Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Abyss of Human Nature

Come, dear reader, and gaze into the abyss of what happens to human nature when man can find no purpose to worship higher than himself.

Listen to these chilling rationalizations from married women who have affairs. In this regard I'm sure that married men who have affairs give rationalisations that are probably just as revolting - this is merely the particular material I have in front of me right now. Since GS has observed that my posts sometimes come across as leaning towards misogyny, let me emphasise that my words are about humanity in general, not just women.

Tall, strong-featured and dressed in a cashmere sweater and wool trousers, Sheila is the kind of woman you see in the aisles of Waitrose, the front row of the school carol service. But once every fortnight or so she tells Peter, 48, a company director, that she's meeting a (well-briefed) girlfriend for dinner. Instead she goes to a motel room to see her lover, Michael, also 46, a medical sales rep whom she met at a conference.
Shylock's advice - if your married friend is asking you to be her cover for an ongoing affair, it's time to find some better friends.
Thousands of women like Sheila are enjoying what they believe to be no-strings flings. Having witnessed the devastation divorce wreaked on their parents' generation, they have no desire to end their marriages. Instead they are searching for variety in an otherwise humdrum routine.
Ha ha ha! Yes, clearly they've certainly learned the really important lessons about the problems of divorce. Not the ones about the importance of maintaining a happy, honest and loving relationship. No, the ones about staying in the marriage but doing whatever the hell you please.

Okay, so to my mind Sheila seems like a horrible human being. But how does Sheila justify this to herself? Surely she's at least a little guilty about this whole thing? Let us go and take our visit, as Mr Eliot put it:
'I love Peter dearly,' Sheila says. 
Generally, it is pointless to argue over the definition of a word like 'love'. But in this case I'm willing to make an exception and say... No. No you don't. You just like getting stuff out of him, and it's been so long that you've forgotten there was ever a difference. As it turns out, she admits as much:
'He's a good husband, and father. I like cooking with him and gossiping about the neighbours. He's my pal and I'd never want to lose that. 
So, does this make your behaviour better, or worse?
Sex with Michael is a purely separate thing; it's about erotic abandonment, being seen as just a woman rather than as Peter's wife, or "the doctor" or a mum.
I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that for Peter, her having sex with Michael is not in fact a purely separate thing. But she's not done justifying herself:
Any working mother will know what I mean. Every woman needs something that is hers alone. Some of my friends ride, some sing in choirs, I have Michael.'
Yes, of course. Helping out at a bake sale, riding a bicycle, getting boned by a pharmaceutical rep - what's the difference?As Sesame Street would say - one of these things is not like the other. Note too the cynically self-serving way she tries to claim this as a symptom of the stress of being a 'working mother', which all women will understand.
Most people, women and men alike, will understand your feelings that a marriage after 20 years is not as exciting as it was at the start. But for the sake of all that is right in the world, I hope that they don't all understand why you're having an affair.
To properly understand Leila's motivation, let me remove a few extraneous words from the previous paragraph:
'I ...  I ... my... I'd ...I... my... I ...'

The rest is just noise.
The number of people having affairs is impossible to know, as few are truthful about their sex lives, but the recent Way We Are Now nationwide survey conducted by Relate showed that 34 per cent of women respondents admitted to being unfaithful, compared with 32 per cent of men.
Those, my friends, are some truly terrible odds, for both men and women.

Listen to just how mercenary they are about the whole thing:
Laura, 51, a reflexologist from Hertfordshire, with a teenage son, has had three affairs over the past 10 years with men she has met on various websites.
She uses specialised software to make sure her computer shuts down moments after she uses it and its history is wiped clean. She has two mobiles: one for general use and one for EMAs (extramarital affairs, to use the jargon), which can only be accessed by a pin number and is set on silent mode so that her husband, Brian, an events manager, can't hear texts arriving. She checks at the same time every day before hiding it – separately from the sim card – in her Christmas-present drawer. 'Then if Brian did find it I'd say I was going to give it to our cleaner,' she explains, cradling her large glass of merlot.
You can feel the ice running through this woman's veins. As a matter of writing, I do enjoy the way the author subtly and expertly puts the knife in with the line about the merlot.

But let me tell you the part that is the most difficult. The Dog That Did Not Bark in this whole story is the feelings of the spouse they're cheating on. It seems that none of these women give any evidence that they've stopped to think about how painful it must be for their husband of 20 years that their wife is having an affair. Their only thoughts about their husbands relate to how they can avoid being caught.Now, human nature being what it is, it does not surprise me that people are selfish. But how can you be married to someone for that long, and not actually find their feelings to be an important consideration? How can you be so stupid to not realise that once your start having an affair, you will eventually get caught, and your marriage will be over, with horrible consequences for a lot of innocent parties?
Like most of the women I spoke to, Minna worried not so much about her husband learning of her affair as about what discovery would mean for their children. 'He's an adult but if they discovered this other side to me it would overturn their cosy little world,' she says with a shudder.
He's an adult. Ergo, that's where the obligation ends. And as for the kids, she's worried partly (and correctly) that it will be very sad and disruptive consequences for them. But my guess is that she's also worried because her kids (if they find out) will justifiably hate her. The feeble excuses she makes for herself will not wash with them. As for her husband, it seems like she couldn't give a toss.

Of course, their rationalizations are actually dreary and predictable - evil is banal, after all. 

Plank 1 - I'm actually doing this FOR the marriage:
Laura is adamant that her affairs are saving her marriage rather than putting it at risk. 
Great, so tell your husband! I'm sure he'll agree.

Plank 2  (which of course contradicts plank 1) - Actually my husband forced me into it.
'Brian irritates me, like all my long-married friends are irritated by their husbands. He leaves the loo seat up, burps and expects his washing to be done as if by magic. He's got a bit fat and resents any suggestion that he lose weight.
Meanwhile, I presume that she has kept the same figure she had at age 20, and puts out just as much as before.

But that's all a fig-leaf actually. Here's why she's actually doing it:
I'm looking to be adored, to be treated like a goddess much more than I'm looking for sex. 
Fewer things are as ugly to witness as naked selfishness stripped of all pretensions. 

As if this all weren't enough, the author finishes with what is clearly the pressing question underneath all this: 
But can a woman really have her ego bolstered, without losing her heart? 
If there is any justice in the world, I certainly hope not.

With Apologies to TJIC

I was in Maryland over the weekend with some family friends. It was hunting season, which my friend and I found out when we went for a walk in the woods and saw a lot of guys with rifles and orange jackets. It made me reconsider my sartorial decision of a 'navy blue looks like deer brown at a distance' jacket, but thankfully our ignorance and bad planning here didn't have significant consequences.

For the life of me, I just can't understand the appeal of hunting. As far as I can tell, it seems 99% boring, and 1% intensely horrifying. And once you've killed your deer, it just gets worse - you have to transport the bloodied carcass, 'clean' it (a euphemism whose intricacies you can be grateful you don't need to explore), and then butcher it. And after all that, you end with enormous amounts of a meat that most people find (at least by revealed preference) to be significantly less tasty than a McDonalds cheeseburger.

I am aware that this post marks me as an effeminate ninny who is grossly hypocritical about the source of the meat he eats. Still, it all sounds ghastly. It makes Nascar look like a game of Backgammon at the Gentlemens Club.


Google Beatbox.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Tyler Cowen links to this fascinating paper by Edward O'Boyle on the Great Irish famine, in which maybe a million or more people died.

One of the things that stood out was O'Boyle's descriptions of how food exports from Ireland to England continued throughout the famine:
Under the circumstances, it was necessary to provide English military escort to assure the flow of food exports to England. In April 1846, for example, food was shipped from Conmel in Ireland to England protected by 80 infantrymen and 50 cavalrymen (Woodham-Smith, p.77). Sheehan (p.8) confirms the shipment of wheat, barley, and oats as rent payments to landlords in England by Irish peasants who, failing those payments, risked eviction from the land. The prevailing view within the English government was that nothing should be done to bring harm to an already fragile retail system. Kinealy, who 150 years after the Famine was the first to check the shipping records on food shipments from Ireland during the famine years, stated that in 1847 alone 4,000 ships sailed from Ireland carrying food shipments (Sunday Business Post, p.30). In late 1848 it became necessary to enlist the military to protect rent collectors (Nowlan, p.177).

Further proof, if you needed it, that famines are more complex than you might think.

I am in general a strong supporter of the British Imperial project, but it's hard not to see the Irish famine as evincing appalling negligence and indifference on the part of English leadership, both political and civil. As John Dolan noted about William Wordsworth:
I remember sifting through the elderly Wordsworth’s letters looking for any comment at all on the Great Famine which was extirpating the Irish, and finding only one remark, in which the great moralist earnestly prays that England will not weaken, ie provide any aid whatsoever. It’s one of the curiosities of English literary history that you’ll never find the least particle of compassion for the Irish in “moral” poets like Wordsworth.
Sad but true, that many of the history's giants have feet of clay. Washington owned slaves, and Wordsworth couldn't give a rat's @$$ about a million dead Irish.

A Metaphor whose underlying imagery I have forgotten the origin of

Thus I remember hearing about monkeys, but can't find a source for...

If you give a monkey a button that dispenses food when pressed, he will press it a lot and eat until he’s full. After that, he’ll press it occasionally as he gets hungry.

If you make it so the button dispenses food after being pressed a certain number of times, or add a predictable time delay, it takes the monkey a little while to figure out the pattern, but then he moves into the same behavior as before – he knows he can get food whenever he needs it, and just presses the button when he wants food.

But if you really want the monkey to press the button heaps, you make it so that the button dispenses food only after a random number of presses, or a random time delay. Then the monkey goes crazy – he keeps pressing it because he doesn’t know if it will actually work on each press, and can’t figure out the pattern. Even after he’s full, he keeps pressing it to load up on food, because he can’t be sure that it will actually dispense when he needs it to.

The subject of this metaphor is ‘why I click ‘Check Mail’ so many damn times’.

Henry James on America

“[T]he only way to enjoy the great Republic would be to burn one’s standards and warm one’s self at the blaze.”

True or not, it’s certainly the best metaphor I’ve read in recent times.

Why I’m Not a Good Cook

I’m not. I’m passable by male standards, and definitely better than some people (The Greek, for instance, who reputedly had to ask his girlfriend when water was boiling). But that’s like beating your 7 year old cousin in the ‘why do you keep hitting yourself?’ game.

The problem I have with cooking is that I don’t know what the margin of error is on each step. And it’s typically very hard to find out. This makes the whole process very stressful, because you end up second guessing every decision and not knowing whether you’re screwing it up. And of course, when you do screw it up, there’s been at least 5 steps where you didn’t quite know what you were doing, and so you don’t even have good feedback of what needs to be fixed next time.

For instance, the recipe will say ‘brown the beef’. And I find myself thinking ‘Well, it’s KINDA brown. I mean, there’s some odd bits that aren’t brown, but then again it’s been in there a few minutes and doesn’t seem to be getting any browner. Does that mean it’s done?’. What you’d actually like is instructions that say ‘brown the beef until you absolutely can’t see any pink (which should take about 5 minutes), and if you have any doubt, cook it another 5 minutes, it’s better to cook too long than too short’. THAT, I can work with! 
But that’s never what they write.

Or even better, you get joint instructions with no indication of which clause takes precedence. E.g.’ Cook for 5 minutes on a low heat until the butter and sugar begin to caramelize.’ Boy, was that a disaster. What inevitably happens is you cook it for 5 minutes on a low heat, and nothing happens. Now, to an experienced cook, it’s obvious what to do. But to a clown like me, I find myself wondering ‘Okay, given it hasn’t caramelized, do I:
a) Take if off the stove (pretty sure that’s not the answer)
b) Cook it on the same heat for longer
c) Turn up the heat.

Intuition told me to go with option b). But then you keep heating it for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and the damn thing still hasn’t caramelised. Then you start to second guess yourself – surely the cooking time isn’t off by 200%? Perhaps my heat is actually too low, and that’s why nothing is happening! So you turn it up, which leads to disaster about 13 seconds later. Out of my failed experiment at Bananas Foster, the only useful knowledge I gained is that butter and sugar, when heated long enough, can make a very serviceable substitute for napalm.

I’m sure there are plenty of cookbooks that answer these questions, but I’m too lazy to investigate in detail. Which, let’s face it, is the real reason I’m not a good cook.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Most Exciting Thing at the Bulls Game

I was talking about this story with JS earlier this evening. I was at a Chicago Bulls game a few years ago. The Bulls weren't very good and were losing, but the crowd was reasonably into it.

But what was fascinating to me is that the loudest cheers of the day, by an order of magnitude, were for the Dunkin' Donuts race. This is the one where a TV screen shows a bagel, a donut and a cup of coffee racing around a track. Each person got a card with a character's name on it, and if your character won, you got a free donut.

Watching this tinny video, you probably don't get the sense that the crowd was actually going nuts for this race. But believe me, they were.

Just think about that. You're cheering for fictional characters in a race whose outcome is already pre-determined. Not only that, but the value of what you win is perhaps a dollar, at a venue where you pay five bucks for a coke. My guess is that most of the people who won wouldn't actually be bothered collecting their free donut anyway.

And yet this event excited people in a way that world class athletes did not. Remember, these were people who self-selected for their willingness to pay a good amount of money to watch these athletes perform. I wonder what the players think when the Cup of Coffee gets louder cheers than they do. Probably a mix of humbling embarrassment and contempt for the crowd. Maybe something along the lines of 'Hey, the guys who come and cheer for me might actually be imbeciles, given they also cheer for a Donut. I wonder what that says about the worth of my endeavour?'

JS mentioned that he saw a similar thing when the Lakers were on the verge of winning by a large enough margin that Jack in the Box would give everyone two free tacos. There at least the outcome was genuinely in doubt.

Now, I would happily dismiss this with glib snobbishness as an example of the mental capacity of basketball fans. But the tens of thousands of people there weren't idiots, they were instead completely representative of humanity at large. And when you realise this, you realise how fascinating the whole thing is in terms of psychology. Truth be told, it actually WAS more exciting than the basketball game! There is an large appeal of games of chance, and a truly massive appeal at the prospect of getting free stuff, no matter how worthless.

Not only that, but people will anthropomorphise fictional characters, and cheer for them even though they know that the race is fixed. And when you ask them about it at the end, they will probably deny that this was the high point of the game. Except their cheers bely the fact that they were yelling louder for that, unprompted, than they were when the cheerleaders and TV screens were urging them to yell 'defense!'. What people really want in life, it seems, is to win a free donut. That will bring them more happiness than the basketball game they paid fifty bucks to see.

I walked away with the sense that if you actually understood all the implications of this one event, you would know a great deal about human nature and human folly.

Thinking Outside the Box in Business Plans

As evidenced by the Recording Industry Association of America:

1. File Lawsuits against everyone.

2. Engage in media bluster in an attempt to disguise the failure of #1.

3. ????

4. Profit!!

But here's where the real genius comes in - they're now widening their field of bluster to include magazines who write about file sharing.

The RIAA may be down in this fight, but I sense that their fortunes are about to turn - like King Harald's army at the Battle of Hastings, the pirates are charging down the hill in celebration of an early advantage, about to be routed by the force of nasty RIAA letters.

Or, you know, not. Good luck with that, fellas.

Oprah @#$%, Orange Juice Edition

It's almost axiomatic that one's own snobberies and differences in taste are crucial marks of aesthetic refinement, whereas everyone else's are trivial indications of an obsession with minutiae.

Until I came to this country, I had honestly never considered how much pulp was in my orange juice. I used to laugh at the sheer number of pulp options on offer, and settled on 'some pulp' based on the pointless heuristic that it was halfway between the two extremes.

Until, the other day, when I found myself at the supermarket the tiniest bit annoyed that there was a 'Calcium + Vitamin D' option for 'No Pulp' and 'Lots of Pulp', but not 'Some Pulp'. The ridiculousness of this, of course, is that if you gave me a glass of orange juice I probably wouldn't even notice the difference. Moreover, I estimate the health effects of the additional calcium and vitamin D to be roughly zero. I can't even remember which one I ended up buying, but remember feeling lame for caring at all in the first place.

Still, one thing I do miss - 25% and 35% fruit drinks. They still taste like juice, but just mega-sugary juice. This is clearly something that every civilised society should have. I'm going back to Oz in a few weeks, and this will be one of my first purchases when I arrive.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Vegas Part 3 - Network effects of entertainment

Vegas also illustrates wonderfully how little of economic growth is driven by actual resources any more, and instead comes from the network effects of people interacting with each other  - either as producers of ideas and services, or just network effects from recreation (as in Vegas). People want to be near other people, and it's largely arbitrary as to where exactly that will be.

If you looked at a cross section across Nevada near Vegas, you get a picture roughly like the following:

In terms of the inherent resources present or the natural picturesqueness of the surrounding mountains, views and landscapes, Vegas looks exactly like all the nearby parts. Except that everywhere else nearby is worthless uninhabited desert, whereas the Vegas strip is priced closer to Manhattan. But Manhattan has a much more gradual decline in land prices as you move away from the centre - you wouldn't be sad to live in Brooklyn, for instance.  In Vegas, it's precipitous. 5 minute drive away from Las Vegas Blvd? You may as well be in Bakersfield.

The principle at work is no different from other places - why exactly is Manhattan much cooler than Long Island, other than the buildings and people already there? It's just that in Vegas it's the most pronounced, because you have an incredible metropolis situated right next to desert parts that could be scenes from Mad Max. It's also a city that sprang up without even any of the initial seeding geographical advantages of places like New York and Chicago (shipping, primarily). There is literally nothing to distinguish Vegas from anywhere nearby.

When network effects dominate, the location of cities is largely arbitrary. 

Weak Kim-Chi

See if this pattern sounds familiar:

1. North Korea commits outrageous provocation towards South Korea

2. South Korea warns them very sternly that if you do this one more time, we'll really respond next time, we're super cereal

3. International community urges 'restraint', which means that the South eats @#$%. Which, frankly, they were planning on doing anyway.

4. Repeat, occasionally with escalating provocations from the North.

To nobody's surprise, we see this playing out again:


GOVERNMENTS around the world have urged North and South Korea to step back from the brink of war, after an artillery battle on a South Korean island.
President Lee of South Korea warned the North that any *further* action would be met with a "stern" military response. His Cabinet met in an emergency session in a reinforced underground bunker to discuss the latest threat from its nuclear-armed neighbour. Seoul put its armed forces on high alert after the artillery exchange, which both sides accused the other of starting.
"It is unpardonable for the North to attack civilian targets," a spokesman quoted President Lee as saying. "As the North is still in an attack position, further provocation seems to be possible and our military should be prepared to retaliate with manifold firepower."
Any further action, you understand. Which everyone understands means the latest action will not be met with anything. Also, note that it was only the attacking of civilian targets that really riled them up - apparently attacking a country's army only isn't sufficient grounds for war.

Remember this comes hot on the heals of the previous provocation:

And it comes eight months after a North Korean mini-submarine sank with a torpedo the South Korean corvette Cheonan, drowning 46 sailors, mostly students on military service.
Does anyone doubt that if the South had sank a North Korean ship and killed 46 sailors, we'd already have witnessed a full-scale war?

I don't envy the South. They're stuck next to a bunch of crazy as @#$% communists with nuclear weapons, and the commies keep pushing them around. But it's not surprising that you don't end up with a culture of self-reliant resistance to invasion when a) your defenses have been outsourced to the Yanks for the last 50 years, and b) the populace seems almost as inclined to protest their presence as send them a thank-you note.

You don't have to be a fan of the current Iraq war to realise that the Democratic party foreign policy of 'let the world's dictators get nukes, we can contain them later' has enormous problems. Even if you think that the nation-building part of the Iraq war has been an expensive disaster (and you certainly wouldn't be short of evidence to support that proposition), it certainly is nice to have one less dictator trying their hand at nuclear blackmail. In particular, everything about US foreign policy towards North Korea suggests that the west is completely incapable of negotiating well with tinpot nuclear-armed crazies. At least when there's fewer of them, you pay less in Dane-geld.

Won't it be fun in 5 years when Iran is doing this too? At least the Iranians will (or certainly ought to) know that the Israelis, unlike the South Koreans, wouldn't be responding to artillery with press releases.

[Update: Gary Brecher seconds the Holmes diagnosis that nothings going to happen here. Which is lucky, because I'd be wary to disagree with him on matters military.]

Vegas Part 2 - The Weak Law of Casinos

The Weak Law of Casinos is my way of estimating how much the odds of winning a particular game are tilted towards the house. And it is thus:

The probability of you winning a game of chance at a casino is inversely proportional to how many tables of that game the casino has set up.

In other words, you don't need to calculate the odds of winning each game - you can instead assume that the casino has calculated the odds, and is trying to push you towards the games that work in its favour. Implicitly this rule says that demand for particular types of games is not a big factor in the equilibrium quantity, and that people are sheep who can be nudged towards playing many different games. This isn't literally true, but lets see how far our weak law will get us.

Look around any casino - there's walls and walls of poker machines. They have awful odds. Truly awful. That's why they try so hard to get you to play them. My strong presumption is that you'd have to have rocks in your head to let your odds be determined by a black box electronic program written by the casino. At least with physical games of chance, you know in advance how you get screwed.

The second highest frequency is blackjack. This is actually an exception to the rule, as basic strategy gives only a  small edge to the house. On the other hand, basic strategy may be basic, but it's very hard to remember the whole thing, and the vast majority of people play using inferior strategies. In other words, the casino estimates that the way you actually play blackjack has a low chance of winning.

Roulette has about a 3% edge, and there's a reasonable number of them.

Craps is slightly lower, and they have some of them for the vibe, but not as many

Baccarat has a low edge, and there's not many of them. Usually very few.

Poker, the casino makes @#$% all - not because their edge is tiny, but because a single table lasts so damn long. They only have it there to get you in the door, but they don't like it.

Like I said, it's not a hard and fast rule.

But it checks out pretty damn well with the actual odds.

Vegas, Part 1 - Attractiveness Distributions

I spent the weekend in Vegas. A couple of posts on the subject will be forthcoming.

As a first pass, Vegas has a totally weird distribution of the attractiveness of people. The female hotness scale looks like this:
I was there with my friend DRFG. We were out at a trashy nightclub, and spent an amusing period trying to identify what percentage of the women in tiny dresses were hookers. We came to the conclusion of 'most of them'. Of course, the 'hookers' category has much fuzzier boundaries in Vegas too - the distinctions between 'bar staff', 'stripper' and 'prostitute' seems much more blurred when all the wait staff are wearing only g-strings, bras and random lacy things, and all of them flirting with the greasy choads who'd ordered bottle service.

I've never been to a place where female attractiveness was so commoditized. It's like everything is for sale, and the corollary is that nothing is for free.

By comparison, here's my estimate of the Vegas male attractiveness distribution:

There's nothing quite like being at a two Michelin star restaurant, and seeing two fat old business men at a table with three really attractive twenty-something [hookers].

It's a strange place alright.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Three Cheers for Ron Wyden!

I had not heard of Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, before today. I am sure Ron Wyden and I would find much to disagree about in matters political.

But Ron Wyden receives the coveted Holmes seal of approval today, for threatening to put a block on legislation that would let the Attorney General take down websites for violating copyright without having to go through the messy process of proving in a court that they had actually, you know, violated any copyright.

Because nothing is more important than protecting record company profits. Certainly not the fifth amendment or anything.

Putting a block means that that it is difficult for the senate to pass the bill during the lame duck session of congress. You know, the period where guys like Russ Feingold get to keep deciding on legislation for another few months after the voters of Wisconsin kicked him out.

Meanwhile, these are the jokers that passed the bill out of the Senate Judiciary 19-0. Not one of them could find anything objectionable in it. If you find something objectionable about it, you should consider your vote accordingly. Except for Russ Feingold, as you can't vote him out twice. More's the pity, really.


If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you, as Mr Nietzsche sagely observed:

This ad, which came up during a House episode I was watching on hulu, leaves me with three alternative explanations for its existence, each with different levels of discomfort.

The first possibility is that nobody on the planet is actually stupid enough to be motivated to buy jewellery based on such a pathetic display of undignified, limp-wristed cliches, but advertisers are dimwitted idiots who have run out of ideas. On the minus side, those idiots are targeting their ads at me, meaning they think I'm in the category of people likely to be inspired by the hollow cipher of shrivelled manhood on display in the commercial.

The second is that the advertisers are right, and there are in fact clueless betaboy losers who are positively motivated by this kind of stupidity. I am not an optimist about human nature, but it would be embarassing to find that not only is Madison Avenue is more cynical about people than me (which on its own wouldn't bother me at all), but that they're right in understanding human motivations, and I'm not (which would bother me more). On the minus side, men are lamer than I thought. On the plus side, if you are lame enough to buy jewellery after seeing this, there is some cosmic justice in the fact that cynical marketers are laughing at you while taking your money.

The final, least likely chance is that this is a failed attempt at irony, but somehow I doubt it. If it is, it backfired spectacularly on this particular viewer. I'm likely to associate Kay's Jewellery with this choad and his vulgar cut-and-paste sentimentality. Good work, geniuses.

Still there is some value to this kind of commercial. If for some reason I'm tempted to make a spontaneous purchase of nasty budgo jewellery, perhaps I'll remember this ad and reflect that I might look like this guy. At which point, I'll grab a clue and remember to be a skittles man instead.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Story, A Joke, And A Hypothesis

The First:

Cape Town - The husband of murdered tourist Anni Dewani says she made the fatal decision to go into Gugulethu last Saturday night because she wanted to see the “real Africa”.   ...
According to The Sun, Anni was killed by a bullet which had severed an artery. She is also believed to have been sexually assaulted. ...
The couple were travelling in a shuttle car with a driver when they were stopped at traffic lights by two hijackers.
"The men kept saying, 'We are not going to hurt you. We just want the car'. That was a lie," Dewani told The Sun.
The attackers then dumped their driver and drove off with the couple.
He and Anni apparently begged their attackers to dump them together, but after about 20 minutes Shrien ended up being pushed out of the car.
Anni’s bloody body was later found in the car, which was in Khayelitsha.
I, for one, have zero desire to see the real Africa. I have a desire to see the fake South Africa before it's too late, but even that lessens by the day. The rest, zero desire at all, except for perhaps the few semi-functioning parts like Botswana.

The Second:

Q: What's the difference between Zimbabwe and South Africa?

A: Ten Years

(Funny, but not in this context)

The Third:

Shorting the rand against a trade-weighted basket of currencies will earn positive abnormal returns over the next ten years.

An Awesome Book

Their description, not mine - but apt nonetheless!


You're Not Persian, You're Iranian

Okay, so if you're either, you're probably both, but they're answers to quite different questions. 

Why do people from Iran always want to refer to themselves as 'Persian', rather than 'Iranian'? I am certainly no expert in this area, but my rough understanding is that 'Persian' is an ethnicity (and distinct from, say, 'Arab'), whereas 'Iranian' is a nationality (and distinct from, say 'Iraqi'). But when someone asks 'where are you from?' or 'where does your family come from?', they're asking about nationality.  You'd certainly find it odd if someone from England responded that 'I am Anglo-Saxon' when asked where he was from.

It's as if some PR flack from Madison Avenue decided that 'Iranian' had far too much negative baggage associated with terrorism, but 'Persian' sounded old-worldly and vaguely mystical. So no matter which question was asked, just answer 'Persian'. Pretend that you've just walked out of 500BC when 'Persia' actually described a specific empire! You'll have no trouble getting work as an extra for the movie 300 or as a model for "a stowaway on a merchant ship, known by no one, scorned by all!" (a la Prince of Persia).

Still, the Madison Avenue guys would have a point. Don't believe me? Here are some random images that came up on the first page of the Google image search for 'Persian'.




Now, let's compare this with some random image selections from the first page of the search for 'Iranian'




Hmm, come to think of it, maybe it's not so strange after all.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pure Gold

I am aware of the risk of turning this blog into an all-SMBC-all-the-time affair, but this one was so good I couldn't resist. He also gets a bunch of the less obvious welfare-reducing parts of hyperinflation right too!


Heckle from the peanut gallery: If we wanted a blog that posted comics from SMBC every day, wouldn't we just go to the SMBC blog?

Shylock: Yes. In other news, bite my crank.

The Best Thing You Can Do Today...

..is download the free new album by 'Girl Talk', the awesome mashup DJ.

I know what you're thinking - "Girl Talk"?!? Has Shylock turned all fruity or something?

Let me reprise a conversation I had yesterday with SMH:
SMH: Just downloaded the new girl talk album (which is online for free), totally joy 
Shylock: What the @#$% is 'girl talk'? I hope that's either a metaphor, or way way cooler than it sounds.
SMH: He's a mashup DJ, I figured you'd be all up in that

Fast forward to my unprompted discussion with SMH today:
Shylock: By the way, you were totally right and I was totally wrong - girl talk is awesome.
Moral of the story? Don't be me, download it now. Unless you hate mashups, fun and life, which case go and boil your head instead.

The site has been up and down, as it keeps getting overwhelmed with traffic. Keep trying!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hypotheses from Biased Media Coverage and Casual Empiricism

Tim Blair links to this great story in The Sun - two thugs with a bull terrier attempted to pick a fight with three guys in London, but end up getting their @$$es beat. Turns out that the three men were soldiers who had between them two George's Crosses and one Victoria Cross, and were on the way back from a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.Unlucky!

The British press loves stories like this - there was another one a while back about a Gulf War veteran and black belt in Jiu Jitsu flooring some chav loser who tried to pick a fight, which was hilariously caught on video:

So here's my question - why does it seem like Britain has such an epidemic of unprovoked attacks by random buttclowns? Like I said, I have little systematic data I can point to on this, except the following:

a) a long list of (almost certainly highly selective) media articles over the years about the inability and unwillingness of British Police to confront violent assaults (try some Theodore Dalrymple to get the flavour)

b) an experience being out in Oxford one night a few years ago, and seeing random chav scum hurling abuse at random passers-by trying to pick fights. I felt a visceral uneasiness at the whole scene in a way that I hadn't gotten at these type of places before. It was as if a large fraction of the nightclub seemed to be looking for an excuse to start something.

Is it just me, or does this kind of thing not seem to happen nearly as much in America and Australia?

The Sun is a populist tabloid, but I'm sure the New York Post would equally love to print stories like this if they had a chance. Everyone loves the satisfying moral outcome of thugs getting their comeuppance. If they seem to come up less in America, my guess is that it's a combination of lower frequency of these events, and the fact that in Britain they have the additional appeal of speaking to the kind of fear that average Britons have about how safe their streets are.

So having laid out the fragility of the evidence I draw on, I still have a hunch that something has gone deeply wrong with the culture in modern Britain.

Economics + Snark

One of the developments I like the most about the internet is the advent of blogs that combine accurate reporting of the news with snarky humourous asides. There's a whole lot of economic news that I'm interested in finding out, but wading through the WSJ or Financial Times is like dosing up on Ambien. After being awake for 24 hours straight. Before sitting down to a slide show of your Aunt's latest vacation to Acapulco.

Thankfully Zero Hedge manages to make it far more entertaining to find out about the world of finance:


I'd give you the breakdown of the news about Ireland joining Greece in circling an increasingly crowded drain, but it's more fun to give you some of the best metaphors of the article:
"The biggest news of the day though was that Ireland is in talks with everyone from the EU to the IMF to NAMBLA to try to reach a deal to help them meet their spiraling budget deficit.
If a bailout can't be reached, Ireland may have to resort to selling some natural treasures such as the Blarney Stone, Michael Flatley's shaved chest hair, and Katherine Jenkins, in order to raise funds.
Citing the EU having to increase Greece's budget deficit three times already from "likely insolvent" to "Stephen Baldwin insolvent," Austrian finance minister Josef Proell..."
And I haven't even mined even half of the comic gold in there. Dig on!

All Your Internet Traffic Are Belong To Us

Where 'Us' equals 'The Chinese'. Apparently some time in April, 15 per cent of all internet traffic was for a time diverted to China. Who knows what they were trying to get, but you're a brave man if you're willing to bet that this was a coding screwup rather than ChiCom spying.

Every time I read these kind of stories (which seems to be more and more frequently these days), I find myself hoping that somewhere in China, there's a bunch of officials reading (confidential) reports about US DoD hackers implementing equally sophisticated attacks on Chinese government servers.

Somehow, I can't bring myself to feel terribly confident about the likelihood of this. But then again, if it were happening, we wouldn't be reading about it, so perhaps I shouldn't be too pessimistic.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Schadenfreude, it's what's for dinner!

Hippy rock star Neil Young tries to convert 1959 Lincoln Continental into a hybrid, succeeds in burning down warehouse instead.

The article mentions the following rather upbeat statement from Young on the LincVolt website:

"We do know that the car has been operating perfectly for almost 2 thousand miles and the system in question would not be in use while driving the car. We are investigating the components involved with plug-in charging." 
Well that sure is a relief! So it might burn down my house when it's charging, but there's a reasonably good chance it won't also burn me to death when I'm driving it on the freeway. At least for the first 2000 miles. Hopefully. Consider me sold!

I note in passing the relative paucity of news stories about warehouse fires started by petrol versions of the 1959 Lincoln Continental.

Taxes are a Moral Issue

I oppose tax increases because they fund a wasteful, value destroying government. I oppose them because they reduce the incentives to work and invest, distorting economic incentives and reducing the size of the economic pie in future periods.

But even if they did none of these things, I would still be deeply uncomfortable with them, because I am not interested in taking somebody else's money. Not if it's given to a good cause. Not if it's given to me personally. It's not my money to give away.

Many on the left are instinctively derisive when you claim that tax rates are a moral, as well as an economic issue.

But to those doubters, let me ask you this: would you consider it morally acceptable if the government decided to implement a tax rate of 100%? That is to say, the government owns all of your output. This is just another name for communism - the government owns everything, and you own nothing. Now, more people are inclined to view that as a moral issue. But once you view communism as just another point on the tax  scale from 0 to 100, it becomes a much more complicated issue. Is it morally acceptable to implement a tax rate of 99.99%? If you earn $100K a year, the government lets you keep ten bucks in spending money. Most people would say that this is substantively no different from communism.

But then if you think that a) and b) are both morally unacceptable, then we're in a bind - somewhere between a tax rate of 0% and a tax rate of 99.99%, taxes become a moral issue. Now we're just haggling over where exactly it kicks in.

In my opinion, taxes are always a moral issue. When the government takes your money under threat of imprisonment, it is a form of stealing like any other. This remains true even if they subsequently do worthwhile things with that money. It remains true if the money is spent on genuinely important public goods that a market may not supply enough of, like police, courts, an army, and (perhaps) public roads. It remains true even if the welfare gain from the spending outweighs the welfare loss from the taxes. It remains true even if on balance we should actually do it.

Regardless of what you think of the cause on which taxes are spent, none of this changes the morality of the funding part of the equation. Things are either taken based on voluntary exchange, or they are taken by force, whether implied, threatened or actual. Everything else is just detail.

This suggests that governments should be very hesitant to take money by force from the citizens. It may be morally justified and necessary because of other reasons. But the ledger is starting with a theft. A budget neutral increase in both taxes and spending is not a morally neutral act.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pooling and Separating Equilibria In Cool Places to Live

These days, areas predominantly populated by gay people tend to be the cool parts of town (The Castro in San Francisco, Boystown in Chicago, West LA) but they never seem to stay as gay areas for very long. The problem is that trendy yuppies  want to live where gay people live, because those areas have all the good restaurants, bars, and a generally fun vibe. Hordes of yuppies flow in, and quickly destroy the hip gay vibe that made the area attractive in the first place. Gay people can try to co-ordinate to live somewhere else (Andersonville in Chicago, for instance), but this can only delay the effect of the yuppies moving there too.In economics, this is known as a pooling equilibrium - gay people would rather not hang out with yuppies, but they end up pooled together because the yuppies will follow them where they go. They can't set up circumstances where the yuppies will voluntarily separate out, and can't make an actual requirement to be gay to live somewhere without likely violating exactly the same housing laws designed to protect them from discrimination.

[Edit: The people who really benefit from this pooling equilibrium are of course gay yuppies, who get the best of both worlds]

Compare this with the separating equilibrium you get between unwashed hippies and the same yuppies. Venice Beach, for instance, manages to keep most of its, ahem, "Bohemian" atmosphere for long periods of time. This is because while the yuppies may enjoy going down there every now and then to get "medication" for their "glaucoma" and soak up the ambience, nobody really wants to live in a place where there's a real risk that a homeless man might take a $#@% on your very expensive doorstep during the night. So the place is populated by tourists and unwashed vagrants during the day, and just the unwashed vagrants during the night (and the rich aging hippies who can afford the houses nearby, but enjoy the freakshow that is Venice). Yuppies, by and large, live elsewhere.

Maybe gay people could learn from the hippies and bathe less. That might finally drive off the yuppies and restore the separating equilibrium!

Thought of the Day

From Christopher Hitchens:
"Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea, anywhere that the concept of human rights doesn't exist, it's always the Chinese at backstop. And always for reasons that you could write down in three words: blood for oil."
It's a good point, and clearly true today. Of course, human rights were absent from these places for much longer than just the period for which the Chinese were bankrolling the whole affair. It would be much simpler if the problem were just the Chinese (not that I think this is what Hitchens is implying) - find some way to bribe them to do the right thing, and hey presto! Unfortunately, the desire of men to enslave other men springs eternal from the human breast.

Quantitative Easing

The funniest gags are rarely fair to their subject matter (and this is no exception), but this is funny and hits the mark.

My favourite lines:

"R: What does that mean?
L: It means they are going to print a ton of money.
R: So why do they call it the Quantitative Easing? Why don't they just call it the printing money?
L: Because the printing money is the last refuge of failed empires and banana republics, and the Fed doesn't want to admit that this is their only idea."

Nothing makes a burn sting more than having it delivered by a cartoon animal!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Great News!

Scorn not democracy lightly, my friends. It has been so long since most of our countries have had to experience (or even seriously contemplate) the harsh reality of the alternatives. In the west, elite opinion is all Stewart-Colbert style irony and detachment. But it is worth frequently reflecting on the fact that in much of the world, it is still a deadly serious matter.

It is hard to imagine a more lovely people ruled by a more repulsive government than the Burmese. I doubt anything much will change, but this is still a good day for freedom.

Flip The Script on the TSA

Public affairs vex no man, as Dr Johnson observed:
BOSWELL. "Perhaps, Sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong."
JOHNSON. "That's cant, Sir. It would not vex you more in the house, than in the gallery: publick affairs vex no man."
BOSWELL. "Have they not vexed yourself a little, Sir? Have you not been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign?"
JOHNSON. "Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed."
BOSWELL. "I declare, Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less."
At a minimum, I aim to not be seriously angered by political matters. It is a sad state of affairs to go through life railing angrily at the world.

But I find it difficult to maintain my equilibrium reading about the damn TSA and their genital groping antics. Ken at Popehat has a great piece on the subject, and links to a guy who describes what happened when he refused to be groped.

The only way I can not be furious is to think of creative ways to deal with the problem. Now, admittedly these only work for guys. But what I have in mind is this:

Try to make it as uncomfortable as possible for the TSA agents who have to touch your genitals. In other words, reverse the power dynamic. How would I do this? Simple. Firstly, opt out of the penis-viewer and agree to the pat down. 

BUT Say that you want the procedure carried out by a female agent. Then make an exaggerated show of getting sexual enjoyment out of it. Try the following:

"So you're going to fondle my balls, huh?"

"Mmm, that feels really nice."

"I think you're giving me an erection"

"Usually I have to pay to get women to fondle my balls. But now the government does it free, and I'm betting they're paying you a lot less than what I normally have to pay, that's for sure" 

Try to make it as humiliating as possible FOR THEM, and indicate that you're not put out at all.Most of these lines can be modified only slightly if they give you a male agent:

"So your job involves touch other guys' balls for $8 an hour, huh? I guess they didn't have any openings at Burger King"

"Can you jiggle them a bit when you're down there? I like it when guys do that to me"

"If I throw in a crisp George Washington, could you pat down my penis as well?"

@#$% the TSA. Let them find out that with just the right amount of sarcasm, touching guys junk in public can be even more embarrassing for the guy having to do it.

A Thought Experiment

If a man's height were subject to as much fluctuation as a woman's weight, I wonder if women would still have the reputation of being less attracted to the opposite sex based purely on physical appearance.

The Rudest Word in America

When people think about rude words, they usually focus on their raw power to cause offense. This tends to prioritise the usual suspects like n***er and  c**t. (Although in the case of n***er, Americans don't get offended by the word in general, just when a white person says it - nobody blinks at its use in gangster rap)

But let me suggest an alternative measure of how rude a word is. It's based on squeamishness of people in using it. So in this view, the real test is the extent to which ordinary people will avoid using the word when it's actually appropriate, and reach for a synonym (especially a euphemistic synonym) instead.

So based on this metric, let me suggest the following word:


It's amazing the lengths people here go to in order to avoid using the word. In Australia, it's common for people to ask 'Where are the toilets?.' Not here. They go to the 'bathroom'. This is used regardless of whether the room is a combined bathroom/toilet (such as in a house) or whether it's obvious that there's only a toilet (e.g. in a restaurant).  This sometimes gets modified to the 'washroom', as if to emphasise even further that it's the bodily cleaning aspects of the 'bathroom' that they're after, rather than the toilet. They use the 'restroom', as if they're going for a relaxing sit down and chill out. Occasionally, it's referred to as the 'little boys/girls room', whatever that means.As for the purpose of their visit, it's to 'use the facilities'. Or 'wash their hands'. Or 'powder their nose'.

The only time that people use the word at all is when they're unavoidably  forced to refer to the mechanics of the device ('The toilet is broken/clogged'). And even then, oblique references to the 'bathroom being out of order' are common.

And yet I bet everybody would claim that they're perfectly fine using it. They just, you know... don't really want to.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Silicon-based Life Forms Not Wanted

Apparently Full Tilt Poker and Pokerstars, two of the biggest poker sites have recently been having a purge of poker bots, according to The Register. They spot them by the similarity of play, but also the more obvious metrics of players who play for long consistent periods of time. I dunno, if I were designing a bot, I'd spend at least some of my coding prowess figuring out ways to make it look unpredictable (take random, non-normally distributed breaks of time at random points, occasionally make weird bets, etc.)

It's hard to see this as anything more than a PR exercise. Suppose I have a poker bot sitting next to a person, who just inputs their moves. Would this be a violation of the terms of agreement? Beats the hell out of me. What if I hire some guys in Bangalore  at 12c an hour to input the moves, but one in 50 moves to do something weird? It would be pretty hard to prove anything.

But check out this outrageous line:
In October, Full Tilt removed an unstated number of players, confiscated the funds in their accounts, and pledged to redistribute this money to players who'd lost to the bots. PokerStars took similar action with 10 accounts in July.
Got that? They suspect you of being a bot, and they take your money. Not your winnings. All your money.

Now, I think two things when I read this kind of thing.

1. If you're doing anything that might be breaching a contract, read in advance damn carefully exactly what you've signed, and what provisions are allowed. It may be startlingly different from what you think a fair outcome is.

2. If it's unclear whether what you're doing is actually legal, then it's also unclear whether you have a contract at all. And if it turns out you don't, when the Poker Site takes your money because it claims you're running a bot, you're basically S.O.L. You're in the same position as the guy who calls the cops because somebody stole his marijuana plant. Except the guy who stole your plant is a faceless corporation with a lot of lawyers, so there's nobody's arms to break and not much chance of successfully suing them. Yeah, good luck with that.

Corner Solutions and Johnny Cash

In economics, a corner solution is (roughly speaking) the solution to an optimization problem that involves being up against a binding constraint such that the quantity of one of the arguments is zero. Suppose I have a budget of $50 to spend on apples and pears. Apples are more expensive, but I like them more than pears. Then again, the more apples I eat, the less I enjoy each one. An interior solution (the opposite of a corner solution) is when I trade off my enjoyment for each, and buy some amount of apples and some amount of pears. A corner solution would be if I buy only apples. It implies that, if had some amount more money, I'd buy even more apples. Given my budget, all I want is apples.

What, you may be asking, has this got to do with Johnny Cash? Well, I recently downloaded the song above. When choosing which songs to play, my attention is like a budget constraint that operates sequentially - I can only play one song at a time. I get enjoyment from each song, but the enjoyment diminishes with each successive play.

When my music collection is in equilibrium, the interior solution is that songs will be played with certain probability according to how much I enjoy them. The songs I enjoy will be played on average more, the songs I enjoy less will be played less, and these probabilities reflect the relative enjoyment of each song. At the margin, my enjoyment of each song that gets played is the same. The songs I like more in general I hear more so that I'm more sick of them, and I enjoy them as much as the songs I like less in general but are fresh each time due to being played less.

But suppose I come across a wicked new song? The equilibrium is temporarily disrupted.

The interior solution to this problem is the following:
Prob(Play Johnny Cash's "Devil's Right Hand") = 1
Prob(Play Anything Else) = 0

So far we're up to 17 plays in a row!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bullying and Incentives

Human nature and human motivations are rarely simple. Pithy rhetoric and evocative examples cannot paper over the fact that the same actions and incentives will motivate some people (often lots of people), but will always manage to frustrate and deter others. This is made more difficult by the fact that people often make statements about principles that are really just stories from their own lives with the names removed. But since they're phrased as principles, they end up in inevitable conflict with other people who have different principles which are really just different stories from their own lives.

There's been an interesting thread going on Hacker News about bullying. It started with this quite moving post by Single Dad Laughing, where he talks about what it was like to be bullied. It ends with a plea for adults and contemporaries to show more love for bullies, so that they will be less likely to be mean to those around them:

So, please, I beg you. If you're an adult, put your arm around your own kids. Put your arm around your neighbor's kids. Put your arm around every kid you can. If you're a student, put your arm around the bully and the bullied. You simply don't know what person needs to feel like somebody loves her. You simply don't know what person's life you will save by showing him that, today, you care. And tomorrow you'll still care.
Regardless of whether this is actually good policy or not, I think it's a very good mark of character to be able to look back years later and forgive. Had I been bullied like that, my attitudes with respect to bullies would probably be closer to Kurtz's edict to "Exterminate all the brutes!".

It did however prompt this reply from Sebastian Marshall, where he says that the bullied are much better off fighting back, even if they lose:
But son, as soon as someone puts their hands on you, they've crossed a line. @#$% them up. It's the only thing these vicious freaks understand. They're wild animals. They make violence on you, you need to show them that you're the stronger, bigger animal. When someone attacks you maliciously for no reason, you need to impose your will on them.
Even if you lose, lose swinging. They respect it. Be a tough fight.
This "talk it out" $#!* doesn't work, it's been the dogma for the last 30-50 years, it assumes the nobility of human nature will win out. It doesn't. It's nonsense. It just simply doesn't work.
I think the best summary of this position was from commenter 'Legion', in terms of advice to his future children:
"You are allowed to defend yourself. You will avoid physical conflict whenever possible, but should you ever be physically threatened or subject to ongoing torment, you have the GREEN LIGHT to use physical force to protect yourself, OR to assist a friend who is unable to protect themselves."
"You may get in trouble with your school. THIS IS OK. Your well-being is more important than their rules. If you get suspended for three days, then I'll take three days off work and we'll keep up with your studies. I will be on your side. Do not let concern over the school rules stop you at all from defending yourself."
"However, you will never use force to do anything but protect yourself or your friend. If I find that YOU have been the aggressor, I will smite you."
Single Dad posted a follow-up that noted that he didn't actually say that the bullied should be trying to reach out to bullies, but rather adults and contemporaries around them.

What I find interesting about this whole exchange is that disagreement about the basic premises of bullying doesn't mean that these policies are mutually exclusive.

Reasonable people disagree deeply on why men do evil things.

The Single Dad Laughing premise seems to be that nasty bullying actions by kids tend to indicate a response to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and a desire to inflict hurt on a world that has been cruel to you, usually to make up for a lack of love from those around you. In this view, if you make the person feel wanted, you take away the underlying source of their nasty behaviour. To my mind, the best evidence in favour of this proposition is the fact that a lot of bullies do tend to be generally unhappy, and don't have many actual friends.   Additionally, bullies can grow out of their behaviour when their life circumstances change.

The Sebastian Marshall premise is instead that some people are just inherently mean, and can only be deterred, not reasoned with or made to become your friend. Psychologically, bullying gives the feeling of power and control over a weaker person, which some people enjoy as a mark of status and respect. I think the best evidence in favour of this is that bullies are usually very careful in picking their targets - they deliberately avoid people likely to fight back, people with friends to back them up, and those who will generally make it hard for them. This suggests that deterrence from the bullied (in the form of fighting back) is likely to have large effects on stopping the problem.

The reason this is important is that it gets to the moral question of the culpability of the bully. Under the first premise, the bully is ultimately to be pitied, as well as (although probably not as much as) the bullied. Under the second premise, the bully is human scum, preying on the weak, and deserving of punishment and reprobation.

Personally, I'm closer to the Sebastian Marshall school, but that's not really important. Certainly in the case of children, it seems highly likely that poor home circumstances contribute to bullying problems, but that makes me only slightly more sympathetic to bullies. And it certainly doesn't make me misty-eyed about the power of deterrence.

But putting aside culpability, it seems that both policies can be implemented simultaneously. That is:

a) Adults and those in positions of power should try to show love and affection, thereby trying to win over those bullies capable of redemption, and

b) Kids being bullied should fight back hard and immediately, indicating that they are not soft targets. Fighting back on your own behalf creates deterrence. Fighting back on behalf of your friends and the weak creates extended deterrence, and both reduce the incidence of bullying.

I am certainly not one who thinks that wisdom is always (or even generally) found in balancing out all competing sides to an argument.

But the world is a complicated place nonetheless.

How Not To Respond To A Hoax

This lesson in publicity 101 comes from Ryan Maloney, a.k.a. 'Toadfish', a longtime character on the Australian soap opera 'Neighbours'

Suppose someone put up a facebook page claiming that you had died in a drowning accident. Would you:

a) Be slightly annoyed, but ignore it, figuring they'll get bored eventually

b) Post a lighthearted note on the page, noting that you're still alive, but indicate that you get the joke

c) Post an angry, flailing, abusivee note on the page, demanding its removal but indicating your powerlessness to do anything about it

Well, let's see what Ryan did:

Okay, so you've taken option c), and it's become apparent it hasn't worked. Would you:

a) Remove your original post, and go back to ignoring it?

b) Double down by posting more abuse?

No surprises for guessing the decision he makes again:

...and again

...and again

...and again

...and again

Oh Toadfish, when will you learn. Repeat after me, the number one lesson of bad publicity on the internet: Don't feed the trolls.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Greece - Circling the Drain, Fiddling with the Second Derivative of 'Screwed' with respect to 'Time'

Zero Hedge has an interesting post about how the European debt crisis is set to be the next focus of the market.

What's well known is that in Greece they've been rioting over the austerity measures.

Now, given things are so cruel and awful (apparently) that these pampered government sponges are on the brink of revolt, you'd assume that the government  must be paying down the debt pretty fast now, right?

Okay, they're not.

But surely, at a minimum, they've at least stopped adding to new debt, right?

Okay, they haven't.

No, all these cry-babies have manged to do so far is commit to add to the mess at a slower rate.

What a triumph of public policy for this society of moochers!

Somewhere, Socrates is spinning in his grave and muttering to himself  "Stop claiming national greatness by association with me, you lazy selfish clowns."

(This post dedicated to The Greek, who was complaining today that "there's been too much Oprah stuff on the blog recently, and not enough economics")

Expressions I'm Trying to Popularise

"Irish Breakfast - it's the whiskey of teas."

Orwell on Kipling


The title of this post alone ought to be enough convince you (Men of Letters, all) to read this. Both Orwell and Kipling were complicated men who are difficult to pigeonhole into a particular political box. I think Orwell gives a very interesting and balanced portrayal (even where I don't agree with it all). As a matter of aesthetics I find Kipling's poetry to be amongst my favourites. There is much wisdom condensed in poems such as "The Gods of the Copybook Headings", and "If'", and if they are popular to the point of cliche, it is only because they resonate with so many people. I also think that Kipling had a wonderful ear for rhyme and rhythym, almost unmatched in poetry. Orwell can only muster the backhanded compliment of him writing 'good bad poetry'. But I think that the snobbery that attached to Kipling-haters (of which Orwell doesn't seem to be one, exactly) has become less important. I attribute this to the fact that the distinction between those who enjoy good poetry vs. bad poetry has been dwarfed today by the distinction between those who read or think about any poetry at all vs.the rest. In that sense, those today who like any poets have much more in common with each other (relative to everybody else) than they used to.

There are a lot of interesting observations, such as this one about Kipling and the Indian literary tradition:
One must say of this, as of what Kipling wrote about nineteenth-century Anglo-India, that it is not only the best but almost the only literary picture we have... It took a very improbable combination of circumstances to produce Kipling's gaudy tableau, in which Private Ortheris and Mrs. Hauksbee pose against a background of palm trees to the sound of temple bells, and one necessary circumstance was that Kipling himself was only half civilized.
I think he hits the mark with some criticisms, such as the accents that soldiers in the poems speak in:
[T]his accounts for the curious fact that one can often improve Kipling's poems, make them less facetious and less blatant, by simply going through them and transplanting them from Cockney into standard speech.
And others which I'm not entirely sold on the premise of, but are interesting nonetheless:
It is notable that Kipling does not seem to realize, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern. Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelizing. You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed "natives," and then you establish "the Law," which includes roads, railways and a court-house. He could not foresee, therefore, that the same motives which brought the Empire into existence would end by destroying it. It was the same motive, for example, that caused the Malayan jungles to be cleared for rubber estates, and which now causes those estates to be handed over intact to the Japanese.
But the overall picture gives an interesting view of some of the world views that make Kipling so enyoyable :
Although he had no direct connexion with any political party, Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, "In such and such circumstances, what would you do?", whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. 
 As they say, read the whole thing.

(Via Andrew Bolt )

Credit Card Fraud End Game

Check out this great story in the New York Times magazine about Albert Gonzalez, a big-time credit card fraud operator.

He's sure fallen a long way from his former position as Attorney General of the United States.

But seriously, it's an amazing article. When you've got enough moving parts to your operation, and enough agents tracking you, it's really damn hard to not screw something up eventually. But it's amazing how simple it can be. Like using a known alias as your email address when signing up to AIM, rather than a random combination of letters. The mob is motivated by money - you can be damn sure they wouldn't screw that part of it up. But someone who has a large component of their sense of identity tied up in being a hard core hacker? The esteem of other hackers, and the 1337 h@X0r names that go along with it, are part of the cool.

This line was also fascinating:
Gonzalez relished the intellectual challenges of cybercrime too. He is not a gifted programmer  - according to Watt and Toey, in fact, he can barely write simple code - but by all accounts he can understand systems and fillet them with singular grace.
Exactly. In the end, it's not just about being able to write clevercode. It's about being about to figure out systems, and then execute all the mundane parts involved in not getting caught - hiding identities, laundering money, converting credit card details into dollars without getting busted. Those skills are likely to be just as scarce, if not more, than raw programming smarts.

Guys like him seem only tangentially driven by the money component - it's more about the thrill of the heist, particularly the intellectual achievement. And people hooked on that (like people hooked on lots of drugs) have a hard time letting it go. Same dopamine, different underlying source. They end up like World War 2 bomber pilots - you keep flying missions until you die. It's not that these guys want to get caught. It's just that getting caught is the only way the game ends.