Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wall Street Occupied, Brain Cavities Vacant

In Manhattan, the 'Occupy Wall Street' protests continue to protest against whatever the hell it is that they're protesting against - capitalism, bailouts, Wall Street, 'corporate greed', et cetera.

The Last Psychiatrist is on fire on this one, nailing the motivation of a lot of the protesters:
Though narcissism demands the right to self-identify, narcissists are often unable to do so because they don't know what it is they want to be. Who am I? What are the rules of my identity? So people look for shortcuts, like modeling oneself after another existing character. But the considerably more regressive maneuver is to define yourself in opposition to things. "I can't tell you what I want for dinner," says the toddler, "but I am certain I don't want that. Or that. Or that. And if you put that slop in front of me I swear to God you will wear it." 
What do the protestors want? Can they articulate it meaningfully, not in platitudes or "people over profits" or "more fair income redistribution" soundbites? They can't tell you because they don't know. They can, however, yell at you what they don't like, and the louder they yell it the more they hear it themselves.
Exactly. These protests are all about righteous indignation by young people. I'd wager that if you asked the people there 'What, specifically, do you actually want to happen?', they wouldn't actually know. So you want to shut down Wall Street, huh? Okay, so do you want to prohibit all equity financing of companies? So how do people raise finance for large enterprises when they don't have pledgeable assets - wouldn't that make it really hard to create Google? Or do you just want to prohibit the trading of shares in secondary markets? In that case, won't entrepreneurs be reluctant to start businesses, knowing that they have to run them forever and their holdings in the company will be completely illiquid? And if you shut down markets, how will people share risk - how should wheat farmers hedge their exposure to wheat prices when the futures markets close? What's that, you say? You have absolutely no God damn idea?

To make the protests even stupider, when a bunch of people want to protest with sensible complaints (no more bailouts of major banks), they attract the usual rabble of professional protesters with moronic complaints (end capitalism!), thereby ensuring that the overall message of the protest will be
a) vague and unfocused, and
b) at least half comprised of stupidity.

So Joe Public turns on the TV, and just sees the usual rabble of stupid signs and unwashed hippies that turn up at WTO meetings and the G20 summits, and dismisses them as a bunch of punk kids.

This is all so incredibly predictable that you have to assume these people haven't really thought this through, or just aren't interested in enacting any change. I'm betting on the latter - they are simply in love with their own sense of self-righteousness, and the protests are merely a prop for this.

The Last Psychiatrist continues here:
But when the oppressive entity is so poorly defined (e.g. Wall Street, “the banks”, corruption) these protests always and without fail turn into protests against the police. Idiotically, in the minds of the protestors, the police are standing in for the banks. So all their antagonism and vitriol is turned against police officers who would probably rather be doing anything than babysitting the hipsters attending their social media drum circle.
This became more apparent when one of the protesters got maced, apparently without any provocation, and it was captured on YouTube.

As a matter of practicality, having a bunch of unarmed girls get maced on camera has been immensely valuable to the protests. It inevitably generates a good deal of middle class sympathy for them, which (because of the vagaries of human psychology) tends to spill over into support for their cause. Watching the video above reminded me of a post by the War Nerd on the value of martyrs in guerrilla warfare:
The value of a dead body only came along with modern guerrilla warfare and the notion of martyrs, because guerrilla wars tend to start off with some kind of suicidal attack like the ones the Muslims staged in Southern Thailand a few years back. They stood around waving machetes outside fortified police barracks and got mowed down. What you do then is take the bodies home, make a big fuss over them, stage giant funerals—funerals are very, very important in guerrilla culture—and generally talk them up. Since most of these guys are barely trained or untrained, they’re not worth much alive—like those KLA men who were totally uselsss as live fighters—but they can be valuable as Hell once they’re dead. It’s just a much easier job, lying still in a coffin. Not nearly as easy to mess up as your basic L-shaped ambush, which is a very tricky thing. Hell, the average recruit can learn to be a good corpse in a tenth the time it takes to make a decent live guerrilla fighter.
Substitute 'dead bodies' for 'maced girls' and 'funerals' with 'protests about police brutality' about it's eerie how well that rings true.

Heckuva job, Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna! You manage to be both needlessly brutal against peaceful protesters AND promote their stupid cause at the same time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

See Ya Later Free Speech, We Hardly Knew Ye

Australia continues its lamentable decline as yet another country where the delicate feelings of designated victim groups trump freedom of speech.

The estimable Andrew Bolt was held today to have breached the Racial Discimination Act. Let The Australian tell the story:
At issue was Bolt's assertion that the nine applicants had chosen to identify themselves as “Aboriginal” and consequently win grants, prizes and career advancement, despite their apparently fair skin and mixed heritage. 
[Justice Mordecai Bromberg] found that "fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed in the newspaper articles" published in the Herald Sun.
I personally couldn't give a fig about whether Pat Eatock chooses to self-identify as Aboriginal or not. I care very deeply about the fact that Pat Eatock, with the help of the courts, feels that her exquisitely precious hurt feelings entitle her to sue people who say things she doesn't like. I care that Australia has decided that rather than laugh these claims out of court, it would prefer to join the camps of censorious, cowardly nations that have gutted the concept of free speech of all its meaning, limiting it effectively to citizens' right to agree with politically correct platitudes.

Yes readers, the Commonwealth of Australia, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that nothing is more important than whether your words might subject Pat Eatock to "highly personal, highly derogatory and highly offensive attacks".

Here is the relevant section of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) that Bolt was held to have breached:
SECT 18C Offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin

(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.
Following my own advice, you should read the original judgment here. I waded through it, and didn't find myself any less outraged.

Starting at paragraph 67, you can find nearly one hundred paragraphs as to just how terribly hurt and offended the plaintiffs were by the mean, nasty Andrew Bolt, wrapped in all the hackneyed, threadbare language of the professional grievance industry - "offended", "humiliated", "insulted", "disgusted", "angry", "upset".

My advice to the plaintiffs - grow a fucking spine.

You can also find wonderful nuggets testifying to the decayed state of free speech in Australia. At paragraph 350:
The right to freedom of expression is limited to its reasonable and good faith exercise having regard to the right of others to be free of offence. The requirement of proportionality does not involve the subjugation of one right over the other and is consistent with achieving a balanced compromise between the two.
How wonderful and balanced our free speech is to be, compared with this crucial and equally important right to be 'free from offence'.

Generally speaking, there are defences available for fair comment and public interest. But too bad, because according to Mordecai Bromberg they didn't apply! You can read all about it.

Perhaps the best thing about this is that the original articles are included at the bottom of the judgment. Read them for yourself and decide just how hurtful they are, and whether a free and just society ought to outlaw their publication.

So how does Pat Eatock justify this farce to herself?
After the decision, which was greeted by applause and cheers in the Federal Court, Pat Eatock said ``It's never been an issue of freedom of speech, it's been an issue of professionalism.''
Pat Eatock apparently is either too brainless or too disingenuous to countenance the possibility that the case might be both an issue of professionalism and freedom of speech, in the same way that September 11 was both an issue of architecture and terrorism, and the play Othello was both an issue of Venetian military structure and murder. I'm also look forward to Pat Eatock's fascinating exposition on what rational theory of government would require a role for the Australian Government as the regulator of media 'professionalism' in the first place.

I have long held proudly to the Australian cultural tradition of plain-spoken humour, robust public debate and a generally relaxed attitude to matters of race, gender and sexuality.

What a fucking joke. It's time to accept the fact that the Australia now has a plurality of nitwits who think that the appropriate response to nasty newspaper articles is to draft and pass laws making them illegal, and to drag the publishers of such articles into lawsuits costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What an embarrassing travesty for the country I love. What a humiliating debasement of freedom from a once free and proud people.

In the current context, it brings me no joy at all to type these words:

I'm glad I live in America.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My Worst Nightmare

Over at Reddit is this frightening post where this parent describes the problems he's having with his 17 year old child.
Our oldest has, in the last two years, done the following:
-set fires in the house
-attempted to strangle his mentally disabled brother
-stolen alcohol, hundreds of pills, and drunk bottles of vanilla extract in an attempt to get high
-carved cabinets with knives
-took knives to school and threatened classmates
-made threats to kill everyone in church and burn it down
-sneaks girls in the house, unprotected sex, sexting, etc.
-broken several pieces of electronic equipment by slamming it down in rage
-peed and pooped on a classmate's backpack for fun
-stolen money from both us and his siblings
-animal abuse, can't leave him with siblings
-lies constantly, manipulates everyone he comes in contact with
-sexual harassment of young girls ages 13 or younger
-consistently poor grades
Jesus. What do you do if you have a child like that? It seems apparent that the kid as some serious psychiatric problems. The parents sound both very patient and sincere, and it doesn't sound like they've refused to impose discipline. Although all the lack of discipline in the world doesn't make teenagers act this way. It's like you've got Kim Jong Il as your son, or Uday Hussein, or Charles Manson.

Your children have the ability to make your life into a complete miserable hell. And once you've had them, you're stuck. No matter how awful they are, you're legally obligated to keep looking after them until they're 18.

But that's not the full extent of the problem. Even once the kid is 18, suppose the parents kick him out of the house. It seems highly unlikely that this will actually be the end of the problem. If anything, you run the risk that he'll try to burn your house down or something - it seems more likely than him deciding to just peacefully leave you alone.

But even suppose you do manage to sever contact. What happens when your kid murders someone in 5 years time? No matter how much you try to detach yourself, you're going to go through incredible turmoil and sadness, and wonder if you might have been able to do something different.

And there's no good answer. There's not even an answer that qualifies as merely 'bad'. You'd try to get the kid committed, I suppose, but when that's the best option, you're in a lot of trouble.

Having children is a huge lottery, with a wide range of possible outcomes. I think that when potential parents visualise the kind of unlucky outcomes that might occur, they tend to think of things like having severely disabled children that will require lifelong care. But that's not the really worrying case - disabled children will be hard work, but probably will also be a source of a great deal of joy.

No, the much worse case is having children who are just incurably, irredeemably evil and nasty, no matter what you do.

l'enfer, c'est les autres, indeed.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Samuel Menashe on Mortality

Pity us
Beside the sea
On the sands
So briefly

According to the obituary for him in The Economist, he wrote this poem on the sands of an Irish beach, where the tide would wash it away.

Not a single word is wasted in this poem. The tribute due to such a work is quiet contemplation - one ought to always be hesitant to offer commentary longer than the poem itself.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Algorithms that need improving

There’s nothing worse than being at the mercy of a poorly designed algorithm. You’ll be sitting there, knowing that if you were just given half an hour with their source code and maybe a programmer of theirs to explain the basic design, you could improve it

One of the classic examples is the ‘estimated arrival time’ on my GPS. A well-calibrated estimate should be too fast about half the time, and too slow about half the time. In the GPS case, however, their estimate is an understatement of your true travel time in about 95% of cases. The only, only time you’ll get there earlier than the GPS estimate is if you’re speeding for a significant fraction of the journey.

As near as I can tell, their estimate of speed is to take the total distance travelled and divide by the speed limit for each of the roads you’re travelling on.

For a company that makes GPS devices for a living, this is shockingly lazy. The big problem is that it seems to make zero adjustment for stop signs and traffic lights, meaning that it always takes too long. Traffic is another one that would be useful, but that’s probably harder to do. Still, it wouldn’t be hard to get a rough estimate – find major arterial roads, and increase the estimate by 50% if it’s between 7:30 and 9:30 or 5 and 7 on a weekday. I am highly confident that even something this simple would reduce the mean squared error in estimated travel times. That’s even without taking historical traffic data.

One that was even more infuriating was the one for the lifts in an old apartment of mine. The building was about 40 stories tall, and had about 4 elevators. During the interminable minutes spent waiting there every day, I deduced tha the algorithm would only send an elevator to the lobby if a) someone had pressed the down button, and b) the elevator in question was the lowest of the four. So what would happen is that you’d have elevators sitting there at floors 28, 35 and 39, and another one going up from floor 5. You’d sit there, watching the floor 5 elevator slowly make it’s way up each of its stops, and the other three would sit there doing nothing until the elevator that started at floor 5 reached floor 28. Only then would the floor 28 elevator start going down to the lobby.

This, as you can imagine, drove me absolutely batty. Talk about pure deadweight loss because some moron can’t add in a line saying:
‘If {No Elevator in Lobby} then send {lowest floor elevator with no buttons pressed} to lobby’.

Hundreds and hundreds of man hours were wasted in my building every year because the elevator company didn’t know what they were doing.

This is the kind of thing that almost nobody takes into account when choosing a building to live in – how quickly do the elevators seem to arrive? As my grandmother used to say, act in haste, repent at leisure. Or in this case, repent in slow minutes of agitation every day.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The End of the Movie

If I had to give an award for the most understated but profound song written in the last decade, it would be hard to beat ‘End of the Movie’, by Cake.

As a diversion, The Greek complains that he doesn’t like my music posts. To which I pre-empitively respond, ‘that’s because you don’t click on the video and listen to any of the songs I’m talking about, dumbass.’

The song begins by listing a litany of misery that will befall all of us, eventually
‘People you love
will turn their backs on you
You’ll lose your hair, your teeth
Your knife will fall out of its sheath’
The second verse provides the counterpoint from lost pleasures to enforced misery:
‘People you hate
Will get their hooks into you.
They’ll pull you down, you’ll frown
They’ll tar you and drag you through town.’
It’s true. Thus is the first Noble Truth, as the Great Sage put it.
But the chorus is the most interesting part:
‘But you still don’t like to leave
before the end of the movie.
No you still don’t like to leave
before the end of the show.’
What a wonderful, fascinating metaphor for the human condition. No matter how crap life gets, people tend to hang on. But I think the psychology is exactly right. Sometimes, people just want to stick around to see what happens next, even if they’re not really enjoying it – just like sitting through to the end of a bad movie.

This is something broader than the sunk cost fallacy, where people throw good money after bad (so to speak). The tendency to hang on until the end goes beyond whether things are good or bad, to just the core aspect that people will keep on living, because that's the only stable outcome in evolution.

It’s also quite understated too. It’s not about the dramatic instances of people making ferocious determined efforts against the odds to stay alive. Instead, most of the time people do it fairly unconsciously, just the same way they sit through the whole film – you want to see what happens next, and there’s a chance that it might get better. Beyond that, you don’t give it much thought.

This may be one of my favourite metaphors in modern music. If most songs have, at most, one really interesting line or idea that makes the whole song, this is a pretty damn excellent one.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Welcome to the Hotel USA

You can check out any time you like, but you can't leave until the IRS says so.

The Globe and Mail reports a story about the situation of many American citizens living abroad - they left the US years ago, didn't think twice about filing a tax return because they lived and worked overseas, and now are in the crosshairs of the IRS for potentially huge amounts of money.

The USA is almost unique among countries for the extent to which it pursues its citizens for tax payments after they emigrate. US citizens are required to file a tax return every year and report their worldwide income. Even if you haven't lived in the US for years. And if you've worked in a low-tax jurisdiction like Singapore, they'll demand the difference in tax between the Singapore tax rate and the US tax rate.

The only way you can get out of this is to renounce your citizenship. But in a delightful catch 22, they won't let you renounce your citizenship until... you guessed it... you file your back tax returns!

As a matter of practicality, if you've given the US the middle finger and don't plan to return, it's not really a problem - they're not going to travel to Kazakhstan to file suit against you. But if your elderly mother is in America and you might want to visit her at some point? Well, let's just say things get a bit complicated:
“It’s not the back taxes that will kill you,” Brian told me. “It’s the penalties.” It turns out the IRS can fine you for every unreported bank account, mutual fund and RRSP – at a rate of $10,000 per offence per year. It can also confiscate as much as 25 per cent of the maximum amount you’ve held in each account. This is so absurd it can’t possibly be true. But it is.
So I called our accountant. “Do I have to do it?” I wailed. “I can’t advise you,” he said. He told me that I might be able to get off the hook for only a few thousand dollars. “Can they come after me for more?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Nobody knows what they’ll do.”
Representative government at its best! Arbitrary penalties may be imposed upon you, and there's no way of finding out in advance how big they'll be.

Sadly, I see no chance of this changing. The federal government is desperate for money, and the cynical political calculus is that people who've lived overseas for years are unlikely to vote in elections, so f*** 'em.

I suspect that a lot of people will make the sad decision to just turn their back on the US for good than deal with the hassle of the IRS. I remember when London mayor Boris Johnson did the same in 2006, renouncing his US citizenship publicly in The Spectator. His reasons were even less - he fell victim of the fact that if you ever held a US passport, you can't travel into the US on anything other than a US passport. Yes, they're serious. Yes, they'll refuse you entry if you try. Yes, they won't even let you renounce your citizenship.
Last Sunday lunchtime we were boarding a flight to Mexico, via Houston, Texas, and we presented six valid British passports. As soon as the Continental Airlines security guy saw my passport, he shook his head. ‘Were you born in New York?’ he asked. ‘Have you ever carried an American passport?’
Yes, I said, but it had long since expired. ‘I am afraid we have a problem,’ he said. ‘The US Immigration say you have to travel on an American passport if you want to enter the United States.’ 
When the ranking officer arrived, the story was the same. ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said, ‘but you’ll have to go to the US Embassy tomorrow morning and get a new American passport.’ But I don’t want an American passport, I said, inspiration striking me. I tell you what: I renounce my American citizenship. I disclaim it. I discard it.
‘That’s not good enough, sir,’ he said. ‘I need some official document saying that you are no longer American,’ and that, of course, is the point of this piece.
So I circumnavigated America. I flew via Madrid, managing to beat the rest of my family to Mexico by 45 minutes; and yet I still seethe. It’s not just the stupidity of the rule that gets me. It’s the arrogance. What other country insists that because you can be one of its nationals, then you must be one of its nationals?
Well, I love America. But I don’t like being pushed around and kicked off flights to what, after all, they claim is my home country.
Can you blame him?

The IRS and US Immigration authorities have succeeded in the admirable task of driving away a good number of their most ambitious and adventurous citizens who spent years abroad, and might otherwise be at risk of travelling back the USA to work in productive jobs and contribute to the economy.

If you cannot leave your country, you are not a citizen but a slave. If you prevent someone from leaving without paying money in perpetuity, you are either a mob boss, someone who traffics in sex slaves, or the IRS. As they say in Russian - how can you not be ashamed?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Wired magazine has a very interesting piece about how a larger number of modern FDA clinical trials of new drugs are failing against the placebo tests. If this is just because the drugs are rubbish, that would be one thing. But there's some evidence that the placebo effect seems to be getting stronger - old drugs that passed the placebo tests when they were approved now don't seem to show much of an effect.

This is not an ideal test, of course. It's also quite possible that this is simply reversion to the mean - the old drugs never really had an effect, passed the initial tests just by luck, and now are back to their normal level of ineffectiveness.

The article does describe the time-series changes in the placebo-only effect, though:
But if these same drugs were vetted now, the FDA might not approve some of them. Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 1980s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time.
Let's assume for the purposes of argument that the placebo effect really has increased over time.

The reaction of the current FDA guidelines is to reject more drugs, as they don't seem to have any significant effect over sham medication. In terms of understanding the science behind the new medicine, this is a reasonable response - if you're not doing any better than sugar, your research isn't actually valuable.

But here's an alternative response that would make scientists aghast, but seems reasonable in terms of standard public health - if placebos are getting stronger, why doesn't the FDA just approve more placebos? They're doing the same thing, but costing virtually nothing! Hell, it's not like we need to spend billions of dollars on fundamental research to produce milk-and-sugar pills, and if the milk-and-sugar combination seems to produce better mental health at a cost of 0.2 cents per pill, let's start cranking it out!

The placebo effect is a real effect, but one that modern medicine is largely reluctant to embrace, because it makes their whole industry look like a joke. It says that a lot of the time they aren't doing better than witch doctors, and moreover that said witch doctors were actually having a real effect, despite not understanding anything (usually lacking any other effect than placebos, most of the time). This of course is deeply wounding to the pride of medical researchers.

But sod the medical researchers! If you believe these studies, increasingly valuable treatments from placebos are being denied to people, even though they'd cost pennies to produce.

Obviously there's some problems trying to do this under the current regime. The FDA couldn't tell people which medicines were placebos, otherwise they presumably wouldn't work. But it couldn't lump them together with the medicines that actually beat the placebos, without unfairly (and counter-productively) switching people away from more effective to less effective medication. If they only approved some placebos, this would create huge rents for the companies that they approved, unless they approved everything.

The simplest solution to all of this would be to simply abolish the FDA. I'm on board with this, but most people aren't. A more moderate (and politically feasible) alternative would be to restrict the FDA's mandate to simply testing for drug safety, not drug efficacy. Then we'd be able to capture the placebo effect to the fullest.

Science's reach must exceed its grasp, or else what is basic research for.

Scorning the placebo effect says that we don't trust anything we don't already grasp.

I say that if you can be pretty sure that what you're reaching is safe, reach away.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What's Italian for 'Incentives'?

From, comes this absurd story from Italy:
Seven scientists and other experts went on trial on manslaughter charges Tuesday for allegedly failing to sufficiently warn residents before a devastating earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy in 2009.
Hindsight bias! Get yer hindsight bias, piping hot and fresh from Italia! Cheaper when purchased by the gallon!

Let's put aside for a minute any question of actual moral culpability, and whether it's fair to hold people criminally liable for scientific predictions. Instead, let's assume that we're just interested in saving as many lives as possible and increasing the accuracy of earthquake forecasts (although astute readers will note that even this phrasing involves tradeoffs between the two goals). Does arresting seismologists who fail to predict earthquakes sound like good policy?

The trouble with incentives is that you need to think very carefully about whether you're actually creating the incentives you think you're creating.

I imagine the Italian authorities have the following mental model:

1. Massively increase the penalties for wrong predictions
2. Lazy and corrupt seismologists put more effort into getting the right predictions
3. Save lives!

But this is assuming the continued existence of seismologists making predictions in the first place. If you don't do this, then you have the following:

1. Massively increase the penalties for wrong predictions, while not increasing the payoff from correct predictions
2. Result is massively reduced payoffs from making any seismological predictions at all.
3. Seismologists quit en masse, or refuse to provide any guidance.
4. No more predictions.
5. Earthquake deaths.

Not quite the same thing, is it?

Okay, let's put Mussolini in charge! He'll chain those lazy seismologists to their desks and force them to keep making forecasts! Surely we'll be okay then, right?

Or maybe you've then set up the following incentives:

1. Massively increase the penalties for type II errors (i.e. false negatives: saying there won't be an earthquake when there will be one), but not increasing the penalties for type I errors (i.e. false positives: saying there will be an earthquake when there won't be one).
2. Seismologists predict an earthquake every single day of the year
3. People quickly learn to ignore all the warnings
4. Signal to noise ratio in earthquake predictions goes to zero, meaning that there are effectively no more meaningful earthquake predictions
5. Earthquake deaths.

Bureaucrats seem to think that ramping up penalties will create scientific knowledge where there was none. But it won't. All it will do is shift around the incentives and behaviour of agents in ways that are completely predictable, even if they are almost certainly not predicted by the bureaucrats.

In the mean time, you can expect displays of righteous indignation by prosecutors, giddy with hindsight bias, exactly sure that they knew there was going to be an earthquake, so why didn't those lazy seismologists? What you won't be able to get from them is any useful guidance on when the next earthquake is actually going to happen, notwithstanding their amazing hindsight powers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Before and After

Weight loss products are addicted to before-and-after testimonials. They show some fat, unhappy person, then, after only 8 weeks, miraculously they've lost over 15 kg, all thanks to the Holmes Ab-tastic DVD box set! Order yours today!

For some reason, the people in the photos never seem to be holding up, say, date-stamped copies of the Wall Street Journal in the before and after photos. Even assuming it's the same person, you have no way of knowing if they lost the weight over 2 weeks or 40 weeks. Which led me to thinking about how I'd set up a bogus weight loss program. I'd find women who were planning on getting pregnant, and pay them 100 bucks to take photos of them in workout gear and record their testimonials about the Holmes Ab-tastic system (TM). Then wait 10 months until they've given birth and still have the baby-weight, and get them to look sad for a photo. 30-something women just like you, able to get in incredible shape, all thanks to Shylock '8-Pack' Holmes! And all from 8 minutes of working out, twice a week for 3 weeks! The rubes would never know the difference.

Sometimes I think I missed my calling as a marketing con-man.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Almost Right

From the WSJ

"The Wealthiest 5% Grabbed Created Most of the [sic] America’s Gains"

There, fixed it for you.

Those Hackers!

(image credit)

So it turns out that Scarlett Johansson is the latest celebrity to have nude photos of her leaked onto the internet. (A little googling will easily turn them up, should you be interested, although I've got no idea why you would be).  Apparently the FBI is investigating whether this may have been the work of a hacker.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and make a wild prediction - no 'hacker' will be found. Not because the FBI will be unable to track them down (although, should they exist, that may well be true as well), but because I'm skeptical that any such hacker exists.

The problem is that this whole thing fails Hanlon's razor : Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

What would need to happen for this to be the work of hackers?

Well, first they'd need to know Scarlett Johansson's phone number or IP address.

You may have noticed that these things aren't exactly floating around the internet.

Then you'd need some sort of way to hack into the device. This is possible, but requires a fairly large skillset in computers. A skillset that might be able to pull you down a six figure salary doing a real job, rather than spending months trying to hack celebrities' phones and computers.

Now, people like this do actually exist. But this kind of job requires a lot of work, and runs the risk of serious jail time. That's a lot of effort just to look at some breasts. And sure enough, in the previous cases where people have been caught doing this kind of thing, there have been very big conventional incentives to justify their behavior.

In the News of the World phone hacking scandal, the incentive was that the newspaper was able to get big scoops about celebrities and politicians, and thereby sell a ton more papers and make lots of money. So they paid big bucks for phone hacking.

Anthony Pellicano was paid a lot by Hollywood celebrities to eavesdrop on other Hollywood celebrities.

But what happened here? The photos were leaked on the internet, so nobody made any money out of them. So far, nobody has claimed credit either, so there's no public props for being the hacker in question.

The incentives just don't make sense. It all sounds a little far-fetched.

Now, to motivate an alternative hypothesis, let me begin with a question.

Who do you think is going to be more enamored of naked photos of Scarlett Johansson to the point of keeping them on their phone?

a) Scarlett Johansson herself, or

b) Some dude that Scarlett Johansson sent the photos to.

Call me crazy, but I'm going with option b).

So consider the following alternative scenario.

Scarlett Johansson sent the pictures to former husband Ryan Reynolds, or some boyfriend before/since.

Said male keeps pictures on phone, because it's cool to have naked photos of Scarlett Johansson. Phone is left accidentally in a bar one night / left unattended and gone through by a friend / insert mishap here, and the interloper sends the photo to themselves. They then show it to their friends, and someone posts it on the internet, and it goes public.

Or how about 'Scarlett Johansson accidentally sends the photos to the wrong number in her phone book, and to hide her shame, invents a story about her phone being hacked and wastes the FBI's time as a face-saving measure'.

It happened to both Anthony Weiner and Hayley Williams, who were using twitter to try to send naked photos to someone privately, and managed to send them out as public tweets instead. Both claimed they'd been hacked, even though amazingly there was no evidence of any hacking that investigators could uncover.

Now, dear reader, ask yourself this - does it really seem likely that the leaking of these photos involved any 'hacking' more complicated than just sending a normal text message?

Let's just put it this way - I'm not holding my breath waiting for any arrests.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Derren Brown understands you better than you think

The worst mistakes are those that you don't even realise you're making.

I happened to learn about a bunch of them when I came across the work of Derren Brown. He does a lot of demonstrations of the power of suggestion, some hypnotism stuff (which I always thought was garbage, until I saw it in action), and things of that sort.

Bottom line, this guy is a genius. I spent about an hour watching tons of his videos, and they're fascinating.

To warm you up, here is a video of him convincing people at the dog track to pay out on losing betting tickets. You might think that this is a hoax. But if you watch everything else he does and figure out what's going on, you may yet be convinced.

The reason I think it might have a chance at being real real is partly because people generally aren't very good actors. I doubt the average bookie would be able to fake the confusion the woman displays when he points out she's paid out on the wrong ticket.

Most of the videos are prevented from being embedded, but here's a video of something that you probably will think is plausible, at least after the fact, but still be mega impressed by -  a video of him pickpocketing a guy on camera, and stealing his watch, phone, wallet and tie. That's right, he manages to undo a guy's tie and take it off him without the guy noticing. On camera. I guarantee you would not have thought that was possible.

But rather than just see it as magic (or, more likely, some kind of setup) it's far far more interesting to understand what he's actually doing. Start with the assumption that it's not all a hoax, and see how far it gets you.

This is a video of his where he influences Simon Pegg's choice of a gift. He got the guy to write down what he wanted a few days ago, and then led him through a series of discussions all subtley suggesting to him a red bmx bicycle as the gift he'd want, which Pegg actually says.

At the end, he goes back and replays the dialogue and shows you how his words keep suggesting it:
'Here's how I bike gifts for people. And this is the best way to handle, bar none, the problem of what to saddle for when you're gonna buy gifts for someone who's a little difficult to buy for. Now, what I do, is rather than recycle the same two-tyred bottles of wine or box of chocolates, which are no fun to receive, I go out and buy anything, and make the person fall in love with it, bike creating a strong feeling of desire for it. Does it make sense? And it works, they get all sort of pumped up, that feeling of positivity, they Beam ex-citement for it..."
and so on.

Look at the room. You've got the reel-to-reel playing, suggesting rolling wheels, and round shaped objects everywhere. All of this was set up in advance. He also starts Simon Pegg off by getting him to describe a range of sensory emotions when buying a gift, another old hypnotist trick.

Here's another one of Brown  paying for items in Manhattan with pieces of white paper instead of actual money. At first, it just looks like magic. But pay attention to what he says to the guy:
'I was a bit intimidated by the subway system, I didn't want to go on it. But someone said, you know, take it, take it, it's fine. And, uh... where did you live before this sir?.. etc.
And he times it so that the lines 'take it, take it, it's fine' are being said as he hands over the paper. This is the power of suggestion at work.

But there's a lot more to it than that.

To really understand it, watch this video of him convincing a guy on the street to give him his wallet. Seems so ridiculous it has to be fake, right?

Not necessarily. The following video has a guy explaining all the steps that go into the hypnotism part. One of the tricks is apparently to take a gesture that people do unconsciously, and interrupt it halfway through - in this case, starting a handshake, but instead taking the guys hand and moving it over to your left hand. (If you go back and watch the Simon Pegg video, you'll see he does it there too). That apparently puts the guy in a very suggestible state.

The other part is that a lot of his stuff involve incredibly careful planning beforehand. Here, he uses subliminal messages to convince advertising executives to write a particular ad campaign about a taxidermist. This is a combination of all the subliminal cues (which he shows you at the end), but also the choice of a subject that is very unlikely to suggest many obvious alternatives, making the subliminal images stronger.

And once you start to see this stuff, you start figuring out what he's doing. Not to the point that you could do it yourself, but to the point that you recognize the parts afterwards.

Magic Box, the same guy who explained the 'giving him the wallet' scam, explains how the dog track one I showed you earlier works here. The key bits:

1. He slaps the window to break her out of her unconscious state

2. He says, 'This is the dog you're looking for'. In this case '4' was the number of the winning dog.

3. He then says, 'That's why we came to this win-dow.

I bet you didn't notice all that the first time, huh? Go back at and watch it again.

In the comments to the original of the Dog Track video, user 'JohnnyAlpha100' posts the following:
"I've tried something similar on a bus. I pretended to fall over and hit the perspex barrier (hard) protecting the driver. I said (at once) "it's ok" while flashing the driver a joker card feigning a bus pass . It's worked everytime so far!
When I removed the "it's ok" statement, it didn't work. Also when I removed hitting the screen, it didn't work. Not very scientific, I know, but it seems to me that in this situation the interrupt and embedded command appear to work."
Now, dear reader, I bet before you started this post that you would have been highly skeptical of this whole story.

My question to you is the following: what probably do you now attach to JohnnyAlpha1000's story being a) true, and b) being likely to work if you tried the same thing?

Myself, I rate both probabilities as pretty high.

In this sense, an hour of watching Derren Brown has caused my priors about hypnotism to shift far more on this point that I would have ever thought possible.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Crude Yet Interesting Metaphor of the Day

"Life's not a bitch. Life is a beautiful woman. You only call her a bitch 'cause she won't let you get that pussy."

-Aesop Rock, "Daylight".

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

From the Department of Inconvenient Correlations

The Uber Blog has this hilarious post on prostitution arrest data:

Apparently prostitution arrests in San Francisco go up on Wednesdays. Weird, huh?

Oakland hump day

Apparently, they go up significantly more on the second Wednesday of the month than the first. Even weirder, huh?

Prostitution Wednesdays

What happens on the second, third and fourth Wednesday of each month?
Social Security benefits are paid each month. ...Generally, your benefit will arrive on the second, third or fourth Wednesday of the month, depending on the birthday of the worker on whose records you receive benefits.
Birth date on 1st - 10th, Benefits paid on Second Wednesday
Birth date on 11th - 20th, Benefits paid on Third Wednesday
Birth date on 21st - 31st, Benefits paid on Fourth Wednesday
Oh.. Ooohhhh.


The guys at Uber Blog try to put the best gloss on this that they can.
Keep in mind we’re only talking about 4-5 prostitution crimes each Wednesday. This is pretty low considering the cities we’re talking about have populations in the hundreds of thousands to millions. So before you go running off screaming about how the welfare state is subsidizing sexy times for retirees, chill out and keep that in mind.
Firstly, 4-5 arrests != 4-5 crimes. Not by a long shot.

Secondly, erectile disfunction being what it is, my mind wasn't turning to retirees, but people (some fraudulently) claiming social security disability benefits, which get paid on the same time line.

But it's the obligation of all right-thinking people to test their hunches against data. Thankfully (for this specific task, if not in general), the Megan's Law database lets you easily look up all the sex offenders in San Francscio.

As it turns out, there are a lot more retiree-age sex offenders than I would have guessed. Since few of them seem to have the year of conviction listed, it's hard to tell whether they actually committed their crimes when retiree age (as the authors seem to claim), or it happened years ago. I would guess the latter, but it's hard to know. Maybe it is retirees going to the hookers.

Also, very few of them seemed to be for prostitution offenses specifically. It's amazing how many of them are listed for 'Lewd or Lascivious Acts with a Child Under 14 Years of Age'. Yeesh.

Either way, we'll file this under the category of 'awkward data points for fans of the welfare state'. Which, given the proclivities of the mainstream media, means it gets flushed down the memory hole.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Thought of the Day

Theodore Dalrymple has an interesting insight into the actions of Muslim clergy in US prisons converting prisoners to Islam:
[Interviewer]: You have been a prison doctor. In the United States, we have a serious problem with Moslem clergy that convert a large number of incarcerated youth to Islam? Will you comment on that?
[Dalrymple]: I am no expert, but I would expect the majority of converts to be black. There comes a time when criminals want a reason to give up crime, and religious conversion is a good one. Converting to Islam allows black prisoners to give up crime without having surrendered to society, since they know that the latter fears Islam.
I do not know this for sure, but I would doubt there are many converts to Islam in women's prisons.
Huh. Whether that is ultimately the reason or not, it seems to be a psychologically astute observation on several levels.

Firstly, the fact that Islam is feared by mainstream western society may be a source of its appeal to prisoners, who assuredly don't come to love society by being locked in the cage. (The latter is not necessarily an argument against the cage, but is true nonetheless)

Secondly, the suggestion (not at all implied in the question itself) that converting to Islam is probably associated with giving up on crime. This is an implicit rejoinder (which Dalrymple of course doesn't state directly) to the question's claim that the actions of Muslim clergy are a problem. Specifically, that a first order effect of reducing Muslim clergy's ability to proselytise in prison may be to also reduce the number of prisoners who actually give up on crime. This is a tradeoff that I'm sure the vast majority of social conservatives probably never contemplated, but perhaps ought to - would you rather prisoners be secular criminals or reformed Muslims, if that indeed is the choice?

Strike Two!

Via Hector Lopez:

An unfortunate web address:

(If you didn't get the reference, it's here )

An unfortunate logo:

(If you didn't get the reference, you have a lack of imagination)

The first part I can write off to it being a foreign language company liable to not get English idioms. But the second?

If I'm being punked, it's a pretty elaborate hoax.

No One Could Have Seen This Coming!

TSA Creator Says Dismantle, Privatize the Agency

No kidding! Let's hear from Representative John Mica (R -Fl.), about the litany of failure that he is responsible for creating:
“The whole program has been hijacked by bureaucrats,” said Rep. John Mica (R. -Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
 A government department, has been hijacked by those who run it? Really? The government?!?
“It mushroomed into an army,” Mica said.  “It’s gone from a couple-billion-dollar enterprise to close to $9 billion.”
Hmm, you mean it now costs way more than originally envisaged? That sounds a lot like ... absolutely everything the government has done ever. How were we meant to see this coming?

Okay, but at least they're doing their job, right? It's a huge cost, but surely it's worth it, no?

As for keeping the American public safe, Mica says, “They’ve failed to actually detect any threat in 10 years.”
Screeners have also been accused of committing crimes, from smuggling drugs to stealing valuables from passengers' luggage. 
In 2006, screeners at Los Angeles and Chicago O'Hare airports failed to find more than 60% of fake explosives during checkpoint security tests.
Shocking, shocking stuff! A government department does their job incredibly poorly and inefficiently, but strangely they seem to keep getting given more and more money. Honestly, who among us could have predicted that? 

Okay, I mean anyone who'd never seen the operations of the FDA, or EPA, or the INS, or the Department of Education, or the Department of Agriculture, or...
“We are one of the only countries still using this model of security," Mica said, "other than Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and I think, Libya."
Well, pat yourself on the back!

John Mica, welcome to the party. You're ten years late and you took a dump in the punchbowl that we've been trying to clean up ever since, but I guess we'll have to take what we can get.

If you'd like to demonstrate that you're serious and not just grandstanding and ass-covering, I look forward to reading the legislation you introduce to actually do all the things you're talking about.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Questions I Occasionally Wonder About

Out of the people who arrive at this site by searching for 'Shylock Holmes', how many of them are looking for me, and how many just don't know how to spell 'Sherlock'?

Whatever the ratio, I'm sure it would produce a humourously bi-modal distribution of IQs. I leave it to the reader to decide which hump lies to the left of which.

Zero Emissions!*

I was driving behind a Nissan Leaf, the fancy new electric only car. On the back, the badge said 'Zero Emissions'.

Man, talk about marketing yourself to gullible fools who don't understand fixed costs or hidden variable costs.

This claim is just monstrously stupid. The power in your car is coming from somewhere! The chances that it will be produced from zero emission unicorns is pretty damn low. Even if it comes from something renewable like Hydro, there were big fixed emissions costs in building that dam. And if everyone started using Leafs running on hydro power, we'd probably have to build more dams, at a cost of, you guessed it, lots of emissions.

It's like giving your friend money to buy you weed, and then claiming that your conscience is clear because you never buy drugs. Zero dollars on marijuana!


Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th, 2011

Over at Ace of Spades, CAC posts a moving piece about the Falling Man

September 11, 2001 seems like a very long time ago. The world moves on. And yet the falling man is still there, suspended in a purgatory of pixels, halfway between the top of a burning building and the cold, hard earth. Brought down by men who knew how to destroy a skyscraper but not how to build one.

It is important to remember how we got here. The Falling Man is gone, as are the 2976 others on that day. All we could do is decide, as the West, how to act afterwards. So what have we done for them? How do we score ourselves, ten years on?

I think if I had to articulate what memorial we as a society would have wanted for the Falling Man, it would have only two parts.

1. Kill every one of the bastards that did this to him.

2. Make sure this never happens again.

The rest is just details. It may add or subtract from the overall scorecard, but it's still details.

And on those two enumerated  fronts, I think we've done pretty well.

For the first part, we can score ourselves pretty highly. There's still a few stragglers around like Mullah Omar, but for the most part the men behind this have been hunted down and killed. And the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whatever their overall merit, succeeded in decimating the ranks of Al Qaeda and their sympathisers. And at last the man behind it all came face-to-face with the people he scorned, and got a lead sandwich and a free trip to the bottom of the ocean. As he must have known was going to happen eventually. The men who instigated this wanted war, and war they got.

Even before that though, Osama bin Laden was yesterday's man. Al Qaeda these days is a shadow of itself. This is good news in terms of the first goal, but it's even better news in terms of the second goal.

But how did that happen? How do we know that another September 11 isn't just around the corner?

My view is that there won't be another September 11, at least not one perpetrated by Islamic terrorists. In this sense, the reduced ranks of Al Qaeda are the symptom, not the cause.

The reason that September 11 was able to happen was that none of the authorities were seriously on the lookout for it. Partly they weren't looking for this kind of plane-based attack, as hijackings before had largely been about ransoms - law enforcement and the FAA hadn't thought about how to deal with people who wanted to make commercial jets into suicide bombers.

But more importantly, law enforcement and intelligence weren't looking for the people behind September 11. They just hadn't figured as a serious security threat up to then. In hindsight, obviously they should have - the USS Cole and Khobar Towers should have alerted US authorities to the threat. Still, they didn't.

September 11th got their attention, though. Bureacracies move slowly, and the CIA and FBI are no exception. But once they have their eye on a particular threat, they're quite good at tracking them down and disrupting their operations. It's hard to organise large-scale plans to destroy the first world. It's a lot harder when every law enforcement and intelligence agency in the first world is on the hunt for you.

The reality is that people who think it's a good idea to blow themselves and thousands of civilians up in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate don't tend to be the brightest bunch. Kind of goes with the job description. That's why on the customs form, the September 11 hijackers wrote their address as 'Hotel, America'.

And these were the first-string guys for the premiere operation.

Can you see why this type of operation is only plausible when facing an enemy that is clueless about your existence?

This is why I'm confident that we won't face another terrorist atrocity any time soon, at least until there's some new group with some new grudge trying out some new tactic that we hadn't thought of. That will happen in time. But it won't be from Al Qaeda. The end of this war will only be known in hindsight. There will be no formal surrender on the USS Missouri to let us know that it's over. Still, there was only one Pearl Harbor, and my suspicion is that there will only be one September 11.

And for that, I'm extremely grateful to all the military, intelligence and law enforcement people who work to keep it this way. Especially the thousands who have died or been wounded in the decade since.

Every war has its screwups, its friendly fire, and its atrocities, and the war on terror is no exception. But for now, things look fairly optimistic to me. Given what we wanted to happen that day and where we are now, I am optimistic. Cautiously optimistic, with an asterisk that will always be attached. But optimistic nonetheless.

And so at last we come full circle, to The Falling Man. What can I say to him that has not already been said by others?

In the end, nothing.

"[A]tque in perpetuum, frāter, avē atque valē."

And for eternity, brother, hail and farewell.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The joys of being nobody

I remember reading Bob Dylan's autobiography a few years ago. At one point, he described what it was like to move to an isolated place in Woodstock and have hippies still turning up on his doorstep, hoping that he'd lead them somewhere or be their voice or leader or whatnot (man, if that's not a reason to be a folk singer, I don't know what is).

But the line that really stuck with me was his observation that privacy is something that you can sell, but you can't buy back.

And it was immediately obvious that
a) he was exactly right, and
b) supposing I was in the position where such a sale was possible, I, like most people, would probably not have properly understood the tradeoff until it was too late.

And for that, I was quite grateful.

You only get one chance to be nobody. Once you become famous, you may get loads of women and adoring fans and free entry to nightclubs and no more speeding tickets.

But you might find that you can't just walk down the street without people hassling you. You might find that you can't go on a date without reading about it in a magazine.

And all this can continue long, long after the dividends of fame have stopped. Think about someone like Gary Coleman. 8 years as the child star of a sitcom, then 24 years as the butt of jokes and the occasional subject of 'Where Are They Now?' specials that can barely conceal their delight at your downfall, a cathartic morality tale that signifies nothing more than the fact that people enjoy seeing their nominal betters being humbled and humiliated.

Rudyard Kipling understood this, and sought to protect his privacy after his death in one of my favourite short poems, 'The Appeal'

It I have given you delight
By aught that I have done,
Let me lie quiet in that night
Which shall be yours anon:

And for the little, little, span
The dead are born in mind,
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.

Personally, I think Kipling's appeal was largely unnecessary - once you're dead, people already tend to stop caring (although lines 5 and 6 indicate that he knew this - agree or disagree with some of his views, there is a lot of wisdom in Kipling). But as long as you're alive, celebrity culture demands that your appeals will be worthless. The public demand to know, and their voyeurism will be satisfied one way or another.

I am glad I am nobody.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Metaphors for No Free Lunches

From the excellent 'The House Wins', by OK GO, a wonderful metaphor for the strong form of the No Free Lunches principle* :
Ice age upon catastrophic ice age of selection and only one result has trickled in...
The house wins.
Oh the house always wins.
If evil were a lesser breed than justice after all these years the righteous would have freed the world of sin.
The house wins.
Oh the house always wins.
The house wins, and you lose. No matter the game, no matter the circumstance, no matter if you're sure you're figured out a system - doesn't matter, the house will win.

I love it! It's almost as good as Bob Dylan's metaphor for opportunity cost.

*Granted 'No Free Lunches' is already a metaphor, so this is more of a meta-metaphor.

TSA bureaucrats like it when you don't think in probabilities

Over at Popehat, Ken documents the latest in egregious TSA antics - a TSA employee who jammed her fingers four times into a crying woman's vagina in public is threatening a lawsuit against the woman, a blogger, who protested on the internet about getting molested by the agent in question. That's right - not only are they going to molest you in public, but they're going to sue you if you complain about it, first amendment be damned.

In a follow-up post, Ken raises a question I've wondered about myself - why aren't people on average bothered by the abuses of the TSA? He has a good list of suggestions as to why, which are well worth your reading.

I've written about this before - no matter what the TSA announces as its next ridiculous stunt, people just seem to go along with it.

In the comments, I added what I think to be part of the problem:
People don’t think well in probabilities, and aren’t willing to state explicitly “I am willing to tolerate an X% chance of my plane exploding in order to not be subjected to Y’.
Doesn’t matter if X = 0.00000001% and Y = [junk grabbing / anal probes / whatever]. Doesn’t matter if the people have a far, far higher chance of dying in a car crash on the way to the airport than any possible reduction in terrorism. People view it as being that there’s still some chance of attack happening without the measure. And that is used to convince them of the importance of ever greater intrusions, because yes, sticking your hand in someone’s labia will somewhat reduce the chance of terrorist attack. It’s just that the reduction is trivially, ridiculously small, and the intrusion is large.
To get this to stop, the average person needs to
a) Ask how large the impact on the probability of terrorist attack will actually be from any given measure, and
b) Ask themselves what probability of terrorist attack they’re actually willing to tolerate in order to not undergo that measure.
The first one is very rarely done, and the second one is basically never done. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic about the chances on change on this question.
The point is that there is always some chance that your plane will be blown up by a terrorist. Always. Don't blame the government or the terrorists for this, blame Pierre Simon Laplace - it's just the laws of probability.*

You can pretend that there isn't an X% chance of the plane exploding. You can avoid thinking about it. But it doesn't change the underlying fact. And as long as people aren't willing to acknowledge this, they'll get sold all sorts of ridiculous security theatre, because they're not actually thinking on the margin.

So if people think 'Is there some chance that this might prevent a terrorist attack', the answer is probably yes. Literally stripping everybody naked and performing a cavity search would stop a small number of terrorist attacks. It's just that that number is probably a tiny fraction of an attack per year, and the cost would be Ken and myself exploding in rage (among other things - this may count as a benefit depending on your perspective, but I assure you there are other costs)

The only common antidote is other categorical objections - I'm never willing to put up with my husband / daughter being felt up by the government, no matter what. This is akin to the rights-based way of thinking about the world - some things are wrong, no matter the consequences. This probably would kick in for an actual strip search. I hope.

Now there's nothing wrong with this way of thinking. But I think a lot of people deep down are pragmatists. They do trade off costs and benefits of policies. It's just that here, the tradeoff is being worked out it a ridiculous way.

Imagine if people thought this way about traffic accidents. The government would propose lowering the freeway speed limit to 30 miles an hour. People would respond 'Well, it pisses me off too, but there's some chance it might save me from a traffic death. So I guess I'm okay with it'. Then the government would propose speed limiters on cars keeping them below 25 miles an hour. And people would grumble 'well, I guess I just have to leave a bit earlier to get to work, but I'm sure they know what they're doing, and I really don't want to die in a car crash' etc.

So why don't people respond like this to car deaths, but they do for plane deaths?

My guess is the illusion of control. In the car, you feel like you're able to control the ability of crashing, so you think that  governmment-imposed extra steps aren't really necessary (although they'd probably save a lot more lives). No one ever thinks they're going to get in a fatal accident - after all, I'm a safe driver! For terrorist plane attacks, people find the prospect intensely terrifying because if a plane is crashing, there's nothing you can do. Terrorist plane crashes are even worse, because the plane crash is also personified by scary foreign men. And this intense (not unjustified) fear tends to cloud out any real calculation of probabilities - the prospect is just too terrible to think about, and anything that might stop it happening is worth it.

Until... I don't know what. At some point, people will say enough is enough, but I've come to conclusion that I think sufficiently differently to the average person about this that I'm no longer in the business of making guesses about how much people would put up with.

*A probability of zero means that literally no evidence in the world would cause you to update your prior from zero. Even if you saw a terrorist explode a plane right in front of you, you'd be certain that it couldn't happen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A life well-lived

John Harsanyi was one of the founding fathers of Game Theory, a fascinating part of economic theory that examines how agents make strategic choices when the value of their actions depends on the choices of others. In 1994, he won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work, along with John Nash and Reinhard Selten. Although most people would rate Nash's contribution as the greatest (in discovering Nash Equilibria, the foundation of all Game Theory) Harsanyi added a lot to the understanding of games of incomplete information, greatly expanding the range of situations that can be analysed using Game Theory tools.

Long before this, he also came perilously close to be killed in the Holocaust. He was a Hungarian Jew in Budapest in 1944, which was a pretty damn hazardous situation to be in. As he describes it:
In that November the Nazi authorities finally decided to deport my labor unit from Budapest to an Austrian concentration camp, where most of my comrades eventually perished. But I was lucky enough to make my escape from the railway station in Budapest, just before our train left for Austria. Then a Jesuit father I had known gave me refuge in the cellar of their monastery.
Before winning a Nobel Prize, John Harsanyi escaped both from the mutha-f***ing Nazis in World War 2. But it gets better. He stayed around in Budapest, and became a professor in Sociology:
But in June 1948, I had to resign from the Institute because the political situation no longer permitted them to employ an outspoken anti-Marxist as I had been.
He hated communism, and wasn't afraid to say so. In 1948. In Budapest. Think about that. Would you have had the balls to say that stuff?
But [Anne, his eventual wife] was continually harassed by her Communist classmates to break up with me because of my political views, but she did not. This made her realize, before I did, that Hungary was becoming a completely Stalinist country, and that the only sensible course of action for us was to leave Hungary. 
Actually we did so only in April 1950. We had to cross the Hungarian border illegally over a marshy terrain, which was less well guarded than other border areas. But even so, we were very lucky not to be stopped or shot at by the Hungarian border guards.
John Harsanyi also escaped from the mutha-f***ing Communists in 1950. Holy Hell! 

He got to Australia, didn't speak the language and his credentials were worthless.So what did he do? Complain to a diversity consultant? Protest that the government wasn't supporting him enough? Lobby for Hungarian language education and civic notices?
As my English was not very good and as my Hungarian university degrees were not recognized in Australia, during most of our first three years there I had to do factory work. But in the evening I took economics courses at the University of Sydney. 
No, instead of bitching, he worked his ass off in a factory and studied economics at night.

And then won a God Damn Nobel Prize in the subject. 

If Milton Friedman and Chuck Norris had a son together, that son would be John Harsanyi.

John Harsanyi, for being a wicked economist, an opponent of tyranny and a thoroughly hardcore dude, you are hereby post-humously inducted into the Shylock Holmes Order of Guys Who Kick Some Serious Ass.

I was reading about this, and two things occurred to me.

The first is how close the world came to never having heard his insights. It's probable that someone else would have figured out similar ideas eventually, but the economics profession and the world benefited greatly from having John Harsanyi pass through this vale of tears. Any small number of mishaps, and he would have been one more unknown death statistic for the Nazis or Communists.

And that is the second point is this - how many John Harsanyis didn't make it? How many more Nobel prize winning insights were lost to the butchers of Auschwitz, the cowardly scum of Nanking, and the rest of World War 2's parade of horrors? The Holocaust in particular killed millions of Ashkenazi Jews, a group notable for their unusually high intelligence. It is a virtual certainty than many future prodigies were killed over those years, whose insights might have advanced human knowledge and welfare in ways we'll never know. What a horrible, criminal waste of humanity. The deaths of the many ordinary people in World War 2 are no less tragic for their lack of extraordinary potential. But it's hard not to wonder at what might have been. 

Quote of the Day

From The Dogg:
[Y]ou can’t become a vegan, all the vegans I’ve ever met are angry. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re weird or just permanently hungry.
Comedy Gold and +1 Insightful! What a combo.

Seems as good a strategy as any...


Sunday, September 4, 2011

How to Fail in Business Without Really Trying

Over at Paco Enterprises, Paco has an interesting post on Solyndra, the glorious new bankrupt solar energy company that managed to finagle $500 million in loans from the government and proceeded to send the money (and the company) down the rathole.

The more that comes out about this company, the more it becomes apparent that this was a horrible investment of money to start with. From the Government! I know, you must be as shocked as I was. As Zero Hedge noted, when you're producing a low-margin commoditised product like solar panels, and you've got revenues of $58 million versus cost of goods sold of $108 million, that's a recipe for the fast track to insolvency. Coyote's description is almost right:
Even in the worst run late 90′s Internet company I ever encountered, they were not selling dollars for 50 cents.
True enough. My only quibble with this metaphor is that if Solyndra were actually selling dollar bills for 50 cents, it would be a big improvement, because at least the final product would be re-salable for a full dollar. Here, it's more like they took a dollar bill to the 7-11, got change in quarters, melted two of the quarters into a blob of metal and proceeded to flush the blob down the toilet.

There is only one silver lining that I can see in this whole mess. At least the company actually went bankrupt, and now hopefully will be liquidated. In other words, taxpayer losses appear limited to only (only!) $500 million of yours and my money. By contrast, had Solyndra managed to limp along long enough to become a large political constituency, we probably would have been on the hook for much larger ongoing bailouts. It could have been added to the pantheon of dollar-bill blast furnaces of General Motors, Chrysler, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Post Office that no matter how badly they perform, the government picks up the tab and nobody ever gets fired.

The best thing Solyndra did for us was to fail fast enough and spectacularly enough that even the most coked-out green energy fanboys in the government couldn't justify throwing more money its way. You'll forgive me for not celebrating this fact too highly.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Business Models I Can Respect

Every now and then, I'm struck by a company where my overwhelming response is 'Damn, I can't believe they're selling things that cheap.'

One of those is White Castle (most famous for the 'Harold and Kumar go to White Castle' movie). I had a friend in Chicago who thought this place was awesome (he also had a penchant for Michelin star restaurants, so he spanned the whole culinary universe). I went there with him once, and the burgers there were nasty. They were so bad, in fact, that it taught me something I didn't imagine was possible - that there is in fact fast food of a sufficiently low quality that I wouldn't want to eat it. Everything else - McDonalds, KFC, whatever - retained a feeling of tasty indulgence. It's low quality and bad for you, but boy is it tasty. Not White Castle. I don't plan to ever go back.

But that's not what's most important. What's truly amazing is that their base hamburger costs 63 cents. 63 frigging cents! (At the time it was 50 cents). And they're making a profit selling it for 63 cents. A profit large enough to keep them in business. Truly astonishing.

Reader, I stand in awe of a business model that can profitably produce burgers at scale for 63 cents. Sure, it's tiny and low quality. But suppose you exempted me from every health code and labor regulation. Suppose you let me make the meat out of diseased offal and scrapings from the abattoir floor. Suppose you let me make the bun using moth-eaten, moldy bread. Suppose I didn't even have to keep the quality high enough that anyone would actually purchase it.

Even then, I still can't see me way to making a hamburger for less than 63 cents.

White Castle can, and for that I take my hat off to them. I don't want to eat there, but they retain my strong respect and regard.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Slowly, Scammer Technology Catches Up

If you're anything like me, you've been getting a large proliferation of spam emails containing (presumably infected) word attachments about insurance claims, lotteries, etc.

It seems that viruses using word macros have finally hit the mainstream, by which I mean that average scam artists and spam sites are using them.

Of course, this was all predicted way back in 1995, with the famous W32/Concept virus.

This was the first 'in-the-wild' virus to utilise Word macros. The virus was notable because it infected the user's global document template, and puts a series of macros in there.

The most famous of these was one entitled 'Payload'. The payload macro never actually executed - it merely contained the following phrase:
That's enough to prove my point

The point being, of course, that the word macro language has tons of powerful tools at its disposal that could wreak all sorts of havoc. As you can find out, should you be interested in knowing exactly what the 'YAHOO_AND_MSN_LIVE_LOTTERY.doc' file contains.

The massive proliferation of spyware and computer viruses has a lot to do with incentives. Way back in the glory days of 1995, viruses were relatively rare, and this has every because it was hard work to make them, and the people doing so were akin to computer-based graffiti artists. The art was in their ability to infect lots of computers in clever ways, but that alone doesn't motivate too many people except antisocial nerds.

Back when I had a System 7 Mac in 1995, I remember that the main free anti-virus program was called Disinfectant. It actually gave you a list of all the viruses it was scanning for, and a description of what they did that you could read through. I think there was about 14 of them. The new version of spybot checks my laptop for 808,217 types of spyware.

The internet has had an enormous role in this increase, in two ways. The first is incentives - the ability to direct a host computer's traffic to spam sites that generate ad revenue has proven to be a far, far greater motivation for human behaviour than just the thrill of writing a virus.

In addition, email and infected web sites have done for the spread of computer viruses what international air travel did for the spread of biological viruses - everyone can be infected, and it's far harder to cordon yourself off from everyone else.

Looking back, the chances that my System 7 mac was going to be infected with anything were virtually zero, but that didn't stop Shylock circa 1994 from diligently checking every few weeks. Boy that seems hilarious now. Now, for most people spyware and malware are just facts of life. I try to remove most of it and stop it crapping up my computer completely, but I take it as given that it will get infected eventually. In this particular arms race, the offense always has the upper hand.

The only consolation is that most of the people writing spyware aren't as smart as whoever wrote W32/Concept, so it takes them a little longer - 15 odd years, in this case.