Thursday, June 30, 2011

Negative Knowledge

To my mind, one of the most useful functions of the internet is vastly simplifying the search for negative knowledge. How do you verify that something doesn't exist? Obviously in the full philosophical sense, this is quite difficult to do (outside of mathematics). This is related to the problem of induction. David Hume captured this with the example of black swans - the fact that all the swans found so far are white is not proof that all swans are white (an example made more poignant by the fact that black swans do indeed exist, but Hume didn't know this at the time). The question 'Are all swans white' is essentially the question 'Are there any black swans?'. Because we can't prove the first proposition, we can't definitively prove that there aren't any black swans.

Consider the example of the great song 'You Found Me', by The Fray.

The opening lines are:
I found God,
On the corner of First and Amistad
The question occurred to me 'I wonder if that's a real place, and if so, where it is?'

Now, go back 30 years and this would be a very hard problem to solve. How do I search all the cities of the world (or just the US) for '1st and Amistad'. Even worse, what if there is no '1st and Amistad'? How do I ever verify that I've checked everywhere and that it actually doesn't exist?

Today, I just type in '1st and Amistad', and google maps directs me to an intersection in Quernado, Texas (which is the only suggested location). I'm also directed to Yahoo Answers, where some mentions that lead singer Isaac Slade actually made up the name, not knowing about the place in Texas.

It works, because I'm harnessing the power of the thousands of other people who've wondered the same question, thankfully some of them much more dedicated and knowledgeable than me. If all of them have searched and found nothing and written as much on the internet, it's not proof that the thing doesn't actually exist, but it makes for a reasonably good assumption.

I wonder if somewhere Zombie David Hume is reprising his argument about the problem of induction, while some Zombie modern teenager killed in a car crash is responding 'No, you just google "Are all Swans White", and it tells you the answer".'

Interesting times we live in.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Adventures in Big Government

1. Courtesy of the Greek, comes pictures of the latest rioting in Greece.

I had previously described these people as being on strike against double-entry accounting, but the Greek had an even better description - the 'Time Machine Enthusiasts'. They don't know what policy they want exactly, they just know that they want things to go back to the way they were in 2007. How that's meant to happen, who knows? If the government can't deliver, they must be crooked or evil.

Yeeaaah. Great plan. The Government may well be crooked and evil, but the straightest, most benevolent government isn't going to be able to put the Greek Fiscal Humpty Dumpty back together to 2007 days.

2. Still on the topic of Big Government, Mark Steyn eviscerates Michael Bloomberg's tendency to be enthusiastic for nanny-state policies, but less so for ordinary tasks of local government like clearing the streets of snow:
That’s the very model of a can-do technocrat in the age of Big Government: He can regulate the salt out of your cheeseburger but he can’t regulate it on to Seventh Avenue.
Oooh, the burn!

3. Meanwhile in California, regulation shuts down startup businesses and benefits incumbents! Well, sometimes. Sometimes it benefits nobody. Pundits astounded! News at 11!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

X-Men and Foreign Policy

There is little doubt in my mind that the X-Men series of movies is far and away the best of the comic book movie adaptions.

Not because mutants are awesome, although they are.

No, the reason is that the X-Men is the only series where everybody, heroes and villains, has a believable motivation. And this is because it is ultimately a study in foreign policy.

Think about it. In nearly every comic movie, the plotline relies on some sort of villain who just loves evil for the sake of evil. Sometimes, this can be done in a very compelling way, like the Joker in the new Batman movies. More often it's not, like the Green Goblin in the Spiderman movie. But either way, the characters are never quite plausible, because the bad guys usually relish their nasty actions without any covering narrative. In real life, however, nobody is the villain in their own tale.

X-Men works very well, however, because the groups closely resemble the different attitudes of foreign policy groups, and end up capturing competing and incompatible views that are still internally reasonable.

The audience is positioned to sympathise with Professor X, who is the foreign policy dove. He is pro-mutant, but sympathetic to humans. He believes that humans and mutants can get along, and is always working to defuse conflict between the two groups. The recent movie explores this idea well - Charles Xavier is the liberal son of privilege, the deserving aristocrat working towards the betterment of human/mutant relations. He believes that people can get along because he himself is such a genial and reasonable character - if the world were filled with more people like Charles Xavier, they would all get along! By the end of the movie, he recognises the need for mutants to stay mostly hidden, but always maintains an optimism that by setting a better example, mutants and humans can coexist.

Magneto, on the other hand, is the foreign policy hawk. He, too, is pro-mutant, but believes that mutants and humans will inevitably be in existential conflict - humans will never accept mutants, and battle between them can only be delayed (to the advantage of humans) but not avoided. In the movie, Magneto is a Polish Jew captured by the Nazis during the Holocaust. This is his introduction to the dark side of human nature, and the willingness of humans to be xenophobic and cruel, or to simply go along with leaders who think this way.

But where the movies actually get interesting is the interplay with the third group, namely the humans. In the movies, humans are usually portrayed quite negatively. There are some who are willing to co-exist with mutants, but a deep undercurrent of suspicion and mistrust characterises the general attitude towards mutants. And even when the humans are co-operating, there is always a group with a tendency to view the wholesale killing of all mutants as the most expedient solution to make the whole problem go away.

And this is the real genius of the series. The audience is drawn to sympathise with the dove viewpoint and mutants in general (and interestingly, not with the humans in the movie). And so while watching it, you want the doves to be right. You keep thinking 'But I like the mutants! Why can't everybody get along? If only the humans understood the doves better! If only the hawks could be made into doves'.

But the ways the humans are portrayed, there is lots of evidence that perhaps the hawks are right - the average person won't ever really accept mutants, and will eventually want to kill them all, or round them up and keep them in prisons. In other words, the Holocaust. This problem, of course, gets exacerbated by the hawks, who attack the humans, thereby increasing the dislike of mutants, and making it harder for an uninformed human to make a 'good mutants / bad mutants' distinction.

And this is why you get the most interesting interplay of all, between Professor X and Magneto. They both want to help mutants, but have irreconcilable views on how this should be done. As a result, they find themselves drawn into conflict with each other, but reluctantly so, and always with an eye towards their mutual need to protect themselves from human anger.  And ultimately, Professor X and Magneto are genuinely old friends who understand each other's position.

The fact that this is done so successfully is far more impressive writing feat than Marvel is normally given credit for. But doubt not that this interplay is deliberate and very cleverly thought out.

I recommend the new X-Men movie highly.

Monday, June 27, 2011

It Sure Can!


(Couldn't find the original source to link to - sorry HumourTouch)

Metaphor of the Day

From Peter Gabriel's excellent song, Biko.

The subject matter is the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, beaten to death by South African police.
"You can blow out a candle,
But you can't blow out a fire.
Once the flame begins to catch,
The wind will blow it higher."
A wonderful metaphor. And he was right, of course.

Sadly the removal of apartheid didn't turn out to herald a panacea for South Africa. But it's probably asking a bit much of a single metaphor to capture that too, so good work Peter Gabriel.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Starbucks is in the Sanctimony Business

I remember when I used to enjoy Starbucks coffee cups. They had a series called 'The Way I See It', which would feature interesting quotes from various people. There was a lot of modish lefty claptrap, to be sure, but it was usually of the mild and inoffensive kind. And I would actually enjoy seeing what they had.

This was in part designed to appeal to snobbish sensibilities - look at us, identifying with educated thinkers of acceptable elite opinion! But they disguised this well, and it was generally a nice touch.

But sooner or later, they ran into the H.L. Mencken (or P.T. Barnum, depending on which website you believe) dictum that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. The message of sanctimony was a bit too subtle. How to jazz it up? The answer, of course, was this monstrosity:


That's right, apparently buying your $4 coffee makes you a regular Mother Theresa for the word's poor. Never mind the acres of newsprint devoted to exposing what a sham "fair trade" coffee is. (If it was purchased consensually and not taken at the point of a gun, that's fair trade enough in my opinion).

No, what is hilarious is how blatant they are in trying to make you feel puffed up and proud for your role in helping the poor. They've reached the reductio ad absurdum of anti-poverty campaigners - no need to change your behaviour, just feel good about the things you were doing anyway! Could they make it any more explicit that this campaign has absolutely nothing to do with third world coffee farmers and everything to do with how you feel about how special you are for helping out third world coffee farmers? Don't be surprised when marketers see through this sham and react to the incentives that customers are providing - helping poor people is expensive but making people feel self-righteous is cheap! Let's increase the amount of self-righteousness per unit of help to poor people!

I can't decide what is more depressing - the fact that Starbucks thinks their customers are this hollow and conceited, or that they're probably right.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Casinos - A Moneymaking Machine!

One of the things I find interesting about casinos is how they expose people's odd ideas about what makes a good stock purchase.

In popular conception, the casino is the ultimate licence to print money. You can't fail! The house always wins! Suckers come in, spend money on gambling, suckers walk out, profit!

Because of this, so the reasoning goes, you should always want to own the casino. The best approximation is to own the casino's stock.

For some reason, people don't think this way about, say, the box factory. The reasoning, however, is just as (in)applicable. Wood pulp comes in, boxes get made, suckers come in, spend money on boxes, suckers walk out, profit!

The reality is that casinos are a business, just like any other. Sure, once you get people playing, the odds are in favour of the house. But if there's free entry into the casino market, there's going to be a lot of casinos cropping up to compete for gamblers. And to get them to come to you, you have to spend money - on subsidised hotel rooms and buffets, on lavish decoration, on complimentary drinks etc. All of these things cost money. And as long as you're making abnormal profits, new casinos are likely to keep entering until you're only making normal profits.

To give you a sense of this, let's compare some real casinos and box factorys. Let's start with the most basic measures of profitability. We'll compare a typical Casino (Las Vegas Sands corporation (LVS) with a typical box factory (International Paper (IP).

According to Yahoo, the box factory had a return on assets of 5.34%, and a return on equity of 16.38%. The Casino, by contrast, had a return of assets of 4.78%, and a return on equity of 13.55%.

Not exactly a slam dunk for the casino, is it?

But there's a bigger misconception here - most people don't make a distinction between a good company and a good stock. In the language of the common man, you're better off buying a crappy but underpriced company than a solid but overpriced company. Stock prices only react to news. If everyone already knows that Google is going to be an awesome company in the future, you'll have to pay extra for that fact now. And when it in fact becomes awesome, your stock price won't go up, because people had already taken that into account. The stock price will only go up if Google turns out to be an even better company than people thought.

In finance, one way to think about this idea is comparisons of price and asset value. Price-to-Book Value of Equity measures the ratio of the share price to the accounting value of equity. Price-to-Earnings measures the ratio of the share price to the previous year's earnings. Both of these capture a rough sense of how "cheap" or "expensive" the company is.* (I hope finance students will forgive my hand-waving here)

By this measure, our box factory has a price-to-book ratio of 1.73, and a price-to-earnings ratio of 10.94. The casino has a price-to-book ratio of 4.20, and a price-to-earnings ratio of 49.48. By both measures , the box factory is cheap and the casino is expensive.

According to no less an authority than Fama and French (1992) , this predicts that the box factory will also have higher stock returns in the future.

And this is in part due to the basic point at the start. Precisely because everyone thinks that casinos are a money-making machine, they bid up the stock price, making them a lousy purchase and forecasting low stock returns. And because the box factory isn't exciting to people, it has a lower price, making it a better purchase and forecasting high stock returns.

The moral of the story is that you should be wary of pop-culture perceptions of what makes a good stock purchase. And if you need a rule of thumb, boring is better.

*Fama and French claim that book-to-market could also be a measure of risk, and it might be. In my anecdotal experience, if there's someone other than Fama or French who deep-down truly believes this, I'm yet to meet them.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nuclear Waste - As Long As We Don't Think About It, It Will Go Away

Popular opinion seems to be incredibly averse to the idea of nuclear waste dumps being located, well, anywhere.  Anywhere near them, at a minimum, but to a large extent anywhere at all. This idea seems to be rooted in the notion that as long as you don't approve a permanent place for nuclear waste, then the waste itself will just disappear. The reality, of course, is that it just keeps building up at temporary locations, which are much less suitable than most of the proposed permanent locations.

Take the story of Yucca Mountain, the proposed long-term storage facility in Nevada. Let's let wikipedia tell the story:
Although the location has been highly contested by environmentalists and non-local residents such as in Las Vegas over 100 miles away, it was approved in 2002 by the United States Congress. However, under pressure from the Obama Administration funding for development of Yucca Mountain waste site was terminated effective with the 2011 federal budget passed by Congress on April 14, 2011. ... This leaves United States civilians without any long term storage site for high level radioactive waste, currently stored on-site at various nuclear facilities around the country...
What's the worst thing that could possibly happen to nuclear waste? Let's assume that, defying all likely physics, the nuclear waste somehow manages to transform itself into a supercritical mass of weapons grade material, causing a nuclear explosion wherever it's being stored. That, we can all agree, would be pretty damn bad.

So let me submit a modest proposal.

The US has currently performed 1054 nuclear tests between 1945 and 1992. A good number of these took place at the Nevada test site, 65 miles from Las Vegas. So why not just store the waste there? Is there anything that could conceivably happen to the waste that would be worse than the 928 nuclear explosions that have already occurred there!  Do you notice people fleeing Las Vegas because a whole lot of nukes were exploded 65 miles away? I sure don't. As long as people aren't thinking about the nukes, they seem content to go on their merry way.

There was a proposal to store nuclear waste in Australia, which is blessed with huge areas of worthless, geologically stable desert. Cue the environmentalists shrieking about the possible impact on the priceless dirt out there, and the possibility of contaminating the water supply in a place that gets virtually no rain anyway. If I were an Australian politician, I would offer to store nuclear waste from around the world, and commit to paying out the proceeds as a cheque to each household. That way you could make an ad that explicitly captured the tradeoff:

"What do you care about more? This $500 cheque? Or the fact that radioactive materials might be stored on a worthless patch of desert where the Brits already tested a bunch of nuclear bombs?"

Put that way, the debate might suddenly become a lot more reasonable.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Trendy Job Titles

You learn a lot about trends in popular perceptions of the economy (the corporte zeitgeist, if you will) by looking at what job titles people choose to give themselves.

In the late 90's and early 2000's the buzzword was 'consulting'. Everyone was a consultant of some form. Usually, it was left unspecified (until the impolite pushed the point) as to
A) what was the subject matter being consulted on
B) what the person's relevant qualifications or experience were, if any, and
C) whether they actually had any clients, or had received any meaningful remuneration in their chosen profession.

In fact, it is precisely these vague aspects that make the term so appealing - the unemployed programmers get to lump themselves in with McKinsey, and hope nobody spots the difference. They're just waiting for a company to hire them to tell them and hear all about the mistakes the company is making.

Somewhere along the line, consulting became passé. The new hot job title, it seems, is 'working at a startup'. This has the same benefits as before. What is conjured up is 'founding the next facebook' or 'CFO of groupon'. The reality might be anywhere from working at a company making napkins, to being unemployed and toying with the idea of writing an iPhone app to track navel lint (or whatever), even though you have no programming experience.

You observed something similar for a while going on with the phrase 'I work at a non-profit'. For better or worse, I don't meet enough people who would be in a position to be claiming this, so can't tell you if it still has the same cachet (at least relative to "I work for a Catholic charity" or "I volunteer for the Sea Shepherds").

My guess is that the time that people stop saying that they work at startups will roughly coincide with the time that technology startups start trading at reasonable price-to-earnings ratios, and I might think about buying shares in them.

Friday, June 17, 2011

I killed Tupac!

So apparently some guy has confessed to killing Tupac. The rap world being what it is, this will no doubt lead to notoriety, record deals and groupies.

My guess though is that once convicted felons realise this is the consequence of confessing to Tupac's killing, you're going to get a scene like this.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas

I have little enthusiasm for watching professional sport. Partly this is a result of the fact that none of my sports of choice (cricket, Australian Rules Football) have any following in this country, but even back in Oz I was at best a casual observer. Partly, this is also a snobbery about the kinds of people who get excited about sporting teams - let's just say that I wouldn't expect to converse with them about their favourite opera, poet, foreign politician, or economist. There are exceptions, of course - Steve Sailer writes lots of interesting stuff about sports. But the prior stays mostly where it is. And every now and then, you remember why.

As far as I understand it, in the NHL finals recently Vancouver just lost the Stanley Cup to Boston. It was game 7 in the series, and Canadians are famously hockey-mad.

So how do you respond to this disappointment? A few sad ales? Complaining to your friends about the refereeing? Ranting on the internet?

No. Apparently, if you're Canucks fans, you decide to riot and trash your own city.

I note in passing that disappointment at Eugene Fama being passed over for the Nobel Prize in Economics has yet to produce this response in Hyde Park.

Make sure to check out the pictures at the link above. Look at these lecherous, middle class dipshits, grinning and posing next to burning police cars and trashed stores in their own home town. What a laugh! Some guy's car is being tipped over!

This juxtaposition on reddit summed it up well. These pampered, spoiled brats go bananas over ... what? One sporting team losing to another? That's your big complaint in life?

It reminds me of this wonderful essay by Jason Lee Steorts on the Batman movie.
Let me end on a personal note. I hate vandals. My friends ask what makes me a conservative, and sometimes I wonder myself, but there is an answer, and it’s that I hate vandals. The problem with vandals is not that they are wrong about a conceptual matter. The problem is that they smash beautiful things. They couldn’t care less about your rules or your God or your conception of the good. You have to stop them with tools that work.
Just so. In this case, thankfully, the prudent response is also the satisfying one - send in the riot police early and hard to bust heads. The key dynamic in riots seems to be that there's a hardcore group of initial instigators who start breaking stuff, and a whole lot of average joes sitting around waiting to see what happens. The instigators on their own can't actually wreck a city, as there's not enough of them. The really dangerous point is when the average joes see that the police aren't stopping anything. At that point, they start thinking, wouldn't it be fun to smash a window and swipe some stuff? And there's a whole lot of them wondering this at the same time, waiting to see what happens. Average people start joining in, and the trickle becomes a flood.

The good news is that average joes are the most amenable to being deterred by riot police making arrests and busting heads. And even if they are temporarily too high on destruction to be deterred, as least you can get the cathartic pleasure of seeing vandals and thugs getting their asses kicked.

In terms of the tools that work, this is a good start. This is even better.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Apropos nothing, the great Robert Frost.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I love this poem a lot. It manages to say much, even though most of the poem is merely describing the scene. The point, only made explicit at the end, seems to me to be partly about the short time we have on earth and the relation of man to nature. Nature is ambiguous in the poem - beautiful, but somewhat lonely and foreboding. The poem notes that the duties of the world we live in stop us from usually really noticing this, and instead we rush on on the long road that ends in sleep, with the repetition suggesting the second meaning of the long sleep we all face eventually.

Serious poetry fans eschew Frost, because he is too common and accessible, and thus affords few opportunities for snobbery and condescension. And while it would be easy to mock this motivation as being stupid (and it is), I think it is also unnecessary, since there is no danger of appearing too common by liking any sort of poetry these days (as opposed to, say, Lady Gaga). Frost, like Kipling, is popular because he is great - both of them are on the efficient frontier of 'profound' and 'accessible' - there are greater poets, and more accessible poets, but there are no poets who are both greater and more accessible.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

It's a trap!

SMBC nails the the question of how people keep falling for Trojan Horses. Gold!


Here's a free tip for how to turn any common or garden illegal action into a righteous protest against oppression.

Suppose you're jaywalking - the light says red, but you're going anyway. Normally, this just makes you a bit impatient. But to turn this action into a philosophical blow against oppression, just state loudly while doing it:

"Government doesn't tell me what to do."

And presto! You have an obligation to resist the tyranny of the traffic signal. The sheep of this world obey merely because the government said so, but a free born citizen knows that Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, and right now, you're not giving that consent. As a patriot, Thomas Jefferson (or Sir Isaac Isaacs if you're Australian) will be applauding your actions somewhere far off.

If you need to pad out this philosophical battle cry, I suggest the elaboration, "The government makes suggestions on how I should act. Sometimes I follow them, sometimes I don't."

Notwithstanding the hyperbolic nature of this post, I do actually do this when I jaywalk. It just seems that much more righteous.

Friday, June 10, 2011

It's my RIGHT to get something for nothing!

Via Jerome Cardinal comes this great Charlie Brooker piece, talking about how the internet makes everyone get a huge sense of entitlement about how everything should be free:
I once read an absolutely scathing one-star review in which the author bitterly complained that a game had only kept them entertained for four hours.

I actually paid for the premium version of Pandora, because the product itself was good, and I was getting infuriated hearing the same ads for Farmer John's Bacon Wrapped Hot Dogs 5 times an hour. Which, when you think about it, is a great subtle strategy to make people pay money.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right

Sometimes you see a debate where both sides are picking positions that just seem crazy. Like recently in New Zealand. This story is full of so much fail all round. It describes new penalties that New Zealand has enacted for copyright enfringement:
This past April, to the dismay of many, New Zealand enacted The Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Bill to combat online infringement. The legislation allows for penalties of up to NZ$15,000 ($12,000) to be paid to the copyright owner, repeat infringers can have their Internet account suspended for up to six months.
Got that? Download something off BitTorrent, and they cut off your internet for 6 months. They could have just called it the "Punishing Small-Time Nobodies at Excessive Levels in a Vain Attempt to Undo the Impact of the Internet on Record Company Profits Act of 2011".

So how does New Zealand Justice Minister Simon Power defend this turd of a piece of legislation?:
“The legislation that we passed a number of weeks ago now was thoroughly consulted over a two-year period,” he said. “I’m confident that it’s been through just about every test and every forum it could have been to get where it is today.”....he thought the agreement between ISPs and copyright holders was “satisfactory.” 
Translation: It may suck, but we sure read a lot of stuff and tried hard to focus group it through all the various lobby groups. Except consumers. Whoops.

So, you're faced with an unpopular, draconian Bill stuffed fat with measures to protect special interest business groups. How would you go about building a consensus for repeal? Why, with ridiculous hyperbole and leftist agitprop, of course!:
However, last week Frank La Rue, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, submitted a report concluding that disconnecting Internet users, “regardless of the justification provided,” is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights because it limits the type of media individuals are allowed to use to express themselves.
So now internet access is a human right, eh? I wonder how many generations of my ancestors toiled and perished, not knowing that they were having their rights violated by not being able to post to a blog.

This is the worst kind of modish, 'everything that might be desirable is now a right' view of the world. Doesn't the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression have better things to do than criticise New Zealand? Like, you know, perhaps talk about how Syria is closed off to the world while its government shoots hundreds of unarmed protesters.

Isn't it enough to point out that this is an egregiously bad draw, ramping up punishment levels to vainly compensate for the fact that enforcement  practically impossible? Isn't it enough to make that point that seldomly enforced laws with extreme penalties result in hugely inequitable variation in outcomes between people committing the same crime, with most getting away free and a tiny number losing everything? Isn't it enough to question what actual social harm this whole damn exercise is even meant to remedy?

If there's one thing designed to unite people in favour of a domestic policy, it's having UN busybodies declaring it against international law. Sheesh, with friends like these...

As Kissinger reputedly said about the Iran/Iraq war - it's a shame they can't both lose.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mental Accounting and Countries

Mental accounting is the idea that people think about outcomes in terms of particular categories, or mental accounts. You think of the profits on your risky share portfolio as being one set of money, and the profits on your kid's college fund invested in safe bonds as another set of money, and evaluate them differently. In reality, it's all your money, and it's all transferable. You ought to be optimising over the whole portfolio, but people usually don't.

Another area this shows up is in terms of travelling to countries. There is a certain class of traveller who I refer to as a 'list-checker'. They view it as their mission to go to as many countries as possible. But crucially, they tend to only go to each one once, and each one is somewhat interchangeable. Typically, these people are amongst the worst bores for telling travel stories, constantly interjecting 'I've been there' whenever a country comes up. This interruption is rarely associated with an actually interesting anecdote related to the current discussion, but instead is merely there to remind you how cultured and worldly they are. Their aim is not necessarily 'seeing more stuff', but more 'getting to tell people they've been to dozens of countries'.

If you want to see how this makes no sense at all, consider a map of South America.

(image credit)

According to wikipedia numbers, Brazil has about 48% of the total land area of South America, and about 52% of the people in South America. So regardless of whether you're after a representative sample of seeing different geography in South America or meeting different people in South America, you ought to spend half your South American vacations in Brazil, and the other half in the rest of the countries combined.

The list-checker doesn't work this way, of course. They'll spend a week in Brazil doing 4 days in Rio and 3 in Sao Paulo, and declare victory. "I've already been to Brazil!", they'll declare. "Let's check out what's in Suriname."

The answer is of course, "f*** all", and they'd be much better off seeing more of Brazil. That's assuming that they're actually after more interesting experiences. On the other hand, if you take their preferences seriously and think that there really is nothing more important than checking off that list, then they should stick to what they're doing. Tick off that country!

Here's the way to tell if you're a list-checker or not. If the northern half of Brazil decided to split off into a separate country called 'Holmesia', would you feel a subtle urge to go there that you don't currently feel?

If you would, you are mega lame. (Unless you're so enamoured of yer 'umble narrator that you're drawn by the name alone - in that case, think of it as 'Amazonia', and do the exercise again.)

Don't be that guy. Nobody likes a list-checker.

Transmission Errors... Please Stand By

Sorry for the lack of updates, I've been travelling back to the old country. In related nostalgia, is there a better coffee than a flat white? So delicious.

I'll try to keep up the flow of hilarity, and let you know when to expect the full strength version of my half-assed blogging that you know and tolerate, rather than the half-strength quarter-assed version of the moment.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Coase Theorem and Hotel Bathrooms

It is possible to un-wrinkle a suit-jacket by hanging it in the bathroom, turning on the shower, and leaving the steam to remove the creases.

I can safely report that this process has the side effect of turning the bathroom into a soggy mess, with sodden toilet paper rolls and water dripping from the ceiling.

The extra time spent for the maid to clean the bathroom is likely less than the cost of dry cleaning a jacket free of charge.

Somewhere, Ronald Coase is shaking his head.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Once, my weight followed a mean-reverting process, something like an AR (1).

Then it followed a random walk.

Now it seems to follow a ratchet.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Taxonomy of Tea

You can learn a lot about how people view things by examining the taxonomy they use to describe them. The reason for this is that people will start out with the first distinctions being the ones they perceive as most important.

Violating my own rule, it is easy to get a snapshot of what is wrong with the quality of tea in America by examining the taxonomy used to describe it. Implicitly, the taxonomy can be thought of as the question that comes next when you say 'Can I order a tea?'. It's the formulation of "What sort of tea - X, Y or Z'? The choice of X, Y and Z says much about what is viewed as the important variation in teas, and that in turn tells you the level of perception.

Before we get to America, let's start with how the taxonomy appears to a tea connoisseur.

This indicates a familiarity with the main types of tea, and if this is the first question, you can be sure that many more detailed questions will follow. This is the mark of someone who knows what they're talking about.

Let's look at how the taxonomy appears to the reasonable middle class tea drinker in most commonwealth countries.

The assumption here is black teas, but that's okay, since they're the main teas that are drunk in western countries. Moving down the refinement scale, you'll get
In this case, the implicit subset is 'Black' and probably 'English Breakfast' (or more realistically 'Black' and 'What's the Difference Anyway'). So this is at the okay but not great level - these are still reasonable teas, and the milk/no milk (or sugar/no sugar) distinction gets to questions of taste. I'll pay it, but just.

So what's the first level of the American taxonomy? What do you get asked when you order tea?

Yeesh. In other words, Iced teas are about 50% of the relevant variation. If you have to add 'Hot', you've already got a problem. The probability that you'll be getting a teabag is close to 98% at this point, and the likelihood that you'll be offered milk without asking is probably less than 50%.

It's like if you went to an electronics store and asked for a TV and were asked 'A Colour TV?', you've probably be worried about whether you'd walked back into the 1970s. Same thing with 'hot' tea. Is there any other civilised kind?

A friend of mine who lived in the South told me of a circle of tea hell that is even one level lower

In this case, the assumption that the tea will be iced is so obvious as to go unstated. Ye Gods.

Thank goodness for internet tea purchases, that's all I can say.

Getting back to my rude foreigners rule, tea notwithstanding, America is a great country. This may sound like the 'some of my best friends are black/Jews/gay' defense, but it's true.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


In Praise of Monolingualism

One of the standard markers of being sophisticated is learning a second language. This is regarded as an unadulterated "good thing", and the multilingual sophisticates look down on the mouth-breathing, Walmart-shopping, non-passport-owning plebs that never bothered to learn a language other than English. Don't they know what they're missing? The chance to speak to people in other countries! The chance to learn about the assumptions of one's own language at a deeper level! The chance to read great books in their original language!

Now, gentle reader, I must confess to once being drawn towards such logic. Several times I slogged away through my teach-yourself-Spanish mp3s, usually in the lead-up towards a trip to some Spanish speaking country, and out of a sense that it would be cool.

What I would inevitably find once I got to said country is that knowing a little bit of a language is basically no better than not knowing anything. In particular, the range of questions you can ask and understand the response for is almost the same as those you can get with pointing and gestures.You can ask what stuff costs, as long as you know numbers. You can ask for directions (e.g. to the bathroom), but anything that's not immediately visible will be an answer too complicated to understand. You can maybe read a menu, but even that can be done (and I did once) just by pointing and making animal noises. The simple reality is that a wad of money that you're trying to spend, and possibly a phrasebook, is about as useful as a year or two of learning a language.

The main reason to learn a second language is when your first language isn't English. English has become what Esperato fanboys always claimed to want - a common lingua franca language that everyone could speak and understand. Strangely, the Esperanto folks aren't celebrating this fact.

The reality is that learning a language is one of those things that always seems great, as long as you don't consider the opportunity cost. If you force kids to learn a language at school, that's time they're not spending on maths, history or science. However the argument is always phrased as 'learning a language is important!', not 'learning a language is more important than spending the time on science', even though that's the relevant comparison. Sounds a bit less convincing the second way, doesn't it?

In my case, the opportunity cost was the fact that I didn't get to listen to music while driving to work, and had to concentrate hard the whole drive. What a trivial cost! Who wouldn't give that up?

Well, in the end, me. After noting this discrepancy between my stated and revealed preference, eventually I just became comfortable with what revealed preference was telling me - I didn't actually want to learn Spanish, and I did actually enjoy listening to my music. The only change was that I stopped feeling remotely bad about the fact that I don't speak anything other than English.

In the mean time, the google translate app, which now speaks sentences in dozens of different languages and can be carried around in your phone, has done little to modify my earlier views.