Thursday, April 21, 2016

Dictators: The Next Generation

So I read that Pinochet's successor died. I don't remember his name.

Then I got to thinking about other people who followed other dictators, e.g., Franco, Mao, and Stalin. The people who followed them were moderates. Is this a trend? If so, there has to be a poli-sci rule or effect that describes it.*

But maybe there is no significant trend and it's just a natural reversion to the mean. The appellation "extremist" suggests, if not a mathematical normal distribution, a situation where a normal leader isn't heavy handed.

Though, who is an extremist? The victors of the Second World War thought the Nazis were extremists; the Nazis themselves thought themselves the golden middle ground between right wing reactionaries and left wing communists. There's a weird self-congratulatory aspect in labeling others "extremist" as if only a partial understanding of the Aristotelian mean were sufficient for virtue.**

Or perhaps it's an availability bias. The Romans and Greeks who gave us the terms tyrant and dictator had a lot of experience with them. Even though my poor memory once again fails to serve, I have a feeling that authoritarian governments had a bit more staying power - partly because so much of the ancient world depended on slaves. But I do remember a general Western historical belief that Eastern states tended to be more despotic. I'd research the rulers around Tarquin, Solon, Nebudchadnezzar, Ramses, etc., but I don't feel like going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole right now.

Maybe there is a trend. It could be that the sort of person savvy enough to make it into the highest levels of government without being perceived as a rival are perceptive enough to know that strong leaders are prone to getting overthrown. Or perhaps strong leaders, who tend to be alphas, eliminate other alphas from possible competition and increase the likelihood of a more moderate successor.

Or maybe Freakanomics or some other pop science book I'd read had already covered this and my subconscious has fooled me into thinking I was on to something.

* Like the theory that suggests first past the post voting will result in a two party system. Or the dumb Internet "law" that suggests Hitler or the Nazis will inevitably get brought up in an internet discussion. Speaking of whom ...

** There's a story about an emperor who quipped something along the lines that: if it is an extreme of defect to father no children but an extreme of excess to father all the children in the empire, then it surely it is the virtuous middle to father half the children in the empire.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

1-800-427-0459 also, Thanks US Bank!

Nothing like waking up to what sounded like a phishing phone call talking about fraudulent charges yada yada. Please call 800-427-0459. 

Googling the number led to a back and forth discussion of people alternately saying it was a fraud and it was legit. That wasn't too helpful except that fraudulent numbers usually result in a discussion that uniformly agrees something is a scam. In my mind, however, the people saying it was legit could easily be plants. There are plants on Yelp and Amazon that try to artificially drive up the credibility of a service or product so it's easy to imagine a fifty cent army doing the same for a phishing scam.

Fortunately there was some good advice in the forum suggesting to call the number on the back of your card. And that's what I did. They actually verified the number and their precrime fraud prevention unit blocked a number of spurious charges. I'm actually happy about that since disputing charges is a huge pain.

I'm curious as to how someone got my card information, though, since I'm very careful with it. Now from what I read, it seems the 800-427-0459 might be an automated third party fraud prevention service. However, the following does not inspire confidence

It's best to call the number on the back of your card anyway since the odds are much lower for a fraudster to have changed that. But it seems logical for the bank to at least list that particular number on their website since I ended up being transferred there anyway and had to go through the hassle of repeating personal information a number of times.

And while I'm happy that I'm not out hundreds of dollars from fraudulent charges, I'd gladly sign up for a service that required more thorough authentication. The card verification number really isn't sufficient given that anyone who has physical access for a few seconds, e.g. someone at a store, can use it.

Things like tokens, passwords, and biometrics, (what you have, what you know, who you are) impose higher transaction costs which can be large in the aggregate. They aren't foolproof and aren't a replacement for detective work - even if it's just big data analysis - but even one extra level of security would be a huge improvement.

Friday, April 1, 2016

April Fools

Browsing the web on April 1st feels like one giant "Island of Truthtellers and Liars" logic puzzle. But, no joke, there seems to be a promising treatment for amyloidosis in the pipeline. Nova writes about a virus called M13 which is adept at destroying amyloids, mis-folded proteins that are responsible for many symptoms of aging.

The company that is developing a treatment based on M13, NeuroPhage, is beginning human trials. Though, the FDA and biotech field being what it is, it's always best to remain skeptical. In business school, we had a founder at a biotech firm talk about how regulatory compliance imposed enormous, even fatal, costs on his startup. His particular firm had developed a promising treatment for AIDS which was essentially a cure.

In my mind, that's a home run. The superstar or unicorn that VCs are always chasing.

And yet, years later, AIDS sufferers cannot try it. Startups like his did not have the billions of dollars it costs to get a drug approved by the government. Normally, even this isn't an insurmountable hurdle if there is enough money to be made. If it costs two billion to get a drug tested with a fifty-fifty chance of passing, you need a very significant upside for such an investment to make sense. Given that profits are never guaranteed and that there are many other investing options that take on far less risk, a drug needs to be worth much more than two billion dollars to get investment.  

Unfortunately, AIDS is largely a third-world problem where the potential market does not clear the government-created artificial threshold for success. Advocates of regulation can probably point to situations where the FDA has saved lives by banning harmful drugs. Some people want more regulation and testing and some people want less. A utilitarian might want to find the balance that saves the most lives although such a number is impossible to compute. 

Thankfully, the constantly decreasing cost of travel and the lower barriers to biotech firms in regimes with less regulation will mean that promising treatments will still have a chance outside of the "capitalist" United States. Treatments, no doubt, that the nomenklatura will avail themselves of while expounding on the need for more regulation and the evils of corporations at home.