Commentator’s Disease

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Beltway think-tanky types hang around almost entirely with other people in the 99th percentile of intelligence, and this, Fred Reed says, leads  them to develop commentator’s disease:

Denizens of this class know that if they decided to learn, say, classical Greek, they could. You get the book and go at it. It would take work, yes, and time, but the outcome would be certain.

They don’t understand that the waitress has an IQ of 85 and can’t learn much of anything.

Conservatives think in terms of merciless abstractions and liberals insist that everyone is equal. Not even close. Further, people with barely a high-school education and low-voltage minds regard any intellectual task with utter discouragement.
Liberal commentators want everyone to go to college, when about a fifth of people have the brains. Conservatives think that people can rise by hard work and sacrifice as certainly many people have. Thing is, most people can’t. Commentators only see those who made it.

The tendency of the Beltway 99th to live in an imaginary world, of conservatives to think that everybody can be a Horatio Alger, of liberals to believe that inequality arises from discrimination, guarantees wretched policy. Those who can do almost anything need to recognize the existence of those who can do almost nothing. Few of the latter are parasites. The waitress has worked all her life, as has the truck driver. They ended up with nothing.

Which is easy to do.

The Consequences of Nuclear Conflict between India and Pakistan

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

The National Resource Defense Council calculated the consequences of a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, first assuming a small exchange of air-burst weapons, and then assuming a larger exchange of ground-burst weapons, which would generate much more fallout:

NRDC calculated that 22.1 million people in India and Pakistan would be exposed to lethal radiation doses of 600 rem or more in the first two days after the attack. Another 8 million people would receive a radiation dose of 100 to 600 rem, causing severe radiation sickness and potentially death, especially for the very young, old or infirm. NRDC calculates that as many as 30 million people would be threatened by the fallout from the attack, roughly divided between the two countries.

Besides fallout, blast and fire would cause substantial destruction within roughly a mile-and-a-half of the bomb craters. NRDC estimates that 8.1 million people live within this radius of destruction.

Most Indians (99 percent of the population) and Pakistanis (93 percent of the population) would survive the second scenario. Their respective military forces would be still be intact to continue and even escalate the conflict.

A couple dozen small nukes may kill millions, but they don’t constitute Mutual Assured Destruction — which would be scary, but stable.

(Hat tip to Anatoly Karlin, who emphasizes that nuclear war is not necessarily a true Doomsday event.)

The Guy Alternative to Disney

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Steve Sailer reviews Toy Story 3 — good, but not 1024 times as good as the original, despite the march of Moore’s Law — and comments on Pixar’s not-quite-Disney culture:

In 1986, Pixar delivered 90 seconds of perfection with Luxo Jr., a father-son tale about table lamps playing catch. In retrospect, it established Pixar as the guy alternative to Disney’s gay pandering to the daddy’s little princess market. Pixar movies are made by men who have managed to extend their childhoods (Lasseter says, “Every animator is a child at heart”) into fatherhood.

Chimpanzee Gangs Kill for Land

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

It should surprise  no one that chimpanzee gangs kill for land:

To understand this violence, researchers studied a large group of chimpanzees living in Ngogo, Kibale National Park in Uganda. After monitoring the group for over a decade, scientists counted 21 chimp-on-chimp murders.

Of those crimes, the researchers witnessed 18 directly, and deduced three from circumstantial evidence. They think as many as 13 of the victims belonged to a single neighboring group.

“The take-home is clear and simple,” said researcher John Mitani of the University of Michigan. “Chimpanzees kill each other. They kill their neighbors. Up until now, we have not known why. Our observations indicate that they do so to expand their territories at the expense of their victims.”

After some of these neighboring competitors were dispatched with, the researchers observed the Ngogo chimpanzees beginning to use a large portion of new territory to the northeast of their previous range. That piece of evidence allowed the researchers to link the murders with a motive — that of gaining new ground.

The scientists think the new land offers greater access to food, and potentially to females.

The attacks seem to be triggered when bands of chimpanzees go out patrolling into the territory of a neighboring chimpanzee group.

“Patrollers are quiet and move with stealth,” Mitani said. “They pause frequently to scan the environment as they search for other chimpanzees. Attacks are typically made only when patrolling chimpanzees have overwhelming numerical superiority over their adversaries.”

This tends to happen often for the Ngogo chimpanzees, who have a particularly large group of more than 150 individuals — about three times the number found in chimp communities studied elsewhere. That advantage may explain the surprisingly high level of violence observed, the researchers said.

Electronics from 2010 as they would be marketed in 1977

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Alex Varanese re-imagines modern electronics from 2010 as they would be marketed in 1977:

Many artists have lazy eyes

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Ironically, many artists have lazy eyes:

By examining photographs of artists, Livingstone and her fellow researchers found that Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Marc Chagall, Jasper Johns, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder and others all had misaligned eyes. (And by studying the self-portraits and etchings of Rembrandt, she found he also seems to have had a strong lazy eye.) Why this pattern? She proposed that people who have less detailed three-dimensional vision of the world might have an easier time translating what they see onto the two-dimensional page — whether it was for a painting of a diner scene, sketch for a mobile or plan for a building.

Sweat the Small Stuff

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

According to Rory Sutherland, companies need Chief Detail Officers — with power, but no budget — to sweat the small stuff that’s really important to the customer:

Endless Streams of Mediocrity

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Advances in digital media have allowed countless amateurs to produce endless streams of mediocrity, Clay Shirky notes:

Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.

As Gutenberg’s press spread through Europe, the Bible was translated into local languages, enabling direct encounters with the text; this was accompanied by a flood of contemporary literature, most of it mediocre. Vulgar versions of the Bible and distracting secular writings fueled religious unrest and civic confusion, leading to claims that the printing press, if not controlled, would lead to chaos and the dismemberment of European intellectual life.

These claims were, Shirky notes, correct:

Print fueled the Protestant Reformation, which did indeed destroy the Church’s pan-European hold on intellectual life. What the 16th-century foes of print didn’t imagine — couldn’t imagine — was what followed: We built new norms around newly abundant and contemporary literature. Novels, newspapers, scientific journals, the separation of fiction and non-fiction, all of these innovations were created during the collapse of the scribal system, and all had the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual range and output of society.

To take a famous example, the essential insight of the scientific revolution was peer review, the idea that science was a collaborative effort that included the feedback and participation of others. Peer review was a cultural institution that took the printing press for granted as a means of distributing research quickly and widely, but added the kind of cultural constraints that made it valuable.

We are living through a similar explosion of publishing capability today, where digital media link over a billion people into the same network. This linking together in turn lets us tap our cognitive surplus, the trillion hours a year of free time the educated population of the planet has to spend doing things they care about. In the 20th century, the bulk of that time was spent watching television, but our cognitive surplus is so enormous that diverting even a tiny fraction of time from consumption to participation can create enormous positive effects.

Wikipedia took the idea of peer review and applied it to volunteers on a global scale, becoming the most important English reference work in less than 10 years. Yet the cumulative time devoted to creating Wikipedia, something like 100 million hours of human thought, is expended by Americans every weekend, just watching ads. It only takes a fractional shift in the direction of participation to create remarkable new educational resources.

A Malagasy Charter City

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Paul Romer came remarkably close to starting a Malagasy charter city — or two:

In July 2008, Romer made his first trip to Madagascar’s bustling capital, Antananarivo. Madagascar’s government was anxious to attract foreign investment, and it understood that a credibility deficit held it back. In an earlier bout of openness, the island had lured in foreign garment firms, but then the political climate turned hostile and the firms fled; now the government was having trouble enticing them to come back. Faced with this obstacle, the Malagasy authorities were open to unconventional arrangements. To boost investment in agriculture, they were ready to lease a Connecticut-size tract of land to Daewoo, a South Korean corporation, for 99 years. To boost investment in export industries, they were thinking about inviting a tiny Indian Ocean neighbor, Mauritius, to administer an export-processing zone on Malagasy territory. Romer’s proposal fit in with these adventurous ideas. He returned to Antananarivo in November 2008 and held another round of promising meetings with government officials. The final hurdle, he was told, would be to secure an audience with the president, a former businessman named Marc Ravalomanana. Nothing could happen without his say-so.
In public, Ravalomanana cut quite a figure. Handsome, youthful in appearance, and wealthy, he had started out selling homemade yogurt off the back of a bicycle and ended up holding a national monopoly on all dairy and oil products. But in private, Romer found the president quite approachable. Romer made his pitch for a charter city, and Ravalomanana responded that he wasn’t sure one was enough; if Romer could identify two rich countries willing to play the role of government trustee, it might be better to launch two parallel experiments. The president and the professor agreed that the new hubs should be open to migrants from nearby countries as well as to locals. They rose to examine a map of Madagascar on the study wall. Ravalomanana suggested building the first city on the island’s southwestern coast, which was largely uninhabited because of its dry heat. To Romer, the site sounded very much like the coastal locations that appeal most to the world’s affluent as vacation spots.
Even as Romer was meeting with Ravalomanana, the president’s main political opponent was sniping at the proposed lease of farmland to Daewoo, and the idea of giving up vast swaths of territory to foreigners was growing increasingly unpopular. The arrangement was denounced as treason, and public protests gathered momentum, eventually turning violent. In late January 2009, protesters tossed homemade grenades at radio and TV stations that Ravalomanana owned; looters ransacked his chain of supermarkets. In February, guards opened fire on marchers in front of the presidential palace, killing 28 civilians. At this, units of the army mutinied. Soon, Ravalomanana was forced out of office.

The first action of the new government was to cancel the Daewoo project, and Romer’s plans in Madagascar were put on hold indefinitely.

Elon Musk on Why His Rockets Are Faster, Cheaper and Lighter Than What You’ve Seen Before

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Elon Musk explains why his rockets are faster, cheaper and lighter than what you’ve seen before:

Some of what we’ve done is really just common sense — for example, using the same propellant in the upper and lower stages means that operationally, you only need to have one set of fuel tanks. If you can imagine a situation where you have a kerosene first stage, hydrogen upper stage, and solid rocket side boosters, you’ve just tripled your cost right there.

Also, the upper stage of Falcon 9 is simply a short version of the first stage. That may seem pretty obvious, but nobody else does that. They tend to create upper stage in a totally different way than they create the first stage.

The Merlin engine — we used it on the upper stage of Falcon 9, on the main stage of Falcon 9 and on the first stage of Falcon 1. So we get economies of scale in use of the Merlin engine.

Our tanks are friction steel welded, [aluminum] skin and stringer designed as opposed to machined aluminum, [giving us] a 20 fold advantage in the cost of materials, and our stage ends up being lighter… because geometrically, we can have deeper stringers.

So, yeah, those are some examples.

What’s wrong with this painting?

Monday, June 21st, 2010

If you haven’t watched the Cars and Freedom ad, by all means do so now. Joseph Fouché applies his dry wit with this comment:

That was completely historically inaccurate. George Washington was a much younger man when he was driving Dodge Chargers against the British.

Well played, Fouché. Well played.

That comment, of course, is normally applied to the 1851 painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emmanuel Leutze:

We are accustomed to seeing General Washington as a wise older gentleman, very similar to the paintings done of him as President. At the time of the Crossing, George Washington was only about 44 years of age. He was still fairly young looking — at least not graying — according to the other likenesses of him done in the mid to late 1770′s by contemporary artists. The gentleman in Leutze’s painting shows us an older man than Washington was instead of the middle-aged man who would have been present at the crossing.

The crossing was also at night, in bad weather, in a Durham boat with high sides and no seats — so everyone would be standing safely inside the boat. Oh, and it’s doubtful they would have had the Betsy Ross flag at that point.

Hollywood’s Miscast Villain

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Alex Tabarrok explains why capitalists are miscast as villains in Hollywood features:

Hollywood’s anti-capitalism is not accidental. It stems from three sources: the rage of directors and screenwriters against their own capitalist backers, the difficulty of using a visual medium to depict the invisible hand, and an ethical framework which Hollywood shares with most of our culture that regards self-interest as inherently immoral or, at best, amoral.

Artists see capitalists as constraining their vision, rather than making it possible:

Capitalists work hard to produce what consumers want. Artists who work too hard to produce what consumers want are often accused of selling out. Thus even the languages of capitalism and art conflict: a firm that has “sold out” has succeeded, but an artist that has “sold out” has failed.

Painters don’t resent the capitalists who sell them paint, because they don’t need their backing. But filmmakers need capitalists for financial support, and so their resentment toward capitalists is especially strong. University of Illinois law professor and movie analyst Larry Ribstein has written a paper arguing that filmmakers enter “a Faustian deal” in order to produce their art. Filmmakers see themselves as selling a part of their artistic soul to make their movies, and naturally they rage against the devil doing the buying. It doesn’t take a Freud to see that some of this rage comes pouring out on the screen.
Although Hollywood does sometimes produce leftist films like “Reds,” it has no deep love for socialism (check out the Porsches in the Hollywood Hills). Hollywood’s communist and socialist period was based on the promise that in the socialist paradise artists would be liberated from the yoke of capital and freed to fulfill their visions. Even in Hollywood, however, few people take this promise seriously today.

But Hollywood does share Marx’s concept of alienation, the idea that under capitalism workers are separated from the product of their work and made to feel like cogs in a machine rather than independent creators. The lowly screenwriter is a perfect illustration of what Marx had in mind — a screenwriter can pour heart and soul into a screenplay only to see it rewritten, optioned, revised, reworked, rewritten again and hacked, hacked and hacked by a succession of directors, producers and worst of all studio executives. A screenwriter can have a nominally successful career in Hollywood without ever seeing one of his works brought to the screen. Thus, the antipathy of filmmakers to capitalism is less ideological than it is experiential. Screenwriters and directors find themselves in a daily battle between art and commerce, and they come to see their battle against “the suits” as emblematic of a larger war between creative labor and capital.

The invisible hand is hard to capture on film:

It’s hard to present the profoundly nuanced and intricate latticework of capitalism in two hours, which is one reason why one of the few works to attempt this is the five-season television series “The Wire.” As with so many other movies and television shows, the capitalists are vicious murderers. “The Wire” simply makes the stereotype more realistic by making its entrepreneurs drug dealers. But although it uses character, “The Wire” is ultimately about how character is dominated by larger economic forces: drug dealers come and go, but the drug market is forever. “Capitalism is the ultimate god in The Wire. Capitalism is Zeus,” says David Simon, the show’s creator.

Over its five seasons, “The Wire” shows how money and markets connect and intertwine white and black, rich and poor, criminal and police in a grand web that none of them truly comprehends—a product of human action but not of human design. It’s the invisible hand that’s calling the shots, as Mr. Simon subtly reminds us in the conclusion to the third season, when Detective McNulty wondrously pulls a book from the shelf of murdered drug dealer Stringer Bell, and the camera focuses in on the title: “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith.

Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand, like Mr. Simon’s invocation of Zeus, tells us that to understand the world we need to look beyond the actions of individuals to see the larger forces at work. But Zeus is an arbitrary and capricious god whose lightning bolts fall out of the sky without reason or direction. Smith’s “invisible hand,” however, is that of a kinder god, a god that cares not one whit for individuals but nevertheless guides self-interest toward the social good, progress, and economic growth.

Hollywood wants its heroes to be virtuous, Tabarrok says, but it defines virtue to exclude self-interest:

If virtue means putting others ahead of self, then it’s clear that most people, let alone most capitalists, aren’t very virtuous. As a result, the one Hollywood defense of capitalism that everyone knows is Gordon Gekko’s speech from “Wall Street”: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” But even if Gekko’s defense has an element of truth, it’s uninspiring, which is why Gekko remains the villain of “Wall Street,” and not the hero.

Britain Did More to Reduce World Poverty

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Britain alone did more to reduce world poverty than all the global community’s aid programs of the last century — and it did it by ruling Hong Kong responsibly:

For much of the 20th century, Hong Kong’s economy left mainland China’s in the dust, proving that enlightened rules can make a world of difference. By an accident of history, Hong Kong essentially had its own charter — a set of laws and institutions imposed by its British colonial overseers — and the charter served as a magnet for go-getters. At a time when much of East Asia was ruled by nationalist or Communist strongmen, Hong Kong’s colonial authorities put in place low taxes, minimal regulation, and legal protections for property rights and contracts; between 1913 and 1980, the city’s inflation-adjusted output per person jumped more than eightfold, making the average Hong Kong resident 10 times as rich as the average mainland Chinese, and about four-fifths as rich as the average Briton.

Then, beginning around 1980, Hong Kong’s example inspired the mainland’s rulers to create copycat enclaves. Starting in Shenzhen City, adjacent to Hong Kong, and then curling west and north around the Pacific shore, China created a series of special economic zones that followed Hong Kong’s model. Pretty soon, one of history’s greatest export booms was under way, and between 1987 and 1998, an estimated 100 million Chinese rose above the $1-a-day income that defines abject poverty. The success of the special economic zones eventually drove China’s rulers to embrace the export-driven, pro-business model for the whole country. “In a sense, Britain inadvertently, through its actions in Hong Kong, did more to reduce world poverty than all the aid programs that we’ve undertaken in the last century,” Romer observes drily.

The Case for Having More Kids

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Bryan Caplan reiterates his case for having more kids in the Wall Street Journal:

First, parents’ sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and childless and single is far inferior to married with children. Second, parents’ sacrifice is much larger than it has to be. Twin and adoption research shows that you don’t have to go the extra mile to prepare your kids for the future. Instead of trying to mold your children into perfect adults, you can safely kick back, relax and enjoy your journey together — and seriously consider adding another passenger.

Be Nice to America

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Be nice to America — or we’ll bring democracy to your country.