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Not dead yet

October 10, 2017

It’s a bit optimistic to say that Richard Thaler, and all the other behavioral economists combined, have killed homo economicus. The goal is good. It needs killing. Economists and policy makers should keep in mind real behavior:

I try to teach people to make fewer mistakes. But in designing economic policies, we need to take full account of the fact that people are busy, they’re absent-minded, they’re lazy and that we should try to make things as easy for them as possible.

The problem is that economics is a profession built on tradition. And tradition dies hard. It will take some more pounding of that stake to kill the monster.


The friendly(?) fascists

October 9, 2017

It is a mistake to think that authoritarian regimes necessarily rely on an large segment of mean or vicious people for their support. Closer to the truth is that the mass of those who supported the Italian fascists, the Spanish phalangists, Pinochet, and other authoritarians were quite normal people whom we would welcome as our neighbors, employees, merchants, doctors, and maybe, even as our friends. Unless politics came between that. An authoritarian movement appeals to perfectly ordinary traits: respect for traditional things, desire to be buffered from change and those who might cause it, a sense of sancity and propriety, and a desire for restoration. Those more susceptible to the appeal of those can be good people to know personally. Traits that might seem in tension philosophically often aren’t in practice. People can be simultaneously more agreeable, with their friends and community, and less open to those they view with suspicion. Those more prickly on the personal front may nonetheless understand the value of immigrants. So it’s interesting that researchers from Cambridge and the University of Texas find in the US a geographic distribution of psychological traits that has fair correspondence to its political divide. (Original paper here, as pdf.)

Of course, those tensions can bubble to the surface. Erick Erickson, one of the very conservative stalwarts of RedState before it was sold, discovered how much that is so, when he refused to support Trump:

A woman in my wife’s Bible study group said that she and her friends wanted to punch me in the face.

Erickson wants to defuse that polarization. As does George Yancey. Both recommend personal dialogue. I’m skeptical that will make much difference. If acquaintances in a Bible study group can’t talk, who can? And what can be said that isn’t said or written a hundred times over, in this media age?

Trump plans to use the dreamers as a bargaining chip to turn us into fortress America. That should appall every American who cares about liberty. Never bargain with authoritarians. Fight them.

Update: From last year, Kelly Baker writes on how ethnographers handle this dichotomy.

Your smart phone is not a phone…

October 5, 2017

It is much, much more than a phone. Apple, quite rightly, is getting criticized for the fact that borinqueños cannot use the FM receivers present in older iPhones. It should be dinged even more that those receivers are absent in newer iPhones.

Those of us who are nerds or who venture often into areas where cellphone service is absent see the smart phone as something that has a broad range of purposes, only some requiring cell service. A modern smartphone should be able to do all of the following, in the absence of that:

  • Receive FM radio.
  • Determine lat-lon from GPS.
  • Act as a compass.
  • Provide mapping applications.
  • Text and voice short distances over peer-to-peer wifi mesh.
  • Control other wifi-enabled devices, such as game cameras.

All of those are safety features. Apple’s talk about “modern safety solutions,” then referencing only those that require cell service, is stuff and nonsense. What if you’re out of cell service range? As Puerto Rico’s plight still demonstrates, cell service is one of the things often lost in emergencies, sometimes for days or weeks on end.  If their smart phones were capable of texting through a peer-to-peer wifi mesh, they would have pretty good communication within towns and village centers, even if not between them or to more distant areas.

My old Pureview 808, a phone released five years past, could do everything in the list above except the last two. When I was traveling with folks who had other smart phones, in areas where there was no cell reception, they were amazed that Nokia maps still worked like a charm. But why shouldn’t it, once the map data is on the phone? The only difference a mapping application should exhibit when offline is a warning when map data isn’t available. Google Maps since has gotten better at managing that.

Application designers always should ask themselves: How much of this application can work without cell service? How does it work when cell service cuts in and out? They should test their applications in those modes, and provide owners an easy way to use the application offline, even when cell service is available.

Platform designers, likewise, should have present in mind that the smart phone will be used when various communication channels are down. They should provide application designers the right interfaces and tools to support robust application design. They should provide owners the right settings and displays to manage the device in a variety of contexts.

Of course, the cell service providers want you to see your smart phone as a portal to their service. Apple wants you to see the iPhone as an endpoint in the Apple ecosystem.

Nerds and sailors and wayfarers see our smart phone as the next evolution of our personal tricorder. We want to be able to use its communication channels smartly and independently of each other. We want to be able to use its other devices fully, even when communication channels are down. And we don’t want marketing decisions or poor design or cell service options getting in the way of that.

Photo shows a tug pushing a barge carrying a crane this weekend past, somewhere on the Texas ICW, possibly in the range of cell service. Or not. Why doesn’t my smart phone include marine VHF capability?

Update: The bezel-less craze is not helping.

Experimental evolution

October 4, 2017

Jonathan Losos describes how he quickly drove the evolution of a species of anole:

[A]n ideal experiment would be to expose a lizard species to new conditions, a new habitat, and we would have clear predictions about how they would adapt to that habitat. So that’s exactly what we did. Working in the Bahamas, we were able to take a species that lives on broad tree trunks near the ground and move it to tiny little islands where there were no big trees, there were only scraggly little bushes. So they had to use narrow little surfaces to sit on. Our prediction was very clear from our studies on the big island — that they should adapt by evolving shorter legs. And that’s exactly what they did and over a relatively short period of time.

anoleAn interesting followup question is how long the new line must remain separate from the old, before the two won’t interbreed when brought together? The photo left shows a Texas anole displaying its neck sack. It has evolved to enjoy patios and planters.

The science in Spain…

October 3, 2017

The science in Spain seems mainly in disdain.

The squid and wine and art and corner cafes all are excellent.

The right reason to despise the Confederacy

October 2, 2017

I have seen quite a few memes and posts damning Confederates past for their treason. The problem with most such is that they suppose that all movements for secession and independence are wrong. That would damn the US as much as the CSA, since our own War of Independence was an act of treason against the Crown.

Such a supposition grants far too much to the notion that loyalty to nation is an unalloyed virtue. I’m more in the camp that such loyalty should be based on the current political situation, on a fair appraisal of a nation’s past, and on a reasonable hope for its progress. I’m rather sympathetic to the Kurds who want independence from Iraq. If Britain cannot pull itself from the brink of its foolhardy separation from the EU, I would sympathize with the Scots if they decide to go their own way. The fact that Catalonia is a successful state where 90% of those voting want independence gives that cause at least a prima facie claim.

The Confederates should be despised not because they wanted to separate from the US, but because of their reason for doing so. They took that step and created their nation for the most evil cause in modern history: the preservation of black chattel slavery as an economic system. Alexander Stephens explains this clearly in his Cornerstone speech promoting the Confederate Constitution:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

That was the Confederate cause. That is why Americans should view them as Germans do the Nazis. Not because they seceded. But because of the cause that drove them to secede.

The really important “T”

September 29, 2017

The Trump administration shows its protectionist teeth, imposing a 220% tariff on CS100 airliners built by the Canadian company Bombardier. In response, Britain threatens to cancel defense contracts with Boeing. Which is more than a little ironic, given Britain’s recent run away from globalism.

The administration also is threatening tariffs on imported solar panels. Colorado and other states are objecting, because an increased cost for panels would hurt their growing solar industry. Panel production is the smaller part of that pie. Of course, Trump might view impediments to solar growth as gift to his fossil fuel patrons.

Trump’s more insidious attack on global trade is not from any one trade dispute, but on the infrastructure that has enabled its growth in recent decades.

Those who think this has a happy ending need to read their history again. We have been down this road before. Tax reform might have some benefits, even though I expect the Republicans to screw it up. They already have promised to keep the mortgage deduction, which there is good reason to eliminate, and are pushing to eliminate the inheritance tax, which there is good reason to keep and whose elimination is purely a sop to their donors. Economically, tweaks to the tax code are minor stuff compared to the really important “t” — trade.