blood” proved to be an effects challenge. Regular movie blood didn’t cut it. Instead, the crew used fluorescent red liquid and hit it with a black light. This allowed Rodriguez to turn the blood “white” in postproduction. Likewise, the novel’s few splashes of color proved troublesome. Yellow and green react with green screens, causing color to spill into the background and making them impossible to separate. So during shooting Rodriguez painted the villain, Yellow Bastard, blue — and then colored him yellow in post.

Teacher Frees Leg From Shark’s Jaw

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

From Teacher Frees Leg From Shark’s Jaw:

A British surfer attacked by a great white shark described Wednesday how he kicked and lashed out wildly to free his leg from the shark’s jaws, which sliced his flesh “like a knife through butter.”

Chris Sullivan was surfing with friends Monday when the 13-foot shark attacked.

“It came up slow and I saw its eyes and it looked really dark gray,” said Sullivan, sitting in a wheelchair at a clinic. “I turned and I saw the underneath of its belly. Then I saw its mouth. Then it grabbed hold of my leg.”

“I started lashing out, hitting it. I think I kicked it. I pulled the leg out. It felt like a knife through butter and I thought ‘oops,’” said the school teacher who has traveled the world in pursuit of his surfing passion.

Sullivan, 32, said he managed to stay on his surf board and catch a wave back to shore, where a local veterinary surgeon who had also been surfing applied an emergency tourniquet to his leg.

Sullivan needed 200 stitches in his calf.

Sounds like it turned out pretty well. It could have, of course, gone much worse:

The attack at Nordhoek on a stunning stretch of beach about 12 miles from Cape Town occurred at the same point where a bodyboarder was killed 18 months ago.

A great white bit off the leg of a teenage surfer one year ago nearby, and a 77-year-old swimmer was eaten by a great white in nearby Fish Hoek last October.

Clive Mortimer, the station commander of the National Sea Rescue Institute, said Sullivan was “extremely lucky,” to have escaped alive.

Sullivan’s no Ahab:

Sullivan dismissed suggestions that sharks deemed to be a threat should be culled.

“I haven’t got a problem with the shark,” he said. “I was in its water and I was stupid enough to go surfing where there was a lot of sharks.”

A Unified Theory of VC Suckage

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Paul Graham proposes A Unified Theory of VC Suckage:

But lately I’ve been learning more about how the VC world works, and a few days ago it hit me that there’s a reason VCs are the way they are. It’s not so much that the business attracts jerks, or even that the power they wield corrupts them. The real problem is the way they’re paid.

The problem with VC funds is that they’re funds. Like the managers of mutual funds or hedge funds, VCs get paid a percentage of the money they manage. Usually about 2% a year. So they want the fund to be huge: hundreds of millions of dollars, if possible. But that means each partner ends up being responsible for investing a lot of money. And since one person can only manage so many deals, each deal has to be for multiple millions of dollars.

This turns out to explain nearly all the characteristics of VCs that founders hate.

Return of the Mac

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Hacker (and painter) Paul Graham hails the Return of the Mac:

All the best hackers I know are gradually switching to Macs. My friend Robert said his whole research group at MIT recently bought themselves Powerbooks. These guys are not the graphic designers and grandmas who were buying Macs at Apple’s low point in the mid 1990s. They’re about as hardcore OS hackers as you can get.

The reason, of course, is OS X. Powerbooks are beautifully designed and run FreeBSD. What more do you need to know?

I got a Powerbook at the end of last year. When my IBM Thinkpad’s hard disk died soon after, it became my only laptop. And when my friend Trevor showed up at my house recently, he was carrying a Powerbook identical to mine.

For most of us, it’s not a switch to Apple, but a return. Hard as this was to believe in the mid 90s, the Mac was in its time the canonical hacker’s computer.

New Has-Beens to Live the ‘Surreal Life’

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

There’s a never-ending pool of has-beens out there. From New Has-Beens to Live the ‘Surreal Life’:

The new cast includes “America’s Next Top Model” judge Janice Dickinson, former slugger Jose Canseco, Sandi “Pepa” Denton of all-gal rap outfit Salt-n-Pepa, Bronson Pinchot from “Perfect Strangers,” Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth from the first season of “The Apprentice,” British model Caprice and motorcrosser Carey Hart.

Balki!

Grover and the Silver Bullet

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

From Arnold Kling’s Grover and the Silver Bullet:

When my kids were younger, one of my favorite bedtime stories for them was a Sesame Street book called “Grover?s Resting Places.” The most adorable scene is where Grover starts rummaging through a toy box looking for something. After he has strewn most of the contents of the box all over his room, he pauses and says, “Uh-oh. I had better be careful, or I will make a mess.”

Software almost always has a similar phase in the actual development lifecycle. Some time after the system has been in production, the business needs will tend to evolve in such a way that developers are forced to stretch it and modify it, piling up ad hoc code. Then, like Grover, the developers may pause and raise a concern that they might create a mess — when in fact the mess already is at hand.

The Fossil Fallacy

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Scientific American‘s The Fossil Fallacy notes that creationists’ demand for fossils that represent “missing links” reveals a deep misunderstanding of science:

Nineteenth-century English social scientist Herbert Spencer made this prescient observation: “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.”

The Feynman-Tufte Principle

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, was willing to speak to the Skeptics Society at Caltech in return for an unusual honorarium: the opportunity to see Feynman’s van. From The Feynman-Tufte Principle — A visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van:

Richard Feynman, the late Caltech physicist, is famous for working on the atomic bomb, winning a Nobel Prize in Physics, cracking safes, playing drums and driving a 1975 Dodge Maxivan adorned with squiggly lines on the side panels. Most people who saw it gazed in puzzlement, but once in a while someone would ask the driver why he had Feynman diagrams all over his van, only to be told, ‘Because I’m Richard Feynman!’

Japanese WW II sub found off Oahu

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

From Japanese WW II sub found off Oahu:

The wreckage of a large World War II-era Japanese submarine has been found by researchers in waters off Hawaii.

A research team from the University of Hawaii discovered the I-401 submarine Thursday during test dives off Oahu.
[...]
The submarine is from the I-400 Sensuikan Toku class of subs, the largest built before the nuclear-ballistic-missile submarines of the 1960s.

They were 400 feet long and nearly 40 feet high and could carry a crew of 144. The submarines were designed to carry three “fold-up” bombers that could quickly be assembled.
[...]
An I-400 and I-401 were captured at sea a week after the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Their mission, which was never completed, reportedly was to use the aircraft to drop rats and insects infected with bubonic plague, cholera, typhus and other diseases on U.S. cities.

Their mission was to drop rats and insects infected with bubonic plague, cholera, typhus and other diseases on U.S. cities.

The unsung role of Kung Fu in the Kyrgyz revolution

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

The unsung role of Kung Fu in the Kyrgyz revolution:

Many say people power brought down the regime in Kyrgyzstan last week. But Bayaman Erkinbayev, a lawmaker, martial arts champ and one of the Central Asian nation’s richest men, says it was his small army of Kung Fu-style fighters.
[...]
Erkinbayev is the wealthy playboy head of the Palvan Corporation, who led 2,000 fighters trained in Alysh, Kyrgyzstan’s answer to Kung Fu, to protests launched after the first round of a parliamentary election on February 27.

Kyrgyzstan is adjacent to China, to the west.