Author Archives: alistair

Book concluding that migration is beneficial to rich and poor

Geese migrating

The Economist has a review of a book on migration which sounds extremely interesting. This is something I often think about as I find myself constrained by the country of my birth.

I think that there is a strong argument that discriminating against someone based on country of birth is like discriminating against someone based on race.

But this book makes an even more powerful argument: the economic benefits of migration vastly outweigh the costs.

For instance take the second paragraph:

“If rich countries were to admit enough migrants from poor countries to expand their own labour forces by a mere 3%, the world would be richer, according to one estimate, by $356 billion a year. Completely opening borders would add an astonishing $39 trillion over 25 years to the global economy. That is more than 500 times the amount the rich world spends on foreign aid each year. Migration is the most effective tool yet devised for reducing global poverty.

The book discusses the history of migration before going on to argue that more migration would benefit both poor countries and rich countries.

Poor countries

On the balance migration helps poor countries even though they may lose some of their most skilled citizens. People have an incentive to develop marketable skills but might not migrate; skilled workers often return home after working abroad; migrants send significant amounts of money back to poor countries. And of course the migrants themselves obviously benefit or they wouldn’t leave.

Rich countries

Multiple studies have apparently shown that migrants create more jobs and employment than they consume. Host nations are net beneficiaries of migration. The USA is a nation built on immigrants! Finally, demographic shifts mean that rich countries may come to depend on migrants as their workforces age.


The smart (and I would argue morally correct) move is to allow more immigration. Sadly the world seems to be moving in the opposite direction.



Why you shouldn’t use Internet Explorer

Comparison of IE9 with Firefox

The history of web browsers is actually quite interesting. Back in the distant past the two big players were Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Microsoft won that particular battle in the late 90’s by bundling IE with Windows. Effectively most people came to think of the internet as IE.

After destroying the competition Microsoft simply stopped developing IE and we were stuck with the pile of trash that is Internet Explorer 6.

Luckily today we have excellent alternatives, most notably in Firefox and (my recommendation) Google Chrome. Faced with competition and plummeting market share Microsoft are now desperately trying to catch up. But they are still miles behind.

A Firefox developer recently released a comparison of Firefox with the newest version of Internet Explorer, IE9 which is due to be released later this year. The comparison shows that even the upcoming IE9 is way behind Firefox in terms of features.

Google Chrome is even better than Firefox! It is faster, more stable, and has more features.

Despite all this, too many people still use Internet Explorer! You can do better. The internet can be faster, easier and safer so easily.

You shouldn’t use Internet Explorer.

Graphically illustrating the impact of HIV and ARVs

Graph showing a significant dip in life expectancy for some African countries. Coincides with the rise of HIV/AIDS

Recently someone posted this graph on Reddit. It’s an incredible illustration of the impact of HIV/AIDS on some African countries. Correlation isn’t the same as causation, but it isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that the vicious dips in life expectancy are a result of HIV and AIDS.

In the comments section of the Reddit post (always useful to read) someone posted a link to Gapminder (Gapminder are the famous animated bubbles graphing guys) showing more recent data.

It seems that in recent years the graphs have swerved back upward again as ARV’s and more effective AIDS prevention are rolled out.

Graph showing the rise in life expectancy that coincides with the roll out of ARVs and better HIV prevention

Google creates awesome translating app for Android

Google has just announced an update to the translate app for their Android mobile platform. The update includes an incredible (but still experimental feature that translates) spoken conversations.

So if you’re in Spain you can open up this app on your phone and speak English to it. The application translates what you said and responds in spoken Spanish. Amazing!

Conversation mode in Google Translate for Android

The feature is still experimental but has a lot of promise. The best way of understanding it is by viewing this demonstration video.

Hard work can be good

Great tits seem to benefit from hard work

It’s a cliché but it seems that sometimes it really is better when things don’t come too easily. Working to attain goals seems to be good for the psyche – when things come too easily we stagnate.

The Economist reports on an interesting experiment that appears to illustrate this effect. In birds.

The birds in question (great tits) rise before dawn and sing their little hearts out to attract mates. It is known that those who rise earliest obtain more mates and are better able to defend their territory.

The experimenters suspected that feeding some birds would make them stronger and enable them to rise earlier than their unfed competitors.

The results however showed that the fed birds became lazy and started rising later than those birds that had to find food the hard way.

What I think about Wikileaks

The whole Cablegate affair from Wikileaks is highly entertaining but it also warrants some real thought. It’s more complex than just delighting in the embarrassment of the US government.

I recently read an excellent blog post on the topic which helped to firm up my opinions on the matter.

1. Secrecy vs. Transparency – We need a balance

Complete secrecy is fairly obviously something that we need to avoid in a democratic state. Without some transparency we get an unchecked government (and businesses) that can act as it pleases. Transparency is important.

But, complete transparency is also something to be avoided. Private speech is a necessary component of democracy. People need to be able to negotiate, to change their minds, and to keep some secrets.

What is needed is a suitable balance between secrecy and transparency. Democracy is full of such balancing acts.

2. Wikileaks is a necessary shock

In the short term I believe that Wikileaks is a good thing:

  • Wikileaks pushes the secrecy vs. transparency balance towards transparency. I believe this was necessary.
  • Wikileaks is the shock to the system that should pull us into a new world. Democracy must react.

In the long term however an unchecked Wikileaks would be a bad thing. Wikileaks currently represents pure transparency without any checks and balances. Democracy and law must catch up.

3. The US is reacting shockingly

I am horrified by the reaction of the US government to Wikileaks. This is not what I would expect from the government of a freedom loving democracy.

Two quotes from the original post neatly capture my thoughts on the US government’s reaction.

When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.

The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”


  • Democracy needs a balance between secrecy and transparency.
  • Wikileaks helps move us toward transparency.
  • But pure transparency as represented by Wikileaks should be controlled by laws.
  • The US government has reacted innapropriately to Wikileaks.

What’s a Spoonerism

The Lord is a showing leopardI was just reading this article (about an exhibition examining the history of English) in which I came across the word spoonerism. What’s a spoonerism? I instantly headed on to Wikipedia.

A spoonerism is a deliberate or accidental error in which corresponding parts of words are switched. Examples make this clearer:

  • Go and shake a tower (take a shower)
  • A blushing crow (crushing blow)
  • A bat flattery (flat battery)

My personal favorite example by miles:

The Lord is a shoving leopard

(a loving shephard)

Civilians do most of the dying in Iraq

Graph showing the types of people being killed in Iraq

The Economist has put up this graph showing who is doing the dying in Iraq. The graph is interesting not only for its content but also because of the data source.

Firstly, the graph shows that by far the biggest victims of the ongoing violence in Iraq are civilians. Especially around 2006 and 2007 far more civilians were dying than combatants.

The source of the data is also interesting. Wikileaks is a website dedicated to whistleblowing. They allow anonymous posting of any sensitive information. Somehow Wikileaks got hold of 400,000 reports from the US military.

The graph above comes from those reports. So this is the US military’s own data.

The last Micronesian navigator

Mau Piailug was the last of the great Micronesian ocean navigators

The Economist has a great obituary on the last of the great Micronesian ocean navigators – Mau Piailug.

Piailug grew up on a tiny (less than 3km long) island where survival required sailing far out to sea for deep water fishing. The inhabitants of the island were experts in navigation using stars, winds, birds and various other signs available before the advent of modern navigation.

Piailug began studying to be a master navigator with his grandfather at age 5 and was the last local to learn navigation in the traditional way. From the article:

“He could read how far he was from shore, and its direction, by the feel of the swell against the hull. He could detect shallower water by colour, and see the light of invisible lagoons reflected in the undersides of clouds. Sweeter-tasting fish meant rivers in the offing; groups of birds, homing in the evening, showed him where land lay.”

He became famous by successfully sailing a little double hulled canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti using no modern equipment at all. In an expedition reminiscent of the great Kon Tiki journey he did so to prove that it was possible for ancient navigators to do so.

In his later life Piailug taught others the ways of navigation, this time allowing them to make notes and record the ancient knowledge. If he hadn’t done so, this amazing knowledge would have been lost to us forever.

Purpose of Life

Cartoon showing that there is no purpose to life

“What is the purpose of life” is obviously not a stupid question. It’s a very good question.

The purpose of life is more life.

All life is purely trying to create more copies of itself. The purpose of every living organism on this planet (yourself included) is to create as many copies of it’s genes as possible.

That is all.

That’s not what you meant right? What is the deeper purpose of life? What is the meaning of life?

That question is actually a lot like “What is the square root of a tomato?”

It doesn’t make sense.

There is no deeper purpose of life. Life just is. It is a bleak realization, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

I was recently reading the preface to Richard Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow which contains this excellent quote:

Gone is all purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.