Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Ethics of Randomization

I took my surveyors out to dinner last night and asked what we should do differently if we repeated our study. Their responses were all along the lines of: this was good, but next time, you should let us pick who gets the capital grant instead of letting the computer decide. Or, this was good, but next time you should give everyone GHC 200 instead of only half the people. So I had the ethics on randomization on the brain when I listened to a podcast by David Rodin from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Rodin brought up an interesting hypothetical: Say you’re stuck at the bottom of a well, and an innocent fat man gets pushed down the well. The fat man will surely crush you. But you have a ray gun! You can choose to either vaporize the fat man with the ray gun, thereby saving yourself from certain death, or let the fat man fall, thereby ending your own life. What do you do?

David Rodin says that the only ethical choice is to let the fat man fall. The fat man has no agency: he doesn’t want to kill you. He therefore did not forfeit his own right to not be killed. By killing him, you would be taking an innocent life. I’m not convinced.

There are two rights violations in this scenario. The first is the choice by whoever pushed the fat man to kill one of the two of you. The second is that the pusher is forcing you to choose which of two innocent people die, which surely violates your right not to be harassed.

In my mind, the two choices are equally bad. You either end the life of the fat man and live with the fact that you chose to take an innocent life, or let your own life end and make the fat man live with the fact that he squished a saint– someone so altruistic that he took his own like rather than kill one innocent falling fat man.

But what if there’s a third way? What if, as the fat man came careening down on you, you reached in your pocket, took out a coin, and flipped it? Heads, the fat man’s vapor. Tails, you’re jelly.

In my mind, this is the only ethical thing to do because it results in a net decrease in rights violations. The guy who pushed the fat man is still committing one violation of rights by forcing one of you to die, but you rob the pusher-man of the second rights violation of forcing you to choose between lives. Now, the fat man can’t squish a saint and you can’t take an innocent life: whoever lives just got lucky.

So when it comes to questionable acts of self defense involving falling fat men and ray guns, randomization is the only ethical choice. Do you think my surveyors would buy that explanation when it comes to randomizing capital grants?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Critically Important Update!

I know ya'all are just reading this to stay current on my viciously hip hairstyles. Well, I finally went under the knife again today (literally... he took out a razor blade to make some unwelcome finishing touches). I call this one the "So That's What I'll Look Like When I'm 55!" I went back to the creator of the "Egghead". Why? I don't know. I tried to explain how I wanted it to be like last time, only less round... which translated to: "Please shave off the lowest quarter inch of my hairline. I'd really like to know what I'll look like when I start going bald."

I think it's really great that elders are respected in Ghanaian culture. I do. But I'd be OK with just stopping to say hi when I walk by and not emulating their receding hairlines on my 25-year-old forehead.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Haitian Solidarity Concert

Last night the Alliance Frances hosted a Haitian Solidarity concert to raise money for the Red Cross. All the Ghanaian highlife/pop stars performed a song or two gratis. It was great: The soundtrack of my Ghanaian experience, performed live, which let me put a face to the songs I've heard 10 million times. (A Ghanaian friend almost died laughing when, after the song Angelina by Praye I remarked, 'So that's where that song comes from'. Their response: 'Don't you watch TV?' Well... no, apparently not...)

It was also fun to see the Ghanaian community reaching out of Haiti (although much of the audience was foreigners). Haiti's ambassador to Ghana was there, who is apparently Haiti's only ambassador in all of Africa. It was a great reminder that, no matter how much you have, you can always afford to give.

It also led me to discover a Universal Truth: Everyone in the world knows the first 4 words to the first verse of every Bob Marley song. Only true rastafarians and trustafarians know the next four. (There were quite a few touching but sometimes mangled versions of a 'No Women No Cry'/'3 Little Birds' mashup, with the Haiti as the subject).

Friday, January 22, 2010

Nerds Hack Online Dating

Well, it happened. Nerds finally started using internet dating sites. But first, of course, they had to whip out the old statistical analysis software and develop model to maximize their chances of dating a model. The results are here.

Via Marginal Revolution.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What I've Been Reading on Haiti

I'm no expert in disaster relief, but it seems like a lot of the bloggers I follow are -- or at least, have a brother-in-law whose coworker's very good friend is -- so I've been reading a lot about the relief effort. Some of the better posts/articles:

* Nobody wants your old shoes
* What is Haiti poor? Chris Blattman responds to David Brooks
* Tyler Cowen's excellent but unlikely ways to help Haiti
* "Texas in Africa" has a number of excellent posts and links, including the UN picture in this post
* Why is distributing aid in Haiti so difficult?
* A letter to the editor from Satan, re: Pat Robertson

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Earthquakes Go Viral

Yesterday was the quietest day we've ever had in our office, for an unexpected reason: most of our staff woke up in the middle of the night and ran outside. A viral message had spread through text messages and cell phone calls that a major earthquake was imminent and everyone needed to get outside, like, immediately. Our staff is a pretty worldly bunch, so after a bit most of them returned to bed... but, with all the coverage of Haiti, how well would you sleep if your father had just called you up, insisting that the roof was about to fall down?

Everyone was very relieved when a former-geologist-now-survey-printer stopped by (I had recently successfully printed something!) for a very nerdy conversation about fault lines near Ghana and the fact that earthquakes can't be predicted... by scientists:

Me: Nerd nerd fault lines nerdy offshore nerd-nerd.
Geologist-Turned-Printer: Nerdy nerd rock fractures under Accra; nerdy seismic nerd.
Me: Nerd! It's strange that the radio and TV didn't squelch this rumor earlier.
Geologist-Turned-Printer: Haha, yes. There's really no way to predict earthquakes. [Smile drops from face] Unless someone Prophesied it. [Introspective look up and to the left] But there's no way for scientists to predict earthquakes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Blog in 2010

I've given some serious thought to rolling up Ye Olde Blog with the end of 2009. I haven't had much success attracting readers: pageviews peaked (at ~10 per day) around August-September and have steadily declined ever since (to ~2-3 per day). My more popular posts have been stories/observations made in the course of my work, but I've started sending those stories to the IPA blog where I think they will get more exposure. The average quality of my posts has probably declined as a result, so I don't blame anyone who stopped following me.

Basically, I'm weighing the chance that I'll say something stupid and it will come back to bite me against the chance that I'll say something intelligent that will come back to benefit me.

If my goal is to keep family/friends in the loop, I could avoid public exposure by sending group Facebook messages (as now even my grandfather is on Facebook) or something like that. On the other hand, if I ever do stumble upon an idea worth sharing, would I know how to express it if I don't practice?

A dilemma. I think I will keep the blog because I like it, but post irregularly because I know that Mom, Dad and Girlfriend will read it anyway. I might also try out a few different titles and layouts or possibly change the address. And if a goal of the blog is to practice writing, more criticism from my intrepid readers would be helpful.

Any thoughts from Ye Loyal Readership?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Curse of the Free Upgrade

I finally arrived in Ghana at about 2 am this morning, 3 days after I was originally scheduled to arrive. I was supposed to leave on Tuesday, but with the heightened security measures, the weather in England, and some confusion about the departure time, I missed the flight and was put on standby for the next day.

The next day's flight was delayed, but when we eventually left and I was surprised to discover that I my seat was in first class. I should have known something was up: on the way to Boston from Heathrow I had a free upgrade it to "World Traveler Elite", where I got to sit for an extra 4 hours waiting for de-icing. This time the upgrade was to true, seats-lie-flat-champagne-served-from-a-glass-bottle-dinner-options-include-pan-seared-mahi-mahi first class. Very comfy... only this time, we never even made it to our destination.

We were diverted to Glasgow in Scotland, a charming city with an overnight low of -21.5 Celsius, just short of the overnight low in Antarctica of -22 Celsius. Dressed for the tropics, I didn't do much exploring... We spent the night at a Ramada Inn and tried to leave for Heathrow again on Friday morning. I was supposed to be in Ghana on Wednesday, so by now I was understandably cold and tired, and didn't think that I should decline the empty "World Traveler Elite" seat I was offered. Mistake! We were delayed waiting for de-icing again, and by the time I arrived in London and collected my bags, I only had 20 minutes before the flight to Accra was scheduled to leave.

I talked to 3 different agents before I finally found someone willing to print me a boarding pass with so little time. (The others tried to convince me that another night in a frigid hotel would fun, or that Abidjan is close enough to Accra). This agent gave me a 2% chance of making the flight, and I had to beg her to please, please just let me try to make it before she finally printed a boarding pass.

Boarding pass in hand, I was off, elbowing my way through the frequent flier express line security line (I thought I might have to pause to make fisticuffs with an 80 year old who elbowed back), throwing coats, belts and shoes at the X-ray machine, then sprinting through Heathrow terminal 5 with pants drooping and all 3 bags flailing (no time to check luggage, just carried it all right through).

I slid to a stop (no time to put shoes back on) in front of the board to check the gate and..... my flight was delayed. The delay ended up being about 5 hours. (I had a sweet exit row-like seat with no seat in front of it, which explains the delay). If I hadn't begged the women to let me on the flight I never would have known about the delay and would right now be sitting... who knows where, still trying to get back to Ghana.

I don't know how I managed to get so many good seats, but next time I will stick to coach and an on-time arrival. And after seeing this photo, I don't blame the airline company for anything (except perhaps making me miss the flight on Tuesday, but it never arrived at Heathrow, either).

Friday, January 1, 2010

Y2K and Global Warming

The New York Times has a great op-ed today about the great apocalypse of the previous decade, the dreaded Y2K. While the article doesn't make the comparison to our current favorite apocalyptic scenario, global warming, it is hard not to ignore the similarities.

What if global warming turns out to be just as disastrous as Y2K (which is to say, not at all disastrous)? In my view, it's still 100% worth investing as heavily as possible in zero-carbon/low-carbon technologies. Why? Well, if we invest in keeping carbon levels down and global warming is another false alarm, we will have spent millions upon millions modernizing our energy delivery infrastructure and giving a whole host of clean technologies a jump-start in cost effectiveness. The Y2K modernizations similarly "wasted" millions upgrading computer systems, but we were able to put these new systems to use. The return on the money invested might not be positive, but it certainly won't be zero.