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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reading List: The Invisible Hook

Leeson, Peter T. The Invisible Hook. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-691-13747-6.
(Guest review by Iron Jack Rackham)
Avast, ye scurvy sea-dogs! Here we gentlemen of profit have crafted our swashbuckling customs to terrify those we prey upon, and now along comes a doubly-damned economist, and a landlubber at that, to explain how our curious ways can be explained by our own self-interest and lust for booty. Why do we who sail under the skull and crossbones democratically elect our captains and quartermasters: one pirate, one vote? Why do all pirates on the crew share equally in the plunder? Why do so many sailors voluntarily join pirate crews? Why do we pay “workman's compensation” to pirates wounded in battle? Why did the pirate constitutions that govern our ships embody separation of powers long before landlubber governments twigged to the idea? Why do we hoist the Jolly Roger and identify ourselves as pirates when closing with our prey? Why do we torture and/or slay those who resist, yet rarely harm crews which surrender without a fight? Why do our ships welcome buccaneers of all races as free men on an equal basis, even when “legitimate” vessels traded in and used black slaves and their governments tolerated chattel slavery?

This economist would have you believe it isn't our outlaw culture that makes us behave that way, but rather that our own rational choice, driven by our righteous thirst for treasure chests bulging with jewels, gold, and pieces of eight leads us, as if by an invisible hook, to cooperate toward our common goals. And because we're hostis humani generis, we need no foul, coercive governments to impose this governance upon us: it's our own voluntary association which imposes the order we need to achieve our highly profitable plunder—the author calls it “an-arrgh-chy”, and it works for us. What's that? A sail on the horizon? To yer' posts, me hearties, and hoist the Jolly Roger, we're off a-piratin'!

Thank you, Iron Jack—a few more remarks, if I may…there's a lot more in this slim volume (211 pages of main text): the Jolly Roger as one of the greatest brands of all time, lessons from pirates for contemporary corporate managers, debunking of several postmodern myths such as pirates having been predominately homosexual (“swishbucklers”), an examination of how pirates established the defence in case of capture that they had been compelled to join the pirate crew, and an analysis of how changes in Admiralty law shifted the incentives and brought the golden age of piracy to an end in the 1720s.

Exists there a person whose inner child is not fascinated by pirates? This book demonstrates why pirates also appeal to one's inner anarcho-libertarian, while giving pause to those who believe that market forces, unconstrained by a code of morality, always produce good outcomes.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

Posted at 23:27 Permalink

Monday, June 29, 2009

Puzzle: Farthest from the Centre of the Earth

Today's puzzle is simple to state, but rather more subtle to resolve. What location on the Earth's surface is farthest from the centre of the Earth?

Posted at 21:38 Permalink

Friday, June 26, 2009

Solstitial Midnight Panorama at 54° North


Click image to view monster panorama.

I didn't get as far north around the time of the June Solstice this year as I managed last summer, but although I didn't get to see the midnight sun, even at the modest latitude of 54° North it still doesn't really get dark at night—the sky along the northern horizon is distinctly blue, with twilight colours extending toward the East and West. I had hoped to photograph the Northern horizon at local solar midnight on the day of the solstice, but as often happens, the weather didn't cooperate, so here's a picture taken a few days before, on the night of June 17–18, at about 23:00 local solar time (civil time was just past midnight, but as summer time was in effect, the wall clock was an hour ahead of the Sun).

Because both the curve of light and dark and the apparent path of the Sun around midnight are close to flat around the date of the solstice, a few days early and one hour before midnight don't make a lot of difference in how the sky appears, so this is pretty close to how the sky would have appeared were it visible at all at midnight on the 20th or 21st. Low-altitude clouds are visible against the sky, but toward the North high-altitude noctilucent clouds remain in the grazing sunlight in the high mesosphere, 76 to 85 km above the Earth's surface.

The panorama was assembled from 13 photographs taken with a Nikon D300 digital camera and Nikkor 18–200 mm zoom lens at a focal length of 18 mm and aperture of f/3.5. Exposure was 2 seconds at a sensitivity of ISO 200; the lens was scale focused to infinity. The panorama was assembled from the individual frames with Hugin, Panorama Tools, and Enblend, then postprocessed with The GIMP. The assembled panorama is 6230×1720 pixels, for an aspect ratio of 3.6:1. Click the image above to view the full panorama, then use your browser's scroll bars to explore it. Since human vision perceives intensity logarithmically, I have applied a “gamma correction” to better approximate the visual perception with a dark adapted eye. The colour in the image is not an artefact of long exposure time: it was just as apparent to the eye; in fact, more detail was visible in the dark portions of the scene than was captured by the camera. Maybe next time I'll try to combine panorama assembly with high dynamic range imaging.

If you enjoy panoramic images, check out those previously posted of Lignières and the Alps, Hall Island in Franz Josef Land, and the North Pole.

Posted at 20:38 Permalink

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reading List: Le Château des Carpathes

Verne, Jules. Le Château des Carpathes. Paris: Poche, [1892] 1976. ISBN 978-2-253-01329-7.
This is one of Jules Verne's later novels, originally published in 1892, and is considered “minor Verne”, which is to say it's superior to about 95% of science and adventure fiction by other authors. Five years before Bram Stoker penned Dracula, Verne takes us to a looming, gloomy, and abandoned (or is it?) castle on a Carpathian peak in Transylvania, to which the superstitious residents of nearby villages attribute all kinds of supernatural goings on. Verne is clearly having fun with the reader in this book, which reads like a mystery, but what is mysterious is not whodunit, but rather what genre of book you're reading: is it a ghost story, tale of the supernatural, love triangle, mad scientist yarn, or something else? Verne manages to keep all of these balls in the air until the last thirty pages or so, when all is revealed and resolved. It's plenty of fun getting there, as the narrative is rich with the lush descriptive prose and expansive vocabulary for which Verne is renowned. It wouldn't be a Jules Verne novel without at least one stunning throwaway prediction of future technology; here it's the video telephone, to which he gives the delightful name “téléphote”.

A public domain electronic text edition is available from Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats. A (pricey) English translation is available. I have not read it and cannot vouch for its faithfulness to Verne's text.

Posted at 21:14 Permalink

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reading List: Net Force

Clancy, Tom and Steve Pieczenik. Net Force. New York: Berkley, 1999. ISBN 978-0-425-16172-2.
One of the riskiest of marketing strategies is that of “brand expansion”: you have a hugely successful product whose brand name is near-universally known and conveys an image of quality, customer satisfaction, and market leadership. But there's a problem—the very success of the brand has led to its saturating the market, either by commanding a dominant market share or inability to produce additional volume. A vendor in such a position may opt to try to “expand” the brand, leveraging its name recognition by applying it to other products, for example a budget line aimed at less well-heeled customers, a line of products related to the original (Watermelon-Mango Coke), or a completely unrelated product (Volvo dog food). This sometimes works, and works well, but more often it fails at a great cost not only to the new product (but then a large majority of all new products fail, including those of the largest companies with the most extensive market research capabilities), but also to the value of the original brand. If a brand which has become almost synonymous with its project category (Coke, Xerox, Band-Aid) becomes seen as a marketing gimmick cynically applied to induce consumers to buy products which have not earned and are not worthy of the reputation of the original brand, both the value of that brand and the estimation of its owner fall in eyes of potential customers.

Tom Clancy, who in the 1980s and 1990s was the undisputed master of the techno/political/military thriller embarked upon his own program of brand expansion, lending his name to several series of books and video games written by others and marketed under his name, leading the naïve reader to believe they were Clancy's work or at least done under his supervision and comparable to the standard of his own fiction. For example, the present book, first in the “Net Force” series, bears the complete title Tom Clancy's Net Force, an above-the-title blurb, “From the #1 New York Times Bestselling Author”, and the byline, “Created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik”. “Created”, eh…but who actually, you know, wrote the book? Well, that would be a gentleman named Steve Perry, whose name appears in the Acknowledgments in the sentence, “We'd like to thank Steve Perry for his creative ideas and his invaluable contributions to the preparation of the manuscript.”. Well yes, I suppose writing it is, indeed, an invaluable contribution to the preparation of a manuscript!

Regardless of how a novel is branded, marketed, or produced, however, the measure of its merit is what's between the covers. So how does this book measure up to the standard of Clancy's own work? I bought this book when it first came out in 1999 as an “airplane book”, but never got around to reading it. I was aware of the nature of this book at the time, having read one of the similarly-produced “Op-Center” novels, so my expectations were not high, but then neither is the level of cognition I expect to devote to a book read on an airplane, even in the pre-2001 era when air travel was not the Hell of torture, extortion, and humiliation it has become today. Anyway, I read something else on that long-forgotten trip, and the present book sat on my shelf slowly yellowing around the edges until I was about to depart on a trip in June 2009. Whilst looking for an airplane book for this trip, I happened across it and, noting that it had been published almost exactly ten years before, was set in the year 2010, and focused upon the evolution of the Internet and human-computer interaction, I thought it would be amusing to compare the vision of Clancy et alii for the next decade to the actual world in which we're living.

Well, I read it—the whole thing, in fact, on the outbound leg of what was supposed to be a short trip—you know you're having a really bad airline experience when due to thunderstorms and fog you end up in a different country than one on the ticket. My reaction? From the perspective of the present day, this is a very silly, stupid, and poorly written novel. But the greater problem is that from the perspective of 1999 this is a very silly, stupid, and poorly written novel. The technology of the 2010 in the story is not only grossly different from what we have at present, it doesn't make any sense at all to anybody with the most rudimentary knowledge of how computers, the Internet, or for that matter human beings behave. It's as if the author(s) had some kind of half-baked idea of “cyberspace” as conceived by William Gibson and mixed it up with a too-literal interpretation of the phrase “information superhighway”, ending up with car and motorcycle chases where virtual vehicles are careening down the fibrebahn dodging lumbering 18-wheeled packets of bulk data. I'm not making this up—the author(s) are (p. 247), and asking you to believe it!

The need for suspension of disbelief is not suspended from the first page to the last, and the price seems to ratchet up with every chapter. At the outset, we are asked to believe that by “gearing up” with a holographic VR (virtual reality) visor, an individual not only sees three dimensional real time imagery with the full fidelity of human vision, but also experiences touch, temperature, humidity, smell, and acceleration. Now how precisely does that work, particularly the last which appears to be at variance with some work by Professor Einstein? Oh, and this VR gear is available at an affordable price to all computer users, including high school kids in their bedrooms, and individuals can easily create their own virtual reality environments with some simple programming. There is techno-babble enough here for another dozen seasons of “24”. On p. 349, in the 38th of 40 chapters, and completely unrelated to the plot, we learn “The systems were also ugly-looking—lean-mean-GI-green—but when it came to this kind of hardware, pretty was as pretty did. These were state-of-the-art 900 MHz machines, with the new FireEye bioneuro chips, massive amounts of fiberlight memory, and fourteen hours of active battery power if the local plugs didn't work.” 900 Mhz—imagine! (There are many even more egregious examples, but I'll leave it at this in the interest of brevity and so as not to induce nausea.)

But that's not all! Teenage super-hackers, naturally, speak in their own dialect, like (p. 140):

“Hey, Jimmy Joe. How's the flow?”
“Dee eff eff, Tyrone.” This stood for DFF—data flowin' fine.
“Listen, I talked to Jay Gee. He needs our help.”
“Nopraw,” Tyrone said. “Somebody is poppin' strands.”
“Tell me somethin' I don't compro, bro. Somebody is always poppin' strands.”
“Yeah, affirm, but this is different. There's a C-1 grammer [sic] looking to rass the whole web.”

If you want to warm up your suspension of disbelief to take on this twaddle, imagine Tom Clancy voluntarily lending his name and reputation to it. And, hey, if you like this kind of stuff, there are nine more books in the series to read!

Posted at 02:16 Permalink

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reading List: The Unwritten Rules of Baseball

Dickson, Paul. The Unwritten Rules of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-156105-4.
Baseball is as much a culture as a game, and a great deal of the way it is played, managed, umpired, reported, and supported by fans is not written down in the official rulebook but rather a body of unwritten rules, customs, traditions, and taboos which, when violated, can often bring down opprobrium upon the offender greater than that of a rulebook infraction. Some egregious offences against the unwritten rules are, as documented here, remembered many decades later and seen as the key event in a player's career. In this little book (just 256 pages) the author collects and codifies in a semi-formal style (complete with three level item numbers) the unwritten rules for players, managers, umpires, the official scorer, fans, and media. For example, under “players”, rule 1.12.1 is “As a pitcher, always walk off the field at the end of an inning; for all other players, the rule is run on, run off the field”. I've been watching baseball for half a century and I'll be darned to heck if I ever noticed that—nor ever recall seeing it violated. There is an extensive discussion of the etiquette of deliberately throwing at the batter: the art of the beanball seems as formalised as a Japanese tea ceremony.

The second half of the book is a collection of aphorisms, rules of thumb, and customs organised alphabetically. In both this section and the enumerated rules, discussions of notable occasions where the rule was violated and the consequences are included. Three appendices provide other compilations of unwritten rules, including one for Japanese major leaguers.

Many of these rules will be well known to fans, but others provide little-known insight into the game. For example, did you know that hitters on a team will rarely tell a pitcher on their own team that he has a “tell” which indicates which pitch he's about to throw? This book explains the logic behind that seemingly perverse practice. I also loved the observation that the quality of books about a sport is inversely related to the size of the ball. Baseball fans, including this one who hasn't seen a game either live or televised for more than a decade, will find this book both a delight and enlightening.

Posted at 22:05 Permalink

Friday, June 12, 2009

Reading List: The Myth of the Rational Voter

Caplan, Bryan. The Myth of the Rational Voter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-691-13873-2.
Every survey of the electorate in Western democracies shows it to be woefully uninformed: few can name their elected representatives or identify their party affiliation, nor answer the most basic questions about the political system under which they live. Economists and political scientists attribute this to “rational ignorance”: since there is a vanishingly small probability that the vote of a single person will be decisive, it is rational for that individual to ignore the complexities of the issues and candidates and embrace the cluelessness which these polls make manifest.

But, the experts contend, there's no problem—even if a large majority of the electorate is ignorant knuckle-walkers, it doesn't matter because they'll essentially vote at random. Their uninformed choices will cancel out, and the small informed minority will be decisive. Hence the “miracle of aggregation”: stir in millions of ignoramuses and thousands of political junkies and diligent citizens and out pops true wisdom.

Or maybe not—this book looks beyond the miracle of aggregation, which assumes that the errors of the uninformed are random, to examine whether there are systematic errors (or biases) among the general population which cause democracies to choose policies which are ultimately detrimental to the well-being of the electorate. The author identifies four specific biases in the field of economics, and documents, by a detailed analysis of the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy , that while economists, reputed to always disagree amongst themselves, are in fact, on issues which Thomas Sowell terms Basic Economics (September 2008), almost unanimous in their opinions, yet widely at variance from the views of the general public and the representatives they elect.

Many economists assume that the electorate votes what economists call its “rational choice”, yet empirical data presented here shows that democratic electorates behave very differently. The key insight is that choice in an election is not a preference in a market, where the choice directly affects the purchaser, but rather an allocation in a commons, where the consequences of an individual vote have negligible results upon the voter who casts it. And we all know how commons inevitably end.

The individual voter in a large democratic polity bears a vanishingly small cost in voting their ideology or beliefs, even if they are ultimately damaging to their own well-being, because the probability their own single vote will decide the election is infinitesimal. As a result, the voter is liberated to vote based upon totally irrational beliefs, based upon biases shared by a large portion of the electorate, insulated by the thought, “At least my vote won't decide the election, and I can feel good for having cast it this way”.

You might think that voters would be restrained from indulging their feel-good inclinations by considering their self interest, but studies of voter behaviour and the preferences of subgroups of voters demonstrate that in most circumstances voters support policies and candidates they believe are best for the polity as a whole, not their narrow self interest. Now, this would be a good thing if their beliefs were correct, but at least in the field of economics, they aren't, as defined by the near-unanimous consensus of professional economists. This means that there is a large, consistent, systematic bias in policies preferred by the uninformed electorate, whose numbers dwarf the small fraction who comprehend the issues in contention. And since, once again, there is no cost to an individual voter in expressing his or her erroneous beliefs, the voter can be “rationally irrational”: the possibility of one vote being decisive vanishes next to the cost of becoming informed on the issues, so it is rational to unknowingly vote irrationally. The reason democracies so often pursue irrational policies such as protectionism is not unresponsive politicians or influence of special interests, but instead politicians giving the electorate what it votes for, which is regrettably ultimately detrimental to its own self-interest.

Although the discussion here is largely confined to economic issues, there is no reason to believe that this inherent failure of democratic governance is confined to that arena. Indeed, one need only peruse the daily news to see abundant evidence of democracies committing folly with the broad approbation of their citizenry. (Run off a cliff? Yes, we can!) The author contends that rational irrationality among the electorate is an argument for restricting the scope of government and devolving responsibilities it presently undertakes to market mechanisms. In doing so, the citizen becomes a consumer in a competitive market and now has an individual incentive to make an informed choice because the consequences of that choice will be felt directly by the person making it. Naturally, as you'd expect with an irrational electorate, things seem to have been going in precisely the opposite direction for much of the last century.

This is an excellently argued and exhaustively documented book (The ratio of pages of source citations and end notes to main text may be as great as anything I've read) which will make you look at democracy in a different way and begin to comprehend that in many cases where politicians do stupid things, they are simply carrying out the will of an irrational electorate. For a different perspective on the shortcomings of democracy, also with a primary focus on economics, see Hans-Hermann Hoppe's superb Democracy: The God that Failed (June 2002), which approaches the topic from a hard libertarian perspective.

Posted at 23:07 Permalink

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reading List: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1884] 1999. ISBN 978-0-393-02039-7.
If you've read an abridged or bowdlerised edition of this timeless classic as a child or been deprived of it due to its being deemed politically incorrect by the hacks and morons in charge of education in recent decades, this audiobook is a superb way (better in some ways than a print edition) to appreciate the genius of one the greatest storytellers of all time. This is not your typical narration of a print novel. Voice actor Patrick Fraley assumes a different pitch, timbre, and dialect for each of the characters, making this a performance, not a reading; his wry, ironic tone for Huck's first person narration is spot on.

I, like many readers (among them Ernest Hemingway), found the last part of the book set on the Phelps farm less satisfying than the earlier story, but so great is Mark Twain's genius that, by themselves, these chapters would be a masterwork of the imagination of childhood.

The audio programme is distributed in two files, running 11 hours and 17 minutes, with original music between the chapters and plot interludes. An Audio CD edition is available. If you're looking for a print edition, this is the one to get; it can also serve as an excellent resource to consult as you're listening to the audiobook.

Posted at 23:15 Permalink

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Reading List: The Third Option

Flynn, Vince. The Third Option. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. ISBN 978-0-671-04732-0.
This is the second novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. Unlike the previous episode, Transfer of Power (April 2009), which involved a high-profile terrorist strike, this is much more of a grudge match conducted in the shadows, with Rapp as much prey as hunter and uncertain of whom he can trust. Flynn demonstrates he can pull off this kind of ambiguous espionage story as well as the flash-bang variety, and while closing the present story in a satisfying way sets the stage for the next round of intrigue without resorting to a cliffhanger.

Rapp's character becomes increasingly complex as the saga unfolds, and while often conflicted he is mission-oriented and has no difficulty understanding his job description. Here he's reluctantly describing it to a congressman who has insisted he be taken into confidence (p. 296):

“… I'm what you might call a counterterrorism specialist.”

“Okay … and what, may I ask, does a counterterrorism specialist do?”

Rapp was not well versed in trying to spin what he did, so he just blurted out the hard, cold truth. “I kill terrorists.”

“Say again?”

“I hunt them down, and I kill them.”

No nuance for Mr. Mitch!

This is a superbly crafted thriller which will make you hunger for the next. Fortunately, there are seven sequels already published and more on the way. See my comments on the first installment for additional details and a link to an interview with the author. The montage on the cover of the paperback edition I read uses a biohazard sign (☣) as its background—I have no idea why—neither disease nor biological weapons figure in the story in any way. Yes, I've been reading a lot of thrillers recently—summer's comin' and 'tis the season for light and breezy reading. I'll reserve Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell for the dwindling daylight of autumn, if you don't mind.

Posted at 23:11 Permalink