Month: June 2006

Central Planting

The technologies of mass agriculture, including genetic engineering, prevented the mass starvation of humanity in the last century.  But today most of humanity lives on just 12 plant species and some scientists are worried that a lack of variety may prove our undoing.  Some types of banana, for example, have already been wiped out or are threatened (Snopes is more cautious but verifies the basic facts). 

To protect our seed patrimony is the goal of the Svalbard International
Seed Vault

The high-security vault, almost half the length of a football field, will
be carved into a mountain on a remote island above the Arctic Circle. If the
looming fences, motion detectors and steel air-lock doors are not disincentive
enough for anyone hoping to breach the facility’s concrete interior, the polar
bears roaming outside should help….

Its precious contents? Seeds  —  millions and millions of them  —  from
virtually every variety of food on the planet.

Thanks to Carl Close for the pointer.

Is a human-chimp chimera possible?

In species where females are promiscuous, there is a big conflict of
interest between males and females over the amount of resources each
child should get. The father of one child probably won’t be the father
of the next (or even of others in the same litter), so his genes —
which he passes on to the child — should evolve to try to get more
resources for his offspring. Genes that come from the mother,
meanwhile, evolve to suppress this effect, so that all her offspring
aren’t fighting each other for resources. In species where females are
monogamous, in contrast, male and female interests are more or less the
same, since the same male is likely to sire many litters with the same

In humans, mice and other mammals of our sort, the
activities of the placenta are — ready for this? — largely controlled
by the father’s genes. Now consider what happens when certain close
species try to mate. Female deer mice are much more promiscuous than
female oldfield mice, so a male deer mouse’s genes are predicted to
fight for resources much more than a male oldfield mouse’s genes would.
Consistent with this, when a male deer mouse mates with a female
oldfield mouse, both placenta and fetus become huge, and the mother
often dies. Any fetus that manages to be born is one third bigger than
babies from either species usually are. When the oldfield mouse is the
father, on the other hand, the pregnancy is much less risky for the
mother — but the baby is a runt.

…female chimpanzees are much, much more promiscuous than human females.
So, assuming you could get fertilization, here’s my prediction: if the
chimpanzee were the father, the pregnancy would be extremely dangerous
for the mother. Probably, few pregnancies could be carried to term. Any
children that did result would be huge. In contrast, if the human were
the father, the children would be small, and both mother and child
would be more likely to survive.

Are violations of expected utility theory just memory problems?

Or should I refer to availability heuristics?  Here is Daniel Gilbert’s MP3 on the topic.  To put it simply, lottery losers, despite their great numbers, rarely receive as much media publicity as the few winners.  Here is my previous post on Gilbert, or just check the right hand side of this blog for the Blogads entry which quotes me… 

Thanks to Boing Boing for the pointer.

Addendum: Here is Gilbert’s short essay, from his blog, on whether fatherhood makes men happy.  Happy Father’s Day to our eligible readers…

Katrina update

Billions of federal dollars are about to start flowing into this city
after President Bush on Thursday signed the emergency relief bill the
region has long awaited. But, with the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
approaching, local officials have yet to come up with a redevelopment
plan showing what kind of city will emerge from the storm’s ruins.

No neighborhoods have been ruled out for rebuilding, no matter how
damaged or dangerous. No decisions have been made on what kind of
housing, if any, will replace the mold-ridden empty hulks that stretch
endlessly in many areas. No one really knows exactly how the $10.4
billion in federal housing aid will be spent, and guidance for
residents in vulnerable areas has been minimal.

How about this?

Mr. Voelker, who is in charge of the state authority’s efforts to
coordinate with neighborhood planning, sounded uncertain even about the
nature of the master plan.

"I don’t know what this master plan is going to say, because I’m not a master planner," Mr. Voelker said.

Here is the full story.  Mr. Voelker’s honesty is to be applauded, even when it appears he is trying to rewrite Aristotle’s Law of Identity.

For background on Katrina I recommend the forthcoming Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, by Jed Horne.

If you want other tragic news, here is Man Charged After Wife’s Head Flies From Truck, and that happened while he was committing two other murders.

I agree with Paul Krugman (about fiscal policy)

Think of a standard IS-LM picture. Does that match current reality?
Obviously not: the Fed doesn’t target the money supply, so holding M
constant is not a useful thought experiment, and actually confuses
students. In fact, since the Fed actually targets the Fed funds rate
rather than the money supply, you might think that the LM curve should
be replaced with a horizontal FF curve. This would seem to suggest no
crowding out at all.

But except in the very short run the
Fed doesn’t set the interest rate passively; instead, it tries to
stabilize output around potential. A reasonable way to represent a
Taylor rule or something like that in a simple diagram is to draw a vertical line, the BB curve (for Ben Bernanke). This gives us 100% crowding out.

I think that’s right. Except in liquidity-trap conditions or in the
very short run, before the Fed has a chance to catch up, fiscal policy
doesn’t change aggregate demand, only the mix. 

The source is Brad DeLong.

Tim Harford interviews Gary Becker

Here is the link, Becker joked only once, and Tim reports:

Becker wants a clear head for tennis that afternoon. He is 75 and looks
it, with fine white hair and translucent, heavily lined skin, but he
moves like a younger man. When I arrived at his home to take him up on
his offer of a lift to the restaurant, I could see his silhouette
coming down the stairs at a fair clip. He drives confidently. In the
summer, he moves his work to Cape Cod and often swims in the ocean.
Becker has always loved sport, but that, and his family, seem to be his
only distraction from work. "I don’t like small talk too much, so I
don’t try to get involved in that." It is clear from even a few minutes
conversation that what really motivates Becker is the world of ideas.

Cads and Dads

Tyler, Alex, Alex’s wife Monique, Bryan (Caplan), Ilia (Rainer) and I had a fun conversation on Thursday.

A standard story says that women like cads for short term relationships, to get good sex (i.e., genes), and dads for long term relationships, to get security and comfort (i.e., resources to raise kids).  Of course some men are good in both roles, but most men are thought to be better at one role than the other.

Woman always want both sex and security, but they seem to prefer "bad  boy" cads more when they are young, and dads more when they are older.  Why?  We were looking less for proximate psychological causes and more for functional explanations.  We came up with these four theories:

1.  Young women must practice having relationships, in part to discover the distribution of guys out there and their own ability to attract guys.  This requires short term relationships.  But it is not clear why these should be more with cads rather than dad candidates.  And this would predict young women avoid sex when practicing, to avoid having kids.  This theory applies to better to young teens than to young women.

2.  Instead of having all her kids with a dad, many women may have enough negotiating power to get a dad to support her even if she has one kid with a cad.   Dads object less to supporting a cad kid created before they met, as a cad kid created during their relationship suggests that it won’t be the last.  A cad kid early in life can be written off to the "foolishness of youth," and she can credibly claim that she didn’t intend for this to be a cad kid; she had hoped the cad would be a dad.

3.  Girls more than women expect parents to help with their mistakes.  A young woman expects a cad kid to be cared for not by a dad but by her parents and extended family.  Since parents die eventually, older women are less likely to have such support available.  This theory predicts that women without living parents would be less attracted to cads, all else equal.

4.  Young people have stronger incentives to signal than older people, since they are still forming long term attachments, and want to attract the best partners.  Young women compete to attract cads in order to signal their attractiveness and social power, and having sex with cads helps to attract cads.   Women compete more for cads than for dads because cad quality is easier to see in young men – it can take many years to reveal who are the best resource providers.  This theory predicts young women have less interest in private unobserved relationships with cads.

The truth is probably a mixture of these theories.   But some are probably more important that others.

TC: Here are related posts on the topic.

The problem with emergency rooms

Inadequate emergency rooms are one of the most neglected policy issues in the United States.  Read this depressing article.  Excerpt:

Emergency medical care in the United States is on the verge of
collapse, with the nation’s declining number of emergency rooms
dangerously overcrowded and often unable to provide the expertise
needed to treat seriously ill people in a safe and efficient manner.

Long waits for treatment are epidemic, the reports said, with
ambulances sometimes idling for hours to unload patients. Once in the
ER, patients sometimes wait up to two days to be admitted to a hospital

As a system, U.S. emergency care lacks stability and the
capacity to respond to large disasters or epidemics, according to the
25 experts who conducted the study. It provides care of variable and
often unknown quality and depends on the willingness of doctors and
hospitals to lose large amounts of money.

the grim conclusion of three reports released yesterday by the
Institute of Medicine, the product of an extensive two-year look at
emergency care.

This is one reason why we are less well suited to defend against a pandemic or a major terrorist attack than many people think.  Note that emergency rooms are unpriced resources for many users, so this outcome should not surprise the economist.  Did you know that the number of emergency rooms has decreased since 2001?

Are any of you willing to return to pre-1986 policy, when emergency rooms were not obliged to treat all comers?  Is there evidence on how big a difference this law made?  If we expanded emergency room capacity, but kept current law, would we in effect have national health insurance, paid for by an (implicit) tax on other forms of medical care?

Here is an article on how emergency rooms work.  Here is a claim that most people don’t need to go.  A cross-country comparison of the economics of emergency rooms would make for a fine dissertation, and then some.

Markets in everything

Drivers in three US cities will soon be able to earn a buck or two just
for vacating a parking space. SpotScout is a website that matches
people about to leave a parking spot with those looking for one. Using
a cellphone, drivers tell SpotScout when they will leave their parking
spot, where it is, and how much they will sell this information for.
The site, to be launched next month in New York, Boston and San
Francisco, matches this information with people looking for a space.

Here is the link; the pointer is from Daniel Akst.  If you don’t already know it, here is Dan’s article on how to best help other people.

What it’s like being shy

"Up until now, people thought that [shyness] was mostly related to
avoidance of social situations," says co-author and child psychiatrist
Monique Ernst. "Here we showed that shy children have increased
activity in the reward system of the brain as well."

Why this
would be the case is still not clear. "One interpretation is that
extremely shy children have an increased sensitivity to many types of
stimuli–both frightening and rewarding," says Guyer. There are other
possibilities as well, says Mauricio Delgado, a psychologist at Rutgers
University in Newark, New Jersey. For example, increased activity in
the striatum may help shy children cope with the anxiety of stressful
situations, although not enough so to help them overcome their shyness.

…Because shy children
appear to be more sensitive to winning and losing, they may experience
emotions more strongly than others, putting them at risk for emotional
disorders such as anxiety and depression. On the flip side, shy
children may experience positive emotions such as success very
strongly, helping them succeed…

OK, that is from scans of only 32 people, 13 of them shy.  But that is actually more than usual for such a study.  Here is the link.  Here is Jonathan Rauch’s famous piece on being an introvert, well worth reading. 

Chris Masse sends me further neuro links, here and here.  Here is a recent neuro study on how women react to erotic images.