Friday, June 29, 2012

The Imagined Thoughts of Randolph Churchill

John Derbyshire reprints this wonderful essay by Winston Churchill, written in 1947, where he recounts a fictional conversation with his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who had been dead over 50 years by that point.

If you ever doubted that political views have changed a lot in the last 200 years, this essay does a great job of imagining how a Tory in the 1890s would view the history of Europe in the 20th century.

To pick a line that is straight out of Mencius Moldbug, how's this from Churchill:
'War?' he said, sitting up with a startled air. 'War, do you say? Has there been a war?'
'We have had nothing else but wars since democracy took charge.'
'You mean real wars, not just frontier expeditions? Wars where tends of thousands of men lose their lives?'
'Yes, indeed, Papa,' I said. 'That's what has happened all the time. Wars and rumours of war ever since you died.'

Read it all here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


So Obamacare is constitutional.

I'm going to swallow my own advice and refrain from commenting on the substance of the case until I've read the decision. But it's going to be a glum and melancholy task alright.

In the meantime, does anyone seriously doubt the wisdom of Mencius Moldbug on this matter:
In reality, no sovereign can be subject to law. This is a political perpetual motion machine. Law is not law unless it is judged and enforced. And by whom? For example, if you think a supreme court with judicial review can make government subject to law, you are obviously unfamiliar with the sordid history of American constitutional jurisprudence. All your design has achieved is to make your supreme court sovereign. Indeed if the court had only one justice, a proper title for that justice would be "King." Sorry, kid, you haven't violated the conservation of anything.
The Kings have spoken - Obamacare stands.

Bad News, Good News

The bad news: Chicago is broke, homicides are up 37% this year, and the police department is feeling the strain.

The good news:  Chicago is so broke that they've decided to stop flushing money and lives down the toilet for marijuana possession:

People caught with small amounts of marijuana in Chicago will be ticketed instead of arrested under a new ordinance passed by the city council on Wednesday, as the third largest U.S. city became the latest to support more lenient penalties for using the drug.
The council voted 43-3 in favor of the measure, which was backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Under the ordinance, police in Chicago can issue a written violation with a fine of between $250 and $500 for possession of 15 grams (0.5 ounces) of marijuana or less rather than make an arrest.
It turns out that ruining lives for needless drug convictions are a luxury good, and one that Chicago has decided it can no longer afford. This is a great outcome - off the top of my head, this would have to be one of the worst NPV projects the city undertakes, so it's good that this is the one that gets canned when the crunch comes.

Somewhere at HBS, Michael Jensen is muttering to himself, 'I told you so.'

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Your Daily Schadenfreude

Journalists go to play paintball with Hezbollah to see what happens.

Psychologically illuminating hilarity ensues:
We figured they’d cheat; they were Hezbollah, after all. But none of us—a team of four Western journalists—thought we’d be dodging military-grade flash bangs when we initiated this “friendly” paintball match.
The battle takes place underground in a grungy, bunker-like basement underneath a Beirut strip mall. When the grenades go off it’s like being caught out in a ferocious thunderstorm: blinding flashes of hot white light, blasts of sound that reverberate deep inside my ears.
As my eyesight returns and readjusts to the dim arena light, I poke out from my position behind a low cinder-block wall. Two large men in green jumpsuits are bearing down on me. I have them right in my sights, but they seem unfazed—even as I open fire from close range, peppering each with several clear, obvious hits. I expect them to freeze, maybe even acknowledge that this softie American journalist handily overcame their flash-bang trickery and knocked them out of the game. Perhaps they’ll even smile and pat me on the back as they walk off the playing field in a display of good sportsmanship (after cheating, of course).
Instead, they shoot me three times, point-blank, right in the groin.

Scumbag terrorists demonstrate their worthiness for having a state by acting like scumbags - naive western reader expectations hardest hit.

(Via Kottke)

Monday, June 25, 2012

'This is Dylan and Maddie's Mum'

The New Yorker has an interesting piece on how American children end up so spoiled. They relate it to the idea of parents doing ever more for their children, rather than giving them responsibilities early on and making them follow through.

I don't know the right parenting strategy to combat it, but I've certainly noticed an unusual indulgence of misbehaviour by kids in this country. Is you child of 4 yelling in the plane/restaurant/shopping centre? Never mind, that's just the joys of children, and everyone should just deal with your little precious! How dare you, stranger, ask my son to keep his voice down!

It's one thing when your kids are brats in your own home. It's another when you merrily let them impose social costs on everyone around you without making any effort to stop it. Everyone understands when your one-year old baby is crying on the airplane that there's not much you can do. They'll be irritated, but they'll understand. But when your 4-year old keeps kicking the seat in front of you and you do nothing to stop it? That makes you a tool, not just your child.

I remember thinking about a broader version of this problem when I was behind a four-wheel drive. Everyone seems to have those stickers that have stick figures of all the people in the family. This lady had gone one step further - her license plate decal read 'This is Dylan and Maddie's Mum'.

What a strange way for an adult to define their identity! Not only inwardly, but to proclaim this to the whole world. I understand the solicitude for one's children, but it seems perverse that the parents come to view their own existence in terms of being appendages to their offspring. Is that really the first sentence that you want to use to describe yourself - I am my children's mother? Even if you were to phrase it as 'I have two children', that would be an improvement, as you haven't relegated the subject (of yourself) to an implied noun to emphasise the object.

Can you imagine a parent of a hundred years ago writing such a thing? Or even fifty years? It seems pretty damn unlikely.

If I were a gambling man, I would bet that Dylan and Maddie were indulged a lot as children. I hope it didn't turn them into entitled brats, but I'm not optimistic.

Here's one thing you can take to the bank - you wouldn't have caught Papa or Mama Holmes with a license plate like that, and when/if I sire offspring, you won't find me with one either.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Just Circling the Drain Isn't Nearly Fast Enough! We Need A Vacuum Pump!

Some people think that Europe is a bloated, worthless bureacratic state that has managed to transform an attitude of self-important entitlement amongst its citizenry into some of the most inflexible labour regulations on the planet.

Some people may think that such regulations, making labour ever more costly and ever more difficult to fire, contribute to the massive unemployment and economic stagnation that has seen large parts of Europe unable to repay their national debt, thereby threatening the existence of the Euro and the economic security of European countries.

Some people may think that as the Euro, and European economies, appear to be on the brink of collapse, it would behoove any sensible leaders to be doing all they can to address these problems.

Some people may think that Europe's leaders, institutions, and ultimately, voters, have proven themselves unwilling or unable to address these issues, and would rather vote for more government-provided lollipops even as their countries collapse around them.

Such people are clearly nothing but embittered, Euro-hating capitalist pigs. And here to prove this to them comes the European Court of Justice! Their latest ruling is, as the New York Times puts it:
[W]orkers who happened to get sick on vacation were legally entitled to take another vacation.
Yep, that's going to be just the shot in the arm that sluggish European economies need. All those unemployed citizens who were afraid to take jobs because they worried that being sick might eat into their holiday time will now flood back into the labour force, reinvigorating national output and tax coffers.

Master of moral hazard, these clowns at the ECJ don't appear to have considered the possibility that claiming you were ill while in Tahiti is very difficult to disprove, and thereby easily allows workers to effortlessly expand their vacation time. Which, in case you Yanks had forgotten, currently is between four and six weeks.

Somebody give these countries a bailout!

At least the New York Times Reporter seems to have a sense of humour about the whole thing, evidenced by his closing line:
The ruling does not apply to the 25 percent of the Spanish labor force that is currently unemployed.
Ha! You don't say.

Friday, June 22, 2012

How Not To Interact With The Police

File this one under 'Positive, Not Normative'.

I think not nearly enough people give any thought to plausible psychology when interacting with police. You can observe this by the dumb@$$ things they do.

If I had to guess at what motivates people to be police officers, it might be some combination of the following:
1. They like the idea of keeping the city safe.
2. They like the thrill of fighting crime.
3. They like having authority over other people.
4. They like being part of a fraternal organisation that looks out for each other while doing the first three items.
You can read blogs like Second City Cop to get a sense of what I'm talking about.

To my mind, this set of motivations explains both the positive and negative aspects of typical police responses:

a) If a police officer decides that you're an innocent bystander being threatened by some thug, they'll put themselves in physical danger to help you out. Say what you will about this being their job, it's still an admirable trait.

b) If the police officer decides that you're a minor nuisance but otherwise not a serious problem (speeding by a small amount, yelling too loudly in public) and are being polite and respectful to them, they'll likely tell you to stop, and will perhaps be content to let you go on your way, or give you some small fine.

c) If the police officer decides that you're being disrespectful to him, even if you're not posing a serious threat to public order, they're almost certainly going to make your life difficult. They'll do this knowing that point #4 will work in their favor - other cops, and law enforcement generally, will back them up, even if they've acted like a bully.

d) If the police officer decides that you're being disrespectful to him AND being a threat to public order, you'd better believe that they're going to bring the pain.

Let's suppose the 4 stated assumptions form a fair amount of motivating psychology for police officers. How should you react when interacting with a police officer who stops you?

Consider the following example of one way to behave:

Let's begin by noting that you have no legal obligation to be polite. The cop in question was acting like a power-mad bully, and manufactured a bogus reason to arrest the guy. In a more just society, the cop would be fired, and the guy would get an apology, if not compensation.

We all know, however, that that ain't gonna happen. The cop will get off scot free, and the motorcycle rider has already had several hours in prison, regardless of whether he eventually gets prosecuted. Remember, positive not normative. We're working with the world as it is, not as it should be.

If you're the kind of person who stands on principle that you're going to be rude to a cop who acts rudely to you first, I can see a fair case to applaud that action. Cops shouldn't just be able to get away with any kind of bad behaviour.

But suppose you're just interested in making your life as easy as possible. What overarching principle would you choose?

I would venture the following four bits of advice :

1. Always be scrupulously respectful.

2. Only offer verbal resistance to the cop's demands in order to assert your legal rights.

3. Think very carefully whether asserting your legal rights is likely to be worth it, and do not offer any verbal resistance unless you think you're going to be arrested or charged anyway. 

4. Never offer physical resistance.

If we believe the psychology we described earlier, cops really hate it when you don't defer to their authority over you. Being rude or swearing is an obvious way of getting them pissed off. You're already in either case c) or d) of their likely responses, and what have you gained? You've given vent to your feelings. If that's all the benefit you get, you're paying very heavily in the amount of hassle in the next hours and days of your life for that opportunity to tell Officer O'Malley to get f***ed.

Another obvious mistake is to demand to know their badge number. People think that because this isn't swearing, it won't land them in trouble. Think again - this indicates your desire to retaliate against the cop, and that's going to annoy him a ton. If you're getting arrested, there'll be plenty of time later to find out the arresting officer's name and file a complaint - why make that intention obvious up-front? Demanding to know his badge number if you don't actually intend to file a complaint is just as stupid as swearing at him.

But does that mean you should always submit to everything a cop asks you?

No. This is where point #2 comes in. You do not want to give the police officer further evidence that will help convict you of a crime, should the matter proceed to court. What kind of things does that mean?

If they want to ask you questions about a crime you may have committed, don't answer anything without a lawyer. If you're unsure, just don't answer. What if you didn't commit the crime, or don't think you did? Doesn't matter - shut the hell up.

If they want to search your car, house or pockets, you want to indicate that you don't offer your consent. In the US, if you  don't consent to a search, the police must establish probable cause in order for any evidence they find to be admissible. If you consent to the search, they don't have to establish squat.

But, (and here is the rub), you can't refuse to do any of those things without indicating that you're not submitting to their authority. And that will piss them off - there's no avoiding it.

Hence point #3 - you want to be very careful before offering the first signs of not acquiescing to the cop. You only get one chance to be a nice obedient citizen. Once you've given that away (by politely resisting demands or by being a jackass), it won't come back. Trying to be polite once he starts arresting you won't win back his good graces.

It's not easy to know exactly what the threshold is for resisting demands though.

If you've been pulled over for speeding and they ask you if you know how fast you were going, most answers you give are going to hurt you from a legal standpoint:

-"I was going 70 in the 65 zone" - you just confessed your guilt. Case closed.

-"I don't know how fast I was going" - this makes it hard for you to assert in court that you weren't speeding, since the officer will testify that you claimed at the time you couldn't be sure you weren't speeding.

-"I was doing 65" - if the officer can prove you were speeding, they might decide to get you for making false statements, yet another crime.

So legally, it's in your interests to refuse to answer the question. But this will piss off the cop, and at a minimum it guarantees they'll give you a ticket, and perhaps hold you up for longer. Is that worth it?

In general, probably not. The main time it might be is if you're planning to challenge the ticket in court. If you're not, you're probably just better off admitting you were speeding and offering your apologies.

For me, I'd draw the line at the point that they want to search my car (or house). At that point, my response would be 'I know you're just trying to do your job officer, and I don't have anything to hide, but I'm sorry, I don't consent to searches.'

I'd do this knowing that they're going to be pissed off. They might call the K-9 unit. They might call for backup. They might insist I get out of the car and search it anyway. They might hold me up for the next 3 hours.

That's the price I pay to increase my chances in an actual court case. If the officer wants to search my car, he's already pissed off with me. I'd rather not take the chance that he breaks something, or plants evidence and I've now consented to the search.

None of this means that we shouldn't be angered by scenes like the video above. It's maddening that cops get to act like thugs and bullies and just get away with it.

But everything in the video was entirely predictable. Guy is part of a motorcycle group roaming around. That's your right, but it makes you look like a potential threat to public order. At 1:42, the guy gives the two-finger 'up-yours' sign to the cop as he drives by. When he gets pulled over, the guy tells the police officer that he can't take the camera (instead of just that he doesn't consent to the camera being taken although he will not physically resist such an action, a different formulation). Guy asks for the cop's badge number. Shortly afterwards, guy gets arrested. Guy doesn't immediately acquiesce when asked to place his hands behind his back, raising the possibility of a resisting arrest charge.

It may well be that the cop was going to make up a bogus arrest reason in order to confiscate the camera. It may be that the arrest was unavoidable.

But all the acts of resistance displayed were almost certain to irritate the cop, and did very little to help the man in court.

If you feel that as a matter of principle that it's worth it, more power to you.

If you, like me, don't feel it's worth it, you're better off swallowing your pride, shutting up, and acquiescing to  their demands when the po-po start acting like bullies.

Either way though, you should know the cost of your actions when you make them. Otherwise you resist running afoul of the advice of the great Sun-Tzu:
To begin by bluster, but afterwards to take fright at the enemy's numbers, shows a supreme lack of intelligence.

How To Be Alone

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Random Observations From Travels Around The USA

Apologies for the lack of updates, I've been travelling around a fair bit recently. Here's my sociological travelogue.


-To slightly paraphrase Athenios's memorable econ-nerdy description: Take the set of {Los Angeles} AND NOT {New York}. Then lever it up like crazy. The result is Miami.

-To my politically incorrect eye, it seemed like that, for a US city with a high Hispanic population, there was a much larger and more visible Hispanic middle class and upper-middle class than other places I've been. My guess is that this is partly to do with the fact that Miami has a lot of Cuban immigrants, many of them refugees from Castro. During the 70s these tended to be some of the elite of Cuban society, which seems to be less true of the median immigrant from Mexico. The fact that Cubans tend to vote Republican already puts them in a somewhat odd position relative to other Hispanic groups, and the visible trends in Miami seemed consistent with that.

-In the multiple times I've been there, I think I've gotten Haitian cab drivers on nearly every occasion - the giveaway is always the French names on the ID cards in the cab.


Earlier thoughts here, here and here.

-Outside of a cocktail party itself, I can't think of any place I've been to where the cocktail dress was so prevalent on the women walking around. Day time, night time, doesn't matter.

-Part of this seemed to from the, how shall I put it, 'professionals'. They tend to stick out. I wonder if the men who partake in such services realise how easy they are to spot at a distance of 50m. My guess is that they kid themselves that people might be mistaking them for friends, girlfriends etc. But they're not.

-Related to the above, it's amusing when you think about it how much men will pay to probabilistically sleep with a women, but how they'll shy away from paying money to sleep with a woman with certainty. The most likely explanations are a very high implied cost of dignity, or the fact that the purchase itself is not the same. In the latter case, one ultimately wants the pursuit and the conquest, and only the probabilistic scenario delivers that. Of course, there's always the explanation of George Costanza cheapness - why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Nigel Farage lays into the EU over the madness of having the Spanish bailout being funded by the same countries who are themselves on the brink of needing a bailout.

I love watching Nigel Farage in action. He's aware that he's never going to change anything at the EU, so he just acts like a professional troll for their dim-witted schemes, pointing out all the ridiculous fictions that EU boosters love to tell each other.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Truly Understanding What Combat Mortality Statistics Mean

I find it interesting sometimes to imagine how my worldview might change if I experienced different events.

It seems elementary that if you've made the best use of the data available, you should only change your mind based on new information. Merely experiencing an event without finding out anything you didn't know before ought not change your perception of things.

So it's funny to read about how the average person's views change with a particular experience, and try to hypothesize where your current views fit along the claimed evolution.

What prompted this (and continuing with the 'All-Fussell-All-The-Time' theme of the blog of late) was Paul Fussell's description of how the average soldier's views on the chances of death change over time.
In war it is not just the weak soldiers, or the sensitive ones, or the highly imaginative or cowardly ones, who will break down. All will break down if in combat long enough. "Long enough" is now defined by physicians and psychiatrists as between 200 and 240 days. For every frontline soldier in the Second World War, according to John Ellis, there was the "slowly dawning and dreadful realisation that there was no way out, that . . . it was only a matter of time before they got killed or maimed or broke down completely." As one British officer put it, "You go in, you come out, you go in again and you keep doing it until they break you or you are dead." This "slowly dawning and dreadful realisation" usually occurs as a result of two stages of rationalization and one of accurate perception:
1. It can't happen to me. I am too clever / agile / well-trained / good-looking / beloved / tightly laced / etc.
Personally, I can't imagine ever thinking this. Death is always certain, and there's always a chance that you're going to draw the unlucky number even in much safer events than combat. So while this might be a subconscious starting point, I doubt it. What about the second stage?
This persuasion gradually erodes into
2. It can happen to me, and I'd better be more careful. I can avoid the danger by keeping extra alert at all times / watching more prudently the way I take cover or dig in or expose my position by firing my weapon / etc.
This conviction attenuates in turn to the perception that death and injury are matters more of bad luck than lack of skill...
At a minimum, I think I'd start at this stage (or the first half, anyway) - it definitely can happen to you. The question is how much agency you have over the matter. Note that the description above tends to not focus on probabilities - it can happen, but if I do X, then it can't. I think this is empirically a good description of the world - most people don't think in probabilities.

But to those that do, it's obvious that you dying in warfare can be both a) largely determined by chance, and b) something you can still shift a bit at the margin by not doing stupid things.

In essence, you're spinning a roulette wheel, and any number above 3 means you're dead, or something equivalent. You can have crummy odds and still understand what the odds are.

So that, in short, would be where I think I'd view World War 2 combat probabilities.

But I don't think I would have gotten to the conclusion that makes up Fussell's stage 3:
...making inevitable the third stage of awareness:
3. It is going to happen to me, and only my not being there is going to prevent it.

On a number of dimensions, that is actually incredibly clear-sighted. Granted, it still makes the mistake of not thinking in the probabilistic way (a probability of 99% is not the same thing as a probability of 100%).

But which bias are you more likely to be succumbing to? Being overly optimistic that you will somehow be different and escape it all, or ignoring the tiny chance that you might actually make it? To ask the question is to know the answer. The bias is all on the side of optimism - if you round your estimated survival probability down to zero, it won't change the answer by much, the same way as if you assume that you'll never win the lottery you'll almost certainly make better choices than if you assume any non-trivial probability of the event occurring.

And indeed, it only takes a minor modification to the premise to make it technically correct as well, by beginning the sentence with the phrase 'Given long enough, ...' . This is expressed most memorably in the motto of Zero Hedge - on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

In wartime, you don't even need the timeline to be that long.

Which makes the second half of the sentence all the more powerful - the only way out is to not be there.

That is something that I wouldn't have figured out with equivalent clarity.

In the middle of combat, there are also very few ways out. Desert and you run a good chance of getting shot.

I can imagine that goes a fair way to explaining why people go insane in war - you figure out that it is now inevitable that you'll die a horrible, gruesome death at some random (but imminent) point, and until then you're going to be surrounded by horror and brutality.

The phrase 'only my not being there is going to prevent it' can also be paraphrased as 'the only winning move is not to play.'

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fatties Are Optimising

Let me repeat a frequent refrain that I hear from smug skinny people from time to time:
Hur hur hur. Look at that fat guy at McDonalds, getting a super-sized Big Mac meal with a diet coke. As if the diet coke makes up for the huge number of calories he's consuming! What a moron!
Reader, I am here to tell you that at least along one metric, the fattie is behaving in an entirely rational way, and the skinny guy is in fact the moron for not understanding optimisation.

When I say 'rational', I don't mean that they are doing the optimal thing in some cosmic sense. Rather, I mean it in the classical applied microeconomics sense that they are maximising something.

So what exactly might they be maximising that would be consistent with their behaviour?

Consider that they get utility from eating equal to

U = Taste*Quantity

It's better to eat tastier stuff, and it's better to eat more of it. Not too controversial, right?

In addition, suppose they can't eat an unlimited amount - let's grant them a binding calorie budget for each meal. The exact budget doesn't actually matter for the analysis.

So the fatties want to eat as much tasty food as possible given a maximum total calorie allowance. How do they choose the amounts of foodstuffs to get to this point?

Well, if you work through the fairly simple constrained optimisation, the relevant metric for comparing across food items is the taste per unit calorie. This is a measure of how good the 'value' of each food is, if you think of calories like money. In other words:

"Value(Food X)" = Taste (Food X) /  Calories (Food X)

In equilibrium, you will want to allocate more consumption towards foods that deliver higher value, and reduce consumption in low value foods.* When faced between two foods, that's how you'll decide between them.

Let's add further the assumption that the person must have at least one food item and one drink item.

So how do you choose between the items?

Let's start by comparing Coke versus Diet Coke.

A 12 ounce can of Coke has 140 calories. Let's call it's tastiness = y.

A 12 ounce can of diet coke has, say, 1 calorie (it's closer to zero, but never mind). Let's say you find diet coke much worse than coke - it's only 30% as tasty, say.

So the value of coke is V(coke) = y/140
The value of diet coke is V(diet coke) = 0.3y/1

In other words, Diet Coke is 42 times better value than Coke.

Now let's compare a serve of fries relative to our equivalent of 'Diet Fries', say a Premium Southwest Salad with Chicken.

A large McDonalds French Fries has 500 calories. The salad has 290 calories.

But everyone knows that the salad is not 60% as tasty as the French Fries. At best, it's about a quarter as tasty.

In other words, the Salad is worse value than the large fries.

So the fatty that is rationally optimising the problem we've set out will choose the large fries and the diet coke, and ignore the southwest salad and the coke. This will give him more tasty food for the same amount of calories.

And this conclusion holds no matter what the calorie budget. It doesn't matter if you let the guy eat a huge meal - he's still better off ordering more fries and a diet coke. Coke has a much (calorie)-cheaper substitute than fries do for the same level of taste.

I think it's a mistake to assume that fatties don't care about being fat. My guess is that they care deeply about it. They just really like food.

And these are exactly the people whom I'd expect to figure out the optimal way to eat the most amount of tasty food for a given level of calories.

Frankly, if I only optimised over the things above, I'd eat McDonalds a lot more. It's tasty as hell, and doesn't even have that many calories. As we've seen, you can eat it every day and not necessarily get fat.

The only thing that stops me getting to this point is adding in a health cost to each item. If you care about your health (and on this front, I think it's safe to assume that fatties may not care as much), then you're more likely to pick the salad. But most people are unlikely to pick the salad based on the taste/calorie tradeoff alone. Unless they're idiots. In addition, Kevin Murphy's back-of-the-envelope calculations about how large the health costs of a hamburger are suggest that they're only in the range of $2-$3 per hamburger. What the costs are in terms of attractiveness, however, is another story.

But the bottom line is that it's the fattie at McDonalds who isn't ordering the diet coke who is more likely to be making the mistake. You're always better off ordering the diet coke and getting a larger fries instead.

*Technical aside: if you don't specify a declining function of taste with greater consumption (i.e. each fry tastes as good as the last), the equilibrium will be a corner solution - e.g. you only eat french fries. The fact that people tend to want a burger and fries suggests that taste declines with consumption, and thus the optimisation is at an interior solution. Fact.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Betteridge's Law of Headlines

Via Hacker News comes this great observation:
Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word 'no'.
The logic being that this tends to be attached to controversial claims, and if the author had enough facts to determine conclusively that the the claim were true, they would assert the matter directly.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

'Wartime', by Paul Fussell

After the previous post on the subject, I've been making my way through Paul Fussell's book on World War II, 'Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War'.

Like his essay on the same subject, it's very eye-opening.

On the tendency of bomber crews to place enormous importance on medallions and other tokens of luck:
In a world whose behavior seems to define it as nothing but mad, "You cannot call the things that happen to bomber crews superstition." In the midst of calmly committed mass murder, reliance on amulets will seem about the most reasonable thing around. 
On the frequent indignities suffered by soldiers at the hands of their own officers, a concept that Fussell describes as 'chickens***':
'I joined the army to fight facsim', says [a British soldier], 'only to find the army full of fascists.'
On the German understanding of why, just because they were fighting the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, they wanted to invade Europe as well:
Few in Germany had any idea why the Americans had invaded Europe. One German officer could conclude only, as he told his interrogator, that they had attacked the Reich "in order to save Churchill and the Jews". 
On the reputation of the Italian army:
This myth of Italian military haplessness served a useful psychological function in the Second World War, helping secretly to define what Allied soldiers wanted the "enemy" universally to be - pacifists, dandies, sensitive and civilized non-idealogues, even clowns. The antithesis of committed, fanatic National Socialists. At the same time the Italians could serve as the definition of incompetence, fraudulence, and cowardice: no one really wanted to be like them to be sure, but how everyone wished it were possible! The world was laughing at Italy, and yet the Italians were sensibly declining to be murdered. The Allied soldier couldn't help wondering that if contempt and ridicule are the price of staying alive, perhaps the price is worth paying.  
Interesting stuff indeed.

The People's Kleptocracy of China

An interesting theory of the Chinese economic system.

It includes answers to the questions of 'why do the Chinese keep buying US T-Bills', 'why do the Chinese build so many worthless buildings' and 'why do Chinese peasants riot over inflation', among others.

I don't know if I buy the whole thing (if the SOEs are so efficient, and the peasants only earn negative real returns on bank deposits, how would they be so badly off if the SOEs do worse under low inflation? Economic contraction, perhaps, but that seems to imply that the house of cards may have some positive value).

Still, it makes oddly compelling narrative

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Burn That Money!

I suspect I joined the ranks of the 'sufficiently wealthy to not sweat the small stuff' when I stopped noticing petrol prices very much. I would be vaguely aware of the total dollar amount when I filled up, but the choice of which petrol station to go to was largely dictated by 'do I need petrol right now?', rather than 'is this place 5 cents cheaper than the other place?'.

This is fine, and I can totally rationalise this to myself - reducing the number of trips to the petrol station is worth the extra dollar or two I might pay.

But I can cement exactly when the 'careless rich' threshold was reached, and it was yesterday. I was driving home along a route I don't normally take, and the fuel light was on. There are two petrol stations right next to each other on the same side of the road, a Shell and a 76. As I was approaching deciding which one to go to, I actually thought 'I like the Shell Logo better, let's go there'. It was only when I passed the 76 that I realised that I actually had the chance to look at the signs and go to the cheaper option at zero cost, but it had been so long since I'd done that that the thought didn't actually occur to me in time.

At this point, I was sufficiently embarrassed at myself, that I got flustered and drove past both. This made me feel like even more of a lame-o. I went to one further up the road - I have no idea if it was cheaper or more expensive.

Ha. I guess there's a good reason they call it 'Overcoming Bias' and 'Less Wrong', not 'Perfect Rationality'.

Athenios periodically accuses me of being 'part of the 1%', in his hilarious attempts to ignite class war nonsense, and I have no doubt this post will be catnip to him.

Monday, June 4, 2012

How It Ends

Further in the category of 'Songs That Are Made By One Really Good Line' comes the song 'How It Ends', by Devotchka. It was on the 'Little Miss Sunshine' soundtrack - I really disliked the movie, but the soundtrack was excellent.

The line in question is as follows:
'And you already know,
Yes you already know... how... this.. will... end.'
This is true for a surprisingly large number of things in life.

Deep down, you know how things will turn out. You pretend otherwise, thinking that somehow it won't end up the way you suspect it will. You convince yourself of the motivational power of optimistic thinking, and push aside doubts about the outcome.

The curse of having fairly good models of the world is that sometimes they'll tell you things that you wish weren't true.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Good News, Bad News

The good news - the US and Israel created the Stuxnet virus to destroy the centrifuges in Iran being used to enrich uranium. I suspected this was probably true, but it's nice to have it "confirmed" (to the extent that national security secrets are ever really confirmed).

This is actually doubly good news, because it means that

a) Somebody in the administration is actually doing something active to try to prevent (delay is probably a better word) the Iranian nuclear program. I thought the unofficially stated policy was 'We'll keep holding talks about talks until they develop a bomb, then announce that there's nothing that can be done since they've already got the bomb'.

b) My earlier presumption that the US was clueless about using cyberwarfare and was just being schooled by the Chinese might be incorrect. I still imagine we're being schooled by the Chinese, but it looks like (thankfully) the margin may be less than I thought. The mitigating factor was always that Chinese attacks on the US were likely to be exposed (since the US has a free press), but US attacks on China would only be exposed if China felt that it was in their interests to expose it, which would be less common.

The bad news is that Stuxnet wasn't meant to spread in the wild, it was only meant to stay in the centrifuges. So it wasn't as good as planned. It also fits into a), in the sense that US attacks appear to be designed so that nobody ever finds out about them.

But I'm still definitely calling this as a net win, and my opinion of the NSA has gone up.