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07 Dec 20:11

A Story With Zombies

by Scott Alexander

(inspired by Zombies: Seriously, Enough, Zombies Are So Overdone, and Scifi/Fantasy Stories Editors Are Tired Of Seeing: Zombies)

He walked into my office and threw the manuscript on my desk with a thud.

“It’s called Thankful For Zombies. A zombie story where…”

“Nope,” I said.

His face deflated like a balloon. “But I didn’t even…”

“Zombies are overdone,” I said.

“But this is a zombie story with a twist!”

“Zombie stories with twists are super overdone.”

“But this is a story about an extended family who get together for Thanksgiving dinner, only to be interrupted by a zombie apocalypse. It’s a Thanksgiving story about zombies. You have to admit that the combination of zombies and Thanksgiving has never…”

“Done,” I said.

“Wait, really? The family starts out estranged and suspicious of each other, but then when they all have to work together to…”

“Done,” I said.

“How could that have been done?”

“Listen. I know you won’t believe me, but for the past ten years or so, the best literary minds of our generation have been working on creating zombie stories just different enough from every other zombie story around to get published. First the clever and interesting twists got explored. Then the mediocre and boring twists. Then the absurd and idiotic twists. Finally the genre got entirely mined out. There is now a New York Times bestselling book about zombies invading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If your idea isn’t weirder than that, it’s been done. And that’s the logical ‘if’. If your idea is weirder than that, it has also been done.”

“I will get Thankful for Zombies published,” he said.

“You won’t,” I advised him.

“I just have to think of an original angle.”

“You really won’t,” I told him.

“The zombies are the good guys,” he proposed.


“The zombies are smarter than humans.”


“In the end, we ourselves are the zombies.”


“A human girl falls in love with a zombie.”


“Okay, fine. Toss the Thanksgiving angle. There’s got to be some zombie plot that will be fresh and new.”

“I promise you, there’s not.”

“Zombies in space.”


“Zombies from space.”


“Zombies are space.”


“Zombies in Victorian England.”


“Zombies in Edwardian England.”


“Zombies in Shakespearean England.”


“Shakespeare was a zombie, and all of his plays are just the word BRAAAAAAIIINS repeated over and over again.”

“Done, for some reason.”

“A young zombie comes of age.”


“A middle-aged zombie wonders if her single-minded focus on career success has prevented her from becoming the kind of zombie she wanted to be when she was younger.”


“An elderly zombie contemplates death.”

“Zombies are already dead.”

“Then I can…”

“…and yet it’s still been done.”

“A zombie in the Vietnam War.”


“A hippie zombie at Woodstock.”


“Strong female zombies.”


“Jewish zombies.”


“Black zombies.”


“A gay zombie struggling to fit into a homophobic zombie society.”

“Come on, this is the 21st century. Done like ten times. One of them won the Booker.”

“Gender-questioning zombies.”


“An immigrant zombie comes to America, with nothing but the decaying shirt on his back, knowing only a single word of English.”

All zombies only know a single word of English. Also, done.”

“Nazi zombies.”


“Vampire zombies.”


“Pirate zombies.”


“Obstetrician/gynaecologist zombies.”


“Zombie Hitler.”


“Zombie Henry VIII.”


“But what if it was told from the perspective of Anne Boleyn?”


“Zombie Leonardo da Vinci.”


“Zombie Jesus.”

“Done. By three guys named Matt, Luke, and John.”

“Zombie Buddha.”


“Zombie Mohammed.”

“Done. As is the author, if you get my drift.”

“Zombie Zoroaster.”


“A parody subverting zombie stories.”

“Super done.”

“A parody subverting zombie stories lampshading how overdone they are.”

“Super duper done.”

“Hmmmm.” He thinks for a second. “Hold on, I’m remembering something from my college math class that might work here. You take all the zombie novels ever written, and you put them in some well-ordering, for example from first to last published. Then you make a new novel, consisting of the first page of the first novel, the second page of the second novel, and so on. But you change each page just a little bit. Since we know the first page of the new novel is different from the first page of the first novel, and the second page of the new novel is different from the second page of the second novel, by extension we know that there is at least one page on which the new novel is different from each zombie novel currently in existence. That means that the new story is provably original.”


“I don’t think you understand; it’s mathematically impossible for…”

“No, I mean there’s a story about a zombie doing that.”

“Oh.” He furrowed his brow. “A zombie superhero.”


“Steampunk zombies.”

“Done. I think now you’re just trolling me.”

“Motorcycle gangs of zombies.”


“A zombie story that’s a metaphor for how…”


“I didn’t finish!”

“You didn’t have to.”

“A zombie gets cancer.”


“A zombie gets depression.”


“A zombie tries to write zombie fiction.”


“A zombie tries to write zombie fiction about a zombie trying to write zombie fiction.”


“A zombie tries to…”

“It’s done all the way down.”

“Young free-spirited zombies trying to see America.”


“A story that starts off as being about a fantasy society of knights and damsels, but at the very end it’s revealed everyone is a zombie.”


“A story that starts off as being about a young woman’s struggle to succeed in 1980s Wall Street, but at the very end it’s revealed everyone is a zombie.”


“A story that starts off as being a paleontology textbook about the fauna of the Lower Cretaceous, but at the very end it’s revealed everyone is a zombie.”

“Twist zombie endings are done.”

“A zombie…a zombie riding a giant purple emu through 17th century Ireland teams up with the pre-ghost of Thomas Jefferson to investigate a crime in which time-traveling flamboyantly gay sapient hippos have murdered the Secret Protestant Pope in order to initiate the Jain apocalypse, with liberal quotations from and allusions to the works of Edgar Allen Poe Thomas Pynchon and the medieval Rolandic cycle, and also the whole thing is a metaphor for Republican resistance to climate change legislation.”

I thought for a moment. “Okay,” I said. “That particular plot has not, technically, been done. But no one would read it.”

“They will,” he said.

“You’d be wasting your time to write it.”

“I’m writing it,” he said.

“Suit yourself. Put it on my desk when you’re finished, and I’ll take a look at it. But your chances aren’t good.”

“I don’t care,” he said, and left.

I sighed, finished up my last couple of pieces of paperwork, and shambled home from the office. On the way out, I ate my secretary’s brain.

03 Dec 12:22

Facts about Hurricane Katrina, and the benefits of regional migration

by Tyler Cowen

In 2006, the year after the storm, wage and salary income for the average Katrina victim in our sample is roughly $2,200 lower than their matched counterparts.  Remarkably, the earnings gap is erased the following year, and by 2008, the hurricane victims actually have higher wage income and total income than control households.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Tatyana Deryugina, Laura Kawano, and Steven Levitt.  I agree with this claim:

…strong ties to a place, especially a place with limited economic opportunities such as New Orleans, have adverse economic consequences.  When forced by an exogenous shock to migrate, people are able to choose from a wide range of possible locations to move to, and they seem to choose places that offer them better economic opportunities.

You will find an ungated version here.

03 Dec 05:00

Trolley Problem

For $5 I promise not to orchestrate this situation, and for $25 I promise not to take further advantage of this ability to create incentives.
28 Nov 23:47

Not From the Onion: Man Arrested for Pointing Banana at the Police

by Alex Tabarrok

A Colorado man, from Fruitvale (I am not making this up), was arrested for pointing a banana at the police. What makes this actually scary is the language of the police report:

The officers wrote in the police report they feared for their safety despite observing the supposed weapon was yellow.

“I immediately ducked in my patrol car and accelerated continuing northbound, fearing that it was a weapon,” Officer Joshua Bunch wrote in the report, according to the newspaper. “Based on training and experience, I have seen handguns in many shapes and colors and perceived this to be a handgun.”

The man was fortunate that he was only arrested. Had he been wielding a pointed stick he would surely have been shot.

30 Nov 12:35


by Alex Tabarrok

Consider GiveDirectly this holiday season for your charitable giving. As you may recall, GiveDirectly was started by four economists and it gives money directly to the very poor in Kenya and Uganda. GiveDirectly is a top-rated charity by GiveWell. The founders are committed to providing independent, randomized controlled trials of its process. One RCT has already been conducted with positive results and 3 others are under way. GiveDirectly publicizes the trials of its process before the results are produced. Impressive–the drug companies had to be forced to do this. Check out their website, they even provides real-time performance data. Here’s a bit more on their process.


24 Nov 19:04

SNL: Just a Bill

by (Mungowitz)
Pretty well done.  

I don't really have an opinion on the "executive order" thing.  The number of them is not that important, but rather their scope.

President Bush asserted nearly unlimited authority.  And now when Obama does the same thing, the Republicans squeal, and the Democrats who squealed about Bush come up with transparently self-serving and absurdly false justifications.

A pox on both their House, and the Senate.
25 Nov 17:21

A working Lego particle accelerator

by Jason Kottke

Huh. Someone built a working particle accelerator out of Lego bricks. Ok, it doesn't accelerate protons, but it does spin a small Lego ball around the ring much faster than I would have guessed.

Update: I stand corrected, the Lego particle accelerator does indeed accelerate protons, just a lot of them very slowly, accompanied by all manner of other particles.

Tags: Legos   video
08 Nov 07:02

Might this help explain Russia and Ukraine?

by Tyler Cowen

The excellent Akos Lada, a graduate student at Harvard, has a new paper on why countries sometimes invade their neighbors, it is called “The Dark Side of Attraction,” the abstract is here:

I argue that the diffusion of domestic political institutions is a source of wars. In the presence of an inspiring foreign regime, repressive elites fear that their citizens emulate the foreign example and revolt. As a result, a dictator starts a war against an attractive foreign regime, seeking to destroy this alternative model. Such wars are particularly likely when there are strong religious, ethnic or cultural ties between the dictator’s opposition and the inspiring country – connections that allow citizens to draw easy comparisons. My posited mechanism explains three case studies. The first describes the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1849. The second case study analyzes the origins of the First World War (1914-8), where Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia. The final case study discusses the Iran-Iraq War (1980-8). In all three cases, a dictator started a war in order to extinguish the foreign flame that fueled his domestic opposition.

Akos occasionally writes blog posts here.  Here is our previous coverage of Akos Lada — he stands a good chance of being one of the significant new “big picture” thinkers in economics.

11 Nov 07:33

African immigrant fact of the day

by Tyler Cowen

That’s African immigrants to the United States, here is the fact:

In 2009, 41.7 percent of African-born adults age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 28.1 percent of native-born adults and 26.8 percent of all foreign-born adults.

The source is here, further information about African immigrants is here.  They speak good English at very high rates — close to three-quarters — and they are more likely than other immigrants to be participating in the labor force.  And their importance is rising:

Though African immigrants represented only 0.4 percent of all foreign born in 1960, this share grew to 1.4 percent in 1980, to 1.8 percent in 1990, and to 2.8 percent in 2000…

There is also this:

People born in the U.S. were roughly four times as likely to report engaging in violent behavior than immigrants from Asia and Africa…

The future of immigration to America is likely African, some south Asian, and Chinese, with Latinos continuing to have a presence as well.

11 Nov 20:11

A Problem With Increased Surveillance

by jeff

Any punishment designed for deterrence is based on the following calculation.  The potential criminal weighs the benefit of the crime against the cost, where the cost is equal to the probability of being caught multiplied by the punishment if caught.

Taking surveillance technology as given, the punishment is set in order to calibrate the right-hand-side of that comparison.  Optimally, the expected punishment equals the marginal social cost of the crime so that crimes whose marginal social cost outweighs the marginal benefit are deterred.

When technology allows improved surveillance, the law does not adjust automatically to keep the right-hand side constant.  Indeed there is a ratchet effect in criminal law:  penalties never go down.

So we naturally hate increased surveillance, even those of us who would welcome it in a first-best world where punishments adjust along with technology.

13 Nov 16:20

The United States of Ignorance

by Jason Kottke

According to a recent survey1 of citizens in 14 countries, the United States ranks second in the amount of ignorance about things like teenage birth rates, unemployment rates, and immigration. Only Italians were more clueless. You can take a version of the test yourself and then view the results (results for the US only). Some of the more notable results:

- Americans guessed that the unemployment rate is 32%, instead of the actual rate of 6%.

- While 1% of the US population identifies as Muslim, Americans guessed 15%. 15!

- 70% of Americans guessed the US murder rate was rising. It has decreased by more than half since 1992.

- Americans guessed that almost 24% of girls aged 15-19 give birth each year. Actually, 3.1%.

Then again, what do Americans hear about constantly on the news? Unemployment, Muslims & immigration, murder, and teen pregnancy. It's little wonder the guesses on those are so high.

  1. As you know, survey results are to be taken with a grain of salt.

Tags: USA
11 Nov 05:00

November 11, 2014

16 Nov 16:10

The Great Autocrat Moderation, and when will it end?

by Tyler Cowen

We’ve now seen a good twenty-five years of autocrats backing down, ceding power, and refusing to escalate, starting  around 1989 if not earlier.  Arguably North Korea and Saddam Hussein have been partial exceptions, but even there North Korea has stayed in its shell and Saddam had in fact largely disarmed his WMD.  We also see many autocrats — most notably those of China — who pursue remarkably sophisticated courses of action.  Just think how much more deftly they handled Occupy Hong Kong than the Ferguson police dealt with their situation.  Even the Iranian leaders seem quite sophisticated, even though most of us do not share their goals or endorse their means.

I call it The Great Autocrat Moderation.

If we look back in history, are autocrats generally this rational and conciliatory?  I am struck reading the new Andrew Roberts biography of Napoleon how he grew drunk with success and overreached and of course eventually failed (twice).  Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are some additional obvious examples of autocrats who, in terms of procedural rationality, simply collapsed at some point and very dramatically overreached.

Of course these are tricky examples.  The most famous autocrats are arguably going to be more subject to overreach, which in part drives their fame (infamy), and so if we consult our historical memories we may be selecting for overreach.  Your typical earlier autocrat may have been more rational than this list of ambitious tyrants might imply.  Was the typical dictator of Paraguay, historically speaking, really so irrational?  Still, it does seem that autocrats have been relatively benign as of late.

So how about Putin?  Is he like the autocrats of the last twenty-five years, or he is more like Napoleon and Mussolini with regard to his long-term procedural rationality?

I do not myself expect The Great Autocrat Moderation to continue for much longer. Let us not forget that some autocratic “tournaments” select for overreach, namely the autocrat had to think he could, against long odds, rise to the top and stay there.

I am indebted to a conversation with John Nye about the topics of this blog post.

13 Nov 14:42

Why Jonathan Gruber is Paid the Big Bucks

by Arnold Kling

Tyler Cowen comes to his defense.

I’ve disagreed with Gruber from the beginning on health care policy and I thought his ObamaCare comic book did the economics profession — and himself — a disservice. But I’m simply not very interested in his proclamations on tape, which as far as I can tell are mostly correct albeit overly cynical.

My remarks:

1, Gruber is not paid the big bucks to be a political tactician. In particular, whether or not Obamacare was sold deceptively was not his call to make.

2. For me, the problem with democracy is not the intelligence, or alleged lack thereof, among voters. I just think that the wisdom of crowds is channeled more effectively through exit than through voice. As for democracy, it is a good way of arranging for the routine replacement of high-level officials. It is otherwise much over-rated.

3. Gruber is paid the big bucks because he has a quantitative model of how insurance health reforms will play out. Relative to most academic economists and policy makers, my level of trust in such models is rather low. For me, it would be a better world if Gruber and his model were not held in such high regard. But I would have made this point, and probably did so, before the recent controversy.

4. If you need proof of Gruber’s contempt for your intelligence, all you need to do is skim the comic book to which Tyler refers. The comic book left me with the impression that Gruber lives in a Krugmanesque bubble, in which any disagreement must be dismissed as stemming from extreme ignorance and/or evil intent.

5. I think that the extent to which the attacks on Gruber have become personal is something that every economist, regardless of ideology, will come to regret. I am all for criticizing the ideas and the world view that underlie Obamacare. However, a world in which every economist who steps into the policy arena is subjected to opposition research and “gotcha” attacks is not going to be pretty.

04 Nov 03:19

All In All, Another Brick In The Motte

by Scott Alexander

One of the better things I’ve done with this blog was help popularize Nicholas Shackel’s “motte and bailey doctrine”. But I’ve recently been reminded I didn’t do a very good job of it. The original discussion is in the middle of a post so controversial that it probably can’t be linked in polite company – somewhat dampening its ability to popularize anything.

In order to rectify the error, here is a nice clean post on the concept that adds a couple of further thoughts to the original formulation.

The original Shackel paper is intended as a critique of post-modernism. Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.

Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Some classic examples:

1. The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick when asked very nicely (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.

2. Or…”If you don’t accept Jesus, you will burn in Hell forever.” (bailey) But isn’t that horrible and inhuman? “Well, Hell is just another word for being without God, and if you choose to be without God, God will be nice and let you make that choice.” (motte) Oh, well that doesn’t sound so bad, I’m going to keep rejecting Jesus. “But if you reject Jesus, you will BURN in HELL FOREVER and your body will be GNAWED BY WORMS.” But didn’t you just… “Metaphorical worms of godlessness!”

3. The feminists who constantly argue about whether you can be a real feminist or not without believing in X, Y and Z and wanting to empower women in some very specific way, and who demand everybody support controversial policies like affirmative action or affirmative consent laws (bailey). Then when someone says they don’t really like feminism very much, they object “But feminism is just the belief that women are people!” (motte) Then once the person hastily retreats and promises he definitely didn’t mean women aren’t people, the feminists get back to demanding everyone support affirmative action because feminism, or arguing about whether you can be a feminist and wear lipstick.

4. Proponents of pseudoscience sometimes argue that their particular form of quackery will cure cancer or take away your pains or heal your crippling injuries (bailey). When confronted with evidence that it doesn’t work, they might argue that people need hope, and even a placebo solution will often relieve stress and help people feel cared for (motte). In fact, some have argued that quackery may be better than real medicine for certain untreatable diseases, because neither real nor fake medicine will help, but fake medicine tends to be more calming and has fewer side effects. But then once you leave the quacks in peace, they will go back to telling less knowledgeable patients that their treatments will cure cancer.

5. Critics of the rationalist community note that it pushes controversial complicated things like Bayesian statistics and utilitarianism (bailey) under the name “rationality”, but when asked to justify itself defines rationality as “whatever helps you achieve your goals”, which is so vague as to be universally unobjectionable (motte). Then once you have admitted that more rationality is always a good thing, they suggest you’ve admitted everyone needs to learn more Bayesian statistics.

6. Likewise, singularitarians who predict with certainty that there will be a singularity, because “singularity” just means “a time when technology is so different that it is impossible to imagine” – and really, who would deny that technology will probably get really weird (motte)? But then every other time they use “singularity”, they use it to refer to a very specific scenario of intelligence explosion, which is far less certain and needs a lot more evidence before you can predict it (bailey).

The motte and bailey doctrine sounds kind of stupid and hard-to-fall-for when you put it like that, but all fallacies sound that way when you’re thinking about them. More important, it draws its strength from people’s usual failure to debate specific propositions rather than vague clouds of ideas. If I’m debating “does quackery cure cancer?”, it might be easy to view that as a general case of the problem of “is quackery okay?” or “should quackery be illegal?”, and from there it’s easy to bring up the motte objection.

Recently, a friend (I think it was Robby Bensinger) pointed out something I’d totally missed. The motte-and-bailey doctrine is a perfect mirror image of my other favorite fallacy, the weak man fallacy.

Weak-manning is a lot like straw-manning, except that instead of debating a fake, implausibly stupid opponent, you’re debating a real, unrepresentatively stupid opponent. For example, “Religious people say that you should kill all gays. But this is evil. Therefore, religion is wrong and barbaric. Therefore we should all be atheists.” There are certainly religious people who think that you should kill all gays, but they’re a small fraction of all religious people and probably not the ones an unbiased observer would hold up as the best that religion has to offer.

If you’re debating the Pope or something, then when you weak-man, you’re unfairly replacing a strong position (the Pope’s) with a weak position (that of the guy who wants to kill gays) to make it more attackable.

But in motte and bailey, you’re unfairly replacing a weak position (there is a supernatural creator who can make people out of ribs) with a strong position (there is order and beauty in the universe) in order to make it more defensible.

So weak-manning is replacing a strong position with a weak position to better attack it; motte-and-bailey is replacing a weak position with a strong position to better defend it.

This means people who know both terms are at constant risk of arguments of the form “You’re weak-manning me!” “No, you’re motte-and-baileying me!“.

Suppose we’re debating feminism, and I defend it by saying it really is important that women are people, and you attack it by saying that it’s not true that all men are terrible. Then I can accuse you of making life easy for yourself by attacking the weakest statement anyone vaguely associated with feminism has ever pushed. And you can accuse me if making life too easy for myself by defending the most uncontroversially obvious statement I can get away with.

So what is the real feminism we should be debating? Why would you even ask that question? What is this, some kind of dumb high school debate club? Who the heck thinks it would be a good idea to say “Here’s a vague poorly-defined concept that mind-kills everyone who touches it – quick, should you associate it with positive affect or negative affect?!”

Taboo your words, then replace the symbol with the substance. If you have an actual thing you’re trying to debate, then it should be obvious when somebody’s changing the topic. If working out who’s using motte-and-bailey (or weak man) is remotely difficult, it means your discussion went wrong several steps earlier and you probably have no idea what you’re even arguing about.

PS: Nicholas Shackel, original inventor of the term, weighs in.

03 Nov 15:11

Galileo still right about gravity

by Jason Kottke

If you believe in gravity, then you know that if you remove air resistance, a bowling ball and a feather will fall at the same rate. But seeing it actually happen, in the world's largest vacuum chamber (122 feet high, 100 feet in diameter), is still a bit shocking.

In the late 1500s, Galileo was the first to show that the acceleration due to the Earth's gravity was independent of mass with his experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but that pesky air resistance caused some problems. At the end of the Apollo 15 mission, astronaut David Scott dropped a hammer and a feather in the vacuum on the surface of the Moon:


Tags: Apollo   Apollo 15   Galileo   NASA   physics   science   space   video
28 Oct 04:00

October 28, 2014

21 Oct 09:23


by Author


Indirectly inspired by this gentleman.

Why not become a Patron of the Blasphemous Arts? Book shop here

21 Oct 13:10

Political Order and Political Decay

by Arnold Kling

That is the title of Francis Fukuyama’s latest book. I have started reading it. So far, I would summarize it as saying that government must overcome both market failure and government failure. That is, it needs to be effective at providing public goods while serving everyone equally (not succumbing to the problems of public choice). I might summarize this as follows:

Public Goods Provided Public Goods Not Provided
Treats People Equally good government weak government
Privileges Elites crony government predatory government

Think of Denmark as good government, China as crony government, Zaire under Mobutu as predatory government, and Afghanistan as weak government. I assume that “political decay” will mean the movement from good government toward either weak government or crony government.

For a review by someone who has finished the book, see Michael Barone.

15 Oct 10:09


by Author


A resurrection today, due to unforeseen circumstances.

Original theology article from B&W.

Why not become a Patron of the Blasphemous Arts? Book shop here

10 Oct 19:10

Awesome photos show how Google is using a camel to map deserts

by Sarah Kliff

When Google wants to create its Street View maps — the ones that show the buildings and sidewalks that line the world's streets — it sends a funny-looking car with a camera on top off to capture the footage.

Those StreetView cars work great in places where there are roads. But in the world's more remote locations — a desert in Abu Dhabi, lets say — vehicles don't cut it. Enter Raffia, the camel carrying a camera across the Liwa oasis to produce more Google Maps.



Of course, the camel carrying a camera is not an everyday sight. But whats more striking about the video is the sheer size of the Liwa Oasis, an expansive stretch of desert that runs along the Persian Gulf.



This is a somewhat surreal video of Raffia, with her guide, in action.

(Google / YouTube)

You can see the results of Raffia's work on the Google Treks site, replete with many more camels who were not carrying cameras.

10 Oct 11:23

Online Education for Pre-School

by Alex Tabarrok

Online education continues to expand rapidly:

WASHINGTON—Saying the option is revolutionizing the way the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds prepare for the grade school years ahead, a Department of Education report released Thursday confirmed that an increasing number of U.S. toddlers are now attending online preschool. “We found that a growing number of American toddlers are eschewing the traditional brick-and-mortar preschools in favor of sitting down in front of a computer screen for four hours a day and furthering their early psychosocial development in a virtual environment,” said the report’s author, Dr. Stephen Forrest, who said that the affordability and flexibility characteristic of online pre-primary education are what make the option most appealing, allowing young children to learn their shapes and colors on a schedule that works best for them. “With access to their Show-And-Tell message boards, recess timers, and live webcams of class turtle tanks, most toddlers are finding that they can receive the same experience of traditional preschooling from the comfort of their parents’ living room or home office. In addition, most cited the ability to listen to their teacher’s recordings of story time at their own pace as a significant benefit of choosing an online nursery school.” Forrest added that, despite their increasing popularity, many parents remain unconvinced that online preschools provide the same academic benefits as actually hearing an instructor name farm animals and imitate their noises in person.

From America’s Finest News Source but do consider this.

08 Oct 04:00


People often say that same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 60s. But in terms of public opinion, same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 90s, when it had already been legal nationwide for 30 years.
06 Oct 21:06

The United States of Alcoholism

by Jason Kottke

Drinking Rate USA

30% of Americans don't drink any alcohol during a typical week. On the other end of the scale, ten percent of Americans consume more than 10 drinks every single day. More from Wonkblog.

I double-checked these figures with Cook, just to make sure I wasn't reading them wrong. "I agree that it's hard to imagine consuming 10 drinks a day," he told me. But, "there are a remarkable number of people who drink a couple of six packs a day, or a pint of whiskey."

As Cook notes in his book, the top 10 percent of drinkers account for well over half of the alcohol consumed in any given year. On the other hand, people in the bottom three deciles don't drink at all, and even the median consumption among those who do drink is just three beverages per week.

This is shocking to me. I wonder what the distribution is within the top 10%...there must be people in the top 1% who drink, what, 30 drinks per day? Is that even possible day after day without very serious consequences? (via mr)

Update: Over at Forbes, Trevor Butterworth casts doubt on the conclusions in the Wonkblog article.

The source for this figure is "Paying the Tab," by Phillip J. Cook, which was published in 2007. If we look at the section where he arrives at this calculation, and go to the footnote, we find that he used data from 2001-2002 from NESARC, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which had a representative sample of 43,093 adults over the age of 18. But following this footnote, we find that Cook corrected these data for under-reporting by multiplying the number of drinks each respondent claimed they had drunk by 1.97 in order to comport with the previous year's sales data for alcohol in the US. Why? It turns out that alcohol sales in the US in 2000 were double what NESARC's respondents -- a nationally representative sample, remember -- claimed to have drunk.

Additionally, the statement I made above -- "ten percent of Americans consume more than 10 drinks every single day" -- is not true, even if the data is correct. Instead, it is accurate to say that top 10% consumes an average of 10 drinks daily...some individuals may drink 4/day and some 18/day. Looks like it's time for a reread of How to Lie with Statistics and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. (via @harryh & @gfilpus)

Tags: alcohol   food
06 Oct 17:04

John Oliver on Civil Asset Forfeiture

by Alex Tabarrok

A case study in how quickly incentives can warp the rule of law.

Hat tip: Daniel Lippman.

28 Sep 04:00

September 28, 2014

Finishing Augie this week. Crazy.
22 Sep 17:49

Partyism in America is getting worse

by Tyler Cowen

In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.

And this:

To test for political prejudice, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, political scientists at Stanford University, conducted a large-scale implicit association test with 2,000 adults. They found people’s political bias to be much larger than their racial bias. When Democrats see “joy,” it’s much easier for them to click on a corner that says “Democratic” and “good” than on one that says “Republican” and “good.”

To find out whether such attitudes predict behavior, Iyengar and Westwood undertook a follow-up study. They asked more than 1,000 people to look at the resumes of several high-school seniors and say which ones should be awarded a scholarship. Some of these resumes contained racial cues (“president of the African American Student Association”) while others had political ones (“president of the Young Republicans”).

Race mattered. African-American participants preferred the African-American candidates 73 percent to 27 percent. Whites showed a modest preference for African-American candidates, as well, though by a significantly smaller margin. But partisanship made a much bigger difference. Both Democrats and Republicans selected their in-party candidate about 80 percent of the time.

That is from Cass Sunstein.

23 Sep 06:00

Hedge fund rats

by Tyler Cowen

Seriously, has no one heard of the EMH?

Why should trading be the province of humans only?:

One project is Michael Marcovici’s Rat Trader. The book describes the training of laboratory rats to trade in foreign exchange and commodity futures markets. Marcovici says the rats “outperformed some of the world’s leading human fund managers.” The rats were trained to press a red or green button to give buy or sell signals, after listening to ticker tape movements represented as sounds. If they called the market right they were fed, if they called it wrong they got a small electric shock. Male and female rats performed equally well. The second generation of rattraders, cross-bred from the best performers in the first generation, appeared to have even better performance, although this is a preliminary result, according to the text. Marcovici’s plan, he writes, is to breed enough of them to set up a hedge fund.

I don’t myself like the electric shock idea, but there you go.  That is from Diane Coyle, and for the pointer I thank Michael Gibson.

15 Sep 11:20

The Case for Open Borders

by Alex Tabarrok

Dylan Matthews summarizes the The Case for Open Borders drawing on an excellent interview with Bryan Caplan. Here is one bit from the interview:

Letting someone get a job is not a kind of charity. It’s not a welfare program. It’s just the government leaving people alone to go and make something out of their lives. When most people are on earth are dealt such a bad hand, to try to stop them from bettering their condition seems a very cruel thing to do to someone.

My elevator pitch has no economics in it, because the economics is actually too subtle to really explain in an elevator pitch. If I had a little bit more time, I would say, “What do you think the effects for men have been of more women in the workforce?”

Are there some men who are worse off? Sure. But would we really be a richer society if we kept half the population stuck at home? Isn’t it better to take people who have useful skills and let them do something with it, than to just keep them locked up someplace where their skills go to waste?

Isn’t that not just better for them, but better for people in general, if we allow people to use their skills to contribute to the world instead of keeping them shut up someplace where they just twiddle their thumbs or do subsistence agriculture or whatever?

On the economics, David Roodman has a characteristically careful and comprehensive review written for Givewell of the evidence on the effect of immigration on native wages. He writes, “the available evidence paints a fairly consistent and plausible picture”:

  • There is almost no evidence of anything close to one-to-one crowding out by new immigrant arrivals to the job market in industrial countries. Most studies find that 10% growth in the immigrant “stock” changes natives’ earnings by between –2% and +2% (@Longhi, Nijkamp, and Poot 2005@, Fig 1; @Peri 2014@, Pg 1). Although serious questions can be raised about the reliability of most studies, the scarcity of evidence for great pessimism stands as a fact (emphasis added, AT)….
  • One factor dampening the economic side effects of immigration is that immigrants are consumers as well as producers. They increase domestic demand for goods and services, perhaps even more quickly than they increase domestic production (@Hercowitz and Yashiv 2002@), since they must consume as soon as they arrive. They expand the economic pie even as they compete for a slice. This is not to suggest that the market mechanism is perfect—adjustment to new arrivals is not instantaneous and may be incomplete—but the mechanism does operate.
  • A second dampener is that in industrial economies, the capital supply tends to expand along with the workforce. More workers leads to more offices and more factories. Were receiving economies not flexible in this way, they would not be rich. This mechanism too may not be complete or immediate, but it is substantial in the long run: since the industrial revolution, population has doubled many times in the US and other now-wealthy nations, and the capital stock has kept pace, so that today there is more capital per worker than 200 years ago.
  • A third dampener is that while workers who are similar compete, ones who are different complement. An expansion in the diligent manual labor available to the home renovation business can spur that industry to grow, which will increase its demand for other kinds of workers, from skilled general contractors who can manage complex projects for English-speaking clients to scientists who develop new materials for home building. Symmetrically, an influx of high-skill workers can increase demand for low-skill ones. More computer programmers means more tech businesses, which means more need for janitors and security guards. Again, the effect is certain, though its speed and size are not.
  • …one way to cushion the impact of low-skill migration on low-skill workers already present is to increase skilled immigration in tandem.

Plaudits are due to Givewell. While others are focused on giving cows, Givewell is going after the really big gains.

11 Sep 16:32

Another Education Peculiarity

by Arnold Kling

Neerav Kingsland writes,

the wealthy are paying for status (and perhaps peer effects) more so than they are paying for educational programming.

Schools respond when people pay for status: we get beautiful buildings, wonderful extracurriculars, and a lot of social events.

Of course, these things don’t spread to all schools because they involve costly goods rather than innovations in instruction.

So instead of the wealthy subsidizing the early adoption of innovation, the reverse seems more likely true: it’s the practices of urban charter schools (Teach Like A Champion, Leveraged Leadership, blended learning, etc.) that will end up spreading to the suburbs.

Read the whole thing. If elite schools are status goods, then it will be difficult to dislodge them from their perches–until it becomes easy. I have suggested before that you could see a very rapid “tipping” away from elite schools. Once enough parents decide that there are other ways to achieve parenting status than sending kids to erstwhile elite schools, the elite schools collapse.