Deflation of academic publications

The top journals publish a similar number of articles as decades ago, but there is a much larger number of researchers competing to get their work into a top journal. Correspondingly, it is more difficult over time to get a paper into a given journal. If articles are analogous to currency in the academic world, then this would be deflation: the value of the currency rises over time. If articles are like goods and services, but research effort is the currency that buys them, then there is inflation, because the amount of currency required to buy a given good rises.

The correct comparison between publications in different decades would take into account the increasing difficulty of publishing in a given journal. Instead of comparing papers in the top n journals, a better metric is papers in the top x percent of journals (accounting for the possibly expanding size of each journal). Similarly, being the number one researcher among a thousand in 1901 is less impressive than being the best among a million in 2001. Again the right comparison is by percentile rank, not by “top n” status.

The norms and metrics in academia are largely made by senior, established researchers. If people do not completely account for the deflation, then the top academics benefit from the increasing difficulty of publishing in the top n journals combined with the metric that counts the top n, not the top x percent. The research of old academics that was published in the top n long ago looks the more impressive the more difficult it is nowadays to get a paper into the top n. Comparison by percentile rank would correct for this artificial advantage, so the established members of the profession would not seem as high-achieving relative to new entrants.

A similar change in difficulty has occurred in getting accepted as a student in the top n universities, or getting hired as faculty in these. The right comparison to the students or faculty decades ago would compare the top x percent of universities, with the appropriate correction if the universities have expanded their enrollment or number of jobs.

On photos at tourist attractions

At every tourist attraction, there are numerous people taking pictures of the attraction, themselves and their companions. The same photos have been taken thousands of times before and are available on the internet. It would save a lot of time for people overall if someone wrote a computer program that photoshops a person or group into these pictures. Basically, pick a location of which there are photos available online and load some pictures of yourself into the program, which returns photos of you at this place. With this, everyone can skip the photoshoot at the tourist sites, save money on the camera(phone) and still obtain all the generic tourist photos they would have had under the current system.

The next step for attractions that consist of sight and sound only is to experience them through virtual reality goggles instead of actually going there. It is more environmentally friendly, safer and cheaper this way. Most tourist attractions fall into the visual-auditory category, e.g. architecture, museums, monuments, some of nature tourism.

Technological advances are required before tourist attractions that rely on smell, taste or touch (physically doing something, e.g. surfing) are replaced with virtual reality.

Teaching and research and division of labour

Universities usually prefer that the same person both teaches and does research. There are some purely teaching or purely research-focussed positions, but these are a minority. Both teaching and research achievements (and service as well) are required for tenure. This runs counter to Adam Smith’s argument that division of labour raises overall productivity. One possible cause is an economy of scope (synergy), meaning that teaching helps with research, or research helps to teach. In my experience, there is no such synergy, except maybe in high-level doctoral courses that focus exclusively on recent research. Revising old and basic knowledge by teaching it does not help generate novel insights about recent discoveries. Complex research does not help explain introductory ideas simply and clearly to beginners.

Another explanation is that universities try to hide their cross-subsidy going from teaching to research. The government gives money mainly for teaching, and if teachers and researchers were different people, then it would be easy for the government to check how much money was spent on each group. If, however, the same person is engaged in both activities, then the university can claim that most of the person’s time is spent teaching, or that their research is really designed to improve their teaching. In reality, teaching may be a minor side job and most of the salary may be paid for the research. This is suggested by the weight of research in hiring and tenuring.

The income of universities mostly comes from teaching, so they try to reduce competition from non-university teachers and institutions. One way is to differentiate their product by claiming that university teaching is special, complicated and research-based, so must be done by PhD holders or at least graduate students. Then schoolteachers for example would be excluded from providing this service. Actually the material up to and including first year doctorate courses is textbook-based and thus cannot consist of very recent discoveries. With the help of a textbook, many people could teach it – research is not required, only knowing the material thoroughly. For example, an undergraduate with good teaching skills who was top of the class in a course could teach that course next semester. Teaching skill is not highly correlated with research skill. The advantage someone who recently learned the material has in teaching it is that they remember which parts were difficult. A person who has known something for a long time probably does not recall how they would have preferred it taught when they first learned it.

Researchers forget the basics over time, because they rarely use these – there are more advanced methods. The foundations are learned to facilitate later learning of intermediate knowledge, which in turn helps with more complicated things and so on up to research level. Similarly in sports, musical performance, sewing, the initial exercises for learners can be quite different from the activity that is the end goal. A sports coach is rarely an Olympic athlete at the same time, so why should a teacher be a researcher simultaneously?

Organ trade restrictions

Trade in human body parts is mostly forbidden, although donations without compensation or for “coverage of reasonable costs” are allowed. One reason is that trade creates the incentive for criminals to harvest organs against people’s will. In the worst case, a young and healthy person is killed to get all their marketable body parts. Another problem is that stupid people may sell their organs voluntarily and later regret it.

The dangers differ depending on how damaging the removal of the organ is. Trade in hearts encourages killing more than trade in donor blood, although even for blood a victim can be drained completely if the price is high enough. For criminals, the complexity of organ removal and how fast it needs to be delivered to the recipient also matter. It would make sense for the restrictions and punishments to correspond to the danger of organ robbery and the associated damage.

The one tissue type currently transferred between people for which organ robbery and overdonation seem nonissues is sperm. Forcing someone to donate against their will is possible, but causes no permanent damage (in my medically ignorant opinion). Too frequent donations lower the quality (number of cells per unit of volume) in a detectable way, which would make most robbed sperm unmarketable. Yet payment for donor sperm is still forbidden in Australia (Human Tissue Act 1982) and many other countries. This may be a knee-jerk extension of the laws against trade in human organs, or there may be some reason I have missed.

Research articles may have negative value

Falsified, plagiarized or plain junk research is not considered here. The effort of the author and the cost to the funders are considered sunk and similarly ignored.

After a research article is published, it may still have negative value for humanity. How is this possible if the cost of creating it is considered zero and the results are not junk? Doesn’t every discovery, however small, contribute a little to the corpus of knowledge? It does, but the cost it imposes on other researchers may outweigh this. Every publication increases the number of articles that researchers of related topics have to look at, however briefly, to write their literature review and check that their idea is not already taken. It may take a few seconds to read the title and decide that the article is irrelevant to one’s work, but this small cost is paid by many. If the publication makes a small enough contribution to knowledge, then the total cost to other academics outweighs the benefit from this contribution. The researchers whose time the article wasted could have done something useful with that time.

On accepting apologies

There seems to be a social convention that an apology has to be accepted and that someone who does not is unfriendly and a bad person. This seems strange to me, because an apology often tries to undo deeds with words, or cancel unthinking words with considered ones.

The willingness of most people to trade words for deeds seems irrational to me – there is a qualitative difference between words and deeds, in that words can be neutralized within the hearer’s mind. If the hearer or reader does not understand, hear or attach emotional significance to words, then these have no effect. Deeds, on the other hand, have consequences that are not just in people’s heads. A punch causes bruising even if imagined to be a caress. An insult does not cause bad feelings if it is interpreted as a joke by all concerned.

Accepting words in compensation for deeds makes one manipulable. The perpetrator of bad actions can get away with them repeatedly by promising each time to change and to sin no more (Hitler’s “last territorial demand”). The social convention that words have to be accepted as compensation helps the unscrupulous. If instead good works in sufficient quantity were required to make up for misdeeds, then taking advantage of others would be less profitable. Some people would have to spend a lifetime undoing their crimes, which creates the incentive problem of how to make criminals work. Perhaps gradually easing ostracism and restrictions as the debt is worked off. The quantity of good actions required must be large enough to make the overall profit from a bad deed negative.

Cancelling unthinking words with a considered apology benefits impulsive liars who initially insult and then talk their way out of the opprobrium by pretending to be sorry. Every time I find in the media that a politician or a white collar criminal says sorry, I interpret it as them being sorry they were caught. If they were sorry about the deed itself, they wouldn’t have done it in the first place.

A good person who did something bad by accident would volunteer to make amends. They would not have to be forced to it as punishment. Of course, if volunteering to compensate starts being interpreted favourably enough by society, then selfish and manipulative people would also volunteer. Making amends is a costly signal of good intentions, but if the benefit of signalling is large enough, then even the bad types signal to imitate the good.

Measuring a person’s contribution to society

Sometimes it is debated whether one profession or person contributes more to society than another, for example whether a scientist is more valuable than a doctor. There are many dimensions to any job. One could compare the small and probabilistic contribution to many people’s lives that a scientist makes to the large and visible influence of a doctor to a few patients’ wellbeing. These debates can to some extent be avoided, because a simple measure of a person’s contribution to society is their income. It is an imperfect measure, as are all measures, but it is an easily obtained baseline from which to start. If the people compared are numerous, un-cartelized and employed by numerous competitive employers, then their pay equals their marginal productivity, as explained in introductory economics.

People are usually employed by one firm at a time, and full-time non-overtime work is the most common, so the employers can be thought of as buying one “full-time unit” of labour from each worker. The marginal productivity equals the total productivity in the case where only one or zero units can be supplied. So the salary equals the total productivity at work.

Income from savings in a competitive capital market equals the value provided to the borrower of those savings. If the savings are to some extent inherited or obtained from gifts, then the interest income is to that extent due to someone else’s past productivity. Then income is greater than the contribution to society.

Other reasons why income may be a biased measure are negative externalities (criminal income measures harm to others), positive externalities (scientists help future generations, but don’t get paid for it), market power (teachers, police, social workers employed by monopsonist government get paid less than their value), transaction costs (changing a job is a hassle for the employer and the employee alike) and incomplete information (hard to measure job performance, so good workers underpaid and bad overpaid on average). In short, all the market failures covered in introductory economics.

If the income difference is large and the quantitative effect of the market failures is similar (neither person is a criminal, both work for employers whose competitive situations are alike, little inheritance), then the productivity difference is likely to be in the same direction as the salary difference. If the salary difference is small and the jobs are otherwise similar, the contribution to society is likely similar, so ranking their productivity is not that important. Comparison of people whose labour markets have different failures to a different extent is difficult.

Local and organic food is wasteful

The easiest measure of any good’s environmental impact is its price. It is not a perfect measure. Subsidies for the inputs of a product can lower its price below more environmentally friendly alternatives that are not favoured by the government. Taxes, market power, externalities and incomplete information can similarly distort relative prices, as introductory economics courses explain. However, absent additional data, a more expensive good likely requires more resources and causes more environmental damage. Remembering this saves time on debating whether local non-organic is better than non-local organic fair trade, etc.

Local and organic are marketing terms, one suggesting helping local farmers and a lower environmental impact from transport, the other claiming health benefits and a lower environmental impact from fertilizers. Organic food may use less of some category of chemicals, but this must have a tradeoff in lower yield (more land used per unit produced) or greater use of some other input, because its higher price shows more resource use overall. From the (limited) research I have read, there is no difference in the health effects of organic and non-organic food. To measure this difference, a selection bias must be taken into account – the people using organic are more health-conscious, so may be healthier to start with. On the other hand, those buying organic and local may be more manipulable, which has unknown health effects. Local food may use less resources for transport, but its higher price shows it uses more resources in total. One resource is the more expensive labour of rich countries (the people providing this labour consume more, thus have a greater environmental impact).

If one wants to help “local farmers” (usually large agribusinesses, not the family farms their lobbying suggests), one can give them money directly. No need to buy their goods, just make them a bank transfer and then buy whichever product is the least wasteful.

There are economies of scale in farming, so the more efficient large agricultural companies tend to outcompete family farms. The greater efficiency is also more environmentally friendly: more production for the same resources, or the same production with less. Helping the small farms avoid takeover is bad for the environment.

Fair trade and sustainable sourcing may be good things, if the rules for obtaining this classification are reasonable and enforced. But who buying fair trade or sustainable has actually checked what the meaning behind the labels is (the “fine print”), or verified with independent auditors whether the nice-sounding principles are put into practice? When a term is used in marketing, I suspect business as usual behind it.

Optimizing a bike for commuting

The objective is to get from point A to point B every day, minimizing some combination of time, effort and cost. The objective is not to get exercise (in that case, take a longer route, make the bike heavier) or to win a sprint. If cost is not a concern, then of course get the best bike money can buy. It is still not obvious this should be the fastest road bike.

The total time spent on bike commuting includes maintenance, locking and unlocking the bike and any other unavoidable tasks. A high-end road bike with thin tires may save some time every day, but gets flat tires more frequently than a thick-tired mountain bike. Each occasion of a flat tire costs significant time, plus some money. The time cost occurs randomly, which for most people is worse than if it were predictable and could be scheduled.

Thin wheels get bent more easily than thick ones, again requiring maintenance. Thus the fastest commute is not achieved by the lightest, thinnest bike. Reliability is what influences both time and cost the most.

Wheel and tire width affects weight, aerodynamic resistance, rolling resistance, flat tire and wheel bend frequency and ride comfort. The lowest rolling resistance occurs when the tire pressure is such that vertical tire thickness drops 15% under load (F. Berto, Bicycle Quarterly Vol 5 No 1). Tire tread pattern has such a small effect on rolling resistance that it can be ignored for commuters. The tire thickness that minimizes rolling resistance is 22-23 mm (wheelenergy.com). The thinner the wheel and tire, the lower the aerodynamic resistance, but this effect is under 1% of effort, small enough to ignore for commuters (http://www.biketechreview.com/index.php/reviews/wheels/63-wheel-performance). Wheel weight and inertia have an even smaller effect.

The thicker the wheel, the less chance of it bending (other things equal – wheels of weak material or poor construction bend no matter what). More expensive wheels are on average stronger and lighter. The thicker the tire, the lower the probability of punctures and pinch flats. For a commuter, it is optimal to choose wheels and tires heavy and thick enough to never bend or get flats on normal roads (having some potholes, broken glass etc). In my experience, this means thicker than 25 mm road tires and thinner than 50 mm mountain bike tires.

Punctures are less likely than pinch flats even with 25 mm tires. Puncture probability can be further reduced with e.g. Kevlar-lined tires, which add less than 40 dollars to cost.

It sounds like I am advocating a hybrid bike – these have intermediate thickness wheels and tires and are supposedly designed for commuting. My experience with the one hybrid I tried (Apollo Trace 10) was very bad. Both wheels bent enough to hit the brakes in less than a month of half an hour per day riding and two spokes broke on the rear wheel. Looking closely at the wheel, the substandard manufacturing was obvious. My speculation is that hybrids may be low quality because they are marketed to people who on average are not bike fans, ride little and in flat road conditions. They thus cannot distinguish quality levels and may buy a bike mainly based on its flashy paint. Road and mountain bikes, on the other hand, may be bought by more knowledgeable customers. For these to sell, they may need some minimum reliability.

It would be good to have bicycle reliability statistics like there exist for cars. Then this would be the best source to base bike choice on, not recommendations from friends, forums or bike shops.

What matters for speed and ease of riding is first the fit of the bike to the rider and second the maintenance of the wheels and drive train. The weight and general flashiness of the bike are far less important.

I think that the best used bike for a given price is better than the best new for that price, because clueless customers go for new, and some people want to demonstrate their wealth by replacing their high quality used bike with new at short intervals. They sell a high quality used bike for cheap to make room in the garage. I got a great on a used bike: a like-new 2008 Giant OCR 1 for 350 AUD. But this is just one data point.

On reporting on the Syrian war

According to the media, there are no ordinary towns in Syria, only key towns, strategic towns and key strategic towns. The same holds for villages, highways, road crossings, border crossings etc. There are no minor skirmishes in the Syrian war, only major offensives, strategic offensives and similar very important actions in very important places. What the media calls major campaigns usually involve from a few dozen to a few hundred fighters. Entire cities are attacked and defended for months by some hundreds at most, with the media reporting major clashes every day.