Interesting stuff

  1. Do MBA programs help or hinder ethics in business?
  2. Napoleon was still is pretty important
  3. The co-evolution of technology and techniques
  4. Inside the echo-chamber Facebook builds for you
  5. Our changing perception of digital data (from files to relations)
  6. The Dutch government has spent €11billion subsidizing wood pellets as [carbon-neutral] biofuel — which it isn’t when you including processing and shipping 
  7. The interesting tension between freedom and stability in cultures
  8. Leaf blowers are really really bad for the environment (like 20x car emissions)
  9. Tom Friedman is right to call attention to the four horses of America’s apocalypse institutional meltdown: Trump, Facebook, Fox news Lies and Republican traitors. Getting rid of Trump does not mean getting rid of the problem. 
  10. Fires in California (due to climate change but also over-stretched firefighting capacity, undermaintained infrastructure, and overpopulation in vulnerable areas) may be the beginning of the end for California. (Drought? Don’t even go there.)

Some people getting uppity

The title of this post refers to how some whites refer to successful blacks in the US. (They also bomb, lynch and imprison those blacks.) The gendered-version of this slander is “putting women in their place.” When it comes to the poor, the rich say they should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” The young? Some oldies complain about “kids these days.”

In all of these cases, the better-off complainer ignores their social and historical privilege. They rarely consider how the economic, social, political institutions created by their ancestors have put them firmly at the top end of a tilted playing field.

So the relative improvement in the lives of racial/ethnic minorities, women, the poor, and the young upset the privileged, the most prominent group of which is composed of old white rich men, who I’ll label “Donnies.”

The Donnies don’t like uppity people invading their world, so they lash out.

“Ethnics” invade Donny pools, restaurants, and professions. Even worse, they marry their women and move to their neighborhoods.

Women are doing better in school (now that they can attend), taking Donny jobs, making more money than Donny, and even (!) deciding they don’t need to trade their womb for Donny’s money. Donnies are mad, so they accuse women of having sex or being ugly — as if that will fix Donny’s bad grades, low earnings or lack of sex appeal.

Donnies hate it when the poor succeed, calling them “nouveaux riches.” Many Donnies owe their wealth to colonial pillage, family, or social networks that allow stupid Donnies to collect outrageous salaries (I went to school with many of them). Donnies caught lying and stealing don’t often face punishment, but the poor do [pdf].

The young? Donnies tell them to respect their elders when all there is to respect is wrinkles and hair loss. In the distant past, respect made sense, but old people today probably owe their longevity to medical science, welfare systems and professional carers.

A few years ago, Barack Obama was castigated for saying that business owners “didn’t build that” without outside help. Although business owners work hard, Obama was right to call attention to the enabling environment that made their success possible. Many Donnies take those institutions for granted. Others (like the Criminal-in-Chief) take advantage of the system. In my experience, I’d say that about 80 percent of these Donnies would break down in tears if they faced the business-climate of China, Mexico or Thailand. They wouldn’t even last a day in Argentina, Egypt or India.

My one-handed conclusion: The Donnies of this world are getting upset as they realize how Others are earning the success they never did.

Interesting stuff

  1. For years, I have complained that “nobody wakes up in the morning, looks at GDP statistics, and changes their plans for the day.” Listen to this podcast on mis-measuring productivity and manufacturing statistics, which may have given populists excuses to “fix” problems that never existed. (My impression is that many more people would be happier if they looked at their quality of life instead of a [random? inaccurate?] reference point that supposedly tells them how well they are doing compared to peers.
  2. Parents sometimes forget that they are not in control
  3. Hollywood may slowly be overcoming its sexism
  4. Will Smith “stopped caring about others’ opinions” when he turned 50
  5. Who are the Kurds? Trump certainly didn’t know who he betrayed.
  6. Check out these photos of museum visitors who “match the art”
  7. Airbnb is bringing cash to remote Himalayan villages. A good thing?
  8. Straight talk on privacy, encryption, crime and the State
  9. Why can’t billionaires just stop accumulating and help society?
  10. Capitalism in America: A tipping culture that borrows from the worst of Old Europe and WeWork’s crazy founder paid $1billion to go away.

H/T to PB

Innovative bureaucrats?

The Dutch are fond of subsidies for arts, sustainability and… innovation.

These subsidies arise when bureaucrats with “topical portfolios” award cash to winners of various “promise to stimulate [topic]” contests.

On the one hand, I am pleased to see the government providing public goods, i.e., stimulating efforts to help everyone.

On the other hand, these programs tend to find the least-productive incentives to advance the “topic”

(My one-handed view is that this structure is wrong… keep reading…)

So the irony is that the bureaucracy in charge of innovation…

  • …has permanent employment contracts and long vacations;
  • …gains nothing from success but loses nothing from failure;
  • …works in non-market areas where the lack of objective measures of performance leads to subjective choices of winners and losers; and
  • …happily spews a meaningless whirlpool of jargon borrowed from strategic plans, conference videos, and social media #buzzwords.

If I was in charge of these topics, I would follow the new development model of “pay for results” by specifying the criteria for success and then rewarding the most successful efforts to reach those goals with cash and publicity.

This system would have nothing to say about who did the work, what angle they took, or how fancy their method. It would pay for results. 

My one-handed conclusion is that governments should stop chasing “creative,” “innovative,” “smart,” or “sustainable” and just reward results. 

What’s your experience on this topic?

Interesting stuff

  1. Over-stuffed schedules are undermining our friendships and well-being.
  2. America’s math curriculum needs to be fixed.
  3. Fast casual restaurants in the U.S. have adopted tablets on their tables “to increase customer satisfaction profits,” but they’re a trainwreck for servers.
  4. Ultimately, capitalism is going to lose its customers. There won’t be anybody to buy the product because everybody is going to be so poor.
  5. “Small government” types in Texas built a low tax “city” that few people want to live in (and fewer should drive by).
  6. This report (pdf, in Dutch) explores the time savings from optimizing train travel in Europe, indicating that trains can displace many plane trips on speed alone.
    Blue for train and purple for plane trip duration. Green bars show train times with optimization.
  7. Some very interesting insights into the (dehumanized) algorithms that maximize profits for Capital One (credit cards) at the expense of poor peoples’ bad judgement.
  8. Some useful insights into the “unicorn massacre” (Uber, et al.)
  9. Science can be good with exact theories, but not when it comes to humans
  10. The Agricultural Revolution was good for collecting taxes, not citizens.

H/T to EH

Review: The Invisible Hook

I read Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates a few months ago, but now I have time to write out some thoughts on his entertaining and educational book.

Leeson is a professor of economics at George Mason University, where the default ideology favors free markets and the norm of public engagement means that many professors are active with blogs, podcasts, and popular books.

Leeson’s Hook fits squarely in that tradition by explaining how pirates managed to plunder without fighting each other or getting caught.

Leeson’s central question is: “How can pirates cooperate without appeal to the formal authorities that most of us rely on to maintain order and promote cooperation?”

Related: The rules prisoners enforce among themselves.

The short answer is: By establishing institutions (formal rules and informal norms) that reward cooperation and punish defection. These institutions, Leeson writes, bring wealth to pirates as if “guided by an invisible hook” — a rephrasing of Adam Smith’s famous observation — that investors benefit others as a side effect of pursuing their own profits, i.e., 

He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

As an interesting footnote, consider that the “golden age” of piracy (1716-1726) took place before Smith discussed the invisible hand. I don’t think he was thinking of pirates, but here’s yet another example of academics “discovering” a phenomenon that’s been obvious for ages to normal people.

Contextual preamble done. Now let’s get to my notes on the book:

  1. Many pirates had been abused as sailors on merchant ships whose (distant) owners gave officers leave to do as they pleased. The resulting cheating and bad treatment (under the protection of law and contract) led many sailors to abandon ship as soon as they could. Pirate ships were “cooperatives” that were owned by their sailors and managed under pirate articles that allowed sailors to fire officers who mistreated them. These “democratic checks and balances” set expectations on officers’ behavior and protected sailors from abuse.
  2. Pirates flags signaled mercy on surrender but death for resistance. Given their superior firepower, pirates would win most battles, but the best battle was an early surrender. Captains often surrendered to pirates because pirates wanted to steal (the boat owner’s) cargo, not kill them.
  3. All sailors agreed to the ship’s rules before departure. Changes in the rules required unanimous agreement, which ensured that nobody would be (immediately) disadvantaged by changes.
  4. Pirates separated power a century before governments did. The captain would decide where to go and how to battle, but the quarter-master was in charge of arms, discipline, and dividing loot.
  5. Pirate democracy, likewise, predated America’s revolutionary democracy by a century. The crew voted for the captain and quartermaster, and could vote them out for abuse of power (or any reason). The worst captains were turned over to the authorities, who would hang them.
  6. Near equality on pay also reduced friction. The captain’s quarters were not private. The captain and quartermaster usually received two shares of loot, compared to one for ordinary sailors. The surgeon and carpenter also received two shares, due to their important roles in keeping sailors healthy and the ship at sea, respectively. That said, nothing was distributed until casualties of battle were compensated. This “insurance” maintained morale in a deadly trade.
  7. Pirates gossiped. Everyone knew which ships were well or poorly run. Given the norm of joining boats for one voyage at a time, pirates would shift to better boats if they could. Such freedom meant captains competed for crews, resulting in Tiebout competition that raised the standards for all pirates. I lean on the same dynamics with my idea of giving everyone on the planet a second passport, which would improve life for citizens everywhere. (Think Uigurs in Chinese concentration camps, Kurds in Turkey, Venezuelans, et al.)
  8. Pirates made rules to reduce “negative externalities,” i.e., prohibiting women, drinking, and fighting on board, or smoking below decks (where powder was stored). These rules kept the crew united in its mission to plunder other boats and not blow up, respectively.
  9. Pirates were (relatively) non-discriminatory among each other. They treated other personalities and races equally. They did not force captured prisoners to join them, as that would violate the basic norm of voluntarily agreeing to abide the ship’s constitution. Pirates did not (collectively) keep slaves on ship very often, as the benefit of “free labor” was often outweighed by the cost of losing their boats or lives to a slave’s betrayal. They either invited captured slaves to join as free crew or (more often) sold them at their next port of call.

Leeson’s book gives an entertaining insight into the world of pirates — and the economics under which they lived and prospered (until authorities changed rules and applied far more effort into capturing them around 1730). 

My one-hooked conclusion is that that anyone interested in economics (or piracy) should read this book (rather than Freakonomics or Doughnut Economics) because it’s fun and thought-provoking. I give this book five stars.

Interesting stuff

  1. Melting permafrost is putting climate chaos into overdrive (and we barely know what’s happening)
  2. Informal urbanism makes cities human-friendly
  3. The Economist, commenting on “unexplainably low” inflation, suggests “a uniform handout to the public in which every adult received an equal share of newly created money.” I like that idea — and suggested it 3.5 years ago!
  4. Amsterdam will tax street advertising (i.e., sidewalk-boards or windows-ads). Love this.
  5. Stockton’s basic income experiment is improving lives, not slackers.
  6. Jeff Bezos, SciFi nerd, is taking humanity to space.
  7. The simple math of mass transit (7x capacity) over private cars 
  8. A scalper’s life and retirement…
  9. Maybe climate chaos disrupting sports will get men to turn away from muscle cars, red meat, and competitive (positional) consumption?
  10. Water quality is important, but it’s getting worse.

H/T to PB

Review: Through the Language Glass

I’m a language geek and borrowed this 2010 book by Guy Deutscher from a friend.

The book is interesting but poorly edited too long. Deutscher takes too much room for his own work, i.e., over 100 pages on words to describe color (more below) but only 20 pages on the language of gender. 

This review will therefore record my summary takeaways, for those readers who have better things to do with their time 😉

  1. All languages use different means to convey ideas at what turns out to be the same pace. Thus, they may differ in verb endings or placement, noun complexity, etc., but they more or less work with the rate at which we can hear and understand speech. Languages are not equally complex, but they can convey the same information.
  2. Languages spoken by small groups can be very complex (e.g., a single word for “your brother-in-law’s father”) as a reflection of complex social relations. In “mass languages,” words and structures are simpler, to help strangers construct shared perspectives. 
  3. A single word might be translated into one of several words in another language that does not use relation to convey meaning. Some languages have groups of words to explore nuances (the famous example of eskimos and snow). 
  4. The most important colors are black, white and red. Other colors are added to our vocabulary (it seems) as our need to discriminate among them. The sky has always been blue, but the color blue has only come into use as we began to make and trade blue objects.
  5. After 150 years of debate over the naming of colors, it turns out that cultures with a limited range of colors are not “color blind” as much as “color indifferent.” They can tell the differences between unnamed colors but don’t bother to differentiate in everyday life. This phenomena is the opposite of eskimo-snow vocabulary (or academic jargon defining obscure ideas), but similar to the practice of counting “1, 2, many” in some cultures.
  6. Perhaps the easiest way to show that limited vocabulary does not indicate limited thinking is when someone switches from one language “lacking X” to another where they say “X”. Unspoken doesn’t mean unknown.
  7. Languages gain and lose words all the time. If gains exceed losses, then the vocabulary is growing. If the word falls out of use, then it disappears forever. More people speaking the language can reduce word count as they settle on more basic words that more people can understand.
  8. Academics have misinterpreted languages for centuries. Languages (and cultures) have been maligned by outsiders imposing a “Latin grammar structure” on the local language, or mistaking someone’s poor use of their non-native tongue for stupidity in their native tongue. German or French philosophy cannot be traced to their native grammars, nor can they be superior due to their expression in a “perfect” language (a common claim).
  9. “Languages differ in what they must convey not in what they may convey.” We can say “Dr. Jones” without knowing if the doctor is male or female, but we must know gender if we want to use “Mister” or “Miss.”
  10.  The original use of “gender” referred to “type,” e.g., humans, big things, small things, collectives or liquids. Gender became associated with male and female because European languages (and the scholars who speak them) were not aware of how other cultures grouped words.
  11. That said, male or female words can influence how one thinks of an object, e.g., the French associate a fork (la fourchette) with feminine qualities while Spaniards use masculine words when thinking of el tenedor.
  12. Some languages (especially among Aboriginals in Australia) use cardinal coordinates (N, S, E, W) to refer to objects (“my western hand”) whereas most of us use egocentric coordinates (“my left hand”). Both systems work, but mixed conversations can be confusing.

My one-handed conclusion is that all languages are useful, but some are harder to learn than others, often due to their distance from one’s mother tongue. I give this book three stars.

 

Interesting stuff

  1. Lenin: The ruthless creator of inhuman totalitarianism
  2. Think your phone helps you be more social? Think again.
  3. Executives don’t decide; they establish and protect the mission
  4. She was interested in becoming a writer and she was interested in herself—she was made for Instagram.”
  5. What’s clear is that climate change is going to reshape every system made of water on Earth.”
  6. “Being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve…”
  7. The British are happy to profit on selling weapons to kill civilians.
  8. Government failure has destroyed Lebanon’s water resources
  9. A novelist gives hints on improving academic writing
  10. “Technical protein” will end farming animals for meat.

H/T to PB and MK

World War CC

I’ve been alarmed about climate change chaos (CC) since 2016 (before that, I thought it was a distant, negligible threat to me), and I’ve been evolving my perspective on what it means to us.

My first conclusion was that mitigation had failed. So I turned my attention to adaptation, which was easy because it means dealing with a more aggressive water (and thus heat, storms, floods, etc.) cycle. 

In my first vision, I thought of a zombie apocalypse, of great waves flooding unprepared cities, Zero-day events everywhere, etc. I don’t think that any more because I see CC as a series of small cuts that draw a drop of blood per occurrence but, taken together, bleed you out.

Slightly off-topic, but Richard Tol is an idiot if he doesn’t understand that different places with different climates are not interchangable (10K = 10C). Ask a tree, for example.

But what does it mean to suffer these cuts? Can’t we ignore them, as we get richer and thus able to afford the costs of CC? Unlike William Nordhaus or Richard Tol (right), I think not. Indeed, I think that these cuts will resemble World War II in their impact on our lives, but be worse due to their never-ending nature that will build, exponentially, until our descendants curse our blind stupidity.

So what would a perpetual WWII (WWCC) look like?

First, there will be a permanent decline in our standard of living. We will have shortages, disruptions, additional costs, and spend way more time worrying about what we’re missing, what we “really need,” and if things will be better in the future — or not. (One woman is giving up a lifetime of buying new fashion for second-hand clothes.)

Second, the future of “growth/development” will not be hopeful. Our  productive assets will be destroyed. The resources directed to defense and recovery will leave less for production. People will not choose jobs for ideals, prestige or salary, but because those jobs still exist, are protected in some way, or must be done.

Third, everyone will experience a different type of WWCC. Politics, violence, alliances, and migration will vary from place to place, with laws, nationalism, (failing) institutions, and so on. My advice is to make sure you have all your paperwork in order. Many Jews (including Anne Frank) died because they couldn’t get visas to escape the Nazis. Don’t forget the horrors of recent civil wars in Rwanda or Yugoslavia, where close neighbors (and sometimes relations) turned genocidal. Many politicians will make matters worse.

Finally, WWCC, like the war on poverty or war on drugs, will never end. That fact will make it hard to “plan for the future” and depress a lot of people. It will also undermine business investment, innovation, and the dynamism of markets that originates in our basic optimism and tendency to trust. Human society will experience dark ages not seen since the Black Death, colonization, the Little Ice Age, etc. People will die in mysterious ways, strange goings on will surprise people, witches and healers will promise redemption to those who can cross their palms with silver.

My one handed conclusion is that humans will definitely survive in a climate chaos future, but sometimes wonder if it would be better to be dead.

Addendum (19 Oct): “Ultimately, capitalism is going to lose its customers. There won’t be anybody to buy the product because everybody is going to be so poor.