Thursday, 30 August 2012

Holiday Reading

Today I set aside my chosen reading material for a few hours in favour of a novel I picked off a bookshelf in the villa - Firefight, by Chris Ryan.  (I like to expand my cultural horizons from time to time.)  It's about a former SAS Captain undertaking a covert mission in Afghanistan and London: the dialogue's rather clunky but the plot moves along briskly.  And the hero displays a welcome revulsion against torture.  People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like, as Abraham Lincoln probably did not say.

However.  The prologue features a "young Pakistani student in Rome", who speaks English better than Italian, and uses it because it's "more widely understood than his native Arabic".  Pakistani muslims will know some Arabic from studying Islam, but their native language will be Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Urdu, or some other Indo-Iranian tongue.  Much later, the hero flies back from his mission in Afghanistan, and realises that something is wrong when he wakes up on the plane and realises that they should have landed in Oxfordshire hours earlier.  This turns out to be because they've been redirected to Poland.  Which is not very far east of a straight line route from Afghanistan to England.  How could an SAS operative, his editor, and the rest of the publishing team he acknowledges not know this?

Much more memorably, I've read The Rodwell Files.  If you're a bridge player with an interest in advanced card play, I strongly recommend it.

If I can't tempt you to that, you might try The Universe in Zero Words, a readable and not unduly technical history of various important equations. The author seems more at home in a couple of places with the maths than the physics, and in particular understates the genius of Maxwell's equations and their prediction of electro-magnetic radiation (which I miss no opportunity to emphasize). But the book is an excellent idea very well executed. If you read and understand it but learn nothing, you should have written it yourself.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On giving and taking offence

In another forum, I made some cutting remarks about Todd Akin, with respect to his neanderthal views on rape.  Another commentator chided me for my rudeness, and I responded that I had no tolerance for Akin's "because he spouted offensive lies in order to minimize the consequences [of his opposition to abortion in all circumstances]".  The commentator rejoined that "there’s been quite enough offensive lies on behalf of the pro-choice side to balance out" with a footnote "If one wishes to be offended. Personally, I find lies irritating but often very instructive. Rarely offensive."

All of which set me thinking about my views on offensiveness.  I've long been aware of a conflict between my general view that no one has a right not to be offended, and my equally strongly held view that some things are too offensive to be said.  I hold for example that Salman Rushdie should write what he likes about the history of the Quran, but that racist remarks are usually unacceptable.

I think this is an instance in which personal feelings are instructive.  In common with the commentator I cited above, there are few things I fnd personally offensive.  But I recall once being told that someone had described me as a "Jew bastard" and feeling rather stung by it (ethnically I am mostly Jewish).  And latterly I have been aware that I would have no tolerance whatever to any sort of insult directed at my late wife (not that anyone has been so unkind as to offer any).  This is not a matter of wishing to be offended, it's being offended without the option.

I deduce that an insult is truly offensive if directed at someone's suffering, in a way that gives them no choice but to feel offended.  African slaves and their descendants are entitled to be offended by insults targetting their race: millionaire black footballers not so much.  Victims of the holocaust and their descendants are entitled to be offended by insults against Jews: 21st century millionaire Jewish bankers not so much.  Rape victims impregnated by their attackers: yes of course they're entitled to be offended by speculation that they weren't really raped.  There is no general right not to be offended, but there is a general obligation not to offend the unfortunate in respect of their misfortune.

I am opposed to laws making it an offense to use insulting words or behaviour - sporting bodies can reasonably seek to deter such insults, but the law of the land should take a loftier view.  But I am very much in favour of the electorate voting against candidates who give offense according to my definition.  If they do it on purpose, a pox on them, and if they do it unconsciously they are surely unfit to govern.

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Inefficiency of Free Markets

The small and faraway island of Imaginola is divided into two countries, Freeland and Episcopia.  Because of the local geography, each country has a single main road, with its population distributed evenly along it.  The population of each country is sufficient to support, among other services, two shoe shops.  All the shoe shops being excellent, the habit of the populace is to patronize the shop nearer to wear they live, except that if they find two shoe shops within sight of each other they will choose one in some idiosyncratic manner, which can be treated as random for the purposes of analysis.  The topic of this post is where we expect the shoe shops to be situated.

In Freeland, the shopkeepers choose freely where to put their shops, and naturally seek to maximize their custom.  The result is that the shops have converged to occupy nearby locations half way along the road.  Each shop gets half the custom, and shoppers have to travel on average a quarter of the length of the road to buy shoes.  Neither shop can move further away from the other without ceding some of its customers.

In Episcopia, government officials use fine control of the business rates system to encourage shopkeepers to position themselves where they can best serve the populace.  The result is that the two shoe shops there are to be found a quarter of the way along the road from each end.  Shoppers have to travel on average an eighth of the length of the road to buy shoes.

Whereas in Freeland the citizens congratulate themselves on the fine shopping experience afforded by its free markets, in Episcopia shopping is more convenient, the roads are less congested, and the citizens have more time for productive labour.  The economy is booming and there may be a need for a third shoe shop.  The interested reader can amuse herself working out where three shops will put themselves in Freeland (should it ever need them), and where the officials will encourage three shops to go in Episcopia.

I should mention that I have assumed that the start up costs (in shoe stocks and staffing) are sufficient that the shopkeepers in Freeland have no fear of a new store opening up, hoping to drive one of them out of business.  If that were a factor, the positioning of the shops would be different.

Monday, 6 August 2012

A law to stop poor people benefiting from good design

My attention has been drawn by a letter in The Times to clause 56 (formerly clause 55) of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.  This clause has the effect of "extending copyright protection for mass-produced artistic works to life of the creator plus 70 years" from the current term of 25 years.

The bill recently completed its committee stage, with only perfunctory discussion of the merits of this extension of Intellectual Property rights - the clause was supported by the Opposition.  It continues to disappoint me that left-wing parties fail to see that extensions to Intellectual Property laws act against the aims of Left Economics - they put all the emphasis on encouraging production of intellectual property, and none on its efficient use, which, for non-rivalrous goods, is achieved when everyone is free to enjoy it.

The clause enjoys the support of the Design Council, and Terence Conran in particular:
By protecting new designs more generously, we are encouraging more investment of time and talent in British design. That will lead to more manufacturing in Britain, and that in turn will lead to more jobs – which we desperately need right now. Properly protected design can help make the UK a profitable workshop again.
Well, it's true that extended IP rights ought to make designs somewhat more valuable.  But it's questionable whether that would increase employment of designers, since the ability to make large profits for a century or so on old designs would seem to reduce the incentive to create new ones.  Either way, it's unclear why there should be any effect on where manufacturing takes place, except perhaps that when IP rights allow high retail margins, manufacturing costs become less important.

On the other hand, bloggers are unimpressed: Francis Davy questions the government's description of the legal effect of the clause, and techdirt doubts that it will achieve its economic aims.

For me the most interesting discussion is in an obscure impact assessment by the government's Intellectual Property Office (the Commons Committee showed no sign of having read it).  It gives a list of manufacturers of classic design furniture "all based outside the UK" who are campaigning for the law to be changed, and notes "the extensive use of the internet importers of the UK as a staging post for EU wide sales" because UK law gives less protection than in most of the EU.  I suppose that this trade is of some economic benefit to the UK.  (The impact assessment says that the clause will "update and clarify UK legislation in line with EU law", but as the letter in The Times points out, the UK is under no obligation to harmonize its laws in this respect.)

The impact assessment finds that furniture is likely to be the product most affected by the change, and surveys prices for various classic furniture designs: typically the replica price is about 15% of the price from the original producer.  It concludes that buyers of the replicas would be highly unlikely to switch to buying the much more expensive authorized product if the replica were made unavailable; they would buy less attractive substitutes instead.  So the original producers are greatly overestimating the benefits to them of the clause.

Surprisingly enough, there's even a mention for Paul Heald's recent talk as discussed on techdirt, and in particular his data suggesting that copyright extension on books has had the effect of making them unavailable: perhaps there would be a similar effect with furniture designs.

The impact assessment goes on to speculate about some possible benefits of the clause, but one gets the impression that its author is unenthusiastic.  For my part, I cannot believe that it's in the public interest that one should have to pay thousands rather than hundreds of pounds for this chair.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Safer cycling

There's one single rule you should follow to reduce your chances of being killed on a bicycle.  Never, ever, get trapped on the inside of a bus or lorry in the left hand lane (in the UK).  If you're tempted to go up the inside, don't.  If you do anyway, make sure there's a pavement you can jump onto if the traffic starts moving.

Very sadly, a cyclist was killed yesterday by an olympic bus, because he didn't follow that rule.  Bradley Wiggins may or may not have recommended wearing a helmet, but that would have been irrelevant in this accident.

The BBC was better four weeks ago

The BBC "did very well" in Understanding Uncertainty's survey of reporting of the Higgs Boson announcement on 4th July.  Today it carries an online report of the stronger result in this paper, which it says "equates to a one-in-300 million chance that the Higgs does not exist".  No it doesn't.

Update: The BBC has now fixed its story.  But there's almost identical wrong wording in the Telegraph.