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Impopular Culture

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Coming at the world from an unexpected angle, far too fast to stop.

Better Days

News Posted on 2014-01-08 15:56:07

Frankly, I find it reassuring that whenever we figure in the news, it is in contexts such as this.

Failing to understand satire is an event in which our politicians excel. I remember well when a Swedish punk band sung “There’s nothing to do in this boring suburb – there’s nothing here for us. Well, OK, I exaggerate a bit: we can take drugs, get drunk and get into fights.“-and politicians were horrified that they could “glorify drugs like that.”

Then again, it’s been said that Hell is a place where the the cooks are English,
the policemen are German, the mechanics are French, and the entertainers on TV are Swedish. We’re not really known for our sense of humour. Or, come to think of it, for having any kind of fun at all.

Why is this so?

The explanation is easier than you think. Close yourself into a small wooden cabin, and let the outdoors be below freezing and snowy for 6 months, and let the Sun (the celestial body, not the newspaper) be below the horizon for half of that time. Then open the door, and let’s see how much fun you are.

A Moment of Gibberish

News Posted on 2013-01-14 10:35:59

Sorry about this: a friend requested the lyrics of a song I once wrote with my Dad. But I don’t want to post it on Facebook, since they’d probably claim that this amounted to giving it away to them. Posting it here, copyright stays where it belongs.

It’s in Swedish, hence the apology. (Last night I had the strangest dream I’ve ever had before, I dreamt it was a Friday night and I had run out of booze…)

I natt jag drömde något som jag aldrig drömt förut

Jag drömde det var fredagkväll och all min sprit var slut

Jag drömde om en jättesal där flaskor stod på rad

Men framför dem satt riksdagsmän som reste sig och sa:

“Det finns inga Systembolag, och ingen får sälja sprit

Och ingen känner längre till det ordet Akvavit”

På gatorna gick folk omkring och leta’ efter en krog

Och alla strupar brann som eld och ingen människa log

I natt jag drömde något som jag aldrig drömt förut

Jag drömde det var fredagkväll och all min sprit var slut

4,000 Light Years From Home

News Posted on 2013-01-11 10:41:24

I would appear to have discovered a planet. In my Web browser.

No, really. At least I am one of five who can lay claim to first having spotted it. And this is not as strange an achievement for a translator as it might seem at first sight.

It’s a crowdsourced science project, which anyone can join at The background is this:

In 2009, NASA launched a telescope called Kepler into space specifically to look for planets around other stars. The principle is very simple: look closely at a star, and see if it dims as a planet crosses it. The devil is, as usual, in the details. We’re talking about noticing a speck of dust orbiting a pinhead of light in China, or something similar (I haven’t actually worked out the scale but it usually goes something like that). The speck has to line up exactly with the pinhead. If we were trying to find, say, Jupiter from this distance, the transit would last for a few hours every twelve years, and dim the light by one tenth of a percent – rather less than the regular dimming of the Sun during the 11-year sunspot cycle, and comparable to the optical ‘noise’ generated in the telescope unless you flood it with liquid nitrogen or something.

Still, it works. Out of the 145,000 stars that are monitored, there are a few where planets line up nicely with the star when seen from our perspective, where said planets are big enough to cause the light to dim enough so that it’s noticeable over the background noise, and where their orbital period (‘year’) is short enough so that you can spot several transits (if you see only one, it could be most anything, from a real planet, via a boulder-sized asteroid near Mars, a bolt that someone at ISS dropped and which is now orbiting Earth, and then all the way down to a cosmic ray happening to hit the detector; for a “discovery”, they need three transits so that they can see that it’s regular).

This is where the crowdsourcing comes in. Watching 145,000 stars at regular intervals for several years will generate quite ludicrous amounts of data. Computers can sort out likely candidates – from what I can see, they flag anything where there is a pre-set amount of variation in the data points. But computers are actually quite bad at one thing that the human brain excels at: pattern recognition. The Kepler researchers have thus enlisted the help of some 200,000 human brains to examine their patterns, and it is all done via a Web interface that is so easy that you don’t have to know much about anything at all to contribute usefully to the science, simply by flagging anything that looks out of the ordinary.

Below, I’ve inserted a screen shot of what most of the light curves look like. (Each point represents a measurement; they have been taken every 30 minutes or so over the course of three months.) Nothing very much. Fuzz that falls vaguely along a line across the screen. (The reason the dots don’t fall exactly on the line is that regardless what you’re measuring, and no matter how expensive – sorry, delicate – your equipment is, you will not get exactly the same result twice in a row.)

Sometimes, the star will be variable. It will vary regularly (or, quite often, irregularly) over a period of days, weeks or months. The light curve will be similar, although for reasons having to do with how they are plotted, the curve will normally look a bit less fuzzy around the edges. (If you’re a scientist, the reason will be obvious. If you’re not, the reason is irrelevant.)

And this is what we are looking for. A few data points stand out by being below the rest. This is the light curve of KOI (Kepler Object of Interest) 4760478, and I drew a box around something that looked suspicious to me. (The gap on the right isn’t relevant because it lacks data points altogether, which means that the telescope was doing something else at the time.)

Ta, as they say, Daa.

Of course, I wasn’t alone. Each light curve is examined by a bunch of people, to make sure we don’t miss anything. It appears that eight others spotted this one. (Had I been the only one, it would probably never have been examined by the actual scientists on the project.) On top of that, it’s still only a “candidate”: we’ve only spotted two transits so far, probably simply since the planet has only had time to complete two orbits since Kepler became operative. It’s on the watch list, though, and will probably be confirmed soonish.

And for all the yesterday’s news about discovering planets, I still remember when I was a kid. Not only had we failed to discover any planets outside our own Solar System, but the science books I read – many of them published in the 60s, and many of them based on science from the 50s – were only gradually coming over to the view that planets might be a normal feature of stars. But until 1978, the smart money was betting that planets formed only under highly unusual circumstances, and that our galaxy might contain something like a dozen planetary systems altogether. The first verified exoplanet was announced only in 1992. It’s exploded now: there are currently 854 verified planets on the lists, and Kepler has identified some 18,000 likely candidates that only need more observations to be confirmed.

Was there any point to this, then? After all, I have scanned some 5,000 light curves. Took quite some time. Seems like very little to show for it.

Well, I started out as a scientist, and frankly, looking at various forms of spectra was what I liked most. As they unfold, in a research context, you know that you are actually looking at someone that nobody in human history has ever looked at before. Every new data point can pop up in a new, unexpected place, heralding knowledge that nobody has ever had before. This feeling of adding something new, no matter how small, to the combined knowledge of the human race, is awe-inspiring. (You might find this really, really weird. If you work with golf or sailing, I find you equally weird. Takes, as they say, all sorts.)

If you prefer, you can be awestruck by the human ingenuity. We laboriously dug rare materials out of the ground, and painstakingly put them together to form an intricate device. We put other equally rare and uncooperative materials together in such a way that they could have exploded and killed hundreds or thousands of us, but we controlled the explosion so that the intricate, fragile device was hurled out into space intact. We use the device to look at something so distant that we can’t even perceive it with our own eyes. A few photons were missing for a few moments. And from this, we are able to deduce that a planet got in the way, thousands of light-years away.

And not only that, actually.

This is a figure from the actual scientific publication where they announce the discovery (available in its entirety at arXiv or the Zooniverse; reprinted by kind permission by the authors, as are my screen dumps of the PlanetHunters interface). I’ve coloured “my” planet blue, at the lower right. There is more information available in the paper, but this gives you the top two facts:

1) It’s big. Radius is 12 times Earth’s radius, which makes it something like one-and-three-quarters Jupiters in volume.

2) It’s lukewarm, for a planet. I nearly fell off the chair when I saw that the temperature given is 272 K, which is -1 °C. This is a “theoretical surface temperature”: the planet is very unlikely to have a solid surface at all, and if it does, it lies at the bottom of an atmosphere. Atmospheres provide greenhouse effects, and a planet with an atmosphere is considerably warmer than one without (for Earth, the difference is about 30 °C). This planet is comfortably inside the “habitable zone”, the distance from its star where water can reasonably be expected to exist on the surface of a “rocky planet” like Earth or Mars.

And gas giants like Jupiter have moons.

Imagine we took Jupiter and dragged it to a similar place in our own Solar system. This planet, KOI4760478-1 (this name isn’t official; I’ve formed it by analogy with how they form designations of confirmed planets), circles a star slightly more massive than the Sun, and three times as luminous, at 1.4 times the Earth-Sun distance (that’s some of the ‘more information’ I mentioned earlier). So we’d have to drag it to a place somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Venus, say 1/3 of the way from here to Venus. (We’d have to drag ourselves out of the way, but compared to dragging KOI4760478-1 that’s a piece of cake, or even biscuit.)

Jupiter would probably stay much the same: the main influence on Jupiter isn’t the Sun, but Jupiter itself. It gives off more heat than it gets from the Sun, and this would stay much the same. But the three moons that seem to contain lots of water – Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – would thaw. We would have a system with three potential life-bearing moons. (Io is probably not very friendly to life, and seems to lack water).

Detecting moons around KOI4760478-1 will probably be a task for my grandchildren. But it’s intriguing. All gas giants we’ve seen so far have moons, so it seems very reasonable to assume this one has, too. They will be warm and cosy, and given what we know about planetary development and whatnot, there’s a fair chance that at least one of them would harbour life.

The really interesting stuff starts to happen if more than one of them is inhabitable.

Face it, the reason NASA stopped going places was that there was nowhere much to go. The Moon was devoid of air, water, and anything remotely valuable; Mars was only marginally better endowed and impractically far away. Had we lived around KOI4760478-1, there might have been loads of interesting places to go quite nearby, cosmically speaking.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to dream up an interesting scenario with three inhabited moons, only two of which have space technology, various religious and political sects setting up colonies all over, and the various colonialistic ideologies that might arise. Then dream up a plot where this is all background and the point is something else altogether.

In the meanwhile, I’ll contend myself with pictures of Endor and Pandora. And I think I’ll lay claim to the third moon, counting outwards from the planet, name it Pelotard and proclaim myself Emperor.

11,500 reasons

News Posted on 2012-12-23 00:56:01

Dear American friends,

In 2011, in the US, 12,174 people were killed by firearms. Not including suicides – preliminary figures put these at 19,766.

Also in 2011, in Sweden, 17 people were killed by firearms. For reasons having to do with police reporting procedures, these probably include a suicide or two.

Adjusting for population, had you had our rate of firearm deaths, you’d be looking at 595 victims.

So, you have that famous Second Amendment, which you are in broad agreement gives US citizens the right to carry weapons just about anywhere at just about any time. Personally, I don’t really think that this was what the Founding Fathers had in mind, but it’s not my Constitution, so that’s sort of beside the point. (For the record, I’d agree, broadly, with the minority in the District of Columbia v. Heller case – which was settled 5 to 4, so it’s obviously not a clear-cut case even when the purportedly sharpest US legal minds are thrown at it. And at any rate, technical developments have rendered the whole thing nearly meaningless. The Founding Fathers were thinking of an invading army arriving by sail boat, equipped with muskets; they envisioned a militia equipped with slightly inferior muskets. They certainly did not consider the possibility of bombers, aircraft carriers, tanks, and machineguns that can be dismantled and assembled again in less time than it takes to re-load a musket.)

What my point here is, is this: any ordinary, sane, law-abiding Swedish citizen can also buy a gun. Our constitution doesn’t have much to say on the subject, it’s just a fact that you can. To get a license, you do have to demonstrate some sort of sensible use for it – in practice, you have to join a shooting club or take a hunting license. (And you’ll have to take special training, but if you don’t think that makes sense, you’ve got your bearings from comics and are hereby disqualified from entering this discussion.) And they do check for criminal record, history of insanity, et cetera. It might take months, but then again, if you absolutely want to use your gun that same afternoon, there’s usually good reason not to hand it to you.

Automatic weapons are not included in this. Face it, the only practical use for a Kalashnikov or a Uzi is if you want to kill lots of people and are in a hurry. (And if this is in your job description, I really, really hope you’re a soldier.) If you absolutely want to own a machinegun, you’ll have to join the National Guard. They’ll issue you with one, and – depending on your exact role – also with a bazooka and a grenade launcher. Provided you pass muster, which includes screening by military intelligence and the social services; they don’t tell anyone what for, exactly, but presumably it’s to do with receiving large amounts of money from foreign embassies, known alcohol problems and the like.

So what are the fabled draconian European socialist anti-gun regulations that people keep talking about?

Mainly this: the weapon can under no circumstances be stored in a ready-to-shoot state in your home.

And they’re serious about this. Your home will be inspected to make sure it’s burglar-proof. You will need to purchase two separate gun safes, and keep the bolt in one and the body of the gun in the other. You assemble it at the shooting range, or when you go hunting, or, in the case of the National Guard, when the radar screens show enemy aircraft approaching. As mentioned above, you can assemble a modern firearm in less time than it takes you to re-load a musket, and most of this time will be spent figuring out where you put the bloody keys to the gun safe.

People like the NRA will usually point to aforementioned Second Amendment, and say that they need to have guns at the ready so they can repel an invasion and resist an oppressive government. This assumes, of course, that the invaders are polite enough to not use their aircraft, and the dictator considerate enough not to use his tanks. Other countries use their army for the purpose of fending off invaders, knowing that a militia armed with guns will deter a determined foreign army for about three seconds, and elected European governments are not noted for their oppressiveness, so it’s pretty obvious that the same ends can be achieved without having loaded guns in the bedroom. Besides, invasions, civil unrest and general dictatorship isn’t something that materialises at 30 seconds’ notice, so you do have time to assemble the weapon in case you really think it’s needed, and argue about the finer legal details later.

Ah, but what about defending your home?

Well… fact is, Swedish burglars aren’t armed. Because “defending yourself” works both ways. If you plan to burgle a house, and can reasonably expect that you’ll be met with bullets, your best bet is to make sure you fire first. If you can reasonably expect to be met with a pointed stick, shouts, curses and a phone call to the police, your best bet is to leg it, and dragging around a lot of extra weight is counter-productive. Burglars are bad, they’re not suicidally irrational.

From the home-owner’s perspective, it’s more a case of betting your life so as not to lose a silver candlestick. If you have a confrontation between two people with firearms, there’s a high likelihood that at most one of them will survive. Even if you are very confident of your weapon skills, and equally confident of the other guy’s lack thereof, you’re still saying that it’s OK with maybe 1-in-4 that you’ll end up 6 feet under. On the other hand, if you have a confrontation between one person wielding a crowbar recently used to open your front door, and another armed with, say, a baseball bat, there’s a high likelihood that both of them will survive. The baseball bat wielder possibly minus some of his belongings, and plus a rather nasty bump on the head.

None of this is actually my argument.

My argument is this:

In the US, there are roughly 11,500 deaths annually that could quite likely be avoided by implementing laws similar to ours. (You can argue that the number should be lower; feel free to say that it would be only 10% effective: that’s still 1,150 dead people.) Look at these corpses on the ground. Not small white crosses, not flag-draped coffins. Look at the dead people bleeding onto the soil. And while many of them will be young men with a criminal record, many of them will also be children who just happened to go to a school where some madman decided to march in and mow them down. This is, more or less exactly, the population of Elk City, Oklahoma. Imagine that Al-Qaeda had managed to dive-bomb that town and take out the entire population, and that the Government just shrugged; this is the sort of carnage we are talking about, and the lack of action. And this happens year after year. Next year, you’ll get 11,500 new corpses to look at.

Now, you look me in the eye, and say, loud and clear: “Yes, it is worth this so that I can keep my gun ready to use at home.”

If you do this, fine. This is a particular freedom that US citizens have; freedom always comes at a price, and I’m not going to tell you that the price is too high. I, personally, certainly think it is, and I will argue this until the cows come home, and keep at it until they go out again in the morning, but there is no objective way to say that I’m right and you’re wrong. Cars kill about 45,000 Americans every year, and I haven’t heard anyone argue that they need to be banned, me included.

Words like “freedom” and “self-defense” are one thing; it’s easy to support non-specific, abstract concepts. Given the numbers, and looking at the bodies, I’m willing to bet that very nearly nobody will say it’s worth it.

Feel free to prove me wrong.

Disney bought Lucasarts…

News Posted on 2012-11-02 13:01:35

…and you realise that things might have been very, very different.

(Pictures used for parody, in accordance with “fair use” and “independent work based on another work” as defined in the laws of Sweden.)

Mitt and the Mad Science – Redux

News Posted on 2012-11-01 17:36:14

Those of you who didn’t fall asleep last time might still wonder about that hint I dropped about the health insurance. Aren’t people just sometimes too uninformed and too comfortable to know their own best, and shouldn’t we just stop pampering them and try to get them to take responsibility for their own lives?

Again, science has proven that it’s not all that simple.

When people find themselves in Big Trouble, they will focus on the here and now. An extreme example is torture. What torture tries to do is to make people tell the truth to make the torturer stop. What happens is that when the body believes it will die in a few moments, it will do literally anything to make it stop. This includes not only confessing to the most surprising things, like the Swedish soldiers who “confessed” to being 95 years of age, and that was only during a drill; it also includes confessing to espionage in times of war, or other stuff that is completely lethal; the point is that the torture will stop now, and we will live for another hour, which might be enough time to get out of the predicament. Or not, but this isn’t really relevant. What the body has done, quite irrespective of what we wanted it to do, is to let us survive the immediate danger.

This is known as applying a steep discount to the future. That is, when sacrificing long-term benefits for short-term benefits, the long-term benefits will get less weight. We all do the same calculation when we put money in the bank: we forfeit a benefit now (ice cream binge tonight) for a higher reward later (we get the money back with some interest—OK, that last bit is a generalisation; these days it seems we pay for the benefit of having the banks taking care of our money, but the principle is still valid). I have a day time job, so I can live with, say, a 3% interest (inflation and then a little bit). But someone who is convinced that their future is very bleak will put a very high value on today’s drinking binge, and a very low one on tomorrow’s empty wallet. There’s a subconscious calculation involved: we might all be dead tomorrow, so why worry about that? If my chances for long-term survival and success lie somewhere between “questionable” and “doubtful”, why should I care about the long term at all?

This is why young, unemployed men hold up convenience stores, often acting very confused when they emerge on the street holding a wad of money in one hand and a gun in the other, because that was pretty much their planning horizon. Fast cash now outweighs a possible prison sentence. (Or a very likely one, if the plans really ended just outside the door.)

Is there a reason for this?

Some people believe it’s down to genes, and in a way, it is. But the thing is that we all carry the same genes. If our brains calculate that our chances of long-term success in the rat race are so slim they can be ignored, this means that we should ignore them. We’re probably better off doing some high-risk, high-payoff activity like robbing a bank. It’s actually perfectly rational; it maximizes our chances of reproductive success, improving them from “zip” to “slim”.

This also applies to medical insurance. It’s for the fairly distant future, and a future that might not ever arrive, at that. If you’re low on cash, it’s completely irrational to spend what little you have on insurance, or so our subconscious success calculator tells us. It probably worked well in the above-mentioned hunter-gatherer societies, and this is why evolution has produced this end result (or, if you prefer, why God made us this way; again, it doesn’t really affect the argument since it’s based on what we observe human beings doing, not on the underlying reasons for the design).

The point is that we’d all act like this, if our chances of long-term success were nil. Investing in the far future is strictly a first-world problem; for many people today, and for most people throughout history, the immediate problem is survival tomorrow.

Does this mean the poorest in our societies will never take out medical insurance?

Look, I haven’t tried to push any conclusions down your throats, right? But I’ll volunteer a few observations.

Firstly, to me, it seems reasonable to build our societies based on what we see people doing and how we’ve established that we function. Designing our society the way we think it should operate, and then trying to make people fit society, has never actually worked. (If you don’t believe me, ask those who have tried to breed the Socialist Superman or the Aryan Übermensch.)

For the tax system, as discussed in the previous post, this means that although you can arrange it in many different ways, they can produce different end results even though the actual money collected stays the same. What you want is a system where everyone agrees to play along, which means that you can do pretty much anything that takes your fancy as long as people feel they get something out of the system. For the poorest, this might mean getting more out of the system than they put in, when seen over an entire lifetime; for the richest, the payoff might rather be a lack of starving hordes trying to get in through the front door.

Most European countries have gone down the road of making medical services a public good. That is, we consider it so important that, e.g., a clinic doesn’t go bankrupt on me halfway through my chemotherapy that we do a lot of it through taxation, mandatory national health insurance, and overall, a very high lowest level of service. It seems to work; people don’t take it for granted, nor do they run to the doctor for every sore toe, nor do they die in droves on street corners; we’re aware that it costs money and that this is where a fair amount of tax money ends up, and so forth. It’s OK to be opposed to this for various reasons, but “it doesn’t work” is not one of them. (You’re allowed your own opinion, but not your own facts.) But whatever system you design: either there has to be a certain amount of “mandatory” built in, or there will have to be widespread acceptance of the fact that young, innocent, blameless people will die even though it could have been prevented. Your choice.

Also, the observant reader will have noticed that a lot of the destructive behaviour outlined above depends crucially on the people involved having a very bleak view of the future. We’re talking here about people who leave school at 18, go to the employment agency, and are told that they will never get a job for as long as they live. (Yes, this actually happens. Every day.) So a lot of the damage—maybe even all of it— can be undone simply by giving everyone a good reason to believe that they can improve their lot. Traditionally, the U.S. has excelled at this: need I say more than The American Dream? And in my experience, this is also a characteristic of many U.S. Conservatives—they truly want to build a society where dedication and hard work will always allow you to be better off, and where there are no limits to your possibilities. Many European Conservatives, to the contrary, are completely indifferent to this aspect, if not outright hostile to it.

The other solution, generally preferred by a group vaguely referred to as “the left”, is to re-distribute resources so that nobody is ever completely without; the idea is not to simply remove the lowest rungs of the ladder (there would still be one labelled “lowest”), but to get them so close to the ones above them that the step is not insurmountable, and to provide handholds for those in danger of slipping.

Again, the preferred solutions are up to you. You’re still allowed your own opinions.

But never, ever, your own facts.

Mitt and the Mad Science

News Posted on 2012-10-26 14:49:33

No, this isn’t going to be an effort to explain air pressure to Mitt Romney. Nor is it going to be an investigation of his scientific agenda. Nor, I’m sorry to say, will it be about magic underwear; it’s an interesting notion but I understand it’s a religious practice and so outside the remit of what science really does. (Although it might be more fun if it did.)

But I bet you didn’t know that science can tell you whether Romney’s income tax costs him votes and why poor people don’t take out health insurance.

Economy and politics have tried to answer questions like this for us, and the results have been, at best, of limited value. I recently watched two people on Facebook descend into a shouting match over what tax levels were “fair”, and this is, of course, an issue that science can never resolve. But what science can do is to tease human behaviour apart, in controlled experiments, and tell us what humans, by and large, on average, think is fair. And it can even take a stab at why.

Consider the Ultimatum Game. It’s not a game, really; it’s a psychological and anthropological experiment. Works like this:

I’m given £100. I must now offer you a portion of this. If you accept, we get to keep the money. If you decline, neither of us gets anything.

Logically, you should accept an offer of £1. You’re better off than before, anything you get is free money. Right?


It turns out that almost nobody will accept less than £10. The exact cut-off depends partly on what culture you were brought up in, but mostly on personal preference. Some studies report averages as high as 35%, while most reports that I’ve found seem to mention values in the region of 20% or a bit above. As for the offers, if they’re done freely, most people from industrialised societies will offer around 1/3, but many people from pre-industrialised societies will offer £50.

But hey, isn’t this completely irrational?

Yes and no. There’s one thing that makes humans very different from other animals, and it’s not the pointed stick, the wheel or the aircraft carrier. It’s something much more fundamental.

Humans cooperate.

In the hunter-gatherer society, which can serve as a sort of approximation of “humans in the wild,” we go out, collect food, and bring it home to the tribe to share. The people who do it best command great respect, usually get the first pick, and in all likelihood ate the honey on the way home and piled all the tubers they found on the heap, but brain scans confirm that humans get happy by sharing. Completely unique, and counter-intuitive, but also completely unmistakable. This is how humans behave, and blimey, it works: there used to be only a handful of us, and we’re now the second most numerous land vertebrate on the planet.

Evolutionary scientists are struggling to explain exactly how this developed, and Mitt Romney is probably more comfortable with a statement that this is how God created us. But the beauty of science is that this does not matter: the observable consequences are that we’re wired to share our riches, and likewise punish people who try to get away with too much, even to the point of punishing ourselves just to get back at them.

You might think that this is a sorry state of affairs, but it helped us to get through e.g. the Black Death, so obviously there’s some merit to it. And you might agree with a quote ascribed to Marlene Dietrich: “Natural? Pah! So’s measles.” Still, this is how real people behave in real situations. It’s not irrational, except in the very short term; it’s rational for us to be constructed that way. Ayn Rand might complain, but egoism—to the extent that we grab as much as we can hold on to, and kick everyone else in the teeth to keep it—is not how human nature works, it’s not how we build the trust and co-operation that’s necessary for a reasonably complex society, and it’s not how to construct a society when your building blocks are all human beings.

What’s this got to do with Romney, then?

He’s shared his income declarations, that’s what. And it turns out he pays about 14% tax on his income.

I’m sure this is perfectly in agreement with what he’s required by law to pay, and I’ve even heard reports that he could have paid less, had he used all available deductions. He also pays sales tax on everything he buys, although I’ll be blessed if I can figure out how anyone is physically able to spend as money as he makes while still having enough hours in the day to do any work. But given the results of the Ultimatum Game, for many people, this is not enough. Lots of people will think that a “fair share” is around 30%, and paying less than 20% is extremely risky for anyone who is actively trying to get people to like him.

But hey, didn’t he pay something like 1.9 million USD? Surely, that’s more than reasonable? After all, it’s enough to support some 50 people on a reasonable standard of living, besides himself on an unreasonable one.

It’s a valid objection that research projects usually aren’t allowed to hand out life-changing amounts of money. It’s hard to get any budget approved; you usually have to point to stuff like large gadgets and hope the approval board like big toys. (Frankly, it’s anybody’s guess how they managed to get permission to just hand out research money to people. Possibly the approval board were the first to have a go.) Fortunately, there’s a simpler way: you can get the research budget to cover airplane tickets to a place where wages are considerably lower, and do the same experiment there. In at least one study, they went to Indonesia and gave away the local equivalent of a month’s salary–not “life-changing”, exactly, but enough to make a significant contribution to the household budget.

Results? Pretty much the same. People would offer around 1/3, which was probably shat they guessed was acceptable to the recipient with a decent safety margin; when offers were artificially restricted, acceptance dropped off significantly when the offers went below 25%.

So, the results have held up as far as anyone’s been able to study them, and frankly, this is science, so if you want to disprove a result, you’ll have to come up with hard data. If anyone has the budget to study really life-changing amounts, I volunteer as a study subject.

As for the health insurance, I think we’ll save that for later.

Come Gather Round People

News Posted on 2012-10-25 23:53:00

Lately, I’ve been drawn into discussions with Americans–most of them Republicans–about various issues. It’s been an interesting experience; most of them differ wildly from both European conservatives–usually for the better–and from common European stereotypes of Republicans–again, usually for the better. (Some, sadly, don’t. I suppose even stereotypes have to start somewhere.) (If you’re a Republican, and unaware of the stereotypes, maybe you’re better off that way. No, seriously.)

And now I can’t help myself: there’s going to be a blog series on U.S. politics.

This being me, it isn’t going to be a re-hash of any positions I’ve found elsewhere. It’s going to be more of meta-analysis and digging through backgrounds. I’m sure that it will be apparent that I, like most Europeans, have a bias for the Democratic party (when polled, Europeans seem to be divided like 75%/25%), but it’s not like I’m a paying member or anything; it’s a different country and even a label that I would have assumed to be straight-forward, like “liberal”, has a weirdly different meaning over there.

Today, I have an Observation.

At the latest convention of the UN General Assembly, Obama showed up and held a speech, but didn’t meet any other heads of state. This seemed to incense Republicans; then again, many of them get incensed whatever Obama does. Or doesn’t. No big surprise there: like Parkinson said, “[it doesn’t] make the slightest difference whether he learned his politics at Harrow or in following the fortunes of Aston Villa. In either school he will have learned when to cheer and when to groan.” But what struck me as odd was the specific importance they attached to the meetings. I think this attitude is more common among Republicans, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also wide-spread among Democrats: it was as if meeting the U.S. president was a grand prize, which should be awarded to foreign heads of state like some kind of boon:

Pope Benedict XVI

A bit like this. You’re allowed to bask in his presence for a while, maybe a bit of the sheer awesomeness of the President will rub off, and then you can go back and maybe one day you’ll be just as awesomely American.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t exactly how most people see it. Most people will actually only want to see the U.S. President because they want to get something out of him.

If you’re head of the average sub-Saharan African state, the occasion will feel more like this:

The “Please, Sir, can I have some more?” scene from Oliver Twist

Chances are you’ll get a ding around the ear, but that’s only marginally worse than you were off before, and maybe you’ll catch him on a good day, you never know your luck.

European heads of state might also see this as an opportunity to get something, but it will feel a lot more like you’re visiting a “lender of last resort,” and not the wishy-washy banking type of lender.

“My uncle is Very Concerned”: don Corleone demonstrates one of his two identical facial expressions

You don’t want to attract the attention of this guy unless you really, really need that favour. You’ll count yourself lucky to get out with all the bits still attached (for don Corleone, that’s all your limbs; for a country, that’s all your provinces).

Dictators also want to get stuff, but of a different class altogether.

The Gov… sorry, Terminator: ‘Phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range?’ Gun Shop Owner: ‘It’s only what you see, pal.’

After all, the U.S. has, for reasons of Realpolitik, funded various people who it might, in hindsight, have been better to keep unarmed. Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are two examples which I first tried to call “blatantly obvious”, but honestly, I’m not sure there are words in the English language to accurately describe that situation.

Much of the flak for Obama was due to the fact that he didn’t want to meet Netanyahu. Israel has a special relationship to the U.S., and in all likelihood, Netanyahu would have viewed the meeting something like this.

Ho Ho Ho.

Then again, what Netanyahu wishes for Christmas is probably that something be delivered to someone else. Address label reading something like “Tehran”.

Of course, I can’t deny that there are people who would see the event something like this.

Hint: it’s not a bird, nor an airplane.

I even played in an orchestra with one of those people. He was, frankly, rather tiresome in his lack of conversation topics that did not, at some point, revolve around baseball or something else the origin of which could not reasonably be misidentified. The thing is, though, that very few of them ever reach a position where they would be likely to come near the U.S. president in a UN setting, as most of them would emigrate to the U.S. at the earliest opportunity. Many of them will then spend much of their spare time commenting online news stories back in the Old Country, seemingly completely livid at their abandoned home for a) generally failing to be the U.S., b) specifically having numerous shortcomings not found in contemporary U.S., such as lack of colour TVs, CD players or iPhones, depending on during which decade they happened to emigrate.

But the thing is, many Americans seem to unquestioningly assume that an audience with their president should be a coveted event.

Frankly, most of us would never have noticed had he failed to show up at the UN altogether. Because odd as it might seem—to an American—mostly, we don’t think a whole lot about you.

And when we do, you really shouldn’t be too certain it’s in a good way.

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