Boing Boing 

What happens when actual prisoners play The Prisoner's Dilemma?


The Prisoner's Dilemma is a basic part of game theory. Two prisoners are given the choice between informing on the other, or staying silent. They can't communicate with each other. The choices they make determine how many years in prison they both get.

This analogy/brain game is often used to demonstrate the ways that different people can work with or against each other in economic and social situations. Now, for the first time, scientists have done a study based on The Prisoner's Dilemma that used real prisoners. Instead of time off their sentences, they were given the choice of competing or cooperating to earn goodies like coffee and cigarettes.

And here's the surprise: Compared to college students, the prisoners actually cooperated with each other much more often.

Just having a college savings account can increase chances of a kid going to college

And that's true even if the savings account doesn't have enough money in it to cover a full degree — or even a semester. A study from Washington University in St. Louis has attributed this effect to aspirations. A kid who grows up knowing that their parents and others expect high education — and who grows up thinking about higher ed as an option for them — is more likely to go. That makes sense to me. Anecdotally, my grandparents sold a cow when I was born and put the money into a savings bond college fund. It wasn't much when I turned 18. But it was part of creating a family culture that made college something I planned on doing. The catch to this idea, of course, is the rising cost of college. I was lucky enough to attend school in a time and place (1999, Kansas) where my freshman year only cost me about $2000 a semester.

Hating Millennials - the prejudice you're allowed to boast about

Cartoonist Matt Bors got a spot on CNN for his great, scathing critique of the narrative of the lazy, narcissistic "Millennials," which has gone well beyond "get off my lawn" territory and into the realm of out-and-out demographic prejudice. Click through for the whole thing.

The generation we love to dump on (via Geeks Are Sexy)

Maps of corporate tax-avoidance hairballs

OpenCorporates has a data-visualization tool for peering into the corporate tax-evasion structures of big corporations -- subsidiaries nested like Russian dolls made from Klein bottles:

In Hong Kong, there's a company called Goldman Sachs Structured Products (Asia) Limited. It's controlled by another company called Goldman Sachs (Asia) Finance, registered in Mauritius.

That's controlled by a company in Hong Kong, which is controlled by a company in New York, which is controlled by a company in Delaware, and that company is controlled by another company in Delaware called GS Holdings (Delaware) L.L.C. II.

...Which itself is a subsidiary of the only Goldman you're likely to have heard of, The Goldman Sachs Group in New York City.

That's only one of hundreds of such chains. All told, Goldman Sachs consists of more than 4000 separate corporate entities all over the world, some of which are around ten layers of control below the New York HQ.

Of those companies approximately a third are registered in nations that might be described as tax havens.Indeed, in the world of Goldman Sachs, the Cayman Islands are bigger than South America, and Mauritius is bigger than Africa.

Tim Harford's 2011 book Adapt proposes an ingenious regulatory solution to this problem, explaining how it might have been applied to companies like Lehman, whose complex structures drew out the post-bankruptcy mess for years and years. He suggested that if banks were stress-tested to determine how long they'd take to sort out after a bankruptcy, and then required to keep reserve capital necessary to run all operations through that whole period, they would be strongly incentivized to have the most simple, transparent corporate structures. Otherwise, they'd have to tie up billions of dollars in escrow to keep the doors open in the event that it all collapsed.

OpenCorporates | How complex are corporate structures? (via JWZ)

Lunch with the Financial Times

The Financial Times has regular feature called Lunch with the FT in which a columnist takes someone out for lunch and a long chat, and then reports on both the lunch and the talk. I sat down recently with Tim Harford for very nice steaks and cheap wine, and Tim's just written it up:

Doctorow is clearly fascinated by economic issues, and points out that most science fiction and fantasy economies make no logical sense. The exception, he declares, is when Marxists write science fiction or fantasy. Take the recent Hobbit movie, for example. “How can the goblins have a mine that’s so inefficient?” he laughs, as he pauses from ripping the soft flesh from the marrowbones on his plate with his bare hands.

The porterhouse steak arrives, pre-sliced. It’s very good, charred on the outside but soft and pink beneath the surface. Doctorow has asked for horseradish while I am dipping my steak and chips into béarnaise sauce. The conversation is animated enough to slow our progress, and neither of us raises an eyebrow when a waiter noisily drops something fragile on the other side of the dining room.

So, I ask, if only Marxists get economics right in their novels, does that make Doctorow a Marxist? There’s a tension there, somehow – he’s a successful player in the market economy and fluently speaks the language of business; of profit, marketing reach, margins, and price discrimination. But his political activism seems squarely on the left – pro-labour, pro-equality, pro-rights.

“Marxists and capitalists agree on one thing: they agree that the economy is important. Once we’ve agreed on that we’re arguing over the details,” he says.

Plus, check out that caricature!

Lunch with the FT: Cory Doctorow

Spies clean up in Eve Online

High drama from the world of Eve Online, where a week ago, a spy stole 400 billion ISK, and this week, a trusted player who was secretly a spy masterminded the destruction of a rare ship worth 390 billion ISK (the in-game currency, not to be confused with Icelandic Krona). Eve is notorious for high-denomination economic shenanigans, including a credit crunch, a massive Ponzi scheme, large-scale espionage, another Ponzi scheme, and more.

Bubblenomics: how the Beanie Babies speculators got it wrong

Buzzfeed's Hunter Schwarz revisits 1998's "Scholastic Beanie Baby Handbook," which predicted values of Beanie Babies in 2008, and compares them to the current-day eBay clearing price for these same speculative items. For example, the Stripes the Dark Tiger doll, which retailed for $5 and traded for $250 in 1998 was predicted to rise to $1,000. Today it can be had on eBay for $9.95. And the $4,000-$5,000 estimated 2008 value for the Violet Teddy was also way off, though Violet is today a $700 item ($700 was also what it traded for in 1998).

How Much Beanie Babies Were Predicted To Be Worth Vs. How Much They’re Really Worth (via Digg)

Why health insurance makes no sense

Two doctors have written a really fascinating analysis of the history and economics of health insurance that will make our current U.S. system seem even more ridonculous than it already did.

Austerity: the greatest bait-and-switch in history

Mark Blyth, a delightfully sweary Scottish economist, talks for about an hour to Googlers about the stupidity of austerity as a means of recovering from recession, describing it in colorful, easy-to-grasp language. This is brilliant, accessible and important economics:

Governments today in both Europe and the United States have succeeded in casting government spending as reckless wastefulness that has made the economy worse. In contrast, they have advanced a policy of draconian budget cuts--austerity--to solve the financial crisis. We are told that we have all lived beyond our means and now need to tighten our belts. This view conveniently forgets where all that debt came from. Not from an orgy of government spending, but as the direct result of bailing out, recapitalizing, and adding liquidity to the broken banking system. Through these actions private debt was rechristened as government debt while those responsible for generating it walked away scot free, placing the blame on the state, and the burden on the taxpayer.

That burden now takes the form of a global turn to austerity, the policy of reducing domestic wages and prices to restore competitiveness and balance the budget. The problem, according to political economist Mark Blyth, is that austerity is a very dangerous idea. First of all, it doesn't work. As the past four years and countless historical examples from the last 100 years show, while it makes sense for any one state to try and cut its way to growth, it simply cannot work when all states try it simultaneously: all we do is shrink the economy. In the worst case, austerity policies worsened the Great Depression and created the conditions for seizures of power by the forces responsible for the Second World War: the Nazis and the Japanese military establishment. As Blyth amply demonstrates, the arguments for austerity are tenuous and the evidence thin. Rather than expanding growth and opportunity, the repeated revival of this dead economic idea has almost always led to low growth along with increases in wealth and income inequality. Austerity demolishes the conventional wisdom, marshaling an army of facts to demand that we recognize austerity for what it is, and what it costs us.

Mark Blyth: Austerity - The History of a Dangerous Idea (via Memex 1.1)

How markets allow people to violate their moral codes

Here's a press-release describing a paywalled paper in Science magazine, written by a pair of University of Bonn Economists. They conducted an experiment that showed how markets diffused responsibility for actions that ended up violating individual moral codes, so that people did things in market contexts that they had previously described as immoral when done individually.

"To study immoral outcomes, we studied whether people are willing to harm a third party in exchange to receiving money. Harming others in an intentional and unjustified way is typically considered unethical," says Prof. Falk. The animals involved in the study were so-called "surplus mice", raised in laboratories outside Germany. These mice are no longer needed for research purposes. Without the experiment, they would have all been killed. As a consequence of the study many hundreds of young mice that would otherwise all have died were saved. If a subject decided to save a mouse, the experimenters bought the animal. The saved mice are perfectly healthy and live under best possible lab conditions and medical care.

A subgroup of subjects decided between life and money in a non-market decision context (individual condition). This condition allows for eliciting moral standards held by individuals. The condition was compared to two market conditions in which either only one buyer and one seller (bilateral market) or a larger number of buyers and sellers (multilateral market) could trade with each other. If a market offer was accepted a trade was completed, resulting in the death of a mouse. Compared to the individual condition, a significantly higher number of subjects were willing to accept the killing of a mouse in both market conditions. This is the main result of the study. Thus markets result in an erosion of moral values. "In markets, people face several mechanisms that may lower their feelings of guilt and responsibility," explains Nora Szech. In market situations, people focus on competition and profits rather than on moral concerns. Guilt can be shared with other traders. In addition, people see that others violate moral norms as well.

"If I don't buy or sell, someone else will."

Markets Erode Moral Values (via Reddit)

Spirit Level documentary: how economic inequality is bad for the world

Here's a 2-minute preview of "The Spirit Level," a documentary based on the the bestselling book about the way that income equality is better for society, and how 30 years of economic policy has made everything much, much worse. The doc is funded by a successful Kickstarter, but they're still looking for pre-orders.


Forging £1 coins is apparently profitable

Three men have been convicted of forging £1 coins. The London Police Detective Inspector even got all quippy about the sentencing ("These three men are organised criminals who were intent on undermining the UK monetary system. There is nothing fake about the reality they must now face of life behind bars." -- yes, yes, very clever DI South) but what fascinates me about the story is that it can somehow be profitable to forge £1 coins.

I got passed a fake pound shortly after I first moved to the UK, almost ten years go; it was a foil-wrapped plastic slug. Not realizing it was fake, I tried to buy something with it at a corner shop and the cashier pressed it edge-on on his counter and the foil split open, revealing the green plastic disc inside.

From the sound of this article, these fakes were solid metal, which, I think, would make them more expensive than the fake I got. When you add the costs of the materials, the wages for the manufacturing process, warehousing, the discount for counterfeit cash, etc, it's hard to believe that this was worth anyone's while.

On the other hand, it's probably easier to go on counterfeiting when you're passing very small denominations as most people (me included) won't bother going to the cops over a mere pound; and it's much harder to remember where a given pound coin came from than a £20 note.

The court heard Fisher, of Rags Lane in Goffs Oak, Hertfordshire, Sullivan, of Bancroft Chase in Hornchurch, east London, and Abbott were arrested during an undercover police operation in Essex last May.

Police found a storage container with 1.6 million metal discs inside and fake coins equivalent to £20,000.

Fake coins equivalent to a further £30,000 were found in a nearby car.

Three men jailed over 'largest' fake £1 coin plot [BBC]

(Image: Yet another forged pound coin, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from pahudson's photostream)

In-game hyperinflation

Here's a totally amazing and fascinating story about hyperinflation crashing the economy of Blizzard's massively multiplayer online RPG Diablo 3. Blizzard blew its economic strategy for Diablo 3 by making the "sinks" (places where gold is taken out of the economy) unattractive, adding in real-money-for-stuff trades, and then letting a bug run wild. Before you knew it, players were loading up virtual wheelbarrows full of virtual gold to buy virtual bread:

This was demonstrated when, in a message board entry prefaced by stating “Sell Equipment before Patch 1.0.5 Hits!” (a patch is a piece of software added to an operational program or application as bugs are found, changes desired, or ways of improving performance discovered), a player warned that,

Blizzard just announced that the drop rates for [certain] items are going to be doubled … if you haven’t already, you should consider converting your current gear to cash … since real $ [are] the best hedge against gold devaluation[.][11]

If historical cases of hyperinflation — real, and now virtual — have one thing in common, it is the instinct among its victims to blame the symptoms rather than the disease. The Austrian economist Hans Sennholz noted that during the German hyperinflation, “intrigue and artifice” were believed to be at work.[12] Similarly, a handful of Diablo 3 players, frustrated about the decimation of their purchasing power, expressed increasing suspicion of manipulation and conspiracy theories.

[W]hy [are] certain items priced [s]o astronomically high? Many of them are not even that good yet cost 100’s of millions of gold. … I have about 45,000,000 gold saved up [and] check every few days to see if I can get any upgrades that are worth the gold, but … everything is vastly overpriced … clearly controlled by the gold sellers.[13]

In case you missed it, I wrote a book about this.

A Virtual Weimar: Hyperinflation in a Video Game World (Thanks, Tom Keller!)

Bruce Sterling on startups' role in helping the global rich get richer

Bruce Sterling's speech from NEXT Berlin is a blast of cold air on the themes of startup life, disruption, and global collapse. Bruce excoriates the startup world for its complicity with the conspiracy of the global investor class to vastly increase the wealth of a tiny minority, and describes the role that "design fiction" has in changing this.

Bruce Sterling on Fantasy prototypes and real disruption | NEXT Berlin (via Die Puny Humans)

Why the most horrible apple in the world is also the most grown

Despite almost universal agreement that basically defines "so boring as to become disgusting", the Red Delicious apple continues to be the most-grown variety in the US. More than 50,000 bushels of the vile things are turned out every year. This story by Rowan Jacobsen in Mother Jones explains the Red Delicious' undeserved success and follows the stories of entrepreneurs who are trying to bring back varieties of apple long lost to the consumer market.

Austerity economics only works if you make an Excel formula error

A new paper called Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin from UMass Amherst tries and fails to replicate the classic work on austerity, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff's 2010 Growth in a Time of Debt.

Reinhart-Rogoff is the main research cited in favor of cutting public services and spending in bad economic times. It's a big part of why the local library is shutting down, why they're kicking people out of public housing, shutting down arts programs, slashing education and public transit, and laying off public employees. It purports to show that countries with high debt-to-GDP ratios of 90 percent or more are a "threat to sustainable economic growth."

In the new Amherst paper, the authors reexamine Reinhart-Rogoff's original data and conclude that the numbers don't add up. They show that Reinhart-Rogoff cherry-picked which years of high-debt GDP they measure, that they put their thumbs on the scales with "unconventional weighting" and made a "coding error" that "entirely excludes five countries, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark." This last error -- literally the wrong formula in a spreadsheet cell -- badly skews the outcome.

Here's the tl;dr: "the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0.1 percent as [Reinhart-Rogoff claim]."

Selective Exclusions. Reinhart-Rogoff use 1946-2009 as their period, with the main difference among countries being their starting year. In their data set, there are 110 years of data available for countries that have a debt/GDP over 90 percent, but they only use 96 of those years. The paper didn't disclose which years they excluded or why.

Herndon-Ash-Pollin find that they exclude Australia (1946-1950), New Zealand (1946-1949), and Canada (1946-1950). This has consequences, as these countries have high-debt and solid growth. Canada had debt-to-GDP over 90 percent during this period and 3 percent growth. New Zealand had a debt/GDP over 90 percent from 1946-1951. If you use the average growth rate across all those years it is 2.58 percent. If you only use the last year, as Reinhart-Rogoff does, it has a growth rate of -7.6 percent. That's a big difference, especially considering how they weigh the countries.

Unconventional Weighting. Reinhart-Rogoff divides country years into debt-to-GDP buckets. They then take the average real growth for each country within the buckets. So the growth rate of the 19 years that the U.K. is above 90 percent debt-to-GDP are averaged into one number. These country numbers are then averaged, equally by country, to calculate the average real GDP growth weight.

In case that didn't make sense, let's look at an example. The U.K. has 19 years (1946-1964) above 90 percent debt-to-GDP with an average 2.4 percent growth rate. New Zealand has one year in their sample above 90 percent debt-to-GDP with a growth rate of -7.6. These two numbers, 2.4 and -7.6 percent, are given equal weight in the final calculation, as they average the countries equally. Even though there are 19 times as many data points for the U.K.

Now maybe you don't want to give equal weighting to years (technical aside: Herndon-Ash-Pollin bring up serial correlation as a possibility). Perhaps you want to take episodes. But this weighting significantly reduces the average; if you weight by the number of years you find a higher growth rate above 90 percent. Reinhart-Rogoff don't discuss this methodology, either the fact that they are weighing this way or the justification for it, in their paper.

Researchers Finally Replicated Reinhart-Rogoff, and There Are Serious Problems. [Mike Konczal/Next New Deal]

Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff

(via Techdirt)

American oligopolies are the new monopolies

Tim Wu sez, "I wrote something quick in the New Yorker about America's big blind spot when it comes to big business -- if its not a monopoly, its no problem, so highly concentrated industries can get away with whatever they want."

This blind spot is of particular significance during an age when oligopolies, not monopolies, rule. Consider Barry Lynn’s 2011 book, “Cornered,” which carefully detailed the rising concentration and consolidation of nearly every American industry since the nineteen-eighties. He found that dominance by two or three firms “is not the exception in the United States, but increasingly the rule.” Consumers, easily misled by product labelling, often don’t even notice that products like sunglasses, pet food, or numerous others come from just a few giants. For example, while drugstores seem to offer unlimited choices in toothpaste, just two firms, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, control more than eighty per cent of the market (including seemingly independent brands like Tom’s of Maine).

The press confuses oligopoly and monopoly with some regularity. The Atlantic ran a recent infographic titled “The Return of the Monopoly,” describing rising concentration in airlines, grocery sales, music, and other industries. With the exception of Intel in computer chips, none of the industries described, however, was actually a monopoly—all were oligopolies. So while The Atlantic is right about what’s happening, it sounds the wrong alarm. We know how to fight monopolies, but few seem riled at “The Return of the Oligopoly.”

Things were not always thus. Back in the mid-century, the Justice Department went after oligopolistic cartels in the tobacco industry and Hollywood with the same vigor it chased Standard Oil, the quintessential monopoly trust. In the late nineteen-seventies, another high point of enforcement, oligopolies were investigated by the Federal Trade Commission, and during that era Richard Posner, then a professor at Stanford Law School, went as far as to argue that when firms maintain the same prices, even without a smoke-filled-room agreement, they ought to be considered members of a price-fixing conspiracy. (By this logic, the Delta and US Airways shuttles between New York and Washington, D.C., would probably be price-fixers, since their prices do vary by how far in advance you buy, but are always identical.)

The Oligopoly Problem

Elite Panic: why rich people think all people are monsters

Here's a quote on "Elite Panic" from Rebecca Solnit, It's an idea I'm fascinated by, particularly the notion that if you believe that people are fundamentally a mob waiting to rise up and loot but for the security state, you will build a security state that turns people into a mob of would-be looters.

The term "elite panic" was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster -- Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke -- proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.

Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don't become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface -- that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn't actually happen; it's tragic.

But there's also an elite fear -- going back to the 19th century -- that there will be urban insurrection. It's a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the '85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.

I've just ordered her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. This is basically what I was talking about here, when I described the idea I hoped to capture in the prequel to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

BOMB Magazine: Rebecca Solnit by Astra Taylor

(via Schneier)

Summary of experimentally verified pricing heuristics

A post on ConversionXL sums up a bunch of experiments on pricing and suggests ways of combining them to best effect. All electronic goods can be had for free, so every person who buys an electronic good is essentially entering into a voluntary transaction. Getting pricing right is the best way to convince (rather than coerce) customers to pay, and to frame that payment so that it's as large as possible.

Researches found that sale price markers (with the old price mentioned) were more powerful than mere prices ending with the number nine. In the following split test, the left one won:

9 not so magical after all? Not so fast!

Then they they split tested the winner above with a similar tag, but which had $39 instead of $40:

This had the strongest effect of all.

I’m wondering whether the effect of this price tag could be increased by reducing the font size of $39. Say what?

Marketing professors at Clark University and The University of Connecticut found that consumers perceive sale prices to be a better value when the price is written in a small font rather than a large, bold typeface. In our minds, physical magnitude is related to numerical magnitude.

Pricing Experiments You Might Not Know, But Can Learn From (via O'Reilly Radar)

The Sharing Economy

Glenn Fleishman, in his first cover story for The Economist, tracks how technology is making it easier to share everything from bicycles to basement bedrooms—for a price.
Such peer-to-peer rental schemes provide handy extra income for owners and can be less costly and more convenient for borrowers. Occasional renting is cheaper than buying something outright or renting from a traditional provider such as a hotel or car-rental firm. The internet makes it cheaper and easier than ever to aggregate supply and demand. Smartphones with maps and satellite positioning can find a nearby room to rent or car to borrow. Online social networks and recommendation systems help establish trust; internet payment systems can handle the billing. All this lets millions of total strangers rent things to each other. The result is known variously as “collaborative consumption”, the “asset-light lifestyle”, the “collaborative economy”, “peer economy”, “access economy” or “sharing economy”.

The flies in the ointment: insurance, liability, and laws that favor incumbent industries.

Twenty Four Standard Causes of Human Misjudgement

A great post on Metafilter turned me on to "Twenty Four Standard Causes of Human Misjudgement," a classic 1995 speech by Charlie Munger (much cited, and transcribed here in PDF), in which Munger (a respected investor and partner to Warren Buffet) lays out, in plain language, the cognitive biases and blind-spots that he views as the root of much human misery.

Munger's thinking is greatly influenced by Robert Cialdini's classic popular psychology text Influence, a title that Munger credits with laying out many of the blind spots of both economics and psychology. Munger's thinking is collected in another book: Poor Charlie's Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger.

I converted the talk to MP3 and listened to it twice today. I think I'll return to it again -- this feels like one of those mind-dumps that contains so much to pore over that it might be a work of years.

Stag Hunts: fascinating and useful game theory model for collective action problems

Yesterday, I wrote about some Johns Hopkins students who overcame a game theory problem and got an A for the whole class. I called it a non-iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, but as Tim Harford points out, it's more of a Stag Hunt, a game theory category that I hadn't been aware of, and which has fascinating implications for lots of domains, including Internet peering:

In the stag hunt, two hunters must each decide whether to hunt the stag together or hunt rabbits alone. Half a stag is better than a brace of rabbits, but the stag will only be brought down with a combined effort. Rabbits, on the other hand, can be hunted by an individual without any trouble.

There are two rational outcomes to the stag hunt: either both hunters hunt the stag as a team, or each hunts rabbits by himself. Each would prefer to co-operate in hunting the stag, but if the other player’s motives or actions are uncertain, the rabbit hunt is a risk-free alternative.

Right on queue

(Image: [ C ] Lucas Cranach - Stag Hunt of the Elector John Frederick, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from centralasian's photostream)

Using Silk Road: game theory, economics, dope and anonymity

Gwern's "Using Silk Road" is a riveting, fantastically detailed account of the theory and practice of Silk Road, a Tor-anonymized drugs-and-other-stuff marketplace where transactions are generally conducted with BitCoins. Gwern explains in clear language how the service solves many of the collective action problems inherent to running illicit marketplaces without exposing the buyers and sellers to legal repercussions and simultaneously minimizing ripoffs from either side. It's a tale of remix-servers, escrows, economics, and rational risk calculus -- and dope.

But as any kidnapper knows, you can communicate your demands easily enough, but how do you drop off the victim and grab the suitcase of cash without being nabbed? This has been a severe security problem forever. And bitcoins go a long way towards resolving it. So the additional security from use of Bitcoin is nontrivial. As it happened, I already had some bitcoins. (Typically, one buys bitcoins on an exchange like Mt.Gox; the era of easy profitable "mining" passed long ago.) Tor was a little more tricky, but on my Debian system, it required simply following the official install guide: apt-get install the Tor and Polipo programs, stick in the proper config file, and then install the Torbutton. Alternately, one could use the Tor browser bundle which packages up the Tor daemon, proxy, and a web browser all configured to work together; I’ve never used it but I have heard it is convenient. (I also usually set my Tor installation to be a Tor server as well - this gives me both more anonymity, speeds up my connections since the first hop/connection is unnecessary, and helps the Tor network & community by donating bandwidth.)

Using Silk Road (via O'Reilly Radar)

Logic of surveillance and problems of the enforcer class

Ian Welsh's piece on the "logic of surveillance" makes several good points, but this one really smacked me in the face: "The enforcer paid in large part by practical immunity to many laws and a license to abuse ordinary people."

Surveillance is part of the system of control. The more surveillance the more control, is the majority belief amongst the ruling elites. Automated surveillance requires fewer “watchers”, and since the watchers cannot watch all the surveillance, long term storage increases the ability to find some “crime” anyone is guilty of. When you add in recognition systems based on face, gait or other procedures, you have the theoretical ability to track a person from the moment they leave their home till they return to it. Other measures make it possible to see what people are doing in their own homes (IR heat maps, for example.) A world in which everyone is tracked all the time is very possible.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

This is one of the biggest problems the current elites face: they want the smallest enforcer class possible, so as to spend surplus on other things. The enforcer class is also insular, primarily concerned with itself (see Dorner) and is paid in large part by practical immunity to many laws and a license to abuse ordinary people. Not being driven primarily by justice and a desire to serve the public and with a code of honor which appears to largely center around self-protection and fraternity within the enforcer class, the enforcers reliability of the enforcers is in question: they are blunt tools and their fear for themselves makes them remarkably inefficient.

The Logic of Surveillance (via Naked Capitalism)

(Image: Surveillance, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from jonathanmcintosh's photostream)

Economist valentines

Liz Fosslien offers 14 graphs explaining love from the perspective of a twitterpated economist.

Economic recovery in the US actually made 99% of Americans poorer, top 1% captured 121% of gains

"Striking it Richer," a paper by Emmanuel Saez (an economist at UC Berkeley) looks at the way that the dividends of the slow US "economic recovery" have been distributed. Saez finds that 121% of the economic gains since 2009 have been captured by the richest 1% of Americans -- in other words, despite economic growth, the poorest 99% of Americans actually got poorer through the "recovery."

This confirms a pattern that Matt Stoller highlighted: that income inequality increased more under Obama than under Bush. And the new Saez paper also describes how it came about. In short form, income to the top 1% is significantly influenced by capital gains. Remember, the tax reporting is not clean here: rising equity and bond markets help all those private equity and hedge fund professionals, who are able to get capital gains treatment for what ought to be labor income. But the paper also stresses that the lower orders were hit hard in the aftermath of the global financial crisis than in the dot-bomb era, which also saw a big drop in capital gains. That isn’t as hard to understand. The collapse of the dot-com mania didn’t impair the real economy overmuch because it was not fueled in a meaningful way by borrowings. By contrast, the housing bubble, and more important (in terms of damage to the financial system) the much housing exposure created synthetically by CDOs that consisted entirely or mainly of credit default swaps was highly geared, hence when it collapsed, it took credit providers down with it.

Yes, Virginia, the Rich Continue to Get Richer: the Top 1% Got 121% of Income Gains Since 2009 [Yves Smith/Naked Capitalism]

I will trade you 12 sheep for 1 barrel of non-renewable hydrocarbons

What would Settlers of Catan be like if you added oil wells to the already potent resource mix of sheep, wood, ore, brick, and grain? The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds out when reporter Ann Griswold sits in on a game of Catan: Oil Springs.

HOWTO recover your stolen car

From an email sent to author Tyler Cowen by a reader:

Oh, and here’s a tip I hope you never need: if your car is ever stolen, your first calls should be to every cab company in the city. You offer a $50 reward to the driver who finds it AND a $50 reward to the dispatcher on duty when the car is found. The latter is to encourage dispatchers on shift to continually remind drivers of your stolen car. Of course you should call the police too but first things first. There are a lot more cabs than cops so cabbies will find it first -and they’re more frequently going in places cops typically don’t go, like apartment and motel complex parking lots, back alleys etc. Lastly, once the car is found, a swarm of cabs will descend and surround it because cabbies, like anyone else, love excitement and want to catch bad guys. Cabbies know a lot of stuff*. I found a traveling shoplifting ring in Phoenix once. Professional shoplifters always take cabs. So do strippers going to work but that’s another story.

Taxis and the shortest route home (from my email) (via Kottke)

Three more Merchant Princes books due

Here's a bit of good news: Charlie Stross has sold another trilogy in his fantastic Merchant Princes series, a highly original take on heroic fantasy, with the DHS and real-world economics thrown in for spice. "

The Parable of the Ox: podcast explains the disastrous separation of financial markets from the real economy

An excellent recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 math/current affairs show "More or Less" dramatized "The Parable of the Ox," a short article by John Kay originally published in the Financial Times (paywalled, alas, or I'd link to it available from Kay's site). Fans of James Surowiecki's Wisdom of the Crowds will know the first part of this story -- wherein the average of several guesses about the weight of an ox was more accurate than the guesses of any of the experts in the crowd. What this podcast and the article adds is a coda about how the use of "guesses" (or stock trades) as a way of weighing the ox quickly departed from guesses about the weight of the ox (or the value of a firm) and turned into guesses about other peoples' guesses about other peoples' guesses -- a financialized system that soon has no connection to the real economy or the real ox. And it ends, predictably enough, when the ox dies.

The Parable of the Ox [More or Less]


The parable of the ox [John Kay]