Monday, 18 June 2012

Strawson reviews Thinking, Fast and Slow

In Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – review Galen Strawson reviews Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
These days, the bulk of the explanation is done by something else: the "dual-process" model of the brain. We now know that we apprehend the world in two radically opposed ways, employing two fundamentally different modes of thought: "System 1" and "System 2". System 1 is fast; it's intuitive, associative, metaphorical, automatic, impressionistic, and it can't be switched off. Its operations involve no sense of intentional control, but it's the "secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make" and it's the hero of Daniel Kahneman's alarming, intellectually aerobic book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 2 is slow, deliberate, effortful. Its operations require attention. (To set it going now, ask yourself the question "What is 13 x 27?" And to see how it hogs attention, go to and follow the instructions faithfully.) System 2 takes over, rather unwillingly, when things get difficult. It's "the conscious being you call 'I'", and one of Kahneman's main points is that this is a mistake. You're wrong to identify with System 2, for you are also and equally and profoundly System 1. Kahneman compares System 2 to a supporting character who believes herself to be the lead actor and often has little idea of what's going on.

System 2 is slothful, and tires easily (a process called "ego depletion") – so it usually accepts what System 1 tells it. It's often right to do so, because System 1 is for the most part pretty good at what it does; it's highly sensitive to subtle environmental cues, signs of danger, and so on. It kept our remote ancestors alive. Système 1 a ses raisons que Système 2 ne connaît point, as Pascal might have said. It does, however, pay a high price for speed. It loves to simplify, to assume WYSIATI ("what you see is all there is"), even as it gossips and embroiders and confabulates. It's hopelessly bad at the kind of statistical thinking often required for good decisions, it jumps wildly to conclusions and it's subject to a fantastic suite of irrational biases and interference effects (the halo effect, the "Florida effect", framing effects, anchoring effects, the confirmation bias, outcome bias, hindsight bias, availability bias, the focusing illusion, and so on).
Strawson concludes:
It is an outstanding book, distinguished by beauty and clarity of detail, precision of presentation and gentleness of manner. Its truths are open to all those whose System 2 is not completely defunct; I have hardly touched on its richness. Some chapters are more taxing than others, but all are gratefully short, and none requires any special learning.

Malcom Fraser on the Liberal Party's "inhumane" asylum seeker policy

In Abbott's evil policy work the former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser has written an article in which he attacks the latest Liberal Party policy on asylum seekers arriving by boat as inhumane and lacking in integrity. I think he makes some valid points.

Literacy success and chance

In Unflowered Aloes Tom Bissell has an interesting essay where he discusses how it's only by chance that the work of some of America's greatest writers is still around. Which raises the question, how much has been lost?

Global warming and the Arctic

The Economist has an interesting article The vanishing north on the implications of global warming for the Arctic.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Should schools take over childcare?

George Megalogenis in Lift in tax-free threshold poses new problems for working women forking out for childcare looks at the increasing costs of child care and wonders if it might be more appropriate for the school system to take over the role:
Chasing costs up with rebates doesn't help anyone in the end. A radical but more logical approach would be for the public school system to offer early learning for children aged two to four years. The private sector would be free to compete on quality, as it does in primary and secondary schooling.

That may hurt the budget in the short term, but it would settle the affordability and participation debates with the one transaction. A reform on this scale would ultimately force government to junk the spending that is not serving the national interest.
I think this idea makes some sense. However, I would imagine that it would be pretty hard to get it implemented with all the vested interests that would oppose it.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Why Australia needs fibre and the NBN

Nick Ross looks at a report from Cisco in NBN stats: Australia's broadband future and why the Coalition's alternative 'won't work':
The world's foremost internet traffic study and growth forecast, which historically has been proven very accurate, describes a further explosion of internet traffic around the world and in Australia. The findings illustrate a requirement for fibre optic cable "deep deep into the infrastructure" both for wired and wireless broadband connections.
Ross also writes:
Speaking at a recent VNI announcement was Dr Robert Pepper, Cisco's Vice President of Global Technology Policy. He has sat on the board of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA and currently sits on the UK's equivalent, Ofcom. In these roles he briefs governments and network operators from around the world on infrastructure, what to expect from future data requirements and modes of broadband usage based upon traffic stats and growth curves. He is an American based in the USA and has no dealings with Australian politics. Some of the key points he made were:-
  • That all roads point to the requirement of optic fibre being implemented deep into both wired and wireless networks.
  • The future is indeed wireless, but it's mostly WiFi and not 4G.
  • Wireless technologies need to be primarily methods of connecting to nearby fibre networks.
  • That Australian mobile networks will soon have to join the US and UK in offloading data onto local WiFi networks in order to avoid congestion.
  • That a 4G mobile user uses 28x more data than a 3G user.
  • That new wireless spectrum needs to be opened up as quickly as possible to cope with growth.
  • That as much wireless traffic as possible needs to be seamlessly offloaded onto the wired networks to avoid congestion.
  • There is a huge increasing requirement for low-latency data transfer and high upload speeds.
  • That a fibre to the node infrastructure which relies on a 'last mile' premises connection using Australia's current copper infrastructure, current HFC networks or fixed 4G-like wireless won't have the symmetry, contention ratio, bandwidth or latency to keep up with demand by 2016.
  • That fibre needs to be very nearby every internet connection whether wired or wireless.

Could environmental factors contribute to obesity?

ScienceDaily has an article Environmental Factors Spread Obesity, Study Shows that documents a study looking into whether environmental factors might be contribute to the "obesity epidemic" in the USA:
An international team of researchers' study of the spatial patterns of the spread of obesity suggests America's bulging waistlines may have more to do with collective behavior than genetics or individual choices. The team, led by City College of New York physicist Hernán Makse, found correlations between the epidemic's geography and food marketing and distribution patterns.

"We found there is a relationship between the prevalence of obesity and the growth of the supermarket economy," Professor Makse said. "While we can't claim causality because we don't know whether obesity is driven by market forces or vice versa, the obesity epidemic can't be solved by focus on individual behavior."

Middle class suffering

The Market Economs blog has an article Middle class suffering? Get real! that looks at how the middle class have benefited under the current Government.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Misogynists on the Internet

In Dear The Internet, This Is Why You Can't Have Anything Nice Helen Lewis has written an interesting article about the abuse and harassment of Anita Sarkeesian after she wanted to investigate the depiction of women in video games:
A Californian blogger, Anita Sarkeesian, launched a Kickstarter project to make a web video series about "tropes vs women in videogames". Following on from her similar series on films, it aimed to look at women as background decoration, Damsels in Distress, the Sexy Sidekick and so on. Her pitch is here:

Sarkeesian was after $6,000 to cover the cost of researching the topic, playing all kinds of awful games, and producing the videos. Seems reasonable, doesn't it? Even if you don't like the idea - or don't believe that women are poorly represented in games (in which case, you would be wrong) - then isn't it fine for other people to give money to something they believe in?

Except some kind of Bastard Klaxon went off somewhere in the dank, moist depths of the internet. An angry misogynist Bat Signal, if you will. (It looks like those charming chaps at 4Chan might have had something to do it.)

Lewis then goes on to document some of the harassment, including defacing Lewis' Wikipedia page and abuse comments on her Youtube video.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The NBN's objective

Michael Wyres writes in What Actually Is The NBN Objective? that the Opposition's proposed FTTN would cost around the same as the NBN's FTTP but deliver an inferior product that would need a costly upgrade sometime in the future.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Chinese corruption

The Bronte Capital blog has an interesting post on China: The Macroeconomics of Chinese kleptocracy. It argues that "China is a kleptocracy of a scale never seen before in human history" and that low inflation is a threat to this kleptocracy. I don't know China well enough to comment. The blog contains a link to a presentation by Australian journalist John Garnaut Is China Becoming a Mafia State? John Garnaut has some interesting things to say.

Pixar on the rules of story telling

The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar is a list of rules compiled by Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats. Interesting.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Stiglitz on the American dream becoming a myth

Professor Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in Economics looks at growing inequity in the USA in Trickle-up wealth is making the American dream a myth:
America has the highest level of inequality of any of the advanced countries - and its gap with the rest has been widening. In the "recovery" of 2009-10, the top 1 per cent of US income-earners captured 93 per cent of the income growth. Other inequality indicators - like wealth, health, and life expectancy - are as bad or even worse. The clear trend is one of concentration of wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, and increasing poverty at the bottom.
 He goes on to write:
A closer look at those at the top reveals a disproportionate role for rent-seeking. Some have obtained their wealth by exercising monopoly power; others are chief executives who have taken advantage of deficiencies in corporate governance to extract for themselves an excessive share of corporate earnings; and still others have used political connections to benefit from government munificence - either excessively high prices for what the government buys (drugs), or excessively low prices for what the government sells (mineral rights).

Likewise, part of the wealth of those in finance comes from exploiting the poor, through predatory lending and abusive credit-card practices. It might not be so bad if there were even a grain of truth to trickle-down economics - the quaint notion that everyone benefits from enriching those at the top. But most Americans today are worse off - with lower real (inflation-adjusted) incomes - than they were in 1997.
I think the trickle down concept is a myth. If anything money flows upwards. I would almost argue that money is the anti-gravity, except that, like gravity, money seems to attract other money. Just as gravity means that large masses attract and ensnare smaller masses so it appears does money. Anyway I digress. Professor Stiglitz goes on to write:
America is paying a high price for continuing in the opposite direction. Inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency. Lack of opportunity means that its most valuable asset - its people - is not being fully used. Many at the bottom, or even in the middle, are not living up to their potential, because the rich, needing few public services and worried that a strong government might redistribute income, use their political influence to cut taxes and curtail government spending. This leads to underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and technology, impeding the engines of growth.
Recommend reading.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The problems of the USA

Jeff John Roberts in Famous judge spikes Apple-Google case, calls patent system “dysfunctional” looks at an interim judgement on a patent case by U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner. I'm not going to go into the case (although I find it interesting because I think that the US patent system is broken). The reason I have posted about this article is because Roberts quotes a blog post by the good judge on the "declining strength of American institutions". I think this one paragraph that I have quoted below is as concise a description of many of the problems the USA has as you can get. The original source of the blog post that Roberts quotes from is here.

The institutional structure of the United States is under stress. We might be in dangerous economic straits if the dollar were not the principal international reserve currency and the eurozone in deep fiscal trouble. We have a huge public debt, dangerously neglected infrastructure, a greatly overextended system of criminal punishment, a seeming inability to come to grips with grave environmental problems such as global warming, a very costly but inadequate educational system, unsound immigration policies, an embarrassing obesity epidemic, an excessively costly health care system, a possible rise in structural unemployment, fiscal crises in state and local governments, a screwed-up tax system, a dysfunctional patent system, and growing economic inequality that may soon create serious social tensions. Our capitalist system needs a lot of work to achieve proper capitalist goals.

Becoming more positive

Deborah Kotz in How to rewire your brain to be more optimistic gives some tips on shifting to a sunnier outlook:
1. Make a daily tally of negative and positive events.
2. Aim for three positive experiences for every one negative one.
3. Exercise every day.
4. Engage in mindfulness meditation.

Science ignorance explained?

Jonah Lehrer has posted the article Why We Don't Believe in Science in which he looks at research suggesting why some people remain so ignorant of science, especially in areas like evolution.
A new study in Cognition, led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, helps explain the stubbornness of our ignorance. As Shtulman notes, people are not blank slates, eager to assimilate the latest experiments into their world view. Rather, we come equipped with all sorts of naïve intuitions about the world, many of which are untrue. For instance, people naturally believe that heat is a kind of substance, and that the sun revolves around the earth. And then there’s the irony of evolution: our views about our own development don’t seem to be evolving.

This means that science education is not simply a matter of learning new theories. Rather, it also requires that students unlearn their instincts, shedding false beliefs the way a snake sheds its old skin.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The great unhinging as predicted

Possum Comitatus has another excellent article The Great Unhinging - Revisited in which he looks at how  qualitative polling in 2006 first identified some of the issues that are now causing dissatisfaction with the current Government. He identifies three threads that came out of that 2006 qualitative polling:
  • A growing expectations gap and associated sense of entitlement.
  • A growing aversion to complexity.
  • A growth in a perception of uncertainty.
These three threads have combined with minority Government and the media to provide Tony Abbott with an ideal platform.
When the 2010 election produced a hung parliament — particularly one where two generally conservative rural independents backed the non-conservative prime ministerial option to form a government — this was uncertainty writ large. The complexity didn’t matter. The public was more predisposed to react against it than it was predisposed to act in support of it, simply because people saw it as yet more uncertainty. Not just a little bit of uncertainty — the biggest chunk of uncertainty the public had experienced in decades.

Thus it was that the more Abbott complained about the minority government and the more Abbott called for a new election — the easiest and most obvious thing for him to do regardless — the more public traction Abbott inevitably gained with these calls. Abbott was seen to be siding with stability, certainty and control — even though he was actually creating most of the uncertainty that was being sheeted home to the minority government. People blamed the government — confirmation bias — because the public had the predisposition to blame the minority government simply because of the uncertain nature of its very existence. With high levels of reactivity being manifest in the public — it was pretty clear to see just which hill this snowball was going to roll down.

Similarly, Abbott was never going to be struggling to find coverage for his attacks now that the media primarily exists to enhance conflict and sensationalise events to generate viewers. With the nosiest sections of News Ltd already firmly in Abbott’s corner and willing to wage war on the new government (let alone News Ltd’s production line of stories blaming the government for issues surrounding the sensitive expectations gap), Abbott could simply feed into the media cycle a constant stream of the very thing he was discovering worked — complaint. The more sensational and hostile the complaint, the greater the level of conflict it would appear as, hence the more coverage it would receive and the more support it would ultimately generate.
What distinguishes Possum Comitatus from other commentators is that he predicted this 18 months ago when the minority Government was first formed.

Recommended reading.

Libertarians and public goods

Noah Smith in Libertarians embracing public goods, Tim Lee edition is arguing that many libertarians are now starting to realize that Government has a role to play in providing public infrastructure.
Is America waking from its long libertarian daydream? For years, many of our brightest intellectuals embraced the simplistic idea that "government is the problem". This attitude required denying the existence of public goods, i.e. areas where government activity complements private markets rather than replacing them. As a result, we neglected roads and other infrastructure, and partially privatized prisons and the army.

However, there are clear signs that libertarians - by which I mean the intellectual vanguard of the movement, not the Ron Paul goonballs - are, as a group, reconsidering the simplistic 1970s worldview. Here's Peter Thiel calling for all sorts of public goods. Here's Alex Tabarrok doing the same. Will Wilkinson, a Cato alum, has explicitly made the argument that public goods provision by the government can enhance personal freedom (a point I've tried to make as well). And now we have Tim Lee, a Forbes writer and former Cato dude, declaring "We're all infrastructure socialists now".

Sun damage

The New England Journal of Medicine has an example of Unilateral Dermatoheliosis - a truck driver who tended to receive UV radiation to one side of the face only (obviously the window side). It's interesting, and frightening, to see the difference in wrinkles between the sides of his face.

Why inequality is bad for all

Joseph E. Stiglitz has an interesting piece in Vanity Fair called The 1 Percent’s Problem. He writes:
Consider the Walton family: the six heirs to the Walmart empire possess a combined wealth of some $90 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of U.S. society. (Many at the bottom have zero or negative net worth, especially after the housing debacle.) Warren Buffett put the matter correctly when he said, “There’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class has won.”
Stiglitz argues that inequality is bad for all, including those at the top. He suggests that it would be in the interest of the "1%" to reduce inequality.

Recommended reading.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Survival rates vs mortalilty rates

In Survival Rates Versus Mortality Rates Aaron Carroll explains the difference between survival rates and mortality rates and why the difference is important.
But here’s the thing.  You can only decrease the mortality rate by preventing death, or preventing the disease.  That’s really it.  That’s a cure or a life extension. Survival rate, however, can be increased by preventing death, preventing disease, or making the diagnosis earlier.
He then uses cancer to highlight the difference and explain why mortality rate is a more useful statistic than survival rate. Basically, you can increase the survival rate by diagnosing an illness earlier. However, if the mortality rate doesn't change then you haven't actually improved public health.
Can survival rate be a useful statistic? Yes, if you are comparing treatments then, all other things being equal, survival rate can indicate which is the more effective treatment. However, mortality rate is the better statistic when looking at public health outcomes. Why is this? It's because measures such as earlier diagnosis can appear to increase survival rates even if they make no difference to a patient's outcome.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The relationship between tax and income

Martin Wolf in Taxation, productivity and prosperity looks at the relationship between taxation revenue and income per head. He compares Government revenue as a percentage of GDP and growth of real GDP per head at purchasing power. He finds that there is no relationship. That is low taxing countries don't necessarily perform any better or worse than high taxing countries.

He concludes by stating:
The conclusion to be drawn is that a tax burden within the range of 30 per cent to 55 per cent of GDP) tells one nothing about a country’s economic performance. It is far more a reflection of different social preferences about the role of the state. What matters far more are culture, quality of institutions, including law, levels of education, quality of businesses, openness to trade, strength of competition and so forth.

My conclusion is that the focus on the tax burden is misguided. Alternatively, the economic arguments are a cover for (perfectly understandable) self-interest.