Monday, February 28, 2011

Black History Month

In the US, today marks the end of Black History Month, also known as 'February'.

Perhaps because I'm a foreigner (and hence have little personally invested in issues of race guilt in this country), this always struck me as a completely absurd tradition.

Just stop and think for a minute. It's not Black History Day (which would make total sense) or Black History Week (which seems a little excessive, but I could understand).

No, a full month of every year needs to be devoted to Black History. It's Just That Important.

According to the powers that be, I ought to spend roughly one day in 12 over the course of my entire life contemplating the role of black people in history. By contrast, I would be blown away if more than 50% of the adult population call their parents one day in 12.

On the other hand, one advantage of the current system is that it's so overblown that it seems to mostly turn into a joke anyway.

For instance, I noticed an ad on the way to work advertising the lap band which said 'Celebrate Black History Month' and then some tenuous connection I can't even remember, then 'Get a Lap Band'. This is exactly in line with the lap band people's estimate of the overall demographic they're targeting at - in other words, people too dim to realise that the lap band has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH BLACK HISTORY.

Another bizarre aspect is if you type in Black History Month into google images. A weird number of the hits show pictures of Nike Sneakers:

Below are the proportion of images on each page showing sneakers:

Page 1: 2/40
Page 2: 6/40
Page 3: 10/40 (!?!)
Page 4: 18/40  (?!?!?!?!?)

By contrast, here are the proportion of images featuring Louis Armstrong:
Page 1: 0/40
Page 2: 1/40
Page 3: 0/40
Page 4: 0/40

Apparently Nike Sneakers formed a very integral part of Black History. Who knew?

Meddling government policy has unintended consequences, news at 11!

Oh, the tasty Schadenfreude.

San Francisco provides a subsidy for  low-flow toilets.

San Francisco gets huge stench from low flow toilets clogging up drains.

San Francisco buys huge amounts of bleach to try to combat the stench.

In terms of scoring that policy, it saves 20 million gallons of water, but uses but uses 8.5 million pounds of bleach, which will go into drains or the drinking water supply. I don't know about you, but I'd score that as an environmental loss, or at best breaking even.

Meanwhile, the cost of the bleach is $14 million, they spent $100 million upgrading the sewer system to deal with the problem, as well as the cost of the subsidy itself, whatever that is.

Shylock says, it's a bargain!

Another money quote from the article:
A Don't Bleach Our Bay alert has just gone out from eco-blogger Adam Lowry who argues the city would be much better off using a disinfectant like hydrogen peroxide - or better yet, a solution that would naturally break down the bacteria.
A natural solution! Brilliant! We'll break the poo down with magic pixie dust. I'm sure Adam Lowry is hard at work right now, toiling in a biology lab to generate this new solution.

What's that you say? He's just lazily demanding that someone else do it, on the premise that because he wants it to happen, it's got to be feasible?

Personally I like the idea of San Francisco living in the stench of it's own filth. It seems like a fitting monument to the governance of the place.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The worst metaphor in the history of song-writing

From the otherwise enjoyable Van Halen's song "Why can't this be love":

"Only time can tell if we'll stand the test of time."

Awful, awful stuff. Honestly, how can you write that and not cringe? How can you sing it year after year and not be embarrassed that you didn't spend an extra 5 minutes and come up with something less laughable?

Still, they made a lot of money off that song. I'm sure there's a lesson in that, and while I'm not sure exactly what it is, I'm sure it's depressing.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Apple : nanny-Jobs-knows-best computing

Apple has decided that attachments I download on my phone should be inaccessible to me. If I'm not connected to the Internet, I can't access them.

Thankfully, I have an app, Stanza, that saves the PDFs so you can view them later offline. You know, like when you want to view a flight reservation while on the plane.

So I had some stuff I wanted to read on a plane, but had forgotten to download to my computer. No worries, I'll just load it on my iphone, copy it to Stanza, plug in my phone to my computer and copy it across, right?

Wrong. It's somewhere on the phone, but you can't access it. Not through their own applications, not through allowing other apps to save files.

They're so obsessed with making the outside interface pretty that they won't let you do anything under the hood, even if it's just a workaround for their lack of functionality. And this isn't an accident - they fought in court tooth and nail to prevent you jailbreaking their phones too. You may have bought it, but that doesn't mean you should be able to use it as you please, according to Apple.

So instead of doing productive work at the airport, I instead fill up the Internet with pointless complaints about their company. Touché, Apple. Touché.

Posting Political Stuff on Facebook

Perhaps I'm the only one who thinks this, but I always find it incredibly boorish when people post political status updates on Facebook. They always have a smug condescension about them, as the person (giddy with the mind projection fallacy), assumes that every one of their acquaintances can't wait to hear their latest thoughts on Palin, Obama and everything else that we're already frustratingly overexposed too. They're rarely saying anything actually original or insightful either, just boilerplate and talking points repeated as if they're hilarious bon mots.

The thing I wonder is whether the people stop and consider what fraction of the audience agrees with them (it's always lower than you think) and whether those who disagree are likely to appreciate the verbal intrusion (they're not). Facebook isn't twitter, where people are explicitly signing up to read your nonsense. People may friend you for many reasons, not all of which involve wanting to read your every thought. It's like if you happened to run into an acquaintance from work that you hadn't seen in a while. Would you launch into a tirade about abortion or gay marriage? Of course you wouldn't. And yet give people a keyboard, and they suddenly feel that no thought is too contentious to not be imposed on everyone you've ever met. This is a thoroughly bipartisan feeling of mine - I may agree with some of the conservative sentiments, but I feel just as put off by their airing in this forum, knowing that plenty of other people won't like them.

That's why I prefer the blog. If you want to read my political writings, you have to seek them out. I'm not press-ganging my friends against their will into being an audience for my screeds. The scheme is an opt-in one, not an opt-out one, and the audience thus selected for people who, by revealed preference, are happy to read my rantings, however inane and reactionary.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

When Incentives and Noble Aims Collide

Further on Libya, Businessweek reports that Switzerland has decided to freeze the assets of Gaddafi and his cronies for 3 years:
Switzerland froze the assets of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and his entourage for three years to avoid the possible “misappropriation” of the funds.
The freeze takes effect immediately, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. The move comes less than two weeks after the government froze funds and assets in Switzerland belonging to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his circle.
“The Cabinet sharply condemns the use of force by Libyan rulers against the population,” the ministry said in an e- mailed statement from Bern today. “In view of the developments, the Cabinet decided to block any possible assets of Muammar Qaddafi and his circle in Switzerland with immediate effect.”
So what's the problem? Who wants to let this thug loot the treasury on his way out?

Well, me for one. Not because I don't think he's a monster that deserves far worse than he's going to get.

But think about it from the perspective of Gaddafi for second. Already people view you as a crazy loon, and you've vowed publicly to not leave until you're carried out in a box. (or more likely, hanged from meathooks on top of a petrol station)

But secretly, you're wondering if the gig is already up.You're losing control of cities left, right and centre. You've got two choices. One, grab what you can and fly to Venezuela, like was already rumoured. Or two, get whoever will still obey you in the airforce and army to start bombing, gassing, and killing as many people as you can in what will either be a defiant last stand or your one chance at regaining power.

So the first question is, which of these two outcomes would the west prefer to happen?

And the second question is, how do you think Gaddafi's decision will be affected if he knows that he can't take any money with him, and will be completely penniless in exile, as opposed to comfortably rich.?

It is more important to get rid of this monster than to keep him poor.

In the words of Sun Tzu:
Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.
When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Great Website Titles

Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, two esteemed MIT economists, have a new website examining their work on poverty. The website is called 'Poor Economics':

I think this is a wonderful title. Many people would say that MIT has been doing poor economics for quite some time now.

Oh, burn!!!

Actually, that's not true, but I couldn't resist the gag.

Why most bands suck by the time you've heard of them

Let me a describe a situation that long characterised my music listening, and see if it applies to you.

The bands I like always had one great album that was inevitably in the past. Occasionally you'd get to see them live and they'd play their old stuff, but they seemed a bit tired and past it - you never got to hear their good stuff while it was actually current.

I think I figured out a rough model of why this should be the case.

Suppose that each band has a underlying quality distribution - each time they write an album, it's an independent draw from their base quality distribution. Sometimes it's a good one (i.e. The Joshua Tree), sometimes it's a bad one (i.e. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). The distributions will vary across bands in both mean and variance.Some bands have a high mean (e.g. Radiohead), some have a low mean (e.g. Nickelback). Some have a high variance (e.g. Bob Dylan), some have a low variance (Red Hot Chilli Peppers)

Friends don't let friends listen to Nickelback

Now, suppose further that there's a fixed quality threshold required in order to achieve popular success. You've got to have at least one good album to become popular. Additionally, suppose that news about bands only diffuses slowly - not everyone finds out about a band at the same time.

So how will this play out? Well, let's take the set of all bands who cross the quality threshold for the first time. Some of them will be truly talented and have a high distribution mean. Being above the quality cutoff signals a long line of good future albums (e.g. Death Cab For Cutie).

A lot of the time, however, being above the quality cutoff signals the band just got lucky with that particular album. After that, you get reversion to the mean. Think Jason Mraz or Ryan Adams. They have a couple of awesome songs ('I'm yours' and 'Desire' respectively), and whole albums full of complete crap.

This sketch of a model generates a couple of predictions:

-The average band will have their best album as their first major commercial success. After that they'll never have another good album

-The bands that have their best album as one of their later albums (Death Cab for Cutie with 'Plans', The New Pornographers with 'Challengers') will be more likely to to release subsequent good albums. These are the high mean bands, not the bands that were lucky.

-Related to the above, if a band releases a second album that's better than their first breakout album, it's a very strong signal of band quality.

-The chances that you get to hear their good stuff depends on how connected you are. If you hear about new bands quickly, you'll get to see them at their prime. If you're late in the loop, you'll always find out about them too late.

The optimal strategy in this setup is to go to see bands as soon as you can after they become popular - that's the high point, and they'll rarely get any better.

Which is a sad conclusion, but certainly sounds like the world we live in, doesn't it? Dire Straits was probably the best band in the 1980s (bar maybe U2), and yet Mark Knopfler has never lived up to the early promise since.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Headline of the Day

From Zero Hedge:

Has The Chairman Stopped Ordering Ink? Hewlett Packard Plummets After Hours On Major Downward Guidance Revision

Comedy gold!

The New Democratic Strategy

Every time a Republican state legislature threatens to pass legislation stripping public sector unions of their right to negotiate, they flee the state, thereby depriving the Republicans of quorum.

First in Wisconsin, now in Indiana.

It looks like they're taking a page out of the play book of Monty Python's Sir Robin:
"Brave Sir Robin ran away.
Bravely ran away away.
When danger reared its ugly head
He bravely turned his tail and fled
As brave Sir Robin turned about,
And gallantly he chickened out,
Bravely taking to his feet,
He beat a very brave retreat,
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin!"

Frankly, only good things can come from this strategy. It makes them look like cowards, and likely galvanises public opinion against the unions.

But even if this doesn't happen and the legislation doesn't pass, every day that a legislature is deadlocked is one less day that value-destroying legislation can be passed. If I were the voters of Wisconsin, I'd call off the search for them and instead offer to put them up indefinitely in a swanky hotel in Illinois - it's got to be cheaper than the alternative.

Good Advice

The best advice is often not the most eloquent. It's not necessarily the advice which most concisely summarises the tradeoffs to be made, and points you in the best possible direction. Sadly, it's not even the wisest.

Often, what constitutes the most useful advice is simply that which has a way of coming to your mind when you need it most, and when you are at risk of doing the wrong thing. And in that regard, a pithy formulation can be the most helpful of all.

One of the central problems that I (and I think lots of people) face is simply that they get too caught up in their worries of the present moment. Fortunately, this is a very easy problem to solve. All you need to do is mentally take a step back, reflect on the bigger picture, and realise that most of the time the things you're worrying about don't actually matter much in the scheme of things.

The trouble is that when you get too close to your problems, however trivial, it's just a hard thought to remember.

By this metric, I find one of the best bits of advice is from Bob Dylan's song, 'Someone's Got A Hold of My Heart':
"She said 'Be easy, baby, there ain't nothing worth stealing here.' "
And it's true. For the vast majority of things, you are just better off being easy.

For some reason, it tends to come to mind in a way that wiser versions of the same thing don't always seem to.

I couldn't find the original (from the Bootleg Series Volume 3), but here's a pretty decent cover:

Monday, February 21, 2011

Where to from Libya?

Not so much in the political sense, but in the limited sense of 'where would you go if you were a dictator fleeing the country?'.

So things in Libya are looking very dicey at the moment for the Gaddafi regime. Apparently protesters now control the city of Benghazi, which is remarkable since the armed forces are doing nearly everything they can (including Air Force bombing raids) to blast the hell out the protesters and it's still not enough to hold the cities.

Who knows if this is true, but there have been reports that Gaddafi may have fled the country already.

Now, in the past, Saudi Arabia was usually the ex-dictator's destination of choice. Repressive and fairly stable regime, hear-no-evil-see-no-evil approach to other people's human rights abuses, lots of luxury stores to spend your stolen billions on - what's not to love?

What I liked the most about the story (even if it's not true) is the way it implies that even crazy dictators understand conditional probability.

In other words, conditioning on the fact that Gaddafi and the army couldn't hold Libya after the fall of Tunisia and Egypt, it becomes an open question as to whether Saudi Arabia will be next. Saudi Arabia is a great place to go when regime collapses are independent events. But at the moment, we're observing correlated regime collapses. The first two were nasty, vaguely pro-American regimes with less willingness to shoot their own people. If you're Gaddafi and it's gotten to the point that you need to flee, it shows that being anti-American and happy to shoot your own people may still not be enough. In which case, Saudi Arabia looks much less appealing than in the past.

Hence the draw of Venezuela, which is where the story claims he was fleeing to. A long way from the Middle East, leadership (I use the term loosely) with visceral hatred of America and willingness to accomodate anyone else in the same category. Hell, it's certainly where I'd be fleeing to if I were Gaddafi.

Put it this way, the fact that they chose Venezuela raises my probability estimate that the story is true (although that's still not a high number necessarily), or at least a well constructed hoax or piece of misinformation.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A pledge for science

There is one action that any airline can take that will ensure my loyalty for years. Not just mine, but I'm sure lots of other customers too. In fact, I pledge to buy airline tickets (for any price difference up to $100 in excess of an equivalent fare) exclusively from the first airline that allows electronic devices to be used throughout flight, including takeoff and landing.

The rule against them is the most ludicrous superstition ever. It's just staggering how the advanced technology that puts a plane in the sky can persist with the cargo cult lunacy that thinks that an ipod can cause a plane to crash.

Can anyone, honestly, give me a halfway plausible hypothesis as to how a non-transmitting device is supposed to interfere with a plane's navigation systems? The closest I've ever heard is 'something about electrical fields and magnets'. But that's absurd - it's not like it's an industrial strength magnet being waved near the cockpit, it's PSP being used 30m away for crying out loud. Even the arguments about transmitting devices like phones are weak to the point of being pathetic. With non-transmitting devices, they're not even trying to make a coherent case.

Proponents claim that there's anecdotal evidence that phones can interfere with navigation systems. You know what else has 'anecdotal evidence'? Astrology. Teleportation. Alien spaceships giving people anal probes. In fact, I'd wager the anecdotal evidence for the last one is several hundred times more voluminous than that in favour of electronic devices interfering with planes.

Honestly, if this is the standard to ban something, how can you establish any scientific proposition ever? You're only allowed to use things that nobody has ever told a story claiming that it happened? Anecdotally, people praying to God has fixed faulty planes. Should we mandate that too?

Consider the following examples that demonstrate the lunacy of the current rule:

-Electronic wristwatches use circuits too, but apparently these aren't able to crash the plane. Don't ask me why. They're too small, but apparently the tiny noise-cancelling device in my Bose headphones isn't. Skeptics might claim this has something to do with the impossibility of getting people to not wear watches or to remove the batteries from their watch. What would they know!

-Very few computers are shut down when people travel, they're mostly in sleep mode, a low power state in which the computer remains on. But mysteriously, this is okay too.

-TVs in the back of seats contain electronic circuits, and often remain on during takeoff. I guess they're sprinkled with magic non-interfering pixie dust.

-Pacemakers contain circuits too. Better turn that thing off, Beryl! It's for the good of everybody on the plane, you understand.

not to mention my personal favorite:

-The average plane has, what, 100 passengers? Maybe 200? Assume that 95% of them have phones. Now, what are the chances that among them, not a single one of those passengers managed to:
a) forget to turn off their phone
b) leave their iphone on, having not figured out that pushing the top button on the iphone doesn't actually turn it off
c) leave it on intentionally as an act of defiance

The chances, in short, are basically zero. Which leads us to the conclusion that virtually every single flight probably has at least one phone on during takeoff and landing, and miraculously they're not all crashing.

It's time to strike a blow for science. Take the pledge to buy from science-friendly airlines, and in the mean time, leave your ipod on as an act of defiance.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Markets Cater to All Demands, However Stupid

One of the great things about markets is when they expose the dumb and contradictory things that people believe.

When it comes to relieving pain, people have a view that essentially any change in temperature is helpful. Reducing the temperature helps - add ice! No wait, heat helps too - take off the ice and add a heat pack!

People are deeply attached to both ice and heat as methods of pain relief - it's as if the worst possible temperature is room temperature, and anything other than that is an improvement.

Now, of course, as anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of thermodynamics will tell you, something cannot be both cold and hot. This isn't even the zeroth law of thermodynamics - it's like the -1th law of thermodynamics - the same point in space can't have two different temperatures. They didn't bother to write this down, as it can be approximated by the phrase 'Duh!'.

But the heart wants what the heart wants. Enter markets, which step in to cater to people's ridiculous simultaneous demands for both heat and cold as methods of pain relief.

I give you 'Icy Hot'.

Just pause and reflect on this for a second:


Because I object to actually giving money to companies attempting to flagrantly lie to me, I haven't actually invested in one to find out if it makes the area cold, hot, or neither (because as we've already established, it's clearly not making it both). But I imagine it probably just makes it tingly, which is sort of like being cold, right?


I can just see the idiots at the pharmacy thinking 'Gee, I was going to buy both a heat pack and an ice pack, but now I can just buy a single pack of 'Icy hot' and combine them into one!'.




Thursday, February 17, 2011

Metaphor of the Day

From the excellent new song 'Bloodbuzz Ohio', by The National.

To describe the process of compounding interest leading to a spiraling debt:

'I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe.'

I imagine that very few finance types would think to characterise it in this way, but it's far more evocative than, say, 'my interest expense keeps compounding higher and higher'. It often takes someone from outside the field to express an idea in language that resonates with the common man.

As I said a while back now, I think that the best description of opportunity cost is by Bob Dylan.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dispatches from California Government

It's never nice to make light of people's deaths, but some stories just write themselves:

Apparently when you work for California governments, you can be dead for over 24 hours before anyone even notices:
"An L.A. County employee apparently died while working in her cubicle on Friday, but no one noticed for quite some time.
51-year-old Rebecca Wells was found by a security guard on Saturday afternoon.
The last time a co-worker saw her alive was Friday morning around 9:00 a.m., according to Downy police detectives."
It places a fairly high upper bound on the importance of the work you're doing when you can be dead for 24 hours in your workplace and nobody even notices.

The article mentions that she was a 'longtime compliance auditor', whatever that is. I'm sure if we happened to fire some of them from LA county, the unions would scream bloody murder about how crucial the compliance auditing was to the functioning of LA.

The comments to the article are gold:
Will she get overtime pay for being at her desk for 24 hrs straight without a break?
Ironically she had the highest productivity of any employee that day.

Will this be on her next performance review? Dying on the job will get you a 1 or 2 at most. This could affect her raise. Has Obama been informed? Where is the justice?
Government workers, I can hear it now, "We just thought she was taking a regular nap."
How much you want to bet she gets promoted?
Given that we can't seem to eliminate or even reduce these kind of positions in California, I guess macabre humour is the best we can hope for.

Wayne Swan - Too Stupid to be Treasurer

Wayne Swan continues to be a dangerous embarrassment to Australia.

The Labor Government tried to introduce a mining 'super profits tax' that can be best described as 'let's tax to death the one industry propping up the Australian economy.'

The original version of this tax was that if a mining company earned more than the rate of return on government bonds, the government would impose an additional 40% tax.

Students of Finance 101 everywhere thought to themselves, 'Wait, aren't mining company shares significantly more risky than government bonds? Why would anyone invest in a security with the same or lower return than a government bond, but more risk than a government bond? Won't that send Australian mining companies broke?'

Even former Labor Party ministers like Barry Cohen pointed out how dumb this was. Wayne Swan was too stupid to realise this basic economic point, but thankfully the Australian electorate (watching their superannuation funds crater) saw through it.

But in case you thought he might have learned his lesson, he's back at it again. Here's a great example of Swan-onomics.
Treasurer Wayne Swan has seized on BHP Billiton's 72 per cent jump in first-half net profit today, saying it showed why Australia needed a tax on resource company profits.
"But what you will see in terms of the future of the resource industry is that it is very strong, that's why Australia does need a resource rent tax."
Got that? Australian business is showing strong profits, ergo we need higher taxes.

There's so much stupid packed into that sentence that I don't know where to begin.

For a start, we could note that this parasite views all corporate profits as potential revenue for the government, rather than realising that it's not his damn money. 

We could next move on to the assumption that the government should tax successful businesses until they're no longer showing successful profits, and whether this is likely to produce more successful businesses or fewer.

We could wonder about what incentives it will create for economic growth when companies that do well are hit with unpredictable taxes, and how business will respond in terms of investment and job creation.

We could take a detour via the observation that setting different tax rates for different industries based on which ones seem to be doing well is the favored policy of banana republics, corrupt autocracies, and communist kleptocrats.

But honestly, what's the point? It's just whistling into the wind with this moron in charge.

The Labor Party seems to have completely abandoned its reputation for solid economic stewardship so carefully (and deservedly) built up under the Hawke and Keating governments.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Predictable Preference Reversals in Snowboarding Holidays

So I spent the last few days going snowboarding. I had arranged to go for three days, and head back early afternoon on the 4th day, on a 2:30 flight.

Now, when I started on the first day, I immediately regretted not booking for a fourth day and flying home in the evening. I started to think about whether I could change my flight, or alternatively whether I could at least cram in a morning of snowboarding before my flight.

But I'd been through this game before, and the three day choice was a deliberate one. Because every snowboarding holiday goes exactly the same way. On the first day, you're so stoked to be there that you immediately regret not booking for longer. But as you get to day two and three, you're pretty exhausted. Due to poor technique and male pig-headedness in not getting enough lessons, my front knee began to feel like an arthritic cripple in the days before knee surgery, when tearing an ACL was described as you having a 'dicky knee' for the rest of your life.

And by the end of the third day, it was a positive relief to be going home the next day. The prospect of a fourth day seemed exhausting. I slept in instead, and cheerily got on the plane.

The point is that it's a mistake to think about the question ahead of time as 'Do I want 3 days of snowboarding, or 4?'. The answer to that question is 'Aw hell yeah, snowboarding is so cool, let's do it for as long as possible!'

The correct way of thinking about it is 'When I've already been snowboarding for 3 days, will I feel like I need a 4th day?'. And the answer to THAT question, at least for me, is 'Almost certainly not - in fact you'll barely be able to walk.'

Because if you don't think this way, you'll predictably reverse yourself - you'll book for 3 days because you think you didn't have enough time, pay lots of money to change your flight after the first day because snowboarding is teh awesome, and then get to the third day and wish you hadn't changed you flight after all.

But for some reason, people who are craving an experience find it hard to put themselves in the position of having already enjoyed a good chunk of that experience and deciding whether to have a little more. It's the same reason that when I'm hungry, I always think I'll need the large quiznos sub, and that the regular surely won't be enough. Of course by the time I've eaten a regular-sized portion of the large sub, I'm feeling mostly full. But this never seems to instinctively occur to me at the time of ordering.

In the spirit of overcoming bias, even though I always feel like I need a large, I restrict myself to the rule of 'no matter how hungry you feel right now, just order the regular anyway'. And it works. Same with the 3 day snowboarding holiday.

In case you're wondering what Shylock snowboarding looks like, it's a combination of this:

and this:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A good proxy for estimating the skiing ability of random people on a mountain

Count the number of colours they're wearing, excluding black and white. The higher the number (and the brighter the colour) the more skilled the person is.


I'd call this result a win for my prediction, except that I walked my initial estimate back a bit.

Overall I'm going with a partial win.

Good luck Egypt, and Sandmonkey for President!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hippy Parents Make Me Rage

What is it with lame new-age parents and their refusal to impose any discipline on their children?

I was stuck on a plane with this couple with three young kids. One of them, apparently 2 years old, kept unbuckling her seat belt as the plane was taking off. The dad, some shlumpy herb beta type, kept insisting that she be able to sit on his lap. The air hostess (who, truth be told, was a bit of a bitch) told him that she was over two, and had to be in her seat.

Takeoff went okay, but then we got a repeat performance at landing. This guy got in a big argument with the hostess demanding to speak to the captain (who, the hostess pointed out, was in the process of trying to land the plane). But amazingly, at no point did he actually make any serious attempt at trying to stop the bratty kid unbuckling her seat belt, other than cooing type stuff. Forget raising your voice, even just a simple stern talk discussing why it was really important that she stay seated would have been welcome. But no, no inconvenience was too small for his bundle of joy. It was just the responsibility of the airline to bend to his child's wishes.

The hostess pointed out that if she wasn't seated and buckled up, they wouldn't be able to land the plane. The guy turned around to the cabin, announcing that she was buckled in and looking for moral support.

The lady behind me (who had a child of about 10) said to him and the rest of the cabin, 'you don't want to know what I think.'

Amen, sister.

A Tale of Two Cities

It's an underappreciated fact in political discourse that often the most successful points are made by telling a lot of narrative, and adding relatively little in terms of explicit commentary. Find a story that tells the main point, and just recount the story. The point gets made, but you come across as more detached. Even better, don't even tell the story, just show pictures.

In the case of leftist viewpoints, the strongest arguments are those that merely portray suffering and appeal to human compassion.

A great example is this story. It tells the story of the squalor of Harlem in New York City in the 60s. There are a few appeals to explicitly leftist agitprop about 'The Man' and such. But the essay is far more successful when the author is just showing photos of horrible living conditions and describing the people there.

It's a very powerful essay.

On the other hand, it's possible to do this equally successfully with right wing ideas too. Here, the ideal depiction is that of moral squalor - the debasement that occurs when men live for no ideal higher than themselves. The most eloquent of these is Theodore Dalrymple (read here for some great examples).

Another example was a description of Birmingham in Standpoint magazine. The author, an anonymous wife of a pastor, describes the hostility she received from the local, predominantly Muslim, population. It's far more compelling call for immigration restriction than just praising the good old days.

Both of these stories describe complete decay of the urban environment, but suggest very different ways of dealing with the problem.

Interestingly though, they both agree on the need for police to enforce the law. This is a point too often missed by the left - the main perpetrators of crime may be poor and black, but the main victims of crime are also poor and black, and there's a lot more of the latter group than the former. This of course isn't lost on someone who actually spends time around these areas, as Jakob Holdt did in the first essay.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How Long Stuff Takes To Produce

In 2010, a 15 storey hotel in China was erected in 6 days:

In 1775, over the 9 months from April to December, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote 5 exquisite violin concertos, each one increasing in musical sophistication.

In 1905, over the space of 12 months, Albert Einstein published 4 groundbreaking papers in physics, covering the photoelectric effect, brownian motion of small particles in liquid, special relativity and matter and energy equivalence.

In 1931, the Empire State Building was constructed in less than 14 months - 410 days, to be precise.

In 2011, after 18 months of waiting since my application, the Department of Motor Vehicles in the State of California finally saw fit to issue me with a driver's license.

Truly, we live in remarkable times.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Who wants to be average looking?

The answer is (or should be), "everyone".

Roissy links to the following amazing picture, which is a computer composite of the faces of women from a lot of different countries. By combining lots of traits, the average traits of each group are highlighted. The full size image is here. There's such a gold mine of stuff to talk about here, but I want to focus on one big point.

I title the picture below:

Attractiveness(Average) > Average (Attractiveness)

Let's face it, these are fairly attractive pictures. So what's the reason?

It's related to the analysts' consensus forecast problem. It's a well known fact that the average opinion of a bunch of analysts (sports commentators, stock analysts, forecasters of some sort) is generally better that the median person in terms of accuracy. In other words, take 10 guys who forecast football game outcomes. Each game, find the average prediction (i.e. if 7 guys favour the Fremantle Dockers to win, pick the Fremantle Dockers). An algorithm that always picks the same as the average of the 10 guys will do significantly better than the 5th guy, and many times will actually perform better than any of the 10 did individually.

The reason this holds is that each individual guy is subject to mistakes. But if those mistakes are independently distributed, then taking an average will cause the noise in the estimate to cancel out. Hence, better forecasting. The key point is that errors are symmetrically bad. Being too optimistic or too pessimistic will both screw up your forecasts. As long as the distribution of forecasts is centred on the true value, the average of all forecasts will tend to improve on the median forecast.

So how will this help in faces? The answer is that it improves any trait where deviations in either direction are bad. If your nose is too big or too small, both are bad. If your eyes are too close together or too far apart, both are bad. If your face is too wide or too thin, both are bad.

There's a certain number of traits that fall into this category, because as Roissy notes, facial beauty favours symmetry. Any individual will have variation in these traits. The average of all people is much more likely to have symmetry across all of these symmetrically distributed traits, and thus look better. The average person, on the other hand, might score well on face shape, but have a nose that's too big (or too small). Hence they lose points relative to the composite image.

The key to the improvement of the average is that being in the middle of that trait is the best point. This is strongest in facial traits, where slight asymmetries in things like the height of each eye can quickly reduce attractiveness.

So where won't this hold? In other words, in which traits will the average woman merely look average, rather than good?

The answer is cases where the middle of the distribution isn't the best place to be. In terms of typical male perceptions of looks,  for a start I'd say weight and breast size. Most men favour bigger breasts and skinnier women, and the number of women who are too skinny or too buxom is likely to be small. To a first approximation, more is always better.

In these cases, the attractiveness of the average will be similar to the average of the attractiveness, because the middle of the distribution is not the optimal point. On these traits, the average woman will only be average.

Moving past looks, the average woman would probably only score average ratings in terms of being funny, being athletic, being a good cook - pretty much anything where more is generally better, they'll only be average.

But she will have a prettier face than average. Because there, symmetry is king.

I don't know if there's an equivalent image for men, but I'd bet a large amount of money that the average man is attractive too. Even without looking at the picture, I'd trade in my own looks (which, let's face it, are considerable) for the average.

The other posts that I considered writing for this picture (and for which a sentence will have to suffice) is this: I wonder what the tendency of the average woman to be smiling says about the likely personalities of the people in those countries? My guess is it says a lot. Average hairstyle says something too (as do the wisps of other hairstyles - fringes, hair up, that kind of thing). Lithuanians love fringes - who knew?

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Mama Holmes was in town this weekend, and we went for a long drive to a state park. Upon returning, my windscreen was totally filthy, in the way that no amount of wipers and spray can seem to put any dent in. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, however, and for some reason, one always feels internally convinced by the logic, 'sure, it did nothing the last 5 times I used the spray and wipers button, but maybe it's loosened it up for try number 6!'. Which it never has, of course, and eventually it became obvious that I'd need to clean it properly at a petrol station.

I filled up the car and began wiping. I was re-doing one section and feeling mildly peeved at the whole thing, when I was struck by the thought that every mark on my windscreen was due to some insect that got splattered on my drive. It made me think of the scene like that from the start of one of the Men in Black movies - you're a bug, flying around, going from flower to flower, and then one day for no reason at all you get squashed by a car travelling at you at 60 miles an hour, resulting in instant death. The car bore you no malice, of course - the driver was travelling some place for some purpose that wouldn't mean anything to you, even if you were able to comprehend it.

And in the face of this catastrophe, in response to this microcosm of the tragedy of the universe that is writ large across all of our fates, what response does your senseless death engender in the mind of the driver? What is the reaction of this representative of the highest intellectually developed and most morally sympathetic species on the planet?

Irritation that he will have to spend an extra 5 seconds cleaning your remains from his car.

It is difficult to bear too much of the world. If one descends too far down the rabbit-hole of wondering about the negative effects of all one's actions, it becomes impossible to live a life. One would become a naked ascetic, eating only the fruit that fell from trees, and obsessed about whether he stepped on any ants today by accident.

And yet...

Suffice to say, I felt very ashamed.

It may be impossible to avoid harming other creatures, but at least compassion is the debt we can owe to the world.

I'm sorry I ran you over, little insects. May you have gone to a better place.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Egypt Right Now

One post from Egyptian blogger 'the Sandmonkey' is worth 6 hours of al jazeera, 2 days of the bbc, and a month of everything else.

His account has been suspended, but you can follow him on twitter. Apparently he was ambushed and beaten by police, according to his twitter feed.

Conservatives seem ambivalent about supporting the overthrow of Mubarak, for the justifiable fear that having the Muslim Brotherhood running things would probably be worse. If you believe Sandmonkey's account, it's hard to see how Mubarak hasn't forfeited what little legitimacy he once had. If it were me, I'd roll the dice.

Or for conservatives, here's an apt comparison. If dictatorship wasn't viewed as a bargain deal with Saddam and the Taliban, why are you willing to support it here? What exactly about Egypt makes you think it's less suited to democracy than these places? Now, you may think that the democratic project in these places has been a failure (and you wouldn't be short of evidence to support that view). But either way, it's hard to know how you can support Mubarak without thinking that it's high time we got the hell out Iraq and Afghanistan. Egyptians really are turning out en masse to demand Mubarak's removal, which is more than we can say happened in either of the other two places. Personally, I think it's high time they got a chance to determine their own national future.

Sadly, I'm revising down my estimate of the chances of Mubarak leaving in the short term (pace The Greek, who argued that my earlier prediction was a gimme). The army may not be willing to shoot the protesters, but they seem plenty happy standing by as the police do that job for them. Which is a very different proposition from what seemed to be the case a few days ago.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Generating truly random numbers... always harder than you think. Always, always, always.

This comes under the category of "lessons that people generally know are true, but frequently have to re-learn the hard way". Such is the case of Mohan Srivastava, who successfully created algorithms to predict winning scratch lottery tickets.

One thing that's not discussed in the article, however, is why this isn't necessarily arbitraged. Mr Srivastava says that he figured out that his hourly wage from doing it just wasn't high enough. This confirms in my mind that he's a smart dude.

But let me suggest another reason, which relates directly to mispricing in financial markets.

It would be damn hard to convince a newsagent to let you come in day after day, look at 50 lottery tickets, buy only 7 of them, cash in the winnings and repeat. In fact even just doing it once marks you as highly suspicious. They might let you do it one day, suspecting that you're just a kook. But once they see you doing it multiple times, they'll do one of a couple of obvious things:

1. Stop selling to you.
2. Wait until you pick the tickets you want, then keep those tickets for themselves.
3. Call the lottery ticket office and tell them that something funny is going on.

Why would they do this? It's obvious - if one customer is taking all the winning lottery tickets, then selling only losing tickets to the other customers will cause fewer of them to come back to your store, hence less cash for you.

It's not enough to find mispriced assets. You've got to find mispriced assets that people will keep selling to you at the wrong price, even as you increase your volume of purchases.

Lottery tickets, sadly, are not such a case.

The story also tells you something else very good about mispricing. Arbitrage is likely to exist in markets where there are the fewest people looking for arbitrage. That's Grossman and Stiglitz (1980). So what's an example of a market that's populated only by imbeciles?  The lottery! The classic stupidity tax.

As a result, if you're the smartest guy playing the lottery by an order of 2 standard deviations (as Mr Srivastava probably was), there might actually be mispricing. In S&P 500 stocks where you're trading against Goldman? Yeah, not so much.

OKCupid - Masters at Data, Dumbasses at PR

OKCupid is is a dating website that ran what seemed to me to be an awesome business model - free signups, and supporting itself with revenue from ads. If the central problem of relationship-finding is a lack of liquidity, they did a great job of solving it. Everyone wants to go to a dating website that everyone else is already at, but you don't necessarily know which site that will be. When it's free for everyone, the co-ordination problem doesn't exist, as you may as well sign up and see if it works because it doesn't cost you anything. But because everyone is willing to sign up, it actually does work. Presto!

Their blog gives some of the best data-driven analysis of relationship trends I've seen. These guys seem very solid in terms of working with data, and seemed like they'd really thought about how to run a dating site. In short, they got the Holmes seal of approval (although I haven't actually used their site).

On their blog, they also wrote this excellent post a while ago talking about why the revenue model of paid dating websites like eHarmony and is broken. Essentially they have big incentives to make lots of profiles of inactive members visible, as it increases revenue when new people signup. But this means that there's very little chance the person you're talking to will actually respond.

I'm convinced! I'm not paying a cent for dating websites!

One small problem though...they just got bought out by Which makes their earlier post a trifle inconvenient. Uh-oh, spaghetti-os!

So, if you've got such a great data driven approach, surely you can write a new post explaining why the earlier reasoning no longer holds and you'll still run a great site, right?

Or you can just try and delete the post, thereby starting the Streisand effect where trying to hide the information actually makes it more visible. Case in point, the cached version of the post above is currently the top-rated item on Hacker News. Quick, our left foot is still attached at the ankle! Reload the shotgun and fire again!

They have done a great service though - they significantly increase my estimate of the probability that their earlier post is actually correct, and that they can't write a follow-up post to explain why their new site at will be awesome. It won't.

You know who benefits from this? The guys who originally solved the co-ordination problem in online dating sites, and still operate their dating section for free. Shylock says that when the problem is liquidity, you can't beat a price of free. The guys at OKCupid are smart enough to know that this still holds true, even though they've cashed in to You should be smart enough to realise it too.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Conan on Egypt

Ah, Conan! Truly the funniest man on TV.

The best signal of cafe quality...

... is the quality of art drawn in the foam at the top of your cup.


is made by a barista who takes pride in what they do.

In my experience, I've encountered plenty of false negatives from this signal (good coffee without foam art), but so far I've never had a false positive (every foam art coffee has been good).