Thursday, March 31, 2011

Questions that there must be a good answer to, but I don't know what it is

AIDS vaccine in final testing
"Twenty years after HIV geneticist Bette Korber first began tackling HIV, her hard work—some would say "obsession"—may be finally paying off as she and her team gear up for the first round of human trials of an HIV vaccine."
This may sound like trolling, but it's not. How exactly does an AIDS vaccine trial work? My ignorant non-scientist's understanding is that a vaccine is what you take before you have the disease in order to not get the disease.  So how does that operate here? The instinctive answer would be 'We give a bunch of people the vaccine, then inject them with HIV-positive blood and hope for the best!'. Obviously this isn't what happens. But what does  happen then? How exactly do you do the controlled experiment for the question of 'you can't get AIDS if you have this vaccine' without, you know, someone that's willing to try to get AIDS?

I can only think of one possible answer, but it's not pretty.

Phrases that should be expunged from the English language

Like parasites on the healthy discourse of the Queen's English, these awful expressions seem to be spreading amongst unoriginal office types eager to find the latest management-speak meme. Do you find yourself using either of these horrible expressions? You should consider stopping immediately.
"I'm just touching base with you to..."  
This probably was at least novel the first time it was used, but as a metaphor it's just a glib and clunky way of saying 'I wanted to talk to you'. Just drop it! If you called, it's obvious that you wanted to talk to the person, unless you're a creeper who was planning on just breathing down the phone line. Just say what you want, or if you need to amble why not 'I just wanted to say hi, and')
"I wanted to reach out to you, and..." 
We're so close! Touch my hand, it's some kind of magic!

No, it's a phone call. You probably don't even know the person. Adding a false, force intimacy doesn't endear me to you. I once had a cold call from some corporate person that used this about 6 times in a minute - it was clearly the crutch she kept clinging to as why she was calling.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

True Story

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly."
 -Robert Heinlein
In order:

Sure why not?, I like to think so, ugh only if I were starving, as long as there were nothing I could run into, if we're talking a mud hut then maybe otherwise no,  yes but not that well, yes but better, I suppose , maybe in a pinch, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, aww hell yes, reluctantly yes, sort of, less than sort of, sort of, we'll see.

I wasn't keeping an exact score (and it depends how partials are counted), but this roughly confirms my long-held fear that I am at best two-thirds of a real man.

Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes

It's not every day that you expect to be given a lesson in cojones by an actress who went on Big Brother and looks like this:

But that's exactly what happened.

Ace links to this amazing video of Pakistani actress Veena Malik on TV with a mullah accusing her of of being a disgrace to Pakistan. She appeared on 'Big Boss', the Indian version of Big Brother. Part of going on the show was to try to show a side of Pakistan that is pluralist, fun-loving, and accepting of western ideas. This immediately drew fierce responses from the segments of Pakistani society that are murderously dogmatic, have zero sense of humour, and hate the west.

She was interviewed on TV, and confronted by this gibbering buffoon of an imam who claims that she'd disgraced Islam and Pakistan.

But Veena Malik was not going to take that criticism lying down. And she really lets him have it.

I write about this kind of thing on the internet, where nobody cares, behind my pseudonym. She says it on live TV. And gets threatened by the Taliban as a result. Speaking out against Islamic extremism on the subcontinent tends to be a very dangerous idea.

So what did she do to draw their wrath? It must have been pretty bad, right?

As far as I can tell, she cuddled up with some guy on the show.

In case you're curious, that's not a euphemism for having sex in a hot tub. She didn't get naked. She didn't prance around in a bikini. She didn't even kiss him. They snuggled up a bit.

But I resented the feeling that I ought to find this out. Because it's like the people that respond to Salman Rushdie getting threatened with death for writing 'The Satanic Verses' by asking "Well, what exactly did he write?". As if that's the point.

Ace uses the word 'savage' to describe this imam. This may seem like a strong and inflammatory term, but it is the right one. If word 'savage' has any meaning at all, it describes those that would threaten a woman with death for cuddling with a man on a TV show.

Western feminists, of course, leapt to Malik's defense.

Bwa ha ha ha! No, of course they didn't. They wrote another paper talking about why there aren't enough women in engineering.

It is a strange world indeed where the strongest defenders of women's rights against Islamic radicals are conservatives.

How Bad is Microsoft Outlook?

So bad that in the time it took for Outlook Web Access to search for emails by one of my contacts (a feature that is only available if I use Internet Explorer, no less - otherwise there's no search at all), I was able to set up a gmail account and create a rule that automatically forwarded all my outlook mail to the gmail address. This is all just so that I can use the gmail search feature.

If I don't want to do this, I've always got the other option of 'sort by name', then guesstimate my way to which page contains contacts starting with the relevant letter.This high tech option ranks slightly ahead of the alternative of 'print out all your emails and put them in a filing cabinet', but only just. At least there I'll have neat tabs at the top that let me jump straight to the relevant letter.

My question is this - are people who work at Microsoft embarrassed by the fact that they've created such a shitty product? Do they observe that searching for mail in Outlook takes 3 minutes, while searching in gmail takes 3 seconds and think 'Wow, this company really stinks! I should find another job and start shorting Microsoft stock'?

I hope so.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Postal Worker Meme

I liked this one a lot, particularly the mailing pets one.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Future of Aircraft Carriers

...does not look bright, at least according to Gary Brecher.

Over at The Exiled, Brecher (a.k.a. The War Nerd) is writing a post a day for 90 days, and it's full of interesting stuff.

In one of his recent posts, he links to these two articles he wrote a while back, arguing that aircraft carriers are likely to be giant sitting targets in any modern war. He makes a very good case that the situation is analogous to how long it took the British Navy to realise that battleships were incredibly vulnerable to air attacks.

The original article, found here, described some 2002 War Games exercises where in the simulation the US carrier group was largely destroyed by a combination of small boats and aircraft.
But what van Ripen did to the US fleet...that's something very different. He was given nothing but small planes and ships-fishing boats, patrol boats, that kind of thing. He kept them circling around the edges of the Persian Gulf aimlessly, driving the Navy crazy trying to keep track of them. When the Admirals finally lost patience and ordered all planes and ships to leave, van Ripen had them all attack at once. And they sank two-thirds of the US fleet.
That should scare the hell out of everybody who cares about how well the US is prepared to fight its next war. ...
One day we'll wake up to a second Pearl Harbor. Maybe not this year--fighting a joke like Saddam, the US Navy can probably getting away with sending its carriers into the Persian Gulf. But if Iran gets involved, those carriers won't last one day.
His more recent piece, here, describes how the Chinese have developed a ballistic missile which ships have no current defenses for (in fact, they have no defenses against ballistic missiles at all).
So either you go with boats you can afford to lose, or you downsize the navy radically, turn it into a low-tech anti-piracy force only used against stone-age opponents like the Somalis, or you go the U-boat route the Germans took when they realized the age of the battleship was over, sticking to subs. Because one way or another, if we get into it for real with China or even Iran, all our ships are going to subs, one way or the other.
Grim, funny, and sadly probably true.

It's not every day that you read someone arguing that a huge component of our military spending would be completely useless in an actual war situation, but Brecher makes a very compelling case. Scary stuff.

How To Decide Where To Live

Behold, I give you the Patented Shylock Holmes Formula for How To Decide Where To Live.

If you are allowed only 1 variable to determine whether you want to live somewhere, choose 'Median Household Income', and move to the richest area you can afford. This will immediately point you in the direction of a lot of good stuff - good schools, low crime, good shopping areas nearby, and houses generally too expensive to be occupied by ne'er-do-wells.

If you're allowed a second variable to use, pick the average wintertime temperature. Living in cold winter climates is no fun.

If you're allowed a third variable to use, pick the average number of dreadlocks per capita. This will help select out neighbourhoods full of unwashed hippies, beggars, and meddlesome nanny state local councils. Note that it will immediately rule out hellholes such as Berkeley, Nimbin, and Jamaica. (Selections 2 and 3 would probably have been ruled out by variables 1 and 2, but Berkeley remains a worrying false positive without the key third ingredient).

Once you've done that, anywhere is good!

The World That The American Torts System Produces

I was at a museum today that has a garden section. I was going to walk around the garden with a friend of mine, but near the entrance a guide stopped us and said that the garden was closed. My friend (who is Swiss) asked why. The man explained that there had been heavy rain, and the path was slippery and some parts were muddy. Hence, we were not allowed to go down there. From where we were standing, the path looked bone dry, although you could see a few small pools of water a few hundred metres away.

Almost certainly they did this because of potential liability on their part. Almost certainly they actually needed a man there to make sure you didn't go down, because a sign warning visitors may not have been sufficient to protect themselves.

I come from a family of lawyers that dates back at least two generations before me. So rest assured that I harbour no instinctive anti-lawyer animus.

And yet I found myself wondering what plaintiffs' trial lawyers in the US felt like when they tried to visit the garden and were turned away. Did they burn with shame and embarrassment at the system they have helped create? Did they reflect on the fact that this kind of enforced stupidity is the result of fostering a system where every careless action by some moron results in a 6-figure negligence claim against someone with little to no actual responsibility?

Or have they become so divorced from everyday opinion that they look at this and think "Good - there's a chance someone might have slipped over if the whole garden weren't closed today."

That one even I cannot believe. I'm sure the trial lawyers in the crowd were as annoyed as anybody else.

And yet I'm sure 99 out of 100 of them would not make the connection that seems obvious to everyone else in the common law world - this is exactly what happens when you refuse to allow a loser-pays legal system in civil matters. In the US, when you successfully defend yourself against a lawsuit, you win the booby prize of paying thousands of dollars in legal fees. In theory, the plaintiff pays their own fees too, except that a lot of the time plaintiffs are charged on contingency, meaning no win = no fees.

So the incentives are as follows:

-If you sue someone, your payoffs are zero if you lose, and positive if you win.

-If you get sued, your payoffs are negative if you win, and even more negative if you lose.

Are you starting to see why people are so eager to sue in the US?

Are you starting to see why if you're a defendant in a baseless case that the plaintiff is willing to settle for 10 grand, and it would cost you 20 grand to defend even if you win, why you'll tend to settle?

Are you starting to see how the fact that people are willing to settle increases the chances that people will file baseless claims in the first place?

In a better world, people that filed frivolous lawsuits against other people when they slipped over on their property would be considered as social pariahs. They would be shunned by polite society, and viewed as the reprehensible blackmail artists that they are. 

The role of the lawyers themselves is a little more murky. They will correctly argue that they didn't set the system up this way. That's just how the law is.

Which is fine. 

Except when they donate to the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, who continually donate huge amounts of money  to the democrats, to keep the current system in place. Then they lose the ability to hide behind this defence.

In which case, celebrate! We now live in a world of somewhat reduced chances that people will fall over on a slippery surface, and what a glorious world it is too.

Friday, March 25, 2011

They sure are!

"Buffett Says Social-Networking Sites Overpriced Ahead of IPOs"

Ah yes, the age-old social networking business model.

1. Build latest cool website

2. Get gazillions of users

3. ?????

4. Profit!

Groupon sells discounting services to businesses in exchange for real profits. That one I get.

Facebook sells ads. That, I get too, but I don't know how it justifies their price. That's a whole lot of ads you have to sell to get to a $50 billion valuation. And lots of what goes on seems to make no sense at all - the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, has a facebook page. Not only are they not selling anything, their only actions are to shut down businesses to stop them selling anything either. Given they seem entirely unconcerned about the opinions of those they regulate, why on earth do they need a facebook page?

Twitter, as far as I can see, sells shares to investors. Beyond that, I have no idea where their money is coming from. They're selling ads too, just not very many of them.

Jacques Mattheij has more on the subject..

I tend to defer to the judgment of markets most of the time. It's very easy to demagogue about how prices are wrong, and very few of the people who claim this ever try to trade on their knowledge. Which suggests it's not actually knowledge, just cheap talk. In this case of course, you can't short facebook or twitter. Your only option is to increase the supply of these overvalued companies by trying to start a social networking site yourself. Good luck with that - let me know how it works out.

It seems like we're in the world of Miller (1977) - if you can't short the stock, and different people have differing beliefs, all the shares will be held by the over-optimistic guys, the price will be too high, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wealth and Happiness

A fantastic essay at the Atlantic about the extent to which wealth brings happiness, discussing survey data from very rich households in a forthcoming Boston College study (which I will be sure to read when it comes out).
“I realized good and evil are equally distributed across the economic spectrum and not particular to the wealthy or the poor,” [sociologist Paul G. Schervish] says.
Exactly right. Contra Ayn Rand and Karl Marx, virtuous wealth and virtuous poverty are both myths (although the latter is probably more widely believed these days than the former).

Incidentally, as an economist I have from time to time been guilty of laughing at sociology as a discipline.Guys like Paul Schervish and John Havens remind me that it's a very bad habit to get into, as a lot of interesting work is done there.

I also very much liked these lines towards the end:
If anything, the rich stare into the abyss a bit more starkly than the rest of us. We can always indulge in the thought that a little more money would make our lives happier—and in many cases it’s true. But the truly wealthy know that appetites for material indulgence are rarely sated. No yacht is so super, nor any wine so expensive, that it can soothe the soul or guarantee one’s children won’t grow up to be creeps.
Just so.

As a man who makes a living from finance and economics (albiet one far too poor to speak of these things firsthand), I endorse every word. Read the whole thing.

Questions You've Always Wondered About

Courtesy of The Hammer, comes Average Penis size, by country.

Importantly, they distinguish between countries with self-reported data and measured data. All I can say is ... South Korea? Damn dude, that's rough.

I notice that this study doesn't provide any links to an original paper. According to the rules of the internet, this means that the data is probably unreliable and/or made-up.

On the other hand, at worst this would put it on par with ... every other discussion about penis size in the history of the world. So it's hard to be worse quality data than the average bar room talk.

These two graphs were especially hilarious, contrasting self-reported and measured length by each racial group.Unfortunately, the credibility of the graphs is called into question when they spell the word 'length' incorrectly in two different ways, and the numbers reported on the columns don't seem to correspond to the numbers on the axes.

Like Santa Claus, I'd like to believe that this data is real, but I just can't. I'm sure actual data exists somewhere, but I'm worried about what will come up in google when I try to search for it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Calling All Cars! Bad Rendition of 'New York, New York' in Progress!

Via Tim Blair comes this preposterous use of police resources:
A SQUAD of specialist police swooped on over 20 karaoke dens in Sydney's CBD last night, issuing 85 enforcement notices for offences including breaches of the Liquor Act.
I'm really, really hoping that there's something more sensible behind this - maybe it's part of the Asian Crime Squad, and they're targeting gang activities at these venues. Because the alternative is too ridiculous to contemplate - are they really that worried about miscellanous breaches of trivial health and safety violations at Karaoke bars? Can they think of no other better uses of their time?

It appears not. Check out these solid gold justifications from the police:
“It’s clear some premises are still conducting activities which encourage patron intoxication and that’s of great concern to police,” Superintendent Walton said.
You don't say! We calls those types of premises "bars". The activity they do which encourages patron intoxication is called "serving alcohol". Apparently he said this with a straight face. The gold continues:
“The fact is that intoxication greatly increases a person’s chances of becoming a victim of crime or an offender."
said the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Honestly, this goes to show... what? That we should hassle bars out of existence with trivial violations of trivial laws?
“The link between alcohol and crime is very real and all licensed venues have to play their part in taking responsibility and that includes karaoke bars.”
!= a sensible reason to raid 20 karaoke bars.

Check out the crucial law violations that were uncovered:
During the raids, police found: nine breaches of the Liquor Act; 15 breaches of development consents; three breaches of the Security Act; 45 breaches of food standards; and 13 breaches essential fire safety measures.
Police said the bar they temporarily shut down last night had its fire exits locked, while the arrested man, 24, was taken into custody after allegedly stabbing another 24-year-old man in the arm as he left a bar on Dixon Street.
So, we had one serious crime occurring (which doesn't appear on face to be anything to do with the karaoke bar), and 84 citations for nonsense. It beggars belief that the police were jointly worried about the crucial issues of food safety, fire doors, club security and liquor service, and that the karaoke bars were the only places in violation of this. This is the list of what happens when the police turn up determined to cite you for absolutely everything they can find.

All I can say is that there had better be a much better reason here that we're not being told, because otherwise this is arbitrary and capricious police action of the worst sort.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Text Messaging and Being An Old Fogey

I remember clearly the first time I realised that I was definitively a generation older than the current crop of teenagers. It was when I read this:
"The average teenager sends 3339 text messages per month".
The average. Lord knows what the sample maximum was. For teenage girls the average was 4050.

And it instantly made me feel like a cranky parent in 1950 railing about Elvis wiggling his hips. Not in the sense that I was scandalised or offended - frankly, the stupidity of teenagers knows no bounds, and the other things they would have been doing are inevitably just as vapid. No, more just in the sense of not really understanding what's going on. Holy Lord in Heaven, why would you want to spend that much time typing to someone on a tiny keyboard? If each text message takes you 10 seconds to type, that's 9 and a half hours of typing on a keyboard the size of your palm. If each message receives a reply that takes you 5 seconds to read, that's another 5 hours. It's an average of 6 texts per waking hour.

The New York Times ran a piece recently talking about how lots of people are giving up the phone call. (I don't link to the New York Times, for reasons I'll explain some other time). And while I'm in agreement on the general undesirability of phone calls with random people, I find myself preferring the phone for organizing things with people you know reasonably well. The bandwidth of the phone is just so much larger - you can talk way faster than you can type, and exchange information much faster (particularly information requiring several iterations of response and adjustment) . Sorting out a place to meet takes about 30 seconds on a phone, or 10 minutes of back and forth on text messages. I just don't understand why more people don't want to get the boring organization conversation over faster, and get on with their lives. There's also no substitute for when you want to find out if someone is available right now. If they don't answer the phone, they're not free. Hyperbolic discounters like myself don't want to wait 5 minutes to find this out.

The bigger point, though, is that text messagers are forever tied to their phone. 6 messages an hour is about right, because you don't just send 500 messages in two hours then stop, you do it continuously over the day. They're never fully paying attention to whatever task, conversation or event is at hand, because they always interrupting to continue their stop-motion conversation with someone else somewhere else. I dislike phone calls as much as the next man, but I resent even more being tied to my phone for that long at a stretch.

And you kids don't know what real music is anyway. Back in my day, we had to walk 10km to school, uphill in both directions. And back in my day, that skirt you're wearing would have been called a belt.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Not Really Trying

If you call your store 'Forever 21', it's a fair bet that your men's section is likely to be mainly a joke, an also-ran remainder bin for bored boyfriends to browse through while their girlfriends buy stuff.

This is in fact true, but you probably didn't need to go in the store to figure that out - being 'forever 21' is an idea that mainly appeals to women. I imagine there's a lot of guys out there (myself included) who were cooler and had more game at 26 than they did at 21. You don't sell clothes to men by selling them the idea of being forever 21.

The "not really trying" could refer to either Forever 21, or this blog post.

In unrelated news, I liked this picture a lot.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Great Moments in Parentheticals

One of the marks of a truly great writer is that their asides contain more wisdom than most lesser authors' entire writings.

Consider Theodore Dalrymple's latest piece in the New Criterion. It's a great description of Dalrymple exploring whether literary acclaim actually accrues to the best writers. He does this by buying some poetry books by relatively unknown World War 2 poets, and I think shows them to be quite beautiful and underappreciated.

But what I what to focus on is the aside he puts in the middle of the first sentence of the essay:
"One of my many regrets—and there comes a time in life when regret is almost inseparable from memory itself—is that I received no formal literary education, at least not after the age of sixteen."
What a wonderful observation! That half a sentence could be expanded to an entire book and not lose any of its sense of importance. Upon reading it, it seemed immediately apparent that he was surely right.

Compare this, for instance, with the bogus sentimental braggadocio in the far more famous song, 'My Way', most notably sung by Frank Sinatra. This also considered the question of regrets on old age:
"Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention." 
I do not know what it will be like to be old, but it seems inconceivable that this describes how the average person feels about things when they get there. It also squares with one of the best descriptions I've read, in an interview with Harry Bernstein. Harry started writing his first book, The Invisible Wall, when he was 93, and published it when he was 96.

I remember something he said in the interview really stuck with me:
"You know when you get into your 90s like I am, there's nowhere else to think except the past. There's no future to think about. There's very little present, so you think of the past, particularly at nighttime when you're lying in bed. And it all came back. So I began to write, and I was occupied, and it was really the best therapy I could have had."
The media being what it is, the piece ends somewhat flippantly with the observation that this is a feel-good story
"So, all you writers out there — you're not too old to get published. Keep it going!"
While true, this seems like the least interesting part of his whole story.

It must be strange to be old.

Snoop Dogg Laying the Smack Down... a Comedy Central roasting of Donald Trump.

What I love about this is that he's largely dispensing with the tradition of mainly heckling the person being roasted, and just instead decides to burn everyone in the room.

My favourite lines:
"But right now, things are popping for Whitney [Cummings], y'all. Everybody in Hollywood is talking about her, and they're all saying the same thing ... - I think that bitch gave me herpes."
Don't miss the great ripping on The Situation and a few good lines about Trump at the end.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Name That Country!

Fill in the blanks to pick the region that this process of fiscal and political collapse is describing!
"To secure his position, he and his successors ... courted [public servants]. The resultant ... costs strained finances. [Leader A] increased the pay of [public employees] to [4 units of Y] per year. His successor, [Leader B] raised it to[6 units of Y], while by the end of [period] it stood at [7.5 units of Y]. The size of the [public service] was also increased to 33 [units]. Nor were [public servant wages] the sole problem. [Leader A] supplemented the dole with the addition of [commodity X] to the list of free commodities. Mattingly has noted of this time, 'The expenses of government were steadily increasing out of proportion to any increase in receipts and the State was moving steadily in the direction of bankruptcy' 
To pay for all this, [Leader A] debased the [currency] to between 43 and 56 per cent of [relative measure]."

Answer below the jump:

Friday, March 18, 2011

You being easy makes my life hard

Let me reprise a conversation that I have frustratingly often. See if it sounds familiar:
Shylock: So, where do you want to go for dinner?
Friend: I dunno. I'm easy.
Now, what's frustrating about this is that "I'm easy" is typically said in the tone that implies that their lack of preference is making your life simpler, because they're not placing any restrictions on possible places to eat.

In reality, saying "I'm easy" is almost never making the person's life simpler. You know why?

Because the problem is very rarely that the person has a list of 50 restaurants in mind, and is trying to optimise over both your preferences (in which case, you having no preferences would actually simplify the matter).

Instead, the problem is almost always that the person asking is short of ideas on possible places to go. That's why they're asking. In which case you being 'easy' is not helping matters at all.

Here's the subtext of what is actually being asked and replied.
Shylock: [I am feeling uncreative in thinking of possible restaurants we could eat at. Rather than admit to this directly, I will pose the question as trying to elicit your preferences over general food types or specific restaurants. Will you help me by generating some suggestions?]
Friend: [No, I too am feeling lazy, and so shall pretend that you're trying to solve a different problem and offer you no help. Moreover, I shall do this in a tone that suggests you should be grateful for my lack of help]
When looked at in this light, part of he blame lies with the initial questioner for not phrasing the question in a way that makes it clearer exactly which problem is trying to be solved (i.e. "What tastes do you crave" vs. "Help me generate suggestions")

So, if someone asks you this, let me suggest a much better response:
Friend: If  you have a place in mind and it would make the process simpler for me to be of few wishes, I can eat anywhere . On the other hand, if you don't have anywhere in mind and it would help for me to generate suggestions, I can do that too.
Trust me, your friends will thank you.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Earth Hour - Nonsense on Stilts

Can there be an event more thoroughly deserving of scorn and derision than Earth Hour? This is the time when sanctimonious hairshirt poseurs deign to turn off their lights for an hour, in order to do... well, I never quite figured out what. Protest consumerism, or show solidarity with the environment, or conspicuously show off their concern for Gaia, something. Whatever it's meant to be about, I'd basically just written it off as a stupid token gesture.

But Ross McKitrick isn't content to just roll his eyes and nod along with it. He presents a very deeply felt argument of why the idea is loathsome to him:
"The whole mentality around Earth Hour demonizes electricity. I cannot do that, instead I celebrate it and all that it has provided for humanity....
I don’t want to go back to nature. Travel to a zone hit by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes to see what it’s like to go back to nature. For humans, living in “nature” meant a short life span marked by violence, disease and ignorance. People who work for the end of poverty and relief from disease are fighting against nature. I hope they leave their lights on."
Spot on. This is the most stirring defense of Julian Simon economics that I've read in recent times, but one that views human progress as something that needs defending, rather than something inevitable.

If the name Ross McKitrick sounds familiar, it's because he was one of the two authors (along with Steve McIntyre) who pointed out that the hockey stick graph was based on Michael Mann not knowing how to do principal components analysis. Michael Mann, you may recall, is the guy who was implicated in the Climate-gate controversy, for using his 'trick' to 'hide the decline' in temperatures, thereby adding bad faith to bad statistics.

Ross McKitrick, you are hereby inducted into the Shylock Holmes Order of Guys Who Kick Some Serious Ass.

(thanks to Coyote for the pointer)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I'm with Big Red

Jerome Cardinal recently sent me this great video currently doing the rounds of this kid getting bullied who snaps and bodyslams the hell out of the bully. Check out the full video at Popehat, it's well worth your watching.

The outrage brigade, of course, is scandalised that a child would ever resort to violence to solve their problems. As Patrick notes, they never seem to muster the same level of outrage at the initial bullying, which passes without comment. But once the faux shock of educational professionals and bullying experts is passed over, the overwhelming internet consensus opinion seems 'Good on Big Red! Way to teach that little shit a lesson.' I find myself in complete accordance with this.

The position of schools tends to be that it's never okay to fight back, and you should always just report it to the teachers. This is of course completely at odds with the criminal law in just about every jurisdiction on earth. When someone assaults you, you have the right to use reasonable force in self-defence. There's no 'schoolyard exception' to this in the law. Don't listen to what the principal says, kids - if someone attacks you with illegal force, you are completely within your rights to defend yourself with legal force. Centuries of common law tradition will have your back, even if the teacher doesn't.

As I noted in the comments at Popehat, the only thing that could have made that video more awesome would have been if, when Johnny McTurd was lying on the ground, Big Red started yelling at him “Do you see what happens? Do you see what happens, Larry?”.

I salute you, Big Red. You're probably embarrassed about the fact that you're on video all over the world. But doubt not this fact - lots and lots of people get bullied, and most of them wish they could do what you did. Read through the comments at the Popehat thread and see how many people have stories to report about how they were in situations just like yours, including lots of people who went on to do awesome things.

And this is the tip of the iceberg. For every one that has a story about successfully getting rid of bullies, I'm guessing there are at least 10 more who didn't ever have the courage to fight back, but always wished they had. They're not commenting in the internet threads because it's a painful memory that they don't like to bring up, but they're cheering you on all the same. In fact, those people are cheering you twice as hard.

You're an internet hero today. Wear it with pride, mate.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Quote of the Day

John Podhoretz on Obama's inaction on the crises in Libya, Japan and Bahrain:
"We’re going on four weeks now, or more, that Barack Obama has been reading My Pet Goat."
Ouch, that's got to leave a mark. Read the whole thing here.

(Via Ace of Spades, who takes second prize for Quote of the Day with the headline of his post: "Rebels In Libya Prepare For Slaughter; Look To US For One Thing That Can Save Them-- Another Empty Statement from Obama That Qadaffy Must Go" )

Stated vs. Revealed Preference in Abusive Relationships

It is always a good rule of thumb that when people say they want one thing and consistently do another, this should make you suspicious of whether they actually know what they want. Or in economists terms, when people's stated preferences and revealed preferences diverge, they are probably screwing something up. ("Screwing something up" is in fact a technical term :)  ).

Economists, for largely good reasons, tend to trust revealed preference. Talk is cheap, but when the chips are down, go with what people actually do. Usually this is a good way to bet - when a guy tells you he wants to see more opera but actually spends his weekends watching TV, it's a fair bet that he doesn't actually want to see opera, he just likes the idea of it.

But what about a woman who is in an abusive relationship who manages to leave and tells you she really wants to be done with the man, but then keeps going back again and again after he apologises?

In that case, it's not so simple. Right-minded people immediately jump to the conclusion that the woman actually wants to leave, and must somehow just be being prevented from this (such as by threats from the man).

The trouble with this view is that it has difficulty explaining why there is such cyclicality - women will leave, and then come back, many times over. It can't be that they never can find a way to leave. Even if you have all the sympathy in the world for such women, you're still left with a puzzle of trying to explain what the hell they're doing. In other words, something funny is going on.

One of my favourite papers in economics looks at this. They argue that women in abusive relationships have time-inconsistent preferences - in other words, they truly do want to leave when they leave, but they predictably change their mind and return to the guy. Hence their preferences are inconsistent over time.

They study a fascinating case that provides evidence for this - the case of 'no-drop' laws, whereby when a woman complains of domestic violence, prosecutors are obliged to proceed with the case even if the woman subsequently recants her testimony. This tends to happen a lot, which should also make you suspicious - if the guy is already in prison pending charges, what's the harm in going to trial?

When these laws were passed, they resulted in a drop in violence of men towards women - no surprises there. But here's where it gets interesting - the law also resulted in a drop of murders of men by abused women. The authors argue that people with time-inconsistent preferences need commitment mechanisms to stop them changing their mind. Murder is one such mechanism, albiet a very poor choice. These no-drop laws work because they substitute a much less costly commitment mechanism, helping women stop themselves from predictably going back to their man. They might be my favourite example ever of 'nudging' type laws, where you can stop people making bad mistakes by subtly crafted laws.

The reason this is such a fantastic paper is that it gets towards the heart of understanding why people end up in these crappy situations. The feminists of the world would tell you that the women are 100% victims, and that if they're returning to the men, it must be because of threats - we just need to be harsher on the men. In fact, believing this misplaced sympathy would cause you to completely miss the bigger picture of how these relationships persist, and what you can actually do to help end them.

Sympathy is not a substitute for analysis. And you can depend on it that when stated preference and revealed preference diverge, it's a situation worth your studying.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Public Service Announcement

From The Department of Needlessly Inflammatory Yet Statistically Likely Observations:

Are you a member of a fraternity? Were you once part of a fraternity? You may be suffering from a disease that doctors describe as "being a giant piece of shit".

More details here.

Sociologists are at a loss to explain why this happened at the SUNY University at Albany (ranked #143 in US News and World Report National Universities Rankings) rather than say, Yale (ranked #3 in US News and World Report National Universities Rankings).

Labour economists created controversy amongst SWPL consensus opinion by suggesting that 'being a bunch of imbeciles at a third-rate college' may be a factor.

Happy Half-Tau Day!

Sure, to the layman it's "Pi Day".

But to the sophisticate, it's Half Tau Day.

The full Tau Day Manifesto makes an incredibly compelling argument that it would be far more useful to have tau = 2 * pi as the circle constant (instead of pi).

Consider me sold!

Jersey Shore, summarised

I've only watched about 3 minutes of the show (after seeing the Southpark episode about it), but this review is so full of win I don't know where to start.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Extreme Path-Dependence of History

The Steyn article below hints at something that is enormously under-appreciated, which is the fact that major political and historical events are incredibly difficult to predict. I don't think that the CIA is especially stupid due to its inability to forecast major political events like 9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall etc. I remember hearing that the great Gary Becker toured around Eastern Europe in 1989  a few months before the wall fell, and he didn't see anything that hinted at instability.

This exercise is of course enormously clouded by hindsight bias - after the fact, everyone's sure that they knew that Mubarak was unstable, that there weren't going to be any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that real estate was overvalued in 2006, and that structural factors meant everybody knew that World War 1 was inevitable. Which is why there's such great value in exercises like Niall Ferguson's paper that looks at the reaction of bond prices to the outbreak of World War 1 - what do you know, they went crazy. It turns out that investors in government bonds, who aren't exactly incurious about political risk, were truly surprised by World War 1. When you go back to what people were saying and doing at the time, it turns out that there were far fewer expert predictors at the time than "expert predictors" years later

It goes without saying that if you go back 6 months, nobody was predicting the collapse of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, nor massive unrest in Bahrain and Libya. Certainly not the CIA. But then again, neither were the people currently laughing at the CIA for its ineptness. Short answer, nobody was.

This is where the concept of path-dependence comes in. As wikipedia describes it, it states that "predictable amplifications of small differences are a disproportionate cause of later circumstances."

This is in contrast to the classic debate in history about structure vs. agency. 'Structure' roughly says that broad social trends and circumstances determine the path of history, and that individual actions make little overall difference. 'Agency' says that individuals have free choice, and that these decisions end up affecting history (such as through the impact of 'big men' political leaders whose decisions determine outcomes).

The way I interpret path-dependence is somewhere in between - essentially that the vast majority of individual decisions don't actually matter, but when they do they can matter in extremely amplified and unpredictable ways. Which is why forecasting history is so difficult.

Tunisia is a perfect example of this. Let's read the Wikipedia description:
The demonstrations were precipitated by high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, a lack of freedom of speech and other political freedom and poor living conditions. ... The protests were sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December and led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 28 days later....
Or as the Malaysia Star puts it:
"Fruit seller ignites a revolution"
Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of official corruption and harassment of his fruit-selling business. Now, doubtless millions of Tunisians had been pissed off at official misbehaviour before, and taken angry actions in response. But this particular one struck a nerve, and the riots it set off brought down the government. Seeing the example of Tunisia, Egyptians protested in response, and so too did the Libyans.

No doubt, the protests wouldn't have happened without the volatile social conditions described in the Wikipedia article (which is why there are few spontaneous revolutions in rich, peaceful first world countries).

But ask yourself this: what would the world look like today if Mohamed Bouazizi hadn't set himself on fire?

There's a strong argument to be made that the middle east political situation would be considerably different.

And that's why I don't blame the C.I.A. for not forecasting these events. If history is path-dependent, then individual actions can sometimes matter, but usually in incredibly chaotic and unpredictable ways.

Word has gotten out!

It's good to know readers of this blog in Amherst, Virginia have taken my 24 carat gold advice to heart.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Steyn on the CIA

Mark Steyn seems to be back to regular writing, much to the benefit of all of us. Here's his latest:
"In the new budget, there's a request from the CIA for an emergency appropriation of $513.7 million. Great! A mere half-billion. That's enough for 10,000 cowboy poetry festivals. So what's it for? Toppling Kim Jong-Il? Taking out the Iranian nuclear program?
Er, no. It's an emergency payment to stop the CIA pension fund from going bankrupt next year with unfunded liabilities of $6.4 billion. The CIA failed to foresee the collapse of the Iron Curtain until it happened. It failed to spot that Pakistan was going nuclear until it happened. But, when the world's most bounteously endowed intelligence agency fails to spot that its own pension fund is going bankrupt until it happens, I wouldn't bet the future on anyone in the United States government having much of a clue about what is or isn't "in China's interest.""
Read the whole thing. Comedy gold!

Girl Talk - The Big Beat of Mashup DJs

I spent yesterday downloading the rest of the Girl Talk albums. (Incidentally, the illegal art store may be the single worst designed commercial website I've come across - it took some serious dedication to find where the hell the list of Girl Talk albums was)

It cemented something I've thought for a while - Girl Talk is like the Big Beat of Mashup DJs.

Big Beat is a style of techno made famous by groups like The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and The Prodigy. One of the ways in which it differed from earlier genres is that it featured way more samples - different drum beats, lots of random vocal and clicking samples that add a lot to the richness of the sound. You don't necessarily appreciate each one, but you notice the overall effect.

Back to mashup DJs - the typical mashup (some great examples here at the Bootie Blog) mixes two or maybe three songs. They tend to have naming conventions that reflect this. e.g.

Most of the effort and talent is finding songs that share a similar lyrical idea:

e.g. 'Paper Rump' by DJ Tripp, which mashes up Wrexx-n-effect 's "All I wanna do is stick my zoom zoom zoom in your boom boom' sample with MIA's 'All I wanna do is [bang] [bang] [bang] [bang] and [click] and [ching] and take your money' sample.

and/or musical styles that work well together, despite you not realising it:

e.g. 'House of Klezmer' by Faroff, which mashes up House of Pain's 'Jump Around' with this crazy pipe music I'd never heard of, but is awesome.

Girl Talk is very different. Every one of his songs uses tons of different samples. Because there's so many damn samples, he has to abandon the standard mashup naming conventions, and go with song titles that often reflect a single sample (e.g. 'Oh No', 'Let It Out' etc.)

Some people put together great graphical representations to show just how many samples Girl Talk uses:

-Here for the youtube version

-Here for the graphic summary

To see what I mean, click here and watch the clip for the first song, 'Oh No'. Count the number of songs that either appear for 10 seconds or less, or feature only a drum beat:

Used for drum beats only

'2-pac featuring KC and Jo-Jo - How do you want it'

'NWA - Express Yourself'

'Eminem featuring Dr Dre and 50 Cent - Crack a Bottle'

'J-Kwon - Tipsy '09'

'Slick Rich and Doug E. Fresh - La Di Da Di'

'Jay-Z and Alicia Keys - Empire State of Mind'

Used for less than 10 seconds

'Jay-Z - 99 problems'

'Jay-Z featuring MIA and Kanye West and Lil Wayne - Swagga Like Us'

'Trina featuring Killer Mike - Look Back at Me'

Bear in mind, these are the extra samples - they aren't even the main ones you hear! Most people probably wouldn't even be aware that any of these were actually in the song. But having that many extra drum beats and small shout-out samples gives a much more 'produced' sound that I think has been part of the huge success of All Day.

This must take an incredible amount of work. Hell, it took 5 minutes for me to listen to the song (and watch the video) and just write them all down! This guy thought of them all, and figured out how they'd add to the song.

Girl Talk, you are a cool dude.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Lies we tell ourselves

An old story, but a revealing one.

Pamela Anderson, former 'Baywatch' star, made one of the original sex tapes. This was when she was married to Tommy Lee, the drummer for the band Motley Crue. The tape was apparently stolen from their home. Bear in mind this was back in 1997, when the internet was much less developed and it was harder for these things to go viral. A second tape that she'd made with Bret Michaels of the band 'Poison' also surfaced in 1998.

She and Lee got divorced. Since that time, she got engaged to Kid Rick, and then broke up with him, before finally marrying him in July 2006. The marriage only lasted a few months, with them filing for divorce in November 2006. It was announced that Anderson had miscarried a few weeks earlier. The fact that the marriage was premised on a pregnancy and terminated on the conclusion of such is entirely plausible, and sufficient to explain all the actions involved. Additionally, one does not need to reach for conspiracy theories to describe the marital breakdown of a woman who married her first husband after knowing him for 96 hours. All this is given. But it's not what I want to talk about.

What is far more interesting is the rumor that the divorce was triggered at least in part by the movie 'Borat'. In the film, Pamela Anderson is the love interest of Borat, and the movie features a couple of non-explicit clips from Anderson's sex tape with Tommy Lee. But Anderson is playing herself, with the plot being that she gets kidnapped by Borat by being put in his 'marriage sack'. In other words, she comes across as pretty normal. The sex tape scene is mainly a joke to show that Anderson is not the virgin that Borat thinks she is. The joke, in other words, is about Borat, and Pamela Anderson is just being Pamela Anderson.

So goes the story, there was a private showing of the movie at the Anderson/Rock home held by Universal chief Ron Meyer. Kid Rock (Robert Ritchie) apparently was furious after the screening:
"Bob started screaming at Pam, saying she had humiliated herself and telling her, 'You're nothing but a whore! You're a slut! How could you do that movie?' — in front of everyone. It was very embarrassing," the source said.
Now, it bears repeating that this movie actually made Pamela Anderson appear in a better light than her actual actions in real life did. In the movie, she didn't appear naked (which she's done dozens of times, in Playboy and elsewhere). She didn't sleep with anyone. She didn't even pretend to sleep with anyone. She wasn't even shown as being a slut.

And bear in mind, all of Pamela Anderson's horrible relationship choices were known to Kid Rock long before they got married. She's made sex tapes with two separate men, both of which are readily available on the internet. Her naked body can be seen just by googling her name.  If you're marrying this woman, let's just say, "caveat emptor".

No, what the movie actually did was publicly draw attention to and make light of the fact that she had been boned by her ex-husband. It is incredibly difficult for any man to maintain an even temperament watch himself being cuckolded on camera by another man. Even if it was in the past. Even if it was before she knew him. It is virtually impossible for a man to maintain an even temperament while jokes are publicly made for the whole world to see about his wife's past escapades.

As far as I can tell, the screening did two things, both of which made the marriage terminal.

The first was that it forced Kid Rock to publicly witness an acknowledgement that his wife had been boned by another man in the past, and that this was on film. You don't need a PhD in psychology to hypothesise that Kid Rock probably spent a good deal of his time avoiding thinking about this question. You don't have to be a marriage counselor to imagine that this issue may have been a source of friction beneath the surface of their marriage (or indeed above the surface). Having this comforting amnesia ripped off in a public setting was likely a major source of discomfort.

But that alone I don't think would have done it. Kid Rock must have been fairly tough-skinned at dealing with these kind of jokes.  He had to be. How can you marry a woman who was famous for appearing on TV in a tight bathing suit, then appearing in Playboy, then appearing in multiple sex tapes, without acknowledging her past actions?

But there was something else this time.

This time, Pamela Anderson herself was in on the joke. She was happy to be part of a movie that made joking references to his cuckolding. The jokes were mild, no doubt. But not to him. In the eyes of Kid Rock, she had joined the chorus of laughter at him about the fact that he married a woman famous for being boned by someone else.

And that was what he couldn't abide.

But you can't admit that. You can't say 'How could you publicly acknowledge your past marital relations and be a part of a comedy scene vaguely about that?'. You can't say 'How can you force me to publicly endure recognition of the existence of your sex tape by watching small, inexplicit segments of it'. Because both of those are ridiculous-sounding complaints, even though they're the actual problem. So what accusation does he reach for? In his desperation to hurt her in return, what does he say? Let's rewind:
"Bob started screaming at Pam, saying she had humiliated herself and telling her, 'You're nothing but a whore! You're a slut! How could you do that movie?' — in front of everyone. It was very embarrassing," the source said.
Let's examine the three complaints in reverse order.
3. "You're a slut"
Yes. But that's old news. Why did you marry her then?
2.  "You're nothing but a whore"
Yes. But that's old news. Why did you marry her then?
1. She had humiliated herself
Wrong. She humiliated you.

Or more specifically, Tommy Lee humiliated you. She just reminded you publicly of the fact, and was in on the joke.

And that has to end in divorce.

Hell hath no fury like a person exposed to truths they've known but tried to ignore.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Miscellaneous Joy

-Steve Sailer #1, demonstrating wonderful note-perfect satire.

-Steve Sailer #2, with the quote of the day:
"The public doesn't want new ideas, they just want to be told that their old ideas are new ideas that have been discovered by brain scans."
-Accounting for computer scientists (that is, how to teach the academic discipline of accounting to those with a background in computer science, not how to account for the number of computer scientists the country has)

-Dalrymple on Libya. Self-recommending.

-The War Nerd on assassinations. Grim pictures, black comedy, incisive analysis.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sting - Unoriginal Talentless Lyrics Thief (a.ka. Questions Google doesn't know the answer to)

Let's face it, there aren't many of these questions. But this is one.

Sting has a hit song, 'Englishman in New York'.

Wikipedia notes that the song was apparently written about Quentin Crisp. The song itself is okay, but it's the lyrics that are interesting. You can find a copy of them here.

So what's the problem?

The problem is that I'm quite certain that most of the lines (and in fact all the interesting lines) are taken from a poem of the same name, "An Englishman in New York". It's not credited anywhere, and I can't find it anywhere online. I can't even find any acknowledgement that it exists online. I don't remember who wrote it.

I remember seeing a poster of the original poem in the library in high school and thinking it was great. The poster was on a black background, and had a big green apple with a bite out of it behind the text, and a white silhouette of a man. I found the Sting song afterwards, recognised it as a blatant rip-off, and went searching for the original poem.

Except that now I can't find it. Most of the lyrics overlap, so the phrases tend to have a lot in common. The only phrase I know that's not directly in the song is
"If manners maketh man then I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien, an Englishman in New York".
Sting broke this up into two parts, thereby ruining the flow of the line. The best bit, and he couldn't get it right.

Seach ' "Englishman in New York" poem ' and you get the Sting stuff.

Search ' "Englishman in New York" poem -Sting ' and you get a bunch of stuff about Quentin Crisp instead. 

Search ' "Englishman in New York" poem -Sting -Crisp' and you get random peoples thoughts on stuff (lots of posts from people who like the idea of themselves being an Englishman in New York) with much higher pageranks than this poem, which apparently doesn't exist.

Search the precise phrase ' "If manners maketh man then I'm an alien" ' and you get nothing.

Search '"englishman in new york" sting lyrics rip-off stolen poem ' and you get stuff about lines he's ripped from William Blake, but nothing on this one.

So how do you know I'm not crazy, or making this up? How do you know the poster I remember wasn't just a transcription of the song?

I can offer only two bits of evidence. One, the aforementioned phrase that's not actually in the song, and I'm certain I didn't imagine - I would be very unusual to just put together two random lines in the song in my memory, given they're not even near each other in the song (and make much more sense together than apart).

Secondly, Sting himself offers a very sly allusion. The line in his song is:
"If manners maketh man as someone said"
He's acknowledging that at least part of this song isn't his own. Which isn't surprising. Do you think the guy who penned such inspiring lyrics as 'Every step you take, I'll be watching you'. 'Oh can't you see, you belong to me, how my poor heart aches, with every breath you take'? Puke. He wouldn't even know what a legal alien is if he hadn't ripped off the lyrics from someone else. He has to admit that 'maketh' isn't his own, because NOBODY would believe he came up with that.

Yes "someone said" it, you asshole! Someone you stole the lyrics from and who's now getting no credit!! Someone who doesn't exist even on the internet! How low do you have to get to not exist on the internet? I'm nobody, and I've got my own blog that's read by at least my Dad! This guy wrote an ass-kicking poem that got turned into a famous song, and he's a non-person, while that no-talent loser claims credit as a poetic genius.

You may have got away with this fraud so far Sting, but the internet never forgets.

I've never bothered editing Wikipedia yet, but if I find out what the original poem is, I'm going to make an account to call you a thief and a fraud.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Before and After

Apropos nothing, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

Hugh Laurie holds a special place in my esteem as the 'best non-American impersonator of an American accent', in his performance on the show 'House'. While it's not too hard to do a fake accent that can fool foreigners, it is incredibly difficult to to do an accent that can convince native speakers. He manages it so well that it surprises people to find out that he's actually British. He's also a member of the order of 'actors that are demonstrably great in both comedy and drama', another slim category.

I wonder what a photo of me in 20 years will look like.

A passage so good I'm typing it out in full

"The citizens of modern complex societies usually do not realize that we are an anomaly of history. Throughout the several million years that recognizable humans are known to have lived, the common political unit was the small, autonomous community, acting independently, and largely self-sufficient. Robert Carneiro has estimated that 99.8 percent of human history has been dominated by these autonomous local communities (1978:219). It has only been within the last 6000 years that something unusual has emerged: the hierarchical, organized, interdependent states that are the major reference for our contemporary political experience. Complex societies, once established, tend to expand and dominate, so that today they control most of the earth's lands and people, and are perpetually vexed by those still beyond their reach. A dilemma arises from this: we today are familiar mainly with political forms that are an oddity of history, we think of these as normal, and we view as alien the majority of the human experience. It is little surprise that collapse is viewed so fearfully."
From Joseph Tainter's fascinating book "The Collapse of Complex Societies", which I'm halfway through. Thoroughly recommended.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Elderly are Invisible

I was sitting in a park near my apartment this morning, drinking my coffee and watching the world go by. While sitting on my bench, an old man (who must have been at least 80 or so) with one of those wheeling walkers shuffled by. He said hello to me (and another person he passed), walked a few paces past me, and started leaning against the back of the bench next to mine. He did a few leg stretch things, then meandered over towards some nearby stairs and slowly walked down a few of them  (one at a time) and back up again, holding both rails the whole time. I confess to wondering if he'd made it down and up okay, but he seemed reasonably sure-footed, if very slow.

I remember Papa Holmes once making the point to me that once you reach middle-age, you become invisible. People's eyes are drawn towards young, vibrant beautiful people (of whatever sex). When you start getting past the point that you are attractive, people stop noticing you. It's almost as if you don't exist - when they walk past you, you are just another obstacle in their automatic collision detection software, the same as a tree or a lamppost. If you asked 20 people that just passed you, nobody would be able to remember that you were there.

There is an old people's home near my apartment, and while most of them do not venture out very far, it seems almost certain that I've passed some of them before while walking. I can't remember it happening though. Without the contemplation encouraged by having nothing to do on a park bench on a Sunday morning, I almost certainly wouldn't have noticed this man either.

As Al Pacino's character put it in the movie 'Any Given Sunday', "when you get old, things get taken from you.". I think he's right, but I would modify it slightly. Things are lost, but not taken. The difference is one of agency, but it is an important one.

I found myself reflecting on how much the elderly have lost that you and I take for granted in our youth. I bound up and down stairs without thinking about it. I swim in the ocean. I drive my car. I fly for 18 hours to a foreign country. I dress myself, bathe myself, and go to the toilet without noticing that I don't need anyone to help me. I reflect on my health only on the odd occasion when I get a cold. I eat whatever food I wish. I pass a pretty girl in the street, and she smiles at me. I have friends I can call and go out to a bar, cinema, cafe, or restaurant.

You may depend on it, dear reader, that there will come a time when you can no longer do all these things.

Indeed, there may come a time when you can do none of these things.

As I got up to leave, the old man was resting on the seat part of his walker. As I walked off, I stopped to talk to the man. I smiled and lamely tried to make conversation by saying that he had a better seat than I did. He smiled back and said 'Good', in a tone that implied that he hadn't heard the statement properly and assumed I was asking how he was. I walked off, regretting my awkwardness at not stopping and talking more. I wondered how many others were sitting in the retirement home nearby, without anyone who visits.

The elderly are indeed invisible. Old age is dukkha, as the great recluse said.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Disney Hipster Meme

I seem to be getting slack on keeping up with the latest memes the the cool kids are using.

But I did like these two:

As the man said - comedy gold!

(via Ace of Spades )

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Phrases that crack me up

"Bachelorette Party".

The phrase 'bachelorette' is, as far as I can tell, the penis envy of the linguistic world. Bachelor parties reflect a truth that feminists find uncomfortable, namely that an unmarried man is just as likely viewed as a someone with options rather than someone that's been passed over by the dating market. That's why bachelor parties exist - men are spontaneously mourning the loss of a certain freedom of action.

Moreover, the world was not lacking in a term to describe unmarried women. The term is 'spinster', and unlike 'bachelorette', it doesn't come up as a spelling error when I type it in blogger.

So why don't we have 'spinster parties'? Simple. The connotations of the phrase 'spinster' reflect another truth that feminists find uncomfortable, namely that unmarried women past a certain age are generally not viewed as having lots of options, but as people that have been passed over. Don't shoot the messenger, but that's just how it is.

Bachelor parties are usually quixotic, last-hurrah type affairs, where the groom-to-be is sadly bidding farewell to certain things he enjoyed, while his bachelor friends revel in the fact that they still get to do them. "Bachelorette" parties (or 'spinster parties', as I like to call them), on the other hand, have the opposite dynamic - the bride is triumphal, having finally gotten him to 'put a ring on it', while the other spinsters are trying to be happy for the bride's success. Whether this latter part always happens or not I do not know (having never been), but I would be surprised if there weren't a reasonable number of attendees who were merely putting on a brave face.

And that's where "bachelorette parties" come in. It's not only a linguistic sleight-of-hand, but a serious attempt to ape the demeanour of the bachelor party - friends celebrating their freedom to drink and flirt and sleep with random guys, a precious freedom that the bride is about to lose. Nobody is fooled by this charade of course. And in the scheme of life, the bride is least fooled of all. She's got the man she wanted.

Fact is, no guests want to turn up to a 'spinster party' - who wants to be reminded that they're on the path to living alone, while their friends experience relationship success? Bachelorette parties are an attempt to paper over the truth of the dating market. And while I can support that, the phrase is so comically ridiculous I can't help but laugh. It's a dark kind of comedy though, with the tragedy side barely concealed.

Bachelor Party

Guests --><--Host

"Bachelorette" Party

Host --><--Guests