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.