Thursday, July 28, 2005

Animals Afflicted With "The Gayness"

In his book "Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity," Seattle biologist Bruce Bagemihl estimates 450 species display some form of homosexuality, which can include same-sex courtship, displays of affection, sexual activity, long-term pairings and parenting.
It also makes you wonder how many gay species became extinct when Noah accidently picked the wrong species representatives for his ark.
• Young male killer-whales engage in what might be described as a ribald form of fencing.

• Up to 15 percent of Western gull pairs are females. The birds woo each other with gifts of food and form bonds that last for years. They build joint nests and tend clutches of unfertilized eggs. Occasionally, one or both females will mate with males, but they always raise their young together.

• In some penguin species, males form lifelong same-sex partnerships — especially in captivity. A pair named Roy and Silo in New York's Central Park Zoo incubated rocks until keepers gave them an egg of their own.

• A Corvallis flock of sheep includes a group of rams that scientists delicately refer to as "male-oriented." These animals consistently ignore females and bestow all their amorous attentions on members of their own sex.

• Male giraffes spend most of their time in bachelor groups, where they entwine necks and rub against each other for up to an hour at a time. These "necking" sessions often culminate in mounting, and can outnumber heterosexual encounters 9 to 1.
I am reminded of this exchange between Samantha Bee of the Daily Show and a biologist on this one:
"Just because something happens in nature, doesn't make it natural."
"Um, I think by definition, that it actually does."
Via The Seattle Times and another Seattle Times article



I enjoyed Steven Levitt's Freakonomics book, and am glad to see that he is taking his economic analysis to the poker table with his new research/site: An Economist Explores the World of Online Poker

Being a poker fan, an economics fan and a freakonomics fan I think this thing rocks. I would love to upload data but unfortunately I have been using Yahoo Texas Holdem and I don't get stats. Maybe I should move to a new site where I can get better stats. For the advancement of science of course.


Are crowds wise?

If you have a group of people, and if each person is more than 50% likely to be right, the likelihood that the average answer will be right approaches 100% as the size of the group increases.

Here's a problem, though. If group members are less than 50% likely to be right, the likelihood that the average will be right approaches ZERO as the size of the group increases.
Interesting. I had always wondered if crowds were wise, or better stated: when are crowds wise? I had never thought of it like this, but this is simple and gets at the heart of it. Although, how do you know if people are 50%+ likely to be right?

I think this has big implications on democracies. When should things go to referrendums, and when should things be decided by representatives? You could make a good case that things like gas taxes, the average voter is less than 50% likely to get it right. Whereas voters are probably over 50% in picking the better candidate, and the representative (because they can study the issue more closely) are probably over 50% in doing the right thing on the gas tax. Of course what does right mean here?

The other obvious implication is for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. When should you ask the audience and when should you phone a friend? In one case you are using the wisdom of a crowd and the other the wisdom of 1 expert.

Via Lessig Blog


Friday, July 15, 2005

Be Informed - Nuclear Blast

Great advice from the US Department of Homeland Defense in case of a Nuclear Blast:

2. Consider if you can get out of the area;

Kudos to the government for using the same map that shows you how to get from Gap to Orange Julius in your local mall to explain how to get out of the way of a nuclear blast.

Also check out this hilarious parody site.


What Other People Say May Change What You See

Interesting New York Times article that looks at the impact of social pressure on the brain. It appears that social pressure can actually make you see things that aren't there.

If social conformity was a result of conscious decision making, they reasoned, they should see changes in areas of the forebrain that deal with monitoring conflicts, planning and other higher-order mental activities.

But if the subjects' social conformity stemmed from changes in perception, there should be changes in posterior brain areas dedicated to vision and spatial perception.

In fact, the researchers found that when people went along with the group on wrong answers, activity increased in the right intraparietal sulcus, an area devoted to spatial awareness, Dr. Berns said.
And I like the way the author sums up the implications:
If other people's views can actually affect how someone perceives the external world, then truth itself is called into question.


Green Tags vs. Solar Panels

I was listening to NPR a while back and there was a guy who sold solar panels for the roofs of peoples homes and businesses. When asked if solar panels were economic, he more or less dodged the question. The comparison he made was that people with $10,000 could spend the money to buy a new car, upgrade their kitchen, or they could buy a solar panel for their roof and obviously the last one is best for the earth.

This drove me nuts. While economics doesn't tell you what your values are, once you know your values, economics tells you the most efficient way to accomplish them. The comparison should not be between a new car and solar panels, it should be: you have $10,000 to spend to generate as much clean energy as possible. You should only purchase solar cells if that is the best way.

Wired had an article on Idealab's Bill Gross and his new company which makes a rooftop solar device. At first I was excited about its prospects, but after reading more I became skeptical (though I am still glad they are doing the research so hopefully some day it will be economic).

Even in sunny places like California, the pre-rebate cost of PV-generated electricity is roughly 21 cents per kilowatt-hour. Coal (from 4.74 cents per kilowatt-hour), natural gas (5.15 cents), nukes (5.92 cents), even windmills (5.15 cents) offer cheaper ways to keep the lights on.

Right now, PV solar has a 20-year payback, but people are still buying it," he says. "Our target for California is five. In Phoenix we could do 3.3."

Take away rebates and other incentives, and payback periods pretty much double. The hard reality is that, even on the rooftop, even with concentrated sunlight, even with low-cost Chinese manufacturing, unrebated solar kilowatt-hours cost too much for the mainstream energy market.
Lets compare that with Green Tags. You can purchase Green Tags for $20 per 1,000 kwh (or 1 mwh) or 2 cents a kwh. They give that money to companies producing clean energy so they can compete in the market with other "dirty" producers. If you purchase your electricity from your regular electricity and then purchase a corresponding amount of green tags, that is almost identical to purchasing clean energy directly.

The advantage Green Tags give you is that they allow you to take advantage of economies of scale. Wind turbines can create electricity much cheaper the larger they are. So it would be better for a bunch of people to go together and buy one large turbine than for everyone to have a small turbine on their own property. Instead of purchasing your own device, with Green Tags you help purchase a small % of a large device that will be more beneficial to everyone.

So lets toss some numbers into this discussion. $10,000 in solar cells in Seattle will produce about 3,000 kwh/yr. At the going electricity rate of $.07/kwh that is about $210. So your investment gives you $210 worth of energy plus 3,000 kwh of clean energy a year.

Or you could invest the $10,000 and at 5% interest you would make $500 a year. This allows you to purchase the 3,000 kwh for $210 and then have $290 to spend on green tags. At a price of $20/1,000kwh, that would create 14,500 kwh of clean energy a year. That would cover the 3,000 kwh you purchased plus 11,500 kwh of additional clean energy you could produce to help the earth. Plus you always retain your $10,000 while the solar cells will stop working after some time. So the Green Tags are the way to go.

These numbers will vary depending on where you live. If you are in the Southwest US, you would have gotten about 5000 kwh from your solar cells. In Hawaii you would be paying $.14/kwh. So in some cases solar cells might be preferable. But, the point is this analysis should be done by anyone who wants to maximize their help to the earth.

So, I am more of a fan of Starbuck's decision to use Green Tags than I am of Whole Food's decision to put solar panels on the top of stores.


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Monkey Economics

Turns out "human nature" happens even in monkeys. An economist uses capuchin monkeys to test out economic principles and see how they compare with humans and homo economicus.

The essential idea was to give a monkey a dollar and see what it did with it. The currency Chen settled on was a silver disc, one inch in diameter, with a hole in the middle -- ''kind of like Chinese money,'' he says. It took several months of rudimentary repetition to teach the monkeys that these tokens were valuable as a means of exchange for a treat and would be similarly valuable the next day. Having gained that understanding, a capuchin would then be presented with 12 tokens on a tray and have to decide how many to surrender for, say, Jell-O cubes versus grapes. This first step allowed each capuchin to reveal its preferences and to grasp the concept of budgeting.

Then Chen introduced price shocks and wealth shocks. If, for instance, the price of Jell-O fell (two cubes instead of one per token), would the capuchin buy more Jell-O and fewer grapes? The capuchins responded rationally to tests like this -- that is, they responded the way most readers of The Times would respond. In economist-speak, the capuchins adhered to the rules of utility maximization and price theory: when the price of something falls, people tend to buy more of it.

Chen next introduced a pair of gambling games and set out to determine which one the monkeys preferred. In the first game, the capuchin was given one grape and, dependent on a coin flip, either retained the original grape or won a bonus grape. In the second game, the capuchin started out owning the bonus grape and, once again dependent on a coin flip, either kept the two grapes or lost one. These two games are in fact the same gamble, with identical odds, but one is framed as a potential win and the other as a potential loss.

How did the capuchins react? They far preferred to take a gamble on the potential gain than the potential loss. This is not what an economics textbook would predict. The laws of economics state that these two gambles, because they represent such small stakes, should be treated equally.

So, does Chen's gambling experiment simply reveal the cognitive limitations of his small-brained subjects? Perhaps not. In similar experiments, it turns out that humans tend to make the same type of irrational decision at a nearly identical rate. Documenting this phenomenon, known as loss aversion, is what helped the psychologist Daniel Kahneman win a Nobel Prize in economics. The data generated by the capuchin monkeys, Chen says, "make them statistically indistinguishable from most stock-market investors."
Interesting how monkeys act just like people, and neither act like text book economic maximizers.
Something else happened during that chaotic scene, something that convinced Chen of the monkeys' true grasp of money. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of money, after all, is its fungibility, the fact that it can be used to buy not just food but anything. During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)

This is a sensitive subject. The capuchin lab at Yale has been built and maintained to make the monkeys as comfortable as possible, and especially to allow them to carry on in a natural state. The introduction of money was tricky enough; it wouldn't reflect well on anyone involved if the money turned the lab into a brothel. To this end, Chen has taken steps to ensure that future monkey sex at Yale occurs as nature intended it.
World's oldest profession, world's first monkey profession.

Via Monkey Business - New York Times


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Some Parkinson's Drugs May Trigger Compulsive Gambling

Eleven people with Parkinson's disease temporarily became compulsive gamblers after taking a class of drugs designed to control movement problems caused by the illness, a new study reports.

In addition, six of the patients in the new report developed other behavioral problems in tandem with the pathological gambling. These included compulsive eating, increased alcohol consumption, and an obsession with sex.

The 11 case studies presented in the new study were startling, not just for the dramatic onset of a dangerous compulsion, but because the reduction or discontinuation of the drug resulted in an equally dramatic cessation of the habit.

One 52-year-old married man started gambling "uncontrollably" after raising the dose of his dopamine agonist. His wife phoned the neurologist to report that her husband had lost more than $100,000, was eating compulsively -- he gained 50 pounds -- and had an obsession with sex that resulted in him carrying on an extramarital affair. The man lost his excessive interest in gambling and sex when the medication was tapered off, according to the report.
Wow, that is pretty amazing. There is now a drug that can turn (some) people into complusive gamblers. And it looks as if they might be able to do the opposite and make a drug that lowers dopamine to stop compulsive gamblers. A few weeks ago we had a nasal spray that could increase trust, now a drug to make you a compulsive gambler, what next?

Via Healthfinder


A Wonkish Look at Crime

An interesting column by Nicholas Kristof arguing that if we

tackled crime as comprehensively and wonkishly as we do pollution or auto safety, we'd all be better off.
I completely agree.

He looks at LoJack vs. the Club in terms of reducing auto theft.
Car theft, it turns out, is a volume business. And so if even a small percentage of vehicles have LoJack, the professional thief will eventually steal a car with one and get caught.

The thief's challenge is that it's impossible to determine which vehicle has a LoJack (there's no decal). So stealing any car becomes significantly more risky, and one academic study found that the introduction of LoJack in Boston reduced car theft there by 50 percent. Professor Ayres and another scholar, Steven Levitt, found that every $1 invested in LoJack saves other car owners $10.

Professors Nalebuff and Ayres note that other antitheft devices, such as the Club, a polelike device that locks the steering wheel, help protect that car, but only at the expense of the next vehicle.

"The Club doesn't reduce crime," Mr. Nalebuff says. "It just shifts it to the next person."
Levitt of course is the author of the excellent book Freakonomics. Interesting how the club and LoJack have similar effects for the person buying, but much different for society as a whole. Another case where the invisible hand doesn't work. This same logic is used to show how concealed gun laws can help to reduce rapes and other crimes, as criminals are not sure who can protect themselves and who can't. But that didn't make this article.
We have about 300,000 more prisoners than is cost-effective, Professor Donohue calculates. In other words, every extra $100 spent on incarceration reduces crime losses by some smaller amount, say $50. But he also finds that we could add up to 500,000 police officers, and they would pay for themselves in crime savings.
That is an interesting point that we could add up to 500,000 more police officers and they would pay for themselves. I had never thought of a police officers salary as paying for itself, but it certainly makes sense.

Via New York Times


Making difficult decisions in a complicated, uncertain world

Everything I've experienced in life suggests to me that the key to the future is a decision-making approach that begins with the proposition that there are no provable certainties. That is the view of modern science and much of modern philosophy. And, this view that there are no absolute or certain answers— quickly leads to recognizing that all significant issues are inherently complex and uncertain and, as a consequence, that all decisions are about probabilities and trade-offs. That, in turn, should lead to restlessly seeking to better understand whatever is before you in order to most effectively refine your judgments about those probabilities and trade-offs.

Once you recognize uncertainty and complexity, you approach new questions or for that matter, new experiences, such as, in my life, a new job or moving from the private sector to government not with answers or a sense of certainty, but rather with a sense of inquiry and searching and the pursuit of understanding.

This is from Robert Rubin's June 11 commencement address (its good and its short so read the whole thing) at the University of Washington. Rubin was U.S. treasury secretary from 1995 to 1999 and wrote the excellent book In an Uncertain World. I love his probabilistic way of thinking that he outlines.

I agree with it so much, I really think high school should teach advanced statistics and probability rather than calculus. I can't think of the last day that I actually used calculus and I can't think of the last day I didn't use some form of probability.

This Scientific American article continues on this theme, looking at how to make a decision will be good in most environments rather than trying to make a decision that will be best for a particular environment, when there is uncertainty regarding the future environment.


Sunday, July 10, 2005

SUV Redemption Sticker

Green SUV drivers now have TerraPass, a clever eco-capitalism experiment. Launched by a group of Wharton Business School classmates, the startup sells a decal that drivers can slap on their windshields. The sticker price - $79.95 for SUVs, less for greener cars - gets invested in renewable energy projects and credits. The credits are traded through local brokers on the new Chicago Climate Exchange.

TerraPass lets consumers participate in an emissions trading system the US established in 1990. (Give credit to economist Ronald Coase, who won a Nobel Prize for the idea in 1991.) Under the system, industrial operations that spew less than their share of emissions can sell a credit to companies that fail to keep gunk out of the air. In effect, the dirtier factories can pay greener operations to do the work of cutting emissions. The approach has taken off worldwide, spawning a billion-dollar market.

Burning a gallon of gasoline produces about 20 pounds of CO². So the average SUV - which travels 12,000 miles a year - pumps out about 20,000 pounds of greenhouse gases annually. On today's market, TerraPass can scrub that pollution from the environment for less than 80 bucks.
Sounds good. Use a market to find the cheapest way to reduce the green house gases. I would think that this system would require that the nation set a total cap on these emissions. Without that cap I am not sure how this system works. And that cap is crucial in determining the cost of a pound of CO² emissions. But it appears that in this market currently $1 gets you 250 lbs of emissions. I wonder who is doing the CO² reducing to get the money?
And it's not just for big-time polluters. Today, farmers cash in on credits by collecting and processing cow dung, which produces globe-cooking methane. Land-owners earn credits by installing wind farms on their blustery fields, which top off the power grid with carbon-free electricity.
Oh great, so my $80 is going to help some farmer make his cow fart less. Nice. (Don't miss my previous post on Cows and Greenhouse Gases).

So I just checked out the TerraPass site and it appears that they are doing 3 things: purchasing green tags, purchases Exchange Allowances and retires them from the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) (a voluntary cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide), and methane abatement. Full Details

Via Wired Mag


Thursday, July 07, 2005

Profits, Not Jobs, on the Rebound in Silicon Valley

Interesting article that is worth a read.

In the last three years, profits at the seven largest companies in Silicon Valley by market value have increased by an average of more than 500 percent while Santa Clara County employment has declined to 767,600, from 787,200. During the previous economic recovery, between 1995 and 1997, the county, which is the heart of Silicon Valley, added more than 82,800 jobs.
Jobs aren't coming back because it is cheaper to hire people in other parts of the world.
One key measure, known as value added per employee, rose 3.7 percent in 2004, to $222,000 in economic value per worker. That compares with $85,000 per worker in the rest of the country, according to data reported by Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a regional economic research group.
But, workers add more value here than anywhere else in the country (and I would guess in the world).

Via New York Times


Sunday, July 03, 2005

Lands of Opportunity

Funny how many countries are on this list. Sad that the US is seen as the Land of Opportunity for only the Indians. I wonder how much this has changed since 9/11? I bet the US was the destination for most. I hope we will regain that openess for all and welcoming attitude towards immigrants.

And where is the love for New Zealand? That is where I was looking to move to after Bush won again.

Via The Economist