From the monthly archives:

January 2005

Ask a Nineteenth-Century Whaling Expert

by Ted on January 31, 2005

Since Crooked Timber’s first publication in 1953, “Ask a Nineteenth-Century Whaling Expert” has consistently been one of its most popular features. We are pleased to bring you the novelist Kenneth Gardner, author of Rich Man’s Coffin.

I’m baffled at the economics of nineteenth-century whaling. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville says that a whaling expedition would be a success if a crew of 40 men captured the oil from 40 whales in 48 months. Each whale produced about 40-50 barrels of oil. Presumably this oil had to be cover the approximate costs of four years’ labor, plus the costs of operating the ship, plus a sizeable profit for the investors in these risky ventures.

How could whale-oil have been so valuable? I understand that it was scarce, that illumination is highly desirable, and apparently it smelled nice. But there were substitutes, weren’t there?

Ted B., Houston, TX

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Odds and ends

by Ted on January 31, 2005

– The biggest news today, the election in Iraq, seems to have gone better than I would have dreamed. It’s no secret that I don’t think that the Bush administration has much to be proud of. But they deserve credit, along with the courageous Iraqi voters, for the first real elections in half a century. When Bush said that the terrorist hostility to the elections showed the emptiness of their vision, he was exactly right.

Iraq isn’t out of the woods. There may come a time when we look back and see how the elections made inevitable the Iraqi civil war/ next brutal strongman/ rise of our robot overlords. However, let the record show that, as of 1/30/05, I certainly didn’t have any better ideas.

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Prospects for Iraqi Democracy

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2005

The “Iraqi elections”: have gone off successfully, in the sense that the turnout was good and the violence relatively contained. That’s very good news. Now comes the hard business of establishing a real government. I’m sympathetic with “John’s view”: that it might not be such a bad thing if the U.S. took a “Declare Victory and Go Home” attitude, even though that’s one of the scenarios people were most worried by before the invasion. Getting out would leave the government in a position to at least try to run its own country, instead of inevitably playing second-fiddle to the U.S. occupying forces. I’m not sure any more that this is likely to happen, though.

The best possible outcome of the weekend’s election is a successful completion of the present government’s term followed by another real election. It’s often said that the key moment in the growth of a democracy is not its first election but its second, because — as Adam Przeworski says somewhere — a democracy is a system where governments lose elections. The question planners need to be asking is what are the chances that Iraq will be able to do this again in four or five years without the presence of U.S. troops and with the expectation that whoever wins will get to take power. This partly depends on whether some functioning government can really be established within the country, and partly on whether the U.S. wants a working democracy in Iraq (with the risks that implies) or just a friendly puppet state.

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Faith in progress

by Henry Farrell on January 30, 2005

“Brad DeLong”: spares me the effort of completing a half-written post about how badly “Gregg Easterbrook”: misses the point of Jared Diamond’s wonderful Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond isn’t arguing that material circumstances trump human inventiveness but that they structure it. Still, there’s another aspect to Easterbrook’s review of Diamond’s new book which is worth discussing. In Easterbrook’s closing paragraph, he says:

bq. Diamond fears our fate was set in motion in antiquity — we’re living off the soil and petroleum bequeathed by the far past, and unless there are profound changes in behavior, all may crash when legacy commodities run out. Oddly, for someone with a background in evolutionary theory, he seems not to consider society’s evolutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years, forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000 years from now? Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten. Most of the earth may even be returned to primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the blink of an eye by nature’s standards.

This crystallizes something that I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while. It seems to me that there’s a shared attitude towards science among various right-leaning technophiles (Glenn Reynolds being a paradigmatic example). Roughly speaking, they tend to agree with science when it suggest new possibilities for human beings (the Singularity! nanotechnology! conquering the universe via spaceflight! longer lifespans!) and to strongly disagree with scientific results or prognoses that suggest fundamental limits to human beings’ can-do ability to prevail over their circumstances (global warming, ecological collapse).[1] This comes out very clearly over the course of Easterbrook’s review, where it becomes clear that Easterbrook’s objection isn’t to the specifics of Diamond’s arguments – it’s to the very notion that material limits might determine our collective fate, a contention which Easterbrook bizarrely describes as ‘postmodern’. This faith in boundless possibilities is at best a-scientific, and at worst pseudo-religious feel-good claptrap along the lines of Easterbrook’s previous “muddled”: “attempts”: to reconcile cosmology and religious belief. Of course, it may be true that future discoveries will enable us to leave the Earth, conquer the galaxy, exploit the “infinite resources” of the universe etc. But half-assed appeals to the limitless opportunities of the future aren’t an argument; they’re a statement of faith. It’s a wonder that Easterbrook should have been asked by the NYT to review a serious book; it certainly shouldn’t happen again.

Update: A commenter over at Brad’s points out that Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s wicked corporate satire, The Space Merchants, anticipated Easterbrook’s basic argument over fifty years ago.

bq. The Conservationists were fair game, those wild-eyed zealots who pretended modern civilization was in some way ‘plundering’ our planet. Preposterous stuff. Science is *always* a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all, when real meat got scarce we had soyaburgers ready. When oil ran low, technology developed the pedicab.

fn1. While Easterbrook isn’t a global warming skeptic as such, he is skeptical about many of its “adverse consequences”:

The Iraqi elections seem to have been about as successful as could have been hoped, and may represent the last real chance to prevent a full-scale civil war. The pre-election analysis suggests that the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite coalition, will get the biggest share of the votes, but probably not an absolute majority. If so, their leaders will face two immediate choices.

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Ask and Jeeves answers

by Eszter Hargittai on January 30, 2005

Among other things, my research looks at how people find information online. When I conducted in-person observations of people’s information-seeking behavior on the Web, it was interesting to see how well Ask Jeeves had done in marketing itself as the search engine that answers people’s questions. Even respondents in my study who otherwise relied on Google for almost all of their queries would go to Ask Jeeves to find the answer to the question about what steps they would have to take if they lost their wallet. People would type in their query in the form of a question even though in most cases – and especially if not specified with quotes, which is something few users do – including “what” or “where” in a query does little to improve the results of a search. It was an interesting example of how a search service could position itself in the search engine market by a particular marketing approach. The results to users’ queries on that particular search engine were no better than the results offered by other services, but due to the type of question people turned to that service regardless. Now I have come across something that seems quite unique to Ask Jeeves among the most popular search engines in terms of actual services rendered, for the moment at least.

Reading the Search Engine Watch blog I found out that using Ask Jeeves can cut down on the number of clicks required to find the answers to simple factual questions. Ask Jeeves will now give you a little box with the answers to some of your questions without having to click through to one of the results for the information. For example, wondering about this year’s date for Passover, I typed in when is Passover in 2005 and was given the exact info right there by Jeeves. (Yes, of course it’s enough to type in passover 2005 to get the same result, I was just playing along.) The service seems to cater to more popular forms of information. It will give you information about some celebrity birthdays (e.g. walter matthau birthday) and the names of Academy Award winners (up until 2002 for now, e.g. academy award best actress 2002), but it won’t display the names of Nobel Prize winners directly (e.g. see results for chemistry nobel prize 2002). It will be interesting to see to what other topical domains they expand the service (some geographical information is also available this way already). For now, other search services such as Google and Yahoo require additional clicks to find answers to the above questions. Perhaps in time they will come out with their versions of instant responses.[1]

fn1. Yes, I realize that Google has been supplying answers to some questions directly for a while. That’s what Kieran relied on in this post.

All the blood in the world, and then some

by Kieran Healy on January 30, 2005

First let me say that this calculation is probably wrong. But one of Brad DeLong’s “One Hundred Interesting Math Calculations”: asks “How Much Blood is there in the World?”: (How much _human_ blood, that is.) The answer assumes that the average person has about a gallon of blood in them, which is a tad low, I think — it’s more like 9.5 to 10.5 pints per person. But let’s keep it at a gallon. The answer is about 8 x 108 cubic feet of blood, which is less than you might think: as Brad says, “All the human blood in the world could be stuffed into a cube less than one-thousand feet on a side.”

But who can visualize a cube a thousand feet long on a side? As a person with a “sociological interest”: in blood, I like the calculation, but I need to translate it into the “standard SI unit of volume”: applicable to this case, namely the “Olympic-size swimming pool”: My goal is to do the conversion using only Google.

Brad gives us the 8 x 108 cubic feet number. An Olympic pool measures 50 x 20 x 2 meters, which gives us 2000 cubic meters or 2 x 106 liters. So we have a units problem. But Google knows that 2 x 106 liters is 528,344.102 US gallons. Google also knows that this is equivalent to 706,293.746 cubic feet. And so it will be no surprise to learn that Google has no trouble calculating that 8 x 108 cubic feet divided by 706,293.746 cubic feet is 1,132.6732. Roughly speaking, all the human blood in the world would fit into about eleven hundred Olympic-sized swimming pools.

According to the National Blood Data Resource Center, about 15 million pints of blood are collected each year in the United States. That’s equivalent to just over three and a half Olympic pools. Blood is a renewable resource, of course, in that you make more of it when you lose some. Over the course of a year the U.S. blood system controls the allocation of roughly 0.31 percent of all the blood in the world. Unless the glass of wine I’m having has caused me to make a mistake somewhere.

Bravo Charles

by Belle Waring on January 30, 2005

A big hooray for Obsidian Wings’ Charles Bird. Recent revelations that some of the strangest allegations of mistreatment at Guantanamo were true has caused him to re-examine his trust in the Bush administration’s good intentions:

When this piece by the Mirror came out, I dismissed it. To me, it still remains implausible that “a diet of foul water and food up to 10 years out-of-date left inmates malnourished”. However, one of the claims that I ridiculed in the Mirror was this:

Prisoners who had never seen an “unveiled” woman before would be forced to watch as the hookers touched their own naked bodies.

The men would return distraught. One said an American girl had smeared menstrual blood across his face in an act of humiliation.

Now that this allegation has been confirmed by an ex-army sergeant, Charles has to face an ugly conclusion:

This report, in addition to earlier statements by FBI agents, tells me one thing: I’ve been chumped. Detainees have not been treated humanely. Those officials at Gitmo who have stated that detainees were treated humanely have either lied or were duped.

I hate to set you up for more disappointment, Charles, but I’m afraid further reflection is likely to incline you to “lied.”

N.B. Some of his links are not working; I’ll update this with more links later…

Reality based Republicans

by Henry Farrell on January 29, 2005

I heard Chuck Hagel speak at the World Affairs Councils meeting in Washington DC yesterday (C-Span link “here”: ), and thought it was pretty interesting. The content was vague, as is typical for US politicians warming up for a run at President, but in tone. Hagel was very clearly setting out his stall as the anti-Bush on foreign policy issues. He began his talk by talking about the need to focus on the allies, then spoke of how US public diplomacy had “lost its way,” of how our experience in Iraq should give us pause about trying to impose democracy by force etc etc. Most interesting in the short term, he hinted at some openness to the idea of Senate hearings on the disaster in Iraq, speaking at length about how Senator William Fulbright had come in for enormous criticism from his own party for holding hearings on Vietnam back in the day, but had been vindicated over the longer run. In Hagel’s words, we “should not be party to a false consensus on Iraq, or any other issue.” I’ve no idea of whether anything will come of this – but Hagel seemed to me to be presenting a possible opening for Democrats and reality-based Republicans.

An emerald the size of a plover’s egg

by John Q on January 29, 2005

Readers of my previous post will have noticed that I don’t know much about MMPORPGs In fact, I don’t do much gaming these days, though I chewed up untold amounts of then-scarce mainframe computer time playing Adventure in the 1970s. Still my foray into the field has left me the kind of excitement you get the first time you wander into one of these domains and find precious jewels lying about everywhere.

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Just deserts and the market

by Henry Farrell on January 29, 2005

We’ve had a few discussions over CT’s life span where commenters have claimed that free markets produce just deserts; that is, that if markets are working correctly, people end up more or less where they deserve to be. Elizabeth Anderson has a “great post”: over at Left2Right setting out Hayek’s argument that free markets can’t and shouldn’t lead to just deserts if they’re going to have the informational efficiencies that Hayekians see as essential. Key grafs:

bq. Let’s consider first Hayek’s claim that prices in free market capitalism do not give people what they morally deserve. Hayek’s deepest economic insight was that the basic function of free market prices is informational. Free market prices send signals to producers as to where their products are most in demand (and to consumers as to the opportunity costs of their options). They reflect the sum total of the inherently dispersed information about the supply and demand of millions of distinct individuals for each product. Free market prices give us our only access to this information, and then only in aggregate form. This is why centralized economic planning is doomed to failure: there is no way to collect individualized supply and demand information in a single mind or planning agency, to use as a basis for setting prices. Free markets alone can effectively respond to this information.

bq. It’s a short step from this core insight about prices to their failure to track any coherent notion of moral desert. Claims of desert are essentially backward-looking. They aim to reward people for virtuous conduct that they undertook in the past. Free market prices are essentially forward-looking. Current prices send signals to producers as to where the demand is now, not where the demand was when individual producers decided on their production plans. Capitalism is an inherently dynamic economic system. It responds rapidly to changes in tastes, to new sources of supply, to new substitutes for old products. This is one of capitalism’s great virtues. But this responsiveness leads to volatile prices. Consequently, capitalism is constantly pulling the rug out from underneath even the most thoughtful, foresightful, and prudent production plans of individual agents. However virtuous they were, by whatever standard of virtue one can name, individuals cannot count on their virtue being rewarded in the free market. For the function of the market isn’t to reward people for past good behavior. It’s to direct them toward producing for current demand, regardless of what they did in the past.

i.e. – you can’t have it both way folks. Via “Brad DeLong”:

Match Wits With Inspector PowerLine!

by Ted on January 28, 2005

8:05 AM, Milwaukee

This is bad,” said Mayor Barnett. “I don’t know what went wrong in this election, but something did. There were more than 1200 votes cast from invalid addresses. We’ve got 300 people listed as voting twice from the same address. The papers are eating us alive; they’re reporting an 8000-ballot gap between the number of ballots cast and the number of recorded voters. We’ve got to check this out; this can’t happen again.”

“Listen, we’ve got a lot of resources we can throw at this,” said Milwuakee District Attorney E. Michael McCann. “I’ve got a commitment from Steve Biskupic, the US Attorney, Chief Hegerty, and the local FBI. There’s a million and six pieces of paper to review, but we’ll have a lot of manpower to draw from.”

“That’s good. But we don’t want this to look partisan. You’re a Democrat, right?”

“That’s right,” said McCann. “But Biskupic is a Republican. In any case, we don’t know yet if the erroneous votes skewed one way or another. The heads of the election commission are blaming glitches and honest errors, as you might imagine. Their systems have awfully weak safeguards. At first glance, it seems to have a lot in common with the problems in Ohio.”

“Hmmm. Just in case, I’ve called a representative from the PowerLine Detective Agency to join us. McCann, have you met Inspector Hindraker?” A well-groomed man stepped out from the side of the room, inconspicuously fanning himself with an old copy of Time Magazine.

McCann shook hands with Inspector Hindraker. “Can I confirm something with you?” asked Hindraker. “Milwaukee went for John Kerry in the last election, didn’t it?”

“That’s correct, Inspector Hindraker. Kerry won Milwaukee by 123,000 votes. We’ve got a hell of a job ahead of us-”

“Gentlemen, please,” sighed Inspector Hindraker. “It’s perfectly clear what went on here. This is a case of massive Democratic Party fraud!

(How did Inspector Hinderaker know to blame this on Democratic fraud? Turn to page 154 to find out!)

VP on Lands’ End Payroll

by Kieran Healy on January 28, 2005

“What do you mean a ceremony at Auschwitz? I was just about to go dig out the driveway.”:

The Economist has an interesting piece on the interaction between the economy in massively multiplayer games and that of the real world. The classic study of this question is Castronova’s analysis of the economy of Norrath, the setting for Everquest. Among various features of Norrath’s economy, one of the most interesting is trade with Earth through the sale of game items (weapons and so forth) via private treaty or on eBay[1]. This enables Castronova to estimate that the wage in Norrath is $US3.42 an hour, a figure that has some interesting implications.

At the Creative Commons conference last week, I heard a story to the effect that when the owners of one of these games tried to prohibit item trading they were sued and, in the course of litigation discovered that the plaintiff ran a sweatshop in Mexico where workers participated in the game solely to collect salable items. Clearly as long as the wage is below $3.42 there’s an arbitrage opportunity here. More technically sophisticated arbitrageurs have replaced human workers by scripted agents, working with multiple connections. Either way, arbitrage opportunities can’t last for ever, and are likely to be resolved either by intervention or inflation

The positive economics of all this are interesting enough. But how about policy analysis? Who benefits and who loses from this kind of trade, and do the benefits outweigh the costs?

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The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent article following up on the Lancet study. That study is still basically unchallenged, by the way; however many epidemiologists you ask, they’re all going to give the same answer, that it was good science.

The Chronicle’s angle is on the strange fact that the Lancet appears to have shown that the Iraq War made an already horrible state of affairs much worse, and that nobody seems to think that this is something worth thinking about. There was a brief kerfuffle of interest around the time of publication, but other than that, the reaction of the world’s media to the fact that we spent $150bn on trying to help the Iraqis but did it so badly that we increased their death rate by over 50%, appears to be “ho hum”.

Les Roberts, the principal author, is going through long dark nights of the soul, wondering if it was a tactical mistake to request accelerated peer review and to have been so vocal about the US elections (btw, the Chronicle reiterates the point we made here earlier; that accelerated peer review is uncommon but by no means unknown with important papers). The Lancet editor Richard Horton refuses to comment, and well he might given that he wrote an entirely misleading summary of the paper which referred to “100,000 civilian deaths” when the paper did not make this distinction.

But there is no way on earth that I am going to write a comment harping on about this or that minor faux pas on the part of the authors.

Because the fundamental point that Roberts makes in the article is absolutely correct; it is a far greater disgrace that 100,000 people[1] can be needlessly killed and everybody carries on as they were before. You don’t have to accept an entirely consequentialist view of wars to accept that the consequences of wars have to be relevant to assessing whether they’ve succeeded or not. The best evidence that we have is that the consequences of this one were bloody disastrous. And as far as I’m aware, the list of war supporters who have seriously engaged with the possibility that this war was a failure numbers two; Marc Mullholland and Norman Geras. Marc mentions the Lancet specifically and ends up worried about his previous position; Norm doesn’t and doesn’t. If you know of any other examples, I’d be very grateful. But I honestly think, that’s it.

Other than that, the response in the world of weblogs has been exactly the same as the rest of the media; in the immediate aftermath of the report, half-assed attempts to rubbish the survey, or links to same. Then, when this didn’t work, just pretend that it’s all been dealt with and move on. Maybe say “I’ll get back to you on that” and never do. After a few months of this concerted inattention, many pro-war voices have even decided it was safe to use the old slogan “well Iraq is certainly a better place because we got rid of Saddam”, when this claim is quite obviously highly debatable (just like “of course the world is a safer place because we got rid of Saddam” …)

It’s an absolute intellectual disgrace. It might be good enough for Her Britannic Majesty’s Foreign Secretary but surely we ought to hold ourselves to higher standards than that. The debate over whether this war worked is vitally important, because we are talking about setting a precedent for an entirely new world of international relations, and the debate is not being carried on honestly. This is quite literally madness, and also quite literally suicidal.

I think I ended every single Lancet post with the observation that you can tell a lot about people’s character by observing the way in which they protect themselves from hostile information. Les Roberts ought to take some grim pleasure in the fact that the world has paid his work possibly the highest compliment that the establishment can pay to a piece of information; they regarded it as dangerous enough to ignore it, even at the cost of their own credibility.

[1]As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t like this 100,000 number, and it is irksome that the Lancet’s lasting legacy has been that the “100,000 dead!” factoid has become a commonly used stick for antiwar hacks to beat prowar hacks with. But as I say above, there is no way that I’m going to pick nits on this sort of thing while there is such a huge act of ongoing intellectual dishonesty on the other side. The pro-war side have brought this on themselves; until they start engaging with the issue, they can live with it.