Month: April 2006

The Shangri-La Diet

Seth Roberts’ diet book, The Shangri-La Diet has just been published.  Actually, the Shangri-La Diet isn’t really a diet, it’s a method of suppressing appetite.  Roberts argues that the body follows a simple heuristic – when calories are tasty they must be plentiful so turn up the appetite and stock up when the fruit is on the tree.  But if calories taste like cardboard then times must be bad (why else would you be eating cardboard?) so turn the appetite down and use up those fat stores.  If you had to eat cardboard to lose weight the diet wouldn’t be very appealing but Roberts found that a few hundred calories of extra-light olive oil or sugar water are enough to turn the appetite weigh down (pun intended.)

The book is a quick read and in addition to the diet itself there are interesting asides about science, self-experimentation, the obesity epidemic and other topics.

Don’t take my word for it, however.  The great thing about Roberts’ methods is that you will know whether they work within a day or two.  Buy the book, try it out, you have a lot to lose!

Addendum: Long-time readers may recall that I wrote a brief profile of Berkeley psychologist Roberts and his novel self-experiments.  That profile turned out to be one link in a chain that led to the present book (I am kindly mentioned in the acknowledgments.).

Bias at the New York Times

The Times has a biased article on school vouchers.  Surprisingly, the bias is in favor of vouchers.  Oh sure, there’s the usual crazed principal sounding like a cross between Che Guevera and Andrea Dworkin as she attacks vouchers for "raping the public schools of students and resources."  Also, I would have liked a better review of the evidence which is strongly in favor of vouchers.  Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression of private schools left by the article is delightfully positive.

It’s the stories of little boys and girls sadly left behind by the public schools but now attending private schools like the one "near a verdant hill of churches" that tell the tale.  And how about this to bring a tear to your eye?

Breanna Walton, 8, rises before dawn for the long bus ride from
Northeast Washington, "amongst the crime and drugs and all that," in
the words of her mother, April Cole Walton, to Rock Creek
International, near Georgetown University. There, she learns Spanish
with the children of lawyers and diplomats.

The best is left to last:

"I’ll probably go to Washington Latin," said Jhontelle Johnson,
setting her sights on a new charter school opening in August. If not,
she said, "I’d probably be home-schooled."

A teacher’s aide, Sheonna Griffin, looked askance. "You don’t like public schools?" she asked the child.

Jhontelle turned back, her young eyes flashing. "You can’t make me go," she said.

Sadly, in most of the country they can.

жесткий is Russian for “intense”

Millions of passengers traveling through Russia soon will have to take a lie detector test as part of new airport security measures that could eventually be applied throughout the country.
    The technology, to be introduced at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport as early as July, is intended to identify terrorists and drugs smugglers. But many passengers will be chilled by the set of four questions they will have to answer into a machine, including, "Have you ever lied to the authorities?"
    The machine asks four questions: The first is for full identity; the second, unnerving in its Soviet-style abruptness, demands: "Have you ever lied to the authorities?" It then asks whether either weapons or narcotics are being carried.
    To cut delays, passengers will take the tests after taking off their shoes and putting baggage through the X-ray machines. He doesn’t get his shoes back until he satisfactorily answers the questions. Each test will take up to a minute. "If a person fails to pass the test, he is accompanied by a special guard to a cubicle where he is asked questions in a more intense atmosphere," says Vladimir Kornilov, IT director for the airport.
    The fully automated instrument to be used, known as the "Truth Verifier," is hardly the polygraph familiar from old spy thrillers. Passengers will simply speak into a handset. Thanks to "layered-voice-analysis technology," the system, developed by an Israeli company, can even establish whether answers come from the memory or the imagination.

Here is the full story.

Why Eric Rasmusen does not worry about the housing bubble

Housing is a special form of wealth…If its price falls after a bubble, the cost of consumption is falling at the same time as the amount of wealth. In fact, the country has become richer, because all the same real assets exist, but their replacement cost has fallen.

Also, since houses are mortgaged, the wealth loss is shared by household and banks, while the consumption cost gain is entirely to households. The real wealth of households will thus have risen, and consumption should increase (I am thinking that banks are owned by richer people, who save more). Am I right on this?

Here is the link.  Here is my previous post on this topic.  So is Eric right not to worry?

The economics of polygamy, continued

Perhaps this topic needs a little public choice analysis:

Many Sub-Saharan African countries are extremely poor. It has been argued that the marriage system (in particular polygyny) is one contributing factor to the lack of development in this region. Polygyny leads to low incentives to save, depressing the capital stock and output. Enforcing monogamy might seem like an obvious solution. However, such a law will have winners and losers. In this paper, we investigate the transition from a polygynous to a monogamous steady state.  We find that the initial old men will be big losers. The reason is that they had married many wives in anticipation of the brideprice that future daughters will fetch. However, due to the marriage reform, the value of daughters depreciates rapidly, as the brideprice changes from positive to negative. This increases savings and thereby the aggregate capital stock. The interest rate falls and the initial young suffer a loss in capital income. Thus, all men alive during the reform period experience a loss in utility. Young women and all future generations will benefit.  However, the future gains are not enough to compensate the losers. This may explain why many African countries experience strong resistance to changing their marriage laws.

Here is the paper, and thanks to Alina Stefanescu for the pointer.  Here is Alex’s previous post on polygamy, which leads you back to mine as well.  Here are more links.

Jesse Shapiro on media bias

Here is the Slate summary, which includes a link to the paper.  Excerpt:

1) If a media outlet cares about its reputation for accuracy, it
will be reluctant to report anything that counters the audiences’
existing beliefs because such stories will tend to erode the company’s
standing. Newspapers and news programs have a visible incentive to
"distort information to make it conform with consumers’ prior beliefs."

2) The media can’t satisfy their audiences by merely reporting
what their audience wants to hear. If alternative sources of
information prove that a news organization has distorted the news, the
organization will suffer a loss of reputation, and hence of profit. The
authors predict more bias in stories where the outcomes aren’t realized for some time (foreign war reporting, for example) and less bias where the outcomes are immediately apparent (a weather forecast or a sports score). Indeed, almost nobody accuses the New York Times or Fox News Channel of slanting their weather reports.

Here is my earlier TCS piece on media bias.

Mac to PC Prize

Apple’s switch to Intel based machines makes it possible to actually run Windows (rather than emulate Windows) on a Mac.  Who made this possible?  Was it Apple?  Microsoft?  Intel?  No, it was Jesus, Jesus Lopez.  David Pogue writes about the patch and the innovative prize that motivated the programming.

Colin Nederkoorn created "a contest Web site, OnMac.net.
The challenge: to figure out how to install Windows on an Intel-based
Mac. The prize: a pot donated by interested parties all over the
Internet, seeded by $100 from Mr. Nederkoorn.

The doubters:
plentiful. "You do realize that it’s not technologically possible
without rewriting the bootloader?" wrote one respondent. "Take your 100
bucks and save it."

The winner: Jesus Lopez, a  San Francisco-area  programmer who collected a pot that had grown to $13,854.

…It runs most Windows software beautifully, but the rough edges are a
reminder that these are the earliest days in the Age of FrankenMac….

Thanks to Daniel Akst for the pointer.

Addendum: Chris Rasch points out that Apple is now also getting on the bandwagon.  (I like this warning, "Windows running on a Mac is like Windows running on a PC. That means
it’ll be subject to the same attacks that plague the Windows world….")

Opposite day: markets in not nearly enough things

Which markets do you feel are missing?  Your choice must be technologically feasible and not obviously ridiculous from the cost side.

Hooters Air is going out of business, but on the other hand the works of Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete are now widely available.  Markets in pre-ordered parking spaces are underway.  So I will nominate "simply paying the tiny but time-consuming library fines of people ahead of you in line (why don’t I?)."

List your wish in the comments, or tell us why someone else’s pick already exists.

Addendum: Yes a toilet lock is already on the market.

Second addendum: It is too easy to name illegal markets, instead try to spot entrepreneurial opportunities.

Against accountability in the arts

The value of “accountability” is often counterproductive when applied to direct subsidies for art. To be sure, accountability is critically important in many contexts. For instance CEOs should be accountable to shareholders. But we do not stress accountability in every sphere of human activity. For instance, tenured college professors are not (usually) accountable to university administrators for the content of their ideas. Instead we believe that an ethic of academic freedom will best promote the mission of the university. Supreme Court Justices are not accountable for the content of their decisions, although Congress may respond by passing new laws, or the Constitution may be amended.

Along these lines, direct subsidies stand the greatest chance of making a positive difference when they are insulated from many pressures of accountability. We should return to the stylized facts about artistic discovery, namely that there are many failures for every success. Too much direct accountability causes the funder to be excessively afraid of failure. This limits risk-taking and in the longer run limits the number of successes. Accountability works best when the quality of the average outcome is a good indicator of the tails of the distribution; this is not generally the case with the arts.

By the way, here is the last paragraph of the book:

Given that so much of the aesthetic is hidden, what appears to be the subordination of poetry to philosophy is an illusion, albeit a creativity-enhancing illusion. Rather than subordinating poetry to philosophy, at most I have subordinated the public conception of art to philosophy. Poetry remains secure in its diverse and hidden niches, and indeed is healthiest when philosophy directs the public conception of art toward a regime of markets, indirect subsidies, and decentralization. In this sense we can put philosophy at the service of art, and not at war with it. I wish to overturn the victory that Socrates pretended to award to philosophy over poetry, and to paint an alternative vision of the broader compatibility between the two enterprises.

Zimbabwe Fact of the Day

Zimbabwe continues its descent

The country’s money is devaluing so fast that you have to lug around plastic bags full of it if you’re doing a small grocery shop. To buy anything bigger, you’ll need to fill a suitcase. …A telephone bill last month – more than 15 million Zimbabwe dollars – would have bought five houses five years ago. Nice houses, in Harare’s rich suburbs.

This week, $15 million is worth just £41 – enough to buy a tank of black-market petrol. Next week – who knows?

Here’s a previous post on Zimbabwe, cadavers for rent.  Hat tip to Newmark’s Door.

The Tullock paradox: why is there so little lobbying?

Tim Harford writes:

…the economist Thomas Stratmann has estimated that just $192,000 of contributions from the American sugar industry in 1985 made the difference between winning and losing a crucial House vote that delivered more than $5 billion of subsidies over the five subsequent years.

That is one example of many.  Our government controls trillions, but lobbying expenditures are a small fraction of gdp.  One explanation, which Tim cites, is that our government is not for sale.  This is true for most major programs, such as social security.  Voters have the dominant say. 

But how about the details of smaller policies?  Why aren’t the benefits of those redistributions exhausted by lobbying expenditures?  My preferred explanation involves competition.  In principle, more than one coalition is capable of winning a political game.  If your winning coalition demands too high a bribe from interest groups, you will be undercut by another coalition able to deliver the policy for less.  Government is not a unitary agent.  This also helps explain, by the way, why democracy is stable rather than wracked by intransitive cycling.  If you just write down different voting profiles, it appears any winning coalition can be outdone by another (at least for a multi-dimensional policy space).  But if you add differential costs of organization to the mix, and make collecting the votes part of an explicit but imperfectly contestable market, you are much closer to getting a unique or near-unique outcome. 

Ideas in this post are drawn from a paper by Roger Congleton and Bob Tollison.  Here is a recent paper on the same topic.

Does Nation Building Work?

Nation-building Military Occupations by the
United States and Great Britain, 1850-2000

Payne, James. 2006.  Does Nation Building Work? The Independent Review. 10 (4).

U.S. Occupations

Austria 1945-1955 success
Cuba 1898-1902 failure
Cuba 1906-1909 failure
Cuba 1917-1922 failure
Dominican Republic 1911-1924 failure
Dominican Republic 1965-1967 success
Grenada 1983-1985 success
Haiti 1915-1934 failure
Haiti 1994-1996 failure
Honduras 1924 failure
Italy 1943-1945 success
Japan 1945-1952 success
Lebanon 1958 failure
Lebanon 1982-1984 failure
Mexico 1914-1917 failure
Nicaragua 1909-1910 failure
Nicaragua 1912-1925 failure
Nicaragua 1926-1933 failure
Panama 1903-1933 failure
Panama 1989-1995 success
Philippines 1898-1946 success
Somalia 1992-1994 failure
South Korea 1945-1961 failure
West Germany 1945-1952 success

British Occupations

Botswana 1886-1966 success
Brunei 1888-1984 failure
Burma (Myanmar) 1885-1948 failure
Cyprus 1914-1960 failure
Egypt 1882-1922 failure
Fiji 1874-1970 success
Ghana 1886-1957 failure
Iraq 1917-1932 failure
Iraq 1941-1947 failure
Jordan 1921-1956 failure
Kenya 1894-1963 failure
Lesotho 1884-1966 failure
Malawi (Nyasaland) 1891-1964 failure
Malaysia 1909-1957 success
Maldives 1887-1976 success
Nigeria 1861-1960 failure
Palestine 1917-1948 failure
Sierra Leone 1885-1961 failure
Solomon Islands 1893-1978 success
South Yemen (Aden) 1934-1967 failure
Sudan 1899-1956 failure
Swaziland 1903-1968 failure
Tanzania 1920-1963 failure
Tonga 1900-1970 success
Uganda 1894-1962 failure
Zambia (N. Rhodesia) 1891-1964 failure
Zimbabwe (S. Rhodesia) 1888-1980 failure