Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived
A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?
Update: seemingly not
Update: Oh yeah!
Friday, July 30, 2010
Once more unto the paddock
Apparently a salary schedule for the Afghan security forces was in the Wikileaks dump, meaning that once more, the "Taliban pay more than NATO" idea is getting a canter out. (See discussion here (comments) and here (comments).)
At least this time there's recognition that you can't compare the salaries like for like (I'd also note that as far as I can tell from their reputation, the job-related income of an Afghan policeman is a lot bigger than his salary). But the basic problem is that the Taliban aren't like an army, they don't pay like an army and in general the economic relationship is not one that's sensibly analysed by comparison to a monthly wage. The idea that you can bid up the wage of casual labour so that the Taliban can't afford it just isn't going to work.
Edit: "Afghan", not "Afghani", see comments. I got this right once and wrong once, showing that I just wasn't paying attention.
this item posted by the management 7/30/2010 03:33:00 AM
Err yes. Although government spokesmen should always be given a sceptical hearing when they say "revealing this information will cost lives", it's clearly not OK to just bellyflop a load of information about identifiable individuals onto the Web without checking through it to make sure you're not putting someone's life at risk. I frankly don't understand what Assange thought he was playing at and Charli Carpenter is right to say that the journalists working with him ought to have put their foot down. Nick Davies is usually a total mensch, but he really screwed up on this.
this item posted by the management 7/30/2010 02:38:00 AM
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Is it me, or is this (while quite cool) not puzzling at all?
"Sailing" directly downwind, faster than the wind speed.
It's a cool vehicle, but there is no puzzle or paradox here, and it is not sailing downwind. It is powered by a propellor/windmill, the movement of which is perpendicular to the wind. A propellor is not a sail; in as much as the blades are analogous to the
sails of a windmill wings of a bird, they're moving perpendicular to the wind, not parallel to it, and there's nothing particularly odd or counterintuitive in the idea that you can move faster than the windspeed when you're travelling at an angle to the wind - nearly anyone who sails on their local reservoir has probably done so, on a reach on a light wind day.
I think the thing that is confusing all the amateur physicists and which accounts for the slight does-your-head-in effect of the video is that when you look at the vehicle, you sort of want to consider the plane of rotation of the propellor as if it were a physical object that the wind was blowing against, analogous to a sail. But it isn't; all of the wind power in this thing is perpendicular to the direction of the wind, not directly downwind. It's moving directly downwind under wind power, but it isn't sailing.
Update: Looking at that comments thread, the other thing that confuses people is that the propellor is a propellor, not a windmill - it isn't being turned by the wind. I have made a strikethrough above accordingly.
this item posted by the management 7/29/2010 11:53:00 PM
Thursday Music Link
The people who didn't like the disco/classical crossovers last week are going to hate my current Daniel Barenboim/The Wurzels mashup project - "I've got a brand new Hammerklavier".
Derek Bailey plays ballads
this item posted by the management 7/29/2010 07:28:00 AM
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
As expected, the word "choice" features heavily in the government's response
... is the throat-clearing equivalent of "you couldn't make it up!" from this prize piece of woo-bashing in the Guardian, via Henry. I don't think it's particularly bacai (although I suspect that I might think otherwise if I had been the civil servant who wrote the rather clever and well-thought-out response it's having a go at), but it's pretty typical of what I consider to be the wrong approach to dealing with homeopathy.
That approach being, of course, roughly that of Monty Python's Bruces sketch - "you're allowed to teach Marx, as long as you make it clear that he was wrong". Actually the select committee report was a bit more aggressive than that - they appear at several points to be saying that it is unethical to prescribe placebos for patients per se, and the practice should possibly be banned and certainly not allowed under the NHS.
The phrase I've excerpted for my title is the one that set my bells off - it exactly summarises what I don't like about this approach, in dismissing the fundamental right of a patient to decide on his treatment as being some weirdo hippy shit that should be ignored by Real Men Of Science (he has a few paragraphs ridiculing the idea, which are roughly as hilarious as every other stand up comedy act on the theme of "I don't want all this choice ...").
Brass tacks. People want woo. Actually, they want thoughtful, respectful and sympathetic treatment from general practitioners, but that's a) expensive and b) difficult to achieve given the social realities of the medical profession. So woo is where we are now. It would be difficult and expensive to persuade the population of the UK to not believe in homeopathy, and the main consequence would be an additional burden on GPs. Since there is no special off-budget source of funds for skepticism and its consequences, this would also take money away from our household god, which we don't want to do. So we're left with:
1) on the one hand, some people who want thing X, which doesn't do them much harm compared to the comfort and enjoyment they get out of it,
2) and on the other hand, some other people who don't indulge in X themselves and are not affected materially by it, but who have a belief system and world view which makes them think that nobody should consume thing X.
We've pretty much decided on a schema for this sort of problem as a society, and the Enlightenment Values crowd can hardly object to the solution we decided on as it pretty much kept them from being burned at the stake for two hundred years. That's what the government response is doing; threading the needle between endorsing woo and banning it (or putting unreasonable restrictions on people's realistic ability to get placebo treatments they want), and as far as I can see the DoH response is doing so pretty sensibly.
Tidying up with some answers to questions in the Guardian piece:
You get a sense of this confusion very early on, with lines like: "given the geographical, socioeconomic and cultural diversity in England, [policy on homeopathy] involves a whole range of considerations including, but not limited to, efficacy." I actually have no idea what this means – do medicines work differently in Norfolk from the way they work in Hampshire? The report doesn't elaborate
Well, as discussed in a few comments threads here, the demand for homeopathy, and the kind of cases in which it is a good idea to practice placebo medicine, is built up in a particular set of common conditions (canonically, back pain and allergy medicine). And I would very much imagine that these conditions had geographical, socioeconomic and cultural variance.
One of the phrases Orwell that stuck with me from The Road to Wigan Pier, seems apropos here:
"The underlying motive of many Socialists, I believe, is simply a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery, still less because it makes freedom impossible, but because it is untidy; what they desire, basically, is to reduce the world to something resembling a chess-board"
There is certainly an equivalent motivation for people entering the medical profession and its adjuncts.
 This would be such a crazy thing to do, and so far out of line with normal medical practice that I suspect that either the government response has taken the select committee out of context, or that I've just got the wrong end of the stick.
 A fact! Of actual science! Provable by sociological and economic research!
 Sociology and economics! Both actual sciences! In which it is often possible to support hypotheses with evidence to a much greater degree than many areas of medicine!
 Also a fact!
 Actually an unsupported hypothesis, but the sort of statement that could certainly be supported by evidence and achieve the same degree of certainty as the fact referenced above in footnote 2.
 Historians who are aware of the very limited extent to which atheists were ever persecuted (heretics, not unbelievers, were largely the ones getting burned), please forgive me for that one.
 I could even say "need" here, because plenty consumers of placebo remedies do need them in any sense similar to which most people you'll meet in a GP waiting room need whatever medicine they get prescribed. But actually "want" is all that's necessary for my argument. Giving the people what they want isn't a 'weird fetish' - it's the whole point of the exercise.
 Or at least, a GP waiting room in my neck of the woods; see point about social variation above.
this item posted by the management 7/28/2010 07:06:00 AM
A random thought about the I-Pad and I-Phone and their respective application shops
Whatever else one might think about the "walled garden" approach to content and applications at Apple, at least it finally gives the lie to that assertion (beloved of excruciatingly dull cultural theorists and technofuturists wanting to put a bit of ersatz spice in their prognostications) that "porn is the driver of technological innovation".
I have mentioned in the past that it's a bit twenty years ago to moan about idiosyncratic typography and neologisms in branding, but it appears that I'm in a different mood today from the mood I was in then.
 And it's apparently quite a funny mood. "ersatz spice in their prognostications"? this is surely an unconscious parody of someone, I hope not me.
 By the way, Patient Zero of the porn-equals-progress cliche was apparently a historian called Jonathan Coopersmith. In many ways, I'm surprised and slightly disappointed that he doesn't seem to have been able to monetise it with a cash-in pop-sociology book. As is always the case, the original source material is much more interesting than the brutally oversimplified assertion it got boiled down to.
 I like footnotes which aren't referenced in the text. I'm afraid you're going to have to live with it.
this item posted by the management 7/28/2010 03:23:00 AM
Monday, July 26, 2010
But if I remember to shave my forehead in the mornings, I can almost pass for a member of the Stock Exchange
Yes, well fuck you too, Rory Stewart, you may have written a pretty good book about Afghanistan, but that doesn't let you off on a first degree charge of being an arse to joskyns. As it happens, while playing with my cousins as a boy, I may have on occasion used a bit of baler twine as a makeshift belt myself on occasion, and I certainly knew people who made a habit of it. But they let me go to university, and now I am not only more or less immune from being patronised by floppy-haired tools, I am able to patronise a few of them myself! I suppose that the point is that there's a category of toff which considers Pashtun tribesmen and Penrith farmers to be more or less indistinguishable - anyone less posh than them is basically in the category "peasants", and there's no real sense in making distinctions between them any more than knowing the difference between a phytoplankton and a paramecium when looking at pond life. Ironically this is often experienced as the legendary "common touch"; the very posh indeed really do talk to their gardener in the same way they talk to a doctor.
Bonus bile: Dear Penrithians, there's no point acting all pissed off now, you knew he was a Tory when you voted for him, love, DD.
this item posted by the management 7/26/2010 12:56:00 AM
Saturday, July 24, 2010
A point I ought to bear in mind significantly more than I usually do ...
Like most heterodox economists, I have this vague idea at the back of my mind that if people took nonergodicity, nonlinearity and similar concepts more seriously, we would have an economics that wasn't quite so polluted by laughable rationalisations of right wing deflationist bollocks.
See yesterday's Krugman blog for a classic example of why that isn't at all necessarily true. Hetecon is just as good a toolkit for justifying spurious austerity measures and tax cuts as conventional economics, unfortunately. The war will never be won, all one can do is try to minimise the casualties.
(I first noticed this a while ago; although there was massive overlap between the Progressive Economists' Network and the Post-Keynesian Thought mailing lists, the median politics of PKT were always much more conservative than those of PEN. I always wondered why, not realising for ages that it was because one list was a self-identified left-wing list and the other, well, wasn't)
this item posted by the management 7/24/2010 03:56:00 AM
Friday, July 23, 2010
Thanks very much to Shane in comments
Phil Mirowski, on the state of economics, who is always worth reading. Not sure if I agree with him on everything (the preoccupation of heterodox economists with arguing about methodology rather than going out and doing some economists is a real bugbear), but good stuff withal.
this item posted by the management 7/23/2010 07:54:00 AM
Thursday, July 22, 2010
A couple of short comments on new media
In my opinion, if you ever find yourself running as your main news story the fact that I once said in an email that I find Fox News a bit scary, your quest to compete with the Huffington Post is probably not on track.
If, however, this or something like it is still your top story five days later, that's actually quite pathetic. Were the Pentagon Papers front page news five days running? Even the Kennedy assassination probably didn't get this treatment.
By the way, I'm not "a Guardian columnist" and never have been, although I am happy to let the rumour get round that I am as it might get me invited to better parties.
PS: I am hardly an Italian fashion model, but really: crap tie.
Labels: and were those extracts taken out of context to distort their meaning? do you really have to ask?
this item posted by the management 7/22/2010 11:12:00 PM
Thursday Music Link
It's past time we had some links to the canon of Western classical music:
Chopin's Prelude in E Minor
Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain"
Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarasthustra"
this item posted by the management 7/22/2010 12:03:00 AM
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
A man who believes himself to be an economist, and who had at one point convinced the New York Times that he was one, writes
(This brings to mind an idea I have long had: that high schools and colleges should have a course on “how to get along” and “how to do a day’s work.” This would include showing up in clean clothes, smelling well, having had a good breakfast, dressed in a businesslike way, calling the other employees “sir” or “ma’am” and not talking back. This would include a teaching of the fact that the employee is not there for amusement, but to help the employer make money and to get a job done. It would include the idea that once you are at work, you are not at play. It is an idea whose time has come.)
Update!. While I'm on the general subject, I have an idea for a long running blog joke. The first question in my series will be "Does anyone really give a fuck what John Rentoul thinks about anything any more?". Perhaps next week we'll tackle "Did they ever?".
Labels: intrinsically risible people (other than those called Denis MacShane), it is - are you?
this item posted by the management 7/20/2010 12:22:00 PM
Monday, July 19, 2010
Here's a picture of Noam Chomsky with a man in a Mexican wrestler's costume
Here, so to speak, is a picture of Noam Chomsky with a man in a Mexican wrestler's costume
what, that's not enough for you?
It came via a blog about real life superheroes.
which is actually quite interesting.
this item posted by the management 7/19/2010 01:59:00 AM
Friday, July 16, 2010
One for the philosophers
Me from a couple of days ago:
In general, what makes people and things dangerous is their capacity to do harm, not their intrinsic badness
this was meant as a nod in the direction of the Goldacre fans among my readership - BG does (and this is much to his credit as many of his competitors for the "sceptic" brand write whole books about "Counterknowledge" which don't even mention tobacco/lung cancer) take on pseudoscience carried out by the pharmaceutical industry, but it's less than a fifth of the amount of text and effort that he spends on woo. Whereas, as I noted in that post, even if one brackets out the potential deaths caused, you can see that one single piece of scientific malpractice carried out by a pharma company caused misdirection of medical expenditure a hundred times greater than the annual NHS spend on homeopathy. The point being, that if effort was expended in rough proportion to the harm done, people would hardly mention homeopathy at all. (Update: Goldacre's "Bad Science" col covers this story this week, although I think "disappointing behaviour" is perhaps a little mild as a description of what happened).
But I kind of gave up on that angle, because there's something wrong with that decision rule. It sounds reasonably intuitive (or at least it does to me with my own background; it's basically a loose way of talking about a marginal cost criterion), and I think it certainly beats the alternative rule of expending all of one's effort on the single worst problem until it is solved (the "why aren't we talking about Burma/Darfur/Zimbabwe?" gambit in international human rights). But it leads you into some weird places.
For example, if you're just saying that "the badness of something is determined by the amount of harm it does", then Prohibition was a success. Just as I reasoned that Hitler was more dangerous than Peter Tobin because he was in charge of an industrialised state, the fact is that alcohol consumption at the level of the USA in the 1910s was almost certainly causing more death and injury than any criminal gang could ever have done. Or you end up trying to judge all potential expenditure against a yardstick of spending the money on vaccination and water provision in the Third World and closing down the Royal Opera. And so on. But I don't really understand why the rule doesn't work.
Important note: thanks very much, but I did do "Utilitarianism: For And Against" at university and got an alpha in Finals; I'm reasonably familiar with most of the theoretical arguments, at least at the level at which it's possible to discuss them in blog comments. I'm not really asking about the moral arguments in favour of (or against) utilitarianism per se and am aware that there is basically no way of arguing against Peter Singer once you've accepted his premises. I'm thinking more about the "importance in proportion to harm and benefit" rule as a practical political principle of decision theory, and why it doesn't seem to work.
There are a few obvious possibilities which I think are red herrings. Prohibition was indeed largely bad for libertarian reasons rather than because of anything to do with health outcomes, but I think that even the health outcome justification for it fails. In the other example, I am also heavily sceptical about whether the quoted marginal benefits of vaccination and water projects are actually deliverable on any reliable basis, but I think I'd still regard the "shut down the Royal Opera and spend the money on the poor" rule as wrong even if I wasn't.
My own guess is that a rule like this breaks one of the important criteria for a rule of justice that are there in some versions of Rawls - that the social decision rule has to be justifiable to everyone in society on their own terms, otherwise it's not really a society. If you have an overarching rule about priorities, it's going to create what Kenneth Arrow calls "positional dictators" - ie people whose position in the current allocation of resources gives them a status such that the social utility function is wholly determined by theirs. More importantly, there are going to be loads of people whose priorities are nowhere near the social priorities and who therefore have no chance whatsoever of seeing their particular hobbyhorse being funded. People like that are eventually going to get pig sick of making their contribution, because they're going to believe (correctly) that the society they're in isn't working for them.
this item posted by the management 7/16/2010 12:21:00 AM
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Thursday Music Link
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking out for the police.
John Adams: I was looking at the ceiling, and then I saw the sky
I went to see this at the Theatre Royal Stratford on Tuesday. It's not Adams' greatest hour, frankly - he's trying to blend minimalism with West Side Story and it doesn't really work. I think the problem is a) very compromised instrumentation with too many piano-and-bass-guitar passages that sound like a church youth group, and b) very, very misguided attempts to bring the funk, including a surprising number of occasions where the priapic black preacher character disco-dances and where I found myself thinking "out of context and to an unsympathetic critic, this could come over as being rather too close to minstrelsy". But, a John Adams piece is always worth a trip to the end of the DLR for, and the opening number linked above is sublime.
this item posted by the management 7/15/2010 12:04:00 AM
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Quatradactyl of the day
Can there be a phrase more poetic than ...
The man staggered back to the pub, bleeding heavily.
The actual story's a fairly bog standard tale of drunk/mentally ill person survives trip to zoo, but for some reason I just love the sound of "the man staggered back to the pub, bleeding heavily". It definitely sounds Byronic.
this item posted by the management 7/14/2010 02:13:00 AM
Industrial scale woo
I don't see any particular reason for having a different name for pseudoscience when it's carried out by science organisations. This is woo too.
By way of scale ...
But the latest documents demonstrate that the company had data hinting at Avandia’s extensive heart problems almost as soon as the drug was introduced in 1999, and sought intensively to keep those risks from becoming public. In one document, the company sought to quantify the lost sales that would result if Avandia’s cardiovascular safety risk “intensifies.” The cost: $600 million from 2002 to 2004 alone, the document stated.
That's roughly equal to the amount that the NHS would spend on woo over the next hundred years, at the 2005-8 rate of spending. In general, Stalin killed more people than Hitler because he was in power for longer; Hitler killed more people than Peter Tobin because he was in charge of an industrialised state. In general, what makes people and things dangerous is their capacity to do harm, not their intrinsic badness (I'm reminded of Noam Chomsky's Parable Of The Ants).
this item posted by the management 7/14/2010 12:32:00 AM
Monday, July 12, 2010
The great, the good, and me
If this is the same guy, and the fact that he's a mate of Hannam strongly suggests to me that it is, he was at university at the same time as me. I think I coined a nickname for him, but I can't remember what. Hmm, I thought this was going to make a more interesting post than it apparently did. Good to see all my contemporaries going bald though.
Labels: back of the net
this item posted by the management 7/12/2010 04:56:00 AM
Thursday, July 08, 2010
Thursday Music Link
I had planned to have "Shall we take a trip?" by Northside today, but close inspection reveals that it is in fact, bad.
banging, mate, on top
this item posted by the management 7/08/2010 07:28:00 AM
Shall we take a trip?
Further to very, very many discussions of the World Cup ... there is a genuine issue of diving and flopping, as everyone knows. But I think it's very much overstated and people don't seem to understand all that well why it is that the rules tend to give attacking players the benefit of the doubt when they fall over. It does break up the "flow of the game", but so does seeing Marco van Basten having his knees kicked out from under him, again. There's clearly a tradeoff to be made, and I don't think it's obviously wrong to err on the side of preventing injuries.
But more generally, I think the criticism of soccer players for being unmanly or lacking in character because they fall over a lot is misplaced. I've certainly seen rugby players who were justifiably proud of their ability to withstand crunching tackles round the upper body and waist, reduced to tears by the excruiating pain of injuries to those delicate weight-bearing joints in the lower leg. What would the sports of rugby or American football look like if it was common practice to stick out your foot and trip someone up at the ankle while they were running at full speed? Would a tough-guy real-man's-game player really continue to run on, unbalanced, after having taken a clip on the ankle? I don't think so. Association football is actually quite rare in being a sport in which the most common contact is lower leg to lower leg.
 thinking about it, I was always taught to tackle properly in the Welsh style, round the knees. But it's very difficult to injure someone's knees in this way, even at speed.
this item posted by the management 7/08/2010 02:16:00 AM
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
My unwritten science fiction novel
... is set in a world which has been revolutionized by nanotechnology. Invisible atomic-scale robots roam through our bodies, repairing damage. Unfortunately, nearly all of the damage they are called on to repair is related to the extremely aggressive carcinogenicity of the previous generation of nano-scale robots, which nobody knows how to remove from the atmosphere. The two lead characters are class action liability lawyers, as are roughly 50% of the population of the developed world by 2115. It's basically an exploration of the consequences of a world without death, in which 75% of GDP is dedicated to the settlement of century-old mesothelioma lawsuits. (Update: the company that makes them is incredibly profitable, of course - it just ends up spending all of its cashflow on long-tailed past liabilities)
In the sequel, the lead character is a technologist who invents a new species of parasitical nanobot which can clear the air of the Generation One carcinogens. The final volume of the trilogy is dedicated to the litigation surrounding the consequences of the Generation Threes. Working title: "I Don't Know Why She Swallowed A Fly".
this item posted by the management 7/07/2010 05:51:00 AM
Thursday, July 01, 2010
Thursday Music Link
There's only one possible song for this week, but ...
at least it's not the original Status Quo version
I feel bad about that. Here's a much better song.
(NB: As I've mentioned earlier, I do think SQ are in many ways underrated, but "Pictures of Matchstick Men" is just not a very good song).
this item posted by the management 7/01/2010 08:14:00 AM