Monday, April 30, 2012

54% of UK doctors are either pig-ignorant about statistics and/or meddling nanny-state fools

At some point, the incremental loss of liberty in Britain becomes such a constant depressing dripping that it's hard to maintain the incredulity. 

On the one hand, the police harassed a gallery that displayed a photograph of a sculpture that depicted a mythical scene from Greek antiquity, because they thought it might "promote bestiality". (No, really). Despite the fact that nobody had complained about the photo. That's a separate outrage post all of its own.

On the other hand, the Daily Mail cites a recent UK study where 54% of doctors agreed that the NHS should " be allowed to refuse non-emergency treatments to patients unless they lose weight or stop smoking".

Those god damn smug condescending prats.

If a doctor refused to treat the injuries of a drunk driver at a hospital and let him bleed out on the floor, we'd label him as a monster. And drunk driving has way, way bigger costs to other members of society than smoking does.

In the first place, the size of the true effect of smoking on health is hard to measure. The chances of you dying of lung cancer given you smoke seem to be only around 0.3%. More importantly, very few people seem to have any real sense of magnitudes when considering the question of exactly how harmful things like smoking are.

But let's give the doctors the benefit of the doubt, and assume they know the risks perfectly. 

What exactly is the principle at stake here? Is it:

a) You shouldn't get treatment if the actions were your fault.

b) You shouldn't get treatment if your actions cost the government too much money

c) You shouldn't get treatment if you're an unfavored group.

The first one is a ridiculous way to run a health care system. All of us take risks in things we do all the time. Driving 5 miles an hour over the limit? Increases your risk of death. Take part in an equestrian event? Increases your risk of death. Fail to eat only lentils and beans to minimize your chances of heart disease? Increases your risk of death. Go out drinking at a pub in Covent Garden on a Saturday night? Increases your risk of death, by stabbing or road accident if nothing else.

Where the hell does it end? The reality is that everyone is going to die at some point or other. Actions that you take might make it happen earlier or later, but there's no escaping it. Any test on this point is going to end up transforming into test c) - some risks are deemed politically acceptable, and others aren't.

The second test is actually a fair basis for running a healthcare system (assuming you buy the assumption that it's the government's business to be doing that in the first place, which I don't necessarily). But does it really apply here? It's pretty damn hard to tell, because it depends a lot on how much stuff you account for.

Suppose you die of heart disease that comes from smoking. Since heart disease kills a lot of non-smokers as well, it's not clear that the difference in treatment costs in nominal dollar terms are large, or even positive. It's not like this is a $10 million treatment for some rare disease - smokers die from heart disease and cancer, the same as everyone else, and treating these costs about the same as for everyone else. The cost does arrive sooner for smokers than non-smokers. This does mean that the present value of costs is higher, but it's not clear how large this difference is.

But what else happens? You don't claim the pension for thirty years, either. And based on a fair accounting for these two effects, it's not at all obvious that smokers on net cost the government more money. Absent healthcare costs, dropping dead right before the pension cheques are about to start is good news for the government budget.

So what's really going on here?

The answer is of course option c). Smokers and Fatties are today's out-of-favour social groups. Everyone loves shaming smokers, and nobody sticks up for their right to smoke, notwithstanding its bad effects on health.

Tax them! Make them stand out in the cold! Deny them medical care so they die quicker! When you see them huddled outside in the snow, tell them what a 'disgusting habit' it is, with as much condescension in your voice as you can muster! Feel smug and self-righteous about your own superior decisions!

*#$% THAT.

For some reason people's general sense of politeness in terms of not offering up gratuitous, unsolicited criticisms of people's personal choices that don't affect others seems to go out the window in the case of smoking. No level of hassling is too great. We'll badger them into health! Then when they get fat from giving up the smoking, we'll badger them into going jogging too.

Don't like smoking? Don't smoke. Otherwise, shut the hell up. They're adults. They know the risks. If they decide that they enjoy cigarettes enough that it justifies the reduction in life expectancy, that's their damn choice. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Don't tell them it's also linked to tax revenues in the City of London which finance their existence

The BBC has a classic case of 'English Majors Trying To Write About Finance', with this clanger of a headline:
Black-Scholes: The maths formula linked to the financial crash
Bravo! Never mind that the 'financial crash' is nearly universally recognised as being about a crisis in:

-Banks and Bank Runs


-Sub-Prime Leverage

-Counter-party Risk



none of which have anything  to do with options or the Black-Scholes formula. It's like the Black Scholes formula has become the Economic Whipping Boy that SMBC hilariously described.

Here's a fun game - identify other scary sounding 'linkages' that the BBC may be interested in exploring:

-Chemotherapy linked to patients having cancer

-SAT scores linked to students failing to get into college

-Cars linked to increase in bank robberies




Friday, April 27, 2012

The Bright Side of Information Cascades

From the latest Bon Appetit issue, a thoroughly under-utilised strategy:
"In the summer of 1970, my mom, Helen, went to visit a friend who was living on a Greek island. As she tells it: "I was going to Spetses, but all the interesting-looking people got off the boat at the stop before." So the next day she took the boat back to Hyrda, where she fell in love with the island's beauty. The following year, she brought my Dad, Brice, and soon after they bought an old farmhouse in the hills of Kamini. They've returned in the summer to make art and relax ever since.
Even if it doesn't actually work out, I've always felt wonderfully Quixotic whenever I've done things like that.

This post is also for The Greek, who claims I only ever have mean things to say about his homeland. Au contraire - it's one of the most lovely parts of the world. In fact, it's partly because the country is so beautiful that it's a shame the place is falling into a shambles. That, and the minor point that its collapse may bring down the world financial system.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bathroom Floor Herd Immunity

I was in the gym with SMH and we'd adjourned to the locker rooms to shower.

SMH is American, and a fairly organised kind of fellow. As a result, he had his shower thongs (or flip flops, in the parlance of these lands).

I, on the other hand, manage to be chronically disorganised. It should thus come as no surprise to find out that despite meaning to do so for about 3 years, I still haven't bought a spare pair of thongs and put them in my gym bag.

Now, I lean towards the laissez faire attitude to hygiene. The human immune system is incredibly well suited towards things like touching bathroom door handles and toilet seats without collapsing in a quivering heap of bacterial infection. Most purported hygiene issues (outside a hospital or food handling setting) are largely just a feeling of ickiness masquerading as health concerns.

Boy howdy do Americans go crazy for bathroom hygiene. There is a shocking number of otherwise sensible people who literally will not touch a bathroom door handle, and will grab a paper towel to open the door because they're so paranoid. This even makes its way on to official instructions sometimes, like here. There doesn't seem to be much of a sense of historical perspective - back in the 60s, I'm pretty sure people weren't using paper towels to open doors (not least because paper towel wasn't that common). I'm also pretty sure they weren't dropping dead from bathroom-door-related infections either. Perhaps, just perhaps, all this craze for hand sanitisers and never touching any public surfaces is just modern man turning into a complete weenie.

Nonetheless, showers in gyms do run the risk of getting fungal infections. The floors tend to be always wet and slightly warm, and lots of feet are walking over them. So it probably is prudent to get a pair of thongs.

But despite 3 years of not wearing them and showering at this gym, I'd pretty much been fine.

And I finally figured out why.

Herd Immunity.

When enough people are vaccinated against a disease, it becomes hard for the disease to spread. As a result, people who don't get vaccinated get to free ride off the added group protection from those who do vaccinate.

And something similar happens with bathroom floors. In the US, the vast majority of people wear thongs to public showers. I'm quite sure this is due to the hygiene/gross-out combo, and not out of any sense of public-spiritedness. But the effect is the same - if there are very few people who aren't wearing thongs, there's very few people likely to be spreading around foot infections. And that means that it's actually pretty safe for free-riders like me to go without.

I'm like the Jenny McCarthy of the gym shower world, free to be recklessly stupid and indulgent thanks to everyone else's good decisions, meanwhile imposing a small negative externality on everyone else by my own actions.

It's just like Tom Petty sang:

And I'm Freeee
I'm Freeee Riiiiiddding.

Good times.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

An exact model of Venice in 1744

Venice is a strange place.

I get this sense every time you see paintings of it from hundreds of years ago. This, for instance, is St Mark's square around 1742/1744

(image credit)

So how does it look today?

Well, something like this:

(image credit)

In other words, it's basically identical. The clothes of the people are different, and there's now cafe seating in some areas. There's also pigeons, which don't seem to feature in the early paintings. But that's about the only differences.

This isn't just for this particular view either. In lots of cities, there are some buildings that haven't changed in a long time - Notre Dame, the Houses of Parliament, the White House. But in Venice, virtually every famous painted scene in Venice looks nigh-on identical today, hundreds of years later.

I can't think of any other place remotely similar. In 1744, Manhattan was a few buildings. Sydney was nothing but bush, save for a few Aboriginal dwellings.

So why did Venice get frozen in time, when everywhere else changed?

I have only crude ideas.

One of them, though, comes from the massively different cost of new buildings. If you have a house that's situated on a canal, even today it ain't exactly simple to get a bulldozer in there to knock it down. It's probably easier to maintain it in roughly its current state. In addition, the original buildings were incredibly beautiful. This didn't stop people elsewhere knocking down glorious Victorian architecture, but it at least reduces the incentive somewhat.

I imagine it also helps that Venice has been on a path of economic decline since the 15th century.When there's increasing demand for land, people will bowl over formerly valuable buildings to make way for new ones. But if the place is in decline, there's less desire to build more valuable structures on the same scarce land. By the time Venice did display some economic liveliness in the 20th century, it was largely as a tourist town, by which point the buildings and scenery were the source of revenue.

But in the end, sometimes the what is more interesting than the why. It's only when you see how similar everything was hundreds of years ago that you realise you're walking through a living museum.

History has ultimately given us the answer to the question posed in Robert Browning's wonderful poem,
"A Toccata of Galuppi's". Browning's narrator is reflecting on what became of the past splendour of Venetian society, with its lavish hedonism of masked balls:
"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
"Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
"What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?
What was left, indeed?

The buildings.

When a society is strong, they are the badge of its vitality, the mark of economic dynamism that can produce exquisite architecture in the middle of the ocean.

When the society has decayed, they stand as a sombre reminder that decline arrives first in production. Eventually, everything from a fallen society crumbles to dust. But before that comes an intermediate stage - the monuments are still there, but the means to produce new ones has disappeared. All you can do is cling on to what remains of the past, forever cognisant of the rebuke it provides to the present.

Charles Krauthammer recently noted something similar about the retiring of the space shuttle.

I wonder if one day people will walk through Manhattan in the same way.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Random observations on the intersection of science and art, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

1. If you want another great example of historical applications of the curse of knowledge (how much you take for granted that everyone knew, when in fact only modern people know), you'd do well to consider the painting 'Joshua commanding the sun to stand still upon Gibeon', by John Martin. It's a wonderful painting:
(Photo credit from the blog 'writing the city', which has an interesting writeup about the painting here)

But I want to focus on a small section of the painting near the storm cloud, which looks like this:

What's that diagonal scratch coming down the mountain? Did someone drop a knife on the painting?

No, my friends. That is the artist's depiction of lightning.

Which, to a modern reader, looks absurdly crude alongside everything else in the painting. Bolt lightning looks more like this:

(image credit)

So how did John Martin get it so badly wrong?

Well, think about it. How do you know what lightning looks like? Answer: because professional photographers using extremely high speed shutters are able to capture precise images of it, which you now take for granted.

If you were alive in 1816, where would your image of lightning come from? Answer: the quarter of a second flash in the sky that you saw maybe a couple of times in your life. Which, from your hazy recollection, probably looked like the line above.

It's amazing how much knowledge you take for granted.

2. Georges Seurat painted in a style called pointillism. In it, lots of tiny coloured points are placed next to each other to create the image of different colours when viewed from a distance. The National Gallery of Art example is called 'The Lighthouse:

(image credit)

What's amazing is that Seurat managed to figure out a primitive version of the RGB pixel displays that you're reading this on. The modern screens we look at are extreme forms of Seurat's pointillism - instead of lots of colours making up the points, we have only three, and instead of the points being large enough to see up close, they're so small that you're not meant to notice them. If you looked at TV screens back from the 80s up really close, you'd get to see the different colours. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Look at this awesome detergent I bought!!!! I'm so excited, LOL!!11!~!!

I confess to not really understanding the whole social marketing idea.

I mean, I understand how it's meant to work. Apparently we'd rather recommendations from our friends than anonymous strangers on the internet, especially since the latter may be biased.

Even this limited contention didn't quite apply to me. As long as the likely level of bias for self-serving reviews is roughly even across products (Amazon) or driven by a known function, such as a bias towards companies that advertise on the site (Yelp), I can correct for that myself. And once I can do that, I'm a big fan of the Law of Large Numbers. As N gets higher, the mean converges to the true mean (plus the bias term), and the variance shrinks. What's not to love?

Still, not everyone is a Bayesian. (I am 100% sure of this.*). Some people trust their friends' recommendations more, and I can sympathize with that viewpoint. I can definitely imagine taking a friend's advice in a discussion that came up on a product.

But the bit I stumble at is the other dimension - marketers seem to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the world is just full of people who can't wait to discuss their every purchase on some social media platform. Look, I tweeted about my new socks! Here's a facebook post about how much I love this dish sponge! I wrote an ode on GooglePlus about my camera case!

Reader, I cannot for the life of me imagine this mindset. Let's broadcast to everyone I've ever met my thoughts on every purchase! Then they'll buy the thing too, which somehow I care about.

The number of products in my life which I'm willing to evangelise about is shockingly low. I love my coffee machine. (The brand isn't important). But that's about it. Most purchases seem to fall into the category of either:
a) trivial
b) ostentatious
And either way I'm unlikely to post about them.

The only plausible exceptions I can imagine - holiday destinations, food, and maybe clothes.

Holiday photos everyone posts without feeling self-conscious. And this probably is a really good way to advertise tourism in Turkey.

Food, there's a whole sub-culture of people who for some strange anthropological reason need to photograph everything they eat. If they happen to eat at Wolfgang Puck's, I can see how Mr Puck might actually get advertising benefits on some reasonable scale.

Clothes, it already seems weird to be directly bragging about what you bought. But perhaps girls notice that you're wearing Jimmy Choos in that photo (guys sure won't. real guys won't even know what Jimmy Choos are, which surely proves the point).

So if these were the only people that were excited about social marketing, I could understand.

This is the facebook page for Colgate toothpaste. It has 1804 'likes'. And how many of those do you want to bet are people who work at Colgate? Or are personal friends of the social media manager at Colgate desperately trying to keep her job? Would you care to wager on the number out of those 1804 who are more than one degree removed from a direct employee of Colgate? 50, tops?

The company probably sunk a bunch of money into developing this, and I can't imagine how exactly that investment is meant to pay for itself, other than by demonstrating that Colgate in fact has a facebook page (which, if you don't, is like the corporate equivalent of being the one teenager who doesn't have a mobile phone).

By comparison, I googled 'One Hit Wonders 80s', and chose a random band I'd never heard of called 'J.J. Fad'. Their official facebook page has 2598 'likes'. Are you starting to see my point?

I can see what's in it for facebook. I can't see what's in it for most of the companies.

Maybe I'm just the wrong demographic, but it seems to me that most of facebook marketing is essentially the Tupperware parties of the modern age - adored by marketing theorists, kitsch and unimportant in practice.

*Bayesian joke. Never mind.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Thought of the Day

"The hour for your departure draws near; if you will but forget all else and pay sole regard to the helmsman of your soul and the divine spark within you - if you will but exchange your fear of having to end your life some day for a fear of failing even to begin it on nature's true principles - you can yet become a man, worthy of the universe that gave you birth, instead of a stranger in your own homeland, bewildered by each day's happenings as though by wonders unlooked for, and ever hanging upon this one or the next."
-Marcus Aurelius, 'Meditations'

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Voter, Heal Thyself

On April 4th, a Greek man named Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in a square in Athens, in part as protest for the government's austerity measures. The Exiled has a translation of the suicide note he left:
The collaborationist Tsolakoglou government has annihilated my ability for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone (without any state sponsoring) paid for 35 years.
Since my advanced age does not allow me a way of a dynamic reaction (although if a fellow Greek was to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be the second after him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.
I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945 (Piazza Loreto in Milan).
What a sad story.

Suicide rarely happens only because of one immediate cause - there's a ton of people suffering in Greece, but the vast majority of them aren't killing themselves. Taking suicide notes too literally can cause you to miss the bigger points about mental illness and depression that are likely contributing causes. If you go down that path, you wind up doing ridiculous things like convicting people of bullcrap charges like 'invasion of privacy' and 'bias intimidation' (whatever that is) because they did nasty things to someone who later killed themselves.

So you want to take all suicide notes with a grain of salt. But that said, the note above is interesting as an example of a particular mindset.

The note is full of rage at the Greece's leaders. Not only are they traitors for destroying the country, but likening them to Nazi collaborators in World War 2 suggests that the selling out of Greece to the Germans in the current crisis is something that rankles too. Of course, the reality measures (and the associated cuts in living standards for people like Christoulas who saw their pensions cut in recent budget measures) are the most proximate cause of misery. And fair enough too: pensioners end up thoroughly screwed, because they have the fewest options for replacing their lost income, as they're too old to go back to work. Not that the young and able-bodied have a ton of options for just 'going back to work' in modern Greece, but still.

But now we turn to what is not written.

You might note that there doesn't seem to be much rage at the earlier governments for running up the huge spending tabs that necessitated such dramatic cuts this time around. If you're only angry at the current government for cutting spending, but not angry at the previous governments for creating the whole mess, you've got a serious case of shooting the messenger.

But that's not even the most prominent of the dogs that didn't bark in the note above.

Q: Who is the single biggest group who contributed to the Greek crisis but who doesn't appear in the note above?

A: The Greek electorate.

The virtue of democracy is not that voters necessarily get better government, but merely that voters get the government they deserve. In the end, politicians respond to the incentives voters give them. If you keep voting for more spending, they'll keep spending. If you keep voting for so much spending that the country is now broke, and then vote to demand even more spending, don't be surprised when the politicians appear to act as if they're ignoring the public will. It's like the shareholders of General Motors firing the CEO because he hasn't made a flying car yet. You can keep firing CEO after CEO, but that ain't going to make the flying car magically appear.

The great Milton Friedman understood this well. In a democracy, we don't need to have 'non-traitorous politicians'. We need electorates to reward politicians who make the right choices.

Milt was too nice to point out the corollary to this argument - if the the current politicians keep doing the wrong thing over and over, this suggests that the electorate as a whole, through their opinion polls and their voting behaviour, has given them the incentives to do so. And thus, in the end, they have no one to blame but themselves.

An individual can be justifiably pissed off under a democracy - you vote for the guy who would put in good policies, but the guy with the bad policies gets elected. That's understandable - you did your part to support good policy, but what else can you do?

But the electorate as a whole cannot justifiably be pissed off at the outcomes the policies implemented by their leaders. As a whole, you get the politicians you deserve, whether that's George Washington, Lord Palmerston, Gerry Adams, or Hamas.

As Radiohead put it:
You do it to yourself, you do,
And that's why it really hurts.
You do it to yourself, just you,
You and no one else.
You do it to yourself.
(From a discussion with The Greek).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Margins of Error

I'm always impressed with the engineering associated with ATMs. Think about it - they have some of the smallest margins of error of just about anything outside of the aerospace/submarine/firearms industry. Made a mistake counting? Either you're spewing out money, or short-changing people and pissing off customers. (I'm guessing the former keeps bank managers up at night more than the latter does). Sure, the process is simple, but they get the number of bills right an astonishing amount of the time. I'm no engineer, so it's all just black magic to me.

But I do notice that the reliability is good enough that most of the time I don't even bother counting the money that comes out. Think about that - you're putting your faith in both the honesty and crazy technical competency of the bank. That's a crazy level of trust, but then again first world societies often have levels of trust that seem amazing when you think about them.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Despite and Still

Apropos nothing, the great Robert Graves:
Despite and Still
Have you not read
The words in my head,
And I made part
Of your own heart?
We have been such as draw
The losing straw --
You of your gentleness,
I of my rashness,
Both of despair --
Yet still might share
This happy will:
To love despite and still.
Never let us deny
The thing's necessity,
But, O, refuse
To choose,
Where chance may seem to give
Love in alternative.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Psychology of Infidelity

I've often wondered about the mindset of people who embark on extra-marital affairs.

In particular, I wonder how they feel when they get back to their spouse and see the person being loving and caring. Do they get overwrought with guilt? Probably not, if only by the anthropic principle: the ones that did either confessed, or at a minimum broke off the affair. The ones that maintain it have clearly found some way to deal with it.

One understandable reaction, particularly for those who have started recently, I think would actually be relief and gratitude. I think the threshold for this would be that you would have to feel a bit bad about it, such that you'd been privately bothered before, but not enough to break it off or confess. Then the person being nice would let you fool yourself into thinking that everything is pleasant and happy. You'd wracked yourself a bit over it, and the curse of knowledge means that you're possibly worrying that your wife or husband might know about it. But then you see them, and of course they didn't know - they're glad to see you, and everything is okay. Their happiness would mix with your relief, and my firm guess is that in the short term you'd be nicer to your spouse, partly out of guilt, partly out of misplaced gratitude for temporarily mollifying your reflections. This is worth reflecting on, because I imagine that most people's mental model of 'how would I spot if my significant other were cheating on me' would probably involve them being distant and cold, but I'm not so sure this would always be the case.

I imagine that those that do it for a long time must end up somehow making peace with the cognitive dissonance between
1. I love my wife
2. I enjoy boning my secretary
3. I am not fundamentally a bad person.

Exactly how they do this likely varies from person to person - the mind is very creative in such instances. But the day to day interactions probably become more mercenary - once you've resolved the inner conflict somehow, you'd probably focus more on the question of how to not get caught. Pragmatic precautions, clearing phone records, emails, the necessary fastidiousness of constantly covering your tracks to stave off the inevitable.

I remember once sitting on a place next to some youngish businessman, probably mid 30s. Tech guy, American, reasonably good looking. There was wi-fi on the place, and he was instant messaging someone. While I wasn't going out of my way to spy (certainly not at first, anyway) his conversation was visible to at least me, and the few seats around him. In it, he was talking to some girl, most likely from work I guess. The girl was mentioning a friend of hers, and how this friend might be up for something with the guy. After an extended period of flirting, the girl said something about how it was weird that she'd been with the guy ('been with' was how it was phrased, but 'slept with and clearly still had some feelings for' was silently screamed), and was now setting him up with her friend. The plane got close to landing, and he put away his laptop. When the plane was taxiing towards the runway, he pulled out his phone. It became quite clear from his 'Hi Honey' discussion that he was talking to his wife. He then asked to be put on to his kid, and spoke a bit to some young child.

I remember thinking what a bizarre way this was to live one's life. People are strange, alright.

Monday, April 9, 2012


Andrew Breitbart may be gone, but Breitbart's legacy lives on. Investigative journalist and serial annoyance to the political left James O'Keefe has a classic new video up examining voter fraud. In it, he goes into a polling booth, gives the name and address of Attorney General Eric Holder, and is offered Holder's ballot. Naturally, they then intersperse this with interviews with Eric Holder where he claims that voter fraud isn't a problem.

Check it out - Comedy gold!

The Department of Justice is spinning like crazy on this one - the current line is the following:
“It’s no coincidence that these so-called examples of rampant voter fraud consistently turn out to be manufactured ones."
You tested this new heart attack medication in a manufactured, controlled environment! That tells us nothing about how the drugs will work in the real world!

Which of course misses the point entirely - the video doesn't show the prevalence of voter fraud at all. It simply shows how trivially easy it is to implement. Whether it happens a lot or a little isn't clear from the video. Truthfully, it's probably not a huge effect. But it's not trivial either, and it might matter in close elections.

In terms of the dog that did not bark though, my initial thought was 'you mean they haven't charged O'Keefe with voter fraud based on the video?'. This would be exactly the kind of politically nasty 'shoot the messenger' approach I'd expect.

But then you watch the video carefully, and see that O'Keefe has learned his lesson from his earlier arrest - at no point does he actually make any misrepresentations about who he is. Listen to how he phrases his question:
O'Keefe: "Do you have an Eric Holder, Address [redacted in video]?
Poll Worker: "H-O-L-T-E-R or -D-E ?"
O'Keefe: "H-O-L-D-E-R . That's the name."
Clever. He deliberately avoids claiming at any point that he is Eric Holder, but they are willing to him the ballot anyway. He doesn't sign his name to anything, he doesn't take a ballot. I imagine a Big Government lawyer probably vetted the whole formulation quite carefully. He's not giving them anything to pin on him.

I remember Tim Blair pointing out back in 2008 that you didn't need ID to vote for Barack Obama, but you did need ID to attend the Barack Obama election night celebration party in Millennium Park. Seems like a funny ordering of priorities to me.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Budget Deficit Gold

Via Ace of Spades, @politicalmath has a classic graph describing the estimated fiscal impact of the Buffett Rule that President Obama proposed, which would increase taxes on those earning a $1 million a year or more. Surely that must bring in tons of revenue, right? It wouldn't just be cheap political demagoguery?

Oh. Oohhhhhh.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A sufficient but not necessary condition for being an economist

You might be almost certainly are an economist if you've ever got irritated at an establishment because their prices were too low.

I remember in Chicago when Mayor Richard M Daley decided to fund the latest of his permanent election bribe fund by privatising the city parking. This of course led to parking immediately becoming about 3 times more expensive.

Most people were pissed off.

But I remember speaking to an economist friend of mine. "How good is this?" I remarked. "I know", he responded, "I can now get a park any time and pay with a credit card!".

This was truly a market that wasn't clearing. Tools kept circling around at peak hour looking for that vacant spot (which didn't exist), all to save a couple of bucks. Sure, you spent 20 minutes and a few dollars in petrol, but the point was you didn't pay for it! Idiots.

Being happy at price increases shows at least two phenotypes of economists.

The first is a recognition of a market that isn't clearing, and the fact that long queues signal a need for price increases (or increased supply). Since the number of parking spots is fixed in the short term, price increases are the answer.

The second phenotype (even more characteristic of economists) is the willingness to place an explicit value on your time. Waiting twenty minutes to save $2 is only a good deal if your implied hourly wage is less than $6. Red hot tip - mine isn't. Hell, minimum wage is more than that in half the country.

With respect to the second phenotype, a lesser appreciation makes you not really mind when prices go up - you accept that there's a tradeoff, but you still liked the cheap version, for all its problems.

A greater appreciation makes you positively glad when prices go up. Getting to buy back 20 minutes of your life for $2 is a bargain, and it's a bargain that you couldn't have before now. Earlier you were paying 25c and 20 minutes. Now you're paying $2. That's a price drop in real terms, my friends.

I remember going to this place that sold really delicious and really cheap ice cream - around a buck fifty. Total bargain, right? Awesome!

Except that every time I went there, there was a half hour wait.

Screw that. I'm not going back there until they raise their damn prices.

Clear that market or don't get my custom, fools!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Like Raaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnnn, on your Wedddddiiiinnnggggg Daaaaayyyyyy

In honour of world backup day being a mere three days ago, the hard drive on my 8 month old Dell laptop decided to die.

The answer to the implied question is, of course, 'No'.

Unless the implied question was 'why on earth would you buy a Dell laptop', to which the answer is' 'if you've ever owned a Lenovo laptop, a Dell laptop seems like an awesome choice by comparison!'. Sure, neither of them work very well, but the Dell is a lot cheaper. The advice to get a Lenovo Thinkpad came from SMH, who had one when they were still the IBM Thinkpad, and his one was excellent. Yeah, the moral of that story isn't hard to figure out. Apparently two other friends of SMH got burned by the same advice though, so I don't feel like a total fool.

Fortunately, I've had enough computers die on me that my friendly IT guy at work left me with a copy of an Ubuntu CD to boot from and rescue as much as possible. Which, thankfully, looks like being most of it.

Good times, good times...

Monday, April 2, 2012

Things I've been doing instead of writing blog posts

Reading up on the writings of Mencius Moldbug.I'm about halfway through the 'How Richard Dawkins Got Pwned' essays, where he claims that modern Universalist philosophy (what Dawkins calls 'Einsteinian Religion) can best be described as 'nontheistic Christianity', and part of the same progression of ideas from the Puritans. Interesting stuff.

The good news is, his writing is excellent!

The bad news is that it's time for dinner and bed, so go read his stuff. I haven't found writing on this theme that's this interesting since Eliezer Yudkowsky finished his daily sequences of posts on rationality, found in the archives of Overcoming Bias.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Don't take it personal, kid

Over at reddit a few days ago, there was this thread where a guy talks about how his daughter has cerebral palsy, and now at age three is doing really well.

But what I found interesting was part of the title:
When she was born doctors said she would never walk, talk and would probably need to be institutionalized.
I always find this a strange response. If you want to see what I mean, compare it to an alternative formulation:
She's doing incredibly well, given her initial condition made it unlikely that she'd be able to walk or talk, and probably would have needed to be institutionalised
I don't want to pick on this guy - I'm really glad his daughter is doing so well. But I find it an interesting example of a particular mindset.

For some reason, people seem to really like the narrative 'and then the doctor [delivered bad news], but he was totally wrong!'.

It's not enough that things turned out better than expected. Apparently there's an extra sweetness to proving wrong an expert who delivered negative news.

My best guess is that this comes from a combination of:

a) A general lingering dislike of people who deliver bad news

b) A particular dislike of people who deliver bad news that turns out to be wrong, even if it was probabilistically correct at the time, and

c) A sense that medical conditions have substantial scope for self-fulfilling prophesies: if you treat someone like they're disabled, they'll end up disabled, but if you treat them like a normal person, they'll end up comparatively more normal, even if not perfectly able-bodied.

The first one I can't relate to at all. The medical profession is the last place you want to start shooting the messenger - if you in fact have cancer, you're going to be a hell of a lot better off knowing that and starting chemo than pretending that you've got something else.

The second one I can't really relate to much more. I can understand getting irritated at advice that was bad ex-ante. But that doesn't quite explain it. As a layman, you'll probably have very little idea whether the advice was wrong ex-ante, or right ex-ante but you just ended up in the odd end of the distribution. e.g. Most people born with cerebral palsy won't be able to walk, but your daughter ended up as one of the lucky ones.

More importantly, would you be equally mad with a doctor who delivered ex-ante advice that was correct but ended up being too optimistic? "The doctors said she'd probably be able to walk just fine, but she can't." Unless you'd be equally bothered by this one, there's still something funny going on.

The third one may have some merit, but I don't know how much. I tend to be slightly skeptical (without any particular evidentiary basis) only because it sounds too much like wishful thinking - if we only act like there isn't a problem, there won't be a problem!

If you want the extreme opposite view, let me present you the great James Bagian, a man who was meant to be on the Challenger Space Shuttle but was substituted out shortly before the mission. He declined to wax lyrical about beating the odds or pretend to be shocked that the outcome was as bad as it was:
Was I sad that it happened? Of course. Was I surprised? Not really. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later—and not that much later. At the time, the loss rate was about 4 percent, or one in 25 missions. Challenger was the 25th mission. That's not how statistics works, of course—it's not like you're guaranteed to have 24 good flights and then one bad one, it just happened that way in this case—but still, you think we're going to fly a bunch of missions with a 4 percent failure rate and not have any failures? You gotta be kidding.
I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that a man who can get in a space shuttle and understand exactly what a 4% probability of the thing exploding means is not somebody inclined to blame a doctor for a negative diagnosis that turned out to be wrong. As indeed evidenced by the entire approach he takes in his current job - figuring out how to reduce medical errors.

As always, sign me up with James Bagian.