Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Cory Doctorow links to an article about saving the Iberian lynx and Iberian Imperial eagle by preserving cork forests. "It is the economic value of these forests that has ensured their survival," says a member of the conservation group WWF. I am impressed -- they have it right this time. I look forward to seeing more environmentalists look for ways to make natural (or near-natural) reserves be economically successful, rather than just exhort and invent laws to restrict actions.

According to CorkMasters, cork forests are indeed nearly natural: the cork is harvested off trees without permanently harming the trees, and no herbicides, fertilisers or irrigation are needed. Although a cork forest must involve some meddling with nature (keeping access roads to trees clear, perhaps even mowing around trees, perhaps removing other kinds of trees), it seems the WWF have no problems with this kind of agricultural impact.

This relates to Dan Simon's elucidation of the idea of inaction as it applies to the precautionary principle. Is "inaction" continuing to use cork forests as they've been used for centuries? Or is "inaction" completely stopping the "exploitation" of these forests? Ask the question again about fossil fuel use, and it's clear that most quick answers to these questions depend on ill-examined notions of what is natural and what is action, and probably a lot of indoctrination about environmental good and bad.

Is it really so easy to create a hoax that, when seeded onto a couple small online forums, snowballs and gets 2500 people upset enough to write in within a week? I guess so. The resources page is really pretty funny, if you can look at it right. Penny Arcade saved the world by uncovering details about the hoax first.

Monday, December 30, 2002

Volokh posts on water privatization, and a reader sends in a link to this study on water privatization in Argentina. I had heard about the success of that effort, but hadn't seen this particular paper yet.

It may be counter-intuitive, but is it generally true that privatization produces the greatest successes in the poorest regions? "we find that child mortality fell 5 to 7 percent in areas that privatized their water services overall; and that the effect was largest in the poorest areas."

That's not actually too surprising, because in the richer areas there is likely to be surplus (money, water, other resources or services). In California, those whose water is "taken away" from them (we could consider this to be every organization except farms) are still abundantly supplied with water. But in a poorer area, inefficient water distribution may mean that those who most need a jug of water for a feverish child may not have it, and cannot pay any price for it. Making the water distribution more efficient means at least it's reliably there in need.

My personal preference would be for water privatization to be accompanied with a system of "water coupons" to allow poor people to buy a family's weekly/monthly supply of water. Like food coupons in some cities, and similar to the Heifer Project, these could be supported by private donation from richer regions. This allows even small donations to have an immediate, direct and measurable effect, whereas foreign aid to public water suppliers in poor countries is frequently wasted and has a delayed and uncertain effect. A charitable system of water coupons requires privatization in order to work at all.

I'm back from vacation.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Good grief. Matt Smith complains that "Calculated in potential casualties on the field, [it] is the ultimate American doomsday machine." Can you guess what weapon of mass destruction is being unleashed? A nuclear device? Biological or chemical weaponry? Maybe lasers on satellites targetting everybody personally? Nope. It's the segway, a powered two-wheel transportation device. His argument is that it will make people fatter.

I really think Matt intends to be serious about this -- I carefully scrutinized the article for a sense of irony or mockery. But he seriously seems to think that not only is a segway dangerous to the health, but that San Francisco is morally superior for not encouraging these devices and this causes fitter citizens. Pray tell, how is the segway different from our existing powered two-wheel transportation devices, the scooter and the motorcycle?

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

More info on risk, particularly traffic related.

First, traffic accidents aren't likely to be what kills you (2 to 5% chance), although they are a leading cause of death among the young and among people travelling. (ref1, ref2). But assuming you're interested in reducing that risk anyway, should you decide to live in US or Europe? Should you decide to live in a city or in the countryside? Drive an SUV or a compact? I don't have all the answers today, but I did look up the numbers for US vs Europe. This car safety site has an international statistics page with numbers from WHO reports. I'll grab the following numbers for use later:

  • 120,000 total deaths from traffic accidents in Europe in 1995
  • 40,676 total traffic fatalities in US in 1994
  • 41,907 total traffic fatalities in US in 1996

That's not very interesting in and of itself. I want to know how many deaths there are per capita (assuming that one is driving roughly the average miles per year for the area) or how many deaths there are per mile driven (because that can be affected by behavioral changes). Per capita numbers are easy to get, using the following numbers:

  • 512,000,000 Europeans in 1992
  • 260,327,021 US population in 1994
  • 265,228,572 in 1996
Doing the math that gives:
  • Roughly 234.4 deaths per million in Europe in 1995
  • 156.2 deaths per million in US in 1994
  • 158 deaths per million in US in 1996
Note that although the comparisons may not be exact (the studies may have counted things somewhat differently, my population estimate for Europe was surely a bit low given it was for the wrong year), these differences are large enough to say that Europeans have been more likely to die from traffic than Americans.

Finally, I found death per vehicle-kilometer rate information for all of Europe for 1998, and death-per mile (of course) for US. Some highlights

  • At the top, Greece: 57.4 deaths per billion km, or 9.2 per 100 million miles
  • France: 16.4 deaths per billion km, or 2.6 per 100 million miles
  • Germany: 12.4 deaths per billion km, or 2.0 deaths per 100 million miles
  • US: 1.6 deaths per 100 million miles driven (also in 1998 though from a different source)
  • UK: 7.5 deaths per billion km, or 1.2 deaths per 100 million miles
I didn't pick the worst offenders -- only three European countries (Netherlands, UK and Sweden) out of fourteen are safer to drive in than US.
I frequently talk to people about risk assessment -- particularly when I hear people telling me how "dangerous" it is to fly. Humans are very bad at risk assessment. Knowing this can make you only slightly better at it (unless you actually do the studies and the math each time you evaluate risk), but it might make life easier to live, knowing that the things you worry about may not actually be worth worrying about.

The reason I mention this now is only because I looked up some links for more info. Here they are.

So here are some examples of evaluating risk. Do you think Finland is a particularly safe country to live in overall if you're my age (30)? Why (Answer here). Were the reasons you thought Finland was safe or dangerous the same reasons? Can simple reasoning, without statistics or math, give you a useful answer?

Monday, December 16, 2002

Joel Spolsky, aka "Joel on Software", has a fun rant from last week about how complicated software is. Sometimes I think things aren't as bad as he says, the rest of the time I know they're worse.

Joel notes that you can't intelligently criticize a software ecosystem (the Windows ecosystem, the Linux one) until you really know it. You don't really know it until you've spent years learning the tiny details that rarely but importantly affect your job. And I'll add to Joel's point that by the time you really know it, you can no longer criticize at all: you're too deeply bought in (see Influence for commitment and consistency) and too habituated to one way of doing things for any other way to seem at all reasonable.

Friday, December 13, 2002

In the NYT editorial pages today, Nicholas D. Kristof first says "Mr. Chávez is an autocratic leftist demagogue who is running the economy into the ground, manipulating the Constitution and fostering hatred between rich and poor". So far so good - too often the media (such as NPR), particularly on the left, refuses to even make judgements about dangerous international leaders.

But then Kristof goes on to say that the global community has no right to interfere. He criticizes "César Gaviria, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, who is representing the international community as a negotiator between the two sides, has publicly laid much of the blame for the crisis on President Chávez in an apparent shove to get him to resign or call early elections".

What's wrong with that? When it was the US and Clinton, rather than Venezuela and Chavez, plenty of Euros and Canadians said that Clinton should resign. That was not seen by anybody as "a signal" to "take to the streets and call for a coup". At worst, the response of Americans was that foreigners should mind their own business, but it was in no way taken as interfering with the American democratic process.

I think that's because the American democratic process is strong. Nobody sees any harm in calling for Clinton's resignation (or for Jorg Haider to step down) because they find it rather unlikely that public action will result in chaos in US or Austria. But Venezuela is seen as a tinderbox, with greater risks of violence and chaos -- whether or not Chavez stays.

So, what should a person like Gaviria do? Staying silent seems irresponsible if he truly believes Chavez is harmful. Foreigners can after all have some effect on a country's politics, perhaps influencing voters. On the other hand, it also seems irresponsible to advocate violence or a coup. So was Gaviria irresponsible? It's hard to tell from Kristof's editorial, where there is no Gaviria quote. But it seems most likely Kristof was responding to this news from Wednesday, where the most damning thing Gaviria said about Chavez was "that President Hugo Chavez's refusal to acknowledge the depth of the crisis complicated negotiations aimed at resolving it."

There's a completely different side to the story, people that feel that Gaviria is on Chavez' side, that Chavez may have greased Gaviria's hands (ref 1, ref 2. E.g.

Meanwhile, the ostensible "mediator" of the conflict has cynically called for government repression against the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators assembled outside the TV stations. With that action, Cesar Gaviria has lost any illusory credibility in his aspiration to "mediate" the Venezuelan conflict. He should return to Washington immediately.
Note that quote is from a Venezuelan news source.

It may be that Gaviria spoke up unwisely -- but it's his support (not criticism) of the Venezuelan government that may be destroying his credibility as a negotiator. Kristof should get a more nuanced view of the situation before criticizing the negotiator, and he should definitely give us the ability to fact-check his ass by being more specific about what exactly Gaviria said that he objects to.

In addition to several rankings of countries' economic freedom (Canada's Fraser Institute, US' Freedom House and Heritage Foundation, compared to each other by Cato), there is now a major study of American states that shows the same correlation. The new study is by the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Fraser Institute.

These indexes reflect some new thinking among major economists. In the 1980's and 1990's prescriptions for national economic success included mostly privatization and inflation control. Now there are also concerns about property rights, rule of law, labour market flexibility, and ease of compliance with regulations. Milton Friedman says:

I used to be asked a lot: “What do these ex-communist states have to do in order to become market economies?” And I used to say: “You can describe that in three words: privatize, privatize, privatize.” But, I was wrong. That wasn’t enough. The example of Russia shows that. Russia privatized but in a way that created private monopolies—private centralized economic controls that replace government’s centralized controls. It turns out that the rule of law is probably more basic than privatization. Privatization is meaningless if you don’t have the rule of law.

Hernando De Soto emphasizes the cost of retrograde regulations and undocumented land ownership in any of several interviews:

One main reason why the informal sector has not become formal is that from Indonesia to Brazil, 90 percent of the informal lands are not titled and registered. This is a generalized phenomenon in the so-called Third World. And it has many consequences. One is that the price of land drops because it is not legally registered as private property. In Peru, when we title these lands, the market value doubles the same day. After 10 years, it goes up nine times. The principal reason is that it is easier to trade the land once the property rights are clear and established.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

This NYT editorial by Harvard History professor Lizabeth Cohen contained some material which made me uncomfortable by its slant or implications. It seems the editorial is intended to highlight the inequalities of modern commerce, particularly malls, and to generate outrage -- but I don't like being made to feel outrage at things that are only made to seem outrageous.

As retailers chose to bring "the market to the people instead of people to the market" ... they inevitably favored some people over others. Shopping centers aimed at what Macy's Annual Report for 1955 called "middle-income groups" explicitly distanced themselves from consumers deemed undesirable because they were too poor, black, or young and unruly.

In 1955, shopping centers were pretty new. It's pretty obvious that new developments typically are available to the rich first. Of course a store like Macy's is going to target a particular income group that they believe will return profits. Would Cohen complain if Tiffany's put out an annual report saying it was targetting rich people with its diamond and gold jewelry, or if a yacht company admitted to putting ads in Wall Street Journal rather than on lamp-posts in the slums? It's not immoral to sell expensive goods to rich people.

Next, a historian ought to realize that after the rich people had places to shop, then the middle income groups, the remaining niches were for lower-income groups. In the 80's, from what I can tell, stores like Target and Wal-Mart filled that niche astoundingly successfully.

At a time when many low-income Americans didn't own cars, the few bus routes to shopping centers were carefully planned to transport nondriving customers, particularly women, from nearby suburbs, not low-income consumers from inner cities.

Wasn't the whole point of shopping centers in the suburbs being new -- that there were already stores in the inner cities? So, of course the suburban malls are going to encourage transporting people who have nowhere else to shop rather than people who already have someplace to shop. That doesn't make the people who already have someplace to shop (the inner-city residents) disadvantaged. In fact, one could argue that inner-city residents were themselves advantaged, before suburban shopping malls popped up.

It's true that in some cities (Cohen's example is Newark) the inner cities became dead zones where poor people lived and shops were abandoned. That's a reaction to risk, and it seems in many cities today we're reducing the risk to shopkeepers in those areas and commerce is returning.

If customers looking conspicuously different from typical suburbanites actually made it to the mall, they were often met by unwelcoming security guards who had been hired by management and were not accountable to any public authority.

Isn't that the same in many institutions? Stores don't uniquely have this problem, so do universities and churches and even government buildings. Being accountable to government isn't a panacea. In fact, stores have a unique incentive to be welcoming to a wide variety of people because you can't tell who might spend money.

Malls have done little to encourage public transportation to accommodate the low-paid, urban workers who now dominate shopping center sales forces.

I take it Cohen wants malls to have a social conscience and responsibility. Surely the malls don't have a problem actually hiring these people and having them show up on time. Is it really the mall's responsibility to encourage public transportation for their workers?

The death in 1995 of a black retail clerk from Buffalo, killed trying to cross the seven-lane highway that separated her bus stop from her job inside a suburban mall, was only the most brutal example of this form of discrimination.

This sentence bothered me the most. Sorry, was the mall discriminating in hiring the black person? Was the public bus system discriminating in putting the bus stop on the opposite side of the freeway from the suburban mall? Or was the driver who hit her discriminating in choosing a black person to run over? This is a brutal example of a this form of damning allegation.

As developers sought sites close to the affluent populations to which they catered, their presence augmented the prosperity of host communities, exacerbating an already unequal distribution of economic resources in metropolitan areas.

This is a generic problem; why is Cohen blaming the mall developers? Why not the house-builders who don't build shacks, or the schools for not bussing in slum children? Or the employers putting good work opportunities out in the burbs? A complex social problem like this can't be fixed by assigning blame to just one link in the chain.

Cohen's last prescription is that Christmas shoppers should spread their money around -- not just to malls, or online sites, but also presumably to local/city stores. Prescriptions like that do no good over the long run -- it just wastes Cohen's breath, perhaps makes a couple socially-conscious people either feel guilty or go out of their way to do a less convenient (less efficient!) shopping trip. The whole premise of a market-based society is that the sellers go where people want to buy. If that's the suburbs, the inner cities, or online, they'll go there. From what I've seen, it's all three.

Here's my prescription for Cohen, and all those who -- like me -- want to better the lot of disadvantaged people. Help them directly. If you think that inner city kids don't get enough education, give money to their schools (or give them voucher/money to give them the power to influence schools). If you think that mall workers don't have adequate transportation, work on that directly. Complaining that malls cause these problems is an ineffective way to address these problems because it's only one piece of a very complex social puzzle.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

If I can paraphrase Innocents Abroad: he writes that Western Canada is disenfranchised, fundamentally different and cut off from the Canadian power-base. That certainly has some truth to it -- BC and Alberta are such resource-rich provinces that they have different interests, naturally, from other provinces. However that doesn't necessarily mean a disunited country -- Washington State is resource-rich and Mississippi is poor, yet clearly they're united in a country with a strong self-image.

My parents moved from Alberta to Ontario and back to BC -- I'll have to ask them at Christmas what they think of this.

Monday, December 09, 2002

If your breasts are larger than DD, read Cat's site. Cat only told me about this tonight. There's also reasonable advice for smaller sizes. Even medium-sized chests suffer from badly fitting sports bras in particular.
Volokh says that Fumento says (in Reason Online) that the Atkins Diet doesn't work. Maybe it's because some people don't actually lose weight when they stick to it; maybe it's because some people can't stick with it and therefore don't lose weight. It doesn't matter; saying a weight-loss diet works or doesn't work is too sweeping a generalization. It makes more sense to figure out when it works, why, and for whom.

Volokh also seems to be missing, despite a couple reader comments, that although calorie intake is the main weight-loss causative, what form those calories take can be a major factor in whether or not people can find the right food, feel cravings, feel energetic, and in general are able to keep to the diet.

I never heard about this recently deceased police lab chemist who allegedly repeatedly lied on the stand. I now wonder why we don't hear about this kind of thing more often. Is it:
  • Very rare
  • Happens but hushed up
  • Happens but nobody knows when, where
First and second generation immigrants are quite different. Mel says that at her school where almost everybody is Latino, there aren't interracial tensions. The biggest tensions are between first-gen and second-gen.

First generation: Forget the white kids with the studs in the tongue," Riz says. "Indians are gonna work for you. At the beginning, they work for minimum wage. Then little raise, little raise, slowly, slowly. Everyone live together; they are saving money, six people in household working, they bank 80 percent of their money and use 20 percent for expenses. They don't drink, no clubs, no fancy clothes. Suddenly, they have $60,000 in the bank. Then they will buy the Subway or the Blimpie.

Second generation: Riz worries about the second generation... his cousin, Ali Momin, 22... unlike Riz when Riz started out, Ali won't wear $3 shirts from K-Mart. His cologne is Dreamer by Versace. His savings account is zero. "Riz tells me a whole buncha times, 'Don't be wasting money,' " Ali says. "I keep that in my head for a couple of days, then it goes away."

From a Washington Post article on labour in the Old South (link via Mars or Bust).

Friday, December 06, 2002

Maybe this is why I don't like UDDI -- as Sean McGrath points out, it's a top-down, librarian-style, managed classification system for XML services. A lot of work for everybody to do something that any Yahoo could do.
You can now examine wine with a magnetic resonance spectroscope to see if it's gotten acidic. Of course, the gizmo will cost you a couple tens of thousands of dollars. But since the highest price paid for a case of wine at auction is reputedly $112,500, I expect there will be a couple early adopters anyway.
I just found a slightly dated paper on AOL interoperability and standard adoption, particularly with respect to Jabber. Wishful thinking? I'm betting AOL will wait for two things: (1) for an IM standard to have an RFC number, and (2) to no longer be clearly #1 in the market, as it is now.

A year ago, AOL was clearly the market leader, but MSN and Yahoo were reportedly growing faster (together MSN and Yahoo have more users than AOL). Now, Yahoo claims the most "workday IM users" (also see here, and Jupiter Media Metrics shows that MSN is still gaining.

Presence standards for buddy lists (seeing who's online, where, doing what, and how they could be contacted) have pretty obvious applications in online gaming. The video gaming industry has long been a serious early adopter for graphics, sound, processor and now network technology with the explosion of online games. In fact, sites like XBox Live already let you create buddy lists and see who's online, playing what game, and how good they are. They just don't yet connect with other presence applications -- you have to go to XBox Live to see what your buddies are playing. I think that will change, and these kinds of sites will "push" that presence information into your main IM/presence client, so that you might be tempted to get the service or go online when you otherwise would not have. Classic viral marketing.

For that matter, how about porn, another high-tech early adopter industry? Surely hard-core online porn fans want to know when one of their favourite "D-Cup Blondes" members "comes" online!

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

A bunch of bloggers I read occasionally (often linked from Instapundit) share the feeling that Europeans, particularly on the left, don't understand the new world order since 9/11. This blog entry in particular says that Europe will only understand that there is already a war, when an attack targets their soil.

But what if that educational moment doesn't come in the next, say, 10 years? I may be optimistic, but I believe there's a significant possibility, verging on probability, that moment will not come in the next 10 years. Minor attacks probably, but not an attack with the level of surprise and emotional intensity as 9/11, from the same or similar sources, targetting European soil. There may not be one targetting US soil either. So are we at war? Are the Europeans? It depends on your definition of war, and Europeans define it differently.

Monday, December 02, 2002

Google ZeitGeist is still there, though it's getting harder to find the link. This month, top five sports queries from Canada! I'll give you one guess what the #1 is.
Chris asked me about mercury levels, how dangerous they are, and how mercury can be abated (not because I knew anything a priori, but because he knows I sometimes like to look into these things).

On the one hand, 41 states have issued fish advisories for mercury (ref). But only 13 states have issued statewide advisories (including fish from all bodies of water), and it's unclear how serious an advisory is. The EPA says most consumers don't need to worry. Generally only pregnant women eating unusual amounts of fish daily or from particularly contaminated sources would need to worry. The FDA is currently reviewing its advice so this may change.

Note that mercury abatement processes exist -- there are small companies (like Acute Services or Enviro-Vac) that can be paid to clean up mercury spills. There's even been a small amount of backlash against proposals to even more severely lower the recommended maximum mercury intake. Even at current levels, the US recommendations are already several times stricter than the Australian recommendations (four servings of high-mercury fish per week upper limit for pregnant women only).

Overall, it doesn't seem like a serious thing Americans need to worry about. Even if you travelled to some highly mercury-polluted place and ate nothing but fish for a month, it would still be balanced by a normal American diet over the period of a couple years.

Now this would be a truly useful genetic modification. I'd love to have a cat but we're afraid we wouldn't be able to keep one if our allergies were bad. And that would be nasty to the kitty to get rid of it after a couple months of having a family.

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