Plato’s Republic or Milton Friedman’s Market?

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Plato’s Republic or Milton Friedman’s Market?, Arnold Kling asks:

I call this the Fundamental Problem of Political Economy. How do we limit the power that idiots have over us?

One solution, that might be traced to the expression ‘philosopher-king’ associated with Plato, is to hand the reins of government to the best and the brightest. Since the late 19th-century, the Progressive Movement in American politics has championed this approach. The Progressive vision, which DeLong embraces, is to channel brains and technical know-how through government in order to improve people’s lives. One hundred years ago, they sought to prohibit alcohol. Today, they are going after trans fats. One hundred years ago, they favored eugenics, based on the then-new science of evolution. Today, they embrace anti-growth economic policies, based on the contemporary science of happiness. Indeed, we get headlines like ‘Tories promise to make happiness a priority’.

The other way to avoid having our lives run by idiots is to limit the power that others have over us. This is the approach that was embedded in our Constitution, before it was eviscerated by the Progressives. It is the approach for which Milton Friedman was a passionate advocate.

Steve Wozniak in Founders At Work

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Jessica Livingston, a founding partner at Y Combinator, interviews Steve Wozniak for her new book, Founders At Work:

The Apple I, oddly enough was probably more important [than the Apple II], because it said that a computer of the future is going to have a keyboard and a video display and it’s going to look like a typewriter. It’s going to be roughly that size. And it’s funny, but every computer since the Apple I, including the Polymorphics technology Sol computer that came next (it was out of our club), had a keyboard and a video display. No computer had done this before that. No small computer was coming with a keyboard yet. The Apple I was the first and the Apple II was the third. Basically every computer since then had a keyboard and a video display. The world has never gone back from that day.

What kind of person goes on to develop the Apple I?

Livingston: You were designing all of these different types of computers during high school at home, for fun?

Wozniak: Yes, because I could never build one. Not only that, but I would design one and design it over and over and over — each one of the computers — because new chips would come out. I would take the new chips and redesign some computer I’d done before because I’d come up with a clever idea about how I could save 2 more chips. “I’ll do it in 42 chips instead of 44 chips.”

The reason I did that was because I had no money. I could never build one. Chips back then were… like I said, to buy a computer built, it was like a downpayment on a good house. So, because I could never build one, all I could do was design them on paper and try to get better and better and better. I was competing with myself. But that’s just the story of how my skill got so good. It’s because I could never build anything, I just competed with myself to come up with ideas that nobody else would come up with.

The Terrifying Toothpick Fish

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Alan Bellows calls it The Terrifying Toothpick Fish, but some of us know it as the dreaded candirú:

Though the candirú is a parasite, humans are not among its viable hosts. It lingers in the murky darkness at the river’s bottom, quietly stalking its neighboring fish. Light is scarce in the soupy deep, but the candirú does not need to see… it can taste the traces of urea and ammonia that are expelled from breathing gills.

The tiny hunter shadows its prey, almost invisible due to its translucent body and small size. When the target fish exhales, the candirú detects the resulting flow of water and makes a dash for the exposed gill cavity with remarkable speed. Within less than a second it penetrates the gill and wriggles its way into place, erecting an umbrella-like array of spines to secure its position.

Unconcerned with the host’s panicked thrashing, the firmly anchored parasite immediately nibbles a hole in a nearby artery with its needle-like teeth, feasting upon the bounty that gushes forth. Within two minutes the candirú’s belly is swollen with the blood of its victim, and it retracts its gripping barbs. Though it may seem that the exploited host fish has escaped, its injuries are so extensive that chances of survival are grim. Meanwhile the victorious attacker slinks back into the river’s dark places to digest its meal.

There are many troubling stories regarding human run-ins with the candirú, though until recent years these were not given much credence by the medical community. It is not uncommon for people swimming or bathing in the river to urinate in the water, an action which creates tiny water currents that are rich in urea and ammonia. It seems that the tiny, slender catfish cannot always distinguish a urinating human from an exhaling fish gill, and on occasion it will attempt its trademark high-speed attack on some unfortunate soul.

You may not want to read the rest.

Elites to Anti-Affirmative-Action Voters: Drop Dead

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

In Elites to Anti-Affirmative-Action Voters: Drop Dead, Heather Mac Donald harshly examines how California’s universities have resisted Prop 209, despite its tremendous voter support:

That diehard center of race and gender obsession has managed to stay out of court (except for one sweetheart suit brought by pro-preference advocates) through fiendishly clever compliance with the letter of the law, while riding roughshod over its spirit. In doing so, university officials have revealed a fatalism about the low academic achievement of blacks and Hispanics that they would decry as rankest bigotry in a 1950s southerner.

After Prop. 209’s passage, UC Berkeley, like the rest of the UC system, “went through a depression figuring out what to do,” says Robert Laird, Berkeley’s pro-preferences admissions director from 1993 to 1999. The system’s despair was understandable. It had relied on wildly unequal double standards to achieve its smattering of “underrepresented minorities,” especially at Berkeley and UCLA, the most competitive campuses. The median SAT score of blacks and Hispanics in Berkeley’s liberal arts programs was 250 points lower (on a 1,600-point scale) than that of whites and Asians. This test-score gap was hard to miss in the classroom. Renowned Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle, who judges affirmative action “a disaster,” recounts that “they admitted people who could barely read.”

The downward trajectory of those students was inevitable, Searle says. “You’d be delighted to find that your introductory philosophy class looked like the United Nations, but that salt-and-pepper effect was lost after six to eight weeks,” he recalls. “There was a huge dropout rate of affirmative-action admits in my classes by mid-terms. No one had taught them the need to go to class. So we started introducing BS majors, in an effort to make the university ready for them, rather than making them ready for the university.” Searle recalls a black studies class before his that was “as segregated as Mississippi in the 1950s.” One day, Searle recounts, the professor had written on the blackboard that a particular tribe in Africa “wore colorful clothing.”

Even though preference beneficiaries often chose the easiest majors—there were, and still are, virtually no blacks and Hispanics in the most competitive engineering and computer science majors, for example—graduation rates also reflected the qualifications gap. The average six-year graduation rate for blacks and “Chicanos” (California-speak for Mexican-Americans) admitted from 1991 to 1997, the last year of preferences, was about 20 percent below that of whites and Asians. The university always put on a happy face when publicly discussing the fate of its “diversity” admits. Internally, however, even the true believers couldn’t ignore the problems. A psychology professor at UC San Diego recalls that “every meeting of the faculty senate’s student affirmative-action committee was a lugubrious affair. They’d look at graduation rates, grades, and other indicators and say, ‘What we’re doing is failing.’ ”

Eagle lugging a deer head causes outage

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Eagle lugging a deer head causes outage:

About 10,000 Juneau residents briefly lost power after a bald eagle lugging a deer head crashed into transmission lines.

Colorado: A Model for the Nation

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Colorado: A Model for the Nation?:

Colorado’s new law banning state spending on illegal immigrants has cost more than $2 million to enforce — and has saved the state nothing.

Less than a year after politically charged debates on illegal immigration, officials are reporting high costs, no savings and unexpected problems with the new laws….

Eighteen departments reported adding $2.03 million in costs while not saving any money. None of the departments could say how many, if any, illegal immigrants were being denied state-funded services.

Unhappy Meals

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

In Unhappy Meals, Michael Pollan reduces his diet advice to a few words:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

He then goes on to examine the history of nutritionism.

How sunshine triggers skin repair

Monday, January 29th, 2007

Rachel Nowak explains how sunshine triggers skin repair:

A blast of sunshine could help fight skin diseases and cancer by attracting immune cells to the skin surface, according to a new study.

Eugene Butcher at Stanford University in California, US, and colleagues discovered an interesting immune process in human skin. Immune cells in the skin, called dendritic cells, convert vitamin D3 (produced in exposed skin in response to sunlight) into its active form.

This “active” vitamin D3 then causes T-cells to make surface changes that allow them to migrate to the uppermost layer of the skin, Butcher’s team found. T-cells are the immune cells that destroy damaged and infected cells, and they also regulate other immune cells.

The findings explain how T-cells “know” to go to the skin’s surface once the skin has suffered some sun-induced DNA-damage, the researchers say.

“Sunshine is good for you, as long as it’s not too much,” says team member Hekla Sigmundsdottir.

List of gear for Afghanistan

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

I feel remarkably comfortable and content after reading this recommended list of gear for Afghanistan.

Randy Couture in Pros vs Joes

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

This video of Randy Couture in Pros vs Joes is great sadistic fun, particularly when the second “regular Joe” to go against him — in submission wrestling, not mixed martial arts — is introduced as a US Army close combat instructor.

Splendid Specimens: The History of Nutrition in Bodybuilding

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

In Splendid Specimens, Randy Roach examines “The History of Nutrition in Bodybuilding” — and includes this Daily Menu for the Three Saxon Brothers, from more than a century ago, as an appendix:

24 eggs
3 pounds smoked bacon
Porridge with cream and honey
Tea with plenty of sugar

10 pounds of meat
Sweet fruit (raw or cooked)
Sweet cakes
Sweet puddings
Cocoa and whipped cream

Cold meat
Smoked fish
Lots of butter and cheese

Incomes and Inequality: What the Numbers Don’t Tell Us

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

Tyler Cowen examines Incomes and Inequality: What the Numbers Don’t Tell Us:

Much of the measured growth in income inequality has resulted from natural demographic trends. In general, there is more income inequality among older populations than among younger populations, if only because older people have had more time to experience rising or falling fortunes.

Furthermore, more-educated groups show greater income inequality than less-educated groups. Uneducated people are more likely to be clustered in a tight range of relatively low incomes. But the educated will include a greater range of highly motivated breadwinners and relaxed bohemians, and a greater range of winning and losing investors. A result is a greater variety of incomes. Since the United States is growing older and also more educated, income inequality will naturally rise.

How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days

Friday, January 26th, 2007

Kyle Gabler, Kyle Gray, Matt Kucic, and Shalin Shodhan share the lessons they learned as part of the Experimental Gameplay Project at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and explain How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days. They even provide a Handy Cut-Out List summarizing their points:

Setup: Rapid is a State of Mind
  • Embrace the Possibility of Failure – it Encourages Creative Risk Taking
  • Enforce Short Development Cycles (More Time != More Quality)
  • Constrain Creativity to Make You Want it Even More
  • Gather a Kickass Team and an Objective Advisor – Mindset is as Important as Talent
  • Develop in Parallel for Maximum Splatter

Design: Creativity and the Myth of Brainstorming

  • Formal Brainstorming Has a 0% Success Rate
  • Gather Concept Art and Music to Create an Emotional Target
  • Simulate in Your Head – Pre-Prototype the Prototype

Development: Nobody Knows How You Made it, and Nobody Cares

  • Build the Toy First
  • If You Can Get Away With it, Fake it
  • Cut Your Losses and “Learn When to Shoot Your Baby in the Crib”
  • Heavy Theming Will Not Salvage Bad Design (or “You Can’t Polish a Turd”)
  • But Overall Aesthetic Matters! Apply a Healthy Spread of Art, Sound, and Music
  • Nobody Cares About Your Great Engineering

General Gameplay: Sensual Lessons in Juicy Fun

  • Complexity is Not Necessary for Fun
  • Create a Sense of Ownership to Keep ‘em Crawling Back for More
  • “Experimental” Does Not Mean “Complex”
  • Build Toward a Well Defined Goal
  • Make it Juicy!

A Girl Like Me

Friday, January 26th, 2007

A Girl Like Me is a short documentary video by a 16-year-old black girl named Kiri Davis.

The truly fascinating part comes about half-way through, when she repeats an old social psychology experiment from the 1950s and asks young black kids which doll they’d like to play with, the white doll or the black doll.

Whatever Hits the Fan is Never Evenly Distributed

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

John Jay’s latest article, Whatever Hits the Fan is Never Evenly Distributed, explores the nature of social progress and conservatism. He opens it with a passage from from an interview with a Japanese Colonel Sumi, “talking about how the WWII generation wasted the gains of the Meiji and Russo-Japanese war generations”:

When a man is bringing up a household he has to be capable enough himself, and work hard. This is true in business or any other activity. Whereas the father starts from scratch, the second generation doesn’t have to work so hard or have to face such travails. Still the son knows how hard the father struggled, and is able to carry on the business. Then comes the third generation boy, with no recollection of the difficult life of his father or grandfather. The grandson is very well educated, extremely cultured and sophisticated. He is superb in calligraphy and uses it to paint a sign: “House for rent”

John Jay notes that “in medieval times this was called the wheel of fortune,” and it seems to apply to societies as well as families:

If I take a step or two back and look at recorded history with a macro view, I get the feeling that the fact that mankind has an extremely short recorded and civilized history relative to our species’ past is extremely important. Each generation of a successful society (prior to the modern world) wasn’t quite sure what parts of its culture contributed to its success, so it clung to tradition like a security blanket. That kept society going, but it perpetuated some ugly habits, too. We cling to some counter-productive habits, such as racism and sexism, but in their day, when other automatically meant danger, and when large numbers of women who didn’t produce lots of kids meant societal death, those were survival traits.

We are slowly casting off the bad habits of millennia, habits developed to defend against societal death in an age of scarcity, famine, and unpredictable natural and man-made disasters. Some of those habits are retarding progress in our modern world, and some are part of the over-stressed glue that holds us together. Trouble is, because of our limitations in making dynamic models that include a temporal dimension, we can’t always predict the effect of eliminating a habit of thought.

So, as Zenpundit pointed out, the opposite of progress can happen, too, when societies get to the third generation outlined by the Japanese Colonel, and decide to do away with all those notions to which the old fogies cling, forgetting that the experiences of the previous generation shape the next one – change the experience of your kids’ generation, and the grandkids may well grow up wild. The modern West, especially the generation of ’68, has assumed that the material success it enjoyed was either accidental or inevitable, and so set about dismantling social constructs that did not meet the approval of the avant garde, sometimes finding out the forgotten reasons for creating those ancient constructs when things fell apart.

He cites a long passage from Jane Galt’s really, really, really long post about gay marriage that does not, in the end, support one side or the other:

Marriage, it turns out, is an incredibly important institution. It also turns out to be a lot more fragile than we thought back then. It looked, to those extremely smart and well-meaning welfare reformers, practically unshakeable; the idea that it could be undone by something as simple as enabling women to have children without husbands, seemed ludicrous. Its cultural underpinnings were far too firm. Why would a woman choose such a hard road? It seemed self-evident that the only unwed mothers claiming benefits would be the ones pushed there by terrible circumstance.

This argument is compelling and logical. I would never become an unwed welfare mother, even if benefits were a great deal higher than they are now. It seems crazy to even suggest that one would bear a child out of wedlock for $567 a month. Indeed, to this day, I find the reformist side much more persuasive than the conservative side, except for one thing, which is that the conservatives turned out to be right. In fact, they turned out to be even more right than they suspected; they were predicting upticks in illegitimacy that were much more modest than what actually occurred – they expected marriage rates to suffer, not collapse.

How did people go so badly wrong? Well, to start with, they fell into the basic fallacy that economists are so well acquainted with: they thought about themselves instead of the marginal case. For another, they completely failed to realize that each additional illegitimate birth would, in effect, slightly destigmatise the next one. They assigned men very little agency, failing to predict that women willing to forgo marriage would essentially become unwelcome competition for women who weren’t, and that as the numbers changed, that competition might push the marriage market towards unwelcome outcomes. They failed to forsee the confounding effect that the birth control pill would have on sexual mores.

But I think the core problems are two. The first is that they looked only at individuals, and took institutions as a given. That is, they looked at all the cultural pressure to marry, and assumed that that would be a countervailing force powerful enough to overcome the new financial incentives for out-of-wedlock births. They failed to see the institution as dynamic. It wasn’t a simple matter of two forces: cultural pressure to marry, financial freedom not to, arrayed against each other; those forces had a complex interplay, and when you changed one, you changed the other.

One last excerpt:

Most modern people take material progress for granted. Many on the Left see something wrong, and they want it corrected right now. They rarely ask more than rudimentary questions about how things got to be this way, and their mental models are usually lacking a time dimension. This is why I have such a huge problem with the historical revisionists who want to emphasize the slave-holding hypocrisy of many of the founding fathers or this or that other historical habit that offends modern sensibilities. It’s a form of temporal bigotry. American society of 1789 produced the children who became abolitionists of 1859. Why? Because those later generations had been given enough of a material advantage to be able to consider questions of morality. But they also carried on the traditions of their fathers, making them better. They had been given language in their political documents such as “all men are created equal”, and it fell to that later generation to begin to question the definition of “man”. But facing the slavery question head-on in 1789 would have destroyed the nascent confederation before it had time to grow abolitionists. I can celebrate the achievements of the generation of 1789 without buying in to their entire worldview.

Read the whole article.