Friday, December 28, 2007

Why do Car Rental Companies Charge for a Second Driver?

Some car rental companies--including Thrifty at the Boston Airport, where we picked up a car yesterday--charge a significant amount if you want to have two different people allowed to drive the car. It's hard to see why their cost is any higher if my wife and I take turns driving, instead of her doing all of it. And one might think the risk of accidents that damage their car would be less if we were free to have me drive when she is tired. So why the charge?

One possibility is that it's price discrimination, that they think that if two people are going to use the car, the customer expects to use it more and so will pay a higher price--but given how competitive the market is, that doesn't seem very plausible. Another is that it's an attempt to mislead customers doing price comparisons--put in additional charges that won't show up when you go to a web page to compare prices from alternative sellers. That doesn't strike me as terribly plausible either.

Does anyone have a better idea?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Symbolic Acts

Visiting with my wife's relatives for Christmas, I noticed the label on their "natural" laundry detergent. It informs the customer that he is making a difference—if every household in America replaced one large (50 load) bottle of petroleum based laundry detergent with their vegetable based product, it would save enough oil to heat 19,500 homes.

I have no idea whether it is true; what struck me was how tiny the effect boasted of was. On a wildly unrealistic assumption of how many people switch to their product, it will save enough petroleum to heat about one home in five thousand. Restating the claim in individual terms and assuming that the average family does two loads of laundry a week, using the vegetable based product instead of a petroleum based one, saves an amount of oil equal to less than a tenth of a percent of that family's home heating consumption. Roughly speaking, and depending on where they live, that's equivalent to the savings from turning the thermostat down by a few hundredths of a degree.

There are three possible interpretations of the effectiveness of such a claim, assuming that it does encourage people to buy the product:

1. People really do care about such small effects.

2. Many customers don't intuit mathematics very well. 19,500 is a large number, it doesn't occur to them to compare it to the entire housing stock or to scale down the effect from every household in America using the product to their using the product, so they believe they are actually saving a substantial amount of oil.

3. Customers are making their decision on the basis of symbolism, not consequences. The question is not "how much oil does it save" but "does it save oil." Saving oil is good, so one should do it.

One of the nice things about a price system is that it presents calculations of that sort in a form both more easily understood and more immediately relevant to the consumer. Not using a certain amount of oil reduces the cost of producing the detergent by, say, six cents. Using alternative inputs raises the cost by, say, five cents. So, in a competitive market, the vegetable based product will be a cent cheaper—or more expensive, if the numbers go the other way. The consumer can then decide whether other differences between the two products do or do not outweigh the price difference.

The price system isn't perfect; external costs and benefits get left out of the mechanism that determines price, so the signal isn't entirely accurate. But alternatives to measuring costs and benefits via price require getting people—consumers voluntarily, as in this case, or voters and politicians making decisions for consumers—to substitute some alternative mechanism. As this particular example suggests, that alternative is likely to be enormously less accurate, off not by ten or twenty percent but by orders of magnitude.

A second point that occurs to me is that my third alternative, deciding on a symbolic rather than consequentialist basis, may not be quite as crazy as it at first seems. It is, after all, the way many people, myself among them, often think about moral issues. A small lie is still a lie, a small theft still a theft, and both are to be condemned not only on the basis of their consequences but also because they are, somehow, wrong in themselves.

So perhaps I shouldn't be quite so quick to condemn as irrational people who are interested in whether they are saving oil, not in how much oil they are saving, still less in any estimate of what the value is of saving that amount.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Data Mining the Ed Biz

Universities deciding whether to hire, keep or promote faculty use a mix of criteria, one of which is teaching. Teaching quality, in my experience, is judged mainly by student evaluations, to some extent those are supplemented by the views of faculty members who have sat in on a class to observe it.

Could we do better? In particular, could law schools--I currently teach at one--do better? Law schools have, from this standpoint, one significant advantage: The state bar exam, which most of their graduates will take, provides an external measurement of how successful their teaching has been. A second advantage is that, in the first year, all law students take pretty much the same courses and, where different sections of a large course, such as Contracts or Property, are taught by different professors, allocation of students is pretty nearly random.

This suggests a possible solution to the problem. Analyze bar passage rates to see if students who took Property from Professor X did, on average, better or worse than those who took it from Professor Y. If there is a significant difference, take that as evidence that one of the professors was a better teacher than the other.

There are some important limitations to this approach. Who taught a particular course in the first year is probably only a small factor in whether, three years later, the student did or didn’t pass the bar. Hence the evidence produced, even if real, is going to be very weak. It could be improved if it were possible to get bar results in a more detailed form--not just overall scores but scores on each question. One could then look for the effect of the property professor on questions that depended mostly on understanding property law, of the contracts professor on questions that depended mostly on understanding contract law.

A further limitation is that learning to pass the bar is not the only objective of law school. Professor Y, whose students do a little worse on the bar, might argue that he is spending less time than Professor X on material relevant to that exam, more time on material that will be important in the student’s future law practice. “Teaching to the test” is not, after all, an unambiguously good thing—although it becomes more defensible when the particular test is one the student has to pass if he is ever going to use what he has learned to practice law in the state he lives in.

How can this approach be generalized beyond the special case of the law school and the bar exam? Consider students who have taken the first course in a subject from a variety of different teachers but have taken a more advanced course together. Their final grades in the latter course will provide some evidence of how good their preparation was, which in turn provides some evidence of how good the first course was.

One problem with this approach is that students may not have been assigned to the first course at random. Perhaps there was some reason why, on average, Professor X started with better students than Professor Y. A second and more subtle problem is that how Professor X's students do in the second course depends in part on which of them take it. Perhaps Professor X presents the material as very difficult, scaring out of the field all but the best students--with the result that, by the time we get to the second class, we are comparing X's three best students with Y's thirty best. To try to control for such problems, it would be worth including in our analysis both other information on the students, such as their SAT scores (LSAT in the law school context) and also looking at how many students from each of the initial courses went on to take more advanced courses in the subject.

One problem with all of these approaches is that, if they are known to be in place and to have a substantial effect on hiring and promotion decisions, faculty members can be expected to try to game the system. If bar passage rate is used to measure success--not because it is all that matters but because it is the only relevant external data we have--professors have in incentive to teach to the bar exam, which may or may not be a good thing. If grades in more advanced courses are used, professors have an incentive to focus their teaching on only the better students and to try to encourage their best students into the field and their worst students out of it. Readers interested in an entertaining and intelligent discussion of the problem will find it in the first chapter of George Stigler's The Intellectual and the Marketplace, which describes the efforts of a (fictional) South American university reformer.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What's with the Yellow Blogs?

From time to time, I check the links to my posts on this blog. Quite often, one or more leads to a "blog" with a yellow stripe near the top, no topic, and posts apparently lifted at random from other blogs. I think I've seen other patterns too, some much less coherent.

My suspicion is that it's some kind of scam involving generating hits in order to sell ads, but the particular one I just looked at, although it says "ads by Google," doesn't appear to have any.

Anyone know?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Smartphone search: A Progress Report

In earlier posts I mentioned my disappointment with the Nokia E90. I have again been searching the web for a pda/phone combination that meets my requirements: 3G operation in the U.S., either U.S. tri-band or (better) quad band, a decent QWERTY keyboard, a reasonably large screen,software that makes it usable as a pocket computer, in particular a word processor adequate for reading books and at least making notes for editing books I'm writing. I still haven't found one, but thought other technophiles with similar requirements might be interested in a progress report or have discoveries of their own to contribute.

The closest I think I have so far found to meeting my requirements is probably the i-mate Ultimate 9502. It has a 640x480 screen, Windows Mobile 6 which should include an adequate word processor, a QWERTY keyboard, quad band phone and triband 3G, plus built in GPS. Unfortunately, although it was supposed to be out by now it isn't, and the most recent references seem to imply sometime early next year. And, of course, I would want to actually get my hands on one and see how it feels before buying it.

Its competitor is the HTC X7501 Advantage. It has essentially the same features plus an 8 gigabyte microdrive and is available now. But it's heavy and uses an odd two piece design, held together by magnets. I found a web page of a seller in Chicago, where I will be for a few days in early January, who might have it--I'm not sure if they have a showroom where one can actually look at the thing. One advantage is that the screen is physically larger than any of the others--5" diagonal, as compared to 2.8", I think diagonal, on the i-mate.

The third possibility is the Toshiba Portege G900. Its screen is even bigger in pixels than the other two--800x480. But it's only 3" diagonal. Currently there isn't a U.S. version, just a tri-band European with 3G on 2100 MHz, which isn't supported in the U.S. I expect a U.S. version will eventually appear, at which point it becomes a serious possibility.

Does anyone out there know about another candidate I should be looking at? Also, do any of you have enough experience with a screen that combines large pixel dimensions with small physical dimensions to tell how much sense it makes? As a practical matter, can you read more of a web page than on a screen with the same (say 3" diagonal) physical dimension but fewer pixels (say QVGA: 240x320)?

The 7501 weighs just over 12 ounces, which seems like a lot. Just out of curiosity, I checked on the weight of the Psions that used to be my favorite pda's, back before Psion left the consumer market. The Revo weighed 200 grams, the 5mx weighed 354. The 7501 is 371 grams, so comparable to the latter.

Of course, the Psions were the reason I went to routinely wearing a sport jacket--and the seams around the inside pocket tended to eventually tear out.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rudyard Kipling

My earlier post on Kipling got a fair amount of response, so I thought I would expand on it. Kipling has been my favorite poet since I was about ten, and there are a fair number of his poems I am particularly fond of.

My overall favorite is probably "The Mary Gloster." It's a Browning Monologue, a poem in which a single speaker reveals a great deal about himself in the process of speaking. I prefer it to the ones by Browning I know, such as "My Last Duchess."

The speaker is a dying 19th c. shipping magnate, a self-made wealthy entrepreneur, speaking to his worthless son. One of the things that impresses me about the poem is the degree to which the poet persuades us to the speaker's point of view. The son's interest in "books and pictures" ought to appeal to the modern reader--but doesn't. "Your rooms at college was beastly, more like a whore's than a man's" ought to turn the modern reader off--but doesn't. What remains is the picture of the bitterly unhappy old man whose only remaining wish is to be buried at sea by the wife who died when they were both young, the wife whose memory has been the driving force in his life ever since.

Not that he remained entirely faithful to her memory. "For a man he must go with a woman, as you could not understand/But I never talked them secrets, I paid them out of hand."

Another poem I reread recently is "Cleared." It's a piece of ferocious invective against the Irish independence movement--in particular its terrorist dimension. We almost always see that movement from the favorable side, thanks to folk singers such as the Clancy Brothers and poets such as Yeats. It's interesting to see it from the other side.

"Less black than we were painted? Faith, no word of black was said
The lightest touch is human blood and that, you know, runs red."

Kipling had a very high reputation, especially as a short story writer, early in his career, but fell out of critical favor later, I think mostly for bad reasons. Certainly he had politically unpopular views--but they weren't the views generally attributed to him.

Perhaps the clearest example is the often quoted "For East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet," taken to describe the fundamental gulf between European and Asian cultures. In fact its point is almost the precise opposite, as one can see by reading the rest of the verse, and still more clearly by reading the poem.

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!"

Similarly on race. Kim, his one really successful novel, is set in India. Most of the attractive characters are non-European. The Llama, after Kim the central figure, is a convincing portrayal of a saint--and Tibetan. While there are a few positively portrayed European characters, on the whole the Europeans, both the English and their European opponents, come across as incompetents dealing with a culture they do not understand very well, sometimes well meaning, sometimes not.

The book obviously regards British rule over India as a good thing--but not because of the superiority of the British. For further evidence, consider the two stories (A Centurion of the Thirtieth and On the Great Wall) set in Roman Britain, where the Roman conquerors, positively portrayed, are the imperialists, and the British the ruled.

I like many of the short stories, especially the historical ones, and have reread Kim many times. But it is the poetry that really sticks. For other examples:

The Palace. "After me cometh a builder/Tell him I too have known."
The Peace of Dives. An allegory of interdependence as a force for peace. If I ever put together a collection of literature to teach economics, it will be included.
A Code of Morals. The risks of inadequate encryption on an open channel.
A General Summary. Nothing much has changed in the past few tens of thousands of years.
Arithmetic on the Frontier. Economics of colonial warfare. "The captives of our bow and spear/Are cheap, alas, as we are dear." A point of perhaps renewed relevance today.
Jobson's Amen and Buddha at Kamakura both show just how far Kipling was from the usual cartoon version of the British imperialist.
Cold Iron and The Fairies Siege are about the limits of physical force--and so, I suppose, of political realism--while Gallio's song is an approving description of how an empire deals with religious conflict.
The Last Suttee has one of my favorite examples of the use of meter in storytelling:
We drove the great gates home apace:
White hands were on the sill:
But ere the rush of the unseen feet
Had reached the turn to the open street,
The bars shot down, the guard-drum beat --
We held the dovecot still.
I'll stop now. For a pretty complete webbed selection, just click.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

World of Warcraft and Wikipedia as Generalizations of the Client/Server Model

You have a computer on the internet providing some useful service--drawing maps for people, letting them play an online game, or whatever. As the number of people using it increases, so does the load on your computer; either you get a bigger and faster one or it slows down.

A familiar solution to this problem is to transfer some of the load to your users' computers. Download to each of them code that will do whatever part of the jobs is specific to that user and keep on the server the part that has to be centralized. One result is that, in World of Warcraft, if you get disconnected but your computer for some reason doesn't realize it you can continue to "play," moving around a world that is complete with geography and structures--all of those are on your hard drive--but absent of other players and wildlife. This is the familiar client/server model.

It recently occurred to me that a different application of the same principle is central to the success of both World of Warcraft and Wikipedia. Part of what makes the former interesting is that you are interacting with lots of other players--and humans do a much better job of imitating humans than machines do. To put it differently, Blizzard has decentralized to its players most of the job of populating for each player the world he plays in. So as the game grows, so does the number of minds devoted to the job of populating it.

Similarly with Wikipedia. The job of writing it is decentralized to the readers. Any time a new topic appears, it brings with it a new set of authors--the readers interested in and knowldgeable about, that topic. A very powerful application of the client/server model, with human beings as the servers.

One might argue, however, that it is an old application--older than computers. Private property and trade create a decentralized coordination system with the computing delegated to the people being coordinated--essentially the same idea. Double the population and you double the resources to be allocated--and the resources to do the allocation.

Monday, December 10, 2007

My Favorite Modern Poet

"Modern poetry" suggests to many people innovations in technique--free verse instead of sonnets, unconventional capitalization, and the like. If I thought such innovations actually resulted in writing better poems, perhaps I would agree—but I don't and don't. To me, the interesting feature of modern poetry is content, not form.

Consider, for an example, Hymn to Breaking Strain, which takes as its central image the table of breaking strains in the back of an engineering handbook, a table which tells "what traffic wrecks macadam, what concrete should endure" but does not provide the equivalent information for human beings who, like materials, are sometimes subject to strains "too merciless to bear." That poem could not have been written very far into the past because no such tables existed then.

Or consider The Secret of the Machines and The Miracles. The central point of each poem is how miraculous the world of modern technology is, a point made by describing it in a poet's language.

You will find the Mauretania at the quay,
Till her captain turns the lever ‘neath his hand,
And the monstrous nine-decked city goes to sea.

I sent a message to my dear --
A thousand leagues and more to Her --
The dumb sea-levels thrilled to hear,
And Lost Atlantis bore to Her.

Behind my message hard I came,
And nigh had found a grave for me;
But that I launched of steel and flame
Did war against the wave for me.

Which may help to explain why my favorite modern poet is Rudyard Kipling.

To be fair, e.e. cummings, more conventionally thought of as modern for his stylistic quirks, has some modern content as well:

"Lenses extend unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish returns on its unself"

or the poem that uses driving a new car as a metaphor for making love to a virgin.

But Kipling is better.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Who Homeschools?

A commenter responding to an earlier post pointed to survey data on homeschooling at the National Center for Educational Statistics site. Table 2 summarizes data on who homeschools.

One interesting thing is how widespread homeschooling is. Classified by household income, the percentage of children home schooled is essentially constant for the first three categories (under $25,000, $25,000-$50,000, $50,000-$75,000), a bit lower for the top ($75,000+) category--presumably because higher income parents have easier access to the private school alternative. By race, the rate is higher for non-hispanic whites than for blacks, but only by about a factor of two; interestingly, hispanics have about half the rate of blacks.

By parental education, home schooling percentages increase with increasing education through a bachelor's degree but are slightly lower for families where the highest parental education is a graduate degree than for those where it is a bachelor's--again, the differences are not enormous.

The one big effect is that families with two parents only one of whom work are much more likely to home school than other families--5.6% of their children are home schooled, compared to an overall average of 2.2%. And families with three or more children are somewhat more likely to home school than smaller families. Neither is surprising.

Another table on the site has data on reasons parents gave for home schooling. The most common "most important" reason was concern with the environment at other schools. The second most common, given by just under a third of parents, was "to provide religious or moral instruction." [In a comment on an earlier post, I reported those as the figures for "one reason" rather than "most important reason," which was a mistake; about 2/3 of parents gave it as one of their reasons].

All of which suggests that the common negative stereotype of home schoolers as poorly educated religious fundamentalists trying to isolate their children from the polluting effect of wicked ideas such as evolution is seriously inaccurate--no doubt such people exist, but the data suggest that they are a minority of all homeschoolers.

None of which I find terribly surprising. I am an atheist with a PhD, my wife is a mainline Christian with a masters degree. The first homeschooling family I knew, some forty years ago, contained two boys. At the time I knew them, one was the under 21 chess champion of the U.S., the other the under 14 champion.

Which is not to suggest that those cases are typical either.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Recognizing a Theory

In looking at colleges for my daughter, one of the things I do is to drop into the economics department and get into a conversation with one of the professors. Part of the reason is that "economist" is in some ways an ethnicity--I have things in common with other economists that I don't have in common with most other people, making it easier to talk with them and get them to talk with me.

A second reason is that I want to know how tolerant the college's culture is of intellectual diversity. Economics as a science is neither right wing nor left wing--there have been good economists who were socialists, good economists who were extreme libertarians. But it is, in a very real sense, its own ideology.

It is almost impossible to be a good economist and accept traditional conservative arguments against free trade--because those arguments depend on not understanding economic ideas worked out nearly two hundred years ago. It is almost impossible to be a good economist and accept common left wing rhetoric about "people not profits" or the equivalent--because a good economist knows that the argument on the other side isn't about profits as an end in themselves but about profits as part of a signaling system that results in benefits for people. A left wing economist might think that system works poorly and can be improved by proper government intervention--but he knows that the standard rhetoric misrepresents the position it argues against.

One consequence is that a good economist is almost certain to find himself in conflict with the left wing orthodoxy that dominates the sort of top liberal arts colleges we have been looking at--just as he would be almost certain to find himself in conflict with the right wing orthodoxy that (I presume) dominates some Christian fundamentalist schools. So talking to economists at a school gives me some feel for how that school's culture treats heretical views.

The point was initially brought home to me in a conversation with an economist at one of the colleges we visited who may, for all I know, be a liberal Democrat. She was commenting on the difficulty of teaching environmental economics to students who viewed pollution as a sin, not a cost. Her view of the subject differed from theirs not because she was right wing or left wing but because she was an economist.

It later occurred to me in a different context that there is a more general point buried here. The context was the book The Moral Animal, an interesting exposition of the implications of evolutionary biology, in particular evolutionary psychology. The author argued, I think correctly, that while evolutionary biology is often thought of as a right wing approach, some of its implications provide arguments for left wing positions.

The general point is that one way of recognizing a real scientific theory--in the broad sense in which neo-classical economics, or evolutionary psychology, can be thought of as a single theory--is by its inconsistency with other theories, similarly defined. If a particular point of view is merely a smokescreen for right wing, or left wing, views, it will conveniently produce arguments all of which support the same side. If it is a real theory, an internally consistent body of ideas for making sense of the world, on the other hand, it is almost certain to clash with other ways of making sense of the world. Both evolutionary psychology and neoclassical economics pass the test.

In principle this would not be true of two theories both of which were entirely true. But that is not likely to be an exception of much real world significance.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Home Unschooling: Practice

One point I should have made at the beginning of the previous post is the distinction between unschooling and homeschooling. Most home schooling is not unschooling--the parents have a curriculum and are following something closer to the conventional model than we are. And one can do unschooling in a school. Our kids were in a very small private school modeled on Sudbury Valley School for some years. Eventually problems arose, we switched from school unschooling to home unschooling, and on the whole found it more satisfactory. Hence the titles of these posts.


When our daughter was five, she was going to a local Montessori school. Her mother thought she was ready to learn to read; they didn't. So Betty taught her to read, using Doctor Seuss books. Our son, three years younger, observed the process and taught himself. We heard about the local Sudbury school, new that year, brought our daughter over to visit. She decided she preferred it to the Montessori school, so we shifted her. A few years later we added her brother, a few years after that shifted to home schooling.

The Sudbury model includes classes if students want them. When our daughter was about ten there was a class, lasting somewhat over a year, in math. It started assuming the students knew nothing, ended with the early stages of algebra. That is pretty much all of the formal instruction either of them had. In addition, we required them to learn the multiplication tables, which are useful to know but boring to learn. That, I think, was the closest thing to compulsory learning in their education.

How did they get educated? They both read a lot, and although some of the books they read were children's books, pretty early they were also reading books intended for adults. When our daughter was about nine we were traveling and ran out of books for her to read, so she read the Elizabeth Peters books her mother had brought along—and liked them. A few years later our son, about eight, went everywhere carrying the big one volume edition of Lord of the Rings.

Betty remembered having liked and learned from How To Lie With Statistics--actually about how not to be fooled by statistical arguments--so we got a copy and both kids liked it. Our son likes D&D and other games with dice rolling, so was interested in learning how to figure out the probability of getting various results. It turned out that the same author and illustrator had produced a book on simple probability theory—How to Take a Chance—so we got it and he read it multiple times. The result was a ten year old (I'm guessing—we didn't keep records) who could calculate the probability of rolling 6 or under with three six-sided dice. For the last few years his hobby has been creating games. At the Los Angeles World Science Fiction Convention he had an interesting and productive conversation with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson games concerning a game Bill had invented; currently one of his ambitions is to get a board game commercially published by age sixteen.

I am fond of evolutionary biology, so recommended The Selfish Gene to my daughter. She liked it, found the approach intriguing, and read other things. Currently she is waiting for me to finish The Moral Animal so that we can discuss it. She also likes economics. At this point she has audited four of the classes I teach at the law school, following them at the level of the better students. She also has her own footnote in one of my articles, crediting her with a significant point she contributed to it.

Both kids spend a lot of time online. We discovered that Bill had taught himself to type when the family was playing a networked game on the home network—Diablo or Diablo II—and misspelled words started appearing on our screen. He needed to type because he played games online and wanted to be able to communicate. Later he wanted to learn how to spell so that he wouldn't look stupid to the people he was communicating with. His sister spends a good deal of time on World of Warcraft, some of it writing up battle reports and other essays to be posted on suitable web sites. She too wants her writing to look good and so consults, usually with her mother, on how best to say things.

I am fond of poetry and know quite a lot of it. When our daughter was little, I used it to put her to sleep. Sometime thereafter we were driving somewhere at night and heard a small voice from the back seat reciting "Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine gods he swore"—the opening lines of "Horatius at the Bridge"—in a a two year old’s lisp. She now knows quite a lot more poetry. When I put my son to bed—my wife and I take turns—we generally talk for a while, then he asks for some poems.

A few years back, I read and recommended to my daughter Duff Cooper's excellent biography of Talleyrand. She noticed the references to Talleyrand's memoirs and decided that, since some of her writing involved politics, it would be interesting to learn about it from a world class practitioner. I found her an English translation; she is now part way through the first volume.

Some years ago our daughter decided she was seriously interested in music. Since then she has participated regularly in two choirs--one at her mother's church, one specializing in early music--and taken harp lessons. She practices because she wants to, not because we make her. She is thinking of majoring in music in college, then trying to get a job as an editor. As some evidence of her qualifications, she has edited some of my manuscripts and done a useful job. Our current plan is for her to do some volunteer proofreading for the firm that published my novel.

But the largest part of their education, after reading, is probably conversation. We talk at meals. We talk when putting one or the other of them to bed. My daughter and I go for long walks at night and spend them discussing the novel I'm writing or the characters she roleplays on World of Warcraft.

Our most recent concern has been getting our daughter, now 17, into college. She doesn't have grades, she doesn't have a list of courses taken. She does have a list of books read—still incomplete, but already in the hundreds.

Without grades she needed another way of convincing colleges of her ability, and standardized tests were the obvious solution. She spent some time studying for the SAT exams, but enormously less than the time she would have put in on those subjects in any conventional school, did extremely well on the verbal, tolerably on the math; her combined score is well within the range for the students at the very selective liberal arts colleges she plans to apply to. Just to play safe she has now taken the SAT exams again, after spending a little more time on math, part of it solving pages of simple equations I produced for her. To keep it interesting, I included a few that no value of X solved, a few that all values of X solved, and a few that reduced to 1/x=0.

Many schools now require two of the SAT II achievement tests—again especially significant for a home schooled student. It turns out that "literature" is not, as I feared, a test of what you have read but of how well you can read, and she reads very well. For a second one she chose American history, read all of Paul Johnson's A History of the American People—well written and opinionated, hence not boring—plus part of a book of primary source material. She spent a good deal of time in the week before the exam using Wikipedia to compile her own time line of Presidents and what happened during their terms. The results of both exams were satisfactory.

What is the result? Our daughter will enter college knowing much more about economics, evolutionary biology, music, renaissance dance, and how to write than most of her fellow students, probably less about physics, biology, world history, except where it intersects historical novels she has read or subjects that interest her. She will know much more than most of them about how to educate herself. And why.

Home Unschooling: Theory

Two people commenting on my previous post expressed curiosity as to how we have educated our children. I've decided to do it in two parts. This post describes the arguments for our approach, the next our experience with it.

Our approach starts with the fact that I went to a good private school, my wife to a good suburban public school, and both of us remember being bored most of the time; while we learned some things in school, large parts of our education occurred elsewhere, from books, parents, friends, projects. It continues with some observations about the standard model of K-12 schooling, public and private:

1. That model implicitly assumes that, out of the enormous body of human knowledge, there is some subset that everyone should study and that is large enough to fill most of thirteen years of schooling. That assumption is clearly false. Being able to read and do arithmetic is important for almost everyone. Beyond that, it is hard to think of any particular subject which there is a good reason for everyone to study, easy to think of many subjects outside the standard curriculum which there are good reasons for some people to study.

2. It implicitly assumes that the main way in which one should learn is by having someone else tell you what you are going to study this week, what you should learn about it, and your then doing so.

As some evidence of the failure of that model, consider my wife's experience teaching a geology lab for non-majors at VPI, probably the second best public university in the state. A large minority of the students did not know that the volume of a rectangular solid--a hypothetical ore body--was the length times the height times the depth. Given that they were at VPI they must have mostly been from the top quarter or so of high school graduates in Virginia; I expect practically all of them had spent at least a year each studying algebra and geometry.

As all students and most teachers know, the usual result of making someone study something of no interest to him is that he memorizes as much as he has to in order to pass the course, then forgets it as rapidly as possible thereafter. The flip side of that, routinely observed by parents, is that children can put enormous energy and attention into learning something that really interests them--the rules of D&D, the details of a TV series, the batting averages of the top players of the past decade.

Quite a long time ago, we got our kids gameboys with Pokemon cartridges; at about the same time I heard a lady on talk radio explaining that kids who got high tech toys played with them for half an hour or so and then put them on the shelf. My estimate is that Bill and Becca logged something like eighty hours a month, perhaps more, on those cartridges for many months thereafter-more work and more attention than I, at a similar age, put into all of my schoolwork combined--and continued to play the game at a reduced rate for years thereafter. The skill they were learning, how to find their way around a world and accomplish goals therein, was in one sense useless, since the world was a fictional one. But being able to find ones way around a new environment and accomplish things within it is a very useful real world skill.

3. A related assumption is that you learn about a subject by having someone else decide what is true and then feed it to you. That is a very dangerous policy in the real world and not entirely safe even in school--many of us remember examples of false information presented to us by teachers or textbooks as true. A better policy is to go out looking for information and assembling it yourself.

Part of what that requires is the skill of judging sources of information on internal evidence. Does this author sound as though he is making an honest attempt to describe the arguments for and against his views, the evidence and its limits, or is he trying to snow the reader? That is a skill that is taught in the process of learning things for yourself, especially online. It is anti-taught by the standard model of K-12 education, in which the students is presented with two authorities, the teacher and the textbook and, unless the teacher is an unusually good one, instructed to believe what they tell him.

We concluded that the proper approach for our children was unschooling, which I like to describe as throwing books at them and seeing which ones stick. Leave them free to learn what they want, while providing suggestions--which they are free to ignore--and support. Put them in an environment--web access, people to talk with, visits to the library--that offers many alternatives. If, at some future point, they discover that they need something that was left out of their education, they can learn it then--a more efficient strategy than trying to learn everything they might ever find useful, most of which they won't.

Footnote Formatting online--Opinions Requested

My next nonfiction book, Future Imperfect, should be coming out sometime next year. In addition to the print version, there will be a webbed version.

Footnote references in the print version use the short form--(Benson 1989). The question is how to do them in the webbed version. Three alternatives have so far occurred to me:

1. Just like the print version. Short form footnote, full reference in the bibliography.

2. Long form, as in the bibliography. On the web, paper is free.

Bruce Benson, “The Spontaneous Evolution of Commercial Law,” Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 55, No. 3, January 1989, pages 644-661.

3. Short form, linked to an anchor at the long form in the bibliography.

My one reservation with regard to the the third option is that a reader may see that there's a link, assume it goes to a webbed version of the article--in some cases I do have links to webbed materials--and be disappointed that it doesn't. One way I could deal with that, I suppose, is to make it a stealth link--shows up on the mouseover but isn't colored blue--and reserve ordinary links for links to webbed material.

Are there better solutions than any of these?


Saturday, December 01, 2007

In Loco Parentis: Mark II

I was a college student in the early sixties, when the doctrine of in loco parentis mostly meant the college trying--with limited success--to restrict student sexual activity on behalf of the (presumed) wishes of the parents. In that form it vanished shortly after I graduated, to be replaced by an unconditional surrender to the sexual revolution: mixed gender dorms, contraceptive services, and the like. On a recent visit to a California campus, I noticed flyers advertising a talk on the subject of the G-spot.

But parents, even in loco ones, abandon one attempt to run their children's lives only to replace it with another. When I went to college there were mixers, but for the most part the matter of finding friends, romantic or otherwise, was left to the students themselves.

No longer. On the same campus I got a description of the elaborate procedures by which the college makes sure that none of their students is at risk of a solitary existence. Dorms are divided up into carefully constructed groups of freshmen--football fans in this one, movie fans in that, each group with a couple of sophomores to provide wise advice. Each group is allocated its chunk of the dorm. The year starts with a several day expedition to some carefully chosen vacation spot--in the case reported to me, sailing off Santa Catalina island, where "sailing" meant not actually controlling a sailboat but being a passenger on a tall ship.

Most of the students who described the system to me seemed happy with it, but I did wonder about what sort of wimps the present system is producing. No practice at all in evading parietal rules--most of them have probably never heard of parietal rules. And being taught that the job of finding their own friends is too hard for them, so must be done by someone older and wiser.

I gather, however, that relationships, romantic or otherwise, outside of the preselected groups are not entirely unknown.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thoughts on Substance Free Dorms

A number of the colleges we have been visiting have "substance free" dorms. It's an interesting concept. I'm not an expert on Aristotelian philosophy, but as I understand it, the form of a dorm defines its shape, the substance is the stuff the dorm is made of. Which at first left me puzzled about how one could have a dorm with no substance at all. But I think I have now solved the puzzle.

Obviously, substance free dorms exist in virtual reality--possibly in World of Warcraft, more plausibly in Second Life. There only can you have a building that is all form and no substance.

Which, now that I think of it, also explains how it is possible to have food with no chemicals in it.

How to Attract Students

In the process of visiting colleges with my daughter, I have come to two conclusions relevant to the problem faced by colleges in attracting students:

1. Student "sleepovers" provide information to the prospective student that is both valuable and likely to influence the final decision, but ...

2. There is a lot of noise in the signal.

The information is valuable because it gives the prospective student a feel for the student society in which she will be immersed for four years if she goes there. It is noisy because student society varies a good deal even within a single college, and what part she gets exposed to depends on who her "sponsor"--the student whose dorm and room she is doing the sleepover in--happens to be.

I conclude that a college could increase the number of students who choose to go to it by investing more resources in matching sponsor and prospective student. Some schools clearly make some attempt to do this, as judged by conversations I had at two of them. On the other hand, at least one of the schools my daughter visited did a spectacularly bad job, and one a spectacularly good job, with the result that the latter is currently her first choice.

Of course, there may be schools with ideological reasons not to engage in such matching. If a prep school prospie is unimpressed by a host from the inner city, or a football fan prospie by a shakespeare quoting host, that may just show, in the view of some schools, that the prospie is too narrow a type for them to want, however good his or her SAT scores, grades, etc. There may even be schools which see the sleepover as an opportunity to educate the prospie by exposing him or her to a different sort of person.

The former, at least, is not a wholly unreasonable position, although on the whole I would be inclined to see it as a negative, not a positive, signal about the school. On the other hand, the school where my daughter most strongly felt that her host and her friends were her sorts of people--the sorts who spent their free time talking and singing, not watching television--was also the one where she most felt that her own multiple oddities were seen by the students she met as interesting, as assets not liabilities.

Which is to say that, in her perception, that particular student society was the one that appreciated diversity--in the sense relevant to an academic environment, not the usual sense of a euphemsm for affirmative action.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why Tie Showing to Selling?

The usual way to shop for a new car involves visiting lots of dealers, each of which lets you test drive and tries to sell you one or more of its models. Long ago, it occurred to me to wonder why we do it that way. Why is there nobody simply selling the service of helping you choose a car? Why can't I go, not to a dealer, but to someone with a selection of what he considers the best alternative cars for each niche, along with a few well informed advisors, literature on the cars, and a computer with an appropriate set of bookmarks?

Of course, such a firm would have to pay its bills. But why not do it by selling services rather than autombiles? Why not simply charge me fifty dollars an hour, or whatever other sum is consistent with their costs and my value, for helping me choose a car? They could then, as an additional service, help me search, online and elsewhere, for the seller with the best price. The advantages of such a firm have declined in recent years, as auto malls become more common--places where you can visit half a dozen dealers within a mile or so. But it still seems as though it would be useful.

I was reminded of this old puzzle recently in a different context. As I have mentioned here, not long ago I identified a high end smart phone that looked as though it was just what I wanted, bought it, and ended up sending it back. Even more recently I have identified another candidate, the HTC Advantage 7501. Judged by its specs, it is more or less the ultimate smart phone--quad band as a phone, triband as a 3G data device, with a full VGA screen, built in GPS, and its own micro hard drive. It is big for a cell phone--but not so big for a miniature computer. Its weight--about 13oz--is almost exactly the same as the weight of the Psion 5mx, the pda I carried for some years and became very fond of.

The Advantage is, however, an expensive device and a somewhat odd design (see the link for details), so I am unlikely to buy one unless I can first get my hands on it, and perhaps not then--there will be other high end smart phones coming out over the next year, so perhaps if I wait I can get something even better.

Which brings me back to my question. I live in Silicon Valley. Why isn't there, somewhere nearby, a showroom for high end cell phones, not limited to any single company, supporting itself by charging by the hour for access? Not only would that let me look at the Advantage, it would let me compare it to competitors. So far as I know no such thing exists, although I will be happy to be informed that I am mistaken.

The pattern I observe in both markets, showing services bundled with selling services, is a common one--indeed, in the economic literature, it is sometimes used to explain otherwise puzzling practices such as resale price maintenance. What I don't see is why that pattern is so common. After all, if I buy a car, or a cell phone, from a dealer that also provides a showroom, I'm paying for the showroom implicitly in the price of the car or phone. So why not separate out the two products and price them separately?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Amazon's Kindle

I've just been reading the description of's new ebook reader, which might be the breakthrough device for that market. It looks as though they have succeed in both making it as convenient as a paperback, in terms of size and weight and readability, and providing a lot of the advantages possible with electronic books, such as the ability to search a document and to carry a very large number of books at once. I've been doing more or less the same thing with pda's (Psions, then a Sony CliƩ) and, more recently, my cell phone (Nokia 9300) for a very long time, but this looks to be a much better version for the mass market.

Initially, the available range of in print books will presumably be smaller than in a bookstore, since Amazon has to strike a deal with each publisher to make its books available. On the other hand, the system could potentially provide a much wider range of books than any bookstore other than online ones such as Amazon itself, and Amazon is in a good position to rapidly expand the range of what is available.
Many of the books I would want on such a device are out of print and available to me for free in machine readable form--either my own manuscripts, which I like to go over to note things that need changing (or because I like reading my own work) or books from Gutenberg, the Baen free library, and similar sources. As I understand it, Amazon will be willing to put such material, delivered to them in the form of Word files, on my Kindle, at a low price--how low isn't clear. If low enough, that solves the problem.

Alternatively, I might be able to put them on myself. The Kindle has a USB connection and will take a removable SD card. How easy it is to move files to it will depend on how easy it is to get them in the right format, but I assume it won't be too hard.

This, however, raises an obvious problem, the one publishers have long been worried about--piracy. What prevents me from buying a best seller, downloading it to my Kindle, transferring it to my SD card, then using that to transfer it to my friend's Kindle? At that level, what I am doing isn't much worse, from the publisher's standpoint, then finishing the book and passing it on to my friend. But the next step is for someone to set up either a pirate archive online or a decentralized file sharing system and make lots of in copyright books available via the internet.

My guess is that Amazon and the publishers are simply gambling that this won't be enough of a problem to outweigh the advantages of the device, and they may be right. There are possible technological fixes, however, at least worth thinking about. Your Kindle could, for instance, encrypt everything it gets from Amazon, or have Amazon encrypt it before sending. If the decryption key is built into the hardware in a way that makes it hard to extract--different for each Kindle--what you can transfer to a friend will not be of much use to him.

There are ways of getting around such a system. And there are serious risks of consumer complaints coming out of misfunctions--or even out of people feeling that they ought to be able to pass the book on to a friend. So my guess is they aren't doing it.

Which leaves me with one suggestion. To make the product even more valuable, Amazon should arrange with Gutenberg--better yet, with anyone who wants to make free books available in ways that don't violate copyright law--to include their books on the list searchable from the Kindle. Amazon can make money doing it with a modest charge for the service of transferring the material.

[Apparently Amazon was ahead of me. According to one webbed source, discovered after I wrote and posted the paragraph above, you can buy books from Gutenberg for something under a dollar--payment to Amazon for converting the format and transferring the book. And it sounds as though the Kindle reads a number of formats, including HTML, which should simplify transferring one's own material. Sounds great.]

Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Attempt to Exploit My Readers

As some of you know, my current nonfiction book project, Future Imperfect, deals with a variety of possible technological revolutions over the next few decades, their consequences if they happen, and how to deal with them. Insofar as there is a theme, it's that the future is radically uncertain.

My publisher wants to know "Which professional societies, associations and/or industrial/commercial organizations will be most interested in your book?" Off hand not much occurs to me; do any of you have suggestions? Similarly, are there any countries where such a book would be of special interest? Any fields other than economics, law, computer science and biology? Any organizations that would be likely to want to buy such a book in quantity?

What about "journals and publications" where it would be particularly appropriate to have such a book reviewed or advertised?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Reading the IPCC Report

The reports are now in part out and webbed, and I started by looking over "Summary for Policymakers" from the Working Group II report. It makes an interesting contrast with the news stories. For instance:

"Globally, the potential for food production is expect to increase with increases in average temperature over a range of 1-3 degrees centigrade, but above this it is projected to decrease."

Or in other words, given the predicted temperature increase of .2 degrees/decade, global warming will tend to increase food production for at least the next fifty years, and perhaps as much as the next hundred and fifty. Has anyone noticed that prediction in news stories about the report?

"Globally, commercial timber productivity rises modestly with climate change in the short- to medium-term, ... "

I also like "Nearly all European regions are anticipated to be negatively affected by some future impacts of climate change, ... ." Note the "some." It's hard to imagine any substantial change in the world, good or bad, for which which the statement would not be true.

Also note, from Chapter 2, that the projections of sea level rise "are smaller than given in the TAR due mainly to improved estimates of ... " TAR appears to be the 2001 estimate, if I understand it correctly. Perhaps I missed it--did any news story report that fact?

As Tim points out, the IPCC is now hedging its sea level predictions--in part by pointing out the uncertainty, in part by saying what might happen over thousands of years and adding that they can't be certain it won't happen over mere centuries. But the six scenarios they provide numbers for give predictions ranging from a low of .18 meters to a high of .59 meters--about two feet. The bulk of that is from thermal expansion, so actual melting of continental ice would have to be several times as high as their estimate in order to substantially increase it.

I am, of course, selecting bits from the post that support my point--that the news stories are hype, selecting out negative predictions, often very uncertain ones, and ignoring positive predictions and ambiguity. There are other bits of the report that do indeed support a negative view of the consequences.

Another point that struck me was how much of the report depended not on climate science, however good or bad that may be, but on social science, especially economics. My guess, from a quick look over it, is that those results are very uncertain and might easily get the sign of the effects wrong.

People adjust to change--they vary the crops they grow, the areas under cultivation, where they live and the like in response to changing climate. If you assume no such adjustment--not, I think, what the IPCC is doing--then the net result is almost certainly negative. With enough adjustment, taking advantage of opportunities produced by, for example, longer growing seasons, the net result can be positive. It's not clear how they know, or how they can know, how much adjustment will actually take place. I am reminded, perhaps unfairly, of just how bad the predictions in _Limits to Growth_ turned out to be.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Global Warming Hype

From today's news story on the IPCC report:

"The report produced by the Nobel prize-winning panel warns of the devastating impact for developing countries and the threat of species extinction posed by the climate crisis."


" The report also predicts a rise in global warming of around 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade."

Two points are worth noting. The first is that "Nobel prize-winning" makes it sound as though it is evidence of the scientific expertise of the panel. But although the IPCC surely includes a lot of highly qualified scientists, the fact that the commission got the Nobel peace prize tells us very little about its scientific qualifications. Al Gore got the prize too, and he is a politician not a scientist.

The second is that the fuzzy and emotive part of the story--"crisis" "species extinction" "devastating impact"--comes first and gets the attention. The actual prediction--an increase of less than two degrees by the end of the century, which isn't what most people imagine when they talk about global climate change--is buried down in "also predicts."

It would be an interesting experiment to ask people who have read that, or similar, stories, how much they think global temperature is predicted to rise by 2100.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is there Serial Correlation in World of Warcraft? Should There Be?

In World of Warcraft--and, I assume, similar games--players sometimes spend time hunting creatures for the loot they drop. Fire elementals, for instance, sometimes drop motes of fire; combined in groups of ten, the motes are used in making things.

If you are hunting fire elementals, it feels as if there are times when they drop a lot of motes, others when they hardly ever drop any. It feels, in other words, as though there is a probability of a drop that changes over time, slowly enough so that if you are doing well now you will probably be doing well five minutes later, and similarly if you are doing badly. My first question is whether the pattern is real or an illusion, the second is, whether or not it is real, whether it should be--whether such a pattern would make the game more enjoyable.

The reason for suspecting that the pattern may be an illusion is that gamblers often report similar patterns--sometimes the cards or dice are hot, sometimes they are not. In those cases, we know the underlying mechanics of the game. With rare exceptions, they imply that, unless someone is cheating, the pattern is an illusion. The probability that you will roll eleven is the same each time you roll, so a string of good rolls is evidence neither that the next roll will be good nor that it will not.

In the case of World of Warcraft, we do not know the underlying mechanics, or at least I don't. It would be perfectly straightforward to design the game with a drop probability that varies over time, with enough serial correlation so that current observations give you some information about what will happen in the near future. To find out whether that is how the game is designed I could keep track of a long series of tries, then do a statistical analysis to see if the results are consistent with the simple model--a fixed probability, the same each time. So far I haven't been sufficiently enterprising to do it; I don't know if anyone else has.

The second question is whether the game should be designed with serial correlation built in. My guess is that the answer is "yes." Human beings enjoy finding patterns, exercising skills. The fact that gamblers find patterns even when they do not exist in part reflects this. So why not make the game more interesting by building into it subtle patterns of the sort that players will look for?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Another Nokia E90 Gripe

At the risk of beating a dead horse ... .
NokiaUSA currently lists the E90 and says of it:

"Get high-speed 3G mobile broadband connections for Internet browsing and file transfer"

It's true that there is a footnote saying that "Many features and mobile services require network support." But given that no network in the US supports the E90's 2100 MHz 3G connection, the initial claim is at least irresponsibly misleading.

Whether it's evidence of dishonesty or incompetence I don't know. Given that it's a very high end and expensive item, I would think the loss due to people buying it and then being annoyed, as I was, when they discover that the high speed connection cannot be made to work in the US would be larger than the gain due to people buying it because of the claim and keeping it anyway.

Choosing a College

A commenter on one of my recent posts raises the general question of how to choose a college and does not seem to have much in the way of serious answers. So I thought it might be worth discussing our approach:

1. My daughter, having been home unschooled (and perhaps for innate reasons as well), does not want to take courses that someone else has selected for her because that someone else thinks they would be good for her. One of our collections of information, put out by the Intercollegiate Studies institute (an organization I have not yet forgiven for the base cowardice of changing its name from the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists), is very useful in this regard. Its authors are in favor of a "core curriculum," so their approving comments provide a convenient way of warning my daughter away from schools with lots of requirements.

She was particularly put off by one school that has mandatory physical education. Her view was that although she could satisfy the requirement with dance, which she likes, its existence signaled a paternalistic attitude she disapproves of and will tend to attract students who like sports and/or paternalism, a negative signal for her.

2. My daughter is likely to find smarter students more interesting, so high average SAT scores are a positive signal, and the information is readily available.

3. My daughter shares my political attitudes but not my taste for arguing about them. Given that at almost any school she is interested in the orthodoxy will be far from her views, she wants someplace where she won't feel obliged to either conceal her views or spend a lot of her time defending them.

The comment by the tour guide at one school that he thinks capitalism is a good system but, so far as he could tell, he was the only member of his class with that opinion was a mild negative signal, as was the comment by another tour guide that, although she was herself politically liberal, she wished her classes were not so consistently on that side of the political spectrum. On the other hand, the comment by an econ professor at one school that he deliberately makes politically incorrect economic points in his environmental economics class (if you want there to be more trees, don't recycle paper) and that the reaction he gets is curiosity, not hostility, was a mild positive signal.

More generally, I found it informative to wander into the economics department and get into a conversation with one of the professors, both because being a fellow economist provides a link and because economists are likely to find themselves at odds with some of the political orthodoxy almost anywhere, hence to be sensitive to such issues.

4. Still more generally, I try to find links not provided by the school--independent views. We have long been active in the SCA, a group that does historical recreation and has local chapters at many schools. So, where possible, we arranged to talk with someone from the local chapter to get his or her view of the school. In one case, that led to adding a school to our list--the student running the local chapter in Northfield, which we visited to see Carleton, was a student at nearby St. Olaf's, and visiting with her gave our daughter a very attractive view of that school ("there's music everywhere"). It's now on her list.

5. Probably the most valuable information comes from casual contact with students. Most of a student's interaction is with other students, so the feel of the student environment is critical. Pretty clearly, a lot of the reason my older son enjoyed Harvey Mudd was that it was a society he fit into, where characteristics that had made him an outsider in high school made him a valued insider in college.

The main source of that information was sleepovers arranged by the colleges; our daughter met with a student--in every case a freshman--and spent the night in her dorm. That provided a chance to socialize with her hostess and her friends.

It's a good system, but a very noisy signal, since student society within a single college is likely to vary a good deal. She got a strongly positive impression of one school, where her hostess was very much her sort of person--she and her friends spent their spare time playing guitar, singing and talking. She got a negative impression at another where her hostess, although obviously a nice person trying to do her best, considered watching television the natural way of spending free time. How much of that reflected differences in the schools is hard to know.

I made some attempt to get a picture of student society myself by eating in the dining hall and listening to conversations, but it would take a lot more of that than I had an opportunity for to produce much useful information.

6. Our daughter attended classes at all the schools she visited. At most of them her impression was positive. There was one economics class where she had to refrain, out of considerations of courtesy, from contradicting the professor, which left a very mildly negative impression. He had asked for examples of goods with inelastic demand, a student has offered water, and he had agreed--presumably because it did not occur to him that drinking water, for which one would expect a very inelastic demand, represents a trivial fraction of total water consumption.

None of it adds up to a spreadsheet formula that we can use to calculate a first, second and third choice. But I think it all helps.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Civil Immunity, Blackstone and Legal Regress

I am a law professor but not a lawyer and my legal interests are more in economic analysis of the law and making sense of a variety of different legal systems than in the details of our current system, so I have a question for the actual lawyers out there, coming out of my previous post:

What limits, if any, are there to Congress cancelling tort liability after the fact?

In the criminal context, we have the constitutional ban on ex post facto legislation, but I do not believe it applies to tort and I'm not at all sure it prevents Congress from cancelling (rather than imposing) criminal liability for past acts.

All of which reminds me of a bit of legal history. In English law in the 18th century there was a legal action, still on the books although not much used in practice, called the "Appeal of Felony." It was a private action, like a tort suit, with criminal penalties. Blackstone, describing it, writes:

"IF the appellee be found guilty, he shall suffer the same judgment, as if he had been convicted by indictment : but with this remarkable difference ; that on an indictment, which is at the suit of the king, the king may pardon and remit the execution ; on an appeal, which is at the suit of a private subject, to make an atonement for the private wrong, the king can no more pardon it, than he can remit the damages recovered on an action of battery."

So it looks as though 18th century law took it for granted that the crown could not cancel liability for tort damages, at least after the case had been tried. I don't know if Parliament could. And, if I correctly understand current news stories, everyone takes it for granted that the 21st century Congress can cancel liability for tort damages, if not after judgement at least while the case is in progress.

Any comments from those who know more than I do about current law? Could one argue, along Epsteinian lines, that canceling such liability is a taking, hence barred under the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment?

Law and Order

In election campaigns, all candidates are in favor of law and order. It is therefore particularly striking to observe an elected politician--the President of the United States--publicly committing himself to veto a bill if its terms do not include a mass pardon releasing from civil liability firms that deliberately violated the law on a massive scale over a period of years.

The lawbreakers are telecom firms which apparently violated existing law by assisting the government in intercepting communications--by some accounts enormous volumes of communications, mostly from one American citizen to another--which they had no legal right to intercept.

Of course, the firms were not the only lawbreakers. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act regulated interception of communications between people outside and people inside the U.S., requiring them to have permission from the FISA court. It seems clear from what we now know that that requirement was also violated on a massive scale, by the National Security Agency acting on instructions from the Administration. Under FISA each such interception is a felony, carrying a penalty of up to ten years in jail. So is the knowing use of information obtained by such an interception--meaning that the President himself is, by his own statement of the facts, although not by the administration's view of the law, a confessed felon.

Oddly enough, while the Administration is insisting that the telecoms be let off from civil liability for breaking the law at its request, it has not, so far as I can tell by the news stories, requested immunity from criminal liability--for itself or the hundreds or thousands of its employees who, under (I think) any plausible reading of the law, are felons.

I discussed what I believe to be the reason some time back in the same context. Criminal law is controlled by governments--you can only (in the US) be prosecuted for a crime if a government prosecutor chooses to prosecute you. Hence the government itself is effectively immune from criminal law if it wants to be, subject only to the risk that some future change of government might result in prosecution for past crimes or that one government--say a state--might prosecute the agent of another. Civil law, while its cases are decided in government courts, is privately prosecuted; a private party, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, can prosecute a civil suit against the telecoms whether or not the government approves. Hence the need for special legislation to retroactively alter the law in favor of the lawbreakers.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

More on Colleges

Today we attended a local event put on by one of the schools our daughter is considering--hosted by local alumni, organized, apparently, by someone from the school's admission department, attended by potential students, their parents, and school alumni.

It was a pleasant event, but not, I think, very informative. The problem, which I discussed in an earlier entry, is that all schools, at least all of the liberal arts colleges we are looking at, make essentially the same claims. They are all warm, friendly, non-competitive places, with easily accessible faculty doing cutting edge research, populated by creative, intelligent, tolerant, diverse students.

For the most part the claims are hard to test. Listening to alumni, it's clear that they think well of the school. But the alumni who come to such events are not a random sample and, perhaps more important, most of them have no good basis of comparison. They know what their experience was at that school but not what their experience would have been at one of its competitors.

The event included a movie, produced by students, lauding the school. Two things struck me. One was the effort to show what happy non-conformists the students were. The problem, of course, is that the more the school emphasizes the importance of that, the more one suspects that their sort of nonconformity is what students are conforming to. Judging at least by the schools we saw and, more, by what they said about themselves, the real nonconformist would have been wearing suit and tie and getting his exercise playing tennis instead of ultimate frisbee.

The other thing that struck me in the movie was not, I think, intended by its producers. One of the students, explaining how wonderful the school was, described it as undefinable--"like the square root of two."

The square root of two is quite easily defined--it is that number that, multiplied by itself, equals two. The correct term is "irrational," but I don't think that's how he wanted to describe his college. The actual information conveyed by that segment was that at least one student at that college was both mathematically illiterate and mathematically pretentious, and that nobody making the movie knew enough elementary mathematics, or was paying enough attention, to do a retake with the error corrected. I don't think that was the message that the school intended to give to potential students and their parents.

"Doing Something"

Yesterday, eating dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant, we noticed something new--a sign on the table informing us that, due to a water shortage, drinking water would only be brought to the table if we asked for it. It was the second such sign I had seen recently, so I asked one of the restaurant people if it was some sort of city program. The answer was yes. She didn't go into details as to just how mandatory it was, but the restaurant had been told, I think by the city providers of water, to institute the policy.

When there is a problem, something must be done--more precisely, those deemed responsible must be seen to be doing something. What is needed is some clearly visible action. Ideally one does something that everyone will notice but that will not impose sufficient costs on any reasonably well organized group to cause political problems to those doing it. The policy I observed met those requirements. It might be a minor nuisance for the restaurant and a minor inconvenience for patrons, but nobody was seriously inconvenienced and everyone could see that the water problem was being dealt with.

Unfortunately, one requirement that such policies do not face is that they actually do anything to solve the problem. I suspect that very few restaurant owners or patrons bothered to do the arithmetic to see how important the waste being prevented was in the overall scheme of things. I would not be surprised if the people who instituted the policy didn't bother either.

The calculation is pretty simple. I don't have figures for San Jose, but a quick google produces a figure for U.S. daily water consumption of about 400 billion gallons--well over a thousand gallons a day per capita, most of it used for irrigation or cooling power plants. If we estimate, I think generously, that the average person eats at the sort of restaurant that puts filled water glasses on the table one day out of five, that half of the customers don't want the water, and that the average glass holds a cup, the policy saves about a tenth of a cup of water per capita per day, reducing total demand by about one part in 200,000.

But something is visibly being done, which is the important thing.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Subjective Status or Fooling Our Genes

When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, a very long time ago, it occurred to me that I was embedded in the ideal social system--everyone at the top of his own ladder. The small group of students who put on plays knew that they were the important people; the rest of us were there to provide an audience. The small group seriously involved in Young Republicans and Young Democrats knew that they were the important people. The rest of us were there to be persuaded to come to a meeting once a year and vote them into the offices that might be the first small stepping stones to a political career. The small group ... . The point occurred to me, as best I remember, after discovering that the foreign student with whom I had been discussing international military matters was the son of the defense minister of Pakistan. From his standpoint, in his world, he was a VIP--just like all the rest of us, which made it a society where he could comfortably fit in.

While waking up this morning, I was thinking about the current version of the same system. I am at least tangentially a part of a lot of different sub-societies. In some I am myself a VIP. In others I am a moderately important person (MIP?), either directly or through my connections with someone else who is a VIP. In others, I am an entirely unimportant person--but, of course, I don't spend much time thinking about those.

I knew there was some deep significance to all of this but was at first too sleepy to realize what it was. But it then occurred to me that, just like sex, it was an example of the brain defeating the genes.

We are designed, like all products of Darwinian evolution, for reproductive success--but, while that is the objective of our genes, it is not our objective. Sex is pleasurable, pregnancy sometimes inconvenient, so we have invented birth control and various other sorts of non-procreative sex as ways of getting what we want instead of what we are designed for.

Similarly for status. The reason humans want status is that, in the environment in which our species evolved, status--especially but not exclusively for males--led to reproductive success. Important men were more likely to get a mate, more likely to get more than one mate, more able to get the resources to keep their children alive, more likely to get their children into a position where they too would have status and its advantages.

The fact that my brother in law is one of the world's top bridge players is of no use at all for my reproductive success--but it gives me a little extra status, and the pleasure thereof, if I happen to be associating with bridge players. The fact that a major figure in the Open Source movement was familiar with my work gives me no advantage in reproductive success, but it gave me a jolt of status-pleasure when I came up to him after he gave a talk, introduced myself as "David Friedman," had him ask me if I was "David Director Friedman," and suddenly became one of the Important People in the room. It also got me invited out to a Chinese restaurant after the talk with the people who had organized it.

If, among the multitude of status markers that each of us has in each of a multitude of contexts, we chose at random, it would be merely, from the genetic standpoint, random error, a failure of our genes to properly manipulate us. But we don't. We choose to focus on those contexts where we have relatively high status, to think of them as important, remember them, judge ourselves by them. Which makes it, not random error, but a triumph of the human mind over its genetic puppet masters.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Future Imperfect: High Points

Saturday I spoke at a Foresight Institute Unconference, using material from my next book, Future Imperfect. Since the audience at their events is already familiar with a lot of odd idea about the future, I decided to focus on a few things that I thought were interesting and might be unfamiliar. Since I suspect many readers of this blog have similar backgrounds, I thought they might be interested in a very brief precis. For details, see the webbed manuscript of the book.

1. Privacy.

Public key encryption has the potential to give us a level of privacy in cyberspace greater than anything we have ever experienced in realspace. Not only would it be possible to communicate with reasonable confidence that only the intended recipient could read your messages, it would be possible, using digital signatures, to combine anonymity and reputation--have an online persona with provable online identity, but control the link between that and your realspace persona.

Surveillance technology, the combination of video cameras on poles, face recognition software, and databases, has the potential to give us a level of privacy in realspace lower than anything we have ever experienced--everything you do in public places not merely recorded but findable. Wait a few years until we can produce video cameras with the size and aerodynamic characteristics of mosquitos, and "public places" become more or less everywhere.

What if we get both? The net result depends on two questions. Can you control the interface between realspace and cyberspace--strong encryption does you no good if a video mosquito is watching you type. How important is realspace anyway? The latter question depends on a third technology--virtual reality. In the limit, nothing much of importance is happening in realspace, just bodies in storage lockers being fed nutritious glop which VR turns into sushi and chocolate, while all the real action is in (encrypted) cyberspace.

2. Should we regulate nanotech?

Some of the Foresight people, despite generally libertarian biases, think we should, given the specter of a high school kid in his basement lab destroying the world. I think we need to consider the balance between offensive and defensive technologies. If, in nanotech, offense has a huge advantage, then we're probably done for. If not, it's worth remembering that there will be lots of private demand for defense but the only people who spend really large sums on finding better ways to kill people and smash stuff are governments. So putting governments in charge of regulating nanotech has a strong feel of setting the fox to guard the henhouse.

3. Can technological progress make us worse off?

Yes. Making human society work depends on a very intricate coordination--someone has to make the inputs to make the inputs to make the inputs to what I am producing. The centralized solution to that problem works only on a small scale. The decentralized solution--markets and trade, or something similar--depends on being able to break the world up into pieces (my stuff and your stuff) such that what I do mostly affects my piece (except with your permission) and what you do mostly affects yours. Technological progress can, among other things, increase the size and scale of what individual humans can do, which might result in each person's actions having effects most of which are divided among a very large number of other people. If so, the number of solutions to the coordination problem might be reduced from one to zero.

Comments welcome. Anyone who wants to criticize the above for being only a sketch is invited to first read the longer version.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Nokia E90: A Summary Judgement

1. The word processor is much worse than on the earlier 9300. Loading a book formatted as MSWord takes up to nine or ten minutes. And, unlike the 9300, it can only have one document loaded at a time. That makes it unusable for those of us who view a smartphone as in part a convenient way of reading books and doing minor edits.

2. The Notes application provides a substitute, since it will load a book formatted as text pretty quickly, although it also will hold only one book in memory at a time--despite the enormous amount of memory built into the phone. But it scrolls very slowly, has no "go to page" or equivalent, and you have the choice of either using it as a viewer and being unable to edit or using it as an editor, being able to edit, but having a horizontal white line between every line of text. I think the theory is that you are taking notes on lined paper.

3. It freezes fairly often. It's barely possible that I'm just pushing the wrong button--the interface is not all that intuitive--but I don't think so. In particular, as I understand it, you are always supposed to be able to use the menu button to choose among applications. Quite often, when I push it, nothing happens.

4. Currently the high speed digital connection (CDMA etc.) is 2100 MHz, which no U.S. provider supports.

5. The "US version" of the phone starts with the European rather than the American convention for representing dates; I set the date at 11/1/07 on November first, only to discover that the phone thought it was January eleventh. The convention can be changed--this is only a small problem--but it is still annoying.

I expect I would find more problems if I tried using more applications. Currently the phone is back in its box, ready to be mailed back to the seller. My sim card is back in the 9300, which is less sexy, has a narrower screen, doesn't have a lighted keyboard or a built-in GPS or a camera, but works for the things I mostly use it for.

With luck, in another few months, Nokia will announce that the phone has been adopted by a US carrier and a real US version, with a 3G connection that works in the US and Canada, is available. With more luck, by that time, either the word processor that comes with it will have been upgraded to the point where it is useful or some third party will have produced a satisfactory word processor for the phone.

At which point I may take another look at it.

Of course, by that time, third parties may have figured out a satisfactory way of putting applications--starting with a word processor--on the iPhone, linking it to an external bluetooth keyboard, and so making it into something closer to what I want.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

When is a War Not a War?

I sometimes listen to talk radio when driving. Today I heard part of an interview with a military lawyer who had been involved in litigation over Guantanamo and was discussing what would happen when (and, presumably, if) it was shut down.

In his view, some of the prisoners would be charged with crimes and tried, some would be returned to the governments whose citizens they were.

And some would be held until the war was over.

Which raises an obvious question: What does it mean for the War on Terror to be over? There is no enemy government to surrender. There is not even an enemy organization to surrender. While Al Quaeda has played a central role, we would not consider the war to be over if it shut down and was replaced by other terrorist organizations.

The problem is that the "War on Terror" is at least in part a metaphor. It is in some ways more like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty, a project given emotional force by analogizing it to a military conflict, than it is like WW II or the Korean War.

Suppose the President declared a War on Crime--as, for all I know, some President at some point has. Is he then entitled to arrest people he claims are criminals and hold them without trial for an indefinite period of time--as prisoners of war?

The analogy is not perfect. The attack on the World Trade Center was more like an act of war than it was like a bank robbery. But it was less like an act of war than the Pearl Harbor attack was, not only because the targets were not primarily military but because the attackers were not agents of a hostile state. The War on Terror is not as metaphorical as the War on Drugs. But it fits the pattern of war as usually and literally understood poorly enough to make a policy of taking people prisoners and holding them without trial until the war is over at best problematical.

Truth x 3

A few things from different bits of my life and thoughts coming together oddly.

1. Last year, one of the students in my "Legal Issues of the 21st Century" seminar discussed in a paper the possibility that better understanding of how the mind works might produce a real lie detector, one that reliably reported whether a speaker believed that what he said was true. There is some, very slight, evidence that such a thing is on the way. What effects would it have on our society?

2. My second novel, Salamander, is a fantasy--unlike my first novel, with magic. One of the things that can be done by some mages is truthtelling. One of the faults of the novel, currently sitting at my publishers waiting to be read, is that I didn't put much thought into the question of how a society would be different if it was possible to tell when someone was (subjectively) lying.

3. Last but not least, it recently occurred to me that we have empirical evidence on the question. There have been many societies, including one of the plains Indian tribes covered in my other seminar (Legal Systems Very Different From Ours), whose members believed that an oath taken in a particular form had supernatural consequences--that perjurers would die. A residue of that belief survives in our society in the practice of testifying under oath.

By looking at a society where such beliefs were strong and nearly universal, one ought to be able to learn a good deal about what consequences reliable truth telling would have, whether in a fantasy society or our own high tech future.

Two questions for commenters:

1. What effects would you expect it to have?

2. What do we know about the effects that it actually had?