Month: May 2005

The six million dollar turtle

Natural evolution has produced the eye, butterfly wings and other wonders that would put any inventor to shame. But who’s to say evolution couldn’t be improved with the help of a little technology?

So argues James Auger in his controversial and sometimes unsettling book, Augmented Animals. A designer and former research associate with MIT Media Lab Europe, Auger envisions animals, birds, reptiles and even fish becoming appreciative techno-geeks, using specially engineered gadgets to help them overcome their evolutionary shortcomings, promote their chances of survival or just simply lead easier and more comfortable lives.

On tap for the future: Rodents zooming around with night-vision survival goggles, squirrels hoarding nuts using GPS locators and fish armed with metal detectors to avoid the angler’s hook…

"To offset the cruelty of factory-farming, routine implants of smart microchips in the pleasure centers may be feasible," says David Pearce, associate editor of the Journal of Evolution and Technology. "Since there is no physiological tolerance to pure pleasure, factory-farmed animals could lead a lifetime of pure bliss instead of misery. Unnatural? Yes, but so is factory farming. Immoral? No, certainly not compared to the terrible suffering we inflict on factory-farmed animals today."

There is more here, and yes Wired is essential reading.

Markets in everything (but did it count for tenure?)

If you don’t like getting your paper rejected before it even reaches peer review, ask David Egilman how to get around the process: In what may be an unprecedented move, when the Brown University researcher’s paper was recently rejected from an occupational medicine journal, he simply bought two pages of ad space and printed the entire article in the same journal.

Here is the full story, and thanks to Newmark’s Door for the pointer.

Addendum: If you care about "Conferences in Everything," try this one.

Avian flu update

I have learned a great deal following the avian flu story, as a result of my hand in the new Avian Flu blog.  Recently we seem to have been in a period of calm, as the flu has been mutating into less lethal forms.  This, however, can be bad news, as less lethal forms have greater potential to spread.

One source — Recombinomics– argues that the next pandemic has started already in Vietnam.  I find their material prone to overstatement but nonetheless their arguments make for chilling reading and I would not dismiss this outright.  Here is another alarmist report.

Here are some puzzles about avian flu.

Explaining Regression

During his Daily Show appearance Steve Levitt said that in estimating the effect of abortion on crime he controlled for other variables like police and prisons.  Jon Stewart pressed Steve for an explanation of how someone could "control" for other variables – amazingly, Stewart seemed genuinely interested in an answer but, wisely, Steve demurred.  The exchange got me to thinking, What is the shortest, non-technical, yet reasonably accurate explanation of how this is done?

I think the way to go is to use the Frisch-Waugh-Lovell Theorem.  Here’s my attempt:

Suppose you want to figure out the effect of weight on life expectancy.  Heavy people tend to be tall so you have to control for height.  You can do this with a two-step procedure.  First, calculate how height correlates with weight.  Let’s say that you discover that every 1 inch increase in height above say 5’7 correlates with a 5 pound increase in weight; you now subtract from each person’s weight that portion which can be explained by height.  For example, you would subtract 5 pounds from everyone in the data of height 5’8 and 10 pounds from everyone who is 5’9.   Since height doesn’t explain weight perfectly, you are left with a new variable, weight2.  In the second step, you calculate how life expectancy correlates with weight2, since weight2 is "weight after controlling for height" you have now calculated the effect on life expectancy of weight after controlling for height.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that this is what Steve should have said!  (If asked I would have said, "Well, I could tell you that Jon, but then I would have to bore you.")  I’ve opened the comments section if you have some other ideas.

By the way the ubiquitous Steve Levitt will be here on Wednesday, but I repeat myself.

My food bleg

Do you know of a good barbecue restaurant in or near Savannah?  I will have a car, and yes a) I like dumps, b) I know that health code violations are a code of honor in the sector, and c) the best barbecue enjoys low rents outside the center city.

I’m currently researching the economics of barbecue, and you’ll hear more about this in the coming months.  If you know of anything good written on barbecue, please pass along that suggestion as well.  I’ve turned on the comments section, or you can email me directly, thanks in advance.

Liberalism, standing on one foot?

The ever-insightful Henry Farrell asks whether (modern, left-wing) liberals can express their core attitudes in one simple sentence.

My version of his attempt is: "We don’t want to rake people over the coals with risk."

Some conservatives and libertarians, believe: "Risk strengthens your moral fiber, and induces you to work hard for others."

My sentence is a bit different: "Trying too hard to limit risk will increase the number of global people who are just outright screwed over."

My sentence is the least politically palatable or salient of the three.  But the more globalized the world becomes, the greater its relevance.  It is imperative to keep the United States — the number one generator of global public goods — as a highly productive, innovative economy.

The modern liberal vice is to think that everyone can be taken care of, and/or to rule out foreigners from the relevant moral universe.  Too many issues are (incorrectly) framed as "taking care" vs. serving the avarice of the wealthy. 

In turn, a conservative and libertarian vice is to get too obsessed with "desert."  Another conservative and libertarian vice is come up with some better means of helping people — usually involving markets — and if that doesn’t happen, to be content with doing nothing.  I am most sympathetic with modern liberalism when it buys into libertarian analysis, but then wants to do something through government anyway.

Note that conservatism and libertarianism, whatever their major differences may be, tend to share emotional vices.  That is why libertarianism remains more of a right-wing than left-wing point of view.

Names and education

Which girls’ names are most closely correlated with high levels of parental education?

1. Lucienne

2. Marie-Claire

3. Glynnis

4. Adair

5. Meira

How about negatively correlated with education?

1. Angel

2. Heaven

3. Misty

4. Destiny

5. Brenda

That is from the June issue of Atlantic Monthly, derived from the work of Steve Levitt.  By the way, boys’ names ending in "y" sounds — such as Cody and Ricky — are not altogether positive signals about whether the parents have read Remembrance of Things Past

Imaginary book excerpts

Charles Fourier, the nineteenth century French Utopian Socialist, saw gastronomy as a key to political philosophy.  Sex and food should be the dual bases of the new socialist order, which he referred to as “Gastrosophy.”  Continual stimulation of the senses would bring about a true harmony of interests, as enforced by elitist culinary judges and juries [TC: who enforces the sex part?].  But sadly culinary science had been corrupted by capitalism and its imposition of artificial scarcity.  Fourier considered the Aristotelian virtue of moderation to be an abomination.  He saw the socialist future as bringing five meals a day plus two snacks.  Men will be seven feet tall, digestion will be easy, and life expectancy will reach 144 years.  Fourier, of course, in addition predicted that socialism would bring ships pulled by dolphins and oceans full of lemonade.  But hey, not everyone is perfect.  They also laughed when he proclaimed that the steam locomotive would revolutionize European travel.

That is by me, of course.  I thank Priscilla Ferguson’s intriguing Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine for some of the details.