Monthly Archive for September, 2013

The Best Toy Ever, Reimagined

In The Big Questions, I wrote about an absolutely wonderful toy I had as a child. The Digi-Comp I was a completely mechanical computer; it ran on springs and rubber bands, and you built it yourself from a kit. You programmed it by placing little plastic cylinders (cut from drinking straws) on appropriate tabs, and you pushed a lever to run the program. The back of the computer was completely exposed, so you could watch the cylinders and straws and rubber bands push each other around — and see for yourself how those motions implemented the logic of your program and produced a result. As I wrote in The Big Questions, a child with a Digi-Comp I is a child with deep insight into what makes a computer work.

I am delighted that the Digi-Comp I is, after a 40 year hiatus, back on the market, though the modern version substitutes laminated binders board (i.e. high quality cardboard) for plastic. There is, I think, no better gift for a kid who likes computers, or likes logic, or likes knowing how things work.

Now an old friend (who shares my fond memories of this toy) writes to point me to yet another reincarnation of the DigiComp I — as a Lego project! Way cool.

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You Gotta See This

I realize that my posting frequency has fallen off over the past few weeks, and I hope things will be back to normal pretty soon. Meanwhile, to hold you over, here is something amazing:

What you’re seeing there are two flat-screen TVs being carted around by robots, all of them (the robots and the TVs) being driven by staggeringly brilliant software. Read more here.

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The Ballmer Legacy

I just tried to log into my Hotmail account and got a message saying that for security reasons, I have to enter a code, which will be sent to the mobile number or email address of my choice. So I typed in one of my other email addresses, they sent me a code, I entered the code, and I logged into Hotmail.

We all see the problem here, right?

I think maybe all the smart people left Microsoft in embarrassment over MSWord.

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Which Of the Following Does Not Belong?

Following in the footsteps of Jeb Bush, Alan Simpson, Erskine Bowles, James Carville, Mary Matalin, George F. Will, Tony Snow, John Bolton, Tommy Franks, Chris Wallace, Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, Morton Kondracke, Christopher Hitchens, Walter Cronkite, Clarence Thomas, Queen Noor of Jordan and Milton Friedman, I will be delivering the Hatton Sumners Distinguished Lecture in Dallas this Friday. Join us if you’re free! Registration is here.

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RIP, Ronald Coase

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Ronald Coase has died at the age of 102. I am therefore reposting, with minor changes, the appreciation I wrote a few years ago for his 99th birthday.

In the theory of externalities—that is, costs imposed involuntarily on others—there have been exactly two great ideas. The first, forever associated with the name of Arthur Cecil Pigou (writing about 1920) is that things tend to go badly when people can escape the costs of their own behavior. Factories pollute too much because someone other than the factory owner has to breathe the polluted air. Nineteenth century trains threw off sparks that tended to ignite the crops on neighboring farms, and the railroads ran too many of those trains because the crops belonged to someone else. Farmers keep too many unfenced rabbits when they don’t care about the lettuce farmer next door.

Pigou’s solution—and it’s often a good one—is to make sure that people do feel the costs of their actions, via taxes, fines, or liability rules that allow the victims to sue for damages. Do a dollar’s worth of damage, and you’re charged a dollar.

Pigou endorsed this policy not because it seems fair, though it does seem fair to many, but because it yields, under what he believed to be very general conditions, the optimal amounts of damage. We don’t want too much pollution, but we don’t want too little, either, given that pollution is a necessary by-product of a lot of stuff we enjoy. Pigou offered a proof—now standard fare in all the textbooks—that his policies lead to the perfect compromises, in a sense that can be made precise.

The second great idea about externalities sprang full-blown from the mind of a law professor and subsequent Nobel prize winner named Ronald Coase, who stunned the profession in 1960 by pointing out that Pigou’s argument runs both ways. If you breathe the pollution from my factory, I’m imposing a cost on you—but at the same time, you’re imposing a cost on me. After all, if you lived somewhere else, you wouldn’t be complaining about the smoke and I wouldn’t be getting punished for it.

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