Month: September 2005

My new teaching assignment

Holmes The Common Law

   Posner Law and Literature

  Dissents by Holmes and Frankfurter


September 8                             Sophocles – Antigone             


September 15                           Plato  Apology            

September 22                           The Bible – Selections from Exodus, Kings I and II-

Part II:                                    LIBERTY AND LICENSE

September 29                           More Utopia


October 6                                Shakespeare Measure for Measure

October 13                              Milton Areopagitica 

                                                Short Paper Due #1 (5 pages)


Part III:                                  TRIALS AND ORDEALS

October 20                              Twain Pudd’nhead Wilson

October 27                              Melville Billy Budd 


November 3                             Selection from Dostoievsky The Brothers Karamazov

Kafka, In the Penal Colony from Collected Stories

Part IV:                                   PERFORMANCE AND WITNESS

November 10                           Bertolt Brecht The Caucasian Chalk Circle

(Methuen Student Ed.)

   Susan Glaspell Jury of Her Peers 

November 17                           Rebecca West, A Train of Powder

                                                Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


November24 –                         THANKSGIVING

PART V:                                 LITERATURE AND LEGAL CHANGE

December 1                             Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart

Tyler Cowen, Ramist

I organize my memory spatially.  I remember all of my thousands of CDs, but am clueless about the relatively small number of iTunes I have purchased.  Papers spread out on my office and home floors horizontally, but I know where everything is and what it means.  Each of my messes contains unreconstructible information

My wife is a sweetheart, and my greatest terror is an overzealous maid.

If I lived in a small area, my mental life would be much poorer.  That is also why I love driving around and why I do not care to live by the ocean.

Human-to-human transmission of avian flu in Indonesia?

There appear to be increasing clusters of human cases of avian flu in Indonesia.  Check out the Avian flu blog (scroll down just a tiny bit) for an account.  Recombinomics offers a technical discussion of the cases.

The best case option is that avian flu, at least in Indonesia, has become more efficient in jumping from birds to humans.

The most likely option is that weak human-to-human transmission has been going on in Indonesia, and possibly Vietnam, for some months.  Fortunately this still could end up being a false alarm.  Note also that options one and two could both be true at the same time.

The worst option is…well, the best case option is scary enough.  Indonesian families commonly live with either doves or chickens or both.

Give the Lawyer his Cut

The latest issue of Forbes (Oct. 3) has an article by myself on contingent fees.  (It’s based on a short AEI book, Two Cheers for Contingent Fees with Eric Helland). 

Contrary to popular argument, contingent fees serve a social purpose.  A lawyer paid by contingent fee will only take those cases that have a decent probability of winning – thus contingent-fee lawyers act as screeners, saving the court system and everyone else the trouble of examining frivolous cases.  That’s right, contingent-fee lawyers reduce the number of frivolous cases!  When contingent fees are restricted, lawyers naturally turn to alternatives such as charging by the hour.  But a lawyer paid by the hour has little incentive to screen.  Helland and I find evidence consistent with the screening function of contingent fees.

In states that restrict contingent fees,
plaintiffs dropped 18% of cases before trial without getting a
settlement. In states where lawyers were free to take their usual 33%
cut, they dropped only 5% of cases. This tells us that lawyers had
already screened out the junk suits and were pursuing those with merit.

Our study also shows that the time to
settlement in medical malpractice cases is 22% longer in states that
restrict contingent fees. In Florida, in the 300 days after contingent
fees were restricted in 1985, settlement time increased by 13%. Why?
When lawyers are paid by the hour, they have little incentive to settle

By the way, one of the fun things about doing an article for Forbes is that they always send out a professional photographer – which for an academic like me can be quite a thrill as they really do primp and preen over you.

Turn to the right, oh yes, that’s it, hold it, hold it, Great!  The camera loves you!  Now lean back a little, good, good, good.  Be like a Cheetah, a Cheetah.  No a Lion, yes, a Lion.  Hold it, Hold it.  Yes.  Wonderful!  Wonderful!

I exaggerate, but it was fun.  Unfortunately, the photo is not online so you will have to go to the newsstand to see the result. It’s arty, but I’d say they captured the lion.  Yeah, baby.

Google is using prediction markets within the firm

The markets were designed to forecast product launch dates, new office openings, and many other things of strategic importance to Google. So far, more than a thousand Googlers have bid on 146 events in 43 different subject areas (no payment is required to play).

We designed the market so that the price of an event should, in theory, reflect a consensus probability that the event will occur. To determine accuracy of the market, we looked at the connection between prices of events and the frequency with which they actually occurred. If prices are correct, events priced at 10 cents should occur about 10 percent of the time.

In the graph below, the X-axis indicates the price ranges for the
group. The orange line represents the average price, which is how often
outcomes in that group should actually happen according to market
prices. The purple line is how often they did happen. Ideally these
would be equal, and as you can see they’re pretty close. So our prices
really do represent probabilities – very exciting!

The image

Here is the story, and thanks to several of you who sent in the link.

Who are the world’s top intellectuals?

Cast your five votes here, plus you can see how old each candidate is and how many of these names you have read or heard of.  Several economists, such as Krugman, Becker, Sen, Summers, and Bhagwati, are included in the polling; Hernando de Soto and Richard Posner make the list as well.  For other nominees, how about Derek Parfit and Milton Friedman?  Philip Roth?  The politically incorrect Michel Houllebecq?  Bruno Latour?  Marvin Minsky or Hans Moravec?  I am glad to see Pramoedya Toer on the list.  How about the Google people?  An early blogger?

Is the Singularity Near?

The first half of the twenty-first century will be characterized by three overlapping revolutions — in Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics.  These will usher in what I referred to earlier as Epoch Five, the beginning of the Singularity.

So writes Ray Kurzweil.  In other words, we will reverse engineer the human brain and turn people into computer uploads, all within the next century.  At the very least you will be an advanced cyborg.  In the meantime buy the book (p.s.: you can stop worrying about the Medicare fiscal train wreck, although you should exercise more to reach immortality).

No, I won’t dispute the science on any single point, but nonetheless I feel confident in my skepticism.  I am still waiting for an Internet Explorer that doesn’t crash, and for an NBA with the common sense to move out the three-point line.  More generally, Kurzweil has thirty-four good arguments why his scenario will happen, but only one of those has to fail.

Still, Ray Kurzweil must be the most important thinker today, if only in expected value terms, putting the complexities of Pascal’s Wager aside.  It is no longer intellectually acceptable not to know his major arguments.  Here is the book’s web site.  Glenn Reynolds offers useful commentary and linksArnold Kling is a fanAddendum: Read James Miller’s TCS review as well.

Equity shares in everything

If the new Internet venture succeeds, it will be a whole new ballgame for the gambling-driven pastime of fantasy sports, which already has up to 20 million players.
    ProTrade, which opened for business yesterday, will treat professional athletes like stocks to be bought and sold, initially in a theoretical currency. Cash prizes will be awarded to the most successful investors.
    The value of a blue-chip quarterback such as Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts will be determined by a community of traders competing to identify players most likely to contribute to the success of their real-life teams.
    In this bottom-line approach to sports, teams are known as investment portfolios and the real-life athletes get their own ticker symbols. Manning’s symbol is PMANN…
    ProTrade initially will be confined to trading NFL players, but the San Mateo, Calif., company expects to add the NBA and Major League Baseball after working out licensing agreements.

Is it real money?

At the outset, basically for the first half of the NFL season, no actual money will be exchanged in ProTrade’s market; each participant will get a virtual stake of 25,000 coins to invest.
    But capitalism will fuel the market’s activity, with weekly prizes awarded to the portfolios with the best investment returns. Later this year, traders will be allowed to create their own competitive leagues and set their own entry fees, with a $5 minimum per entrant.
    ProTrade will hold all the entry fees in escrow and then distribute jackpots, minus a 2 percent to 3 percent commission, to league participants who generate the best investment return. ProTrade hopes to make money from those commissions and advertising on the site.

Here is the story.  Comments are open, in case you know more about this than I do.  I like this part of the story:

Former San Francisco 49ers tight end Brent Jones, a member of ProTrade’s advisory board, believes most players will stay away from the site.
    "There are a lot of guys out there who aren’t going to want to see what they’re really worth," he said.

I guess I still do care about this guy…

A collaboration of titans, Bob Dylan – No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese.  I’ve just started watching, but it is hard to recommend this too highly.  The quality of the music clips — most of which are not Dylan — simply defies belief.  And did you know that Dylan wanted to attend West Point and his favorite politician is Barry Goldwater?  Fifteen years ago I thought this guy would go into the dustbin of musical history, but I was so so wrong.  The DVD was released today, and the show will be on PBS soon.  And when it comes to CDs, Entertainment Weekly outlines the essential Bob Dylan.

The Vioxx Hex

It’s a real thrill when the editorial page of the Washington Post starts to sound like, well, me (e.g. here and here).

Politicians and regulators should be asking themselves whether a system of
massive cash awards to people who may or may not have been adversely affected by
Vioxx is a logical, fair or efficient way to run a drug regulatory system. They
should also be asking whether juries that scorn medical evidence are the right
judges of what information should or should not have been on a prescription
label. After all, Vioxx was produced and sold legally. The drug was approved by
the Food and Drug Administration, and its label did warn of coronary side
effects. It is possible, even probable, that Merck was negligent in its decision
to ignore early warnings of the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx. But the company
has already paid a price for that negligence, in the losses it has suffered
after abruptly taking Vioxx off the market. Fair compensation for the injured
needn’t entail disproportionate financial punishment as well.

In the long term, using the courts to "send a message" to Merck isn’t going
to help consumers. If the result is an even more cautious FDA approval system
and a more cautious pharmaceutical industry, that will keep innovative drugs off
the market for much longer. More people will die waiting for new treatments. The
cost of producing new drugs will rise dramatically. Already, there are whole
areas of medicine — women’s health during pregnancy, for example — that are
made so risky by liability issues that companies may stop doing research in

The first principle of reforming this system should be that a company that
follows the FDA’s rather extensive guidelines should be protected from punitive,
if not compensatory, damages.