Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Paul Graham: Mind the Gap

Paul Graham writes, in an essay named Mind the Gap:

When people care enough about something to do it well, those who do it best tend to be far better than everyone else. There's a huge gap between Leonardo and second-rate contemporaries like Borgognone. You see the same gap between Raymond Chandler and the average writer of detective novels. A top-ranked professional chess player could play ten thousand games against an ordinary club player without losing once.

Like chess or painting or writing novels, making money is a very specialized skill. But for some reason we treat this skill differently. No one complains when a few people surpass all the rest at playing chess or writing novels, but when a few people make more money than the rest, we get editorials saying this is wrong.

Why? The pattern of variation seems no different than for any other skill. What causes people to react so strongly when the skill is making money?

I think there are three reasons we treat making money as different: the misleading model of wealth we learn as children; the disreputable way in which, till recently, most fortunes were accumulated; and the worry that great variations in income are somehow bad for society. As far as I can tell, the first is mistaken, the second outdated, and the third empirically false. Could it be that, in a modern democracy, variation in income is actually a sign of health?
I think the argument he gives is pretty convincing.

There is one bit I’d make a -- relatively minor -- criticism of, though. He considers whether it’s unjust that certain kinds of work are underpaid. And though this question is phrased about work in general, his response is really only about work whose pay-level is determined by free-markets, and he doesn't make it very clear that he’s not really answering the general question. There's work like doing basic research, where the pay-level isn't, as far as I can see, determined by free-markets.

The bit in question is
When we say that one kind of work is overpaid and another underpaid, what are we really saying? In a free market, prices are determined by what buyers want. People like baseball more than poetry, so baseball players make more than poets. To say that a certain kind of work is underpaid is thus identical with saying that people want the wrong things.

Well, of course people want the wrong things. It seems odd to be surprised by that. And it seems even odder to say that it's unjust that certain kinds of work are underpaid. [7]
where that note 7 says:
One of the biggest divergences between the Daddy Model and reality is the valuation of hard work. In the Daddy Model, hard work is in itself deserving. In reality, wealth is measured by what one delivers, not how much effort it costs. If I paint someone's house, the owner shouldn't pay me extra for doing it with a toothbrush.

It will seem to someone still implicitly operating on the Daddy Model that it is unfair when someone works hard and doesn't get paid much. To help clarify the matter, get rid of everyone else and put our worker on a desert island, hunting and gathering fruit. If he's bad at it he'll work very hard and not end up with much food. Is this unfair? Who is being unfair to him?
I think it would have been more reasonable to say something like:
Well, of course people want the wrong things. It seems odd to be surprised by that. And it seems even odder to say that it's unjust that certain kinds of work, whose pay-level is determined by free-markets, are underpaid.

Richard Dawkins on “I’m an athiest, BUT...”

Richard Dawkins comments on people saying “I’m an athiest, BUT...”

Scott Adams on Atheists in America since 9/11

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, writes: “Is it my imagination or have the atheists come out of the closet (in the United States) since 9/11?”.

Ads Exploiting Their Situation

Some pics of clever ads that exploit the situation they’re shown in. Like a manhole cover painted as a cup of coffee, where the steam rising from the cover makes it look like steam rising from the coffee.

Moderated Comments Stuffup

The comments for my blog used to be unmoderated - anyone could add a comment to a post and it would be added immediately. I'd get sent an email so I'd know this had happened.

At some point a few months ago I turned comment modertation on. I've still been expecting to receive emails whenever someone tried to add a comment, but I've recently realised that it hasn't been doing this.

So I've been thinking that no one has been adding any comments, even though they have - it's just that with the way I've had it set up, I have to go to the 'Moderate Comments' link on my blog's dashboard to see if any comments have been made, and vet them there before they'll appear on the blog (and before I'll be sent an email about them).

So apologies to Ricky and somebody called Dave, whose comments haven't appeared.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Scientist gets award for simulation of E.coli chemotaxis

BBC News reports that Dr Dennis Bray from the University of Cambridge was given the European Science Award for his innovative computer simulations of the bacterium [E.coli]. The simulations are of the chemotaxis systems that "allow bacteria to respond to environmental changes". It "enables bacteria to smell and swim towards sources of food"

There's a few comments in the article about the utility of computational models

"Today, computational sciences are of primary importance in all areas of science," said Professor Edouard Brezin, president of the Academie des Sciences.

"Together with experiment, computer models are now able to provide information which would not be accessible otherwise."

"It's got to the point where you can't progress without it," Dr Bray said. "We're just drowning in data."

"Any little corner of a living cell is just full of complicated machinery and molecules," said Dr Bray.

"There's just no way that one person thinking about it, can work it all out"

Bacterial chemotaxis provides an ideal platform to test computer models because it is one of the few systems where all of the individual components that influence cell behaviour are known.

Hence, discrepancies between what the scientists see in biological experiments and what they see in the simulations allows them to test the models. If there is a mismatch it suggests the model is incorrect and needs to be refined.

These anomalies can also lead to discoveries about the biological system itself.

When the computer simulations reach a point where they mimic an organism accurately, Dr Bray believes they could be used as experimental objects in their own right, rather than using a biological organism.
It's interesting to note, from the point of view of my PhD, the bit above saying that bacterial chemotaxis is "is one of the few systems where all of the individual components that influence cell behaviour are known." It may be a useful source of concrete data for some of the things I'm considering.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Why modern times are probably less materialistic


One of the most common complaints against the modern world is that we’re too materialistic. People look fondly at the past, when people’s lives were less materialistic, and more meaningful.

But I want to consider whether this is actually true. It may sound crazy, but could it be true that people in the past were more materialistic than we are today?

It certainly seems that we do have more ‘stuff’ these days, that we devote more of our time to obtaining it, and that we often seek to make our lives better and feel satisfied by obtaining things.

I want to start by considering that perhaps the reason that we, today, have more material trappings, and reach for them to satisfy ourselves, is simply because, in today's world, we can.

Times were hard in the past, and there simply wasn’t the access to material things like there is today. Surely if people had had the opportunity to have these things, they would have jumped at the chance to have them. To indulge their hunger, to make things more convenient, to have nicer clothes and nicer things. To get easy entertainment.

In a way, their lives had more meaningful elements because they were limited to those options. Given the opportunity, I bet they would have thrown them away, like we have. It's not that they were necessarily more enlightened.

In fact, I think we're probably more enlightened today, because we've had the opportunity to experience 'material fulfillment', and had the opportunity to see it's limitations. It's because we're enlightened about it that we complain so much about its limitations.

Think of a kid whose parents never let them eat ice-cream. When they move out of home and finally have that opportunity to eat as much ice-cream as they want, they gorge themselves on it. And it's nice. But it does have it's downsides, and it doesn't provide a particularly deep sense of satisfaction. Over time they'll probably learn this.

So what I'm saying is that it seems we've moved on, somewhat, from where we were before we had the opportunity to fulfill our material desires. And from this viewpoint we have the opporutnity to try and do something about it. So we can try and build social institutions/conventions/whatever that do provide 'deeper' things.