Economics as a soft science

What we’re covering right now in class is not something I’ll cover here in detail – it’s very technical stuff. A few excerpts from today’s lecture notes (click to view full size):

Stuff like this is why I actually get a bit annoyed by people who state that their impression is that economics is a relatively ‘soft’ science, and ask questions like ‘the math you guys make use of isn’t all that hard, is it?’ (I’ve been asked this question a few times in the past) It’s actually true that a lot of it isn’t – we spend a lot of time calculating derivatives and finding the signs of those derivatives and similar stuff. And economics is a reasonably heterogenous field, so surely there’s a lot of variation – for example, in Denmark business graduates often call themselves economists too even though a business graduates’ background, in terms of what we’ve learned during our education, would most often be reasonably different from e.g. my own.

What I’ll just say here is that the statistics stuff generally is not easy (if you think it is, you’ve spent way too little time on that stuff*). And yeah, the above excerpt is from what I consider my ‘easy course’ this semester – most of it is not like that, but some of it sure is.

Incidentally I should just comment in advance here, before people start talking about physics envy (mostly related to macro, IMO (and remember again the field heterogeneity; many, perhaps a majority of, economists don’t specialize in that stuff and don’t really know all that much about it…)), that the complexity economists deal with when they work with statistics – which is also economics – is the same kind of complexity that’s dealt with in all other subject areas where people need to analyze data to reach conclusions about what the data can tell us. Much of the complexity is in the data – the complexity relates to the fact that the real world is complex, and if we want to model it right and get results that make sense, we need to think very hard about which tools to use and how we use them. The economists who decide to work with that kind of stuff, more than they absolutely have to in order to get their degrees that is, are economists who are taught how to analyze data and do it the right way, and how what is the right way may depend upon what kind of data you’re working with and the questions you want to answer. This also involves learning what an Epanechnikov kernel is and what it implies that the error terms of a model are m-dependent.

(*…or (Plamus?) way too much time…)


October 30, 2012 Posted by | Econometrics, Economics | 2 Comments

Better than average

Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. This is evident in a variety of areas including intelligence, performance on tasks or tests, and the possession of desirable characteristics or personality traits. It is one of many positive illusions relating to the self, and is a phenomenon studied in social psychology.”

(wikipedia). Some data from the article as well as some of the sources and related material. Unless a link is provided, the quote/data is from the wiki article:

“In a survey of faculty at the University of Nebraska, 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability.[13]

In a similar survey, 87% of MBA students at Stanford University rated their academic performance as above the median.[14]

“When more than 90 percent of faculty members rate themselves as above-average teachers, and two-thirds rate themselves among the top quarter, the outlook for much improvement in teaching seems less than promising.” (link)

“social feedback tends to be incredibly misleading. Social psychologist David Sears has studied what he calls the “person-positivity bias”—people’s tendency to evaluate other people positively in the absence of any good reason not to.7 In an examination of student evaluations of their professors at UCLA, comprising literally hundreds of thousands of ratings, Sears found that the average was 7.22 on a nine-point scale. This is well above the midpoint of five, which was designated “average” on the evaluation forms.” (link)

“One of the first studies that found the effect of illusory superiority was carried out in 1976 by the College Board in the USA.[17] A survey was attached to the SAT exams (taken by approximately one million students per year), asking the students to rate themselves relative to the median of the sample (rather than the average peer) on a number of vague positive characteristics. In ratings of leadership ability, 70% of the students put themselves above the median. In ability to get on well with others, 85% put themselves above the median, and 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.”

Self-esteem may have an important modifying role here:

“Extending the better than average effect, 3 studies examined self-, friend, and peer comparisons of personal attributes. Participants rated themselves as better off than friends, who they rated as superior to generalized peers. The exception was in direct comparisons, where the self and friends were not strongly differentiated on unambiguous negative attributes. Self-esteem and construal played moderating roles, with persons with high self-esteem (HSEs) exploiting both ambiguous positive and ambiguous negative traits to favor themselves. Persons lower in self-esteem exploited ambiguous positive traits in their favor but did not exploit ambiguous negative traits. Across self-esteem level, ratings of friends versus peers were exaggerated when attributes were ambiguous. HSEs seemed to take advantage of ambiguity more consistently to present favorable self-views; people with low self-esteem used ambiguity to favor their friends but were reluctant to minimize their own faults.” (link)

And similar findings are reported here:

“Three investigations are reported that examined the relation between self-appraisals and appraisals of others. In Experiment 1, subjects rated a series of valenced trait adjectives according to how well the traits described the self and others. Individuals displayed a pronounced “self-other bias,” such that positive attributes were rated as more descriptive of self than of others, whereas negative attributes were rated as less descriptive of self than of others. Furthermore, in contrast to C. R. Rogers’s (1951) assertion that high self-esteem is associated with a comparable regard for others, the tendency for individuals to evaluate the self in more favorable terms than they evaluated people in general was particularly pronounced among those with high self-esteem. These findings were replicated and extended in Experiment 2, where it also was found that self-evaluations were more favorable than were evaluations of a friend and that individuals with high self-esteem were most likely to appraise their friends more positively than they appraised the average person. The findings of Experiment 3 revealed that the tendency for those with high self-esteem to judge themselves and their friends more favorably than they assessed most other people was not restricted to only those individuals showing a high need for social approval.” (link)

Age matters too, at least in some contexts: “People generally evaluate their own attributes and abilities more favorably than those of an average peer. The current study explored whether age moderates this better-than-average effect. We asked young (n = 87), middle-aged (n = 75), and older adults (n  = 77) to evaluate themselves and an average peer on a variety of trait and ability dimensions. On most dimensions, a better-than-average effect was observed for young, middle-aged, and older adults. However, on dimensions for which older individuals have clear deficiencies (i.e., athleticism, physical attractiveness), a better-than-average effect was observed for young and middle-aged adults, while a worse-than-average effect was observed for older adults. We argue that egocentrism accounts for these age differences in comparative self-evaluations.” (link)

This paper, which was one of the few I was able to find a full version of online, reports some more details about the MBA-study, among other things. Data and a few observations from that paper: “87 percent of Stanford MBA students recently rated their academic performance to be in the top two quartiles (“It’s Academic” 2000). Compared with their peers, 90 percent of these students also believed that they were either average or above average in terms of quantitative abilities; only 10 percent judged themselves to be below average. […]

“In virtually any population, the majority of individuals have fewer friends than do their own friends (Feld 1991). We found, however, that 41.7 percent of those who responded to the survey claimed to have more friends than their own friends; this figure is almost three times greater than the proportion who reported having fewer friends than their own friends (16.1%). Again, the mean response (3.33) differed significantly from the neutral midpoint of the scale […]

“we found that self-enhancement was greater in self versus friend comparisons than in self versus “typical other” comparisons. This finding supports Tesser’s model of self-evaluation maintenance, which holds that people may be more threatened by the success of friends than by that of strangers under conditions of high personal relevance (Tesser 1988; Tesser and Campbell 1982; Tesser et al. 1989). The central message in this line of researchis that we feel the need “to keep up with the Joneses” precisely because they are our neighbors.”

Back to the wiki: “Researchers have also found the effects of illusory superiority in studies into relationship satisfaction. For example, one study found that participants perceived their own relationships as better than others’ relationships on average, but thought that the majority of people were happy with their relationships. Also, this study found evidence that the higher the participants rated their own relationship happiness, the more superior they believed their relationship was.” (link to abstract)

Most people consider themselves to be more skilled at driving a vehicle than are other people: “In [previous] studies subjects were asked to judge how safely they drove in comparison with the average driver, vaguely defined as drivers in general. Typically, the results showed that around 70-80% of the subjects were reported to put themselves in the safer half of the distribution. […] In the US group 88% and in the Swedish group 77% believed themselves to be safer than the median driver.
The medians for the distributions of skill judgments fall in the interval 61-70% for the US group and between 51-60% for the Swedish group. Of the US sample 46.3% regard themselves among the most skillful 20%. The corresponding number in the Swedish group was only 15.5%. In the US sample 93% believed themselves to be more skillful drivers than the median driver and 69% of the Swedish drivers shared this belief in relation to their comparison group.

In summary, there was a strong tendency to believe oneself as safer and more skillful than the average driver. In addition, there seemed to be a stronger tendency to believe oneself as safer than and more skillful than the average person.” (link)

Some critical remarks here: “There is a further problem with attributing self-enhancement bias to all people who rate themselves “better off than most.” Ranking oneself relative to “most others” on a broadly construed dimension is inherently problematic. If people are asked to rank themselves relative to others on happiness, for example, Jeff might rank himself highly because of his ability as a baseball player, Jackie might rank herself highly because of her musical talents, and John might rank himself highly because of the money he has accumulated. Because these are important and defining characteristics of one’s self-concept, they represent appropriate choices on which to compare the self with others. It is thus conceivable that a majority of people can be better off than most when the dimension to be rated is vaguely defined and people are given the latitude to rank themselves on self-selected, often idiosyncratic categories. It has been demonstrated that when a dimension is clearly and precisely defined, thereby limiting private interpretations, the better-off-than-most effect diminishes ( Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989).” [I’m pretty sure I’ve touched upon this before, but I don’t consider it a strong point of criticism; the fact of the matter is that if it’s in any way possible for people to do this, they will when asked to compare themselves with others pick variables and interpretations of the questions which make them look good. In real life people always have some leeway, so what would happen if they couldn’t manipulate the comparison to make them look better is sort of a moot point. Be that as it may, the main result of this paper is intriguing:]

“In the longitudinal studies, self-enhancement was associated with poor social skills and psychological maladjustment 5 years before and 5 years after the assessment of self-enhancement. In the laboratory study, individuals who exhibited a tendency to self-enhance displayed behaviors, independently judged, that seemed detrimental to positive social interaction. These results indicate there are negative short-term and long-term consequences for individuals who self-enhance and, contrary to some prior formulations, imply that accurate appraisals of self and of the social environment may be essential elements of mental health. […] It seems abundantly clear from the present data that self-enhancement, far from serving as an aid to interpersonal or psychological adjustment, is part of a pattern of self-perception and behavior that must be viewed as unhealthy overall.” (“Since [this paper was published], further research has both undermined that conclusion and offered new evidence associating illusory superiority with negative effects on the individual.[2]” (quote from the wiki related to this paper).)

October 29, 2012 Posted by | Psychology | Leave a comment


Below some questions that it can be helpful to revisit every now and then when analyzing beliefs one holds:

Very few ideas we hold are ideas we come up with ourselves. What happens is that someone introduces us to an argument. Later on a counterargument is introduced. Often the timing of these things matter a lot; people are often more likely to pick the first side that’s presented to them, especially if they’re encouraged to invest in it early on. However one is also more likely to remember the last argument one heard than the first one. So it’s certainly worth asking: Who presented the idea to you first? How long ago is it? Did you last hear an argument in favour of your belief or an argument against it? If a belief is introduced to you by someone close to you, like a spouse or (if you’re young?) a parent – or someone you look up to and/or would like to impress – then you’re all else equal more likely to be biased and you should act as if the belief in question is less likely to be correct than it would be if a person you didn’t know had presented the idea to you.

How long have you held the belief? All else equal, you should be more skeptical about beliefs you’ve held for a long time. Beliefs we hold for a long time tend to be or become part of the wallpaper – and beliefs you’re not even aware that you hold may still influence you in various ways. If you don’t remember the answers to some of the previous questions, you shouldn’t just ignore them; a better idea would probably be to become more skeptical.

How confident are you that your belief is right? I don’t believe it’s particularly useful to quantify this kind of stuff in detail, but this is a question one should ask oneself from time to time. Changes in confidence levels are important, as are stationary confidence levels.

Do you consider this belief to be an important part of who you are? Could you imagine being wrong about this? What would being wrong about this belief imply? How many other beliefs you hold are contingent upon this particular belief of yours?

Do other people you know share your point of view? Have they influenced you (not just by introducing you to the idea)? Has belief convergence taken place? Do you know people who do not share your belief? Does the disagreement make you perceive them in a different light – how do you feel about people who do not share your belief? Have you ever felt/do you feel that people who hold different beliefs are ‘less worthy’, that they are ‘stupid’, or perhaps that they ‘don’t understand the issue’?

How much time have you spent thinking about the belief? How much of that time was spent gathering data? Which kind of data? Have you spent enough time and/or seen enough data to even have an opinion about this?

Background stuff’?

People who openly question your beliefs are much more likely to be useful to you when it comes to obtaining correct beliefs about the world than are people who do not. People who are more detached, who care less about specific beliefs, are also likely to be able to help you – they’re less likely to think of open disagreement as a personal attack or as a signal of tribal disloyalty that ought to be punished. Do you take advantage of this fact? Do you have ways to figure out if your belief is wrong, or whether a different belief might be better? If you do, do you use them optimally – could you use them better, or is it perhaps possible for you to find better ways to test your beliefs than the ones you use now?

Do you somehow stand to benefit from holding the belief you do? If other people held your belief, would that make you look good? Is the belief somehow very convenient?

Who other than you care about your belief? Is it important? How important is the belief in question when it comes to ‘real world stuff’? Do you care just because you care – or does your stance actually have major real life consequences? Could these be downplayed if you wanted them to be?

We can’t always ask these questions – they take time and effort, and if we had to think about all that stuff every time we were to make a decision we’d all starve to death. But questions such as these should enter the mind from time to time.

A ‘sufficient’/’proper’ degree of skepticism about your own beliefs will incidentally undoubtedly sometimes make you lose an argument you’d otherwise have won. I consider that outcome to be perfectly acceptable as arguments should not be about winning, but about learning new stuff. If you care a lot about whether you win or lose an argument, you’re arguing with the wrong people and/or you’re not arguing in an optimal manner.

October 27, 2012 Posted by | rambling nonsense, Random stuff | Leave a comment

Work Blogging 3

I’ve gotten behind on this stuff, but I hope to post a few posts this week – we’ll see.

In my last post on this subject I said that the next paper I’d be covering was Pissarides Short-Run Equilibrium Dynamics of Unemployment, Vacancies, and Real Wages, but it turns out that I got the course reading order mixed up and that the Pissarides paper actually came before the Andersen & Svarer paper I covered in my second post. Basically the Pissarides paper was used to introduce us to the DMP-model [Diamond Mortensen Pissarides-] framework, whereas Andersen and Svarer was meant to tell us how that model setup is applied in research today. It would have been very hard to read and understand the A&S paper without implicitly also ending up having a pretty good idea what is going on in Pissarides, which means that there isn’t much point in covering this paper here. Though there are a few technical differences between the models applied it’s the same model framework the papers make use of. Pissarides is also a rather short paper, so there isn’t that much new stuff to talk about which I’ve not already touched upon to some extent when covering A&S.

Maybe a few general aspects should however be touched upon here briefly before I move on, if only so that I can remember this stuff later. One thing to note is the accumulation of rents which are associated with the labour market friction in these models; the free entry assumption means that the expected value from creating a vacancy by a firm is driven to zero in equilibrium, but the value of a filled job is greater than zero (for reasonable parameter values). Another thing to note is that whereas there are search costs introduced into the labour markets in these models (realism: +1 compared to the alternatives), they still make use of some key simplifying assumptions (realism: -(?)) – assumptions which may be driving some of the results of the models. Some normal structural assumptions that are used in these models are: i. additively separable utility functions + ii. Cobb–Douglas matching functions – we need these assumptions to solve the models, but they might be problematic. Perhaps it’s also worth noting here that we tend to think of the labour market as uncoordinated in these models; basically firms and jobs are pretty much the same thing. So free entry of firms means that a new job vacancy will get opened if the expected value of that vacancy is positive, but we don’t care if that vacancy is made by a firm with 500 employees or one with two employees. In the real world, stuff like labour market centralization, unionization and similar stuff impact search costs/matching dynamics of both workers and firms.

So anyway, I’ve decided below to cover Boone, Fredriksson, Holmlund and Ours’ Optimal unemployment insurance with monitoring and sanctions. That paper also applies a DMP model framework. It briefly covers/contrasts its results with Becker’s 1968 paper on crime, because it’s sort of the starting point for this literature. The very short version is that Becker argues in his paper that by raising the sanction in a model with risk-neutral agents, monitoring costs can be reduced without affecting the incentives for crime. So when monitoring is costly and punishment is free (which it arguably is in the case of fines, which impose no cost as such to society as they’re just a transfer payment from one group to another), the optimal level of monitoring will go toward zero and the optimal punishment will increase rapidly. However the (Boone) paper points out that when risk aversion is introduced into the model, Becker’s result no longer holds, and if the monitoring technology is plagued by type II errors so that some complying individuals are sanctioned, the welfare losses from these errors may be severe. They conclude that “a system with monitoring and sanctions represents a welfare improvement relative to other alternatives for reasonable estimates of the monitoring costs. In particular, the monitoring and sanction system leads to higher welfare than a system with time limits.”

As in A&S, there are three groups of interest; employed, unemployed and activated/sanctioned. A key difference between Boone et al. and A&S is that in the latter activation was a random sanction, whereas in the former the sanction rate is now dependent on the search intensity of an individual (the variable s in the paper is the search intensity). In order to make the sanction rate dependent on search intensity, it is of course necessary to add (costly) monitoring to the model. Like in A&S, the utility level of sanctioned/activated individuals (receiving a benefit UA = Z = zw) is lower than the utility level of an unemployed worker (receiving a benefit UI = B = bw). However the precise way this utility differential comes about is another of the key differences between their setup and the A&S setup; in this paper, sanctions hits income directly, not leisure; when people are sanctioned, rather than obtaining a lower utility level through an implicit tax on leisure, they simply suffer a direct negative income shock – i.e. Z < B.

They mention early on (p.402) that they consider a system with four policy variables of interest: The level of unemployment benefits [B] and unemployment assistance [Z] (the difference between the two is the sanction), the rate of monitoring of people receiving UI benefits [μ] and the precision of the monitoring technology [σ]. Given that, you’d expect the policy variables to be Z, B, μ and σ. Guess again. b, p, μ and σ are the four instruments involved here. Using those variables amounts to the same thing though [ p = 1 – (z/b) – you can think of p as a ‘penalty’ – and B = b*w]. Incidentally, a level of σ = 0 implies an Andersen & Svarer-type model, where sanctioning is random; the higher σ is, the more precise is the monitoring technology. Also note that the monitoring costs per individual monitored is increasing in σ – i.e. the more precise the monitoring technology, the more expensive the monitoring system is per person monitored.

φ is the job separation rate, α is the exit rate from unemployment to employment, θ = v/S is the labour market tightness, π(s) [s(-e-upperbar) – this is part of why I hate to write this in wordpress)] is the probability of being sanctioned given search effort e… The probability of being sanctioned depends linearly on search. It’s standard search-matching stuff with a matching function depending on θ, workers that optimize value functions (log-utility, before 3.3.3. where they introduce a different risk aversion specification as well – see below..) over search effort, firm side similar to standard DMP and wage determination through Nash Bargaining with bargaining power β…). As mentioned earlier, monitoring is costly and this is another aspect where the paper is different from A&S’; here, the government uses a wage tax on the employed to finance benefits of unemployed and sanctioned, as well as the monitoring that is required. There’s an additively separable welfare function which depends on the utility levels of the three groups in the economy which can be optimized over the policy variables of interest subject to the budget constraint – I won’t go into details about this stuff but rather focus on the conclusions.

Two analytical results can be obtained from the model: The first one is that the optimal policy involves a p > 0. Recall that p satisfies z = ( 1 – p ) * b, which means that if p is equal to zero, there’s no difference in the benefit level of people who are sanctioned and people who are not. An optimal p > 0 means that it’s optimal for sanctioned individuals to have a lower income than non-sanctioned individuals. There are two key mechanisms driving the result: A taxation externality and an entitlement effect. It’s a combination of the fact that in the model, sanctioned individuals don’t take into account that if they increase search, the government will be able to finance the same level of insurance with a lower tax level; and the fact that if the government increases the penalty, it will increase the search effort of sanctioned individuals because increasing search effort will make them more likely to become entitled to UI benefits.

The second result relates to the question of whether introducing monitoring and sanctions into a model with time limits will be optimal. Here we have the usual problem with tradeoffs: The simple answer is that this is not always the case; it’s the case only when the benefits from introducing the scheme exceeds the costs. The benefits from the scheme relates to the search incentives of unemployed, the costs relate to the monitoring activities which need to be financed. In the simulations, they basically find that it’ll almost always be welfare improving to introduce monitoring and sanctions.

Introducing a different (CRRA-) specification of risk aversion where the degree of relative risk aversion is less than one [ 1 − ζ ] (see also here) doesn’t change the conclusions in the paper; stronger risk aversion strengthens the case for monitoring and sanctions. They introduce preference heterogeneities in the last part of the paper, by introducing random shocks to the value of leisure. Here there are four states instead of two; unemployed and sanctioned individuals in either state one or state two. State one is the default state we’ve previously operated with, whereas state two is a state where search effort becomes prohibitively costly for the affected individual. Individuals transition randomly across states, however the transition rate from state two to employment is zero. Unsurprisingly the welfare gains from introducing monitoring and sanctions in this model are smaller than in the baseline case.

The paper briefly mentions that sanctions are much more widespread in the US than in Europe; we’ve covered that in more detail in the lectures. US sanction rates are often in the order of 30 percent, whereas as an example the Danish sanction rate was around 0,3% from 2004-2006. Sanctions are relatively rare in Denmark, and most of them belong in the mild category (a few days’ income, rather than complete loss of income over an extended period of time). However it’s worth mentioning here that if you also think of the Danish activation requirements as (random) sanctions as well, the pattern looks different and the sanction rates differ less; as mentioned before, the Danish government spends a lot of money on activation measures compared to most other countries, and an unemployed Dane is far more likely to go into activation than is e.g. an unemployed person from the U.S.

October 24, 2012 Posted by | Economics, Personal | Leave a comment


i. “The world would be in better shape if people would take the same pains in the practice of the simplest moral laws as they exert in intellectualizing over the most subtle moral questions.” (Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach)

ii. “It is difficult to see the person who admires us as stupid.” (-ll-)

iii. “Whoever prefers the material comforts of life over intellectual wealth is like the owner of a palace who moves into the servants’ quarters and leaves the sumptuous rooms empty.” (-ll-)

iv. “One of the main goals of self-education is to eradicate that vanity in us without which we would never have been educated.” (-ll-)

v. “Happy slaves are the bitterest enemies of freedom.” (-ll-)

vi. “He that knows little often repeats it.” (Thomas Fuller)

vii. “The Greeks and Carthaginians interacted closely with the Iberian peoples. The result was the emergence of a civilization that achieved a high level in the fine arts, built towns of a reasonable size and adopted writing. Iberian civilization has received little attention outside Spain, yet the Iberians reached a level of sophistication surpassed among native peoples of the western Mediterranean only by the Etruscans.” (‘Who knew?’ I certainly didn’t. From David Abulafia’s The Great Sea)

viii. “The most certain way to hide from others the limits of our knowledge is not to go beyond them.” (Leopardi)

ix. “Men are not to be judged by what they do not know, but by what they do know, and the manner in which they know it.” (Vauvenargues)

x. “That which anyone has been long learning unwillingly, he unlearns with proportional eagerness and haste.” (Hazlitt)

xi. “The Future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” (C. S. Lewis)

xii. “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones Dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” (Chesterton)

xiii. “To buy books would be a good thing if we could also buy the time to read them; as it is, the mere act of purchasing them is often mistaken for the assimilation and mastering of their contents.” (Schopenhauer)

xiv. “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” (George Orwell)

xv. “Political history is far too criminal and pathological to be a fit subject of study for the young. Children should acquire their heroes and villains from fiction.” (Auden)

xvi. “Throughout history the world has been laid waste to ensure the triumph of conceptions that are now as dead as the men that died for them.” (Henry de Montherlant)

xvii. “Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.” (Thomas Szasz)

xviii. “Permissiveness is the principle of treating children as if they were adults; and the tactic of making sure they never reach that stage.” (-ll-)

xix. “Whoever in middle age attempts to realize the hopes and wishes of his early youth, invariably deceives himself. Each ten years of a man’s life has its own fortunes, its own hopes, its own desires.” (Goethe. Related link.)

xx. “We are afraid of the old age which we may never attain.” (Jean de La Bruyère)

October 24, 2012 Posted by | Books, Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Proportional hazards models. (work-related)

Proportional hazards models are a class of survival models in statistics. Survival models relate the time that passes before some event occurs to one or more covariates that may be associated with that quantity. In a proportional hazards model, the unique effect of a unit increase in a covariate is multiplicative with respect to the hazard rate. For example, taking a drug may halve one’s hazard rate for a stroke occurring, or, changing the material from which a manufactured component is constructed may double its hazard rate for failure. Other types of survival models such as accelerated failure time models do not exhibit proportional hazards. These models could describe a situation such as a drug that reduces a subject’s immediate risk of having a stroke, but where there is no reduction in the hazard rate after one year for subjects who do not have a stroke in the first year of analysis.”

ii. Radioisotope thermoelectric generator.

“A radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG, RITEG) is an electrical generator that obtains its power from radioactive decay. In such a device, the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material is converted into electricity by the Seebeck effect using an array of thermocouples.

RTGs have been used as power sources in satellites, space probes and unmanned remote facilities, such as a series of lighthouses built by the former Soviet Union inside the Arctic Circle. RTGs are usually the most desirable power source for robotic or unmaintained situations needing a few hundred watts (or less) of power for durations too long for fuel cells, batteries, or generators to provide economically, and in places where solar cells are not practical. Safe use of RTGs requires containment of the radioisotopes long after the productive life of the unit. […]

In addition to spacecraft, the Soviet Union constructed many unmanned lighthouses and navigation beacons powered by RTGs.[5] Powered by strontium-90 (90Sr), they are very reliable and provide a steady source of power. Critics[who?] argue that they could cause environmental and security problems as leakage or theft of the radioactive material could pass unnoticed for years, particularly as the locations of some of these lighthouses are no longer known due to poor record keeping. In one instance, the radioactive compartments were opened by a thief.[6] In another case, three woodsmen in Georgia came across two ceramic RTG heat sources that had been stripped of their shielding. Two of the three were later hospitalized with severe radiation burns after carrying the sources on their backs. The units were eventually recovered and isolated.[7]

There are approximately 1,000 such RTGs in Russia. All of them have long exhausted their 10-year engineered life spans. They are likely no longer functional, and may be in need of dismantling. Some of them have become the prey of metal hunters, who strip the RTGs’ metal casings, regardless of the risk of radioactive contamination.[8]

When I read this part, I couldn’t not think of this and this.

iii. List of unusual deaths. A lot of awesome stuff here. A few examples from the article:

iv. Limnic eruption.

“A limnic eruption, also referred to as a lake overturn, is a rare type of natural disaster in which dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) suddenly erupts from deep lake water, suffocating wildlife, livestock and humans. Such an eruption may also cause tsunamis in the lake as the rising CO2 displaces water. Scientists believe landslides, volcanic activity, or explosions can trigger such an eruption. Lakes in which such activity occurs may be known as limnically active lakes or exploding lakes.”

v. HeLa. The woman died more than 60 years ago, but some of the descendants of the cancer cells that killed her survives to this day:

“A HeLa cell /ˈhlɑː/, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line.[1] The line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken on February 8, 1951[2] from Henrietta Lacks, a patient who eventually died of her cancer on October 4, 1951. The cell line was found to be remarkably durable and prolific as illustrated by its contamination of many other cell lines used in research.[3][4] […]

HeLa cells, like other cell lines, are termed “immortal” in that they can divide an unlimited number of times in a laboratory cell culture plate as long as fundamental cell survival conditions are met (i.e. being maintained and sustained in a suitable environment). There are many strains of HeLa cells as they continue to evolve in cell cultures, but all HeLa cells are descended from the same tumor cells removed from Mrs. Lacks. It has been estimated that the total number of HeLa cells that have been propagated in cell culture far exceeds the total number of cells that were in Henrietta Lacks’s body.[7] […]

HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk to test the first polio vaccine in the 1950s. Since that time, HeLa cells have been used for “research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and many other scientific pursuits”.[8] According to author Rebecca Skloot, by 2009, “more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research done on HeLa, and that number was increasing steadily at a rate of more than 300 papers each month.”[6]

v. Domesticated silver fox.

“The domesticated silver fox (marketed as the Siberian fox) is a domesticated form of the silver morph of the red fox. As a result of selective breeding, the new foxes became tamer and more dog-like.

The result of over 50 years of experiments in the Soviet Union and Russia, the breeding project was set up in 1959[1] by Soviet scientist Dmitri Belyaev. It continues today at The Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk, under the supervision of Lyudmila Trut. […]

Belyaev believed that the key factor selected for in the domestication of dogs was not size or reproduction, but behavior; specifically, amenability to domestication, or tameability. He selected for low flight distance, that is, the distance one can approach the animal before it runs away. Selecting this behavior mimics the natural selection that must have occurred in the ancestral past of dogs. More than any other quality, Belyaev believed, tameability must have determined how well an animal would adapt to life among humans. Since behavior is rooted in biology, selecting for tameness and against aggression means selecting for physiological changes in the systems that govern the body’s hormones and neurochemicals. Belyaev decided to test his theory by domesticating foxes; in particular, the silver fox, a dark color form of the red fox. He placed a population of them in the same process of domestication, and he decided to submit this population to strong selection pressure for inherent tameness.[3]

The result is that Russian scientists now have a number of domesticated foxes that are fundamentally different in temperament and behavior from their wild forebears. Some important changes in physiology and morphology are now visible, such as mottled or spotted colored fur. Many scientists believe that these changes related to selection for tameness are caused by lower adrenaline production in the new breed, causing physiological changes in very few generations and thus yielding genetic combinations not present in the original species. This indicates that selection for tameness (i.e. low flight distance) produces changes that are also influential on the emergence of other “dog-like” traits, such as raised tail and coming into heat every six months rather than annually.”

vi. Attalus I (featured).

“Attalus I (Greek: Ἄτταλος), surnamed Soter (Greek: Σωτὴρ, “Savior”; 269 BC – 197 BC)[1] ruled Pergamon, an Ionian Greek polis (what is now Bergama, Turkey), first as dynast, later as king, from 241 BC to 197 BC. He was the second cousin and the adoptive son of Eumenes I,[2] whom he succeeded, and was the first of the Attalid dynasty to assume the title of king in 238 BC.[3] He was the son of Attalus and his wife Antiochis.

Attalus won an important victory over the Galatians, newly arrived Celtic tribes from Thrace, who had been, for more than a generation, plundering and exacting tribute throughout most of Asia Minor without any serious check. This victory, celebrated by the triumphal monument at Pergamon (famous for its Dying Gaul) and the liberation from the Gallic “terror” which it represented, earned for Attalus the name of “Soter”, and the title of “king“. A courageous and capable general and loyal ally of Rome, he played a significant role in the first and second Macedonian Wars, waged against Philip V of Macedon. He conducted numerous naval operations, harassing Macedonian interests throughout the Aegean, winning honors, collecting spoils, and gaining for Pergamon possession of the Greek islands of Aegina during the first war, and Andros during the second, twice narrowly escaping capture at the hands of Philip.

Attalus was a protector of the Greek cities of Anatolia[4] and viewed himself as the champion of Greeks against barbarians.[5] During his reign he established Pergamon as a considerable power in the Greek East.[6] He died in 197 BC, shortly before the end of the second war, at the age of 72, having suffered an apparent stroke while addressing a Boeotian war council some months before.”

vii. East African Campaign (World War I)

“The East African Campaign was a series of battles and guerrilla actions which started in German East Africa and ultimately affected portions of Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia, British East Africa, Uganda, and the Belgian Congo. The campaign was effectively ended in November 1917.[10] However, the Germans entered Portuguese East Africa and continued the campaign living off Portuguese supplies.

The strategy of the German colonial forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel (later Generalmajor) Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, was to drain and divert forces from the Western Front to Africa. His strategy failed to achieve these results after 1916, as mainly Indian and South African forces, which were prevented by colonial policy from deploying to Europe, conducted the rest of the campaign.[11][12] […]

In this campaign, disease killed or incapacitated 30 men for every man killed in battle on the British side.[32]

viii. European bison (Wisent). I had never heard about those. Here’s what they look like:

“The European bison (Bison bonasus), also known as wisent (play /ˈvzənt/ or /ˈwzənt/) or the European wood bison, is a Eurasian species of bison. It is the heaviest surviving wild land animal in Europe; a typical European bison is about 2.1 to 3.5 m (7 to 10 ft) long, not counting a tail of 30 to 60 cm (12 to 24 in) long, and 1.6 to 2 m (5 to 7 ft) tall. Weight typically can range from 300 to 920 kg (660 to 2,000 lb), with an occasional big bull to 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) or more.[2][3][4] On average, it is slightly lighter in body mass and yet taller at the shoulder than the American bison (Bison bison). Compared to the American species, the Wisent has shorter hair on the neck, head and forequarters, but longer tail and horns.

European bison were hunted to extinction in the wild, with the last wild animals being shot in the Białowieża Forest in Eastern Poland in 1919 and in the Western Caucasus in 1927, but have since been reintroduced from captivity into several countries in Europe, all descendants of the Białowieża or lowland European bison. They are now forest-dwelling. They have few predators (besides humans), with only scattered reports from the 19th century of wolf and bear predation. […]

Historically, the lowland European bison’s range encompassed all lowlands of Europe, extending from the Massif Central to the Volga River and the Caucasus. It may have once lived in the Asiatic part of what is now the Russian Federation. Its range decreased as human populations expanded cutting down forests. The first population to be extirpated was that of Gaul in the 8th century AD. The European bison became extinct in southern Sweden in the 11th century, and southern England in the 12th. The species survived in the Ardennes and the Vosges until the 15th century.[7] In the early middle ages, the wisent apparently still occurred in the forest steppes east of the Ural, in the Altay Mountains and seems to have reached Lake Baikal in the east. The northern boundary in the Holocene was probably around 60°N in Finland.[8]

European bison survived in a few natural forests in Europe but its numbers dwindled. The last European bison in Transylvania died in 1790. In Poland, European bison in the Białowieża Forest were legally the property of the Polish kings until the Third partition of Poland. Wild European bison herds also existed in the forest until the mid-17th century. Polish kings took measures to protect the bison. King Sigismund II Augustus instituted the death penalty for poaching a European bison in Białowieża in the mid-16th century. In the early 19th century, Russian czars retained old Polish laws protecting the European bison herd in Białowieża. Despite these measures and others, the European bison population continued to decline over the following century, with only Białowieża and Northern Caucasus populations surviving into the 20th century.

During World War I, occupying German troops killed 600 of the European bison in the Białowieża Forest for sport, meat, hides, and horns. A German scientist informed army officers that the European bison were facing imminent extinction, but at the very end of the war, retreating German soldiers shot all but 9 animals.[9] The last wild European bison in Poland was killed in 1919, and the last wild European bison in the world was killed by poachers in 1927 in the western Caucasus. By that year fewer than 50 remained, all in zoos.”

October 19, 2012 Posted by | Biology, Econometrics, Engineering, History, Physics, Statistics, Wikipedia, Zoology | Leave a comment


(link). Some people would say that you should formulate the hypothesis before you start gathering data – and that’s what I’ll do now.

I guess this post is mostly for people like Plamus, but other people are very welcome to read along as well. I’ll start out with some introductionary remarks. I have an account on a chess website – It’s a neat site, I like it. They’ve recently introduced a new featured: A so-called ‘tactics trainer’. The way the tactics trainer works is by means of tactics sessions. Each tactics session features a number of chess problems you need to solve under a time constraint. You’ll never run out of problems; each time you’ve solved one problem (or answered incorrectly) a new one will pop up. Each session lasts about 6 minutes – some problems can be solved in a second or two, others might take more than a minute. The outcome of a session will depend upon the number of problems solved correctly, the ‘toughness’ of the problems solved or not solved and probably various other factors as well. Once you’ve finished a session, you’ll get a statistic on the number of correctly and incorrectly solved problems, the average time spent on each problem and the corresponding tactics performance rating. The performance rating will impact your combined tactics rating, which is a result of all previous sessions (it’s like a standard Elo rating system with frequent updating).

But why is the tactics trainer worth blogging about? Well, here’s the thing: Solving tactics problems is hard and it’s a cognitively demanding task. It takes brain power, and if your brain isn’t working 100 % you’ll do worse than if it did. I have often thought about how to model the effects of blood glucose variations on cognitive performance. I’ve thought about it because I know that blood glucose variation impacts my performance in various areas – it’s obviously the case, in extreme cases it’s extremely obvious. But what about the non-extreme cases? Blood glucose fluctuates a lot over the course of a day, and it’s not unlikely that such fluctuations also impact performance. But can those effects be quantified? So far it’s been difficult for me to figure out how one would set about doing that – one approach I’ve contemplated in the past was to use IQ-tests to measure performance as a function of blood glucose, but that idea was basically dead in the water in terms of getting the kind of results I’d like – an IQ-test takes a lot of time, it’s not always easy to compare scores across tests and you can’t do the same test over and over because the way the test is designed the validity of the results will be impacted if you repeat the test. Another problem is that the blood glucose level wouldn’t even be exogenous – to be in a state of deep concentration for a long time under stressful circumstances impacts blood glucose. What would be much better would be a shorter version of the test – like a relatively short test where a high level of concentration is required to perform well and where even small differences in performances as a result of blood glucose fluctuations can be measured and quantified. Remember the tactics trainer I was talking about? Yeah…

It seemed to me that using the tactics trainer sessions to gauge ‘mental ability’ as a function of blood glucose actually makes a lot of sense; it’s possible to run a lot of sessions over time, so n can potentially become large enough to actually make room for some non-silly results. There are always new and different problems available, and the comparability issue across tests disappears completely. Blood glucose values can be taken as exogenous as the sessions last only a very short amount of time. Performances are precisely measured.

I should make it clear from the start that the effect of blood glucose on performance is non-linear. Extremely low values impact performance, as do extremely high values – so in theory some kind of semi-inverse-u-shaped pattern should probably be expected. The actual relationship would not look very much like an inverse u both because the scales are asymmetric in terms of symptoms/(mmol/l deviation from the desired level) –  a blood glucose of somewhere between 4-10 mmol/l is often considered ‘desirable’, but whereas a value of 0 will mean that you’re dead, a value of 14 will for many diabetics probably often not give any symptoms at all – and because the left hand side is truncated (as mentioned) whereas in practice the right hand side is not for well-treated patients.

I will make a simplifying assumption here that will save me a lot of work and arguably will not be all that problematic when interpreting the results. I’ll disregard the non-linearities in the data by removing all data problems related to performance effects to the left of the lower bound of the ‘desirable level’, and by assuming that the ‘true’ non-linear relationship between performance and blood glucose on the right hand side of the distribution can be approximated by a linear function without this causing too many problems. The way to deal with the “data problems related to performance effects to the left of the lower bound of the ‘desirable level'” will be to exclude from the sample all observations with a measured blood glucose below 4.0 mmol/l. My motivation for removing the lowest values is that it will always become obvious to me within a very short amount of time, when my blood glucose is that low, that there’s a significant performance effect. I know those effects very well, and I know that it’s a bad idea to delay treatment – blood glucose levels below that can quickly turn into a medical emergency. When thinking about performance-effects here, it seems to me to make a lot of sense to implicitly employ a two-state model framework and then use separate/different models to analyze the stuff that’s going on in the two states: State one is quite simple, that’s the hypoglycemia scenario mentioned. To ‘model’ this state is easy: The effects are almost universally real and significant, to an extent where even measuring them in the manner described here becomes borderline dangerous. State two: Euglycemia or hyperglycemia. In this state, performance is likely to be at least somewhat some to linearly decreasing in the blood glucose level. I’m mostly interested in performance effects which are not obvious to me and so that makes state two the more interesting state to consider; it’s also a lot more interesting because state one is relatively (though not that…) rare, whereas state two is the default state in which I spend most of my time. Regarding using a linear approximation to model the relationship in state two rather than the ‘true’ non-linear function: This may be problematic, but I know myself well enough to know that I don’t want to bother with non-linear models when I look at this stuff later; it’s a poor and underspecified model to begin with. The kind of question I’m asking here is far more along the lines of: ‘does it even make sense to assume that your cognitive profile is affected by blood glucose variation?’ than it is a question along the lines of: ‘how will a 2,6 mmol/l difference impact your likelihood of getting an A when taking an exam in course X?’

When it comes to the specifics of the data gathering process, I’ll do it this way: Unless I have symptoms of hypoglycemia – in which case I’ll not do the session in question, but rather treat the hypoglycemia – I’ll only measure the blood glucose after I’ve finished the session. If the blood glucose is below 4.0 mmol/l the results will not be included in the sample. For all other observations, I will list the performance rating of the tactics session and the blood glucose level.

I intend to test the hypothesis that there is a significant and negative effect on performance of the blood glucose level measured (higher blood glucose level -> lower performance rating).

If I get around to it, it might also be interesting to see if there are threshold effects at play. One threshold to consider might be a blood glucose level of 15.0 mmol/l.. The precise cut-off is semi-arbitrary, but not completely; this is close to the point where you start to be able to measure beginning ketonuria, and it’s probably also around this point where symptoms start to (maybe) appear. I write ‘maybe’ because the symptoms of high blood glucose are far more unreliable than the symptoms of low blood glucose, which is also why I’m interested in the related performance effects; when I have symptoms I know I’m not ‘at my best’, but diabetics are often not ‘at their best’ without getting any signals from the body to that effect. A threshold effect also makes sense to include because it’s far from likely that a linear model will catch all the stuff that’s going on here.

As a starting point, my stopping rule will be that I’ll stop collecting data once I have 300 observations. This is completely arbitrary, but you should always have a stopping rule. I take in the neighbourhood of 8 blood tests a day and some of them aren’t taken when I sit at my computer doing tactics chess exercises. If half of them are, however, I will have 300 observations in 2,5 months, i.e. around New Year (this is close to my exams, so I’ll surely not want to do a lot of non-work statistical modelling at that point – so it will be kept simple..). Maybe it will be worth considering doing more than one session per blood test in which case the data can be gathered a lot faster than that, but then problems related to blood glucose exogeneity may start to pop up. I haven’t done multiple sessions after each other before, so I don’t know if such an approach will impact the performance rating; it might, and if it seems to do that I’ll probably disregard such ‘shortcuts’.

Potentially I might improve my tactics abilities during the survey period (in this specific setting that would be a bad thing, because the parameters would then no longer be constant over time) but unless such an effect is very noticeable early on I’ll proceed as if my skill does not improve during the survey period. I’ll write down the starting tactics rating (which is sort of ‘an average of recent past performances’) as well as the tactics rating at the end of the project and compare the difference between the two with the estimated standard deviation of the observations to at least get an idea if there’s a potential big problem here; I don’t know if I’ll really care if a big problem turns up, but I should at least pretend to care about this ‘risk’ of getting better over time (and as an added bonus this is also a simple way to try to establish if doing tactics exercises helps you improve your tactics abilities significantly). The reason why I assume the ‘improvement over time’-effect to be minor here is mostly that I’m actually a reasonably strong player by now so the learning curve is presumably a lot flatter than it was in the past, meaning that exercises like these should not be expected to have that big an effect on my performance.

Yes, I did consider including other variables in the model (number of unsolved problems, time spent/problem), but a) they don’t add much additional information, b) they’re strongly correlated with the rating variable (so I would not be comfortable including them in the same model as the rating variable), and c) the more data I need to write down the more this will feel like work, and I don’t want it to feel like work. So there’ll also be no controls included, this is all just a ‘fun (not quick) and dirty’ project to have running for a while. I’ll release the (limited) data afterwards and let people play around with it if they like to.

Ideas and suggestions (which do not involve me doing a lot of extra work), as well as questions, are of course most welcome.

Incidentally, if you want to know if you’re good at figuring out how smart people are based on how they look, here’s another small-scale project you may be interested in (I have nothing to do with it as such, but I know the guy behind it).

October 17, 2012 Posted by | blogging, Data, Diabetes, Personal, Random stuff | 2 Comments

The Great Sea – A Human History of the Mediterranean

By David Abulafia. Plenty of reviews at the link.

Today I’ve read the introduction as well as part one (of five). For now I’ll note that I find the book interesting. I’m reasonably familiar with some of the main stuff covered in the first half of the book (the history of the Mediterranean region from ~22.000 BCE up to around ~1000 CE), so most of the stuff I’ve read so far is not completely new stuff to me. I’m kinda glad I read Heather before I read this; not only do I expect this book to cover some of the same things Heather does, from a different angle, but it’s also clearly been the case for me that being familiar with the conceptual framework for analyzing migration patterns and development advanced in Empires and Barbarians made some of the comments in Abulafia’s treatment of the Bronze Age collapse and the start of the Greek Dark Ages much easier to appreciate and contextualize.

It’s too early for me to recommend the book but I like it so far. The stuff on Troy was quite interesting. There aren’t a lot of illustrations included, so if you’re very curious to know how the Troy VII ruins look like (or whatever) there are better books out there for you (reading the relevant chapters in that book would probably also help you get more out of Abulafia, but we all need to start somewhere..). However like Robin Lane Fox’ The Classical World, the book does succeed to some extent to ‘make the history described come alive’ by employing some illustrative narratives – even though it’s so far been more ‘big-picture-like’ than Fox. For example, the book spends a few pages describing the travels of an Egyptian emissary, Wenamun. Related to that story a minor point of criticism on my part (very minor, as in ‘nitpicking territory’) would be that although Abulafia does write that “the whole tale has the flavour of a series of excuses for a mission that ended in failure”, he doesn’t explicitly say that it is a work of fiction or that people in the field seem to think that it is – it is “a view now generally accepted by most professionals working on the text“.

October 16, 2012 Posted by | Books, Geography, History | Leave a comment


“Very boring writing style”

“To call his writing plodding is a gross understatement”

“This book is impossible to read; Hobbes’ style of writing is ridiculously long winded and very difficult to comprehend.”

“learned once again that I, unfortunately, just do not have the patience or attention span for the minutiae of philosophy.”

“The main idea is nice, but who cares about it if the whole book is inedible? The first part of the book is just bullshit which has nothing to do with the society. Read a summary, don’t waste your time.”

From the google reviews here. They really make you want to read the book, right? Of course I could have picked some other review quotes; there are significantly more 5 star reviews (42) than 1- (14) and 2 star reviews (14) combined. Anyway, I was first introduced to Hobbes’ thinking about 10 years ago in high school, and so I have already read ‘a summary’. I’m currently reading an abbreviated version of the book.

Sometimes half the fun of reading books like these is to spot assumptions and value judgments which were considered par for the course at the time the books were written, or at the very least not particularly controversial, yet today make the reader do a double take and think ‘what the f*#%$?’ Here’s an, interesting, example:

“as for witches, I think not that their witchcraft is any real power; but yet that they are justly punished, for the false belief they have, that they can do such mischief, joined with their purpose to do it if they can: their trade being nearer to a new religion than to a craft or science.” (Chapter 2, ‘Of imagination’).

Incidentally I do urge you here to remember that ideas like witchcraft are not in all parts of the world considered just a thing of the past; there are still people living today who are punished for witchcraft. Some other quotes from the book below:

“whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calls good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable. For these words of good, evil, and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that uses them: thee being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves; but from the person of the man (where there is no commonwealth); or (in a commonwealth) from the person that represents it; or from an arbitrator or judge, whom men disagreeing shall by consent set up, and make his sentence the rule thereof.” (Chapter 6, ‘Of the interior beginnings of voluntary motions; commonly called the passsions; and the speeches by which they are expressed’)

“The greatest of human powers, is that which is compounded of the powers of most men, united by consent, in one person, natural, or civil, that has the use of all their powers depending on his will; such as is the power of a common-wealth: or depending on the will of each particular; such as is the power of a faction or of divers factions leagued. Therefore to have servants, is power; to have friends, is power: for they are strengths united.” […]

“The value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgment of another. […] as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the price. For let a man (as most men do) rate themselves at the highest value they can; yet their true value is no more than it is esteemed by others.” (Chapter 10, ‘Of power, worth, dignity, honour, and worthiness’)

“the felicity of this life, consists not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he, whose sense and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter. […]

I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power; but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. And from hence it is, that kings, whose power is greatest, turn their endeavors to the assuring it at home by laws, or abroad by wars: and when that is done, there succeeds a new desire; in some, of fame from new conquest; in others, ease and sensual pleasure; in others, of admiration, or being flattered for excellence in some art, or other ability of the mind.

Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclines to contention, enmity, and war: because the way of one competitor, to the attaining of his desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other. […]

Men that have a strong opinion of their own wisdom in matter of government, are disposed to ambition. Because without public employment in council or magistracy, the honour of their wisdom is lost. And therefore eloquent speakers are inclined to ambition; for eloquence seems wisdom, both to themselves and others. […]

Want of science, that is, ignorance of causes, disposes, or rather constrains a man to rely on the advice and authority of others. For all men whom the truth concerns, if they rely not on their own, must rely on the opinion of some other, whom they think wiser than themselves, and see not why he should deceive them.” (Chapther 11, ‘Of the difference of manners’)

“Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself. […]

For prudence is but experience; which equal time, equally bestows on all men, in those things they equally apply themselves unto. That which may perhaps make such equality incredible, is but a vain conceit of one’s own wisdom, which almost all men think they have in a greater degree, than the vulgar; that is, all men but themselves, and a few others, whom by fame, or for concurring with themselves, they approve. For such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves” […]

“From this equality of ability, arises equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only), endeavor to destroy, or subdue one another. And from hence it comes pass, that where an invader hath no more to fear, than another man’s single power; if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossess, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. […] there is no way for any man to secure himself, so reasonable, as anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him: and this is no more than his own conservation requires, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking pleasure in comtemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires; if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their own defence, to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a man’s conservation, it ought to be allowed him.” […]

“in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.

The first, maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety, and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second to defend them, the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons, or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man. […]

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time; wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, ther is no place for industry; because the fruits thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. […]

“The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions, that proceed from those passions, till they know a law that forbids them: which till laws be made they cannot know: nor can any law be made, till they have agreed upon the person that shall make it.

It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places, where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof depends on natural lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before. […] To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues. […] It is consequent also to the same condition, that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to every man’s, that he can get: and for so long, as he can keep it. […]

The passions that incline men to peace, are fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggests convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles, are they, which otherwise are called the Laws of Nature” (Chapter 13, ‘The natural condition of mankind as concerning their felicity, and misery’)

As for South American ‘savages’, Darwin’s visit to Tierra Del Fuego was much later but if you want a description of how their social arrangements differed from those of the visiting Europeans it’s probably not a bad place to start; Europeans still had not interacted much with the Fuegians at that point. I wrote a post about that stuff not long ago. This book also has a few chapters devoted to related topics. Another previous post of mine related to topics covered in Hobbes that you may want to consider (re)reading is this. Hobbes was to a significant extent a product of his time, but it’s easy to forget that so are we – the people who read him today.

I’ve read the first half of the abbreviated version today and I’m not sure I’ll read any more of it today. I may give the book another post later on, I haven’t decided yet.

October 13, 2012 Posted by | Books, Philosophy, politics | Leave a comment


i. Contradictory Messages: A Content Analysis of Hollywood-Produced Romantic Comedy Feature Films.

“This study analyzed the romantic content of a sample of 40 romantic comedy films using a basic grounded theory methodology. Analyses revealed that such films appear to depict romantic relationships as having qualities of both new and long-term relationships; that is, to be both novel and exciting, yet emotionally significant and meaningful. Furthermore, relationships were shown to have both highly idealistic and undesirable qualities but, for any problems or transgressions experienced to have no real negative long-term impact on relationship functioning. The potential for viewer interpretations is discussed and the need for future research highlighted. […]

Of the 107 [romantic] gestures coded, male characters performed 90, they gave 35 of 37 gifts, performed 14 of 17 favors, and took more steps to initiate relationships (63 of 84). Such a proportion of effort could lead to the distinguishing of gender roles, identifying the man’s role to ‘‘take the lead’’ when it comes to relationships. A further implication could be female adolescent viewers’ forming of somewhat idealized relationship expectations. With films depicting male characters as frequently performing exaggeratedly romantic gestures […], female adolescents may be led to believe that such behaviors are the norm. Furthermore, by preferring to focus on behaviors between couples such as the aforementioned, it is possible that such films may make these gestures more salient to adolescents as an indication of the extent of partners’ feelings for them and the quality of the relationship itself over factors such as communication and trust.

Although there were 61 coded instances of ‘‘open about feelings and intentions,’’ there were only 4 incidents coded pertaining to trust, with 3 of these demonstrating a character’s lack of trust in their partner. […] The lack of depiction of trust becomes particularly notable when looking at the number of incidents of ‘‘deception’’ coded. There were 82 such incidents, occurring across all 40 films, ranging from white lies so as to spare partners’ feelings, to more serious acts of deception such as ulterior motives and direct lying for personal gains. These far outweighed characters confessing their lies and deceptive acts to their partners (9), with lies being discovered by partners typically by chance or indeed not at all. […]

Another category to emerge at this stage of coding that may have the potential to influence viewer perceptions was ‘‘being single.’’ Although this was one of the smaller categories, each coded incident (15) was consistently negative. Individuals who were single were depicted as either lonely and miserable […], frustrated […], or made to feel insecure […]. Two films […] even suggested that being single might interfere with career progression. Such a consistently negative representation of being single could, therefore, have the potential to negatively influence viewers’ feelings toward being single themselves. […]

It should be further noted that of the incidents of affection coded, a vast minority occurred between married couples. Married couples were typically portrayed as either unhappy with their spouse […], or were implied as happy but did little to reflect this […]. Of the depictions of affection between married couples that were coded, many were interspersed with episodes of arguing […], and most were limited to gestures such as brief kisses or standing with an arm around one other. Such a representation of marriage may leave adolescent viewers to see marriage and romance as disparate entities and with affection between married couples as an exception instead of the norm. […]

What is interesting to note about the behaviors comprising this category [‘relationship issues’], however, is that, irrespective of seriousness, there appeared to be no real consequences for characters’ transgressions in their relationships. […] Such depictions do not accurately reflect the actual emotions individuals typically experience in response to acts of deception and betrayal in their relationships, which can involve feelings of hurt, anger, resentment, and relational devaluation (Fitness, 2001). As a result, with characters’ negative behaviors either going undiscovered or having no long-lasting impact on their relationships, adolescent viewers may underestimate the consequences their behaviors can have on their own relationships.”

ii. The burden of knowledge and the ‘death of the renaissance man’: Is  innovation getting harder? by Benjamin Jones.

“This paper investigates, theoretically and empirically, a possibly fundamental aspect of technological progress. If knowledge accumulates as technology progresses, then successive generations of innovators may face an increasing educational burden. Innovators can compensate in their education by seeking narrower expertise, but narrowing expertise will reduce their individual capacities, with implications for the organization of innovative activity – a greater reliance on teamwork – and negative implications for growth. I develop a formal model of this “knowledge burden mechanism” and derive six testable predictions for innovators. Over time, educational attainment will rise while increased specialization and teamwork follow from a sufficiently rapid increase in the burden of knowledge. In cross-section, the model predicts that specialization and teamwork will be greater in deeper areas of knowledge while, surprisingly, educational attainment will not vary across fields. I test these six predictions using a micro-data set of individual inventors and find evidence consistent with each prediction. The model thus provides a parsimonious explanation for a range of empirical patterns of inventive activity. Upward trends in academic collaboration and lengthening doctorates, which have been noted in other research, can also be explained by the model, as can much-debated trends relating productivity growth and patent output to aggregate inventive effort. The knowledge burden mechanism suggests that the nature of innovation is changing, with negative implications for long-run economic growth.”

iii. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

iv. Beyond Guns and God, Understanding the Complexities of the White Working Class in America. I haven’t read it and I don’t think I will, but I thought I should put the link up anyway. The link has a lot of data.

v. Some Danish church membership numbers. The site is in Danish but google translate is your friend and there isn’t much text anyway. Where I live almost 5 out of 6 people are members of the church. Over the last 20 years the national membership rate has dropped by ~0,5 percentage points/year. 4 out of 5 Danes are members of the national church, in 1990 it was 9 out of 10. Approximately 90% of the people who die are members, whereas ‘only’ approximately 70% of children being born get baptized. Children of non-Western immigrants make up less than 10% of all births (9,1% from 2006-2010) – so even though population replacement may be part of the story, there’s likely other stuff going on as well.

vi. Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns. I may blog this in more detail later, for now I’ll just post the link.

vii. Theodore Dalrymple visited North Korea in 1989. The notes here about his visit to Department Store Number 1 are worth reading.

October 11, 2012 Posted by | culture, Data, Demographics, IQ, Papers, Psychology, Religion | Leave a comment

A new blog of interest

I found it via Gwern and it has lots of quotable stuff – some examples from the site:

i. “I awake in bed. I’m warm and safe, like every morning. Outside it is twenty below zero, but from inside my home winter seems far away.

As I rise and stretch, I notice I’m sore. Not from tending the fields though. I have no fields. Some unseen person does all the field-tending for me. Sometimes I forget that there’s any field-tending going on at all.

I buy all my food — I wouldn’t know how to grow it or hunt it. Three or four hours’ pay gets me a week’s worth. It’s a pretty good arrangement. […]

My soreness is actually from my leisure time, not work. I spent yesterday sliding down a snow-covered slope with a board attached to my feet. After that I was pretty worn out, so I went to a friend’s house, drank beer that was wheeled in from Mexico by another person I never met, and watched a sporting event as it unfolded in Philadelphia.

I don’t live in Philadelphia, but my friend has a machine that lets us see what’s happening there. I have one too. Almost everyone does.

The sun won’t rise for another hour, but I don’t need to light a fire or candles. I have artificial ones, mounted on the ceiling. Hit a tiny switch and I can see everything, any time of day.

I bathe while standing. The water comes out whatever temperature I like.” (from the post A Day in the Future)

ii. “The body is wonderful. It moves you around, keeps you sharp, manipulates the world for you. It does your job. It gives affection to your loved ones. It carries your life for you. We tend to notice its generosity only once it begins to withdraw it.

It’s also forgiving, maybe a little too much. It will take a lot of shit before it gets mad. […]

It’s easy to put the body last, because it’s so forgiving and dependable. Normally, it feels like the mind is the boss. But the mind really takes orders from the body. When the body gets run down, thoughts drift into self-defense mode: resentment, victim mentality, self-absorption. The body is suppressing your higher mental qualities, to turn your attention to what is urgent.

The mind then loses its insight and wisdom, and starts grasping at creature comforts. A lot of these — more coffee, another movie on Netflix, a cigarette, a beer, a donut — don’t do the body any favors. So it ramps up the pressure until it has your attention and can deliver its unmistakable message: you are preventing me from doing my job.

The body is the absolute bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. If you don’t take care of it, it will undermine everything until you address the crisis. You won’t be able to focus on your work, you won’t be very sensitive in your relationships, dreams go on hold, and self-confidence shrinks accordingly. […]

Whoever you are, your body is doing a lot for you, and if you don’t pay its dues, you will be notified.” (from The body is in charge, and won’t let you forget it for long. As a diabetic this was not new stuff – it might be, to some extent, for some of you guys – and in fact it’s stuff I try to always have in mind. In a way I have to always have it in mind – if a type 1 diabetic is not in control of his disease, the disease will control him. That’s just the way it works.)

iii. “There are others. More than you can comprehend. They’re everywhere you go and you’ll meet some of them.

Some of these other people will naturally establish themselves as an apparent fixture in your life, and change how life looks to you. This is called a relationship. If the person stays around for months or years, your relationship with them might begin to feel permanent.

It’s not. Relationships are conditions, not things. They all have to end at some point. But they will leave something behind for you to keep.

There are different kinds, different styles of rapport between you and The Other: polite, uneasy, romantic, platonic, confusing. We tend to slot them into distinct types — friendships, courtships, marriages, business partnerships — but they’re all fundamentally the same thing. Two people overlap, experience each other’s thoughts and ideas, absorb each other’s values, and learn from each other’s stories. Personalities leak into other people when those people get close enough.

This happens all the time, and it is always temporary. The overlap comes to an end and the parties diverge and drift away. It could be after 72 hours of traveling together, or after a summer internship working together, or after 55 years of marriage. If nothing else ends it, death will.

This means that life is essentially a solo trip. You’ll have this endless parade of visitors, though, which is nice. Characters you couldn’t have imagined will appear, stay for a minute or maybe a few months or maybe many years, and then leave you to your trip. […]

Most people will enter and exit your life without your noticing much. Some of them will make a big splash though. Some visitors will be decidedly special. You’ll know.

The most valuable experience a person can have is an overlap with this kind of person. The defining characteristic of one of these people is that they make it impossible for you to remain the same person by the time they make their exit. […]

At any given moment, any time, any day of your existence, you can look at your whole life as a vast collection of experiences, and recognize that all of it adds up exactly to who you’ve become today. Who you became depended — to a degree you may never appreciate — on who you happened to run into while you were out in the world doing your thing. You could have been so many different people.” (from What others leave for you to keep. For what it’s worth, I don’t really agree with the author that relationships always leave you “better than you were” – that idea I consider to just be ‘current me”s attempt to convince current me that current me is a better me than all other ‘potential me’s that could have existed at this precise moment in time. If you want ‘future you’ to be a ‘better you’ than current you, I’m not sure such an approach as the one the author implicitly argues in favour of is all that useful. The approach might trick current you into thinking/feeling that current you is better than past you were, but current you is often a liar who just tells current you what current you would like to hear.)

iv. “I had life backwards. I figured who I am determined what I was going to do, what I could do. Because of who I was, I couldn’t do X, so I always had to do Y. That’s who I was. Turns out that what I do can change at any time, and that has a direct effect in changing who I am. I never danced because I was never a “person who danced.” Now it’s obvious to me that as soon as I dance in spite of the person I think I am, I quickly become someone who dances. That’s how people who dance become people who dance. They dance.

In other words, it’s behavior that makes the personality, not the personality that makes the behavior, and that revelation is priceless to me.

This means the personality is extraordinarily malleable as long as you don’t forget than not only can you do what’s out of character, doing what’s out-of-character is the only way to grow.

Still, all of us gravitate towards that which is comfortable, which is tantamount to gravitating towards that which does not help you grow.

Anyway, things are blown wide open for me now. Long-neglected goals look fresh again. They’re going to happen. My personality can’t limit me any more, because I’m going to ignore it. I will do what’s out of character, I will surprise those who know me best. I will surprise myself.” (It’s not who you are, it’s what you do)

If you liked the quotes, you’ll probably like the blog.

October 10, 2012 Posted by | blogs, Random stuff | Leave a comment

Khan Academy videos of interest

There are other ressources than Khan Academy out there, so I thought I’d start out with a few remarks related to those. I’m about to start a course on coursera which I signed up for a long time ago, but I’m actually reconsidering now because I may not be able to find the time. If you don’t know about the site, go have a look around. A friend of mine also linked to this collection of videos from MIT on Electricity and Magnetism – looks very interesting. Anyway, a few Khan Academy videos below:

Just how sensitive blood flow is to vessel radius is an aspect I’d never given much thought, even though this is not exactly the first time I’ve done work on fluid dynamics (there’s also a largish section on that at Khan Academy) or the cardiovascular system. For some reason this video really made that link much more obvious to me, and these dynamics make it easier in my mind to understand why even relatively small changes in blood vessel composition over time can actually impede blood flow quite significantly and turn out to have rather large physiological effects. Math far more often than not helps me to think more clearly about stuff.

Some other videos:

October 8, 2012 Posted by | Biology, Cardiology, Khan Academy, Medicine | Leave a comment

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

As I was finishing the book, I was thinking that blogging it would be harder than it usually is to blog a book, because I felt I had a lot of reasons to dislike the book. Pointing out those reasons would mean that I’d both have to actively look for the worst stuff in the book and that I’d have to reread that stuff (I usually underline/paint/remark upon good stuff in a book I read – I rarely emphasize that ‘this is crap and this is why you shouldn’t read the book’). So with that in mind I sort of subconsciously started looking for bad stuff in the last third, so that I could quote it in a post here. At that point I knew very well that I wasn’t going to recommend the book; I was seriously considering not finishing it. I found the quote below to be a good illustration; I include it here to make you realize what kind of waffle the book is filled with:

“Hermann von Helmholtz, speaking of musical perception, says that though compound tones can be analyzed, and broken down to their components, they are normally heard as qualities, unique qualities of tone, indivisible wholes. He speaks here of a ‘synthetic perception’ which transcends analysis, and is the unanalysable essence of all musical sense. He compares such tones to faces, and speculates that we may recognise them in somewhat the same, personal way. In brief, he half suggests that musical tones, and certainly tunes, are, in fact, ‘faces’ for the ear, and are recognised, felt, immediately as ‘persons’ (or ‘personeities’), a recognition involving warmth, emotion, personal relation.

So it seems to be with those who love numbers.”

The book feels unstructured and it would have been a lot better if he’d written more about ‘the biology’ and ‘the neurology’ and he’d included a lot less of this kind of stuff: “the Kierkegaardian categories” (p.42), “What Wittgenstein writes here, of epistemology” (p.47), “‘In the beginning is the deed’ Goethe writes. The may be so when we face moral or existential dilemmas…” (p.65), “It is one which has fascinated a number of artists, especially those who equate art with sickness: thus it is a theme – at once Dionysiac, Venerean, and Faustian – which persistently recurs in Thomas Mann – from the febrile, tuberculosis highs of The Magic Mountain, to the spirochaetal inspirations in Dr Faustus and the aphrodisiac malignancy in his last tale, The Black Swan.” (p.94). And on it goes. He writes more than once about Penfield and Perot’s ideas about memory (“We surmise that our patient (like everybody) is stacked with an almost infinite number of ‘dormant’ memory-traces, some of which can be reactivated under special conditions, especially conditions of overwhelming excitement. Such traces, we conceive, like the subcortical imprints of remote events far below the horizon of mental life – are indelibly etched in the nervous system, and may persist indefinitely in a state of abeyance, due either to lack of excitation or to positive inhibition.”) but, as with most of the speculative analogies and ideas included in this book, he gives you no good reason why you should assume those guys were even right (and they don’t either, at least not in the quoted material). Incidentally here’s wikipedia on related matters.

There’s some good stuff in there as well, but I can’t possibly recommend this book. You’d probably learn more from the first chapter of a decent introductory neuroscience textbook alone.

October 5, 2012 Posted by | Books, Neurology | 2 Comments

Promoting the unknown, a continuing series

Despite the not particularly Danish-sounding last name, Winding was actually a Danish composer.

As few people ‘read’ these posts, I decided to put the rest below the fold.

Continue reading

October 2, 2012 Posted by | Music | Leave a comment