Thursday, March 29, 2012

Against Compulsory Voting

Justin Wolfers likes the fact that Australia has compulsory voting.
I share Tom Friedman's view that the divisive nature of U.S. democracy is due to non-compulsory voting. But fixing that requires a mandate.
I respectfully disagree.

Less divisive it may be, but it offends me deeply as a statistician.


Well, who are the marginal people who vote under a mandatory system but not a compulsory system?

It's the people who didn't care enough to turn up of their own accord under a voluntary system.

Now, some of these people might actually have a firm view of the world, but just be feeling lazy or ambivalent. Maybe we really do want their opinions.

But a large number of the people who you're forcing to vote either

a) know virtually nothing about politics

b) genuinely don't give a flying fig

or both. If those people rationally decide to not vote, that's an entirely sensible decision.

How on earth does the decision-making system improve by forcing these people to pick a random answer? You're just intentionally adding noise to the process.

I remember my uncle had a mother who was senile and in a nursing home. He went in on election day to take her in to vote, only to be told that she'd already voted with the rest of the nursing home in the morning. Who did she vote for? Who the hell knows! She didn't know. Possibly someone told her who to vote for. Possibly she voted for the candidate suggested to her. Possibly not, too. But her completely random vote counted, just as much as the guy who read the paper every day. You can rest assured about that.

Lest you think that these people make up an insignificant number of votes, consider the following:

In the 1998 Australian federal election in the seat of Lindsay, there was an independent candidate who stood for office named 'Steve Grim-Reaper'.

Yes, really.

Without delving into the details of his policies, let's assume for the sake of the argument that people voting for a guy called 'Grim-Reaper' are essentially voting for a joke candidate. Let's further assume that the people voting for 'Grim-Reaper' might, if the 'Grim-Reaper' weren't running, vote for anyone at all. They are pure noise in the electoral process.

So how many people voted for the Grim Reaper in 1998?

1,043, or 1.36% of the electorate.

This isn't even counting the additional 4467, or 1.94% of the electorate, who voted informally (i.e. didn't bother to fill out the ballot properly).

Now, let's look at the seats that changed hands at the 1998 election. How many of these were cases where the margin of victory was less than the number of people in Lindsay who appeared to be voting as a joke?

In Bass, Tas, the margin was 0.06%.
In Dickson, Qld, the margin was 0.12%
In Kingston, SA, the margin was 0.46%
In the Northern Territory, the margin was 0.57%
In Stirling, WA, the margin was 1.04%
In Patteron, NSW, the margin was 1.22%

Six seats, where the victory was within the margin of joke voting. What a triumph!

In the most recent federal election, in 2010, the Labor Party ended up forming a coalition government with a majority of only one seat.

Meanwhile, the seat of Corangamite, Vic, was decided by 0.82% of the vote, and the seat of Hasluck, WA, was decided by 1.14% of the vote.

It is entirely possible that not only the outcome of a few seats, but in fact the outcome of the entire 2010 election, was decided by morons voting at random.

Justin Wolfers is a highly-trained economist, and a very competent statistician. It would amaze me if he weren't offended by this kind of forced noise in the voting process.

Even if it increases the civility of debate, it seems like a pretty steep price to pay.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cross-Price Elasticity of Sexual Demand

The procedure called RISUG in India (reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance) takes about 15 minutes with a doctor, is effective after about three days, and lasts for 10 or more years. A doctor applies some local anesthetic, makes a small pinhole in the base of the scrotum, reaches in with a pair of very thin forceps, and pulls out the small white vas deferens tube. Then, the doctor injects the polymer gel (called Vasalgel here in the US), pushes the vas deferens back inside, repeats the process for the other vas deferens, puts a Band-Aid over the small hole, and the man is on his way.
[T]he polymer lines the wall of the vas deferens and allows sperm to flow freely down the middle (this prevents any pressure buildup), and because of the polymer’s pattern of negative/positive polarization, the sperm are torn apart through the polyelectrolytic effect. On a molecular level, it’s what supervillains envision will happen when they stick the good guy between two huge magnets and flip the switch.
With one little injection, this non-toxic jelly will sit there for 10+ years without you having to do anything else to not have babies. Set it and forget it. Oh, and when you do decide you want those babies, it only takes one other injection of water and baking soda to flush out the gel, and within two to three months, you’ve got all your healthy sperm again.
I'd predict that if this became widespread among young single men, the rates of STDs would increase a lot.

My guess is that the risk of pregnancy motivates people to wear condoms a lot more than STDs do. At the point that the average guy is about to get laid, the prospect of 18 years of child support payments concentrates the mind in a way that the unlikely event of getting chlamydia doesn't.

Condoms are nobody's idea of the ideal contraceptive. But the reason that guys want to use them is that they don't generally want to rely on the fact that the girl is on the pill or will take the morning after pill. And for good reason too - maybe they forget to take the pill, or maybe they're just crazy (in which case you've got the worst scenario - having a kid with a nutcase). But either way, there's a tail risk of bad outcomes that's now beyond the guy's control.

But if the guy knows he doesn't face pregnancy risk for any of his sexual partners, my guess is that the rate of condom use will drop off a cliff, with a resulting spike in STDs. (I tried to find estimates of condom use for straight and gay men to get a crude approximation of what the effect of removing pregnancy risk might be for condom use, but a few minutes of googling didn't turn up an obvious answer).

The only thing that makes me guess that this won't happen is that having an injection into your scrotum seems more likely for a man in a long-term relationship (e.g. as a vasectomy substitute) than for single men (e.g. as a condom substitute).

I'm guessing that the doctors treating STDs would probably be privately relieved.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Miscellaneous Nuggets of Interest

-In favor of my revised definition of why LA seems spread out, comes this: the 50 densest cities in America: . Clocking in at number 1:
The nation's most densely populated urbanized area is Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Calif., with nearly 7,000 people per square mile.
 (Thanks to VarianB for the pointer)

-Taki's Magazine has a number of interesting articles at the moment covering a range of heterodox conservative opinion, including the disturbingly high suicide rate among transsexualsthe way people don't know how to interact with wounded soldiers, and the media circus surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.

-On the last point, former NAACP leader C.L. Bryant reiterates the depressing truth of the 'dog bites man' stories that don't get reported:
Bryant, who explores the topic of black-on-black crime in his new film “Runaway Slave,” said people like Jackson and Sharpton are being misleading to suggest there is an epidemic of “white men killing black young men.”
“The epidemic is truly black on black crime,” Bryant said. “The greatest danger to the lives of young black men are young black men.”
Sad but true.

-Britain continues to circle the drain: a drunk student who made a racist comment on twitter about a footballer will spend 56 days in prison for the offense. That's the British police - unwilling or unable to stop riots, but willing and able to punish drunks who call people nasty names.

I was going to call this post the traditional 'Miscellaneous Joy', but frankly there's not much joy in there. Interest, perhaps, but not joy.

Sporting Overconfidence, Part 2

The second effect of overconfidence on the sports field is that people over-invest in the sport.

In other words, when you think you have high skill, the rewards to training are higher, because you could go on to be a superstar. And in truth, the extra training will be useful, as training always is. You will improve because you train heaps.

But the margin on which you'll make a mistake is that you'll overinvest in the sport relative to what else you could be doing with those hours - hanging out with your friends, learning Russian, snorting meth, whatever your chosen avocation is.

Unfortunately, this creates even worse effects when everyone else is overconfident too. When you know that all the other teams are likely to overinvest because they're overconfident, it means that you'll need to train that much harder in order to beat them. In other words, even if you aren't overconfident yourself, the only way to beat the other teams is to act as if you were overconfident.

Once again, behavioural economics comes to the rescue, with the sage of advice of 'Can't win, don't try, spend your time enjoying life instead'. Not exactly the stuff of inspirational speeches.

But sod it! There's more to life than winning on your six-a-side soccer tournament. How about just enjoying yourself?

The second obstacle to this is the team structure. The team captain is usually among the most psyched up about the team's chance. So you often get conversations like the following:

Captain: I was thinking we'd train three times a week. You guys agree, right?

Everyone else: *shuffle feet, don't want to be seen as the lazy one*.

It takes an unusually bold person to demand that everyone train less because they personally are lazy. But then the consensus answer is always more training, even if that's not what most people want.

If I were running things, I'd start out the first meeting with the following:

'Okay, I want everyone to write down on a piece of paper the number of hours per week they'd like this team to train, ranging from zero to five. We'll put all the pieces in a hat, then draw them out, and whatever is the median answer will be how much we'll train.'

And my team will probably get our butts kicked! But it won't matter, because we'll be doing other fun stuff and not viewing training as being a chore.

Did I mention I'd make a rotten team captain?

Monday, March 26, 2012

"We're better than those guys

Statisticians rarely make good members of sports teams.

I found this out the hard way when I used to be on a frisbee team. Most people run on overconfidence. I've had numerous arguments with people over whether this makes sense or not. The general view is that if I psych myself up that we're going to win, I'm going to try harder to make it happen. If I believe I'll fail, I'll be demoralised and not try hard.

The idea is thus that belief in success and failure has a self-fulfilling component. Only a component, mind you - if I really truly believe I can beat Kobe Bryant to the net in a game of one-on-one, I will fail. But I'll still have a better chance than if I don't believe in myself.

Frankly, I was always a bit skeptical of this argument, as it reeks of a second-best solution. In other words, if you're being rational, better answers are unlikely to come from deliberately feeding in faulty inputs. Including your chances of victory. This only works if it's the workaround to some other faulty process - one bias (inability to try hard in the face of failure) is offset by another bias (convincing yourself that you won't fail).

But I remain committed to the belief that the first-best solution is always to eliminate the biases - in this case, figure out how to try hard even if you do think you'll lose.

Since this is what I aim at, I want to know the true probability, and work from there. It's a fair bet that most other team members (if they're non-economists or non-statisticians) won't feel that way. They'll view you as a negative nancy.

I remember this came to its zenith when we were down at half time. The captain of the team was trying to get us fired up. He said 'hands up who thinks we're going to win this game'. About half the team put up their hands. He responded, 'Right, you guys are on the field'. Personally, I thought this was absurd, but that's probably part of the reason I never got made captain.

The net effect of all this is that you end up with the absurd result that on any given sports field, at least 70% of the players think they're going to win. They think that they're better than the other team. Talk about the Lake Wobegon Soccer team effect.

It also leads to a hilarious misconception of what it means to be 'better' than the other team. For most people, if they lose on a knife-edge, they'll be bitterly disappointed.

But the statistician sees it differently.

If we play against a really rubbish team, we'll win about 95% of the time. Then we'll advance higher, and play a better team, that we'll beat 70% of the time. We'll advance higher still, until we're playing a team that we have an edge over, but it's tough - we might win 60% of the time. 

And eventually, we'll get to a point where we're playing against a team that's very evenly matched. We'll have a 50% chance of winning. And we might just end up in a 16-16 game to 17. And someone drops the disc, and the other team scores. And we lose.

The non-statistician weeps.

The statistician is sanguine. In expectation, we got exactly where we should have. We bet on a fair coin, and it  came up tails. This time we lost. Next time we'll win.

But there's no disappointment just because the coin landed on tails.

Funnily enough, that might make for a reasonable consolation speech afterwards. It would certainly have a better likely effect relative to the 'we're probably not going to win, but I plan to try jolly hard anyway' speech.

On the other hand, I'd would be much more inspired by the speech that talked about the true probabilities.

After all, not everybody who's willing to face up to true probabilities is necessarily a coward. The best response to likely defeat is to stare the truth in the face, and give it the finger.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Great News

Apparently the War on Drugs has ended! I know this because I read as much from Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Obama administration's White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. (i.e. the drug czar). Let's hear it from the man himself:
My first act upon being appointed President Obama's drug policy advisor in 2009 was to discard the "war on drugs" approach to formulating drug policy.
That's fantastic! It should could as great news to the families of Wendell Allen, Ramarley Graham, Jonathan Ayers, Eurie Stamps, etc. etc. etc.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Miscellaneous Joy, Ribald Conservatism Edition

-Steve Sailer catches the New York Times with their preconceptions being hilariously disproved. A shooter had being going around in France, targeting victims including Jews and Muslim soldiers. Naturally, without a shred of evidence, the New York Times wrote up the story as an example of Europe's "far-right" in action. But then it turned out that the shooter was actually an example of what Mark Steyn described as 'some guy named Mohammed', who claims to belong to al Qaeda. It's all well and good for New York Times writers to claim to not pre-judge matters based on stereotypes, but they might try to be a little more consistent in their application of the principle. I expect the retraction and apology to be coming any day now.

-One of the best one-sentence pitches for considering Mitt Romney as both a fiscal and a social conservative, (referencing a particular NEA grant) coming from Ann Coulter:
"Do you think a man who slashed government spending in North Korea [Massachusetts], put the corrupt and financially bleeding Olympics on solid financial footing and rescued dozens of companies from bankruptcy would consider a photo of a bullwhip stuck in a man's buttocks a wise investment of the taxpayers' money?"
It doesn't fit on a bumper sticker, but it's a pretty great slogan.

-Via Hacker News, an interesting piece by a female programmer talking about the subtle sexism she faces at work. I found it actually quite thought provoking, because it points out how a lot of male behaviours might not be considered that bad individually, but can have a cumulative effect that's quite corrosive.

Of course, then you scroll down to the comments, and it in part features her expressing some reservation (with a smiley face, admittedly) about a commenter referring to 'girls'. Later she suggests 'gals' as an alternative "if you want to sound less stuffy". Yeeeah. There's nothing wrong with this, and she does imply she's partly kidding. But let's just say that if you've given serious consideration to whether the term 'girls' is overly sexist and what alternatives there might be, I'm probably placing you somewhere higher up on the 'likely to take offense at mildly inappropriate comments' spectrum. That doesn't change what she wrote, but it might add some context about the things she's talking about.

-Pick your appropriate headline, between 'About Bloody Time' and 'I'll Believe It When It Actually Happens'.

Great Moments in Government Compassion

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg has stood behind a policy to refuse private food donations to the homeless, on the basis that they might not meet the right nutritional requirements. That's right, you're living hard on the streets of New York, sleeping in doorways, begging for spare change, chugging mouthwash because it's the cheapest source of alcohol and hoping that you don't become the target for somebody's random violence. But according to Michael Bloomberg, the real threat to your life expectancy is the salt in that bagel you're being served. Problem solved!

Ace claims that this policy suggests that New York may not have a genuine problem with real poverty after all.

He may well be right, but I don't think you can conclude this from the story.

It seems entirely plausible to me that some pinhead from the food police would refuse donations even if people really were going hungry. This is in fact entirely consistent with the incentives of bureaucrats everywhere - the only thing that matters is following the rules, no matter how nonsensical.

In an ordinary business, employees tend to be given some discretion in their choices to solve customer problems. This is because a private company has to leave customers satisfied or it goes out of business. As a result, it makes sense for management to encourage employees to have some initiative, in order to deal with unexpected problems that arise so that the customer goes away happy.

But the government never has this problem. No matter how pissed off you are when you leave the DMV, this doesn't affect the DMV's viability, or the paycheques of its employees. Because there's no profit, it's hard to measure if the organisation is doing better, or the contribution of individual employees. It is however easy to measure if you happened to break a particular rule. If in doubt, follow the rule. The end result is this kind of lunacy. If you allow the food to be given to the homeless and you gain nothing, but run the risk of some other bureaucrat punishing you. If you refuse the food, the homeless suffer, but nobody will blame you personally for following the rules. In the extreme case where an article gets written, it doesn't mention the individual who made the decision - the problem is just with the rule.

Individual government workers have no incentive to look at the larger perspective. Hopefully that's what their superiors are meant to do. Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg has a long history of monomaniacal pursuit of browbeating people into eating healthier. As Mark Steyn noted:
That’s the very model of a can-do technocrat in the age of Big Government: He can regulate the salt out of your cheeseburger but he can’t regulate it on to Seventh Avenue.
But even if he weren't the certified nitwit that he is, Mayor Bloomberg would have a hard time undoing every stupid, hidebound, butt-covering, slave-to-the-rulebook decision being made by New York City officials. It's a game of whack-a-mole that he'll inevitably lose no matter how hard he tries, let alone when he's instead wearing his mole cheerleader outfit.

The bureacrat initially follows the rules mindlessly because that is what his incentives dictate. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, the bureaucrat doesn't want to admit that he's following stupid policies that hurt people only because that's what the rules say - that would make him a coward and a pinhead.

As a result, it's easier for him to convince himself that the rules are in fact just, that the application of the rules is the actual end in itself, and that the world works better if he leaves the judgment calls to somebody else and follows the rules, no matter how bad the immediate impact.

And thus the stupidity gets internalised. Even if that means turning away food for the homeless.

The scorpion bites the frog because that is its nature.

Update: As if to prove the point, here's a story about a council sending a main to prison for not properly putting up siding on his home.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Positive Commitment Value of Enormous Weddings

I've previously written about how I wouldn't have any desire to organise a massive wedding celebration that lasts many days. These types of events might be fun for the guests (if you're good friends with the bridal party - less so if you're a list C invite), but I can't really see why it's much fun for the people hosting them. Unless they happen to be enormous extroverts or just gluttons for punishment, neither of which would be terms I would self-identify with.

But the more I think about it, the more I think that elaborate weddings have a value. Namely, the prospect of a massive wedding may be a barrier to getting married, but it will also be a barrier to divorce as well. For me, the prospect of having to sink a second year of your life into organising wedding #2 (or 3 or 4) is a very strong reason to work harder on marriage #1. I imagine that if I had to spend months on end organising a four day party for hundreds of people, my feeling at the end would be of such great relief at the prospect that this duty was now discharged and didn't have to be contemplated again. As long as people chase after sunk costs, this should make them reluctant to take actions that would make the investment in time and energy worthless.

Given that a large apparent point of marriage is to raise the costs of ending the relationship (thus making the union more permanent), I guess this is something to put in the 'benefit' column. It's not so much of a benefit that I wouldn't chew my own arm off to avoid it, but then again I write a blog, which probably tells you a pretty strong signal about where I fit on at least one of the Myer Briggs personality components, and my likely desire to organise a big party.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Relative Scarcity in Exotic Travel

If you ever want an example of just how fickle people's preferences really are, look no further than their choice of holiday destinations.

The context I came across this in is the relative perception of Bali and Mexico.

To Americans, Bali is a land of exotic beaches, beautiful resorts and interesting locals. It's a good choice of honeymoon destination, and a holiday choice designed to make people thoroughly envious.

Mexico, on the other hand, is the crass and unoriginal place where low-rent rednecks go to drink cheap beer and stay in some generic resort.

To Australians, hilariously, the perceptions are exactly reversed. Bali is the place where football teams go for their boozy holidays, and you meet lots of other derelict Australians. But Mexico is enticing, with delicious food, amazing beaches, and Corona everywhere you look.

The reality is that both places are pretty similar - they provide fairly easy beach holidays with a range of accommodation options, and attract a lot of locals from their richer nearby neighbours - Americans go to Mexico more, and Australians go to Bali more.

But the relative scarcity of each place determines in part how it's perceived in each country.

As far as I can tell, there's two likely explanations.

The first is that this is about bragging rights - you need to go somewhere special so that you can boast to your friends, and even though Bali might be similar to Mexico, you choose the one that sounds better and makes you feel well travelled when you get home.

The second is that there's a self-fulfilling prophesy going on with accommodation spending. When you spend two grand on an airfare, you're more likely to stay in the expensive resort upon arrival. This makes the place seem super lush, and you go back and tell your friends how great it is. When you spend five hundred on the airfare, you stay in some cheap motel with the other budget travellers, and this reinforces the impression of a bargain kind of place.

While #2 might sound kind of rational, it's hard to reconcile with a proper search of the options - if you're American and want a nice holiday but don't care about what anyone else thinks, why don't you just stay in a nicer hotel in Mexico?

I'm led to believe that #1 must have something to do with it. But strangely, I don't think this is explicit - the Americans I know who went to Bali truly believed that it really was completely different from Mexico in lots of essential dimensions. As a result, they didn't seem especially thrilled when I pointed out that to Australians, Bali was basically like Mexico.

In other words, bragging doesn't work unless you've also convinced yourself that this was a better option. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Did I mention I also help little old ladies across the street on my way to Mensa meetings?

I was going to write about this piece at the New York Times where this guy called Greg Smith writes about how he's leaving Goldman Sachs because it no longer has the vibrant service culture of putting clients first that it had when he started (no really, stop laughing). He also wrote to say that all you darn kids have no respect any more, and you keep listening to that damn rap music, and back in his day politicians cared about the public interest.

I was going to write about that, but then David at Popehat nailed it so perfectly that you should really just read his post instead. Comedy gold!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Thought of the Day

"In death, Alexander of Macedon's end differed no whit from his stable-boy's. Either both were received into the same generative principle of the universe, or both alike were dispersed into atoms.
Do you make a grievance of weighing so man pounds only, instead of three hundred? Then why fret about living so many years only, instead of more? Since you are content with the measure of substance allowed you, be so also content with the measure of time."

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Against Tasers

Via Drudge comes a story of our time, of Scott O’Neil, a cop in Mount Sterling, Ohio dealing with an arrest of a 9 year old boy for skipping school. That premise alone may sound ridiculous, but bear with me.
[O'Neil] went to the boy’s S. Market Street home about 8:30 a.m. to serve a complaint filed against Jared for truancy.
Jared — listed on the report as between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-8 inches tall and between 200 and 250 pounds — refused to cooperate. He begged his mother to let him go to school rather than with the officer, but Perry told her son it was too late.
O’Neil wrote that after repeated warnings, he pulled Jared from the couch, but he “dropped to the floor and became dead weight ... flailing around,” and the boy lay on his hands to prevent being handcuffed.
So what do we have so far? We're using a police officer to deal with the problem of a kid skipping school. The kid seems pretty hefty, and isn't going along with the officer. It seems like the officer might have to actually grapple with the kid to get his arms free and handcuffed. 

That's what you'd think would happen, right?
O’Neil demonstrated the electrical current from the Taser into the air “as a show of force.” Then, he wrote, Perry told her son to do as O’Neil said or he would be shocked. 
So you threatened to taser a non-violent 9 year old child. Strong words, but perhaps the threat might have been useful. But surely you weren't actually planning on tasering a kid who may or may not be of sufficient age for criminal responsibility ?
The report indicates that after being shocked once, Jared still didn’t cooperate and was shocked a second time. An ambulance was called, but Jared had no sign of injury; Perry signed a waiver for medical treatment. Jared was taken to the sheriff’s office, and a delinquency count of resisting arrest was added to his truancy charge.
Let's all give a round of applause to Officer Scott O'Neil for the 'pathetic cowardice in the line of duty' award! You sure showed that child what for! Without the thin blue line standing with tasers at the ready, why we might have all sorts of children not turning up to school.

This is the problem with tasers. They were brought in, as far as I understand, to give cops a means to apply force that is unlikely (but not impossible) to be fatal.

So without the taser, the cop has the following options:

Cost to perp: Fatal
Cost to cop: High - psychological trauma of killing someone, mandatory review of their actions, possible career implications. Has the benefit of guaranteeing the cop's safety in a violent confrontation.

Physical Altercation:
Cost to perp: Low. You'll get resisting arrest and might get a violent handcuffing, but you'll live.
Cost to cop: Medium - physically taxing, might get hit, and runs the risk that confrontation could turn nasty if the perp tries to grab your gun, or pull a knife etc.

But now, we introduce into the mix the taser:

Cost to perp: Low to medium - guarantees a 'resisting arrest' charge, painful but medical complications are rare
Cost to cop: Zero. Nobody gets hassled for tasing someone. Guarantees the cop's safety about as well as a pistol.

The idea was that the taser was meant to be a substitute for the use of lethal force as a way of ending violent confrontations - instead of reaching for your pistol to kill a subject, you can tase him instead. Since nobody wants more perps to be shot than strictly necessary, this is a benefit. It also stops cops having to go straight to the threat of using a pistol as an escalation of physical confrontation. And this is an improvement too - you don't want to have loaded pistols pointed at yelling and violent suspects any more often than necessary, because they have a tendency to go off in the heat of the moment.

And to this end, the taser is useful. Although frankly, I'm not sure how often this really happens - if the cop truly fears for their life, I imagine they're still going to reach for their pistol, as their main priority is stopping you killing them at all costs.

But what the policy guys didn't seem to take into account is the other substitution - that tasers would be used as a substitute for any kind of physical altercation. 

And this has happened way, way more than the substitution of tasers for pistols, in part because situations that might call for a physical altercation are far more common than situations that might require somebody being shot. 

Cops tend to view tasers as magic button they can press to enforce compliance from people. It's actually a lower cost to the cop than risking a punch in the face, and as long as you come up with some story about the person being threatening, your superiors will go along with it. Good news for the cop.

But it's bad news for everybody else, because the end result is exactly the kind of story above. You threaten the subject with a taser for anything less than full compliance. Subject doesn't comply. You tase them.

Face it - the only thing that makes the story above newsworthy is that the kid was 9 years old. If the kid had been 17, this would be a complete 'dog bites man' story.

But is that what we want? Someone lying on the ground gets tased instead of having their hands grabbed and cuffed?

I want the use of physical force against civilians to be personally costly for the police. That forces the cop to work harder to avoid inflicting harm on the person they're arresting. 

With a taser, there is no incentive at all to wrestle with a suspect - just zap them for anything short of complete compliance.

If you're pissed off at the current story, you should recognise that it's just the logical end point of the current policy. We may end up with fewer fatal shootings, but we end up with a lot more cop-on-civilian violence overall.

We have the law enforcement equivalent of the battlefield nuclear weapon - the good news is that when you nuke the enemy, fewer people will be killed. Hurrah!

But battlefield nukes are actually very dangerous in a different sense, because they increase the risk that nuclear weapons will actually be used. The incredibly negative consequences of nukes are a feature, not a bug - they force countries to think very seriously about whether to fire them.

We've given all our battlefield commanders the availability of small, no-questions-asked nukes, and then we act surprised when the commanders start using nukes to deal with minor border skirmishes.

In foreign policy, nobody would be stupid enough to implement a policy like that. 

But that's exactly what we've done with law enforcement.

Monday, March 12, 2012

On Human Adaptability

Every now and again, I find myself rather impressed at just how adaptable the human body is.

A great example of this is jet lag. This is a phenomenon that is essentially unique to the last hundred years of human existence, out of the god knows how long period that we've been evolving. The body's circadian rhythm is designed to work with fairly evenly spaced days. While the period of day and night changes with the seasons, these changes are very smooth.

Hopping on a plane from New York to Brisbane, however, is an incredibly abrupt change that evolution didn't design us for. There's no particular reason to think that this might not result in you taking months to get back to a proper schedule, if ever.

And yet, it takes a couple of days and things are pretty much back to normal. The systems designed to deal with gradual changes to the seasons are able to deal with a random 36 hour day thrown in without skipping much of a beat.

Evolution may be the blind idiot god, but it makes some pretty damn fine optimisation procedures nonetheless.

Where Were They Then?

Via Jason Kottke, apparently one of Stefani Germanotta's co-workers shot a bunch of photos of her in 2005 in her apartment. Not long afterwards, she went on to become Lady Gaga.

Frankly, I never really rated Lady Gaga. But in these photos, she looks pretty good. I guess when you're wearing a regular cocktail dress with nice hair, instead of a dress made of meat and a ghastly blonde wig, it tends to make you look like less of a weirdo. Who knew?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Resist The Internship Arms Race

One of the things I find unfortunate among American society is the inherent suspicion of unstructured recreation time. There seems to be a large fear among many people of having ‘gaps in your CV’ – that all of your life up to this point must be able to be accounted for when life’s potential employers come knocking.

Personally, I’d never want to work for such a place anyway – if that’s how they expect you to account for every second of your time when you aren’t even employed there, imagine how it will be once you get a job.

In fairness, the suspicion of idleness has its admirable aspects – it is tied up with the strong work ethic that has made America such an economic giant, and is far, far preferable to a widespread desire for handouts and mooching which seems to herald the death spiral of welfare states (see Greece, California).

But perhaps the more pernicious result is that people feel the need to always be working, even if the work itself is not particularly valuable. This seems to find its zenith in the internships that US college students vie for so much.

A lot of these are just worthless CV fillers. Many of them are unpaid – add in the cost of your time and transportation, and you’re literally paying to be there. And what do you get out of it? It’s unlikely to be valuable skills – do you think an employer that won’t even give you minimum wage is going to be assigning you important tasks? Hell, do you think you’re going to be doing much other than photocopying and fetching coffees?

But people want them anyway.

A small number of these internships are genuinely useful – if you’re close to graduating and you want to get a job at Deloitte, you probably want to get a Deloitte internship, because they use this as a screening device for their job offers. That makes total sense. But if you’re just volunteering at some museum? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s not a screening device for the next curator position.

The real tragedy is that there are very few opportunities in life to go backpacking around the world for months at a time. College summers are one of them. If you can afford it, and the alternative is just some worthless unpaid job, take at least one of them off and tour around.

Some people seem to realize this partially, and decide to make their overseas holidays part of some career-building thing – studying abroad for a semester, volunteering in some third world place.

Which is fine, if that’s what you want to actually do.

But if what you actually want to do is just tour around a bunch of countries, get boozed and stay in youth hostels, then  go and do that!  It will be more fun than spending half your time studying for useless classes or pretending that what you actually wanted to do was build houses in Guatemala.

This is cheap talk advice, of course. The sad reality is that a lot of US employers will judge you for these things. But my guess is not as much as people think. Personally, I’d do it for at least one summer. If an employer can’t get over that, screw ‘em.

But the average person is stuck in a true arms race – they know the internships are worthless, but they know everyone else will have them, so they fear they’ll look bad if they don’t have them too.

It’s hard to get out of arms races - everyone knows they're a negative sum process, but they can't commit to disarm. 

I’m just glad I’m not involved in one myself.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nude Scanners Force Terrorists To Learn Rudimentary Sewing Skills

Do you want the bad news, or the bad news?

The bad news is that the TSA is still insisting on the right to look at electronic pictures of your wife and children's genitals. Or failing that, to fondle said genitals.

The other bad news is that these same scanning measures are actually astonishingly easy to defeat if you're trying to smuggle in contraband. Don't believe me?

Watch this amazing video where the guy smuggles a metal case through multiple security sections.

What's his trick?

He has to sew it into a pocket on the side of his shirt and put the case in there. That way the case shows up as a black object against a black background.

Yes, it's that easy.

Yes, a metal detector would have done a better job.

Yes, this is what one billion dollars of government purchased scanners gets you - they can see your child's penis, but not a metallic object that's not placed against the skin.

Fire them all.

Update: The TSA decides to get ahead of the story by issuing a lame "ha ha, look at that viral video" post that does everything but deny the substance of the original claim. I treat this as confirmation that the original video is correct. Also, read through the dozens of comments on the TSA post absolutely caning the guy for his bull$***. Comedy gold!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Australia's Free Speech Disgrace

In Australia, the Labor Government and Greens have been unhappy with the press coverage they've been receiving in various newspapers, mainly those owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Fair enough, you might say, on a number of grounds.

The government has done a dismal job of running the country, passing ruinous mining and carbon taxes, harassing businesses with excessive labor regulation, and generally doing their damndest to choke off the economic success story that is modern Australia

Meanwhile, they've received fawning coverage from other papers, notably the Sydney Morning Herald and Age. Not to mention the taxpayer funded ABC, whose reporters opinions range from 'left of centre' to 'crush the bourgeois capitalist pigs!'

And in the marketplace of ideas, News Corp papers compete for scarce advertising dollars and reader eyeballs. If they're unfair or too biased, then other papers will step into the breach. Perhaps Murdoch papers succeed because they air viewpoints that are of interest to readers, or are just more entertaining.

In addition, Australia already has an intrusive self-regulatory body, which does things like forcing opinion piece writers phrases like 'illegal entrants' to be changed to 'irregular entrants' without their knowledge or consent.

But that's not enough for the Labor government - apparently fawning political coverage is their right as the government, and those naughty newspaper editors aren't falling into line.

As a result, they conducted an inquiry into setting up a government regulatory body of media outlets, both print and online. The results are in.

Let's listen to the hilariously self-serving summary from censorious d***head, The Honorable Ray Finkelstein, QC. From page 8:
I therefore recommend that a new body, a News Media Council, be established to set
journalistic standards for the news media in consultation with the industry, and handle
complaints made by the public when those standards are breached. Those standards will likely be substantially the same as those that presently apply and which all profess to embrace.
Got that? The things you were doing before voluntarily will now be mandatory! But since the standard will "likely be substantially the same" (that's a guarantee you can take to the bank), and "all profess to embrace" the current rules, what's the difference?

Except, you know, the difference between a volunteer army and conscription, or the difference between going on a diet and being chained to a treadmill, or the difference between working on a cotton farm and being a plantation slave.

The 'voluntary' bit is kind of important in the sphere of human liberty.

And what role will the government have in all of this? Page 9:
The News Media Council should have secure funding from government and its decisions made binding, but beyond that government should have no role. The establishment of a council is not about increasing the power of government or about imposing some form of censorship. It is about making the news media more accountable to those covered in the news, and to the public generally.  
Oh, well that's a relief! At best,  it will be a court that makes up its own laws. In middle case scenario, it will be a puppet of whoever is in power. At worst, it will be another permanent bastion of the left, deciding what constitutes appropriate speech in Australia.

Nothing to worry about there!

Who will be regulated? From page 295:
If a publisher distributes more than 3000 copies of print per issue or a news internet site has a minimum of 15,000 hits per annum it should be subject to the jurisdiction of the News Media Council, but not otherwise. 
Paging Doctor Evil! We need a payment of one million dollars!

Let's put this in perspective. This site is read by nobody. Really, it's true. And yet it gets a couple of thousand hits a month. Some of these are spam sites. Some of them are links to images. Doesn't matter - this website will be under the jurisdiction of these clowns.

If I'm regulated, everyone is regulated. And with the Australian courts absurd view that writing anything anywhere on the planet makes you subject to Australian defamation law, who knows how many sites they'll be trying to regulate.
An important change to the status quo is that, in appropriate cases, the News Media Council should have power to require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply. This is in line with the ideals contained in existing ethical codes but in practice often difficult to obtain. 
I would delete every trace of this blog and eat the contempt of court order before I would publish anything at the demand of the Australian government. I would set up a thousand mirror sites before I would remove one word at the request of the News Media Council.

Why do we need to do this anyway?
These proposals are made at a time when polls consistently reveal low levels of trust in the media, when there is declining newspaper circulation, and when there are frequent controversies about media performance.
Have you looked at the approval rating of the current government recently? Have you looked at the approval rating of lefty academics that would populate such a council? Have you looked at the approval rating of speech-censoring government suck-ups like the Honorable Ray Finkelstein, QC? Give me Rupert Murdoch any day.

Do you think that right-wing speech disliked by the government is more likely to get censored? Andrew Bolt makes a great case that it will - when citing examples of biased coverage, what does he turn to but ... News Limited Coverage of global warming! Nothing about unbalanced coverage in favor of the global warming position in The Age (let alone the ABC).

And why, pray tell, is that a problem?

The Honorable Ray Finkelstein, QC, would do well to take heed of Ken at Popehat's "Chicago Manual of Style For Censorious Dipshits". As Ken notes:
The obligatory “we believe in freedom of expression” paragraph in the standard defend-our-censorship communique is simply embarrassing. That’s why the Chicago Manual of Style For Censorious Dipshits (“CMSCD”) recommends eschewing it and launching straight into the meat of your uninformed and conclusory stomping on First Amendment law.
Back to Finkelstein, sure enough first we get the fig leaf...:
It is worth pausing at this point to affirm that there is nothing wrong with newspapers having an opinion and advocating a position, even mounting a campaign. Those are the natural and generally expected functions of newspapers....
and then the inevitable 'but shut up and say things I like':
However, to have an opinion and campaign for it is one thing; reporting is another, and in news reporting it is expected by the public, as well as by professional journalists, that the coverage will be fair and accurate.
Nonetheless, there is a widely-held public view that, despite industry-developed codes of practice that state this, the reporting of news is not fair, accurate and balanced.
I reserve my right to make my reporting exactly as unfair and unbalanced as my heart desires, and not one whit less. Whether what I write about the world is "fair and balanced" is absolutely none of the business of the Australian Government, and only a tyrant would think otherwise.

I have a long-running dispute with Papa Holmes about the appropriateness of swearing on this site. So it takes a large amount of self-control to limit my remarks to these:

Ray Finkelstein, your snivelling and disgusting appeal for for government censorship over the Australian press makes you unworthy of the common law traditions of liberty bequeathed to you by men much better than yourself. Your views on government censorship of papers should make you far more at home in countries that do believe in this kind of censorship, such as China, Cuba, or North Korea.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Drugs Are Perfectly Safe, Unless TMZ Has Ever Written About You

The whole furore (mercifully dying down now) over Whitney Houston’s death gave me cause to reflect on the odd way that the average person of Intelligent Socially Acceptable Opinion tends to hold two fairly contradictory ideas about drugs in their head at the same time.

The first idea is that drugs are basically not harmful on their own – the main ill effects are actually just results of prohibition. Overdoses typically tend to be related to questions of uncertainty about the purity of the drug, which is a natural consequence of the market being unregulated and illegal, since drug dealers will cut the drugs with all sorts of nasty chemicals. If we made drugs legal, people could take them in a controlled environment with known purity, thus eliminating most of the bad side effects.

The second idea is that celebrities tend to die younger than the average person, often because of the effects of extended drug use – Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, etc. etc. Sometimes this was related to illegal drugs (Houston, Winehouse), sometimes prescription (Jackson, Ledger). But the effects of long term drug use made Amy Winehouse (and to a lesser extent, Whitney Houston) look like a walking corpse even before she died, just like Lindsey Lohan has started to age really badly.

It should be obvious to you by my juxtaposing the two that these arguments cannot both be right. Personally I think it is the first one that is faulty. I’m a supporter of quite a lot of drug legalization, and it’s true that there are a bunch of problems that come about mainly through prohibition (crime, wasted police and prison resources, instability in Latin America, erosion of civil liberties) and a bunch more that are exacerbated by prohibition (drug deaths). These provide a totally sufficient reason to legalise drugs.

But that’s a far cry from saying that drugs (with the arguable exception of pot) are free from significant long term health and mortality risks. People kill themselves deliberately and accidently from all sorts of drugs – alcohol, painkillers, diet drugs, heroin, meth, and all the rest. Not to mention combinations of all these, or combinations of these with cars/bathtubs/heavy machinery/the ocean/busy highways. I imagine that the problems of purity are significantly overstated – people know exactly what the purity of a vodka bottle is, but it doesn’t stop people drinking themselves to death one way or another. It’s entirely unclear how legalizing Cocaine would have had the slightest effect on the likelihood of Houston accidentally drowning in a drugged out haze.

Not everything that we make legal is necessarily desirable. The mistake of the liberal consensus opinion is that a lot of liberals have little intrinsic concept of the idea of letting people freely choose things that may be costly mistakes. Libertarians (and some Conservatives ) tend to be open about giving people the freedom to make bad decisions, partly as a matter of liberty, partly as a reflection on the futility of trying to do otherwise. But since the nanny-state types (mostly liberal) tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of letting people make bad choices, they need to convince themselves that the drugs themselves must be good or at least neutral, and all the problems due to government action.

They’re wrong. Unless you’re willing to make the strong form argument that Winehouse wanted to inject herself to death, having more people using meth or heroin is a clear cost to both society and themselves. And a support for legalization does not require a blindness to this fact.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

On Andrew Breitbart and Living Boldly

Conservative/Libertarian blogger Andrew Breitbart has died, unexpectedly but of natural causes, at age 43.

Many disagreed with his politics, but the eulogies for him frequently cited one aspect of his personality - his 'utter fearlessness', as Charles Krauthammer put it. He went after issues that would make him a figure of hatred among the left, breaking the stories about corruption in ACORN and about Anthony Weiner. He was also a wonderful showman, which helped his media activities greatly.

Your views on his political contributions may differ, but rest assured that it takes some serious stones to make permanent enemies with the media and the left. I don't do it - I temper my excessive thoughts and write under a pseudonym, and I'm a nobody being read by nobody. Ace of Spades (who is a somebody read by lots of somebodies) does too, and Breitbart clearly impressed him. Of how many people can you say that they write and speak entirely without fear on any topic of discussion, let alone doing so while committing their words to permanence on the internet and TV, and doing so under their own name? TJIC comes to mind. Steve Sailer too. But there aren't many. Most of us in one form or another live our lives following the parody advice of the xkcd comic, "being careful what we write, because a future employer might read it", and dutifully avoiding anything too controversial being posted or tagged on facebook. xkcd had some great words about that too.

Greg Gutfeld wrote that Andrew Breitbart was 'the only person I know who operated without a safety net.'  What fine praise! What a worthy eulogy in an age of timidity and cowardice masquerading as prudence.

Ave Atque Vale, Mr Breitbart.