MonthMay 2009

The economics of comic book universes

Aside from physical capital, economies must take advantage of their human capital to grow. But even with metahumans this is a tricky proposition. In an earlier post Mark discussed the potential benefits of having mutants performing tasks such as construction if they ever took a break from blowing stuff up. However, looking at economic development through the lens of the Solow model I feel that these mutants may ultimately prove unable to increase long-run living standards. Any effect that Magneto may have on productivity will only temporarily move the economy to a higher steady-state output per person (y/n). With his death the economy will move back to where it was (and probably experience some unpleasant distortions during the transition). The reason is that Magneto is essentially no different than a tractor or any other piece of capital equipment. He ages, depreciates and eventually dies. More importantly however, is the basic result of the Solow model: sustained growth in y/n can only be achieved if there is concurrent growth in our stock of knowledge and technology, something Magneto cannot contribute to. Without technological change, the economy will eventually reach a steady-state level of y/n and all growth will cease. Even so, the Marvel universe does have one ace in the hole, and he’s got a big green head!

That’s from the post Alien Technology and Economic Growth: Lessons from Solow from Eco-Comics, a blog dedicated to studying the economics of comic book universes.

(Thanks MathPunk)

Former Poor Farm will help feed county’s poor

A blackberry-infested plot of land once farmed by indigent people at the former Multnomah County Poor Farm is being reclaimed to feed the poor again.

Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen is spearheading a campaign to convert one to two acres of county surplus land north of McMenamins Edgefield Manor in Troutdale into a temporary organic farm to combat hunger. Volunteers will harvest enough fresh produce this growing season to feed 240 people for 24 weeks, Cogen estimated.

Cogen will ask fellow members of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on May 28 to approve $22,000 in county funds to buy materials. But he’s already secured commitments for private donors to repay $15,000 of that, and expects the rest of that sum will be raised privately.

Portland Tribune: Former Poor Farm will help feed county’s poor

Energy, Moore’s Law, and Substitution

We will likely adapt, but not in the way anticipated. The most likely adaption will come in the form of a substrate shift. A shift in the underlying model of the global economy to one that is much, much more energy efficient. This shift isn’t seen the small and peripheral gains in efficiency we see in the work of Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute.

Instead, it’s a global judo move that flips everything on its back. A core change to our fundamental economic and social model that substitutes physically moving products globally to virtually moving information about products. Where virtual presence is substituted for actual visitation and nothing is made that isn’t bought.

It’s a place where you telecommute to work if you sell goods and services globally. Where all production is increasingly and inexorably local, from food to energy to consumer products.

Global Guerrillas: Energy, Moore’s Law, and Substitution

I like that Robb points out that alternative energy need not meet or exceed our current level of energy use to live comfortable, contemporary lifestyles – we can use energy more efficiently (and if energy prices rise exponentially, we’ll start seeing more and more efficiency).

Robb doesn’t mention coal, though. We still have preposterous amounts of it, and barring policy intervention to curb its use, I don’t see it going anywhere – at least not until alternatives like solar, wind, and geothermal can start to compete on price.

Which leaves oil as the major problem.

Alexander R. Galloway interviewed on Protocol

“Protocol” emerges from a problem. The problem is an historical one: What is the system of organization and control that is endemic to the distributed networks that currently encompass the globe? And further: How do the specific transformations within material life bring into being a set of participatory techniques and behaviors? The concept of protocol is an attempt to “give a face” to this hitherto faceless form. But in giving a face to the formerly defaced a new cycle begins, one in which–I hope–the very asymmetry of historical transformation can be met and understood within one’s own discourse without glamorizing one component or the other (the tree or the rhizome).

Culture and Communication: We Are the Gold Farmers

See also: Essay on Galloway’s book Protocol (PDF)

Markets, Antimarkets and the Fate of the Nutrient Cycles

From the point of view of this essay, that is, as far as the distinction between markets and antimarkets is concerned, the splitting open of the nutrient cycles had important consequences. Every input to food production which came from outside the farm (not only fertilizers but also insecticides and herbicides) was one more point of entry for antimarkets, and hence, it implied a further loss of control by the food producers. While a century and a half ago farms produced most of what they needed (and hence ran on tight nutrient cycles), today American farms receive up to seventy percent of their inputs (including seed) from the outside. (7) Worse yet, the advent of direct genetic manipulation has allowed large corporations to intensify this dependency.

Although most of the early technical innovations in biotechnology were created by small companies engaged in market relations, antimarket organizations, using the economic power which their large size gives them, readily absorbed these innovators through vertical and horizontal integration. Moreover, these antimarkets were in many cases the same ones which already owned seed and fertilizer/pesticide divisions. Hence, rather than transferring genes for pest-resistance into new crop plants (thus freeing food producers from the need to buy pesticides) these corporations permanently fixed dependence on chemicals into the genetic base of the crops.

Ars Electronica: Markets, Antimarkets and the Fate of the Nutrient Cycles

This is the best case I’ve read for organic farming: a reduction in outside dependencies (ie, resilience).

The Case for Working with Your Hands

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work. […]

An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count — not least, the exercise of your own powers of reason.

Ultimately it is enlightened self-interest, then, not a harangue about humility or public-spiritedness, that will compel us to take a fresh look at the trades. The good life comes in a variety of forms. This variety has become difficult to see; our field of aspiration has narrowed into certain channels. But the current perplexity in the economy seems to be softening our gaze. Our peripheral vision is perhaps recovering, allowing us to consider the full range of lives worth choosing. For anyone who feels ill suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.

New York Times: The Case for Working With Your Hands

(via OVO)

The problem described here cuts both ways: young people with no interest in aptitude in academics are not only being deprived useful training in the trades in the public schools system, but are dragging down their more academically oriented peers. The result is a large population of mediocre high school graduates, who have learned next to nothing when they enter college or trade schools.

I, for one, have never been good at nor enjoyed “working with my hands.” And it’s not for lack of trying. But I certainly relate to the problem of the overly abstracted, disconnected work place.

At the Bridge Table, Clues to a Lucid Old Age

So far, scientists here have found little evidence that diet or exercise affects the risk of dementia in people over 90. But some researchers argue that mental engagement — doing crossword puzzles, reading books — may delay the arrival of symptoms. And social connections, including interaction with friends, may be very important, some suspect. In isolation, a healthy human mind can go blank and quickly become disoriented, psychologists have found.

“There is quite a bit of evidence now suggesting that the more people you have contact with, in your own home or outside, the better you do” mentally and physically, Dr. Kawas said. “Interacting with people regularly, even strangers, uses easily as much brain power as doing puzzles, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is what it’s all about.”

New York Times: At the Bridge Table, Clues to a Lucid Old Age

An article about Red Bull drinking 92 year old bridge players is a good compliment to this New Yorker article about 20 and 30 somethings trying to squeeze as much performance out of their brains as possible.

See also:

Blue Zones

5 real products of the 90s cyberpunk & transhumanist hype

Could Caffeine Reduce Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease?

Also, whenever I start to worry about growing older, I take comfort in what Alejandro Jodorowsky had to say in this interview:

You’re 77 now. How are you coping with growing older?

It’s fantastic! I like it a lot. I don’t want to change myself. If you said, Do you want to be 40 years old [again] and I would say, maybe my body, but not my mind. It’s a nightmare, a social nightmare to get old – to get Parkinson’s, to become an idiot, but every day the brain is making new connections and is developing, like the universe. Your soul is getting better and better because you are losing what is not necessary. It’s fantastic to get old! It’s an incredible feeling of freedom, incredible!

European Innovation Scoreboard

  • Sweden, Finland, Germany, Denmark and the UK are the Innovation leaders, with innovation performance well above that of the EU average and all other countries. Of these countries, Germany is improving its performance fastest while Denmark is stagnating.
  • Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, France and the Netherlands are the Innovation followers, with innovation performance below those of the innovation leaders but above that the EU average. Ireland’s performance has been increasing fastest within this group, followed by Austria.
  • Cyprus, Estonia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy are the Moderate innovators, with innovation performance below the EU average. The trend in Cyprus’ innovation performance is well above the average for this group, followed by Portugal, while Spain and Italy are not improving their relative position.
  • Malta, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Latvia and Bulgaria are the Catching-up countries with innovation performance well below the EU average. All of these countries have been catching up, with the exception of Lithuania. Bulgaria and Romania have been improving their performance the fastest.
  • Beerken’s Blog: European Innovation Scoreboard

    Will Higher Education Be the Next Bubble to Burst?

    Is it possible that higher education might be the next bubble to burst? Some early warnings suggest that it could be.

    With tuitions, fees, and room and board at dozens of colleges now reaching $50,000 a year, the ability to sustain private higher education for all but the very well-heeled is questionable. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent — more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice the rate of medical care. Patrick M. Callan, the center’s president, has warned that low-income students will find college unaffordable.

    Meanwhile, the middle class, which has paid for higher education in the past mainly by taking out loans, may now be precluded from doing so as the private student-loan market has all but dried up. In addition, endowment cushions that allowed colleges to engage in steep tuition discounting are gone. Declines in housing valuations are making it difficult for families to rely on home-equity loans for college financing. Even when the equity is there, parents are reluctant to further leverage themselves into a future where job security is uncertain.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education: Will Higher Education Be the Next Bubble to Burst?

    (via Beerken’s Blog)

    Vaguely related: Although I’ve trash talked grad school here in recent times, I’ve been thinking about going to grad school for organizational psychology. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

    Netherlands to close prisons for lack of criminals

    The Dutch justice ministry has announced it will close eight prisons and cut 1,200 jobs in the prison system. A decline in crime has left many cells empty.

    During the 1990s the Netherlands faced a shortage of prison cells, but a decline in crime has since led to overcapacity in the prison system. The country now has capacity for 14,000 prisoners but only 12,000 detainees.

    Deputy justice minister Nebahat Albayrak announced on Tuesday that eight prisons will be closed, resulting in the loss of 1,200 jobs. Natural redundancy and other measures should prevent any forced lay-offs, the minister said.

    The overcapacity is a result of the declining crime rate, which the ministry’s research department expects to continue for some time.

    NRC: Netherlands to close prisons for lack of criminals

    (via Cryptogon)


    1. If certain politicians and pundits are to believed, The Netherlands has been experiencing a crime epidemic as the result of rampant immigration. Could it be that this was only xenophobic scare mongering?

    2. What would happen in the US if prison populations were to decline? Also, since the US has been experiencing overall reductions in crime over time as well, why is our prison population not decreasing? What is the key difference between the US and the the Netherlands in this regard?

    Update: I forgot to give link back to Cryptogon early. Many apologies.

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