Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Modest Proposal: The Retro iPhone

To many of us the news that Apple's new phone is going to run OSX, the same operating system as the Macintosh computer, sounded like a dream come true, a cell phone/pocket computer that would run the same software as our desktops. Further details made it clear that it was only a dream. The operating system will be only a limited version of OSX and the phone itself will be sold as a closed system, with additional programs available only through Apple. The inability of the iPhone to run the same programs as the current Macintosh is hardly surprising; it will, after all, have much less processing power, working memory and storage.

Suppose, however, that we compare the iPhone not to the current Mac but to the Mac of ten years ago‚ say the PowerMac G3 266, introduced in November of 1997. The iPhone has four to eight gigabytes of flash memory, apparently serving for both storage and RAM. The PowerMac had a maximum RAM of 192 Megabytes, a minimum hard drive of 4 gigabytes. The iPhone's processor has not yet been announced, but speculation suggests something in the 500+ MHz range, so probably more than twice the speed of the PowerMac's G3. Add an external keyboard connected via bluetooth and the only serious limitation to the retro iPhone would be the screen size—480x320. That's considerably smaller than the two page display I was using in 1997, but only a little smaller than the original Mac's 512x384 and, unlike the original Mac, it's in color.

A retro iPhone would have one enormous advantage over any likely competitor: Software. The 1997 software base included a wide range of business programs, games, utilities, everything one could reasonably want on a pocket sized computer. Unlike programs for a new machine, these ones are already written and thoroughly debugged; there are some advantages to being on the trailing edge of technology. Being Mac programs, most of them are designed to run on whatever screen size is convenient. Many of us—everyone who was a Mac user ten years ago—already own the programs; we can transfer them from our or our friends' backup disks while staying entirely within the relevant copyright law and licensing terms. Some of us may even prefer the older programs; I finally switched from by beloved WriteNow to MSWord only when the former had been orphaned for so long that it no longer ran reliably under the current operating system.

All of this assumes that it will be possible to run OS 9 or an early version of OS X, complete and uncrippled, on the iPhone. Apple's ability to get programs written for the G3, G4 and their predecessors to run under OSX on Intel machines provides at least some grounds to believe that they could, if they wished, adquately emulate the G3 with whatever CPU the iPhone uses, but at this point that is only speculation.

Will Apple do it? I doubt it. Can some clever hardware/software hacker do it? Maybe.

But I want it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Misleading Quiz

(First part is for economists)

1. Who invented the idea of Ricardian rents?

2. Who invented Marshallian quasi-rents?

3. Who originated the core idea of Nash Equilibrium?

(For other people)

4. Where did Irish potatoes originate?

5. Where was the original Brazilwood tree found?

6. Where do Jerusalem artichokes come from? For extra credit, what kind of food plant are they a variety of?

Other suggestions?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Liberals, libertarians, Objectivists and National Review

The December issue of National Review has an article by Jonah Goldberg entitled the "Lib-Lib Romance" and devoted to critiquing the idea of a libertarian-liberal alliance.

Goldberg correctly points out that extreme libertarian positions—permitting hard core porn on Saturday morning television is his example—are unlikely to get much political support. And he correctly points out that many hard core libertarians are interested mostly in some single issue, such as drug legalization or the Second Amendment. But all of that is irrelevant to the case for such an alliance, since the proposal is neither to get the Democrats to adopt extreme libertarian positions nor to get hard core libertarians, a large fraction of whom don't vote anyway, to support the Democratic party.

Goldberg cites a Cato piece which estimates that about 15%—the numbers vary according to the poll—of the electorate is libertarian. Very few of those are hard core libertarians. What the authors are looking at are voters whose views are generally similar to those of conservative Republicans on economic issues and generally similar to those of liberal Democrats on social issues.

Liberal Democrats don't support Saturday morning broadcast porn any more than conservative Republicans support complete laissez-faire and zero taxation, but there apparently is quite a sizable block of voters who want change, at least moderate change, in the direction of less government involvement in both social and economic matters. In 2000, most of them voted for Bush; in 2004, a majority still voted for Bush but a sizable minority voted against him. That pattern suggests that a Democratic party that made efforts to look at least a little more libertarian than the current Republican party—which should not be very hard—could eventually pull a substantial voting block over to their side. It was a point I made, without the benefit of the data from the Cato article, in a post here a little over a year ago.

What most interested me about the Goldberg article, however, was not his confusion between libertarians broadly and narrowly defined but his explanation of why any split between libertarians and conservatives is at least partly the fault of the libertarians. He starts with a reference to the late Frank Meyer, whose "fusionist" position attempted to unite libertarian and traditional conservative views; as Goldberg puts it:

"Meyer’s libertarianism was primarily concerned with the ability of the individual to find the virtuous path within “an objective moral order based on ontological foundations” best expressed in Western civilization. As such, fusionism was less a coalitional doctrine than a metaphysical imperative. But these days, phrases like “objective moral order” will get you knocked off Cato’s Kwanzaa-card list. Liberty’s virtue is no longer that it supports the virtuous. Rather, according to today’s leading libertarians, economic freedom’s virtue lies in its ability to provide everybody the custom-made lifestyle of his choice."

The mistake here is in confusing a conclusion—libertarianism—with the arguments that lead to it. There are lots of different reasons to believe in liberty, hence lots of different reasons why someone might be a libertarian. That is true now, and it was true when Frank Meyer was making his arguments. As Nero Wolfe memorably put it, "any spoke can lead an ant to the hub."

What Frank Meyer was offering was not the reason to be a libertarian but a reason why a conservative should also be a libertarian. Insofar as his argument was correct then it is still correct now. And his argument is at least as relevant to the areas where current conservatives disagree with libertarians as to the areas where they agree, so if Goldberg actually accepts it he ought to be supporting social as well as economic freedom. If he does, then he and I can agree that drugs ought to be legalized—I have no idea what his actual position on that issue is—he for his reasons and I for mine.

What immediately struck me about Goldberg's mistake was that I had seen it before. It is the same argument that orthodox Objectivists routinely use to attack libertarians—most notoriously in Peter Schwartz's essay "Libertarianism: the Perversion of Liberty." Their argument is that while libertarians and Objectivists may reach, on the whole, the same conclusions, libertarians, at least the ones who are not also Objectivists, reach those conclusions for the wrong reasons, and right conclusions reached for the wrong reasons do not really count.

Schwartz and those who agree with him might argue in their defense that they are talking about philosophy, not politics. But Goldberg is explicitly discussing politics, the possibilities for a political alliance. Politically speaking, if Republicans supported less government instead of more, they would be natural allies for libertarians, whether those libertarians reached their conclusions via Catholic philosophy, natural rights, utilitarianism, skepticism, or hedonism. Since Republicans at the moment support more government—more even than Democrats as of the last time they were in power—it is worth looking for other allies.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Selective Perception, Global Warming, and self delusion

A few weeks ago I was talking with a college student, a daughter of some old friends, who had taken a course from an environmentalist professor who apparently claimed that the world temperature had gone up by seven degrees in the last decade or two--she wasn't sure of the precise numbers. She expressed the view that snowy winters were now a thing of the past, offering the (then current, midwest) warmth as evidence.

Currently, the midwest is caught in a severe ice storm and California, where I live, is unseasonably cold instead of unseasonably warm. I have not, however, heard anyone offering that as evidence that the next ice age is impending, and I doubt that the student has revised her predictions.

Of course, the current weather isn't evidence of global cooling, or at least not significant evidence. Nor was the weather a few weeks ago significant evidence for global warming. But once people believe in global warming, it's easy to take each warm spell as evidence and each cold spell as experimental error.

My point is not that global warming isn't real; so far as I can tell it is. My point is rather that the belief in global warming is not, indeed cannot be, supported by the sort of first hand evidence that most of us have from the weather around us. Last year's U.S. temperatures, according to a news story I saw, were a full two degrees above average, making it by some measure the warmest year recorded. But a difference of two degrees is, for most of us most of the time, simply too small to notice. A seven degree (centigrade or fahrenheit not specified) increase over a decade might be noticeable--but that, of course, is fantasy not fact. Wikipedia gives a figure of .6 degrees centigrade over the course of the 20th century.

In this area as in many others, we are in fact dependent on second hand evidence and our ability to evaluate it. But we like to convince ourselves otherwise.