Archive for April, 2009

…but I want to be a poet.

April 25, 2009

A friend thought I should copyright this statment. Not sure it’s a quotable quote but I thought I’d put it out there anyway. If it does become popular you saw it here first 🙂 Let me know if there’s already something similar out there.

An expectation fulfilled can never beat the same experience unexpected.


That’s just too much to conceive!

April 3, 2009

Humanity seems to have a fear of big numbers. Here are a couple of examples. The first time programmers see a software respository system and find out that the system can quite easily store a copy of every modification they’ve ever made to a program without running out of space. Seeing the pyramids and not believing that it’s possible for this to be made using human labour. Not believing that every image on the internet could be labelled accurately by only a few people in the world in a matter of months without paying them. Finding it amazing that google can search for your results on every web page on the internet in split seconds. Not believing that every species on the planet can evolve from mutation and repeating the process multiple generations. Folding a piece of paper 70 times over will take us out of our solar system a number of times over.

I’ll add more examples to the list later, but the common thread here is that each example involves a quantity that it’s difficult for the human mind to take in at once. It becomes, just a inconceivable number. It’s possible to know that one number is bigger than another on paper, but when confronted with it in front of us, the mind just boggles. So our intuition tells us unfortunately that it’s not possible, but scientific enquiry and particular mathematics often tells us that it is.

The moral here is: Don’t be scared of big numbers! Don’t trust your intuition, find a formula.

Learning to live as inferior

April 3, 2009

In today’s world we’ve successfully (more or less) learned to live with people that are different. Different skin colour, different culture, different language, different religion. The challenge that humanity still struggles with is to live with people that are superior. Even the words superior and inferior most readers of this entry will dislike, because they read into it something more fundamental. The fact of the matter is many of our neighbours are better looking, better spoken, better educated and wealthier than we are. Usually to varying degrees, but occasionally the whole shabang and let’s throw in better sense of humour just for good measure.

Trying to be egalitarian about it does not go to the heart of the problem. It’s easiest to try and tax the wealthier because they have the most tangible assets that can be redistributed. But really the problem is not in the world. The problem is in us. We should be working on ourselves to “not and let this bother us”. We should be comfortable enough in our own skins that we don’t mind that others are better, and if possible if the quality is attainable, then we should endeavour to attain it. Some things aren’t attainable, but then part of being an adult is the maturity to live with this. To shy away to remote regions where this “isn’t in your face” is a hack and really means that you haven’t learned the skills to really not give a damn.

..will probably expand this a little later.


April 2, 2009

Seems to me that lots of people confuse poverty with overpopulation. They are related, but just because you see lots of people in poverty doesn’t necessarily mean that there are too many people in the world. Poverty has been successfully tackled in lots of countries by education, the market and infrastructure (neither of which is really possible without good governance and the rule of law). Just look at the transformation of South Korea over a 40 year period, and even the transformation of China even despite not being democratic. Actually China now faces an obesity problem and only 8% of children are underweight and I bet this figure is dropping.

To assume though, that poverty is caused by too many people that the earth can’t cope and that we’re headed for a malthusian disaster (although the actual works of Thomas Malthus may not be so extreme), you have to have a model that predicts this. I’m writing this specifically with respect to agriculture. Here’s at least one theory which predicts something different by Ester Boserup. There are indeed some clever people that do believe in this catastrophe and are worth reading but as with any complex problem determining policy before a consensus of a science (which requires a model back by strong evidence, both passed data and it’s ability to predict) is a bad idea. Actually I don’t really have to say much more on this, as it’s said by following the criticism section on the Malthusian Catastrophe page. Happy reading.

Additionally in response to the comments on the page. What I haven’t addressed so far is

  1. the fear that more people mean exponentially higher costs.
  2. the fear that more people means less opportunity (aside from agriculture), jobs, housing. Also sited parking.
  3. A fear that the absolute numbers are just too big.
  4. Not recognizing that with wealth comes population decline.
  5. An irritation at having to share the planet with other people.

Well (1) is definitely false. The whole point about production is that it works because of the phenomenon known as economies of scale. Can you think of a single product we consume that as they produce more of it the generic product has become more expensive (where branding and patents aren’t involved)? I can’t. As my dad would point out this process applies to the plant and not to the firm, as when then plant gets too big, you either invent new tech or just create another one. So the firm has no theoretical maximum size. This applies to activities like governments collecting of taxes. I’m willing to bet that with a little more digging I’d find data to show that as population increases income tax lowers (although comparing income tax formulas are difficult) in countries without socialist agendas.

No (2) is also not rational with everything except space. Again my dad would say that if there were a finite number of jobs in the cities then as cities grew, everyone would move out to the countyside. This empirically isn’t the case. People move to cities to find work, and the more they move to the cities, the more work there is. This isn’t just true in Cape Town, but in the biggest cities in the world (London, New York etc). It is true that as more space is taken up the value goes up. However the amount of the earths surface where this has reached some kind of equilibrium saturation point is tiny. In each of the major cities we’re talking Manhattan in New York, Inner tokyo, Zone 1 in London etc. Yes this would affect things like parking space too, the challenge in big cities is to create public transport systems to cater.

Regarding (3): I’m sure that some of the models describing how many people will actually be in the world in the future are correct. But I don’t care. Human beings naturally have a fear of big numbers even when they are legitimately sustainable.

The good news (4) is that as people get wealthier, even the potential threat of of overpopulation becomes a mute point. So really the only issue is actually tackling poverty.

The issues raised in (5) I don’t have any time for. The issues to do with sharing the world are the same with 2 trillion as they are with 2. This is a human nature issue.

The bottom line for me is that if one really feels that overpopulation is a legitimate threat, then I think one should be supporting policies like China’s One Child policy as when we’re faced with threats to humanity, civil liberties need to be suspended for the good of the group, just as in war time. Although I’m in favour of family planning because of quality of life arguments (don’t have more children than you can support) I think that China’s solution is a disgusting infringement on the liberties of the individual and because I don’t believe that overpopulation is actually a threat.

Hello world!

April 2, 2009

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