Thursday, April 26, 2007

Two Views of Democracy

Listening to a radio program about recent Nigerian politics, it occurred to me that there are two quite different models of how democracy works held by people who think it does work. One is a model of incentives, and one of selection.

The incentive version relies on the fact that politicians want to get elected and reelected. To get elected, they have to support the policies that a majority of the voters want; to get elected again, they have to actually work for those policies. Hence, it is argued, it is in the interest of politicians to do what the voters want them to do, whatever the private beliefs and objectives --other than election--of the politicians may be.

The selection model relies on the facts that people differ and that we have some ability to tell what other people are like. Some candidates are good people who want good things--the welfare of their fellow citizens, justice, peace, ... . If the voters can identify the good politicians, they can elect them and rely on the benevolent desires of those politicians to motivate them to do the right thing. Some candidates are not only good people but smart and hard working, hence likely to take the acts that produce those good things.

The two models have different requirements and different implications. For the incentive model to work, voters must know both what elected politicians are doing and what they ought to be doing, in order to vote for the ones who do what they ought to. In a large society with a government doing many things, knowing either what it should do or what a particular politician is doing is hard, which is one reason that model might not work very well. It's a common observation that when a politician wants to buy the votes of farmers by pushing up the price of food, he explains that he is doing it to guarantee American consumers a reliable food supply. When a politician wants to buy the votes of auto workers and GM stockholders by using a tariff to drive up the price of automobiles, he explains that he is doing it for the health of the American economy.

The selection model avoids that set of problems. You don't have to know what the government should be doing; you have delegated the job of figuring that out to someone else. Nor do you have to know what your politician is doing. The selection model even works for issues of national security where the voters know that they don't know what the government is doing--the Manhattan Project, say. On the other hand, it depends on voters being able to accurately evaluate the personalities of people they have met for at most a few seconds, based on what those people say about themselves and what others say about them. It thus leads to campaigns of charisma, bogus virtue, and the like.

My point here is not to judge which model is more realistic or which works less badly. It's merely to point out that people who believe in democracy are likely to have one of those two models in mind and are often unclear about which it is or what the differences between them are.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

International Pixel Stained Technopeasant Day

As my contribution to Jo Walton's "International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day" I am webbing the first two chapters of my new novel Salamander.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Obesity: A Conjecture

Obesity is a current hot issue, problem, crisis ... . One reason is that it is a real problem. Another, I suspect, is that it provides people who want governments to do things with a new argument.

My evidence for that conjecture is how much of the talk about obesity focuses on the evils of marketers cleverly manipulating people into eating junk food. While sellers of junk food do, of course, advertise their products, so do sellers of diet soda, exercise equipment, metrecal and health foods. I understand why people concerned about obesity might see the regulation of advertising as a potentially useful tool--it is at least more likely to be politically viable than an attempt to ban hamburgers and french fries from the American diet. But I do not see marketing as a plausible explanation for the increasing frequency of obesity. It seems particularly implausible given that the increase is not limited to rich countries such as the U.S.; I doubt the consumption patterns of people in India or China are much influenced by advertising.

My alternative explanation for obesity is straightforward. Humans evolved in an environment where food was costly, fat scarce, sweetness a useful signal that fruit was ripe. We are designed by evolution to put on weight when we can as a precaution against future famines and to favor fat and sugar when we can get them. In a world where food is inexpensive and plentiful we are inclined to overeat, in particular to eat more fat and sugar than is good for us.

The obvious explanation of the increase in obesity is that real incomes around the world have been trending up for decades. Now poor people in the U.S., and increasingly in poorer parts of the world, can afford to eat all the calories they want. Since all the calories they want represents more than what they require, the result is that they get fat.

There is one problem with this explanation. According to the figures I have seen, in the U.S. obesity is less common in high income groups than in low income groups. The richer you are, the less your diet is constrained by cost, so we would expect higher income groups to be at least as obese as lower income groups. To explain why they are not I must add one additional factor: Time lags in adjusting behavior and social norms to changed circumstances.

Suppose you are part of a population where food has been costly, where people engage in a lot of physical labor, and so where the problem is getting enough to eat, not avoiding too much. You, and those around you, have adapted their behavior to that environment.

Now things change; food gets cheap, wages go up, almost everyone can afford to eat as much as he wants. For a while, perhaps a generation or two, people follow the old patterns in the new circumstances; the result is that many of them end up fat. Over time, although the hardwired elements of behavior do not change--evolution is slow--the cultural elements do. Instead of demonstrating how wealthy and generous you are by urging your guests to have a second and third helping of dinner, you do it by providing them smaller amounts of particularly tasty, sophisticated, or expensive dishes. Instead of making a point of avoiding physical exertion when you can, you enter the Boston Marathon. Eventually you and those around you have adapted your behavior, although not your hardwired tastes, to the new environment.

Well off people in developed societies have been able to afford second and third helpings at every meal for a long time. Hence, if my argument is right, they have had time to adapt to a world of plenty. For poor people, being able to eat all they want of more or less what they want is a newer thing, so they are still following the old ways--the pattern of the traditional Jewish (or Italian) mother who insists that her guests have a little more of this and that before they end their meal. Hence, if my conjecture is correct, greater obesity among the poor reflects the lag in adapting to circumstances that are relatively new for them. The rich have had time to adjust.

One implication of this is that, at some point in the past, richer people should have been more often obese than poorer--back when the rich were no longer constrained by the availability of food but the poor still were. That fits my casual impression, but I have no actual data to support it.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cell Phones, Mythbusters, and Selective Perception

In a recent Usenet discussion, the question of whether cell phones on airplanes were actually a problem came up. Several people mentioned a Mythbusters episode on the subject. What was interesting was that some of them claimed the episode showed that cell phones were not a problem, others that it showed that some cell phones were a problem. Googling around, I found the same inconsistency in webbed comments by various people citing the program.

The situation became clearer when I found a fairly detailed webbed description of the program. The people at Mythbusters were unable to get permission to actually test a cell phone in an airplane in the air--cell phones being forbidden to operate in airplanes in the air. Instead, they did two experiments:

1: A signal generator to simulate a cell phone, a navigation gauge, and various other equipment were placed inside a faraday cage (to eliminate external interference). They found that signals in the 800-900 MHz range affected the navigation gauge.

2. An actual airplane was borrowed and tested on the ground. No signal they tested had any effect on its electronic equipment. They concluded that the difference was that the electronic equipment in a real airplane is shielded, whereas in the first experiment the signal generator was more or less next to the unshielded navigation gauge.

So it is true both that they found that a cell phone had no effect on an airplane's electronics and that they found that some cell phone signals could affect the kind of electronic equipment in an airplane. I suspect that listeners selectively remembered the part of that that fit their existing beliefs and prejudices.

I also found a discussion of the issue of cell phones on airplanes, from the sceptical side of the argument, in a Computerworld article. The author thinks that both the regulators and the airlines are in favor of the ban for reasons unrelated to safety risks from interference. The article provided a link to an FCC press release which amounts to "we decided to stop our investigation into whether cell phones should be banned on airplanes because we couldn't find enough evidence to tell," which strikes me as some evidence in favor of the sceptics' view of the situation.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Cost of Regulation

My previous post reported on my experience buying prescription eyeglasses online and raised the puzzle of why they cost five or ten times as much from a store. One commenter provided enough information so that I was able to locate the relevant California regulations.(specifically paragraphs 2559.1 and 2559.2 on pages 163-4). In order to dispense eyeglasses you must employ a registered spectacle lens dispenser and in order to be a registered spectacle lens dispenser you must pass an exam provided by the American Board of Opticianry (I'm leaving out some detailed exceptions and qualifications).

That means that the profession of eyeglass sellers is in a position, like other licensed professions, to control entry, to make it hard for people to join the profession in order to hold up the income of those already in. I have no data on how restrictive they actually are; perhaps someone else does.

But I do have some data on the outcome. Prescription eyeglasses, in my experience, cost from about $100 to $300 in stores in California. Online they cost about $20. If we take the bottom of the range for comparison, on the theory that the higher prices may represent either higher quality or additional services, and if we assume that the cost of selling online is only half the cost of selling in a store, that suggests that the effect of the regulatory restrictions is to make the cost of eyeglasses about two and a half times what it would otherwise be.

A little googling turns up a figure of 15.8 billion for optical retail sales in 2001. 1.9 billion of that was contact lenses. Combining this information, it looks as though restrictions on competition in the eyeglass industry cost consumers about ten billion dollars a year.

This is, of course, only a very rough estimate, but still an interesting figure. There is apparently an old literature that looked in more detail at the consequences of particular restrictions, and found large effects.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Needed: Voices for World of Warcraft

Players of World of Warcraft sometimes use software--the programs I am familiar with are Teamspeex and Ventrilo--to talk to each other while playing. This is particularly useful for large group activities--raids--where many people are trying to coordinate what they are doing.

There is, however, one small problem. The character you know as a middle aged male dwarf--that being how he appears on the screen--is speaking with the voice of a teen aged girl. That makes it hard to stay inside the fantasy, to pretend the game is real while you are playing it.

There is an obvious solution. Techniques exist for changing the sound of a human voice. Someone should write software, designed to be used with such programs, that automatically alters the player's voice to fit the character. The speaker would set preferences: Age, race, gender. The software would modify voice accordingly.

Or does it already exist?

The Price of Eyeglasses

I recently bought two pair of prescription glasses from an online source that had been recommended to me. The total price, shipping included, was about $40. I estimate that buying two pair at one of the less expensive local sources, such as Costco, would have cost at least five times as much, perhaps more.

This raises an obvious puzzle--why are they so much more expensive bought in the usual way. If Zenni Optical can sell them online for under $20/pair, why doesn't someone set up selling them for, say, $40/pair in the mall and make a fortune on volume? Three possibilities occur to me.

1. The online glasses are of inferior quality. So far as I can tell--I'm wearing one of the pairs at the moment--that is not the case.

2. Economics is wrong; markets don't work. Consumers are irrational, or so badly informed that they wouldn't notice if one seller cost less than half as much as another, or ... . This does not strike me as plausible.

3. Competition among ordinary sellers is constrained by regulatory rules, probably at the state level. I know there is some regulation of the industry but don't know the details. Given that I am both a libertarian and an economist this strikes me as the most plausible explanation.

Does anyone have more information on the subject?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Subjective Age

Introspection, trying to watch myself, can be an interesting way of passing the time when there is neither a computer nor a good book readily at hand. My most common version is to observe my reactions to passing women and try to figure out what the characteristics are that determine which I find attractive. Evolutionary psychologists have collected evidence on what physical characteristics men in general, across a wide variety of cultures, find attractive in women, but so far as I know nobody has made a serious effort at the micro version of the project.

Another version is to look at my reactions to other people and see what they say about my self image. One conclusion is that my subjective age is substantially lower than my objective age. The people I intuitively react to as my age peers are in fact noticeably younger than I am.

I have a simple explanation for this pattern; if it is correct, it should apply to most people, not just to me. My self image is based on some sort of weighted average of my experiences over the years. An average from, say, age ten to age 62 is going to come in at less than 62--considerably less unless very heavily weighted towards recent years.

I have, however, an alternative explanation based on experimental data from a very long time ago. At various points in my teens I was a camp councilor. I observed that if the campers in my cabin were, say, eleven year olds, anyone from about fourteen up felt to me like a grown up. The older my campers, the older my subjective definition of adult. Currently a large part of my social interaction is either with my own children--13 and 16--or with the law students I teach. Perhaps that shifts up my subjective experience of the age of people much older than that--even if they are younger than I am.

Anyone else have evidence to offer? Conjectures? Should I blame it all on neoteny?

A Nanobook Dream

There are rumors that Apple is working on a nanobook, an ultralight laptop using flash ram instead of a hard drive. As a fan of both the Macintosh and the--now unfortunately defunct--Psion pda's, that naturally started me thinking about what my ideal version would be.

What I want is a functional laptop, one that runs my usual software, small enough so that I can conveniently carry it with me most of the time as I did with my Psions. Fitting in a usable keyboard and screen probably requires the largest form factor that can be conveniently carried. Experimenting with a piece of cardboard, that appears to be about 4.125"x7.5". If reasonably thin and light, that goes comfortably into the inside pocket of a sports jacket. That would require me to wear a sports jacket or equivalent--or else some sort of belt case--but then, I started wearing sports jackets routinely when I started carrying my first Psion. It would fit into a pants pocket, but I'm not sure that's a safe location for an expensive and somewhat fragile item.

For screen and keyboard the important constraint is physical size. The keyboard of my desktop is 11", so 7.5" allows about a 2/3 size keyboard, which I think would be fine once one got used to it; the Psion Revo managed to fit a just barely typeable keyboard into less than 6", although I have always suspected them of using magic to do it. My Nokia 9300 smartphone has a 640x200 screen that's about 4" x 1.25", so 1000x600 should fit comfortably on my nanobook's screen.

I don't know enough about the internals of pda's or laptops to be confident how much space the rest of the machine would require. But my guess, from things like the iphone, is that it could be managed with a thickness of no more than an inch and a weight of well under a pound. Even that much weight might be a problem; my Psions managed to do minor damage to a lot of sports jackets over the years. But that's a price I was, and am, willing to pay.

My one additional suggestion is that the machine might include a hard drive--very tiny hard drives now exist, and I think they still provide considerably less expensive mass storage than flash memory. The machine could have the operating system in flash memory to permit almost instant booting, like my old Psions. The hard drive, if there was one, would provide additional storage, and would remain off, drawing no power, unless needed.

Hitachi is supposed to be bringing out a 20 gigabyte microdrive this year. Add another 20 gigabytes of flash, a gigabyte or so of RAM and the lowest power version of the cpu used in current Mac laptops and you have a functional laptop capable of running the current MacOS and applications. Small enough to (just barely) fit in your pocket

I want it.