Thursday, December 30, 2010

Supply and Demand of Public Nudity

Men are both the principal suppliers and the principal demanders of public nudity.

Sadly, what is supplied is not what is demanded.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Conservatism, As Explained by Run DMC

In their hit 'It's Like That'. If there have been better ambassadors for conservatism in the hip hop world, I'm yet to find them.

Let's begin with Run's opening lines:
Unemployment at a record high
People coming, people going, people born to die
Don't ask me, because I don't know why
But it's like that, and that's the way it is
When faced with the many, varied problems of the planet, Run emphasises two strong conservative themes:

1. The insufficiency of human knowledge, and
2. The unchanging nature of the problems that humanity faces

Both of these are anathema to the world's central planners, who revel in the fact that their knowledge is supreme, and a glorious utopia is just around the corner if only we follow their wise prescriptions. If the communists had taken Reverend Run's message to heart, the 20th century might have looked quite different.

The chorus line, repeated many times throughout the song (It's like that, and that's the way it is) are an appeal to see the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Man's lot in life is always unsatisfactory, an observation squaring firmly with John Derbyshire's "Conservative Pessimism".

But rather than stay at this high level, Run DMC have a lot of sensible advice for how to overcome this predicament. They tend to involve personal virtue and hard work, two themes not typically emphasised in the hip hop world.

People in the world try to make ends meet
You try to ride car, train, bus, or feet
I said you got to work hard to want to compete
It's like that, and that's the way it is ...

Compare this with most rappers, whose only conception of how to make money is writing rap tunes or selling drugs. The point of 'car, train, bus or feet' is that these are the means to get oneself to a real job. Selling crack you can do anywhere.

Economic success is emphasised as a means to overcoming many of life's problems, but Run DMC are far from crass materialists:
Money is the key to end all your woes
Your ups and your downs, your highs and your lows
Won't you tell me last time that love bought you clothes?
It's like that, and that's the way it is
Bills fly higher every day
We receive much lower pay
I'd rather stay young, go out and play
It's like that, and that's the way it is
The first two lines here are clearly ironic, as money won't erase all the ups and downs of life. Run himself notes that "I'd rather stay young, go out and play", reinforcing that the rat race is not something that even participants relish very much. But that's not the point. Instead, the point is encapsulated in one of my favourite lines in hip hop:
Won't you tell me last time that love bought you clothes?

But by far the best bit of the whole song is where Run DMC discuss how different levels of life outcomes can be explained by earlier effort:
You can see a lot in this lifespan
Like a bum eating out of a garbage can
You notice one time he was your man
It's like that (what?) and that's the way it is
The bum eating out of a garbage can is one of the staple images of left-wing sympathy. But Run DMC take this in a very different direction:
You should've gone to school, you could've learned a trade
But you laid in bed where the bums have laid
Now all the time you're crying that you're underpaid
It's like that (what?) and that's the way it is
I love these lines so much. They make the whole song, in my opinion. It's easy to complain that you're not being paid a 'fair' amount. On the other hand, you can raise your wages by making the difficult and costly decision to invest in education. Did you do that? Oh no you didn't! And THAT'S why your wages are low.

When the message comes from pampered silver-spoon elites like me, it rings with a crass lack of sympathy. When it comes from someone who actually raised themselves up, it's much harder to ignore. The reason this message gets out so infrequently is that very few of the people who believe it are in a position to credibly preach it. Only Nixon could go to China, and only Run DMC can tell you that you're poor because you didn't work hard enough.

And while Run DMC are not blind to the many inevitable problems that people face (indeed, the song talks about many of them), they're firmly of the opinion that it's within each person's power to improve their lot:
One thing I know is that life is short
So listen up homeboy, give this a thought
The next time someone's teaching why don't you get taught?
Followed up with more good advice, throwing in the importance of a spiritual base:
Stop playing start praying, you won't be sad
When you feel you fail sometimes it hurts
For a meaning in life is why you search
Take the bus or the train, drive to school on the church
It's like that, and that's the way it is
But having taken such pains to emphasize the ways that people can help themselves, they end with a recognition of Matthew 7:1-2
Here's another point in life you should not miss
Do not be a fool who's prejudice
Because we're all written down on the same list
It's like that (what?) and that's the way it is.
Preach it, Reverend!

For those who think that I'm reading far too much into this analysis and that rap songs don't really have messages, I close with a link to a more modern rap song, Ludacris's song 'Move Bitch', with accompanying lyrics. I leave you to conduct the analysis of that song yourself.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lady Gaga and the Evolution of English

The English language is extraordinarily flexible in terms of how it adapts over time. Pick up a copy of some Chaucer if you don't believe me. Not only do spellings change, but the words used to describe the same underlying concept change over time too.

Lady Gaga, a women not obviously conservative in most respects, is nonetheless fighting a culturally conservative battle in one arena - resisting the increasing disappearance of the word 'telephone', and its replacement with the abbreviated 'phone'.

'Telephone' had two main forms - as a noun, to describe the device itself, and as a verb, to describe the process of using the device to contact someone. The noun form is probably in 'endangered' territory. The verb form ('I telephoned John this morning') is almost 'extinct in the wild', having been thoroughly supplanted by its evolutionary successors, 'phoned' and 'called'. These have the obvious reproductive advantage of requiring only one syllable, rather than the clunky three, and in present tense form requiring 5 and 4 letters respectively, rather than 9. Thus does survival of the fittest operate in the language world.

Lady Gaga uses both forms in her song 'Telephone':
Call all you want but there's no one home
And you're not going to reach my telephone. 
Stop telephoning me...
Truth be told, it was probably a year since I'd heard the noun form in the wild, and perhaps a decade since I'd heard the verb form. And they sound odd and slightly jarring, in a way that you can't quite pin down. In fact, it was the Lady Gaga song itself that made me realise how long it had been since I'd heard the word used.

If you look at Google search results, 'phone' returns about 1.1 billion results. 'Telephone' returns about 211 million results. The top news result for telephone is from Pakistan:
 'Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Chief Altaf Hussain had a telephonic conversation with the Chief of Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam (JUI-F) Maulana Fazalur-Rehman on Tuesday.' 
The subcontinent sticks to old-world English long after the originators have given it up. I remember my uncle talking about reading a plaque in India saying that a particular king had 'no male issue' (i.e. had no sons). When did you last hear that from a native speaker?

I suspect that even the Lady Gaga rearguard action won't be enough to save 'telephone'. Most of the steps in the evolution of language happen too slowly for most people to notice. But this is one you can witness yourself. If you wondered how Chaucer became modern English, this is the answer.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ikea and the feeling of accomplishment

Ikea is an awesome store. The real genius of the place is that they make everybody feel like they’re a cross between a master craftsman and Macgyver. For someone not skilled in manual arts, it’s a great feeling to know that I started with a few bits of plywood and ended up with a bookshelf. It lets me indulge in the ludicrous fantasy that I could go down to the hardware store, pick up a few two by fours, and whip up a dining room table in a few hours.

The reality, of course, is that I could barely convert the two by fours into kindling in a few hours, let alone a table. But that’s where Ikea is brilliant – it’s like the clever parent that does all the hard bit in the cooking, and then lets the child stir it for a few minutes at the end and feel like they did all the cooking.

Of course, this feeling lasts until the point that you realize that the instructions in fact didn’t contain any words. And that pretty much places a hard constraint on how difficult the thing can actually be.

The second genius, of course, is that they sell stuff at absolutely rock bottom prices. I went there and bought a cooking pot for $3.50. Just think about that – you can barely buy a happy meal for $3.50. Somehow, they’re able to dig iron ore out of the ground, convert it into steel, heat it into a put shape, add a handle,  ship it across the seas, and sell it to me at $3.50. While making a profit.

I can conceive, barely, of how it might be possible to make a kid’s hamburger, soft drink and fries for $3.50. I cannot even begin to fathom how to make a saucepan for that much.

Their stuff is a bargain cheap imitation of an expensive product, but a good enough version that unsophisticated people can’t tell the difference. This appeals to me, because I find it a good description of myself.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Airplane Nervousness

A few years ago (I couldn't tell you exactly when or why) I started to get the tiniest bit anxious when airplanes would land. Only in a very mild way - I would think about it every time the plane was landing and there'd be a bit of turbulence. This was ameliorated somewhat by a discussion with a former commercial pilot who I was sitting next to once on a plane. He said that everyone gets nervous about landings, but in reality takeoff is the more dangerous part. If something goes wrong with the mechanics during landing, the plane doesn't drop out of the sky, as it can glide a bit and still be landed safely. But on takeoff, there's a period where the speed of the plane is high enough that you can't stop before the end of the runway, but not high enough that you're airborne. If something happens THEN, that's when you're in a bit of trouble.

Anyway, I find that a good cure for the whole thing is to put yourself in the shoes of the guy with the exact opposite disposition - Johnny Deathwish, who secretly desperately wants to be in a plane crash.

Like must suck for that guy. Every time he goes up, he gets a bit excited with anticipation when you go through clouds and thinks get a bit wobbly. He gets even more excited when you're landing and it's windy. Will this finally be the time? And yet no, every single time the pilot lands safely. Even when he thought it might finally happen, no dice. That's because plane crashes are incredibly rare.

Thought about this way, it becomes apparent how safe the whole thing really is. You move from the salient 'what if the plane crashes' to the probabilistic 'suppose I were predicting plane crashes based on all the plane trips I've been in, including the bumpy ones. How likely are they, really?'.

Pity Johnny Deathwish. Every time he gets in a plane, he winds up disappointed.

A Hypothesis for which I'm sure there are exceptions, but I can't think of any


Any food described as being 'a delicacy' is in fact stomach-turningly revolting.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What is Seen, What is Not Seen

It is a categorical mistake to think that actions should be judged by their intentions alone rather than their consequences, at least when those consequences are predictable. In the personal sphere, the focus is perhaps more on what the actions say about the individual, and feelings of discomfort and intention can loom large. Judging by intention can capture many important aspects about the morals of the person, which is often what we are interested in knowing.

But in the political sphere, the choice is clear. Politicians cannot have the luxury of doing what feels right, because the impacts are too large. Your feelings are insignificant compared with the cold equations of what results your actions will produce. As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, "Shut up and multiply"

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard was facing a large number of boat people arriving in Australia. He implemented a policy of putting all asylum seekers into detention offshore (and outside Australia) while they were processed, and taking a hard line on their applications. John Howard is denounced as horribly cruel by lefites.

What is seen:

Kevin Rudd gets elected as the Labor Prime Minister. Half-way through his term, he gets rid of the offshore processing, a process followed up by new Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard who continues to relax rules on immigration detention. Plaudits follow from lefties.

Q: If the expected cost of seeking asylum in Australia is reduced by making conditions easier and increasing the probability of successful applications, will the likely number of asylum seekers:
a) increase
b) decrease
c) remain unchanged.

What is not seen:

Such is the nature of incentives. You can ignore them, you can pretend they aren't there, you can plead that this wasn't what you intended. And yet they remain.

Q: If a percentage x of asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat will drown in transit, and the number of asylum seekers increases, the number of asylum seekers drowning will:
a) increase
b) decrease
c) remain unchanged.

What is seen:
Navy refugee rescue
The Prime Minister's invitation to the opposition to join a bipartisan group came as authorities continued to search for more victims from the boat which smashed into rocks at Christmas Island yesterday, killing at least 28 men, women and children.  ...
The boat, with up to 100 asylum-seekers aboard, was washed onto rocks and broke up, throwing men, women and children into the water. At least 42 people survived, including 11 children, but authorities are still unsure how many remain missing.

 And yet, behold the complete inability to identify the problem.

'Islander frustrated at Navy response time to Christmas island Asylum seeker boat crash'

'Advocate queries why boat wasn't stopped'

Let me put this in the plainest terms I can:

The problem is not the @#$%ing navy.

Let's go back to the quote I had earlier:

The Prime Minister's invitation to the opposition to join a bipartisan group came as authorities continued to search for more victims from the boat which smashed into rocks at Christmas Island yesterday, killing at least 28 men, women and children.  ...
When you screw up badly enough, the seen becomes large enough that even dullards start to figure out the unseen. And that unseen has her fingerprints all over it.I bet she wants a bipartisan group all right. 

Julia Gillard has proven herself manifestly unwilling or unable to shut up and multiply. Her political career deserves to go to the same watery grave as those poor buggers on Christmas Island, tragically and predictably responding to the incentives set up by the Labor Government. 


The desire to resist the truth of opportunity cost is embedded deep in the human breast. This trait is not without its significant benefits, as it is the same stubbornness that produced antibiotics, airplanes, calculus and many other things of which you and I are the lucky beneficiaries.

But one way or another, people are deeply, desperately unwilling to admit that life involves painful tradeoffs and inevitable regrets.

As far as I understand it, the vast majority of men want three things:

1. To bone hundreds of hot women

2. To wake up next to a loving and faithful wife.

3. To not feel like a hypocritical @$$hole who goes around hurting the people he loves.

Unfortunately, you can have at most two of these three options. The only exception is psychopaths, for which the naive person envies their freedom. But even for them, it's a Pyrrhic victory - have you ever met a happy psychopath?

For the unlucky, the tradeoff isn't binding - they can't get either 1 or 2, after which 3 is cold comfort.

For those fortunate enough to be up against the binding constraint, it is sometimes easy to forget that the choice is always there. Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn at no other, as Mr Franklin observed. A lot of the time, this involves having 2, and pretending that shooting for 1 doesn't involve losing 3. But it does. It always does.

Tradeoffs - though you throw them out with a pitchfork, yet they return.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hyperbolic Discounting #2 - Nightclubs

Following on from the previous post on hyperbolic discounting, the other example where people seem to show much too much short term impatience is in nightclubs. 

For most nightclubs, even very expensive ones, it’s not too hard to get in without too much hassle if you go there when the place is deserted shortly after opening time. But as soon as the place starts filling up, the bouncers get free rein to exercise their pea-brained messiah complexes and start jerking you around by making you wait for hours.

The question is, why are people so unwilling to just chill out in a half-empty club for half an hour? Is it really worse than standing outside in the queue for 30 or 45 minutes because you turned up late? And if the half-full club is unbearable, why is the full club so awesome that you’re willing to wait so long for it?

It seems that people place an enormous discount rate on the club being awesome at the moment they walk in. So much so that they’re willing to endure a far crappier experience of standing in line for a significant fraction of the time they’d otherwise be in the half-full club. Which doesn’t make much sense to me.

Then again, I guess it depends on your model of the average person in a nightclub. If it's this:

then perhaps it's not really such a surprise.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Hyperbolic Discounting and New Release Movies

In economics, discounting refers to the way that you reduce the value of future costs and benefits. In the simplest example, $1 today is worth more than $1 in one year’s time. The reason for this is that I can earn interest on that dollar over the year. So if the interest rate is 4%, then the value of $1 in a year is $1 / 1.04.

When you discount things at a constant continuous rate, this is called exponential discounting. The value of $1 at time t when the interest rate is r is equal to exp(-r*t).

Hyperbolic discounting refers to the tendency to apply very high discount rates for the short term, and lower discount rates in the long term. Which is a fancy way of saying that people are very impatient for things they could get right now, but more patient when the thing isn't going to arrive for a while anyway. It’s irrational, because it leads to preference reversals.

For instance, if you ask people whether they’d prefer to receive $10 in one year’s time or $11 in one year and one day, most people pick the $11. But if you ask them whether they’d like to receive $10 right this instant or $11 tomorrow, more people will pick the $10. Implicitly, the value they place on waiting for the first day is much higher than the value they place on waiting for the 366th day. But this leads to reversals. Take the guy who picked the $11 in one year and one day. Now fast forward 365 days. He’s now going to wish he’d taken the $10/one year option, because that’s what he wants when the choices are between the immediate and the one day delay. Hence he changes his mind.

(For a good example for the econ-minded, Stefano DellaVigna and Ulrike Malmendier have a great paper on gym memberships. They argue that hyperbolic discounting explains why people sign up for monthly and annual gym memberships and end up paying much more than if they'd paid for each visit).

To my mind, there’s loads of cases where people apply hyperbolic discounting, and they really can’t stand waiting. But let me give you one that stands out for people applying ridiculous short term discount rates – new release movies.

It’s amazing the amount of @#$% people will go through in order to see a movie on its opening weekend, or even worse, on opening night. They’ll line up for hours. They’ll sit in the second row and get neck spasms. They’ll sit in a packed theatre, knowing that there’s a good chance there’ll be someone in the seat in front of them at least partially blocking their view. And if you’re seeing it on opening night, you have to suffer double the indignity of spending your three hours in line next to losers dressed up in Harry Potter outfits, and reflecting how you apparently have similar tastes and preferences in life.

And for what? It’s the same movie that you can see 3 weeks later with no line, in a pleasantly empty theatre. I can understand it if’s a mystery movie where someone might spoil the ending. But how the hell does that explain Cheaper By the Dozen 2? Are people worried that their friends will spoil the enjoyment of the nuanced plotlines by giving them spoilers?

My best guess is hyperbolic discounting – when something is the latest new craze, people want to see it NOW! The alternative (which I also find plausible) is that most of the value of a movie is either a) sharing the excitement with people who’ve just seen it,  or b) signaling to your peers that you’re one of those cool people who sees things as soon as they come out.

Shylock says – lame.

The good news is that hyperbolic discounting can be overcome. You know how?

Think your way to better decisions.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Antipodes

1. Upon arriving in New Zealand, it took less than 5 minutes to be addressed as 'bro'. Although in a Kiwi accent, to a US person it probably sounds more like 'brew'. I was saluted in this manner by a security screener. Sadly he didn't combine it with 'choice', which would have been even better.

2. Being back in Australia feels like this:

In other words, wonderful.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A heuristic for estimating car repair costs

Think there's nothing wrong at all, and it's just a routine service? $500 minimum (for an oil change), more likely a grand. Any known problem? Two grand. Funny noise? Two grand. 1 centimetre scratch on the bumper? Two grand. Broken tail light? Two grand.

This may not apply if, unlike me, you actually know something about cars, and can talk jive about how there's a problem with the water pump and the rear differential and blah blah blah.

But if your strategy resembles mine (bend over and prepare to take it every time you walk into the dealership) then I highly recommend the Shylock rule of 'if in doubt, the answer is two grand'. It's outrageous, but it makes the subsequent rogering a little less painful.

Slacker Summer Holidays Ahoy!

Dear readers,

I shall be wagging my normal duties, both workwise and blog-wise, for the next month. The occasion is a trip back to the motherland and Fiji. So posting will be lighter than normal until early January. Thanks for being part of the first three months of excitement!

Yours faithfully,


Monday, December 6, 2010

Bwaa ha ha ha!

Let me just quote you the title of this post:

"Medical researcher discovers integration, gets 75 citations"

And people wonder why I like the idea of WebMD.

Fresh From The Courts

Australia's defamation laws are truly awful. If someone says something bad about you, rather than say manning up and responding in kind, you can instead sue them for hundreds of thousands of dollars for your hurt feelings and lost reputation, (however that's measured). No measure is taken of the additional hit your reputation suffers as a person of such feeble character that you go crying to the courts every time Bobby called you a nasty name.

They're so bad that they're a frequent destination for libel tourism, where someone in the UK who makes an allegedly defamatory statement on the internet gets sued in New South Wales, thereby taking advantage of Australia's laws that are very generous to plaintiffs.

But, every now and then, they serve a useful purpose. A newspaper makes allegations against a politician. The politician claims they've been defamed, and tries to sue a newspaper to salvage their career and get some cash on the side. The newspaper doubles down by claiming that the allegations are in fact true. And then you get hilarious additional newspaper articles with stories like this:
THE federal Labor MP Craig Thomson's mobile phone records, driver's licence details and credit card vouchers with his signature show he used a Health Services Union credit card to pay for the services of a Sydney escort agency, the Supreme Court was told yesterday.
I had never heard of Craig Thomson, nor the allegations against him, until today. Regardless of the outcome of the trial, I will make up my own mind about the likely truth of the allegations based on the evidence being reported. And with the addition of the magic words "the Supreme Court was told yesterday", newspapers can now repeat the allegations against him without the risk of a lawsuit themselves.

On the other hand, to gather a sense of how ludicrous Australian laws are, Tim Blair (who linked to the story), doesn't allow comments for these types of posts (and neither do I). That's because under Australian law, (contrary to all common sense) owners of blogs are responsible for defamatory statements made by commenters.

Oh well - at least we can take the occasional comedy value as a small recompense.

If you're not giving away your own money, it's not charity

Smug politician posing for publicity photo

Let me begin by saying that when people donate their own hard earned dollars to charity,  I applaud their actions almost unreservedly (unless the cause is supporting terrorism or something, but that's pretty rare). The law of trusts in Commonwealth countries tends to allow for quite a large range of charitable causes without too much requirement about the size of the overall benefit being produced. Which is as it should be. To my mind, the real benefit of charity is fostering generosity by the giver. The benefit actually produced is (I imagine) usually quite small.

That said, I don't like fun runs. Never have, never will. They strike me as a bogus form of charity, smugness and self-satisfied posturing masquerading as genuine help for the needy.

In particular, what I dislike about the typical fun run is that a lot of the people don't seem to be giving much, if any, of their own money. They're hassling friends and relatives to be generous to whatever is the cause du jour (which often seems secondary to their feeling that they're doing some good - anything will do). In actuality, they're using personal connections to guilt people into paying for a cause that the donors probably don't give a fig about, and betting that most people will pay you to just go away rather than look cheap.

Meanwhile, a good chunk of the donations go towards subsidising the event that the participant is engaging in, a bunch more goes to administrative expenses, and cents in the dollar actually flow to the charity in question.

This is the bit that's infuriating to me - I bet a lot of the participants are not only paying little money themselves, they're taking a chunk of the money they got from other people and using it to subsidise their own recreation! And they have the gall to feel smug and self-satisfied! The Chicago marathon costs $125 to enter, and this comes out of the pockets of your donors before the charity sees a cent.

Take the AIDS marathon. Let's see how they advertise themselves:

At the risk of being a world-class curmudgeon, I find pictures like this somewhat nauseating. Just look at the self-righteousness plastered all over their faces. And see how they advertise it - 'Run Inspired'. It's all about you, and how good you should feel about yourself. AIDS seems like an afterthought, except as a socially acceptable 'good thing that needs help'.

As SMH once pointed out to me, compare this (for instance) with the Jewish attitude that charity has to be anonymous!:
The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 9b) feels that one who gives charity in secret is "greater than Moses." Charity, ideally, should be given in secret so that the two parties, the giver and the receiver, do not know each other (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 5a; Maimonides, Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 10: 7 -14).
Got that? Not only do you have to give your own money, ideally you get zero credit for it because it's anonymous. This ensures that you're not generating any awkward feelings by the recipient, and not doing it for public recognition.

Compare this with the crass ostentation of the AIDS marathon model. Not only do you have to tell all your friends (so that everyone knows how generous you are), but you're not even giving away your own money, you're giving away theirs! (At least the bit you're not taking for yourself)

If you want to run a marathon, pay for it your damn self, don't get your friends to pay for it while feeling smug about how charitable you are.

And if you want you want to help a charity (which I wholeheartedly endorse), write them a cheque directly and cut out the middle-men and professional fundraisers.

Lefty Establishment Media Circling the Drain, News At 11

I'm sure this:
FAIRFAX Media CEO Brian McCarthy has been forced out of the top job after failing to sell his strategic plan at a recent investor day. ...
Mr McCarthy's departure comes almost two weeks after he presented the market with his five-year strategic plan for the newspaper, radio and digital group.
However, his presentation and management restructure received mixed reviews from analysts and fund managers.
has nothing at all to do with this:
“On all the key performance indicators – circulation, readership and revenue – The Age is performing poorly,” the report says. “From being in a strong commercial position five years ago it is now dangerously close to the tipping point, where it could potentially go out of business, leaving Melbourne as a one-newspaper town.” 
Most of Melbourne already is, if we’re talking about people who actually buy newspapers.
In unrelated news, News Corp doesn't seem to be doing nearly as badly. It's a puzzle alright.

Not a Coincidence

It turns out I may have underestimated US/Israeli intelligence. Somebody at least has their eye on the ball:
Prof. Majid Shahriari, who died when his car was attacked in North Tehran Monday, Nov. 29, headed the team Iran established for combating the Stuxnet virus rampaging through its nuclear and military networks. His wife was injured. The scientist's death deals a major blow to Iran's herculean efforts to purge its nuclear and military control systems of the destructive worm since it went on the offensive six months ago. Only this month, Stuxnet shut down nuclear enrichment at Natanz for six days from Nov. 16-22 and curtailed an important air defense exercise.

While it behooves civilised men to not lightly celebrate death, I can say that if today is like the average day in 2006, there were around 124 deaths in the US today due to motor vehicle accidents who I mourn more than Mr Shahriari.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Embarrassing Yet Catchy Song of the Day

'Stay the Night', by James Blunt.

The embarrassment belongs entirely to me of course, not Mr Blunt - he'll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Two things to note in passing:

1. It's hilarious how much Blunt doesn't fit into the film clip. They're a bunch of cool, tanned surfer dudes and chicks. He's a pasty white emo Brit rock guy. No matter how they try to insert him in, it just looks jarring. Even in his own film clip, he comes across looking like the tagalong guy that wasn't actually invited on the surfing trip held by the cool kids. Which, I imagine, is probably how it went for him as a wee lad. Just look at how beta he comes across in Back To Bedlam (song titles including 'You're Beautiful', 'Goodbye My Lover', 'Tears and Rain', and 'Cry' - need I say more?)

2. It can't be an accident that loads of official music videos begin with a decent period of silence and or extraneous noise. My guess is that it's due to the rise of websites like Keepvid that let you download youtube clips and software like WinFF than let you convert the video into MP3s. The record companies respond by forcing you to listen to several seconds of annoying silence each time it comes up. Consistent with their general level of sophistication, this is of course easily circumvented.

Driving Ability and Near Misses

If you want to evaluate someone's driving ability, my guess is that it's far more informative to look at the number of near misses the person has than the actual number of accidents.

The main reason is that most people have a lot more near misses than they have crashes, which has two effects. First, it allows for much finer comparisons of  driving ability. Second, because there's more of them, the Central Limit Theorem has more time to kick in. This means that your number of near misses per year will likely be closer to your true average rate of generating near misses, while your number of accidents per year is likely to be further away from your true mean.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was a passenger in the Cuban Mafiosa's car as it veered towards a concrete barrier near a freeway exit.

After barely controlling my urge to swear and gesticulate, I was reminded of this old but awesome Slate interview with James Bagian. That guy kicks @$$. He implemented a similar system of analysing near misses when he was tasked with reducing medical errors at a VA hospital. It's seriously one of the best articles I've read this year. Check out some money quotes from the article:

James Bagian on how medicine deals with errors:
Take a very simple example: A nurse gives the patient in Bed A the medicine for the patient in Bed B. What do you say? "The nurse made a mistake"? That's true, but then what's the solution? "Nurse, please be more careful"? Telling people to be careful is not effective. Humans are not reliable that way. Some are better than others, but nobody's perfect. You need a solution that's not about making people perfect.
So we ask, "Why did the nurse make this mistake?" Maybe there were two drugs that looked almost the same. That's a packaging problem; we can solve that. Maybe the nurse was expected to administer drugs to ten patients in five minutes. That's a scheduling problem; we can solve that. And these solutions can have an enormous impact.
Seven to 10 percent of all medicine administrations involve either the wrong drug, the wrong dose, the wrong patient, or the wrong route. Seven to 10 percent. But if you introduce bar coding for medication administration, the error rate drops to one tenth of one percent. That's huge.
James Bagian on what it felt like to be the substitute astronaut who was meant to be on the Challenger Space Shuttle, watching it explode from the ground:
Was I sad that it happened? Of course. Was I surprised? Not really. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later—and not that much later. At the time, the loss rate was about 4 percent, or one in 25 missions. Challenger was the 25th mission. That's not how statistics works, of course—it's not like you're guaranteed to have 24 good flights and then one bad one, it just happened that way in this case—but still, you think we're going to fly a bunch of missions with a 4 percent failure rate and not have any failures? You gotta be kidding.
I present James Bagian with the Thomas Bayes Award for really, truly understanding probability.

I'd quote the whole thing, but really you should just click here.

And in honour of Mr Bagian's award, you should stay out of the cars of people who have near misses while driving!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chick Magnet

Everyone gets boring pets, and I never figured out why. Why would you get a dog when you could get a marmoset instead?

Honestly, what chick wouldn't flip for a guy with one of those? Talk about peacocking. It's an instant conversation starter.

Okay, so it turns out there's a few hitches:
Hand-raising a baby callitrichid requires an incredible amount of devotion, time and emotional energy. To simulate their natural lives, infants should be carried by their owners as much as possible for warmth and emotional security....
Newborns should be fed every two hours around the clock and must be stimulated in the perineal area to urinate and defecate.
But look how cute they are! Surely that's worth it.
Hand-raised, bottle-fed babies are quite charming, but with the onset of sexual maturity, they become unpredictable, aggressive and dangerous to humans - including their owners. Consequently, people should be discouraged from keeping them as pets.
Bah, bunch of killjoys. I bet these people are just environmentalist weenies trying to stop anyone making a profit off monkeys, with some greenpeace hippie desire to keep them all in the wild.

Hmm, the website is called ?

Ah well, it was a good dream while it lasted.

I'm going back to plan B for my pets - plants grown from food refuse. You can leave them outside for three weeks when you go on vacation, and they probably won't die. And if they do, who cares!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Magnitudes? We don't need no stinking magnitudes!

Have you noticed how few people think in any meaningful sense about how large different health risks are? People will know that 'smoking causes cancer' and 'living near power lines causes cancer' and 'eating burnt steak causes cancer'. But they will barely have even a hazy idea about how much the risks of each one is, and probably avoid all three. In reality, they're not even close - you're better off giving up smoking, but not sweating the steak and power lines.

The truth is that magnitudes are hard, so people just don't bother, even though they're really important. Directions are easy, but not actually very useful.

To illustrate, let me give you a range of different statements of different levels of usefulness.

0. 'Smoking is bad'

1. 'Smoking causes lung cancer'

2. 'Smoking increases the risk of lung cancer'

3. 'Smoking is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer'

4. 'Smoking is associated with a ten to twenty times as high chance of developing lung cancer'

5. 'Smoking is associated with a ten to twenty times as high chance of developing lung cancer, the death rate from lung cancer in the male population is around 80 per 100,000, the percentage of males in the US who smoke is 23.1 %, so your chances of dying of lung cancer if male lie between 15 per 100,000 and 26 per 100,000 if you don't smoke, versus between 260 per 100,000 and 297 per 100,000 if you do smoke'

6. 'Smoking is associated with ... [as before] for overweight versus normal weight people, for young vs. old people, for white/black/hispanic/men/women ... '

My hunch is that most people think about things in terms of 1. So let's analyze all the ways that people screw this up.

The difference between 0 and 1 is whether you have any understanding of the actual problem, or just arguing from authority. We can safely skip that one.

The difference between 1 and 2 is about statistics. The first one implies that Smoking = Lung Cancer. It's not clear, but I think people have in mind that smoking is a sufficient condition for eventually getting lung cancer. It's not, and that's a big deal. A bullet to the brain causes death in a very different way than smoking causes lung cancer.

The difference between 2 and 3 is quite well remarked on, as it's the correlation/causation problem. 2 may be right, but 3 is the correct description of what the statistics alone tell us. Still, the causal link with smoking is pretty well established, so I don't quibble with it here.

3 to 4 is the first question of magnitudes. I submit that for the majority of illnesses and risk factors, people have no idea how important various risk factors are. And it's really damn important. Because things that increase risk by a trivial amount probably aren't worth worrying about. (I say 'probably' -we'll return to this in a second). This is the level of information you get from the CDC, the guys who you'd expect to be right on top of things, and not to belittle them, it's important to know. I haven't looked for the burnt steak numbers, but I'm betting they're a lot lower.

4 to 5 tells you how prevalent the disease really is. And this matters a lot in terms of whether you should make real lifestyle changes. Because people care mainly about the actual chance of dying, not about relative changes in the changes of dying. Big percentage changes in things that are very unlikely to begin with don't have much impact. But even small percentage changes in very frequent risks can be worth it. So being 10 to 20 times more likely to acquire lung cancer (~80 per 100,000) is more important than being 10 to 20 times more likely to acquire stomach cancer (~5 per 100,000). When things are quite frequent (heart disease, car crashes) smaller changes get even more significant. Bear in mind the CDC doesn't tell me this - I had to calculate those numbers myself. If anything, I think that these numbers don't look very large, and that's part of the reason the CDC doesn't push them - even if I smoke, the chances of it actually killing me are apparently only 0.3%! Put that way, it doesn't seem like a big deal. Now, this doesn't give me all the information I need (how long did I smoke, what age am I etc.). But it's damn hard to say that this isn't actually relevant.

Finally 5 to 6 tells you how much the effects vary across demographics. It's highly unlikely that every group in society has a 10-20 times higher chance of lung cancer from smoking. And if there's differential impacts, you'd like to know whether it's worth it for you to give up smoking, not for the average person.

The reality is that you need a hell of a lot more information than 'smoking causes cancer' to conclude that it's worth it to give up smoking based on the cancer risk. As Gary Becker put it - it also depends how much you like smoking! And at a bare minimum, it's ridiculous to place the same importance on all risk factors without considering the actual risk they pose.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"It Can't Get Any Worse"

Pure comedy gold, from Brazil:

A Brazilian Clown, Francisco Oliveira Silva, has been cleared to enter Congress as the federal deputy for Sao Paulo after passing a literacy test that might have ruled him out.

From the BBC:
The 45-year-old television clown won more than 1.3 million votes after campaigning with slogans such as: "It can't get any worse."
"What does a federal deputy do? Truly, I don't know. But vote for me and I will find out for you,"
It's an excellent point. Honestly, I imagine most voters here have little idea what many elected offices are really for. (As John Derbyshire commented on the Secretary of State for Kansas - does he negotiate non-aggression pacts with Nevada?)

If there were an option to have a Congress of literal clowns who didn't actually desire to pass any significant legislation, I'd vote for them in a heartbeat. Mr Silva is quite right - it can't be worse that the current bunch of metaphorical clowns who delight in passing thousand-page value-destroying omnibuses, sight unseen.


So if you read Hacker News, you've probably seen this a bunch of times.

But if you haven't it's highly instructive to consider the actual scale of the universe, both large and small.

It also taught me the measurement prefix 'yocto' (as in 'yoctometre', 10 to the power of -24 metres). Which is a cool sounding measurement.

The Past is Another Country (Henry James Edition)

Make no mistake about it - your own country a century ago would be virtually unrecognisable to you. But not for the technological reasons people typically think of. No, the real reason is that your fellow countrymen would have values that would be entirely alien to you. I think this is a good antidote to excessive conservative nostalgia about the distant past. You can be nostalgic about the founding fathers all you like, but if most modern young conservatives actually had to meet them, there's a good chance you'd find them appalling racists and sexists, while they'd find you disgustingly hedonist libertines.

I mentioned Mr James' work a few days ago. I was put into him by my friend OKH. A lot of James' writing focuses on social interactions between men and women, particularly in the context of the different attitudes of Europeans and Americans. American women tend to be portrayed as somewhat free and risqué in their tendency to defy traditional expectations of behaviour.

But here's what's flabbergasting - 'risqué' in this context means an unmarried woman of 20 or so walking around Italy with a man she isn't married to, unaccompanied by any family relations, and not being ashamed of it. 'Scandalous' is walking around with two men. Remember, these are supposedly the values of polite American ex-pat society in Europe around the end of the 19th century.

As OKH pointed out, this mindset is much, much closer to the modern Muslim world than it is to the modern America. Moreover, these values managed to serve society very well for centuries. And yet modern conservatives look at the Islamic world and find its treatment of women to be very repressive. Rightly so, in my opinion. But it takes on a whole new perspective when you realise that similar attitudes were harbored by the vast majority of your fellow countrymen just outside living memory.

In other words, it's unclear whether George Washington would feel he had more in common with a modern fundamentalist Muslim than a modern atheist liberal American, even though the latter would consider himself Washington's heir much more than the former. Politically, one imagine's he'd side with the modern American. But culturally? It's hard to say.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

From the department of unfair yet hilarious comparisons...

A great comparison in photos of Hiroshima and Detroit, 64 years after the atomic bomb.

One of the two cities in question was destroyed by an organised group unleashing destruction on the entire productive assets of the city.

The other did not have the UAW present, but had a nuclear blast instead.

Tugging on Superman's Cape

It's sometimes quite difficult in practice to distinguish between whether someone has giant cojones or just a giant martyr complex, especially as the two are not mutually exclusive. Such seems to be the case of Wikileaks' professional troll and attention-seeking d**head Julian Assange.

I had always thought his paranoid trend of moving around and playing spy games was just hilarious evidence of his desire to feel like some secret agent fighting crime and/or evil.

Perhaps tiring of the ridicule for being such a nutcase, he's decided keep pissing off first world governments until they respond enough to make his paranoia actually seem fairly justified.

The question is whether he's thought through the end-game of his provocations, which is this. In the long run, it is very difficult to make yourself a high-profile enemy of first world governments while also travelling around on a first-world passport (Australian) and staying in first-world countries ("a secret location outside London"). The dedicated open enemies of America all live in third world hellholes, and when they travel, they're not going through normal immigration procedures.

Assange seems to be currently right up against the limit of how much you can piss off the US without either a) ending up in jail or b) removing yourself from the first world altogether, and live entirely underground. Option a) is what happens when you were an attention-seeking wannabe martyr all along, or just massively miscalculate (and I don't think Assange is that dumb). Option b) is what happens when you actually have cojones in the service of some truly screwed-up ideals, consequences be damned (think Bin Laden). Although Bin Laden doesn't need to have a functioning web server capable of handling high traffic to carry out his plans, so I don't even know how viable it really is.

Since he shows no signs of stopping his escalations, my guess is that we'll have our answer soon enough.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Abyss of Human Nature

Come, dear reader, and gaze into the abyss of what happens to human nature when man can find no purpose to worship higher than himself.

Listen to these chilling rationalizations from married women who have affairs. In this regard I'm sure that married men who have affairs give rationalisations that are probably just as revolting - this is merely the particular material I have in front of me right now. Since GS has observed that my posts sometimes come across as leaning towards misogyny, let me emphasise that my words are about humanity in general, not just women.
Tall, strong-featured and dressed in a cashmere sweater and wool trousers, Sheila is the kind of woman you see in the aisles of Waitrose, the front row of the school carol service. But once every fortnight or so she tells Peter, 48, a company director, that she's meeting a (well-briefed) girlfriend for dinner. Instead she goes to a motel room to see her lover, Michael, also 46, a medical sales rep whom she met at a conference.
Shylock's advice - if your married friend is asking you to be her cover for an ongoing affair, it's time to find some better friends.
Thousands of women like Sheila are enjoying what they believe to be no-strings flings. Having witnessed the devastation divorce wreaked on their parents' generation, they have no desire to end their marriages. Instead they are searching for variety in an otherwise humdrum routine.
Ha ha ha! Yes, clearly they've certainly learned the really important lessons about the problems of divorce. Not the ones about the importance of maintaining a happy, honest and loving relationship. No, the ones about staying in the marriage but doing whatever the hell you please.

Okay, so to my mind Sheila seems like a horrible human being. But how does Sheila justify this to herself? Surely she's at least a little guilty about this whole thing? Let us go and take our visit, as Mr Eliot put it:
'I love Peter dearly,' Sheila says. 
Generally, it is pointless to argue over the definition of a word like 'love'. But in this case I'm willing to make an exception and say... No. No you don't. You just like getting stuff out of him, and it's been so long that you've forgotten there was ever a difference. As it turns out, she admits as much:
'He's a good husband, and father. I like cooking with him and gossiping about the neighbours. He's my pal and I'd never want to lose that. 
So, does this make your behaviour better, or worse?
Sex with Michael is a purely separate thing; it's about erotic abandonment, being seen as just a woman rather than as Peter's wife, or "the doctor" or a mum.
I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that for Peter, her having sex with Michael is not in fact a purely separate thing. But she's not done justifying herself:
Any working mother will know what I mean. Every woman needs something that is hers alone. Some of my friends ride, some sing in choirs, I have Michael.'
Yes, of course. Helping out at a bake sale, riding a bicycle, getting boned by a pharmaceutical rep - what's the difference?As Sesame Street would say - one of these things is not like the other. Note too the cynically self-serving way she tries to claim this as a symptom of the stress of being a 'working mother', which all women will understand.
Most people, women and men alike, will understand your feelings that a marriage after 20 years is not as exciting as it was at the start. But for the sake of all that is right in the world, I hope that they don't all understand why you're having an affair.
To properly understand Leila's motivation, let me remove a few extraneous words from the previous paragraph:
'I ...  I ... my... I'd ...I... my... I ...'

The rest is just noise.
The number of people having affairs is impossible to know, as few are truthful about their sex lives, but the recent Way We Are Now nationwide survey conducted by Relate showed that 34 per cent of women respondents admitted to being unfaithful, compared with 32 per cent of men.
Those, my friends, are some truly terrible odds, for both men and women.

Listen to just how mercenary they are about the whole thing:
Laura, 51, a reflexologist from Hertfordshire, with a teenage son, has had three affairs over the past 10 years with men she has met on various websites.
She uses specialised software to make sure her computer shuts down moments after she uses it and its history is wiped clean. She has two mobiles: one for general use and one for EMAs (extramarital affairs, to use the jargon), which can only be accessed by a pin number and is set on silent mode so that her husband, Brian, an events manager, can't hear texts arriving. She checks at the same time every day before hiding it – separately from the sim card – in her Christmas-present drawer. 'Then if Brian did find it I'd say I was going to give it to our cleaner,' she explains, cradling her large glass of merlot.
You can feel the ice running through this woman's veins. As a matter of writing, I do enjoy the way the author subtly and expertly puts the knife in with the line about the merlot.

But let me tell you the part that is the most difficult. The Dog That Did Not Bark in this whole story is the feelings of the spouse they're cheating on. It seems that none of these women give any evidence that they've stopped to think about how painful it must be for their husband of 20 years that their wife is having an affair. Their only thoughts about their husbands relate to how they can avoid being caught.Now, human nature being what it is, it does not surprise me that people are selfish. But how can you be married to someone for that long, and not actually find their feelings to be an important consideration? How can you be so stupid to not realise that once your start having an affair, you will eventually get caught, and your marriage will be over, with horrible consequences for a lot of innocent parties?
Like most of the women I spoke to, Minna worried not so much about her husband learning of her affair as about what discovery would mean for their children. 'He's an adult but if they discovered this other side to me it would overturn their cosy little world,' she says with a shudder.
He's an adult. Ergo, that's where the obligation ends. And as for the kids, she's worried partly (and correctly) that it will be very sad and disruptive consequences for them. But my guess is that she's also worried because her kids (if they find out) will justifiably hate her. The feeble excuses she makes for herself will not wash with them. As for her husband, it seems like she couldn't give a toss.

Of course, their rationalizations are actually dreary and predictable - evil is banal, after all. 

Plank 1 - I'm actually doing this FOR the marriage:
Laura is adamant that her affairs are saving her marriage rather than putting it at risk. 
Great, so tell your husband! I'm sure he'll agree.

Plank 2  (which of course contradicts plank 1) - Actually my husband forced me into it.
'Brian irritates me, like all my long-married friends are irritated by their husbands. He leaves the loo seat up, burps and expects his washing to be done as if by magic. He's got a bit fat and resents any suggestion that he lose weight.
Meanwhile, I presume that she has kept the same figure she had at age 20, and puts out just as much as before.

But that's all a fig-leaf actually. Here's why she's actually doing it:
I'm looking to be adored, to be treated like a goddess much more than I'm looking for sex. 
Fewer things are as ugly to witness as naked selfishness stripped of all pretensions. 

As if this all weren't enough, the author finishes with what is clearly the pressing question underneath all this: 
But can a woman really have her ego bolstered, without losing her heart? 
If there is any justice in the world, I certainly hope not.

With Apologies to TJIC

I was in Maryland over the weekend with some family friends. It was hunting season, which my friend and I found out when we went for a walk in the woods and saw a lot of guys with rifles and orange jackets. It made me reconsider my sartorial decision of a 'navy blue looks like deer brown at a distance' jacket, but thankfully our ignorance and bad planning here didn't have significant consequences.

For the life of me, I just can't understand the appeal of hunting. As far as I can tell, it seems 99% boring, and 1% intensely horrifying. And once you've killed your deer, it just gets worse - you have to transport the bloodied carcass, 'clean' it (a euphemism whose intricacies you can be grateful you don't need to explore), and then butcher it. And after all that, you end with enormous amounts of a meat that most people find (at least by revealed preference) to be significantly less tasty than a McDonalds cheeseburger.

I am aware that this post marks me as an effeminate ninny who is grossly hypocritical about the source of the meat he eats. Still, it all sounds ghastly. It makes Nascar look like a game of Backgammon at the Gentlemens Club.


Google Beatbox.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Tyler Cowen links to this fascinating paper by Edward O'Boyle on the Great Irish famine, in which maybe a million or more people died.

One of the things that stood out was O'Boyle's descriptions of how food exports from Ireland to England continued throughout the famine:
Under the circumstances, it was necessary to provide English military escort to assure the flow of food exports to England. In April 1846, for example, food was shipped from Conmel in Ireland to England protected by 80 infantrymen and 50 cavalrymen (Woodham-Smith, p.77). Sheehan (p.8) confirms the shipment of wheat, barley, and oats as rent payments to landlords in England by Irish peasants who, failing those payments, risked eviction from the land. The prevailing view within the English government was that nothing should be done to bring harm to an already fragile retail system. Kinealy, who 150 years after the Famine was the first to check the shipping records on food shipments from Ireland during the famine years, stated that in 1847 alone 4,000 ships sailed from Ireland carrying food shipments (Sunday Business Post, p.30). In late 1848 it became necessary to enlist the military to protect rent collectors (Nowlan, p.177).

Further proof, if you needed it, that famines are more complex than you might think.

I am in general a strong supporter of the British Imperial project, but it's hard not to see the Irish famine as evincing appalling negligence and indifference on the part of English leadership, both political and civil. As John Dolan noted about William Wordsworth:
I remember sifting through the elderly Wordsworth’s letters looking for any comment at all on the Great Famine which was extirpating the Irish, and finding only one remark, in which the great moralist earnestly prays that England will not weaken, ie provide any aid whatsoever. It’s one of the curiosities of English literary history that you’ll never find the least particle of compassion for the Irish in “moral” poets like Wordsworth.
Sad but true, that many of the history's giants have feet of clay. Washington owned slaves, and Wordsworth couldn't give a rat's @$$ about a million dead Irish.

A Metaphor whose underlying imagery I have forgotten the origin of

Thus I remember hearing about monkeys, but can't find a source for...

If you give a monkey a button that dispenses food when pressed, he will press it a lot and eat until he’s full. After that, he’ll press it occasionally as he gets hungry.

If you make it so the button dispenses food after being pressed a certain number of times, or add a predictable time delay, it takes the monkey a little while to figure out the pattern, but then he moves into the same behavior as before – he knows he can get food whenever he needs it, and just presses the button when he wants food.

But if you really want the monkey to press the button heaps, you make it so that the button dispenses food only after a random number of presses, or a random time delay. Then the monkey goes crazy – he keeps pressing it because he doesn’t know if it will actually work on each press, and can’t figure out the pattern. Even after he’s full, he keeps pressing it to load up on food, because he can’t be sure that it will actually dispense when he needs it to.

The subject of this metaphor is ‘why I click ‘Check Mail’ so many damn times’.

Henry James on America

“[T]he only way to enjoy the great Republic would be to burn one’s standards and warm one’s self at the blaze.”

True or not, it’s certainly the best metaphor I’ve read in recent times.

Why I’m Not a Good Cook

I’m not. I’m passable by male standards, and definitely better than some people (The Greek, for instance, who reputedly had to ask his girlfriend when water was boiling). But that’s like beating your 7 year old cousin in the ‘why do you keep hitting yourself?’ game.

The problem I have with cooking is that I don’t know what the margin of error is on each step. And it’s typically very hard to find out. This makes the whole process very stressful, because you end up second guessing every decision and not knowing whether you’re screwing it up. And of course, when you do screw it up, there’s been at least 5 steps where you didn’t quite know what you were doing, and so you don’t even have good feedback of what needs to be fixed next time.

For instance, the recipe will say ‘brown the beef’. And I find myself thinking ‘Well, it’s KINDA brown. I mean, there’s some odd bits that aren’t brown, but then again it’s been in there a few minutes and doesn’t seem to be getting any browner. Does that mean it’s done?’. What you’d actually like is instructions that say ‘brown the beef until you absolutely can’t see any pink (which should take about 5 minutes), and if you have any doubt, cook it another 5 minutes, it’s better to cook too long than too short’. THAT, I can work with! 
But that’s never what they write.

Or even better, you get joint instructions with no indication of which clause takes precedence. E.g.’ Cook for 5 minutes on a low heat until the butter and sugar begin to caramelize.’ Boy, was that a disaster. What inevitably happens is you cook it for 5 minutes on a low heat, and nothing happens. Now, to an experienced cook, it’s obvious what to do. But to a clown like me, I find myself wondering ‘Okay, given it hasn’t caramelized, do I:
a) Take if off the stove (pretty sure that’s not the answer)
b) Cook it on the same heat for longer
c) Turn up the heat.

Intuition told me to go with option b). But then you keep heating it for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and the damn thing still hasn’t caramelised. Then you start to second guess yourself – surely the cooking time isn’t off by 200%? Perhaps my heat is actually too low, and that’s why nothing is happening! So you turn it up, which leads to disaster about 13 seconds later. Out of my failed experiment at Bananas Foster, the only useful knowledge I gained is that butter and sugar, when heated long enough, can make a very serviceable substitute for napalm.

I’m sure there are plenty of cookbooks that answer these questions, but I’m too lazy to investigate in detail. Which, let’s face it, is the real reason I’m not a good cook.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Most Exciting Thing at the Bulls Game

I was talking about this story with JS earlier this evening. I was at a Chicago Bulls game a few years ago. The Bulls weren't very good and were losing, but the crowd was reasonably into it.

But what was fascinating to me is that the loudest cheers of the day, by an order of magnitude, were for the Dunkin' Donuts race. This is the one where a TV screen shows a bagel, a donut and a cup of coffee racing around a track. Each person got a card with a character's name on it, and if your character won, you got a free donut.

Watching this tinny video, you probably don't get the sense that the crowd was actually going nuts for this race. But believe me, they were.

Just think about that. You're cheering for fictional characters in a race whose outcome is already pre-determined. Not only that, but the value of what you win is perhaps a dollar, at a venue where you pay five bucks for a coke. My guess is that most of the people who won wouldn't actually be bothered collecting their free donut anyway.

And yet this event excited people in a way that world class athletes did not. Remember, these were people who self-selected for their willingness to pay a good amount of money to watch these athletes perform. I wonder what the players think when the Cup of Coffee gets louder cheers than they do. Probably a mix of humbling embarrassment and contempt for the crowd. Maybe something along the lines of 'Hey, the guys who come and cheer for me might actually be imbeciles, given they also cheer for a Donut. I wonder what that says about the worth of my endeavour?'

JS mentioned that he saw a similar thing when the Lakers were on the verge of winning by a large enough margin that Jack in the Box would give everyone two free tacos. There at least the outcome was genuinely in doubt.

Now, I would happily dismiss this with glib snobbishness as an example of the mental capacity of basketball fans. But the tens of thousands of people there weren't idiots, they were instead completely representative of humanity at large. And when you realise this, you realise how fascinating the whole thing is in terms of psychology. Truth be told, it actually WAS more exciting than the basketball game! There is an large appeal of games of chance, and a truly massive appeal at the prospect of getting free stuff, no matter how worthless.

Not only that, but people will anthropomorphise fictional characters, and cheer for them even though they know that the race is fixed. And when you ask them about it at the end, they will probably deny that this was the high point of the game. Except their cheers bely the fact that they were yelling louder for that, unprompted, than they were when the cheerleaders and TV screens were urging them to yell 'defense!'. What people really want in life, it seems, is to win a free donut. That will bring them more happiness than the basketball game they paid fifty bucks to see.

I walked away with the sense that if you actually understood all the implications of this one event, you would know a great deal about human nature and human folly.

Thinking Outside the Box in Business Plans

As evidenced by the Recording Industry Association of America:

1. File Lawsuits against everyone.

2. Engage in media bluster in an attempt to disguise the failure of #1.

3. ????

4. Profit!!

But here's where the real genius comes in - they're now widening their field of bluster to include magazines who write about file sharing.

The RIAA may be down in this fight, but I sense that their fortunes are about to turn - like King Harald's army at the Battle of Hastings, the pirates are charging down the hill in celebration of an early advantage, about to be routed by the force of nasty RIAA letters.

Or, you know, not. Good luck with that, fellas.

Oprah @#$%, Orange Juice Edition

It's almost axiomatic that one's own snobberies and differences in taste are crucial marks of aesthetic refinement, whereas everyone else's are trivial indications of an obsession with minutiae.

Until I came to this country, I had honestly never considered how much pulp was in my orange juice. I used to laugh at the sheer number of pulp options on offer, and settled on 'some pulp' based on the pointless heuristic that it was halfway between the two extremes.

Until, the other day, when I found myself at the supermarket the tiniest bit annoyed that there was a 'Calcium + Vitamin D' option for 'No Pulp' and 'Lots of Pulp', but not 'Some Pulp'. The ridiculousness of this, of course, is that if you gave me a glass of orange juice I probably wouldn't even notice the difference. Moreover, I estimate the health effects of the additional calcium and vitamin D to be roughly zero. I can't even remember which one I ended up buying, but remember feeling lame for caring at all in the first place.

Still, one thing I do miss - 25% and 35% fruit drinks. They still taste like juice, but just mega-sugary juice. This is clearly something that every civilised society should have. I'm going back to Oz in a few weeks, and this will be one of my first purchases when I arrive.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Vegas Part 3 - Network effects of entertainment

Vegas also illustrates wonderfully how little of economic growth is driven by actual resources any more, and instead comes from the network effects of people interacting with each other  - either as producers of ideas and services, or just network effects from recreation (as in Vegas). People want to be near other people, and it's largely arbitrary as to where exactly that will be.

If you looked at a cross section across Nevada near Vegas, you get a picture roughly like the following:

In terms of the inherent resources present or the natural picturesqueness of the surrounding mountains, views and landscapes, Vegas looks exactly like all the nearby parts. Except that everywhere else nearby is worthless uninhabited desert, whereas the Vegas strip is priced closer to Manhattan. But Manhattan has a much more gradual decline in land prices as you move away from the centre - you wouldn't be sad to live in Brooklyn, for instance.  In Vegas, it's precipitous. 5 minute drive away from Las Vegas Blvd? You may as well be in Bakersfield.

The principle at work is no different from other places - why exactly is Manhattan much cooler than Long Island, other than the buildings and people already there? It's just that in Vegas it's the most pronounced, because you have an incredible metropolis situated right next to desert parts that could be scenes from Mad Max. It's also a city that sprang up without even any of the initial seeding geographical advantages of places like New York and Chicago (shipping, primarily). There is literally nothing to distinguish Vegas from anywhere nearby.

When network effects dominate, the location of cities is largely arbitrary. 

Weak Kim-Chi

See if this pattern sounds familiar:

1. North Korea commits outrageous provocation towards South Korea

2. South Korea warns them very sternly that if you do this one more time, we'll really respond next time, we're super cereal

3. International community urges 'restraint', which means that the South eats @#$%. Which, frankly, they were planning on doing anyway.

4. Repeat, occasionally with escalating provocations from the North.

To nobody's surprise, we see this playing out again:

GOVERNMENTS around the world have urged North and South Korea to step back from the brink of war, after an artillery battle on a South Korean island.
President Lee of South Korea warned the North that any *further* action would be met with a "stern" military response. His Cabinet met in an emergency session in a reinforced underground bunker to discuss the latest threat from its nuclear-armed neighbour. Seoul put its armed forces on high alert after the artillery exchange, which both sides accused the other of starting.
"It is unpardonable for the North to attack civilian targets," a spokesman quoted President Lee as saying. "As the North is still in an attack position, further provocation seems to be possible and our military should be prepared to retaliate with manifold firepower."
Any further action, you understand. Which everyone understands means the latest action will not be met with anything. Also, note that it was only the attacking of civilian targets that really riled them up - apparently attacking a country's army only isn't sufficient grounds for war.

Remember this comes hot on the heals of the previous provocation:

And it comes eight months after a North Korean mini-submarine sank with a torpedo the South Korean corvette Cheonan, drowning 46 sailors, mostly students on military service.
Does anyone doubt that if the South had sank a North Korean ship and killed 46 sailors, we'd already have witnessed a full-scale war?

I don't envy the South. They're stuck next to a bunch of crazy as @#$% communists with nuclear weapons, and the commies keep pushing them around. But it's not surprising that you don't end up with a culture of self-reliant resistance to invasion when a) your defenses have been outsourced to the Yanks for the last 50 years, and b) the populace seems almost as inclined to protest their presence as send them a thank-you note.

You don't have to be a fan of the current Iraq war to realise that the Democratic party foreign policy of 'let the world's dictators get nukes, we can contain them later' has enormous problems. Even if you think that the nation-building part of the Iraq war has been an expensive disaster (and you certainly wouldn't be short of evidence to support that proposition), it certainly is nice to have one less dictator trying their hand at nuclear blackmail. In particular, everything about US foreign policy towards North Korea suggests that the west is completely incapable of negotiating well with tinpot nuclear-armed crazies. At least when there's fewer of them, you pay less in Dane-geld.

Won't it be fun in 5 years when Iran is doing this too? At least the Iranians will (or certainly ought to) know that the Israelis, unlike the South Koreans, wouldn't be responding to artillery with press releases.

[Update: Gary Brecher seconds the Holmes diagnosis that nothings going to happen here. Which is lucky, because I'd be wary to disagree with him on matters military.]

Vegas Part 2 - The Weak Law of Casinos

The Weak Law of Casinos is my way of estimating how much the odds of winning a particular game are tilted towards the house. And it is thus:

The probability of you winning a game of chance at a casino is inversely proportional to how many tables of that game the casino has set up.

In other words, you don't need to calculate the odds of winning each game - you can instead assume that the casino has calculated the odds, and is trying to push you towards the games that work in its favour. Implicitly this rule says that demand for particular types of games is not a big factor in the equilibrium quantity, and that people are sheep who can be nudged towards playing many different games. This isn't literally true, but lets see how far our weak law will get us.

Look around any casino - there's walls and walls of poker machines. They have awful odds. Truly awful. That's why they try so hard to get you to play them. My strong presumption is that you'd have to have rocks in your head to let your odds be determined by a black box electronic program written by the casino. At least with physical games of chance, you know in advance how you get screwed.

The second highest frequency is blackjack. This is actually an exception to the rule, as basic strategy gives only a  small edge to the house. On the other hand, basic strategy may be basic, but it's very hard to remember the whole thing, and the vast majority of people play using inferior strategies. In other words, the casino estimates that the way you actually play blackjack has a low chance of winning.

Roulette has about a 3% edge, and there's a reasonable number of them.

Craps is slightly lower, and they have some of them for the vibe, but not as many

Baccarat has a low edge, and there's not many of them. Usually very few.

Poker, the casino makes @#$% all - not because their edge is tiny, but because a single table lasts so damn long. They only have it there to get you in the door, but they don't like it.

Like I said, it's not a hard and fast rule.

But it checks out pretty damn well with the actual odds.

Vegas, Part 1 - Attractiveness Distributions

I spent the weekend in Vegas. A couple of posts on the subject will be forthcoming.

As a first pass, Vegas has a totally weird distribution of the attractiveness of people. The female hotness scale looks like this:
I was there with my friend DRFG. We were out at a trashy nightclub, and spent an amusing period trying to identify what percentage of the women in tiny dresses were hookers. We came to the conclusion of 'most of them'. Of course, the 'hookers' category has much fuzzier boundaries in Vegas too - the distinctions between 'bar staff', 'stripper' and 'prostitute' seems much more blurred when all the wait staff are wearing only g-strings, bras and random lacy things, and all of them flirting with the greasy choads who'd ordered bottle service.

I've never been to a place where female attractiveness was so commoditized. It's like everything is for sale, and the corollary is that nothing is for free.

By comparison, here's my estimate of the Vegas male attractiveness distribution:

There's nothing quite like being at a two Michelin star restaurant, and seeing two fat old business men at a table with three really attractive twenty-something [hookers].

It's a strange place alright.