Month: July 2005

Neither run nor duck?

Reading this made me sad:

Early detection [of a bomb] can backfire because of the grisly fact that human beings act as human shields.  "There is a trade-off between crowd size and crowd blocking," says Prof. Kaplan.  A large, dense crowd puts more people in harm’s way, but "the probability of being exposed to a bomb fragment declines exponentially with the size of the crowd."  As a crowd flees, there are fewer people near the bomber to absorb the fragments (as when a soldier falls on a grenade) and more people, unshielded, farther away.  Simple geometry shows that you can hit more people at a radius 20 feet from a bomber than you can five feet from him…The same effect occurs if people throw themselves to the ground  That minimizes each person’s exposed area, but also at the expense of decreasing human shielding.  For bombs with 500 or more fragments (in Israel, 1,000 is typical), "hit the deck" can raise rather than cut casualties.

That is from The Wall Street Journal, 8 July 2005, by Sharon Begley.

Who would gain from agricultural free trade?

…the reality is that liberalizing agricultural trade would largely benefit the consumers and taxpayers of the wealthy nations.  Why? Because agricultural subsidies serve first and foremost to transfer resources from consumers and taxpayers to farmers within the same country…Other countries are affected only insofar as world prices rise.  But the big, clear gainers from such price increases would be countries that are large net exporters of agricultural products — rich countries, such as the United States, and middle-income countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Thailand.

What about the poorer countries?  For one thing, many poor countries are actually net importers of agricultural products, and so they benefit from low world prices.  An increase in prices may help the rural poor, who sell the agricultural goods, but it would make the urban poor — the consumers — worse off.  Net poverty could still be reduced, but to what extent depends in complicated fashion on the working condition of roads and the markets for fertilizer and other inputs…

Regardless of whether agricultural liberalization increases or decreases poverty, the impact would not be significant.  Most studies predict that the effect of such liberalization on world prices would be small…

Furthermore a general reduction of trade barriers in rich countries could leave some of the world’s poorest countries worse off.  A substantial part of least-developed countries’ exports enjoy favorable conditions of access to the markets of rich countries under various preferential trade arrangements…

That is Nancy Birdsall, Dani Rodrik, and Arvind Subramaniam, in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs.

My take: A few caveats are needed.  First, the dynamic gains are higher than the above words would indicate.  Free trade may encourage many nations to raise their agricultural productivity.  Second, agricultural free trade will lead to lower prices for many commodities, especially in the longer run.  That all being said, don’t be surprised if China, the U.S. and Mercosur come out as the big winners, not Africa.

Addendum: Here is a useful link, thanks to Asif for the pointer.

Does the Pope Read Marginal Revolution?

In a new op-ed, an important Catholic theologian apparently accepts the logic of my argument (and here) on theism and evolution.  Coincidental timing?  Perhaps.  But the probability that the Pope reads MR now increases! 🙂   From the NYTimes.

An influential cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, which has long
been regarded as an ally of the theory of evolution, is now suggesting
that belief in evolution as accepted by science today may be
incompatible with Catholic faith.

The cardinal, Christoph
Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, a theologian who is close to Pope
Benedict XVI, staked out his position in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on Thursday,
writing, "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but
evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense – an unguided, unplanned process
of random variation and natural selection – is not."

Thanks to Roger Sweeny for the pointer.

Meat without Feet

Earlier I wrote that the animal-welfare movement will explode as in-vitro meat becomes commercially viable.  A new paper discusses some novel techniques for growing in-vitro meat.  New Harvest, a non-profit firm, has been created to experiment with and promote the technology.   We will soon need a new word for people who eat meat but not animals.  Email me if you have suggestions and I will publish the best.

How do cellphones change your life?

Yes you are always connected and people yak in restaurants.  Michael at makes another good point:

I don’t use the land line often, but when I do it’s often for very enjoyable 30 minute stream-of-consciousness yakfests. It’s hard to imagine enjoying such a conversation on the cellphone, and I finally decided that I don’t want to give up the possibilty of having analog conversations.

Is it down to the quality of the sound? There seems to be an ever-so-slight delay in the conversational back-and-forth on a cellphone. This takes a little getting used to, and it certainly interrupts the free flow of intuition and thought.

My main dislike: When you have a cellphone, it is easier for others to be late.  It is also harder to get people to precommit to exact plans in advance.  Too much discretion, not enough rules.

Can placebo effects cure your allergies?

People itching for a solution to seasonal allergies could get help from self-hypnosis, a team of Swiss researchers suggests. The study finds that simply focusing one’s thoughts on allergen-free environments can reduce symptoms of hay fever by one-third.

Beware my posts on the sciences; I like to report results which confirm my priors.  Here is the full story.

The Poorest of the Poor

As Alex mentioned, I’ll be blogging next week from Monrovia, Liberia.  I will try to post three to four times, but the reliability of "internet cafes" in Liberia is suspect at best.  Part of the problem is the lack of public electricity.  If I am able to blog, it will likely be courtesy of a gasoline generator.

Despite its naturally beautiful beaches on the Atlantic Ocean, Liberia is not exactly a popular vacation destination.  My time in Liberia will be spent lecturing on economic growth and visiting orphanages with my oldest daughter and a small group from my church.

Liberia may be the poorest nation in the world.  Recent estimates from the world bank indicate that per capita gross national income in Liberia is about half that of Rwanda

Some more facts about Liberia:

  1. Liberia was founded by freed U.S. slaves.
  2. Since 1980, the only "elected" leaders of Liberia (Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor) assumed power through bloody coups.
  3. Carolyn Cole of the L.A. Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for these photos of the Liberian civil war, which raged off and on from 1989 until 2003.
  4. Since the fall of 2003, U.N. troops have been stationed in Liberia to disarm the various factions, keep the peace, and oversee presidential elections (slated for this coming October).

By the way, Tyler’s sage advice to me before my first trip to Liberia was "beware of men wielding machetes."

Monitor your social fabric

The Social Fabric features a display of avatars on a mobile device’s screen, representing individuals in a group of friends or acquaintances. The avatars use body language to show how recently you’ve contacted each person: Regularly contacted friends appear alert and look directly at you. Less frequent contacts might slouch and turn to the side, and infrequent contacts could have their backs turned.

Read more here, and then go call your mother.  We can imagine this technology extended in various ways, as the non-salient is made more salient and memorable.  Should wives not favor cell phones that tell the husbands when to call them?  Or does this simply make one party feel more guilty and the other more aggrieved?  There is surely an optimal degree of forgetting.

Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead is an excellent movie if you would enjoy a synthesis of cinematic Marxism, Mexican "Day of the Dead" folk religion, unmitigated cannibalistic gore, a critique of U.S. immigration policies, allusions to necrophilia (with the corpse as rapist), and a complete unwillingness to invert the usual racial and ethnic cliches.  In other words, thumbs up.  This movie creates its own world with panache, which is more than you can say for the mainstream Hollywood releases this year.

Insanity at 20,000 feet

Most people know that India and Pakistan have had many border wars since the 1940s. What few people realize is that India and Pakistan are still engaged in a 20 year war of attrition in the Himalayas. Since the early 1980s, both nations have wasted huge amounts of human and financial resources fighting over small ridges and icy glaciers over 17,000 feet above sea level, places most mountaineers would consider suicidal. About 4000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers have died, mainly because of the weather and the hostile environmental conditions. One officer says:

Ninety-seven per cent of casualties here are due to the extreme weather and altitude, rather than fighting. On the glacier you have to first survive the elements and then you fight the enemy.

Read more at Sepia Mutiny (click here and here) to learn about this unusual alpine stalemate. You’ll quickly see how bizarre and dangerous it is live and fight in such a place. Even using the latrine presents special challenges, such as what to do with piles of frozen human waste (answer: pulverize it with your machine gun). Time magazine Asia has a whole story (click here). You can also read Outdoor magazine’s account of the conflict.

Guest Blogging from Liberia

We are excited to have Lee Coppock, an economist at the University of Virginia and friend of mine from graduate school, guest blogging for us over the next week.  Lee is visiting Liberia on a private aid mission and will be giving us an on-the-ground perspective on economic growth, culture, institutions and aid.  Lee visited Liberia last year but tells me that at that time he was afraid to visit the downtown internet cafe.  This time he promises to risk it on behalf of the revolution, the Marginal Revolution!  Thanks Lee!