Thursday, December 30, 2004


I have absolutely nothing of value to say about the horrible disaster in Asia, but I hope the death toll stabilizes soon. For a while, every time I checked the news it seemed to have doubled...5,000 , then 10,000, and so on. CNN is now reporting 116,00. I just hope relief workers can get to most of the survivors before the toll gets even worse.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Is there a chance the track could bend?

Well, sir, there's nothing on earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car Monorail! So I found this news from Las Vegas a bit amusing:
When it debuted in mid-July, this city's sleek $650 million monorail was supposed to be the envy of the nation....But during a busy convention season, bits and pieces of the trains started falling off, potentially endangering anything below, and the system was shut down indefinitely for major repairs. By Thanksgiving, newspaper cartoonists and tourists alike were dubbing it "monofail" and deriding the futuristic cars sitting idle on the costly tracks.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Who are you who are so wise in the ways of science?

Brad Plummer's blog has this interesting post on what he could contribute to society if he were transported back in time to the Dark Ages. His conclusion: not much.
Let's start with what I know: A lot, it seems, about Galois Theory and algebraic topology. I can explain, step by step, why Hilbert's Tenth Problem is unsolvable. But who would care?...Meanwhile, I have nothing to offer them on the engineering front. Nothing. I know what gravity is, and they wouldn't. But I'm not sure I could figure out how to "produce" electricity, or explain the principles of bridge-building (there's...a keystone...right?). Certainly no amount of fiddling on my part would ever produce a light-bulb, or a telephone, or the steam engine.
I have a recurring fantasy where I host a time traveler from the past and show him around our modern world. My favorite fantasy guests are scientists, like Isaac Newton. It would be great fun to explain modern science and technology to him. Of course this would be much, much harder If I were on his turf rather than he on mine.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Commonmas!

I was thinking today about the terms "BCE" and "CE," which in academic circles are replacing the designations "BC" and "AD" for specifying historical dates. "BCE" stands for "Before the Common Era." This might seem like a ridiculous piece of political correctness, but I can see one good reason for it: "AD" literally means "Anno Domini," or "The year of our Lord." I can understand why Jews, Muslims, or Athiests might not want to be forced to refer to "our Lord" in order to make themselves understood.

On the other hand, it is the Christian calendar. Calling it "Common" is pretty silly, especially since Muslims and others have their own calendars that they actively use. So maybe the right thing to do is to keep the new abreviations, but let the "CE" stand for "Christian Era." That's what it really is, and using a silly euphemism doesn't change that.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Where's teacher?

When I saw this headline from the Christian Science Monitor,
India's troubling truants: teachers A new study finds 25 percent of teachers absent on any given day.
my instinctive reaction was: "I didn't know India had teachers' unions!" Sure enough:
The political clout of teachers and unions is a significant problem, says John Dreze, a local economist who worked on PROBE. As civil servants, teachers can almost never be fired, and are seldom transferred. "During elections, they also manage voting booths. No political party wants to antagonize them," he says.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Hello kitty

First come the deer, then come the lions.
State records show that mountain lions disappeared from Iowa in 1867. But with increasing and unnerving regularity, the ambush predator -- which will kill and eat house pets, livestock and humans but much prefers deer -- is back on the prowl, in Iowa and across the Midwest. It is turning up on farms, in suburbs and even in occasional appearances downtown....With deer nearly everywhere, the big cats, it seems, are finding haute cuisine in the land of big-box stores.

State game officials say mountain lions have triggered widespread paranoia, with many Iowans worrying about the beasts in an excessive and unhealthy way. False sightings are rampant. Scouting groups have canceled field trips.

When I lived in Palo Alto last year, a mountain lion wandered into a residential neighborhood. The 99-pound cat was found sitting in a tree, where it was shot dead by a police officer.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Central planning is hard

Story about flu shots from MSNBC:
Two months after the government recommended that scarce flu shots be reserved for people most at risk, health officials are now worried that tens of thousands of doses could go to waste, and they are considering easing the restrictions.

The demand for flu shots has turned out to be lower than expected because the flu season has been mild so far. Also, it turns out that more than half of all elderly or chronically ill adults have not even tried to get vaccinated because they figured no shots would be available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday

Hayek was right...central planning is hard.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The academic publishing goose

Slate has an interesting piece on attempts to make research from leading medical journals available for free online.
[S]ome physicians and members of Congress have pointed out that much of the best literature, published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, is not immediately available for free to the public, and they have begun to argue that it should be.

To the consternation of journal publishers, many of them not-for-profit associations that rely heavily on journal subscription fees for their revenue, the National Institutes of Health has thrown its considerable weight behind the notion of free access to biomedical research....As the NIH considers final guidelines, a vitriolic debate has erupted in the scientific community: How best to balance the needs of journal publishers against those of scientists, students, and members of the general public who would benefit from unfettered access?

It's an interesting problem. Both suppliers and consumers of academic research benefit if the research is freely available. Furthermore, neither writers nor referees are paid by the journals. In my view, the "needs" of journal publishers should get very little weight, except to the degree that it is necessary to give them the proper incentives. The aim should be to make the research available as widely as possible, while somehow preserving the services journals provide as certifiers of and archivers of quality research.

The "market" for academic journals is a strange and interesting one. Economist Ted Bergstrom has written several papers on the topic which you can find at his webpage devoted to the issue. In economics, the top few journals are run by non-profit organizations such as the American Economic Association and the Econometric Society. However, about 2/3 of the total journals, including a few very good ones, are published by for-profit companies, especially the Dutch publisher Elsevier. Despite being cited much less frequently than the top journals, the for-profit journals are far more expensive, and their prices have increased much faster than the prices of most non-profit journals over the past decades. This interesting powerpoint presentation gives lots of details.

Elsevier's business has been very lucrative. But there are several stories on the sidebar at Bergstrom's site that make me wonder if they may be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. It appears that lots of university libraries are getting tough with Elsevier. For example, Cornell apparently announced plans "to cancel several hundred Elsevier journals for 2004." In some cases, journal editorial boards have resigned en masse to start new, non-profit journals because of their unhappiness with Elsevier's pricing.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The right to be cold?

The New York Times reports:
The Eskimos, or Inuit, about 155,000 seal-hunting peoples scattered around the Arctic, plan to seek a ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the United States, by contributing substantially to global warming, is threatening their existence....They are casting the issue as no longer simply an environmental problem but as an assault on their basic human rights.
The piece does not specify which "basic human rights" are believed to be under threat. In my view it makes sense to be concerned about the effects of global warming on humans, including Inuit humans, but framing this as a "human rights" issue seems odd (but not surprising).

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


This post is a simple plug for the blog Language Log, which features a bunch of linguists talking about issues related to language. (It even includes minor-celebrity linguist Geoffrey Nunberg of "Fresh Air" fame). Of course like most modern linguists they tend to be descriptivists more than prescriptivists, but you can still detect a whiff of regret when they, for example, provide photo evidence for the coming death of whom. And they can still get their dander (gander?) up when they see someone as prominent as Daily Show host Jon Stewart declare that "terror" is not a noun.

Friday, December 10, 2004

"There's something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck"

There's an interesting piece at Slate today by economist Steve Landsburg on why Ebenezer Scrooge is, contrary to popular belief, a generous guy. The basic argument is that he consumes very few human and non-human resources, leaving more for others to enjoy. His "generosity" is widely dispersed and invisible, but real nonetheless. I'd never thought about it that way!

Just for kicks I looked at the responses to the piece posted in Slate's forum "The Fray." As usual, most of the posters think Landsburg is a morally obtuse idiot, but they fail to see the value of the basic idea.

I've been reading Landsburg's pieces for a while, and this is typical. He usually makes some statement that is widely believed (e.g. "Scrooge is a bad guy") and attacks one or more of its foundations. He usually oversimplifies, but he gets at some core issues in a novel way. Readers who are too quick to object are missing the whole point. The value of the column is not that Scrooge is actually a good guy (he isn't), but that he's not bad for the reasons you may have thought (because his hoarding of money impoverishes others). The right reaction is not indignation, but to think of what Landsburg might have left out and whether that might change the conclusion somewhat (e.g. what if Scrooge passes his wealth on to his children and they spend it). Years ago Paul Krugman wrote a great essay about how people tend to overreact to simplified economic models rather than learn from them.

My favorite Landsburg column explains why nobody should be upset about the budget deficit (if you don't know why, you should read the column). I'm still upset about the deficit, but not as strongly and not for the same reasons as I was before I understood his argument. A somewhat related idea is that privatizing social security is nothing more than a "debt-swap," which I posted about here.

One aspect of the miser-as-benefactor argument that Landsburg doesn't address is the difference between putting your money in a mattress and lending it out to a bank. If you lend it, it lowers the interest rate, helping borrowers (who tend to be poor) but hurting lenders (who tend to be rich). If you put it in a mattress, it increases the value of the money held by those who have it (the rich). So in this respect Ebeneezer Scrooge is preferable to Scrooge McDuck, but both are still more "generous" than if they consumed resources themselves.

Bonus trivia: what movie does the title of this post come from?

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The truth about "The Truth About the Drug Companies"

I recently did some in-store-browsing of the recent book The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It by Marcia Angell, who is, among other things, the former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. It's really a dreadful book. Angell certainly knows more about medicine and drug research than I do, and there is probably some truth behind most of the problems she cites. (For example, I'll admit I don't quite understand why financial statements from the pharmaceutical firms show them spending twice as much on administration and marketing as they do on research.) But her book is not just about technology, it's about markets and investment decisions. And Angell clearly doesn't understand markets, and doesn't even seem to try.

For example, she echoes other critics in decrying the fact that the drug companies' profits as a share of revenues are higher than in most other sectors. But she doesn't even seem to consider the question of what should determine reasonable profit levels. It is quite natural that different sectors will have different accounting profit levels (as a share of revenues) in order to achieve the same real return on investment. In particular, sectors that rely heavily on long term investments that do not pay off for several years will need higher accounting profits, especially if these investments are financed through equity. Can anyone think of an sector like that? I can...

(Some people attempt to justify high profits as a compensation for the high risk inherent in drug development. But most of this risk is probably diversifiable, and therefore should not command a risk premium. One possible exception might be the risk that government might impose onerous new regulations or price controls, a risk that is actually worsened by people like Angell!)

Angell's main target is the phenomenon of "me-too" drugs. In fact, her number one policy recommendation is that new drugs would have to be proven more effective than existing drugs to get approved. Her complete lack of any attention to any of the possible downsides of such a policy is typical. (If this research about Celebrex holds up, it will provide one convenient counterargument.)

For a much more interesting and thoughtful take on "me-too" drugs, Alex Tabarrok is doing a series of posts on the subject at Marginal Revolution. Tabarrok and others also question whether we should even have any effectiveness requirement for new drugs...after all, we don't require effectiveness to be shown for off-label uses, and most doctors believe that this benefits patients.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Productivity differences

Workers with similar job titles often have radically different levels of productivity. Here's an extreme example--today's New York Times has story about a Federal District Court judge:
But there is one unchallenged king of delayed decisions: Judge George B. Daniels of Federal District Court in Manhattan, who, the latest statistics show, had 289 motions in civil cases pending for more than six months, by far the highest total of any federal judge in the nation.
On the other hand, here's an unbelievably, ridiculously, absurdly long list of what Federal Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner has written and published in 2003-2004. To call him prolific would be a vast understatement. Maybe his productivity will go down now that he's starting a blog.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Mongol hordes finally make it to Japan

Here's a trend in globalization involving people who look a little like globes themselves: Japanese sumo wrestling is increasingly being dominated by gaijin (foreigners). Since Akebono became the first foreign born yokozuna (grandmaster) in 1993, three of five wrestlers promoted to yokozuna have been foreigners. The first gaijin champions were gigantic Hawaiians, but now they are being replaced by relatively svelte Mongolians.
Hawaiian-born yokozuna Musashimaru stepped down from the ring for the final time at the end of the November 2003 Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament. With Musashimaru's retirement, the line of Hawaiian wrestlers that captivated sumo fans for so long and included such stars as Takamiyama, Konishiki, and Akebono has now come to an end. Just as the Hawaiian wrestlers fade, however, a new force of sumo exponents from Mongolia has come to the fore, the most prominent of which is yokozuna Asashoryu. As sumo gains greater international recognition, wrestlers from countries like Russia and Georgia are also making their presence felt.
At 235 kilograms, Hawaiian Musashimaru weighed over 200 pounds more than Mongolian Asashoryu. This year Asashoryu became the first wrestler in 18 years to win 5 out of the 6 yearly tournaments. Fellow Mongolian Hakuho is only 19 years old and looks to be the next rising star of the sport.