Saturday, August 20, 2016

Two Maps I Would Like to See

Suppose you are planning to move–across town or across the country. One consideration in deciding exactly where to move to is the price of housing. With a little effort, you can probably find average house prices in different cities you are thinking of moving to, but that isn't quite the information you want. Low house prices might mean inexpensive houses, but they might also mean small houses in poor condition. What you want is an apples to apples comparison, relative prices for the sort of house you would want to buy.

The data to produce that information almost certainly exist online, since there are extensive databases of webbed real estate listings. Run some regressions on that data and you can use the results to estimate how much the same house costs in different places. The results will also tell you how the price of a house depends on its area, lot size, age, etc. Do it right and the potential buyer can input a description of the house he wants and get estimates of how much it would cost in any of the places he is considering moving to. He can input different house descriptions, compare prices, and use the information to help him decide just how much house he wants to buy and where. The same approach could be used for rental prices. And it could be done not city by city–prices within a single city can vary a lot–but neighborhood by neighborhood. 

What I am imagining is a webbed map. Put in the relevant information about the house or apartment you want, click anywhere on the map, and get a price.

Housing prices are not the only thing you want to know. Another consideration is the crime rate–relevant not only in deciding where to live but where and when to take a walk. The map for that information lets you set a category of crime (burglary, mugging, assault), a time of day, and see a map of the relevant area with crime rates shown by color, running from bright red for the highest to dark blue for the lowest.

I don't know how much of this exists already, but perhaps some of my readers do.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Most People are Nice: A True Story

We are currently visiting with my wife’s mother in Cleveland. Yesterday my daughter went for a walk and got mugged near Case Western Reserve University. She was not hurt but lost her purse and contents, iPhone and iPad.
She reported the incident to the police, came home and used Apple’s online service to locate the iPhone and iPad. Getting help from the police was complicated by the fact that the location was near the intersection of Cleveland, East Cleveland, and Cleveland Heights, each apparently with its own police department, but eventually two East Cleveland police met us a block from where the missing items showed on the online map. They went to look, reported back that that side of the street was an empty field, and (reasonably enough) that their searching the whole field was impractical. We asked about our doing some searching, were advised that it was not a safe area for white people (black, rundown neighborhood—one police officer was white, one black, the mugger had been black).

Despite their advice, we did some unsuccessful searching, hoping to find the iPhone by calling it, the iPad by making it beep. A woman in a house across the street was curious about what we were doing, made friendly comments.  An elderly black man with a cane came by, sympathized with our problem. We spoke with a group of elderly blacks on a porch at the other end of the block, also sympathetic. One of the women said she had found a coin purse about where we had been searching, was in the habit of picking things up so had done so. She fetched it. It was the coin purse (empty) from my daughter’s purse, she gave it back to my daughter, told us where she had found it, was clearly very happy that her habit of picking things up had produced a benefit. We searched some more without success.

After we returned to my mother in law’s apartment it occurred to me that we could have located the items more precisely by combining the information from the Apple page with other geographical information. Eventually I used the satellite view on the Google Maps app on my cell phone to determine that the items were probably in one of the dumpsters behind an apartment building at the end of the block. So the next day (today) we returned, posted some reward posters around the dumpsters. My daughter called the phone. I eventually heard it ringing from one of the dumpsters, climbed in, found the purse with the iPhone and iPad. The only thing missing that mattered, other than money, was my daughter’s passport. I removed the posters. The man we had spoken with the previous day passed again, I told him we had found it, he was obviously happy for us.

One lesson was the usefulness of modern technology–if we had not had the ability to track the electronic devices we would never have found them and the purse. The other was support for a conclusion I reached decades ago, after leaving something valuable, possibly my wallet or passport, at a merchant’s stall in Teheran and having it returned to me. You cannot count on everyone being nice, as illustrated by the mugger. But if you select people at random to interact with, the odds are that they will treat you as a fellow human being not an enemy or a victim.

Even in places that the cops warn you are unsafe for people of your race.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Story Idea

Someone comes up with a drug, or a technology, that gives the user perfect recall, the ability to rerun, in full detail, any part of his life. How would it get used?

One possibility is for self-education. Observing selected past experiences with a fifty year old mind and seventeen year old eyes might teach me a good deal about mistakes I had made, some of which I might still be making.  It might provide information about what it was like to be seventeen useful in dealing with current teenagers, including my own children. In life as it now is, we get to see each episode only once. As any video game player could tell you, being able to play the same events over and over makes it possible to greatly improve your skill. In my hypothetical, unlike a video game, you don't get to  try different tactics and see what happens. But you do get to see repeated replays of what you did the first time and the results.

Another possibility is entertainment. You can rerun, over and over again, your happiest, most exciting moments. Replace internet porn with memories of your first, or best, sex. Watch a reality show that was real, with yourself as star.

There is, however, a potential down side. After things go wrong, a marital breakup, a business failure, an election loss, it is tempting to go over it again and again, agonizing over what you did wrong and what you should have done. Now you can do it in living color. Forever.

The version of this scenario I have just described is probably impossible, since there is no reason to believe that a full record of my past is actually stored anywhere in my brain. But a different version, enabled by a different technology, might well come into existence in the not too distant future.

Consider a world with greatly improved surveillance, a much advanced version of video cameras on poles combined with face recognition software and database technology. In that world, David Brin's Transparent Society, everything that happens in a public place is recorded and findable. And once we have video cameras with the size and aerodynamic characteristics of mosquitoes, practically every place is public.

If the system is open access we are back with perfect recall. I am no longer watching my past life through the eyes of my past self, but I still get to watch it. 

I was born too early. But it might be reality for my future grandchildren.

Donald Trump and The Boy Who Cried Wolf

In 1964, Fact magazine published an article whose headline was "1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President." It included a variety of detailed and unflattering diagnoses of the Republican candidate for president by psychiatrists none of whom had actually examined him or, so far as one could tell, met him.

In 2010, Christine O'Donnell, a Republican candidate for the Senate, was widely mocked as the "masturbation hating candidate." So far as I could discover, the basis for that was a comment she had made in an MTV program on masturbation some fourteen years earlier:
"The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. So you can't masturbate without lust."
Both, I think, correct statements. 

That same year, another Republican senate candidate was reported as saying that he opposed the principle of separation of church and state. What he actually said was "The idea that church and state should be separated is fine with me. The idea that there should be no interrelationship between the two is not fine with me."

Those are particular incidents that struck me when they occurred–the two links above are to blog posts I made at the time. But the pattern is a general one. Center left writers and media routinely accuse candidates on the right of being ignorant, stupid, racist, and/or crazy. Most of the time it isn't true.

Donald Trump is, in my view, less  qualified to be president than any major party candidate in my lifetime. But after being told more or less the same thing about every candidate seen as right of center for the last fifty years, why should voters, especially voters right of center, believe it?

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Observations on London

I recently spent a few days in London and was struck by several features of current London culture:

1. Several times, younger passengers on the Tube (subway) offered me their seats. I have grey hair but do not appear (and am not) particularly feeble. I would be mildly surprised to have the same thing happen in the U.S.

2. Most hotels I have stayed in recently, in the U.S. and abroad, have a safe in the room with a combination that the guest sets. The hotel I stayed at in the U.K. didn't. That might mean that U.K. guests are less worried about pilfering by hotel employees than hotel guests elsewhere. Of course, my sample size is very small.

3. Walking through Notting Hill (no Napoleons visible) I observed the scene shown below, jam offered for sale with a request to put the payment through the house's mail slot.  I cannot remember having ever seen a similar scene here, although I don't suppose it's impossible.

Scotland and the EU

One result of the British vote to leave the EU has been a revival of calls for Scotland to leave the U.K. Doing so is considerably more attractive if combined with EU membership. That raises the question of whether, if Brexit were followed by Scottish secession, the EU would be willing to let the Scots in.

One argument in favor, from the standpoint of the EU, is that encouraging Scottish secession is a way of punishing the U.K. for leaving and so deterring other countries from doing so. One argument against is that allowing a breakaway region to join sets a precedent that some current EU members, most obviously Spain, might be unhappy with. The Scots could, of course, argue that the precedent would only be relevant to the case of breakaway regions from non-member states. The Spanish might or might not be convinced.

Brexit and Free Trade

Much of the discussion of the recent British vote to leave the European Union takes it for granted that the result will be less free trade for the U.K. While that is possible, so is the opposite result. Britain can still negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU, as several non EU countries have done, assuming both sides want it. And leaving the EU leaves Britain free to negotiate free trade agreements with other countries, most obviously the Commonwealth.

The critical issues are the positions of the U.K. government and its potential trading partners, including the EU. Many who voted for Brexit were motivated by a desire to reduce trade and/or immigration, but not all. The winning coalition seems to have included both protectionists and free traders. The free traders who voted for Brexit plus the free traders who voted against it might well add up to a majority.

For those who supported free trade, the objection to the EU was the rest of the package, in particular extensive regulation. Many people take it for granted that if you have free trade such regulation is needed to prevent countries from cheating, regulating the national market in ways that favor their producers. That argument assumes that national governments want to cheat on free trade. It treats a free trade agreement as a deal where each country gives up something it values, its own trade restrictions, in exchange for the other country doing the same. 

Much talk about trade views it that way. Politically speaking that view is correct, since trade restrictions are a way in which politicians can benefit well organized producer groups in exchange for their political support. Economically speaking, however, that view is false. The gain from protecting U.K. manufacturers from foreign competition comes at the cost of their customers and U.K. export industries. 

Unilateral free trade, the policy of England in the 19th century and Hong Kong in the 20th, produces a net benefit for the inhabitants of the country that adopts it, quite aside from any benefits to their trading partners. From the standpoint of the welfare of the citizens rather than their rulers, the usual trade negotiation consists of each side offering to stop shooting itself in the foot in exchange for the other side doing the same. If governments engaged in trade negotiations were trying to maximize the welfare of their inhabitants, there would be no need for either tariffs or agreements on regulation, since there would be no incentive for the governments to use regulation to cheat on trade agreements.

If supporters of free trade in the U.K. and potential trading partners are sufficiently numerous and sufficiently well informed, Brexit should lead to an increase in free trade. If they are numerous but poorly informed, believe that the benefit comes from a trading partner abandoning its restrictions, it still might lead to an increase. We will have to wait and see.