Saturday, January 07, 2017

From the Archives: Justin Bieber, Gary Becker, and the future of marijuana prohibition

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on January 7, 2013. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Justin Bieber, Gary Becker, and the future of marijuana prohibition

What do teen heartthrob Justin Bieber and a Nobel prize-winning economist have in common?

It turns out that both, in their own way, have made a strong argument in favor of ending the War on Drugs.

Bieber, the Canadian singer and actor, was allegedly caught on film smoking a blunt (marijuana in a cigar wrapper), as reported by celebrity gossip site TMZ. The incident occurred not long after Bieber was involved in a traumatic accident that resulted in the death of a paparazzo trying to photograph the teen idol in his white Ferrari on a Los Angeles street.

Soon after the photographs surfaced, Bieber tweeted to his fans: “everyday growing and learning. trying to be better. u get knocked down, u get up” – not an apology but a subtle acknowledgment that the allegations may have substance.

Losing the war

The same day that TMZ published the Bieber photos, Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker published an article in the Wall Street Journal asking, “Have We Lost the War on Drugs?

Becker and his co-author, University of Chicago economist Kevin Murphy, point out that the “paradox of the war on drugs is that the harder governments push the fight, the higher drug prices become to compensate for the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. This is why larger drug gangs often benefit from a tougher war on drugs, especially if the war mainly targets small-fry dealers and not the major drug gangs. Moreover, to the extent that a more aggressive war on drugs leads dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption, an increase in enforcement can exacerbate the costs imposed on society.”

Becker and Murphy argue for, at the very least, decriminalizing now-illegal drugs, as Colorado and Washington state voters did with regard to marijuana in last November's election.

“Decriminalization of all drugs by the U.S. would be a major positive step away from the war on drugs,” the economists said in the Wall Street Journal.

“In recent years, states have begun to decriminalize marijuana, one of the least addictive and less damaging drugs. Marijuana is now decriminalized in some form in about 20 states, and it is de facto decriminalized in some others as well. If decriminalization of marijuana proves successful, the next step would be to decriminalize other drugs, perhaps starting with amphetamines. Gradually, this might lead to the full decriminalization of all drugs.”

Saving money, raising revenue

Becker and Murphy are not the first notable economists to argue for an end to the drug war on the grounds that it is economically indefensible.

In 2005, a statement signed by 500 economists, including Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and several from Virginia's George Mason University, argued that ending marijuana prohibition “would save $7.7 billion per year in state and federal expenditures on prohibition enforcement and produce tax revenues of at least $2.4 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like most consumer goods. If, however, marijuana were taxed similarly to alcohol or tobacco, it might generate as much as $6.2 billion annually.”

The absence of a public outcry over Justin Bieber's alleged pot smoking, along with the Colorado and Washington initiatives and the adoption of laws permitting the medicinal use of marijuana in 18 states, suggest that the American people are more open to a rational discussion about ending the drug war. Bieber's non-apology on Twitter itself suggests that he views the incident as uncontroversial and unworthy of further attention.

While Gary Becker and other economists make erudite and logically rigorous arguments against drug prohibition, Bieber's near-silence is eloquent in its own way and equally compelling.

Politicians do not seem to be following expert opinion or public sentiment, however. While two years ago, then-Delegate Harvey Morgan (R-Gloucester) introduced legislation with the effect of decriminalizing marijuana possession, this year the emphasis in the Virginia General Assembly seems to be toward extending the reach of drug laws. Delegate Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County), for instance, has submitted a bill that would require welfare recipients to be tested for cannabis and other drugs. Nobody in Richmond seems to have taken on Delegate Morgan's mantle in the wake of his retirement.

Eventually, as Becker and similar thinkers point out, the law will catch up to public opinion.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Guest Post: What the magi had in common with scientists

by Roger Barlow, University of Huddersfield

Picturesque and exotic, with their crowns and camels, the three kings regularly appear on Christmas cards and in nativity scenes. But how much is original, and how much is later addition for the sake of a good story?

All we know is what Matthew’s gospel tells us, and that does not include their number. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but to suppose that three gifts means three givers is no more than a guess. More importantly, they were not kings. In his account Matthew consistently describes the visitors as magoi which is the same as the English word “mage”. It’s an unusual word and is often translated as “wise men”.

The early church upgraded them to royal status, perhaps because of descriptions in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 of kings worshipping the messiah – but Matthew himself, whose gospel is full of references back to the psalms and prophets, does not make this link, and he would never have let such an opportunity drop.

What they saw

They had seen a star, which shows they were astronomers – or astrologers as there was no difference back then. What was this star? Some scholars have posited that in 7BC there was a triple conjunction (when the planets catch up and overtake each other: quite a dramatic sight) of Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation of Pisces. These three elements were linked in astrology to royalty, the messiah and the Jews respectively.

Some astronomers, for example Patrick Moore, are unhappy with this theory and suggest that the star the wise men followed was a nova, a comet, or meteors. But there is no firm evidence for any of these. They point out that conjunctions are rare but not unique, and ask why were there no emissaries to Israel on other occasions. Perhaps there were – we only have this single record because of its link to the larger story.

I think what really worries them is that if you accept this interpretation it implies accepting the validity of astrology, and today’s astronomers really hate astrologers (never ask an astronomer what their star sign is). But you don’t have to. Even the sceptical can accept that a visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem by foreigners looking for the messiah would have made a good story which would be told and retold – and eventually get attached to the birth of Jesus. Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish readership, and the Jewish religion then was hostile to astrology, so the suggestion that he just made up the story as propaganda is implausible.

A familiar approach

We can imagine the situation. The star was not a surprise: conjunctions are predictable – today lists of upcoming ones are available on the internet – and even if this was not available 2,000 years ago, astronomers then made careful observations on which they could make predictions using geocentric theories which were fundamentally wrong but which nevertheless seemed to work.

Stonehenge astrology astronomy science
Stonehenge astronomical observatory
For months and years beforehand the “wise men” will have discussed and organised the expedition: the practicalities, the funding. We know how they must have felt, planning a project, looking for money to pay for it, arguing whether their theory’s predictions were really firm or could have some other interpretation.

At this point we realise that we have a better word to translate magoi – a word not available to the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible in King James’ reign, as it was only invented in 1833.

The word is scientists.

Looking back 2,000 years, they and we are not so different. They used their understanding of the universe to predict what would happen in the world – and, working as a group, they investigated their predictions, despite the cost and trouble and hardships. This is something any scientist today can recognise and identify with. Their understanding of the universe is crude and primitive in our eyes – but what will today’s scientific theories look like in 2,000 years time?

So, when we see pictures of the three kings at Christmas, we should spare them a thought, as colleagues who believed in their theories and followed through the consequences, despite the trouble and expense and personal effort involved. The strength of their conviction and their resolution to follow it, 2,000 years ago, can be an example to us today.

The Conversation

Roger Barlow, Research Professor and Director of the International Institute for Accelerator Applications, University of Huddersfield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Guest Post: The psychology of New Year’s resolutions

by Mark Griffiths, Nottingham Trent University

Research has shown that about half of all adults make New Year’s resolutions. However, fewer than 10% manage to keep them for more than a few months.

As a professor of behavioural addiction I know how easy people can fall into bad habits and why on trying to give up those habits it is easy to relapse. Resolutions usually come in the form of lifestyle changes and changing behaviour that has become routine and habitual (even if they are not problematic) can be hard to do.

new year resolutions balloons
Happy New Year, 2017!
The most common resolutions are: losing weight, doing more exercise, quitting smoking and saving money.

The main reason that people don’t stick to their resolutions is that they set too many or they’re unrealistic to achieve. They may also be victims of “false hope syndrome”. False hope syndrome is characterised by a person’s unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease and consequences of changing their behaviour.

For some people, it takes something radical for them to change their ways. It took a medical diagnosis to make me give up alcohol and caffeine and it took pregnancy for my partner to give up smoking.

To change your day-to-day behaviour you also have to change your thinking. But there are tried and tested ways that can help people stick to their resolutions – here are my personal favourites:

Be realistic. You need to begin by making resolutions that you can keep and that are practical. If you want to reduce your alcohol intake because you tend to drink alcohol every day, don’t immediately go teetotal. Try to cut out alcohol every other day or have a drink once every three days. Also, breaking up the longer-term goal into more manageable short-term goals can be beneficial and more rewarding. The same principle can be applied to exercise or eating more healthily.

Do one thing at a time. One of the easiest routes to failure is to have too many resolutions. If you want to be fitter and healthier, do just one thing at a time. Give up drinking. Give up smoking. Join a gym. Eat more healthily. But don’t do them all at once, just choose one and do your best to stick to it. Once you have got one thing under your control, you can begin a second resolution.

Be SMART. Anyone working in a job that includes setting goals will know that goals should be SMART, that is, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Resolutions shouldn’t be any different. Cutting down alcohol drinking is an admirable goal, but it’s not SMART. Drinking no more than two units of alcohol every other day for one month is a SMART resolution. Connecting the resolution to a specific goal can also be motivating, for example, dropping a dress size or losing two inches off your waistline in time for the next summer holiday.

Tell someone your resolution. Letting family and friends know that you have a New Year’s resolution that you really want to keep will act as both a safety barrier and a face-saver. If you really want to cut down smoking or drinking, real friends won’t put temptation in your way and can help monitor your behaviour. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from those around you.

Change your behaviour with others. Trying to change habits on your own can be difficult. For instance, if you and your partner both smoke, drink and eat unhealthily, it is really hard for one partner to change their behaviour if the other is still engaged in the same old bad habits. By having the same resolution, such as going on a diet, the chances of success will improve.

Don’t limit yourself

Changing your behaviour, or some aspect of it, doesn’t have to be restricted to the start of the New Year. It can be anytime.

Accept lapses as part of the process. It’s inevitable that when trying to give up something (alcohol, cigarettes, junk food) that there will be lapses. You shouldn’t feel guilty about giving in to your cravings but accept that it is part of the learning process. Bad habits can take years to become ingrained and there are no quick fixes in making major lifestyle changes. These may be clich├ęs but we learn by our mistakes and every day is a new day – and you can start each day afresh.

If you think this all sounds like too much hard work and that it’s not worth making resolutions to begin with, bear in mind that people who make New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to achieve their goals than those who don’t.

The Conversation

Mark Griffiths, Director of the International Gaming Research Unit and Professor of Behavioural Addiction, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

From the Archives: Beloit College identifies political touchstones for 2012’s college freshmen

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on August 21, 2012. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Beloit College identifies political touchstones for 2012’s college freshmen

Beloit College – not far from presumptive GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville – has released its latest “Mindset List” of cultural touchstones that are lost on the incoming college class this year, whose members intend to graduate in 2016.

The list includes pop-culture references – for instance, number 10, “On TV and in films, the ditzy dumb blonde female generally has been replaced by a couple of Dumb and Dumber males” – and sports references, such as number 19, “The Green Bay Packers have always celebrated with the Lambeau Leap.”

Daily life

The list also features items and activities from daily life that have changed since 1994, the year most freshman college students of 2012 were born.

Take number 9: “They have never seen an airplane ‘ticket.’” Or number 30: “There have always been blue M&Ms, but no tan ones.”

The 2012 Mindset List also contains several political notes that demonstrate how things have changed – or not – in the past 18 years.

Statesmen and -women

There’s number 8: “Bill Clinton is a senior statesman of whose presidency they have little knowledge.”

Or number 12: “For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.”

Some references might seem obscure, like number 24: “White House security has never felt it necessary to wear rubber gloves when gay groups have visited.”

In the category of “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” Beloit College offers number 32: “Newt Gingrich has always been a key figure in politics, trying to change the way America thinks about everything.”

And, a thought that may be shared among many of there elders, there is number 66: “They have no recollection of when Arianna Huffington was a conservative.”

The introduction to this year’s list notes that “each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the Beloit College Mindset List, providing a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall. The creation of Beloit’s former Public Affairs Director Ron Nief and Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride, authors of The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal (John Wiley and Sons), it was originally created as a reminder to faculty to be aware of dated references. It quickly became an internationally monitored catalog of the changing worldview of each new college generation.”

Guest Post: Is New Year the best time for resolutions?

by Simon Crisp, Monash University

For many of us, the start of a new year heralds a new beginning, and an important opportunity to commit to significant personal changes. But why does this single moment in the year hold almost superstitious significance as the optimal time for change?

As a psychologist who counsels people throughout the year, I believe there are several reasons. The end of a calendar year and simultaneous holiday break allows people to reflect on the previous year and take stock of things they’ve achieved – or not.

calendar new year resolutionsThis reflection can provide important information about how successes were achieved, or why desired changes were not: bad timing, lack of preparation, a need to change priorities, diminishing motivation, and so on.

Psychologically, the new year provides a “clean slate” where one can start afresh and leave behind the disappointments, frustrations and “old self” and start again.

So far that all sounds good but, as we all know, few people actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions. I believe there are several main reasons for this.

One of the most common is that resolutions are impulsive, often-drunken and fanciful fantasies. Caught up in the festive spirit, it may only occur to people to make a resolution during the New Year’s Eve celebrations – hardly an ideal place to select and plan behaviour change.

Afterwards we trivialise our choice of goal and commitment to it as not much more than a whim, not really believing we will actually achieve the goals we set. At this point it really doesn’t look too promising. By the time the hangover has worn off or we’re back from holidays, the resolutions you made might be forgotten, or at least treated as a holiday novelty.

By way of contrast, in my clinical work I see people throughout the year who are motivated to make changes in their lives. On the whole, my clients (thankfully) do make substantial changes in significant areas of their lives, but the difference here, in contrast to many people’s New Year’s resolutions, is that my clients are motivated to change for often very negative reasons, or due to devastating events.

That’s not to say we can’t make important changes for positive reasons with the aim of enhancing our lives, rather than just making ourselves less unhappy. What we can take from this clinical experience are the important elements that can lead to successful life-changes for any person.

It’s vitally important to find the right time for change – a time when you’re in the right mental space and perhaps financial situation to achieve your goal. Arguably, the most important step is putting in the hard work in preparation for the life change.

It’s also important to ensure your goal is realistic, meaningful, worthwhile, desirable, appropriate to your broader needs and, ultimately, whether it’s worth the sacrifices that may be required to achieve it.

Of course, the road to significant and lasting personal change is often fraught with challenges. It’s important to:

  • anticipate set-backs and use them as important learning opportunities
  • establish a team of genuine supporters
  • break larger goals into smaller achievable steps, including something that can be done each day
  • ensure you reward yourself for progress regularly – celebrate each step as it’s achieved.

While ridding yourself of a bad thing (such as excessive alcohol use) can be motivating and worthy, unless you balance such a goal with some positive gain it’s unlikely you’ll be motivated by the process. In fact, without positive gain, you’re likely to feel pessimistic about the significant change.

new year resolutionIn clinical psychology too, it’s essential to introduce “positive psychology”, even to the most troubling issues, including depression, entrenched negative behaviours, or destructive inter-personal relationships.

Positive psychology could include a focus on increased fitness and exercise, rather than simply aiming to lose weight, or increasing opportunities for fun and novelty, rather than simply drinking less.

Time and again, I see that we are more motivated to change if that change includes adding something of value to our lives. Importantly, this change in itself becomes self-rewarding and more likely to repeated – and with enthusiasm.

The pioneering researcher in positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that this leads to “learned optimism” and ultimately greater contentment and increased happiness.

So, while New Year’s day may not be the ideal moment to make a meaningful change, it could still be the first step along a productive and successful path toward important life changes.

The Conversation

Simon Crisp, Clinical Psychologist, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Guest Post: 2016 lasts a little longer thanks to a leap second

by Darryl Veitch, University of Technology Sydney

To the time-poor of the world: take heart, for 2016 is a generous year. Not only were you granted a leap day on 29 February, you will soon score a New Year’s Eve countdown bonus, a leap second, to hold off 2017 for a final sip or regret.

Whereas leap years add a day to align the calendar with the seasons, leap seconds align our everyday clocks with the Sun’s position in the sky, that is, with the Earth’s rotation.

clock leap second leap year 2016 timeCurrently our planet takes roughly 86,400.00183 seconds (on average) to turn, instead of the expected 86,400 seconds you get by multiplying 24 hours by 60 minutes by 60 seconds. This may not sound like a great difference, but it amounts to a full second every 18 months. If left unchecked, it would become noticeable over time, and ultimately become problematic.

How did we get into this awkward situation? Why not just define a second so that there are exactly the right number? This sensible idea was tried in 1874, but hit a snag: the Earth keeps changing.

In terms of today’s standard SI second (defined via atomic physics), the above discrepancy is due to the fact that the day is losing about 0.0015 seconds per century, due largely to tidal friction.

Not only that, it also changes quite erratically due to mass redistribution.
For example, it is slowed by oceanic thermal expansion due to global warming, just as a playground spinning seat slows, via the conservation of angular momentum, when you place your body farther from the centre.

Leap seconds are used to make sure our usual timekeeping system, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), never gets more than 0.9 seconds away from the Earth-tracking alternative, Universal Time (UT1).

But unlike leap years, leap seconds cannot be calculated centuries in advance. Because the Earth moves erratically, it must be observed closely, and leap seconds scheduled on an as-needed basis.

In UT1, seconds actually vary in duration, being stretched and compressed to match the Earth’s variations. In UTC, all seconds are standard SI seconds, which is much simpler, but it means that if you want to slow down or speed up UTC, there is no alternative but to jump.

All the leap seconds so far have been “positive”, meaning that an extra second is inserted, corresponding to jumping the clock back, and so slowing it down.

Time’s up for the leap second?

The leap second system has been with us since 1972. It represents an important chapter in the entangled history of civilian timekeeping, and of the definition of the second itself. Its days, however, may well be numbered.

For a number of years, support has been growing within the International Telecommunications Union, the standards body governing leap seconds, to abolish it.

carousel new year carnival
The chief reason is complexity. Simply put, hardware and software can and do get things wrong. And the potential impacts are serious, from failures in navigation leading to collisions, to erroneous financial transactions, computer crashes and the inability to specify UTC times reliably into the future, because the leap second times are not yet known!

Because UTC jumps back at a leap second, effectively the second before the leap is repeated. Managing such “time travel” is inherently complex and error prone, so much so that in many cases the recommended action is to simply shutdown the system and restart it after the leap.

A dramatic illustration of the problem can be found in the internet. All computers have software clocks that generally rely on communication with time servers over the network to synchronise to UTC. Network timekeeping is a core internet service, and at its heart are the Stratum-1 servers, which have direct access to reference hardware such as atomic clocks.

We collected data from around 180 such servers around the world during the June 2015 leap second event, and assessed them from two points of view.

First, the clocks themselves: did they jump cleanly and sharply exactly as required?

Second, at the protocol level, that is with respect to the messages the servers send to the computers that rely on them: did they inform them properly of the upcoming leap?

Overall, we found that, at most, 61% of the servers were performing correctly. Many of the servers are well known and highly utilised, potentially impacting thousands of clients, possibly resulting in security vulnerabilities.

An expanded experiment is currently underway for the 2016 event, involving almost 500 servers, including from the widely used ntppool project.

This is part of a broader network timing project at UTS led by myself together with Dr Yi Cao, which aims to refashion the global system, and in particular to make it scale in a trusted way to the Internet of Things.

Finally, we must point out that leap seconds occur simultaneously across the globe, and it can’t be midnight everywhere.

Thus, as I confirmed with Dr Michael Wouters, responsible for Australia’s reference time at the National Measurement Institute, for us it will occur at 11am AEDT on January 1, 2017. Save the last sip till then.

The Conversation

Darryl Veitch, Professor of Computer Networking, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

From the Archives: Aviation policy expert Robert Poole talks about transportation privatization

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on April 10, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Aviation policy expert Robert Poole talks about transportation privatization

A Cato Institute briefing on Capitol Hill on Friday, April 9, asked the question, “When Does Rail Transit Make Sense?” and featured policy experts Randal O’Toole and Ronald Utt. The event attracted mostly young congressional staff members but also in the audience was Robert Poole, the Reason Foundation’s director of transportation studies.

As it happened, the lead article in the commentary section of the Washington Times that day was written by Poole, in which he argued that the federal government should get out of the business of screening airport passengers. He made two primary recommendations:

“First, TSA should be divested of its airport screening duties. TSA should regulate and oversee security, but each airport should be responsible for all aspects of its security (passenger and baggage screening, perimeter security, etc). Airports would be free to hire their own security forces or contract with TSA-certified firms.

“Second, the cost of airport security should be paid for by those who use airports: a combination of airlines and passengers. This change would cut billions from the federal budget, eliminating the large portion of airport security costs not covered by current airport or airline security taxes. It also would make the costs of airport security more visible to airlines and travelers.”

After the Cato briefing, Poole replied to a question from the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner about the future of transportation privatization.

“It’s very up in the air right now,” Poole said. With regard to surface transportation, the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Congressman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) “wants to basically create a federal czar to have the last word, to say yes or no at the eleventh hour on any proposal for privatizing highways. That’s got the whole industry really, really nervous because nobody wants to take the risk of proposing and researching a project, then having it vetoed at the last minute after they’ve spent millions on putting their numbers together.”

In terms of airports, Poole said, “we have a little boomlet going on right now of cities that want to lease their airport under the federal airport privatization pilot program. I’m guardedly optimistic about that. Midway Airport is the most visible one but there are four others, at least, that have filed applications with the FAA.”

While none of these airports are in Virginia, there is one close by, Poole explained:

“Baltimore has talked about it but they haven’t filed. The state runs the airports in Maryland, and the governor said he would be open to an offer for BWI, which I was astonished to hear, but glad to hear. New Orleans and San Juan are two of the other leading candidates; they have applications filed. It could happen this year.”

Poole recommended that readers interested in transportation privatization issues should check out the Reason Foundation’s annual privatization report and Reason’s Airport Policy and Aviation Security Newsletter.