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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Health Skepticism: Part 1 - Introduction

I'm no expert about general health, including the sub-topics of diet, exercise, and medical knowledge, but I don't need to be to notice that expert advice in those areas has changed wildly over the decades of my life. Things like dietary cholesterol, low fat diets, trans-fats, the food pyramid, weight-training and muscle, supplements, screening for cancer, and on and on and on and...

While not an expert about general health, I am the world's expert regarding the care and feeding of Bret. Over the decades I've become much more knowledgeable about taking care of myself, mostly through trying to make sense of all the information out there, but also trying various approaches in the diet and exercise realm (consciously being my own lab rat), and being an unwitting lab rat due to external factors (trans-fats, for example).

What's fascinated me about the whole topic is how Americans have collectively made stunningly bad decisions about how to take care of ourselves and that will be the main focus of this series of posts - how interactions of people, groups, and scientific and medical knowledge (or distortions thereof) caused us to collectively make astoundingly stupid decisions about taking care of ourselves. How a country as rich and technologically advanced as we are ends up with a life expectancy ranked below those bastions of model societies such as Columbia and Cuba. How we managed to spend more than $1 trillion (that's $1,000,000,000,000) on our National Institute of Health over the last several decades yet aren't noticeably more healthy than Slovenia or even Mexico (in terms of life-expectancy).

The next post in this series will take a look at cholesterol and how we pretty much managed to completely confuse ourselves about cause and effect. It's a good introduction to this general topic in that it sheds light upon the problems of having large diversity in a population of very complex organisms and trying to figure out what sorts of things can help that population.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

On the history of politics and race in the U.S.

In light of the popularity of so many gratuitous and false allegations of racism in public discourse these days, I present:

Pin the Tale on the Donkey: Democrats' Horrible Racist Past | Bill Whittle

Monday, September 21, 2015

Rhetorical rubbish

In response to recent remarks, Charlie Cooke has some observations at NRO:
The United States, Senator Bernie Sanders declared before a few thousand college students yesterday, was founded “from way back on racist principles.” “That,” he added, after briefly apologizing for bringing the topic up in the first instance, “is a fact — we have come a long way as a nation.”
 That Sanders should remind voters of this truth is admirable and necessary. That he should do so in the middle of an ideologically hostile crowd is even more so. One cannot enjoy redemption without guilt, and, on occasion at least, that guilt must be given a name.   America has indeed “come a long way.”
 It is unfortunate, however, that Sanders felt the need to attach his reminder to a dangerous falsehood. The American escutcheon is indeed sullied by original sin, but that sin is largely one of omission rather than commission. Flawed as it is, the United States was not founded on inadequate or abominable or “racist” principles, but upon extraordinary, revolutionary, and unusually virtuous propositions that, tragically, have all too often been ignored. 
He concludes with remarks by Alexander Stephens:
 Whereas the United States “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races,” the Confederacy would be “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” The departure from the settlement of 1789 would be dramatic. “This, our new government,” he submitted, “is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Mercifully, Stephens’s pernicious pseudo-“truth” was smashed and cut into pieces by the Union Army, and the older, more virtuous axioms were restored to the center of American life. Over the next century, by a tricky combination of legal reform and social pressure, the unrealized values of the founding were extended, little by little, to all. Today, we still grapple with them — not because we suspect that they may be wrong but because we worry that they are not being universally enjoyed and that this is unacceptable. When the likes of Bernie Sanders submit that that the creed is flawed per se, they do a disservice not only to America’s North Star — her “promissory note” as Martin Luther King Jr. memorably put it — but to themselves, for to advance the idea that warped men can by their behavior sully self-evident truths is to side unwittingly with the Calhouns and the Stephenses of the world, and to take firm aim at the hard-earned scars on Frederick Douglass’s back.
When a leftist makes such a false assertion about founding principles, are they demonstrating simple ignorance or knowingly lying in order to attack and undermine the country?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Shutting down the party

The study of history is constrained by the need to focus on a limited series of events.  The ability to interpret those events is further constrained by what else the historian knows about subjects relevant to those events.  Economic, political, sociological and other areas of knowledge can all be helpful.  Awareness of similar patterns of occurrence in different places or at different times brings further help in interpreting events.  Such an example is presented in an F.A. Hayek book,  The Fatal Conceit
   (full pdf, review)

Governments strong enough to protect individuals against the violence of their fellows make possible the evolution of an increasingly complex order of spontaneous and voluntary cooperation. Sooner or later, however, they tend to abuse that power and to suppress the freedom they had earlier secured in order to enforce their own presumedly greater wisdom and not to allow `social institutions to develop in a haphazard manner' (to take a characteristic expression that is found under the heading `social engineering' in the Fontana/Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought (1977)).
If the Roman decline did not permanently terminate the processes of evolution even in Europe, similar beginnings in Asia (and later independently in Meso-America) were stopped by powerful governments which (similar to but exceeding in power mediaeval feudal systems in Europe) also effectively suppressed private initiative. In the most remarkable of these, imperial China, great advances towards civilisation and towards sophisticated industrial technology took place during recurrent `times of trouble' when government control was temporarily weakened. But these rebellions or aberrances were regularly smothered by the might of a state preoccupied with the literal preservation of traditional order (J. Needham, 1954).
This is also well illustrated in Egypt, where we have quite good information about the role that private property played in the initial rise of this great civilisation. In his study of Egyptian institutions and private law, Jacques Pirenne describes the essentially individualistic character of the law at the end of the third dynasty, when property was `individual and inviolable, depending wholly on the proprietor' (Pirenne, 1934:I1, 338-9), but records the beginning of its decay already during the fifth dynasty. This led to the state socialism of the eighteenth dynasty described in another French work of the same date (Dairaines, 1934), which prevailed for the next two thousand years and largely explains the stagnant character of Egyptian civilisation during that period.
 Similarly, of the revival of European civilisation during the later Middle Ages it could be said that the expansion of capitalism - and European civilisation - owes its origins and raison d'etre to political anarchy (Baechler, 1975:77). It was not under the more powerful governments, but in the towns of the Italian Renaissance, of South Germany and of the Low Countries, and finally in lightly-governed England, i.e., under the rule of the bourgeoisie rather than of warriors, that modern industrialism grew. Protection of several property, not the direction of its use by government, laid the foundations for the growth of the dense network of exchange of services that shaped the extended order.
 Nothing is more misleading, then, than the conventional formulae of historians who represent the achievement of a powerful state as the culmination of cultural evolution: it as often marked its end. In this respect students of early history were overly impressed and greatly misled by monuments and documents left by the holders of political power, whereas the true builders of the extended order, who as often as not created the wealth that made the monuments possible, left less tangible and ostentatious testimonies to their achievement.

Another example of drawing upon several elements of knowledge in order to interpret history is provided in the Rodney Stark book,  How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity:
Command economies began with the earliest empires and have lasted in many parts of the modern world – they still attract ardent advocates.  But command economies neglect the most basic economic fact of life: All wealth derives from production.  It must be grown, dug up, cut down, hunted, herded, fabricated, or otherwise created.  The amount of wealth produced within any society depends not only on the number involved in production but also on their motivation and the effectiveness of their productive technology.  When wealth is subject to devastating taxes and the constant threat of usurpation, the challenge is to keep one’s wealth, not to make it productive.  This principle applies not merely to the wealthy but with even greater force to those with very little – which accounts for the substantial underproduction of command economies.
The author goes on to give a specific example from China where a strong government brings a period of meaningful growth and development to a close: 
Late in the tenth century an iron industry began to develop in parts of northern China.  By 1018 the smelters were producing an estimated 35,000 tons a year, an incredible achievement for the time, and sixty years later they may have been producing more than 100,000 tons.  This was not a government operation.  Private individuals had seized the opportunity presented by a strong demand for iron and the supplies of easily mined ore and coal. 
Soon these new Chinese iron industrialists were reaping huge profits and reinvesting heavily in the expansion of their smelters and foundries.  The availability of large supplies of iron led to the introduction of iron agricultural tools, which in turn began to increase food production.  In short, China began to enter an “industrial revolution.”

But then it all stopped as suddenly as it had begun.  By the end of the eleventh century, only tiny amounts of iron were produced, and soon after that the smelters and foundries were abandoned ruins.  What had happened?

Eventually, Mandarins at the imperial court had noticed that some commoners were getting rich by manufacturing and were hiring peasant laborers at high wages.  They deemed such activities to be threats to Confucian values and social tranquility.  Commoners must know their place; only the elite should be wealthy.  So they declared a state monopoly on iron and seized everything.  And that was that.  As the nineteenth-century historian Winwood Reade summed up, the reason for China’s many centuries of economic and social stagnation is plain: “Property is insecure.  In this one phrase the whole history of Asia is contained.”
When government maintains law and order without smothering commerce and innovation, people can greatly improve their circumstances.  That balance has rarely been sustained.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Give Me a Hand

With two partners, I founded Vision Robotics Corporation over 15 years ago. While very small, we're one of the oldest firms in the world that focuses strictly on machine vision based robotics.

We've seen a great deal of change in those 15+ years.

By far the biggest change is that computers can do more than 10,000 times as much processing per dollar as they could when we founded the company. That means that many of the algorithms and methods for using the information from image sensors that were impossible or extremely hard back then are child's play (for a really smart child!) now. It means that we've gone from vision systems that were vastly inferior to human capabilities to vision systems that often surpass humans' abilities to see and do something with what they see. For example, on our robotics lettuce thinner, the images are streaming by so fast that no human would have any chance of keeping up. Soon, $1,000 worth of parts will build a vision system that surpasses human visual capabilities in nearly every way.

In many other areas, machine intelligence is rapidly catching up to humans. Voice processing such as Apple's Siri may still seem primitive, but consider how far it's come in only a few years and project that forward ten years into the future. Computers will be conversational on most common topics by then.

In fact, in about ten years, $1,000 worth of computer hardware, in real time, will be able to perform as many computations as a human brain. The following graph is taken from an ancient post of mine, and we're still right on track to catch up with human computational capability.

Of course, human computational capability and human intelligence are two very different things. But the latter is probably not possible without the former.

The bottom line is that intelligence is hardly the limiting factor and will most likely not be any factor at all in another decade or two when it comes to automation.

The limiting factor? Hands. Often called "end effectors" in the industry lingo.

The human hand is an amazing tool. Nearly uncountable degrees of freedom. Tremendous flexibility. Incredible strength, especially given its relatively puny size. Amazing endurance. Stunningly large mean-time-between-failures. Essentially maintenance free and self-repairing. Well, maybe not maintenance free since the body it's attached to does need things like food and potty breaks. But still...

We are a few decades away from catching up with the human brain. We are perhaps centuries from competing with the human hand.

If someone could build me an end effector with the characteristics of a human hand for $1,000 or even $10,000, there would be many trillions of dollars worth of robotic and automation applications that would be instantly addressable.

If you want to have unlimited wealth, invent something as effective as the human hand.

Here's a video of a talk I gave not too long ago in which I made this point (towards the end). It's long, so I won't hold it against you if you choose not to watch it. :-)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Peter's Comment

Peter wrote the following excellent and relevant comment on Email to Don Boudreaux and with his kind permission, I'm elevating it to a post of its own so that it doesn't get lost in the comment archives. Here it is...

It seems to me that dominant ideological thinking on the right-left continuum has a life-cycle of about thirty to forty years. The liberal/left hegemony of the postwar years was so entrenched intellectually that there wasn't much of an organized free-market political force to oppose them until well into the sixties. The other side pretty much owned the playing field until then. The 50's and early 60's were their glory years during which civil rights and many of the basics of the social network were established with a lot of GOP cooperation/acquiescence. I see little evidence the public today has any taste for undoing those basics.

By the seventies, the bloom was off the rose and the left project became decrepit. Inflation, stagflation, crumbling infrastructure, endless union blackmail, urban decay, debt crises, underinvestment, feckless foreign policy etc. The leftist narrative is that Reagan and Thatcher rode in on the coattails of a coalition of misanthropic, dysfunctional misfits marching against history, but they were clearly a reaction to public anger and despair over failure and madness.

What I remember clearly from those years is how many confirmed leftists took the position that the problems of liberalism/socialism called, not for an honest reappraisal of misguided or outdated assumptions, but for more liberalism/socialism. The only problem with any government initiative, no matter how crazy or destructive, was underfunding. Then, as now, comparatively few were prepared to engage in honest self-criticism.

It's now been thirty-five years since the triumph of free-market thinking and your little dispute with Café Hayek shows something similar may be happening on the right. Free-market theories have been so dominant in economic thinking in the West that in the 90s even liberals like Clinton, Blair and others governed from the right economically (culturally is a whole different story). But beginning in 2008 cracks have started to appear in North America and especially Europe: the ambiguous benefits of the religion of ever-expanding free trade, the political power of the financial industry and central bankers, the concentration of wealth, etc, not to mention wildly expensive foreign policies that thwarted confident predictions--all should be leading us to honest self-criticism based on what our lyin' eyes tell us is going on out there and with respect for the reality of peoples' lives rather than seeing them as interchangeable rats in an ideological lab. Instead we see libertarians calling for ever purer applications of their theories and leaning on rote shibboleths like crony capitalism and bad individual choices (I treasure the fellow over there who tried to argue people are individually responsible for the havoc caused by losing their jobs--poor planning).

Even our rhetoric has grown stale. In the 80's, there was much hope and excitement over the thrill of breaking out of a sclerotic stasis. Words like innovation, excellence, "morning in America", etc. inspired many. I don't see much today except for repeatedly touting the virtues of "hard work" to a population faced with a bewildering tornado of "creative destruction" over which they feel they have no control. Not much to offer a new generation yearning for ideals to define their lives around.

Individuals can change, but rarely a whole generation. So hats off to you and keep up the good fight. There's a special place for you in the next world, but I fear maybe not in this one.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Email to Don Boudreaux

Dear Professor Boudreaux,

I’d like to respond to your two part critique of my recent comment. Since the comment is short, I’ll paste it here for easy reference:

“Change nearly always produces both winners and losers, and while innovations heavily favor the winners, especially over the long run, libertarians willfully ignoring the real pain of those whose lives are badly damaged or even destroyed by economic changes are a major turn off to vast swaths of the populace.

“The ideology that it's perfectly okay, indeed a wonderful thing, to allow and encourage serious destruction of some people's lives for the greater good is not widely shared by your fellow americans.”

Regarding the first sentence of my comment, you noted that there is “ambiguity of the meaning of the word “winners” when used in such contexts.” I apologize for not being clearer, but your interpretation in the first part of your critique does not match my intended meaning. My intended meaning is that the “winners” are “produce[d]” by the “change” (or changes), not that they were already “winners” (as in wealthy).

As a result, I completely agree with everything you wrote in part 1 of your critique, except for the minor detail that you weren’t critiquing what I intended to communicate. I’d feel guilty for you wasting your time writing that post except that it is a good post that I’m sure your readers found entertaining and enlightening and, besides, you could have asked me for clarification since you did realize there was “ambiguity.” I make no attempt to hide my identity and I’m easy to find and contact.

Let’s move on to part 2 of your critique. Once again, I find your critique mostly addressing things I don’t believe are contained in my comment and, at minimum, meanings I certainly didn’t intend to convey with that comment. Indeed, I agree with much of what you wrote.

Where I’m guessing we diverge is that you seem to believe that someone cannot both be “a huge beneficiary of market-driven innovation” and simultaneously have his or her life “badly damaged or even destroyed by economic changes.” It’s clear to me that there are plenty of people who have both attributes simultaneously.

For example, from Business Insider:

One out of every five suicides in the world can be associated with unemployment, according to a new study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, via CBS DC. [...]

Of the approximately 233,000 suicides examined for each year, around 45,000, or 20%, were linked to unemployment, the study shows.

I’m confident that at least some of those suicides are due to unemployment due to job loss due to “market-driven innovation.” I also believe that a life ended by suicide due to that job loss qualifies as being “badly damaged or even destroyed by economic changes” as well as “serious destruction of some people's lives” and, in your words, as “literally destroyed.” Yes, they were beneficiaries of countless centuries of innovation too, but I doubt they were thinking of the wonderment of economic progress when unfathomable despair drove them to commit suicide. Even if they were clearly beneficiaries prior to the despair that killed them, it's a tough sell to claim they are still net beneficiaries after they lost their jobs and took their own lives. It's also tough to trade off a single suicide with people paying a bit more for, say, transportation in a taxi. How many overcharged taxi fares is worth one death? I don't believe that there are a lot of people who would like to be responsible for making that trade off, even if it bothers you little.

You believe that I’m missing “the larger picture” which is, in a nutshell, that we all benefit from the sum total of all “market-driven” innovations (I’m not sure why non-market driven innovations don’t count, but that’s unimportant for this discussion) that have ever occurred. I agree completely with that “larger picture” and the point of my comment (and many of my other comments about your posts over the years) was to encourage you to consider an even bigger picture in your writings. The even bigger picture includes human psychology including emotion, irrationality, intuition, (intellectual) fashion, delusion, etc., all those things between instinct and reason that are just as critically important to the functioning of the extended order, if not more so, than economic principles.

Note that I'm not saying there's much that can or ought to be done about Creative Destruction. I'm not calling for government intervention. I'm not calling for slowing down innovation.

I'm only requesting that you occasionally consider and acknowledge some of the pain and despair caused by economic changes. I believe it would actually make your arguments more compelling to those beyond your avid followers and it might help your followers make more compelling arguments as well.

Bret Wallach

laboring under a misconception

There are lots of fun little stories that people tell that don't quite check out upon further examination.  A realistic grasp of history is well served by additional exploration.  One good example are the stories about Henry Ford and the payment of higher wages.  Another is the role played by labor unions.  In an article by Kevin Williamson he touches on both:

The unions are not, contrary to the popular bumper sticker, the “people who brought you the weekend” or the 40-hour work week. In reality, Ford decided to institute the five-day week in 1922, though it was not done until 1926 — a decade before the United Autoworkers union was even formed, and 15 years before Ford would sign its first union contract. The Ford example is illustrative in that the company’s work-force innovations — effectively doubling its entry-level wage at one point, five-day weeks, etc. — were driven neither by political pressure nor union extortion nor philanthropic impulse but by the fact that good workers were and are extraordinarily valuable, and every time Ford lost an assembly-line veteran and had to recruit and train a replacement was money out of Henry Ford’s pocket. Ford’s management knew what today’s executives in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street and in Montana sawmills know: People are assets, not liabilities.

The same principle holds true now: A world without union bosses is not a world of wicked coal-mine operators exploiting helpless serfs with nobody standing in the way but the Molly Maguires. It isn’t a union that inspires Google to offer such high wages and rich (indeed, sometimes silly) amenities to its employees — it’s Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, etc., each of which would love to drive a fleet of buses over to Mountain View and bring back everybody it could.  “Well, that’s Google,” you might say, “and not everybody has the skills or the talent to work in High Nerdery in San Jose or Austin or to tote a pitch book around lower Manhattan.” True enough, but the same principle applies to pipefitters and machinists and the 244 other labor categories Evan Soltas takes a look at here. His finding? That changes in productivity account for about 74 percent of changes in wages within any given industry. Workers get paid more because they produce more, not because there’s some coddled predatory halfwit threatening to pass out picket signs.

Henry Ford had good reasons for decisions  he made and unions had contributions to make of both the positive and rent seeking kind,  but I have a preference for a non-fiction version of the story.  I've voiced that preference before.

Asymmetric Blogfare

I visit various blogs and post critical comments from time to time. Even on libertarian blogs. Indeed, to anti-paraphrase Thumper from Bambi, if you can't post something critical, why post anything at all?

Cafe Hayek focuses on the benefits of free markets, free trade and innovations, and, as everyone here is (painfully?) aware, I'm very much in agreement. However, unlike the economist Don Boudreaux, the main Cafe Hayek blogger, who remains willfully ignorant that sometimes people are damaged by these things, especially innovations, especially in the short term, it's clear to me that sometimes change is painful.  As a result, I wrote the following comment in reply to one of the posts:
Change nearly always produces both winners and losers, and while innovations heavily favor the winners, especially over the long run, libertarians willfully ignoring the real pain of those whose lives are badly damaged or even destroyed by economic changes are a major turn off to vast swaths of the populace. 
The ideology that it's perfectly okay, indeed a wonderful thing, to allow and encourage serious destruction of some people's lives for the greater good is not widely shared by your fellow americans.
For me, pretty much a 30 second, throwaway comment, right? Well, much to my surprise and amazement, Prof. Boudreaux dedicated not one, but two long posts in an attempt to skewer my throwaway comment.

I'll leave it up to you whether or not and to what extent he succeeded in his skewering. He certainly succeeded as far as his avid readers (i.e his "choir" to which he preaches) are concerned. One reason for that is that I have no way to respond that will have the force of his posts. I guess that's what happens when you attack someone on their blog - asymmetric blogfare. I hope none of you feel that I've done that to you.