30 April 2011

Natural disasters death-toll

From Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention by the World Bank:

Earthquakes, storms, and other hazards killed about 3.3 million people between 1970 and 2010, an annual average of 82,500 deaths world-wide in a typical year, a small fraction of the roughly 60 million who die every year and of the 1.27 million killed in traffic accidents alone. Disasters kill many simultaneously and affect many more but evoke more attention than the numbers warrant. For example, for every person who dies in an earthquake, more than 19,000 people must die of food shortage to receive the same expected media coverage, all else equal. That  the  attention  comes  from  sensational  media coverage (“sell newspapers”) is a circular explanation. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others offer different explanations for our emotions ...

Our emotional reaction may be accentuated by a perceived lack of control over the event (Acts of God). But natural disasters, despite the adjective, are not “natural.” Although no single person or action may be to blame, death and destruction result from human acts of omission—not tying down the rafters allows a hurricane to blow away the roof—and commission—building in food-prone areas. Those acts could be prevented, often at little additional expense.

20 April 2011

Adopting an insult as a badge of honor

We need a term for the practice of adopting an insulting term for self-referral and wearing it as a badge of honor. The closest we have is “insult backfire”, but it’s not really it.

Character A makes a snide, sarcastic insult about a central and real trait of Character B's— but instead of being insulted, Character B feels flattered. Usually, this is because Character B feels the "insulting" trait is actually a virtue that they have been trying to cultivate. ...

Madmen: Anyone who tells them "You're insane!" will be met with a response such as "Thanks for noticing!"

Noteworthy examples:

Impressionism

The name of the movement is derived from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satiric review published in Le Charivari. [link]

Punk

Our English word "punk" has a derogatory meaning which often varies, applying to objects (meaning "trash", "dirt") or people (meaning "lazy", "despicable", "dirty" or also " trash "and" scum "). It is used as an ironic description of the critical substrate or discontent that contains the music. When used as a label itself, the "punks" (or "punks") set themselves apart from the adaptation to the social roles and stereotypes. [link]

Nerd

Nerd is a term that refers to a social perception of a person who avidly pursues intellectual activities, technical or scientific endeavors, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests, rather than engaging in more social or conventional activities. It occasionally carries a derogatory connotation or stereotype, especially in early use of the word. Nerds are generally considered to be awkward, shy and/or unattractive by most, although this is not always true. ...

Bryan Caplan, a professor of of Economics at George Mason University, refers to himself as "an openly nerdy man" and has written of a "Jock/Nerd Theory of History". He believes that income redistribution is a tactic by Jocks to prevent Nerds from gaining power over them.[link]

Slashdot (sometimes abbreviated as /.) is a technology-related news website owned by Geeknet, Inc. The site, which bills itself as "News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters", features user-submitted and ‑evaluated current affairs news stories about science- and technology-related topics. [link]

Hooligan

President Ion Iliescu refused to negotiate with the protesters and called them "golani" (meaning a hooligan, a scamp, a ruffian or a good-for-nothing — which later gave the protest its name) or legionnaires. ... The protesters also composed their own hymn, "Imnul Golanilor" ...

Many intellectuals supported the protests, including writers like Octavian Paler, Ana Blandiana, Gabriel Liiceanu, Stelian T─ânase or film director Lucian Pintilie. Eugen Ionescu supported them by sending a telegram from France in which he wrote he was a "Golan Academician" (Hooligan Academician).[link]

However, not all attempts at adopting a derogatory term as a badge of honor succeeds.

For instance, a well-known failure is Patti Smith’s intentional attempt of adopting the term “nigger” (the failure is evident to this day in the youtube comments). In this case, the failure seems to be caused by the fact that no one would actually use this term to insult a white woman.

Another well-known failure is Ayn Rand’s attempt at rebranding selfishness as a virtue:

Rand acknowledged in the book's introduction that the term 'selfishness' was not typically used to describe virtuous behavior, but insisted that her usage was consistent with a more precise meaning of the term as simply "concern with one's own interests." The equation of selfishness with evil, Rand said, had caused "the arrested moral development of mankind" and needed to be rejected.

Critics have disputed Rand's interpretation of the term. Libertarian feminist writer Sharon Presley described Rand's use of 'selfishness' as "perversely idiosyncratic" and contrary to the dictionary meaning of the term, Rand's claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Presley believes the use of the term has caused Rand's arguments to be frequently mischaracterized.

Finally, another well-known failed attempt at backfiring the insult is “queer”. Wikipedia explains this particular failure in the following way:

This term is controversial because it was reappropriated only two decades ago from its use as an anti-gay epithet. Furthermore, some LGBT people disapprove of using queer as a catch-all because they consider it offensive, derisive or self-deprecating given its continuous use as a form of hate speech. Other LGBT people may avoid queer because they associate it with political radicalism, or simply because they perceive it as the faddish slang of a "younger generation."

The reason for these two failures at backfiring the insult is far less clear, as they seem to have a very similar structure to successful examples such as “impressionism” or “punk”: given that selfishness is a common complaint against libertarians and “queer” is a common anti-gay slur. The reason seems to be the refusal of the group itself to internalize and appropriate the term in a positive way.

I speculate that the reason behind this refusal is that the negative use of the term is considered useful even within the group by the members themselves – i.e. accusations of egotism are useful social deterrents even in interactions among libertarians, and also perhaps, under certain situations, some gays might find it useful to reject other gays as “queer” (i.e. abnormal or perhaps “politically radical”). To put it differently, there are libertarian-specific and gay-specific standards of “normality” which are enforced informally by means of negative words such as “selfish” or “queer” – which is why the backfiring of the insult would have overly-hampered some types of signaling within the group. Thus, the positive capture of the insulting word was rejected.

By contrast, impressionist painters, punkers, nerds, or hooligans don’t find very much use for the possibility of insulting each other with these respective terms. Thus, in these cases, backfiring the insult (i.e. its positive capture) had little cost within the group.

16 April 2011

Paul Krugman on the “exploitation” of Third World countries

From this article in the Slate:

A country like Indonesia is still so poor that progress can be measured in terms of how much the average person gets to eat ... A shocking one-third of young children are still malnourished--but in 1975, the fraction was more than half. Similar improvements can be seen throughout the Pacific Rim, and even in places like Bangladesh. These improvements have not taken place because well-meaning people in the West have done anything to help--foreign aid, never large, has lately shrunk to virtually nothing. Nor is it the result of the benign policies of national governments, which are as callous and corrupt as ever. It is the indirect and unintended result of the actions of soulless multinationals and rapacious local entrepreneurs, whose only concern was to take advantage of the profit opportunities offered by cheap labor. It is not an edifying spectacle; but no matter how base the motives of those involved, the result has been to move hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to something still awful but nonetheless significantly better.

Why, then, the outrage of my correspondents? Why does the image of an Indonesian sewing sneakers for 60 cents an hour evoke so much more feeling than the image of another Indonesian earning the equivalent of 30 cents an hour trying to feed his family on a tiny plot of land--or of a Filipino scavenging on a garbage heap?

The main answer, I think, is a sort of fastidiousness. Unlike the starving subsistence farmer, the women and children in the sneaker factory are working at slave wages for our benefit--and this makes us feel unclean. And so there are self-righteous demands for international labor standards: We should not, the opponents of globalization insist, be willing to buy those sneakers and shirts unless the people who make them receive decent wages and work under decent conditions.

This sounds only fair--but is it? Let's think through the consequences.

First of all, even if we could assure the workers in Third World export industries of higher wages and better working conditions, this would do nothing for the peasants, day laborers, scavengers, and so on who make up the bulk of these countries' populations. At best, forcing developing countries to adhere to our labor standards would create a privileged labor aristocracy, leaving the poor majority no better off. ...

You may say that the wretched of the earth should not be forced to serve as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and sewers of sneakers for the affluent. But what is the alternative? Should they be helped with foreign aid? Maybe--although the historical record of regions like southern Italy suggests that such aid has a tendency to promote perpetual dependence. Anyway, there isn't the slightest prospect of significant aid materializing. Should their own governments provide more social justice? Of course--but they won't, or at least not because we tell them to. And as long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard--that is, the fact that you don't like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.

In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty.

(via David Henderson)

15 April 2011

New data on the origin of language

From this article:

Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think that languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.

Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language.  Dr. Atkinson, an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics, has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: A language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.

Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has about 45 phonemes.

This pattern of decreasing diversity with distance, similar to the well-established decrease in genetic diversity with distance from Africa, implies that the origin of modern human language is in the region of southwestern Africa, Dr. Atkinson says in an article published on Thursday in the journal Science. ...

His study was prompted by a recent finding that the number of phonemes in a language increases with the number of people who speak it. This gave him the idea that phoneme diversity would increase as a population grew, but would fall again when a small group split off and migrated away from the parent group.

Such a continual budding process, which is the way the first modern humans expanded around the world, is known to produce what biologists call a serial founder effect. Each time a smaller group moves away, there is a reduction in its genetic diversity.  The reduction in phonemic diversity over increasing distances from Africa, as seen by Dr. Atkinson, parallels the reduction in genetic diversity already recorded by biologists.

For either kind of reduction in diversity to occur, the population budding process must be rapid, or diversity will build up again. This implies that the human expansion out of Africa was very rapid at each stage. The acquisition of modern language, or the technology it made possible, may have prompted the expansion, Dr. Atkinson said.

via Marius Comper

13 April 2011

Hayek on the evolution of ethics

From a February 1983 interview with F. A. Hayek, Cato Policy Report, republished in Toward Liberty: The Idea that Is Changing the World edited by David Boaz.

These [intellectualist or constructivist ideas derived from many decades of French philosophers] taught: Don’t believe anything which you cannot rationally justify. This was at first applied to science, but then was equally applied to morals. ‘Do not regard as binding upon you any morals which you cannot intellectually justify.’ ...

Now the great merit of traditional morals is that they have evolved and developed by long-run effects which people never foresaw and understood. ... Any philosopher who says, ‘I should admit only what I can rationally justify’, must exclude effects which are not foreseeable, must refuse to acknowledge a moral code which has been evolved because of its de facto effect. The utilitarian theorists believed, and Mises strongly believed, that man had chosen his morals with an intelligent understanding of the good effects. But that is wrong. Most of the effects of the moral we can’t foresee. They are beyond our vision. ... We simply must realize that our traditional morals are not to be approved because we can show how they are beneficial to us, but only because they have been proved in a process of selection. ...

It is not the intelligence of our ancestors that has left us with more efficient morals, but—as I like to express it to shock people—our ancestors were really the guinea pigs who experimented and chose the right ways which have been transmitted to us. It was not necessarily their superior intelligence. Rather, they happened to be right, so their successes multiplied, and they displaced the others who believed in the different morals.

03 April 2011

Carl Sagan, The God of the Pale Blue Dot

The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from a record distance [6.1 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles)], showing it against the vastness of space. By request of Carl Sagan, NASA commanded the Voyager 1 spacecraft, having completed its primary mission and now leaving the Solar System, to turn its camera around and to take a photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space. (more)

From Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space:

Ann Druyan suggests an experiment: Look back again at the pale blue dot of the preceding chapter. Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. If this doesn’t strike you as unlikely, pick another dot. Imagine it to be inhabited by a different form of intelligent life. They, too, cherish the notion of a God who has created everything for their benefit. How seriously do you take their claim?

01 April 2011

Jello Biafra Running for Mayor of San Francisco Again

Cute April’s Fools joke by San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Some policy proposals:

“I would … declare the outlying strip on 11th and Folsom to be a music district, like they did on Sixth Street in Austin Texas, instead of having the police harass them and shut them down. This has brought in a huge amount of tax revenue for Austin, by the way.”

Biafra has a refreshing approach to ending police misconduct and promoting reform within the San Francisco Police Department. “Police officers should be an elected position,” he told the Guardian. “Every four years, you run for election, voted on by the district you patrol.”

“I think the Guardian blew it when they came out against the initiative to rename our sewage plant after George W. Bush,” he said. “I think that would be a great idea. I’ll bring that one back, too.”

Rather than minimum wage, Biafra would like to implement a maximum wage

When he ran for mayor in 1979, Biafra generated a great deal of attention with his proposal to require businessmen to wear clown suits between the hours of nine and five. But he said this required some explanation: “This is only in downtown,” he noted

Biafra said he also planned to bring back another proposal from his first mayoral bid: “Create a board of bribery, to set fair standards and public rates for liquor licenses, building code exemptions, police protection, and most importantly, protection from the police,” he explained.

The board of bribery seems like a particularly good idea for reducing transaction costs, the next best thing to deregulation :)