“Sum” and “Other people”

Several weeks ago Neil Denny did an interview for little atoms with David Eagleman.
And as usual with little atoms, my reading list increased, with even more books on the stack around my room. Although they mainly discussed his book “incognito” (still on the stack), I was especially intrigued by the short mention of “sum”, a collection of short stories about the afterlife. It finally arrived yesterday (the disadvantage of ordering the hardcopy first edition – but what else should a partial bibliophilic do?) and I read through it today in one session.

The ideas in the book are simply amazing: if you accept the idea that there might be an afterlife, what would it look like? We are of course not talking about the simple “Paradise with … and few hundred virgins” propagated by most religions. But what if reincarnation is a continuous way down, with each return being on a lower level (“descent of species”)? Or if Douglas Adams was wrong and we are not products of a superior intelligent race, but rather of a group of much more stupid people, who just wanted to find the meaning of life, the universe and everything (“Spirals”)?

So just buy the book, read it and enjoy yourself. And maybe you find another possibility of the afterlife and become a possibilian.

When reading sum, I was reminded of a short story by Neil Gaiman, in his book “Fragile Things”, which was probably the best description of hell, that I ever heard. As I did not find the text on the web, and I will not urge you to buy two books today (although you might do – Fragile Things is also an excellent read), I found a video of Gaiman himself reading the story.
Just listen and enjoy:

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Selfish reasons to have more kids

Last week I finished reading Bryan Caplan‘s new book “selfish reasons to have more kids” right in time before Russ Roberts discussed the book in this week’s econtalk.

Caplan takes a skeptical look at the tendency of today’s parents to ruin their own lives hoping that this might improve the future of their kids. In his book he reviews and evaluates the current literature on the nature/nurture question, especially twin- and adoption studies. And the results are often surprising.
The short conclusion of the book is, that parenting has a lot less long-term influence than you think and that it might be better to just enjoy your time with the kids, than to force them to activities that neither you nor your kids will enjoy.

In addition to an extensive literature review, Caplan also offers some interesting insight from the economists point of view. While researchers in the nature/nurture discussion often look at the facts and then decide, that there is no or little long term influence of the parents, Caplan takes a step back and asks “what if there is an influence, but it is equally likely to be positive or negative”. In other words, half of the kids stick to their parents advice and half of them rebel and do the exact opposite. This would not show up in the aggregate data. But when you consider your actions as a parent, you either have no influence or you run a serious risk of making things worse. Both cases aren’t desired outcomes, if you invest a lot of time in your child’s upbringing.
I also liked his emphasis on the point, that you are not only raising your kids, but also your future grandchildren, and that you should consider this long term consequence, when you are thinking about having a second (or third) child.

There are some points that I do not agree with, especially how he discards the limited nature of the earth’s resources and advocates more kids to solve a lot of problems. While I think that the predictions of the Club of Rome are probably exaggerated, the monetary prize of many resources currently does not account for scarcity due to political influences: I recently heard (I think in the economist, but I can not find the link at the moment) that current oil price does not include the value of the price of oil in the ground, but is simply based on the extraction cost. So the Arab leaders treat the oil like either an unlimited asset or more likely threat it as a common good leading to the tragedy of the commons. And having more kids will not adjust for this scarcity.

Despite these minor flaws I think, “selfish reasons to have more kids” is a great read for parent or those who ponder about having kids, even if you do not agree with Caplan’s political views.

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A thread for the future – not only for fashion aficionados

I just watched this TED talk by Fiorenzo Omenetto about the amazing qualities of silk:

Especially the section where he talked about timed degradation of the material made me think. If this works out as presented (and basic research always has to be taken with a pinch of salt), it has great implications for medicine.
In fields like psychiatry, constant delivery of medication is an important part of treatment. But especially schizophrenic or bipolar (manic-depressive) patients often have problems adhering to their medication scheme. When they are in a stable phase, they see the need for the medication and are willing to take it. But once they start forgetting the medication a few times (and adhering to a scheme with several tablets a day is difficult, even if you are not psychotic), the condition deteriorates. This makes the patient even less compliant and soon they are in a downward spiral, usually ending up on the psychiatric emergency ward.
So a method to implant a biodegradable film, loaded with the required dose for several days or weeks might help the patients stick to their medication and might stabilize them over the long term. Which in turn helps the patients to cope with their disease and saves great costs to society.

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The virtual choir

Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir is an impressive project linking more than 2000 singers from all over the world. But their actual recording of the song “sleep” also shows the limitations of a choir that is only connected by virtual means and though the conductor.
If you ever sang in a decent choir, you know that the conductor has an important role guiding the singers. But the self-organization of the choir is equally important, especially for subtle changes in timing, timbre and colour of sound.

Comparing the recording of sleep by the virtual choir on youtube to recordings by professional choirs on either Eric Whitacre’s new CD “light and gold” or the recording by Noel Edison and the Elora Festival Singers one can immediately notice the difference in choral technique: Especially in the last verse, the internet choir has the consonants spread all over the place with a lot of hissing sounds around each “s” and a small battery of plops at each “t”. In contrast, the Eric Whitacre Singers almost perfectly synchronize their pronunciation (a pedantic brainfisch could still find some minor problems), while the Elora Festival Singers sometimes are perfectly on time, and sometimes use extremely good cheating techniques – with only some singer actually pronouncing the consonants sharply and some pronouncing them very softly.

I do not want to be derogative to the internet singers, the project is really beautiful and sent shivers down my spine when I first heard it. But there are simply limitations to the amount of harmony you can achieve over a virtual communication, compared to standing next to each other for hours and hours during endless rehearsals. This is also the reason, why a lot of modern conductors mix the different voices in the choir, instead of having sopranos, altos, tenors and basses standing each in one block: you simply improve the coordination in the choir, when everybody is listening to each other, at least in a choir where each singer does not depend on his neighbours to find the right note and keep the pitch.

So in conclusion, until we have major improvements in communication technology (I want my Holodeck NOW) the internet can only partially replace personal contact. But we are working on it.

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Raay-Stones and monetary history

In this weeks Skeptics Guide to the Universe Rebecca Watson mentioned a tribe using large stones being used as money – these are called the Rai-Stones (or Raay-Stones) from the island of Yap.

While listening I was reminded of an old article in the February 2001 edition of the German magazine “mare”, by two reporters travelling to Yap, telling the history of these Raay-Stones. Unfortunately the article is in German and only available in the print version, so I try to summarize the most interesting findings – but if you want to read the whole article, the magazine is always worth a try, and the pictures are simply amazing.
One short note to the readers: there is a Wikipedia article on the Rai, but I rely on the facts reported in the magazine, as they are less covered in the net.

The stones are up to 3,6m in diameter and weigh almost one ton. Due to this fact, the stones usually change hand without changing place. Often they are stored in a public place along the road, sometimes covered by roots and branches.
There are about 6500 “coins” currently on Yap (a small island with a population of about 6000). Each one of these has a personal history with all (or at least most) of the exchanges it was used in and a name attached to each stone. While goods of daily use are by now paid in US-Dollars, major exchanges like the sale of a house, a marriage or fines after a crime are still paid with Raay.
As the stones are made out of Aragonit, a sandstone from Palau that is not found in Yap, they all have to be transported 400 km by sea to their final destination. Archeologic findings have dated the oldest Raay to the year 125 a.d. and the last ones were produced 70 years ago. Originally they were produced with stone tools and smoothened by dragging them over the beach in Palau. The Yapese also had to serve the inhabitants of Palau for the rights to use their stones, so the production of one stone would take a group of men several month.

Transport could only be done in May and June, with the monsun. A special raft was constructed with the stone in the center hanging partially in the water and serving as keel. The hole was used to keep the stone on the raft with the help of a beam. The raft was dragged by a canoe, and posed a great danger to the men transporting the Raay home. Experts estimate that only half of the stones arrive in Yap, with the rest remaining on the sea floor, often dragging the sailors with them.

The authors state that the amount of work and risk give each Raay extreme value (according to the labour theory of value), which depends on the size, the complexity of the transport and whether someone was hurt or killed during transport. On the other hand, the value of each individual Raay also depends on the transactions it was used for in the past. The Bank of Hawaii has a branch office in Yap and once calculated the value of the stones as: diameter x thickness (in inch) x 75 = value in US$. This does of course not account for the history of each stone or serve as currency exchange price, but it was used to calculate the credit that could be given with one Raay as collateral.

The value of the Raay began to change when in 1871 an US sailor named David O’Keefe was the only survivor of the sunken bark “Belvedere”. When he saw the Raay and heard of their history, he returned to Honkong (Yap had at that time regular visits from merchants), bought heavy tools and returned to Yap. Together with some Yapese he transported large amounts of Raay from Palau to Yap and exchanged them for copra, which he sold in Honkong. He used the money to buy western goods and returned to Yap increasing his influence. He ended up as self proclaimed “King of Yap” – although he mainly used the title to defend the independence of Yap against German, Spanish and US interests at that time. With the increasing amount of Raay transported to the island, and the less complicated production, the value of these new Raay decreased compared to the older stones that were in use. Finally the Islands were sold to the German emperor, who also tried to take part in the Raay-trade. As the Yapese refused to cooperate with anyone except O’Keefe, the production of Raay was prohibited.

Due to the expansion of stone production in the years after 1871, there were about 13000 Raay in yap, when prohibition set in. In 1914 the Germans left and Japanese troops occupied Yap. They destroyed Raay as a method of punishment when the inhabitants refused to work or to cooperate, which halved the number of Raay until 1945. The last Raay was produced in 1931 by an expat, who used it to buy the right to return to his home village. Today the export of Raay is prohibited and set with a high fine (to be paid in Raay).

Apart from the strange history of the stones as a currency, the Raay might also be used as an excellent subject to study monetary theory. We know the exchange value of each coin through history, we know about the loss of value, when O’Keefe introduced new Raay that were produced more easily and we can trace all the transactions that were done with each coin.
This might be an excellent paper for an economics PhD with and Austrian tendency or someone interested in ethnologic economics. Someone like Pete Boettke or Peter Leeson: step up and help us out.

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The Shadow-man – from Goebbels to Carlos

Last week I’ve been reading “Der Schattenmann” (the shadow-man) by Willi Winkler, a really scary book about François Genoud.
He was a lifelong admirer of Adolf Hitler and took care that the heirs of Martin Bormann and Josef Goebbels would profit from their writings – if you want to cite something by Goebbels in Germany today, you still have to pay royalties. He also used his money to support the defence of Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem, as well as in the trial of Klaus Barbie in Lyon.

But as a strong supporter of socialist revolutionaries (one must always remember that Hitler called himself a national – socialist and considered his party to be a revolutionary movement) he also send money to causes one would not at first suspect: in the early years after the war, he supported the revolution and independence of Algeria from France, and later the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, especially Wadie Haddad. According to the book, he sent money to the terrorists of the massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, he supported Carlos and he supported many more terrorist groups in the middle east – with money from royalties from the Nazi leaders.

If you understand enough German, this is an excellent read and it is sad, that no English edition is available.

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Despite her experience the patient is still consulting her homeopath

The April issue of the German Radiology Journal RöFo had another nice example of the consequences of homeopathy. As the article is behind a pay wall, I will try to summarize the main findings.

A 40 year old woman presented a the emergency department with constipation and abdominal fullness. She admitted, that she had issues with bowel movement and an enlarging belly over the last 6 month. Since the onset of her complaints, she had repeatedly consulted a homeopath who initially attributed her symptoms to stress and prescribed silicon dioxide (Silica D30), which, however, did not resolve the issue [I wonder why]. She presented to the emergency department only because she was urged by her 16-year-old son, who was worried about her symptoms and pregnancy-like appearance.
In the end they found a 35cm large, poorly differentiated cystadenocarcinoma (a malignant cystic tumour) of the ovary. By sheer luck, the patient did not have metastases yet and is still alive after two more years.
“The patient is greatly appreciative of the conventional medical treatment received for her ovarian tumour but she could not be convinced to consider changing her homeopath”

So either the patient is by far more stupid than her son, or she is desperately trying to win a Darwin-award. In either case – what’s the harm?

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