Month: July 2009

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Tyler blogged this earlier (of course!) but it's worth another post.  Sum is a peculiar book, it's forty stories, each a page or two in length about a possible scenario for the afterlife. Some of the stories are like Zen koans, others have the flavor of O. Henry or Jeffrey Archer's A Twist in the Tale.  Here's is one of the lighter pieces which features wry theological commentary, an astute understanding of human psychology and, as if that were not enough, an appreciation of free market economics.  It's called Great Expectations.

Hat tip to Robin Hanson who lent me the book.

My favorite things Alabama

1. Popular music.  Emmylou Harris is from Birmingham and I like her albums with Gram Parsons.  "The New Soft Shoe" is an excellent song.  While I appreciate Nat King Cole in the abstract I never choose to put it on.  Lionel Richie has a nice voice but the sound is too bland for my taste.

2. Painter: The early Howard Finster is excellent, although he churned out weak material for a long time later on.

3. Jazz: Lionel Hampton is the obvious choice, but I will pick Sun Ra, who is a musical god of sorts for me.  Jazz in Silhouette is the best place to start, although it does not communicate the overall diversity of his work.  He remains an underrated musical figure.

4. Country music: Hank Williams.  Even if you hate country music you should buy the two CDs of his collected works.  I also love Shelby Lynne; start with I am Shelby Lynne.

5. Bluegrass: The Louvin Brothers.  Tragic Songs of Life is one of my favorite albums as it has a deeply scary and tragic feel; again you can love it even if you hate country and bluegrass.  Do you know the song "The Great Atomic Power"?

6. Writer: I can't make my way through To Kill a Mockingbird.  Who else is there?  Wasn't one of Charles Barkley's books funny?  I've never finished a Tobias Wolff novel, too stilted.  Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King were very good writers, though they don't quite fit the category.  Same for James Agee.  Truman Capote would be an easy pick except I don't enjoy his books.  Zora Neale Hurston was born in the state though I am inclined to classify her under "Florida."

7. Quilters: From Gee's Bend, Alabama, there is an entire tradition.  The traveling exhibits of these works are excellent.

8. Gospel: Blind Boys of Alabama.  They transfer better to disc than do a lot of gospel groups.

9. Song, about: Don't go there.

10. Movie, shot inClose Encounters of the Third Kind.  As for "Movie, set in" here is a worrying list.  Maybe I'll go with Fried Green Tomatoes, although the book is supposed to be better and more open about the sexuality of the main characters.

The bottom line: There are some major stars here and I haven't even mentioned the famous athletes.

Markets in everything, human carpet edition

A man walks into a bar. He’s carrying a carpet under his arm. He wraps
himself in the carpet, lies on the floor, covers his face and waits for
people to step on him. A sign taped to the bar reads: “Step on carpet.”

People step on the carpet – dozens, in fact. The more people who
step on the carpet, particularly if they are women in heels, the
happier the man is. Some are timid, others are audacious. Some dance on
the man. Some step on him while ordering their drinks, completely
unaware that a live body is underfoot. Some just stand there, frozen,
looking totally freaked out.

Four hours later, the man slips
out from beneath his carpet, folds it up, tucks it under his arm and
heads home. “It was a nice party,” he says cheerily, as if he were
talking about something far more ordinary, like, say, a backyard

His standard rate is $200 "a session," he seems to enjoy the work, in some situations he values the situation as a fetish, he once had ten women stand on him, and the market structure appears to be one of duopoly.  Here is more and I thank Jeffrey Valentine for the pointer.

Assorted links

1. The new Lars van Trier film is extreme.

2. John Nye: an economist walks into a bar, short podcast, direct link here.

3. There are seven years of health reform benefits, not ten.

4. Unusual hypotheses about John Milton.

5. Via Bamber, which is the most humane state?  And would you rather lose the right to vote or the right to bear arms, state-by-state?  Do note this is user-submitted data and not a random sample; here are more results.

Internet celebrities (according to the WSJ)


Here's the WSJ article on economics blogs (subs.) and here is the list.  I was pleased to see this shout-out to Marginal Revolution commentators.  Keep up the good work!

One of the things that makes Marginal Revolution good is that where other economics blogs are plagued by rude comments (Greg Mankiw has shut down the comments section on his blog) commentators on Marginal Revolution are usually civil and often thought provoking.

Is suicide expensive?

Ezra Klein writes:

But it's expensive. With only Switzerland in the market, there's little
competition. And in addition to the 4,000 euros required for the
services of Dignitas, you also have to pay for your flight, and for
those of your loved ones.

Well, sort of.  But if you already have $4,000, or can borrow $4,000 (don't tell them why you want the money), ex post it's actually not as expensive as it looks.  Which may help explain why the demand is somewhat inelastic.

China markets in everything minus one

Al Roth has the scoop:

Those of you reading this will be glad to know
China bans electric shock therapy for internet addicts

has outlawed the use of electric shock therapy to treat internet
addiction, after a scandal at a hospital in the Northern province of

"Internet addiction has become a growing problem in
China, where officials believe as many as four million people spend
more than six hours a day online.
Several clinics have sprung up, offering parents the chance to "cure" their children of the uncontrollable urge to blog…"

Project Tuva

Bill Gates has bought the rights to Richard Feynman's lectures, The Character of Physical Law, and has put them on the web with lots of annotations.  Nicely done.

I liked Feynman's point about Newton's law of gravity being used by astrologers, "That's the strange world we live in, that all the advances and understanding are used only to continue the nonsense which has existed for 2,000 years."

Hat tip to Tierney Lab.

The Increased Competitiveness of the US Economy

Deloitte has just released The Shift Index, a study of long-term trends in the U.S. economy.HHI National   Two interesting graphs follow which put some numbers on conventional wisdom.  The US economy has become much more competitive over time. We can see this in the economy wide Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, a measure of market concentration, which has halved in the latest forty years (click to enlarge) and also in the topple rate.

The topple rate is a measure of how the rank of large firms on return of assets changes over time.  The topple rate has increased by about 60% over the past forty years (ignoring the recent blip up).  What this means is that the firms on top are less likely to stay on top today than in the past – the recent blip up indicates the upheaval in firm rankings during the current recession.  Notice also that an increased topple rate implies an increase in stock market volatility which we have also seen over the long-run (not just in recent years).

Topple Rate As a result of increased competition and also, I believe, greater wealth and reduced interest rates, the economy wide return on assets has decreased by 75% (see the report).

If the return on assets has decreased but productivity and wealth are up then where has the wealth gone?  To consumers and the creative class.  Thus, increased competition in the economy has driven down the return to capital and at the same time has increased the return to the complementary input which is in greatest fixed supply, creative labor.  More data in the full report.

What does the Turing test really mean?

That is a new paper of mine, co-authored with Michelle Dawson.  There is much more to Turing’s classic essay than meets the eye.  The famous “test” is not a standard for distinguishing human from machine intelligence but rather one step in an argument showing that such a distinction is not as important as we might think.  Turing cleverly shows why the supposed test is misleading and the real question is how to educate both children and machines, not how to distinguish them.  The summary statement of our paper is as follows:

…a potent and indeed subversive perspective in the paper has been underemphasized. Some of the message of Turing’s paper is encouraging us to take a broader perspective on intelligence and some of his points are ethical in nature. Turing’s paper is about the possibility of unusual forms of intelligence, our inability to recognize those intelligences, and the limitations of indistinguishability as a standard for defining intelligence. “Inability to imitate does not rule out intelligence” is an alternative way of reading many parts of his argument. Turing was issuing the warning that we should not dismiss or persecute entities which we cannot easily categorize or understand.

If you read Turing’s essay closely, you will find many underrated passages of interest, especially when read in light of his homosexuality (and also possible autism).  Here is the closing bit from our paper:

It is possible that Turing conceived of his imitation test precisely because he had so much difficulty “passing” and communicating himself. In social settings these facts were seen as disabilities but in the longer term they helped Turing produce this brilliant essay.

One brute fact is that a lot of human beings could not, themselves, pass a Turing test.  Could you?

Addendum: Here is my previous post, Toward a Theory of Raivo Pommer-Eesti.

Health care and them annie-mules, update

Anyway, when you look at the increase in spending per
capita, health care spending per person rises by 350 percent, vet
spending per dog rises by 335 percent, and vet spending per cat rises
by 340 percent..  So on this one, I think the conservatives have the
better argument, despite the flaws in the original evidence.

That is Scott Winship, here is more.  Little did the blogosphere guess that this topic would turn so popular.  I also liked the comment from the guy who wondered about the aging of America's pet population and whether illegal pet immigration might remedy the associated fiscal problems.

*Economist* forum on Justin Lin and banking in developing countries

Lin is chief economist at the World Bank.  You will find the forum here and it includes responses by Antoinette Schoer, Ross Levine, Abhijit Banerjee, Luigi Zingales, Mark Thoma, and others.  My comment is here.  Excerpt:

I can't decide whether I agree with everything in this essay or disagree with everything in this essay. 

see Mr Lin using the words “should”, “need to”, and phrases like “what
matter most” or “not the way to go”. But who or what is the active
agent here? The country’s home government? The World Bank? When it
comes to all these banking systems, are we simply rooting for
particular paths and outcomes–such as small and simple banks–or is Mr
Lin making policy recommendations about how to get there? We never

Meanwhile, via Kottke, here is the World Cup Stacking Record (recommended).