Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why Do I Waste Time Arguing With Unreasonable People Online?

My son just put the question to me (I was commenting on Facebook at the time), and I thought some here might be interested in my answers:

1. As an excuse not to work on my current book. The chapter drafts I have just been looking at are in worse shape than I thought, which is depressing.

2. In the hope that by putting ideas out, some of them will spread, with some (small) effect on the world. Posts here probably get more readers, but comments on Facebook reach a different audience, one less likely to be familiar with the ideas.

3. In the hope of finding someone reasonable to argue with, which might result in changing his views, or mine, or both, in a desirable direction, as well as being fun. It happens very rarely, perhaps once every few months, but I'm an optimist.

4. Because arguing with unreasonable people online, and watching unreasonable people argue with each other, gives me useful, if depressing, information about what such people are like and (I hope an exaggerated) picture of how common they are. Like most people, I live mostly in a bubble, interacting with a very nonrandom set of people, and this gets me a view outside it. The same is true of reading trade chat in WoW, also depressing.

5. For the same ignoble reason that people spend time beating up on NPC's in WoW and similar games.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Some Economic Puzzles

Visiting China last year, I was struck by an interesting puzzle. In the U.S., if you are in a big building selling clothes or groceries, a department store or a supermarket, the people selling them to you are employees of the firm that owns the building. In China, you are much more likely to be in a building whose owners rent it out in small pieces to a lot of individual sellers. Instead of a supermarket, you have a large building with half a dozen butcher stalls, eight fish stalls, ...  . Instead of a department store, you have the same pattern with different stalls selling different sorts of clothing, jewelery, electronics. 

The pattern is not perfect. There are supermarkets and department stores in China and I once saw a Chinese style food market in Baltimore. But one form of retailing is the norm in China and the exception in the U.S., the other form the norm in the U.S., the exception in China.

The puzzle is why.

On my recent visit to Brazil, I came across another such puzzle. In Brazil, at least in Sao Paulo, restaurants frequently sell food not by the dish but by the kilo. You fill up your platter with whatever combination of salad, beans, meat, desert you want, they weigh it and charge you. I do not believe I have ever seen that pattern in a restaurant in the U.S. The closest I can think of is the cafeteria in my university, which sells salad by weight, most other things by individual price.

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to that way of selling food. The puzzle is why it is common in one country, rare or non-existent in another.

That reminds me of another puzzle that struck me a very long time ago. Some of the costs that a patron imposes in a restaurant depend on what he eats, some on how long he sits. Why are there no restaurants that price the two separately—charge a lower than usual price for the food, but add an additional charge for the time you sit?

For any reader who teaches economics, I suggest that working through the logic of these three puzzles, seeing what the costs and benefits are of one form of organization over another, would be a good problem to set your students. For any graduate student looking for a thesis topic who is more interested in doing economics than proving how much mathematics he knows, one of these puzzles might be worth considering. 

The first step, of course, would be a survey of the literature to see if someone else has already offered an adequate answer. If you find one, let me know.

Good Advice From the Fourteenth Century

Ibn Battuta was a 14th century North African world traveler—I like to describe Marco Polo as his 13th century Italian imitator. He started by going on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, got bit by the travel bug. In the course of his travels he went down both the East and West African coasts, providing our only source for those areas in that century. Hearing that Mohammed ibn Tugluq, the fabulously wealthy sultan of Delhi, was generous to foreign scholars, Ibn Battuta set off for India and ended up spending several years as the chief Maliki Qadi of Delhi. His account of his visit to China is dubious, but he probably got at least as far as somewhere in south-east Asia. Eventually he came home and wrote an account of his travels, the Rehla, which survives.

Early on, he swore never, if he could avoid it, to return by the same route he went out on. In my travels, mostly wandering around foreign cities (at the moment Sao Paulo), I have found it good advice. Walk out by one route, back by another, and you see twice as much.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

In a Market in Sao Paulo


Tourist Class Sleepers?

I am currently sitting in San Francisco airport waiting for a flight to Houston, where I change to a flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil, scheduled to arrive at 8:45 in the morning. I am, as usual, flying tourist class.

Some years ago, I flew to New Zealand business class at someone else’s expense. It was a much pleasanter experience than I expect this flight to be. The stroking that goes with an expensive ticket was nice, but the real benefit was a seat that turned into a bed. That makes me wonder whether it would be possible to provide sleeping accommodations on overnight flights at something closer to the cost of an ordinary tourist class ticket.
What that probably requires is a plane whose seats can convert into beds—I suspect the cost of having a plane only used for sleeper flights is too high to make it an attractive option. Not everyone on the plane will want to sleep, so you don’t want all seats to convert. In order to fit the same number of people in lying as seated, you will need to stack the beds. Stacking two might do it, but stacking three probably works better. Sleeper cars on a railroad are sometimes set up that way, and although I think the ceiling is a little higher than in a plane you should still be able to manage it.
One problem is how to get in and out of bed without having to ask the sleeping person next to you to move. Two solutions occur to me. One is that with beds stacked three deep there might be enough room for a narrow space between each stack and the next sufficient to get out. The other, for a wide body plane, is to have seats in their usual arrangement along the wall, than an aisle, then two convertible seats, then an aisle, possibly repeating if the plane is wide enough. That way every seat is next to an aisle.
There must be a lot of business travelers for whom the benefit of an extra day at their destination would be worth a good deal. No doubt some of them now fly business class. But I expect a lot more would fly tourist sleeper if it was available at a price somewhat higher than ordinary tourist and much lower than present business class fares. As would I.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Some Links

The Truth About Ancient Greece

If you happen to be Jewish and press the wrong button on the time machine.
18) The Michelson-Morley and Sagnac experiments attempted to measure the change in speed of light due to Earth’s assumed motion through space. After measuring in every possible different direction in various locations they failed to detect any significant change whatsoever, again proving the stationary geocentric model.
(from a list of 200 proofs of the geocentric model of the universe)
A detailed critique of recycling.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

How Not to Defend Islam

In a recent piece on Salon Qasim Rashid, described as "the national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA and Visiting Fellow at Harvard University’s Prince al-Waleed bin Talal School of Islamic Studies," takes Ben Carson to task for "absurd lies" about Islam. Some of Carson's claims about Islam may well be false—it is not true, for instance, that "Under Shariah law ... people following other religions must be killed.” Most Americans do not know much about other religions; there is no reason to expect Carson to be an exception. 

Rashid, who surely is well informed, writes:
Islam gave women equal rights in 610 that our own United States haven’t given even in 2015. To this day America has not passed the Equal Rights Amendment. Meanwhile the Quran 33:36 emphatically declares the equality of men and women:
“Surely, men who submit themselves to God and women who submit themselves to Him…God has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a great reward.”
God may treat men and women equally but Islamic law, fiqh, does not. A daughter under Islamic law receives half the inheritance of a son—a rule directly from the Quran. A man is permitted to marry up to four wives, a woman one husband. A man may freely divorce his wife, a woman is not free to divorce her husband. Each spouse has rights to sexual intercourse with the other, but the rights are not the same.
In truth, the Qur’an only permits fighting in self-defense, or to protect  “churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques” from attack. Prophet Muhammad issued numerous charters with Christians, Jews, and pagans to affirm his commitment to universal religious freedom and equal human rights for all people regardless of faith.
Mohammed attacked and destroyed the  Jewish villages near Medina. In one case, after the village surrendered, all of the male inhabitants were killed at his orders. He fought a long war with the Quaraysh, his fellow tribesmen in Mecca, which ended only when they surrendered and converted.

When Islam began, the two great powers of that part of the world were the Persian Sassanid empire and the Byzantine empire. In the course of the first century after Mohammed's death his followers conquered all of the first and a large chunk of the second, one of the more impressive accomplishments of human history. It was not done by fighting in self defense.

Under Islamic law, the other peoples of the book—Christians, Jews and (probably) Sabeans—were permitted to live under Islamic rule. But they did not have "equal human rights." A Muslim man could marry a Christian or Jewish woman, a Christian or Jewish man could not marry a Muslim woman. Christians and Jews were required to pay a special tax, the jizya.

According to the Shafi'i school of law, the indemnity for killing a woman is half that for killing a man, the indemnity for killing a Jew or a Christian is one third that for killing a Muslim, the indemnity paid for a Zoroastrian is one fifteenth that of a Muslim (The Reliance of the Traveler o 4.9). Details vary among the four schools.

Rashid never mentions that the Ahmadiyya Muslim community for which he is the spokesman is a heterodox offshoot of orthodox Islam originating in India in the late 19th century, one that regards its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as the Messiah. For all I know his claims are true about current Ahmadiyya doctrine. But presenting them as  doctrines of Islam without qualification, when his sect represents about one percent of the total Islamic population, is roughly equivalent to a Mormon presenting Mormon doctrine as Christianity without qualification or explanation to an audience unfamiliar with Christianity. 

And, while his sect is free to choose its own legal rules, it is not free to change the historical facts to suit.