Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The real meaning of 'Lincoln'

At the risk of being entirely self-obsessed (the peanut gallery: a blogger? No!), I found myself thinking about  something I wrote the other day about the Lincoln movie:
The main focus of the debates back and forth was less about whether outlawing slavery was actually bad, and more about whether one should push ahead with bold civil rights initiatives that might have negative short-term consequences.
More than that, for a movie about the civil war, this had less action in the whole thing than most other civil war movies have in a given 3 minute period. Which leaves you wondering:

 -Why, when discussing the enormity of the civil war, would you focus almost exclusively on the messy politicking involved in passing the thirteenth amendment, rather than the much bigger issues of the war itself?

-Why focus relatively little on the question of the merits of slavery (unlike, say, Amistad), and focus entirely on whether it's wise to push ahead with a bold legal civil rights initiative that might have unknown short-term consequences, both political and social?

And then it occurred to me.

If you strip away the racial angle to the debates, the movie is an allegory for the passage of Obamacare. You have a bill that initially seems unlikely to pass, cunningly gotten over the line by a variety of questionable political wrangling and underhand tactics. You have a large majority of seats held by a party after a recent election, but a proposed bill that threatens to create internal divisions that the leader will need to win over. You have the bill's sponsors knowing that some folks will probably have to walk the political plank to get it passed. And you have Lincoln as Obama, the racial-healing figure not really getting involved in the messy debates, but working the crowd in the background to ensure things get passed. And sure enough, in the end everyone agrees it's a triumph.

Spielberg also donated $1 million to an Obama Super PAC, so you know that he definitely has an interest in the subject matter.

This hypothesis may sound wacky, but how else do you explain a movie called 'Lincoln', set in the middle of the Civil War, that has only 30 seconds of footage of battle, and even that as a scene-setting?

And if the 'Lincoln' movie isn't meaningfully about the Civil War, what else is it about?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Miscellaneous Joy

-A thoroughly fascinating description of how to interact with corrupt police in third world countries from John McAfee, who's had to test some of that knowledge recently. One bit that I wouldn't have thought of:
"Do not get out of the car, even if ordered to do so. Your car is your only avenue of escape. It’s a ton or more of steel capable of doing serious harm to anyone foolish enough to stand in front of it, and once underway is difficult to stop. The checkpoint police in Central America never chase anyone down, in spite of years of watching U.S. Television and action movies. It’s too much work, plus they could have an accident. It’s not worth it for an unknown quantity. And they won’t shoot, unless you’ve run over one of them while driving off. It makes noise and wastes a round that they must account for when they return to the station – creating potential problems with the higher-ups. Not that I recommend running. It’s just that outside of the car you have lost the only advantage you have."
-Richard Fernandez has a great suggestion for UN peacekeepers in Africa, given their complete inability to preserve the peace even when outnumbering the rebels by 17,000 against several hundred:
"The UN should form up their troops into a brass band to provide music and entertainment as a backdrop to proceedings. They serve some purpose that way."
 -Things which were thoroughly predictable continue to keep occurring.

-If this is true, it seems that Kim Dotcom is learning the hard way the lessons of Patrick at Popehat's description of the Blutarsky Doctrine when speaking to the police:
"Hey man, you f***ed up. You trusted us."

Confirmed Out of Sample!

The heuristic for identifying native Turkish speakers has gotten an out-of-sample confirmation - my tailor is indeed Turkish.

You know what that is? That's some @#$%ing science right there.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Lincoln" and the Hollywood depiction of the Civil War

I saw the Lincoln movie the other day. Regarding the earlier sort-of-prediction, you sure got the point, but not the counterpoint.

I felt conflicted about this movie. When you go into a movie called 'Lincoln', you probably shouldn't expect a balanced portrayal of the different sides of the Civil War. The movie itself focuses on the politicking involved in passing the 13th amendment banning slavery, in the wake of Lincoln's re-election. In the context of  the slaughter of 30% of Southern males between ages 18 and 40 (along with 10% of Northern males between ages 20 and 45), making a whole movie about legislative maneuvering seems almost trite. Then again, perhaps the Civil War is almost too large a subject to treat in its entirety, so you have to pick some small part to focus on, like Gettysburg, as a microcosm of the whole.

Given the choice of subject matter, they did do a good job of portraying the various characters involved, and the ideas being debated. The main focus of the debates back and forth was less about whether outlawing slavery was actually bad, and more about whether one should push ahead with bold civil rights initiatives that might have negative short-term consequences. There were scenes where the characters debated about whether blacks were actually the equal of whites, but these came across more like pantomime interludes so you could know whom to boo for. Then again, maybe with modern sensibilities being what they are, an accurate portrayal of the avowedly anti-black cause would necessarily come across that way.

The most interesting arguments in the movie are between conservative Republicans (who care more about ending the war than about ending slavery), and the radical Republicans who want abolition immediately. In the end, the former are portrayed as ultimately lacking the conviction to do the right thing, and favouring expediency. Then again, if a larger fraction of the 750,000-odd deaths had been depicted on screen, perhaps the 'end the war now' position might have been a little more understandable.

That's all fine, as far as it goes. Ending slavery was undoubtedly the right thing to do, and to the extent that the South was fighting to enslave other human beings, it's hard to disagree with Ulysses Grant's assessment that this cause was amongst the worst for which men ever fought.

So it's entirely fair to portray this as a victory of the righteousness of ending slavery. The bit I found hard to take was the portrayal of the passage of the 13th Amendment (and the Northern cause generally) as being a victory for democracy. Come on! You'd think that the movie might eventually get around to noting that the representatives of the southern states weren't in the @#$%ing room at the time, because they were busy fighting a war against the august democratic chamber that continued to claim to represent them. Kind of an important oversight, don't you think? You can call the passage of the 13th Amendment a lot of things, but it's surely not a victory for democracy. It's a God damn travesty of democracy.

The Southern position in the movie is almost an afterthought, getting perhaps 30 seconds of dialogue. They did at least give them the courtesy of making their 15 seconds where they were speaking somewhat sympathetic, when the Southern representative observes that the North isn't winning the argument with ballots, but with cannons. Seems like a jolly reasonable point to me. At least they didn't choose to make him throw in random racial epithets, which I was half expecting.

Just once, just once, I would like to see a presentation of the South on their own terms. By which I mean, present the case for the South as the men of the South would have presented it themselves. This is definitively not the presentation that Hollywood ever does. From beginning to end, the South was fighting to preserve slavery. End of story. Nowhere does it ever seem to occur to anybody that this is the Northern view of the Southern cause, not the Southern view of the Southern cause. The latter sounds so alien that you're apt to wonder why you almost never hear it. Let's roll the tape again:
"I tried all in my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for twelve years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind: It would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last man of this government falls in his tracks, and his children seize the musket and fight our battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for independence, and that, or extermination we will have."
- Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy - 1864
Or if that's too hard, how about even a more nuanced perspective on the war from the Northern point of view? Let's take a hyper-partisan figure in the war - Ulysses S. Grant. It turns out even he was far less of a cheerleader for the whole thing than Steven Spielberg. Of all the people who know of the Grant quote mentioned earlier, how many do you think know the full context of Grant's observations about the scene at the Appomattox courthouse?:
What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us...
If you're looking for thematic inspiration for your Civil War movie and insist on entirely taking the Northern side, you might consider starting there.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

31 Days of Vegetarianism

Out of interest, I decided to try being vegetarian for a month. (Not vegan though - that $#!^ is wack, yo.) Partly this is due to lingering ethical concerns on the subject. The other reasons were a self-control aspect, and a social experiment aspect - just seeing what it would be like.

I can report back on a few observations in relation to said experiment:

-I didn't end up missing the taste of meat very much - certainly not when it wasn't around, and even when it was in front of me it wasn't hard to do without. The bigger issue, in fact, was remembering not to eat meat. I had to restart the month (twice!) because I ate meat without thinking about it. In normal meal situations it was easy enough to remember, but things were harder when you came across food in non-meal contexts and weren't thinking about it.  The first was with Athenios at Chick-Fil-A where I ate one of his nuggets without thinking about it, and the second was at SH's party where I ate a meat hors d'oeuvre before cursing myself about 20 minutes later. Both of these were within the first week, and afterwards I got used to it.

-The much bigger inconvenience wasn't the foregone taste, but rather the impact on the available choices when eating out. You can't just go to any of your regular restaurants without checking whether they have anything reasonable, and some places (e.g. Korean BBQ) are essentially ruled out altogether. Even at the places you could eat at, there was a huge reduction in choice. It's being in East Berlin wearing a grey polyester suit and peering across at the Armani store on the other side of the wall. I feel seriously bad for vegans.

-I note in passing that virtually nobody takes any kind of intermediate position on vegetarian ethics. Attitudes tend to fall into one of:
a) Eating animals is a-ok!
b) I suspect eating animals may be wrong but I like the taste and convenience, so I just avoid thinking about the ethical angle.
c) I think eating animals is wrong, so I abstain altogether.

Both a) and c) are entirely consistent. b) is the more interesting one - it doesn't make sense as a logical position, unless you think about the cognitive dissonance aspect.

To illustrate the point, consider the alternative intermediate position between a) and c)

b2) I suspect eating animals may be wrong but I like the taste and convenience, so I try to eat less meat than I otherwise would.

Makes sense, right? If killing chickens is bad, we should stop altogether, but it's still an improvement to only kill 10 instead of 20 if you can't or won't give up altogether.

Nobody thinks this way though. So why not?

Simple - the cognitive dissonance would be enormous. You'd have to constantly be facing up to the fact that you're doing something you think is somewhat wrong. You'd be reminded of this every time you considered whether to eat meat, and likely would feel somewhat guilty whenever you gave in.

And you can't have that. No man is the villain in his own narrative.

Hence people opt to just not think about it.

Nobody wants to see how the sausage is made.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Predicting if someone is Brazilian by how they speak English

One of my minor hobbies is trying to guess where people were born based on small details about them.

A fun way of doing this is with language. When people speak English (or any other language), they often subconsciously import assumptions about pronouncing words from their original tongue. Certain sounds will get pronounced in ways that sound slightly odd to a native English speaker, but are often correlated among people who grew up speaking a particular tongue, or from a particular region. The great OKH informed me that the study of this area is called 'phonotactics', so you might call me an amateur phonotactician

The latest one I cam across is a diagnostic for Brazilians. Like all linguistic tics, it's not universal, but it's reasonably predictive - it's neither necessary nor sufficient, but it's closer to being sufficient than it is to being necessary . It's the following:

Past tense verbs (e.g. words that end in 'ed'), they will sometimes pronounce the 'ed' as a hard sound.

So, for instance, the word 'combined', they'll sometimes pronounce as 'combine-ed', with the last sound being pronounced as in the start of 'education'.

I noticed this first in two Brazilians that I know, and confirmed it out of sample this weekend with another guy - he had dark brown hair and pale-ish skin with an accent that I couldn't easily place when I heard him giving a talk. He did the hard 'ed' sound in a talk, so I googled him and sure enough he was from Brazil.

The previous one (which I noted in the comments here, but which deserves its own post) is the following:

A strong diagnostic for Turkish people speaking English is that words that end in a hard 'r' they sometimes combine the 'r' with a 'zh' afterwards (think as in Dr Zhivago, or 'Jean-Claude' in the French pronunciation). So the word 'cover', they'll pronounce almost like 'coverj', if that makes sense. They won't do it all the time, so you often have to listen for a while before they'll do it. It's not uniquely Turkish - I've also come across it in one or two Eastern European groups, although I forget which. But it's a pretty strong predictor.

I've confirmed this across a few people, but I'll report to you soon an out of sample test - I heard my tailor say it the other day when I took in a suit to get adjusted. I'm going to ask him when I return, and we'll see if I'm right.

[Update]: Confirmed - he is indeed Turkish.

Correlations, baby. Though you throw them out with a pitchfork, yet they return.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Brecher's Back!

If I had to nominate my favourite aspect of the internet, it's the ability to come across writers with uniquely interesting perspectives on the world that aren't likely to be covered in the popular press. Lots of the time, you won't agree with everything (or even most things) they write, but you'll usually at least learn something new.

Sailer, Derbyshire, and Heartiste rank highly in that department. But my two favourites both sadly were not very active recently. Moldbug was my favourite overall, with truly unusual reactionary perspectives on history and politics, but he doesn't write much any more. (The archives should be read in full). The other was Gary Brecher, a.k.a. The War Nerd, whose perspectives on military matters are both hilarious and insightful. He's been on a bit of a hiatus.

But he's back! Now writing regularly over at NSFWCorp (which is, incidentally, entirely safe for work). Initially they put it all behind a paywall, but now they've opened it up. Which, in the end, caused me to read them and subscribe - score one for freemium-based content.

Where else are you likely to read:

-An account of living in Saudi Arabia as an ex-pat, including discussing the character traits of different Muslim peoples that's neither a hagiography nor a 'they're all terrorists' screed?

-About uprisings against the Saudis that don't make the media?

-An attack on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from someone who actually wants a strong air force?

-A genuinely funny discussion on Turkey's historical relationship with Syria?

Huzzah! I don't think I've read many of the other NSFW writers (although Pancho Montana's descriptions of the drug war in Mexico are great too), but I've signed up for a subscription purely for Mr Brecher.

Go, read!

How to improve the public attitude towards police

I know the libertarians like Radley Balko will tell you, and not without some justification, that there's already too much trust in the police. I dunno, though. My sense is that you're always going to be ruled by some gang or other, because the military advantage of numbers is overwhelming. And in the end, the police in the US are on the pretty good end of the scale of gangs to be ruled by. Don't get me wrong - there's plenty of egregious police misconduct, some of it the inevitable consequence of being tasked to enforce things like ridiculous drug laws. And even if that goes away, I think that plenty of police deeply enjoy the power of the job, and like bullies they are likely to retaliate if you question their authority. But still - I read stuff like Second City Cop, and can't help but think that in the end, these guys are not the real problem in society.

Anyway, that's all by the by. Suppose you were trying to increase trust in the police force. How might you do it?

For a period of two years in graduate school, I didn't have a car. I know you must think this a tragedy ill-befitting my social status, and you would be right. But at the time, it seemed sensible. Public transport has two major problems. Firstly, the fact that whether you get to your function on time depends on the competence of the government that day, which is always a precarious proposition. And secondly, the other people who ride public transport. The first one never goes away (except in Singapore), but for the second one at least I was riding a route filled mainly with college kids and other types low on the 'likely to stab you for twenty bucks' metric. So it wasn't too bad.

But what was strange about this period was that my attitude towards police became much, much more positive. Why? Because I had absolutely nothing to fear from them. The police are around? Great - the more, the merrier! It's like a personal security guard for wherever you happen to be walking.

The reality is that most citizens are law-abiding with respect to nearly all the laws that actually matter. The only major exception to this is that nearly everybody breaks traffic laws. Doing 70 in a 65 zone? Even if they don't pull you over (and they probably won't), they could. And they might, if they need the ticket revenue badly enough.

The net effect of this is that whenever you're driving and you see a cop car, you get the same feeling that a thug in the ghetto probably gets when they're walking and see a cop - even if I think I'm doing nothing wrong, they might still cause me trouble. I drive a little slower. I indicate earlier. I come to an over-dramatised pedantic halt at every stop sign. Why? Because Officer O'Rourke might just happen to be short of his quota this month, in which case, bad luck.

And this reaction, repeated however many times per week, ends up having an insidious mental association - police = potential trouble.

And this is completely easy to fix. Just announce a policy that traffic police will only give tickets to people driving in an unsafe manner. That's it. The rest will be reassigned to other duties.

This would have an enormously positive effect on the average person's perception of police officers - once you're not worried about some @$$hole giving you a ticket, there's nothing to worry about!

There's two reasons why this won't happen, of course.

The good reason is that traffic stops are often very useful for police to come into contact with people who have committed other types of crimes. They need to be able to pull you over for the ticket to see if you've got a body in the trunk and are acting suspiciously (or more likely, that you had a bag of pot on you).

The more neutral reason is that the people whose attitudes might be changed already support the police enough. Not only that, but the instrumental value of police support is for increasing public willingness to supply information that will help to catch crooks. And the reality is that people who only break traffic laws are unlikely to have much information about criminals in the first place. The guys who know who shot Maurice the gangbanger on 75th street have other solid reasons to not trust the police, over and above traffic tickets.

Exactly the same logic applies for why you should legalise marijuana. It affects a smaller number of people, but the principle is the same. Whenever a law is being semi-openly flouted by large numbers of people, it's usually a good time to acknowledge that it should just be ditched.

This, incidentally, was perhaps the best news to come out of the election - Colorado and Washington legalising marijuana. We'll see if the Obama administration actually lets them, but as Radley Balko notes, public opinion may finally be turning on this one.

The other was this one, which surprised me, because California voters rarely seem to encounter any freely operating business that they didn't think could be improved by some regulation or other.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

It is now safe to return to social media

I logged on to facebook today for the first time in months, and I had to scroll through several pages of updates before coming across the first posts of inane election boosterism. Looks like from here on out we're in the clear again!

Now I can get back to my regular schedule of checking it once a month or so, and being reminded of why I don't bother going on there very much.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

500 Days of Summer

I ended up watching '500 Days of Summer' the other day. After checking my testes at the door, it actually wasn't that bad.

For a great review of how much of a beta the main male lead is, Heartiste has a discussion here.

I remember a friend of mine once telling me that the over-arching theme of all of Oscar Wilde's work was to treat the serious things lightly, and the light things seriously. All the rest of the humour flowed from there. This helped me understand his work a lot more, but did spoil some of the surprise of it somewhat.

In the same vein, the twist to 500 Days of Summer is that they take stereotypical real-life (not movie-life) behavior of men and women , but reverse the sexes of the main characters.

(Some plot spoilers below the jump, but none that I think will impact your enjoyment of the movie).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bad News From Election Night

LA passes a law mandating the use of condoms in porn videos.

Genius! As if the industry weren't unprofitable enough already, let's insist that their product be less desirable to consumers who, after all, are buying a fantasy, which usually doesn't include padding up. There's also zero worry about the industry moving to Ventura County, or Nevada. It's not like any Motel 6 will do as a set, you know. You need the LA ones for the certain je ne sais quoi.

Apparently some guy named Obama won re-election too. This is great news, because it means that you can now get a carbon tax / cap and trade passed by the government. If Obama had lost, you would have had to get the carbon tax imposed unilaterally by the EPA instead.

Also, I laughed watching CNN's coverage where they showed the exit poll numbers on support for Obama broken down into various groups: White, Hispanic, [Obvious Missing Category], Catholics, Suburban Voters, Anabaptists, People Missing a Leg, etc.

There's a curious omission there. Now why would that be?

Oh. Ooohhh.

Still, 93% support for Obama (Fox had the same answer) is less than I thought - I'd seen poll estimates considerably higher than that (inasmuch as you can get considerably higher than that without Pierre-Simon Laplace shooting you down with bolts of lightning for violating elementary probability theory)

Seems like another of Gavin McInnes's 'Hate Facts' - if too many people read about that, they might start asking uncomfortable questions, and we can't have that.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Voting

Mencius Moldbug once opined that for a westerner to not believe in democracy in the 21st century is somewhat akin to not believing in God in the 18th century - not so much in terms of the persecution, but in terms of how much it makes you an outlier relative to respectable opinion.

Most people who get all misty-eyed when election day rolls around tend to rarely enunciate why they think democracy is such a good thing, for much the same reasons that Christians in 1700 rarely described why Christianity was a good thing. But the broadest arguments fit into two camps.

The first is that democracy is an instrumental good - voting generally, and universal suffrage specifically, are ways to ensure peaceful good government. Voting itself is neither good nor bad, but it produces much better governments than non-democratic procedures.

The second is that democracy is an inherent good. Having people collectively decide their leaders on a regular basis is the morally correct thing to do, and participating in this process should make one feel virtuous.

I can sympathise with the former argument, although I think it needs some obvious qualifications.

I cannot really believe in the latter argument any more.

In the first place, it seems that the univariate comparison between western democratic countries and third world non-democratic countries vastly overstates the treatment effect of democracy. This is an enormously complicated empirical question that the development economists war over viciously. But even just in terms of the anecdotal discourse, the democracy boosters never seem to consider the harder cases. I'm not even talking about the cases like Singapore or Dubai, which they tend to wave away as despotic, if prosperous. But was the Austrian empire ca. 1900 a despotic and terrible place to live? Hardly. By any measure of its cultural, scientific or literary output, or just general standards of living, it seemed quite pleasant indeed for the time, although it certainly wasn't democratic. Or for a modern example, would Lichtenstein be meaningfully improved by transforming it to a democracy? It's hard to see how.

Democracy boosters also never seem to want to talk much about the first world cases where democracy is receding. Quick, name an important EU-wide decision made in the last few years that was decided by anything like a popular vote! No rush, I'll go and get a coffee and check up on you when I get back. Are you railing against the EU? Maybe for their economic policy, but what about their internal governance? I don't think so.

I think there are at least two good arguments for democracy as an instrumental good. The first is the analysts consensus forecast problem - the median value of the forecasts from lots of independent analysts tends to be more accurate than the forecasts of most individual analysts. If lots of people all estimate what they think is best for the country and vote on it, the variance of the mean of our estimates is likely much lower than the variance of any one individual. So a democratic process is less likely to screw up by picking an oddball policy.

The problem arises when people aren't voting based on what they think is in the country's interests, but their own. If 51% of people get together by voting to expropriate the remaining 49% (which seems like a fair description of the west today), it's hard to see how the analysts consensus forecast improves this.

The second is the idea of increasing popular support - democracy makes people feel they have a stake in the outcome and a way to vent their grievances, hence there is less civil disruption and fewer coups. I think this definitely has a value, but then again absolute monarchies used to be quite popular at times too, especially when they had a good king (although they'd be highly unpopular now. Again, except Lichtenstein).

But if democracy is justified as an instrumental good, it's surprising how rarely people make the obvious qualifications - that its value will depend greatly on who is voting, and what they're voting for. If the people voting are mainly fools, madmen or thugs, I don't expect the ballot box to transform them into Thomas Jeffersons. If you vote for Hamas, you will get Hamas.

This leads us to the limited moral argument for democracy - that even in the case of bad outcomes, people at least get what they deserve on average. We'll put aside the case of whether the minority getting expropriated deserves their fate for their inability to stop the majority. By this rationale, the Coptic Christians are now being 'deservedly' hounded out of Egypt, just like the Christians were 'deservedly' hounded out of Iraq.

But more generally, should we celebrate when societies are transformed from undeserved good governance to deserved poor governance? Rhodesia was a racist semi-democratic state with a functioning civil society whose benefits flowed mainly to the whites, but whose level of growth was pretty good. When this transitioned to the fully-democratic (at least initially) Zimbabwe, what resulted may or may not be considered less racist (it depends on how you score the massive violence against white farmers), but it's a basket case society that has ruined and impoverished nearly everybody, black and white alike, outside of a tiny ruling elite. So celebrate! They're now 'deservedly' reliant on foreign food aid instead of exporting food to the world.

You see the problem?

Of course, the true believers think that democracy and voting have a more basic inherent moral quality - it's just the right thing to do.

You cannot reason out any system of morality without axioms, so there's not really much to dispute in this statement. I disagree, but your mileage may vary. We are still, however, entitled to ask what shadow value you place on this moral good relative to other moral goods. In other words, how much ruin in Zimbabwe are you willing to tolerate for the fact that they now have universal suffrage, instead of restricted suffrage?

I value the rule of law, and peaceful stable societies. To the extent that democracy produces this, great! To the extent that democracy destroys this, then a pox on democracy.

In the west today, it seems about a zero NPV proposition. Like all NPV calculations, it depends on what the alternative is. Transitioning from modern Britain to North Korea would be a huge step backwards, but is that really the relevant counterfactual? Europe is slowly becoming less democratic each day and nobody seems to much notice or care.

To the extent that democracy works in the west, it seems mainly because the west has cultural values that support peaceful, stable government, and they vote accordingly. I celebrate this fact, but I think it would lead to nearly equally good outcomes if they didn't vote.

This doesn't fit neatly on a sticker that you can put on your chest after leaving the polling booth. Then again, not much sensible advice ever does.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Small Change to Improve TV Poker

On televised poker shows, they often display the probability that each player is likely to win the hand. This leads to games being essentially about the probability of an upset - can the 20% guy pull out the victory with the next card? I guess this makes for some dramatic tension, but it's not terribly useful for understanding poker.

The main reason is that what they display are full information probabilities - if you knew both players' hands, this is what you'd calculate the odds as being.

Of course, the whole point of poker is that you don't know what the other guy is holding, and you're trying to infer it. The question of how exactly you infer it, from the cards on the board and the way he's betting, is the entire art and science of the game.

The most scientific (or at least probabilistic) part is knowing your chances of winning given only the cards in your hand. If you're only going to display one probability for each player, this is the useful one to understand what the players are actually doing - if there's two players and you hold Ace of Diamonds and 3 of Hearts, what are your odds of winning if all cards are dealt? This would help people understand basic things like why the guy keeps betting if he's only got a 14% chance of winning - he doesn't know that he's only got a 14% chance of winning. He thinks he's got a 54% chance of winning, and doesn't know the other guy is holding a flush.

This number would also be much more useful for helping people learn to play poker better. They'd learn faster what each set of cards implied.

Now, the criticism here is that good poker players will infer much more than the unconditional probabilities based on the flop and how the guy is betting. But if you display both numbers (full information and conditional only on own cards), you'd at least know which way a skillful player was likely to be updating. In other words, he's inferring something between 14% and 54%.

I assume that the TV networks have decided that putting two probabilities on the screen is simply too confusing for the average boob TV audience. But I'm not so sure. Frankly, to watch the game at all, you've got to have some interest in poker, and it is simply impossible to be interested in poker without understanding the rudiments of probability (intuitively, if not formally). The guys who would find this totally confusing probably are never going to watch the show anyway.

I am as skeptical of human nature and ability as the next man, but on this one, I say give viewers the benefit of the doubt and put both full-information and partial information probabilities up.

(As a side note, I initially was going to title this post 'A Modest Proposal For Improving TV Poker', which has a good ring to it. The problem is that Jonathan Swift meant the 'modest' in a sarcastic way, and it adds greatly to the confusion to also use it for truly modest proposals -  it's like people who use the Casablanca 'shocked, SHOCKED' line for things that are actually shocking. Don't do it!)