Saturday, December 09, 2017

Did the Death of Copyright Hurt Anyone?

Intellectual property in digital form is easy to copy and easy to share, which makes enforcing copyright law against it difficult, often in practice impossible. Thus the shift of Intellectual Property—music, books, movies—to digital makes it much more difficult for copyright law to serve its traditional purpose of providing an incentive to create by rewarding the creators. The obvious conclusion is that creators of intellectual property should now be much worse off than before and much less, or lower quality, work should be being created.

The question, to which I do not know the answer, is whether it actually happened. My casual impression is that books are as good as they were ten or twenty years ago. I consume almost no music and almost no video, so cannot judge their quality–do others think it has declined? 

The other half of the question is the effect on producers. Have musicians gotten poorer? Do movie companies make less money than they used to? Are there fewer professional authors supporting themselves by their writing? 

If the answer to all of these questions is "no," that casts serious doubt on the conventional interpretation of the function and importance of copyright law.

For any graduate student in economics who is looking for a thesis topic, I suggest that trying to find an answer to that question and then an explanation for that answer would be a project worth pursuing.

How to Make Cherry Coke Zero

I consume a lot of soda, mostly Coke Zero or Diet Coke–enough so that I buy it in two liter bottles. I enjoy sometimes switching to the cherry version of the drink for variety. Unfortunately, Cherry Coke Zero is not available in two liter bottles in this part of the country. 

I have found a solution to this problem and am posting it here for the benefit of anyone else in a similar situation. 

Iranian restaurants offer a sour cherry drink as one of the options on the menu. I like it and my daughter likes it, so on a recent visit to our local Iranian grocery store I bought a bottle of the syrup that it is made with. 

Add a dash of that to a glass of Coke Zero and you have a do-it-yourself Cherry Coke Zero.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Friending on Facebook

I get quite a lot of friend requests on Facebook, most of which I decline. I thought it would be worth explaining why here, in the hope that some of the people who want to friend me also read my blog.

All of my FB posts are public, open to everyone. So the only effect of friending someone is that I get to see his posts--some at random, if I correctly understand how FB works, some because they mention me or have some other content that makes FB flag them for my attention.

When I get a friend request, I look at the requester's page to see if there is a particular reason why I would want to see his posts and the comments on them. If they are in a language other than English I almost always decline, since I am not fluent in any other language and so would rarely make the effort to read them. Google translate is getting better, but still not good enough for routine use. If the posts and comments are in English, I look at them to see if there is anything that makes them more interesting than the average of what I am already seeing on FB. If not I usually decline. 

I'm not entirely comfortable with this policy since I worry that people will interpret my declining their request as an unfriendly response, but I don't see much point to accumulating hundreds or thousands of "friends" whose posts I don't actually read.

Is a Complete Sex Change Operation Possible?

In one of Lois Bujold's books, a character is changed from female to male via a high tech medical procedure. In Karl Gallagher's Torchship series, sex change operations are treated as routine options–one minor character has changed f to m in order to be physically qualified for a preferred military role and plans to change back later.

That raises an interesting question. Altering the physical structure of the body looks like something that should be practical with the medical technology we can expect to have sometime in the next century. But a complete change should include a change at the genetic level, from XX to XY or the reverse, and Bujold makes that explicit in her story.

This raises two questions. One is whether the change could be made. I think the answer is pretty clearly yes, given a sufficiently advanced technology. One could, after all, have nanotech cell repair machines, very small robot submarines, that go through the body altering every cell.

The more interesting question is to what degree the result would still be the same person. The Y chromosome contains lots of genes in addition to the gene SRY that determines testes development. So replacing an X with a Y or a Y with an X would change a lot of the individual's genetic code. 

Could the problem be avoided by copying all of the genes not relevant to sex determination from the existing Y to the new X? Possibly. But it will not work the other way because the X is much larger than the Y; there is not room on the Y for all the genes from the X. 

Alternatively, is it an issue that doesn't matter because all the relevant determination of the organism by the genes has already happened in the adult? I don't know the answer.

Comments welcome, ideally by people who know more about this stuff than I do.

Incidentally, Gallagher's Torchship series is very good--I have now reread it twice. In addition to being a good action story, it raises issues that I have seen discussed at length in non-fiction contexts, including hostile artificial intelligence and problems with a society where everyone gets a basic income. Particularly impressive for a new author, which I believe Gallagher is.

P.S. My wife, who remembers books much better than I do, points out that in Bujold's A Civil Campaign the sex change operation only results in the male genitals being XY, leaving all other cells XX. The text implies that a complete conversion was possible but would take longer than was available and "the complications can be strange."

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

My Visit to Brazil

I got home very early this morning from a two week speaking trip in Brazil. I recorded four of the talks and they are now webbed, along with powerpoints and a video of one talk that someone else recorded. My talk in Rio was live streamed but I have not yet figured out where on the web it is.

A few observations:

The libertarian movement in Brazil–they prefer "liberal"–is very active and quite young. Most of the people at my talks appeared to be college age and at least one was a high school student. I believe my largest talk had an audience of about six hundred; several others were around two hundred. 

Part of the reason it is so active may be that the present state of Brazil is very far from libertarian and a lot of Brazilians are unhappy with it. As one striking example of just how bad things are, I was told that getting a drivers license  requires two hundred hours of lessons–eighty hours before taking the written exam, an additional hundred and twenty hours before taking the driving exam. That is an enormous deadweight loss, presumably existing to provide employment to the people authorized to teach the classes.

Brazilians don't sleep. At least, they see nothing add about expecting a visiting speaker to be at dinner until near midnight then up by six or so to catch a plane to the location of his next talk. In at least one case most of the Brazilians, after dinner, were off to further socializing, a nightclub or equivalent. To their credit, once made aware of their visitor's odd requirements they were willing to accommodate them.

I have often noticed that hotel people seem to believe I am unable to carry my own suitcase, despite the fact that I managed to get it to the hotel. In the past I interpreted this as a tactic designed to extract a tip. But tipping does not seem to be expected in Brazil, and I (and my daughter, traveling with me) still had to make a considerable effort to be allowed to bring our own things up to our hotel room. My current conjecture is that carrying a guest's bags serves as a way in which a hotel signals the high status of the guest.

In countries notably poorer than the U.S. I expect locally produced goods, such as restaurant food, to be inexpensive. That was not the case in Brazil. Part of the explanation seems to be a high level of tax on consumption. I was told that about half the price of what you buy is tax.

It was an enjoyable trip, with lots of friendly and helpful people and only a tolerable level of chaos.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

North Korea and Munich

The solution to the present problem of North Korea seems obvious–we should have invaded them a little more than a decade ago, just before they developed nuclear weapons. It looks like the modern version of the lesson of Munich: Britain and France should have opposed Hitler early, when he was still weak, instead of going along with the annexation of the Sudetenland. More generally, it is the argument for a foreign policy of figuring out early who are going to be your enemies and opposing them before they get strong enough to be dangerous.

That argument assumes that your nation not only will have an interventionist foreign policy, it will do it right. The U.S. has an interventionist foreign policy, as demonstrated in, among other places, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It had one in 2006. It did not do anything serious to prevent North Korea from obtaining the ability to drop a nuclear weapon on the U.S. because the cost of invading North Korea would have been large and immediate, the cost of not doing it more than two elections away. The benefits of an interventionist foreign policy conducted by a government no more competent at it than ours is are much less than the Munich argument implies. 

The costs are much greater. Modern U.S. history provides several striking examples, but I prefer a less familiar one.

A while back, rereading the first volume of Churchill's history of the Second World War, I discovered something interesting. The first time that Hitler attempted to annex Austria he was stopped not by France or Britain but by Italy. Mussolini announced that Italy would not tolerate a German annexation of Austria and made his point by moving Italian divisions into the Brenner pass. Hitler backed down.

What changed? When Italy invaded Abyssinia, England and France announced that that was a very wicked thing to do and took token actions against Italy for doing it. Mussolini concluded that Italy's World War One allies were not his friends and were not very dangerous enemies. The next time Hitler wanted to annex Austria, Mussolini raised no objection.

In Churchill's view, the correct response of the Allies to the Abyssinian invasion was either to forcibly prevent it or to ignore it. The first would have brought down Mussolini's government, the second would have retained him as an ally. Either a non-interventionist policy or a competent interventionist policy would have worked. The incompetent interventionist policy they actually followed gave Hitler his one significant ally.

What, in the absence of a time machine, can now be done about North Korea? The U.S. could, the President hints that it might, launch a full scale attack, probably nuclear as well as conventional. At this point that might not cost very many American civilian lives, since North Korea probably does not yet have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the U.S. mainland, although it soon will. It would result in a very large number of civilian deaths in South Korea and possibly Japan. And in North Korea. It might happen, but I do not think it is likely to. Or should.

The alternative is to recognize that we are back in the world of mutually assured destruction, this time, fortunately, with a weaker opponent. Technological progress has made it possible for a relatively poor country to build intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear, perhaps thermonuclear, warheads. We are, however, enormously richer than North Korea--our GDP is more than six hundred times theirs--and considerably more advanced. The strategy that suggests is the one Reagan adopted for dealing with the Soviet Union, a competition in defensive weapons that they could not afford to win. I do not know enough about the current status of anti-missile technology to judge how workable that is, but I do not see any better alternatives.

Keynes on Newton--and some ideas for fantasy.

I have just come across a fascinating piece, a lecture on Newton by Keynes, delivered posthumously by Keynes' brother and largely based on Newton's unpublished papers, apparently totaling about a million words. The central thesis is that Newton's "unscientific" work was just as careful and logical as his scientific work, that he approached alchemy and theology in the same way he approached physics and mathematics. In each case he was trying to make sense of the world by the power of his mind.

Which suggests an interesting idea for a fantasy–I don't know if it has been done. Suppose Newton was right in his exotic work as in his invention of modern physics. In one possible version he is still around, having discovered the alchemical secret of eternal life and faked his own death. In another, a modern scholar reads through the whole body of unpublished work, correctly works out the magical secrets that it contains and that he concealed, and makes use of them.

And in a third, alternate history, version, Newton's friends fail to pull him away from Cambridge into the conventional world of parliament, civil service, and society. He spends the second half of his life as he spent the first, produces breakthroughs in the Hermetic sciences as great as in the natural sciences, and history forks.