Coprolalia, 12/27

– Some of the most innovative and unique art in the past twenty years has been the proliferation of new optical illusions. So go hallucinate.
– I’m more surprised that this isn’t in Japan; robot waiters: because they have a better service attitude than humans.
– The first time lightning has been captured by an x-ray camera. Lightning has a cool (but expected) beam rising to the heavens.
– An awesome collection of japanese graphic design.
– For you math nerds: Terry Tao has come across an interesting problem in control theory.

Asia’s miraculous miracle

This essay by Krugman on Asian development was being posted everywhere for a while. Everyone was trying to predict things about China with it, which is of course silly, but it is very useful as a bit of economic history. When writing about pretty much anything, people forget what they had learned in the past and pretend like everything is new. Or they just don’t learn about the past, which is just as bad.

…The leaders of those nations did not share our faith in free markets or unlimited civil liberties. They asserted with increasing self confidence that their system was superior: societies that accepted strong, even authoritarian governments and were willing to limit individual liberties in the interest of the common good, take charge of their economics, and sacrifice short-run consumer interests for the sake of long-run growth would eventually outperform the increasingly chaotic societies of the West. And a growing minority of Western intellectuals agreed.

The gap between Western and Eastern economic performance eventually became a political issue. The Democrats recaptured the White House under the leadership of a young, energetic new president who pledged to “get the country moving again”–a pledge that, to him and his closest advisers, meant accelerating America’s economic growth to meet the Eastern challenge.

The time, of course, was the early 1960s. The dynamic young president was John F. Kennedy. The technological feats that so alarmed the West were the launch of Sputnik and the early Soviet lead in space. And the rapidly growing Eastern economies were those of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations.

…We all do a primitive form of growth accounting every time we talk about labor productivity; in so doing we are implicitly distinguishing between the part of overall national growth due to the growth in the supply of labor and the part due to an increase in the value of goods produced by the average worker. Increases in labor productivity, however, are not always caused by the increased efficiency of workers. Labor is only one of a number of inputs; workers may produce more, not because they are better managed or have more technological knowledge, but simply because they have better machinery. A man with a bulldozer can dig a ditch faster than one with only a shovel, but he is not more efficient; he just has more capital to work with. The aim of growth accounting is to produce an index that combines all measurable inputs and to measure the rate of growth of national income relative to that index–to estimate what is known as “total factor productivity.”

…When economists began to study the growth of the Soviet economy, they did so using the tools of growth accounting. Of course, Soviet data posed some problems. Not only was it hard to piece together usable estimates of output and input (Raymond Powell, a Yale professor, wrote that the job “in may ways resembled an archaeological dig”), but there were philosophical difficulties as well. In a socialist economy one could hardly measure capital input using market returns, so researchers were forced to impute returns based on those in market economies at similar levels of development. Still, when efforts began, researchers were pretty sure about what they would find. Just as capitalist growth had been based on growth in both inputs and efficiency, with efficiency the main source of rising per capita income, they expected to find that rapid Soviet growth reflected both rapid input growth and rapid growth in efficiency.

But what they actually found was that Soviet growth was based on rapid growth inputs–end of story. The rate of efficiency growth was not only unspectacular, it was well below the rates achieved in Western economies. Indeed, by some estimates, it was virtually nonexistent.

It goes on to discuss Singapore, Japan, and China. It is shocking to realize how much improvements in accounting were important to economic analysis. One note to this article: Singapore now has a higher GDP per capita than the USA in PPP terms but not nominal terms.

On the perils of armed bureaucracy

The ineffectiveness of kamikaze pilots is one of those ‘counterintuitive’ factoids that we tend to learn in middle school history (though through searching just now, apparently they actually were fairly effective). I guess the problems in the Japanese air force during the second World War extended throughout the institution:

The first of these errors was the conclusion Tokyo drew from its initial successes in aerial warfare. Japanese rulers became convinced that Japan would conquer China, because its fighters ruled the skies and its land-based bombers could fly long distances to wreak havoc on helpless cities.

The second major mistake was to gamble, in late 1941, that Japanese naval airpower could carry out a surprise attack on US naval and air forces so devastating that it would knock the American colossus permanently out of the war. Ironically, Japan’s leaders were erroneously led to this conclusion by the fielding of several outstanding new aircraft. Introduction of these airplanes helped convince Japanese leaders that the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force was at its peak.

…The early successes of the Japanese in Asia also prevented recognition of just how harmful the rivalry between the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force and the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force was. It ranged from the absurdity of not sharing technical information on aircraft being developed for both services to the travesty of Japanese Army radar stations not informing their Navy counterparts about incoming US air raids.

…The American people did not react as planned, however, and slowly but inexorably, the industrial might of the United States responded in a way undreamed of by all but a few of the Japanese leaders. Over the next four years, Japan slowly increased the number of aircraft it produced from about 5,000 in 1941 to just more than 28,000 in 1944. Japan’s total aircraft production from 1941 through 1945 was about 66,000, compared to more than 300,000 by the United States in the same period.

In other news, the spiritual sequel to Band of Brothers is about to start! I can’t wait for The Pacific.

Tugging Taiwan

Turns out the new battle for honor in East Asia is women’s tug of war.  It’s pretty intense:

In Italy last year, the Chinese team protested loudly at the flag display, and then turned the flag around, according to Taiwan’s team.

Then came the political trash-talking.

“They would say, ‘you are a part of us,'” recalled Chen Li-hui, 26, a veteran of Taiwan’s national team since 2000.

Big mistake. Taiwan’s ladies didn’t take kindly to such provocation.

“We could have beat them very quickly,” said Chen. “But instead, we tortured them slowly before making them lose.”

the baby is angry


Giant robot babies that shoot fire?  Check.  Have I said recently that Japan is awesome?

Also, Honda has created some technology to control Asimo with your mind.  They use EEG, but the extra-cool bit of technology that they use is near-infrared spectroscopy which measures cerebral bloodflow.  This allows you to utilize to separate streams of information from the brain coming on different time-scales.  Apparently, Honda’s pretty lucky to be able to do this; they don’t have near-infrared spectroscopy available for scientific lab use yet.


Art for the Week – Dan Reisinger and Japanese Propaganda


Oh dear, I have been really bad about posting this weekend.  I will make it up, yes I will.  Here are two cool artists I have found this week.  The first is Dan Reisinger, whose painting is above.  His website is really terrible and barely works, but you can see some of his work here.  I don’t know why his work is so interesting to me.  I guess the greys and oranges really do a good job of being somehow both dull but telling an intriguing story.

Also neat are the crazy Japanese postcard propaganda from World War II.  As the website says, they were very postmodern and ahead of their time.


Bird fishing

Motivated by a fascinating travel photo, I’ve been digging into the world of cormorant fishing. Evidently, cormorant fishing arose independently across several regions in the world, which I suppose is a win for, um, convergent cultural evolution. It’s a fascinating look at the way people and animals interact.


See, what these fishermen do is catch cormorants and start training them to fish in a domestic fashion. They will tie a small band around the neck so that the bird cannot swallow large fish, though it can still gulp down the small ones. The fisherman and bird then work at night, crawling across the river on a boat with a bright light attached to attract the fish. The birds then mechanically hunt for the fish and bring it back to be spat out in a basket as you can see here.

This form of fishing arose in Japan, China, Europe, and Peru independently. There were regional variations; European cormorant hunting was more related to falconry, while the Chinese method actually domesticated the cormorants rather than using wild birds. The oldest record of this form of hunting is in Peru in the fifth century AD, and then a century later in Japan. At one point, a single cormorant was enough to feed a family. Now, however, the practice has devolved into little more than a tourist attraction.