Monthly Archives: February 2010

Hunger, Racism Sexy

In celebration of Valentine’s, I offer some handy mating tips:  

For Men:  To find a fertile woman to impregnate, look for a racist:

We examined the effects of changes in conception risk across the menstrual cycle on intergroup bias and found that increased conception risk was positively associated with several measures of race bias. This association was particularly strong when perceived vulnerability to sexual coercion was high.

For Women:  If you think yourself heavy (most do), then to attract a man, make him hungry:

Peckish males prefer females who are heavier, taller and older.   The research … confirms and expands upon two previous papers: a 2005 study that concluded heavier women are preferred in cultures with scarce resources, and a 2006 British study that found hunger influences judgments of female physical attractiveness.  The latter report … concluded that males with empty stomachs preferred heavier females.

HT Rob Wiblin.

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No Early Earth Life?

We know a lot less about early Earth life than I’d thought:

Two decades ago [Schopf] … was investigating … 3.5-billion-year-old rocks that are among the oldest on Earth. In 1993, he announced that they contained 11 different types of “microfossil” that looked for all the world like modern photosynthesising cyanobacteria. … Other 3.5-billion-year-old Australian rocks contained rippling structures that looked like fossil stromatolites. … Astonishingly soon after our planet formed some 4.6 billion years ago, photosynthesising bacteria were widespread. This emerging consensus lasted only until 2002, when palaeontologist Martin Brasier of the University of Oxford unleashed a barrage of criticisms. …

New lines of evidence mean that the oldest undisputed signs of cyanobacteria are now fossils found in rocks from the Belcher Islands in northern Canada dating from just 2.1 billion years ago. … In this “great oxygenation event” of around 2.4 billion years ago, levels rose from around 1 per cent of today’s levels to perhaps 10 per cent.  Our best guess is still that cyanobacteria were around some time before this event. Persuasive evidence is converging on a date around 2.7 billion years ago. … The modern nitrogen cycle kicked off around this time. … The great oxygenation event … seems to have been the forerunner to a “snowball Earth”….  And yet the great oxygenation was impermanent. … By 1.9 billion years ago, levels of breathable oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere were back down to the merest trace.  We don’t know why. …

Oxygen levels in the atmosphere soon recovered again … [at] a new equilibrium, at about 10 per cent of present-day levels. …. This time, the oxidative weathering of sulphides on land filled the oceans with sulphate. That in turn fuelled a hardy group of bacteria that … [turned oceans] into stinking, stagnant waters almost entirely devoid of oxygen. … An extraordinary stasis in Earth’s environment … dubbed the “boring billion” [years followed].  … What happened to the oxygenic utopia in which life supposedly grew and prospered, evolving the complex cells that went on to make up animal and plant life? …  It probably never existed. …  [Those] stinking oceans were the true cradle of life. Evidence behind this idea includes the fact that mitochondria, the powerhouses of all complex, oxygen-respiring “eukaryotic” cells today, were once far more varied, sometimes “breathing” sulphur or nitrogen instead of oxygen. ….

Earth’s anoxic stasis was broken in the end by a dramatic series of snowball Earths, indicating bursts of oxygen, beginning about 750 million years ago and recurring over the following 100 million years. They broke the eternal loop: soon afterwards, oxygen levels shot up and never looked back. Animal life soon exploded onto the scene.  What made the difference this time? One intriguing possibility is that it was down to the organisms that had evolved in a leisurely way during the boring billion: terrestrial red and green algae and the first lichens.

More here.  This will clearly require a rethinking of my hard steps of life analysis based a now outdated event timeline.

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Megan on Med

How Many People Die From Lack of Health Insurance? … The most recent available study, which also had the largest sample and controlled for the most variables, found no effect at all. … The left is predictably fond of the study which got the largest number [dead], 45,000 a year.  Unfortunately, its authors are political advocates for a single-payer system, who also helped author the notorious studies on medical bankruptcies.  Those studies are very shoddily done. … The right, meanwhile, shuns the subject like the plague.  It will not do anyone’s career any good to be attached to an argument that sounds like the health care equivalent of “let them eat cake”.

That is Megan at her blog.  More from her in the Atlantic:

Ezra Klein declared that Senator Joseph Lieberman, by refusing to vote for a bill with a public option, was apparently “willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands” of uninsured people. … In the ensuing blogstorm, … few people addressed the question that mattered most: …  If we lost our insurance, would this gargantuan new entitlement really be the only thing standing between us and an early grave?  Perhaps few people were asking, because the question sounds so stupid. Health insurance buys you health care. Health care is supposed to save your life. So if you don’t have someone buying you health care well, you can complete the syllogism. …

The possibility that no one risks death by going without health insurance may be startling, but some research supports it. Richard Kronick of the University of California at San Diego’s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, an adviser to the Clinton administration, recently published the results of what may be the largest and most comprehensive analysis yet done of the effect of insurance on mortality. He used a sample of more than 600,000, and controlled not only for the standard factors, but for how long the subjects went without insurance, whether their disease was particularly amenable to early intervention, and even whether they lived in a mobile home. In test after test, he found no significantly elevated risk of death among the uninsured. … Continue reading "Megan on Med" »

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Praise Polymaths

Once upon a time folks who traveled far were treated with suspicion.  Sure if you were rich and traveled like the rich you weren’t more suspicious than other rich.  But those who traveled more than their class were suspected, correctly on average, of being less loyal to their neighbors.

Today travel is mostly celebrated; people love to talk about their trips and admire the well-traveled, even beyond the wealth it signals.  But travel today doesn’t much threaten loyalty – intellectual contact with locals is limited, and usually selected to be like-minded.  Ooh look, another pretty building.  True intellectual travel, where you actually take the time to see things from different perspectives, is rare, more valuable, and yet elicits more suspicion than admiration.

You see, our beliefs are severely distorted by our culture and training, and intellectual travel remains our only remotely reliable remedy.  We all know that we would have been inclined toward different beliefs had we been raised in different cultures or disciplines.  We see consistent differences between folks trained in West vs. East, science vs. humanities, economics vs. sociology, and in different schools of thought of most any discipline.  We like to think that we correct for this, but when we realize how hard that is, we throw up our hands saying “what ya gonna do?” Continue reading "Praise Polymaths" »

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Africa HIV: Perverts or Bad Med?

Why is AIDS so much more common in Africa than elsewhere?  The standard theory is, essentially: Africans are sex perverts.  Details have varied over the years: too much prostitution or polygamy or anal sex, too many partners, not enough condoms or circumcision, or girls starting too young.  Most of these theories haven’t found much support, or (like circumcision) are too weak to explain African excess.  (For example, polygamy reduces risk.)

The currently popular version is that Africans have too many concurrent (at the same time) long-term partners.  There is some evidence that this happens in African more than elsewhere, and there are theoretical reasons to expect it to speed sex epidemics.  But a December review says the case is far from closed.  From Lancet in October:

A four-city African study actually found lower rates of concurrency in places with larger HIV epidemics, and a study using nationally representative surveys in 22 countries (all but one of which was in Africa) concluded that ‘‘the prevalence of concurrency does not seem correlated with HIV prevalence at the community level or at the country level, neither among women nor among men.’’ Additionally, Wellings and colleagues reviewed global sexual behaviour and could not find sufficient data to assess whether rates of concurrency differ across the world.

The main reply is:

[Critics] offer no credible alternative explanation … It is simply not plausible that serial monogamy by itself could generate the explosive generalised epidemics.

But Karl Smith and David Friedman suggest bad med instead:

Much of the transmission may be due to sloppy medical procedures, in particular the reuse of needles for injections.

In fact, there is a whole journal devoted to this thesis:

Seven years ago the International Journal of STD & AIDS (IJSA) began actively encouraging reexamination of the prevailing view that penile–vaginal sex was driving African HIV epidemics, … Although the IJSA-published dissenting views have largely been ignored, dismissed or fiercely resisted by established HIV researchers and allied health agencies.

A 2007 Annals of Epidemiology paper found:

In regression analyses, nonuse of disable syringes is associated robustly with greater HIV prevalence in all models. … Greater HIV prevalence also is associated with higher Gini Index, less female economic activity, less urbanization, and less percentage of Muslims.

World-wide, resusable needles are the second biggest binary predictor of HIV (after Sub-Saharan African location and before gender-literacy ratio): Continue reading "Africa HIV: Perverts or Bad Med?" »

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Should Lies Be Free?

A few weeks ago I wrote:

The usual rationale for “free speech,” which seems persuasive, is that in the long run we as a society learn more via an open competition for the best ideas, where anyone can try to persuade us as best they can, and listeners are free to choose what to hear.

This week we hear:

The federal courts are wrestling with a question … Does the First Amendment right to free speech protect people who lie about being war heroes?  At issue is the Stolen Valor Act, a three-year-old federal law that makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail to lie about receiving a U.S. military medal. …

Lawyers … [are] saying the First Amendment protects almost all speech that doesn’t hurt someone else. Neither man has been accused by prosecutors of seeking financial gain for himself.  Jonathan Turley … said the Stolen Valor Act raises constitutional questions because it bans bragging or exaggerating about yourself.  “Half the pickup lines in bars across the country could be criminalized under that concept,” he said. …

Lawyers challenging the act say that lying about getting a medal doesn’t fit any of the categories of speech that the U.S. Supreme Court has said can be banned: lewd, obscene, profane, libelous or an imminent danger to others, such as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

For some kinds of lawsuits, it makes sense to limit attention to financial harms, because other harms are harder to estimate; deterrence via compensating for financial harms is good enough.  But it is crazy to pretend that non-financial harms don’t exist. Of course it hurts other folks if they believe you have medals that you don’t.  And the basic rationale for free speech, finding truth via open competition, hardly endorses straight lies!

Yes, I can sort of see the point of allowing some social contexts in which people accept that it is ok to lie about certain topics; maybe folks there are more interested in seeing how well and creatively you lie, and don’t really care much about the truth on those topics.  But it seems to me ok to require some explicit opting in there; I’m fine with a default to legally punish liars.  Unless your audience agreed that certain lies are ok, they aren’t ok.

I’ll admit most people seem to disagree, preferring no legal penalty for non-financial-harm lies.  I suspect this is analogous to disinterest in objective risk estimates:

Well-connected managers already know they prefer estimates by officials who respond to social pressure, over hard-to-manipulate market estimates, even if the later are more accurate.  Of course less well-connected managers should prefer the opposite, but who wants to signal their bad connections by endorsing independent markets?

Those who can more easily lie, and detect lies, want lies to be allowed, while the less lie-capable should want lies to be punished.  But who wants to publicly signal they are bad at lying or at detecting lies?

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Is The City-ularity Near?

The land around New York City is worth a lot.  A 2008 analysis estimated prices for land, not counting buildings etc., for most (~80%?) of the nearby area (2750 square miles, = a 52 mile square).  The total New York area land value (total land times ave price) was 5.5T$ (trillion) in 2002 and 28T$ in 2006.

The Economist said that in 2002 all developed nation real estate was worth 62T$.  Since raw land value is on average about a third of total real estate value, that puts New York area real estate at over 30% of all developed nation real estate in 2002!  Whatever the exact number, clearly this agglomeration contains vast value.

New York land is valuable mainly because of how it is organized.  People want to be there because they want to interact with other people they expect to be there, and they expect those interactions to be quite mutually beneficial.  If you could take any other 50 mile square (of which Earth has 72,000), and create that same expectation of mutual value from interactions, you could get people to come there, make buildings, etc., and sell that land for many trillions of dollars of profit.

Yet the organization of New York was mostly set long ago based on old tech (e.g., horses, cars, typewriters).  Worse, no one really understands at a deep level how it is organized or why that works so well.  Different people understand different parts, in mostly crude empirical ways.

So what will happen when super-duper smarties wrinkle their brows so hard that out pops a deep math theory of cities, explaining clearly how city value is produced?  What if they apply their theory to designing a city structure that takes best advantage of our most advanced techs, of 7gen phones, twitter-pedias, flying Segways, solar panels, gene-mod pigeons, and super-fluffy cupcakes?  Making each city aspect more efficient makes the city more attractive, increasing the gains from making other aspects more efficient, in a grand spiral of bigger gains.

Once they convince the world of the vast value in their super-stupendous city design, won’t everyone flock there and pay mucho trillions for the privilege? Couldn’t they leverage this lead into better theories enabling better designs giving far more trillions, and then spend all that on a super-designed war machine based on those same super insights, and turn us all into down dour super-slaves?  So isn’t the very mostest importantest cause ever to make sure that we, the friendly freedom fighters, find this super deep city theory first?

Well, no, it isn’t.  We don’t believe in a city-ularity because we don’t believe in a super-city theory found in a big brain flash of insight.  What makes cities work well is mostly getting lots of details right.  Sure new-tech-based cities designs can work better, but gradual tech gains mean no city is suddenly vastly better than others.  Each change has costs to be weighed against hoped-for gains.  Sure costs of change might be lower when making a whole new city from scratch, but for that to work you have to be damn sure you know which changes are actually good ideas.

For similar reasons, I’m skeptical of a blank-slate AI mind-design singularity.  Sure if there were a super mind theory that allowed vast mental efficiency gains all at once, but there isn’t.  Minds are vast complex structures full of parts that depend intricately on each other, much like the citizens of a city.  Minds, like cities, best improve gradually, because you just never know enough to manage a vast redesign of something with such complex inter-dependent adaptations.

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Distinguishing Defense

Many folks are not that comfortable with the idea of working in or for the military.  Yes, at some level we all support armies via paying taxes, selling them food, teaching their kids, etc., but the more direct their support the more uncomfortable many folks get.  For example, actually stabbing enemy soldiers on the front line is more direct than most of us prefer.  No doubt this discomfort at directness deprives armies of the support of many talented folks.

Some military folks I know emphasize that their efforts are primarily defensive; they help resist enemy attack and protect civilians from harm.  They are clearly asking not to be treated as if they were just an average part of the military machine.  But I wonder: why don’t we make it easier for such people to show that their efforts are mainly defensive.  Why don’t more parts of the military, and more military contractors, officially distinguish themselves as more emphasizing defense over offense?  Why can’t I work for a particular “defense” contractor with a clear reputation for only working on the defensive side of war?

Now it is true that in this case orgs that did not explicitly identify as defensive would look more offensive, making some folks less willing to associate with them.  But many a brash young man is eager to show he is a front-line fighter, so there might be overall sorting gains from making this distinction.  Is it that those who run our military hate the idea of officially acknowledging and accomodating citizens who don’t offer full unconditional (offense or defense as required) support of our military?

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Dreamtime Drama

After a record two feet of snow this weekend, my area (DC) has another 5-9 inches coming tomorrow.  My street hasn’t been plowed, and likely won’t be until next week.  So this might seem one of those “stories to tell your grandkids.”  Except, well, we have water, power, heat, tv, internet, plenty of food, and no more than the usual work to do.  Not exactly a disaster story for the ages.

This is of course one of the prices we pay for being dreamtime richies – stories about our suffering just aren’t going to elicit much sympathy from our distant descendants.  We can hardly get worked up about them ourselves.  The far future may, however, be fascinated to gawk at our freaky facades, ginormous growth, strange scenarios, and bizarre beliefs.  We are history’s circus; which circus wonder are you?

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Tax Bank Collapse Risk?

A week ago I said:

The main general approaches I know [to avoid total collapse] are refuges, to directly protect against the worst case, and the robustness rewards above, which counter-act known problems that distort our world economy toward fragility.

I suggested fixing current biases in intellectual property, empire bias, crisis metrics, and missing standards.  Here is a finance regulation proposal in the same spirit:

The Obama proposal for bank taxation has simple flat rates on uninsured bank liabilities. This is a better target than total liabilities since deposits were already insured, and the intervention bailed out wholesale funding.  But is such a flat tax designed to control risk creation? John Kay (2010) argues against it. Meanwhile Viral Acharya and Mathew Richardson (2010) argue that the bailouts have generated more moral hazard and suggest a fee discouraging all activity that creates systemic risk – not just leverage – and moreover that banks should be paying more in the good times when risk taking is more attractive.

In recent research, Javier Suarez and I (2009a, b) suggested a more subtle policy than President Obama’s – a Pigouvian tax based on banks’ individual contribution to systemic-risk creation, measured by their exposure to uninsured short-term funding. As in the Obama tax, this approach exempts insured deposits and targets the risk of sudden withdrawals of wholesale funding, which was the engine of the last crisis. Critically, our tax is sharper for shorter-term funding and decreases to zero for medium-term liabilities that do bear risk. In other words, it targets the externality caused by funding fragility and offers strong incentive effects in good times.

I’m not a banking or macro expert, and there is clearly a danger of fighting the last war here, but at least this seems focused on the right sort of problem.  HT Rob Wiblin.

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