Archive for April, 2007

The most bizarre sentence I’ve read today

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

Tyler Cowen just linked to a comment left by Robin Hanson on this blog. I agree with Cowen’s comment left on the same post here: “Robin is awesome, enough said.”

Hanson’s writing never disappoints, even when he’s claiming that medicine is useless (the statistical argument is strong).

On the other hand Cowen is one of my most eagerly read bloggers (and semi-frequent provider of fodder for my comments), but sometimes Cowen says the darndest things, like this from the post linked above:

The very reason we resort to a firm, rather than the market, is to build consensus and morale, not to forecast the truth.

Consensus I’ll buy, as shorthand for lower in-firm transaction costs. Morale? He’s got to be kidding (note that the only instance of “morale” in the Wikipedia article on is immediately followed by “-damaging”).

Cowen continues:

Prediction markets would tend to break down firms, but of course they still can flourish in Arrow-Hahn-Debreu space.

My guess is that in the short term adoption of prediction markets will favor firms that have access to specialists needed by early adopters to succeed and layers of management that can be made redundant without immediately threatening the authority of the top, i.e., large firms.

I have no idea what Arrow-Hahn-Debreu space is, other than that it has something to do with . If I had to take a wild ignorant guess at the import of “but of course…” I would say it is arguably a tautology.

The Probabalistic Estate

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

Chris F. Masse points out an article describing Bill Moyers’ Buying the War, to be broadcast April 25, in which many “top” journalists admit to being completely bamboozled by patriotism and the security state after 9/11. Willing fools include Dan Rather, former CBS anchor, and Walter Isaacson, former president of CNN.

My favorite article excerpt:

[E]ditors at the Panama City (Fla.) News-Herald received an order from above, “Do not use photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties. Our sister paper has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening emails.”

“Patriots” are the most likely domestic terrorists, right after the security state itself.

What if there were prediction market tickers for invasion outcomes running in the “footer” (I have no idea what the bottom of a TV screen is called, so I’ll borrow terminology) of the CBS newscast and CNN, or daily prices and inferred probabilities alongside newspaper stories?

Would the traders have been as stupid in aggregate as the journalists?

To make sense of the post title see and this.

Comparative advantage

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

Philip Greenspun reporting from the Digital Freedom Exposition in South Africa:

My personal view is that it is not the job of computer nerds to keep people free of disease. We build interesting Web sites and other services to make life interesting and worth living as long as the biologists and doctors are able to keep folks alive. Even if human life expectancy were reduced to 30 years, we shouldn’t abandon our keyboards and move into the medical labs since even a 30-year life can be significantly enriched with Google and Wikipedia.

He understands .

Another fun excerpt from the same post:

More than food, shelter, or other seeming essentials, they wanted Internet access, starting with an Internet cafe for women in the capital (under the Islamic regime, only men were allowed to visit Internet cafes).

Double whammy on those who complain that others who attempt to bring technology to the poor should focus on basic needs first.

Invention versus innovation

Monday, April 16th, 2007

Will this post get Chris Masse to stop bothering me for a promised post on invention vs. innovation?

Many people have written on this, a few recent links, not all precisely relevant to the question.

One way of putting it is that six billion people generate a huge number of ideas, some number of which could be called inventions. Most are hopeless (the inventions; the people at least manage to survive for a time). Most of the rest are not actively pursued. The only way to test whether an invention is hopeless or useful is to attempt to deliver it at scale. So innovators (think of them as idea entrepreneurs, or whatever) both figure out which inventions are not hopeless and deliver the useful ones at scale. Innovators create all of the surplus, inventors do little more than breathe.

I’ve had an idea in my head for a few years that Masse recently mentioned in passing (not the moronic one he has recently written at length about). Have I done anything with the idea? No. Without implementation the idea is worthless.

Read Robin Hanson’s short The Myth Of Creativity article. Excerpt:

What society needs is not more creativity or suggestions for change but better ways to encourage people to focus on important issues, identify the most promising ideas, and tell the right people about them. But our deification of creativity gets in the way.

Do read the whole thing. Hanson’s target is slightly different than mine.

Before Masse calls me a fan-boy again (I don’t mind), I’ll pose the obvious question: how much of an innovator is Hanson? He’s clearly a fantastic ideas person, but ideas don’t matter. He seems a more productive innovator than the average academic, but that bar is probably very low.

A recent and very apropos Seth Godin post on Meeting Needs spurred me to finally write this. Godin:

Almost no new idea meets the needs of shareholders and CEOs. That’s because most of all they need predictability and apparent freedom from risk. This is why public companies are almost always on the road to disaster. They flee from change in order to do what they think is meeting the needs of those constituents. They fight changes in laws, policies, technologies and markets because their CEO (especially) wants a nice even flight pattern while he racks up big time options.

Shrink wrap software feels safe. Secure. Supported. Beyond reproach.


It turns out that open source can do a brilliant job of meeting their actual needs (lower overhead to install and maintain, higher productivity to use, more stable over time) but the problem is that apparent needs (playing it safe, making your boss happy) almost always get in the way. Until it’s too late. When it’s too late, the competition has leapfrogged you.

Godin also mentions blogging, read the full post. One could substitute prediction markets for open source or blogging. Put that in your marketing pipe and smoke it, Mr. Chris Masse. :-)

Collaboration on closed software = pen and printout

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

As in = scrambled eggs.

At a small business, designer has a document fancily laid out in an . Editor needs to make substantial edits throughout the document, but does not have a copy of the desktop publishing application, so prints out a copy of document, marks up edits with pen, hands to designer to transcribe (with errors, of course).

Had this business used , editor would have simply installed the desktop publishing application.

I had completely forgotten this simple case for free software, probably because I haven’t touched a desktop publishing or other specialized document creation application in years; I just happened to overhear a conversation relating the above situation, without reference to the irony of collaboration using closed software devolving to printout, pen, and data entry.

Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism

Sunday, April 8th, 2007

collected data for every documented case of from 1983-2003. In he makes a strong case that suicide terrorism is almost exclusively used to combat occupation where there is a religious difference between the occupiers and occupied (together these present an existential threat to the occupied community) and the occupier jurisdiction is a democracy (and therefore less likely to reply ruthlessly and more likely to grant concessions). Furthermore, suicide terrorism seems to be relatively effective under these conditions.

Pape also dismisses two sucicide terrorism myths. First, that it is an Islam-only phenomenon (the Hindu/Marxist Tamil Tigers account for the most cases). Second, that suicide terrorists are primarily poor, uneducated and fundamentalist (they tend to have above average education and opportunities for their communities and often show now fundamentalist commitment before volunteering — an act of extreme commitment to their community by well integrated members of the same).

Although Pape has amassed significant data in support of his analysis, suicide terrorism (largely suicide bombing) has effectively only existed for a little over two decades (though suicide attacks have occasionally been used for millennia, briefly covered in this book). Will suicide terrorism change, or continue in the same pattern? There are two obvious questions, neither of which Pape bothers to pose (though I read the book a few months ago, I could’ve missed or forgotten):

  • Will suicide terrorism continue to be effective? In other words, will democracies continue to respond with a combination of concession, coercion, and grandstanding? Alternatives include apolitical response (e.g., criminal investigation and prosecution) and ruthless response (i.e., annihilation of the terrorist’s community).
  • Given that suicide terrorism is effective, will it be taken up by other groups that perceive an existential threat, e.g., radical environmentalists?

It seems that suicide bombings in Iraq, only the first several of which are included in Pape’s data, fit the pattern Pape has described. Even when not directed against the occupiers, religious difference (Shia vs. Sunni) is involved, as is the potential for influencing the democratic occupiers.

Apart from advising democracies to not occupy jurisdictions with a different predominant religion, which flows obviously from his analysis, Pape’s recommendations are irrelevant at best (e.g., lock down U.S. jurisdiction borders), as Peter McCluskey observes in his review. Nick Szabo and Chris Hibbert have also recently reviewed the book.