Saturday, October 30, 2010

Now THIS is how campaigns should be

Via Ace of Spades, this hilarious video from Reason about the way that the founding fathers insulted each other.

This stuff is pure gold. For better or worse, American politics is fairly mellow. I prefer adversarial governments - the more everyone in government gets along, the more (typically value-destroying) legislation they're going to pass. Personally I like question time in the Westminster system, where both sides try to mock and embarrass each other every single day. If nothing else, it makes for far more entertaining watching than the typical C-Span snoozefest. Not only that, but it forces politicians to be creative in their mockery, because there's limits on what kinds of insults you can use without being thrown out by the Speaker. Paul Keating was a master of these kind of barbs. Check out some of these pearlers:

What we have got is a dead carcass, swinging in the breeze, but nobody will cut it down to replace him.
- On John Howard

The principle saboteur, the man with the cheap fistful of dollars.

- On John Howard

He is the greatest job and investment destroyer since the bubonic plague.

- On John Howard

Like being flogged with a warm lettuce.

- On John Hewson

We’re not interested in the views of painted, perfumed gigolos.
- On Andrew Peacock

What we have as a leader of the National Party is a political carcass with a coat and tie on.

- On Ian Sinclair

..the brain-damaged Honorable Member for Bruce made his first parliamentary contribution since being elected, by calling a quorum to silence me for three minutes.”

- On Ken Aldred

Friday, October 29, 2010

"Disneyland with the Death Penalty"

So begins William Gibson's description of Singapore in Wired. From my limited experience of a few trips there (and Singaporean friends), he paints a reasonably fair picture of the place. It's a great article.

You may be able to sell me on a lot of law and order policies, but something seems deeply wrong to me (as to Gibson) with the death penalty for trafficking cannabis.

Blogging [ Q(demand) ~= 0 when P = 0 edition ]

Building up a blog seems to face similar challenges to building up any other kind of business (I assume - I've never done the latter).

The fact that the price of the product is zero affects this analysis  not at all.

Zero is, after all, the competitive market clearing price for writing on the internet.

The Equality of Being Unremarkable

The true measure of when gays will have achieved equality is when being gay is viewed as entirely unremarkable. And when that's the case, the fact that a person is gay will be seen less and less to be the dominant (or only) salient characteristic of their personality.

So by this metric I am thoroughly heartened by stories like this one, from Melbourne. (For American readers, the Liberal Party is actually the name of the Conservatives in Australia) :
WHEN Tom McFeely first announced he wanted to stand as a Liberal Party candidate at this year's state election, there were some people in the gay community who unkindly branded him a traitor.
Oh, I bet there were. Nobody gets scorned like identity group minorities who depart from the mainstream thinking within their group. Just ask Clarence Thomas.
After all, they argued, Mr McFeely is an openly gay man from a working class family in Scotland and also happens to run one of the best-known gay venues in town - the Peel Hotel in Collingwood. Why on earth would he want to represent the conservative side of politics?
In other words, their criticisms amounted to, "But... but... you're gay? How dare you?"
For Mr McFeely, it's a no-brainer. First and foremost, he points out, he is a businessman who believes in Liberal values like free enterprise. His upbringing and sexuality are irrelevant.
 Amen to that! Anybody who believes in free enterprise, gay or straight, is welcome in my Liberal Party. 
''I'm not standing as a gay candidate, the same way people wouldn't stand as a heterosexual candidate,'' says the well-known local publican, who has been preselected to stand for the Liberals in the state seat of Richmond.
 Very well put! I love it - they keep wanting to make him the "Gay Liberal Candidate", but instead he just keeps responding "No, I'm just the Liberal Candidate. Gay has nothing to do with it."

So what issues does he want to run on?
Mr McFeely says that while he might not be your typical Liberal candidate, the issues he is campaigning on are much the same: community safety, business rights, less red tape, better public transport, less road congestion. 
Sounds pretty good to me (personally I'd replace 'better public transport' with 'abolish public transport', but then again I'm not running for election in Melbourne). What about more sensitive issues like gay marriage (you knew they'd never let him  get away without answering that one, even though this is a State election, and marriage is set by Federal law in Australia through the Marriage Act of 1961) 
On the issue of same-sex marriage, though, he is less convinced. Despite being in a civil union with his partner of 18 years, he does not accept the term ''marriage'' because of its religious overtones.
''But what I do support is government recognition of all relationships,'' he says. ''It's easy to say: I'm all for gay marriage. But in practical terms, what does that mean?''

A focus on practical aspects of partnerships, along with a desire for some legal recognition, but not interested in the more controversial label of 'marriage'? He just keeps getting better and better. By contrast, the seat of Richmond stands a reasonable chance of electing a member of the Greens Party, the lunatic leftist fringe of Australian politics (sadly becoming less and less fringe every day).   

But here's the headline that really made me smile, discussing the same story in the Melbourne Leader:

"Liberal Candidate Wants Roads Fixed"

Spot on. In fact, nowhere in the article is his sexuality even mentioned.  He's not being elected to Parliament  to have gay sex on your behalf. He's being elected to implement policy, so let's talk about that. 

While I doubt I have many (/any) Victorian readers, if any of you should be casting a ballot in the State election for the seat of Richmond, I would you to vote for Mr Tom McFeely.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rhyme Schemes for the 21st century

It's difficult to say anything original on the subject of love.

Still, the Gorillaz have one very nice line in the song 'To Binge'.
"My heart is in economy,
Due to this autonomy."
What a great way to express a feeling of unpleasant dejection, linking it to cheap air travel. Now that's an angle I'm sure nobody else has tackled before - it's only recognisable to a listener from about 1970 onwards.

I also like the second line though. I suspect (perhaps unfairly) that 'autonomy' was chosen mainly to rhyme with economy. Still, whether intended or not, it's a very good choice.Most love affairs don't break up because of impersonal circumstances. They break up for much more mundane and less romantic reasons - Tom got bored of being with Sue and cheated with Sue's friend, Sally felt that Tim had gotten clingy and pathetic, etc. But autonomy is exactly what it is - things fall apart mainly because at least one party wanted it.

You'd never get this sense listening to love songs. The theme of 'The Lovers vs. A Harsh Society Trying to Prevent Their Love' is one of the most overused (and lame) ideas in pop culture. Apparently 'Your Love Will Be Thwarted By External Circumstance' is much more likely in song-lyric land than 'Your Love Will Be Abandoned By Your Own Choice Because You Became Bored With It'.

Compare, for instance, 'Not Gonna Get Us' by tATu:
'They're not gonna get us,
Not now I love ya.'
Yeah, that's the problem - before you didn't love each other, and now you do, everything's fixed!


Memo to Criminals - Grab a Clue, Not an Ipad

It amazes me that there are still criminals who think that it's a positive expected value proposition to steal anything containing a GPS device. 

My mum recently had her handbag and iPad stolen. Because she the iPad linked to her MobileMe account, my brother was able to track it online as it passed through about four houses, and eventually settled at one place. They'd called the police, and the GPS evidence was sufficient for the cops to get a warrant, whereupon they searched the house, found the iPad (after the woman had earlier denied having it), and one more dumb@$$ is now spending time in the slammer for possession of stolen property. 

It gets better though. Apparently, these clowns are not readers of Popehat. If they were, they might have remembered Ken's advice to Shut The #$%@ Up. This Mensa Chapter President decided to call up my mum's house and asked for her by name, claiming to have found her frequent flier card on his table outside his house. My brother asked whether there was anything else there. No, he said, there wasn't, just the frequent flier card. Obviously it didn't occur to this future string theorist that a frequent flier card doesn't contain a person's phone number, and that he was both a) indicating himself as a liar, and b) providing evidence that he had other items from the handbag. Not only that, but he then told my brother that he could pick the card up from his address. My brother noticed that the address he gave was the same as the second house that the iPad had been at. Last I heard, the police were going round to pay him a visit too. 

What a complete tard. If he'd just shut up, it would have been very difficult to prove that he'd done anything wrong - the defense 'I don't know anything about it, maybe the thieves just parked outside my house for a while' would have been likely to create reasonable doubt. Add in the extra evidence he himself provided, and it seems like the Great State of Western Australia will soon be paying his rent too (to paraphrase the Kingston Trio).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The New Class War

Mark Steyn is back, and on fire. He's doing a series of postings on the issues of the US election.

From Tuesday's column:
The new class war in the western world is between “public servants” and the rest of usIn Washington, the marching bureaucrats are telling us government doesn’t suck. But in Greece, the bloated public service has sucked so much out of the economy there’s nothing left. 
Exactly right. This is not a trend that can persist indefinitely:

It's not sustainable, because the blue line has to fund the red line. When enough people decide that private employment is a mug's game and join the government, there eventually won't be enough productive people left to fund the rest.I take the lesson of the Greek crisis to be that public servants will continue to vote (and strike) for continued employment and higher wages, even when it threatens the entire functioning existence of the State.

The game where government wages keep growing and private sector wages stay stagnant seems likely to end in one of a couple of ways:
a) everyone joins the government side (e.g. communism, dictatorship ), thereby eliminating any advantage to being in the government 
b) the private sector simply stops working and/or paying taxes (i.e revolt), at which point either the apparatus of the state collapses, or the state resorts to ever greater coercion to keep the private sector working (e.g. Zimbabwe).

And from today:
When the law says that it’s illegal for a storekeeper to offer his customer a cup of coffee, you should be proud to be in non-compliance. What the hell did you guys bother holding a revolution for? George III didn’t care what complimentary liquid refreshments a village blacksmith shared with his clientele. Say what you like about the Boston Tea Party, but nobody attempted to prosecute them for unlicensed handling of beverage items in a public place.
True dat.

Update: Linked by Instapundit - thanks!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Lovely Song, But...

The song is 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' by Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo`ole.

As a starting point, I find it hilarious that when your surname is "Kamakawiwo`ole", the part that gets a shortened to a nickname is his first name, Israel (shortened to 'Iz'). Yeah, that's the part people will have difficulty with!

It's a lovely cover version - the ukulele makes a great accompaniment, and his voice is ideally suited to the song - soft, and yet able to reach high notes while still sounding deep. Perhaps most strikingly, the segue into 'What a Wonderful World' (and back again) works perfectly, and makes a whole that is larger than the sum of the parts. I listened to this a lot, and really loved it. 

That is, until I started noticing one aspect that, once discovered, I couldn't help but be bothered by.
(below the jump, in case you don't want the song ruined for you)

Very Sad

It's strange how seemingly innocuous details can make a story poignant.

A 19-year-old surfer who died after getting bitten by a shark today off the Santa Barbara coast likely was attacked by the feared great white shark, an expert told AOL News.

Lucas Ransom, a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was attacked shortly before 9 a.m. PDT. Three beaches in Santa Barbara County were closed immediately after the attack. KEYT-TV reported that the shark bit off the surfer's leg and he bled to death. 
As reported in The Australian, what I presume were his last words were said to his friend, who was with him: 

“It was very stealth,” Ransom's friend Matthew Garcia, who was on a surfboard several metres away, told the Los Angeles Times. “You would have never known there was a shark in the water. It was all really quick.”
He said Mr Ransom looked over and said “Help me dude,” before being dragged under.
I don't know why I found that last detail particularly moving, but I did. 

Vegan Reality Check

There Is No Escape From Cows
True story. 

I've had a similar argument with vegetarians and vegans several times before, except looking at the indirect effects of farming. Every lettuce you eat is probably sprayed with pesticides that kill snails, farmed with tractors that chew up worms, and driven around in trucks that splatter bugs on their windscreen. No matter how you cut it, animals are going to die for your food. That, my friends, is the world we live in.

Thanks to SH for the pointer.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Psychological Effect of Colour in Photographs

I'm not sure if this is a common reaction, but I certainly notice it in myself. I don't know why, but I find it surprisingly hard to relate to people in historical black and white photographs. 

There's no good reason for this - human nature hasn't changed much in the past hundred years (if ever), and it's a fair bet that if you'd been born then, you'd have ended up just like everyone else at that time. But for some reason, when you take away the colour, it stops being a world I can relate to and becomes instead some point in the vast prehistory of places far removed from the present. For colour photos, however grainy, the world is recognisable. It's a place that you conceivably could be in.

Don't believe me? Compare these two photographs.

Below is a photo of some World War I prisoners of war. The people in it could be your grandfather. Change the clothes slightly, and they could be you:

Now compare the same photo in greyscale:

Such a trivial difference. And yet, it may as well be another planet.

I think this is part of the reason that World War I always seemed like a faraway country of which we know nothing, so to speak.

I Like This Alot

This comic is awesome - it's about what the author imagines people mean when they use poor grammar and spelling, featuring the mythical create, 'alot'.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ridiculous Application of Premises in Movies

In general, I'm a complete sucker for suspending my disbelief during movies. I'll go along with the vast majority of absurd premises, and don't frequently think ahead to what might happen next of what exactly that guy with the dossier was really doing, or whatever. I remember watching a Wile E. Coyote cartoon with a friend of my brother's, and being surprised that he would predict how every joke would end. It's not that I couldn't figure it out if I stopped to think - I just never did. So I generally just go along with whatever ridiculous premise is being stated..

But for some reason, one thing that always causes me to reinstate my disbelief is when movies take a particular technological premise, and apply it to absurdly limited ends.

A great example of this is in the new Star Trek movie. The U.S.S. Enterprise is in a tangle with the Romulans, and the Enterprise captain has been taken hostage after stupidly going aboard the Romulan ship. (Apparently, the prospect he would be detained didn't occur to him). The Romulans are firing on the Enterprise. They might be in trouble.


Thankfully the Enterprise has a weapon that can transport stuff inside the enemy ship! What a stroke of luck! 

Now, gentle reader, what weapon would you choose to send inside the ship?

a) Several nuclear bombs on 3 second detonation delays to multiple parts of the enemy ship
b) Two guys with guns
c) A fruit basket

As you probably guessed, they go with option b), but realistically you may as well have picked c). Moreover, it's not as if they decided that the chance of saving the captain is worth risking everyone else on the ship by attempting a rescue - apparently option b) doesn't appear to occur to anybody the ship.

And all these people are meant to be graduates from a military academy? That, alas, I cannot believe.

Anyway, I was thinking about this after watching The Prestige yesterday, as part of the project of going through all Christopher Nolan movies (Inception, Memento and The Dark Knight together put him in the category of 'presume I'll watch the movie even if I don't hear anything else about it other than his involvement', a post currently only occupied by the Coen Brothers).

The movie is great, but they also have a real lack of imagination on one particular premise (some plot spoilers below the jump)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dude, Where's My Launch Code?

If this is true, it's astonishing:
Bill Clinton lost the card containing launch codes for a nuclear strike for "months" during his presidency, according to a top military leader's memoir. 
Gen. Hugh Shelton, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Clinton, makes the claim in his new book "Without Hesitation," ABC News first reported Thursday. 
"At one point during the Clinton administration, the codes were actually missing. That's a big deal, a gargantuan deal," Shelton writes in the book.
Stories like this sure make me sleep easy at night! 

Thanks to The Greek for the pointer.

Three Cheers for Politicians!

President Obama was in California today. He gave a speech in Los Angeles to a crowd estimated at 40,000Even though the majority of the US is rapidly becoming disillusioned with Obama, the mentality of the faithful hasn't shifted much. 
In an earlier speech, Brown quoted both Spiro Agnew and Mahatma Ghandi. As he left the stage the crowd erupted with cheers of "Jer-ry, Jer-ry, Jer-ry" that sounded eerily similar to the studio chants that greet Jerry Springer.
No kidding, eh?

I've tried (and largely failed) to explain to several people today exactly what it is that I find distasteful about all this. But in a nutshell, it comes down to this: it seems unbecoming of free-born citizens of a republic to cheer too loudly for their elected leaders.

To this antipodean, it's staggering that such a number of people would turn up. In Australia the whole notion wouldn't pass the laugh test. The concept of lining up for several hours to hear the Prime Minister speak would be considered ludicrous by nearly everyone. It's not just that they'd have better things to do - they actively would rather not be there. This would apply even amongst people who voted for her. My guess is that in the whole of Sydney, there might be perhaps 100 people willing to line up for hours on end, and they're mostly employees of the Labor Party already. Politicians as a whole are viewed with suspicion and dislike, even politicians from the party you vote for.

And to my mind, I'm quite happy about that.

Perhaps the most insightful observation about this came from my (Australian) friend Jerome Cardinal. During the Obama victory rally in Chicago, he was walking past a TV which flashed to a close-up shot of a woman crying. His response was 'It looks like a @#$%ing Michael Jackson concert.'

He was right. Nobody lines up at 5:30am to hear a policy speech scheduled for 2pm. People line up at 5:30am to see rock stars. And I'm deeply uncomfortable with a citizenry that views their leaders this way. I think it's an attitude that tends to feed the worst tendencies towards narcissism and megalomania that most politicians already have.

I remember Mark Steyn making a similar point during the 2008 election:

There are generally two reactions to this kind of policy proposal [Obama's promise to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet]. The first was exemplified by The Atlantic Monthly’s Marc Ambinder:
What a different emotional register from John McCain’s; Obama seems on the verge of tears; the enormous crowd in the Xcel center seems ready to lift Obama on its shoulders; the much smaller audience for McCain’s speech interrupted his remarks with stilted cheers.
The second reaction boils down to: “‘Heal the planet’? Is this guy nuts?” To be honest I prefer a republic whose citizenry can muster no greater enthusiasm for their candidate than “stilted cheers” to one in which the crowd wants to hoist the nominee onto their shoulders for promising to lower ocean levels within his first term.
Three stilted cheers for the stilted cheerers. There, surely, is the republican ideal: a land whose citizenry declines to offer anything more generous than stilted cheers for whichever of their fellows presumes to lead them.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Law School

TJIC links to this awesome video:

Somehow I see Hector Lopez delivering a similar speech 20 years in the future. 

I loved the lines:

Woman: I also want to work for legal aid. It must be so fascinating to help poor people with their legal problems.
Man: What's fascinating is that you will be one of these poor people, except you will have $100,000 of law school debt

Ah, so true!

Two Best Metaphors of the Day

And both of them are from Frank Fleming:
"So the Democrats sucked. ....
It’s Godzilla-smashing-through-a-city level of suck — but a really patronizing Godzilla who says you’re just too stupid and hateful to see all the buildings he’s saved or created as he smashes everything apart. Or, to use Obama’s favorite analogy, you have a car stuck in ditch, so you call the mechanic, but the only tool he brings with him is a sledgehammer. And then he smashes your car to pieces and charges you $100,000 for his service. Finally, he calls you racist for complaining. Obama and the Democrats have been so awful, it’s hard for the human brain to even comprehend."


The UN and Famine

Check out this amazing anecdote, from one of John Derbyshire's readers:
A little acknowledged fact is that there was no famine in Somalia prior to the U.N.’s arrival. To be sure, there were localized food shortages and hunger, but no widespread famine.
The famine began when the U.N. arrived and began giving away food. With free food available, farmers cold not sell their crops and so they stopped farming; the U.N. became the major source of food.
Once U.N. aid convoys were the only viable source of food, it was easy for the warlords to seize the unarmed convoys and food warehouses and monopolize the food supply. Presto, instant famine.

This sounds exactly right to me (and not just because of my strong presumption about the UN's tendency to increase corruption and misery). One of the surprising parts of Amartya Sen's research into famines was that, contrary to what everyone presumed, many famines had little to do with underlying shortages of food. Instead they arise from complex interactions to do with price. The Bengal famine of 1943 happened (as Sen showed) during the middle of an economic boom. As Jeffrey Sachs explains:

"Sen demonstrated that the Bengal famine was caused by an urban economic boom that raised food prices, thereby causing millions of rural workers to starve to death when their wages did not keep up.
And why didn't the government react by dispensing emergency food relief? Sen's answer was enlightening. Because colonial India was not a democracy, he said, the British rulers had little interest in listening to the poor, even in the midst of famine.
This political observation gave rise to what might be called Sen's Law: shortfalls in food supply do not cause widespread deaths in a democracy because vote-seeking politicians will undertake relief efforts; but even modest food shortfalls can create deadly famines in authoritarian societies."
So it seems the Somalian famine wasn't the classic Sen case of rising food prices causing people to not be able to afford food. But it still demonstrates the centrality of prices in understanding famines, and how lowering the price of food to zero is a great way to eliminate all food production. It fits in with Sen's idea broader of the 'failure of exchange entitlements' - the disruption in prices undermines the normal ways that people exchange services (farmers stop farming because the disruption causes them to be uncertain of whether their crops will be worth anything, even though they were eventually highly sought after). It's also consistent with the ultimate Sen punchline that modern famines almost always occur in part due to authoritarian governments.

Via Ace of Spades

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Veneer of Civilisation

From Theodore Dalymple, in the WSJ

"Writers have always loved to describe situations in which a man or men (rarely women) have been isolated in the most difficult circumstances, individually or collectively. Generally speaking, what those writers have tried to show is that the civilization of civilized men is but a veneer that is easily stripped off by a little (or much) adversity. Man is thus what he has always been: a wolf to himself. They rarely draw the conclusion that the veneer is the most important thing about civilization."

It is indeed.

Incidentally, this forms part of the basis for why I love Heart of Darkness so much. At the end, the narrator shies away from stripping away the illusions about Kurtz from his wife - civilisation may be hypocrisy and sham, but if the alternative is savagery, then one must embrace the sham, however reluctantly.

British Tax Dollars At Work

The real problem of generous welfare is not that society can't afford it. America and Britain are rich places, rich enough to afford quite a lot of stupidity. No, the real problem is what generous welfare does to the culture and mindset of those who receive it.

To see an example of everything wrong with welfare gone wild, check out this story from Britain.

Wanting for nothing: Miss Marshall has an entire wardrobe just for her jeans

Kelly Marshall saved her benefit money to help pay for breast enhancement.

... she plans to save more of hers for liposuction and a tummy tuck. Miss Marshall, who has never worked, rakes in almost £29,000 a year from benefits - and last year spent £4,500 to go from a 34A to a 34DD.

I have no problem with Kelly Marshall spending her money however she sees fit. Milton Friedman would (and did) agree. Thrift and savings are also not to be derided. If she simply spent her money on booze, drugs and fast food (like so many in Britain's welfare slums), the story would be so common as to be entirely unremarkable.

But surely, this suggests that the government is giving her way more money than needed to avert poverty. The Daily Mail tries to gloss over this angle, with the opening line:
Most families who are due to lose their child benefit are worrying about how they'll make ends meet without it.
And yet, this wretched woman is apparently living the life of Riley on the same payments. Hmm, incongruous isn't it?

But no, let us delve deeper into the cultural morass:
For Kelly Marshall, who has five children by four different fathers,
Mia, 11, Nio, ten, Lenni, three, Kallie, 11 and Lewis, 16
Naming your child with a misspelled version of Keanu Reaves in The Matrix (the dates line up too) - double classy!

Okay, maybe I'm being too harsh. It's possible she's just misunderstood, and has had some bad luck in her life?

To see the real disgrace, just listen to the sense of shameless entitlement this harridan has:
'I know most people will think it is wrong I am spending taxpayers' money on my looks. But I deserve it because I am a good mum.'


'I always take the kids abroad,' she said. 'We have been to Tenerife and Cyprus, and this year we have been to Magaluf twice. 'Each holiday costs about £2,000, but it's good to get away, and the kids and I deserve it.'

Deserve. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
'But I don't think me or my children should miss out on nice things just because I have never worked.'
No, of course not. Free Government money for everyone! It just falls from the sky!

To her credit, Kelly does seem to evince a dim awareness of where all this largess is coming from, even if she's a little weak on the precise accounting:

'My mum worked all her life and she paid taxes so I feel I am getting what I deserve,'

Okay, so she does realise that taxpayers are picking up the tab somehow. I am going to go out on a crazy limb here, and predict that her mum didn't pay nearly enough taxes to cover the value of what her daughter will receive from the government (even assuming that her Mum was relieved of any obligation to contribute towards anything else the government does).

Note too the flimsy moral excuses she produces for this outrageous behaviour. Her mum once worked, so she 'deserves' a free ride forever. This fascinating moral position of intergenerational virtue is not expounded at length, which is a great shame. Nobody is the villain in their own narrative. That is why the word 'deserve' appears so frequently - in her moral universe, somehow she's doing the right thing shamelessly mooching.

But eventually, we get to the heart of the matter:
'I don't care that it is at the taxpayers' cost,' she told Closer magazine. ...
No, no she doesn't. In fact, she wants to rub this fact in your face, parading for a photo holding a wine glass, and showing off her taxpayer-funded jeans collection.

That is the real tragedy of long term welfare. Out of the high and worthy desire to help those who are down on their luck, come such poisonous consequences. It's not that people work less. It's not that people lose motivation and purpose in their life, as all connection between effort and outcome is severed. It's not that people get lazy and shiftless.

No, the tragedy is the sense of sheer ungratefulness that comes from receiving large payments, year in year out, no questions asked. Grateful receipt of charity makes the donor feel happy, even if the original need for charity wasn't great. Neutral receipt, people can stomach that too. But habitually resentful receipt of charity is a very ugly aspect of human nature to witness.

Unfortunately, I suspect that is what long term welfare commonly produces.

George Orwell, a man with great sympathy for the plight of the unfortunate, said as much in 'Down and Out in Paris and London:
"A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor--
it is a fixed characteristic of human nature;
and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Market for Picking Up Women

Check out this awesome site:

It displays and ranks vanues according to their ratio of women and men present (sadly only for NY and SF), based on check-ins at foursquare.

I was interested in this, because it provides a decent test of a hypothesis I'd had for a while. Which is this:

In equilibrium, the probability of being able to pick up a chick will be the same at all bars in a city.

The bare bones sketch of a model is as follows (you can add complexity as you like):

-Assume that all men and women are identical

-Assume that guys want to maximise their chances of picking up a woman

-Assume that each woman will only go home with at most one guy

-Take as given the distribution of women in the city.

Guys know that they will crowd each other out, and so bars with lots of women are like underpriced assets - they offer higher pickup probabilities, and so men will flock to them. The men will begin to crowd each other out, lowering their probability of success. This will continue until the probability of pickup is the same at all bars (the market returns to equilibrium).

You can add more realistic assumptions (distributions of quality, some women want to pick up guys and some don't, women don't want to be hit on by sleazebags) and got from partial equilbrium to general equilibrium.

But the punch line is the same - the probability of pickup should be the same at all places, as long as information and movement are free.

So you should suspicious of statements of the form 'Oh man, we should go to bar X, we're going to score there for sure!', for any value of X - gay bar, college bar, sports bar, it doesn't matter. For it to be true, it requires that there's either incomplete information (guys don't know without costly search which bars have women) or there's not free movement (some bars are exclusive and don't let you in).

So the ratiofinder predicts that the percentage* of men and women should be the same everywhere. Ratiofinder scales points by the number of total visitors, which is a shame - if they scaled point size by the percentage excess of men/women, the size of the points would be a quick comparison.

One thing that does scream out arbitrage, however, is the choice of venue - the vast majority of 'Nightlife' venues have more men than women, while 'Shops' and 'Parks' have more women. This suggests the importance of 'day game'.

I would hope that tools like this should help the market clear, and more guys get laid - seek alpha, be alpha!

*Depending on the form of the model, it might be either percentage of women or excess number of women - the punch line that the probability of pickup is the same should be robust either way.

Monday, October 18, 2010

24 Carat Gold

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:


I recently went back to using Pandora, the internet radio station that selects songs based on your musical preferences. I tried it a few years ago and got a few interesting suggestions, but it was pretty hit and miss.

After a gap of two years or so of not using it, it's gotten way better in the interim. I think it's to do with the way they predict which songs you'd like. Originally, they had a bunch of guys who assigned attributes to the songs (acoustic guitar, major chord instrumentation, 'wispy male vocals' (really) etc.) and these were prominently featured ('this song came up because you seem to like [attribute X]). Coding up vague song descriptions struck me at the time as an incredibly labour-intensive way of doing it, but they seemed to be giving it a go, so good for them.The Pandora About Page still describes this process.

While this is just a hunch, what I suspect they actually do now is use the much richer data set that their users provide when they select which songs they like and dislike, and which songs they skip. This is outsourced to thousands of people, not fifty, and reveals actual likes and dislikes (not just a presumed love of all 'wispy male vocals', however defined).

I suspect this is the case, because:

a) songs that come up feature less musical overlap than before on song type, and more on taste - Owl City came up on my station for Jack's Mannequin the other day. Musically, they're quite different. Demographically, they're both near the centre of the bullseye of Stuff White People Like.

b) The 'Why did this song come up?' tab has now gone, as it has to when the answer to every question is 'because that's what happened when we inverted the giant matrix and extracted the principle components'


c) It's gotten a lot better, as it does when you start using really huge datasets with really good information extraction mechanisms. The Jack's Mannequin station is almost a pitch perfect playlist for SM's music tastes.

And I suspect this was the plan all along - the whole Music Genome thing is mainly a seeding mechanism (and for new songs, which don't yet have any likes or dislikes), and the real information was always in user choices. At a minimum, if these guys aren't using this information, they're crazy.

Put it this way - the algorithm is now good enough that I listened long enough for the frequent ads to bug me, and actually paid for the upgrade (perhaps the first 'freemium' product where I bought the extra part). Proof that good matrix decomposition can really add value!