Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Problem of Homeless Kids

This morning NPR had a show about a spike in child homelessness. Of course our hearts go out to those affected. But two points.

First, the measurement problem is important. One reason for the surprising extent of the problem ("1 in 30 children in the United States is homeless") is that it measures any child who was in "less than adequate" housing over the past year. This includes kids who are "doubled up", staying in residential motels, couch-surfing, etc. Now I don't deny this is a problem, but it's not homelessness. I defy anyone who has had to sleep on the street for a month to seriously claim that having a roof over one's head, even an impermanent one, is a lot better than not. So we should be calling this an "inadequate housing problem", or something like that. Calling it homelessness is needlessly incendiary.

Second, and more importantly, NPR is shocked, shocked, to discover that California is third worst in the nation in this category. I am not. The reason for the extent of the problem here is high housing prices. The proposed solution... wait for it... is subsidized housing.

This won't work, though, at least not as one would hope. The problem is one of supply: it takes time to add housing. In California there is only so much of it, and as anyone who has looked for an apartment recently can attest, it's largely occupied. Subsidizing it just puts more dollars chasing the same number of units, with the result that the price per unit will go up. But this won't increase the number of units. If the housing market were entirely free, we would expect an increase in supply to come from the rise in prices, and after some lag to allow for building, the market would clear. But this is California: building requires zoning, and approvals, and inspections, and it isn't quick or easy and many cities don't really want it. So the most likely result of subsidies will just be to push prices up, especially on low-end apartments, which will of course hurt those occupying (or competing for) those same units who aren't getting the subsidy. Whether this will actually help anyone is an open question, but it's quite possible that it won't, net-net. We know for sure that any subsidy program will transfer X% of the taxpayer dollars used to landlords (who benefit from the higher rents). The only question is: what's X?

It's hard to ignore the fact that the problem, and the proposed solution, are very much like Obamacare. We have a limited supply of health care (represented by doctors, nurses, hospitals, etc.). Obamacare regulates prices (which certainly won't expand the supply) and subsidizes demand (which increases it), with the result that we'll have shortages. We're already seeing that. Will liberals ever learn a lesson here? In the eighty years since FDR, it's not clear that they have.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

World Cup Notes

My opinion: it's been the best World Cup ever, or at least since I've been paying much attention to them (about 20 years). So many exciting games, so many late goals, so many lead changes, so many good teams out early. I decided to compile some data about this.

In 2006, the average number of goals scored was 2.30/game and the average margin of victory was 1.42. The decisive goal (i.e. the one that either tied the game or gave the winning team its final lead) came in the 46th minute, and there were 1.45 lead changes per game.

In 2010, scoring was down a bit: 2.27/game with a margin of 1.23/game. The decisive goal came in the 50th minute and there were 1.34 lead changes per game.

Compare to 2014, where we've played 56 of the 64 games of the tournament. Thus far, we've seen 2.75 goals/game, with an average margin of 1.39. But the decisive goal came in the 59th minute, with 1.77 lead changes per game. Those last two numbers are the most interesting ones: much later decisive goals and many more lead changes. So it isn't just an impression: this is actually happening.

Finally, how many decisive goals came late? In 2006, there were 28 in the 2nd half and 5 after 90 minutes. In 2010, 30 in the 2nd half and 4 after 90. But this year, it's 34 in the 2nd half and fully 9 after 90 minutes. And still 8 games left.

Let's just hope the final match is a good one. After all this action, it would be disappointing to see a 1-0 snoozer where Germany scores in the 22nd minute and then just holds off Argentina for the remaining 68.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Are We Living In a Simulation?

Dr. Nick Bostrom of Oxford says: probably. The basic argument is thus: Suppose that it is possible to make simulations rich enough to fool its inhabitants into thinking they are real. Then such simulations are probably common, given the ease of using computational power. So we are probably living in one rather than in a "real" world.

But really such arguments are specious. Bostrom tries to rigorize his argument by postulating that posthuman civilizations run "ancestor-simulations", but they might just as well run some other form of simulation, perhaps one in which only one observer (you, dear reader, of course!) is self aware, and everyone else is simulated just enough to continue the illusion. In which case his formula is significantly off. So his postulate #2 ("any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof)") is in fact quite likely to be true - or maybe it is, how could we know? But once that one is true, the others' truth values become unknown. In fact, in any scenario in which #2 is not followed precisely, Bostrom's math stops working.

This is often the problem with anthropic-principle arguments, and this one is no exception. You might be living in a simulation, but this paper is not a convincing argument.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hope and Change

The only people who should have been surprised by this are journalists: "America drops to #47 in World Press Freedom Index". This is not the change we were waiting for, I don't think.

Followup: I can't imagine this will help:

But under the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission is planning to send government contractors into the nation's newsrooms to determine whether journalists are producing articles, television reports, Internet content, and commentary that meets the public's "critical information needs." Those "needs" will be defined by the administration, and news outlets that do not comply with the government's standards could face an uncertain future. It's hard to imagine a project more at odds with the First Amendment.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Foodless Diet

Here's a space-age idea for your dieting needs.

I hypothesized that the body doesn't need food itself, merely the chemicals and elements it contains. So, I resolved to embark on an experiment. What if I consumed only the raw ingredients the body uses for energy? Would I be healthier or do we need all the other stuff that's in traditional food? If it does work, what would it feel like to have a perfectly balanced diet?

So far, so good. Lots of science fiction movies and books include the idea of the single pill that supplies all the nutrients an adult human needs in a day. Why not actually try it?

The weirdness comes in when the experiment gets underway, and within just days the positive results start to flow in:

  • On day 4, he can run 3+ miles whereas before couldn't make it a single mile;
  • A lifelong skin condition clears up;
  • By week 4 he's up to 7 mile runs.

After a month, one starts to wonder if there's some cocaine in the mixture.

My mental performance is also higher. My inbox and to-do list quickly emptied. I 'get' new concepts in my reading faster than before and can read my textbooks twice as long without mental fatigue. I read a book on Number Theory in one sitting, a Differential Geometry book in a weekend, filling up a notebook in the process. Mathematical notation that used to look obtuse is now beautiful. My working memory is noticeably better. I can grasp larger software projects and longer and more complex scientific papers more effectively. My awareness is higher. I find music more enjoyable. I notice beauty and art around me that I never did before. The people around me seem sluggish. There are fewer 'ums' and pauses in my spoken sentences. My reflexes are improved. I walk faster, feel lighter on my feet, spend less time analyzing and performing basic tasks and rely on my phone less for navigation. I sleep better, wake up more refreshed and alert and never feel drowsy during the day. I still drink coffee occasionally, but I no longer need it, which is nice.

It's a bit hard to take this at face value. All of these benefits just from a supposedly balanced diet, after just 30 days? If so, it's a huge breakthrough and I'm sure we'll all be drinking Soylent in short order. But one is skeptical.