Inequality and Risk

Wednesday, August 31st, 2005

Paul Graham summarizes the link between Inequality and Risk:

Decreasing economic inequality means taking money from the rich. Since risk and reward are equivalent, decreasing potential rewards automatically decreases people’s appetite for risk. Startups are intrinsically risky. Without the prospect of rewards proportionate to the risk, founders will not invest their time in a startup. Founders are irreplaceable. So eliminating economic inequality means eliminating startups.

Economic inequality is not just a consequence of startups. It’s the engine that drives them, in the same way a fall of water drives a water mill. People start startups in the hope of becoming much richer than they were before. And if your society tries to prevent anyone from being much richer than anyone else, it will also prevent one person from being much richer at t2 than t1.

When you reduce inequality, you reduce risk, and that reduces growth:

Ok, so we get slower growth. Is that so bad? Well, one reason it’s bad in practice is that other countries might not agree to slow down with us. If you’re content to develop new technologies at a slower rate than the rest of the world, what happens is that you don’t invent anything at all. Anything you might discover has already been invented elsewhere. And the only thing you can offer in return is raw materials and cheap labor. Once you sink that low, other countries can do whatever they like with you: install puppet governments, siphon off your best workers, use your women as prostitutes, dump their toxic waste on your territory — all the things we do to poor countries now. The only defense is to isolate yourself, as communist countries did in the twentieth century. But the problem then is, you have to become a police state to enforce it.

Of course, no one’s goal is to stop high-risk startups:

The problem here is not wealth, but corruption. So why not go after corruption?

We don’t need to prevent people from being rich if we can prevent wealth from translating into power. And there has been progress on that front. Before he died of drink in 1925, Commodore Vanderbilt’s wastrel grandson Reggie ran down pedestrians on five separate occasions, killing two of them. By 1969, when Ted Kennedy drove off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, the limit seemed to be down to one. Today it may well be zero. But what’s changed is not variation in wealth. What’s changed is the ability to translate wealth into power.

How do you break the connection between wealth and power? Demand transparency. Watch closely how power is exercised, and demand an account of how decisions are made. Why aren’t all police interrogations videotaped? Why did 36% of Princeton’s class of 2007 come from prep schools, when only 1.7% of American kids attend them? Why did the US really invade Iraq? Why don’t government officials disclose more about their finances, and why only during their term of office?

Flashback: Psychiatric Experimentation With LSD in Historical Perspective

Wednesday, August 31st, 2005

The Canadian Psychiatric Association looks at the history of LSD in Flashback: Psychiatric Experimentation With LSD in Historical Perspective:

In 1938, in search of a new migraine medicine, Swiss biochemist Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD at the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Laboratories. It was not until 1943, when some of the liquid chemical substance spilled onto his hand, that Hofmann had the first recorded LSD “trip.” Three-quarters of an hour after absorbing some of the chemical into his skin, Hofmann experienced growing dizziness, some visual disturbance, and a marked desire to laugh. After about an hour, he asked his assistant to call a doctor and accompany him home from his research laboratory. In Hofmann’s mind, he was not on the familiar boulevard that led home but, rather, on a street painted by Salvador Dali — a funhouse roller coaster where the buildings yawned and rippled. Hofmann later wondered whether he had permanently damaged his mind. Hofmann’s serendipitous discovery of the chemical compound LSD introduced a new drug that subsequently inspired a flurry of medical interest.

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

1864 "Freedom Primer" for slaves scanned and posted

Tuesday, August 30th, 2005

Boing Boing points to a 1864 “Freedom Primer” for slaves scanned and posted:

Here’s a Flickr set of ‘The gospel of slavery: a primer of freedom,’ a book with engravings published in 1864. It takes the form of a series of poems about freedom and slavery, and is purely marvellous.

Make San Francisco the Leftwing Paradise It Hopes to Be

Monday, August 29th, 2005

James D. Miller makes his point with a silly suggestion in Make San Francisco the Leftwing Paradise It Hopes to Be:

San Francisco’s city supervisors voted 8-3 against allowing the USS Iowa to become a tourist attraction in their city. The battleship saw action in WWII, Korea and the Persian Gulf. One supervisor voting against the USS Iowa complained about the military’s treatment of homosexuals, another objected to America’s involvement in Iraq and said ‘I am sad to say I am not proud of the history of the United States of America since the 1940s.’

The vote against the USS Iowa shows that San Francisco is being treated unfairly by the U.S. military. Our military defends the people of San Francisco even though the city’s elected leaders want nothing to do with the military. All Americans should be horrified that the good leftists of San Francisco must suffer the crushing moral burden of being protected by a force their leaders so despise. I therefore propose that the U.S. armed forces withdraw their protection of San Francisco.

The U.S. military should announce that they will not retaliate against any military or terrorist attack that occurs in San Francisco so long as the attack is completely confined to this city.

The spice of life

Monday, August 29th, 2005

According to The spice of life, most “Indian” restaurants serve Bangladeshi food:

It was in the 1840s that lascars started jumping ship in the port of London (and Singapore, Southampton and New York too) and setting themselves up as cooks. Given that they all came from the same jungly patch of what is now Bangladesh, it was inevitable that their particular rice-heavy, pork-free cuisine came to represent ‘Indian food’ to the casual British mind. Even now, of the 8,000 Indian restaurants in Britain, the vast majority are run by Bangladeshis who come from what is still known at home as the ‘Seaman’s Zone’

Job Slayers

Monday, August 29th, 2005

Job Slayers looks (askance) at the minimum wage:

We’ve sometimes lampooned minimum wages by asking why politicians should merely stop at $7.25. If they’re such a great idea, why not $20 an hour, or for that matter why not pay everyone in America a Senate salary? But now we find that a group called Wider Opportunities for Women, which is funded by unions, has actually advocated a ‘living wage’ requirement of $24 an hour in San Francisco and $35 an hour in Manhattan, which of course would mean that hundreds of thousands of employed workers would suddenly have to make ends meet with a ‘living wage’ of zero.

The minimum wage is about the most ineffective poverty abatement program ever conceived. A new study by the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) estimates that Mr. Kennedy’s $7.25 wage law would add $18.3 billion of costs on mostly small and local businesses with typically thin profit margins — restaurants, hotels and retail shops. Only 13% of that money would go to families that can accurately be described as poor. The EPI study finds that only one out of every 11 minimum wage workers is the head of a poor household.

Gates of Fire

Sunday, August 28th, 2005

I don’t know how to describe Michael Yon’s Gates of Fire — his latest dispatch from Iraq — except to say that it includes insurgents outrunning a helicopter in their German sports car, close-quarters combat — really, really close quarters — lots of blood, green troops paralyzed with fear, and veteran troops not at all paralyzed with fear.

It takes a while to get to the good parts, but read the whole thing.

The Battle for Mosul: Reality Check

Sunday, August 28th, 2005

In The Battle for Mosul: Reality Check, Michael Yon explains the difficulty of making explosions connect with a target at the right time:

The Chinese first began using gunpowder a thousand years ago, and quickly realized that making a bomb and using it effectively are two different problems. They made rockets from bamboo, and invented grenades. The real challenge is making the explosions connect with a target at the right time, in the right way; meaning, there is an optimal point and moment for initiation. Achieving both of these simultaneously can be extremely difficult.

What’s true for simple IEDs also holds for large car bombs against armored targets — if the timing is off, by as little as a quarter-second as the vehicle drives by… BLAM! …everyone inside the vehicle might be fine.

Definitely watch the video clip.

Jungle Law

Sunday, August 28th, 2005

Michael Yon describes an ambush set for the insurgents by American troops in Jungle Law:

They planned an operation with snipers, making it appear that an ISF vehicle had been attacked, complete with explosives and flash-bang grenades to simulate the IED. The simulated casualty evacuation of sand dummies completed the ruse.

The Deuce Four soldiers left quickly with the “casualties,” “abandoning” the burning truck in the traffic circle. The enemy took the bait. Terrorists came out and started with the AK-rifle-monkey-pump, shooting into the truck, their own video crews capturing the moment of glory. That’s when the American snipers opened fire and killed everybody with a weapon. Until now, only insiders knew about the AK-monkey-pumpers smack-down.

He also cites a Captain Jeff van Antwerp who notes that most serious terrorists do not fear prison; they joke that they would pay 5,000 dinar per night to stay at Abu Ghraib — A/C, showers, good food, and clean water.

Why ‘Theology Is a Simple Muddle’

Sunday, August 28th, 2005

Lee Harris has written a lengthy essay, Why ‘Theology Is a Simple Muddle’, on religion and philosophy, and especially Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Evolution.

He takes a sympathetic look at the farmers — on the “wrong” side of the Scopes Monkey Trial — who didn’t want their children taught evolution:

If an elite group of men enter into a community and claim to possess a truth that no one in the community can judge for himself, by the standards of common sense that the community normally falls back upon to make judgment calls about the ordinary questions, then this elite group may be said to possess a gnosis — a Greek word that we shall use to indicate a special source of knowledge that gives cognitive authority to those who have it, and where those who lack this knowledge are in no position to be able to evaluate it. For example, if you tell me that a long series of numbers add up to 123, and if I can check your addition by adding these numbers for myself, either in my head, or on paper, or by means of a calculator, then we are not dealing with gnosis, because we each are capable of adding the sum, and because we both recognize the legitimacy of the other’s method: if our tallies conflict, we both agree that one of us has made a simple error in our calculations, and we will redo them until we find the error and are thus able to come to an agreement.

This, however, is not how gnosis works. With gnosis, one party claims to have a method for discovering truth that the other party lacks. It may be because the party claiming gnosis has received divine revelation whereas the other party has not. Or it may be because the privileged party has keener intuitions than the less privileged. The influential English literary critic F.R.Leavis, for example, argued that certain persons, like himself, have a special faculty for identifying great works of literature which normal people lack. Leavis could intuit the greatness of the novels of D.H.Lawrence by a process that is frankly a mystery to less gifted mortals such as myself, who would rather have an important appendage removed than to read another monstrosity like Women in Love. Or the elite claiming gnosis may base their cognitive superiority on their access to secret traditions and esoteric lore, passed down from generation to generation, and forever guarded from the undiscriminating eyes of the vulgar, in which case the cognitive elite approximates the sociological entity called a priestly caste.

When we discuss a priestly caste, the assumption is often made that the priests have deliberately chosen to make their knowledge inaccessible to the ordinary person. For example, the Chinese literati spared no efforts to keep a monopoly of reading and writing to themselves; and a similar tendency can be found in virtually every priestly caste. From this perspective, any claim about esoteric knowledge that cannot be shared with the general public is viewed as hogwash; if anything, the priestly caste has gone to trouble to make their pretended secret knowledge appear to be far more difficult to access than it really is-a device dubbed obscurantism.

Yet what about quantum physicists? Where do they fit sociologically? Their knowledge is inaccessible to the average person, at least without elaborate initiation into the mysteries. Yet do we wish to accuse quantum physicists of engaging in esoteric hocus-pocus in order to baffle and bewitch the masses into accepting their cognitive authority over them? That is going too far-and yet, what happens to a society where so much of what constitutes science is no longer comprehensible to the average layman, and where questions that touch very close to home can only be decided by an intellectual elite whose process of inference cannot be checked and verified by the man in the street?

I love this metaphor:

The Baptists and Methodists were missionaries to the periphery, and because they appealed to the laboring class and those who got their hands dirty, it had to address them in metaphors that they could understand — and not in bloodless abstraction. Logical arguments felt them cold; but stories they could understand. And that was what the Bible was — a set of entrancing Arabian night tales that allowed a man to hover for a spell in another world that was still so much like his own. To ask whether the stories were true was like asking a fan whether professional wrestling is real — We’d rather not think about it, thank you just the same, because we are enjoying our willing suspension of disbelief to the max, and we’d prefer not to have anyone quiz us about where Cain got his wife. It is like having a brainy kid sitting next to you during a sci-fi movie, who every now and then whispers smugly, ‘You know, that can’t really happen,’ in reference to some minor violation of the special theory of relativity.

Bush’s summer reading list

Saturday, August 27th, 2005

Bush’s summer reading list lists the books President Bush is bringing along on his working vacation — John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History, and Edvard Radzinsky’s Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar — as well as suggestions from a number of prominent folks around Washington.

(Hat tip to Dan Drezner, who recommended Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.)

Burned, Baby, Burned

Friday, August 26th, 2005

Burned, Baby, Burned examines the Watts riots of 1965:

The Watts riot began when white police officers stopped an intoxicated black driver in South Central Los Angeles. He resisted arrest and was forcibly subdued. A rumor quickly spread that the officers had beaten a pregnant black woman, and a growing mob started throwing rocks and bottles at the cops. The incident snowballed into a five-day conflagration, with blacks destroying a thousand businesses. Thirty-four people died, more than 1,000 were hospitalized and nearly 4,000 were arrested.

(Hat tip to

Slaves by the grace of God

Friday, August 26th, 2005

Slaves by the grace of God looks at slavery in the Muslim world. This excerpt from Islam’s Black Slaves reprints an article from 1956 (apparently describing the contemporary slave trade):

A trader would nudge a slave’s jaw with a stick and the man would open his mouth to display his teeth. Another probe with the stick and he would flex his arm muscles. Young women were forced to expose their breasts and buttocks. A dispute developed over the virginity of a tall young ebony woman, and during the hour-long argument she was forced to squat while one of the most prominent buyers examined her with his fingers. She was terrified; her trembling was visible fifty yards away.

Occasionally children were sold in batches. They did not cry, mainly, I think, because they had no tears left, but they held tightly to one another and kept looking around as if for help. Boys of about ten or twelve had their anuses examined; homosexual buyers are fussy about disease.

It was even worse in the old days, it would appear:

There are other issues relating to slavery where sharia commands a particular course of action, but Muslims generally found ways to skirt the letter of the law. For instance, castration is banned in Islam, but eunuchs were omnipresent in Muslim courts. How was this so? There were multiple avenues of recourse. In some places non-Muslims specialized in castrations, in Al-Andalus it was Jews, in the Ottoman Empire it was Christians. In other cases slaves were castrated outside of Muslim lands, so that Prague in Christian Bohemia became a center for the generation of eunuchs for Ottoman service. In Africa the Muslims were often castrated en route. Sometimes, castration was attributed to a “mistake,” the slaves were sent to a barber who was going to circumcise them and he simply grasped their genitals and sliced everything off (while European slaves generally had their testicles removed, black slaves had both testicles and penis removed).

(Hat tip to

History, geography, society and Islam

Friday, August 26th, 2005

History, geography, society and Islam asserts that Islam fits the “contested areas” of the Middle East:

Geography has always made the Middle East, Central Asia and Northern India radically contested areas repeatedly plagued by conquerors, movements of peoples, and fluctuating despotic empires run by foreigners. As a result, in that part of the world it has been every man — or rather every small group — for itself. A radically divided form of society developed that featured intense local loyalties and enmities and lacked any civic feeling or public life. It is in that kind of society (or rather asocial state) that Islam began and has mostly existed.

Under such circumstances the things outsiders complain about in Islam and Muslim life become comprehensible. If social life is basically war then force and fraud become the two cardinal virtues. Suspicion, double-dealing, treachery, political corruption, and sporadic violence become permanent features of what passes for public life. Honor becomes everything. Women become prey who must be kept secluded and watched closely to prevent capture. And without social trust political reasonableness becomes impossible.

(Hat tip to

Betting on Peak Oil

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

Steven Levitt makes an eye-opening point in Betting on Peak Oil:

Imagine that a brilliant inventor came along and said that he had invented a pill you could drop into a gallon of distilled water to turn it into gasoline. How much would you be willing to pay per pill? For most of the last 50 years, the answer is next to nothing, because a gallon of gas usually costs about the same as a gallon of distilled water.