14 August 2007

Cheney is SO Right

...was so right, rather.

The Oracle himself, circa 1994:

The man has a gift.

(Coming from boingboing which adds the caption, "Of course, this was before Saddam Hussein personally flew those airliners into our buildings on 9/11/2001. That changed everything.")

Brain in a WoW Server

From an article by John Tierney in the NYT today:

"...if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

This simulation would be similar to the one in “The Matrix,” in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits."

Read the article, it encourages movement in the brain-o-sphere, though I imagine that many WoW fans have already had this realization.

Basically, it's a variation on the brain in a vat argument that's been rehashed and reinterpreted for successive generations (follow the link just for the picture, if nothing more). What's new about this one is that it attaches the same sort of questionable "certainty" to the claim that has been problematic for other arguments and hypotheses. (See here and here for two examples.)

I find this sort of speculation immensely fascinating but ultimately inconsequential. Certainty with this sort of question is impossible to attain, just as it is in regard to theological, metaphysical, and meta-ethical questions. So instead of spending my days beating myself about the head in the hopes of having an answer fall out, I take what I think to be, the most reasonable answers, that is, the simplest explanation with the most readily observable evidence. Wondering is fun, but only for so long.

Ultimately, it's questions like these that caused me to lose interest in any form of philosophy except for political and applied moral. Sorry Adam, but I really hate analytic philosophy. (For an amusing criticism of the field, read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's remarks in this Freakonomics post.)

On a final note, what I do find particularly interesting about this comes from Tierney's follow-up on his blog where he asks whether it would be ethical for us to create such a simulation. Despite all of the suffering in the world, we think it is better that it exists rather than the contrary. Then would creating a simulation with all of the horrors of our world and "people" who are as real to themselves as we are to ourselves who would suffer as we have, would that be justifiable? If we wanted to experiment on these virtual people, could we? Lawyer Peter S. Jenkins says yes, and I'm inclined to agree.

I hope that I live long enough to see these questions resolved and the technology realized.

Efficient Giving

It's always been a difficult question for me and I'm sure it is for many others but I'm finally getting some traction on it, thanks to some good old economic principles.

If you live anywhere with a certain level of urban density (even Ann Arbor counts) you're sure to run into the situation. Someone, often looking extremely desperate, asks you for money in the street. What are you supposed to do? You know that you have money in your pocket, probably some coins that would be relatively easy to give. Should you give?

There are several approaches available to answer this question:

1. The deontological approach.
If you happen to ascribe to a certain moral or religious code that is 1) deontological in nature, (i.e. it's the action and not the consequences that count) and 2) gives direction for this situation, then you probably have nothing to worry about. Just give as you're told to give and don't look back, consequences be damned.

2. The consequentialist approach.
If you are a consequentialist by accident or choice, then you have to think a little bit harder about what to do in this situation. This is where economics comes in handy as I'll show below.

3. The "other" approach.
Maybe you don't care or you can't be bothered to care and you pass by indifferently. Presumably this is even easier than the first approach though I wouldn't recommend floating through your life without giving consideration to what's happening around you.

I used to ascribe to the first position. I thought that inequality was a terrible thing (I still do) and that I would do well to empty my wallet whenever asked by someone who appeared to be poorer than me. I gave away a bunch of money like this and, as you will read, I'm now quite certain that I accomplished very little, except, perhaps, encouraging the very situation that I was trying to eliminate. Whereas I used to believe that right actions made me a good person regardless of their consequences, I can no longer support that position. For a number of reasons, I'm now a confirmed consequentialist.

Back to the issue at hand, what is a person concerned with the consequences of his/her actions supposed to do when someone in the street asks for money?

Simple: Never, ever, ever give money to someone who makes their "living" from begging.

Begging in Brussels

Like I said above, inequality really bothers me and I think that you should give your money to poor people, just not those who are putting all of their effort into begging. Rather, give it to the poorest person who expects it the least. This idea comes courtesy of Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution fame. Here is his original post on the topic.

Basically, the idea is that giving to beggars only encourages more beggars which guarantees only that begging will continue. In fact, it also guarantees that an economy will grow around this industry, with "producers" providing the beggars and collecting the majority of the profits. Here is a shocking story from the BBC about doctors in India cutting off the limbs of beggars so that they are more valuable to the gangs that "own" them.

I strongly suspect that there are criminal gangs exploiting the disabled in Paris as well. When you see a woman who is so crippled that she cannot walk on her own begging four floors below ground in the metro, it stands to reason that someone brought here there, set her down, and will collect her when the day is over. Presumably they give her food and shelter but they money that goes into her cup does not stay with her. It is imperative to not support this form of exploitation.

Even in less extreme cases, where there is not the criminal exploitation of the disenfranchised, it is not wise to encourage begging. If a beggar knows that a particular begging spot is worth $5,000 per year, he will devote $5,000 worth of effort to get that spot, effort which could have been spent on far more healthy and productive pursuits (paraphrased from Cowen's comments here). If you don't like the situation of beggars, don't give to them!

Finally, getting to the point that finally motivated me to write this today, the beggar might not be as poor as you think. This Freakonomics post suggests that, in some cases, beggars might be making more than police officers. It's something that I've thought about often. Imagine the Paris metro, it's really busy. If a beggar sits in one place he might see 150 people go past him/her in one minute during a busy period, perhaps as few as 20 in a less busy period. There are easily three busy periods per day, each lasting at least an hour each. Let's assume that the beggar is there for seven hours each day (it is France after all, can't work more than 35 hours per week), that would put the beggar there for three busy hours and four not so busy hours. Given the sixty minutes in an hour, that translates to 31,800 people passing by the beggar each day (some, perhaps most of these people are passing twice, meaning that there are maybe 16,000 unique metro-users). This is really easy to imagine given that RER Line A (there are four others, plus the 16 metro lines) regularly handles more than one million passengers per day. So, if 1% these 16,000 unique metro-users gives a euro, the beggar makes 160 euros for seven hours of "work" for an hourly rate of about 23 euros per hour. Not bad at all. Even if only half as many people give money, it's still 80 euros per day, or about 12.50 euros per hour.

Gypsy women begging with their children in Lyon

To wrap it all up, giving to beggars encourages only more begging, which is bad for the individuals and for the society. It can, and often does, encourage criminal enterprises to exploit the most vulnerable members of society, to the point of for-profit mutilation. And finally, beggars may not be as bad off as you think and, when the global financial markets as well constructed as they are, you could easily give to someone in much more need who will use the money for more productive endeavors. Case in point, Tyler Cowen's newest project, giving his personal money directly to individuals in India.

Just to be certain that my point is not lost: poverty and income inequality are bad things, I don't like them at all. I think that I, and everybody else who can afford it, should give a lot of their money to people who need it more than they do. Just do it in a responsible way. It may not be the most convenient way of doing it, but if you're going to do the right thing, it's your duty to do it the right way.

13 August 2007

Logic vs. Conventional Wisdom

This NYT article is a great example of how conventional wisdom doesn't always stand up to logic. The subject is the great disparity in the average number of sexual partners between men and women. Some surveys produce self-reported results with men having an average of 7 partners to women's 4. That's a 75% difference. That's big. But, it makes sense with what we think about the reproductive strategies of men and women, right? You know, men want to reproduce as often as possible to guarantee the continued existence of their genes. Women, on the other hand, want a stable relationship to help raise the kids, thereby ensuring that they reach reproductive age and pass on her genes. This makes women jealous and men infidel. Right?

Sure, except that it's logically impossible. The math professor in the article, David Gale of UC Berkeley, provides the following example:

"By way of dramatization, we change the context slightly and will prove what will be called the High School Prom Theorem. We suppose that on the day after the prom, each girl is asked to give the number of boys she danced with. These numbers are then added up giving a number G. The same information is then obtained from the boys, giving a number B.

Theorem: G=B

Proof: Both G and B are equal to C, the number of couples who danced together at the prom. Q.E.D.”

For a closed population, that has to be true. Like, logically. Think about it.

The moral for today, kids: Conventional wisdom may not be as wise as originally thought.

06 August 2007

The French Caveat

France is great, I really enjoy living here. Of course I miss people and places in the US, but if I had to choose a city to live in for the rest of my life, Paris would be very high on the list. It's pretty, but not in a sanitized way. It's exciting, but also predictable. I'm just saying it would make a good long term partner.

The thing is, however, in France, whenever something is good, there has to be this other "thing." Nothing is free (above all, not my internet service which is called "Free"), there's always a caveat. The medical care is top-notch and "free", but we all know how my experience went dealing with them. The Parisian métro is great, except when they are on strike. France is great, except...

The latest installment is Vélib, the fantastic public bike system. There are about 700 stations all around Paris, about 300 yards away from each other. At these stations are about 10,000 bikes that you withdraw from one station and return to any other. You can get a yearly membership for 29 euros or pay one euro for each half hour. With the yearly membership you get one half hour free each time you take a bike. Really, it's an awesome system. Fantastic, every city should have one...


In deciding whether or not to sign up, he obvious choice was to take the yearly membership. Naturally, you could sign up online. I found the site easily enough and began filling in my information. Name, birth date, nationality, address, all of the standard fields were there. I provided my credit card number for the one time fee and my bank information as a guarantee against me stealing, destroying, and/or selling their bikes. Even better, I was able to associate my Vélib subscription with my magnetic métro pass so I only need to carry one pass with me.

Anyway, the whole process is going great. I'm thinking that I'm going to hit the "Subscribe Me" button and be able to take my pass outside and cruise around for 30 minutes. It will be great, it will be fantastic, I'll fall in love with Paris all over again. So there I am, hopes up, shoes on, ready to ride. I click the button and, and, and....

It gives me a PDF that they have filled in with my information from the previous pages that I am now supposed to print out and mail in. Huh? What? Gwah?

IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE!!! All that typing that I just did, now it will have to be re-typed by some French administration slave, duplicating the opportunity for transcription errors, costing everyone money (but that's what the VAT is for), clogging the mail (though providing jobs for people like the communist revolutionary postman, Olivier Besancenot, who ran for president a few months back).

Wow, France, you really had me there. I really thought that something was just going to be awesome from start to finish, without any caveat. You got me. You got me real good. I should have known better, I really should have. And really, it doesn't change anything between us, you're just like I always knew you were, really wonderful, except...

La Fête de la République

Just like back in 2005, Esther's dad found some tickets for us to go to the military parade on the Champs-Élysées on July 14th, known as Bastille Day to foreigners but "la fête de la République" to most French. It's always a bunch of fun, plus I've always liked parades since I was a kid.

Below are some pictures that I took. Some personal favorites are those of Sarkozy, the Republican Guard and the French Foreign Legion (very scary). I took the time to put captions on them, hope that you enjoy them!

La fete de la Republique


Esther and I had the opportunity to go to Lyon for the wedding of two of her friends. Click below to see some pretty pictures!

Travels - Lyon

02 August 2007

A little behind on things...

It would appear that I've fallen a little behind on keeping the old blog up to date (understatement intended). Here are some possible excuses that I've come up with:

  • Impending wedding and related planning
  • Uncertainty regarding some major educational/professional decisions
  • Sudden-onset super-morbid-obesity (can:t m thuyp, fdkiingeers toioio fqat@!!~)
  • Intensive French classes (20 hrs/week!)
  • un ennui indéfinissable
Some of the above are true, others are not, you take your pick. Just to prove how behind I am on posting, here are some pictures that I took while still in the US!

Autocross at Oakland University

More posts to come as wedding planning subsides, I make some decisions, I lose 65% of my body mass, my classes come to an end, and/or I stop being annoyingly French.