The Economist's Apprentice

In which a little girl confronts the world and battles the anti-humans.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Do They Belong in a Zoo?

From the WSJ Opinion Journal.

The London Zoo added a new exhibit last week. Joining the Oriental small-clawed otter and the moon jellyfish were three male and five female Homo sapiens who came not to gaze but to be gazed upon. From Friday, Aug. 26, to this past Monday, they inhabited an enclosure next to their primate relatives. "A lot of people think humans are above other animals," noted one of the species. "[This] kind of reminds us that we're not that special." (Which leads one to wonder how many of the zoo's other inhabitants were interviewed.)

To state that a given ethnic group isn't above the animals is horrible. Unfortunately, stating that humans collectively aren't above the animals seems to be very acceptable.

Hitler the Anti-Human

The importance of combating anti-semitism has received its strongest impetus from the horrors of the Holocaust. Investigations into what caused Hitler's evil attitude towards Jews are certainly worthy. This is, of course, just one step in understanding the Holocaust. Hitler also murdered homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Slavs, pacifists, political opponents, etc. Hitler was particularly obsessed with Jews, but arguably they occupied the zenith of his pyramid of hatred because of their number. He wished to exterminate Jehovah's Witnesses, but few people study why. If the numbers of Witnesses and Jews were reversed, I imagine Hitler would have articulated his anti-Witness views more thoroughly and we would know less about his views on blood purity and the like. If there were six million openly gay men in Western Europe, I'm sure Mein Kampf would have spent more time discussing sexuality.

What made the scale of Hitler's evil so devastating was not the depth of his hatred for any one group of people, but his willingness to kill any and every group that he disliked. I think that a partial explanation lies in his environmental attitude - that human overcrowding was a very dangerous threat to Germany. Here the BBC explains Hitler's Lebensraum theory.

Between 1921 and 1925 Adolf Hitler developed the belief that Germany required Lebensraum (living space') in order to survive. The conviction that this living space could be gained only in the east, and specifically from Russia, formed the core of this idea, and shaped his policy after his take-over of power in Germany in 1933...

The final elaboration of Hitler's programme for acquiring Lebensraum occurred while he wrote Mein Kampf during 1924-1925. Essentially, this involved his study of 'geopolitics', that is, the impact of the environment on politics, which provided him with a quasi-scientific justification for the plans he had already worked out.

During his period in Landsberg prison (where he had been incarcerated following the failure of his notorious Munich beer hall coup in November 1923), he read and discussed Ratzel's work and other geopolitical literature provided by a Munich Professor of Geography, Karl Haushofer, and fellow-prisoner Rudolf Hess.

Haushofer emphasised the 'extremely unfavourable situation of the Reich from the viewpoint of military geography' and Germany's limited resources of food and raw materials, and no doubt thus provided Hitler with an intellectual justification for his views. These were expressed in Mein Kampf, and remained fundamentally the same through the following years.

Indeed, an important reason for his decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941 was his desire to acquire the Lebensraum that he had been seeking for Germany since 1925. He envisaged settling Germans as a master race in western Russia, while deporting most of the Russians to Siberia and using the remainder as slave labour.

If Hitler thought that invading the Soviet Union was a reasonable solution to an overcrowding problem, it is clear that his environmental views led to immense suffering. A man who would go to such lengths to increase the land to human ratio might address the issue more directly by simply killing everyone that did not meet his idealized standard. It is possible that the Holocaust was as inspired by Hitler's views on the environment as his views on blood. The postwar renaissance of Germany argues that Hitler's reasoning on resource scarcity was as dubious as his views on race.

El Codigo Da Vinci

I just got back from the local Barnes and Noble. Although I don't live in a town with a particularly high number of Hispanics, I was able to pick up the the unabridged The Da Vinci Code read in Spanish on 19 CDs for a mere $39. It is published by FonoLibro.

For Americans, it is a great time to be learning a foreign language. First, your local video store has hundreds of DVDs dubbed in Spanish and French. More interested in Italian and German? Pick up a season of Charmed at and get it dubbed it German, Italian, French, and Spanish - even English. Sure, Charmed is horrible compared to a TV show, but compared to old fashioned language videos, it is great. and have a wide selection of DVDs and they deliver to the U.S.

A few tips for learning foreign languages.
1) If you read The Lord of the Rings 10 times in high school then read it in Spanish or French. Since you already know the story, your vocabulary acquisition will be rapid. Some people would think reading an English novel in translation is silly, but what do you care - you're a Tolkien nerd anyway. Novels are invariably translated into a foreign language using far fewer idiomatic expressions than in the original version - style is lost in translation, rarely gained. This means that reading English novels in translation can be a great first step to learning a foreign language.

2) Don't be afraid to watch cheesy television dubbed in foreign languages. Shows that suffer from selecting attractive actors over acting quality are often improved by dubbing. Would Sarah Michelle Gellar have made it in radio?

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Belated Blog Day

During Blog Day, bloggers are exhorted to describe five blogs that they like. Here are five that I find particularly noteworthy.
1) The Digital Bits - a great source for DVD news.
2) The Opera Critic
3) Digital Photography Review
4) Blue's News - about computer games not the blue dog.
5) The Sensible Knave

This last page is noteworthy for being consistently sensible and gracious (and a poster of gems like this one - which I have no intention of properly attributing in conversations with toddlers without internet access.) Will intelligence and civility attract attention on the web?

Terrorists Wear Dirty Diapers - And Their Mommies Are Big Farters

I was surprised to learn that many people have contempt for anonymous bloggers - some have called them cowards, etc. Being such a cutie face, I have a valid excuse. If I disclosed who I was, I would have dozens (from my profile view count, perhaps hundreds) of potential mommies wanting to snatch me up as their own. My mother is more than adequate, and probably better than the expected babynapper, so I choose to protect myself through anonymity. If a crafty babynapper does find out where I live, I want the milk companies to use the picture on the left. I am so adorable that everyone will be looking for me.

One scholar blogger uses his attack on anonymous blogging as a thinly disguised excuse to brag about himself. Now don't get me wrong, if I had his publications, the other kids on the baby swing would never hear the end of it. I'm not in a position to criticize self-promotion - do I really need to include my picture in every third post?

Anonymous bloggers are often called cowards. The Sensible Knave points out that anonymous bloggers may have special responsibilities to be civil, but they are not cowards. His argument is pretty convincing.

It reminds me of the habit of calling terrorists cowards. Most terrorists make huge sacrifices for beliefs they hold dear. Suicide bombers aren't cowards; they are evil. If they were cowards, they wouldn't be so much trouble. Why do people call terrorists cowards? Is it because it is fun to take cheap shots at evil people? Or is it because being evil has less stigma than being a coward? Perhaps, this abuse of language is optimal deterence, because fearless people are particularly loathe to being labeled a coward.

A similar abuse of logic is the common claim in Europe that soccer hooligans are not real soccer fans. The argument is that they really just enjoy getting drunk and beating people up. Now someone who was indifferent to soccer would not travel through Europe with their local soccer team to engage in drunken fights. This would make soccer hooligans like the only males in Europe who aren't soccer fans. This flimsy claim might be the strongest possible verbal deterent, exactly because hooligans are such rabid soccer fans.

I choose not to call terrorists cowards. Instead, I make up stories about how Osama's turban is full of dried boogers.

Note: The above posting has been changed based on an observation by The Sensible Knave, who quotes an earlier version.

The Large Footprint of Tigers

Environmentalists often lament the large footprint humans leave on the world. Individually, humans actually have a rather small footprint, given our ability to survive packed close together. This is a tribute to humans' superior ability to cooperate with one another.

From mother earth's perspective, a tiger must be considered high maintenance. This week's The Economist explains how saving the remaining few thousand Indian tigers may require immense sacrifices.

The present strategy is plainly not working. It called for the relocation of 66,500 families living in 1,500 villages in India's 28 tiger reserves. But since it was adopted, 30 years ago, only 80 villages and 2,900 families have been moved. Those left behind have learned to see conservationists and the tiger as their enemies. Most are tribal peoples and are among India's poorest, lacking any legal status or right to their land.

Some are now arguing that a means should be found for tigers and the human residents to coexist. Coexistence is not to everyone's taste.

Many conservationists are appalled, ... one of them, Valmik Thapar ... says that coexistence is "an impractical dream", because each tiger must eat 50 cow-sized animals a year to survive, and if you put it amid cows and people, the conflict will be "eternal and perennial".

The Economist worries that the tiger will lose from government inactivity. If Mr. Thabar is correct, perhaps it is time to give up on the tiger. The cows will surely thank us. And many of those 66,500 families.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Let a Robot Do Your Vacuuming

With my blogging activities and nap schedules, I don't help around the house too much. This has changed after my mommy bought the Roomba. It is a small, flat disk that is programmed to move about a room vacuuming. My mother puts it on the ground and presses the button, but I'm the one that runs around the room to verify that it isn't plotting to enslave mankind. The households I know who use the Roomba (two) report vacuuming far more frequently after getting the Roomba. Later this year iRobot will release the Scooba, which will wash and dry floors in a single pass. My mommy will be the first in line to buy this, which will make my robot surveillance activities even more important.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Case Against Domestic Equality

Few intellectuals lecture single people on how many hours a week they should clean their house. Nor do pundits prescribe a set number of children that couples should have. Strangely enough, many commentators do consider it very important that couples split domestic chores and child duties equally.

Many couples do not split household duties equally and in many cases both partners benefit from the option of unequal sharing. This is because a couple must agree on how much work to do and not just who does the work. Imagine that one of Lucy's two moms is a slob and the other is a neat freak. They have bought into the belief that partners need to share chores equally. The slob argues that time spent vacuuming is a waste. The neat freak wants to spend the entire weekend cleaning. If they are constrained to share the housework evenly, the outcome will more likely be that which the slovenly mom prefers. She has the greater bargaining power, since if cooperation breaks down, the result will be a low level of housework - which is what she would prefer anyway. Both people would likely benefit, if they could negotiate an unequal sharing, where the slob does a reasonable amount of housework, even if it isn't as much as much as the neat freak does.

This principle is especially important when thinking of childcare duties. Many if not most couples would disagree as to the number of children to have, if they had to split family duties equally. What if Lucy's more maternal mom really wanted another child and the other mother had only a slight preference to stop at one? If childcare duties needed to be shared equally, Lucy would never get a sibling. In the real world, couples do not have their activities prescribed for them by outsiders ignorant of their preferences. In all likelihood, the more maternal mom would get the additional child by implicitly agreeing to shoulder more than half of the childcare duties.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Why So Few Baby Bloggers

This will be so much easier when I have longer arms.

The Downside of Preventive Care

Conventional wisdom is that preventive care should reduce medical costs, as it will identify problems before they develop into expensive and deadly illnesses. Unfortunately, preventive care also leads to many wasteful medical interventions. Insured patients pay a small part of the cost of care. If preventive care identifies a minor medical problem with a costly solution, an insured patient is likely to undergo treatment, even if the real costs outweigh the benefits. It is likely that the nature of preventive care identifies far more minor problems than potential major problems. Friday's WSJ describes how cancer screening may not be as beneficial as is commonly believed.

...many tumors are so slow to progress - indolent, scientists call them - that they'll hang out in an organ for decades with no ill effects.... can be misled into attributing the decades of life you enjoy after "beating" cancer to early detection and treatment rather than to the properties of the tumor itself.

The article describes how overdiagnosis of cancer is the norm. Many people undergo invasive treatment for a cancer that would have developed so slowly that they would have died of something else first. Some of these patients suffer needlessly from side effects of their treatment. New research will lead to preventive care identifying more patients that can be treated at great expense with little expected benefit.

Researchers in Japan, for instance, find that CT scans detect almost as many lung lesions in nonsmokers as in smokers. But since nonsmokers have a mortality rate from lung cancer less than 10% that of smokers, the vast majority of what CT scans picked up would never have progressed to anything life-threatening. And a Mayo Clinic study found that although X-rays detect lung cancers at earlier stages, and lead to more five-year survivors, early detection does not lower death rates.

While consumers often resist increased cost sharing in their medical plans, financial incentives for patients to reduce wasteful treatment will be increasingly important.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Doctor 'Education'

MSN Video has a Matt Lauer interview with Terry Bennett who evidently is being investigated for being rude to a patient. He told a morbidly obese woman that she was likely to outlive her husband and would be in a poor position to attract another mate.

A few observations:
1) Doctors who are rude are going to lose patients. There is no reason to believe that a free market will supply insufficient bedside manner.
2) This shows an obvious danger of many types of nationalized healthcare. If you were a 5'7", 250 lb woman, it would be cruel, if the government was selecting this doctor for you and you disliked hearing the obvious.
3) Many doctors have this crazy notion that they should educate obese people that obesity is bad for them. This isn't education. Dr. Bennett thinks he is earning his $75 fee by telling fat women that men aren't attracted to fat women? Why doesn't he just provide some type of electroshock therapy?

The Society of Actuaries often has doctors address professional sessions in which they educate actuaries about the costs created by poor lifestyle. These doctors are typically fantastic speakers who want to help other people, and they are invariably shocked that their fellow doctors don't spend enough time advocating weight loss. There is no need for highly trained medical professionals to provide this type of information, people can get it for free at MSNBC. In fact, the last time my daddy got a checkup, the doctor gave him an article printed from MSNBC.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Kaeru Goes To San Diego

Being new to blogging, I'm been spending some time at Technorati seeing if anyone is talking about me. On a site called The Daily BJ (my dad wouldn't explain the puzzling name), I found a link to the vacation photos of Kaeru, a frog even cuter than Kermit. I especially liked the photos of San Diego (no word if he was looking for fellow blogger James Hamilton).

I'm going to contact Kaeru's handlers. Maybe he would be interested in guest blogging at The Economist's Apprentice.

Grade Inflation Might Be Grade Redistribution

Bryan Caplan has a great post arguing that teachers who favor redistribution of income should also favor redistribution of grades, i.e., pity grading.

To me, this reveals a basic inconsistency in egalitarian philosophy. If you
assign grades based on merit, and merit depends on performance unadjusted for
opportunity, then why shouldn't the same principle hold for income and wealth?
Just because you feel sorry for someone, why does that entitle them to a share
of the riches of the more successful? And if you do not adjust for unequal
opportunities when you grade, why should you adjust for unequal opportunities
when you contemplate redistribution?

In a later post he states:

Complete equalization of grades and income destroys the value of both. But moderate redistribution destroys the value of neither. The U.S. income tax has not turned America into Haiti, and basing 5% of our grades on pity rather than merit would not wreck our educational system.

I think that grade inflation is partially explained by 5% of grades being based on pity. A professor who wanted to follow the 5% pity strategy would determine what the typical standards were and distort them slightly by increasing all grades below A. Unlike income redistribution, pity grading doesn't require anyone's nominal grade to be reduced.

Pity grading might also explain why grades in the humanities are higher than grades in engineering. On average, humanities professors favor more income redistribution, so as Bryan (I'm outing him as a flamboyant, one-name personality like Madonna) points out, it makes sense that they would favor more grade redistribution.