Month: November 2003

Choice theory and the devil: a puzzle

You are in hell and facing an eternity of torment, but the devil offers you a way out, which you can take once and only once at any time from now on. Today, if you ask him to, the devil will toss a fair coin once and if it comes up heads you are free (but if tails then you face eternal torment with no possibility of reprieve). You don’t have to play today, though, because tomorrow the devil will make the deal slightly more favourable to you (and you know this): he’ll toss the coin twice but just one head will free you. The day after, the offer will improve further: 3 tosses with just one head needed. And so on (4 tosses, 5 tosses, ….1000 tosses …) for the rest of time if needed. So, given that the devil will give you better odds on every day after this one, but that you want to escape from hell some time, when should accept his offer?


I haven’t worked through this one formally, but I have the sinking feeling that the correct answer is to choose an awfully long (infinite?) period of torment. Think about it. Waiting another day adds only slightly to suffering, viewed as part of a potentially very large total. But you improve your odds of escape by a considerable amount. Your best chance of getting out of the paradox is to have a very high discount rate and a very low level of risk aversion, noting of course that under some utility functions this combination of features cannot be made to fit together.

By the way, if you are into this kind of thing, Will Baude has an excellent post explaining the St. Petersburg Paradox.

Radar improves the quality of wine

Yup, that”s right. And yes, new ideas do come first to California, at least in this case.

Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley are using ground penetrating radar (GPR), a tool better known for its military uses, to help winemakers create tastier, more uniform wines.

“GPR is an electromagnetic signal that travels in the ground. What we do is try to understand how fast that signal travels and that tells us a lot about the moisture content of the soil,” said Susan Hubbard, a hydrogeophysicist at University of California, Berkeley, and staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Understanding soil moisture is a critical part of the art and science of winemaking. Cabernet Sauvignon and other red wine grapes prefer drier soil. Chardonnay and other white wine grapes do better in moist soil. But growers say the timing, and the amount of water given to the vines can make the difference between an average and an outstanding crop.

Read here for the full story.

Let’s not forget, the initial French advantage in winemaking was based on technology, albeit of a more informal sort. If the French don’t keep on innovating, they will be left behind.

Newspapers in small countries

Consider this list of newspapers per capita. This is the number of papers, not how many people read papers. Here is the top ten:

1. San Marino 108.19 per 1000000 people
2. Gibraltar 36.08 per 1000000 people
3. Andorra 29.24 per 1000000 people
4. Macau 21.65 per 1000000 people
5. Greece 19.45 per 1000000 people
6. Norway 17.9 per 1000000 people
7. Bermuda 15.63 per 1000000 people
8. Estonia 11.3 per 1000000 people
9. Switzerland 11.09 per 1000000 people
10. Latvia 10.99 per 100000 people

Rounding out the top fifteen are Iceland, Cyprus, and Malta, along with such giants as Sweden and Finland. And note the gap between the frontrunner, San Marino, and number two; San Marino has almost three times as many newspapers per capita.

The United States is not in the top sixty-seven and does not stand on the list at all, it appears not to be in the database. A separate data source lists America as having 1,228 daily newspapers, which if correct would put us in per capita terms at number 28, between Mauritius and Bolivia. Why so low? Well, we rely on TV more, we have more concentrated media (most cities have only one daily paper, and perhaps smaller countries like the gossipy element that follows from a large number of small circulation newspapers.

Note: I have modified the initial version of this post, due to helpful comments from Frank Quist.

Drug reimportation

Most libertarian economists oppose drug reimportation, on the grounds that the resulting lower prices would harm the incentives for R&D. Richard Epstein provides a good statement of this case, with links to the relevant debates, including some libertarian dissenters, such as Ed Crane and Roger Pilon, both of Cato.

I have wondered, however, whether libertarians ought to reconsider their opposition to reimportation. Recall that the libertarian position paints the FDA as a significant obstacle to drug research.

I suspect that allowing drug reimportation would, in the long-run, break down the authority of the FDA. Once Americans are looking to abroad for medicines, the flood gates will be opened. They will want to buy medicines from Mexico, Europe, and indeed from all over the world. These medicines, of course, will not have met with FDA approval. It is not a matter of pure logic that legal reimportation would lead to this broader class of imported drugs, but I think it is what the political equilibrium would look like. Illegal drug importation is already on the rise; legal reimportation would legitimize and publicize the overall idea of getting drugs from other countries.

So, if we allow reimportation, the FDA will either have to become much stronger, and more intrusive (in conjunction with other governmental agencies, such as customs perhaps), or the FDA will cede much of its effective power, while likely keeping its nominal powers. But in the long run it is hard to see how to enforce restrictions on drug importation, especially once reimportation is legal. Drugs don’t take up much space, and the exact nature of their content is not easily tested. You can have a customs dog sniff for pot, but that same dog cannot tell whether a drug is of pure quality of adulterated, or is something else altogether. If libertarian think that the FDA does more harm than good, perhaps they should welcome reimportation as moving us toward a greater reliance on markets.

Musical evening, based on trade

Last night my wife and I saw Cesare Evoria in concert, she is the closest today’s world has to a Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. Here is one of her best CDs.

As you may know, Evoria is from Cape Verde, one of the most musically creative spots on the planet. Cape Verdean music draws from traditions of Portuguese song, Brazilian samba, and American jazz, among other styles. Bittersweet and lovely at the same time. Note that this unique musical culture draws on remittances for its finance; remittances constitute more than 20 percent of Cape Verde’s gdp. Cape Verdeans migrate to Massachusetts, Portugal, France and the Netherlands. According to some estimates, there are 500,000 Cape Verdeans abroad, and about 350,000 in Cape Verde. This is yet another example of the cultural benefits of trade and migration.

Addendum: Here is an update on what is going on in Cape Verde, with respect to economic development.