Robert Frank Wrong on Curing Inequality

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

Eric Falkenstein argues that Robert Frank is wrong on curing inequality:

While we agree on a lot, I disagree with Frank’s cure to the negative implications of status climbing. Basically, he posits that since we engage in a lot of conspicuous consumption to show off, we would benefit as a species from less consumption competition in the same way peacocks would benefit from having smaller tails (it would be less costly in terms of energy to produce, easier to evade predators). The key is having some sort of agreement outside-the-box that overcomes the individual incentive to overcompete, as when helmet laws in hockey make everyone safer. Thus, he favors a consumption tax, so that you tax income spent, not total income, and very progressively. This would discourage wasteful spending on watches and cars that would be better invested, which has positive externalities, or spent by government on public goods.

Frank admits taxes discourage effort and have dead weight losses, but thinks these are insufficient relative to the wasteful competition he would discourage via his tax. I don’t want to argue about the relative sizes of these effects, and dislike his solution on other grounds.

Competition for status in inevitable. If people can not compete with wristwatches and cars, they will compete in other ways. Think about schools or prisons. Both of these places contain a lot of status competition, and there is a lot of anxiety as the strong ridicule and bully the weak, often using physical violence. Yet, these are also materially egalitarian societies, where differences in wealth are slight relative to ‘real life’.

Reducing consumption inequality would not diminish status competition but rather channel it to less benign spheres. When a wealthy jerk buys a new Porsche or adds on to his summer cottage, this is much less annoying to me than the annoying jerks I knew in school (or conceive of in prison). Socialist countries where workers were not so material different had as much stress and anxiety than any Western country, which probably is why there is so much alcoholism in Cuba and Russia.

Bohemians and scribes like to think that if there was no material wealth there would be no stress, but really they are thinking: if we competed purely on intellectual grounds, I would be on top! If it weren’t for the fact these people were better at superficial skills like sales and public speaking, the intellectual thinks, they would be less stressed by their their lower status because they would have higher status! This is not merely self serving but untrue. The jocks and blow-hards who out-compete them economically would not let these dweebs stand atop them via their eloquence, but rather, dominate them in ways unimagined. It’s better not to go there.

Cookie Monster Auditions for Saturday Night Live

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Cookie Monster wants to host Saturday Night Live — and he needs your help to go viral:

Warner Bros reboots Buffy without Joss Whedon

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

I hadn’t heard the rumors, but apparently Buffy is coming to the big screen — rebooted, without Joss Whedon:

Atlas Entertainment announced today it is rebooting the beloved franchise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Warner Bros. Pictures. Atlas’ Charles Roven and Steve Alexander will produce the feature film alongside Doug Davison and Roy Lee of Vertigo Entertainment (The Ring, How to Train Your Dragon, The Departed). Whit Anderson is writing the script.

Warner Bros. Pictures optioned the rights from creators Fran and Kaz Kuzui, and from Sandollar Productions (Sandy Gallin and Dolly Parton), for Atlas and Vertigo to produce. Buffy the Vampire Slayer first appeared as a film in 1992, subsequently becoming a cult hit and spawning the wildly popular television series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz, among many others.

“Whit approached us with an exciting idea about how to update Buffy,” said Roven. “There is an active fan base eagerly awaiting this character’s return to the big screen. We’re thrilled to team up with Doug and Roy on a re-imagining of Buffy and the world she inhabits. Details of the film are being kept under wraps, but I can say while this is not your high school Buffy, she’ll be just as witty, tough, and sexy as we all remember her to be.”

Kristin Dos Santos of E! Online asked Joss Whedon about, and here’s his reply:

Kristin, I’m glad you asked for my thoughts on the announcement of Buffy the cinema film. This is a sad, sad reflection on our times, when people must feed off the carcasses of beloved stories from their youths — just because they can’t think of an original idea of their own, like I did with my Avengers idea that I made up myself.

Obviously I have strong, mixed emotions about something like this. My first reaction upon hearing who was writing it was, “Whit Stillman AND Wes Anderson? This is gonna be the most sardonically adorable movie EVER.” Apparently I was misinformed. Then I thought, “I’ll make a mint! This is worth more than all my Toy Story residuals combined!” Apparently I am seldom informed of anything. And possibly a little slow. But seriously, are vampires even popular any more?

I always hoped that Buffy would live on even after my death. But, you know, AFTER. I don’t love the idea of my creation in other hands, but I’m also well aware that many more hands than mine went into making that show what it was. And there is no legal grounds for doing anything other than sighing audibly. I can’t wish people who are passionate about my little myth ill. I can, however, take this time to announce that I’m making a Batman movie. Because there’s a franchise that truly needs updating. So look for The Dark Knight Rises Way Earlier Than That Other One And Also More Cheaply And In Toronto, rebooting into a theater near you.

Leave me to my pain! Sincerely, Joss Whedon.


Sunday, November 21st, 2010

The Bulwer–Lytton Fiction Contest invites contestants “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels” — taking as its model the opening sentence to Edward George Bulwer-Lytton‘s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Frankly, I don’t think that opening sentence is so much bad as out of style.

Not only did Bulwer-Lytton coin that famous opening line, he also coined the phrases the great unwashed, pursuit of the almighty dollar, and the pen is mightier than the sword.


Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Diet is a strange word. To most Americans, diet means short-term, weight-loss regime. To a more scientifically inclined audience, diet refers to the sum of food consumed by a person or other organism.

In a totally different context though, a diet is a political assembly. I first came across that use in ninth grade, if I remember correctly, when we learned that the Japanese legislature was known as a diet, following the German model. So, should it be pronounced deet?, I thought to myself.

No, it turns out, because it’s not a German word at all; it’s an Anglicized Latin word:

The term (also in the nutritional sense) is derived from Medieval Latin dieta, meaning both “parliamentary assembly” and “daily food allowance”, from earlier Latin diaeta transcribing Classical Greek diaita, meaning “way of living”, and hence also “diet”, “regular (daily) work”.

Through a false etymology, reflected in the spelling change replacing ae by e, the word came to be associated with Latin dies, “day”. The word came to be used in the sense of “an assembly” because of its use for the work of an assembly meeting on a daily basis, and hence for the assembly itself.

The association with dies is reflected in the German language use of Tagung (meeting) and -tag (not only meaning “day”, as in Montag — i.e. Monday — but also “parliament”, “council”, or other law-deliberating chamber, as in Bundestag or Reichstag).

The kicker is that the Japanese don’t use the term either:

The Japanese Parliament (the Kokkai) is conventionally called the Diet in English, indicating the heavy Prussian influence on the Meiji Constitution, Japan’s first modern written constitution.

So it’s a quasi-Latin term used by English speakers to translate a German term into not-quite-English — primarily when that German term isn’t actually used in Japanese.


Friday, November 19th, 2010

Comic-book geeks may know excelsior! as Stan Lee’s sign-off. Without already knowing its exact meaning, you might get the basic idea. It means ever higher.

What I didn’t realize was that it was the catchphrase of Dr. Samuel Ferguson, the main character in Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon.

I only learned that when I looked the word up because of this totally unexpected use in Jack Dempsey’s Championship Fighting:

If you can go into a gymnasium, swell; for in a gym you’ll find an inflated, pear-shaped, light, leather striking bag (Figure 9), and a large, heavy, cylindrical canvas or leather “dummy bag” — sometimes known as the “heavy bag” (Figure 10). The latter is packed with cotton waste, and it is solid enough for you to accustom your fists, wrists and arms to withstanding considerable punching shock.

One can practice both body and head blows on the heavy bag. On the fast, light bag — which is about the height of an opponent’s head — one can sharpen his speed and timing for “head-hunting”; and one also can practice the important back-hand, warding-off stroke until it becomes automatic.

If no gymnasium is available, and if you are unable to buy bags from an athletic-goods store, you’ll have to carry on without a light bag and make your own heavy bag. To make the dummy bag, get two empty gunny sacks. Put one sack inside the other to give your bag double strength.

Then fill the inside sack with old rags, excelsior, old furniture-filling, or the like. Sawdust mixed with the above makes an excellent filler. Make certain there are no solid objects in the stuffing of your bag. Leave enough space at the top so that you can wrap the necks of both bags securely with a rope. Suspend the bag on the rope from a strong girder in your basement, barn or woodshed — or even from the limb of a tree. Do not attempt to use the heavy bag in your living quarters; the pounding vibrations will loosen the plaster in walls and ceiling.

Excelsior also refers to wood wool, a wood sliver material used for packaging.

Great Chinese State Circus Performs Swan Lake

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Great Chinese State Circus performs Swan Lake — it sounds like a political satire, but it is instead a jaw-dropping combination of Chinese acrobatics and western ballet:

(Hat tip to David Foster.)

Engulfed by a Sea-Level Rise of 15 Feet

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

What would we do if a major metropolis — millions of people and trillions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure — found itself engulfed by a sea-level rise of 15 feet? The same thing we’ve already done — repeatedly:

Since 1930, excessive groundwater withdrawal has caused Tokyo to subside by as much as 15 feet. Similar subsidence has occurred over the past century in numerous cities, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Osaka, Bangkok and Jakarta. And in each case, the city has managed to protect itself from such large relative sea-level rises without much difficulty.

The process is called adaptation, and it’s something we humans are very good at.

The most famous example is the Netherlands:

Although a fifth of their country lies below sea level — and fully half is less than three feet above it — the Dutch maintain an enormously productive economy and enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living. The secret is a centuries-old system of dikes, supplemented in recent decades by an elaborate network of floodgates and other barriers. All this adaptation is not only effective but also amazingly inexpensive. Keeping Holland protected from any future sea-level rises for the next century will cost only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Urban heat islands are another enormous problem with a simple solution:

We can paint them. Hashem Akbari, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes in cost-effective methods of combating the effects of climate change in urban areas, has shown that by painting roofs white, covering asphalt roadways with concrete-colored surfaces and planting shade trees, local temperatures could be reduced by as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Akbari and colleagues reported in the journal Climatic Change last year that for every 100 square feet of black rooftop converted to white surface, the effects of roughly one ton of carbon dioxide would be offset.

(Hat tip to Ronald Bailey of Reason.)

Tariffs, not Trade

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Early Republicans, like the Whigs before them, stood for tariffs, not trade:

In the the 19th century the Democratic party, rooted in large part among Southern planters who were dependent on exports of commodities and imports of finished goods, was the party of free trade. The northern Whigs, and later the Republicans, were the party of tariffs. They were the faction which drew support from the industry of the North which benefited from protection against European competitors. The Republican support for tariffs and Democratic opposition persisted into the early 20th century. Only after World War II did this long standing division between the two parties diminish, so that by 1993 a much larger proportion of Republicans than Democrats supported the ratification of NAFTA.

What surprised Razib Khan — and me — it that modern Republicans do not lean more toward free trade than Democrats, according to a recent Pew survey:

The Republican party has long had a tension between populists who oppose free flow of labor (immigration) and are suspicious of international capital, and the economic elites. If the populists turn against the free flow of goods & service then the problem will be compounded. As for the Democrats, it looks like the economic nationalists and anti-globalists are fading. I’m updating my stereotypes as of now.

China’s New Guru of Productivity

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

The story of China’s productivity revolution starts with the improbable tale of Gavriel Salvendy, a Hungarian-Israeli-American high-school drop-out:

Growing up in a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation, Mr. Salvendy hid in haystacks to escape deportation. Later, after his family abandoned Europe, he became the Israeli weight-lifting champion. Now 72, at well over 6 feet tall and 265 pounds, he still has the presence of a strongman.

For the past nine years, Mr. Salvendy has run the department of industrial engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China’s equivalent of MIT. He is an incongruous presence there — a booming maverick in a hierarchical and generally conformist culture — but he and his team of professors have helped to boost productivity at some Chinese factories by as much as 20% a year.

Mr. Salvendy’s road from weight-lifting to academia involved a series of strange twists. In his youth, he took a job in a factory in London and discovered a natural flair for reorganizing manufacturing systems. A British engineering professor heard of this untutored genius and, despite his lack of formal schooling, recruited him into his graduate program at the University of Birmingham. There Mr. Salvendy earned a master’s degree and a doctorate. Then in 1968 he landed an academic appointment in the U.S.

By 2001, Mr. Salvendy was a grandee of industrial engineering, known for more than 200 publications in journals, and, among friends, for his eccentricities, including an inability to remember the alphabet and a habit of losing his way on short walks. Already past his 60th birthday at that point, his big head framed by a comb-over of orangey brown hair, the professor seemed comfortably established. But then an offer came from Tsinghua, and Mr. Salvendy could not resist.

Mr. Salvendy accepted the offer — at 20 times the standard pay package for a Chinese professor — and the revolution began:

Chinese professors were accustomed to hierarchy; Mr. Salvendy insisted on open-collared informality. He wanted professors to publish in the top peer-reviewed American journals, so they started to write and teach in English. Dividing his time between Beijing and Purdue University in Indiana, Mr. Salvendy quickly built up a department of some 25 professors, most of whom had Ph.D.s from the U.S.

Salvendy’s team from Tsinghua found plenty of low-hanging fruit at the Hua Jian shoe factory:

The factory kept months’ worth of raw materials in its warehouse, wastefully tying up capital. Its tools were designed with obvious inefficiencies.

Within a few months, the Tsinghua delegation boosted Hua Jian’s productivity by 20%. In the West, gains on this scale are almost unthinkable. Productivity in a fast-improving U.S. factory might rise by 5% a year. And as they returned repeatedly to Hua Jian, the engineers conceived a new ambition: to rethink the standard ideas about production-line balancing that were hatched in U.S. factories in the 1950s and 1960s.

At Hua Jian, most workers arrived fresh from the countryside and then quit after a year or so; the level of training was both low and uneven. Because skills were minimal, the tasks had to be split up more, so that each worker was required to master a single simple function. But because skills were uneven, workers at some stations might complete their task in 30 seconds while others took a full minute. The least productive workers would determine the speed of the conveyor belt, while the most productive ones would spend half the shift idle.

This past summer, the Tsinghua team devised a way to balance out the tasks on the production lines to minimize wastage. Hua Jian’s productivity registered a further 20% gain.

Traditionally, economists have fingered poor infrastructure, low levels of education and excessive regulation as the chief impediments to continued growth in productivity. But the technical literature on the subject increasingly points to poor management as a serious obstacle.

Mr. Salvendy’s achievements at Tsinghua suggest that China will increasingly realize its productivity potential. His department has cycled more than 1,500 Chinese managers through its executive training programs, and thousands more are being minted by the 200 industrial engineering programs that have sprung up around China in imitation of Tsinghua. Every year, more of Mr. Salvendy’s disciples fan out across the country, spreading the lessons of lean manufacturing, quality circles and supply-chain management — techniques that have powered industrial success since the time of Henry Ford.

(Hat tip to David Foster.)


Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Timothy Kraft, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Vision Science Research Center, is also a competitive target shooter, and he decided to develop a new gunsight that improves marksmanship with intuitive aim:

Opti-sight is a precision-milled half-triangle shape that replaces the traditional pistol gunsight. The design relies on subjective contours, an optics principle that explains how the subconscious mind fills in the blanks when the eye sees half of a familiar shape like a circle, square or triangle, Kraft says.

The rear opti-sight notch looks like an incomplete triangle sitting atop the gun barrel. When a shooter looks through the notch, the brain tells the eye where the missing triangle apex should appear, and that apex is the precise point of aim, Kraft says. “This triangular shape that I’ve created allows the brain to visualize concentric triangles whose imaginary apexes focus the shooter’s attention on the exact target bullseye.

“Opti-sight makes shooting very intuitive by allowing gunsight alignment to become subconscious.”

Kraft’s new Opti-Sight doesn’t seem too terribly different from the trapezoid sight (G) in Wikipedia’s diagram of iron sights.

The typical iron sight, with a rectangular front-sight post and a rectangular back-sight notch is called a Patridge sight, by the way.

A few years before Kraft devised his Opti-Sight, some other shooters devised the Sure Sight, which makes the triangle explicit — but they took people’s money for pre-orders and then disappeared.

It still seems like a decent idea, I suppose. The few people who got early models seemed to like them — assuming they weren’t shills, of course.

Now another company is offering its Advantage Tactical Sight, which combines long, swept-forward, back-sight legs with a colorful, five-sided tip on the front-sight, to complete the inverted-V.

Lego Business Card

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, the 42-year old Chief Executive of Danish toymaker Lego, has a Lego mini-fig of himself, complete with beard and glasses, for a business card.

Budget Puzzle

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

The New York Timesbudget puzzle certainly makes fixing the budget seem easy enough. (Like Arnold Kling, I love the way they let you simply choose to cap Medicare spending growth. How hard could it be?)

One-Third of Top-Grossing iPhone Apps Are Free

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

One-third of the top-grossing iPhone apps are free — and make their money via in-app purchases:

The ten top-grossing iPhone apps include Restaurant Story (#3), Tap Zoo (#4), NBA Game Time 2010-2011 (#7), Haypi Kingdom (#9) and Kingdoms at War (#8). Restaurant Story, Tap Zoo and Empire Story all launched within the last couple of months, but older games, such as Haypi Kingdom (Jan. 2010) and Kingdoms at War (Sept. 2009), also continue to rake in significant revenue. The free titles are edging out established moneymakers like Plants vs. Zombies, Madden NFL and Doodle Jump.

But it’s not just gaming apps. The New York Road Runners Marathon App, which allowed real-time tracking of the marathon, went for $3.99, and shot to No. 1 Sunday during the race. The NBA Game Time app also hit No. 1 on Nov. 1, with its ability to receive videos, highlights, radio feeds advertising free. Distimo said the largest portion of in-app purchases are in games (3.8 percent) and social networking apps (4.3 percent).

Meanwhile, the iPad, with its generally higher price points for paid apps, isn’t as lucrative for freemium apps compared to paid apps. None of the top 100 apps on the top-grossing list are free though there are free iPad apps with in-app purchases.

The growth of the freemium model on the iPhone shouldn’t be a surprise. Freemium has been popular in Asia for years with pioneers like Nexon leading the way, and has also been the model of choice for Facebook games, helping Zynga achieve a $5.5 billion valuation. IPhone games publisher Ngmoco switched early to a freemium model and hit No. 1 on the top-grossing chart with Eliminate Pro, a shooter game. Now success is becoming much more common for app developers as the pace of freemium app adoption picks up.

Decent and Not Scary

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Forbes recently mentioned R, the open-source data analysis software, as a name you need to know in 2011, and this prompted a non-IT employee — with a comp-sci background — working in the insurance sector to share his story about managing R adoption for a group of about 30 business analysts with minimal programming background:

Programming in the business world is screwed up beyond all imagination. The more money a given application is responsible for, the more likely it is that it’s a house-of-cards (pun intended for MVS nerds). They’re always mishmashes of COBOL, SAS, DFSORT, and random proprietary languages that have never been the subject of a third-party book, and were sold to a company that was sold to a company that was sold to CA Technologies back in the 1970s. Whatever these languages can’t do is implemented through Escher-painting constructions of Excel references and VBA macros.

So, when people say that R has some issues, I say, “boo f—ing hoo”.

Most businesses suffer from an unnatural separation between IT and the business end. If business people want something programmed, they call IT. They don’t learn Python and do it themselves, because Python is a “programming language”. R is the first real language that business people are being encouraged to learn, because it’s an “analysis environment”. You have no idea how often I have to edit the word “programming” out of my presentations for this reason.

R will win in business because it’s decent, and it’s been around long enough to not be scary to managers. I’d be cautious about drawing comparisons to other languages that have undergone big design changes, because, as far as I can tell, the existence of a decent language in the business world is entirely without precedent.