March 27, 2006

Survival of the Fittest

The debate about evolution has raged in the comments below for several days. And it keeps returning to "survival of the fittest" and whether the concept is a tautology or not. And if not, whether it can produce falsifiable predictions. And finally, whether the answer to this has any bearing on whether evolution is a "scientific" theory.

I'll try to address at least the first two below.... The first part is a bit tricky. "Survival of the fittest" is a tautology in one sense because it is the logical consequence of a set of assumptions. But I'll argue that that's not relevant to how it's used in evolution. So.... here's my personal interpretation of "survival of the fittest" or selection (natural or artificial, ecological or sexual). Bear with me as I set up the assumptions:

  1. Imagine a replicator r that exists in an environment A
  2. The replicator will cease to operate (i.e. die) after some average period of time
  3. This replicator will replicate with some probability that is dependent on A such that the expected number of copies (i.e. offspring) is Er(A). (You might model this as Poisson reproduction and death processes, with λ's as functions of A, but it's not required.)
  4. The replicator has components (call them traits) that affect Er(A) and that are independently copied with a zero error rate to the "offspring"
  5. There is an arbitrarily large population of replicators with some variation in traits that deliver different Er(A)
Given this situation, it follows that for a constant A, replicators with traits that create a higher expected number of offspring will tend to increase as a proportion of the population. That's just what the math says (although, given the size of the margins, I'll leave the proof to others). And that, I believe, is all that natural selection, or "survival of the fittest", says.

So does it produce falsifiable predictions? Not really, not any more than the fact that "the circumference of a circle is equal to π times the diameter of the circle". If you find a "circle" that doesn't meet that condition, it means that your shape is not a circle or you mismeasured something — it doesn't mean you falsified the formula. (Note that the fact that the formula for the circumference is tautological is far from saying that knowing this relationship is useless.) Likewise natural selection tells us what will happen if our assumptions are true, and in fact it gives us a way to test if our assumptions are true.

And it turns out that, while the assumptions are remarkably close to the truth (especially given that DNA and molecular genetics were unknown in Darwin's time) and we can see selection take place over and over in experiments we run, the assumptions are not exactly true. Examining the assumptions that aren't true and when they are not true has helped us learn about other mechanism that affect genetic variation in populations. So what turned out not to be true?

  • The copying turned out not to be "error-free". Mutations happen. The rate is low enough in most cases to allow selection to occur (and it turns out to be important, which I'll return to below).
  • The "traits" are not independently copied. There are various kinds of linkage that cause alleles to be copied together.
  • The populations are not arbitrarily large. This is crucially important and was underappreciated in early evolutionary theory. The fact that populations are sometimes quite small means that genetic drift can play a major role, including the founder's effect. In small populations, even adaptive traits that increase Er(A) can, through the random walk of the stochastic process, vanish (or likewise for maladaptive traits, dominate) such that the population fixates.
  • The environment, A, is not fixed. In fact, it's changing constantly (though generally slowly compared to the rates of reproduction and death of individual replicators). Moreover, it changes because of the very replicators (and their traits) that we're talking about. And so we have things like evolutionary arms races.
There are others.... (And note that I've ignored sexual reproduction for the time being because it is, perforce, secondary to asexual and because in the view of some theorists (like Richard Dawkins) it is the "selfish gene" that should be considered the replicator, not the sexually-reproducing individual – but enough on that for now).

Regardless, natural selection is useful as a model of how this stuff works and helps us fine-tune our model of replication.

So finally, what's the big deal about natural selection and evolution. Not, I contend, that selection exists – because we see it all around us and can replicate it in controlled experiments whenever we wish. And not the way it specifies the assumptions of our model of replication – while novel in its time, this has been proven much more thoroughly by our modern understanding of molecular biology and genetics. So, what?

To me, the two big ideas of evolution are that:

  1. If you have mechanisms that increase and decrease trait variation in populations, you can account for the diversity of life we see on earth, and
  2. If natural selection is a non-trivial component of the mechanisms that decrease variation, you can account for how it all can look so well-designed.
The first point is critical because any theory has to be able to explain how we ended up with so many wondrous species. With mutation, recombination, gene transfer, and gene flow, you have mechanisms to increase variation in populations. With genetic drift and natural selection, you have mechanisms to decrease it. That, combined with various forms of isolation (e.g. geographic, reproductive), will give rise to diverse species.

But the second is equally important because any theory also needs to explain why everything looks so good at what it does. If there existed completely random mechanisms to increase and decrease variation in populations, you could still achieve some diversity, but it's unlikely that resulting species (assuming they didn't go extinct) would appear adapted to their surroundings. Evolution needs a mechanism to reduce variation – natural selection is one that makes things work better rather than worse.

Anyway, I don't know how clearly I've laid out my understanding. Or how convincing it is. Or how many holes in logic it currently has – it's my first time to write this stuff down, and the impedance mismatch between brain and paper is often higher than it appears. So please, comment away...

Posted by richard at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)

Apropos "absurdity"

In The New Yorker, H. Allen Orr reviews Daniell Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The book, an attempt to look at the phenomenon of religion from a scientific view, resonates with my absurd belief below. (Which is, of course, not surprising since I referenced Dennett myself in my post.) But it's funny how similar it sounds:
According to Dennett, the earliest stages of religion were likely characterized by speculations about supernatural or quasi-natural beings. These questions arose out of an aspect of human nature we take for granted: the recognition that the world contains not only other bodies but also other minds. We recognize, in other words, that the world includes "agents" independent minds that possess their own sets of beliefs and desires. This recognition allows us a wide range of cognitive moves and countermoves presumably unavailable to most other species: "I know he thinks that I have a stone in my hand." The ability to attribute agency is, Dennett says, almost surely an evolutionary adaptation. It is probably encoded genetically in our species (no one taught you that other minds populate the planet), and it plays a key role in everything from fighting ("He doesn't know that I dropped the stone") to seduction ("Would you like to see my cave paintings"). But its appearance during evolution led to an unexpected possibility: attributing agency where no agent exists. Human beings are skilled at positing agents — whispering winds, turnip ghosts, and monsters under the bed — for which the evidence is less than overwhelming, and this tendency might explain why nearly all peoples talk about creatures like elves and goblins. (Emphasis added)
Anyway, it just struck me, coming so closely on the heels of the other post.
Posted by richard at 06:02 PM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2006

More France

An unusually blunt and bleak piece about France's latest woes at the Washington Post:
This is the second time in four months that France has been seized with violent protests. And in an important sense, these are counter-riots, since the goals of the privileged students conflict with those of the suburban rioters who took to the streets last November. The message of the suburban rioters: Things must change. The message of the students: Things must stay the same. In other words: Screw the immigrants.
I feel a bit foolish for thinking this, but I can't help but think that there's a real chance that France's civil unrest might, in the not-so-distant future, turn into an actual civil war. This could, perhaps, qualify as another absurd belief.... But the mix of ingredients in French society is unquestionably volatile:
  • An elite clinging to outmoded social structures, failed policies, a rigid language, and past glories.
  • A national proclivity towards revolutionary convulsions (how many Republics per century is optimal?)
  • A political class trained to manipulate the mob
  • A persitent underclass of unassimilated immigrants who, rightly, feel excluded from the social protections of the state
  • A strong, organized network of radicals who swim within the unassimilated sea, preach extreme religion, and receive support from foreign governments
  • A brewing generational conflict between the older (more native) French who benefit from the social policies and the younger (more immigrant) French who will be asked to bear the cost, with no hope of reaping the same pay out
  • Spoiled students who believe their "resistance" links them to the revolutionaries of '68 when their insistence on the status quo and sense of entitlement makes aristocratic reactionaries a better analogy.
Perhaps I'm just in a pessimistic mood and France is certainly not alone in any of these issues. But I believe it's likely they will either have a Thatcherite revolution or mass civil conflict. For now, the prospects for a French Thatcher do not seem good....
Posted by richard at 09:32 PM | Comments (4)

Israel Lobby

While it hasn't gotten a great deal of press, the recent "working paper" from the Kennedy School on the The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy has sparked a lot of outrage.

It's truly remarkable what these two professors wrote and considered "scholarship". It's the kind of stuff that makes conservatives think that the Academy is irredeemably screwed up.

Alan Dershowitz is not happy about it at all, as you'd expect, and claims to have traced certain out-of-context quotes back to anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi hate sites.

Frankly, my biggest problem with the paper, which I finally got around to reading some of, is how bad it is. Just really, really shoddy work. I can't believe anyone would call this scholarship and think they could get away with it:

U.S. foreign policy shapes events in every corner of the globe. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East, a region of recurring instability and enormous strategic importance. Most recently, the Bush Administration’s attempt to transform the region into a community of democracies has helped produce a resilient insurgency in Iraq, a sharp rise in world oil prices, and terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, and Amman. With so much at stake for so many, all countries need to understand the forces that drive U.S. Middle East policy.
Gosh, that starts off well-balanced. At this point, they've convinced me that they really are seeking the truth and not just spouting propaganda.
Instead, the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the "Israel Lobby." Other special interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.1
Really? I thought it was Halliburton and the House of Saud that drove our policies. Go figure. Gotta love that first footnote:
1Indeed, the mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact.
What kind of logic is that? Are you telling me that this is the kind of model of public action that qualifies as political science these days? I didn't realize that current scholarship started from the premise that there is some uncontested "real" American national interest? But there must be, because the "mere existence" of the Isreal lobby proves it's at odds with pro-Israeli positions. Do you like the rhetorical slight-of-hand that introduces, at the last minute, the straw man of "unconditional support" that is supposedly given to Israel? And if we're starting (in footnote 1!) with the fact that Israel is a strategic and moral liability, then why do we need the paper at all?

They then make a one-sided case that Israel is a strategic liability – but if I toted up the costs of any one of our alliances, while ignoring the benefits, I'm pretty sure I could end up with a negative balance too. As Dan Drezner points out, they completely skipped over incidents (like the Iraqi nuclear program at Osirak or intelligence sharing) where the alliance was an asset.

Anyway, I could beat my head against the wall, trying to debunk each assertion in the paper, but it's not worth it. It's clear from the first three pages that it's an ideologically driven hatchet job and not scholarship. I really hope serious political scientists (and Harvard and Chicago) distance themselves from this kind of work product fairly quickly.

Posted by richard at 04:55 PM | Comments (7)

La petit vessie de Chirac

I thought that I would allow myself to quietly gloat about this, but at the advice of a friend, I will laugh my ass off:
PRESIDENT CHIRAC stormed out of the first session of a European Union summit dominated by a row over French nationalism because a fellow Frenchman insisted on speaking English....

When M Seillière, who is an English-educated steel baron, started a presentation to all 25 EU leaders, President Chirac interrupted to ask why he was speaking in English. M Seillière explained: "I'm going to speak in English because that is the language of business."

Without saying another word, President Chirac, who lived in the US as a student and speaks fluent English, walked out, followed by his Foreign, Finance and Europe ministers, leaving the 24 other European leaders stunned. They returned only after M Seilière had finished speaking.

And I would have to agree that this is the best part:
Embarrassed French diplomats tried to explain away the walk-out, saying that their ministers all needed a toilet break at the same time.
Vive l'impérialisme culturel Anglo-Saxon!
Posted by richard at 04:12 PM | Comments (1)

March 24, 2006


Julia and I just got back from V for Vendetta and I really enjoyed the movie. It did a very good job of building tension, making the oppression palpable, and making you feel invested in the characters. The dialogue, which began with the unbearable pretension of V's alliterative and eponymous soliloquy, eventually found its stride and "worked" with the story. This despite the Wachowskian tendencies towards verbosity familiar to fans of the Matrix. The relationship between Evey and V was complex and satisfying, the back story horrific, the torment credible.

The movie pays unabashed homage to Orwell and owes much more to Nineteen Eighty-Four than just John Hurt – though it is gratifying in some twisted way to see an aged Winston recapitulate Big Brother's close-up talking head. Still, it manages to allude to the previous depictions of totalitarian governments without being exactly the same.

It achieves this partially by examining the moral ambiguity behind the fact that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". While often questionably applied (the takfiri "resistance" in Iraq are in no way comparable to Minutemen), there is a relativistic point worth making here.

In short, the movie was a decent parable of the dangers of totalitarianism and demagoguery in the modern age, layered on top of an exploration of acceptable forms of resistance. Unfortunately, rather than be content with the eternal relevance of that theme, it ended up a weaker movie than it could have been by trying to be especially relevant for today. This was my fear going into the movie, and it was born out to some extent.

More, including maybe spoilers, below the fold...

First, I recognize that I come to this movie from a particular perspective, not shared by all, and that it's quite possible that most of my criticism will be blunted if you don't share my world view. But that is the risk, I suppose, of all true and honest criticism.

The core problem of V for Vendetta was that the bad guys fit too neatly into the mold of traditional liberal bugaboos. The people to be afraid of were white, Anglo-Saxons, male, conservatives, Christians, capitalists, and.... gasp... owners of pharmaceutical company stock. The troubles began with "America's war", presumably in Iraq. Islamic extremists are fearful props used to manipulate a bovine population, rather than real threats. Biological weapons are more scary in the hands of greedy, power-hungry capitalists than "terrorists". Qurans symbolize intolerance, but ours not theirs.

A more complete list of the Left's bogeymen would be hard to compile. (Thankfully, the evils of Zionism seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.)

Unfortunately, in this day and age, it's difficult to take in this litany of right-wing bad guys without soaking up the implied message: we need to worry more about the Religious Right and Republicans than the Islamic terrorists.

The most outrageous example of this is the story of Valerie, the lesbian actress who is marginalized, imprisoned, and eventually killed by "the Party". Through her letters, she sustains Evey and V in prison, connects their experiences despite the time between them, and helps them complete their transformations into freedom fighters. Her humanity is touchingly revealed, only to be crushed by the jackboot of the homophobic Party. Perhaps the irony is only apparent to me, but to use gay rights as the ultimate condemnation of the Party, while the Islamic extremists we're told pose no real threat are actually – right now, today – executing people for homosexuality... well it seems a bit rich.

To me, one of the great strengths of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the fact that it's not overtly political even while it deals with the political. Sure, Orwell was a committed man of the left going back to Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. But like Trotsky, he recognized in Stalinism the common threads shared with inter-war fascism and national socialism. And so, what he wrote about in his last novel was totalitarianism and its tools: the cult of personality, propaganda, fear, the secret police. In the end, this leant the book a universality and timelessness that it would have lacked if it had been a simple screed against fascism from the left or communism from the right.

That said, Orwell is an extremely high mark to hold an adapted graphic novel up to. And, as a simple drama, it was powerful and engaging, so it's hard to complain too much. I just can't help thinking that it could have been great.

Posted by richard at 11:33 PM | Comments (3)

March 22, 2006

"Absurd" belief

It seems the blogosphere is awash in "absurd" beliefs. Not one to miss a bandwagon, I'll confess one (of probably many) of mine. It's actual a "contentious" belief combined with an "absurd" just-so story of sorts:
The Self is nothing more than a story we tell ourselves about our beliefs, desires, and actions. Moreover, this story-telling is tied in to the way we store memories, make plans, and interact with others. This narrative capability co-evolved as a Self-describing and Other-describing capability in proto-human societies.
Rather than leave the belief to wallow in it's own absurdity, I feel compelled to tell the just-so story of how I think this happened. As Daniel Dennett describes, the Intentional Stance is an approach to modeling the world where cause and effect are under-girded by beliefs, desires, and intentions. It, like the physical and design strategies, has utility in describing (and predicting) the behavior of many types of agents (humans, animals, even mechanistic controllers like thermostats) in certain circumstances. My belief (or so I tell myself) is that humans developed a proto-ability to tell these kinds of intentionality stories, most likely about predators and prey (it's thirsty so will go to water, it's hungry so will try to eat me), to help plan and reason about daily situations common to hunter-gatherers.

And then something happened. This ability turned out to be just as useful in describing and predicting the behavior of the other members of the tribe. And it turned out to be pretty good at modeling their own behavior too. And then a virtuous cycle was set up: the more individuals acted as if they had beliefs, desires, and intentions the better the other members of their tribe could predict their behavior and effectively cooperate. (Or, for you cynics, better dissemble and free-load off of the others).

So a race between tribes began as to who could most thoroughly internalize the new model.... and eventually the Self was born. Humans became expert at attributing beliefs and divining intentions. Belief and desire drove decision and action, and decision and action gave witness to belief and desire.

And eventually humans actually did believe and intend, because they acted indistinguishably from agents with beliefs and intentions.

And through these attributions and divinations, these decisions and actions, humans created values and most importantly become the architects of their own identities.

In the end, the advantage conveyed by adopting this stance became so overwhelming, both to the individual and the group, that incredibly complicated – even outrageous – mechanisms evolved to maintain the illusion and consistency of the Self. Our story-telling capability was upgraded to allow us to tell ourselves whoppers that kept the narrative flow going and made our (and others') beliefs and desires appear consistent.

And that's how Man gained his Self and became the Architect of his Identity. Pretty absurd, eh?

Posted by richard at 10:50 AM | Comments (11)

March 11, 2006

Why Appliances Buck the Trend (or Economic Illiteracy)

So I was all ready to point to this article at the New York Times as an interesting and timely follow-on to my post below on incomparability.... but instead, I'm forced to write about economic illiteracy in the media.

The article starts off well discussing how "white good" prices have gone up while consumer electronic prices have gone down dramatically. The reason? The growth in sales of the high-end stylish models (aesthetic improvements) and the increased energy efficiency requirements mandated by the federal government. So it jibed pretty well with my post.

Then comes this unbelievable piece of journalism:

Let's say you are enamored with Whirlpool's Duet, the country's top-selling front-loaded washing machine. It is one of the more energy-efficient machines using about 227 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, according to a government rating that appears on the yellow Energy Guide sticker affixed to all new appliances.

You can find one at Sears or other appliance stores for about $1,400. (Of course, the cost won't end there. Unless you buy a matching Duet dryer at about $900 to sit next to it, your laundry room will look like a squinty-eyed pirate.)

The Duet washer would cost about $78 a year to operate compared with $161 a year for Whirlpool's $549 Ultimate Care top-loader, according to a downloadable calculator on the Department of Energy Web site (

But because the Duet costs so much to buy, the total cost of the front loader over seven years is $1,946, or $269 more than the Whirlpool classic top loader.

Guess what? It makes economic sense to buy the more expensive machine. In theory, a dollar today is more valuable than a dollar in seven years. Therefore, you should be willing to pay $318 more for something that saves you $546 over seven years. (You can do this "present value" calculation at That calculation will be useful anytime you buy a product that promises future savings.

Can you spot the howler? Because the upfront cost of Duet comes first, it should have to save you that much more than the cheaper model over the seven years. In other words, because a dollar is "in theory" worth more today, the Net Present Value (NPV) calculation works against the expensive model... but they've presented it as working in its favor. Two seconds of thinking about this showed me it couldn't be right. How could this end up in the "Your Money" section of the New York Times and not be caught?

Update: I've been thinking about this a bit more and I just can't figure out what happened to get these paragraphs published in the NYT. Perhaps some radical last minute editing that accidently got rid of other sentences that would have explained it? I doubt it, but what in the world does the fact that "you should be willing to pay $318 more for something that saves you $546 over seven years" have to do with anything in the article? From the math I do, the Duet washer saves you $581 in energy costs over the seven years, but costs $851 more to buy. Where do the $546 and $318 come from? The closer I look the more this just seems like innumeracy on top of economic illiteracy.

Posted by richard at 11:30 AM | Comments (2)

March 08, 2006

On Incomparability

One of the things I've been thinking about recently is the difficulty in comparing and/or equating different products so that you can derive meaningful metrics about the category. To some extent this is a reflection of a larger ontological problem of deciding which objects are meaningfully the same, but it has special relevance in an economic world defined by technological progress.

While this may seem somewhat esoteric, I would argue that it's incredibly important to understand this phenomenon because it systematically makes us overestimate inflation, underestimate standard of living increases, and, in general, be more pessimistic than warranted about Progress (with a capital 'P').

This difficulty is particularly problematic when trying to measure the price of something over time or space. As a simple, mundane example, take the price of gas over time. While we pretend that there is some consistent thing called "gasoline" and that it's price is denominated in something consistent called US dollars, there are three things that make it difficult to compare the prices over time:

  1. The distinction between nominal dollars and real dollars. This is the most obvious, and most serious people writing about prices over time will use some kind of constant dollars. The leading ways of doing this (chained or unchained CPI, GDP deflator, etc.) are all valiant attempts to address the Incomparability Problem, but all have serious flaws (that I'll discuss more below). But under any scenario, a dollar 50 years ago is not worth the same as a dollar today.
  2. The gas itself has changed. While gas seems like a nice, simple commodity, handily measured in concrete units like gallons, the term hides the fact that gas has changed dramatically over time. Tetra-ethyl lead content, octane level, ethanol and MBTE admixture, volatility – all these make the gas you buy today very different from 30 years ago. For instance, maximum allowed volatility is lower today in order to reduce emissions during refueling (resulting in a "better" product for some definition of better.) How does/should this impact your analysis of price change over time?
  3. Consumers don't really care about gallons of gas, they buy "passenger miles", or maybe even "cargo miles". As with many products, the utility that consumers get out of the product is coupled to a complex network of enabling technology that itself changes over time. The fuel efficiency of engines has gone up dramatically over the last several decades allowing cars to go further (or haul more) for the same gallon of gas. If my car today can go 29.1 miles per gallon vs. 18.8 MPG in 1977, how does/should that factor into the "real" price of gas?
As you might imagine, the case gets infinitely harder when you move away from a commodity like gasoline. Additionally, the complexity increases as you move from the "same" product over time, to the "same" product in different places, cultures, or regulatory regimes. For example:
  1. Medical care – rather than across time, medical care illustrates the problem across regulatory regimes. Is cancer treatment, for instance, the "same" when you have to wait months for treatment vs. a couple of weeks? While the treatment itself may be the same, factors around the provision of the treatment make the former a qualitatively different product than the latter, particular if it means the difference between success or failure. If we pretend they are the "same" we will be confused why people pay more for the latter (in the US) than the former (in Canada).
  2. Frozen food – one effect of recently having a baby has been a sizable uptick in the amount of frozen food that Julia and I eat. I have to say that I have been truly astounded at the quality of the frozen food available at the grocery store – specifically the change in quality from when I was a child and last ate my share of "TV dinners". Now, these new frozen foods probably cost more (even adjusting for inflation) than the old ones, but how does one compare the price of excellent frozen Indian dishes, vegetarian Mexican food, health food, etc. with the Hungry Man™ and other meager selection we had in the early eighties? The situation is replicated in every category of food. How many more options does the butcher store at the supermarket now offer? Do you even remember when fruits and vegetables had seasons, out of which you were out of luck? If we pay twice as much for avocados, but we can get good ones in February, how do we count that?
  3. Housing – while often lamented as a component of sprawl, it's uncontroversial that the average American home has gotten significantly larger over the last several decades. Meanwhile, housing costs as a share of family income have stayed relatively flat or decreased (driven primarily by lower nominal mortgage interest rates and higher family income), even with the current bubble. Can we call wages stagnant if the same percentage of them buys more house each year?
  4. Consumer electronics – the fast-paced world of high-tech gadgets is obviously problematic. An ever larger portion of consumers' income goes to computers, MP3 players, digital cameras, televisions, cell phones, etc. By any measure of delivered features (gigahertz, megapixels, gigabytes, diagonal viewing area, etc.) there has been massive deflation in these product areas. Five years ago, the iPod didn't exist. Now, more than 41 million of them have been sold, with 14 million in the first quarter of 2006 alone! Sure, I paid a heck of a lot more for "mobile music device" (four times as much?) than when I bought my first WalkMan®, but is that really relevant?

The list goes on and on. In virtually every category, the product has gotten dramatically better either functionally or aesthetically – in ways the consumer can appreciate directly. And in cases where it hasn't, it's often due to significant new regulations that either impart a diffuse benefit (e.g. make the product safer, less polluting, etc.) or protect the spoils of rent-seekers. George Reisman (via Nick Szabo) has more on these aspects.

So, why is this relevant? Why do I think it's important to remind ourselves of these facts? Because it's directly relevant when we consider "real" wages, standards of living, measures of growth, and even inequality. Are American workers "getting a raw deal" with "flat wages"? Should Paul Krugman be as exercised as he is? Is American GDP growth actually much higher than the dollar figures show because of the hidden improvement of things? Are we therefore pulling farther ahead of the rest of the world than one would think? Or are these improvements leaking across borders to lift (some of) the rest of the world up faster too?

These are all important questions that don't have easy answers. But too often they are ignored or glossed over in discussions. But the effect on true standards of living are increasing – and increasing at an accelerating rate. And the danger of that is that, blind to what is really happening, we may make policy choices that curtail these improvements in the future.

Posted by richard at 09:15 PM | Comments (3)

March 06, 2006

Robotic Pack Mule

The New Scientist reports :
A nimble, four-legged robot is so surefooted it can recover its balance even after being given a hefty kick. The machine, which moves like a cross between a goat and a pantomime horse, is being developed as a robotic pack mule for the US military.
Check out the video here.

Now, I actually think this is extremely cool and far be it from me to question new gadgets, but.... if the military really needs 'pack mules' then why don't they, um, you know, use mules? Like real ones.

The current model of the robot can carry 40 Kg and can cross somewhat rough terrain. While it's just a R&D prototype, it's not stacking up too well against the flesh & blood type so far.

Posted by richard at 01:20 AM | Comments (2)