Fox vs Time Warner

Fox Time Warner
Food Fight!

Days ago I stumbled upon a recent dispute between Fox and Time Warner Cable. The basic idea of the dispute was that Fox wanted more money from Time Warner for carrying their channels and Time Warner didn’t want to. The whole thing ended up with publicity campaigns on both sides (Rolloverorgettough.com for Time Warner Cable and Keepfoxon.com for Fox) to make use of TV viewers’ support to raise their bargaining power. They eventually settled the dispute so viewers will continue seeing Holmer Simpsons munching on doughnuts.

It is interesting how Lauren Collins explained in The New Yorker how Time Warner Cable was basically using a forced-decision device since there’s a spectrum of other options available to them. Time Warner Cable could have just absorbed the price increases and sacrifice their profits. By running the Ad campaign, they’re signaling to Fox that they’ll not accept any changes to the pricing of the deal – either get paid the same or no more screenings of Fox programmes; effectively introducing a Morton’s fork. At the same time, like what Collins mentioned in the article, “The strategy in a nutshell: couch potatoes as human shields.” The company handling Time Warner Cable’s campaign, Purple Strategies is pretty amazing; they are basically specialist in positioning stand in public for organizations or political bodies in ways that allow them to maneuver themselves under different circumstances.

The incorporation of strategic movements in corporate lives is going to become increasingly common, which gives us more reason to check out Dixitt and Nalebuff’s Thinking Strategically or their newer Art of Strategy.

More Wars

The day Google Nexus One came out, my co-workers were looking at the features and thinking to themselves, “When is this going to come to Singapore?”. While it didn’t take long for people to start complaining about the confusion and frustration created by the weird relationship between Google, the handset-maker HTC and the mobile operators.

Nexus One
Good? Or Goo?

Perhaps the somewhat disturbing problem is that Google have started becoming somewhat ‘evil’; The Economist reported on how they were telling everyone they weren’t intent on having their own phone but eventually came up with this awesome one. Google’s model for developing the phone is typical of course, using an open source mobile phone operating system, contracting the hardware development to an experienced handset manufacturer in an emerging economy with loads of hi-tech industries (in other words, Taiwan).

This contrasts starkly with the Apple model of production, which involves enclosed development. Perhaps this war of phones and wider consumer electronics will demonstrate which model of development would prevail in long run. I tend to think Google’s strategy is more robust but Apple should be able to hold out for quite some time still. Being a Mac user, I’ve confidence in Apple’s ability to churn out products that they would eventually manage to market to the mass market and aid consumers to love them. Google might want to spruce up their ability to do just that.

Layout Re-org

ERPZ now have a permanent homepage! We are still working on it and hopefully, we’ll be able to feature a couple of articles on the homepage each day. The new system of navigation is designed to give the articles and resources put on ERPZ roughly the same exposure and also to allow first-time users to learn more about ERPZ before going on their search for academic resources.

We hope this would be an improvement over the former blog sort of navigation system layout.

Copenhagen – not so bad after all?

Copenhagen
Not a Bad place at all

An article from The Economist in its first issue of this year proposes that the Copenhagen climate change summit that just took place at the end of last year could turn out to bring more benefits than perceived despite its being “underwhelming”.

Sure, the whole accord was just a political, non-legally-binding statement and lukewarm at best in its promises for all to do their part for the environment. But at least both developed and developing countries signed up to the Copenhagen accord, considering how these two warring factions were split because the developed countries felt the developing countries needed more cuts while the developing countries felt the developed countries were responsible for all the emissions and hence to bear the brunt of the costs of cleaning up. Not that the rift has narrowed significantly but at least the process and product were not totally derailed.

Another reason for optimism is in “the development of political structures better suited to the challenge”. The complexities of climate change, from all the industries it affects to all the political issues it brings, need to be dealt with under a new body and in more creative manners. And the regulation of so many greenhouse gases from so many sources makes it even more difficult. This brings to mind the possibilities of another Montreal protocol that sought to regulate only CFCs, which turned out to be a much bigger success than even Kyoto was. The Economist proposes that there will be “new pluralism in climate politics”
as different groups come together to deal with different specific issues such as “slowing deforestation” or “stemming emissions from shipping”, that might yield better results than a gargantuan, labyrinthine treaty that regulates every single issue without specifics or generalises the whole complexities of climate change.

A huge barrier to any improvements on Copenhagen could be the US. The Senate will decide upon legislation that will set up “a cap-and-trade system to put a price on carbon”, and whether they succeed will impact post-Copenhagen discussions to finalize cuts in emissions. The upcoming Senate elections may put in place more Republicans and upset the Democrats’ super-majority that will prevent fillibustering of bills like that of health-care reform and cap-and-trade. The Republicans have been rather against the cap-and-trade, and they may derail the whole post-Copenhagen process should cap-and-trade crash and burn in Senate.

Just Reading

Kant
Father of Kantian Ethics

Just last week, I was recommending that you view lectures on Academic Earth if you find TED.com not academic enough; this week we’re recommending just one video for your weekend. It’s going to be pretty intriguing and I’m sure you’d be glad to be an audience. Recently, Michael Sandel, a political philosopher, lectured on ‘Justice’ in Harvard and his lectures are available online at Youtube! Sandel begins his first lecture with the hypothetical scenario involving a moral dilemma that some of you might be familiar with and got his students thinking about moral reasoning. Sandels issued his ‘warning’ for students of Moral/Political Philosophy:

Philosophy teaches us and unsettles us by confronting us with what we already know; there’s an irony, the difficulty of this course consist the fact that it teaches what you already know. It works by taking what we already know from familiar unquestioned settings and making it strange. […] Once the familiar turns strange, it is never quite the same again.

Sandel also gave a good reply to the doctrine of Skepticism, suggesting that we should not give up moral reasoning just because the ancient and modern philosophers are unable to solve them; in fact, the continual emergence of the same old problems require that we constantly revisit these questions. He cites Kant’s remarks about skepticism; Kant describes skepticism as a temporary resting place for the mind from reasoning – that skepticism can never triumph the restlessness of reasoning.

The lectures gives us too much to think about so I strongly suggests that you take a step at a time and limit yourself to just an hour of the video each day.

Culture & Phones

Handphone
Indian Torch

Trapped on our little island of Singapore, we hardly wonder what our handphones are capable of; here in Singapore we typically use it to text, call, surf, as a phone book to retrieve contact details of people, a personal organizer and even a camera. Singaporeans makes extensive use of their phones and our preferences are varied, a reflection of our melting pot of diversity. And as the briefing in the latest issue of The Economist shows, mobile phones are indeed a great reflection of the culture of the people using them.

The article mentioned a couple of interesting quirks about people using mobile phones around the world:

Japanese use their phones to text and surf intensively because using phones to make or receive calls on board trains and some other public places are thought to be extremely rude.

Spaniards reject voicemail because they think it’s rude not to receive calls from others when they call, even when the receiver is busy with matters.

Chinese will interrupt conversations to receive calls because they are afraid to that they’d miss a business deal; at the same time they use knock-offs handphones that often have extensive functions, even capable of using two SIM cards.

Americans are willing to endure limited cellular coverage; perhaps fearing the hassle involved in changing operators.

Italians, Greeks and Finns would switch operators if they find their coverage limited and yet are fearful of the effects of electro-magnetic radiation, which probably is more ubiquitous than in America.

Indians use mobile phones as torchlights.

Africans usually use ‘beeping’ (ie. give the person a ring) to contact people and signal them to call back when they’re low on pre-paid credits.

Indeed, mobile phones are changing everyone’s lives everywhere; one just needs to know the name given to these devices in different societies and cultures to understand their importance. In fact, Iraqis thought more highly of the proliferation of mobile phones as a result of the American invasion than their supposed liberation.

Evolutionary Systems

Origin of Wealth
Evolutionary Riches

I read Origins of Wealth about 2 years ago and got introduced to the idea of complexity, which was elaborated for markets (specially that of financial markets) by Benoit Mandelbrot in The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets. Below is a discussion about the wider applicability of the concept of evolution I’ve learnt about from the book and some insights I’d like to share with more academic audiences. These ideas relates to the stuff Kevin Kelly was talking about on TED.com I introduced in a reading package. This long piece was penned during the time I read Origins of Wealth:

Reading Eric D Beinhocker introduced me to the concept of Evolutionary Systems, which I hope to talk about. It’s definitely a great book and I am so glad I bought it (despite the price – my price elasticity of demand for books is very very low). The reason I have decided to pen this short piece on Evolutionary Systems is that I see its application in a wide spectrum of reality and I would like to demonstrate how this idea can help weave ‘Man & Nature’ with ‘Science & Technology’, domains that our General Paper is currently delving into.

Evolutionary systems obeys certain characteristics of evolution – a process that can proceed infinitely without an equilibrium (in the traditional sense though you have no problem isolating periods of time and define them as a moment of equilibrium, albeit one that vanishes rather quickly). In Beinhocker’s words, the system is governed by the ‘evolution algorithm‘ that searches for the fit ‘interactors’ in the ‘fitness landscape’. I hope this is not too overwhelming for general interest readers. I’ll deviate briefly from my main focus on ‘Man-Nature & Science-Technology’ Argument (MNST) to explain the terms I have just introduced. ‘Interactors’ are basically agents within the system, like man within nature, technology within society and so on. ‘Evolution Algorithm’ refers to the seemingly systematic formula in which interactors constantly evolve to adapt to changing conditions within the system (whether the changes are results of endogenous or exogenous factors). Finally, the ‘fitness landscape’ refers to how fit the different characteristics the interactors can possibly assume would be given that they really manifest in the system. This is a little complex but just take it that the ‘landscape’ refers to a library of collection of strategies for interactors to survive within the system. How good the strategies are is constantly changing and what evolution does is to pick out the best of all these strategy constantly, occasionally eliminating some lousy ones and so on. This process is essentially what quantifies evolution.

Having established this, I must propose that it is nature that has created this process of evolution, and this mindless but innovating process – it is no different from the laws of physics laid down by the very same nature, as well as the interactors of systems, and even systems itself. I shall not engaged in any quarrels on intelligent design right here and mindlessly assume all my readers to be intelligent followers of the idea of ‘design without designers’. In my MNST argument, I believe that nature lays down the ground rules for things to happen and whatever happens is part of nature, and the natural order. Therefore, Science & Technology is not only part of nature but relies on the laws and forces that nature has laid down in order to work. Man, has essentially leveraged on the evolution algorithm to construct ever increasingly sophisticated stuff.

Okay, now you are saying Man is emulating nature, so isn’t he trying to play God or something? Well, yes and no. Evolution, all these while, have only searched through all the possible lifeforms, object shapes, idealized forms, whatever you can conceive, using a very crude method of trial and error that closely resembles the perturbation that cutting edge physics theorist use to approximate Unified theories. Whatever characteristics that the agents may have that can help him given the existing conditions would be played out and then depending on what characteristics survive the conditions, the evolution process duplicates or eliminates the characteristics according to the fitness assessed. As such, evolution have so far been a slow and extremely painful process of extinction, disasters. The intensification of the use of deduction by man has allowed the evolution to speed up. Logical deduction has allowed quicker elimination of flawed characteristics or strategies for interactors and so they are not even played out in reality. Technologies are products of elimination both by deduction and by the market. The residual stuff that remains are basically what’s left after evolution has stripped it of its unfit cousins. Nature has essentially created man, who in turned, emulated the same innovation (ie. evolution process) that spawned the specie of homo sapiens itself in an attempt to ground its kind in the entire of a new reality – a science-tech reality.

The problem (a sort of disequilibrium occurs) when the changes in fitness landscape triggered by endogenous factors (in this case the emergence and proliferation of products of deductive evolution) has arisen a little too fast for the evolution algorithm of nature itself to catch up. Evolution is on-going because the emergence of a new strategy or at least the manifestation of it can easily alter the fitness landscape and changes the fitness of existing strategies that may have worked well for a long time (and thus harder to fade away).

The appearance of technology – a product of deductive evolution sent out ripples across the fitness landscape that radically altered the fitness of individual characteristics because products of deductive evolution are often able to extract itself from existing manifestations (all the intermediate evolving stages were transversed in the minds of the innovator). This made it hard for the other interactors, with strategies that are rendered useless, to be able to adapt quick enough. Because of that, man has taken a big bold step to dictate the paths of evolution, to alter genes, to tailor species to the new fitness landscape after the rise of technologies that caused the original patterns of existence to undergo an overhaul. I must say, this may have been one of the natural pathways evolution has decided to assume. Mankind have been selected through this mindless innovating algorithm to further its function. Nature overseen the process and will continue to oversee it. Nature cannot cease to be.

Nature, is essentially just a set of laws, forces governing everything. That carbon was chosen to be the main elemental building block of life is perhaps a result of evolutionary process itself. The rest that we classify as nature are mere manifestations of these laws. Man’s being is part of this algorithm, and so is Science & Technology, a subset of man, and thus Nature itself.

The original entry I wrote on my personal blog can be accessed here.

Importance of Focus

Lenses
Getting focus right...

It’s been a while since I last written something on studying; recently I observed how some students take a long time to study. Obviously, many of these people spend substantial amount of time plainly staring at pieces of information, occasionally reading through them with a tiny bit of appreciation and often not quite understanding what they are studying anyways. Computer gaming, and loads of interactive stuff online coupled with consistent television watching has reduced our attention span significantly and impaired our abilities to focus.

So to improve how you study as well as your concentration, you might like to try a few of the following:

Plan Revision & Stick to it
The first step to keeping focusing is having a good, realistic plan. Without a plan, when we decide that we’re going to study, we’ll often just lay out the books and stare at words, possibly read a little and then zone out. When we don’t have a plan that dictates specifically what we are going to study and for how long, we’ll often just drift about the different materials we have, not doing anything eventually. So come up with a proper plan, noting down what topics for what subject you’ll be studying and for how long. Give yourself breaks between topics and when you’re executing your plan, make sure you follow through and only skip the breaks if you believe you can continue. If you find yourself needing more or less time than planned, adjust your plans accordingly. Don’t tire yourself out if you are fast with your studying; reward yourself with a longer play time or break when you finish early.

Find a Good Site
Some people just can’t study at home. I’m not exactly such a person but many people around me are like that. The problem is when there’s people familiar around you, you’d be tempted to eavesdrop their conversation, observe what they are doing – in other words, doing everything else except the task at hand. This happens less (at least at a lower intensity) when it comes to having strangers around you, unless you’re really busybody. Studying outside might be a better option; Starbucks is pretty friendly with studying people, especially the more remote branches, The Coffee Bean is not.

Media White-out
For those who can’t even withstand a bit of distraction will need to try a boycott of media and other attention-seeking stuff. Turn off your TV, radio, computer for a pre-designated time that follows from your study plan. Do not allow yourself to use the computer or those devices even when you’re taking a break. Limit distractions to nuts, snacks, and drinks without digital or analog devices that produces visuals or audio. These people might realise they’ll be better off staying at home and paying their family to get out of the house. Of course, once you’re done with whatever you need to accomplish, you can get back to the stuff you like to do so that they act as a reward for your efforts.

A measure of self-awareness is necessary to help you with this; knowing how your mind gets distracted and what it is easily distracted by will help you attain focus through the elimination of these distractions. It sounds like a pretty simple concept but people usually don’t take steps to help themselves concentrate. Instead, they wait around for their moods to come or the distractions to go away; if you want to make any progress at all, you’ll have to start taking charge of how you waste your time.

Programming Reality

DNA
Lego of Life

Saul Griffith is an inventor, not many people would have this as their main identification occupation/tag today; but when you read up his profile, he really fits the title of an inventor, basically a scientist who problem-solve through inventions. In one of his talk on TED.com, he talks about programming self-assembling systems, very much like creating life itself.

There’s is already what we call biohacking taking place in homes of people, much like the geeks of the 1970s who were assembling computers in their garage. Already, The Economist points out how this parallels the beginnings of the computer age where the geeks had their kits consisting of basic chips for computers.

Going back to mechanical stuff, objects can be ‘programmed’ to build themselves based on sequencing their materials in a certain way like what is shown in the presentation by Saul Griffith. A 3-dimensional object, in this sense, can be defined by a sequence of bits (in a digital sense). Seeing the universe – reality – as a compiler, changes the way we think about our world; it helps us see how everything contains information and how properties of objects are able to convey additional information about things they are interacting with.

Griffith also co-writes Howtoons, cartoons that teaches people how to build/make stuff.

Free Market Madness

Free Market Madness
Market for Sanity

I was looking for George Arkelof and Robert Shiller’s Animal Spirits in the library but it was on loan so I decided to look for something else in the Call Number 330 (which some library-goers might note is the ‘Economics’ section) area. I stumbled on ‘Free Market Madness‘ by Peter Ubel.

Ubel’s book is a pretty simple and short one, I took only one and a half day of on-and-off reading to finish it, one of my fastest timing for a non-fiction. Admittedly, the text and paragraph spacings are pretty wide and the book is thin for a hard-cover one. It is largely about behavioural economics, a topic which I hardly have a hard time understanding so the speed by which I finished the book didn’t really surprise me. Nevertheless, I hardly consider Ubel’s Free Market Madness to be that good a book.

For a start, I understand that Ubel is trying to make a case for government intervention in the economy for markets where consumers are ill-placed to make wise choices and where market imperfections like the inadequacy of useful information and the apparent misalignment of producer’s interests and consumer’s interests are significant. He focuses on the case of junk food causing obesity though he touched on other cases such as insufficient retirement funding and overspending on branded drugs. Unfortunately, while he makes a good case for the fact that humans are not entirely rational (something we all know at least implicitly), based mainly on the study of other behavioural scientists and economists, he didn’t give very outstanding or original proposals on how to get around this problems. Even then, he fails to make a good connection with how the conflict between the short-term-self and long-term-self can be resolved by the governments; the question of what sort of happiness/well-being (long term or short term) the ‘Big Brother’ he is advocating should maximize it left to speculation by the reader.

The little technical issues in the examples he cited in his book is by and large criticized by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute. Austrian School economists probably think that no one can be innocently obese; it takes two hands to clap and producers and consumers must agree on the transaction for it to take place. In other words, people are obese through a process of attempting to maximize utility within their own accounting. On the other hand, Ubel thinks that the faculty accounting on the part of the consumers need to be rectified – in other words, internalities need to be addressed. The problem is we cannot exactly agree on which accounting is correct; after all, if one’s belief in the goodness of a product can provide additional positive experience in consuming it, the faculty accounting can have such a self-fulfilling effect. I believe I have the tendency to agree with the ordinary economists that humans would have a fair degree of foresight and self-control and in an event where they lack such discipline and ability, the market punishes them very much in the way evolution eliminates those who lack the fitness.

His proposals are rather unoriginal, citing stuff like fat taxes once mentioned in The Economist, default options, persuasion campaigns (largely moral suasion) and possibly outright ban. He did discuss implications on liberty and such but doesn’t dwell much on it – often it seems to me like he’s saying ‘I just want everything to be good and right, I don’t care how’.

I do agree with Ubel, that humans in our age needs more self-control and the public’s awareness of the ills of the markets, the ills of different products that are so ubiquitous in our world today needs to be improved. This self-improvement in discipline and improvement of public knowledge can come from bottom-up rather than top-down. After all, given the circumstances today, it is likely that the group with better knowledge of the markets, those making wiser market decisions and the ones who have better self-control is going to thrive. Parents will have to recognize that and respond accordingly (not too much to hope for given the limited rationality of humans I hope) when educating their children and developing them. And I must have to say that in markets like healthcare and pharmaceutical products, doctors like Ubel himself will have to take the responsibility of protecting their patients from the ills of the market/industry. The imperfect information is really too serious in this market and Ubel is right to say that doctors are practically making decisions for patients – doctors’ recommendations are almost equals to patients’ choice (doctors can’t possibly give their diagnosis to patients and get them to choose medicine for themselves). The government can only do so much to protect the doctors from manipulation by the industry and thus defend the interests of the patients. Physicians themselves will have to take the big step to be responsible doctors.

On the whole, Free Market Madness gives us good idea of how behavioural economics came into being and how traditional economic analysis of indifference is difficult to apply in today’s complex world. As a result, rationality of human beings becomes undermined today. Beyond that, it makes a good alert on the problems humans might have with markets that makes us poor economic agents – in long run we will get exploited somehow. We will need to exploit back by becoming producers of certain exploitive products ourselves or try to defend ourselves through self-restraint and aggressive self-education. Otherwise, if the book is hoping to inspire any sort of action, it might need to be much more.