Saturday, July 29, 2006

Customer value meter

When you call Cingular customer service, the customer representative you talk to learns your value to the company via this handy meter. You may or may not be eligible for various discount offers, depending on how much business you've done with the company in the past (life time value) and whether they expect you to stay with them in the future (churn potential). Churn potential is perhaps based on how hard it would be for you to switch to a competitor. Many companies track data related to these two variables, but this widget distills it all down for the operator you talk to.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Security and the origins of agriculture

Climate-based explanations for the birth of agriculture are nonsense (like this one, via Marginal Revolution, which adds further nonsense about agriculture having originated around rivers). Their popularity stems from little more than the climate being an easily measured variable. There was plenty of good land quite suitable for agriculture in temperate climates (and, more importantly, in thousands of temperate microclimates) during the last Ice Age. There were many areas even during the coldest part of the Ice Age that satisfied the climate, soil, ecology, and other environmental requirements of early agriculture. They were just closer to the equator.

More likely explanations for the agricultural revolution are probably far less observable:

The crucial role of security for the history of farming may also shed light on the birth of agricultural in the first place. Hunter-gatherers were very knowledgeable about plants and animals, far more than the typical modern. It would not have taken a genius -- and there were many, as their brains were as large as ours -- to figure out that you can plant a seed into the ground and it will grow. There must have been, rather, some severe institutional constraints that prevented agriculture from arising in the first place. The basic problem is that somebody has to protect that seedling for several months from enemies, and then has to harvest it before the enemy (or simply a envious neighbor) does. Security and allocation of property rights between providers of security and providers of farm labor were the intractable problems that took vast amounts of trial and error as well as genius to solve in order for agriculture to take root.

This would also explain how agriculture could spread from a single innovation yet look like independent inventions in the archaeological record. There were at least eight centers of secondary innovations (e.g. crop and livestock domestications and agricultural tools) that look independent: the Middle East, China, India, sub-Saharan Africa, Peru, central America, eastern North America, and New Guinea. But they all occured within a few thousand years of each other, after at least 100,000 years of anatomically modern humans. During these millenia humans were without agriculture despite large numbers of microclimates and microecologies suitable for agriculture during that entire period.

This indicates the slow spread (with many failed attempts and, quite likely, many reversals) of a primary innovation necessary for the use of these secondary innovations. The primary innovation had to be primarily cultural rather than genetic because it came long after the out-migration from Africa c. 80K-40K BP and was taken up by many of the genetically diverse results of that out-migration. Given what we know about the importance of cooperation, institutions, and security to the productivity of human economies, that innovation which slowly spread and made agriculture possible was almost surely an innovation in the culture of cooperation. Alas, the spread of such an innovation in oral culture can be observed at best indirectly in the archaeological record.

This would put the origins of agricultural into the more general large patterns of history, the most important of which are based on the interaction between security and wealth.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Constitution Society

John Roland's is an exceptional resource on United States constitutional law.

Prion evolution

Prions are alternatively folded proteins that catalyze the same alternative foldings in other (usually otherwise identical) proteins. Like DNA, prions can be replicators that undergo Darwinian selection:
...although the prion “option” [analogous to a gene with two alleles] is clearly subject to conventional Darwinian evolution, in the case of [the prion's] natural selection [the prion] is acting on a non-mendelian, non-genetically encoded trait.
Prions are a protein analog of disappearing polymorphs in crystals. With two "options" the prion as replicator only contains one bit of information, but that's enough to make a difference.

One of the most interesting questions raised is when prions will act more like genes (and thus be largely beneficial to the organism) and when will they act more like harmful diseases. Prion diseases include Creutzfeld-Jacob and "mad cow" disease. According to the replicator/vehicle theory described by Richard Dawkins, if the prion passes through a similar reproductive route as a gene it will tend to be selected like a gene and thus evolve to behave more like a gene (in terms of whether its effect on the organism is helpful or harmful, not in terms of its mechanics, where a prion is very unlike a gene). But if the prion passes from one organism to another through some other route (as in the cannibalism route of mad cow disease and kuru) it will be selected more like a disease and thus behave more like a disease.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Democracy as regular rebellion

It's the eve of Independence Day here in the United States, celebrating the American insurgents who broke from England. We did have some good inspiration from the Old Countries, as described by this excerpt from a paper of mine:

In the 1560s, an “intermittent civil war” started between Protestants and Catholics in France. On St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, encouraged by the government authority, mobs murdered “as many as 10,000” Protestants, targeting their leaders. The same year, the Dutch Protestants began their rebellion against the Hapsburg monarchy. Soon thereafter, Theodore Beza, the successor to Calvin, wrote about the right of rebellion and the need to control government so that such rebellion would not be necessary. Beza’s ideas were expanded by an anonymous author, probably the Huguenot Philippe due Plessis-Mornay, in Vindicae Contra Tyrannos. (1579). “If kings commit injustices…they become the enemy,” Plessis-Mornay wrote. But if individuals determined for themselves when to revolt, the result would be violent anarchy. It was, therefore, the role of the Estates and lesser magistrates to guard individual rights against tyrants. According to constitutional historian Scott Gordon, the Huguenots “extended their argumentation to encompass less extreme conflicts between a prince and his subjects. Rebellion is exercised in extremis, but more important are the constraints that operate in ordinary times and bear upon a government that might feel quite secure against insurrection.” The Huguenots and their successors stressed two ways of controlling tyranny that remain crucial to understanding the non-delegation doctrine today: first, control by distributing and checking power; second, control by representation of interests. According to Beza, institutional organs that represent the people “are established to check and bridle the magistrate.”

John Locke elaborated on many of these ideas in his Second Treatise On Government. Since humans are unjust towards each other without government, we must form such a government through a compact with each other. We agree to surrender some of our natural rights so that government can function to preserve the remainder. “Absolute arbitrary power, or governing without settled standing laws, can neither of them consist with the ends of society and government, which men would not quit the freedom of the state of nature for, nor tie themselves up under, were it not to preserve their lives, liberties, and fortunes; and by stated rules of right and property to secure their peace and quiet.” Power is also more dangerous if concentrated: “He being in a much worse condition who is exposed to the arbitrary power of one man who has the command of 100,000, than he that is exposed to the arbitrary power of 100,000 single men.”

When judicial or executive officers distort the law, with the result that injuries go without remedy, the result is nothing less than a state of war. “Where an appeal to the law and constituted judges lies open, but the remedy is denied by a manifest perverting of justice and barefaced wrestling of the laws, to protect or indemnify the violence or injuries of some men or party of men, there it is hard to imagine anything but a state of war. For whenever violence is used and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, however colored with the name, pretences, or forms of law," Locke wrote.


Scott Gordon,Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today (Harvard University Press 1999)

John Locke, The Second Treatise On Government (1691)