Sunday, December 30, 2012

Thoughts on growing up, on the occasion of the marriage of an old and dear friend

I tend to only see my own aging as a matter of hindsight. I suspect I am not alone in this regard. Every day you get one day older, but many years might pass by before you properly appreciate how far down the stream you have come. By the time I was willing to countenance thinking of myself as a 'young man', I knew that already the 'young' qualifier was not really appropriate - in terms of age, I was just a 'man'. When I truly was a young man, I just thought of myself as a teenager, including until well into my 20s. When you are confronted with evidence of how your life is progressing past you, you feel foolish for not noting it earlier, and feel embarrassed at the way you laughed at all those before you for whom aging caught them by surprise. Papa Holmes told me the other day that although he is much older, in many ways he still thinks of himself as he did at 18. I suspect he too is not alone in this respect. I remember a Reddit post where doctors were talking about the last words that some of their patients uttered. One of the ones that stuck with me was a guy whose last utterance was 'When did this happen? When did I get old?'

To take joy in returning to the pleasures and ways of the past is not necessarily nostalgia. Sometimes one will be clinging sentimentally to the idea of some golden age, and as a way of not letting go of one's youth, which is what I think of as being nostalgia in the true sense. But other times, enjoying the company of good people really is just a great experience worth trying to preserve. It was excellent in the past when you got to do it all the time, and it is still excellent when you get to do it now, albeit less frequently. Unlike getting old, I can proudly say that I did reflect at the time on what a rare pleasure it was to spend one's time with excellent companions.

Congratulations on getting married, old friend.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

La Dolce Vita

If there is a more reliable way to produce contentment than to graze under a large mulberry tree for 20 minutes and slowly eat one's way around, I'm not sure what it is.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A feature I wish they still had on phones

I was heading back to Australia recently, and true to my disorganised form, hadn't actually figured out the address of the place I was going. I could email my friend to find out, but I was getting on the plane in 15 minutes time, and probably wouldn't receive his reply before then. Once I got to Australia, of course, I wouldn't have free internet on my phone to check the reply. I checked through my phone, but didn't have his number written down anywhere. Bother.

Then I thought about it more, and I realised that I still remembered his mobile phone number from the better part of a decade ago. By contrast, I don't think I remember just about any US phone numbers whatsoever. It's not like I'm Rain Man or anything. (The fact that I'd forgotten to ask about the address in the first place kind of confirms this).

The reason I still remembered his number is that I used to call my friend back in the day when mobile phones would display the following when you call someone:

'Calling Michael Mobile
0412 345 678'

And the simple repetition of seeing the person's number in front of you over and over meant that eventually you remembered it.

I'm not saying I'd trade the modern version of syncing and backing up contacts for the previous one. But given you're going to be looking at the screen anyway over and over before you put it up to your ear, it would be incredibly handy to have the option to display the number. That way I could remember my US friends' numbers for the cases when I don't have my phone on me, or when it's dead.

Apparently I'm the only one who cares about this, since it would be trivially easy to implement, but nobody's doing it. Ah well.

Anyway, as this post implies, my holidaying around creates a lower than normal volume of written hilarity. Part time posting to continue for the next few weeks, and full time posting to resume in the New Year.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thought of the Day

You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your f***ing khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.
-Fight Club
Or if you prefer the book:
This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time.
-Chuck Palahniuk

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Things you can infer about 'Songs of Love'

I always enjoy when someone's choice of words reveal things about them that they almost certainly didn't intend to convey.

A great example of this can be found in the wonderful Ben Folds song, 'Songs of Love'.

Let me pose the challenge in advance to you. Where was Ben Folds when he was inspired to write the song?

I've put a copy of the video below. To make sure you focus on the important part of the lyrics, I've written down the first two verses. Read through them, and see if you can infer what I inferred.
Pale pubescent beasts,
Roam through the streets,
And coffee shops.
Their prey gather in herds,
Of stiff knee-length skirts,
And white ankle socks.
But while they search for a mate
My type hibernate,
In bedrooms above,
Composing their songs of love.
Young, uniform minds
In uniform lives,
And uniform ties,
Run round, with trousers on fire
and signs of desire they cannot disguise,
While I try to find words,
As light as the birds,
That circle above,
To put in my songs of love.
The song is here:

In case you want to guess, the answer is below the fold (no pun intended):

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

One and a Half Cheers for MMA

I find myself somewhat conflicted on the subject of mixed martial arts, like the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

Far and away the best thing about them is that they've proven incredibly useful as a vast experiment in the most effective hand-to-hand combat techniques. Previously, all you had was a bunch of different martial arts - boxing, karate, jiu jitsu, what have you - and you'd just pick whatever one seemed cool to you. You'd spend ages developing techniques in that style, and learn how to counter the attacks of someone else coming at you with the same set of moves.

But this left almost completely unanswered the far more important question of what the inherent weaknesses of the style were. In other words, suppose you perfected the techniques of that particular style. What weaknesses would that leave you open to if you were attacked by someone who wasn't limiting themselves to attacking you in the same way that you were planning to attack them?

Hand-to-hand combat instructors, including places like the military, have been interested in this question for ages, and indeed had developed training that was a synthesis of a number of different styles. But UFC really caused this exploration process to explode. By providing a television spectacle and large cash prizes, it gave big incentives for the best fighters in the world to actually explore and come up with different combinations of techniques. The range of styles currently used covers a bunch of principal components (if you will) of martial arts space: ground-and-pound, submission grappling, sprawl-and-brawl (apparently rhyming names have proved popular), etc. These may not have a rich pedigree of historical tradition, but is there really any doubt that learning any one of these would prove vastly more effective than just perfecting a single traditional style?

One of the big lessons that came out of the early UFC rounds is that a lot of traditional martial arts (boxing, karate, muay thai) work great when you're both standing on your feet, but are virtually useless if the guy takes you to the ground. Which, if he's doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, he will. And then your training will have very little to say about what you should do. MMA has injected a lot of life into the intellectual question of fighting styles, and forced a bunch of fossilised martial arts to consider honestly what their strengths and weaknesses are.

So that's cheer #1.

Cheer #2, which is really half a cheer, is related to cheer #1. As MMA has become more popular, people have started to learn MMA directly, rather than studying other fighting styles. To the extent that I think that these MMA synthesis styles are better for self-defense, this is a good thing. If you're going to have to defend yourself in a bar, you want to have the most effective way possible. And giving people knowledge that they think will help them defend themselves can actually make them worse, if it causes them to get in more fights because they think (incorrectly) that they'll win.

Did you ever notice that Bruce Lee isn't often seen fighting his way up from the ground in movies, or dealing with guys holding him in grappling moves? Do you wonder why that is? It's not that it's not possible to keep standing up. It's that you're in a lot of trouble if your fighting style relies on both people standing up and being at a distance from each other, and you don't know how to stop the other guy taking you to the ground or getting you in a clinch hold. You're in even more trouble if you're a guy who's learned karate and gets in a fight without having given this some thought in advance. MMA thus ensures that you know better what you'll actually be up against.

The only slight hitch here is that I think that MMA practitioners don't think fully about the implicit restrictions that MMA places on fights which a bar fight does not. To a lesser extent, this is particular moves like eye gouging, small joint manipulation, groin attacks etc. But the much bigger one is the ability to deal with multiple attackers at once. Skills like taking the other guy to ground in a choke hold are immensely useful in a one-on-one fight. They are disastrous if the guy has three friends around who will kick you in the head as you perform the choke hold on the ground. The more people are attacking you, the more 'stay on your feet at all costs' becomes a crucial principle.

That's okay though. People can figure that out. Overall, I'm a pretty big fan of MMA in the abstract, and am interested in what it reveals about fighting styles. So what's the issue?

The problem is that I just find it rather gross and distasteful to actually watch. Just to check, I went over to the UFC website. The current headline was "Free fight - Shogun stomps his way to a pride title", where the photo showed the guy in question stomping on his opponent, who was on the ground. The bout ended, as it usually does, with one guy on the ground being punched in the face over and over until the referee calls it off. And I just can't help but find this barbarous and unpleasant to look at. Every now and again, one of those guys on the ground is actually being beaten to death. Sure, it's rare, but it's still troubling that during every one of those deaths, the crowd was cheering the guy on doing the beating.

In other words, what I find the most gross about these events is the crowd. I personally don't like watching guys beat the hell out of each other. But lots of other people apparently do. You can dress it up in fancy terms like watching the skill and the spectacle, but at its heart, the appeal is the same as that of the circus maximus, nature documentaries where one animal hunts and kills another, and every other kind of blood porn. People find it exhilarating to watch one creature attack and kill another.

The guys in the ring are professional athletes. They know the risks, and they're paid handsomely for what they do. That's fine. It's their job.

The guys in the audience, on the other hand, are there because they like watching people hurt each other. And try as I might, I can see nothing at all to celebrate in their behaviour. People are of course free to exercise their liberty however they want. But it takes a particularly obtuse sort of libertarian to not consider the possibility that a society where more people exercise their freedom to watch the ballet might have more to recommend than one where people exercise their freedom to watch a boxing match.

This may be human nature, but it's a particularly dark side of human nature, and not one I think ought to be celebrated.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The real meaning of 'Lincoln'

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

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

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

And then it occurred to me.

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2012

Miscellaneous Joy

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

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

Confirmed Out of Sample!

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Lincoln" and the Hollywood depiction of the Civil War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

31 Days of Vegetarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody thinks this way though. So why not?

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

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

Hence people opt to just not think about it.

Nobody wants to see how the sausage is made.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Predicting if someone is Brazilian by how they speak English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Update]: Confirmed - he is indeed Turkish.

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Brecher's Back!

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

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

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

Where else are you likely to read:

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

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

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

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

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

Go, read!

How to improve the public attitude towards police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

It is now safe to return to social media

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

500 Days of Summer

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bad News From Election Night

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. Ooohhh.

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

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Voting

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

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

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

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

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

I cannot really believe in the latter argument any more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You see the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Small Change to Improve TV Poker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Willpower is not a strategy

Psychological constraints are real constraints. People act as if they're not - because you can't see the process driving them, you should be able to make them just go away. I can see physical evidence of why I can't run 100m in ten seconds. I can't see physical evidence of why I can't work nine hours in a row without getting distracted.

Vanishingly few people ever do this on any given work day, of course. But that doesn't stop the motivated, type-A personality from holding himself to this standard. I'm so lazy, he'll say. Why can't I stop myself wasting time on the internet? When he inevitably falls short of this standard, he'll get frustrated with himself, and try to figure out how he can improve his output.

Usually, "willpower" is the deus ex machina by which this extra work is meant to happen. I'll concentrate more! I'll not check my email! This is, of course, no more practical as advice than 'I'll swim faster' or 'I'll eat less food every day'. It might work. But let's just say you'd probably want a plan B.

Willpower is better thought of as the residual between how much you actually do on a given day, and what a reasonable model of output would predict. In other words, just because you give a name to the part of the model that you can't explain doesn't mean you can now manipulate this part at will.

As Steve Sailer put it recently:
It’s a strange totem of the 21st century that if a brain scan can show us where something would happen inside the skull, we can therefore make it happen in ourselves...
We don’t think this way about other organs, though. Consider the stomach. For a century or more, we’ve had a more than adequate knowledge of how the digestive system works. Yet on average we’re fatter than ever. Why? Not because the science of stomach scans hasn’t progressed enough, but because we like eating more than we like exercising.
What's surprising is that this obsessive focus on willpower tends to blind people to more optimal solutions that recognise the constraints they face.

For instance, if you know you're going to get distracted and run out of energy by 4pm, why not try to do low mental energy admin tasks at that point so you're still getting something done?

When you find yourself not getting anything done at one task, why not switch to something else for an hour or two then come back to it?

Instead of getting up two hours earlier and being tired and unproductive all day, why not get eight hours sleep and work whenever you arrive?

Maybe you actually are unproductive. But what people refer to as 'unproductive' is usually measured against a standard that is
a) derived externally from some hypothetical benchmark,
b) not an unbiased forecast of actual output, and
c) not updated according to how their performance changes.

In other words, if every day you expect to be able to work 9 hours and you actually work 4, one of two things is certain. Either you're really bad at concentrating, or you're really bad at benchmarking what a reasonable output is.

I often hear the rejoinder that unrealistic benchmarks improve output, even if you always fall short. By aiming for 9 hours, I get 4 done, but if I aimed at 4, I'd only get 3.5 done.

Maybe. But do you ever see Microsoft announcing that they're going to set next quarter's earnings target as being earnings of two hundred gazillion dollars per share, just so that people would work harder? They'd be ridiculed, and rightly so.

You set targets so that you can see how different concrete strategies of improving output are actually working. But the hard work of improving output comes from understanding the internal processes at work, and how they can be optimised.

But if you haven't actually put any effort into the more difficult task of figuring out how you're going to change the underlying strategy, it seems largely delusional to think that just setting a higher goal will somehow produce this. This goes tenfold when you're setting the goal for yourself. 

James Bagian made a similar point about blaming people for medical screwups.
When I got into healthcare, I felt like I'd stepped into an entirely different world. It was all about, "Let's figure out who screwed up and blame them and punish them and explain to them why they're stupid." To me, it's almost like whistling past the grave. When we demonize the person associated with a bad event, it makes us feel better. It's like saying, "We're not stupid so it won't happen to us." Whereas in fact it could happen to us tomorrow.

And then, too, medicine is much older than these other fields, eons old, and for most of that time there wasn't PubMed or the AMA or what have you. It was all about the expertise of the individual practitioner. It's a short step from there to assuming that problems in medicine stem from problematic individuals. That's why we have this whole "train and blame" mentality in medical culture; someone makes a mistake, you train them not to do it anymore, and then you punish them if it happens again. I think we've ridden that horse about as far as we can.
Replace 'stupid' with 'lazy' and it describes the lecture you give yourself every day.

The willpower horse is dead on the ground and decomposing, but you keep lashing it with your riding crop.

Figure out something else.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Miscellaneous Joy

-Incentives? Who gives a damn about incentives?

-Partly in regards to this, Obama was asked what Donald Trump has against him. Good question - maybe Jack Ryan would be able to answer.

-Rowan Atkinson continues to kick ass.

-Apparently carousing in North Korea sometimes carries a heavy price.

-With the US election being merely weeks away, this is a good time to not be on facebook. That way you won't be subjected to the brilliant insights of all sorts of fools that insist on blasting their endorsements to all and sundry. This post of mine from a year and a half ago still seems right to me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Help is on the way!

Do friends and colleagues accuse you of being 'too masculine' or 'too heteronormative'? Thankfully, today's selection of musical items can help provide timely relief to ease the burdens of excessive manliness.

To insulate against the charge that 'your musical posts suck and are boring', these offerings came directly from reader suggestions. Proving that my readers are just as depraved as I, we have not one, but two cover versions of the Carly Ray Jepsen hit, 'Call Me Maybe'.

The first, via Athenios, is a choral and orchestral arrangement:

The second, via The Hammer, is done by Ms Jepsen herself, along with The Roots and Jimmy Fallon:

And in case this pushes things too far in the opposite direction and you need to resuscitate your male bona fides, here is the great Johnny Cash, via Hector Lopez:

Don't say I don't do nuthin for ya.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Stupidity of the 'China is a Currency Manipulator' Argument

Sometimes it's hard to know whether stupid-sounding statements by politicians are genuinely believed, or just thrown out there for the rubes. Or both.

One firmly in this category is the line that Mitt Romney kept repeating in the debates, about how China is a 'currency manipulator' and he's going to label them as such on day one of his presidency (presumably so that he can start imposing tariffs. Or maybe just for cathartic value - who knows?)

Romney is not unusually obtuse in this matter - Hillary Clinton has moaned about the same thing in terms every bit as stupid.

Now, is there anything implausible about the claim that China is printing lots of yuan in order to keep their currency low in value? Absolutely not - they are. It's a matter of public record. Is there anything incorrect in the statement that this is hurting  US exports to China, and making Chinese imports in the US more competitive relative to domestically produced goods? No, this too is obvious - it's microeconomics 101.

What is far less clear is the implication that the net effect of all this is negative for the US economy. For a long time, the US deliberately pursued a policy of wanting a strong dollar - i.e. they wanted the yuan to be weak relative to the dollar. Why? For exactly the same reason that politicians are now bitching about - it makes imports cheap, which is great news if you're someone who needs to import things, or if you're worried about keeping inflation low. Frankly I wasn't aware that this policy had even been officially abandoned, but what do I know?

Still, if this were all there were to the debate, I'd let it slide - you don't really expect nuanced economic discussion at these rube-fests.

But what's hilariously unexplored is the question of what exactly China is doing with all those extra yuan they're printing that keeps their currency artificially low. How do these translate into an expensive dollar?

Simple - the Chinese pump tons of money into buying US Treasury Bills. You remember those, right? They're the means by which this thoroughly bankrupt nation keeps running trillion dollar deficits and kicking the can down the road on its untold trillions of unfunded liabilities.

Reader, if China ever took the US up on their offer to stop making their currency cheap by printing yuan and buying T-Bills, do you know what would happen? The viability of US T-Bill auctions would become a hell of a lot less certain. And I can promise you, if (or more likely, when) a US Treasury auction fails, it will create consequences far worse than those of China having a currency that may or may not be too cheap. The specifics of how exactly it would play out is not something that you'd want to explore, as things like stock market crashes, runs on money market funds and bank failures start to become realistic possibilities.

As the Hilltop Hoods put it - like a free trip to Afghanistan, you don't want it.

Do you know who agrees with me about this?

Hillary @#$%ing Clinton, that's who. In between complaining about the Chinese currency being too cheap, she was begging the Chinese to keep buying T-Bills which would keep their currency cheap. At least Romney hasn't descended to that level of stupidity of demanding both [A] and [Not A]. Yet.

It is difficult to help people who know what they want but can't achieve it.

It is nigh on impossible to help people who don't even know what they want.

When those people are running the government, it is even more disturbing.

On the plus side though, there's two positive aspects.

One is that these politicians may not actually believe this nonsense, but might just be cynically manipulating the idiots of the electorate that will determine the outcome of the election.

The other is that the federal reserve is buying so much of the current T-Bill auctions already (by just printing money) that the auctions may never fail, and we'll just get pleasant hyperinflation instead.

Small victories, I suppose.

Good News, Bad News

People are apparently still surprised that when you take a country like Egypt and remove most of the forces ensuring law and order (however imperfectly and corruptly), this kind of thing happens.

At this late stage in the proceedings, I honestly cannot figure out why they would be.

Shylock's free tip to aspiring female reporters - if offered the lucrative assignment of covering the freedom-loving democracy protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, you should politely decline.

My initial reaction to the first-mentioned story was "You mean they're still sending in female reporters to cover these events without a full bodyguard contingent? Seriously?".

Thank goodness she seemed to escape less harmed than some of the other cases, in part because she managed to not get separated from the rest of her news crew. That's when things tend to go downhill really fast.

The bad news is that public rapes are up.

The good news (apparently) is that people are voting!

The bad news is that the voters include the rapists.

The other bad news is that they're voting for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Not sure I'd score this as a win overall, methinks.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Praying for victory

The setup has been done many times (Bob Dylan's 'With God On Our Side' being a classic example), but the mark of a great comedian is what they do with it. The great George Carlin:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Zeroth Rule of Presentations

"Put your most important content at the top of your slides."


Freedom is Tyranny...

...when you're mentally ill.

Hacker News linked to this very interesting article in the Washington Post by Paul Gionfriddo, talking about how his own son fell victim to the very reforms of the mental health system that he himself helped pass as a member of the Connecticut legislature:
If you were to encounter my son, Tim, a tall, gaunt man in ragged clothes, on a San Francisco street, you might step away from him. His clothes, his dark unshaven face and his wild curly hair stamp him as the stereotype of the chronically mentally ill street person.
Tim is homeless. But when he was a toddler, my colleagues in the Connecticut state legislature couldn’t get enough of cuddling him. Yet it’s the policies of my generation of policymakers that put that formerly adorable toddler — now a troubled 6-foot-5 adult — on the street. And unless something changes, the policies of today’s generation of policymakers will keep him there.
An interesting mea culpa, to be sure.

(A long post, so more after the jump)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Great Question

From Pax Dickinson:
"Mr. President, would the US be better off today if you'd been prosecuted for smoking pot as a youth, or are you a total hypocrite?"
 Don't hold your breath waiting for it to be asked, let alone answered.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Miscellaneous Joy

-Entirely Alive! defends giving the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. I tend to agree. Let's put it this way - it's a hell of a lot better than giving it to that tree-planting woman who wasn't sure if AIDS might be created by western scientists or not.

-The War Nerd is back with a surprisingly positive assessment of Obama's foreign policy, at least the war-fighting part. I can't say I'm thrilled with said foreign policy, but it sure could have been a lot worse (and it's unlikely that John McCain would have been any better either). Incidentally, I tend to dislike parts of it - the Libya intervention, for one - because I didn't see what political purpose the whole thing served, and I still don't. The US didn't lose many troops, but losing an embassy is no laughing matter. I did find myself wondering how Brecher would reconcile his like of Obama military policy with a) Brecher's own Law of Counterinsurgency Warfare: 'Bribe 'em, Nuke 'em, or Just Leave 'em the Hell Alone!', and b) his suggested response to the Iranian hostage crisis, c.f. the Benghazi crisis. I'm guessing that this is more a 'if you're going to fight it, how should you do it?' than a 'should you fight it?', but I don't know.

-Ken at Popehat responds to the free speech critics who suggest that America needs to reconsider cultural values other than free speech. The 'alternative cultural values' on closer inspection turn out to be exactly what you'd expect - narrow-minded bigotry, cry-babies with exquisitely sensitive feelings, hypocritical 'tolerance for thee but not for me' types, and barbaric lynch mobs more at home in the middle ages. It's worth being reminded of this.

-Still on free speech, Jonathan Turley at the Washington Post describes the arguments being advanced in favor of censorship. Julia Gillard, Australia's worst Prime Minister since Malcolm Fraser, made an appearance with this quote: “Our tolerance must never extend to tolerating religious hatred and incitements to violence”. I couldn't tell whether this meant that we shouldn't tolerate hatred of religions (as Turley seems to imply) or hatred by religions (which, in the context of Islam, implies the opposite side of the debate). The UN press release seems to imply that she meant the latter. Which is good! Except that this was preceded with the statements that 'denigration of religious beliefs was never acceptable'.*  Wrong, you clueless pandering fool. It is acceptable. Otherwise we live in a country with de facto blasphemy laws. It seems there are no depths that she (continuing the cringeworth tradition started with Kevin Rudd) will not debase Australia in order to try to get the pointless prize of a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

*(This was quoted indirectly in the UN press release, but it turns out that the statement 'denigration of religious beliefs was never acceptable' is a direct quote. Honest to god, I sat through the whole 15 minutes of pathetic bromides to make sure there wasn't some context I was missing. There wasn't).

Other clanger lines delivered:
'Australia's values in the world are those of the UN.'
I certainly hope not.
'The UN is.. the story of navigating the winds of change, the end of colonialism, bringing self-determination to the worlds great majority, the billions of the global south'.
It's also a story of cliches lifted straight from a third-rate sociology faculty lounge!
'2015 is a goal, but it is not a destination.'
Madam, fire your speechwriters.
"There can be no poverty alleviation without the creation of wealth and jobs. Growth alone is never sufficient.'
Fight that mangled strawman! I know I've heard lots of people advancing the argument that 'growth, without the creation of wealth and jobs (whatever the hell that is) is sufficient for alleviating poverty'.

Cancel that - madam, fire yourself. Or just wait for the Australian people to do it for you soon enough.

-Nydwracu rounds out the latest anarcho-tyranny in the UK. The UK Police - they can't catch the guy that burgled your house, but they can catch you if you make an off-colour remark on twitter.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Revenue (if not NPV) Positive Graffiti

I loathe graffiti. Courts tend to view it as a petty crime, just kids letting off steam.

But I find it aesthetically angering in a way that might make me seem like some crazy zero tolerance fanatic.

Sure, the cost to remove it may not be that high. But the mindset of ruining something beautiful merely for your own enjoyment is barbarism on the most primitive level. It is deadweight loss for the sheer enjoyment of deadweight loss. And I hate, hate, hate deadweight loss. If there is one thing that unites economists, it is that.

To make things more galling, the people who deface property will mark it with their own tag, so that others can know who did it. They may be doing it pseudonymously, but they are proud of their destruction of other people's property. I simply cannot fathom that mindset.

Jason Lee Steorts said much the same thing:
Let me end on a personal note. I hate vandals. My friends ask what makes me a conservative, and sometimes I wonder myself, but there is an answer, and it’s that I hate vandals. The problem with vandals is not that they are wrong about a conceptual matter. The problem is that they smash beautiful things. They couldn’t care less about your rules or your God or your conception of the good. You have to stop them with tools that work.
Recently though, I found something that I didn't think possible - graffiti that didn't strike me as completely value destroying.

I'm not talking about political slogan protests, although that might qualify depending on your view of the NPV of various political causes.

The graffiti that I found interesting was a couple of cases where the spraypaint scrawl gave the URL of either a youtube channel, or a soundcloud link.

This is by far the most entrepreneurial use of graffiti that I've come across. At least the vandal is hoping to get something out of it - ad revenue, and perhaps new audience members. If their stuff is actually interesting, there may well be consumer surplus to the people watching the clips.

Looked at this way, it's far more akin to traditional advertising billboards, except a) they're not paying the property owner, and b) it's not as attractive.

Both of these are genuine problems, to be sure. Because the property rights aren't secure, you can't appeal to the Coase theorem. We can't determine whether the value to the property owner to not have the graffiti is higher than the value to the vandal of having it. Presumably, in fact, it's not, because otherwise the vandal would have negotiated with the city to put up their URL (yeah right). It's at least positive revenue, if not positive NPV. Most graffiti is just loss piled on loss.

Still, it inspired in me a curious grudging respect for the guerrilla marketing skills of whoever came up with it. If the counterfactual is more youtube graffiti, I would be unhappy about it. But if the counterfactual is that existing graffiti artists turn their hand to promoting social media channels instead of inane gang logos, moving from 4th best to 3rd best is still a change for the good.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Call Their Bluff

Do it.

I dare you.

Wherein Feminism May Have a Point

Famed internet movie critic Jabrody has a list of the 50 most memorable movie characters, parts 26-50, 11-25 and 1-10. Check it out.

I'm going to take a cue from the Steve Sailer trick of using a list compiled for one purpose to answer an altogether different question. So what was striking about the list to me?  One thing that does stand out is just how few female characters make the cut - only 9 out of 50.

Now, absent some serious explaining, I'm aware that the previous sentence would be in the running for 'most pissweak sentence ever written on this blog'. So hear me out.

First of all, there is absolutely no implied criticism of Jabrody here. Quite the contrary, in fact - I thought he was maybe even overly generous in including interesting female characters (Princess Leia wouldn't have made my top 50, and Kim Basinger was, to me, eminently forgettable in LA Confidential). Not only that, but the next names on my list would have been men (Gordon Gekko, Trent from Swingers, Arnie in Terminator 2). In fact, if you pressed me for my most memorable female character, I could only think of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Scratch that - how many movies can you name where the female character is even the most interesting character in that movie, let alone all movies? Nurse Ratched doesn't pass that test for me. The only one that comes to mind there is Amelie.

So let's assume for the purpose of argument that there really aren't many memorable female characters, and this isn't just because I'm an evil misogynistic patriarchal oppressor, it's some kind of consensus view. Why is this interesting?

The reason is that movies, like advertising, give a direct window into our collective psyches. There's lots of reasons why there might be few women in boardrooms, including boring facts about education and the impact of child-rearing. But movies are just fantasy - we put in what we want to put in.

And for one reason or another, that doesn't include interesting female characters. The category of 'interesting' or 'memorable' is sufficiently broad that it's not like the women need to succeed in a male role either. But for some reason, scriptwriters aren't compelled to write in witty dialogue and back stories that makes women seem memorable as characters.

I suspect that part of the issue is that a lot of women are in movies more to look attractive than to be 'cool'. Sure, it helps for guys to be attractive. But can you imagine a female version of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Woody Allen? It seems that being attractive is almost a strictly necessary condition for being famous as an actress. This makes it more likely that the actresses being selected might just not be that good in the acting part. Some of the characters on the list make it purely from knock-it-out-of-the-park performances by the actor in question. Heath Ledger as the Joker and Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in 'No Country For Old Men' come to mind as characters that might have been boring or trite in the hands of less capable actors.

The standard feminist answer is that movie audiences, like society in general, are sexist in their expectations of women. But this doesn't seem to explain why there aren't memorable female characters in movies marketed specifically to women. Can you think of any interesting female character in a romantic comedy? Me neither. I don't think you can pin this just on audience sexism. If this is audience demand, I think it's not limited to one gender. If women demanded interesting characters instead of hotties that they could aspire to be like, studios would probably deliver.

Part of the reason might be that scriptwriters tend to be male, and thus have more ability to empathise with their male creations. Hence they end up getting the more interesting dialogue.

Truthfully, I don't know the answer, but it is puzzling.

It reminded me of the other interesting feminist critique of movies, the Bechdel test:

Does the movie
1. Have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man?
I certainly don't think that every (or even most) movies would be more interesting if modified to pass the test.  But that doesn't mean it's not an interesting question to consider.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Cruelty of Small Zoo Cages

If you're at the zoo with educated types, a frequent complaint you'll hear is about the cruelty of keeping these animals in small enclosures. Look at them! They look so miserable and idle. It's like living your whole life in prison, or in a mental institution. Why don't they put them in a proper-sized enclosure?

For starters, these people rarely tend to list the other side of the ledger than comes from this captivity - lots of animals, primates in particular, tend to live considerably longer in captivity than in the wild, for much the same reasons that you and I live longer in modern society than we would in the wilds of Borneo.

Still, let's take the complaint at face value, and ask the question that the bleeding hearts never seem to get around to asking - why don't  they put the animals in larger enclosures?

The simplest answer is cost - double the size of the enclosures and you'll need roughly double the land area to hold the zoo. That means that either the admission cost is going to have to go up, or the zoo will have to be located miles away where land is cheap. Are you willing to pay either of these costs? Probably not.

But I think there's an even more pervasive reason why the enclosures have to be small - humans insist on being able to see the animals close up.

The chimpanzees sure aren't getting any bigger. If you put them in a huge enclosure, then you're more likely to only see them at a distance, or not at all. Not nearly as exciting that way, is it? At a minimum, if you have a really large area, like the wildlife parks or safaris, you need to be able to enter the enclosure to find the animals yourself. It's not hard to see why this model doesn't scale very well if you want to have thousands of people passing through each day, because the potential for accidents becomes enormous. There's a reason they're called "wild animals" - chimpanzees might look cute, but they'll rip your face off.

What people actually want is for the animals to live in a huge natural enclosure, but also to be magically walking by really close at exactly the moment that the person is ready to see them. No such enclosure exists. 

Viewed in this light, all the complaints about small cages are just so many crocodile tears, designed to assuage the guilty feelings that visitors feel knowing that they're benefiting from the animal's captivity.

As always, don't be surprised when the zoos cater to your revealed preference for small cages rather than your stated preference for large cages. They won't even mind if you complain about the small cages as you demand their existence, to make your conscience feel better. Very few businesses ever do.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Fighting for order in the Chaos

If you want further evidence that the Dredd idea about order is a reactionary one, consider this great statement of principle from famous reactionary Klemens von Metternich.
To me the word freedom has not the value of a starting-point, but of an actual goal to be striven for. The word order designates the starting-point. It is only on order that freedom can be based. Without order as a foundation the cry for freedom is nothing more than the endeavour of some party or other for an end it has in view. When actually carried out in practice, that cry for freedom will inevitably express itself in tyranny. At all times and in all situations I was a man of order, yet my endeavour was always for true and not for pretended liberty.
Klemens von Metternich: fighting for order in the chaos of the Austrian Empire.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Exactly how bad was last night's debate for Obama?

Reddit is the home to more-educated-than-average teenagers and twentysomethings. As a result, they post a bunch of interesting and funny stuff, but they also tend to be smug and condescending in their overwhelmingly liberal political leanings.

Anyway, over at the front page right now is a  very good question:
As a Canadian, I was quite surprised to see so little discussion of the Presidential Debate making it to the front page this morning. Is this because Romney apparently "won" the debate?
The answer is "Yes, obviously. As a basic fact about human nature, most people don't enjoy talking about miserable things. In addition, liberals have a sizable dose of cognitive dissonance to resolve regarding the question of why the guy they thought was such a magical public speaker and political genius got trounced by a guy they've universally derided as an empty suit. Rather than resolve this dilemma, it's easier to just ignore it."

I clicked on it expecting a lot of 'No, really, it's not like that, we just thought that politics suddenly became really uninteresting!'.

To their credit, the highest rated responses are a lot more self-aware and honest than I gave them credit for.
"I think the fact that I haven't seen anyone on reddit claiming Obama won is pretty telling."
"..... if you think its crickets now ... Ryan and Biden debate LOL"
"Even msnbc admitted Romney won so was pretty bad for obama"
"It reminds me of the 2010 election results, where the Republicans made huge gains in Congress. I thought when I opened reddit I would see a bunch of news stories on the results of the election. This was back when I still thought of reddit as a news site, or at least the news and politics subreddits.
However, it was crickets all around. That's the day I realized you cannot hope to remain current on politics and the news by reading reddit. I expected bias, what I didn't expect was complete self-censorship."
The last point is spot on.

I read it for a different reason - I expect exactly this kind of bias and the self-censorship, but it's useful to read people who disagree with you. I don't want to end up in an echo-chamber where I only hear viewpoints that reinforce what I already think.

If you only read things that support what you already believe, you end up like the guys on Reddit, baffled when reality doesn't conform to the only data you've been receiving.

Update: From Pax Dickinson:
Obama is working on a devastating "jerk store" zinger for the next debate. It's gonna be CRAY
Ha! Comedy gold.

That depends. When are you going to lose some weight?

As part of your introverted correspondent's mission to understand social conventions, I find myself interested in what personal questions are considered polite and impolite to ask.

One that I find particularly odd is the fact that sizable numbers of people seem to think it's appropriate to ask newly-wedded couples when they're going to have children.

I think this isn't considered impolite by a lot of people, but perhaps ought to be.

Now, this isn't in the category of easily disclosed facts that needs to be concealed in order to prevent social friction between the questioner and the respondent. An example of this kind would be how much someone earns - there's not much ambiguity about what the number actually is or what it means, but disclosing it might provoke either envy or embarrassment. I'm not a big fan of those types of taboos, but I can understand why they exist.

The problem, rather, is that the question seems quite likely to be unresolved, and possibly a sore point as well.

Let's assume your early thirties married couple hasn't had children yet. There's a range of possible reasons that this might be the case, and a lot of them suggest you probably shouldn't have asked.

1. One of the two parties wants children and the other one wants them either later, or not at all. This is almost certainly likely to be a mildly sore point (at a minimum) between the two, and likely not an argument that they would relish re-litigating in front of a public audience.

2. They're actively trying to have children, but are having difficulties conceiving. Way to go! Their medical issues are undoubtedly something that they'd love to talk about at the dinner party. As a bonus, you can also delve into who might be at fault between the two of them! Is he shooting blanks? Is she barren? At worst it's hugely awkward, at best it can publicly reopen rounds of hurtful recriminations!

3. Neither of them want to have children yet, but they'd rather not explain this to you. This is the most compelling reason to not ask, that for the vast majority of people on the planet, it's simply none of their business. Having children or not seems like a fairly important and personal consideration that lots of people might not want to discuss in front of everyone. In addition, the question is almost always phrased as if they need to justify their decision to not have children. I understand why the potential grandparents might feel compelled to inquire, but some guy at the office? Really?

I do my bit for the married couples in my life by never asking. I was talking to a friend the other day, who complained how people tend to ask him when he's going to have kids, impatient for them to happen soon. I told him that I thought it was weird how people always asked these kinds of questions, and to the extent I had any thoughts on the matter, I was quite happy that they seemed content to not have kids in a raging hurry, because if they did it would really put a dent in our hanging out time. Even that, I said only because
a) he'd know I was kidding -I didn't actually consider it any of my business, and would be delighted with whatever choice they made, and
b) he'd possibly find it a welcome counterpoint to the pro-child chiding he receives too much of.

I like people having children. I also like people making their own choices free from needless nosiness.

You wouldn't ask a couple "how's your marriage holding up?". You wouldn't ask "how's that embarrassing medical condition of yours?". So why ask about something that has a good chance of bearing upon both of these?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Methinks the douchebag doth protest too much...

If you've ever had cause to say 'I'm not like those other guys', it is certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are, in fact, exactly like those other guys.

The guys that are truly different almost never need to explicitly state this. It's just one more example of the 'Message: I Care' mistake, which Jonah Goldberg calls "reading the stage directions".

Monday, October 1, 2012


The new Judge Dredd movie is actually surprisingly good. It's at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is unusually high for an action movie.

The line that stood out to me (and was repeated twice, once at the start and again at the end) was the following:
800 million people living in the ruin of the old world.
Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos - the men and women of the Hall of Justice.
This is a surprisingly reactionary concept of "the good". They are not fighting for justice. They are certainly not fighting for social justice. No, they are fighting for order, which is a good in itself.

This is not a common viewpoint. That's because we live in such a generally ordered world that we take it for granted. But you notice order when its not there - the London Riots, Hurricane Katrina, the LA riots etc.

Mencius Moldbug had an excellent article years ago talking about this point. The Dungeons and Dragons World classifies characters on a 3x3 scale of {Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic} x {Good, Neutral, Evil}. But Moldbug raises the question of whether there really is a Chaotic Good - whether the only real dimension is Lawful (and Good) vs Chaotic (and Evil). I'm not sure he's right, but it's an interesting perspective.

The world of Dredd is one in which Judges are fighting a rearguard action to preserve the minimum amount of social order. The movie also flirts with another reactionary theme about martial law that is surely true, but rarely acknowledged: that due process and compassion are luxury goods, relative to the basic good of maintaining a functioning civil society. Substantive fairness is a Louis Vuitton handbag. Procedural fairness is three square meals a day. Order is oxygen.

When the world gets sufficiently violent and crime-ridden, the first priority is to put a stop to the violence and crime. Indeed, when things get bad enough, ideas like martial law may actually become very popular. This seems like a strange possibility, because the average westerner today is perhaps more worried about police brutality and abuses of power. But if citizens start to feel that they have much more to fear from thugs than the police, you might be surprised what a change that produces. Sending in the marines to finally stop the LA riots was a highly popular decision.

Dredd is the ultimate personification of the idealised policeman in this framework - tough, and absolutely fearless in his fight on crime. There is one interesting scene early on where you see that he also does not mechanically apply the rules in every single case - there is a homeless guy at the start that Dredd warns to not be there when he gets back, after quoting what penalty he is guilty of. He has more important things to deal with than minor infractions that don't threaten social stability.

In the Dredd universe, the law's main function is as a tool for maintaining the peace. This is the context in which Dredd's catchline, 'I am the Law', need not be ironic. What stands between society and chaos is ultimately a small number of individuals.

Or, as Orwell said about Kipling:
He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them
I imagine a lot of cops would agree.