Friday, April 29, 2011

Why you want an Internet phone

Apart from the fact that you get mobile access to the internet, which is immensely useful.

No, the really handy thing is that they massively reduce the awkwardness of sitting on your own in a given social situation. Sitting at a restaurant alone makes you look like a loner, a loser who's been stoof up by their friends, or never had any friends to begin with.

Reading a book is almost worse, because it means you came prepared for the prospect of sitting alone, which makes you even more of a Nigel No-Mates.

But with an Internet phone, you could be checking email from dozens of your friends! People won't know if this is true, since the motions of reading through 20 emails from loved ones look very similar to the motions of reading a blog. You could be casually passing a minute or two until your friends arrive. But not only that, it gives you something mechanically satisfying for defusing awkwardness. You can avoid eye contact with other people in the room without it looking like you're avoiding them. You've got something to do with your hands, so you don't need to fidget (other than the phone).

And to top it all off, it actually does make it more fun to sit on your own. Over time, this makes sitting on your own seem less pathetic, since it looks like you're having more fun.

In entirely unrelated news, the Myer Briggs personality tests record me as an introvert, and the fact that you're reading this means you probably are too. Which is why you should get an Internet phone if you're one of the 5 people who hasn't already.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Visible Variable Costs Uber Alles!

When figuring out what measures will reduce costs people love to fixate on variable costs. They doubly love to fixate on variable costs that are highly visible. They tend to downplay fixed costs, and anything hidden.

Witness, for instance, the hype about Hybrids and electric cars. This is the principle taken to the extreme. Petrol is a visible variable cost for the environment. The more you drive, the more you use. And since you think of it every time you fill up your car, it's highly salient to you.

Now, when you buy a Prius, there is also the fixed cost of the manufacture of a second motor and the battery. This second battery and motor also require more services and replacement parts. None of this comes for free, either in terms of money or resources used. But that's not salient to people, so they ignore it.

With electric cars, the comparison is even more extreme. The car produces no greenhouse gas emissions, because it uses no petrol at all!

Unless you count the emissions from the power plant that makes the electricity. If that's a hydro power plant like in the Pacific Northwest, great! If it's a coal-fired power plant like in the Midwest, it's not clear you're helping at all.

But as long as it's not my emissions, it's okay. It's the evil power plant!

I'm not saying that these types of cars are necessarily not a good deal, or a net benefit to the environment. I'm just saying that the vast majority of the people who bought them probably never stopped to consider these costs properly. 'Lower petrol consumption' is my rough guess at how sophisticated the average thought process is.

I think this is part of the fixation with solar and wind power. People have the idea that since the sun will always shine and the wind will always blow, once you pay a fixed cost then it's free forever! Surely that makes it a bargain, no?

Well, first of all there's maintenance. Solar and wind power sources degrade, get broken, and need to be repaired.

But even if they didn't, the average person doesn't understand the value of a perpetuity. In other words, suppose the interest rate is 10%. How much should you be willing to pay for $20 per year, forever? It must be, like, an infinite amount of money! Or at least a huge amount of money!

No. You should be willing to pay $200. That's all.

Even if solar power pays off until infinity, if the payoffs are small and the upfront costs are high, you still don't want to do it. Matter of fact, "the payoffs are small and the upfront costs are high" is not a bad description of the whole solar power industry at this point of its development.

This isn't just an environmental thing. I remember a childhood friend of mine talking about a lottery in Scotland where the tickets were a couple of hundred bucks to buy, and they held a lottery that paid off a certain amount every week, forever. You could even resell your ticket to whoever you wanted! Surely this was the best deal in the universe. To the young Shylock, this deal sounded so awesome that it couldn't possibly be right.

As I grew up, I figured out this was a simple case of selling an overpriced perpetuity, but in the form of a lottery. You've got to admit, it's a great scheme.

Shylock says learn how to calculate a present value, or you'll end up giving away your money to hucksters and frauds.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Waiting for the other shoe to drop...

If you haven't been following the daily blog postings from Gary Brecher, you're missing out. Right now, it's the best thing on the internet. You may not agree with everything he writes (and probably won't), but there's a lot of interesting ideas he writes about that you just don't find anywhere else.

His post today was titled 'Is There an Al-Qaeda?'.
I wish now I’d said the first thing that came into my head when I started hearing about Al Qaeda, which was, “No, it can’t be. Violates every rule of guerrilla organization.”
[T]he idea is that it’s a central clearinghouse for dozens of different guerrilla groups, sharing an Islamic ideology but representing different countries and tribes and languages.
The last thing any sane guerrilla group wants to do is to go to an international guerrilla jamboree like the Boy Scouts. Sure, you’ll share ideas and prop up each others’ morale—and in the meantime, the informers—because every decent-sized guerrilla group must assume it’s been penetrated—will be taking careful notes, taking quiet candid pictures, and putting together organizational charts.
I'd quote more, but you should really read the whole thing.

Personally, I'd thought about this from a different angle. Specifically, I think of government agencies like the CIA as a kind of lumbering behemoth. Like most of the government, they're probably not good at forecasting new threats and scenarios. Bureaucracies tend get very set in their ways, and forecasting these kind of events is probably just an inherently very difficult task. To this extent, I wasn't surprised that they didn't see September 11 coming - they just weren't looking for that kind threat.

But once you get their attention (and September 11 certainly succeeded in doing that), THEN they started turning their attentions towards infiltrating, undermining and arresting the various jihadist groups. And they're probably not bad at that job. Bureaucracies can be quite effective when you need to do a single task over and over. Which is my guess for why there haven't been any major terrorist attacks in the US since then - it's hard to organise and carry out a large-scale terrorist plot when the FBI and CIA are trying to investigate and disrupt you at every step of the way. It's much easier to do it the first time when you're some no-name group that they're not on the lookout for.

What this suggests is that future large-scale attacks are probably less likely to occur due to clandestine groups, and more likely to be organised by states. In other words, it's much easier to plan a terrorist strike on the US if I'm the Iranian government using Iranian agents training in Iran than if I'm some jihadist in a radical mosque in the US that's probably been infiltrated by the FBI.

Monday, April 25, 2011


One of the laziest rhetorical devices in song-writing is the use of the oppositional 'they'.

Usually this is done in relationship songs. For some reason, 'they' are always opposed to any given relationship. Don't ask me why. We live in a world were large impersonal forces are aligned to prevent couples who are always 'meant to be' from getting together. (The only exception that I can think of is 'the old folks', with their "C'est la vie ... it goes to show you never can tell" attitude.)

A good example of this is 'Check Yes Juliet', by 'We the Kings'. Catchy and boppy, but inane:

(If the Vevo clip doesn't work, you can also try here)
"Run baby run
Don't ever look back
They'll tear us apart if you give them the chance"
It is an immense but common conceit of juvenile relationships that the world, as personified by the mysterious 'they', has deep interests in making sure that you and your girlfriend don't stay together.

The world, of course, is very rarely troubled by such matters. Your relationships end because you found someone else, or because you weren't actually suited to each other, or any other number of mundane but important reasons. Rarely do they end because 'they' chose to 'tear you apart'.

To give 'We the Kings' credit, they at least get a little more specific about who is opposed, in this case (implicitly) the parents.
They can change the locks, don't let them change your mind
You can tell how serious the parents are, because the Dad in the film clip keeps looking on in a vaguely disapproving manner while never actually saying anything. He's probably thinking about the possibility of illegitimate red-headed grandchildren, which frankly would concern me too.

Forget the parents. The 'they' that the narrator should actually be worried about is some other smooth-talking guy at school who also wants to hook up with the cute chick in the film clip. But that doesn't work so well as a rhetorical device, because for this particular 'they' to succeed in 'tearing them apart', the girl would have to want to go along. Which makes the narrative a little more awkward.

(Other examples of the mysterious 'they' can be found here, or here, or here.)

You know who could honestly write this song without it being self-indulgent?

Eva Braun, maybe? Okay, so 'they' had less interest in ending the relationship specifically, and more in ending one party to the relationship, but still.

Edward VIII is about the only one that springs to mind. Yes, large impersonal forces really were opposed to that relationship.

And I'll give a pass to anyone living in areas where "honour" killings are practiced.

Other than that? Justify your relationship without pretending it's so important that an entire conspiracy is being organised against it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Question for Metric Snobs

I was reading this article in Cracked, entitled 5 Bad Ideas Humanity is Sticking With Out of Habit.

The top idea in this category, or course, is the imperial system of weights and measures. In Australia and Europe, this is always a source of much snickering at the US - can you believe they still use feet and inches, pounds and ounces? How gauche! How jejune!

There is no doubt that the imperial system is clumsy and ungainly. As a very smart mathematician friend of mine once put it, 'I'll switch to the imperial system when you can tell me how many ounces there are in 4.356234 tons'. The point being that it's trivial to tell you how many milligrams there are in 4.356234 tonnes.

Part of this is simply familiarity though. If you're doing scientific calculations, metric rules the roost. But if you just need to keep track of what you weigh, or how big a packet of sugar you need to purchase, it honestly doesn't make much difference.

The question is not "Having gone through the fixed cost of switching, do you agree the new way is better?". The question is "Do the benefits of switching outweigh the fixed cost?". And to see if Americans really are backward in that question, you need to compare attitudes in areas where neither society has made the switch.

Cracked suggests one easy one - ditching the QWERTY keyboard. As the article notes, the QWERTY keyboard was designed to minimise the chances you'd hit two keys next to each other due to typing consecutive letters in a word, since this would jam old style typewriters. But it results it incredibly inefficient finger use, because the letters you use a lot (vowels like e, o, i and u) aren't in easy to reach positions. Designs like Dvorak are much better for that.

So, hands up all the Europeans and Australians who are up for a mandated, wholesale switch of keyboards?

Yeah, I thought not.

Or to take an even more extreme example that's not in the Cracked article, Decimal Time. This is the process of dividing a day into 10 hours, with each hour having 100 minutes, and each minute having 100 seconds. When done this way, the decimal second is equal to 0.864 standard seconds, and there are 100,000 decimal seconds in the day.

With decimal time, the last piece of the puzzle for calculations falls into place! If you want to work out speeds in kilometres per hour, or kilometres per second, the whole thing just cancels out! Everything becomes divisible by 10, and society gets this benefit for ever, just like when they switched to the metric system of measurements.


Are you eager to throw away all your watches, and be mandated to give times in decimal time on pain of getting a fine? Probably not. And that's exactly how the Americans feel about switching to the metric system of other things.

Personally, I'd be up for a switch in all of them - Dvorak, Decimal time, the whole lot.

But if you're not, you may want to ease up on the Yanks.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On Alexandra Wallace and Jack Stuef (Words have consequences)

Over at Popehat, Patrick links to the story of this guy Jack Stuef, who wrote a despicable article at the blog 'Wonkette' mocking Trig Palin, Sarah Palin's disabled son. The post has since been deleted.

In the comments thee, I wrote about why even though the guy is clearly a fool and a dickhead, I still feel uncomfortable at all the internet piling on:
I guess I might be the only voice of dissent here. Not that the article wasn’t reprehensible, and the guy a real piece of work. But I’m reluctant to pile on too much.
It’s just that people say horribly nasty things all the time, but mostly it doesn’t ruin the entire rest of their life. And broadly I think that’s as it should be. Even if you think it’s just in an absolute sense if this article ruins Jack Stuef’s reputation, it’s hard to see it as just compared with the lack of any consequence for all the other nasty stuff that people say to each other in private, in jokes, behind each others backs, all the time. The only difference here is the internet.
And these stories always tend to go the same way. Person writes a blog post or uploads a video with something flippant and risque on an offensive subject. They’re feeling on a roll, laughing to themselves and not thinking too hard. They’re forgetting that all the tone and inflection they have in their head doesn’t get translated in writing. And they press ‘post’. And suddenly it goes viral, they get a torrent of hate, and they’re forced to belatedly reflect on how the article would appear to someone who didn’t find the joke funny. But by that point it’s too late. They can’t take it back, the internet never forgets, and that’s all people will see when they google their name, forever.
I've never written anything that bad in a public forum, but I’ve sure sent emails I regretted, often following exactly the first half of the script above.
Does writing a post like this make you an insensitive d*ckhead? Absolutely. Is the post substantially more nasty than civilised people would think, even in jest? Sure. But should it ruin your whole life? To me, no. This guy seems like a piece of crap, but I still feel a bit sorry for him, the same way I did for Alexandra Wallace.
Reading it over now, it sounds more sanctimonious that was intended. (Once again, inflection is hard to convey!) Patrick pointed out, quite rightly, that this guy is a professional writer on a large blog, who writes this kind of nasty stuff for a living. Which is a fair point. In other words, this isn't the case of someone who wrote something ill-considered that just spread far wider than they intended (like Alexandra Wallace, the girl who posted a dumb video complaining about Asian students at UCLA and got hounded out of the school).

So maybe it is appropriate in this case.

In which case, let these remarks be not about Jack Stuef, but about the impact of the internet on people's ill-considered statements.

A good number of the worst decisions I've made in my life have taken on similar forms to narrative above. Find something funny in your head, do it quickly in the heat of the moment thinking it will be a hilarious gag, and then 5 minutes later (when I've calmed down) realise it wasn't that funny and the other person will be quite offended or hurt, but that it's too late to take it back.

I've been lucky that the times I've done this, it so far hasn't led to any permanent life-altering consequences. Alexandra Wallace has not been so fortunate. She, unlike me in the past, made the mistake of making the joke on the internet.

If she'd said her rant to her friends, they might have laughed. They might have rolled their eyes. They might have stopped talking to her, called her a racist scumbag, and trash-talked her to everyone they knew.

But she wouldn't have been on the receiving end of the 5 minutes of internet hate, which made her decide to leave UCLA, and made this video the first thing that every potential employer and acquaintance will ever see when they type her name into google. Even if she'd printed this in a newspaper 30 years ago, it would have been disseminated much less.

The only difference is the internet. Things can be spread far further, and far faster, than the person intends. And they can't be taken back.

In other words, the consequences are now way way worse, even if the sin of saying shitty things is the same sin that it was 50 years ago.

One argument against having laws that aren't widely enforceable is that the people who get punished get sentences that are way harsher than the many others who did the same thing, but were lucky enough to not get caught. And this offends peoples sense of fairness, that ideally the same actions should get the same consequences.Think of music piracy. The RIAA lashes out at the tiny number of people it can sue, vainly trying to deter  the millions of others it knows it can't stop.

It's the same here. There are millions of people who write really nasty things on the internet - the world is full of clowns and fools. But I still find myself uncomfortable with the process that periodically singles out a couple of of them for massive punishment as a symbol of the sins of the many.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Assorted Thoughts From Coachella

- If I were a musician, I would find it infuriating how crowds can't clap in time, but keep getting faster and faster. I find myself always clapping a tiny bit later than most people (on the beat, of course), vainly trying to maintain a rearguard action to stop the acceleration. It never works, of course, unless you get an audience of musicians. Which you never do.

- Concerts are a fast way to increase misanthropy, because there's always some tool there doing annoying things - talking really loudly while the song is playing, pushing past you to get to the front, stepping on your shoes, dancing into you, being really sweaty etc. And all forms of toolishness get more intense as you get closer to the stage, which is where you'd ideally like to be located.

-On that front, is there any concert behavior more obnoxious than starting an impromptu 'mosh pit' of just bashing into each other? There's always some bunch of imbeciles that think just want to bump into each other, with complete disregard for the fact that they're also bumping into the people at the edges of the spontaneously forming circle (as everyone tries to move away from the tools). The circle just reinforces the problem, as the turds run further out, guaranteeing that they keep bumping you. In a better world, it would be acceptable to punch anyone who ran into you.

-Coachella draws on an audience primarily of rich, young, reasonably socially adjusted white hipsters. And when you select on those things (the first three much more than the fourth), it's amazing how attractive the average person is. There were hardly any fat people there, and there not too many real weirdos. Demographics is attractiveness.

- There was a fair amount of pot being smoked at the concert. And you know what problems this created? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Personally, I have zero interest in marijuana, and have never tried it. But it's hard to see these situations in action and not find yourself thinking 'Wait, why exactly are we sending people to prison for doing this? What exactly is the harm we're trying to prevent?'

-Musicians really are addicted to cheap crowd-pleasing lines. 'Hello Coachella' [WOOO!!!]. 'Is everyone having a good time? [WOO!! YEAH!!!]. And the really controversial -'It's great to be here in California!' [ALRIGHT! ROCK!]. Who can blame them though - it works!

- White people seem unable to listen to reggae that isn't made by someone with the surname 'Marley'. If I were a reggae artist, I'd change my name by deed poll to Shylock Marley, just for the extra record sales.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Miscellaneous Joy - Free Speech Edition

- In honour of this blog getting its first real troll (with updated responses you should check out!), I give you this great article "Haters Gonna Hate (And Why You Should Love It)" (via SMH)

-Britain has decided that if it can't fully implement sharia-compliant law, it can at least use hate crimes legislation to generate outrageous sentences for violations of other trivial laws. A soldier was convicted for 70 days for burning a Koran that he stole from the library. Yes, the trivial violation is that he stole a library book. I'm guessing that if you fail to return your copy of a Stephen King novel and burn it, they're not going to throw you in prison, but maybe property rights are the new black. This will be great news to British homeowners, who anecdotally have great difficulty getting the police to be even vaguely interested in investigating non-violent burglaries. The Koran burning was in response to a Muslim man who had previously burned a poppy (a WWI veterans symbol in Commonwealth countries). Apparently he hasn't been prosecuted. Neither, to my knowledge, has this guy. For the poppy guy, I'm sure they could drum up some charge of smoking in a public place or disorderly conduct if they were interested. Which, of course, they aren't.

This blog is of course firmly in favour of people's right to burn Korans, Bibles, flags, poppies, cigarettes, coal, marijuana and anything else. Except burning Cyanoethylene in public places - that shit releases Hydrogen Cyanide, yo! But avoid those censorious PC thugs from the UK government and make sure you've legally purchased your own Koran first! Even if you do think that a library book is bought with stolen taxpayer dollars, courts apparently frown on this form of argumentation.

-Hilariously, non-Muslim groups are catching on to this 'anti-blasphemy' thing too - the photo 'Piss Christ', of a crucifix in a jar of urine, was destroyed by "French Catholic Fundamentalists" (now there's an expression you don't hear often).

Hilarious quote from the museum director:
The gallery director, Eric Mézil, said it would reopen with the destroyed works on show "so people can see what barbarians can do".
Yes, Andres Serrano taking photos of crucifixes in urine is exactly the apex of civilisational achievement. Right up there with democracy, the common law, and the scientific revolution. He's a regular Voltaire, this guy.  

"Brave" artists mocking Christianity while cowering from drawing a cartoon of Mohammed on the one side, angry censorious humourless Christians on the other side - like Kissinger said about the Iran/Iraq war, it's a shame they can't both lose.  In reality, the Christians will go to prison, and Andres Serrano will feign outrage while quietly adding an extra zero onto the price tag of his artworks.

- And in non-free-speech news, apparently there's a new contender for pets even better than the marmoset - tame foxes! (via Ace)

Monday, April 18, 2011

How to arrange a meeting via text message when there's bad reception

So I spent the weekend at Coachella (of which you will hear more soon). But one thing that stuck with me was how bad people are at sending text messages when they need to meet up at these types of big concert festivals. There's way too many people for the mobile phone towers to accommodate, so you you don't know exactly when the person will receive the message. Spotty reception makes people check their phones less frequently, and this makes the problem worse.

But people don't take this into account at all when they're trying to arrange to meet someone. They send text messages in exactly the same way as if they would be read and delivered instantaneously. And it's a disaster.

The typical message will be something like this:
Bob (t+0:00): Hey, want to meet up?
Sam (t+1:00): Sure where do you want to meet?
Bob (t+2:00): I'm at the Strokes. Want to join me?
Sam(t+3:30, who received the last message after the Strokes had finished playing): Where are you now? Want to meet at the food tent?

In other words, they never meet up.

You need to design your messages quite specifically with a few principles in mind:

1. Don't try to arrange anything within less than say, 2 hours. You won't know when they'll receive it, and it will just confuse matters when they receive it after the time you suggested.

2. As a corollary, never base anything on where you are now or where they are now, unless you're planning to stay there for ages.

3. Try to arrange matters with messages that require the smallest possible number of replies. They should be able to just respond with 'yes'. Even better is if they don't need to respond at all.

4. To do this, add the largest amount of detail immediately, and suggest a default option.

5. Assume that whoever you send the message to will not know how to respond sensibly, so direct their actions.

6. Suggest meeting points that are completely obvious to everyone. Avoid anything ambiguous.

So how does this work? Here's an example

A message that requires one response, and a simple response at that. My default:
Do you want to meet up? How about the Ferris Wheel at 5pm? If that doesn't work, I could also meet there at 2pm, 4:30pm or 6pm, so feel free to suggest another time or place
You can even write things that don't require any responses, particularly if you don't know if they'll be able to respond in time (and don't mind waiting):
Let's meet up. How about the Ferris Wheel at 5pm? If I don't hear from you, I'll wait there from 5 until 5:10pm, and if I still haven't found you I'll come back at 6pm and wait until 6:10pm
The second message can be acted on even if they receive it 15 minutes before, and won't have time to message you back.

These messages obviously look a bit odd to the normal banter people send back and forth. But rest assured, I meet up with the people I want to meet up with, and most of the OMG LOL teen set don't.

Forward planning matters, suckas!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Buy your V.I.P. pass" - an obvious misnomer

If you have to buy it, you're probably not 'I.' , and almost certainly not 'V.I.'.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"I know a place that'll saw your legs off!"

Consent is a murky concept.

No, I'm not talking about the "She may have been nearly passed out but she was totally asking for it, and besides, I was drunk too".

I mean the question of exactly what the law will allow you to consent to in terms of an assault.

At one extreme, the law has long recognised that you can't consent to be murdered. The German cannibal who killed and ate his apparently consenting victim was charged with murder anyway, and the same thing would be true in nearly all first world countries.

And most people are quite happy with this. The average person's response to the plea "But he wanted to be killed!" is likely to be "Stiff shit. Off to prison for you, freak." And that's not unreasonable, certainly as a matter of policy. Murder is not a tort against the victim (for which the victim receives compensation), but a crime against the state (for which the offender receives punishment). And the State reserves the right to punish you, regardless of whether the other person agreed to it.

On the other hand, you can consent to be slapped. You can consent to a boxing match. You can consent to be whipped by a dominatrix.

But somewhere between the two extremes, things get less clear. Should you be able to consent to get your arm sawed off? What about just cut really badly?

This question came up in the context of a lawsuit against Jeff Williams of St Petersburg, Florida, who was paying homeless men to be beaten up on camera by scantily clad women.

Now, the question is not whether you should be revolted by this behavior. This guy is a repulsive excuse for a human being.

But to the law, that's not the point. Can you honestly draw a sharp distinction between this and say, mixed martial arts?

Let's look at the injuries suffered:
Shaw suffered broken ribs, a dislocated jaw, back injuries and a dislocated arm on two different visits to 73 16th St. S. Grayson, the suit says, sustained bruises and multiple lacerations.
Sounds bad, but take a look at the early UFC fights - they were just as bad or worse.

You can definitely point to differences. The guys may have mental problems. There weren't medical people on hand in case something went awry.

But be honest, is that really what's wrong here? Would you be actually happy with the situation if it were only homeless guys without evident mental problems and a doctor around?

And sooner or later, you run into the reason this gets thorny:
"They’ve come back many times, which makes it pretty consensual," Williams said.
And this is where things get weird. Nobody appears to have been charged with an actual crime. That's what happens when people (through their elected representatives) decide that some assaults are too unconscionable to be consented to.

That's not what's being argued here, at least by the state.

Instead, this is argued as being a tort against the homeless guys themselves. I'm no expert on US torts law, but this seems odd to me, because they got exactly what they consented to. As a matter of decency, I hope they win and get the injunction. As a matter of law and precedent, I'm more hesitant.

I think instead it's a response to the fact that the average person finds this intolerable for reasons they would struggle to articulate clearly. Torts law is not the right instrument for this, but it is more flexible, and can be used (in this case for getting an injunction) when the police aren't willing to make a prosecution.

It seems we are finding out what philosophers have known for a long time - namely, that law can never be a substitute for morality. Society functions not because we can outlaw all possible bad behavior, but because they have citizens with a sense of shame and decency.

In a society full of scumbags like Jeff Williams, it will always be impossible to outlaw every disgusting act.

(Link via Marginal Revolution, subject line via The Simpsons  - search for 'Power Plant Commercial' on the page)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bets I do not wish to take

Hacker News recently linked to an interesting article on this guy who is devoting his life to learning how to become a golf pro. He had no experience in golf, but is testing out the theory that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert in anything. This is an idea popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.

The article received a huge amount of votes, although I don't know why. Maybe it's the 'you can accomplish anything!' can-do spirit.

Personally I think it's crazy. Not trying to become a professional golfer necessarily, although maybe that too.

No, what is truly crazy is being willing to wager six years of your life in order to test an idea based mainly on a Malcolm Gladwell book.

Steven Pinker nailed exactly what's irritating about Malcolm Gladwell, with one of the best zingers I've read in a while:
"An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong."
Ouch, that's gotta sting.

More importantly, that's gotta make me not willing to invest huge amounts on a persuasive and quirky collection of cocktail facts.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Phrases designed to infuriate economists

"About 50 high polluters to bear carbon tax brunt, Greg Combet tells Press Club"

Politicians love statements like this. Don't worry about this big tax I'm about to pass, it will only be paid by those evil corporations!

The first problem with this is that corporations don't pay tax, shareholders pay tax. A corporation may be a separate legal entity, but sooner or later its cashflows belong to the shareholders, who are real flesh and blood people.

In Australia, this is particularly pertinent as superannuation retirement savings are (by law) generally invested at least partly in the stockmarket. So the only people paying the tax are those evil corporations and, oh, your retirement portfolio.

But suppose we don't care about those evil capitalist shareholders either - we're cool then, right?

No, we're not. You can place a tax on producers but that doesn't mean it will end up being paid by the producers. In economics terms, the incidence of a tax does not stay where it is placed.

So who else pays for it?

Customers, that's who. If I raise taxes on coal and petrol, part of that cost will be paid for by coal and petrol producers in lower profits, and part of it will be passed along to consumers through the form of higher coal and petrol prices. And part of those coal price increases will in turn be passed on to consumers of other products, who pay more for all the items that have to transported via petrol powered cars, and manufactured in factories running on coal powered electricity. Which is to say, everything in the economy.

The only case where coal producers pay the whole amount is if demand for coal and petrol is perfectly elastic. That is, if the price of petrol rises by one cent, you reduce your demand for it to zero.

Is that how you decide whether to fill up your car each week?

No, me neither.

This tax will be paid by the general public twice, once as shareholders in companies, and again as consumers of products produced by fossil fuels.

Typical of fools from union backgrounds, Greg Combet appears to view the world as a zero sum game of workers against the corporations. He is either ignorant of basic economics, or is being deliberately misleading for political gain.

If you don't believe me, let Milton Friedman explain it far better and more persuasively.

Government knows best. Government ALWAYS knows best.

Here is a serious question.

It's coming up to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the TSA hasn't actually caught any terrorists yet. And yet their policies just get more invasive.

What exactly would the TSA have to do to get people to be outraged enough to not just go along? To actively resist at the airport? To say 'no, this is not okay'. I honestly don't know.

Currently they're groping six year olds. Apparently that's not enough.

Suppose the following policies were implemented:

-Prohibit checked luggage

-Shave people's heads to make sure nothing is smuggled in their hair

-Strip everyone naked

-Have TSA agent perform full cavity search in front of everyone, with men performing all searches (to maximise offense to both men and women)

-Store video of the above on publicly searchable web site

I promise you the following. There would be a reasonable group of people that would point out how they don't like it either, but remember, someone could have a dirty nuke smuggled inside their anus, or an AK-47 inside their pigtails. Isn't it worth sacrificing to stop this?

There'd be significantly larger group that would grumble about it, but just end up going along. After all, what are you going to do? Get arrested?

I would wager that between them, those groups would be large enough that the policy would not be reversed.

(Via Popehat)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Consider the Snail

Irish Snail

Evolution does not work in the way most people think.

Consider the case of the lowly snail. Can you imagine a more pathetic creature?

It is faced with a great deal of natural disadvantages. It is small enough that I can (and sadly sometimes do) tread on them by accident. They have a shell for protection, which is scarcely able to shield them from any serious predator trying to eat them.

And most importantly, they move more slowly than just about any creature other than the sloth. Their ability to escape from danger is, to all intents and purposes, nil. How do they even get around? It must take them all day to move a few metres.

Most people's conception of evolutionary success roughly correlates with 'being at the top of the food chain' or 'not having any natural predators'. If that's the case, you're sweet! Nothing can get you.

But evolution doesn't operate that way. The issue is not the chance of an individual being killed, but the chances of the species being killed that drives extinction. Beef cattle get slaughtered and eaten at a rate of roughly 100%. By contrast, beef cattle face an extinction probability of ~=0% as long as humans desire to farm them for meat purposes.

Consider a creature the exact opposite of the snail. A predator that is eaten by nobody. Fast, agile, and able to defend itself against lots of potential aggressors. The top of the food chain, preying on a variety of smaller animals.

A creature, in other words, like the Sabre Tooth Tiger.

The sabre tooth tigers entered the landscape around 42 million years ago, and became extinct around 11,000 years ago.

Snails, by contrast, have been around about 600 million years, and they're still going strong.

As Khrushchev said, "We will bury you".

The snails has outlived many species who ate it, crushed it, and wantonly killed it. It seems quite likely to outlast us too.

You may step on them or cook them in garlic, but you may be surprised to find one day in a nuclear winter that the joke is on you. The snails will be just fine.

Evolution has a funny sense of humour like that.

(image credit)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The value of a Berkeley Economics Major

Comedy gold!

(In case you didn't get the joke, a SFW answer here)

Hollywood has no idea where wealth comes from

The other day I saw a billboard ad for a movie called 'Arthur'. (You can watch the trailer here, but I wouldn't recommend it). It's a Russell Brand 'comedy' remake about this quirky guy who's the heir to a huge fortune, but has to live by the stuffy rules that his uptight family makes as conditions for his inheritance. Oh noz! omg! How dare they put strings on his billion dollar gift, those fascists!

The billboards for this read 'Meet the world's only lovable billionaire'.

Let's count the ways this is ridiculous.

Firstly, have you ever seen any movie featuring a rich character where the notion of 'adding value' is explored in a non-ironic fashion? Hollywood can't conceive of the idea that if you want to get a billion dollars, you need to add a billion dollars worth of value to people's lives. Actually, you'll need to add a lot more - this is assuming you're capturing the whole surplus.

No, in the world of Hollywood, the ways to get wealth are as follows;

-Inherit it

-Steal it

-Exploit lots of workers

'Arthur' is in the first category. In this world, rich people never work for their money. Or if they do, it's only ever in the context of portraying how they're neglecting their family by spending too long at the office. For an industry as ruthlessly capitalist as Hollywood, they sure do cling to some strange ideas about how societies got rich.

Now, I don't need to explain to readers of this illustrious periodical why this is an absurd picture of wealth. But in case you need to explain it to your idiot co-worker, consider the case of pre-historic man living in sub-Saharan Africa. No amount of inheriting, stealing, and exploiting other tribesmen is going to make me a space shuttle. Clearly something else big is involved.

Bill Gates created a product that powers my computer, creating untold billions of dollars of value for the world economy. And with all the wealth he amassed, he gave it away to charity, supporting the most cost effective causes he could find, and encouraged other wealthy people to do the same.

But what actually makes you lovable is to be some goofy clown who's never worked a day in his life, a free-loading clueless moocher on earlier generations effort and thrift. As long as you have the right attitudes against 'the man', conformity, crack jokes etc.

Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner (all of whom were seriously impressive entrepreneurs) must be rolling in their graves to see what's produced under their names these days

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The End(-Game) of the Affair

What exactly are married people thinking when they start an affair?

I don't mean, "Whoa, I'm finally gonna get laid! That hasn't happened in years!". I mean, how exactly do they see things ending when you start boning your secretary? (I'll take the perspective of the man, but the point is the same)

In some ways, boning a hooker is more understandable in practical terms. It's also despicable and repugnant, but within the mindset of someone completely callous to other people's feelings, I can see how they figure they can get away with it. You're away on business, you find some prostitute for one night only, you don't end up with the clap, and you tell yourself you'll never do it again and your wife won't find out. The latter part might be true, the former part probably isn't.

But what about when you set out on an ongoing affair with someone?

As far as I can see it, there are no good endings to that story.

And that should be obvious to the people involved even before they begin.

But apparently it isn't, at least judging by how often they do it.

The first point to note is that as the length of the affair increases, the probability that your wife will eventually find out converges to 1. The chances that you'll slip up somehow, or get inadvertently found out through some voicemail, missed call, something, are too high.

And when that happens, the results are as predictable as they are horrible. Hurtful recriminations, your children hate you for ever. Most likely you get divorced, the courts take two thirds of your money, you try to justify why you're not actually an asshole. Best case scenario, the secretary becomes wife #2, and you're much poorer.

Alternative best case scenario, your wife forgives you  but the relationship never quite recovers, you break things off with the secretary who now hates you too, and you have to live with the hurt you've inflicted on your loved ones.

If you want out of the marriage, aren't you better off doing that up-front?

I can think of maybe two explanations.

The first, less likely, is that the person has effectively made up their mind they want a divorce, they don't care about their wife's feelings, but they need some alternative female figure there for certain before they're willing to cut the cord. Seems like a very costly way to go about it (for both you and them), but it's at least internally consistent if your have a huge risk aversion, a complete lack consideration for your wife, and an underlying fear of abandonment.

The second, and I think more likely explanation, is just that they actively avoid thinking about the question. They focus on managing the immediate part (don't let wife find out, lead on secretary that you might leave your wife eventually but keep expectations reasonable) and don't think about the long-run. When these thoughts creep in, convince yourself that it will work out somehow, even if all the options are in front of you and they're all bad. Hyperbolic discounting takes care of the rest.

Never underestimate the ability of people to live in denial about the eventual outcome of their poor choices.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is your child the next Larry Page? Send them to Montessori school!

The WSJ has a puff piece today talking about the benefits of Montessori school:
 Ironically, the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia: Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, videogame pioneer Will Wright, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, not to mention Julia Child and rapper Sean “P.Diddy” Combs.
Correlation = Causation! You read it in the Journal, so it must by true. I personally can think of absolutely no other explanation for this pattern. Rich, smart, creative parents give birth to rich, smart, creative children, but it has to be the similar schools they're sending them to.

The piece talks about the effects of a randomised lottery on 5 year olds which is all well and good, but it's a far cry from the long term possibility that you'll turn into Jeff Bezos because of the pre-school you went to. But I also wonder greatly about the selection effects going on here by only focusing on smart people in the main discussion. Montessori school may produce wildly different outcomes depending on the child's natural aptitude. If you're as smart as Larry Page, learning at your own pace the things you find interesting is likely to produce great outcomes. If you're a child whose undirected ambition in life is to spend 8 hours a day on facebook (as Dragon Mother Amy Chua aptly put it), you'd probably do better off with a regimented lesson plan.

So the question is, do you think there are more children like Larry Page? Or are there more slowpokes who'd just spend their entire time playing outside and learn nothing?

The world is full of dullards, but wise men are few.

The Joys of Not Sleeping

The WSJ has an interesting piece about "short sleepers", people who only need a couple of hours of sleep per night in order to function well and happily.

I remember talking once to a friend of mine who has insomnia, and saying that if I ever found that I couldn't sleep, I'd try to take on some obscure project, like learn Russian between the hours of 3 and 5 in the morning. She explained to me that insomnia doesn't actually work this way - rather than not needing sleep, you constantly feel tired but just aren't able to get to sleep. Which sounds like a kind of living hell.

Being a short sleeper, on the other hand, seems like living the ideal version of insomnia - you just don't need as many hours with your eyes closed.

I long thought that if I could get one semi-plausible physical trait, this would be it. Suppose the average person lives to 76 and sleeps 8 hours a night. If you only need 4 hours of sleep instead, if you die at 76 then you'll have lived the same number of waking hours as a person who lived to 95! Not only that, but more of those hours were spent in the prime of your life and health.

Short sleepers, man. It's where it's at.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Please please please please please....

Via Ace:
The White House just called to say it was going to play the government shutdown card, despite an offer on the table to keep the government going for another week.
It's not clear who will benefit politically from a shutdown. Newt Gingrich lost the public relations battle with Clinton over the 1995 government shutdown, and paid the price politically. In the long run, it's not clear that the cause of limited government was actually helped. (Gingrich may have been undesirable in other regards, but he did seem to want to shrink the government).

But in the short run, who cares! Bureaucrats will be unable to pass value-destroying regulations for at least a short period of time! Wasteful spending on Federal boondoggles will cease for at least a week! The United States will temporarily be adding to its gargantuan debt burden at a reduced rate!

All these things are cause for celebration, my friends.

And who said the White House was anti-growth?

Greg Sheridan on Multiculturalism

In The Australian recently, Greg Sheridan recently wrote an excellent long piece on how he abandoned his faith in multiculturalism.

It's a very honest and sensitive piece as Sheridan started out as a strong supporter of immigration and multiculturalism, a view that grew out of his desire to support South Vietnamese boat people after the Vietnam War (a view that I'm sure I would have had a lot of sympathy for at the time, just like him). 

Sheridan walked the walk too, living in Western Sydney for 15 years. But he observed up-close what happened to places like Lakemba in Sydney when they experienced wide-spread immigration, including some of the attendant social problems which he describes. (In related news, is there any serious doubt that Malcolm Fraser may be one of the worst Prime Ministers in Australian history? He'd even give Gough Whitlam a run for the money).

Sheridan raises the very valid question that the differences in success of immigration programs in Europe vs Australia, America and Canada may have less to do with particular multicultural policies practiced by the host country, and more to do simply with the composition of where the immigrants came from. 
The US, Canada and Australia have far smaller Muslim migrant communities as a percentage of their total populations than do most of the troubled nations of Europe. Could this be the explanation?
He doesn't assert this directly, but to ask the question is to know his implicit answer.  

And Sheridan is very sensitive in phrasing his argument. He goes through all the required recitations first:
Discussing these issues is very difficult. It goes without saying that most Muslims in Australia are perfectly fine, law-abiding citizens. The difficulty with discussing Muslim immigration problems is that you don't want to make people feel uncomfortable because of their religion.
It's only a small minority - check.
Muslims are not only individuals, wholly different from each other, but national Islamic cultures are very different from each other. The Saudi culture is different from the Turkish culture, which is different from the Afghan culture. So generalisations are dangerous.
Lots of diversity in Islam, generalisations bad - check.
Then there is the ever present risk of being labelled a racist. No matter how calmly the discussion is conducted, that is a big danger.
It is, but good on you for having the stones to not worry about it. But then he gets to the point he wanted to make all along:
But the only people who don't think there is a problem with Islam are those who live on some other planet. The reputation of Islam in the West is not poor because of prejudiced Western Islamophobia, still less because Western governments conduct some kind of anti-Islamic propaganda.
Instead, it is the behaviour of people claiming the justification of Islam for their actions that affects the reputation of Islam. ...
To have concerns about these matters is not racism or xenophobia. It is reasonable.
It may also be that when young men of Islamic background experience failure and alienation they are much more readily prone to entrepreneurs of identity who offer them purpose through the jihadi ideology, which has a large overlap with what they hear at the mosque and what they see on Arabic TV.
This is simply not true for Buddhists or Confucians or Sikhs or Jews or Christians, and to pretend so, to make all religions seem equal, is to simply deny reality.
Exactly so. One thing I never, never understood about the "New Atheists" (Richard Dawkins for sure, Christopher Hitchens less so) was the moral equivalence of how all religions were equally bad. In terms of their relative tolerance for womens' rights, homosexuality, separation of church and state, and all the other things that secular humanism apparently holds dear, there's simply no contest. In Utah, people may not like you if you practise abortion, open homosexuality, or start a different church, but the worst that happens is that you may not get invited to a dinner party. In Saudi Arabia, you'd be lucky to escape prison or worse for any one of these actions. All religions and societies may fall short of the humanist ideal, but they don't all fall short by the same amount.

On the other hand, the piece ends with what is, to me at least, significantly good news - at least privately, the government is far less clueless about these things than it seems in its public discussions:
And, finally, we simply should not place immigration officers in the countries with the greatest traditions of radicalism.
A few years ago there was an informal view across government that very few visas should be issued to people from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, as these were the three likeliest sources of extremism.
These sorts of discussions take place all the time among senior officials, politicians and others. But I have never encountered a policy area in which private and public positions are so different.
Phrases you do not hear often on this blog: the Australian government might be doing a significantly better job than I thought they were, and one which in some absolute sense amounts to 'acceptably sensible'!

In other news, The Australian remains my favourite newspaper in the world. Is there any US paper that would publish such a common sense article?

(Thanks to GS for the pointer).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Plumber Problem

As I said a few weeks ago, 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.

One context where this comes up a lot is what I term 'The Plumber Problem'.

It stems from a conversation with a family friend of mine, many years ago, recounting the story of a guy he knew who was a plumber in Queensland. The guy ran his own business, worked from about 10 until 4, only took the jobs he wanted to, and made a fairly decent low six-figure income. Not enough that he'd ever be rich - his kids went to public schools, he had a nice house but not enormous, and he could afford overseas holidays if he saved for them. Enough money, in other words, that he'd be comfortable, and able to spend the rest of his time enjoying life.

The question then, is this:

Why try harder?

Fatboy Slim- Come a long way baby

The point is that if you ask people in surveys (particularly white collar workers), a lot of them will say that they wish they could take a job with fewer hours and take a pay cut. They want, in other words, to be the plumber.

But having said that, they continue to take the job at the law firm, or the consulting firm, or the bank.

In other words, stated preference wants less money and less work. Revealed preference wants more money and more work.

So what the hell's going on here?

Things that would have been cool if I'd had a different job

Working in finance is great. I find the area interesting. it pays well, and it's generally a choice of profession that I'm very happy with.

But there are some things that I won't get to do that would have been fun.

If I'd got a job in manual labor (construction, auto work, something like that), one of the great parts would be to cross a picket line. Being a scab would be awesome. I'd walk past with my head high, punch on with any union dickheads that wanted to start something, and yell back pro-capitalist slogans: "Down with monopolies, you slacker turds", "Enjoy unemployment, losers!", "Want a pay raise? Try working harder". That would be sweet.

The other one that would have perks would be being a corporate liquidator. Most of the time it would be unpleasant, laying off poor schlubs who are wondering how they're going to pay their mortgage. But every now and again you'd get a really sweet gig, like liquidating the New York Times (or in the best possible case, the UN). I would personally deliver all the pink slips. How sweet would it be to get to bring Frank Rich into the office and yell "You fucking FIRED, Frank! Hit the bricks, pal, and beat it, 'cause you are going OUT!". Honestly, I would probably pay high 5 figures for the opportunity to take that job. I think that when their ridiculous paywall experiment fails and they file for bankruptcy and liquidation, they should auction off the right to be the liquidator. It may be the most value-producing they do for stockholders this decade.

Maybe I could just short their stock instead - it would have been a reasonable return over the last 5 years.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Political biases are hard to spot

The last few months have revealed a positive aspect to Barack Obama's presidency that I hadn't considered:

Namely, I think it has been extremely useful to have a war against a nasty dictator being carried out by a Democratic president.

I think this is doubly true given that only a relatively small amount geopolitically seems to ride on the outcome of it.

The reason for this is that I think the average political-minded person will end up with a much more nuanced version of American military action. I think when all is said and done, you will end up with more of a consensus opinion on military action that is far less driven by partisan differences, and that's really important for national security issues.

Tribalism being what it is, people's view of any policy is coloured by their sense of who is carrying it out. Liberals screamed bloody murder when Bush invaded Iraq, while conservatives were largely supportive (with neoconservatism being ascendant as a school of thought).

On the other hand, I think the last few months have really added evidence in favour of the following - had the Iraq invasion been launched by Clinton instead, far more Democrat voters would have supported it. Not all of them, but a good chunk. Additionally, more Republicans would have probably opposed it.

Now, part of this might be explicitly partisan - you just want to see your side win. But I don't think that's the interesting bit. I think that the positive sides of the action actually seem more apparent when your guy does it.

The funny thing is that it's not until you see the same thing being done by the other guy that the bias actually reverses itself, because you're now minded to see the other side of the argument. Which is why a number of Democrats are on board with bombing Libya, while a number of conservatives are opposed.

People respond to this shift  in one of three ways.

The least introspective simply ignore the contradiction (Libya good, Iraq bad, so what!   /   Iraq good, Libya bad, so what!)

The somewhat introspective but hubristic will rationalise the distinction (the uprising in Libya was organic and that's important, the Iraq one wasn't - never mind that the brutality against civilians was the same in both cases  / in Iraq we had a clear goal of regime change, in Libya we're bombing stuff without knowing what we're doing - never mind that the goal of Iraq shifted after the invasion ).

The introspective and honest will be forced to admit that maybe they hadn't properly considered before (maybe it's okay to bomb truly awful dictators even if the country does have oil / maybe thankless nation-building projects are a horrible sinkhole of lives and money )

For my part, I've become increasingly skeptical of the extent to which fostering democracy in third world is likely to produce better outcomes for the west. In particular, I now tend to think that democracy is the symptom of a society that works, not the cause. What causes society to work is more likely a set of values devoted to pluralism, peaceful resolution of disputes, and a view of fellow countrymen based on shared ideas rather than tribalism. In other words, if there's already some form of civil society you end up with democracy. If there's not, you end up with stories like the following, where a mob of Afghans decide that the appropriate response to some nobody Pastor in the US burning a Koran is to murder a bunch of UN workers. If that's how the average person in the society thinks, what outcome exactly do you expect from taking a vote?  If that's what we've got for 10 years of effort, what the hell are we doing there?

And I think that consensus opinion will shift towards a kind of synthesis along the following lines - bomb nasty regimes and places that screw over the US, but don't send in ground troops with the aim of turning the place into Switzerland.

And I think there's a good argument that this ought to have been the policy all along.

But there were very few people arguing for this course of action in 2003. And had McCain won in 2008, we wouldn't be anywhere near this view now.

Superman demonstrates the efficient markets hypothesis

Via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, the best comic on the internet (it's true, you xkcd fanboys).