Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Chief science honcho a radical?

I recoil at the authoritarian overtones in the description of someone as Australia’s 'Chief Scientist', although, to be fair, it is only a name. The CS provides advice on science, technology and innovation issues to the PM and Ministers and provides a link between government and science.

The previous CS Robin Batterham resigned after controversy over conflicts of interest in working for Rio Tinto. The new CS is the CSIRO Scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, who initially at least looks more interesting than Batterham whose views I found clichéd. Peacock is a plant scientist and a supporter of GM crops. At a National Press Club meeting he points to the public health benefits of developing GM crops. He states:
In the near future, agriculture, more than ever before, will be linked directly to ... public health. The diseases of our western societies are largely a consequence of lifestyle changes, including diet. Many diet-related diseases, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colonic cancer, result in large part from the way we live.

We can change our foods so that our most common staple foods will help guard against the onset of these diseases and will make a significant contribution to reducing the enormous expenditure of therapeutic medicine.

Diabetes is the epidemic of the 21st century. This is true in developing countries as well as in western countries like Australia.

People in different countries consume the staple cereals, wheat, rice or maize. If the important starch component of these cereals had a low glycemic index, we would be a long way to reducing the incidence and severity of diabetes. It is possible to modify cereal grains so that they will be of greater nutritional value and more closely meet our requirements. ...our cereals are not very far removed from the wild
plants from which they were derived during the last 10,000 years. It is highly probable that we will be able to modify their biochemical constitutions to our

An example in barley is where a single genetic letter change in one gene, .... changes the starch composition of the grain to a situation where clinical trials have already demonstrated its value as a low glycemic index food. This variety can be introduced to the market right now, not as a transgenic barley, but as a barley changed by mutagenesis and conventional breeding. We are likely to see it soon in breads and breakfast cereals.

The grain is a sophisticated delivery package of a variety of ingredients essential to our health. As well as starch, proteins, fatty acids and antioxidants can all be adjusted to better fit human nutrition requirements.

We can now teach plants to make long chain omega 3 fatty acids, oils that we currently mostly get now through the consumption of fish. Fish do not make these oils, they are made by microscopic algae in the ocean, and the fish just store the oils from their food supply. Researchers have been able to take the genes from the microscopic ocean plants and put them into our crop plants so that they too can make long chain omega 3 oils, so important for cardiovascular and other body systems.

Our food will increasingly be an important component of our preventative health system.
It will be interesting to see the impact Peacock’s views have on government. In 2004 Peacock slammed the ARC’s attempts to promote money-spinning science at the expense of basic ‘public good’ research. He also supports a broader approach to dealing with global warming issues includuing solar, wind and nuclear options - his predecessor Batterham pushed technological fixes such as 'clean coal' and 'geosequestration'. An interesting man, and perhaps a worthwhile appointment.

Update: In 2004 Peacock criticised Batterham for holding a part-time job with the private firm Rio Tinto. Peacock himself however maintains a position with the part publicly-funded CSIRO.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Good links & good blogs

I liked links/blogs my colleague Joshua Gans provides on his blogsite to Harvard Magazine:
  • On procrastination here. Valuable to me as I study self-control and addiction and this a good non-technical discussion.
  • On neuroeconomics here. A new way of understanding why we behave as we do.
  • On games of trust and betrayal here. Weirder - lack of trust is like risk-avoidance.
  • On Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point fame) here.
Two new blogs I found out about through posting here:
  • A beautifully designed, articulate blog on Melbourne as a city by Russell Degnan here.
  • A well-written blog on ecology and environmental economics by David Jeffery here.
It is impressive to see so many creative blogs.

Stalin popular again

On the basis of killing 20 million non-combatants, Joseph Stalin can be regarded as the worst killer of the century. He even beats Mao and Hitler, on this basis although they each killed more in total! Yet, according to Foreign Affairs, most Russians under age 30 view Stalin with ambivalence and a majority think he did more good than harm (see here). One-quarter or more of Russian adults would definitely or probably vote for him. While most Russians are not hard-core Stalinists fewer still are not hard-core anti-Stalinists.

Russians see Stalin not as a brutal tyrant but as the man who oversaw victory against Nazi Germany and turned the Soviet Union into a superpower. Stalin is enjoying a revival with several statues planned in his honour and a museum, in his honour, being opened next month in Volgograd, previously Stalingrad: see here, here and here.

Imagine the global response were similar findings found in Germany for Hitler.

Is the world downplaying current events in Russia because it is preoccupied with other things? The West has taken a benign view of recent events in Russia - the economy is growing, there have been several rounds of elections etc. Positive attitudes to Stalin are surely just a 'speed hump on the country's road to democracy'. But:

"...the carnage in Chechnya; the festering, potentially explosive conflict throughout the North Caucasus; the Kremlin's blatant supression of independent television outlets and non-government organisations that dare to challenge its official line; the sorry state of Russia's disintegrating military; the predatory and ineffective police; and the massive corruption at all levels of Russian government."

The apparent blindness is as dangerous as is the alternative extreme view that Russians have an 'authoritarian gene' so nothing can be done. The fact is that no effective de-Stalinisation campaign has been conducted in Russia. Moreover, the national historical 'amnesia' has serious cconsequences. If young Russians treat Stalin with nostalgia they are hardly likely to pursue political transparency and democratic reforms.

Update: 2006 is the fiftieth anniversary of Krushchev's speech to the 20th Party Congress in the Kremlin denouncing Stalin. This is one of the most influential, and to delegates electrifying, speeches of modern history. A number of anniversary comments on it are here. It is interesting that Krushchev's reputation has deteriorated with time as Stalin's improved even though this dramatic speech led eventually to liberalisation reforms.

Reefer madness?

A report from the Netherlands (here) suggests that smoking marijuana does not cause schizophrenia. Epidemiologists invariably uncover a high correlation between incidence of smoking marijuana and acquisition of schizophrenia. But, according to the report:

"The scientists say the drug only seems to affect people who are genetically predisposed to getting schizophrenia (meaning they will get it anyway). As schizophrenia manifests itself during adolescence, and many people start taking cannabis during adolescence – it is just coincidence that some people develop the mental illness soon after they start taking the drug. The authors of the report wrote It is therefore advisable that youngsters with a family history of schizophrenia and patients with a schizophrenic disorder be discouraged from using cannabis".

A number of recent studies have suggested to the contrary that is does cause such problems (see here and here) although the results cited are confirmed in an important Australian study here. This latter study did suggest that use of marijuana might tip those predisposed into full-blown psychosis and might worsen problems among those already suffering from the disease. In addition later studies confirm higher levels of depression among youth using marijuana.

This is an important Australian health policy issue. The recent 2004 National Drug Survey shows that 21% of those aged 14+ had been offered marijuana in the previous 12 months and that, at some stage in their life, 34% had used it. But there is increasing community concern over marijuana use with 29% regarding it as a 'problem' drug in 2004 compared to 24% in 2001. This increase reflects the perception that marijuana use causes psychosis.

In South Australia, possession of marijuana has been decriminalised - possession of less than 25 grams results in a fine of $50 which, if paid, avoids a criminal conviction. In other states such as NSW there are moves to strengthen penalties against use (here). The Federal Government is currently engaged in an intensified campaign to further limit marijuana use and to reverse decriminalisations that have occurred in the ACT and South Australia (here).

My own view is that given the mixed evidence use of marijuana is not a good idea particularly if you are a teenager. There is growing evidence that, even apart from fears of inducing schitzophrenia, use by teenagers delays their cognitive development. According to a recent report:

"There is evidence that individuals who start to smoke marijuana at an early age - while the brain is still developing- show greater cognitive deficits than do individuals who begin use of the drug when they are older, but the reasons for this difference are unclear.

Scientists from the Harvard Medical School and from the intramural research program of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found lasting cognitive deficits in those who started to smoke marijuana before age 17. The researchers analyzed neuropsychological test results from 122 long-term heavy users of marijuana and 87 subjects who had used marijuana only a few times (control subjects). Sixty-nine of the 122 users started using marijuana at age 17 or before. The subjects were between the ages of 30 and 55 at the time of the study, and all had refrained from any drug use 28 days prior to testing.

Individuals who started using marijuana at age 17 or younger performed significantly worse on the tests assessing verbal functions such as verbal IQ and memory of word lists than did those who started using marijuana later in life or who had used the drug sparingly. There were virtually no differences in test results among the individuals who started marijuana use after age 17 and the control subjects".

After attending a number of recent neuroscience seminars on the effects of marijuana I think these concerns have a reasonably high probability of being correct. Moreover, teenagers have high discount rates and levels of impulsiveness. I therefore reject liberal approaches to reform marijuana law (particularly among youth) and support laws that will induce cautious behavior.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Soak the rich? Nah we luv 'em

A standard question in public economics arises if the distribution of income is skewed towards those on lower incomes and we live in a one-person-one-vote democracy. These characteristics describe most developed economies. A question: Why don't the low-income majority soak the rich and appropriate their wealth? Why not levy hefty wealth, capital gains and luxury good taxes as well as steeply-progressive income taxes?

I think there are at least four modern answers to this:

  • The population of 'low-income' earners are well-versed in public economics and understand that soaking the rich will have adverse incentive effects on their entrepreneurial flair leaving those on low-incomes worse-off.
  • The young don't seek heavily progressive taxes because even, if they start off poor, they have a naive optimism and a positive probability in the future of 'making it'. Hence they don't seek hefty redistributions lest they suffer future disadvantage. The old who have not 'made it' will not vote to 'soak' because they will have strong demands for public goods such as health care and government-supported pension schemes.
  • Citizens may believe that 'soaking the rich' will be ineffective since, compared to the poor, the wealthy have better opportunities to evade taxes.
  • Progressive taxes may emerge as the solutiion to a bargaining problem between rich and poor when the demand for public goods is normal, so demand increases with income. This idea is being pursued by my PhD student Mr Minh Huynh. A variant is the notion that progressive taxes are the price the rich pay to avoid being overthrown by the poor.

A fifth possible explanation is:

  • That we may love the rich and not want to harm their economic prospects.
Before you abandon this post in a search for sanity consider the adoration directed by members of the public towards the late Kerry Packer and the claims by Adam Smith himself on affection for the wealthy by the 18th century poor in England. In Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith argues that while there is a prevalent sympathy to sympathize with those less fortunate there is also a propensity to sympathise with the rich:

‘When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint it. it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state. It is the very state which, in all our waking dreams and idle reveries, we had sketched out to ourselves as the final object of all our desires. We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it. We favour all their inclinations, and forward all their wishes. What pity, we think, that any thing should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation! .... Every calamity that befals them, every injury that is done them, excites in the breast of the spectator ten times more compassion and resentment than he would have felt, had the same things happened to other men. It is the misfortunes of Kings only which afford the proper subjects for tragedy. They resemble, in this respect, the misfortunes of lovers. Those two situations are the chief which interest us upon the theatre; because, in spite of all that reason and experience can tell us to the contrary, the prejudices of the imagination attach to these two states a happiness superior to any other. To disturb, or to put an end to such perfect enjoyment, seems to be the most atrocious of all injuries...... A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them, would be apt to imagine, that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than to those of meaner stations’. (TMS, p. 51-52).
Fascination with the lives, deaths and clothing of celebrities is an instance of this. What I find particularly interesting is that Smith saw such adoration of the rich as a moral mistake but one necessary to maintain the stability of an elitist social structure:

‘This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages’. (TMS, p61-62).
Smith's views are discussed by Asfraf, Camerer and Loewenstein in a recent Journal of Economic Perspectives article 'Adam Smith as a Behavioral Economist'. It is a good read.

Virtual instructors

A university lecture involves a group of students listening passively to an instructor to gain knowledge. Spoken interactions between student and instructor, particularly in large groups, is minimal. A much-posed question is why cannot the instructor here be substituted by a book, webpage, CD rom or DVD? It is a good question and one that I respond to with agreement: lectures are not an indispensible part of university instruction. Students also apparently agree, with attendance rates at many lectures plummeting in recent years, at many universities, to between 30-50% of total enrollments. (David Romer, Journal of Economic Perspectives, (subscription only), 1993 found that small US schools averaged 25% absenteeism, medium-sized institutions 34% while large universities had 40% on a typical day).

Moreover, material is, in most institutions, routinely placed on DVDs or web pages for use by off-campus groups, for distance education and to be frank, by those who don't attend lectures. This does not do academics out of their job. Instead they are potentially liberated to pursue the more crucial role of facilitating small group discussions, computer laboatories and tutorials where emphasis is on learning rather than teaching.

This trend offends a few traditional academics and certainly runs into major problems with university bean-counters who identify implied rises in staffing costs dure to reduced student/staff ratios. But it does not worry me at all since I have long believed that such small groups make most academic sense and that the traditional lecture, passive-learning format is better suited for those who are already quite well-versed in a field.

These remarks occur to me because I am currently myself listening to a series of 24 lectures on 'The Will to Power' by Friedrich Nietzsche' that are provided in DVD format by The Teaching Company. They are a stunningly high-quality product in every respect.

  • The instructors are Professors Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins from the University of Texas at Austin. This husband and wife team are Nietzsche experts- both are recognised scholars in this area with numerous books and articles. They are also good teachers.
  • The technical quality of the presentations is sound if a little unimaginative. One suspects more could have been done. But in terms of using photographic and other visual material the material is much better, in my experience, than those provided in a standard lecture. The accompaning written notes are a more-than-adequate substitute for notes placed on a webpage. They include essential and supplementary readings and questions for discussion.
  • The cost is low - around $100Aust. for a complete program of lectures. This is less than 10% of the cost of any standard 'live' university unit.
  • The material can be reused and a viewer can repeat segments or whole classes as they seek.

The classes themselves are a lot of fun although they are mainly introductory and pitched at a relatively junior level. They are not a systematic survey of Nietzsche's philosophy - is that possible anyway? - but they do provide a sound introduction to his thought by distinguished scholars who do a fine job. The DVDs and class notes could replace a lecturer at a university who could then turn to the more important tasks of ensuring that learning has occurred through small group discussion. They could also complement a more standard lecture presentation though I, for one, would feel pressure competing with teaching of this quality.

I am interested in using material of this type in economics and finance classes at my university. So far I have listened only to Legacies of Great Economists which is available only in audio format and which I did not greatly enjoy. There are a variety of economics, finance, business, statistics and American economic history units available, see here, all pitched at a junior undergraduate level. As a market for such materials develops quality will improve.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Happiness is not normal

Steve Hayes discusses his new book 'Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life' (coauthored with Spencer Smith) in today's Salon . It has nice ideas that ring bells for me about the facts of suffering and of the need to accept suffering. Happiness is often an unconscious process of accepting things without thought - it is unhappiness that makes us think. The thesis is also important in the modern substance abuse and addiction literature which views substance abuse as self-medication.

'People suffer'. Pain is ubiquitous and suffering is normal. People do not enjoy their lives partly because the ways they try to feel good limit the possibilities for living the way they want to live. It can be liberating to understand that one should not exhaust oneself trying to achieve the unachievable but rather 'ratchet down ... expectations for self-improvement and fulfillment'.

Substance abuse, addiction, self-control problems and even suicide problems arise because most people aren't living the ways they want to be living, and that comes from how they're managing life's pains. We don't get good training in how to 'sit with pain'. Western culture promotes 'feel-goodism' partly as a side-effect of having technology to make things easier or to feel better and partly through an ethic fostered by commercialism and medications - eat the right pill, drink the right beer, drive the right car and you won't suffer.

The recommendation is to 'find a middle path....Accept your history, feel your feelings, notice your thoughts, and carry all that forward down a path that you value that's neither indulgence nor suppression'. This is, of course, very old hat in the psychology and self-help literature.

The approach differs from cognitive therapy which believes you should you should monitor and change your negative thoughts to live better. The difference with the proposed approach is that instead of a sequence in which you get your thoughts and feelings lined up and then live better, you are now saying that to live better you need to carry your thoughts and feelings with you.

This model of accepting feelings, disentangling yourself from your mind, connecting with your values, showing up in this moment and getting your feet moving in accordance with your values - is claimed to help a broad range of problems, from chronic pain and epilepsy to doing well at work, dealing with anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

Life includes lots of pain, and lots of living. But if you are not prepared to accept the pain you are not going to get quality living. This is little more than common sense but not unimportant for that reason. The book is substantively reviewed in Time (subsciption required).


I have been reading, with pleasure, Robert Bruegmann's, Sprawl: A Compact History. This is a learned discussion that looks at urban sprawl from a historical perspective. To begin, it is not obvious what sprawl is - the distant exurbia or the newly emerging suburban subdivisions - but even the word itself suggests that, whatever it is, it is something unpleasant. RB define it roughly as 'low-density, scattered, urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning'. A useful wiki on sprawl is here.

The negative arguments against spawl are that it encourages use of cars, creates pollution and high costs of providing public transport, roads, water supply, sewerage and other infrastructure. Sprawl also is claimed to involve the destruction of nature reserves, forests, agriculture and recreation. It is also popularly associated with an sterotyped idea of cultural homogeneity and bland, uninteresting lifestyles. Supporters of low density development, however, claim that sprawl has advantages since traffic intensities are less, traffic speeds faster and, as a result, air pollution emissions tend to be less intense per square mile: see demographia.

RB emphasises the positive side of modern sprawl in the affluent developed world by examining issues historically. The argument is that, even though sprawl has existed since ancient imperial Roman times, cities have become progressively less dense but much more attractive and livable with time. Instead of only the very wealthy living on large blocks on the boundaries of large cities, now many people live on such blocks. This areas are not culturally-barren slums but differentiated, inviting places to live with gardens, parks, good roads and often with both good public and private facilities such as libraries, swimming pools, a range of shops, quality restaurants, bars, sporting venues, Buddhist temples and (in my suburb) a Hells' Angel motor cycle club.

In addition inner city areas, such as the row houses of London, which horrified highbrow British ctitics in the 19th century when they were built, are now considered to be a stylish model of compact urban life. The same thing could be said of the residential sections of suburbs like Carlton in Melbourne or Paddington in Sydney which have also been gentrified over recent decades.

RB's book is scholarly but he admits that much of his research was carried out in a hire car and driving around cities or by observing cities while travelling by plane or other public transport. Its a useful tip that have been following over recent weeks while driving around Melbourne and Sydney. Many of suburbs that would typically be described as sprawl (including those with McMansions) are anything but unpleasant. You have only to open your eyes to see the myth or at least the ambuity in the prevalent stereotype.

RB is seeking greater respect and appreciation for our urban landscapes. His main point is that much criticism of sprawl is either elitist cultural criticism or just confusion. The latter is noteworthy - ask the next dinner party guest who complains to you about sprawl whether they live in it. Chances are they will say they don't. Indeed, generally, we don't live in sprawl others do! I will refer to other parts of RB's excellent book in later posts. RB has interesting things to say about such things as traffic congestion - he argues that attempts to reduce sprawl generally worsen congestion.

Pre-Announced US Exit from Iraq?

There is nothing like visible, extreme events to trigger off strong views. The past few murderous days in Iraq have John Quiggin arguing that, although a pullout of US troops from Iraq would be a disaster, there is no better option than to set an immediate timetable for a US withdrawal from Iraq sometime next year.

This is a more than a knee-jerk reaction however since it is also the current policy of the Australian Labor Party. But I just do not understand such views.

In his recent post, JQ is responding to, and rejecting, Lawrence Kaplan’s claim, in NRO, that there is a case for staying in Iraq and for abandining the current implicit drift in US policy that supports cutting-and-running. JQ argues, instead, that as the US will not commit troops necessary to make Kaplan’s proposal work, the best option is to preannounce a withdrawal. But, if one believes withdrawal will be a disaster for Iraq, better policies are for current troop deployment numbers to remain or, at least, to express a verbal commitment to maintain the commitment as PM Howard has done, prior to any eventual reduction. How can pre-announcing a cut-and-run policy improve the situation in Iraq when much of the current conflict reflects sectarian concerns within Iraq between Sunni and Shia? Will these violent concerns diminish if the US and its allies withdraw?

Kaplan is saying that the US is withdrawing from Iraq with US reconstruction aid already running out, infrastructure disintegrating , insurgency raging and with religious factions fighting in what some alarmists claim is approaching a state of civil war. Recent concerns in this regard follow the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. This bombing and subsequent attacks on 27 mosques in Bhagdad, are an attempt to drive a civil war, although it is doubtful these events, in themselves will do so. More likely there will be limited reprisals, demonstrations withe people of Iraq returning to their miserable, difficult lives.

According to Kaplan, the US looks to many Iraqis ‘like an honest broker’ preventing the country’s disintegration. The US presence has become a buffer between Iraq's two major religious sects and between relative order and mayhem. Where the US does not operate in Iraq it seems nothing works. Competing local sects control government ministries as fiefdoms, where connections count for everything and ability for nothing. And, just as the ministries ignore direction from above, local fims ignore ministries. While the Iraqi military are performing better – they no longer ‘melt away’ - their ability can be questioned as they are dominated by sectarianism. The Iraqi police operate as brutal militias and oppress Sunnis. In some areas previously anti-American Sunni’s are turning to the US for protection. If the US withdraws Iraq could become an even more devastated horror show. On sectarianism in the military and the police and the codoning of militia activity see the New York Times here. Quote 'The militias pose a double threat to the future of Iraq: they exist both as marauding gangs, as the violence on Wednesday showed, and as sanctioned members of the Iraqi Army and the police'.

The need is to isolate the population from the insurgents by providing them with security. This is the only way to win this type of asymmetrical war. But the US administration intends to draw down troop levels to 100,000 by the end of this year, with the pullback already well underway as US forces surrender countryside and head for their major bases. Implicitly the US seem to be accepting defeat. Kaplan (and following him, JQ) cite a single military officer as saying that 180,000 troops, more than double the number under intended policy, are needed. I am unsure how much weight should be placed on this single officer’s assessment but the clear implication of Kaplan’s argument is that the current intended number of troops is too low and that the US should stay the course and at least maintain troop numbers until the situation stabilizes.

An effective counterinsurgency strategy requires times and patience but the US seems close to having exhausted its resolve. Global pressures to induce them to leave will further weaken it. The need now is to support the people of Iraq by not leaving the country in a state bordering on civil war but, instead, to rebuild infrastructure destroyed by US bombing, secure major roads and seek a non-sectarian, effective civil administration, police and army. A major initiative should be to provide public sector employment for unemployed Iraqi male youth. Another essential initiative iis to replace the current government with a non-sectarian alternative.

The initial case for going into Iraq is an irrelevant ‘sunk cost’. Moreover, the bitterness many feel towards the Coalition's intention to go into Iraq is clouding judgements. That the invasion itself may have been a military disaster does not deter from the fact that the current difficult - though not impossible - situation must be addressed.

One part of the current problem is the role of Iran and this is something that can be addressed, if necessary by military action. Indeed 31% of Americans now regard Iran as the US's most significant enemy . In-so-far as Iran is funding the Shia uprising in Iraq and threatening to start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, these perceptions of the US public are accurate.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Progressive punishments

My 8-year old son, William, told me how justice is dispensed in classroom at his school. The response to a misdemeanor depends on the number of prior offences (= the 'Level').
  • Level 1, a verbal warning.
  • Level 2, a verbal warning.
  • Level 3, a verbal warning + a 'chat' with the teacher.
  • Level 4, a verbal warning + a 'chat' + an entry in the take-home school diary.
  • Level 5, a verbal warning+ a chat + an entry + visit to school head.
Fortunately William has only got to the Level 2 and that was for 'fooling-around' in class. In fact, no-one seems to have ever made it past Level 3. By the end of the day the slate is wiped clean and the schedule starts afresh. This creates some unusual incentive issues - after three offences kids tend to clam-up in fear of getting to the next level and wait until the next day to repeat offend. Levels of bad behaviour are, at least, 'smoothed' over time.

Hypothetically, for sixth and higher level offences on a given day, fifth level offence punishments repeat although I guess the head has her own schedule. William was unclear whether very severe offences would lead to an automatic jump to a high level or not since such high-level misdemeanors had never occurred.

A useful model for the criminal justice system? This classroom situation is a bit like an iterated prisoner's dilemma where tit-for-tat is improved upon by periodic (in this case daily) bouts of forgiveness.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Maths problems

As a kid at school I solved maths problems in the UNSW school mathematics magazine Parabola which is still published today. Years later I tried to get my own school-age kids interested in this magazine without success.

When I first went to Macquarie University, as an undergraduate, I didn't enjoy the way mathematics was taught. But, to digress, I did have a fascinating Hungarian tutor in first-year algebra and calculus, a Mrs Esther Szekeres. She told me I had talent but I was really better-read than able in maths. Ester, it turns out, was married to Professor George Szekeres, the foundation professor of pure mathematics at UNSW and a leading Australian mathematician of his day. Esther was mainly interested in geometry and was a very good mathematician. Both were active in promoting the Parabola magazine and, a few years ago, I was told Esther, in her nineties, was still active promoting mathematics in schools and Parabola.

The reason I am writing this is that I just found out today, that after nearly 70 years of marriage, George and Esther Szekeres, both died within an hour of each other at the end of 2005. George was 94 and Esther 95. A tribute is here.

The Szekeres were Jews who fled Hungary in the 1930s with people like John Von Neumann who they knew. George was part of a Budapest group of brilliant students, including Paul Erdos and Paul Turan. One of the problems the group considered was proposed by Esther and solved by George to declare his suit. Erdos called it the "Happy Ending Problem", as it led to the pair marrying in 1937.

I am fascinated by the history of Hungary and of the Jews who fled Hungary with the rise of Nazism. I have read biographies of von Neumann and Erdos showing that in Hungary, during this time, they held mathematics competitions in the parks! Intelligence and thinking ability were things to be celebrated. What a difference from the mass cultures of today! I am also interested in the fact that, while some American universities were anti-Semitic at this time, the smart ones like Princeton University were not. They were very appreciative of ultra-intelligent Jews like Einstein and Von Newmann (and of ultra-intelligent gentiles like John Nash). The lack of prejudice was moral and at the same time advanced their self-interest.

A math problem that I remember solving in Parabola years ago as a school student was the following:

'Prove that in any group of n>1 people at least 2 have shaken hands with the same number of people'.

It is an ingenious problem because it is so simple to state. I had to think about it for days until I saw the solution was so simple. Can you prove it? I am positive that Esther could.


The Australian's Higher Education supplement claims that 40% of students regard the results of 'faking research' as 'minor cheating' while 11% don't regard it as cheating at all. Academic staff underestimated the extent of cheating by a factor of 3-4. It tuns out about 1 in 4 students cheated. The study, by academics at Griffith University, is based on a survey of 190 academics and 1,174 students in four Queensland universities. The Australian does not mention that the study targeted accounting students with the authors claiming that 'changing attitudes toward what constitutes acceptable behaviour in the business world has been a contributory factor toward a decline in student honesty, particularly with respect to business students'. They further found that 'accounting students exhibit a higher tolerance than non-accounting students for some of the more serious forms of academic misconduct'.

Not that I am picking on accountants - cheating is a general problem in universities and business schools particularly in the form of plagiarism. Anti-plagiarism software is now provided in most universities: this is examined here. I get my own students to submit assignments electronically as well as in hard copy format and raise the prospect of checking which is a deterrance in itself. A suprisingly effective way of detecting plagiarism is just to Goggle phrases in a suspect essay. Of course this will doubtless not have the 'hit' rate of more elaborate software.

Cheating in my view might partly reflect changed community attitudes as the authors of the report suggest. I also think it reflects underfunding of universities with consequent excessive work loads by academic staff and large class sizes. Commercial pressures also impact on students who increasingly struggle to attend class and complete assignments. The AVCC data is old but its implications are clear:

The proportion of full-time students who are in paid employment during semester has increased in the last two decades. In 1984 about five in ten undergraduates were employed during the semester. In 2000, more than seven in every ten students were employed during the semester. Part-time students are even more likely to be in paid employment with almost nine in ten working during semester.

Not only are more students in paid employment during the semester, those who are employed are working longer hours. In 1984 full-time undergraduate university students worked an average of five hours every week during semester. By 2000, full-time students worked an average of 14.4 hours a week, or about two days every week - and nearly three times the hours worked by students in 1984.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Network externalities & the steady state blog

Mr X is a self-important individual who seeks both a blog audience and the articulation of his idiosyncratic tastes. The utility Mr X gets from blogging depends on the degree to which he can be idiosyncratic and pursue his own preferences in his posting (measured by D, for distinctiveness of his average post) and the number of bloggers who visit X's site N. Suppose X gains utility U = U(N, D), an increasing function of both numbers and distinctiveness. Suppose X wants to maximise steady state U. Suppose, too, the evolution of N is logistic with:

N - N(-1) = I*N(-1)(K - N(-1)) - G(D)

where G(D), an increasing function of D (for simplicity take G= D^2), describes the disincentive effect of very distinctive blog postings on the resident population's demand for the blogsite. The potential population of blog posters is K and I is an index of how intrinsically interesting X is as a blogger (a parameter determined by Mr X's genes that X cannot control).

Of course there may not be an interior steady state here. People will only post to X's blog if others do (they don't just want to respond to X, they want others to read their responses) and initially there will be few who do post so he might have to bribe a few of his friends to get the ball rolling, advertise himself, or rely on prompts from other successful blog sites. A big problem is to generate enough initial positive externalities to make the blogsite viable. If there is an interior steady state equilibrium it will occur when D^2 = IN(K-N). Solving this for N we get two roots:

N= K/2-sqrt((K^2-4(D^2)/I)/2 and

The smaller root here is dynamically unstable so take N as the second, larger root. This is the equilibrium X can hope to get to provided he can generate enough network externalities initially. This equilibrium blog audience size depends positively on the size of the potential blogging population (K) and on how interesting X is (I). But it depends negatively on how idiosyncratic X's views are. Indeed an upper bound on the distinctiveness of his postings is provided by the fact that D must be less than or equal to K*sqrt(I)/2. For values of D greater than this X will never be able to secure a positive equilibrium blog audience. This upper bound is more likely to be satisfied the larger is the potential audience and the more interesting X is.

Substituting this root back into the expression for U and maximising U with respect to D gives the optimal average level of distinctiveness of a posting and substituting this back into the expression for the root gives the optimal steady state audience.

One could complicate this by considering non-steady state dynamics. Mr X might initially offer non-idiosyncratic posts with wide appeal to help generate the network externalities sought and then go for more idiosyncratic posts that suit his own tastes long-term. But the steady state blog-posting audience is independent of such shenanigans. These only determine whether or not the blog is viable or not.

Casualty-sensitivity of the demand for war

In the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs, John Mueller and Christopher Gelpi squabble over the determinants of US public support for war. Gelpi believes that wars are supported by the public when the perception of military success is high. Mueller believes, to the contrary, that the main factor impacting on support for wars is casualties - support declines as casualties mounty. The exchange follows a piece by Mueller in an earlier issue attacking Gelpi’s general thesis.

Mueller notes that public support for the Iraq war has followed the same course as wars in Korea and Vietnam. Initially there was public enthusiasm but then, an erosion of support as casualties mounted. He implies that President Bush will be unable to reverse this deterioration short-term to stave off an ongoing anti-war ‘Iraq syndrome’ that might inhibit US foreign policy for decades.

Gelpi responds that while public opinion is concerned with casualties that there is no implication of policy-making paralysis due to the Iraq war experience. He claims the public become more sensitive to casualties during different phases of wars and that a key influence is the probability that a mission will succeed. Thus the public is ‘defeat-phobic’ not ‘casualty-phobic’. His data from the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars supports this claims. For example, after the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the public lost hope and casualties became important. He also argues that acceptance of casualties, since the Vietnam War, has declined because technology has reduced, in the public’s mind, levels of 'necessary' casualties. In other words Americans are more fussed about casualties these days.

Mueller responds by pointing out that support does drop during the early stages of a war as ‘weak’ war supporters drop away. But given this, the pattern is still that support declines as casualties mount. He disagrees with Gelpi’s analysis of Tet arguing, instead, that most US support for the war had faded in the two years before the US indignity due to high casualties. He also points out that that the defeat-phobia attitudes analyzed by Gelpi applies (using Gelpi’s data) to only that 20% of the population that is sensitive to ‘setbacks’.

Mueller does not believe that high casualties have permanent or ongoing effects on the public's support for war. The effects are temporary. For example, if the stakes are high enough Americans will accept many deaths. His claim is that in Iraq the stakes were not high enough to justify the high number of deaths.

From an econometric viewpoint one would need here to be able to distinguish the effect on public support for war of casualties and reduced winning prospects. These variables will be collinear. One needs to think of situations where casualties were low but prospects of winning were poor. Here Mueller’s argument would make sense if public support for war was high. If support for war was low then Gelpi’s analysis would work better. My guess is that Gelpi is right - with strong enough motivation the American public will support wars even with a recent history of high casualties. For example, I think that despite the difficulties in Iraq, the US and/or Israel are likely to launch a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. The stakes are high enough in this case to ignore casualty history.

I am interested in the effects of one conflict on the propensity and ability to engage in another. I notice for example that the Bilmes & Stiglitz study of the costs of the war in Iraq (famously claimed to cost up to $2 trillion, see here) mentions, but does not include, the costs that the war imposes in terms of reduced capabilities to engage in other wars both now and in the near future. B & S are talking about resource constraints while Muller is talking about constraints imposed by public opinion.

Portfolio matters: Update

The nominal portfolio I built up on February 10, costing $100,000, was worth about that 18 days later. The investment company I tipped Gowings Ltd has risen by just under 6% from $2-78 to $2-94 a nice, small gain. Its net asset backing, as recorded then, is $3-44 so I think there might be more gains here. But my relatively small holding in the ANU-based biotech Biotron let me down badly falling from 0.31 cents to 25.5 cents, a fall of 21%. It is good that my speculative holding was small. Other holdings were about the same so overall the portfolio now is worth $100,200 less the $650 I owed the bank or $99, 550. Not exciting but OK.

The stock I was looking at, AWB, has been in the news all week and fell over the period from $4-25 to close at $4-10 end of trading business today. I remain interested in this stock as a 'straw hats in winter' punt (there's a terrible pun there somewhere). It might eventually be a buying opportunity or a catastrophe. I won't buy while the stock price is going down but if it showed strength I might hop in. Given the AWB scandal some punters obviously like it more than one might expect. The National Party will have some say in determining the AWB future. Probably a better buy at $4-50 than at current prices.

Also looking at Image Resources a heavy minerals (zircon, titanium, rutile, ilmenite) mining exploration firm whose share price has moved from 31 cents to 52 cents since last October. The company is valued at $31 million and has two large projects about half-way between Perth and Geraldton. The Bulletin magazine's The Speculator columnist David Haselhurst is trying to buy into this at around 45 cents and I think it sounds like a plausible punt at that price.

The portfolio is:

10000 Gowings worth $29,400
15000 Australian Agriculture worth $24,750
30000 Biotron $7650
50000 Hostworks $13500
1000 BHP-Billiton worth $24,900.

which is worth, in total, $100,200 less the $650 I owe the bank giving net value $99, 550.

Mid week responses

This blog has now been running for 18 days. I have been having a fairly relaxed time work-wise but teaching starts next week. Posts will tail off then or perhaps be more directly work-related.

I would like to learn more about forming links and feeds. So far I have read a little on the web but would like to find more systematic ways of capturing topics that interest me and getting my views to others.

I had an issue with tastes. A couple of things I wanted to post I thought might be overly offensive to some. For example, what is the optimal degree of raunchiness in an academic's blog? Most seem to be utterly puritanical though flame wars do arouse passions.

Anyway your views on these or any other issues very welcome.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Earlier this year I read William Dement's, The Promise of Sleep, Random House 1999 which discusses what sleep is and how people manage their sleep. I found the discussion of sleep debt interesting - burning the candle 'catches up with you'. Many people have sleep disorders that doctors don't know much about it. Moreover, many medical problems seem to be related to sleep. If you snore, and particularly if you are overweight, you probably have a health problem. Issues such as obstructive sleep apnea (where breathing is severely disrupted while a person sleeps) is a quite serious medical disorder that can be addressed by surgery or CPAP sleeping masks. People can suffer ongoing medical problems for years that are primarily driven by sleep deprivation. Many car accidents are caused by mini-sleeps, a fact now addressed in much Australian road safety propaganda. If you have not slept for 17 hours you are about as prone to a car accident as someone driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.05. But generally, for something that is such a major part of our lives, relatively little is known about sleep. We don't really know why we sleep and why it is necessary.

By the way, Dement's advice if you have a short-term insomnia is not to agonise over it but to take a standard sort of sleeping pill such as one of the benzodiazepines. Don't agonise over it and don't feel 'sinful' - just be aware that with sustained use these can be very addictive.

NewScientist this week (# 2539, subscription only) has 2 articles on sleep. The first is a note summarising evidence that the hormone melatonin is useless for increasing sleep. Nor is it useful for dealing with jet-lag , as popularly supposed, as a review of 25 studies recently confirms. I have tried it several times myself on long trips from the US and I found it either had no effect or gave me a slight headache.

But , in a second-article, Graham Lawton in this NewScientist suggests a new batch of drugs will conquer sleep and to enable us to be active for up to 22 hours per day.

One drug is Modafinil which is claimed to allow you to stay awake for 48 hours with no ill effects. It is a eugeroic drug that creates wakefulness without the jolt that stimulants give. You don't feel more alert, you just don't feel tired. Moreover you do not incur sleep debt. If you wish to sleep you can.

Sales of Modafinil have climbed from $25 million to $575 million from 1999-2005. While initially prescibed for narcolepsy and sleep apnea, it is clearly now being used for 'lifestyle' reasons. An issue is whether illegal markets will develop for diverted supplies of this drug.

While the indications are that Modafinil is safe the mechanisms that make it effective are not understood. It prevents neurons from reabsorbing the neurotransmitter dopamine once this is released into the brain. But beyond this not a lot is known. And, of course, its long-term effects are unknown. The obvious question that occurs to me is that people who take such drugs are assuming that sleep does not have a crucial function for which no effective long-term substitute exists.

But circadian biologists like Russell Foster envisage a world where it is possible, or even routine, to be active for 22 hours a day and sleep for 2. Would the Liberal Party legislate for twice daily 8-hour work shifts (assuming capital stocks cannot be operated more intensively, output/labour ratios would remain the same with output doubling) or could we work all night and enjoy ourselves during the day? But would we want to live such lives even if it were possible?

Flash Mind Reader & Pickover puzzle

I have seen a puzzle of this type at Clifford Pickover's site but the present one still amuses me.

Click on this and see if you can work out what is happening.

Once you've worked that out try this Pickover puzzle that you won't get.

Generally, I like Pickover's site plus Nick's maths problems (these are not tricks, just good problems) that is linked to it.

Paved paradise & put up a parking lot

Melbourne's new parking levies scheme is evaluated over at David Jeffery's Oikos. Some points:
  • Melbourne has introduced a levy on all commercial car parking spaces in the city centre involving a flat fee of $400 per space per year, doubling to $800 next year and then indexed to the CPI.
  • The aims include reducing peak hour traffic congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in Melbourne’s CBD and encouraging the use of public transport.
David asks whether parking levies really work? Three points:

  • A Vancouver study (PDF here) suggests each $3 increase in parking fee reduces the probability of driving to work alone by about 10%.
  • A study from the University of California (Berkely) (PDF here) suggests an average price elasticity of demand for parking of –0.32. Fairly low.
  • In Sydney, according to some figures, 7.7% of vehicles travelling through the City of Sydney each day use off-street parking (affected by a levy), 7.5% use on-street parking and 85% is through-traffic though this might be reduced by the tunnel. This suggests this type of levy imposed in Sydney would have only a small impact on congestion. Is Melbourne data comparable? My guess there is less through traffic in Melbourne.
The revenues from such levies could be channelled into public transport which would reduce congestion (indeed this is the claim of Environment Victoria see here) but these effects will be small because of low direct and low cross price elasticities. The Parking Association of Australia (an industry group) provide further evidence that parking charges will have small effects on congestion here.

Parking policies are at best only a very 'second-best measure'. A better proposal for dealing with Melbourne's inner city congestion is a pricing cordon as suggested here . Strict parking policies around the boundary of the cordon need to be in place (they often already are) to limit byproduct congestion externalities caused by people parking there, and walking to the CBD.

If one seeks efficiency-promoting parking policies then levy a surcharge on parking fees for vehicles leaving parking stations close to the morning or evening peak. The private sector's 'Early Bird' discounts have the effect of doing this to some extent already. It is important to remember when setting charges on motorists that the objective is to internalise externalities such as congestion and pollution - it is not to restrict travel per se.

By the way an important new book on how to efficiently manage parking facilities is 'Parking Management Best Practices'. Donald Shoup's massive book 'The High Cost of Free Parking' is reviewed here. Shoup is a very good urban economist.

A word that I like: norks

Over at Yobbos' View is a picture (see here) of a rather attractive woman who is described by one commentator as having 'good norks'. I haven't heard this vulgarism for 30 years so it had nostalgic value to me. It is a rather punchy piece of Australian slang which GrodsCorp defines more precisely as:

'norks:Or: norgs / norgies / norkers , Australianism of the 1950s for women's breasts, said to derive from Norco butter (Norco Co-operative Ltd. of New South Wales) wrapper packaging displaying a cow's udder on the package . See breasts for synonyms and euphemisms'.

The Age in turn points out that Norco was an abbreviation of North Coast Fresh Food and Cold Storage Cooperative Ltd, a company that produced a range of dairy and meat products in Byron Bay, NSW from about 1895. By 1925 it was the largest butter producer in Australia. Norco still exists but is now based at Lismore. It is out of the butter business now and operates some retail stores and sells only milk. It had rather poor profits of only $127,000 in 2005.

In half an hour's searching I couldn't come across an image of one of those butter wrappers. If anyone has one and could pass it on I'd be grateful.

Generally, I like hearing phrases and slang that remind me of my youth. Another phrase that I heard again recently was 'bags' as in 'I bags that' or 'I bagst it first' which was a way that, as youth, we sought to resolve property right disputes. If you were the first to say you 'bagst' some desired object whose ownership was in dispute you were supposed (in theory) to get it. I've got to say that I heard this phrase most recently from a Melbourne university academic of about my vintage. I will not name names.

Sydney's tunnel - confused controversy

The Tunnel controversy aired on Four Corners last night is becoming confused with a sort of low-level, anti-business leftism. This is a problem because road pricing is useful in dealing with congestion. That said, the NSW Government's handling of the Tunnel operation has been very poor. What are the core difficulties with this project?

Apart from traffic engineering design issues there are three basic problems:

  • Pricing vehicle use of the tunnel at a pricey $3-56.
  • Closure of adjacent roads to force traffic into using the tunnel to avoid 'rat-running'.
  • Limiting potential competition from technologies such as light rail or requiring compensation to the consortium should such competition be introduced.
These issues are problems and stem from the NSW Government's decision to sell the right to operate the tunnel to the private CrossCity motorway consortium. They are not problems associated with the greed of CrossCity itself which has undertaken a high-risk project and rightfully insists on protection of its substantial investment.

Pricing for road use to limit congestion is a good idea. Economists have advocated such policies for at least 40 years: the best recent survey by far is Lau here. But the price of using a road should reflect the marginal social cost of using it not the average cost plus a profit margin. Moreover, it is the averaging process that is at fault here not the margin. These projects have large fixed costs but such costs are irrelevant to pricing as shown over 150 years ago by A. Cournot in relation to his 'bridge problem'.

Pricing the tunnel at marginal cost will result in tolls much lower than $3-56. During off-peak periods where traffic using the tunnel is light access should, on this basis, be free.

In lieu of comprehensive electronic pricing of all roads in a city (this will become increasingly feasible with GPS-based satellite technology) policy makers can only choose to price certain key roads. This creates incentives to divert around the priced roads to avoid tolls. This incentive is particularly strong if the road is overpriced as the Cross City Tunnel clearly is. Without such limitations the eficiency arguments for tolling can vaporise because you get severe 'rat-running' external costs (Max Corden would call such things in trade theory 'byproduct distortions') along the boundary of the priced road.

The need to protect the CrossCity operators from competition stems from the privatised structure that has been set in place. As John Quiggin pointed out in the Four Corners show, the public sector has a lower cost of capital than the private sector so it can incur lower capital costs. But more importantly the public sector can internalise ther prospects of competition from other transport operations and does not need to be protected against such risks so it, for this reason alone, has a lower cost of capital.

It would have been better for the tunnel to have been publicly-funded but built and perhaps even managed by private operator. This would have given the private sector efficiencies sought, would have left the Government to marginal cost price which would have reduced the need to restrict 'rat-running' and would have left government free to introduce new competitive transport technologies such as light rail based on a social cost-benefit analysis reflecting the public interest.

The argument that the NSW Government could not afford to borrow to pay for the project is nonsense since its debt is low. The notion that it is more costly for the community if the government borrows at a low rate to fund the project rather than for the community to pay a much higher rate of return on the same amount borrowed is patently silly.

The report by a bipartisan parliamentary committee slamming the tunnel project is discussed here and here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

James Joyce: Writings, Spoken Word & Film

During 2005 I became seriously interested in James Joyce the writer. I did a number of things in trying to appreciate Joyce and emphasize here those that I found most enjoyable. I also cite some of the online resources relating to Joyce I became aware of.

Biography. I read the magnificent Richard Ellman, James Joyce, 2nd edition, Oxford 1982. Described by Joyce fanatic Anthony Burgess as ‘The greatest literary biography of the century’ it lived up to its reputation. Joyce as the scrounging, often ill, great thinker who roamed around Europe with his beloved wife Nora, getting drunk while living in grinding poverty. As Joyce’s writings are so intensely autobiographical it helps to know something of his life, particularly his early life, to understand his writings. Descriptions of his approach to writing are also informatively described by Frank Budgen’s important book, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, Oxford 1989 (out-of-print for many years but available online here). Joyce and Budgen are viewed above, presumably getting boozed. Lesser insights are conveyed by his wife’s biography written by Brenda Maddox, Nora, The Real Life of Molly Bloom, First Mariner Books 1988; by the descriptions of his somewhat grumpy (though much abused by James Joyce!), brother Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years, Da Capo Press, 1958 who later became a professor of literature and, finally, by the biography of his schizophrenic daughter Lucia in Carol Shloss’s, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, Farras, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Lucia had an unfortunate fling with Joyce's young friend Samuel Beckett (yes, that Samuel Beckett) and this may have helped to throw her over that edge.

A big deal about just one family? Yeah, but what a family and what a literary contribution to the world Joyce made.

Writing. Joyce was a pleasant if not a great poet. His first book of poems, Chamber Music, appeared in 1907. Nor was he a great dramatist. His play Exiles (available online here) was published and performed in 1918 without great success. But his Dubliners (online here), first published in 1912, is one of the greatest collections of short stories ever assembled. They are all good stories but ‘The Dead’ to me was particularly evocative. It is a slow grind into pathos. Then came the minor classic, Stephen Hero , which was not published until 1944 - Joyce, legend has it, threw it into a fire but it was rescued by his sister. Later this was rewritten as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (online here) and first published in 1916. Probably the first sign of real greatness, it is an acerbic picture of the Catholic Ireland of Joyce’s youth. The highlight for me was the graphic picture of Hell’s fires portrayed in Chapter 3. Others with more subtlety would pick other passages but this, to me, was awe-inspiring. Joyce's anti-clerical and anti-Irish attitudes are already becoming strong.

After completing this Joyce did various things - learnt Italian, taught English and suffered enormously with eye-related and other medical problems. He took years and years to publish his great life’s work Ulysses in 1922. There are many online versions - useful for searching such a lengthy work - one is here. Ulysses cannot be summed up on a blog although it could be the subject of a blogsite. It can be enjoyed as a companion, and dipped into. Ulysses describes a single day in the life of Dublin (Bloomsday June 16, 1904). It is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest novels ever published in English. It is a restless though unerringly precise piece, with changing styles and tempos. Parts of it are boring, other parts intensely poetic and still others hallucinogenic ramblings of masochistic fury. The main characters are the lovable Leopold Bloom and his quasi-faithless wife Molly. And the intellectually uptight, Stephen Dedalus, who nonetheless is kind. The greatest novel I have voyeured through.

This great literature overwhelms Joyce's political and other writings (collected as Occasional, Critical and Political Writing, Oxford 2000) which I found uninteresting. His Collected Letters are released in two volumes of which I have only managed to read the volume edited by Stuart Gilbert. These volumes are curiously out-of-print and surprisingly difficult to find. I missed his letters to Nora which would have interested me – only a few such letters remain - although secrtions are quoted in the Ellman biography. Joyce and Nora had a seriously enthusiastic sex life.

A big gap in my appreciation of Joyce is Finnigans Wake (no apostrophe!) which is available online here in searchable form though I could imagine no-one reading it in this format. I did not come to appreciate more than fragments of this work even when my spindly Penguin edition was replaced by a solid hardcover Faber & Faber edition of 1946 that I was able to secure through an online second-hand dealer for a price something less than the cost of a bottle of Grange. The hard cover and the price didn't help my understanding of this monstrous work. I did persevere. I was so convinced that a key would exist to unlock the treasures of this masterpiece that I purchased the studies by Campbell, Gordon, Tindall, Bishop and finally, and most hopefully, Anthony Burgess’ A Shorter Finnegans Wake (out of print but fairly easy to pick up). None succeeded in helping me and I walked away from what might be a great literary treasure understanding almost nothing of it. This is deliberately complex writing (Joyce reveals this in his conversations with Budgen) that does have a complex and devious plot that is intended to emulate a dark dream state involving incest. It is based in structure on Giambattista Vico's 15th century, New Science . Sorry James but I have a finite life and cannot be bothered spending the time to work it all out. One day maybe.

Spoken Word. Wandering through the University of Melbourne bookshop one day I came across an abridged spoken-word version of Ulysses on 4 CD roms released by Naxos Spoken Word. That evening I listened to it and was overwhelmed at the transparency of Joyce's writings when spoken aloud. For a week or so I listened to little else and found myself diving back into the novel to, take at my own pace, the particular bits I enjoyed most (Stephen walking by the seashore, the brothel scene, Leopold's masturbation at the beach, Molly’s soliloquy). The following week I went out and bought the whole set of 22 CD roms of Ulysses on Naxos and, believe me, ‘bleeding chunks’ do not compete with this. It runs, in total, for 22.5 hours and should provide a lifetime source of pleasure. Jim Norton is the main narrator and Marcella Riordan is Molly Bloom. If you can afford $250 and like James Joyce, do yourself a favor and buy this. The Naxos CDs are widely available in university libraries or can be subscribed to online here.

I then tried Naxos' abridged version of A Portrait of a Young Man and a Caedmon spoken-word version of Dubliners. Both were inspirational to listen to - maybe these writings were meant to be listened to. Suitably encouraged I doubled up by acquiring The James Joyce Collection on Caedmon which featured a number of readers, most notably Cyril Cusack, and a couple of (fairly poorly recorded) excerpts from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake spoken by James Joyce himself.

Again to complete a happy sequence of events with a major flop I purchased the 4 CD set of readings taken from Finnegans Wake by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan again on Naxos. Parts are comic and entertaining but my joy trailed off into incomprehension and boredom fairly soon, just as my attempts to unravel the written version had.

Film. I have written everything in a neat sequence above but, in fact, it all occurred together. To throw some extra ingredients into the temporal pie should mention that I searched for visual performances of Joyce. There are several excellent TV documentaries on Joyce in university libraries but three film treatments of the Joyce novels appealed greatly and, as with the spoken word presentations, drove me back into the Joyce written word.

These are the Joseph Strick directed versions of Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as well as Bloom directed by Sean Walsh. These are necessarily ‘bleeding chunks’ and skip over much (indeed most) but they do provide illuminating interpretations of the writings. I came away from them with an overwhelming affection for Leopold Bloom (the silly ass) and admiration and affection for the somewhat prissy Stephen Dedalus. Molly Bloom? Well, you cannot help but appreciate her feminine honesty. ‘I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’

Bloomsday celebrations (where, among other things, Joyce’s works are read aloud) are held June 16 each year in Sydney and Melbourne and, of course, around the world. I had to work on this day in 2005 but will try to join in 2006.

Do overweight people live longer than those of normal weight?

Everybody knows that people living in developed countries are getting fatter. For example, as measured by body mass index (BMI), the weight in kilograms divided by the height in metres squared, Australians have got fatter: see here. To summarise:

  • The 1999-2000 Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study indicated over 7 million adult Australians aged 25 years+ (60%) were overweight. Of these, over 2 million (21%) were obese.
  • Men were more likely than women to be overweight, with 67% of men compared with 52% of women (aged 25 years+) being overweight.
  • There have been significant increases in proportions of overweight and obese Australians over the last 20 years. From 1980 to 1999/2000, for people aged 25-64 years, the proportion of overweight women increased from 27% - 47%, and the proportion of overweight men increased from 47% - 66%.
  • On average, women in 1999 weighed 4.8 kg more than their counterparts in 1980, men 3.6 kg more.
Last year the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that overweight and obesity was causing 400,000 premature deaths annually in the US alone putting it second only to smoking as a preventable cause of death. The CDC later revised the figure down to 325,000 but this still dwarfed alcohol’s impact which killed 85,000 (here). The CDC’s Katherine Flegal and team subsequently changed this story to claim obesity killed ‘only’ 112,000 (here) but they made new quite astonishing claims as well:
  • Underweight individuals (BMI of less than 18.5) had a higher risk of death with nearly 34,000 more deaths than expected. Most excess deaths among the underweight occurred in people age 70 or older. Among the obese, the increased risk of death was most pronounced among people younger than 70.
  • Being overweight (BMI of 25-29.9) was not associated with excess mortality. Indeed the study found 87,000 fewer deaths than expected were associated with being overweight.

Thus being overweight is apparently not as bad for your health as doctors tell us. If you deduct from the 112,000 who die because of obesity, the 87,000 who don’t die because they are overweight, the net impact of being overweight or obese is to kill ‘only’ an extra 26,000 net.

The Harvard Medical School subsequently convened a Symposium on Overweight, Obesity and Mortality (here) which disputed the revised CDC findings by claiming that those underweight tended to be smokers, with serious wasting diseases (like emphysema) that might make them thin. Flegal counterpunched by claiming that their study had normalised for biases due to smoking or illness.

Other studies broadly support the Flegal CDC findings. Magee in the Annals of Epidemiology (here) surveys 26 studies and found, even after controlling for smoking, that being overweight was linked to a small drop in the risk of death compared to normal weight.

A recent NewScientist article (subscription only) raises qualifications to these claims:

  • To be clear, being obese is very dangerous to your health – only cigarette smoking causes more premature deaths in the Western world.
  • It might also be that the BMI measure is inappropriate as a measure of weight. Muscle is heavier than fat so many fit people are overweight using this definition. Similarly you may have normal weight, using the BMI definition, but have a spare tire of fat around your abdomen that exposes you to the same risk as the obese.
  • Finally, observing that lower mortality is associated with high weight by itself may signify little. A causal mechanism showing how being overweight makes you healthy needs to be established. There are biological reasons for believing being fat is bad for you even if evidence does not support this.

It might also be the case that other costs are associated with being overweight. People who are overweight may be experiencing reduced quality of life because of their need to combat hypertension and high cholesterol. It might also be partly a measurement issue associated with using BMIs. Muscle weighs more than fat so high BMIs capture healthy people with lots of ‘lean mass’ as well as those with too much fat. Finally, becoming thin may have costs. Sorensen et al show here that obese people who do intend to lose weight and succeed are twice as likely to die as those who did not have this intention and do not lose weight. This might be associated with loss of lean mass. It might also be that loosing weight through exercise or by restricting carbohydrate intake preserves lean mass and enables healthy weight reduction as claimed by obesity specialists such as David Ludwig (here).

From a public health viewpoint these issues need to be sorted out. It would be foolish to pursue public health campaigns aimed at reducing the incidence of overweight people in the population if this worsens community’s health.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Multiculturalism policies that expand choices

How do very different groups live together in a single society? Multiculturalism policies that celebrate diversity are often advocated. But these policies are difficult to pin down. They respect ‘diversity’ but seek ‘unity’, almost contradictory ideas.

In a recent New Republic article, Amartya Sen provides a synthesis. He argues we should assess multicultural policy successes not by the extent to which people are ‘left alone’, but by whether they improve abilities to make choices. Tolerance of diversity is not enough - sound policies should promote abilities to choose rather than having decisions imposed. Having different cultures co-existing side-by-side, without the twain meeting, is, to Sen, plural monoculturalism (PM), not multiculturalism. And PM, to Sen, does not yield big social payoffs and can generate sectarianism.

Being born in a particular social background is not an act of choice but the decision to stay within a traditional mode or to move from it is. If multiculturalism is defended in the name of cultural freedom, it is inconsistent to regard it as demanding unwavering support for staying within one's inherited tradition. As an instance, multiculturalism should not override the right of a person to participate in civil society, or national politics, or, indeed to lead a socially non-conformist life.

Promoting new ‘faith schools’ for religious groups may help provide ethos and values but education is not just about getting children immersed in an inherited ethos. It is also about helping children to reason about new decisions they will have to take. Non-immigrant communities also should need to see the demands of multicultural education. World history need not be 'parochial recollections' coupled with 'packaged religious history'. The priorities of genuine multicultural education differ greatly from the intellectual segmentation of society via PM. With genuine multiculturalism ‘gains-from-exchange’ arise.

If immigrants do see themselves as members of specific religious ethnicities first, and only through that membership as citizens in a ‘federation’ of communities, this leaves them open to the preaching and cultivation of sectarian violence. PM can impose costs.

Sen believes there is a need to re-think multiculturalism, to avoid 'conceptual disarray' about social identity and to resist the purposeful exploitation of divisiveness that this disarray encourages. What has to be particularly avoided is the confusion between a multiculturalism that goes with cultural liberty, on the one side, and PM that goes with faith-based separatism, on the other. A nation should not be seen as a collection of sequestered segments, with citizens assigned places in predetermined segments.

Multiculturalism as policy is analyzed generally here (note this wiki wrongly states that PM Howard is opposed to multiculturalism when it is government policy) and Australian policy stated here (not that useful as largely ‘unity in diversity’ clichés).

Reference: Amartya Sen, ‘The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism. Chilli and Liberty’, The New Republic Online, 18/2/06. Professor Sen won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998.

Economics of diabetes screening

A couple of years ago, after a general medical checkup, I got the standard: ‘Good or bad news first’ line from my amiable GP. The bad news was that, along with a million other Australians, I had diabetes 2 (or DM = diabetes mellitus). This is one of the commonest, non-communicable diseases in the world. Its causes include excess carbohydrate intake, aging and ethnic predispositions (see here). Often the disease is associated with higher than average bodyweight

Of the 14% of Australians who self-report their health status as ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ about 50% have a form of diabetes. The DM variant of diabetes accounts for 87% of Australian diabetics

DM develops gradually but its development can be forestalled (or avoided) by losing weight, controlling carb intake and by exercising. Moreover, if it simple to identify someone close to acquiring DM or with DM using inexpensive medical procedures such as glucose tolerance tests. And, if DM is identified early enough, as it was in my case, it is often easy (given enough self-control on the part of the patient) to self-manage DM with drug therapies, weight loss, exercise and dietary control. I don't take drugs myself but do exercise and do watch my carb intake.

There is a strong argument for all people to be tested for diabetes on a regular basis if they are overweight and particularly if they are getting past age 40. Such tests are inexpensive and, if left unidentified, DM can produce catastrophic outcomes including damage to various parts of the body with microvascular and macrovascular disease including heart disease, stroke, blindness and even amputation of limbs. There may be an argument for subsidizing DM testing, for encouraging employers to have their employees tested and/or perhaps for publicly-funded information campaigns concerning the desirability of screening for the disease.

Consider the DiabCo$t study of 10,500+ adults with DM. Of these:

  • 22% had only microvascular complications (eye problems, kidney damage, foot or leg ulcers).
  • 2% had only macrovascular complications (heart attack, stroke or amputations).
  • 9% had both microvascular and macrovascular complications.

Average annual health costs/per person of the disease were $5360 in direct costs. Health care costs contributed 79% of costs with medications accounting for only 30%. The complications mentioned, which occur only in a relatively small number of DM sufferers, were the main driver of diabetes costs. Annual costs without complications were $4025, $7025 for those with only microvascular complications, $9055 with macrovascular complications and $9645 for those with both.

The total annual treatment costs to Australia of DM are around $6 billion. An early detection program, would cost a fraction of this, avoid substantial treatment costs and reduce or delay the human misery associated with the onset of diabetic complications.

I am interested in further studying the economics of DM and its screening and looking for a PhD student to work in this area.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Will most human populations -> zero?

Some population facts:

Japan, with 127.1 million people is the world's 9th most populous country. Its total fertility rate (TFR) is 1.3 births per woman, much lower than replacement and, because it does not seek migrants, Japan's population growth rates will inevitably diminish as the gap between births and deaths narrows. If trends of the last few decades continue, the population will decline after 2015 to perhaps 101 million by 2050 (here) or even as low as 92 million or 72% of its current level (here). At this rate Japan's population would converge hit 60 million, less than 50% of its current level, by 2100 (here).

Other countries show even bigger projected population declines: Italy by 22% and a slew of eastern European countries, including Russia and Ukraine, will see populations crash by between 30-50% to 2050. Indeed recent UN projections suggests most countries will approach a TFR of 1.85 children per woman. This type of forecast represents a real break with past thinking - demographers had always assumed countries would settle down to replacement fertility levels (here) . Now the presumption is for a long-term sustained decline in human population. Apart from African and Latin American countries, whose populations will increase dramatically during the 21st century, the populations of most countries will start to disappear.

This sounds like fiction and it very likely is? But if such outcomes are implausible we should try to understand the economic factors that might increase fertility by offsetting these trends.

Some guesses:

  • As populations age and children become scarcer, kids will become more valuable so more will be produced. Not entirely convincing as these types of 'scarcity' benefits are external benefits - people are still left with the private costs of raising children.
  • Certain types of fixed assets such as land will become cheaper as population declines increasing disposable incomes that can be spent on children.
  • Certain health or education costs might decline but others might increase - especially those which benefit from scale economies.
  • Young adults might become more valuable in labour markets as labour shortages intrude thereby cutting net parental costs of supporting them and inducing higher fertility.
  • Female labour participation rates will asymptote to some lower bound limiting rises in the opportunity cost of having children. Perhaps there will be sociological changes that make women or men happier to be stay-at-home carers rather than workforce participants.
  • Finally, there might arise a batch of pro-natalist government policies, triggered by the desire of governments to produce enough young bodies to take care of aged populations.

My own view is that some of these factors will operate to thwart declining population trends as forecast by groups such as the UN. If these offsetting changes only come into operation when global populations are low then we will have to learn to live with much lower human populations. Finally, it is conceivable, though unlikely to me that perhaps African and North American populations will continue to grow thereby eventually dominating the globe. My hunch is that, longer-term, these countries will mimic current developed country fertility trends just as Asian developing countries have.

It is interesting that the environmentally-based 'population bomb' scenarios of the 1960s and 1970s are now replaced by fears of population decline with consequent economic costs . Such vacillations in attitudes towards population have occurred throughout history. My concern is that worries about population decline will drive misguided policies in much the same way that misjudged concerns about the environmental impacts of population, and vulgar Malthusianism, drove inept policies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Udate: A version of the question posed here was subsequently asked by Fraer Nelson, 'Where have all the babies gone?' in the The Spectator, here. I quote very selectively below:

'The last European will die on 6 August 2960. This, if you extend demographic trends far enough, is the grim official prognosis for our continent. We are rich enough and clever enough to have separated sex from childbearing and too busy for large families. The birth rate dropped below population replacement levels years ago, and our population increase is being driven by immigrants and older age. But even this won’t last. Soon we will start a long but comfortable slide to extinction.

... Sooner or later, political debate will catch up with the demographic reality — which is that Europe will soon start to empty and is already becoming the granny flat of the world.

...The European Commission has produced a report looking at population trends to 2050 and is warning that the head-count will peak within three decades. But the gentle population fall, it says, will mask a pernicious drop in working-age population that will cause ‘severe financing problems for social welfare systems’. Today, four workers support each pensioner; this ratio will soon halve. The elderly may be drafted in to man the factories, and soon the immigrants will go native and stop breeding. .....

....No one had grasped the real implications of the sexual revolution in the 1960s.
The Pill may have transformed women’s sex lives, but the new era of cheap and reliable contraception had its biggest effect in the bedrooms of the happily married. Once couples could afford effective family planning they used it, and this was what slammed the brake on Europe’s childbearing record. ....

....Abortion is illegal in Ireland, and widespread in the rest of Europe. Figures for England and Wales show that one in four healthy pregnancies now ends in a termination. So in the rich world, the declining birth rate is driven not by biological factors — or fertility, as commonly understood — but by a lifestyle choice which does not exist for the developing world. ....

But children make economic sense in the Third World...In places with no welfare state, children are seen as walking pension policies; on farms, they are labourers. But even in the poor world, this is changing. This year urban-dwellers become the majority for the first time in history.....

As soon as people can afford to, they cut down on the number of children they have. This is why the UN’s low-fertility scenario predicts that, as globalisation continues and poverty is steadily conquered, humanity will peak at 7.75 billion in 2040. The decline soon accelerates: follow the demographic formula through the centuries and it points to the extinction of humanity in about ten millennia — having survived on the planet for far less time than the dinosaurs. Mankind may yet end up being a blip on the history of the planet, and Europeans a micro-blip. (my emphasis)

....The public, meanwhile, has little reason for alarm even if the forecasts do come true. As long as the economy shrinks at a slower rate than the population, there will be enough wealth for those who remain, and Europe will grow old beautifully — safe in the knowledge that the rest of the world is not too far behind.

Read the full Sex and Society survey at www.yougov.com/archives/spectator