Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The best poem title ever

Making this a double dose of Hal G.P. Colebatch, if there has been a better poem title than:

'Observing a thong-shod pedestrian's reaction to catching his toe in the ring of a discarded condom'

I certainly haven't come across it.

Time for Malcolm Fraser to repent

"And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs--and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety,"
-George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London 
From a certain progressive standpoint, Zimbabwe, it seems, has at last gone to the dogs.

The Rhodesians would have told you that the dogs arrived years ago, and the rest of the changes were merely being more open about the kennel-like aspects of state.

Of course, this doesn't mean that things can't get worse. When it comes to forecasting the fortunes of countries, as in stockmarkets, picking exactly when the bottom has been reached is a very perilous business. It is always dangerous with basket-case countries to assume that things can't get any worse, because truly awful leaders seem to be uncannily persistent in finding a way. If Zimbabwe is remembered for anything, perhaps it will be for that.

So let's focus on a more stripped-down prediction - that installing Robert Mugabe was a mistake that everyone involved ought to feel intensely ashamed about.

Surely that's been pretty obvious for at least 25 years, right?

Ha! Sometimes it takes a while for things to get so bad that they break through the cognitive dissonance of those that helped create the disaster.

Just ask former Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Fraser.

In one of the more disgraceful episodes of a mostly worthless (at best) Prime Ministership, Fraser was heavily involved in getting Robert Mugabe installed. As Hal G.P. Colebatch recounts:
Fraser's 1987 biographer Philip Ayres wrote: "The centrality of Fraser's part in the process leading to Zimbabwe's independence is indisputable. All the major African figures involved affirm it."
Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere said he considered Fraser's role "crucial in many parts", and Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda (whose own achievements included making his country a one-party state) called it "vital".
Mugabe is quoted by Ayres: "I got enchanted by (Fraser), we became friends, personal friends ... He's really motivated by a liberal philosophy."
Fraser's role also attracted tributes from Australian diplomats. Duncan Campbell, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has claimed that Fraser was a "principal architect" of the agreement that installed Mugabe and that "he was largely responsible for pressing Margaret Thatcher to accept it".
Former Australian diplomat and Commonwealth specialist Tony Kevin has also claimed that Fraser "challenged Margaret Thatcher's efforts to stage-manage a moderate political solution".
In an interview in 2000, Fraser showed that he appeared to have learned absolutely nothing from the process. This was just after Mugabe had passed a law allowing white farming assets to be taken without compensation.
JOHN HIGHFIELD: Mr Fraser, what do you make of these goings on in Zimbabwe? After all it was in the late 1970s that you and your friend, Kenneth Kowunda [phonetic], persuaded Mrs Thatcher to come across to your view and give Zimbabwe independence.
MALCOLM FRASER: I find it very hard to understand the disintegration that has, in fact, occurred because I really did believe, and I think many people who knew what was happening in the country believed, that President Mugabe started very well. I can remember speaking with Dennis Norman who was a white farmer in Mugabe's first government, and he spoke very highly of him and spoke very highly of his policies at that time.
I'm - you know, what has gone wrong in the last several years I find it very difficult to pin-point, except that economic policies have not worked. He's tried to defy, I think, the international moves of the marketplace which would have reduced investment in Zimbabwe and therefore reduced employment opportunities for Zimbabweans.
By 2000, it had been clear for quite a while that Zimbabawe had been disgracefully managed on a purely economic basis for a long time. When Mugabe was installed, Zimbabwe's GDP per capita of $916 (in current US dollars). By 2000,  its GDP had declined by over 40%, to $535. Have a look at the graph below of the subsequent growth of some nearby countries that were poorer than Zimbabwe in 1980 and see what you think of Fraser's claim that Mugabe 'started very well'. Try putting in Botswana as well (slightly richer in 1980) and the comparison becomes even more dismal, as it towers over Zimbabwe. The most optimistic description is that things hadn't yet gone to hell as late as 1982. Heckuva job, Malcolm and Robbie!

But in some sense, this isn't really the striking point about the Fraser response.

The first bizarre part is Fraser's contemptible obfuscation of referring to a policy of forced, uncompensated confiscation of white farm assets as merely 'economic policy'. Nothing racial here, no siree! See no race, hear no race. Why is that? Why the absurd euphemisms?

The second bizarre part is that, 20 years later, Fraser still finds the events mysterious. Do you think this might be related to the first point, you worthless old fool?

Fraser has to skate around the racism of the Mugabe regime, because given the economic catastrophe that befell the country, this is the only advantage that the initial Mugabe boosters can claim over Smith. Sure, we replaced a system that was lifting Zimbabwe out of poverty with a brutal and corrupt regime that terrorises its citizens. But hey, at least it's not racist, like Smith!

Of course, Smith's racism was mostly of a disparate impact variety. Rhodesia was not South Africa, and the practical restrictions on blacks were far less than under Apartheid. The 1961 constitution had property and education requirements for voting rights, but made no explicit racial prohibitions (although later voting systems did). The outcome was heavily skewed towards whites, obviously, and this was almost certainly the intended effect. But if you think that having a property requirement for voting means that a system is not meaningfully democratic, then Britain in World War I was just another undemocratic oligarchy fighting against other equally undemocratic oligarchies. You also wouldn't want to praise the US founding fathers too highly.

When Hal Colebatch caned Fraser in 2008 for his shameful role in getting Mugabe installed, Fraser's response was pathetic. You will scour in vain for any description by Fraser of racism in anything Mugabe did. You will also scour in vain for any coherent explanation of what exactly was wrong with the Smith regime, except that Smith personally was a real meanie who didn't let Mugabe, who was already fighting a civil war to overthrow the government, visit his young son when he was sick, and when he ultimately died. By all means, let's then give the country to a man who at the time was already famous for running an organisation that cut the noses and lips off blacks who opposed him. Have a look, Malcolm! Have a look, if you can stomach it, and tell me again what a terrible man Ian Smith was.

In the mean time, Fraser clings to a cock-and-bull story that the real issue with Mugabe was when his wife died, and that's when it all went to hell. Great theory! Completely untestable in terms of its main aspects of course. But what about the implication - that nobody could have seen this coming, as the start was so excellent. Seems plausible, no? Except that Smith pretty accurately did predict what was going to happen. Malcolm Fraser continues to express his surprise. Smith expressed no surprise at all. Sadness, yes, but not surprise.

How about, just for a change, you consider the possibility that you got completely suckered by Mugabe, that his moderate image was all a con for your benefit, and that millions of people suffered enormously because of your gullibility. You got played, you silly old fool. You are the muppet in this story, the mark, the rube. 35 years later you still can't see that. Gee, I picked the cup that I'm super sure had the pea under it! And somehow I still lost money, it just doesn't make sense!

So now, let us return to the story I linked at the start. Exactly where have things gotten to recently?
In the harshest official policy on race and land reform in a country that has been close to bankruptcy, the 90-year old autocrat said Wednesday that whites may no longer own any land in Zimbabwe. 
Let us pause and reflect on Malcolm Fraser's shame. We have known for almost 30 years that Fraser bequeathed to Zimbabwe economic and social catastrophe. We have already known of the thousands brutally killed and tortured in Mugabe's prison of a country. We have already known of the increasing hostility towards the dwindling number of remaining whites, even when it was entirely self-defeating from an economic point of view. We have known that Mugabe has long since stopped holding any semblance of free and fair democratic elections, another frequent criticism of Smith.

But finally, we have reached the nadir, from the progressive point of view - at long last, we now have a regime that is actually more racist than Ian Smith's. Smith never imposed any restrictions this draconian on blacks. The fig leaf, absurd though it was all along, is finally stripped away. There is nothing left, absolutely nothing, to recommend this regime over the one it replaced.

Malcolm Fraser never had to face the consequences of his actions. He will live out his days in comfort and peace in a stable and prosperous first world country. The same cannot be said of the citizens of Zimbabwe, both white and black, who had to live with the regime Fraser helped install.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Snappy responses you weren't hoping for that nonetheless answer the question quite well

In the last few years, unable to hold a list of just four grocery items in my head, I’d begun to fret a bit over my literal state of mind. So to reassure myself that nothing was amiss, just before tackling French I took a cognitive assessment called CNS Vital Signs, recommended by a psychologist friend. The results were anything but reassuring: I scored below average for my age group in nearly all of the categories, notably landing in the bottom 10th percentile on the composite memory test and in the lowest 5 percent on the visual memory test.
All this means that we adults have to work our brains hard to learn a second language. But that may be all the more reason to try, for my failed French quest yielded an unexpected benefit. After a year of struggling with the language, I retook the cognitive assessment, and the results shocked me. My scores had skyrocketed, placing me above average in seven of 10 categories, and average in the other three. My verbal memory score leapt from the bottom half to the 88th — the 88th! — percentile and my visual memory test shot from the bottom 5th percentile to the 50th. Studying a language had been like drinking from a mental fountain of youth.
What might explain such an improvement?
Regression toward the mean.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lionel Messi and Soccer Equilibrium Outcomes

So another World Cup has come and gone. Enough water had passed under the bridge that I no longer resented Argentina for their dismal performance in 2002 when I wagered on them. I was vaguely hoping for an Argentine win, just because I would have liked to see Lionel Messi win a cup.

'Twas not to be, of course.

A very good starting point for understanding Messi is this excellent post by Nate Silver going through a whole lot of metrics of soccer success and showing that Messi is not only an outlier, he's such an outlier that his data point is visibly distinct from the rest even in simple plots. Like this one:

(image credit)

Seriously, go read the whole thing. If you're apt to be swayed by hard data, it's a pretty darn convincing case.

So what happened in the World Cup? Why didn't he seem nearly this dominant when you watched him play?

The popular narrative is that there's some inability to perform under pressure - in the big situations when it really counts, he doesn't come through with the goods. He's a choker, in other words.

This is hard to disprove exactly, but one thing that should give you pause is that with Messi on the team, Barcelona has won two FIFA Club World Cups and three UEFA championships. This at least suggests that the choking hypothesis seems more specific to World Cups.

So one explanation consistent with the choking hypothesis is that the World Cup is much higher stakes than the rest, hence the choking is only visible in that setting. It's possible, and hard to rule out.

But another possibility is that the difference comes from the way that opposing teams play against Messi in each setting.

Remember, a player's performance is an equilibrium outcome. It's determined by how skilfully the person plays that day (which everyone thinks about), but also by how many opposing resources are focused on the person (which very few people think about).

Let's take the limiting case, since it's easiest. Suppose I take a team comprised of Lionel Messi and ten guys from a really good high school team, and pit them against a mid-range club team. My guess is that Messi wouldn't perform that well there, and not just because he wouldn't have as many other good people to pass to. Rather, the opposing team is going to devote about 4 defenders just to covering Messi, since it's obvious that this is where the threat is. Throw enough semi-competent defense players on someone, and you can make their performance seem much less impressive.

Have a look at the pictures from the Daily Mail coverage of the game against the Netherlands. In one, Messi is surrounded by four Dutch defenders. In another, he's surrounded by three. The guy is good, but that's a pretty darn big ask of anyone.

In other words, Messi may be better than the rest of the Argentine players by a large enough margin that opposing teams will throw lots of resources into covering him, making it harder for him to shine. In soccer, like in martial arts reality (as opposed to martial arts movies), numbers matter. Jet Li may beat up 12 bad guys at a time, but it you try that in real life, you're on your way to the emergency room or the morgue, almost regardless of your martial arts skill.

The last piece of the puzzle for this hypothesis is the question of why this doesn't happen when Messi plays at Barcelona.

I'm a real newb at soccer (evidenced by me referring to it as 'soccer' - you can take the boy out of Australia, etc.), but my soccer-following friends can tell me if I'm right here or not.

My guess is that the rest of the Barcelona team is much closer to Messi's level of skill than the rest of the Argentine team. This means that if opposing teams try to triple mark Messi in a Barcelona game, the rest of the attackers will be sufficiently unguarded that they'll manage to score and the result will be the same or even worse than if Messi were totally covered. As a result, Messi goes less covered and scores more.

There's a reason that the sabremetricians (who tend to be among the most sophisticated of sports analysers) talk about wins above replacement. You need to think about the counterfactual of if the person wasn't there, not the direct effect of what they did or didn't do in equilibrium.

Of course, the skeptics will point out the cases where great stars did manage to indivdiually play a big role in lifting their national teams to great success. What about Maradona, they say?

This is a fair question. Sometimes you really can get it past five defenders to win a world cup. Maybe that's what a true champion would have done yesterday.

Or maybe the English just weren't marking as well as the Dutch were.

Or maybe, even more pertinent, the rest of the Argentine team in 86 was sufficiently better in relative terms that England couldn't afford to mark Maradona as hard. The effect of this, if true, would be for Maradona's performance to look more spectacular relative to the rest of his team - having a good team means less defenders on you means more heroics. And when that happens, you look individually more brilliant, leading to you getting all the credit and making it look like you won the game single-handedly. If you really were that much better than everybody else, you would be less likely to deliver a performance that showed this fact to a novice observer.

Not many people think in equilibrium terms. This is why we analyse data.

The data case, however, is clear. Viva Messi!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Out of Sample Predictions About World Cup Rioting

So Brazil gets humiliatingly crushed in the World Cup by Germany, 7-1. While there is much to be said about this, mostly in the way of cruel mockery, it has already been done by folks much more learned on the subject than me. As a side note, while watching my streaming of dubious legal status, I did reflect on how the ideal commentators for a complete drubbing are the BBC ones, since they just ooze dry and scathing humour. It's full of great adjectives like 'shambolic' and 'appalling', and they managed to get in some classic digs (quoted from memory):
'This has been the worst 45 minutes of football in Brazilian history'.
'Without Neymar, could this be the worst team to make a World Cup Semi-Final?'
and my favourite of all:
'And Oscar scores the most pointless of World Cup goals...'
So since it would be mean to pile on more, let me focus instead on something where I can add more value. Given that Brazil has been crushed and humiliated, will this defeat lead to rioting? Plenty of people seem to think it will - this CBC story in the Google cache version has the sentence 'Brazil riots feared as home team routed by Germany', but this has now been scrubbed. For a prediction, let's turn to my favorite author on violence, Randall Collins (I've written about him here and here). In his excellent book, 'Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory' (pdf of the first chapter available here), he makes the following observations (p312):
'During the 2002 World Cup, Russian soccer fans, who were watching the game with Japan on a big screen in a central Moscow square, rioted after Japan scored the one goal of the game...
The 2002 Moscow riot is both a political riot and a defeat riot, the counterpart to a victory celebration riot. As we will see, celebration riots can be just as destructive as defeat riots; and celebration riots are much more common. Losing a game is generally emotionally deflating, and the crowd lacks the ebullience and the traditional rituals (such as tearing down goal posts), which can segue from a victory celebration into a destructive riot. Defeat riots require an additional mechanism. One clue is that defeat riots seem to be more common in international competition than domestically, and where sports rivalries are highly politicized. Defeat riots depend more on features extraneous to the game, since the emotional flow of the game itself will generally de-energize the defeated and energize the victors. 
So while this is an international competition, I'd say that the thrust of the Collins prediction is that, contra the predictions of many, there won't be rioting.

And the verdict?
Brazil Riots in World Cup? Nope; Bogus Photos Spread After Germany Beats Brazil 7-1 in Soccer Semi-Finals; Fake Demonstration-Protest Tweets in Belo Horizonte Trending
1-0 in Russia might have been enough to get people angry, but 7-1 just produces dejection. People don't burn buildings while dejected.

It's still too early to tell, and I'll continue to see if I (and more importantly, Mr Collins) are wrong, but my guess is that there won't be any rioting.

Seriously, if you didn't last time I talked about it a few years ago, go and read the first chapter of Collins here. I am no apologist for the general predictive power of sociology, but the man knows his stuff.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Earl Scruggs has some pretty cool friends

Apropos nothing, the great Earl Scruggs, playing 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' (which he in fact wrote), the best banjo tune perhaps since Duelling Banjos. Check out both Steve Martin and Paul Shaffer making cameo solo appearances.


A little internet privacy is like being a yellow belt in karate

One of the things that Sam Peltzman most famously taught us (or perhaps reminded us) is that one should always pay attention to income effects, because they can show up in odd places.

Income effects are simple at a first pass - if I have more income I can buy more of a product. Most goods are normal goods, meaning that demand rises as income rises. Some goods are inferior goods, meaning that as incomes go up, people buy less of them (e.g. Walmart clothes), because they substitute to better alternatives. So far, so easy.

As microeconomists have known for a long time though, income effects can be induced by changes in the price of goods, rather than directly through income changes. If the price of rice increases, the first order effect is likely to be a substitution effect - rice is now expensive relative to wheat, so I buy more bread and less rice. But there is also an income effect: the real bundle of goods I can now purchase has shrunk, which is effectively a decrease in income.

As a result, the fact that income has decreased can induce other changes in demand which can partially or totally offset the original effect. In other words, the first pass effect is that rice consumption goes down (the substitution effect), but because I'm now poorer overall I have to cut my purchases of luxuries and buy more rice than I otherwise would. If the income effect is large enough to offset the substitution effect completely, the good is called a Giffen good - when the price of the good goes up, demand can actually increase. Robert Jensen and Nolan Miller carried out an experiment in China where they showed that for some really poor Chinese people, rice really is a Giffen good. When its price increases, they buy more of it, because they're now so poor it's the only way to get enough calories.

Which brings us to Mr Peltzman. He famously argued that income-like effects can lead to puzzling results in a wide variety of settings, most notably risk-compensation (which became known as the Peltzman Effect). If you spend government money to make roads safer or mandate seatbelt use, people will have a lower chance of dying from a given type of driving (similar to the substitution effect). But there's an income effect too - the budget set of allowable risky driving behavior has increased. Peltzman argued that this can in some cases totally offset the gains, as people drive in a more risky manner on the safer roads to maintain the same overall level of risk.

The classic case of Peltzman-like effects that people do seem to instinctively grasp is self-defence knowledge. In theory, knowing a little karate has only improved one's ability to fight relative to knowing zero karate. But the problem is the income effect. The ability to defend oneself can either be consumed entirely as an increase in safety, or it can be spent by substituting towards talking $#!& to bullies. Thus the overall level of safety can go up or down as a result of being able to fight back. The popular conception is that people overestimate their fighting ability and 'spend' more than they actually had, leading to Giffen-like behavior at low levels of self-defence knowledge.

And now it turns out that there's inadvertent Peltzman effects going on with internet privacy.

Several researchers with Tor have described how using the internet privacy software Tor results in your IP address receiving permanently much greater scrutiny from the NSA. Even searching for Tor online is enough to get you logged.

At high levels of security, this is still probably worth it if you value privacy. Tor is an incredibly powerful tool to avoid being tracked. Unfortunately there's still lots of other exploits they can use to target your computer, but Tor itself is pretty reliable.

Since the NSA doesn't like this, they are determined to raise the income effect stakes a lot. If you get slack and only use Tor sometimes, you have almost certainly increased the chances of your behavior being tracked and monitored. Before you had the blessing of anonymity. When you embark down the road of privacy, the NSA makes sure that goes away for good. Tor is a Basilisk - a single search for it is enough to get you permanently flagged. So if you're going to start down that road, it's got to be the full retard or nothing at all.

The reality is that maintaining anonymity is hard. Really hard. It is a form of tradecraft, as the spies put it. It needs an obsessive attention to detail, and a willingness to forgo a number of aspects of the internet (flash video, for instance, as well as dealing with slow loading times). And unfortunately, the predicament is quite similar to the position of the IRA viz Mrs Thatcher - the NSA only needs to get lucky once, whereas you need to get lucky every day.

The unfortunate reality is that for most people, no protection is probably safer than a little protection. And even then, the only reason that 'no protection' offers any protection is because the internet is simply too large for the NSA to be able to store everything that goes on there. On the other hand, they are able to store everything done by Tor users.

The one saving grace is that the NSA is not actually the NKVD. For the most part, the NSA is only interested in tracking terrorists, and passing the occasional Silk Road drug dealer onto the DEA. Not only that, they are reluctant to blow the details of the data collection process (any more than they already have) by having the details of it disclosed in court cases unimportant to the NSA's mission. So they're probably not going after you for buying that Adderall online, even though they could.

On the other hand, the Snowden disclosures have massively reduced the cost of the NSA using information at trials, since a lot of the details are now already known, so maybe that protection has decreased too.

Income effects are rarely counterintuitive once they're pointed out, but they have a tendency to be lurking in places that you weren't thinking hard about.

Unfortunately, none of them are good in this story.