Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Buy Fresh, Buy GMO

The title of this post comes from the cover of the latest issue of MIT Technology Review. Technology Review joins Scientific American in promoting GMO crops. These are the 2 most respected popular science publications in the world. I've read these 2 mags every month for > 40 years. To my knowledge their integrity is unimpeachable.
more than 15 years of experience with transgenic crops have revealed no health dangers, and neither have a series of scientific studies.
Humans have been creating plant hybrids for 1000s of years. Genetic engineering techniques let us insert just the desired gene instead of 1000s of genes -- surgery with a scalpel instead of a chainsaw.

But, we still need to be smart about how we use genetic engineering. Plants are promiscuous with their genetic material, there's no way the Roundup-Ready gene is not going to wind up in weeds. I believe it already has -- that was a bad idea.

Monsanto's heavy-handed patent policies and control of seed stock are reprehensible. But many GMO crops, like the golden rice that can save the lives of 100Ks of children who die from vitamin A deficiency, have been given to the developing world under much better, but still slightly restrictive, terms. But groundless fear is preventing their use.

The subtitle from the cover:

Population growth and climate change will make it harder to feed the world. We need to overcome our fears of genetically modified food.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

4500 Pages of Short Stories

For my Adam Smith sanity break, I decided to read some of the free short stories published in "The Stories: Five Years of Original Fiction on". I tweeted about one of the stories that the collection was 5000 pages, but with the font set to the smallest size, it is only 4572 pages in the Apple eBook reader. So I've read over 1/5, 900 pages. There is a lot of fill around the stories tho: a cover art page (nice!); title page; DRM verbiage page; and a TOC. After the stories, for the established writers there's a listing of their work; for the newer writers, there were several 1-3 chapter previews of their novels. Still, this is great free content, thanks Tor! It winds up being 150 stories, alphabetically arranged by author's last name, and I've read 33 so far.

I'd read a few of the stories already. All have been pretty strong, except for one by a YA author which did seem a bit juvenile. Favorites:

  • "Six Months, Three Days", by Charlie Jane Anders. "The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures." Fun and games playing with prescience. The author is apparently transgender, so maybe she has seen the dating scene from both sides?
  • "The Girl Who Sand Rose Madder", by Elizabeth Bear. I'd read this before. For those of you wondering how Keith Richards keeps going.
  • "The Final Now", by Gregory Benford. "Great Sky River" by Benford would definitely be in my list of top SF of all time. This is a nice, quirky (if theistic) look at the history of the universe. His "Grace Immaculate" story in the collection also has theistic overtones, whazzup widdat?
  • "A Window or a Small Box", by Jedediah Berry was I think my favorite story so far. An engaged couple, possible with cold feet, wind up in a totally odd parallel world -- maybe a variant of Pepperland. Adventures ensue. I ordered his novel "The Manual of Detection", which is apparently a fantastic, alternate-reality detective novel.
  • "TVA Baby", by Terry Bisson. A totally off-the-walls, WTF story.
  • "The Ruined Queen of Harvest World", by Damien Broderick. Nicely mythic and sure of itself. Apparently Mr. Broderick has been writing Sci-Fi in Australia for decades. I ordered a collection of his short stories.
Before going back to "Wealth of Nations", I'm clearing the magazine stack for February. The newest issue of "Technology Review" has on it's cover "Buy Fresh, Buy GMO". I think I will probably use this to do some pro-GMO tweets and FB postings. There's too much superstitious peasant anti-GMO sentiment out there.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Wealth Of Nations, Book 2

Before we get on to Book 2, I'd like to add a couple of important concepts of basic economics that I omitted from the list in my post on Book 1.
  • Division of labor is a prerequisite for having an economy at all. If everyone is growing and/or hunting their own food, building their own house, making their own implements, then there is no economy.
  • Barter systems don't scale, so you need this stuff called "money".
Book 2 is titled "Of The Nature, Accumulation, And Employment Of Stock". I think that he defines "stock" as, "anything that someone owns that has value" -- so it can be produce, goods or money. Also, I think he defines "capital" as, "stock that has been invested with the expectation of it being used productively, rather than spent on expenses, and of it retaining its value and being returned in the future". In his words:
His whole stock, therefore is distinguished into two parts. That part which he expects is to afford him this revenue is called his capital. The other is that which supplies his immediate consumption ...
There are 2 ways of investing capital to yield a revenue or profit:
  1. "in raising, manufacturing, or purchasing goods, and selling them again at a profit." This he calls "circulating capital".
  2. in investing in land improvement, new machines, or other improvements to one's operation. This he calls "fixed capital". Later he says "The intention of the fixed capital is to increase the productive powers of labour, or to enable the same number of labourers to perform a much greater quantity of work."
An odd (and very dated) discussion at the end of chapter 1 about, of all things, treasure troves. In countries without much security, people would commonly bury their valuables, and then die or forget where they were buried. When a treasure trove was found, it belonged not to the finder, nor to the landowner of where it was found, but to the sovereign of the state! Sweet deal if you can get it, I guess.

In discussing the flow of money and capital, ("Money, ... the great wheel of circulation, the great instrument of commerce"), he talks about how the same money can be used to finance 3 or 30 transactions -- so there is a clear understanding of "multipliers", of which modern conservatives seem to want to deny the existence when it comes to government spending for fiscal stimulus.

He also talks about discounted "bills of exchange", which may correspond to modern default credit swaps, and about how they can get kited by unscrupulous bankers -- surely not! (Note, I don't know enough modern economics to know if these really are the same as default credit swaps.) He also talks about banks issuing their own paper money and thereby leveraging their gold and silver holdings. But, the reliance on precious metal reserves -- "The whole paper money of every kind which can easily circulate in any country, never can exceed the value of the gold and silver ..." -- is still there.

He also talks about "raising money by circulation", which I think was making short term low interest loans, but making them rapidly, so that the effective interest rate is driven up -- not sure I get that. He uses the term "projector", which I think means the same as "speculator".

Chapter 3 is very interesting. He introduces the concepts of productive vs unproductive labour. Productive labour is the good kind: it is factory workers or farmers producing things. They are being paid, but their wages are offset by their production, with profit normally additionally being generated. Unproductive labour, on the other hand, is the bad kind: it takes the wages, performs tasks, but produces nothing lasting. It includes what we would now call the service industry. Interestingly, also unproductive are: the king, the government, the army, the navy, the clergy, lawyers, physicians, scholars, actors, musicians. I think that, with the advent of recording, actors and musicians are no longer totally unproductive. ;->

I think tho, that this is another reason that Smith is down on government: he lived in a time when there were still kings and nobles who maintained courts whose primary function was to engage in conspicuous consumption. I think we'd all agree that's about as unproductive as you can get.

Here's a reference to a "proverb" which I have never heard:

Our ancestors were idle for want of a sufficient encouragement to industry. It is better, says the proverb, to play for nothing, than to work for nothing.
Ha ha, can't argue with that, I guess. This is in a discussion of the superiority in activity and wealth of towns containing industries to towns containing the court of a king or noble. So stock used as capital is good, stock used for everyday expenses is bad. More bashing of the government/religious/military complex:
Great nations are never impoverished by private, though they sometimes are by public prodigality and misconduct. The whole, or almost the whole public revenue is, in most countries, employed in maintaining unproductive hands. Such are the people who compose a numerous and splendid court, a great ecclesiastical establishment, great fleets and armies, who in time of peace produce nothing, and in time of war acquire nothing which can compensate the expense of maintaining them, even while the war lasts. Such people, as they themselves produce nothing, are all maintained by the produce of other men’s labour.
And yet more fine bashing:
But though the profusion of government must undoubtedly have retarded the natural progress of England towards wealth and improvement, it has not been able to stop it. ...

It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of the subject never will.

"Sumptuary laws" were laws which prohibited the lower classes from buying luxury items like the upper classes.

Increasingly I'm having to conclude, Smith really is a market-based libertarian. He doesn't seem to believe that government does anything good -- maybe back then it really didn't?!?!? He even has no use for the defense budget! Now that's a real libertarian! But he also seems to think that capitalists are going to be continuously reinvesting their profits into capital projects to grow business, while living relatively modestly and not wasting their capital on luxuries -- not too much like our modern captains of industry.

Chapter 4 is "Of Stock Lent At Interest". Not much seems to have changed from then to now. Borrowing money to pay expenses (as opposed to borrowing for a capital project), bad. Borrowing too much money and having to declare bankrupcy, bad.

Finally, chapter 5 is "Of The Different Employments Of Capital". Here he starts by basically defining 4 types of commerce:

  1. 1st order acquisition of produce: farming and mining;
  2. 2nd order production of goods from 1st order produce: manufacturing;
  3. transport of 1st and 2nd order produce to markets: wholesaling;
  4. breaking down produce into small quantities as needed by consumers; retailing.
He seems to favor farming over manufacturing as a more productive use of capital -- you get the "work of Nature" thrown in for free??? Not sure I've ever thought about it that way. But I guess, photosynthesis is not matched by anything yet produced by industry for capturing free (solar) energy, so maybe he has a point. Almost sci-fi, that growing stuff would be better than manufacturing it, nice!

Smith addresses issues of globalization, but I don't think that his conclusions agree with modern practices. "It is of more consequence that the capital of the manufacturer should reside within the country." Here he talks about what would happen if the Americans adopted protectionist policies and built their own industries, and I believe history has proven him dead wrong on this one:

Were the Americans, either by combination, or by any other sort of violence, to stop the importation of European manufactures, and, by thus giving a monopoly to such of their own countrymen as could manufacture the like goods, divert any considerable part of their capital into this employment, they would retard, instead of accelerating, the further increase in the value of their annual produce, and would obstruct, instead of promoting, the progress of their country towards real wealth and greatness.
Finally, there is a discussion of 3 types of wholesale trade:
  1. home trade;
  2. foreign trade of consumption (importing);
  3. carrying trade, which is trading within or between foreign countries.
Smith posits that involvement in carrying trade is a result of national wealth, rather than a cause thereof. At his time, Holland was the richest country and had the greatest carrying trade, while England was 2nd in both.

This book ends by noting that, as much as farming is the best use of capital, it is also much more capital intensive. So if you are seeking your fortune with a small amount of seed capital, farming is not where you will can succeed -- look to manufacturing or trade instead.

Book 2 was only about 1/2 the length of book 1, 100 vs 200 pages. So a sanity break, then on to book 3. I also got the link to the 1st lecture of the online course I'm going to try, The Age of Sustainable Development. Interesting to see how this goes.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Great Short Story Collection

I just finished "Beyond The Rift", a collection of the short stories of Peter Watts. This was the best short story collection I have read in a while. Lots of variety, touching on topics including evolution, consciousness, first contact, and death. There is also an essay at the end where he talks about his writing, and about his beating, arrest, and trial at the hands of the US Border Patrol when he was returning to Canada.

His novel "Blindsight" (2006) (blogged here) was one of the best novels of the oughts.

Hmm, tried to link to the eBook on Kobo, and, shazam, it's gone. However, all his short stories and his 1st novels -- the Rift trilogy -- are available for free at his website.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Nice Music Video

Tom Martin posted this video on Facebook. Who knew Robert Downey Jr. could sing? He does a great job, both singing solo and harmony with Sting and the 3 fabulous female backup singers. A great Police tune, and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums (thanks Jeff Adams for the ID on Vinnie). I worked it up for playing at a jam -- need to practice several more times to get the lyrics down -- but probably only about 1/2 of the drummers who play at the jam will be able to handle the chorus.

The Wealth Of Nations, Book 1

I have started reading "The Wealth Of Nations", by Adam Smith, 1790. Note, this is public domain, so I downloaded it for free from the iTunes store. Definitely slow going, what with archaic language (how bout all dem commas?) and spelling, and with having to learn the British pre-decimal currency system, which I believe is as follows:
  • 1 pound === 100 pence (pennies)
  • 1 shilling === 5 pence => it's a nickel, 20 per pound
  • 1 crown === 5 shillings => it's a quarter
  • 1 guinea === 21 shillings === 1.05 pounds ??? I think guineas were gold, the others were silver or copper.
"Wealth" is 4 books, so I'm going to read and report on it 1 book at a time to maintain my sanity.

Book 1 is (no joke) "On The Causes Of Improvement In The Productive Powers Of Labour, And Of The Order According To Which Its Produce Is Naturally Distributed Among The Different Ranks Of The People". Really? That's what that section was about? Interesting, over 200 years old, and the 1st book is about how the benefits of worker productivity increases are distributed among the different classes. Sound familiar?

There are 3 classes identified:

  1. landlords, or land-owning gentry, whose income comes from rents on land. In addition to rent on land used for farming, there is also rent on ocean- and river-side land used for fishing.
  2. laborers, whose income comes as wages on labor, or as crops/produce if they are farmers;
  3. masters, whose income comes as profit on stock. He uses the term "capital" sometimes, but not "capitalist". A 2ndary form of profit is interest, "that derived from it (stock) by the person who does not employ it himself, but lends it to another". So our CEOs and finance types are both in this class.
Interesting how much has changed. A list of some of the things that were totally different in the 18th century:
  • The master craftsman / journeyman / apprentice system was still in place. Apprenticeships varied in length from 7 years in England to 3 years in other countries.
  • The Industrial Revolution has not happened yet, so the "industries" being improved are agriculture -- with the majority of the discussion being about raising corn vs cattle -- and cottage industries.
  • Currencies are based on gold and silver. Reading how in the 1630s and 1640s the opening of huge new silver mines in South America caused a glut of silver on the market, lowering its price and as such devaluing the currency, thereby raising the price of everything else -- shows clearly why this is a bad idea. Also, bullion of the metal must be price-controlled to cost less that the same weight in currency -- otherwise you would melt the coins down and sell it as bullion. This is why US pennies are currently copper-coated zinc. The copper in the pure copper pennies got to be worth 3 cents each, so that you could make a profit from melting them down and selling the copper. But now we have the dog wagging the tail rather than vice versa.
  • It was illegal for workers to organize. The workers were already pretty much getting the shaft:
    The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit, their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work, but many against combining to raise it. ...

    We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action ...

    I recently read where Henry Ford was demonized by other industrialists for paying his workers 2x the current going wage so that they could afford to buy a Ford car. How did management forget this 1st order virtuous cycle, and instead embark on following Walmart on a race to the bottom?
  • Infant mortality rates were around 50%!!!
  • Is this really different now? We're not supposed to have a class system in the US, but this reminds me of something a Republican would say:
    Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage, or as an inconveniency, to the society?
    Well, at least he does convince himself that it is an advantage.
Other economic principles introduced:
  • Natural price: the sum of the natural wages, profit, and rent that go into the product. I think that here rent includes the raw material required for a product.
  • "The demand for those who live by wages, therefore, naturally increases with the increase of national wealth, and cannot possible increase without it." So no jobs growth without GDP growth.
  • "It is not, accordingly, in the richest countries, but in the most thriving, or in those which are growing rich the fastest, that the wages of labour are highest." So a growth economy needed for wage growth is a universal? Example of rich non-growing country was China at the time. Huge inequality in such countries was also noted. Reminds you of our economy now. Krugman has mentioned recently how companies maybe don't mind the current slow growth and high unemployment because of the leverage it gives them over their employees.
  • Rents and wages are normally lower the further from population centers you are, but profits are generally higher. The joy of monopoly!
  • "The rent of land ... is naturally a monopoly price." Smith seems to look down his nose at the land-owning gentry at times -- so maybe "rent-seeking behavior" has never been popular?
    As during their whole lives they (merchants and master manufacturers) are engaged in plans and projects, they have frequently more acuteness of understanding than the greater part of country gentlemen.

    Their superiority over the country gentleman is, not so much in their knowledge of the public interest, as in their having a better knowledge of their own interest than he has of his.

  • Jobs that some people do for fun, like gardening, hunting, and fishing, don't pay as well as jobs that people don't do for fun. Other factors in job pay include difficulty or distastefulness of the required tasks, and the amount of training required to acquire the requisite proficiency in the required tasks.
He also seems to resent various government attempts to control trade. The most common form of government intervention up to that time seems to be the government fixing prices of certain staple items. But there were also laws limiting the number of apprentices and otherwise controlling this system -- he particularly seemed to be annoyed by what he felt were the excessively long 7 year apprenticeships required by English law. He also didn't seem to like tariffs and protectionism. Plus, there were regulations requiring all members of given trades to register with the town, making it easier for them to organize! Overall it didn't seem like he was against the principle of government being involved in the economy, it seemed more like he felt that the particular ways in which it was being done in his time were somewhat stupid and/or less than optimal.

The most boring (least relevant?) parts are where he argues (I'm sure against competing economists of his time) that corn production and pricing is what provides the best thing to track, rather than gold, silver or butchered beef prices. (Note -- Wikipedia says "corn" refers to whatever the current dominant local grain is, rather than to maize, which is what we call corn. This confused me, since corn was not intruduced into Europe from the Americas until late 15th-early 16th century. But then he talks about corn vs wheat, barley, and hops, so I'm still confused.) There are 10s of pages of this, and charts of corn prices going back to 1210, that he uses to analyze price fluctuation and inflation -- although the term "inflation" is never used.

I like the ending of Book 1 a lot though. An explicit warning against corporatocracy?

The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market, and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can only serve to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.
You know, this is actually the strongest statement he makes against government involvement in the economy. So controlling business dominance of government apparently was a problem over 200 years ago. Hell, it has probably been a problem for as long as there has been business and government. "Money talks, bullshit walks."