Month: May 2008

Why do ethicists write such long papers?

I found this fascinating:

If indeed my observation that ethicists hardly write short papers is correct, this might say something problematic about us. For example, that we are less sure of ourselves than other philosophers, and thus feel that we have to go on and on. Or that there is a pro-length bias in the guidance we give to our students; or in accepting ethics papers for publication. Or that the subject makes people feel that they always have to (pretend to) be very serious, because morality is such a grave topic. Or even that ethicists simply tend to have less fun. A while ago Mike Otsuka posted here asking about funny titles for ethics papers, and we all found it hard to find examples.

OK people, the challenge is upon you: what are some funny titles for possible ethics papers?  All of my thoughts in this direction are non-funny, such as "A Good Start," or "Here’s Why None of My Papers Have an Abstract."

For the pointer I thank Saul Smilansky.

Tokyo impressions

There are more small things to notice here than anywhere else.  People elevate their cameras on long fishing poles to get better shots in a crowd.  The water container has a separate compartment so that, when you pour, the ice cubes do not spill into your drink.  Or you may wonder: why did I have to order my food by paying into a vending machine?  None of the faucets works in an intuitive manner for me.

I hadn’t been to Tokyo since 1992.  What was once futuristic has now become retro and it has made the city more charming and ultimately more convincing. 

Even with the weak dollar it isn’t that expensive here.  Hotels are cheaper than in NYC — not to mention Europe — and you can eat a great meal for $10 or less if you frequent neighborhood restaurants.  At the fish market world class sushi costs about as much as mediocre sushi in the American suburbs.  I have also ventured into the horrors of real Japanese food, including The Creamy Sauce and Worcestershire sauce.  It’s not all hamachi and gyoza, believe me.

Spot the Contradiction

Daniel Gross’s review of Sachs’ Common Wealth was bizarre.  Consider this:

Even congenital optimists have good reason to suspect that this time
the prophets of economic doom may be on point, with the advent of
seemingly unstoppable developments like….the explosive growth of China and India.

Huh?  What kind of upside down logic makes high growth rates proof of economic doom?  Proving this was no idle slip Gross goes on to say:

Things are different today, [Sachs] writes, because of four trends: human
pressure on the earth, a dangerous rise in population, extreme poverty
and a political climate characterized by “cynicism, defeatism and
outdated institutions.” These pressures will increase as the developing
world inexorably catches up to the developed world
. (emphasis added)

Silly me, I thought rising life expectancy, increasing wealth, and lower world inequality, which is what it means to say that the developing world inexorably catches up to the developed world, was a good thing.  And then there is this:

The combination of climate change and a rapidly growing population
clustering in coastal urban zones will set the stage for many Katrinas,
not to mention “a global epidemic of obesity, cardiovascular disease
and adult-onset diabetes.”

Ok, climate change will create problems but how clueless do you have to be not to understand that a large fraction of the world’s people would love to live long enough to die from obesity and other diseases of wealth?

Don’t misunderstand, I know that growth brings problems.  My dispute with Gross is not that he thinks the glass is half-empty and I think it is half-full; my dispute is that Gross thinks the fuller the glass gets the more empty it becomes.

Addendum: Dan Gross writes to say that he was summarizing Sachs’ argument.  Point noted.

My favorite things Japan, cinema edition

1. Kurosawa movie: Ran is the most impressive on the big screen, but Ikiru is a profound study of the psychology of bureaucracy.  There are many many others, including the noir masterpieces and the criminally underrated late period, most of all Dreams.

2. Gangster movie: Should I go with Sonatine?  I don’t know them all.

4. Sexual perversion movie: Audition has an incredible piano wire scene.

5. Hobbesian movie: It’s Battle Royale, hands down, and yes I taught the film this year in Law and Literature.  One of the students was shocked we would cover something of this nature.

6. Ozu movie: Tokyo Story is the one that sticks with me.

7. Dance movie: Shall We Dance? remains a gem.

8. Anime: Grave of the Fireflies is a knockout, an anime movie for people who hate anime (and war).  Make sure you use the subtitles, not the dub.  I love all Miyazaki, maybe my favorite is Princess Mononoke, just don’t expect a coherent Pigouvian vision from it.  Other times I think Totoro is his supreme masterpiece.  Pom Poko, from Studio Ghibli, is essential viewing as well.

9. Mizoguchi movie: First prize goes to the stunning Ugetsu.

10. Godzilla movie: There is the original Japanese first movie, the cheesy but delectable Godzilla vs. Mothra, the implicit retelling of WWII in King Kong vs. Godzilla, Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (my personal favorite), one of the MechaGodzilla movies (surprisingly good but don’t ask me which one), and the sadly unheralded Godzilla Final Wars.  I’m not sure any of the others are worth watching.

The bottom line: I’m not sure I’ve ever covered a category with so much quality and depth as this one and I’ve just scratched the surface.  And yes, I like Tampopo too, but not as much as most of these.  Gammera deserves a mention too.

The Uncanny Valley

Yet the humans’ skin could not be too realistic.  It was well known that as depictions of humans became more lifelike, audiences would perceive them as more appealing — until the realism reached a certain point, close to human but not quite, when suddenly the depictions would be perceived as repulsive.  The phenomenon, known as the "uncanny valley," had been hypothesized by a Japanese robotics researcher, Masahiro Mori, as early as 1970.  No one knew precisely why it happened, but the sight of nearly human forms seemd to trigger some primeval aversion in onlookers.  Thus, the minute details of human skin, such as pores and hair follicles, were left out of The Incredibles’ characters in favor of a deliberately cartoonlike appearance.

That is from David A. Price’s very interesting The Pixar Touch.  Here is Jason Kottke on The Uncanny Valley.

Local Bounties

One benefit of the economic downturn is that the number of people hoping to earn a reward by calling the police with a tip has increased, especially in regions with a lot of home foreclosures. 

For tips that bring results, programs in most places pay $50 to $1,000,
with some jurisdictions giving bonuses for help solving the most
serious crimes, or an extra “gun bounty” if a weapon is recovered…

“We have people out there that, realistically, this could be their
job,” said Sgt. Zachary Self, who answers Crime Stoppers calls for the
Macon Police Department.

The success of these local programs suggests similar international programs could also work.

Network Power

Indeed, while this convergence in ways of thinking and living may extend to influence cultural forms like music or food, it need not necessarily do so.  It is striking that in this moment of global integration producing massive convergence in economic, linguistic, and institutional standards, we should be so worried about restaurant chains and pop music, neglecting much more significant issues.  Famously, Sigmund Freud argued that nationalist rivalries between neighboring countries reflected the "narcissism of minor differences," a pathological focus on relatively trivial distinctions driven by the desire to keep at bay an anxiety-provoking recognition of fundamental sameness.

That is from David Singh Grewal’s Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization, one of the most interesting books on cultural globalization in recent years.  He uses the ideas of social networks and peer effects to argue that widespread cultural convergence is occurring, most of all in ways of life.  Here is the book’s home page.

There is much wrong in the central thesis.  "Ways of thinking" may be less diverse across countries (France is more like Germany than it used to be) but ways of thinking are now much more diverse within countries and in fact within the world as a whole.  What’s so special about having diversity distributed according to geographic or political criteria?  Once you get over the geography fetish, many of the author’s main mechanisms don’t hold up as accounts of growing sameness of ways of life and thinking.  Has the author spent much time poking around Second Life?

Nor is he capable of simply coming out and saying that lots of countries in the world *ought* to be doing more to emulate Anglo-American ways of thinking.

The following claim is also questionable:

To reshape or reduce the power that the social structures we create have over us, we can only summon the organized power of politics.  The large-scale voluntarism of sociability, by contrast, has always delivered the most varied and elaborate forms of individual subjugation.

Cranky Tyler is about to come out of his shell, so maybe it is time to end this post.  It’s still a book worth reading and thinking about.

On a not totally unrelated topic, here is a good post on babies and globalization.

Hanson on Bounties

Robin beats me to a story on bounties in the Washington Post.  I couldn’t have said it better so here is his full post.

A Post article today, Bounties a Bust in Hunt for Al-Qaeda:

Jaber Elbaneh is one of the world’s most-wanted terrorism suspects. In
2003, the U.S. government indicted him, posted a $5 million reward for
his capture and distributed posters bearing photos of him around the
globe.  None of it worked. Elbaneh remains at large, as wanted as ever.

Since 1984, the program has handed out $77 million to more than 50
tipsters, according to the State Department.  … In 2004, Rep. Mark
Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) visited Pakistan to assess why Rewards for Justice
had generated so little information regarding al-Qaeda’s leadership. He
discovered that the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad had effectively shut down
the program. There was no radio or television advertising. …

In 2004, Congress passed a law authorizing the State Department to post
rewards as high as $50 million apiece — a provision with bin Laden in
mind. Last fall, Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) went further, introducing a
bill that would raise the cap to $500 million. The State Department has
declined to boost the reward for bin Laden, arguing that more money was
unlikely to do any good and would only add to his notoriety.

Let’s see, billions spent via ordinary means, and millions offered
in bounties, and it is the bounties they blame for Al-Qaeda’s notoriety
and failing to catch leaders?  The billions are spent and gone, while
the millions in bounties we only lose when they actually work.  How
then is this data suggesting we should prefer ordinary means to

Here is one of my previous posts on bounties.  The Rewards for Justice program has actually brought in some big catches.

Markets in everything, Japan edition

Mobs are legal entities here. Their fan magazines and comic books are sold in convenience stores, and bosses socialize with prime ministers and politicians.

Here is the full story, which focuses on the continuing powerful role of the mob in Japan.  Get this:

The most powerful faction, the Yamaguchi-gumi, is known as "the Wal-Mart of the yakuza" [TC: do they promise "Always Lower Prices"?]  and reportedly has close to 40,000 members.

No, this is neither Bryan Caplan nor Robin Hanson

It’s Sir Thomas Browne, one of my favorite writers I might add, circa 1672:

Again, Their individual imperfections being great, they are moreover enlarged by their aggregation; and being erroneous in their single numbers, once hudled together, they will be Error it self. For being a confusion of knaves and fools, and a farraginous concurrence of all conditions, tempers, sexes, and ages; it is but natural if their determinations be monstrous, and many waies inconsistent with Truth. And therefore wise men have alwaies applauded their own judgment, in the contradiction of that of the People; and their soberest adversaries, have ever afforded them the stile of fools and mad men; and, to speak impartially, their actions have made good these Epithets.

You’ll find the full passage here.  The point resembles Bryan but there is something about the spirit which reminds me more of Robin.  It’s one of my favorite pastimes to find passages in early texts which in some way presage Robin Hanson; this means having to reread Gulliver’s Travels every now and then.  By the way, the Burial Urn and the Garden of Cyrus are probably Browne’s most compelling works.

Good sense on food prices

It seems to me odd to fault the World Bank for advice some 15 years ago
to eliminate import protection–so that domestic prices could come down
at the time–while at the same time complaining about high prices now,
even with the benefit of hindsight.  If developing countries had all
kept their import protection, the global supply of food would have been
lower today, not higher. (That is because import protection would have
led global production to be reallocated from efficient exporters to
inefficient importers.) If you are for self-sufficiency, you must be
willing to live with high prices.   

No, that’s not me, that’s from Dani Rodrik.

Bernanke’s bubble laboratory

Manias can persist even though many smart people suspect a bubble,
because no one of them has the firepower to successfully attack it.
Only when skeptical investors act simultaneously — a moment impossible
to predict — does the bubble pop.

…Mr. Bernanke hired finance experts who had broad
interests and were eager to work with the university’s deepening bench
of theorists. He lured Dilip Abreu, known for work in game theory, back
from Yale, to which he had earlier defected. Making a virtue of an
institutional weakness, the absence of a business school, Princeton
assimilated the finance scholars into the economics department and
freed them to pursue research.

They are building on work done by the late Hyman
Minsky, whose once-ignored ideas about investing manias are now in
vogue, and the late economic historian Charles Kindleberger, whose 1978
"Manias, Panics and Crashes" is a classic. But compared with Mr. Minsky
or another student of bubbles, Yale’s Robert Shiller, the Princeton
trio focuses less on mass psychology than on mathematical models. These
they use to show how bubbles can be created even in markets that
include rational, calculating investors.

Here is the full story, interesting throughout.