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Monday, March 21, 2005

Crowds v Experts

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, by James Surowiecki is based on work that the author did as a columnist for The New Yorker.

Many of Surowiceki's arguments seem counter-intuitive, but he cites a fair amount of evidence that the best decisions, on average, are always made by groups rather than individuals regardless of their expertise. In fact, he says: "... the more power you give a single individual in the face of complexity and uncertainty, the more likely it is that bad decisions will get made."
For the group decision-making process to work the best, several elements must be present.

1. A formal process for encouraging disagreement must be present;

2. The group must consist of stakeholders and non-stakeholders, i.e., people normally not part of the group should be present to make sure diversity of opinion is present. Diversity guarantees that multiple perspectives are brought into the decision-making process and that a broader range of information is included;

3. the group must belief and see that it has the responsibility for making decisions. If the decision is made elsewhere, the result is the opposite, i.e., bad results or at least not the best;

4. individuals be independent and have that independence respected to avoid being swayed by a leader or one powerful individual,

5. and there be a process for aggregating the opinions. It's important that pressure to conform be suppressed.

An intelligent group does not ask of its individual members to conform to the dominant view. Instead it creates a mechanism that resembles a democracy or a market. Individual group members get the opportunity to bring in their own information and opinions and are not forced to change their views. Their independence must be explicitly protected.

The first half, or so, of the book is theory (sounds dry, but it's really quite fascinating) followed by some case studies.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Virtues of Selfishness

Ayn Rand was not afraid of turning conventional wisdom on its head. For millennia, one of the few ethical principles that prevailed across cultures was the value of altruism, i.e. , giving up your life for the benefit of others. Rubbish, writes Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Rand was as anti-community and pro-individual as anyone I have ever read. Adamantly opposed to coercive state and religious power, she built a philosophy, Objectivism, on rational thinking and reason. She became too dogmatic and rigid for my taste in later years; nevertheless, she has some very interesting things to say.

"Every human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others and therefore, man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself." I find this statement profound in its implications; if it were to be adopted everywhere, wars would cease. It's only because we have bought into the principle of sacrificing oneself for the greater good that armies can survive, yet the reason is so others can accumulate or obtain what you should be able to.

In her philosophy, the happiness of the individual is paramount. Religious types will find her philosophy more than unsettling, because as an atheist, she values the present and current life above everything else. Whether you like her or not, several of the essays are well worth the time to read, particularly "Collectivized Rights" and "Man's Rights." One's gut response is to say that she has rejected charity and helping others. Not at all. It's just that helping others should not be at one's own expense, e.g., spending a fortune to cure one's wife of a disease because the wife is important to oneself would fit nicely into her worldview. Love is entirely selfish.

An important book no matter where you stand.

Maigret and DeKok

As a teenager in Switzerland, I discovered George Simenon's Maigret series. These police procedurals took place in Paris and featured the unflappable and compassionate Inspector (later Superintendent) Maigret, who had this wonderful relationship with his wife, enjoyed the requisite alcoholic moments in French bars and cafes, yet through his intimate knowledge of the community always solved the crime, no matter how bizarre. I read every Maigret I could find.

Several weeks ago, I stumbled on a reference to A.C. Baantjer, whose Inspector DeKok novels are wildly popular in the Netherlands. Most have been translated into English, but have gone out of print. I hopped on to Amazon and bought a couple for ridiculously low prices, e.g.,$1.50 and lower, read them, and have become an enthusiast. DeKok reminds me of Maigret. He tolerates, but understand the needs of his superiors, prefers the old methods, knows the community, patiently explains things to Vledder, his assistance, and intrepidly collects data until he has the solution. Like Maigret, he has his little peculiarities: a winning smile, felt hat, is always whistling Christmas carols off-key, and interminable patience.

In DeKok and the Dead Harlequin he is presented with a most peculiar situation: a note is delivered to him by an accountant, Pierre Brassel, who insist on meeting with him at exactly 8:00 a.m. on the following morning to discuss a murder he intends to commit. While at DeKok's office Brassel mentions that a man has been murdered at a nearby hotel. Sure enough, it is soon established that Jan Brets, a well-known burglar, had his head bashed in with a hockey stick while Brassel was talking with the inspector. DeKok is soon faced with a myriad of interlocking pieces to a puzzle that at first appears my be the perfect crime.

If you are looking for lots of guns and violence, these are not for you, but if you enjoy well-crafted police procedurals with human characters, they are perfect. Check your library or or

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Meanwhile we piss away billions in Iraq

Infrastructure Report Card 2005

I urge you to read this report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Far more scary than terrorism. The role of government is to build and maintain infrastructure and our government is failing us miserably.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Sara Paretsky's Heart-breaking Letter to her Grandmother

Paretsky, author of several P.I. novels, has an article in the latest issue of The Illinois Brief, a publication of the Illinois chapter of the ACLU (of which I am a proud member - only commies and America-haters don't belong to the ACLU.) She recalls the story of her grandmother who sailed past the Statue of Liberty as a child, fleeing Europe in 1911 from the threat of another pogrom. She recently finished a novel, Blacklist, that is set partially in the McCarthy Era, party "in the world of the Patriot Act." She receives all sorts of hate-mail still accuring her of support for terrorists.

In her short article she lists several incidents and comments from Europeans that make her reflect on freedom in the United States. I cite only a few. Read the article.

1. A man was arrested at St. Johns College in Santa Fe for making a negative comment about George Bush in a chat room. The staff of the college was placed under gag order preventing them from discussing the arrest.
2. A man in Germany remembers German support for the Nazis, a willingness to die for a cause that had plunged their nation into a ruinous war and destroyed its economy.
3. The US consul in Frankfurt Germany, site of a large US hospital, reported that from seventy-five to one hundred twenty casualties are flown in from Iraq every day, but the press is prohibited from filming wounded or coffins.
4. When George Bush spoke at Ohio State's commencement in 2002, protesters were threatened with expulsion (shades of LBJ and Vietnam.)
5. A library patron in Morristown, NJ was arrested for looking at foreign language pages on the web. He was held incommunicado for three days without being charged or allowed to call anyone.

The Joys of Naval Fiction

I stumbled across James Pattinson several weeks ago, ordered a bunch of his book from through interlibrary loan and have been reading his naval-oriented titles. He served as a ship's gunner on merchant ships during World War Two so his narratives ring true. They are quite good stories. Perhaps my favorite is The Silent Voyage. Two friends, Brett, representing his father's lumber interests, and Grill, a seaman who had known Brett as a child, find themselves on an old freighter bound for Russia. (The story takes place in the early fifties, so the Cold War plays a prominent role in the story.)

Their ship is sliced in half by a Russian ship in the midst of a fog bank, and Brett and Grill who had been forward on the bow at the time of the accident are the only survivors, scrambling up rope ladders thrown over the side by Russian sailors. The captain is hospitable but refuses to put them ashore and claims their radio has malfunctioned. They are not restricted in any way except during a puzzling rendezvous with another ship in mid-ocean and from asking about the material on deck.

They find themselves soon near the Antarctic, the ship slipping into a hidden deep water bay where they see numerous Russian subs. They had been run down by a Russian sub supply ship and now possess knowledge of a secret Soviet base.

Labels, Schmabels

Plus ca change. Two very interesting articles surfaced in the last couple of weeks. The first, by Franklin Foer, entitled "The Joy of Federalism", appeared in the New York Times Book Review. Foer argues that the Democrats have everything to gain by returning to their southern states-rights roots and to become the party of "federalism." He argues that Democrats have long been skeptical of distant bureaucracies and have celebrated local experimentation.

Historically, the nemesis of liberal federalism was Herbert Croly whose bete-noire was Thomas Jefferson, "a man of intellectual superficiality and insincerity." Croly became a staunch advocate of a strong central government and that centralization as opposed to Jefferson's bucolic inefficiency should be the mantra for the twentieth century. He argued against the nostalgia associated with old state governments. Foer argues that the progressive movement bypassed national consensus for which there was little on national capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century, just as there is little national consensus today on gay-marriage. They did this by going to the states which would serve as their laboratories to develop hard data., or "laboratories of democracy."

It is ironic, at least for me, that Foer cites many of the movements from the sixties as exemplifying an aversion to bigness and the "managerial liberalism" that had flourished under both Roosevelts. The Port Huron statement of S.D.S. celebrated the communitarian spirit which was in many ways confused with the old states-rights doctrines.

Steve Chapman, in several articles (link, link) takes the argument even further to note that the labels have become inverted: we now have a Republican party that has been trying to increase the power of the national government, an education program that removes local control of the schools and places it in Washington with No Child Left Behind, an attorney General's office that wants to insist that states apply the death penalty, and in general a national centralized, big government that runs things. Now the Democrats are looking to the states, something that we Civil Rights activists of the sixties found anathema because it supported segregation. It certainly would be ironic if Democrats adopted Barry Goldwater and Strom Thurmond as far-sighted icons of liberal federalism.

What it boils down to me is that the labels and philosophies have become irrelevant; that the party out of power will always was a smaller federal government while the party in power seeks to consolidate its base by controlling everything. The answer, as always, is going to have to be looking at issues on the merits and not to vote by party affiliation. Maybe Freeport (IL) has long had it right when, in the twenties , voters eliminated the national party labels in mayoral elections.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Devil in the White City

Erik Larson has written several books of note including Lethal Passage and Isaac's Storm (great web site with movies of the storm's damage), both of which I enjoyed; so I was prepared to find his intermingling of the travails of building the Chicago World's Fair with the murderous shenanigans of Holmes to be equally fascinating. I was not disappointed.

This book is filled with fascinating detail, such as how the first enormous Ferris wheel came to be designed and built, the problems they had with Chicago area soils, the political machinations and compromises required to get anything done as well as the intense competition to beat out Eiffel's famous tower. The most striking element is the contrast between Daniel Burnham, architect of the fair, and H.H. Holmes, one of the suavest serial killers I've ever read about. Holmes was charming and could cajole even the most persistent creditor out of building. He was a woman magnet, married several, and just murdered them or anyone else who caused him any inconvenience. Holmes built his own crematorium in a hotel he owned and used the intense activity of the 1893 fair to cover many of his nefarious activities. The contrast between the builder (Burnham) and the destroyer (Holmes) is set out in stark relief. They were similar in many respects, using their exceptional people skills and drive to accomplish their ends and desires.

Larson is an engaging storyteller. His writing should not be missed.

Bush, Competition and Privatization

Once again the Bush administration seeks to eliminate Amtrak. We have such a schizophrenic attitude toward the role of government, mixing myth and greed, and leading to a mish-mash of muddle-headed proposals. Aside from the fact that the amount of money Amtrak has asked for ($1.8 billion) is trivial compared to the daily cost of fueling the war in Iraq, Bush, who I suspect has never had to take public transportation in his life) has no plan other than to throw it away. I start with the following assumptions:

1. The role of government is to support infrastructure.
2. Competition is good, and the more competition the better.
3. Big does not equal more efficient.
4. Companies that cannot compete should be allowed to fold.

The British rail system is often cited as an example of how privatization of rail works well, but the supporters of the idea fail to recognize that the government owns and maintains the rail system. Much like that great monument to Republican government intervention, the interstate highway system, a piece of infrastructure, no one would suggest privatizing, the British government maintains the rights of way, signal system, and rails. Companies are then permitted to use the infrastructure to compete. I think that makes a lot of sense. Then the Union Pacific, a company that has become so large and inefficient while wallowing in hubris, could have some true competition and wouldn't be turning away business. (see Trains)

While I enjoy flying and riding Amtrak (forget Greyhound) a little competition would do them good., but there is no way they can compete without a level playing field and antagonism from the freight lines who mostly fail to understand that Amtrak is a customer, too.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Follow the Money

The subtle factors behind decisions that are made during wartime are often hidden even though they may have a substantial impact on many lives. Richard Woodman, in The Real Cruel Sea, describes the economic disincentive to form convoys of ships during World War I, even though there was substantial evidence that more ships were saved through this method. Ship owners were against the plan because ever since the introduction of the steam engine, they were no longer at the mercy of the wind and could sail on a regular schedule. Anything that might interfere with regular sailings would have an impact on their profits. Naval aficionados disliked the idea of using naval forces in a defensive manner. It was somehow less manly. But the most scurilous reason was that investors reaped enormous benefits from having a ship sunk. Since the government requisitioned the ships for war support, it would indeminify the ship investors should the ship be torpedoed. Even with an Excess Profits Tax, Mr. Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1917 described the substantial profits he made following liquidation of a ship. Meanwhile, the poor seaman had his wages stopped the minute the ship went down.

Follow the money, a Watergate dictum that we might wish to observe as more and more funding goes to Iraq.

The Company We Keep

The United States Supreme Court has finally abolished the death penalty for juveniles. Until recently, only the United States, Iran, Somalia, the Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Yemen and Nigeria. Most countries have abolished the death penalty leaving only the self-professed Christian country, the United States and Somalia executing juveniles. That disparity was finally eliminated.