Sunday, August 24, 2014

Making the living as interesting as the dead

Dinosaurs are endlessly fascinating things. They may be one of the biggest common denominators interest of among young children, both male and female. They’re huge, they’re weirdly shaped, and perhaps most importantly, they don’t exist. You see only the skeleton, and drawings. As a consequence, you’re forced to imagine what they would have been like. This means that they get a romance and curiosity attached to them that seldom attracts to the animals that the world actually has. One wants what one can’t have, after all. What is Jurassic Park, if not a combination of Frankenstein and man’s attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden?

Of course, if dinosaurs actually existed, they’d just be one more animal in the zoo. You can take this one of two ways. Either dinosaurs are overrated, or we should be more interested than we are in things that actually exist. For aesthetic reasons, I prefer the latter choice - one ought to learn to take joy in the merely real. Of course, getting people to see that is easier said than done.

Doubt it not, a giraffe is as bizarre as any dinosaur. One may appreciate this on an intellectual level, but it is hard to view one with quite the same wonder. The most effective way I've seen to demonstrate the point is at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Firstly, the exhibits move from dinosaurs, to ice age skeletons, and then on to living animals, encouraging the juxtaposition quite naturally.

But most importantly, to get people to be intrigued by modern animals, the most successful trick is to show them not just a giraffe, but a giraffe skeleton. It encourages you to look at a giraffe the way you look at the dinosaurs. And when you do, you realise that it’s comparably tall, wackily elongated, and many of the elements of the skeleton share features with those in the previous rooms. They also show you a real giraffe next to it, completing the imagination picture you had to fill in on your own in the previous cases. But most of the room is filled with skeletons of living species. A rhino or a hippo skeleton could easily be placed in the previous rooms without seeming out of place. If you judge a dinosaur less by its age and more like a child would, as a strange giant animal, the dinosaurs still exist. We just stopped noticing them.

The message is subtle but powerful. You would do well to be less fascinated with dinosaurs, and more fascinated with animals. The dead are intriguing, but so are the living. The latter have the advantage that you can still see them. So afterwards, why not take a trip to the zoo?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Memory and Imagination

It recently occurred to me that I have a very poor memory, but not in the standard way that people suspect.

By most metrics, I remember a lot of things. I have entire parts of my brain devoted to song lyrics, which is exactly the kind of odd thing that strikes people as notable precisely because of its triviality. I remember books I've read for a long time, and can usually talk usefully about them to people who've only recently read them. I remember ideas even better, and details of useful examples that illustrate the things I believe.

So for the most part, this qualifies me as having a reasonable memory. But nearly all the things I remember well are to do with words and concepts. This isn't universal – I’m bad at names and birthdays, for instance, but that’s about the only thing that might give it away.

The part I lack, however, is the ability to form mental pictures of what things look like. Yvain wrote about this in the context of imagination.
There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether "imagination" was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say "I saw it in my mind" as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?
Upon hearing this, my response was "How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn't think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane." Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.
The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the "wisdom of crowds", and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn't had simply assumed everyone didn't, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question.
There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images.
Dr. Berman dubbed this the Typical Mind Fallacy: the human tendency to believe that one's own mental structure can be generalized to apply to everyone else's.
This holds true both for the parts of memory I have, as well as those I lack. My relatively strong ability to remember the written word has a ton of variation. A smart friend of mine remarked years ago that he found it almost impossible to remember much from the novels he's read. I remember thinking at the time that this seemed very tragic. 

For my part, I would score quite low on the ability to form mental images. It's not non-existent - there are images, but they’re hazy, and the details tend to shrink away when you try focus in on them. When I read books, I have only a vague vision of what the people involved look like, or the places where the action is taking place. I would find it very hard to do the job of a writer and keep in my head a consistently detailed image of the physical features of a person’s appearance or the scenery. If I thought hard I could add in enough detail to make it convincing, but no amount of detail would cause me to actually have a clear picture of it myself.

I once saw a fascinating hint of how you might kludge things if you lacked a strong ability to form images and had to write about them anyway. This was when I saw the study of a friend’s mother who writes fiction. Up on a pinboard, she had pictures of the faces of a number of famous people from various angles. It was very much an ‘of course!’ moment. To make sure an image is credible if you can’t form one yourself, describe something in front of you that actually exists. This is the equivalent of painting from a photograph instead of painting a scene entirely in your head. It seems overwhelmingly likely that any painter who can create a detailed imaginary scene is an eidetic imager or close to.

But the bit that goes less noticed is that imagining pictures isn't important just for wholly made up scenery, but for memories too. The source material is still there, but you still need to recreate the scene.

And I find I’m fairly bad at forming mental images even of people I know well. I can remember particular scenes they were in, and certain facial expressions that seem familiar. But I don’t immediately have a crystal clear picture of them in my head. I’ll remember a particular still image, or a collage of them. But I can’t make the picture do arbitrary things like talk, or perform some action. I can’t imagine a different version of them, I can only remember a particular image of them that stuck for some reason.

Part of the reason that this deficit goes almost completely unnoticed is that it doesn't show up in the one situation where you might expect it, namely being bad at recognising people. I’m actually okay at that, even if I can’t always remember their name. When presented with an actual person in front of me, it’s enough to stir up recollections of what they were like, and to fill in the blanks of their appearance. Since I had only a hazy memory of what they looked like anyway, it’s less jarring to see how they've changed, which might cause me to think they were someone else.

So I can remember the faces in front of me, but not the faces that aren't. They’re stored in there, because I know them when I see them. But I can’t recall them at will.

You’d think that this would cause me to anticipate this by taking a lot of photos to preserve the memories. Sometimes it does, but often I’m content to remember the event in terms of events and stories, even if the scene isn't always precise. This is a reasonable tradition in the Holmes household. My parents took long trips around Europe and Asia in their youth, but I think I've seen precisely one photo from the entire time, affectionately referred to as 'the Cat Stevens photo'. But the stories from that time have been recounted many times, particularly among the people who were there. As Papa Holmes put it, when describing his relative lack of photos of his trips – ‘you go places, and you take in the scenery at the time. And you remember it, for a while. And then … you forget’.

In other words, the forgetting is okay, and is actually an important part of the process, the way death is to life. The world you remember was always impermanent anyway. Eventually, even the memory is too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Thought of the Day

Curses on you, all you great problems! Let someone else beat his head against you, someone more stupid. Oh, just to rest there from the interrogator’s mother oaths and the monotonous unwinding of your whole life, from the crash of the prison locks, from the suffocating stuffiness of the cell. Only one life is allotted us, one small, short life! And we have been criminal enough to push ours in front of somebody’s machine guns, or drag it with us, still unsullied, into the dirty rubbish heap of politics. There, in the Altai, it appeared, one could live in the lowest, darkest hut on the edge of the village, next to the forest. And one could go into the woods, not for brushwood and not for mushrooms, but just to go, for no reason, and hug two tree trunks: Dear ones, you’re all I need.
-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Living on the Grid

There is something deeply appealing about a city built on a road grid. Not just because of my love of order and planning, either. You can arrive there and navigate your way around pretty easily, because most places can be accessed without making more than a couple of turns. I always like that in a place I’m travelling to. Not the fastest route, but the route I'm least likely to screw up.

It also gives rise to the wonderful phenomenon of numbering addresses by block. Growing up in Australia, the assumption that consecutive houses would be two numbers apart if on the same side of the street was one of those things so baked into your way of thinking that if I’d lived a thousand years, it would never have occurred to me to do it differently. I think this is how it always is. Everybody thinks of technological change as making an IPad or something, they rarely look for improvements in something mundane and simple like how addresses are numbered. But in a grid city, you can do much better than consecutive numbering, by making the numbers go up by 100 each block, and just rank order arbitrary numbers within the blocks. Manhattan is the epitome of this. When every street and avenue has a number, ‘312 E 28th St’ tells you exactly where the building is – between 3 and 4 blocks east of the dividing line of 5th Avenue, on 28th street.  If the city had a definite lower left point, you wouldn’t even need the extra knowledge of the dividing Avenue. In Chicago, the numbering tells you one dimension, but the streets themselves have names. So you have to, for instance, know that the downtown streets are named in order of the presidents. Well, except for Jefferson, who’s somewhere else. And that pesky thing that there were two ‘Adams’ presidents within the space of five presidents (it’s Quincy Adams who gets the street, not Adams). Hey, nowhere's perfect.

The knock on grid cities is that they’re boring from a design point of view, but I’m not so sure. From high above the city at night, the lights on Roosevelt Ave stretch out in a line to the far horizon, fading off as if they go on forever. Without contours in the ground, it feels like living in the mathematician's depiction of parallel lines on an idealized infinite plane. Eventually, the lights on the two sides of the street must converge to a single point. Theoretically, this happens only at infinity, but I’d wager that somewhere in Nebraska ought to be far enough.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The best poem title ever

Making this a double dose of Hal G.P. Colebatch, if there has been a better poem title than:

'Observing a thong-shod pedestrian's reaction to catching his toe in the ring of a discarded condom'

I certainly haven't come across it.

Time for Malcolm Fraser to repent

"And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs--and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety,"
-George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London 
From a certain progressive standpoint, Zimbabwe, it seems, has at last gone to the dogs.

The Rhodesians would have told you that the dogs arrived years ago, and the rest of the changes were merely being more open about the kennel-like aspects of state.

Of course, this doesn't mean that things can't get worse. When it comes to forecasting the fortunes of countries, as in stockmarkets, picking exactly when the bottom has been reached is a very perilous business. It is always dangerous with basket-case countries to assume that things can't get any worse, because truly awful leaders seem to be uncannily persistent in finding a way. If Zimbabwe is remembered for anything, perhaps it will be for that.

So let's focus on a more stripped-down prediction - that installing Robert Mugabe was a mistake that everyone involved ought to feel intensely ashamed about.

Surely that's been pretty obvious for at least 25 years, right?

Ha! Sometimes it takes a while for things to get so bad that they break through the cognitive dissonance of those that helped create the disaster.

Just ask former Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Fraser.

In one of the more disgraceful episodes of a mostly worthless (at best) Prime Ministership, Fraser was heavily involved in getting Robert Mugabe installed. As Hal G.P. Colebatch recounts:
Fraser's 1987 biographer Philip Ayres wrote: "The centrality of Fraser's part in the process leading to Zimbabwe's independence is indisputable. All the major African figures involved affirm it."
Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere said he considered Fraser's role "crucial in many parts", and Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda (whose own achievements included making his country a one-party state) called it "vital".
Mugabe is quoted by Ayres: "I got enchanted by (Fraser), we became friends, personal friends ... He's really motivated by a liberal philosophy."
Fraser's role also attracted tributes from Australian diplomats. Duncan Campbell, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has claimed that Fraser was a "principal architect" of the agreement that installed Mugabe and that "he was largely responsible for pressing Margaret Thatcher to accept it".
Former Australian diplomat and Commonwealth specialist Tony Kevin has also claimed that Fraser "challenged Margaret Thatcher's efforts to stage-manage a moderate political solution".
In an interview in 2000, Fraser showed that he appeared to have learned absolutely nothing from the process. This was just after Mugabe had passed a law allowing white farming assets to be taken without compensation.
JOHN HIGHFIELD: Mr Fraser, what do you make of these goings on in Zimbabwe? After all it was in the late 1970s that you and your friend, Kenneth Kowunda [phonetic], persuaded Mrs Thatcher to come across to your view and give Zimbabwe independence.
MALCOLM FRASER: I find it very hard to understand the disintegration that has, in fact, occurred because I really did believe, and I think many people who knew what was happening in the country believed, that President Mugabe started very well. I can remember speaking with Dennis Norman who was a white farmer in Mugabe's first government, and he spoke very highly of him and spoke very highly of his policies at that time.
I'm - you know, what has gone wrong in the last several years I find it very difficult to pin-point, except that economic policies have not worked. He's tried to defy, I think, the international moves of the marketplace which would have reduced investment in Zimbabwe and therefore reduced employment opportunities for Zimbabweans.
By 2000, it had been clear for quite a while that Zimbabawe had been disgracefully managed on a purely economic basis for a long time. When Mugabe was installed, Zimbabwe's GDP per capita of $916 (in current US dollars). By 2000,  its GDP had declined by over 40%, to $535. Have a look at the graph below of the subsequent growth of some nearby countries that were poorer than Zimbabwe in 1980 and see what you think of Fraser's claim that Mugabe 'started very well'. Try putting in Botswana as well (slightly richer in 1980) and the comparison becomes even more dismal, as it towers over Zimbabwe. The most optimistic description is that things hadn't yet gone to hell as late as 1982. Heckuva job, Malcolm and Robbie!

But in some sense, this isn't really the striking point about the Fraser response.

The first bizarre part is Fraser's contemptible obfuscation of referring to a policy of forced, uncompensated confiscation of white farm assets as merely 'economic policy'. Nothing racial here, no siree! See no race, hear no race. Why is that? Why the absurd euphemisms?

The second bizarre part is that, 20 years later, Fraser still finds the events mysterious. Do you think this might be related to the first point, you worthless old fool?

Fraser has to skate around the racism of the Mugabe regime, because given the economic catastrophe that befell the country, this is the only advantage that the initial Mugabe boosters can claim over Smith. Sure, we replaced a system that was lifting Zimbabwe out of poverty with a brutal and corrupt regime that terrorises its citizens. But hey, at least it's not racist, like Smith!

Of course, Smith's racism was mostly of a disparate impact variety. Rhodesia was not South Africa, and the practical restrictions on blacks were far less than under Apartheid. The 1961 constitution had property and education requirements for voting rights, but made no explicit racial prohibitions (although later voting systems did). The outcome was heavily skewed towards whites, obviously, and this was almost certainly the intended effect. But if you think that having a property requirement for voting means that a system is not meaningfully democratic, then Britain in World War I was just another undemocratic oligarchy fighting against other equally undemocratic oligarchies. You also wouldn't want to praise the US founding fathers too highly.

When Hal Colebatch caned Fraser in 2008 for his shameful role in getting Mugabe installed, Fraser's response was pathetic. You will scour in vain for any description by Fraser of racism in anything Mugabe did. You will also scour in vain for any coherent explanation of what exactly was wrong with the Smith regime, except that Smith personally was a real meanie who didn't let Mugabe, who was already fighting a civil war to overthrow the government, visit his young son when he was sick, and when he ultimately died. By all means, let's then give the country to a man who at the time was already famous for running an organisation that cut the noses and lips off blacks who opposed him. Have a look, Malcolm! Have a look, if you can stomach it, and tell me again what a terrible man Ian Smith was.

In the mean time, Fraser clings to a cock-and-bull story that the real issue with Mugabe was when his wife died, and that's when it all went to hell. Great theory! Completely untestable in terms of its main aspects of course. But what about the implication - that nobody could have seen this coming, as the start was so excellent. Seems plausible, no? Except that Smith pretty accurately did predict what was going to happen. Malcolm Fraser continues to express his surprise. Smith expressed no surprise at all. Sadness, yes, but not surprise.

How about, just for a change, you consider the possibility that you got completely suckered by Mugabe, that his moderate image was all a con for your benefit, and that millions of people suffered enormously because of your gullibility. You got played, you silly old fool. You are the muppet in this story, the mark, the rube. 35 years later you still can't see that. Gee, I picked the cup that I'm super sure had the pea under it! And somehow I still lost money, it just doesn't make sense!

So now, let us return to the story I linked at the start. Exactly where have things gotten to recently?
In the harshest official policy on race and land reform in a country that has been close to bankruptcy, the 90-year old autocrat said Wednesday that whites may no longer own any land in Zimbabwe. 
Let us pause and reflect on Malcolm Fraser's shame. We have known for almost 30 years that Fraser bequeathed to Zimbabwe economic and social catastrophe. We have already known of the thousands brutally killed and tortured in Mugabe's prison of a country. We have already known of the increasing hostility towards the dwindling number of remaining whites, even when it was entirely self-defeating from an economic point of view. We have known that Mugabe has long since stopped holding any semblance of free and fair democratic elections, another frequent criticism of Smith.

But finally, we have reached the nadir, from the progressive point of view - at long last, we now have a regime that is actually more racist than Ian Smith's. Smith never imposed any restrictions this draconian on blacks. The fig leaf, absurd though it was all along, is finally stripped away. There is nothing left, absolutely nothing, to recommend this regime over the one it replaced.

Malcolm Fraser never had to face the consequences of his actions. He will live out his days in comfort and peace in a stable and prosperous first world country. The same cannot be said of the citizens of Zimbabwe, both white and black, who had to live with the regime Fraser helped install.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Snappy responses you weren't hoping for that nonetheless answer the question quite well

In the last few years, unable to hold a list of just four grocery items in my head, I’d begun to fret a bit over my literal state of mind. So to reassure myself that nothing was amiss, just before tackling French I took a cognitive assessment called CNS Vital Signs, recommended by a psychologist friend. The results were anything but reassuring: I scored below average for my age group in nearly all of the categories, notably landing in the bottom 10th percentile on the composite memory test and in the lowest 5 percent on the visual memory test.
All this means that we adults have to work our brains hard to learn a second language. But that may be all the more reason to try, for my failed French quest yielded an unexpected benefit. After a year of struggling with the language, I retook the cognitive assessment, and the results shocked me. My scores had skyrocketed, placing me above average in seven of 10 categories, and average in the other three. My verbal memory score leapt from the bottom half to the 88th — the 88th! — percentile and my visual memory test shot from the bottom 5th percentile to the 50th. Studying a language had been like drinking from a mental fountain of youth.
What might explain such an improvement?
Regression toward the mean.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lionel Messi and Soccer Equilibrium Outcomes

So another World Cup has come and gone. Enough water had passed under the bridge that I no longer resented Argentina for their dismal performance in 2002 when I wagered on them. I was vaguely hoping for an Argentine win, just because I would have liked to see Lionel Messi win a cup.

'Twas not to be, of course.

A very good starting point for understanding Messi is this excellent post by Nate Silver going through a whole lot of metrics of soccer success and showing that Messi is not only an outlier, he's such an outlier that his data point is visibly distinct from the rest even in simple plots. Like this one:

(image credit)

Seriously, go read the whole thing. If you're apt to be swayed by hard data, it's a pretty darn convincing case.

So what happened in the World Cup? Why didn't he seem nearly this dominant when you watched him play?

The popular narrative is that there's some inability to perform under pressure - in the big situations when it really counts, he doesn't come through with the goods. He's a choker, in other words.

This is hard to disprove exactly, but one thing that should give you pause is that with Messi on the team, Barcelona has won two FIFA Club World Cups and three UEFA championships. This at least suggests that the choking hypothesis seems more specific to World Cups.

So one explanation consistent with the choking hypothesis is that the World Cup is much higher stakes than the rest, hence the choking is only visible in that setting. It's possible, and hard to rule out.

But another possibility is that the difference comes from the way that opposing teams play against Messi in each setting.

Remember, a player's performance is an equilibrium outcome. It's determined by how skilfully the person plays that day (which everyone thinks about), but also by how many opposing resources are focused on the person (which very few people think about).

Let's take the limiting case, since it's easiest. Suppose I take a team comprised of Lionel Messi and ten guys from a really good high school team, and pit them against a mid-range club team. My guess is that Messi wouldn't perform that well there, and not just because he wouldn't have as many other good people to pass to. Rather, the opposing team is going to devote about 4 defenders just to covering Messi, since it's obvious that this is where the threat is. Throw enough semi-competent defense players on someone, and you can make their performance seem much less impressive.

Have a look at the pictures from the Daily Mail coverage of the game against the Netherlands. In one, Messi is surrounded by four Dutch defenders. In another, he's surrounded by three. The guy is good, but that's a pretty darn big ask of anyone.

In other words, Messi may be better than the rest of the Argentine players by a large enough margin that opposing teams will throw lots of resources into covering him, making it harder for him to shine. In soccer, like in martial arts reality (as opposed to martial arts movies), numbers matter. Jet Li may beat up 12 bad guys at a time, but it you try that in real life, you're on your way to the emergency room or the morgue, almost regardless of your martial arts skill.

The last piece of the puzzle for this hypothesis is the question of why this doesn't happen when Messi plays at Barcelona.

I'm a real newb at soccer (evidenced by me referring to it as 'soccer' - you can take the boy out of Australia, etc.), but my soccer-following friends can tell me if I'm right here or not.

My guess is that the rest of the Barcelona team is much closer to Messi's level of skill than the rest of the Argentine team. This means that if opposing teams try to triple mark Messi in a Barcelona game, the rest of the attackers will be sufficiently unguarded that they'll manage to score and the result will be the same or even worse than if Messi were totally covered. As a result, Messi goes less covered and scores more.

There's a reason that the sabremetricians (who tend to be among the most sophisticated of sports analysers) talk about wins above replacement. You need to think about the counterfactual of if the person wasn't there, not the direct effect of what they did or didn't do in equilibrium.

Of course, the skeptics will point out the cases where great stars did manage to indivdiually play a big role in lifting their national teams to great success. What about Maradona, they say?

This is a fair question. Sometimes you really can get it past five defenders to win a world cup. Maybe that's what a true champion would have done yesterday.

Or maybe the English just weren't marking as well as the Dutch were.

Or maybe, even more pertinent, the rest of the Argentine team in 86 was sufficiently better in relative terms that England couldn't afford to mark Maradona as hard. The effect of this, if true, would be for Maradona's performance to look more spectacular relative to the rest of his team - having a good team means less defenders on you means more heroics. And when that happens, you look individually more brilliant, leading to you getting all the credit and making it look like you won the game single-handedly. If you really were that much better than everybody else, you would be less likely to deliver a performance that showed this fact to a novice observer.

Not many people think in equilibrium terms. This is why we analyse data.

The data case, however, is clear. Viva Messi!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Out of Sample Predictions About World Cup Rioting

So Brazil gets humiliatingly crushed in the World Cup by Germany, 7-1. While there is much to be said about this, mostly in the way of cruel mockery, it has already been done by folks much more learned on the subject than me. As a side note, while watching my streaming of dubious legal status, I did reflect on how the ideal commentators for a complete drubbing are the BBC ones, since they just ooze dry and scathing humour. It's full of great adjectives like 'shambolic' and 'appalling', and they managed to get in some classic digs (quoted from memory):
'This has been the worst 45 minutes of football in Brazilian history'.
'Without Neymar, could this be the worst team to make a World Cup Semi-Final?'
and my favourite of all:
'And Oscar scores the most pointless of World Cup goals...'
So since it would be mean to pile on more, let me focus instead on something where I can add more value. Given that Brazil has been crushed and humiliated, will this defeat lead to rioting? Plenty of people seem to think it will - this CBC story in the Google cache version has the sentence 'Brazil riots feared as home team routed by Germany', but this has now been scrubbed. For a prediction, let's turn to my favorite author on violence, Randall Collins (I've written about him here and here). In his excellent book, 'Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory' (pdf of the first chapter available here), he makes the following observations (p312):
'During the 2002 World Cup, Russian soccer fans, who were watching the game with Japan on a big screen in a central Moscow square, rioted after Japan scored the one goal of the game...
The 2002 Moscow riot is both a political riot and a defeat riot, the counterpart to a victory celebration riot. As we will see, celebration riots can be just as destructive as defeat riots; and celebration riots are much more common. Losing a game is generally emotionally deflating, and the crowd lacks the ebullience and the traditional rituals (such as tearing down goal posts), which can segue from a victory celebration into a destructive riot. Defeat riots require an additional mechanism. One clue is that defeat riots seem to be more common in international competition than domestically, and where sports rivalries are highly politicized. Defeat riots depend more on features extraneous to the game, since the emotional flow of the game itself will generally de-energize the defeated and energize the victors. 
So while this is an international competition, I'd say that the thrust of the Collins prediction is that, contra the predictions of many, there won't be rioting.

And the verdict?
Brazil Riots in World Cup? Nope; Bogus Photos Spread After Germany Beats Brazil 7-1 in Soccer Semi-Finals; Fake Demonstration-Protest Tweets in Belo Horizonte Trending
1-0 in Russia might have been enough to get people angry, but 7-1 just produces dejection. People don't burn buildings while dejected.

It's still too early to tell, and I'll continue to see if I (and more importantly, Mr Collins) are wrong, but my guess is that there won't be any rioting.

Seriously, if you didn't last time I talked about it a few years ago, go and read the first chapter of Collins here. I am no apologist for the general predictive power of sociology, but the man knows his stuff.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Earl Scruggs has some pretty cool friends

Apropos nothing, the great Earl Scruggs, playing 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' (which he in fact wrote), the best banjo tune perhaps since Duelling Banjos. Check out both Steve Martin and Paul Shaffer making cameo solo appearances.


A little internet privacy is like being a yellow belt in karate

One of the things that Sam Peltzman most famously taught us (or perhaps reminded us) is that one should always pay attention to income effects, because they can show up in odd places.

Income effects are simple at a first pass - if I have more income I can buy more of a product. Most goods are normal goods, meaning that demand rises as income rises. Some goods are inferior goods, meaning that as incomes go up, people buy less of them (e.g. Walmart clothes), because they substitute to better alternatives. So far, so easy.

As microeconomists have known for a long time though, income effects can be induced by changes in the price of goods, rather than directly through income changes. If the price of rice increases, the first order effect is likely to be a substitution effect - rice is now expensive relative to wheat, so I buy more bread and less rice. But there is also an income effect: the real bundle of goods I can now purchase has shrunk, which is effectively a decrease in income.

As a result, the fact that income has decreased can induce other changes in demand which can partially or totally offset the original effect. In other words, the first pass effect is that rice consumption goes down (the substitution effect), but because I'm now poorer overall I have to cut my purchases of luxuries and buy more rice than I otherwise would. If the income effect is large enough to offset the substitution effect completely, the good is called a Giffen good - when the price of the good goes up, demand can actually increase. Robert Jensen and Nolan Miller carried out an experiment in China where they showed that for some really poor Chinese people, rice really is a Giffen good. When its price increases, they buy more of it, because they're now so poor it's the only way to get enough calories.

Which brings us to Mr Peltzman. He famously argued that income-like effects can lead to puzzling results in a wide variety of settings, most notably risk-compensation (which became known as the Peltzman Effect). If you spend government money to make roads safer or mandate seatbelt use, people will have a lower chance of dying from a given type of driving (similar to the substitution effect). But there's an income effect too - the budget set of allowable risky driving behavior has increased. Peltzman argued that this can in some cases totally offset the gains, as people drive in a more risky manner on the safer roads to maintain the same overall level of risk.

The classic case of Peltzman-like effects that people do seem to instinctively grasp is self-defence knowledge. In theory, knowing a little karate has only improved one's ability to fight relative to knowing zero karate. But the problem is the income effect. The ability to defend oneself can either be consumed entirely as an increase in safety, or it can be spent by substituting towards talking $#!& to bullies. Thus the overall level of safety can go up or down as a result of being able to fight back. The popular conception is that people overestimate their fighting ability and 'spend' more than they actually had, leading to Giffen-like behavior at low levels of self-defence knowledge.

And now it turns out that there's inadvertent Peltzman effects going on with internet privacy.

Several researchers with Tor have described how using the internet privacy software Tor results in your IP address receiving permanently much greater scrutiny from the NSA. Even searching for Tor online is enough to get you logged.

At high levels of security, this is still probably worth it if you value privacy. Tor is an incredibly powerful tool to avoid being tracked. Unfortunately there's still lots of other exploits they can use to target your computer, but Tor itself is pretty reliable.

Since the NSA doesn't like this, they are determined to raise the income effect stakes a lot. If you get slack and only use Tor sometimes, you have almost certainly increased the chances of your behavior being tracked and monitored. Before you had the blessing of anonymity. When you embark down the road of privacy, the NSA makes sure that goes away for good. Tor is a Basilisk - a single search for it is enough to get you permanently flagged. So if you're going to start down that road, it's got to be the full retard or nothing at all.

The reality is that maintaining anonymity is hard. Really hard. It is a form of tradecraft, as the spies put it. It needs an obsessive attention to detail, and a willingness to forgo a number of aspects of the internet (flash video, for instance, as well as dealing with slow loading times). And unfortunately, the predicament is quite similar to the position of the IRA viz Mrs Thatcher - the NSA only needs to get lucky once, whereas you need to get lucky every day.

The unfortunate reality is that for most people, no protection is probably safer than a little protection. And even then, the only reason that 'no protection' offers any protection is because the internet is simply too large for the NSA to be able to store everything that goes on there. On the other hand, they are able to store everything done by Tor users.

The one saving grace is that the NSA is not actually the NKVD. For the most part, the NSA is only interested in tracking terrorists, and passing the occasional Silk Road drug dealer onto the DEA. Not only that, they are reluctant to blow the details of the data collection process (any more than they already have) by having the details of it disclosed in court cases unimportant to the NSA's mission. So they're probably not going after you for buying that Adderall online, even though they could.

On the other hand, the Snowden disclosures have massively reduced the cost of the NSA using information at trials, since a lot of the details are now already known, so maybe that protection has decreased too.

Income effects are rarely counterintuitive once they're pointed out, but they have a tendency to be lurking in places that you weren't thinking hard about.

Unfortunately, none of them are good in this story.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Eating Crow

Back in 2003, in the lead-up to the Iraq War, a younger Shylock Holmes was an ardent neoconservative. Democracy was, in my view at the time, both an inherent moral good and a practical instrumental good (though I probably wouldn't have expressed it in those terms). More importantly, I took the Krauthammer position that the time to bomb a country seeking to acquire nuclear weapons was before the weapons were completed, not afterwards. Once they have the nukes, it's rather more difficult to threaten them (see, for instance, North Korea). Which is fine, as far as it goes, and indeed a short, sharp war along these lines might not have been nearly so bad. It sure would have made Iran think twice. There was, of course, a big question of 'yeah, and then what do you plan to do after the place is bombed?', to which I would have had only vague notions about trying out consensual democracy as a cure for the ongoing slow-motion calamity that is the Middle East.

Around the same time, the country group The Dixie Chicks were performing at a concert in London when lead singer Natalie Maines decided to unburden herself of the following observation:
"Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."
It has long been a bugbear of mine when artists needlessly inject their political views into situations that do not call for them. In an audience of thousands of people, it is inconceivable that all of them will share your political preoccupations. It seems needlessly rude and antagonistic to turn everything into a political issue, particularly when most people just came to see you sing. 

Not only that, but I still feel that the moral righteousness of the left at the time was enormously overblown. I remember thinking at the time that the Dixie chicks seemed like complete morons. The whole tenor of the left's argument appeared to be mainly thinly dressed up pacifism and a knee-jerk dislike of whatever it was George Bush was doing. Regarding the former, if Saddam had in fact possessed weapons of mass destruction, would they have felt any differently about the ex-post outcome? I sure would have, but for most of the left, I honestly don't know if it would affect their assessment. Regarding the latter, I note that the urgency of getting out of Iraq among the left seemed to drop off a cliff as soon as Barack Obama was elected. I also note, however, that the same election result also made the right a whole lot more willing to consider frankly the possibility that it was a corpse-strewn fool's errand to try to turn Baghdad into Geneva. Hey, no-one said thinking in a non-partisan way was easy.

And yet...

When in comes to predictions, reality is a very equal-opportunity master. You have your views on how the world will evolve, and you may feel clever, or educated or erudite. You may feel that the people who predict differently from you are worthless imbecilic fools. And indeed they may be. But when you say that X will happen, and someone else says that Y will happen, you will find out, at least ex post, who was right.

So with more than ten years of hindsight, here are some randomly chosen recent headlines about Iraq:

et cetera, et depressing cetera.

So it is time to ask the question the Moldbug asked about Zimbabwe -given what we know now, who was right? Putting aside haggling over the specific reasoning and argumentation, who had the better overall gist of the wisdom of the Iraq war?

The answer, alas (for both my ego and the people of Iraq), is a clean sweep to the Dixie Chicks. They were right, and I was wrong. Dead wrong.

The narrow lesson, which I took to heart, is a general skepticism of democracy, especially when applied to third world hellholes, as a cure of society's ills.

But the broader lesson, which it is much easier to forget, is that one should be less certain of one's models of the world. Reality is usually messier and more surprising than you think. Overconfidence springs eternal, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) how clever you think you are.

Let pride be taught by this rebuke, as Mr Swift put it. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

The minimum requirements for serious conversation

In real life (certainly in this country, though not nearly as much in Australia), I've sometimes been accused of having no filter on what I say. This isn't true, of course, but the extent of my sociological observations goes farther than most people here. America is a country where it is crucially important not to notice things, as Steve Sailer put it. If you notice, you absolutely shouldn't comment. If you comment, you really truly ruly shouldn't dare find any of it funny or ironic, or indeed anything other than deadly serious.

How tiresome.

But these are serious times, and joking with the world at large about the wrong things does not tend to get rewarded. One must pick one's audience, so to speak. This blog, for instance, is not that audience. Everything said here is said to everyone, for all time, and able to be quoted out of context and misconstrued for years to come.

But it is oppressive to never speak one's mind freely. Paul Graham recommended drawing a wall between one's thoughts and one's speech, the former being free, the latter being restricted for what is acceptable.

I dance a finer line. With people whose character I feel I can trust, I'll say what I think. Sometimes they're surprised, because this assessment isn't actually that correlated with how long I've known a person. Some people I know and consider dear friends never fall into this category. Some people I've known I a day or two do. Those, I think, are the ones who sometimes think I have no filter.

So what determines whether I think it's likely to be worthwhile to speak freely to someone or not?

As far as I can tell, there are three main classes of requirement.

The first is that you know, without me needing to explain it to you, in a deep and instinctive sense, the difference between the following words:
The Average
The Median
The Modal
A Few
Is Correlated with

The statement 'all Australians are obnoxious' is very different from 'the average Australian is obnoxious'. People that don't get this will transform the latter into the former, and thus read it as 'he is accusing me of being obnoxious because I am Australian'. Conversation with people who think like this is always a minefield, so it's better to stick to small-talk.

Related to the above, understanding basic causal inference is equally important. Umbrellas are correlated with traffic accidents but do not cause traffic accidents - rain causes both. Prisons affect crime and crime affects prisons - prisons fill up when crime increases, and the increase in prison populations reduces crime.

You don't need to use words like 'omitted variables' and 'simultaneity', but you do need to have a good feel for these different types of models of the world, and be able to think about how they might apply to some new situation.

These requirements mean that your words aren't apt to be misconstrued. If you happen to get lazy and utter something like 'Australians are obnoxious' rather than specifying a precise probabilistic and causal statement, the person will not immediately assume the most inflammatory possible interpretation.

The second requirement is that you consider truth a near-complete defense to any charges levelled against pure statements about the nature of the world (as opposed to statements of opinion). If the average Australian is indeed obnoxious, one should be free to say so. You do not change the territory by yelling at the world's cartographers. It is possible that Australians will become less obnoxious if we all agree to stop discussing the fact of their obnoxious behaviour. But I would not bet on it. If in doubt, truth should be a sufficient justification for any statement purporting to claim a fact about the world in general or a model of causality in the world.

There are limiting cases where some statements might be irresponsible, like spreading information on how to make nuclear weapons from household items. In my estimation, those are pretty rare, however (actually, your view on how many statements ought be ruled as impermissible based on responsibility criteria is another way of phrasing the second requirement - you probably need a low filter here). There are also basic questions of politeness when it comes to not making unhelpful statements about a single person, particularly when made to that person. All of that applies. But outside of such personal interactions, there ought to be a strong presumption that truth is a sufficient justification for any statement.

This stops every argument descending into accusations about motives. The earth rotates around the sun, regardless of whether Galileo is saying so because of a devotion to scientific truth as he perceives it, or because Galileo is a contrarian rabble-rouser who likes to intellectually stick a finger in people's eyes, or because Galileo is intellectually committed to bringing down the Catholic Church. Truth is truth.

The third is that you don't take disagreement personally. If you think X, and someone else thinks Y, and X and Y are merely statements about how the world is, then we should be able to discuss this without the fact of my disagreeing with you causing you to get angry. If disagreement alone is enough to get you pissed off, then any discussion is a joint balancing of the strength and veracity of an argument, with my estimate of your current mood and the likely impact of the next statement on said mood. Such discussions tend to get exhausting very quickly for me. If disagreement, even about cherished beliefs, is not a source of anger, then we can talk about things.

Of course, you never quite know at first whether these requirements are going to be met. You try to feel people out about them.

But my experience is that with people who fit in these categories, I don't actually need any particular filter on what I say, although sometimes my remarks sound outlandish given popular sentiments. Usually, such people have a sense of humor about jokes on whatever the subject is too. They are worthy conversation partners.

In any case, if I do speak to you frankly, it is a mark of esteem, that I think you fit into all of the categories above.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies, and STD Risk Statistics, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

If you've just joined us, we're giving a good fisking to the Mayo Clinic's worthless list of STD risk factors, namely:
Having unprotected sex. 
Having sexual contact with multiple partners. 
Abusing alcohol or using recreational drugs. 
Injecting drugs. 
Being an adolescent female 
The biggest proof that their advice is completely worthless comes from the full description of the first point, 'having unprotected sex'. At a very minimum, they don't make the most minimal distinction between vaginal, anal and oral intercourse. But even within that, the whole thing is basically a ridiculous scare campaign:
Vaginal or anal penetration by an infected partner who is not wearing a latex condom transmits some diseases with particular efficiency. Without a condom, a man who has gonorrhea has a 70 to 80 percent chance of infecting his female partner in a single act of vaginal intercourse. Improper or inconsistent use of condoms can also increase your risk. Oral sex is less risky but may still transmit infection without a latex condom or dental dam. Dental dams — thin, square pieces of rubber made with latex or silicone — prevent skin-to-skin contact.
This one I know is in the 'deliberately misleading to fool the public' category. You know why? Because they use the weasel words 'some diseases'. They then back it up with the gonorrhea example, where one-off unprotected vaginal transmission rates are high. But people don't generally stay up late at night freaking out about getting gonorrhea, do they? As a matter fact, you don't hear about it much, because it can be treated with antibiotics. What people actually worry about the most is HIV. Why not tell them about that instead?

So what are the chances of HIV transmission from unprotected vaginal intercourse with someone who is HIV positive? This is such a classic that I want to put the answer (and the rest of the post, which gets even more awesome by the way, though you may not believe it's possible) below the jump. Suppose a man and a woman have unprotected vaginal intercourse once. 
a) If the man is HIV positive, what is the chance the women contracts HIV?
b) If the woman is HIV positive, what is the chance the man contracts HIV?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Some stray thoughts from a trip to Copenhagen

So I'm back in The 'Hagen. Thoughts from last time are here.

A surprisingly large effect of being on holiday is the impact of no longer having data on one's phone. Sitting on a train, one feels what old people must feel like all the time - being the only one with their head up looking around when everyone else is buried in a screen of some form. The temporary feeling of virtue at enjoying one's surroundings is of course revealed to be hollow rationalisation of the worst poser kind, when you start wondering whether you could pick up the train's wi-fi. No, you can't without some email login that sounds too hard, never mind then, the window and people around you were much better anyway.

It is a rare and unusual pleasure to simply spend a day wandering around aimlessly in a city that one has been in once or twice before. It is familiar enough that you don't need a map for decent parts of your walking, new enough that you still find stuff you haven't seen before, and comfortable enough that you don't need to be rushing around a particular checklist of things to get to.

I sat on a bench in the main part of the city, and watched people go by for about 20 minutes. After a while, I began to notice a periodic stream of people walking up, looking in the bins, and then walking off. They didn't look like native Danes, they had slightly more olive colored skin and dark hair. Even in the most famous welfare states, you still apparently get people looking in bins for recyclables. What was odd though, was that there appearance was much less conspicuous than I was used to. Most were reasonably dressed, although cheaply once you stopped to look closer, the bag of choice to carry was a large opaque plastic bag bearing the name of one of the high-ish end retail shops. The overall effect was that of phantom hobos, looking briefly out of place peering into a bin, before slipping off again to disappear in the crowd.

Having hobos collect bottles that are taxed on the way out and subsidised on the way back in for recycling is a particularly useless form of make-work combined with cheap welfare. Since the market value of the bottles is basically zero, and the bottles themselves aren't being cleaned off the street but rather removed from existing rubbish piles, this is pure ditch-digging-and-refilling broken windows nonsense. The actually socially useful task would be to pay the hobos to pick up rubbish off the ground. Of course, if we make this decentralised it leads to moral hazard up the wazoo (swiping entire dumpsters of stuff and claiming it was picked up), and if we solve the moral hazard problem though proper monitoring, we lose the main benefit of the decentralised and freelance way of doing it. Still, I can't help but think there has to be a better way - have a time where anyone can show up and get paid minimum wage for two hours of street cleaning, for instance. There would be some teething issues, but it seems like something worth trying.

The other thing I remember took even longer to notice. I saw a fairly overweight young girl walking down the street, and she looked quite jarringly out of place. What is not seen, as our previously cited guest might have put it. Danes are slim on average - there are some overweight people, but the American right tail of weight just doesn't seem to exist in the same way here. Whatever they're doing seems to be working.

I can't think of the last time I spent an equivalent amount of time observing my own town. Partly this is just taking familiar things for granted, but part of it comes from being in a place that's pleasant to just walk around. There's a lot more to see, and a lot more spots your trip will take you. I think the SWPL types are actually right on this one - American cities are not generally very walkable, and walkability has to be planned in advance, it probably won't spring up organically. What will spring up is nice wide lanes, an extra turning lane, parking on the side of the street, and hey presto!, that 30m of asphalt has made all those charming al fresco cafes you had in mind instantly uninhabitable for the roar of passing cars. If you want walkability, you actually need to do what the Danes do and have extended intersecting streets that are pedestrian only, and make the rest maybe one and a bit lanes total. Walkability, drivability. Pick one. Given we pick the latter for 99.9% of the space in most of our cities, I don't think it would kill us to reserve a tiny bit of the commercial district for the former.

Copenhagen continues to be a lovely place. Long may it be so!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies, and STD Risk Statistics, Part 1

Every time I read anything about STD risks, I tend to get mightily annoyed at how difficult it is to get any useful information from the medical profession, at least in the popular press, about the actual magnitude of different types of risks. I remember talking about this problem in the case of cancer risks and smoking. Smoking causes cancer, living under power lines causes cancer, and eating burnt steak causes cancer, but they do not all cause cancer at anything like the same rate. Same thing with STDs. I sometimes find it hard to tell how much of this is because the people writing it are morons when it comes to causal inference, and how much is due to them knowing the right answer but spinning nonsense for public consumption, assuming that everyone is a child unable to make their own risk assessments. 

Let's hear from the Mayo Clinic, they're a famous hospital, surely they'll have top quality medical advice about what big ticket items to avoid. And their list of risk factors is ...(drumroll).... :
Having unprotected sex.
Having sexual contact with multiple partners.
Abusing alcohol or using recreational drugs.
Injecting drugs.
Being an adolescent female

The first thing you know is that what people mostly want to know are estimated treatment effects of particular actions. If I do X, my chance of an infection go up by Y%. Instead, what you get are a mish-mash of treatment effects, correlations with prevalence, correlations with transmission rates, and absolutely nothing on relative magnitudes, all leading to answers that are just laughable.

'Abusing alcohol or using recreational drugs' is hilariously stupid, because it doesn't map to anything directly. It could be correlation, it could be treatment, it could be both, who knows. They explain it as if it's mostly a treatment effect - "Substance abuse can inhibit your judgment, making you more willing to participate in risky behaviors.". In other words, the whole of their advice is that once you're drunk, you might do other stupid stuff. So just list that stuff! Of course, there's a strong correlation between people who get drunk all the time and people who do other stupid things. At a minimum, any treatment effects are going to be wildly heterogeneous. I'm pretty sure if your Aunty Gladys has a few too many sneaky shandies, the increase in her STD risk is zero. If you're a normally sensible person and you get drunk once, the chance of you picking up an STD are similarly low, because I'm guessing that most people will be unlikely to rush out and have anal sex with strangers just because they got drunk, though obviously some will. Most of the effect that makes this a risk factor has to be straight correlation with omitted factors, namely a tendency for reckless and risky behaviour. This is marginally actionable, if it tells you to avoid sleeping with perpetual drunks, but that's about it.

'Being an adolescent female' is even more stupid. The actionable interpretation of the previous statement was that perhaps we were being given correlations with overall prevalence. But how the hell do you interpret this one then? Do you really think that 'adolescent females' have high STD rates? Of course not. They may have higher transmission rates of certain diseases relating to cervical cancer, but this is a very different proposition. In what sane ordering is this among the five biggest STD risks for the general population to worry about? What adolescent females do have is a high rate of unplanned pregnancies, and it would be greatly in their interest to start using condoms regularly. So just say that! Stop trying to sell us a bunch of bull$#!& about how they also have massively high STD risks.

Since this post is already turning into a monster, I'll be back with Part 2 in a few days.

Monday, May 12, 2014

What someone's tinder photos say about them

As the Greek rather astutely noted, the last post on picking a mail order bride was guilty of burying the lead somewhat, in that I didn't actually tell you anything about how to infer things about someone from their photos. Since I suspect this may be of general interest, I figured it deserved a separate post. Because, while very few people will be picking a bride based only on five photos, a lot more people will be picking a potential date based on five photos if they're using an app like Tinder.

(Warning: gratuitous generalisations to follow. Because how the @#$% else are you meant to infer things from five photos unless you're willing to generalise with bold predictions based on averages and hunches about human nature?  Related to the above, if you're tempted to get butthurt, you might want to reacquaint yourself with the different definitions of the words 'all', 'most', 'the average', 'the median', 'the mode', 'some', and 'a few'. Also, while these are focused on observations about women, I'm sure an equivalent list of equally rash observations could be made about men - my skepticism about human nature is quite equal opportunity)

So without further ado, let me start with the most general principle, from which everything else is but an application:

People will pick the photos that most display what they like about themselves, given the photos they have an front of them.

This may seem entirely trivial, but consider the alternative version of what people probably should be doing, namely picking photos best calculated to appeal to the opposite sex, or even better, calculated to appeal to those specific members of the opposite sex that they'd like to attract.

Most people don't get that far. This is bad for them, but immensely useful when we'd like to understand them, because we get a very good window into their likely personality.

Let's start with some basics. This will necessarily be somewhat stream of consciousness

Who else is in most of their photos? If it's mostly just them in front of a mirror, I'm guessing that they're likely somewhat vain and narcissistic. In girls, lots of mirror selfies is often correlated with a large amount of makeup in most of said photos. What they like about themselves is their physical attractiveness. Not only that, but (related to the second part of the main thesis) it means they already have multiple photos of themselves in the mirror. It's possibly these were taken specifically for Tinder, but I wouldn't bet on it. Fairly or unfairly, I assume that people who mostly value their looks do so because they don't have a lot to offer intellectually. In other words, they're not dumb because they take mirror selfies, but it's how I'm betting nonetheless. I'm wagering they're more likely to be a princess. On the other hand, if you're after someone who's going to get really nicely made up in a cocktail dress when you go out at night, this is probably your girl.

An alternative is the person who takes most of their photos in groups of friends. This means not just that they're more sociable, but that they value that aspect of themselves. On the whole, this is not a bad thing - it tends to go with extroversion, for instance. A mix of group and individual shots is probably good. For reasons I can't articulate well, I tend to assume that someone who has primarily group photos does not have much of an interesting personality - I suspect that they think of themselves mainly in terms of their group of friends, which means that they're an example of a particular type of person, rather than being strongly themselves.

A particularly interesting twist on this, however, is when the person has only photos of themselves in groups, particularly if this includes their cover photo. This isn't a problem in terms of the fact that they hang out lots with friends, but it definitely speaks to a lack of self-awareness about something much more basic - they haven't figured out that you don't initially know who they are. Anybody that puts only group shots of themselves, particularly when they look a bit like their friends (although that's hard for most people to judge about themselves), is necessarily self-centered. They know who they are, and so it doesn't occur to them to put themselves in the position of a potential match who doesn't know who they are and is trying to figure it out. The fact that they haven't reflected on this this since coming across the same problem with members of the opposite sex also speaks to low self-awareness.

As a counterpoint to this, pay attention to people whose photos are a grainy picture of their face. This means that a) the photos of themselves where they think they look the best are those in groups, and b) they're self-aware enough to not put the photo of the whole group. But more importantly, it means they have taken very few photos of themselves outside of group situations where someone brought out a camera. This suggests they're likely to be low maintenance and probably not very sentimental. I think this is actually not a bad signal, at least in my preference ordering. But it also signals that they aren't committed enough to dating or the app to take better photos of themselves.

The opposite, of course, is someone who has good somewhat artsy photos of themselves.I like this in moderation. It signals creativity and a sense of them liking something artistic about themselves. It also generally shows some degree of forethought. I would also wager that it signals a non-trivial degree of confidence, because truly good arthouse photos of you are hard to take by yourself. As a consequence, they probably had to be confident enough to have someone else stick a camera up close to their face, and displayed enough forward planning to ask the person to do this for them. Plus if they have any kind of photographic flair (such as a sharp focus from a low f-stop lens) then they have a digital SLR, which probably speaks to being at least middle class. The ones I like are where the rest of the artistic detail in the photo is done nicely, or even if one of the photos is mainly a nature shot. On the other hand, anything that looks explicitly like instagram modifications (particularly when applied to photos that mostly feature their face prominently) or other related things suggest that they also enjoy attention, and that these were taken mostly for the internet bubbas.

Another key metric is how many of their photos they're smiling in. Again, think self-perception. Most people prefer to think of themselves as happy, so will generally pick photos where they're smiling. For me, I place a surprisingly large weight on someone who has a big genuine smile in their photos. Happy wife, happy life, as they say. Someone who goes mainly with serious-looking pouty faces is probably deliberately aping the model photos they've seen, if they look like posed faces. This for me is a minus, but again, your mileage may vary. Other people tend to look serious, which I assume to mean that they're just not very much fun. I mean, if you can't even think of yourself as fun, it's probably going to be pretty hard for the rest of the world. Someone who has mainly photos of themselves pulling funny faces is probably self-conscious, and the stupid faces are a defense mechanism against the fact that they're uncomfortable with most of the photos of themselves. Someone who takes too many photos of themselves laughing seems oddly to me a vague warning sign - they like to be jovial, but I have a sense that they also expect the world (and you) to entertain them, which suggests the possibility of them being a bit entitled.

You also learn something from what they're doing in their photos. Someone who has mostly photos of themselves going out will be different from someone who has mostly photos of themselves going snorkeling, or who has photos of themselves in front of famous monuments around the world. The latter two are likely to be particularly noteworthy, because they're almost certainly not taken because they're the most flattering photo of the person's physical features. In other words, if you take a zoomed out photo of yourself rock-climbing, this only makes sense in order to convey the message that you like being active. Night-life photos could go other way - it could be that you like partying a lot, or just that you think you look good in a short dress (although the two tend to be correlated anyway).

Finally, there's the obvious separating equilibrium that anyone who doesn't display a full-body photo is probably overweight, but you didn't need me to tell you that one.

This is just a sample of the correlation-fu I'd be busting out for a mail-order bride, so from this you can extrapolate to guessing what the full-retard looks like. There's also a whole separate post to be written about what someone's bio says about them, but I feel this is enough to get you started.

For the time being, I leave as an exercise for the reader (in the comments if you're so minded) the task of forming similar personality estimates based on:

a) clothes

b) which things may be markers of socioeconomic status

c) the demographic diversity of their friends, related to both b) and likely political opinions,

d) their attractiveness relative to their friends, related to insecurity and self-awareness.

e) the gender ratio in their photos.

and as the bonus round

f) what to infer if they have a photo of themselves kissing their dog.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Mail Order Brides - Applied Inference, High Stakes Edition

Those of us who enjoy collecting correlations as a hobby sometimes yearn for a higher stakes version of our craft, something like the Correlation Olympics. The premise would be simple - you're given a small amount of information about a person, and asked to infer as much stuff as you possibly can about them. Points would be given both for being right, and for the non-obviousness of the conclusion you drew.

The closest real-world equivalent would be getting a mail-order bride. The market for lemons being what it is, I do not anticipate that getting a mail order bride is likely to be a sensible decision on average. And it really is a market for lemons - there are almost certainly decent men and women on both sides that could have quite happy pseudo-arranged marriages, but the problem is the high risk of golddiggers (on the one side) and abusive creeps (on the other). The bad prospects drive out the good.

That said, I don't think the people who do it are all necessarily broken or crazy (though many of them probably are). The reason is that I would wager that the international dating market is probably likely to have a higher chance of mispricing than the domestic one. Like every market, the fewer the people are who are attempting to trade on perceived mispricing, the more likely mispricing is to exist.Then again, lots of people go broke buying penny stocks on the same rationale. Illiquid markets just say there might be mispricing, not that your personal hunches will be able to sniff it out.

But I still retain a perverse fascination with the idea of choosing a mail order bride. This would be somewhere between Russian (pun intended) Roulette and the World Series of Poker when it comes to correlation studies.

Think about it - in the extreme form, for each person you've got 5 photos and a one paragraph description, possibly written in broken English, and from that you have to decide on somebody to spend the rest of your life with. In other words, you have to extract every single drop of useful information out of what you're presented with. What are they wearing? What are they doing? Is there anyone else in the photo? What's their body language? Where were they taken? How many photos are they smiling in? You need to devise an entire assessment of a person's character from such tiny scraps, and then be willing to back it up with a marriage commitment.

If you get it wrong, financial and emotional misery await. If you get it right, you may have finally found a happy life partner and a way out of a previous lonely existence.

Talk about high stakes. For reasons I can't express well, the prospect of backing one's judgment to such an outrageous level seems both terrifying and thrilling at the same time.

Of course, one doesn't actually have to gamble one's life on the outcome to play a practice version - just go to one of the many sites and look at a few profiles, and decide which one you would pick if you had to make a choice, and why. Playing poker for matchsticks is not the same as playing for bearer bonds, but you probably don't want your first game of poker to be the latter.

Better study those correlations, son!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

We have lost one of the giants

The great Gary Becker has apparently passed away. One of the most influential economists of the 20th century, along with Keynes and Friedman. He expanded the tools of economics into areas that had been treated as simply not important problems to study - crime, the family, discrimination, and many others. A most worthy posthumous inductee into the Shylock Holmes Order of Guys Who Kick Some Serious Ass.

Ave Atque Vale, Mr Becker. What little I know of microeconomics I owe to your wonderful instruction. I fear we shall not see your kind again soon.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Thick Liberty of Speech and Donald Sterling

The problem of me getting busy at work is that it seems to have coincided with a marked increase in the frequency of outbreaks of brown scare public hysteria at any deviations from the prevailing progressive orthodoxy. This creates the result that I seem to write about little else these days. Last time a guy got fired from the company he co-founded because he once made a donation to a ballot initiative opposing gay marriage. This time? Well, it's hard to improve on Jokeocracy's description:
a jewish guy told his half mexican girlfriend he doesn't like black people THERE ARE NO WHITE PEOPLE INVOLVED IN THIS STORY STOP BLAMING US
The 'Jewish guy' in question is Donald Sterling, current (and soon to probably be ex-) owner of the LA Clippers basketball team. His 'half-Mexican girlfriend' is named V. Stiviano (among other names). You can tell most of what you need to know about her by the fact that a) she's around 50 years younger than him, b) she's not his wife, and c) she's the kind of person who illegally tapes private conversations which mysteriously get leaked to the press at a point in a lawsuit where it might be convenient.

The conversations themselves can be found here. Steve Sailer's take on it seems about right - this was a guy objecting to his girlfriend bringing black athletes that she was presumably banging to his basketball games. Apparently their blackness was part of the problem (of all the problems in the situation, this seems like a jolly strange one to fixate on, but de gustibus non est disputandum and all that). It is worth noting, however, that it's her leading the conversation to the subject of their blackness. Frankly, nobody in this story comes out looking sympathetic. As Steve Sailer notes, Donald Sterling is hardly a likable figure. He also has a history of some comically underhanded tactics to avoid renting out his apartments to black tenants, including the following:
Even more bizarre but just as effective at driving away African-Americans and Hispanics, Beverly Hills Properties changed the name of the Wilshire Towers complex to Korean World Towers. A huge banner printed entirely in Korean was hung on the building, and the doormen were replaced by armed, Korean-born guards who were hostile to non-Koreans, again according to testimony given by multiple residents. In August 2003, during the Housing Rights Center lawsuit, a federal judge ordered Sterling to stop using the word "Korean" in the names of his buildings, but the damage had been done."
So in the 'Who? Whom?' view of this latest sordid tale, one scumbag golddigger managed to pull a fast one on a scumbag businessman. But then again, viewing matters simply in those terms may end you up at places you didn't want to be.

The outrage machine by this point is as dreary as it is predictable.

First we get demands for the offender's head on a stick - Donald Sterling is banned from attending NBA events, and may be forced to sell his team.

Next, we get the secondary boycott totalitarianism going, where people get fired for saying they support Sterling's right to free speech. No surprise, the purge was in a tech company. Paging Mencius Moldbug.

As part of both of the above, we get treated to

a) Furrow-browed insistence that we must all debate firstly, if not solely, the question of how deeply racist Donald Sterling and America are, and an implicit enforcement of the rule that nobody is allowed to make any statement of even lukewarm opposition to the Sterling lynch mob without first crossing oneself with the standard pieties about how terrible the statements themselves were. You want the crossing, future employers of the world? Fine, here it is: the statements were racist and regrettable. The world continues to be full of d***heads, perhaps this is more shocking to you than it is to me. Next question.

b) Clumsy defenders of free speech equating criticism of Sterling and demands for his ouster with an undermining of the first amendment (which prohibits only government restrictions on speech, not private restrictions)

c) Thin liberty pinheads laughing at group b), but immediately following this up with the equally stupid mistake of assuming that as long as it's not the government restricting someone's speech then everything is hunky dory and the whole case raises absolutely no moral questions whatsoever.

Because people have a tendency to mentally substitute the phrase 'free speech' to 'first amendment' or 'no government restriction on speech', I prefer to describe the principle here as Thick Liberty of Speech.

I want Donald Sterling, and Pax Dickinson, and everyone else, to be able to say what's on their mind with as few negative practical consequences flowing to them for doing so as humanly possible. I want the same thing for people whose views I find stupid or repugnant - "Stalin wasn't that bad" communists, kill-the-humans hardcore environmentalists, carpet-bagging race hucksters, humourless radical feminists, whatever. I want them to be able to express themselves unmolested either by the government or by offended grievance lobbies, regardless of whether they're from the right or the left, trying to get them fired or excluded from polite society based only on things they've said.

Why do I want this? Two reasons.

Firstly, I have a strong conviction that words alone are simply not that important. To put it in the language of economists, the outrage associated with unpleasant and mean speech is massively, massively overpriced compared with the outrage associated with unpleasant and mean actions. You know what's worse that saying nasty things about blacks in the privacy of your own home? To pick at random, drunk driving. That kills people every single day. Mean words uttered privately or on the internet do not. Strangely, society seems to be not very bothered by people who drive drunk. It's not enough to, say, stop you becoming President of the USA. Even if you actually kill someone by drunk driving, and show little apparent remorse over the matter, that isn't necessarily a barrier to high political office either.

Even in the current case, as Kareem Abdul Jabbar noted, Sterling had a documented history of doing equally racist things like excluding black tenants, but nobody seemed to much care. But if you say something nasty, well that's just unacceptable. In what rational ordering of human character flaws does this make sense?

In addition, the fact that other people are offended by said words is also deeply unpersuasive to me as a basis for going along with the mob. If people suddenly decide that it's a matter of deep social disgust to express a preference for blue coloured shirts, I do not feel any happier about a campaign to exclude the blue-shirt wearers because it's just fighting speech with more speech, and yay speech! It depends whether it is actually reasonable to be so offended at the speech in question that you start demanding complete social exclusion.

If you want a good rule of thumb here, you could do much worse than John Derbyshire's suggestion that we should endeavour wherever possible to not take offence unless offence was actually intended by the speaker. This is a pretty easy guide by which to judge a lot of cases, and makes for a tolerant society, in the true sense of the word.

The second reason, which seems to contradict the first one, but actually does not, is that freedom of conscience - the ability to to think and speak as one pleases - is an enormously important liberty that we should cherish and support as much as possible. Thin liberty says you have freedom of speech and freedom of conscience in theory, but if you try to exercise it in the wrong way, you suffer massive social consequences. As Moldbug noted, most of the practical restrictions during the McCarthy era were private restrictions on speech. Should I be happy that the media companies decided to ban Pete Seeger from television as long as they weren't doing it under government directive? Thick liberty says that you can actually say what you want, really truly ruly, without ruinous social or economic consequences.

But the only way to get to this point is to reign in the urge to form outraged mobs demanding action whenever one's feelings are hurt.

In other words, you only get to have a thick liberty of speech society if you accept other people saying things you don't like without firing them, refusing to do business with them, demanding others exclude them, etc. You can only say what you want as long as you let other people say what they want. I think you should be free to not listen to the person, nor should you be forced to subsidise by taxpayer dollars their ability to broadcast their message to a large audience. But to whatever extent possible, the exclusion should not be extended to other interactions where the offensive speech is not in question. Whether Brendan Eich gave money to proposition 8 or not has absolutely zero to do with the functionality of Firefox. If someone wanted to not invite Eich to a dinner party, that's fine. If they refuse to do business with the company he's employed by until they fire him, that is not at all fine.

But principles are for suckers. The left already gets to say what it wants, and it's only reactionary and conservative elements who can't. Back in the 1950s, the opposite was true. So much the worse for the 1950s. Not many people are really principled about much at all, but it doesn't change the point.

Reader, do you, like me, get tired of this nonsense? Does it both sicken and weary you at the same time? As Moldbug put it, is there anyone else in the room who's here because he's just plain embarrassed by the present world?

As in the OKCupid case, the only principle upon which I will engage in secondary boycotts is against those who escalate from speech to action in the thinning of liberty. If you respond to someone else's bare speech with hostile action, I will refuse to do business with you. And I do this grudgingly, hesitantly, and unhappily, purely because it is one of the few ways that businesses understand that there will be people who will defend thick liberty of speech, and will impose costs if it is restricted.

I cannot put the matter better than someone who knew intimately what it was like to be on the end of thin liberty lynch mobs:

I think as I please and this gives me pleasure
My conscience decrees this right I must treasure
My thoughts will not cater to duke or dictator
No man can deny, Die Gedanken Sind Frei
No man can deny, Die Gedanken Sind Frei
And should tyrants take me and throw me in prison
My thoughts will burst free like blossoms in season
Foundations will crumble and structures will tumble

And free men will cry, Die Gedanken Sind Frei
And free men will cry, Die Gedanken Sind Frei

Die Gedanken Sind Frei! Thick liberty, thick liberty, thick liberty for all!