Archive for September, 2005

Natural copyright?

Friday, September 30th, 2005

In Copyright Natural Law Russ Nelson quickly explains “” (not a particularly useful concept in my opinion, but that’s irrelevant here), then proceeds to make the following bizarre statement:

The natural copyright law is a bargain between the publishers of copyrighted works and the recipients of copyrighted works. The publishers promise to eventually put the work into the public domain, and the recipients promise not to copy.

What in the world makes a limited duration state granted monopoly “natural law”? Is Russ conflating “natural law” with “whatever laws the first U.S. Congress made”?

Wikipedia on the :

The origins of copyright systems are generally placed in the practice of various monarchs in granting “letters patent”, arbitrary grants of monopoly over a particular practice or trade.

That sounds like the very opposite of Russ’s non-legislated (and non-decreed by Kings) “natural law” as do the legislative that created limited duration copyright and have since made it quasi-perpetual.

Russ’s conclusion that current copyright policy breeds disrespect for and disobediance of the law is correct, though I wouldn’t put it in terms of natural law, and suspect that the costs and benefits of use and enforcement given technology are far more relevant than any broken bargain for limited duration copyright, “natural” or not.

How to not reach critical mass

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

Kathleen Pender writes about Hedgestreet in today’s San Francisco Chronicle:

It’s not practical yet, but if and when it reaches critical mass, consumers could use it to hedge their financial risks the same way companies use the futures markets to protect themselves against adverse price swings.

Because of their short maturities, Hedgelets are not yet useful for making long-term bets on housing. As volume grows, HedgeStreet plans to add more cities and longer-dated contracts.

Why not offer useful hedgelets first and as volume grows experiment with less practical contracts (if at all)? Perhaps HedgeStreet considers itself in beta and wants to avoid taking off until the appointed time. Seems crazy to me.

Another crazy thing: making your product unlinkable.

Framing apartheid

Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

Dev Purkayastha, riffing on two of my recent posts, writes:

[Close-the-borders-protect-the-jawbs] is clearly winning out over intellectualized arguments by economists. I’ve mulling a strong counter-message that has more of an intuitive and emotional base. I’d love some feedback.

Why immigration? Because we need to make more Americans. America has influence around the world, but it’s identity has been suffering as of late. You could say that the “American Brand” has been grossly mismanaged, seen as how the political stock of Hamas and other pro-fundamentalist apparatchiks has grown in the post-Iraq world.

I would say that our openness to new immigrants and new ideas is a great tool to improve America’s reputation in the world. By helping hard-working immigrants find prosperity in America, we can be making the equivalent of “brand evangelists” for America. When they visit home and communicate with their loved ones, they’ll have some first-hand experience that America is more than the one-sided stories their politicians give them.

I agree that the “brand” of the U.S. and more significantly of capitalism has been horribly mismanaged. (On a distantly related note, branding the market is the trump card in a debate in the current issue of Reason magazine.)

I don’t find Dev’s “make more Amurricans/improve Amurrica’s reputation” pro-immigration framing particularly compelling and don’t imagine it would hold much water with the “protect the jawbs” crowd, though it may do something for the “national greatness” crowd.

Another very workable argument for minor reform is that the U.S. requires foreign students to maintain technological competitiveness.

If you want an emotional, intuitive, or as Dev says “social justice” framing, try apartheid.

Against xenophobia

Monday, September 26th, 2005

Three cheers for Arnold Kling:

“Where would you prefer that people be poor?” That is, do we want to insist that poor Hispanics should remain in their native countries, because we want to make our own national statistics on health insurance coverage and poverty look better?

In my view, economists have to be relatively favorable toward immigration, just as we have to be relatively favorable to free trade in general. It’s our job to lean against xenophobia.

But does Kling realize that immigration will destroy the market system (not)?

Real estate returns

Monday, September 26th, 2005

As I’ve mentioned previously I think the real estate market is in a price bubble. I tend to have more respect for people who thought stocks had reached a permanently high plateau in 2000 (and could only rise from there) than I have for people who now think similarly about real estate. The former could at least point out a fundamental change in the economy–the internet–that one could at least imagine as a mechanism for permanently shifting returns. From the latter I’ve never heard a putative fundamental change–they weren’t building new land ten years ago, either, and there have been periods of low interest rates before.

So, I’m delighted to see that Chris Hibbert, who I believe to be a skeptic and one who appreciates history (as opposed to believing that current trends must continue, increasingly), writing in favor of real estate investing. There are a few things in Hibbert’s post that I don’t follow:

Real Estate investors expect returns of 12% per year, minimum, not counting serious calamities, and not accounting for (often expected) supernormal returns due to rapid appreciation. Unlike stock market investments, you can investigate the recent performance of an investment, and then expect to reach that metric reliably.

real estate returns exceed other investments

If real estate returns are more reliable than stock market returns, you’d expect the former to be lower than the latter. In the Long Run, Sleep at Home and Invest in the Stock Market (NYT, August 19) shows that 1980-2005, the S&P 500 has handily beat even the frothiest real estate markets. I cannot find a reference quickly, but I understand that stocks also beat housing over much longer periods of time as well (e.g, 1900-2005), though they haven’t 2000-2005.

It just doesn’t make sense that real estate investments could offer both lower risk and higher returns over a long term. Even if something (i.e., restrictions on builing new housing) made it hard to shift investment into new housing, I’d expect extraordinary returns to go to existing owners and political entrepreneurs (i.e., developers), not to new investors.

In addition, the government insists that you account for your property as if it’s losing value every year, and gives you a tax deduction for the depreciation even though the value is usually increasing.

Everyone knows this. Is there any reason to believe tax advantages aren’t completely factored into real estate prices?

The worst historical cases that I know of were times when housing prices dropped 10 or 20 percent.

Hong Kong and Japan are down 50 and 25 percent from 1997 respectively, and Japan is down over 50 percent from its peak circa 1990. However, apart from a few small markets that suffered major employment declines, drops of 10 to 20 percent seem to be the maximum in the U.S., at least since the great depression, so far.

The renters who funded the run-up still need a place to live, so prices and investment income don’t fall by much.

Or people might consume less housing. Today’s monster homes certainly have room for multiple generations.

It looks like Hibbert plans to write a series on related topics. Hopefully he can disabuse me of my real estate investing skepticism. “Bubble Babble, and why it doesn’t bother investors” sounds like a promising future entry.

Addendum 20050929: Peter McCluskey also comments on Hibbert’s post and this one in Housing Bubble Peaking?

Fusion vs. eclecticism

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

I usually run away screaming when I hear a description including the word “fusion”, e.g., of food or music. I’ve never heard that word applied to the ‘s eclectic works, though their ability to fuse the string quartet with other forms is nearly foolproof. Yesterday’s performance with Bollywood singer and (Chinese lute) player was a case in point.

Terry Riley‘s The Cusp of Magic filled the first half of the concert. Judging by that performance only, one would have to believe that a pipa/violin/violin/viola/cello quintet was a standard arrangement. Wu Man played beautifully and in unity with Kronos, never triggering an annoying thought of “oh, now we hear the ‘eastern’ bit.”

The second half, featuring songs by performed by Asha Boshle, Kronos, Wu Man, and Debopriyo Sarkar on tabla, was equally successful, with the musicians ably replacing an entire orchestra. A few seconds after Boshle started singing Nihcole whispered to me that “she’s the one we hear in all those films.” I haven’t really seen all that much Bollywood, but it’s true, her voice is immediately familiar. Supposedly she has recorded 20,000 songs in her sixty year career. That’s almost one song every single day for six decades. Hard to believe. She looks and sounds nothing like 72.

Each time I hear Kronos perform I am happy, both because I love their music and they make me feel a bit sentimental. The first musical event I ever attended of my own accord was their early 1989 performance at the Krannert Center, where I believe they played Riley’s In C, ‘s Cat O’ Nine Tails and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. When I finally bought a CD player, also in 1989, Kronos’ Winter Was Hard was one of my first discs (I bought the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim and Bongwater’s Double Bummer+ at the same time).

Other reviews at SFist and memestream.

So, why does fusion denote abomination and electicism beauty?

Google Futures

Thursday, September 22nd, 2005

Google announced they’re using prediction markets internally:

The markets were designed to forecast product launch dates, new office openings, and many other things of strategic importance to Google. So far, more than a thousand Googlers have bid on 146 events in 43 different subject areas (no payment is required to play).

Very cool. However, I wonder about their accuracy of prices graph. It isn’t clear when the prices graphed were taken relative to the events predicted. It appears that very low probability events are overpriced and very high probability events are underpriced, as on the Foresight Exchange.

Prediction markets should become a standard groupware feature.

On the subject of punditry, i.e., predictions made without consequence for the predictor, Art Hutchinson has claimed over the past several months that use of internal prediction markets is on the upswing. I said so in January. :-)

Perpetual copyright ends, 1774

Sunday, September 18th, 2005

Tyler Cowen writes:

I am learning just how much early British copyright law kept the price of literature high, and kept books out of public hands.

The curious story of how perpetual copyright survived until 1774, 64 years after the Statute of Anne limited the duration of monopoly publishing rights to 14 years with one optional renewal is told in chapter 6, “Founders” of Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture. (Failing to obtain legislative copyright extension, publishers argued that common law copyright was perpetual, obviating the statute.)

Modern U.S. publishers, since at least 1976 succeeded politically where their English predecessors failed, obtaining effectively perpetual protection through legislation, obviating the U.S. constitution’s “limited time” clause (nevermind the redefinition of “science and useful arts“). Should publishers fail to obtain another extension by 2019, what alternative methods for controlling pre-1923 works will publishers pursue?

Open immigration to destroy capitalism!

Saturday, September 10th, 2005

Comments on a depressing must-read Katrina aftermath account went far afield, including a suggestion to leave the U.S., which among others prompted Anna Feruglio Dal Dan to comment:

Moving is not easy in this wonderful globalized society where barriers and stuff like that have to be taken out for the sake of the Market. The system depends on not letting people move around freely across borders.

I wonder about such things, so I had to ask:

How do you figure the market system depends on not letting people move? If people were free to move across borders would you expect the market system to crumble? Why?

Anna responded:

Because it would mean that a whole bunch of people who are paid a pittance in Rumania to make cheap bras would move to the UK to make them there for a helluva lot of more money. End of cheap labor. Collapse of affluent societies under the strain of immigration. Nobody left to buy the bras.

So I gather the argument is roughly as follows:

  1. Markets and/or affluence requires “cheap” labor (remember cheapness is always relative)
  2. By virtue of moving to affluent countries labor that was cheap will be expensive
  3. No more cheap goods due to lack of cheap labor
  4. Affluent societies collapse

I see one non-sequitur after another. However, if I thought affluence primarily results from exploitation of the non-affluent (as I suspect Anna does) rather than from high productivity (as I do) the argument would more or less make sense.

People moving from poor areas to wealthy areas would earn more, but probably not nearly as much as the typical already-weathy resident, largely because (e.g.) Rumanians aren’t as productive as Britons (due to poorer skills, not genetic inferiority; their descendents will be equally productive). Rumanians-in-the-U.K. will still be relatively cheap labor. (Wage controls could decrease their cheapness, but that will either result in lots of unemployed Rumanians-in-the-U.K. or not so many moving.)

We also have examples of lots of poor people being integrated into affluent economies, e.g., largely unrestricted European immigration into the U.S. around a century ago and (unfortunately) restricted but still large immigration into the U.S. from Mexico and elsewhere now. Two recent studies show that current immigration is having little effect on “native” wages–the already affluent can still afford to buy bras. American society didn’t and hasn’t collapsed.

A more interesting example may be post-apartheid South Africa. In some ways this may be a better model for what would happen in an open immigration world than U.S. immigration, as immigrants have never been a majority in the U.S., while (relatively poor) Africans are the majority in South Africa, as the relatively poor are the majority in the world (in other ways the proximity of relatively poor and wealthy societies in South Africa makes it a bad model–many Rumanians just aren’t going to move across a contient regardless of wage differentials).

I haven’t looked for post-apartheid wage data before (I plan to now), but a paper on Education and Racial Inequality in Post-Apartheid South Africa from last year seems to indicate that there is a decreased but still very large earnings differential between blacks and whites. Apparently there is still relatively cheap labor available to make bras, and South Africa hasn’t collapsed.

Anyhow, I find it amusing that both the marxist-influenced and the bigoted agree that open immigration would cause the collapse of American society, they just don’t agree on whether that would be a good thing!

I don’t think open immigration would destroy capitalism or end affluence (the opposite in both cases), but reagardless for moral reaons I think restrictions on movement and employment must be ended, roughly the same reasons South African Apartheid had to go.

Randolph Fritz also responded:

Mike, there is free movement of capital, but not of labor. Somehow I doubt that this is good for wages.

Not good for wages, but not as bad as both being restricted would be.

Both labor and capital should be free to seek their highest returns anywhere on earth. If they aren’t, they won’t obtain their highest returns, which is bad for wages.

Ubuntu Linux

Saturday, September 10th, 2005

5.10 is due shortly, so some very uncareful observations on 5.04 (version numbers are date-based, releases come every six months) before they become super stale:

Network installation from Windows was almost trivial, though InstallUbuntu.exe would be welcome. The only non-trivial part was partition resizing. I’m completely comfortable setting up partitions (e.g., with fdisk), but based only on installer feedback, I was not certain it would attempt to resize a Windows partition, so I backed out and resized before installing.

I was very happy to find that the display, sound, ethernet, wifi, and hibernate (suspend-to-disk) all worked with no manual configuration, a minor miracle based on past experience. However, this is on a three year old computer (Dell Inspiron 2100). (Sleep/suspend-to-memory didn’t work under Windows 2000 and I haven’t tried fixing it under either OS.)

The most annoying thing about Ubuntu Linux is having to semi-manually install proprietary code for Flash and various media codecs. However, provides exact steps (usually only a few) for installing any of these. Overall I consider this an improvement over the multimedia situation on Windows, where Windows Media Player gives uniformaitve messages about missing codecs and one is often reduced to downloading codec installers from completely untrusted websites. (The most annoying thing about installing an OS, including Windows, is usually getting all of the hardware recognized and working, so I’m happy that proprietary codecs were the biggest annoyance, but here’s to open formats anyway.)

The only other real annoyance is that I don’t like the mail/groupware client as much as I hoped (I used it as my primary mail client around 2001-3 and missed it), perhaps because I didn’t use it with IMAP previously. Evolution has no mechanism for switching to offline mode immediately,and occasionally can take many minutes to go offline. Furthermore, Evolution often gets confused when going back online, (perhaps) particularly after awakening from hibernation or switching networks, requiring closing the program, which can take several minutes in its confused state, and relaunch. Thunderbird allows one to go offline without syncing folders and never gets confused when going back online. I may switch back to Thunderbird, though I’d miss Evolution’s vFolders and calendar support.

I’m really looking forward to Ubuntu Linux 5.10, though the real test will be installation on a newer laptop.