Saturday, July 31, 2010

Neoclassical Economy Theory

A map of gas prices in the U.S. from

The red is expensive, green is cheap.

When people trash neoclassical economy theory I think of graphs like this. If people are rational they will arbitrage-away the price differences save for transport costs. That pretty much explains all the variation in pricing. (States have different taxes so prices tend to change at state borders.) You don't even have to think about markets structure etc.

More from Japan

A good story from Japan. (HT: Marginal Revolution)

Does J. K. Rowling deserve a Nobel Prize in Literature?

It's a stupid question.

Stupid Questions

They say there are no stupid questions, yet this is a story about a stupid question.

My friends and I were talking about Rotten Tomatoes, which is a review aggregator for movies. They read all the reviews and decide if they're positive or negative, then report the percentage of positive reviews. If it's over 65% or so they certify the movie as "fresh."

I was explaining that the number RT reports is biased if it's meant to predict which movies are "good." Now I didn't specify what I mean by good but I think the intuitive definition is something like "most (American) people liked it" and you could estimate the percentage p that do/did by forcing N random people to watch the movie and vote thumbs up or down. Critics aren't like typical movie-goers, they tend to systemically have different tastes, so the RT number is a biased estimator of p.

The counterpoint is that, although it's rarely clearly stated, is that what makes things good or bad are some objective structural properties, things like complexity, pacing, lighting, or narrative structure. Critics are important because they're good at understanding these things, and the Academy Awards isn't done by a poll of the country because only the Academy actually knows good from bad. If that doesn't sound stupid then try to articulate some structural properties and then explain why they're the right ones (I'll return with an analogy later).

One of my friends asked "well, isn't there just good and bad music, so why not with films?" I quickly noted that "no, there isn't just good and bad music." He didn't that was a good enough answer, because I "don't know enough about music." (Implicitly I think the assumption here is that if you study music for long enough you'll understand, by divine revaluation, "the" structural properties and, well presumably then craft the perfect song possible. No, that is not meant to have a mocking tone.) A friend who played in the high school band explained that . . . well he didn't, he just talked about what kind of music he likes. I guess God just revealed to him one day that whatever he likes is also the right preference for everyone else.

After a while a light-bulb went on and everyone admitted that RT is a bad predictor (relative to say Yahoo! Movies, Netflix or Flixster) of what movies everyone likes because of selection bias. But no one informed Flixster as, ironically, they print only the RT rating when you search movies on their app, and you have to click each one-by-one to see the Flixster ratings (which is a somewhat biased version of the poll described above).

Now we return to the structural properties question. You actually can articulate a lot of properties that make any kind of art good. You can do the same for properties that make people attractive, which is illustrative. We know height makes men more attractive (up until about 6'2'' in the U.S.) and high cheek bones make women attractive (obviously likewise up to a point), and symmetric faces make both sexes more attractive. But how do we know that? Because we asked people to rate faces and those traits are correlated with higher ratings. You see, the structural approach gets things backwards.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Lying with Numbers AND Quote of the Day

First, the quote of the day, from this article on a program for humanities students to go into medicine:
I didn’t want to waste a class on physics, or waste a class on orgo. The social determinants of health are so much more pervasive than the immediate biology of it.
Why didn't she just say important? Did she think pervasive would sound more intelligent. And why is she going into medicine if she wants to deal with things like sanitation, employment, and clean water in Africa?

At the beginning of the article the author mentions a study that showed the academic performance of the humanities students matched that of the traditional students. Presumably the implication is that you don't really need to "waste a class on physics" because it won't matter.

But that's not what the study showed at all because of selection bias.

Consider this example. I ask some biology majors at MIT and some physics majors at UF to take a test on E&M (Physics II or 8.02 at MIT). They end up scoring the same (no significant difference). Majoring in physics doesn't help you do well on physics, right?

No. MIT admits students largely on their ability to do well on test, esp. in the sciences. Since MIT students are smarter you'd hope they do better than public school students, perhaps even though they are being compared with a select group of them.

In the article the humanities students are probably smarter on average. Their average GPA is 3.74 and SAT is 1447. They'd probably mostly be competitive applicants at some of the top medical schools in the country. You'd hope they could hold their own, all else equal, with people admitted to a less competitive programs.

Is Sarah Palin an idiot?

Everybody knows Sarah Palin is a dumbass.

But is she?

She does pronounce nuclear like half the country does. And if someone pronounces words differently from your they're obviously an idiot. I was shocked when I came to MIT found out everyone was an idiot. They were hyped about "eye-ern man" since Tony Stark was an MIT grad. Don't know they it's pronounced eye-ren? I guess it's true that science people can't read.

So maybe judging someone on a proxy for their ethnicity/culture is stupid. Maybe it's even wrong.

Still, everyone knows Palin is an idiot based on those interviews with Katie Couric. She gave nonsense answers to basic questions about foreign policy while Joe Biden hit Couric's barrage of curveballs out of the park.

See for yourself: Biden and Palin

Palin contradicted herself. Everyone knows that the constitution guarantees a right to privacy which implies a right to kill your fetus. It's the same principle behind why you can have gay sex in the privacy of your own bedroom, or slaughter your 5 year old and hid the body in your walk-in closet. Er, sometimes states have a legitimate interest in restricting privacy like to save the life of a child. But she still bit a bullet . . . (no explanation of how)

Even if you don't buy that, you have to admit she did have her with the the next question. What Supreme Court decisions do you disagree with? By name, please.

Couric did hammer Biden on that negative advertising question. Isn't it obvious Obama had no idea they were running negative ads? Joe must have been telling the truth. And isn't he great with the fans?

So there you have it, rock solid evidence that Sarah Palin is a complete moron compared to the rest of the politicians who tend have such a great grasp of the issues.

More illegal immigration

I read this in The New Yorker. It's well written and, as the headline suggested, it does provide "the real numbers on illegal immigration."

But I dislike this kind of writing. The author takes a very serious tone and, early on, demonstrates command of the facts. You start to trust him. If you don't know any better, you continue to.

Then he claims that deporting illegal aliens would be "economic suicide . . . since they are, for a start, essential to large sectors of the economy, beginning with the food supply." But that is nonsense. If illegal aliens didn't pick fruit then farmers would have to pay for citizens to do it, or buy machines. Someone would have to produce the machines. Suggest that cheap labor is irreplaceable is irresponsible.

He also writes that "the Fourteenth amendment . . . guarantees citizenship to any child born on these shores." That is one standard interpretation of the Fourteenth amendment, similar to the interpretation that the 2nd amendment allows for possession of any type of firearm without restriction. Both of those are questionable, certainly not the intent of the authors, and probably not the interpretation you'd get from some random person in Wal-Mart.

The article ends with a series of attacks against "demagogues" after briefly dealing with one of the three hard questions in immigration reform, "don't illegal immigrants drive down wages for Americans?" That is what supply and demand predict, but (1) that doesn't tell you the magnitude of the effect and (2) things are more complicated. There is a large and growing literature of good research on the topic (see here). It would have been nice if he cut the attack on the nebulous "right wingers" and dedicated a few paragraphs to this issue. He could have also addressed these hard questions:

1. what penalty should they pay to gain citizenship? what is fair?
2. why should Mexicans get preferential treatment in immigration?

That said the first few paragraphs are worth reading.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Quote of the Day: Facebook Edition

I did my nightly Facebook log-in and this was the second thing in the news feed:
A: You play ultimate? That's awesome. I gotta hook up with the ultimate team some time . . .
B: Nice man, you should come out and play with us. . . . chances are I know your hookup.
This is only funny is that is a misunderstanding about the word "hookup."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Quote of the Day

I heard if u hit a kardashian u win a championship.. Kim k holla me!!! I need ya for 17 min
- Ty Lawson

Here's the context.

I like how he specified exactly 17 minutes. Andrew Gelman had a good blog post recently about how rounded numbers communicate uncertainty. If he said 20 minutes we'd understand that as "about 20 minutes" but when someone says "I'll be there in 17 minutes" you expect it to be 17 minutes sharp.

Letting Go

"Letting Go" by Atul Gawande is a certified Instant Classic essay.

This one isn't a masterpiece in terms of the writing, though Gwande is a good writer, nor does it really resolve the question it deals with. He just weaves a few interesting facts together with a number of very engaging stories. And that's enough.

A few thoughts: In one of his books, either Cosmopolitanism or The End of Ethics, Kwame Appiah mentions that he doesn't like the idea of rules in ethics. He doesn't think there is an algorithm for figuring out what the right thing to do is. Instead we should just try to understand stories, context, and feelings. We should read novels for ethical enlightenment.

This essay demonstrates the strengths of that kind of thinking. I do think we need to think about rules of thumb for when to stop treatment and we need to look more carefully at why hospice patients live so long--something that doesn't surprise me given what I know from positive psychology).  But stories are a start.

Man Proof Test

If you've never used this, it's neat. It looks are your browsing history and tries to guess your gender. If you're history was recently cleared or only has mainstream sites it will probably guess that you're female, since most popular website (Google, Facebook, Yahoo) have more female visitors.

I was surprised by the results of one of the websites in my history:

IMDB: 1.06 (male-female ratio)

If you look at any movie on IMDb there are more male than female votes. This is even true for The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and The Devil Wears Prada. Movies that are gender-neutral like Avatar and Raiders of the Lost Ark have a 7 and 8-1 male-female ratios for votes. How could IMDb visitors be so close to balanced between men and women and the voters be so imbalanced? Where did he get the data, or did he choose the weights?

I also downloaded the "Man Proof Test" that you're supposed to be able to pass if you're a guy. I got 46 out of 52 questions right, but I think you're supposed to get them all right to pass. It was somewhat emasculating.

Clunkers in Return of the Jedi

Luke: No. You're coming with me. I'll not leave you here

Princess Leia: But, why must you confront him?

Luke: Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you, the conflict.
Vader: There is no conflict.
Luke: You couldn't bring yourself to kill me before and I don't believe you'll destroy me now.

and I thought this one came out poorly until recently. It's the climax of the trilogy and my #2 top Star Wars moment (if you want the full list "ask me again some time"):

Luke: You've failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi. Like my father before me.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

I don't know how I missed hearing about it.

Zach Galifianakis is in another movie and it looks like the best of the bunch. I like most feel good comedies, but they tend to come up a bit short compared to screwball comedies. They're either too long (The 40 Year Old Virgin, She's Out of My League) or need more comedy (Knocked Up). Maybe this one will have the right touch.

Can the Magic beat the Heat . . .

if they trade for Chris Paul?


It depends on who they get in the trade. Last year the Magic were the best team in the league, at least during the second half, because of their punishing defense. But, as you can see using the WP48 numbers, the loss of Matt Barnes to the Lakers will cost the Magic significantly.

Chris Paul is a lot better than Jameer Nelson. Switching Nelson into a backup roll and adding Paul should help the Magic win about 13 more games, which puts them 5 ahead net Barnes. 65 wins, though, is not going to be enough to compete with the Heat. (Projections for the Heat was difficult because both Lebron's and Wade's WP48 will decrease as they take less shots. Still, they should be somewhere around a 70 win team with the addition of Matt Miller and scrubs.)

To get Paul the Magic will likely lose Vince Carter and some other role players as well as, potentially, Petrius.  They are not a big loss own their own because J. J. Redick can step up and play shooting guard.

The real question for the Magic is what they are going to do at power forward. If they can acquire Emeka Okafore in the trade (to soak up his massive contract) he could be used as a significant upgrade at power forward since Rashard Lewis is the worst power forward in the league. That would net the team about 6 wins. (An alternative is to just play Gortat at power forward full time, which would net less as you lose his backup minutes.) It would also free up Lewis to play small forward since the Magic don't have a replacement for Barnes.

With all the right things happening the Magic would be a 70+ win team and be able to compete with the Heat. But if they decide to continue to play Lewis at PF they'll probably be going home in the Eastern Conference finals again next May.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Shaving in India

But according to the survey, most men from Chennai and Bangalore take more than half an hour to shave.

I don't know If the survey was of rural areas or not. But if it was I have an idea for a new development project in India. Does anybody want to design a low cost razor blade?

Bonus useless information: The survey also found that Indian women prefer clean shaven men. That contrasts with a survey in England that found some stubble is best. I just wait until I look like a dirtbag before I shave. Such is life in college.


I went to the game today and got my money's worth. How often does all of this happen in one game:

1. Leyland (the Tigers manager) went off on an umpire for about a minute, getting in his face and shoving so much that another ump had to break it up. Isn't that an automatic suspension?

2. They called catcher inference.

3. The Rays won with 3 hits, the fewest in a win in over 20 years.

4. Joyce hit a grand slam. And it was the 1st hit of the game. In the 6th inning.

and of course, the story of the night:

5. Garza threw a no-hitter.

I saved my 32 oz. souvenir cup from the game. I collect the cups from all the gratuitously large soda's I drink, but this one is now maybe my favorite.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Return of the Jedi

Lawrence Kasdan wrote the scripts for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which both stand out for having the best dialogue in their respective series. But he also wrote the script for Return of the Jedi, which is plagued throughout by clunkers. What happened?

Wikipedia explains:
Unusually, the screenplay itself was not created until rather late in pre-production, well after a production schedule and budget had been created by Kazanjian and Marquand had been hired. Instead, the production team relied on Lucas's story and rough draft in order to commence work with the art department. When it came time to formally write a shooting script, Lucas, Kasdan, Marquand, and Kazanjian spent two weeks in conference discussing ideas; Kasdan used tape transcripts of these meetings to then construct the script.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Influential Movies

I forgot to include this one in my list of influential books, but it's important, now more than ever.

The Return of Depression Economics - I never finished the book, but I learned the parable of the babysitting co-op and that was my first lesson in monetary policy.

Now for my list of movies with good ideas. Most of them just have one good idea that felt novel to me, but that's all you need since most pictures preach platitudes.

Avatar - The trees (and animals) are connected like neurons in a brain. Together, they form a self, Eywa, and can think. Isn't that interesting? What does it say about ecology on Earth? Probably nothing.

Bowling for Columbine - Michael Moore has tackled some questions beyond his reach. But Bowling for Columbine is a masterpiece. He wonders why America is so violent and plagued by so many homocides. Maybe, he suggests, its because we live in fear. I think he's just scratching the surface of social capital and institutions, but I didn't know about that stuff back then.

The Dark Knight - Crime is interesting, if only because I don't know much about it. Gordon introduced the theme of The Dark Knight at the end of Batman Begins: (paraphrased) "What about escalation? . . . We start carrying semi-autos, they buy automatics. We buy body armor, they buy armor piercing rounds. And your wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops . . ."

The Godfather - "It's not personal, it's just business." That's the basis for the the best tragedy in the history of film. Compare vis a vis Anakin in the Star Wars prequels and Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. And how many people think straight about their professional lives anyway?

The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions - These are a great rumination on causality and determinism. But they don't introduce a lot I'd consider novel until the very end of Revolutions, which would have been great in a book but comes up short on screen. The basic idea is when you ask a yes or no question where both answers would be contradictory*, what is the answer? Neo represents that kind of a contradiction, choice does to, and Neo resolves the contradiction by simply deciding one way or the other (we think he does at the end of Reloaded, but he doesn't, we have to wait until Revolutions for it). That is the only "mind blowing" idea I've noticed in a movie.

* Example: The barber shaves all and only the people in town who don't shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself?

Quote of the Day: Chinese Edition

I read this in a novel, it's attributed to Confucious:
An educated woman is a useless woman.
I  searched for that quote on the Internet and couldn't find it. I did find a treasure trove of misogynistic Neo-confucian quotes here.

Of course, no one believes that stuff anymore, do they?

Maybe. Ray Fisman's research, summarized in Blink and here:
Fisman's study shows that men do like smart, ambitious women as long as they are not smarter and more ambitious than they are. . . . What about other women? How do they feel about extremely intelligent women? For the most part, unless they are also very intelligent, they tend to either be jealous or feel inferior and not want to associate with them.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


I'm an unabashed utilitarian--of sorts. I think that all there really is to life is having a happy life, and I'm partial to definition of happy that focus on moment to moment feelings, as opposed to satisfaction when you reflect on memories. (More on the two types in this old post.)

One tradeoff that can comes up for utilitarians is between length and life and happiness during it. Is a better life one with more total happiness? More average happiness? We see this trade-off come up with sinful goods, like drugs, alcohol, and high-fat foods. Suppose you really would be happier if you drank 5 drinks every night. Would you be willing to trade ten years of your life (live to 67 instead of 77) so you could be 1 unit happier on a ten point scale?

That is a bad example because it rests on a mistaken premise. Becoming an alcoholic almost certainly isn't a road to bliss, nor are drug abuse or gratuitous gluttony.

But are there any good, relevant examples of a tradeoff where your risking your health for a clear gain in happiness?

The one that got me thinking about this is not fit for print.


This was in the drafts folder for a long time. I didn't have time to turn the notes I jotted down into anything polished.

How do we decide what we're impressed by? And how much of it do we even get to decide?

Some factors are probably:

1. how hard did someone try?

2. how unique is the skill vis a vis a reference point?

3. how much does our culture respect people who can do it?

I ranked them according to what our intuition probably says is most important. We respect effort first and foremost, and are most impressed by achievements people invest years of their lives in.

But is that true? Would you be more impressed by someone eating 100 sticks of butter in 15 minutes or someone composing the best music on the best selling classical CD this year? I don't think anyone can actually do the former. It far and away more difficult, but if someone did I doubt they'd do it to much fanfare. We just aren't impressed by unusual talents like that. How much is that a product of acculturation and how much is it a product of not understanding?

It could be the later. After all, I don't know anything about competitive eating. That sounds like a lot of butter, but maybe it's common to eat that much on the circuit. Maybe it wouldn't even be that hard if you trained for a year. But to compose a best selling CD? You could train for decades and never accomplish that, right? We're more impressed by things we understand because we can put the achievement in context--how hard did they have to work? (I'm putting aside the issue of natural talent here.)

But I think that factor isn't as important as we think. Here is a thought experiment I like to use. Whose accomplishments are more impressive, Michael Jordan's or Mozart's? I'm pretty sure most people will say Mozart as a snap answer. But most of those people don't know much about composing. They don't have any idea how much people actually like Mozart (do you? Classical music makes up < 2.5% of total album sales). Most people know a little more about Jordan, if only because he's still alive. He won 6 championships and he's far and away the best basketball player of all time. We know roughly how old basketball is (100 years) and how many people play (tens of millions) in the U.S. A lot more people play sports than compose classical music, and a lot more people are alive today then hundreds of years ago. If Mozart was one of the best composers in an era when few people composed and fewer people lived, doesn't that add up to an best guess that there are a lot more Mozarts out there than Jordans? If our judgements were driven primarily by praising what we understand we should be more impressed with Jordan. But we aren't.

So the question is whether everyone is impressed by Picaso's paintings and Shakespeare's plays because everyone likes them, or because everyone told them they're impressive for so long?

Note: This didn't fit in, but it's a nice dig on Cambridge elites. I've noticed the same people who tend to claim the most interest in diversity are the least accepting of these kinds of ideas. They have the strongest commitment to traditional views about what makes good art and what constitutes "success." Isn't it time they opened our eyes to the diversity of human achievement? Like eating 4.5 lbs of steak in 7 minutes.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Star Wars Comedy

failbook is pretty funny. This is the best one I've seen.

More comedy: this is funny. But numbers 3, 5, 15, 16, and 19 are painful truths.

Quote of the Day

Schuster opens the door.

Schuster: Oh, it's you. . . . I'm waiting for a package.

Steve: I got your package right here.

Fill in the stage directions.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

New York and Star Wars

This is a post in a series that goes back to my first post where I campaign against people referring to Star Wars as "A New Hope"

If I said "I live in New York" what would you think I meant? I live in New York state, New York City, New York County (Manhattan), or New York metro? Depending on the context you may think any of the four. Sometimes the meaning wouldn't be clear from context and you'd ask for clarification. A lot of the time it wouldn't matter, so you wouldn't bother.

One of the main arguments people make against saying "Star Wars" is that it isn't clear from context what you mean. But we tolerate the ambiguity with other words, like New York (mentioned here) and Disneyland (mentioned previously), so why not with Star Wars?

I bring up New York as an example because it has interesting parallels with Star Wars. For starters, for the most part, if people mean something to do with upstate New York they say upstate New York, not just New York. That is analogous to how you can specify that you mean a specific Star Wars movie you can give its name (e.g. Return of the Jedi), not just Star Wars. If people mean the entire state of New York, they usually say New York state, just like if you mean the Star Wars saga or trilogy you can say so. More interestingly, a lot of college students, I've noticed, mean Manhattan (that's pronounced Men-haten) when they say "New York." If you were talking about Queens or Brooklyn they wouldn't count that as New York City, I guess. That is probably a legacy of the fact that Brooklyn was an independent city until something like 1880 and Manhattan was just New York until then. Star Wars, of course, has a similar story, being released as "Star Wars" and being known only by that name for the longest time. (The 1981 re-release added the "Episode IV" and "A New Hope" lines to the crawl, but I don't think it was widely known until some smart asses started a trend in the 90s.)

One last point: you could take this as an argument for saying "A New Hope," after all it does seem stupid that people say "New York" when they mean Manhattan specifically. But Manhattan doesn't have a horribly ugly sound like "New Hope." And this is really about beauty as much as tradition.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Commit in September

The Quote of the Day goes to Invisible Children for this Facebook status:
Our friends at the Millennium Campus Network need your help to get 72 million children in a school.
They're going to achieve Millennium Development Goal #2 and set a World Record by having 72 million children in one school.

Joking aside, I do highly recommend singing the petition at Commit in September.

A lot of people don't like these things because they seem useless. Does it really matter that one more person signs the petition? Probably not. But even if there is a tiny probability that one extra e-mail, call, meeting or signature makes a difference, the payoff is massive. When you multiply a tiny number by a massive number you get . . . well, it depends on how tiny and how massive. So you might as well sign because it might be massive. (These models are hard to calibrate so I won't try. But here is an irrelevant fact I will mention to bias your views: based on a model estimated by Gelman et al. though, the expected payoff to voting in a swing state is at least on the order of $10,000.)

Another reason people don't like to sign these things is that they don't think these policy issues matter. Foreign aid doesn't work right? The only way to make a difference is to get your hands dirty, they say. But most small projects are utter failures. If I had to put money on it, your money and time would be better spent dealing with (and preventing) mental illness in the U.S., unless you're working on vaccinations or clean water. In contrast, PEPFAR has put 2 million people on ARVs for several years. That's means that an investment of a few hundred thousand signatures, letters, and calls yielded about 10 million life-years or about 100 life-years per signature. If the average impact of signing at Commit in September is something like 100 life-years isn't it worth 2 minutes?

Is The Godfather IMDb's real #1?

Inception is #3 on IMDb's list of top movies. Toy Story was #6 a few weeks ago, but it's rank has sunk to #8 and will probably continue to plummet. Avatar started at #28 and has sunk out of the top 100. The Dark Knight, most famously, was briefly #1. There's got to be something wrong with how IMDb uses ratings for new movies. What is it?

It's called selection bias. The pool of people who vote on movies right when they come out isn't representative of the typical IMDb user who will vote on the film. They tend to be people who were so hyped about the movie that they saw it opening night or opening weekend. The result is that Inception has the 40,000 votes from people verly likely to enjoy the film. (IMDb corrects for this somewhat by filling in the "missing" votes that would get Inception up to 200k with an "average" opinion, but the trend shows they clearly don't compensate enough.)

There are other biases, though, in the IMDb formula that can throw the ranks out of whack. One is that it doesn't take into account the age distribution of voters. In general 18-29 years old give movies higher ratings than older people (45+) and these groups have different tastes. 18-29 year olds have substantially higher ratings than 45+s for The Shawshank Redemption (9.4 vs 8.7) and The Dark Knight (9.1 vs 7.7). In contrast, both age groups give similar ratings for The Godfather and Avatar. So I asked if it's possible IMDb has the ranking of Shawshank and The Godfather and The Dark Knight and Avatar backwards if you adjust for age demographics.

Short answer: yes. Based on these data, if you put a gun to my head and asked which movies would have a higher rating if the entire country watched each pair, my guesses would be The Godfather (by a big margin) and Avatar (by the slimest of margins).

Another bias to explore is gender bias. IMDb voters are overwhelming male, but the U.S. population (and movie-goers in general) aren't. Can that help explain why The Blind Side has a 4.4 on Netflix and an A on Yahoo! Movies but doesn't even make the IMDb Top 250? Sort of. The average rating for females is 8.2 vs 7.7 for men, and most of the ratings are from men. But if you give equal weight it only bumps The Blind Side up to a 7.9, not enough to make the Top 250 cut. The bias effecting The Blind Side is probably the selection bias in who visits the website (hipsters who don't like mainstream movies or football much?). The Notebook, though, is easily booted from the Top 250 by gender bias. It has a phenomenal 8.6 rating from females and a 7.8 from males, averaging to 8.2 and a would-be spot somewhere around #120. That is probably still to low, though, given it's 4.2 on Netflix from 5.5 million ratings.

Update: Here's another interesting story about the Godfather and Shawshank rankings.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

Christopher Nolan’s persistent thematic idea [is] 'What we see is not true, it's just a facade.' You see this in all his movies. But he never says ["why"] . . . in any depth . . ." Basically, there's nothing to 'get' in the first place.

This is not completely true. The Batman films serve steak, not tripe. But it's worth repeating over and over: If you didn't understand something it's usually because the author/director/painter/composer isn't clear or because there is nothing to "get."

Ghosbusters 3

It's never going to happen, via Bill Murray.

He also comments on Los Angeles:

It's like the first day you check into a hotel in L.A. there's a message under your door. The second day, there's eleven messages under your door. The third day, there's thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy messages. And I realized that they just want fresh blood. They. Just. Want. Fresh. Blood. You gotta get the hell out of there.


This is tragic. But it shows how powerful stories can be when our priors are weak, even for rational, objective people.

Colleges have a lot of programs that try to inculcate a very expansive definition of rape to students because, lets face it, rape and bike theft are part of college life. I always thought those programs were a waste. If you get raped you'd know it, but you could easily be traumatized and in denial. In that case, I don't think the programs would help. If you're a friend she confides in though, it should be easy to reassure her she's right, right?

Wrong. A true story someone posted on a forum:

My friend went over this guy's house just to see him. She knew him all through high school and she was just going to visit just to see him. So she gets to his house and they are the only two there. She just wants to chill downstairs and talk but he clearly wants to take things up to his bedroom. She suggests that they stay downstairs and just watch T.V. So, after awhile of going back and forth about this, he pulls her off the couch and forces her go upstairs. He tries to get her to have sex but she keeps saying no and trying to get back downstairs. Then at one point and he leaves the room and shuts the door and tell her when he gets back, she should have her clothes off. When he comes back, she still has her clothes on and she didn't undress. So he takes them off of her and then it happens. She got him off her and got dressed and started crying. Was that date rape?

Now just one moron wrote that--that is as small of a sample size as it gets. But in this case my prior was so weak that the story completely changed my mind about those freshmen orientation programs.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Like most "literal-minded" people, I'm not that interested in metaphysics. I think the questions are interesting: Do we have free will? What is real? Is there a God? They seem self-evidently important.

Yet there's something wrong with most metaphysical speculation. I can't say it as eloquently as Hume so I'll just dig up the famous quote to express my sentiments:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

If philosophy departments are sophistry plants, then metaphysicists are the 20% in the 80/20 rule.

Still, Hume's statement contradicts itself. He wants us to avoid questions that can't be settled scientifically, yet his basis for the claim isn't scientific. There's something inescapable about questions of reality, purpose, and free will.

Free will is the easiest to settle. Everything in the universe seems pretty easy to explain in deterministic or at least probabilistic terms at a quantum level. There doesn't seem to be any scope for choice at the level of the tissues and organs, so it seems unlikely our brains can really make choices. Free will is a myth. But it's a myth that we should believe in. Stories are important to our lives, even if they are delusions. "Sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more." We deserve free will.

The fact that I casually advocate deluding yourself suggests I don't care much about reality. That is mostly true. I don't think subjective idealism is refutable. I don't think you can prove anything is "real" or even care what word "real" means. But I do, of course, have implicit views. As far as I'm concerned what's real is what our intuition, the principle of parsimony, and scientific experiments combine to tell us is real. The ground we stand on is real, by intuition. Electrons are real, by experimental evidence. God is not real, by the principle of parsimony. There is no higher purpose in the universe, no set of criteria for deciding what is right and wrong or what we should do. There's just what's in our heads.

This is why delusions are ok. What's "really real" is whatever we can construct in our minds. We can give ourselves goals and set rules for telling right from wrong. We can give these goals and rules meaning. And we should--for our own health and happiness (the two "goods" I give meaning to start with).

Thus my metaphysic says, in short, we are probably just clumps of matter that somehow, through some strange loop, became self-aware. We don't have any objective purpose, but we shouldn't care. We should invest some purpose--then ignore the ladder of reasoning we used to arrive at that purpose and pursue it as a given most of the time. That's how we'll be happiest.

I don't have use for thought experiments like the experience machine or questions about whether we live in a computer simulation, or even whether we have free will. We shouldn't care.

"Of course it is [just] happening inside your head . . . but why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?"

Other interesting ideas in metaphysics I didn't get to mention:

1. In I am a Strange Loop Douglas Hofstadter makes an analogy for the interaction of neurons in our brain and our thoughts. I recommend reading the book because I can't explain it here but his basic point is that we can just as well say that our thoughts and feelings "cause" the neurons to fire in certain patterns as saying that those patterns "cause" us to feel the way we do. It's a semantic point about the meaning of "cause" but it's interesting.

2. In The Big Questions, Steve Landsburg notes that math is a universal. We're compelled by logic to agree with provable propositions. Perhaps, then, he proposes a sort of Platonism where math is the reality. It sounds better in the book.

3. The latter two films in The Matrix trilogy have an interesting "worldview." In the world of The Matrix there is an anomaly in the universe that is otherwise governed by (I guess) mathematical laws. This anomaly represents something like incompleteness or the halting program, and is represented in human form by Neo. Neo is the only person in the movies who can make choices, though he only ever makes one choice, because all the other "choices" are caused by this or that rationale. Neo gets caught in a fight with Smith that is analogous to the halting program, and he chooses to halt. Smith asks why, but there is no rationale, he does it simply "because [he] choose[s] to."

Your Mom

I got a cheap iPod touch thanks to a supply shift that drove down prices. And they say classical economics is dead.

I use it to make notes, like this gem:

Tax: Do you usually sleep on your back?

Steve: ...

Tax: I usually sleep on my side.

Steve: I usually sleep with your mom.

True story.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What and Where to Read

I'll bookend another David Brooks quote with two Keynes quotes:

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones

But Brooks believes we should try to entrap ourselves with the old ideas:

. . . different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on . . .

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

The thing is, you can read books with terrible, unimportant ideas just like you can read terrible writing on the Internet (like this). Brooks isn't arguing for books so much as arguing for the cannon. But I don't read fiction because there are hardly any good ideas in fiction--you tend to get out only what you put in. That eliminates most of the cannon. The rest, which is mostly philosophy and religion, you can learn more efficiently through secondary sources. Reading Kant in translation or Berkeley directly is a horrible way to learn about the categorical imperative or subjective idealism. If you want to be smart don't read a lot of "great books," just siphon a ton of great ideas out of good textbooks and literature reviews. Then think hard about why most of those ideas are bad (e.g. this).

That said, Brooks might have a point when you consider libertarians. They tend to learn everything they know from a few Internet sources and don't know much economic theory. Indeed,

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes.

from an otherwise horrible column by David Brooks. He notes this with disdain, but I wonder if it's such a bad thing. What makes some people important and others not?


I read a good post on Aid Thoughts and commented, further comments below. Their point is that people can become addicted to aid and unable to help themselves if you give them too much help for too long.

Those are points well taken, with one caveat. A lot of people seem to think this problem stems from the scale of aid, but it doesn't. The incentives people face are a product of how the aid is given. For instance, if you give aid on the condition that for every dollar earned in a micro-enterprise you'll invest more money, that aid incentivizes effort. If you give aid unconditionally and with the expectation that it will flow forever, then you're going to be discouraging work.

That said, sometimes people make the point that we don't want foreign aid to last forever. Eventually countries and people should learn to stand on their own two feet. That sounds nice in theory, but horribly implausible. In the U.S. we have a massive, permanent program of wealth redistribution that most people use to supplement their consumption (EITC, Medicare, etc.) for much of their lives. We know unemployment insurance deters finding unemployment so we set a cutoff date, but we know a lot of people will find themselves back on the rolls next year. We know the EITC phase-out deters working overtime, but we accept it as a necessary evil. Aid does deter effort, but we take it as given that in the long run we're going to handing out aid to the poor in the U.S. Is it such a stretch to think we'll be handing out more aid, not less, to the poor in Rwanda as the world becomes more globalized?

Inception Review

Inception is about a man who has been separated from his (young) kids for years and his quest to reunite with them. That is largely what separates Inception from Nolan's earlier efforts, e.g. The Prestige, Momento. This movie has an emotional core and characters you care about, not one of Nolan's hallmarks.

The movie, as a whole, however, is essential Nolan. The editing is tight and the pacing is guided by a deft touch reminiscent of The Dark Knight and most comparable to Terminator 2. The movie speaks to standard Nolan-type psycho-fare: the complexity and nature of ideas, dreaming and some metaphysical crock, and most importantly a platitude about about living for the future, not in the past.

Still, while Inception is a psychological thriller, the emphasis is firmly on the later. There's more action in the film that the original Star Wars trilogy, countless explosions, and a length chase scene for good measure. Several dozen people die, buildings collapse, there's some fistcuffs with a twist, and even a brief touch of romance in the thick of things. Also, notably, most of the film looks real. While computer-generated imagery was surely important, it takes a backseat in all but a few shots. Indeed, the raw feel of the film reminded me more of Indiana Jones than The Matrix, the later of which is the benchmark for films like this that try to walk a fine line between popular appeal and courting sophomoric critics.

Based on, Inception succeeded in convincing critics that it's a "smart" film. But as I've noted in the past, anyone with an IQ > 110 isn't going to get an intellectual hard on at the theater. I prefer to think that the (if you haven't seen prepare yourself for this) supposed ambiguity of the ending is just a bone throw to hipsters, not a meaningful point for discussion. If you watch carefully that seems to be Nolan's intent. The film ends the way it should, resolving the central conflict, albeit with some philosophical flourish thrown in to ensure critics left happy. (Predictably, a few used it as an opportunity to show they're better than you.)

Inception, despite being the biggest thrill of the year, has it's flaws. It leaves a little too much hanging when it hits it's climax. Nolan then tries to wrap things up quick, but it leaves you feeling both a bit shafted on the story and like the film was a bit anticlimactic. They also showed off the biggest explosion in the trailer, which is never acceptable.

In the film, inception is about planting an idea. But you have to be careful about how you plant the idea for it to grow and take hold. We'll have to see if Nolan successful pulled off inception with this film, planting a seed in Hollywood that says you can fill a film with gratuitous violence without crowding the appearance of erudition out.

Another good review.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bond 23

Bond 23 may never get made due to MGM's bankruptcy woes.

What I don't understand is why they won't just sell the rights the distribute Bond films. Is it because they'll have to use the money to pay off creditors? But then do they really expect to not have to sell the rights to creditors when filling for bankruptcy? If they do something is wrong with our courts.

My question is why the Coase Theorem isn't applying here. The transaction cost of selling the right are tiny (just have a second price auction) and the efficient outcome is to start producing Bond 23 ASAP while Craig and Mendes can work on the film. But that isn't what's happening.

And that sucks.

Class War

If you split the Democratic Party into three camps--the liberals (academics, investment bankers), conservatives (Southern Democrats), and labor (most people)--I have a little in common with each. But I'd only self-identify as a Labor Democrat because the truth is that the liberals are uppity yuppies at best and condescending snobs at worst. Trust me, I've lived in Cambridge.

And I don't think I'm the only person put off by the pretension of the liberal elite. It seems more and more "working class" people are not just identifying as conservatives but lobbying for mindless libertarian policies too (e.g. the Fair Tax).

Ross Douthat, a Republican, argues for small government class warrior policies in his most recent column.

What I don't understand is why someone would support repealing the mortgage tax deduction and means-testing Medicare if they don't like "taxes." The former is a plain old tax hike and the later has the same disincentive effect as a tax hike (in theory). Plus, these policies are so weak it's insulting. You almost feel Douthat is a Republican stooge throwing a bone to the dogs to appease them ... oh wait

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

More on the Greatest Movies Debate

One statistic I forgot to include in the great movies entry was DVD sales. These are problematic because newer movies that were originally released on DVD got more hype and advertising (a bias that also afflicts box office gross). Furthermore, man consumers are reluctant to upgrade to DVD when they have a perfectly good VHS of the movie on the shelf. Add to that the unreliability of DVD sales statistics and that the best numbers come from 2005 when a few movies had just recently been released (the Star Wars Trilogy and Shawshank in late 2004) and you have a recipe for trouble. A few points:

1. While the relatively weak box office grosses for the Lord of the Rings films weaken their case, upon their release they quickly became the best selling DVDs ever.

2. The Star Wars trilogy claimed the 4th spot as a set within 10 months of release. This is even more impressive as many fans waited for the complete 6 DVD set they expected post-Episode III, others avoided the DVD upgrade to protest the "Super Special Edition" changes, and others had a quality VHS and had no need to upgrade. If anything this is strong evidence the Star Wars movies remain the most popular ever made. (It's also worth noting Star Wars is listed on Facebook as a favorite movie more than any film aside from The Godfather.)

3. The Godfather makes the list of best-selling DVDs, albeit at #20. Sales might have been depressed because no one likes the 3rd film, the DVDs were sold in a set, and because it had a weaker advertising campaign than the Star Wars films, if I remember correctly.

4. The Shawshank Redemption's absence from the top selling DVD lists in notable. This contributes to its anomalous stature along with its box office gross, compounding the possibility that maybe it rates highly simply because no one dislikes it. Another interesting fact is that while each Star Wars film costs $15 at Wal-Mart you can find Shawshank in the $5 movie bin alongside countless duds (and Jaws strangely enough).

5. Avatar and The Dark Knight are far and away the best selling Blu-Ray films of all time (Avatar is #1 by a good margin) and are enough the top selling DVDs, although I'm not sure of their ranks.

Martha Nussbaum on Buqua's

Nussbaum's argument against banning them.

She's a philosopher, so she should be prone to making long-winded, logically inconsistent arguments that misrepresent counterarguments and rely on a number of empirical claims that are swept under the rug. But here (despite being a little drawn out), she manages to make a clear point about theory, then applies the criteria and address counter-points sequentially. She even addresses and empirical point (about the correlation between Islam and violence). This goes to show I don't hate all philosophy writing, just most of it.

On a side note, which one doesn't fit:
Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects


Trust is important for a successful economy because without trust you can't enforce contracts. Instead of chasing the wants (and needs) of consumers, entrepreneurs and costumers try to cheat each other, extort from the rich, and fight over government largess. In cross country regressions, for what it's worth, trust positively is correlated with GDP.

Since trust is based on honesty, I wonder if this example will help spawn higher trust in Pakistan. Behavior can be catchy, so I'm glad their publicizing this on the BBC.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Greatest Movies Ever Made

I've always wanted to write a post about "the best movies ever made" because most people seem to think whatever their favorite or their friend's favorite is the country's favorite. The following nine films are all in what I'd consider part of the pantheon of Americans films based on the views on millions of Americans on what I consider the most representative polls. They are movies that seems to widely loved, at least within the U.S., and most of the across the world. Before I get started I want to mention two films that didn't make the cut because they are hard to judge: Gone with the Wind and Titanic.

Gone with the Wind may well have been the biggest box office hit of all time. I've read that the state of Georgia declared it's release a state holiday so everyone could attend, and some of the box office numbers suggest the average America saw the movie at least 5 times, which seems implausible to me as the film weighs in at nearly 4 hours. It was almost certainly the most hyped movie in history (even more than Episode I and The Empire Strikes Back). The New York Times review from 1939 starts with the premise that it has a claim to being the best film yet made and should be judged against that standard. As late as 1970 it was surely America's favorite movie.  Nevertheless, we can't tell how much people loved it because so many people who were adults in 1939 are dead today. It is certainly not the the favorite among Americans living today, but even among them would be just on the outside of the cut for this list.

Update: I was wrong. As of early 2008, Gone with the Wind was still Americans' favorite film

Titanic is similar. In 1998 it probably would have ranked as the "best movie ever made." It was the biggest box office hit since at least E.T. and it even captured the attention of the elites, winning an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards. But it's luster has worn off over time. It's average rating on Netflix is 3.8 but that may be a by product of having over 7 million ratings. (Ratings tend to decline with the number of voters because those who liked the film the most and were most likely to like it are the first to see and rate the film.)

Update: Casablanca should have made this list, easily as a classic.

Films history has yet to judge

1. Avatar (2009)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Blind Side (2009) 

Avatar was a monster box office hit, on the scale of Titanic, E.T. and Star Wars. The Dark Knight was a milder hit, but still historically large. Both have 4.3's on Netflix and The Dark Knight is a favorite movie of over 1 million people on Facebook. The Dark Knight is also the only 2000s film in IMDb's top 10. The Blind Side was not a historic box office hit, but it has a special place on the list as possibly, among women, the "best movie ever made." It has a 4.4 on Netflix, which appears to driven primarily by female raters. Still, that rating may be inflated by the lack of people who absolutely hate the film or want to hate the film driving the rating down with 1s. I consider it the most likely to drop off this list in time. These are the only three movies that have an A average on Yahoo! Movies after tens of thousands of votes, but it's worth keeping in mind that Yahoo! is biased toward newer films. Indeed, their "newness" is what makes them hard to judge. In my opinion The Dark Knight will remain in the pantheon, the other's hold temporary positions while history judges them. (Of course, that may just be a by product of the fact that I personally think The Dark Knight is the best movie made in nearly 20 years. It's my 3rd favorite on this list.)

Other Recent Masterpieces

4. Return of the King (2003)

Return of the King has a 4.4 on Netflix and an A- average with over 200,000 votes on Yahoo! Movies, far and away the most for any movie. It was a major blockbuster in the U.S., but wasn't close to legendary like Avatar or The Dark Knight. It may have a stronger claim to being the greatest film in the English-speaking world with nearly 70% of ticket sales coming overseas than to being the best American film, especially when you consider the source material, cast, and director. But there is no denying Return of the King was easily, until The Dark Knight hit theaters, the film of the decade.

5. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

There's no movie more anamolous than The Shawshank Redemption in the movie pantheon. It was a hit with critics on it's release, but not enough to win oscars when competing against Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. It wasn't much of a hit with theater goers either, raking in a paltry $25 million, far and away the weakest showing among legendary films. Yet it's IMDb's #1 movie and has been for some time. It's the only movie I know of on Netflix with a 4.6 rating, even after 4.38 million votes. It also has an A- on Yahoo! Movies, after over 97 thousand votes, more than both Star Wars and The Godfather suggesting the unprecedented ratings are not a fluke of sample size or demographic. It's incredibly puzzling how this movie had such a low box-office take and flew under the radar so much that, until a few years ago, I had no idea it was so popular. Yet it's undoubtedly true that Shawshank is one of the four serious contenders for best movie ever made.

The Classics

6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Indiana Jone's first adventure is, by a small margin, the most popular and highest rated. It clocks in with a  4.4 on Netflix after nearly 4 million votes, which is an anomaly as other classics of the era tend to have fewer than 2.5 million. It also has an A- on Yahoo! and tends to show up on most lists up best action/adventure movie as #1. It's also IMDb's 20th best picture, yet was a box office smash, raking in more than The Dark Knight and a bit less than The Empire Strikes Back, but still a tier below behemoths like Star Wars. This is fitting, as, despite it's broad appeal, few would rank Raiders ahead of Star Wars on a list of best movies. It may be the 2nd best movie ever made, but it's almost certainly not the best, by any criteria. (For what it's worth, this is my 4th favorite on the list.)

7. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
8. Star Wars (1977)

These are listed together because they are both major contenders for greatest film, but it's not clear which is better. Empire is generally considered the best Star Wars movie, as I found from trawling the Internet looking for polls. Those polls are probably dominated by Star Wars fans, but to me this is all the more surprising as I always thought Jedi was the most popular among the obsessive and Empire just among the general public. I guess that's just my friends. Empire has a 4.4 on Netflix from over 2 million votes and ranks higher than Star Wars on IMDB's greatest movies list at #8 compared to #13. It was voted the best film ever in a number of polls, often along with Star Wars, including from Empire Magazine on multiple occasions, in a BBC/Channel 4 poll, and on Total Film. Star Wars, in addition to sharing the above accolates, ties Empire with a 4.4 on Netflix from over 2 million votes. It also bests Empire with an A- on Yahoo! vis a vis Empire's (shocking) B+. Empire was a massive blockbuster (top 10 all-time) but Star Wars was legendary, revivaled only by Avatar, E.T., and Titanic in the era of good bookkeeping. Including its re-release in 1978 makes Star Wars the biggest box-office hit of all-time. It's surely the most culturally significant film and the launching point for the biggest series of the films. (If you're dying to know my opinion, which you surely are, Star Wars is the best movie ever made, Jedi is 2nd or 3rd, and Empire is 4th.)

9. The Godfather (1972)

For a long time The Godfather was IMDb's #1 movie. Today it ranks 2nd. It has a 4.5 on Netflix from over 2.7 million votes and an A- on Yahoo! movies. The only movie that tends to best it in ratings is Shawshank, yet it was a far bigger hit on release and age may have depressed its ratings somewhat. It also has the accolades, not worth much in my opinion, of having won Best Picture and being near the top of AFI's best films list (#2 in the revised list). If the Star Wars saga is America's great fantasy story (what The Lord of the Rings is for the U.K.) then The Godfather is America's great tragedy (what the late Shakespearean tragedies are for England). When they look back in 100 years, they'll remember America's golden age by The Godfather and Star Wars. (I think it's mediocre.)

It's worth noting that The Godfather Part 2 may have made this list if it weren't so clear The Godfather is the better film. Likewise, the two other Lord of the Rings movies, both 4.4s, are clearly inferior to the part of the saga listed, but they deserve recognition. Other's that just missed the cut include E.T. for it's box office might and Schlindler's List for being on many top 10 lists and a Netflix 4.5 average, though from less than 2 million votes and a mere B+ on Yahoo! Movies, and Forrest Gump for universal acclaim despite never breaking into the top 5 in any major poll/survey/vote.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lebron James

Seth, quoted in Bill Simmon's column, with the quote of the month:
I think this is the first time in history one man managed to destroy an entire city by himself. Even the Enola Gay had a flight crew.
Second best comes from Steve L, who dubbed "the new big 3" the Nazgul because:

The Nazgul were the characters in "Lord of the Rings" that were former kings who turned into demons that were constantly chasing the ring. It completely consumed them and robbed them of their humanity. I think this sums up the situation in Miami.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

More on the World Cup

Soccer and sex are substitutes it appears, at least for South African tourists.

The influx of soccer fans would increase demand on South African sex workers, at least that was the belief . . . But it seems fans . . . that traveled . . . have created a flop in sex-worker business.

reports CNN.

Before Americans get excited, hoping they can use ESPN Classic to keep their husbands off their back, it doesn't appear that sex and sports are substitutes in general. In fact, the surprisingly low demand may be a product of the the implicit higher cost in South Africa.

From the archives: why soccer is called soccer.

Friday, July 9, 2010

High concept Redux

One critic said The Matrix was "high concept hokum."

How can critics be so ignorant about their own field? Don't they get paid to think about movies and use big words correctly?


Zizek is a likeable guy and, as this profile from Der Spielgel illustrates, a characiture of everything wrong with philosophers.

Zizek is the kind of guy who "is so full of thoughts that are just waiting to bubble out of him" that he doesn't even need notes to speak to an cosmopolitan audience of 1,000. In science, that might scare you: you come to hear about carefully constructed experiments and tight reasonsing. You expect parimonious explanations you could explain to your grandma. Simplicity is a virtue.

But not in philosophy. At this conference, complexity is a virtue: "the point is not to provide easy or concrete answers." This is a conference of ideas.

Ideas about how "the ontological essense of the Germans, French, and Americans [is based] on their toilet habits and the resulting relationship with their fecal matter." Filled with wry, cutting insights such that "the best, most impressive films about the Holocaust are comedies." Like Schindler's List.

The first, and only, time I read Zizek I found him pontificating about the need for an "aesthetic appreciate of trash." I don't remember why we needed it (something to do with ending global warming), but I'm pretty sure "stupid is as stupid does." And Zizek is stupid.

I felt like that point was shocking enough to deserve bolding. I'm not a dramatic person. I wouldn't bold it--I didn't want to--but it practically bolded itself.

The thing is, the fact that Zizek is a moron will come as a shock to many. Yet anyone who writes 50 books has got to be full of shit. When Zizek started talking about ontologies and shit he stumbled on the Holy Grail of philosophy. He transmuted his high probability of being a moron into a certainty. For a fleeting second I thought he really was brilliant.

He, of course, knows this. He admits he doesn't have deep ideas, or even big ideas most of the time. He just has a big personality, big enough to write an entertaining human interest piece at least.

Part III in the on-going series "Why I hate Philosophers." Part I and Part II, retroactively designated.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

More on District 9

I trashed District 9 in an earlier post and I'm sure that offended the taste of uptown yuppies and hipsters living in their IMDB bubble where District 9 is the 122nd best movie ever made, ahead of classics of wide appeal such as The Lion King (146), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Graduate (1967).

When I was talking to some such bobos last semester they pointed out that, if District 9 wasn't "better" than Avatar, at least it provided a better return on investment. After all, District 9's great special effects were done on a budget of $30 million while Avatar cost a reported $235 million, more than 7x as much. Alas, Avatar grossed over $2.7 billion because of its widespread appeal and acclaim while District 9 raked in about 200 million, or less than 10% as much. You do the math.

Still, box office grosses don't tell you that much as other friends noted. Sometimes a great one slips through the cracks--think The Shawshank Redemption. And $200 million isn't exactly slipping through the cracks. But Avatar is one of the few movies to earn an A on Yahoo! Movies while District 9 earned the average, a B+, putting it on par with Transformers 2, despite having fewer votes. (The fewer people vote on the movie the higher the upward bias as those who choose to watch a movie are more likely to like it than a random person.) Still, didn't everyone hate Transformers 2 and most people like District 9 because of it's insightful allegory about . . . well something to do with race relations. But no, not at all. On Netflix District 9 actually has a lower rating than Transformers 2, a 3.6 vs 3.8, despite the fact that the Netflix movie-buff audience is biased toward the kind of people who (you would think) would like District 9. Update: On Facebook over 47,000 Americans list "Transformers 2" in their interests, and 385,000+ some variation on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (but that may pick up some of the much more popular predecessor) while less than 20,000 list "District 9."

The thing is, even though District 9 got an Oscar nomination and critics loved it, people didn't like it that much. It didn't generate enough good word of mouth from moviegoers to draw others to go buy a ticket, nor did it generally impress those who later saw it in DVD. The evidence is overwhelming that Transformers 2 is a better movie in the sense that more people would prefer the experience of watching it.

But sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometime's people deserve to have their delusions and smug superiority rewarded.

Is affirmative action a distraction?

Note: When discussing affirmative action, everyone I've ever met that argued for it for the sake of diversity later admitted or showed they were being disingenuous. I'm just going to ignore the diversity argument.

A friend of mine had to write an essay about affirmative action for class, but she had a hard time figuring out what to write. She had mixed feelings, like most Americans do, caught between the value of "fairness," which affirmative action promotes, and an intolerance for racial discrimination, which is an unfortunately by-product.

She asked some friends for their opinions. I said I think in practice it's such a mess that it's not worth waxing philosophical on the theory. I pointed out that at our school two races were vastly underrepresented (vs. the U.S. population) while the two other large racial groups were overrepresented, one marginally so. The underrepresented groups were, of course, Blacks and Hispanics, except for the fact that they weren't. Hispanics were marginally overrepresented, while Blacks and Whites were underrepresented. Is the goal of affirmative action to give extra weight to one group (Hispanics) until it's relatively easy to get in at the expense of making is substantially more difficult for another (Whites). And wasn't affirmative action started to help Blacks? You wouldn't know if from the numbers, which look even worse under a microscope. It turns out that 35-40% of blacks were the children of highly educated Caribbean and African immigration, not disadvantaged decedents of slaves.

I've since changed my mind. The fact that affirmative action is so bad at getting the intended effect is probably only a marginal concern. The real questions are:

1. Does going to a more selective college even promote happiness (help people)?

2. What is the opportunity cost of affirmative action activism? Are there other reforms that could help more people?

The answer to is probably a conditional "Yes." Kruger and Dale found that going to more selective colleges increases earning for students for low-income backgrounds. Financial aid is more generous (as a rule of thumb) at more selective colleges too, and students are less likely to drop out, probably due to peer effects. Income, however, is only loosely correlated with happiness, and every student admitted on affirmative action likely crowds out almost one student, so the costs may wipe out the vast majority of the benefit. Furthermore, as discussed above, many (perhaps most) people who benefit from affirmative are not from low-income backgrounds. The benefits, then, seem modest but real.

The opportunity cost for activists, on the other hand, is probably substantial. Lobbying for universal pre-K, simpler financial aid forms, against credential inflation (which affirmative action may contribute to), for more Pell Grants, or implementing value-added models for teachers would all probably provide a bigger return (on time invested) of helping disadvantaged people improve their lot in life.

So, yes, affirmative action is a mess. It might even be harmful, but those costs are hard to quantify. But it does seem to improve the lives of a few thousand beneficiaries each year. The question is whether the real cost of helping those thousands is ignoring millions of others.

Update: One obvious question is why affirmative action (AA) became such a big rallying point for activists in a way that, say, universal pre-K didn't. Isn't the fact that people are willing to fight "by any means necessary" for AA, but not for pre-K, evidence that AA is more worth fighting for? No. AA is in the spotlight because it is controversial. Controversial issues always attract more attention even if they effect few people and only in marginal ways (e.g. gay marriage). Furthermore, the beneficiaries of AA have political clout. Educated blacks and self-righteous elites in Ivy League schools have a lot more political clout than single moms in Harlem and Roxbury, and the former are naturally more interested in AA because it benefits them directly and because it's under their nose. The fact that many people, like Lee Bollinger, are in favor of AA because of self interest is probably an uncomfortable thought. But that doesn't make the claim false.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Back to the Future

I read that yesterday was the day the Doc and Marty arrived in the future in Back to the Future 2.

My first reaction was that that's bullshit. Everyone knows they go to 2015, not 2010. My second reaction was to feel like I was kind of a geek, at least a few fleeting seconds.

The whole story is here.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Epistemic Problem

I just read a good paper by Tyler Cowen on "the epistemic problem" for consequentialism. The problem is that it's hard to predict the consequences of actions, esp. over a long time horizon, and we are meant to infer that this implies consequences can't be a good basis for deciding how to act.

If that sounds like a stupid argument, it is.

Unfortunately, philosophers have constructed sophisticated examples to help pull the wool over their own eyes. Take this example, discussed in Cowen's paper. You are a general deciding where to invade France to ensure victory over the Nazi's. You can land at the Pas-de-Calais or in Normandy and have no good reason to prefer one over the other. You do know, however, that if you land in Normandy you will break a dog's leg during the landing. (Ignore how implausible it is that you could know something about the dog but nothing about the beaches.)

A utilitarian would land in the Pas-de-Calais so as not to harm the dog. But that is stupid, we're supposed to say. It's patently so stupid the utilitarian must be bonkers and we shouldn't be utilitarian's or we risk being thrown in Arkham. And you don't want to be thrown in the asylum, do you? I didn't think so.

But here's the catch that got swept under the rug. If we didn't know about the dog we wouldn't have a way for deciding on Calais or Normandy. We'd just pick one of the beaches randomly, probably by flipping a coin. Is getting in touch with our inner Two-Face a better way to decide? I guess some Very Serious Philosophers think so.

two-face coin.jpg

Books which have influenced me most

Tyler Cowen started a trend in March of bloggers listing a "gut list" of the 10 books which influenced them the most. His list is here.

I'm a bit late to the party but my list is below. I have 11 entries because sometimes you just need 1 more, so you take it to 11. Most of the books are on there for one memorable or novel idea, not necessarily original to the author, just the first place I learned about it. They aren't the 10 "best" books I've ever read, but I'd recommend most of them.

Hyperspace - This book introduced me to how interesting math and theoretical physics can be. I started reading it late one night and couldn't put it down, something I can't say for a lot of books.


The End of Poverty - this was the first book I read on development economics. I read close to everything Jeffrey Sachs publishes these days. This book introduced me to the importance of trade and growth in development (in a vague way) and is one of the main reasons I'm studying economics today.


The Tipping Point - this was one of the first books I read in a day. It made me think a lot about applications to politics. I don't think about it so much anymore. I've read tons of Gladwell essays and his three other books since, many of which also had some good ideas. (Outliers almost made this list.)


Stumbling on Happiness - I read 100 pages of this book in high school, then fell asleep at like 7 PM on Friday and never got around to finishing it. Three years later I checked it out from the library and didn't finish it. Then I bought it just a few months ago and read it cover to cover. It's about why we're so bad at predicting what will make us happy. I forget that a lot, but it struck me as a very novel thesis, well argued. I wish I just kept it in mind more often.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - this is the best novel ever written. There are a lot of great but trite messages throughout the series. The thing that struck me and stuck with me was in this quote: "Of course it is happening in your head . . . but why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?" I'm an ethical subjectivist. I think we make up our own significance and this (probably unintentionally) captures that.


Brave New World - this book is about truth and happiness. It plays with your intuition to try to convince you happiness isn't everything and I learned a ton thinking about why the book is wrong (happiness > truth) but feels wrong.


"Politics and the English Language" - this is the best essay ever written, period. Re-read it often. It's easy to try to sound smart by string big words together. It's hard to think up good ideas and then find words to express them. Jargon isn't always bad, and I think he goes too far attacking some common phrases.


A Midsummer Night's Dream - this is the most thoughtful Shakespeare play and the most fun. Literature deal with a few topics well. Love is one and this reflects more of what I think about it (fickle, dramatic, and inescapable) than Romeo and Juliet ("love conquers all", tragic).


Commanding Heights - this is a book but I never finished it. It's on the list because the PBS special based on the book was influential. It introduced me to Jeff Sachs and also changed me from being sympathetic to socialist ideas to thinking history proved them wrong. I didn't understand the calculation problem until later but the seed was probably planted here


How We Decide -  I didn't even finish this book but I made me understand and believe that the brain works unconsciously to solve most of our problems and that emotions can be guideposts based on that subconscious work. It helped shatter my worldview that said you make your best decisions by always thinking thing through. Now I believe you should trust your gut, at least on some issues (see "A Midsummer Night's Dream").


Godel, Escher, Bach - this book is one of the longest books I've ever read. It has hundreds of interesting ideas but the most interesting is the concept of a "strange loop," that what makes conscious things conscious is that they are aware they exist. You can draw an analogy between that fact and how Godel's theorem exploits arithmetic to speak about arithmetic, leading to all sorts of paradoxes. I still don't understand the whole deal that well, but it got me interesting in cognitive science and to the author's hypothesis that all thinking is a process of making analogies. The speech where he explained that might as well share this spot.

Update: I'm adding another pair of books on the same theme because they should have been on here and I forgot to write them down.

Band of Brothers and A Bridge Too Far. These are great books about courage. While Band of Brothers is a triumphant story, A Bridge too Far is tragic. They complement each other.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Star Wars

This blog's original purpose was to beat people who insist on saying "A New Hope" into submission. I wanted to settle the debate about whether Star Wars is "Star Wars" or "A New Hope" once and for all.

I knew it was a stupid debate. As long as everyone knows what you're talking about it doesn't matter what you call it. It's not like anyone is hurt. But you have to invest your life in something stupid, whether it's saving starving children, making truckloads of money, or harassing people about the name of a movie.

Today I was reading about high concept movies and I noticed most people agree Star Wars was one of the first high concept movies. I disagree with that. You could make a case that Star Wars, in isolation, is just a movie about a orphan discovering he's made for bigger things, then saving the day, in space. But that misses the point, esp. in the context of the trilogy. Star Wars is about the capacity for good in evil inherent in everyone, the right way to live (controlling anger in particular, freeing oneself from emotion in general), and the limits and dangers of technology. Those themes aren't the themes of a high concept movie.

But the real point here is that almost everyone writing about high concept films uses the name "Star Wars," and not "A New Hope." The evidence mounts every day.

Smart movie?

and as District 9 proved, a smart, inventive thriller can catch the Academy’s attention in a ten-picture race.

What the hell is a smart movie? I never understood.

Is it the kind of movie smart movie like? (Or the kind of movie people like to look smart?) Any movie that takes itself seriously?

I think it's supposed to be a movie with a point that's smart.

But what was the point of District 9? To treat aliens with respect? Or was it smart because it thoughtlessly alluded to apartheid?

Honestly, I'm scared of people who get their opinions from movies. If you're using The Hurt Locker as one of your primary sources (in either sense) in a debate about Iraq, how likely is it you have anything insightful to say?

I'm not saying movies can't make you think. The Dark Knight reiterates some not-quite-trite points ("sometimes the truth isn't good enough") and The Matrix trilogy is first-rate meta-physics (with horseshit ethics).

Maybe this analogy can help. I wonder why people cared that Megan Fox was in Transformers. If you want some stimulation you can find it on the Internet. Why waste 2 hours and $8.50? Mutatis mutandis with "smart" movies and intellectual stimulation.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Thoughts on Ethics

Ethics is one of my favorite topics. If philosophy departments weren't so full of quacks, the grading wasn't so subjective, and the requirement's didn't include so much tripe, I'd probably be a philosophy major. (More thoughts on philosophy in one of my two book reviews.)

Warning: This is the customary warning that someone has probably made these points before.

Consequentialists think that the right thing to do is the action with the best consequences. Utilitarians are the most common type of consequentialists because they specify an intuitive criteria for "best:" whatever generates the most happiness is best. Of course, what exactly that means is a subject of much debate.

One "refutation" of utilitarianism is this reductio ad adsurdem argument. Consider a scenario where a million people will be happier by blaming and punishing a scapegoat for their problems. A slight increase in happiness multiplied a million times over could easily cancel out a ton of misery for one scapegoat. So the right thing to do is punish the scapegoat. But we know that isn't right. You can't punish someone for crimes they didn't commit.

But who says the utility function should just be the sum of happiness in the universal minus the pain in the universe. The point is that the distribution of happiness could matter. The utility function could take the happiness of each individual into account separately. One idea for how to do that would be to think of all possible words and rank them according to which one you'd want to live in if you didn't know who you'd be. This utility function captures the value of original position and veil of ignorance from John Rawls without the weaker parts of his theory of justice. This gives the utility function a much more natural, and less grand, interpretation too.

If we apply this utility function to the scapegoat case we find it gives the "right" prediction. If the risk of being that scapegoat is large enough no one would choose to live in that world. On the other hand, if everyone gains a lot and the risk of being the scapegoat is small, then the theory says punish the scapegoat. That makes sense. We don't want to lower the speed limit even though we know it would save a few lives because we all want the little bit of extra happiness from a shorter commute. Those who die in accidents are de facto scapegoats.

The interesting thing about this theory is that is changes the utility function from being concerned with the nature of "the good," i.e. with the meaning of a good life is. It punts on those questions and simply assumes that whatever we prefer is a good life. There's a large literature on this "good life" question, the debate largely revolving around the issue of whether a good life is one with satisfied preferences, happiness, or "virtue" (whatever that is).

An interesting property of this utility function, though, is that everyone might end up with different rankings of preferences. I might be risk averse and hate worlds with lots of inequality while you might be risk-neutral and just prefer the happiness world. How should we decide what the "actual" best world is? We'd have to know that to know what the true "best action" is. (Ignore the fact that it's already impossible to do this thought experiment and rank all possible worlds on our own, much less for everyone!)

One idea is that you could just take everyone's ranking of all possible words (suppose there is a finite number) and use them as some kind of vote. Whichever world wins the vote is the best world and the corresponding action is the best action. The problem with this is Arrow's Impossibility Theorem applies which means, under some basic criteria, there is no fair system for deciding which world is the best.

The lesson I take from this is that ethics is really a game where we make the rules and it's important not to over think the significance of these rules. When you try to make them consistent and sensible things start to fall apart, even on a purely theoretical level. When the utility function represents something objective (e.g. happiness, brain states, activity in pleasure sensing areas of the brain) then you're left asking why should ethics be concerned with that quantity? Is the purpose of the universe really to maximize the activity in pleasure sensing areas of the brain? But if you go with a less meta-physically grand strategy based on preferences, things fall apart. I ignored two even more basic problems with preferences. First, they may not even be transitive (e.g. A > B, B > C, yet C > A). Second, people are bad predictors of what they like. The lotteries will likely be heavily influenced by cognitive biases, like focusing too much on small changes of a miserable life.

Theoretical ethics is a mess, yet the alternative of having ad hoc rules for living seems equally unsatisfying.

Update: Related thoughts from Bryan Caplan.

Markets in Everything

This is the strangest job opportunity I've ever heard of.

This one is more my style. (HT: Marginal Revolution)

John Fitzgerald

This "8.9 on Hot or Not, Ivy League grad, Mensa member, can bench . . . over 1200 lbs." single-handily killed the notion that nice guys finish last with his epic display of class on No one, it appears, can finish behind John Fitzgerald, former (self proclaimed) star of "Male Egos: Out of Control."

Now he's back in action, running a scam modeling agency and trying to extort money from some 19 year old girls.