Monthly Archives: January 2009

Save fuel when cooking rice

The prices of various fuels continue to go up, with no end in sight.

Among Filipinos, cooking eats up a lot of the home’s energy consumption. A significant part of this cooking consumption goes to cooking rice, which we eat practically with every meal. I don’t know how rice is cooked in other countries, but here in the Philippines, we simply boil it with water, until all the water is gone and the grains have softened enough.

We have found a very fuel-efficient way of cooking rice, which extends the use of our LPG tank at home 20-30% more days before we need to refill it. I encourage others to try it.

To cook rice with less fuel, as soon as the whole rice-water mix starts to boil over, switch off the heat/fire. Yes, turn it completely off. Wait for five minutes, then turn it on again. Keep the heat very low, just enough to turn the remaining water to steam. In a few more minutes, your rice will be cooked as usual. I don’t know if this method will work with electric rice cookers, though.

If you are using wood for fuel, then when the water boils over, put out the flame and leave only a few glowing coals to boil away the remaining water and soften the grains.

If this method also works for you, please pass it on and leave a comment here.

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Finite wants make relative abundance possible

Working paper

Finite Wants Make Relative Abundance Possible

by Roberto Verzola, rverzola@gn.apc.org

[Note: the old title of this working paper was “Finite demand makes relative abundance possible”.]

It is almost by definition that economists predominantly focus on scarcity, when they define economics as the study of “the most efficient ways to allocate scarce resources to meet unlimited human wants”. If, indeed, people had infinite wants, then not even all the resources of this finite world will be enough for a single person.

It can be argued, however, that consumer wants are not infinite. There exist physical, physiological, neurological, psychological and cultural limits – both actual and potential – to consumption which can keep individual as well as collective needs and wants within finite bounds.

If these needs and wants are finite, then satisfying them becomes a real possibility, and relative abundance is within reach.

The following three concepts will help show that needs and wants can remain within finite bounds:

Satiation. Economists define satiation as the consumption level which the consumer most prefers. The closer the consumer is to this level, writes economist Hal Varian, “the better off he is in terms of his own preferences”.1 This satiation level for a bundle of goods is also called the bliss point. Beyond it, the consumer prefers to have less of the goods. Many economists still cling to the hedonist principle that “more is always preferred to less.” But some acknowledge, at least in theory, that a satiation level exists for some, if not most, goods. Varian, in particular, says that most goods have a satiation point and that “you can have too much of nearly anything,” which contradicts the “infinite wants” assertion in most definitions of economics.

Saturation. While satiation may apply more to the psychological attitude of a consumer not wanting more, saturation is more about the physiological or physical incapacity of a person to consume more. Beyond the saturation point, one’s body either will become incapable or will involuntarily reject additional servings of food and drinks. One can only wear so many clothes, or shoes. One can listen to only so many CDs or watch only so many videos. There are only twenty-four hours a day after all.

To reach the brain, a sense stimulus takes around 10-20 milliseconds. To respond in a conscious way, neuro-scientists have found out, the brain takes longer – around 500 milliseconds (half a second).2 This suggests that our brain can only enjoy at most two distinct events every second or about 170,000 every twenty-four hours. For a world with some six billion people, that adds up to an upper limit of one quad (i.e., quadrillion) consumption events per day. That is a huge number, it is true, but finite nevertheless. Most of us will probably exceed our saturation levels long before that point.

The argument for saturation is further strengthened by the findings of experimental psychologists that people – and animals too – get less pleasure from any stimulation, the more often it happens. Not only does the pleasure diminish, but the stimulation soon becomes undesirable.3 So, the finite time to consciously respond to sensory stimulation sets a limit to the variety of stimulation one can respond to, and a single type of stimulation will also soon become undesirable, also setting a limit on the desirable amount for that type. Economist Tibor Scitovsky has further argued that not all sources of stimulation can be exchanged in the market and therefore add to economic demand.4 All these support the argument for a finite bound to consumer needs and wants.

However, the concept of saturation as distinct from satiation is hardly mentioned in consumer theory and most economists still cling to the “infinite wants” idea.

Satisficing. Even before we reach our satiation or saturation levels, we may already reach our “satisficed” level, in which the quantity we have of a particular good or bundle of goods already suffices to satisfy, and beyond which we would only weakly prefer more.5 In contrast to satiation, which results in a strictly lower preference beyond the bliss point or satiation level, points beyond the satisficing level are either equally preferred or only so slightly or weakly preferred that it does not make a difference. The idea that consumers satisfice rather than optimize when fitting their wants to their budget was first raised by psychologist Herbert Simon, who subsequently won the Economics Nobel Prize in 1978.6

Any of these “sat” concepts – certainly all of them, together – are enough to argue that individual and likewise needs and wants have finite bounds.

This justifies the following assertion: some consumers have a satisficing level for some goods.7 As the price of a good goes down, consumers will then be able to afford enough to reach their satisficing levels. We will leave to future research the debate whether the weak assertion of “some consumers” and “some goods” can, in some contexts or periods, be changed to a stronger assertion of “some consumers for all goods”, “all consumers for some goods”, or even “all consumers for all goods”.8

The above assertion leads directly to a formal definition of abundance: when a person can afford enough quantity of a good or bundle of goods to reach his/her satisficed level, then the person enjoys a state of abundance for that good/bundle of goods. The concept is not new. Gandhi must have been referring to abundance when he said “the Earth has enough for everyone’s need”. This definition also allows a good’s state of abundance with respect to one person to be quantified: it is the ratio of that person’s affordable quantity (economists call this demand, which varies according to price) to his/her satisficing level, which is the point where any further reduction in price does not anymore increase that person’s demanded quantity. For instance, if a person’s satisficing level is five pairs of shoes, but s/he can only afford two pairs (i.e., she is only willing to buy two pairs at current prices), then s/he enjoys a state of abundance of 40% (two out of five) with respect to shoes. This makes it simple to relate abundance to its inverse, scarcity: the person needs three pairs more to reach the five-pair satisficed level. Thus s/he faces a scarcity level of 60%.

For a group of consumers, the level of abundance can be determined by aggregating the quantities each individual can afford (the demand), divided by the aggregate of their individual satisfaction levels. This makes it possible, in theory, to determine the relative level of abundance (and scarcity) of a good for an entire society.

Economics usually assumes that business firms maximize their profits by producing until their marginal cost (the cost of the next additional unit) equals their marginal revenue (unit price of the good). If, in addition to this behavioral assumption, we also assume diminishing returns or decreasing returns to scale, this will eventually result in increasing marginal costs. When the increasing marginal costs reach the good’s market price, economic theory says the point of maximum profit has been reached. Thus business firms will, in theory, reach their satiation point when they reach their maximum profits.

This also means, however, that profitable firms employing technologies with constant or increasing returns to scale will face constant or decreasing marginal costs. They will therefore have no profit maximum and likewise no satiation level. These firms will conform to the theoretical hedonist idea that “more is always preferred to less.” They will try to keep increasing their scale of operations, as they go after higher and higher profits – making them an engine of globalization.

It is the profit-motive, it seems, that keeps us away from abundance, not “infinite” human wants.

1 Hal Varian. 1996. Intermediate Economics: A Modern Approach (4th ed.). W. W. Norton & Co., New York. p. 43-44.

2 Robert Matthews. 2007. 25 Big Ideas: The Science That’s Changing Our World. Oneworld Publications, Oxford.

3Tibor Scitovsky. 1976. The Joyless Economy: An Inquiry Into Human Satisfaction and Consumer Dissatisfaction. Oxford University Press, London. p. 35-40.

4Tibor Scitovsky. See above, p. 81-83.

5 Economists often represent the quantity of good desired relative to another good (or other goods) using indifference curves, which include on the same curve equally preferred ratios of one good over another. Through the same graphical tool, “satisficed” levels may then be described using thick indifference curves. Such thick curves mean that small increases in quantity of a consumer’s bundle of goods do not increase a consumer’s preference for that bundle, suggesting that they have reached their satisficed level. Standard indifference curve analysis can then be used to determine the economic implications when consumers reach this level. One implication, for instance, is that the demand curve turns concave as the satisficing level is approached. This upsets the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics, which assumes strictly convex indifference curves and non-satiation. This is the theorem which asserts that a free market leads to an efficient allocation of resources.

6 See Herbert Simon. Feb. 1955. “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice” in The Quarterly Journal of Economics (Vol. 69 No. 1). p. 99-118

7 “Satisficing” seems to have no noun form. Instead of “satisfaction” — which many economists use to mean “reaching the highest level desired” rather than “meeting a level that suffices” — this paper uses “satisficing level” if the level has not been reached yet, and “satisficed level” if it has been reached.

8The satisficing principle is widely used in logical/mathematical proofs and, by extension, in all physical, natural and social sciences that use such proofs in their fields. Consider the following assertions: (1) A, B and C imply X; 2) D and E imply X, and 3) F implies X. As soon as the truth of (1) is proven, the sufficient conditions for X will have been satisfied, a very common exercise in many fields. Subsequent work may show that (2) and (3) are also true, with (3) possibly established as the optimal sufficient condition for X. But (1), (2) and (3) are all equally sufficient to satisfy the conditions for X. Anyone who has ever established, used or accepted such proofs is using the satisficing principle.

Magtanim Ay Di Biro, English translation

Planting rice is not a joke

English translation by Roberto Verzola

Magtanim ay di biro

Traditional Filipino folksong

Refrain:

Come, dear fellow stewards of the earth,

stretching muscles is good for the health.

Let us pause so we can catch our breath,

and then tomorrow back to work!

Planting rice is not a joke;

the whole day you’re bent like an ox.

You cannot stand more than one bit;

till you’re done you cannot sit.

Oh, my arms, the feeling’s gone;

and my waist, its tired and sore.

My legs feel a thousand pricks,

soaked in water, six to six.

Mornings when I wake and rise;

I tell myself to think, be wise

and pray to find some land to till,

so I can have a tasty meal.

What a cruel destiny

to be born in poverty

If I don’t work with my two arms,

I won’t earn a single dime.

Refrain:

Halina, halina, mga kaliyag,

tayo’y magsipag-unat-unat.

Magpanibago tayo ng lakas,

para sa araw ng bukas.

Magtanim ay di biro;

maghapong nakayuko.

Di naman makatayo;

di naman makaupo.

Bisig ko’y namamanhid;

baywang ko’y nangangawit.

Binti ko’y namimintig,

sa pagkababad sa tubig.

Sa umaga pagkagising,

lahat ay iisipin.

Kung saan may patanim,

may masarap na pagkain.

Ay, pagkasawimpalad

ng inianak sa hirap.

Ang bisig kung di iunat,

di kumita ng pilak.

Improved instructions for making a professional CD envelope purely by folding (origami)

It has been a year since I released my own design of an origami CD envelope. It is the best design I’ve seen so far. Apparently though, the original instructions were quite hard to follow. So I tried to improve the instructions and include clearer diagrams. You’ll find everything on this 82Kb file (Improved instructions for origami CD envelope). Once I manage to convert the diagrams into individual JPEG picture files, I’ll post them here too.

A YouTube video that demonstrates the procedure is also available here.

The original instructions are here.

If you think the instructions can be improved further, please send me a note or leave a comment.

Happy new year to all!

Eating, or not eating, for health

I’ve been reading a book that happens to put together the bits and pieces of useful tips, information and insights I’ve gathered over years of reading about proper eating.

Proper Food Combining Works (Living Testimony) by Lee DuBelle explains very well the reasons for various good eating habits, reasons based on the nature of different foods, how the body digests them, and how long it takes for them to be digested. Thus, some foods can be eaten together, but not others. Basically, she suggests fruits in the morning, starchy food and vegetables for lunch, and the same for dinner. Non-vegetarians can have fish or meat for dinner, although DuBelle says it is better to stay off meat altogether. Milk too. Water should be drank between, not during, meals.

Here’s DuBelle’s summary of the right food combinations to eat at which meal (she has a longer list; the shorter list below is Philippine-specific):

BREAKFAST FOODS (digested in 2-3 hours)

A. Fruit, Acid B. Mild acid C. Sweet D. Syrup
Lemon

Orange

Pineapple

Strawberry

Tomato

Mango, Unripe

Santol

Apple

Guava

Mango

Guayabano

Pineapple

Sweet mango

Chico

Date

Papaya

Banana

Grape

Melon

Watermelon

Sugar

Carob

Honey

LUNCH FOODS (digested in 5 hours)

E. Starch (with F) F. Green vegetables (with E)
Rice

Corn

Bread

Yam

Pasta

Grains

Squash

Peanuts

Potato

Cereal

Asparagus

Bamboo shoot

Bell pepper

Pechay

Broccolli

Cabbage

Cauliflower

Lettuce

Mushroom

Okra

Onion

Peas, fresh

Radish

Spinach

Squash

Celery

Sprouts

Eggplant

Watercress

Cucumber

DINNER FOODS (digested in 12 hours)

G. Fat

(with E,H)

H. Protein fat

(with [F][G])

I. Protein starch

(with [F])

J. Protein flesh

(with [F])

Butter

Cream

Oil

Avocado

Cheese

Nuts

Seeds

Yogurt

Beans, dry

Peas, dry

Soy beans

Animal meat

Fish

Eggs

Seafood

Remember: Keep meals simple. Avoid mixing food groups. Do not eat between meals. Drink water instead: 15 minutes before or 2 hours after meals, 8 glasses daily.

There is only one point where I disagree with DuBelle. She suggests drinking water that is steam-distilled, or prepared with reverse osmosis or similar methods that remove hard minerals, additives and impurities.

Her aversion to tap water which, she says, “can kill you”, might be location-specific. But I’ve also read elsewhere that drinking distilled water exclusively will leach minerals out of your body. We evolved drinking water from streams, rivers and springs, which are rich in minerals. The people with the longest lifespans, the Hunzakuts of Pakistan, drink mineral-rich water from melting glaciers. In my non-expert opinion, clean spring or mountain water is best.

There’s one area where I can speak with authority, based on personal experience: juices. I led a hunger strike against genetically engineered corn (Bt corn) in 2003. Encamped in front of the central office of the Department of Agriculture, we ate no food, but drank water and various juices. Food was banned around the strike area. After the first week of the strike, we’ve probably tried all kinds of juices (mostly donated by the public): pineapple juice, orange juice, grape juice, apple juice, tomato juice, guava juice, mango juice, and so on. Sometime after the second week, our empty stomachs started rejecting all these juices, except one. This was the one juice that kept us alive for the last two weeks of the hunger strike, which lasted 30 days.

The juice was fresh coconut water. The top of the coconut would be chopped to expose one of the holes in the shell. We’d insert a straw in the hole and suck out the water. I now consider fresh coconut water the best juice in the world.

On the 30th day, when we ended the strike, two hunger strikers were left: Cita Esmao, a farmer-leader of the farmers’ federation PAKISAMA, and myself, representing the Philippine Greens. Ka Cita had been rushed to the hospital a week earlier, but rejoined me after a few days.

Here’s something else to think about: I was healthier after the 30-day hunger strike.