Tuesday, 18 September 2007

I love Richard Dawkins

He's chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford and does it brilliantly.

I read a lot of popular science stuff and listen to lectures, but no one has explained any theory of science as easily to me as Dawkins has Darwin and natural selection. In various articles, the 1991 Royal Institute Christmas Lectures and The God Delusion he does it brilliantly. I guess that's because biology is just easier to explain than fundamental physics which I usually read about, which is heavily mathematical. But anyway I thought I had a familiarity with evolution, it's the stuff we all did in secondary school - random adaptations to the environment, meaning future generations are equipped better to pass on there genes. However, I still had doubts as to the probability of all of life evolving until Dawkins brilliantly explained the 'spreading out of improbability' across thousands of millenia. 'climbing mount improbable' is the analogy he uses, rather than one massive leap from simple single cell bacteria to, say, a human eye it's rather a graduated approach.

The idea of the origin of life is fascinating. I've come across pan-spermia before, but never really gave it much thought. To think that somehow a massively improbable event occurred and a self replicating bunch of amino acids eventually formed DNA and natural selection took over to produce everything in the world. Just wow.

I also like how Dawkins deals with epistemological questions, he tends to treat them as junk and that only the material world exists. There's just something deeply unsatisfying to me about positing a meta-physical world, outside the material universe where god exists. I've attempted to read some philosophy discourse on the matter, but to be honest it just gave me a headache. I don't have any particular strong answers for arguments for a world outside materialism other than that it an axiomatic assumption that we simply do not need to prove. Every theory starts somewhere, we might as well start from the premise only the material world exists and that is all there is. Godel even proved that even mathematics as to have a little faith, it's axioms cannot be proved and inquiry cannot continue past a certain level.

However Dawkins falls into the trap that I'm always accusing economists of - mathematical philosophy without empirical evidence. He posits the multi-verse theory as an explanation of how the fundamental constants (strong/weak force etc) just happen to be at the correct levels in order to create a universe capable of harboring life. Dawkins posits that this may be perhaps one of a multiverse. The constants could be widely different in differing universes in the multiverse, however, due to the anthropomorphic principle - the principle that the universe is the way it is because if it wasn't we would be unable to observe it, we necessarily evolved on the perfect universe, where all the fundamental constants were ideal. If we didn't, we would not be here to observe it.

Whatever the brain world/multiverse theory is, it is not a theory of empirical physics. It's purely mathematical, and as far as I'm aware, not falsifiable much like string theory. It'll forever be a theory of philosophy or like any economic theory you care to adduce. This is precisely the trap that Dawkins rightly concludes that theists fall into - imagining worlds outside the material universe. However, it seems to be fine if you have lots of fancy maths to back up your philosophy rather than extravagant philosophic reasoning.

Some other things about evolutionary psychology interested me too. The idea that natural selection does not necessarily lead to senses capable of interpreting the true, objective universe. Truth is of no Darwinian utility, only passing on genes is; so what makes us think we can trust our senses? This is obviously the old epistemological question of how we know anything. However, I'd argue we aren't slaves to our senses any longer. We, for whatever reason, evolved the mental acuity to perform complex mathematical operations and mathematics gives us an objectivity that, perhaps, our senses lack. Pure speculation, but I think the reason why quantum mechanics seems to make no sense to us is precisely because we've evolved to understand the macro-world, not the quantum one. But mathematics, for some unknown reason, is our gateway into this world. So we can probe deeper and deeper, and hopefully experimentally confirm.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Ideas for a paper: Hi-defintion supply and consumer demand - the manufacter of wants

I read alot of AVS's HD forums it's mostly people 'debating' about what format is better, Blu-ray or HD DVD. The debates get so anal that there's a huge thread over "it's not HD-DVD, it's HD DVD". Yes, seriously.

Anyway I got thinking this morning about the manufacter of wants, rational consumers, IP & 0 marginal cost issue in classical economics and the whole HD media. Especially this article:

Why the Full HD hype? The real story—the one you won’t read in a lot of reviews, and certainly not in any ad—is that profit margins are plummeting swiftly in the TV manufacturing industry. While this is nothing short of fantastic for consumers, it’s also nearly catastrophic for TV makers. They need to sell us bigger TVs, because they make more money on bigger sizes. And they desperately need a “step up” feature to persuade us that a slightly more expensive medium-sized LCD or plasma is better than a slightly less expensive one. Full HD spells “performance,” while 720p and 768p are “value.”

Now home theatre geeks like myself and other AVS members aside this is so accurate. 1080p TV sets are ridiculous unless it's >50". I have a 720p projector displaying on a 108" screen and the resolution is better than my 32" CRT. So, a 1080p 32-42" is just a waste, unless you sit in front of it like a computer monitor. 1080p is only a real gem for his front projector owners, but how many are actually out there?

So all this petty bickering on forums aside, I'm wondering just how much the market demands HD and how much is created by corporations. Psychologically are there any studies showing that people with 'average' vision can tell the difference, at what distances? The justifications for DRM include loss of $35bn sales a year, what's the methodology behind these stats? In sum, I think the current format 'battle' will be a good example of 21st century business competition and how it reacts to consumer demands.

Random ideas:

meta-analysis of available quality studies.
Justifications for DRM and ever expanding IP laws.
R&D costs in comparison to marketing costs.
Rent-seeking behaviour/abuse of dominant positions/tying etc. - Recent DG Competition investigation might be a source.
Manufacturer of wants

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Jewish only Roads in Israel

The common defence or reply to bringing up the fact that Israel has "Jewish only" roads is "they're not Jewish only, they're Israeli, Arab Israeli's can use them as well".

This is wrong, at least in a legal sense.

In The Attorney-General of the Government of Israel v. Eichmann the Israeli Supreme Court at paragraph 38 held that Israel is "the sovereign state of the Jewish people". Therefore yes, the roads are for Israeli's. De jure this means that only Jews. The law is pretty plain here. You could argue de facto Arab's are permitted to use them, but I haven't been able to find any scholarly reliable evidence for either side, all I see are rants.

Alan Dershowitz seems to think this is no big deal. In a debate with Noam Chomsky, who just cited Eichmann he states:

Oh, that's like saying that British roads are roads of the sovereign Anglican people.

This is a joke. I've read quite a few cases in my time and have never come across this definition. "English men" is common, rights are for "English men". I don't have access to Westlaw anymore so can't do a proper search, but I'm sure I won't find such nonsense - perhaps only in the ancient cases.

Only fundamentalist states attribute religion to national identity in law. Israel is, sadly, such a case.

Edit: In the English constitution our Head of State is actually, legally, "defender of the faith" which is singular. At least it didn't provide a faith but the racist term needs to be changed.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Washington-based think-tank, Institute for Defence Analysis on why Rolling Thunder had not achieved its goals. Its advocates failed to appreciate the fact

well-documented in the historical and social scientific literature, that a direct, frontal attack on society tends to strengthen the social fabric of the nation, to increase popular support of the existing government, to improve the determination of both the leadership and the populace to fight back, to induce a variety of protective measures that reduce the society's vulnerability to future attack and to develop an increased capacity for quick repairs and restoration of essential functions. [1]

How true today.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Property is Theft!

Well, only the type of property that derives both internationally and domestically from the principle: "might is right".

Leif Wenar has written a gem of a paper, Proprety Rights and the Resource Curse. There's a good summary of it here.


The resource curse afflicts poor countries with valuable resources like oil and diamonds. Such countries are prone to repressive governments, civil wars, and slower growth. The article argues that the resource curse often results from a failure to enforce property rights: the property rights of each country's people in that country's natural resources. This right is widely affirmed in international law, but violated when dictators and civil warriors sell off a territory's resources in circumstances where the people could not possibly authorize those sales. Firms that buy resources from repressive regimes are therefore receiving stolen goods, and passing these stolen goods on to consumers. Using a widely accepted metric, the article shows that at least one in every eight barrels of oil currently entering the United States has been stolen from its country of origin. [snipped]

The jist of the paper is that the system of property rights cited by dictators and corporations is a relic of the Westphalia era of international law. It does not take into account the modern development of a bars on aggression and human rights violations. The international community should enforce these rights, especially property, in order to prevent good title passing from dictators to corporations. Corporations can extract oil, but they know they may be subject to legal action, since no bona fide title has passed. They will be presumed to be put on notice when international monitoring agencies report back that there are grave human rights violations in the relevant country.

Some extracts:

Because of a major flaw in the system of international trade, consumers in rich countries unknowingly buy stolen goods every day—gasoline and laptops, drugs and jewelry, cars and magazines. The raw materials used to make these goods are taken from the poorest people in the world—by stealth and by force.

The plainest criticism of global commerce today is that it flouts the first premise of capitalism. Firms currently transport huge quantities of stolen goods to consumers, violating property rights on an enormous scale. The first priority in reforming global commerce must be to replace theft with trade.

On Nigeria

Between 1965 and 2000, Nigeria received a very substantial percentage of its GDP from oil revenues that totaled about $350 billion. However, in the 30 years after 1970, the percentage of Nigerians living in extreme poverty ($1/day) increased from 36 percent to almost 70 percent—from 19 million to 90 million people. The oil revenue contributed nothing to the average standard of living, and indeed the period of oil exploitation saw a decline in living standards. Moreover, inequality in Nigeria simultaneously skyrocketed. In 1970, the total income of those in the top 2 percent of the distribution was equal the total income of those in the bottom 17 percent. By 2000, the top 2 percent made as much as the bottom 55 percent

There is also no reason why the ideas proposed should not also be applied to domestic corporations. As I've argued earlier, Enclosure Acts stole the common property of people to a wealthy elite who could then profit off them. This is the route of all capitalism, at least in the UK. So, why is this property not theft? It is exactly the same as the paradigm example Wenar cites - Equatorial Guinea. There Obiang had political opposition jailed, tortured and killed and officially proclaimed himself as a god who is "in permanent contact with the Almighty". Is this so different to the judicial murder carried out on capital statutes in England for customary behaviour such as wood taking? Or transportation as punishment for gleaning, which usually involved torture at the hands of slave owners in the colonies? Or any different from the Monarch of England claiming their authority from God? I'd say no.

Of course there is a wealth of difference to where the UK is now compared to Equatorial Guinea. However, the principle still applies - corporations garnered their power illegitimately and need to make restitution.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Copyright Nazi propaganda

A court in Belgium has ruled that an Internet Service Provider bears the responsibility for stopping illegal file-sharing on its network. Although the ruling was made in Belgium, it relies on the E.U. copyright directive and may set precedent for the entire Union according to IFPI, an organization that represents the recording industry world wide.

According to the IFPI this could set a precent for the entire EU.

This is rubbish.

Firstly, the assertion by the IFPI that a ruling in a lower Court in Belgium sets an EU wide precedent is ludicrous. Only the European Court of Justice can do that.

Furthermore, each State has its own implementing measures for the EU Directive (it isn't a Regulation), this varies country by country. The Belgium decision would only set precedent for that countries Statute.

Secondly, I know vicarious liability is excluded in the UK's implementation of the Copyright Directive by Sections 97a and 191(j)(a) which requires a service provider to have "actual knowledge of another person using their service to infringe copyright". So unless the ISP is specifically informed about infringement they won't have to do anything.

The Directive also has common carrier provisions. Recital 27 of the Copyright Directive

the mere provision of physical facilities for enabling or making a communication does not itself amount to communication within the meaning of the Directive
This makes it express that ISP's do not come under the Directive.

Poor decision and needs to be appealed.