Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Guns, germs and mosquitoes

Twenty students, or 4.4% of Sandy Hook Elementary's student body, lost their lives in this terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to them.

Emotions are powerful motivators, but people only have so much emotional energy to spend.  So whenever feelings are running particularly strong, we should ask ourselves what is the best way to direct all that energy.

Here are some numbers to put things in perspective.  According to wikipedia, the average infant mortality rate in the United States is .68%.  This is incredibly low, and you could be forgiven for not thinking much about infant mortality in daily life.  By contrast, Sierra Leone has an infant mortality rate of about 11.3%.  In fact, the UN estimates the average infant mortality rate for the world to be 4.9%.

Imagine that everyone in our country had to spend the first year of their life in a replica of Sandy Hook Elementary, each of which featured an annual school shooting.  In terms of mortality, this horrific scenario is far better than living for one's first year in Sierra Leone, or perhaps even a randomly chosen country in the world.

It can be difficult to care about that which is not seen.  You are here, not there, and I am not insensitive to that.  Millions of Americans are in very real pain right now, and that pain is something to take as seriously as all the other problems in the world.  A consequence of this pain is that people would pay enormous amounts of money to stop the Sandy Hook shooting from happening, and it is maddening that we just can't do that.  Even so, we can do something similar and perhaps even more meaningful.  Because the entire country of Sierra Leone is a thousandfold replica of Sandy Hook that keeps on going.

Overall there isn't much you can do to allay the pain of the current tragedy or deter future shootings.  You can spend your time clamoring loudly for gun control on Facebook and in public and to your congressman.  But you will be a voice among many and they will either listen to you or not.

Or you can go to GiveWell right now, and pick a high-impact charity right now. Such as, say, the Against Malaria Foundation.  You don't have to convince anyone of anything, you just give the money and make a difference.  GiveWell estimates that you can actually save a life for about $2,300 towards Long-Lasting Insecticide-Treated Nets.  You will find no reservoir of lives so cheaply saved on American soil.

This is not a responsibility.  It is a choice.  If you want to go on caring about those strangers less than one thousandth as much as you care about these strangers, fine.  It doesn't make you a bad person.  But if you feel a little miscalibrated, like there really shouldn't be a thousandfold difference even though there is, then perhaps you should take this opportunity to consciously redirect some of your feelings about the recent shooting, toward a cause where those feelings can really and truly do a lot of good.

Closed eyes do not stop a bullet, though a bullet can stop those eyes from opening again.  And somewhere out there, thousands of invisible mosquitoes are biting thousands of invisible children in their sleep.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Guide to Trading Candy

Halloween approaches.  Prepare yourself for the candy secondary market!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

That's just how capitalism works

An asteroid worth $20 trillion, and people who want to mine it:

Planetary Resources is the asteroid-mining company launched Tuesday in Seattle, with backing from Microsoft and Google billionaires, along with the equally prominent James Cameron and Ross Perot Jr. Its object is to completely dismember poor little rocks like Amun.
That’s because Amun is a goldmine — well, not gold so much. But it does contain a cool $8 trillion worth of platinum, an essential precious metal used in everything from jewelry to fuel cells to computers (and one that’s currently trading at the same rate as gold — $1500 an ounce.) On Earth, only a few hundred tonnes of the stuff are produced every year...He also found 3554 Amun to contain another $8 trillion in iron and nickel, and a mere $6 trillion worth of cobalt. So, the total payout from one unassuming asteroid? $20,000,000,000,000.
That’s what got Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis so excited. “There are $20 trillion checks up there waiting to be cashed,” he enthused at a space development conference in 2006. 

Of course, there is no real sense in which this asteroid is worth $20 trillion, and I'm not talking about the article's questionable arithmetic.  For some perspective, that's larger than America's entire GDP of $14.6 trillion.  I think we can safely say this supply shock would have a massive downward effect on market prices.

Ah, a concession:
Of course, there’s a catch. You couldn’t offload all those metals on the world market at once, for fear of crashing their prices. But the company would still own that much in equity, which would allow them to borrow against it. They would be that wealthy, to all intents and purposes. That’s just how capitalism works. 
Okay, that's just not how capitalism works.  You're telling me that if I own this space rock, worth $20 trillion only if I don't do anything with it, someone will be willing to loan me $20 trillion, because after all, if I default on the loan, they can have my rock which is worth $20 trillion so long as they don't do anything with it?  And where does this lender come up with the $20 trillion? Certainly not from Arun, which we aren't allowed to actually use in any way.  And if we can't even use this wonderful new space rock to augment our wealth, we're stuck with the fact that nobody actually has $20 trillion.  Add a few of Arun's friends and we quickly surpass the entire wealth of the world!  I mean, suppose I am magically able to sell a few of these asteroids and I end up with $1000 trillion.  Then I can buy, what, more goods and services than actually exist in the world?  Incoherent.  You can't buy things that don't exist.

You can't create value from nothing.  If someone tells me a rock is worth $20 trillion, I want to know where the value is coming from.  What is the real value of this rock to our society?  The answer has little to do with the current market price of platinum.  This asteroid's real value comes from the productive uses to which it will be put, now or in the future.  If a few of these rocks land on earth, will it magically double our standard of living?  Will we magically have twice as much food because everyone is so rich in precious metals?

Platinum is not a "fundamentally" valuable object.  I feel like this asteroid would normally be the hypothetical construct of a reductio ad absurdum argument to make this point, but somehow the point needs to be made even in a discussion about the actual asteroid.

Of course, smart investors may still want to mislead others into thinking Arun is a $20 trillion find.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Split or Steal?

Pretty awesome strategy:

This is a modification of the Prisoners' Dilemma in which Defect is only weakly dominant.  So if you think your opponent is going to Steal for sure, you have nothing to lose by playing Split.  Given how reluctant Left is even despite this, I'd say it was pretty important for the success of the strategy.

And another reminder that lies can help the lied-to.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Orwellian equilibrium

Sheep preferences over location are not transitive!

You might think this is irrational.  But keep in mind that they are sheep.  Thinking for oneself is very costly for a sheep, so they adopt a decision rule of do as sheep do.  Good sheep go with the flow.  Why, if a sheep didn't go with the flow, the other sheep would smack right into it!  You might think it is worse to be hit by a car than by other sheep, since they are so fluffy and all...but for a sheep, it is simply too costly to weigh those alternatives.

Monday, January 30, 2012


I just learned why helium makes us sound like chipmunks.  If you don't already know the answer, try to think about it for at least a few moments before I tell you...

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The answer is that helium is less dense than air, and sound travels through it about twice as fast!  In retrospect this is not terribly surprising, nor too difficult to figure out once the question is posed.  The real question is how I (and perhaps you) could possibly get this far in life without knowing why.

The paradoxical answer is that I know less about helium because it is too common.  I knew from a young age that helium made people sound like chipmunks, and apparently I was happy to accept it as a basic property of the universe that didn't itself need explanation.  Fair enough, I suppose...back then there was all sorts of crazy universe magic competing for my limited attention.  For all I know, helium voices weren't even that crazy or interesting (to me) compared to the other stuff.

On the other hand, if helium balloons weren't so ubiquitous, I'd have been totally ignorant of the phenomenon.  Until I saw a crazy video on Youtube at age 18.  And then I would have a WTF!!! moment and immediately hunt for an explanation.

What's the craziest stuff everyone just accepts because they're used to it?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Plastic Sentinels

Via MR,

As another swipe at the West, Iranians will soon be able to buy toy versions of the US spy drone that it captured in December, Iranian media reported.
Models of the bat-wing RQ-170 Sentinel – which Iran’s military displayed on TV after it was downed near the Afghan border – will be mass produced in a variety of colours, reports said.
I guess I was wrong about Iran not having the technological know-how to replicate the captured Sentinel!  Or might these toys be...made in China?