i. “Folly is often more cruel in the consequence than malice can be in the intent.” (Marquess of Halifax)

ii. “Men who borrow their opinions can never repay their debts.” (-ll-)

iii. “A man can believe a considerable deal of rubbish, and yet go about his daily work in a rational and cheerful manner.” (Norman Douglas)

iv. “People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children.” (Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes. In slightly related matters, I’ve been meaning to link to this for a while and I guess this is as good a place as any to do it.)

v. “It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.” (Descartes)

vi. “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” (Daniel Kahneman)

vii. “Next to knowing when to seize an opportunity, the most important thing in life is to know when to forego an advantage.” (Benjamin Disraeli. Here’s the cartoon version.)

viii. “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristiscs of a vigorous intellect.” (Samuel Johnson)

ix. “The brute necessity of believing something so long as life lasts does not justify any belief in particular.” (Santayana)

x. “There are infinite possibilities of error, and more cranks take up unfashionable untruths than unfashionable truths.” (Bertrand Russell)

xi. “The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.” (-ll-)

xii. “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” (Nietzsche)

xiii. “Faith makes many of the mountains which it has to remove.” (W. R. Inge)

xiv. “To praise oneself is considered improper, immodest; to praise one’s own sect, one’s own philosophy, is considered the highest duty.” (Leo Shestov)

xv. “I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion, That the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square, that the doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.” (Thomas Hobbes)

xvi. “Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.” (Thomas Henry Huxley)

xvii. “Prejudice is never easy unless it can pass itself off for reason.” (William Hazlitt)

xviii. “We are usually convinced more easily by reasons we have found ourselves than by those which have occurred to others.” (Pascal)

xix. “we cannot simply presume that we know instinctively why people do what they do no matter how emotionally satisfying that may be, because humans are often generally unaware of the reasons for their thoughts and actions in the first place. […] In most cases, our thoughts and actions simply make sense at the time.” (D. Jason Slone)

xx. “I think you can come across as kind of rude. […] arrogant and pretentious […] You can add patronising to the list.” (a girl I talked to yesterday. I’m of course quoting her out of context. She’s quite nice and it was an interesting conversation.)

September 30, 2012 Posted by | quotes | Leave a comment

Reading habits of Americans

Here’s Pew’s report on the subject. I’ve included some numbers from the report below. Click to view tables in full size.

When interpreting the numbers in the post, do have in mind that people often lie about their reading habits. Also note that this may be an extremely biased sample; the cooperation rate is around 20% and the combined response rate was around 12,5% (1 in 8). I don’t know what kind of cooperation rate you usually get out of surveys like these, but my first instinct is to be critical seeing numbers like those; there may be a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes (out of sample). Anyway, ‘to the data…’:

About 1 in 5 didn’t read a book over the last 12 months, whereas about a third read 1-5. Approximately two-thirds read less than one book a month on average. But the interesting part to me was how many belonged in the category 11-50; about one in 4. That’s a lot more than I’d have thought. The 5% in the 50+ is also significantly higher than I’d have thought; I read 14 hours yesterday, I’m at maybe 30 hours this week so far (including all book reading, including ‘work book reading’ – though I must hasten to add that not all work is ‘book reading’) and I don’t think I’m even close to reading that many books over the course of a year. Of course ‘not all books are the same’, but even so. Not surprisingly the distribution is somewhat skewed: The mean was 17 books and the median was 8.

Females read more, old people read more and people who’ve been to college read more than people who have not. I thought it was interesting here that if you include education income is insignificant.

They do provide a more detailed picture of the number of books read. Of the people who read at least one book over the last 12 months, 8% had read one book, 17% had read 2-3 books, 16% had read 4-5 books, 19% had read 6-10, 18% had read 11-20 books and  22% had read more than 20 books. This means that 31% read 1-5 books per year (‘infrequent readers’), 28% read 6-20 (‘medium readers’) and only 17% (~1 in 6) of the population read more than 20 books per year (‘frequent readers’).

“A fifth of Americans (18%) said they had not read a book in the past year. This group is more likely to be: male than female (23% vs. 14%), Hispanic than white or black (28% vs. 17% and 16%), age 65 or older (27%), lacking a high school diploma (34%), living in households earning less than $30,000 (26%), unemployed (22%), and residents of rural areas 25%. Those who did not read a book last year also tended not to be technology users.”

I found none of those associations to be the least bit surprising.

58% regularly read daily news or newspapers. 48% regularly read magazines or journals. Even though it makes sense I did find it interesting that income becomes significant when looking at those numbers even when you account for education.

“Altogether, 43% of Americans age 16 and older have read long-form writing in digital format as of December 2011 – either e-books or newspaper or magazine material in digital form. We get that figure by combining those in the December survey who have read e-books with the 31% of those who regularly read news content and have read that content in digital format and the 16% who read magazines and journals and have read that content in digital format.
Those who have taken the plunge into reading e-books stand out in almost every way from other kinds of readers. They read more books than other readers. They read more frequently and are more likely than others to read for more purposes. They consume books in all formats, including print and audio: 88% of those who read e-books in the past 12 months also read print books. But they are also more likely than others to have bought their most recent book, rather than borrowed it, and they are more likely than others to say they prefer to purchase books.
Demographically, as of February 2012, the adults age 18 and older who read e-books are disproportionately likely to be under age 50, with higher levels of education and income.”

“64% of those 16 and older said they get book recommendations from family members, friends, or co-workers. […] 28% said they get recommendations from online bookstores or other websites. […] 23% said they get recommendations from staffers in bookstores they visit in person. […] 19% said they get recommendations from librarians or library websites.”

About one in four to one in five got recommendations from staffers in bookstores. I was surprised the number is that high. Some more detail: “Those most likely to get recommendations this way include: college graduates (28%), those living in households earning more than $75,000 (30%), parents of minor children (27%), technology owners and users, urban and suburban residents, and those under age 65.” The ‘college graduates’ really surprised me, as did the income one. The income one can perhaps be explained in terms of higher search costs because of higher opportunity cost of time but that’s not exactly convincing. Maybe it’s a ‘what are smart, rich, successful, educated people like me supposed to be reading these days’-effect?

I didn’t really care about the gadget stuff in the report but some of you may find that interesting.

September 27, 2012 Posted by | books, data, demographics | 5 Comments

The Emperor of All Maladies

By Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is another one of the books I received in the mail Tuesday. I didn’t plan on reading it before this weekend, but ‘things didn’t go as planned.’ I started out with a few pages Tuesday evening and basically I just couldn’t stop reading. Now I’ve finished the book.

It’s gotten a lot of attention around the web, which was part of why I decided to have a go at it. The attention it has received is not undeserved. I’d have liked more data but then again I always want more data. Here are a few interesting observations from the book:

“In 1870, the per capita consumption in America was less than one cigarette per year. A mere thirty years later, Americans were consuming 3.5 billion cigarettes and 6 billion cigars every year. By 1953, the average annual consumption of cigarettes had reached thirty-five hundred per person. On average, an adult American smoked ten cigarettes every day, an average Englishman twelve, and a Scotsman nearly twenty. […] between 1940 and 1944, the fraction of female smokers in the United States more than doubled, from 15 to 36 percent.”

If you assume they wouldn’t have started in case there hadn’t been a World War, you can probably add another few million people to the list of war casualties right there. How about later on? “By 1994, the per capita consumption of cigarettes in America had dropped for nearly twenty straight years (from 4,141 in 1974 to 2,500 in 1994), representing the most dramatic downturn in smoking rates in history.” But before that point the results of the changed smoking habits were not hard to observe in the data:

“Between 1970 and 1994, lung cancer deaths among women over the age of fifty-five had increased by 400 percent, more than the rise in the rates of breast and colon cancer combined. This exponential upswing in mortality had effaced nearly all gains in survival not just for lung cancer, but for all other types of cancer. […] Lung cancer was still the single biggest killer among cancers, responsible for nearly one-fourth of all cancer deaths.”

A few other interesting bits:

“Prostate cancer represents a full third of all cancer incidence in men — sixfold that of leukemia and lymphoma. In autopsies of men over sixty years old, nearly one in every three specimens will bear some evidence of prostatic malignancy.” (but you already knew that first part, right?)

“Cisplatin was unforgettable in more than one sense. The drug provoked an unremitting nausea, a queasiness of such penetrating force and quality that had rarely been encountered in the history of medicine: on average, patients treated with the drug vomited twelve times a day.”

“The incidence of CML remains unchanged from the past: only a few thousand patients are diagnosed with this form of leukemia every year. But the prevalence of CML—the number of patients presently alive with the disease—has dramatically changed with the introduction of Gleevec [a new treatment option – there’s much more about it in the book and the wikipedia article also covers this]. As of 2009, CML patients treated with Gleevec are expected to survive an average of thirty years after their diagnosis. Based on that survival figure, Hagop Kantarjian estimates that within the next decade, 250,000 people will be living with CML in America, all of them on targeted therapy. Druker’s drug will alter the national physiognomy of cancer, converting a once-rare disease [people just died of it in the past] into a relatively common one”

He doesn’t cover the economics of cancer and cancer treatment in much detail and present problems and developments in this area are not covered at all. Included in the postscript is however an interview dealing with some of the stuff not covered in the book, and after reading that part I’m in a way glad he didn’t write about this stuff – when dealing with the question of the high costs of relatively recently discovered targeted therapies, he does not even mention FDA’s role in driving up costs when answering that question, which is telling me that this is a subject he simply doesn’t know enough about to cover, at least at the present point in time. If you want to know more the FDA’s role in driving up costs of new medical treatments, including new cancer treatments, Megan McArdle has written about that stuff often though I don’t have a specific link at hand; google is your friend.

The book is very USA-centric, but I didn’t consider that a big issue. It’s also ‘popular science’. That was initially a strong argument for not buying the book, but on the other hand the popular science aspect also means that the book is easy to read and won’t take you very long to get through even though the page count is significant.

It’s a wonderful read.

September 27, 2012 Posted by | books, cancer, data, medicine | Leave a comment

Theological Incorrectness

Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t.

I read it today. Aside from the recent Pratchett novel and ‘work’ reading, I pretty much haven’t touched any ‘book-stuff’ in something like 3 weeks – a very long time. I paused the book reading at the start of the semester in part as a strategic ploy to try to improve work efficiency (I also did it because I ran out of books I had at home which I actually wanted to read, but the other aspect was the reason why I didn’t just order some new ones a lot sooner than I actually did), however I don’t think that strategy works so I’ve given up on it by now; instead of studying more I just manage to find other even less productive ways to waste my time. So when I received some books from amazon this morning I decided to go right ahead and start out by reading this little thing today. Razib Khan has mentioned it quite a few times on his blog so I figured I’d check it out.

It’s somewhat interesting but not super great; I’d probably give it a 3/5 or 4/5 on amazon (closer to 4 than 3). I’ve left more than a few critical notes in the margin and I didn’t find all the components of the framework laid out by Slone equally convincing, but on the other hand some of the good stuff is, well, not bad at all. There was a lot of stuff in there I didn’t know.

The book is not about why religious people believe (in) things which aren’t true – you know, like gods and stuff. There are some relatively well known explanations for that stuff included in the book as well, but that’s not the main focus. No, the book sets out to explain why religious people believe things they’re not supposed to believe, according to the tenets of their own beliefs. I’ll quote from the introduction:

“Why is this problem important? It is important because, for one, it teaches us the lesson that theology doesn’t determine people’s actual thoughts and behaviours. In fact, the ideas that one learns in one’s given culture, such as theological ideas, play only a partial role in what people actually think and do. This book offers an explanation for how and why.”

The book uses insights from cognitive science to explain how religious people make sense of the world and how religion impacts decisionmaking. It also deals with how (and which kinds of) religious ideas (are likely to) spread, again linking observations about these matters with observations from cognitive science which are then used to explain the dynamics. It’s also a book which deals with how the study of religious beliefs and religious behaviour has changed over time; I didn’t know anything about this beforehand so I believe that I learned a lot from those sections.

September 25, 2012 Posted by | books, religion | 1 Comment

Going Postal (2)

I read the book 3 years ago and I also blogged it back then – the old post has a few quotes from the book if you’re interested.

Today I reread it – and it’s still a great book. Moist von Lipwig is one of my favourite Discworld characters.

September 23, 2012 Posted by | books, Terry Pratchett | Leave a comment

The ideal persona?

I’ve been thinking about the stuff in this post on and off for a long time. I probably shouldn’t post this and I may still change my mind and pull it down later on.

Anyway, to function well in their daily lives, most people deceive themselves to some degree. They tell themselves that their work matters a great deal (/more than it does); that they make a (/much bigger) difference (/than they actually do); that they are smarter and more accomplished than they really are.

The deluded optimist looks for opportunities he wouldn’t have sought, had he been more realistic. And the deluded pessimist misses options he might have had a shot at, had he been more realistic. If we’re thinking only about maximizing opportunities, it seems that systematic overconfidence/optimism is the strictly dominant strategy. At least if we don’t include costs in the equation. We can’t just ignore those of course, because most people know that if you ask out a girl and she says no, it will hurt. The girl may not feel any pain, but the rejected suitor will. The interesting thing here is that whereas one could in theory say: ‘I should just ignore that it hurts and try finding another girl’, for most people an optimal strategy would seem to have to include previous encounters and previous outcomes because those previous events contain important information that should ideally be included in the decision making process. A low-quality male who does not change his strategy after the first ten rejections will have a lower likelihood of being successful in terms of finding a partner than will a low-quality male that decides to mostly target low-quality females after the first three rejections, although the expected quality of the former’s potential partner is higher than the expected quality of the latter’s. One could make some corresponding remarks regarding the female’s problem; a female who’s never approached should ideally probably have a lower rejection rate than a female who’s approached all the time.

Most people do take previous information into account to some extent and this is, I believe, a huge part of why self-confidence is such a big deal for humans when it comes to figuring out who’s attractive and who isn’t. If you’re very self-confident, it’s most likely because you’ve been given reason to be; if you’re a male, the natural inference to make is to assume that you’ve not been rejected very much in the past and that you’ve had success with attractive partners before – if you’re female, self-confidence means that you’ve been approached a lot and have had to say no to a lot of males and thus you can afford to be picky. Another thing to note is that it takes at least some experience to become self-confident; you can fake it if you’re unexperienced, but that’s not quite the same thing – and females are generally good at spotting fakers because they have to be. Why do they have to be? Because if self-confidence is a very important variable when it comes to assigning value to a potential match, it becomes obvious that males will try to cheat and signal that they are self-confident even though they haven’t had a lot of success in the past. Females who couldn’t spot the cheaters had offspring with the low-quality guys in the past, so they had fewer offspring.

Low-qulity males are telling themselves they’re high quality. High quality males know they are high quality, and that they’re higher quality than low-quality males who tell themselves that they are high quality. And it’s not just ‘high quality’; every male around will try very hard, with a great deal of success, to convince himself that he’d be the best partner of all the potential partners the female would ever meet in a relevant time-frame. The more successful his self-deceit is, the higher quality partner he will gain access to. There’s the truth, and then there’s the truth plus X %. At some point, say X-upper bar, the risk/reward-relationship will become unfavourable to him given his risk profile (he’ll have less success than he would with a lower self-deceit level because all females can see that he’s much lower value than he thinks and put him in the faker category) – but if all other males have a positive X, an X of zero is strictly dominated. In expected terms the worst strategy a male could pick would probably be to try to be completely realistic about his options and not engage in any kind of (self-)deceit at all; a male who doesn’t even pretend to be higher quality than he is will have lower chances than most lower quality males who pretend to be high-quality.

Self-deceit helps on the dating scene. It helps when it comes to finding reasons for getting up in the morning. It helps when you’re telling your own story about how great you are and how every mistake you ever made was really somebody else’s fault.

I know I engage in a lot of self-deceit. We all do. But somehow I seem to have this impression that I’m a lot worse at using it constructively than are most people. Instrumental rationality is all about using rationality to solve problems, to achieve goals. So not to engage in the proper type of and level of self-deceit is not instrumentally rational. But I still much prefer the current me to a me who thinks much more highly of himself – I really dislike that guy whenever I see him in myself. Self-deceit incidentally isn’t the only relevant variable here. Telling myself that I should be more dominant and aggressive would also likely help my options. But I don’t want to be more aggressive or dominant because that’s not who I am and it’s not who I want to be.

I find it frustrating that the person I want to be don’t seem to be able to have the options I want to have. Either I need to change who I am or I need to change what I want. I find changing what I want very hard.

September 21, 2012 Posted by | personal, rambling nonsense | 9 Comments

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Tasmanian Devil (featured).

“The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a carnivorous marsupial of the family Dasyuridae, now found in the wild only on the Australian island state of Tasmania. The size of a small dog, it became the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world following the extinction of the thylacine in 1936. It is characterised by its stocky and muscular build, black fur, pungent odour, extremely loud and disturbing screech, keen sense of smell, and ferocity when feeding. The Tasmanian devil’s large head and neck allow it to generate amongst the strongest bite per unit body mass of any extant mammal land predator,[2] and it hunts prey and scavenges carrion as well as eating household products if humans are living nearby. Although it usually is solitary, it sometimes eats with other devils and defecates in a communal location. Unlike most other dasyurids, the devil thermoregulates effectively and is active during the middle of the day without overheating. Despite its rotund appearance, the devil is capable of surprising speed and endurance, and can climb trees and swim across rivers. […]

On average, devils eat about 15% of their body weight each day, although they can eat up to 40% of their body weight in 30 minutes if the opportunity arises.[43] This means they can become very heavy and lethargic after a large meal; in this state they tend to waddle away slowly and lie down, becoming easy to approach. […]

Since the late 1990s, devil facial tumour disease has drastically reduced the devil population and now threatens the survival of the species, which in 2008 was declared to be endangered. Programs are currently being undertaken by the Government of Tasmania to reduce the impact of the disease, including an initiative to build up a group of healthy devils in captivity, isolated from the disease. […] First seen in 1996, devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) has ravaged Tasmania’s wild devils, and estimates of the impact range from 20% to as much as a 50% decline in the devil population, with over 65% of the state affected. The state’s west coast area and far north-west are the only places where devils are tumour free.[125][126] Individual devils die within months of infection.[127]

The disease is an example of a transmissible cancer, which means that it is contagious and passed from one animal to another.[128] Short of a cure, scientists are removing the sick animals and quarantining healthy devils in case the wild population dies out.[128] Because Tasmanian devils have extremely low levels of genetic diversity and a chromosomal mutation unique among carnivorous mammals, they are more prone to the infectious cancer.[129]

ii. Mengistu Haile Mariam. A bad guy.

He “is an Ethiopian politician who was the most prominent officer of the Derg, the Communist military junta that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987, and President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia from 1987 to 1991. He oversaw the Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977–1978,[4] a campaign of repression against the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party and other anti-Derg factions. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 at the conclusion of the Ethiopian Civil War, and remains there despite an Ethiopian court verdict finding him guilty in absentia of genocide.[5] Some estimates, for the number of deaths his regime were responsible for, are as high as 1.285 million dead.[6]

iii. Waldseemüller map.

The full version is at the link, 29,700 × 16,500 pixels and almost 100 MB.

“The Waldseemüller map, Universalis Cosmographia, is a printed wall map of the world by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, originally published in April 1507. It is known as the first map to use the name “America“. The map is drafted on a modification of Ptolemy’s second projection, expanded to accommodate the Americas and the high latitudes.[1] A single copy of the map survives, presently housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. […]

While some maps after 1500 show, with ambiguity, an eastern coastline for Asia distinct from the Americas, the Waldseemüller map apparently indicates the existence of a new ocean between the trans-Atlantic regions of the Spanish discoveries and the Asia of Ptolemy and Marco Polo as exhibited on the 1492 Behaim globe. The first historical records of Europeans to set eyes on this ocean, the Pacific, are recorded as Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513 or, Ponce de León in 1512 or 1513. Those dates are five to six years after Waldseemüller made his map. […] The historian Peter Whitfield has theorized that Waldseemüller incorporated the ocean into his map because Vespucci’s accounts of the Americas, with their so-called “savage” peoples, could not be reconciled with contemporary knowledge of India, China, and the islands of Indies. Thus, in the view of Whitfield, Waldseemüller reasoned that the newly discovered lands could not be part of Asia, but must be separate from it, a leap of intuition that was later proved uncannily precise.”

iv. Battle of Arnhem. The Wikipedia community thinks it’s a ‘good article’, I think it’s great.

v. Thermohaline circulation. Did I write about this back when I covered Earth? Probably, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t link to this back then.

vi. Centipede game (game theory).

“In game theory, the centipede game, first introduced by Rosenthal (1981), is an extensive form game in which two players take turns choosing either to take a slightly larger share of a slowly increasing pot, or to pass the pot to the other player. The payoffs are arranged so that if one passes the pot to one’s opponent and the opponent takes the pot on the next round, one receives slightly less than if one had taken the pot on this round. Although the traditional centipede game had a limit of 100 rounds (hence the name), any game with this structure but a different number of rounds is called a centipede game. Wherein thus discussed becomes particularly an objective of coverage rather than that of gain and the unique subgame perfect equilibrium (and every Nash equilibrium) of these games indicates that the first player take the pot on the very first round of the game; however in empirical tests relatively few players do so, and as a result achieve a higher payoff than the payoff predicted by the equilibria analysis. These results are taken to show that subgame perfect equilibria and Nash equilibria fail to predict human play in some circumstances. The Centipede game is commonly used in introductory game theory courses and texts to highlight the concept of backward induction and the iterated elimination of dominated strategies, which show a standard way of providing a solution to the game.”

vii. Compromise of 1850.

“The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five bills, passed in September 1850, which defused a four-year confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). The compromise, drafted by Whig Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and brokered by Clay and Democrat Stephen Douglas, avoided secession or civil war and reduced sectional conflict for four years.

The Compromise was greeted with relief, although each side disliked specific provisions.”

The article has much more, including plenty of relevant maps.

September 19, 2012 Posted by | biology, Game theory, Geography, Geology, history, wikipedia | Leave a comment


i. Click to view full size:

(link). He probably is going to say something stupid. According to a new paper: The Mere Anticipation of an Interaction with a Woman Can Impair Men’s Cognitive Performance. ‘Further studies needed’ etc., but I’m inclined to believe that they are right and that yes, males are actually that stupid and impressionable. Though effect sizes are important to have in mind too.

ii. I thought this was funny. Then again I’m weird.

iii. I’ve added Guam to my list of ‘places I don’t want to visit anytime in the near future’. Why? Because of this.

“Birds are dominant apex predators in terrestrial systems around the world, yet all studies on their role as predators have come from small-scale experiments; the top-down impact of bird loss on their arthropod prey has yet to be examined at a landscape scale. Here, we use a unique natural experiment, the extirpation of insectivorous birds from nearly all forests on the island of Guam by the invasive brown tree snake, to produce the first assessment of the impacts of bird loss on their prey. We focused on spiders because experimental studies showed a consistent top-down effect of birds on spiders. We conducted spider web surveys in native forest on Guam and three nearby islands with healthy bird populations. Spider web densities on the island of Guam were 40 times greater than densities on islands with birds during the wet season, and 2.3 times greater during the dry season. These results confirm the general trend from manipulative experiments conducted in other systems however, the effect size was much greater in this natural experiment than in most manipulative experiments. […]

We compared the abundance of web-building spiders on Guam to that on Rota, Tinian and Saipan. At each site, we set up 1–3 transects, separated by at least 200 meters. The transects were 20 or 30 meters long, depending on the year. We counted all visible webs within 1 horizontal meter of each transect centerline and up to 2 vertical meters above the ground. Webs lacking a spider were considered abandoned, and not counted. […] Guam, without birds, had a mean of 18.37 spider webs per ten meters in the wet season, compared to 0.45 webs per ten meters on nearby islands with birds […]. In the dry season, Guam had 26.19 spider webs per ten meters compared to 11.37 webs per ten meters on nearby islands with birds”

iv. You Don’t Know Me, But I Know You: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight, by Pronin, Kruger, Savitsky and Ross. Interesting. The abstract:

“People, it is hypothesized, show an asymmetry in assessing their own interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge relative to that of their peers. Six studies suggested that people perceive their knowledge of their peers to surpass their peers’ knowledge of them. Several of the studies explored sources of this perceived asymmetry, especially the conviction that while observable behaviors (e.g., interpersonal revelations or idiosyncratic word completions) are more revealing of others than self, private thoughts and feelings are more revealing of self than others. Study 2 also found that college roommates believe they know themselves better than their peers know themselves. Study 6 showed that group members display a similar bias—they believe their groups know and understand relevant out-groups better than vice versa. The relevance of such illusions of asymmetric insight for interpersonal interaction and our understanding of “naive realism” is discussed.”

v. Crunching the data on human brain evolution. Which functional form fits the underlying process better is an interesting discussion but I’d like to note that what I first thought when seeing these (or rather, similar depictions elsewhere) was: ‘hey, look at that standard deviation!’

vi. Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Another fMRI-study. I don’t know enough about this stuff to comment on the validity of the conclusions, but I’ll probably bookmark it and keep it for later so that I’ll be able to use it to justify my decision not to ask out the hypothetical cute girl in class next semester (or whatever).

vii. Quality of Diabetes Care in Italy. I’m glad I don’t live in Italy:

“Of 126,163 diabetic individuals (prevalence of diabetes 5.8%, mean age 71 years), as many as 42% did not have their HbA1c measured for over a year. Even considering only insulin-treated people, this frequency remains disappointingly high (35%). The proportion of people having at least two annual tests for HbA1c was low (32.7%; 43.1% among insulin-treated patients). […] Another disappointing finding is the very low proportion of subjects in whom microalbuminuria was tested (27%) in spite of its role as a strong predictor of cardiovascular diseases and dialysis. Annual testing for plasma total cholesterol (61.2%), creatinine (58.9%), eye examination (11.1%), electrocardiogram (25.1%), and arterial echo-Doppler (15.9%) were low.”

I recently posted some corresponding Danish numbers here, though unfortunately that post is in Danish. In Denmark approximately 95% of diabetics get their HbA1c measured at least once a year. I get my HbA1c tested 3-4 times a year and I’d have no clue what to do without these numbers. 92% of Danish patients cared for by the hospital outpatient clinics (diabetesambulatorier) and 55% of the patients treated by their local GP were tested for microalbuminuria at least once every two years. I’m tested once per year. I frankly found it shocking that the Italic HbA1c numbers were that low but I probably should have known better, given the variation in diabetes care across countries. Not all of the variables mentioned are equally important but Italy fails at the really basic stuff too. For a Danish diabetic to move to a place like (Southern) Italy (I’m almost certain the situation is far worse in the south than in the north) would be a bit like an old and frail person moving to a place where they haven’t heard about penicillin. This stuff is a big part of why I’m not very likely to move away from Denmark when I finish my education – a lot of places I basically consider ‘off limits’ because I’d be gambling with my health by moving there, and even a lot of relatively advanced societies still have diabetes treatment protocols which belong in the (metaphorical) Stone Age.

September 18, 2012 Posted by | archaeology, diabetes, medicine, papers, Psychology, random stuff, studies | Leave a comment


i. “That’s another trouble with education as we now have it – it is for the young and people think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish that’s a rite of passage into manhood. […] ‘I’ve finished with school, I’m no more a child’ – and therefore anything that reminds you of school; reading books, having ideas, asking questions – that’s kids’ stuff. Now you’re an adult you don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” […] What’s wrong with it is you have everybody looking forward to no longer learning, and you make them ashamed afterwards of going back to learning.” […] The trouble with learning is most people don’t enjoy it because of the circumstances. Make it possible for them to enjoy learning and they’ll keep it up” (Isaac Asimov. I’ve posted the Asimov discussion here on the blog before, but people may have missed it and I really liked this. In terms of the prevailing societal norms things have likely changed somewhat since then, but perhaps less than many people would like to think.)

ii. “We confess our faults in the plural, and deny them in the singular.” (Richard Fulke Greville)

iii. “is being stupid really a disadvantage? Frankly some of the most self-satisfied people I know are the stupid affluent. They are stupid enough that they can unreflectively enjoy their affluence. The correlation between income and intelligence is weak enough that there will be many stupid affluent and intelligent poor. The former are probably the happiest, and the latter the most miserable.” (Razib Khan)

iv. “If a friend tell thee a fault, imagine always that he telleth thee not the whole.” (Thomas Fuller)

v. “A fool’s paradise is a wise man’s hell.” (-ll-)

vi. “If we would please in society, we must be prepared to be taught many things we know already by people wo do not know them.” (Chamfort)

vii. “The test of good manners is to be patient with bad ones.” (Solomon Ibn Gabirol)

viii. “Could we but enter into the hearts of mankind, and see the motives and springs that prompt them to the undertaking of many illustrious actions, we should very probably see fewer of them performed.” (anon.)

ix. “A secret may be sometimes best kept by keeping the secret of its being a secret.” (Sir Henry Taylor)

x. “The cruellest lies are often told in silence.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)

xi. “The chief use to which we put our love of the truth is in persuading ourselves that what we love is true.” (Pierre Nicole)

xii. “Openness of mind means accessibility of mind to any and every consideration that will throw light upon the situation that needs to be cleared up, and that will help determine the consequences of acting this way or that. Efficiency in accomplishing ends which have been settled upon as unalterable can coexist with a narrowly opened mind. But intellectual growth means constant expansion of horizons and consequent formation of new purposes and new responses. These are impossible without an active disposition to welcome points of view hitherto alien; an active desire to entertain considerations which modify existing purposes. Retention of capacity to grow is the reward of such intellectual hospitality. The worst thing about stubbornness of mind, about prejudices, is that they arrest development; they shut off the mind from new stimuli. Open-mindedness means retention of the childlike attitude; closed-mindedness means premature intellectual old age.” (John Dewey)

xiii. “Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like; but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy, and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves.” (Francis Bacon. Related link.)

xiv. “There is no living in the world without a complaisant indulgence for people’s weaknesses, and innocent, though ridiculous vanities. If  a man has a mind to be thought wiser, and a woman handsomer than they really are, their error is a comfortable one to themselves, and an innocent one with regard to other people; and I would rather make them my friends, by indulging them in it, than my enemies, by endeavouring (and that to no purpose) to undeceive them.” (Lord Chesterfield. In case you feel the need to ask: No, I’m not sure if I agree with this sentiment.)

xv. “As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.” (Josh Billings)

xvi. “It is easier to say new things than to reconcile those which have already been said.” (Vauvenargues)

xvii. “To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.” (Tacitus)

xviii. “A fool always finds someone more foolish than he is to admire him.” (Boileau)

September 14, 2012 Posted by | quotes | 4 Comments

Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating

Real life takes up most of my time these days and I’m only posting this because I haven’t posted in a few days. Anyway, I found this paper and I thought some of you might be interested. Note that the sample sizes are generally very small (# of males from Brazil included? 39. Finland? 28. France? 47) and that “the ISDP samples were primarily college students” (p. 269) – so it’s probably a good idea to be very cautious when interpreting the results. Unfortunately Finland is the only Scandinavian country included in the analysis. Anyway, some stuff from the paper:

“Abstract: The Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI; Simpson & Gangestad 1991) is a self-report measure of individual differences in human mating strategies. Low SOI scores signify that a person is sociosexually restricted, or follows a more monogamous mating strategy. High SOI scores indicate that an individual is unrestricted, or has a more promiscuous mating strategy. As part of the International Sexuality Description Project (ISDP), the SOI was translated from English into 25 additional languages and administered to a total sample of 14,059 people across 48 nations. Responses to the SOI were used to address four main issues. First, the psychometric properties of the SOI were examined in cross-cultural perspective. The SOI possessed adequate reliability and validity both within and across a diverse range of modern cultures. Second, theories concerning the systematic distribution of sociosexuality across cultures were evaluated. Both operational sex ratios and reproductively demanding environments related in evolutionary-predicted ways to national levels of sociosexuality. Third, sex differences in sociosexuality were generally large and demonstrated cross-cultural universality across the 48 nations of the ISDP, confirming several evolutionary theories of human mating. Fourth, sex differences in sociosexuality were significantly larger when reproductive environments were demanding but were reduced to more moderate levels in cultures with more political and economic gender equality. Implications for evolutionary and social role theories of human sexuality are discussed.” […]

“On average, men tend to possess more positive attitudes toward casual, low-investment sex than women do (Carrol et al. 1985; Fisher et al. 1988; Hendrick et al. 1985; Oliver & Hyde 1993; Townsend 1995; Wilson 1987). Men also report that they fantasize about having sex with multiple partners more than women do (Ellis & Symons 1990; Malamuth 1996), and men behaviorally seek short-term mateships more than women do (Blumstein & Schwartz 1994; Eysenck 1976; Laumman et al. 1994; Wiederman 1997). Experimental tests have further confirmed that men are more likely than women to consent to sex with a stranger when approached in a community setting (Clark & Hatfield 1989), even when the stranger is “vouched for” by a participant’s same-sex friend (Clark 1990). […]

This pervasive pattern of sexual differences – across attitudes, fantasy, and behavior – implies that men should be higher or more unrestricted on sociosexuality than women. Indeed, the direct evidence on this point is unequivocal, at least in United States. In every study published to date, American men report higher levels of sociosexuality than American women based on responses to the SOI. […]

(click to view full size)

“sex differences in sociosexuality appear to be culturally universal (at least across the spectrum of modern ISDP nations) […] The hypothesis that men should be more unrestricted than women across cultures is fundamental to several evolutionary theories of human mating (e.g., Buss & Schmitt 1993). In support of this perspective, men were more unrestricted than women across all nations of the ISDP. This tended to be true when looking at means, medians, and distributions; when looking at sociosexual attitudes and behaviors; and – most importantly – the magnitude of this difference was moderate to large in size regardless of the moderating effects of culture. Overall, the average mean-level man scored about three-quarters of a standard deviation higher on the SOI than the average mean-level woman – one of the largest and most robust cross-cultural differences ever documented in the sexuality literature (Oliver & Hyde 1994). In addition, based on ANOVA methods, the overall effect size of biological sex is quite large (η^2 =  0.15), more than double the more moderate effect size of nation (η^2 = 0.06).” […]

Among the 48 nations of the ISDP, the five nations with the highest levels of gender equity ratings on the United Nations Gender Development Index are Australia (d = 0.66), Canada (d = 0.75), the United States (d = 0.73), Belgium (d = 0.69), and the Netherlands (d = 0.76). In each nation, sex differences in sociosexuality are conspicuous, ranging from moderate to large in size. Relatively egalitarian sexual standards and gender role beliefs for men and women in modern cultures, therefore, may attenuate sex differences in sociosexuality, but they appear unlikely to reduce them to less than moderately-sized magnitudes of effect. […] The current findings do suggest that women’s sociosexual attitudes and behaviors will get closer to men’s as gender equality becomes more common, but it seems unlikely that men and women would ever possess precisely equal levels of sociosexuality.”

Do note that the study itself is only half or so of the text in the link – the latter half is commentary and criticism provided by other people in the field.

September 12, 2012 Posted by | biology, data, demographics, evolution, Psychology, studies | 2 Comments

On ‘common knowledge’

In the real world there are a lot of areas where it is completely natural for a person not to know very much, if anything, about it. Humans are not born imprinted with knowledge about, say, the lastest Greek employment figures, or how photosynthesis works.

Some people would say there’s a difference between the two. And that there are some things which are more important to know than others.

From a practical point of view, this is certainly true; knowledge about the finer details regarding the collapse of the Inca Empire will generally not be as useful when engaging in social interaction with most people as will knowledge about the latest soccer results or the latest political reform proposals (trust me on this one). People usually have a good idea which kind of stuff they’re supposed to know something about in order best to socially engage with others, and as long as other people play along and engage in the same kinds of conversations and search for the same kinds of knowledge social interaction is relatively easy.

Most people who interact with people they don’t know terribly well engage in the same kinds of knowledge exchange dynamics. They know a lot about which subjects are kosher and which aren’t, and the pool of acceptable conversation topics is actually incredibly small once you start to think about it. It’s not that you need to know everything about all the acceptable topics, but if you’ve picked a few of them out and made an effort of obtaining a bit of knowledge about them you should be okay. Social expectations play a large role here. It’s not considered bad form to bring up a subject the other party knows nothing about; what is considered bad form is to bring up a subject the other party ‘cannot be expected to know anything about’. The topics other people can be expected to know something about is drawn from a usually quite short list. Expectations regarding what kind of- and even which specific bits of knowledge you’re supposed to possess are to a large extent formed around the ‘acceptable conversation topics’. Given the expectations people possess it is very important for an individual wishing to engage others socially to know at least something about some of the acceptable conversation topics, and/because if the individual doesn’t know anything about X he might suffer status loss or even social rejection. Given this, an individual will perhaps sometimes feel the need to signal that he knows stuff he doesn’t actually know. He may even feel the need to signal that he knows stuff it would be unreasonable of anyone to expect him to know, given the specific context. The specific context will often be considered irrelevant because expectations are formed mostly independently of these, and the social expectations are considered common knowledge; everyone knows that if you’re heading for a political discussion, you’re supposed to be able to say a few words about, say, global warming, or immigration. These are areas where you’re basically not allowed not to have an opinion.

Every bit of knowledge one obtains is another bit of knowledge not obtained. In order to engage in an acceptable level of social interaction, it may be necessary to obtain information about X which one would not otherwise have obtained. Such information should be considered a cost related to the social exhange. A cost the minimization of which would probably easiest be achieved by trying to impact the expectations of the other people involved. Even though expectations are as mentioned above to a large extent independent of the individual, the community expectations are not completely exogenous – what you expect others to know and be interested in may change their expectations in the long run. That is to say, rather than trying to save face by claiming to know stuff one doesn’t, it might be a strategy worth considering to perhaps rather let the other party know that one does not consider this area of knowledge as important or interesting as Y (‘…which is totally awesome because …’).

I have met a lot of people over time who were claiming to know stuff they clearly didn’t know – and my experience is surely far from unique. When you spend a lot of time in a social environment where people’s expectations about what you have to offer/what you know and what you actually do have to offer/know do not match, or in an environment where you feel that it is very important that you make a good impression, this is clearly what you’ll sometimes get – people pretending to know stuff they don’t, and/or be someone they’re not, because they dislike obtaining knowledge about X but would prefer not to incur a social cost from not knowing about X.

An interesting thing is that the sanction from being ‘overconfident’, or perhaps even a liar, will sometimes be smaller than the implicit sanction from not accepting the, again implicit, ‘acceptable/unacceptable topics’ framework. The first one at least plays the game, the second one doesn’t – and if you don’t, you need a good excuse.

I’m sure pretty much everyone has at least some notion about which kind of knowledge ‘you’re supposed to know’ to be ‘fit for social interaction’. But I also tend to believe that the best way to behave in this weird world is to act as if there isn’t. If adults asked as many questions as children do, people would know a lot more stuff and it would be a lot easier to engage others and find topics to talk about. It’s as if it’s not okay socially not to know stuff and openly display that you don’t know – and I hate that! Not knowing is the default state, and it’s unreasonable to expect people to know very much, compared to how much there is to know, or to expect preference homogeneity; i.e. that the costs incurred from obtaining knowledge about X are the same for everybody. It’s unreasonable also because it will sometimes give people an incentive to behave in a deceitful manner which will only harm both them and you.

I think it makes a lot of sense to deliberately try not to think of oneself as ‘well informed’ or ‘knowledgeable’ when engaging others. I’ve thought this way myself in the past, but I believe it’s the wrong way to approach matters. So what to do instead? Well, it’s simple really: Think of yourself as ‘curious’.

September 9, 2012 Posted by | rambling nonsense | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. 2,4-Dinitrophenol.

2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP), C6H4N2O5, is an inhibitor of efficient energy (ATP) production in cells with mitochondria. It uncouples oxidative phosphorylation by carrying protons across the mitochondrial membrane, leading to a rapid consumption of energy without generation of ATP. […]

DNP was used extensively in diet pills from 1933 to 1938 after Cutting and Tainter at Stanford University made their first report on the drug’s ability to greatly increase metabolic rate.[3][4] After only its first year on the market Tainter estimated that probably at least 100,000 persons had been treated with DNP in the United States, in addition to many others abroad.[5] DNP acts as a protonophore, allowing protons to leak across the inner mitochondrial membrane and thus bypass ATP synthase. This makes ATP energy production less efficient. In effect, part of the energy that is normally produced from cellular respiration is wasted as heat. The inefficiency is proportional to the dose of DNP that is taken. As the dose increases and energy production is made more inefficient, metabolic rate increases (and more fat is burned) in order to compensate for the inefficiency and meet energy demands. DNP is probably the best known agent for uncoupling oxidative phosphorylation. The production or “phosphorylation” of ATP by ATP synthase gets disconnected or “uncoupled” from oxidation. Interestingly, the factor that limits ever-increasing doses of DNP is not a lack of ATP energy production, but rather an excessive rise in body temperature due to the heat produced during uncoupling. Accordingly, DNP overdose will cause fatal hyperthermia. In light of this, it’s advised that the dose be slowly titrated according to personal tolerance, which varies greatly.[6] Case reports have shown that an acute administration of 20–50 mg/kg in humans can be lethal.[7] Concerns about dangerous side-effects and rapidly developing cataracts resulted in DNP being discontinued in the United States by the end of 1938. DNP, however, continues to be used by some bodybuilders and athletes to rapidly lose body fat. Fatal overdoses are rare, but are still reported on occasion. These include cases of accidental exposure,[8] suicide,[7][9][10] and excessive intentional exposure.[9][11][12] […]

While DNP itself is considered by many to be too risky for human use, its mechanism of action remains under investigation as a potential approach for treating obesity.[19]

ii. Opium. Long article with lots of good stuff.

“The most important reason for the increase in opiate consumption in the United States during the 19th century was the prescribing and dispensing of legal opiates by physicians and pharmacists to women with ”female problems” (mostly to relieve menstrual pain). Between 150,000 and 200,000 opiate addicts lived in the United States in the late 19th century and between two-thirds and three-quarters of these addicts were women.[35] […]

After the 1757 Battle of Plassey and 1764 Battle of Buxar, the British East India Company gained the power to act as diwan of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa (See company rule in India). This allowed the company to exercise a monopoly over opium production and export in India, to encourage ryots to cultivate the cash crops of indigo and opium with cash advances, and to prohibit the “hoarding” of rice. This strategy led to the increase of the land tax to 50% of the value of crops and to the doubling of East India Company profits by 1777. It is also claimed to have contributed to the starvation of ten million people in the Bengal famine of 1770. Beginning in 1773, the British government began enacting oversight of the company’s operations, and in response to the Indian Rebellion of 1857 this policy culminated in the establishment of direct rule over the Presidencies and provinces of British India. Bengal opium was highly prized, commanding twice the price of the domestic Chinese product, which was regarded as inferior in quality.[47]

Some competition came from the newly independent United States, which began to compete in Guangzhou (Canton) selling Turkish opium in the 1820s. Portuguese traders also brought opium from the independent Malwa states of western India, although by 1820, the British were able to restrict this trade by charging “pass duty” on the opium when it was forced to pass through Bombay to reach an entrepot.[17] Despite drastic penalties and continued prohibition of opium until 1860, opium importation rose steadily from 200 chests per year under Yongzheng to 1,000 under Qianlong, 4,000 under Jiaqing, and 30,000 under Daoguang.[48] The illegal sale of opium became one of the world’s most valuable single commodity trades and has been called “the most long continued and systematic international crime of modern times.”[49]

In response to the ever-growing number of Chinese people becoming addicted to opium, Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty took strong action to halt the import of opium, including the seizure of cargo. In 1838, the Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu destroyed 20,000 chests of opium in Guangzhou (Canton).[17] Given that a chest of opium was worth nearly $1,000 in 1800, this was a substantial economic loss. The British, not willing to replace the cheap opium with costly silver, began the First Opium War in 1840, the British winning Hong Kong and trade concessions in the first of a series of Unequal Treaties.

Following China’s defeat in the Second Opium War in 1858, China was forced to legalize opium and began massive domestic production. Importation of opium peaked in 1879 at 6,700 tons, and by 1906, China was producing 85% of the world’s opium, some 35,000 tons, and 27% of its adult male population regularly used opium —13.5 million people consuming 39,000 tons of opium yearly.[47] From 1880 to the beginning of the Communist era, Britain attempted to discourage the use of opium in China, but this effectively promoted the use of morphine, heroin, and cocaine, further exacerbating the problem of addiction.[50] […]

iii. Metallicity.

“In astronomy and physical cosmology, the metallicity (also called Z[1]) of an object is the proportion of its matter made up of chemical elements other than hydrogen and helium. Since stars, which comprise most of the visible matter in the universe, are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, astronomers use for convenience the blanket term “metal” to describe all other elements collectively.[2] Thus, a nebula rich in carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and neon would be “metal-rich” in astrophysical terms even though those elements are non-metals in chemistry. This term should not be confused with the usual definition of “metal“; metallic bonds are impossible within stars, and the very strongest chemical bonds are only possible in the outer layers of cool K and M stars. Normal chemistry therefore has little or no relevance in stellar interiors.

The metallicity of an astronomical object may provide an indication of its age. When the universe first formed, according to the Big Bang theory, it consisted almost entirely of hydrogen which, through primordial nucleosynthesis, created a sizeable proportion of helium and only trace amounts of lithium and beryllium and no heavier elements. Therefore, older stars have lower metallicities than younger stars such as our Sun.”

iv. Batavian Republic.

“The Batavian Republic (Dutch: Bataafse Republiek) was the successor of the Republic of the United Netherlands. It was proclaimed on January 19, 1795, and ended on June 5, 1806, with the accession of Louis Bonaparte to the throne of the Kingdom of Holland.” (the article has much more)

v. Taiping Rebellion. Never heard of this? You should have:

“The Taiping Rebellion was a widespread civil war in southern China from 1850 to 1864, against the ruling Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. It was led by heterodox Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, who, having claimed to have received visions, maintained that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ [2]. About 20 million people died, mainly civilians, in one of the deadliest military conflicts in history.[3]

vi. Borobudur (featured).

Borobudur, or Barabudur, is a 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist monument in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. The monument consists of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, and is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.[1] A main dome, located at the center of the top platform, is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside a perforated stupa.”

September 9, 2012 Posted by | astronomy, Chemistry, Geography, history, wikipedia | Leave a comment

Work blogging 2

As indicated the second paper on my reading list is not as easy to cover here as was the first one. It’s quite a bit more technical than the first paper was and so there’s a lot of stuff which is harder to cover. The paper covers many of the same themes the first paper does (it’s written by the same people and published around the same time), but it handles some of the aspects in far more detail. The modelling will probably be a bit hard to understand if you’ve never worked with economic models before but I’ve tried to outline in the post what at least some of the model-building stuff that’s going on is aiming at.

I have decided that I want to try to blog at least all of the material this specific course in question deals with; I haven’t yet figured out if it’ll make sense to try to ‘workblog’ the other stuff I’m doing this semester yet but it takes time to write these posts and so I can assure you that I’ll not try to cover everything I’m supposed to learn this semester. In the post I’ve decided to just write some relevant stuff about the various aspects of the models and -results presented in the paper and keep it relatively superficial (I’ve included nothing which relates to the stuff in the appendix) – hopefully you’ll understand a bit about what’s going on. Of course I mainly write these posts for myself – I know that I learn stuff from writing these posts – but please don’t forget that I’m actually also providing you guys a valuable service here; the last post I wrote was a condensed version of an almost 40 page paper which took me at least a few hours to read and prepare notes for which you could read in just, what, 5-10 minutes?

So, this new paper – what’s it all about? In the paper there’s some introductionary stuff which closely relates to the previous paper, there’s some theoretical model-work, and then there’s a part which handles some model simulations and numerical illustrations. I’ve spent most of my time with the model-work (both in the post and when working with the paper previously). A key policy challenge for decisionmakers is to find and settle for a ‘proper’ balance between incentives and insurance in the labour market, and part of what this paper does is to have a closer look at different aspects of workfare in order to figure out how workfare is likely to affect incentive structures in the labour market and thus labour market outcomes. If you haven’t read the first post, you should probably start there before going any further. As in the last paper, the (now no longer implicit) model operates with three groups: Employed, unemployed and people in activation. Again you have a threat effect, a lock-in effect and a wage effect. The paper disregards human capital considerations so the post-programme effect is absent and state dependence is not addressed. The modelling framework takes benefit levels as a given and then proceed to question whether workfare elements can change insurance/incentives-aspects of the model and improve labour market performance. In the previous paper I did not feel that it was completely clear how the different workfare dimensions worked and how they differed, but in the formalized presentation here it is made very explicit; the two main policy instruments are i) the probability that an unemployed person will be required to participate in an activation measure [P(au)] and ii) the activation work requirement [l(a)]. The latter refers to how much work you’re required to do while activated – the larger this is, the more time/effort you’re required to spend on activation. One way to think about it is that one is the probability of X and the other the effect size of X. Going away from a unidimensional workfare requirement isn’t just something they do ‘to add complexity to the model’; it is shown in the paper that the two variables can be expected to affect different groups in different ways and it is emphasized for this reason that the overall effects of various changes in the workfare requirements depend critically on the total policy package and the specific mixing of the two policy variables.

The utility functions are standard leisure-income specifications and the main variable of interest in the analysis is the search effort (and how this relates to unemployment). As already mentioned the model work illustrates (in more detail) the effects also covered in the previous paper, for example the threat effect [∂S(u)(∂l(a))>0, ∂S(u)/∂P(au)>0], and it also illustrates much more precisely the reasons why using a multidimensional specification of the workfare scheme is important when evaluating the effects of changes to the workfare requirements: ∂S(a)/∂P(au) is negative in the model, meaning that the effect on the job search effort of people in activation given a marginal increase in the workfare intensity is the opposite of the effect such a marginal increase would have on the job search effort of people who are unemployed (and not in activation).

Given the model specification, people in activation spend more time on the work requirement and job search combined than unemployed people spend on job search, but which group actually spends more time searching is ambiguous. Searching is of course only half of the story as there also needs to be some jobs that people who search can find. Unemployed search for jobs, firms have vacancies where people can get employed and the unsurprising equilibrium conditions are briefly outlined. The job finding rate (α) of people searching is decreasing in the wage rate. Wage determination takes place according to a Nash bargaining solution where the bargaining power is taken to be exogenous. A key variable when dealing with the matching aspect of the model is the labour market tightness, θ = v/s (where v is number of job vacancies available and s is the effective search volume).

How workfare affects job search incentives is important, but the main interest is of course rather the impact on (un)employment. The main fact to take away from that part of the formal analysis is that ‘things are complicated’. The net effect on the number of people who are unemployed, in activation and in employment from a given policy change “depends on the balance between counteracting effects”. The effective job finding rates (α*s) [job finding rate conditional on search times search volume] of the two main groups (unemployed and activated) are key, and their contribution can be decomposed into an indirect wage effect, which is unambiguously positive and will thus increase the effective job finding rate for both unemployed and activated, and a direct search effect the sign of which depends on the workfare dimensions and the groups in question. This is another reason why a general equilibrium framework is required to fully understand the effects involved (more below); as also mentioned in the previous paper, in analyses which do not include the indirect wage effect workfare elements will generally be perceived of as worse performing than they do in analyses which include the indirect effects.

The effects of a workfare policy change is not surprisingly dependent on the initial level of workfare introduced into the system; it is for example shown that if no workfare elements exists ex ante, a policy maker can decrease total unemployment by introducing workfare elements and holding the benefit level constant. The dynamics of the level-dependencies involved are made more explicit in the model simulations, where one of the conclusions is that at a low intensity of workfare intensity [P(au)] the threat and wage effects dominate (i.e. a marginal increase in the workfare intensity will impact employment positively) whereas when at a higher level the locking-in effect dominates (i.e. a marginal increase in the workfare intensity will impact employment negatively). On the other hand, when it comes to the work requirement [l(a)] total unemployment is unambiguously decreasing in the work requirement. Welfare goes down for all three groups analyzed, including the people in employment, when workfare is increased, although employers benefit from workfare because it impacts their profit share positively. As workfare can be thought of as to some extent effectively introducing slack into the budget constraint of the government, this party is of course another entity which gains from the introduction of the scheme.

The next paper in the series is Short-Run Equilibrium Dynamics of Unemployment, Vacancies, and Real Wages by Christopher Pissarides (who got the Nobel Prize two years ago). I’ve unfortunately not been able to find a non-gated version of this paper online.

September 7, 2012 Posted by | economics, papers | Leave a comment


i. Population pyramids. Pretty neat. A few examples below. First, the world population pyramid, 2010:

Here’s how it looked like in 1950:

Here’s the population pyramid for Western Africa, 1950:

And here’s how it looks today:

No, I didn’t copy the same image twice. When you’re at the site and click from one version to the other you can spot the difference, but it’s not easy if you’re just comparing the images even if you look carefully. Try to compare that ‘development’ with what happened in Western Europe. First 1950:

Notice the ‘hole’ in the middle? It looks really strange. I wonder what happened 30-35 years before 1950 that might have impacted birth rates so significantly… Here’s how the pyramid looked like in 2010:

The site has more.

ii. The case for personal responsibility?

iii. Vihart has a new cute doodling in math class video up:

iv. I want to play this game at some point (while in the presence of at least one female. Otherwise it’d probably just be weird). Any ideas on how best to implement elo-difference-related handicaps here?

v. I linked to the Vice Guide to North Korea a long time ago. By accident I came across the site again recently, and I liked this video:

vi. The short version of why I may not ‘work blog’ the paper I’m reading right now:

I may decide to blog it anyway and just talk my way around the math, I haven’t decided yet. Much of the stuff the paper covers is also covered to some extent in the paper I linked to earlier today, so that’s certainly a better place to start for people with a time constraint who are curious to know more about these things.

Incidentally while reading the second paper a hidden assumption that had crept into my first work blog post became apparent to me for some reason. I wrote that the article I covered was “an overview article that can be read by pretty much anyone who understands English”. This is not true and I should have known better. I measured the Gunning fog index of my own post about the article and that came out at about 15,2 or so (‘the index estimates the years of formal education needed to understand the text on a first reading’). Surely the article itself has a lower readability level than my blog post about it.

I know that most of you know this, but maybe it’s worth rehashing even so: I’m not a journalist, and I will generally neither think about nor care about how ‘readable’ my stuff, or the stuff I link to, is. That’s not to say I do not try hard to be very precise when it comes to terminology and choice of words and so on.

vii. This is an awesome video:

The future is now.

September 5, 2012 Posted by | blogging, demographics, economics, mathematics, random stuff | 2 Comments

Work blogging

I thought I’d try this and see how it goes. When starting a semester there’s always some easy overview stuff that should not cause people outside the field any problems and I thought I’d start with that. The current post will be based on the paper Flexicurity – labour market performance in Denmark by Andersen and Svarer. Monday I printed approximately 40 papers (un)like this to be read during the semester, and I’m not sure I’m going to be blogging all of them but we’ll see how it goes.

The article is as mentioned just an overview article that can be read by pretty much anyone who understands English. It’s not hard, it’s just stuff I need to know. I filled one A4 paper with notes related to the paper and my blogpost will be based on those notes, rather than the text; I assume this approach will be useful in terms of preparing for the exam because at that point I will not have time to reread the paper. Some of my remarks may not be from the paper but instead related to stuff covered during the first lecture.

First off they talk a bit about the (‘Danish’) flexicurity model, which is based on a combination of a relatively flexible labour market and relatively high social transfers providing social insurance. This model has often been argued to be a major factor behind the Danish (and in other contexts, Scandinavian) economic performance. In the paper they argue that the flexicurity model has been ‘around’ to a significant extent since the 70’es and given the economic performance of Denmark in the 70’es and 80’es the flexicurity model is probably ‘not the whole story’. They argue in the paper that a third factor, active labour market policies, has been crucial for the relative success of the model.

They mention and talk a bit about – and I believe they also misspell – the Ghent system (Gent in the text), which relates to how the Danish UI (unemployment insurance) benefit payments scheme works. Other noteworthy features (in this context) of the Danish labour market: Many small firms, and people who are temporarily laid off constitute a substantial number of the unemployed at any given point in time.

They talk a bit about EPL [employment protection legislation] and argue that there’s a distinction to be made between ‘job security’ (strict EPL) and ’employment security’ (lax EPL). Denmark has relatively lax EPL.

Denmark has a high replacement rate (UI benefits are relatively high compared to wages of people in employment) especially for low-wage workers. So low wage-workers generally confront the highest marginal tax rates related to the state transition from unemployment to employment.

Reforms in the 90’es had three main effects: i) Shorter duration of benefits, ii) changed rules regarding eligibility – getting a job basically became a requirement for ‘resetting the clock’ regarding benefits; it was/is no longer enough to participate in a job training program, ii) workfare. Youth unemployment was dealt with by lowering benefits (to the level of study grants) for young people and by implementing stricter activation requirements for this population segment. Wage formation has become less centralized over time.

Activation measures generally last about 6 months. Workfare affects both employed and unemployed people. Unemployed people in the active labour market programmes are subject to a lock-in effect which means that the activation requirement may crowd out job search. They are also subject to a positive effect, the post-programme effect, which deals with the fact that an activation programme may increase human capital. (though it’s worth noting here that even if human capital goes up, job search efforts may still be impacted negatively by the programme, e.g. by more narrow job-search post-activation). Unemployed people who are not in an activation programme may increase search efforts prior to being faced with activation measures, as activation measures are generally unenjoyable (in the literature they are often modelled as a tax on leisure). This threat/motivation effect has been shown in a Danish context to be both real and significant. People who are employed are also impacted by the workfare requirements of people who are unemployed, because they make the outside option (other jobs) less attractive, which means that wage demands of people employed will be impacted by the policies. This is because from the point of view of a person who’s already employed workfare can be considered a tax on job searching and/or an increase in search costs. They argue in the paper that active labour market policies have impacted wage formation in Denmark during the 90’es. The wage effect is an indirect effect which is hard to observe and it illustrates how a general equilibrium framework is necessary to evaluate costs and benefits of labour market policies.

The time profile of the UI scheme has changed since the reforms were first implemented, as compensation is now falling with the duration of unemployment (in the 80’es it basically wasn’t). In a long time this fall was caused by both the jump from UI-benefits to kontanthjælp after the UI-benefits had been exhausted and by the implicit tax on leisure which hit unemployed people who had received UI benefits for some time and thus became subject to workfare requirements. Today unemployed people face workfare requirements from day one, but as the UI benefits duration has shortened even further (to 2 years in 2010, not in text) the time profile aspects of the system are still very important.

Noteworthy is the fact that workfare requirements introduce a screening element to the benefits system, as benefits are arguably better targeted to people who ‘really need them’ (and thus are willing to be subject to the workfare requirements). Also noteworthy is that how one perceives workfare requirements can impact the effects they can be expected to have; for example, one might choose to perceive of workfare requirements as ‘an option to prolong the benefits period’ rather than a ‘condition to get benefits’, and a recipient of UI-benefits might start to ‘think of workfare as a job option’ – such perceptions would be expected to cause workfare to crowd out job search.

Workfare seems to be popular politically, compared with lowering benefits. Most voters care more about income distributions which can be measured than utility functions which can’t.

Empirically, the lock-in effect is more significant  in the short run than the post-programme effect, and (as already mentioned?) the threat effect is real and significant. The wage effect is hard to measure but given current estimates it’s probably quite significant. In the long run the post-programme effect is likely to be larger than in the short run; this again relates to the extent of hysteresis/state dependence. When evaluating the costs and benefits of workfare, it’s important to deal with this aspect. In general, the reforms of the 90’es have improved cost effectiveness, but this is still an issue. Denmark is in the absolute top of most measures of spending on active labour market policies.

Sanctions, which are imposed on people who are subject to workfare requirements but do not meet the requirements, have increased over time. Arguably males are more responsive to sanctions than females. Workfare may be improved through better targeting of programmes; for example supplementary education, the most common activation measure, is more likely to be cost-effective for people with low education than for people with a high education. In the public sector the use of matching groups have been implemented to improve the efficiency of the programmes.

Any kind of feedback is most welcome.

September 5, 2012 Posted by | economics, papers | 5 Comments

Some change and some ideas

The new semester starts tomorrow, which means I’ll have less time for blogging than I have had over the last few months. The start of the new semester also roughly coincides with the beginning of a chess tournament I’ll be playing this autumn as well as a higher workload related to some board work I have. More work = less spare time = increased opportunity costs of blogging. I’ll likely have to cut down on my running as well; this week I ran ~42km but I don’t expect to be able to justify running more than two days a week once the semester starts, so that’s probably closer to an equilibrium of 25 km/week.

I’ve considered starting to blog stuff that’s covered in the lectures I attend, and I’d like to know if this is something people would be interested in. I think it would be a good way for me to try to make studying a more enjoyable activity – I like to blog, and if I can make studying fun this way it’s certainly worth considering. I considered doing it before a while ago as well, but I abandoned the idea back then primarily because of technical obstacles; wordpress is a horrible template to have to use when dealing with non-trivial mathematics. However I’ll at least think about finding a way to make this work, probably by using a communication strategy emphasizing conceptual understanding rather than ‘formalism’. Such a blogging strategy is not perfect in terms of what I would ideally like to achieve, because conceptual understanding will often not get you very far during an exam, however if we assume that the time spent blogging such things would have been spent blogging other stuff instead it’s probably still a good idea.

Given that I’ll have less time for blogging, I’ve also considered starting to repost older posts on this blog. There are a few reasons why this makes sense. For one thing, people rarely look at the archives and read the old material so it tends to just fade away into oblivion. Given the kind of stuff I used to post some people would probably say that I should be happy about that, but on the other hand I’ve deleted a lot of stuff so I have ‘less to fear’ now than I used to have. To just give you an idea about how much has happened, this post is post number 1579 to be posted here on the blog, and in terms of the posts that are still around it’s post number 1000 – I’ve deleted probably more than half of the posts in the archives which were more than 3 years old (this has incidentally lost me a huge amount of google traffic, but I never cared much about that anyway). With 1000 posts to pick from going back at least 5 years, if I systematically repost one post per week – I’m not planning to, but for the sake of argument let’s assume this – it will be roughly 20 years before this post gets ‘recycled’. A lot of the stuff I haven’t deleted is still quite bad, but there’s no denying that there’s probably some potential here even so. I’m telling myself that when evaluating the alternatives it’s worth remembering that the most likely alternative to a repost is ‘no update’, not ‘an okay post about X’.

I should note here that I recently accessed the blog from a public computer without being logged in and I noticed that there were adds displayed at the bottom of some of my posts. To place adds on what I have come to consider ‘my site’ was not my idea and I got very angry when I realized that wordpress was doing this. I had no idea about the existence of such adds before then as you don’t see them if you’re logged in. In case you were in doubt, I’d much prefer the adds not to be there – but I’m still conflicted about paying wordpress $30/year to stop them from filling my blog with adds.

September 2, 2012 Posted by | blogging, random stuff | Leave a comment

Promoting the unknown, a continuing series

September 2, 2012 Posted by | music | Leave a comment