Thursday, August 19, 2010

Things to do before I die

I'm adding throw a good curve ball to that list. What can I say? I can't throw. But that doesn't mean I'll never be able.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Structural Issues

Ken Rogoff and Ed Phelps both commenting on the need to think about future growth prospects and "structual" supply-side problems.

I think they both are getting at something important, but we probably need more research (and commentary) in this area to pin things down. What are the real structural problems here? What policies would target them specifically? While Phelps suggests a few idea, it's an op-ed so they lack specifics. Even in sound-bite form, though, they don't sound like the answer to me, save the tax-credit for low-wage workers which is worth looking into.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


When people die in a story, people often cry. When Dumbledore died, a lot of people cried. When Snape died I'm sure some people bawled too.


I've never seen The Notebook but I'm sure someone dies and everyone cried then too. I might watch Schindler's List later today, which is what got me thinking about the topic.

The only time I ever cried during a movie was when I saw Air Bud. There's a scene when the boy who found Bud and taught him to play makes the dog run away and it him he hates it--because he knows if he doesn't he'll have to give the dog back to an abusive clown, its legal owner.

It doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would rend your heart. But the thing was, Nash had recently killed my dog. He planted a heart worm in her and she died. It was like a warped parallel with the story on screen: in the movie, the boy loves the dog so much he sacrifices ownership of her; in reality, Nash loved the dog so much that he killed it instead of letting someone else own her.

"This is a sick world we live in."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Super Bowl XL

One of the refs from Super Bowl XL admitted that he blew some calls.

When will the other refs from Super Bowl XL, and the refs from Super Bowl XLIII, admit their errors?

Here's a list of a few from 43:

1. James Harrison should have been ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct
2. Ben Rothlesberger on intentional grounding (twice)
3. Block in the back on the last play of the 1st half (on Hightower at the 30)*
4. Kurt Warner throw an incomplete pass in the last 30 seconds, he didn't fumble

They also blew two calls against Arizona that were fixed on challenges.

* - I know the deal with blocks in the back on returns: most of the time the refs ignore them unless they are egregious. So this one, though a by-the-book foul, maybe shouldn't have been called.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Total Recall

Before Arnold became the governor of California in a "total recall" election he stared in an under-appreciated movie Total Recall.

Being an Arnold movie, it had a healthy dose of gratuitous violence. Being based on a Phillip K. Dick story it also included some angst about reality thrown in. The basic idea is that we meet Arnold's character in a futuristic world. He really wants to go to Mars, but he's a construction worker and can't afford it. He hears about "simulated vacations" and orders one where he goes to Mars as a secret agent. They put him under and next thing we see he wakes up, we're told the memory implantation failed, yethe does goes on a wild sci-fi shoot out just like the dream he ordered.

So was the vast majority of the movie us watching his implanted memories or watching his real life? I'm ambivalent about it and I think there is evidence on both sides, though I'm inclined to say it's real. As far as I know Arnold and the director haven't stated their beliefs (contra Blade Runner, is Harrison Ford an android?).

Most people think that this idea about doubting the existence of the external world is "deep" and "mind blowing." (What blows my mind is that people are willing to admit an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie confused them.) But skepticism is a pretty banal old idea. Indeed, you've probably heard people ask, at least a dozen times, "if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" You've probably asked yourself how you know other people are real and how you know you that they experience "green" when they see grass the same way you do. You probably concluded that you don't and never can know with certainly that other people exist or whether the tree would make a sound. The solipsist and other radical skeptic positions are irrefutable, though uninteresting. So if Total Recall is all a dream then anything can happen. There's no way to "prove" it's real because anything that is consistent with it being real is also consistent with it being a dream. Indeed, if you were a contrarian you could argue, without contradicting anything in the story, that The Lord of the Rings is all just Aragorn's dream and that Star Wars is just R2D2's dream (droids don't expect to be the hero, they just want 15 minutes of fame). But no one thinks that claims are remotely interesting or "mind blowing" do they?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Where do blog posts come from?

Here, they start with an idea. I usually get them while I read the news or books.

Then I write a note like this:

richard iii w/ lady anne cf harvey and joker [eom]

Then, often within a few days, I consider if that idea was important and how long it would take to flesh it out. My oldest "draft," which is really just a series of notes about character strengths, is over a month old.

I got the idea for this blog when I read that garbage in my e-mail. But one day I hope to explain what I mean to remind myself of.

Friday, August 13, 2010

E. J. Dionne goes off the deep end

E. J. Dionne writes a decent column from time to time. But for the most part his job description might as well read "partisan hack."

A few days ago he wrote a column that . . . well it's not really clear. In part he takes offense to use the phrase "anchor baby," which is fair enough as the term is misleading. But he also takes a few pot shots at Republicans and, I think, is defending birthright citizenship, although he really just begs the question on it.

Besides being unclear and unimportant, the column suffers from:

1.  a big distortion

He quotes from the 14th amendment here:
the 14th Amendment's guarantee[s] citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States"
 But, as with any legal debate, the exact language is critical. The full text is "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens." Why does he leave out the clause that is he basis for the entire debate? Is he afraid he might be wrong or just trying to manipulate readers?

To put this in context, it's like a conservative writing a column that says "the 2nd Amendment's guarantee of the right to own guns." Of course, not everyone thinks that 2nd amendment does guarantee that right to own an assault rifle and it's worth including the clause about the necessity of a militia. You can see how Dionne would object to writing like that and how he applies a double-standard to himself.

The double-standard thing, however, is a habit. He opens his column by claiming that "rather than shout" he'll be civil, yet his entire column is mocking and offensive, employing epithets like "racial demagogues." Likewise, in his web chat with readers, a commentator notes that the author of the citizenship clause didn't intend for it to apply to foreigners. Dionne replies that "You can't just use a single quote from a single Senator and say that settles the question." He proceeds to quote one historian and leaves it at that.

2. he also suggests a disbelief in whether "anchor babies" exist

It would be shocking if Mexicans who lived close to the border didn't come here en masse to have children. If I were a parent I would. Most parents are demonstrably willing to suffer a great deal of hardship to give their kids a better life, like one with access to much higher paying jobs, better higher education, and a much more generous welfare.

It's well know that many Asians, who have a lot less to gain coming from comparable rich countries, spend a lot more to come to the U.S. for brief periods, often just so that their children will qualify for easier access to American universities and financial aid. (Male children of South Korean, Taiwanese, and Singaporean parents also get to avoid avoid serving in the military.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Plagarism and cheating in general are surely big problems at universities these days. The fact that there is a cottage industry of essay-writing companies is also disconcerting.

Lawrence Hinmann, a philosopher, wrote a surprisingly good op-ed on the topic a few years ago.

I think he overemphasizes the importance of investing time in students and creating unique problems. In many fields it's hard to make up good problems because of complexity (math, engineering, etc.) and in others new topics are often just rehashed forms of old topics: philosophy students rarely have anything interesting to say, except when they rediscover an age-old argument.

By the same token he probably underemphasizes the good that technology can do, at least to fight plagiarism. If students were asked to a little bit more work, and had more and more of their writing digitized, perhaps starting in high school, then there would probably be enough data to identify each student's "writing signature." Essay-writing companies would try to adjust to that but I think it'd be difficult, and fear must cut down on their business in the short run.

The real solution is cultivating norms, as he notes in passing, though no one knows quite how. Fortunately, with so many colleges and departments, there is plenty of room for experimentation.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tropicana Field

Some jerk from New York is thrashing Tropicana Field.
Teixeira called the catwalk and the ground “laughable,” but at least the Yankees won that game. . . . The miniature-golf-like obstacle in the dome — let’s not call it a ball park . . .
1. The B-ring he complains about has only come into play a few times over the years.

2. Because Tampa is so far south and west, but still on EDT, it's broad daylight here at 7 and it's twilight around 8:30, and dark at 10. Hitters will complain about that.

3. Its usually 85+ with 70% humidity here at 7 PM in June and July. Do people really want to sit outside?

That said I wouldn't have a problem with a real field. They look nicer, the artificial turf is horrible, and the lighting is the dome is ugly as sin. But I also like the Trop.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

P != NP

A researcher at HP Labs claims to have proven that P is not equal to NP. If that doesn't make sense, see this explanation from MIT News.

It looks like a credible candidate for a proof because, as Greg notes, Stephen Cook, a Turing award winner and the first person to pose the problem, considers it "serious."

I always thought this was the most interesting Millennium Prize Problem, maybe because it involves theoretical CS, but also because it's the only problem I understand enough to explain to someone else, sort of.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Does living simply make you happy?

This is a good article that weaves the personal story of one woman into a report on positive psychology.

It also has a nice little gem that will serve as quote of the day:
Emboldened by a Web site that challenges consumers to live with just 100 personal items, Ms. Strobel winnowed down her wardrobe and toiletries to precisely that number. . . . She owns four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots.
What is it with women and shoes?

I do have a few complaints about the article.

First, they oversell some of the correlations from the happiness research. Happiness economics is a new field and a lot of the survey data isn't that great. With one exception (the German Socio-Economic Panel)  the data is cross-sectional, meaning you don't get to see what happens to the same people over time, just how different people in two groups (married, unmarried) feel. Personally, though, I tend to trust the cross-section evidence as primarily unbiased.

Second, I think the story of the "hero," Ms. Strobel, is bit misleading. The article opens with a story about how she simplified her life and what the research shows is that that probably won't make her unhappy. But the article might leave you with a sense that downsizing and simplifying your life will make you happier. There isn't any research that shows that. What made Ms. Strobel happier is eliminating her commute (she works from home), changing her mindset to focus more on family and less on status symbols, and by spending the money she does have on things that she enjoys.

Quote of the Day: Stallone Edition

Stallone has three daughters, ages 14, 12, and 8, and two sons, both in their 30s. He recently spoke with the media about childrearing:
"You worry. You know, . . . I won't let 'em [his daughters] date till they're 45. I adore them. . . Girls are very different.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Descriptive, Normative and Predictive in Law

In the past I wrote about how it's often hard to tell if people are making descriptive statements or normative statements, and how this confusion plagues discussion of morality in particular.

The problem is even worse when people discuss legal questions, like the current issue of whether the constitution guarantees a right to marry people of your sex.

Not only will people talk in descriptive terms ("the judge struck down Prop 8") and normative terms ("the judge did what was moral"), they also talk in, for lack of a better word, predictive terms ("if the judge reads the constitution, facts, and relevant precedents he will conclude . . ."). Predictive statements are really just a combination of descriptive statements and normative statements: they make a normative assumption about how judges should come to a conclusion and then make a descriptive statement "given that system, the judge will rule . . ."

The tenuous distinction between predictive statements and normative statements is particularly troubling. Take this commentary in Slate by Dalia Lithwick. The tension throughout the article is that it's clear Dalia thinks that Prop 8 was wrong because she thinks there is nothing wrong with gay marriage and it appears that she wants to convince readers of this, yet the argument she uses says that if you follow the "rules of the game" or "follow the law" then you have to conclude gay marriage is a constitutionally protected right. She's making a predictive statement that Walker made the right ruling based on the relevant laws/precedents/facts even though it seems that deep down the real reason she thinks Walker made the right ruling because gay marriage is hateful. In other words, predictive statement is a smoke screen for the real debate.

The last statement I should probably try to justify. Why don't I take Dalia at her word? The reason is that I just don't buy the argument--it's total nonsense to me. The founding fathers certainly didn't intend for the 9th amendment to include a reserve right to gay marriage, though they probably intended it to include a right to the marriages common in their time. The authors of the 14th amendment likewise didn't intend that "equal protection" implies the right to marry anyone. Gay marriage laws, after all, aren't strictly speaking, discriminatory: all people have the right to marry people of the opposite gender. All men, gay or straight, can't marry other men and all women, gay or straight, can't marry other women. I think, in predictive terms, the right decision is to uphold Prop 8. But in normative terms I think they should strike it down because I think every so often judges should stop adjudicating and start legislating, but only under exceptional circumstances like Brown v. Board or Lawrence v. Texas, not on controversial moral questions like abortion or gun rights.

I suspect Dalia and others agree with that principle. Even if the constitution said expressly "states are allowed to ban gay marriage" the court should make up some hookum about how that violates another part of the constitution (14th amendment?) and strike that portion down. All I'm asking is that at some point legal scholars would admit rulings like that (e.g. Roe v. Wade) are based on a legal arguments that are in so many words a crock of shit and start having the real, normative arguments in public instead of using smoke screens.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Does your taste in movies predict your intelligence?

********** HUGE Inception Spoilers *********

Read the title. What's your answer? If it's what I suspect, please don't tell that to Doug, author of the following review of Inception, which was highly recommended by a friend:
I've come to think of this brilliant film as an intellectual barometer of sorts: show it to someone, and you'll observe a critical reaction directly proportional to their IQ.

A common complaint about 'Inception' amongst slower types seems to be that Mr. Nolan's film is 'confusing,' 'nonsense,' 'slow,' or 'lacks an emotional core.'

The filmic logic underlying 'Inception' is painstakingly planned and airtight, despite some claims that it is made up on the fly. Those that enjoy the film seem to have had little difficulty with its somewhat convoluted narrative structure. Viewers that can surmount this Chinese-box puzzle of narration are rewarded with the rich emotional core within.

The stupid, unfortunately, drop the box in frustration, unable to appreciate what occurs in the stunning final half hour. Sadly, if the thread is lost, one might as well have stared at a grey square for the previous two hours: the ending becomes meaningless.

Employers might do well to replace the frightful Myers-Briggs inventory, etc. with screenings of 'Inception.'
Wait, does he think the Myers-Briggs test assesses your IQ?

I guess he has a point though. If someone doesn't like the movies (or music) you like, they must be an idiot. If you're not interested in a violent, sci-fi thriller it's because you're "slow." It's not because you're an old lady who never had a taste for watching three dozen people's simulated deaths or because you've never cared much for sci-fi worlds when you can get lost in mythic lore. It's because you're a moron.

Some people have had the audacity to claim Inception isn't the most emotionally touching movie since Forrest Gump. Didn't you see Cobb's three emotional states (haunted 99% of the time, distraught at his wife's death,  enraged at Arthur)? Fortunately, Doug sets them straight.

Doug also notes the film's "airtight" logic, which isn't made up on the fly. In the middle of the movie they don't change the rules about dying. And the movie doesn't have any plot holes. Eames decides to go on with the mission because finishing it is the only way to escape the L.A. dream, though of course he ends up back in L.A. all the same. They plan for three dreams, yet conveniently there's a dream machine right in the middle of the hospital as needed.

But "the ending" is the heart of the movie, it's trump card for the award shows come winter. Only "the stupid" didn't notice that Cobb only wears his wedding ring in the dream world and isn't wearing it when he meets his kids. Everyone who is anyone pays careful attention to each character's left hand throughout the film.

On a final note, I like Doug's use of the British spelling of gray. It helps create a refined atmosphere for his musings.

A friend also recommended this review.

Visceral reaction: "wow, this guy needs to read Orwell because that didn't make shit worth o' sense at the end."

Upon reflection: He implies that Inception "[i]mplant[s] the seeds of revolutionary and/or world-changing ideas in viewers." My question: what are those ideas?

Is it "the importance of living in the real present?" No one ever told me "keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs" or "don't live in the past." At least no movie ever suggested it.

Is it to blaze your own trail "instead of slavishly . . . adhering to the . . . expectations of others?" Come to think of it, no one ever told me I should try to be my own man, though I do vaguely remember a play where the pretentious advisor said "above all else, to thine own self be true."

Is it that "we are masters of our own destiny?" That is indeed an original idea. I love the part where Cobb says "The future's not set. There's no fate but what we make for ourselves."

Is it that "'villains' are just figments of our imagination," that it's all in our heads and everyone wrestles with his own demons? Or that sometimes I'm my own worst enemy? Perhaps the message is that there is good and evil in everyone?

Whatever it is, Inception had a revolutionary new lesson to teach me. Since I don't know what it is, I'm forced to conclude I'm just another dumbass.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Diversity inspires Creativity?

Today I'm going to combine commentary on two very, very bad op-eds that espouse conventional wisdom.

A few days ago Thomas Friedman explained why he "do[esn't] object to a mosque being built near the World Trade Center site." In short, he claims that Americans' "competitive advantage" is a product of the "creative energy that comes when you mix all our diverse people and cultures together." First, the phrase "competitive advantage" draws him perilously close to an old-age trade myth that economic growth is a zero-sum game: if China produces all the toys and Japan makes all the cars, Americans will have nothing to do. They wouldn't, except for the fact that people are thinking up new things to produce all the time--computers, football games, and convoluted gambling schemes.

So assume Friedman is just talking about growth. His claims are (1) growth is a product of creativity and (2) that creativity is (in-part) a product of cultural and ethnic diversity. (1) is conventional wisdom in economics. Technological progress, captured by the Solow residual, accounts for the vast majority of growth, esp. in developed countries.

(2) is also conventional wisdom, but not among economists. I think it makes no sense. Here's why: Friedman notes, correctly I think, that creativity comes from first thinking divergently and then thinking convergently. You generate a lot of news ideas, usually by making analogies with concepts in different fields, and then refine the best of those ideas into something workable. (Newsweek had a great story on this.)

Then he implies that "great books, iPads [and] new cancer drugs" are borne from mixing cultures since mixing cultures helps think divergently. I don't buy it. All the revolutions in the iPad had nothing to do with culture. Multi-touch is the best implementation of technology that has been in the works for a while. Everything that led to it had to do with computer science and learning engineering concepts. iOS is the first mass-market implementation of a ZUI or Zooming User Inference, a concept Jeff Raskin thought up and popularized before he died. I'm sure the creativity energy at Apple (his employer) in the 80s sparked some of those ideas, but the creative energy at Apple back then surely wasn't a product of ethnic diversity (nearly everyone was white and male). New cancer drugs are, likewise, products of careful research in chemistry and biology, and no one in those fields thinks that familiarity with African music is going to give you much of a leg up in understanding pathways and designing experiments.

I just wish someone would produce a little empirical evidence for the ethnical diversity = technological progress thesis. Is there cross-sectional evidence that the most diverse countries are the richest? Is there cross-sectional evidence that the most innovative companies have the most diverse workforces? I don't think either would be compelling--that innovative companies have diverse workforces is just a by-product of needing to tap all sources of talent to recruit the best of the best and rich nations become rich then draw immigrants from around the world: diversity is a product of wealth.* But at least it'd be a start in thinking scientifically about a suspect claim.

In an old, related op-ed, Jay Mathews, an excellent education writer, writes about the importance and difficulty of learning Chinese. He says seems obvious that more Americans should be studying Chinese:

China is our biggest trading partner, after Canada and Mexico. The country reminds me in some ways of America in the 1870s. It is recovering from horrid domestic events, getting stronger, with the potential to be the most important nation in the world.

He goes on to note that "Chinese culture -- its philosophy, its art, its code of conduct, its food, its literature -- is one of the wonders of human civilization." I'm not sure if he means that as a fact or his opinion. If the former, he needs to open his eyes to the diversity of tastes in art and food. If the later, why (to be blunt) does he think anyone cares? One piece of evidence he fails to cite is that, if surveys can be trusted, Asian people are surprisingly miserable given their wealth. Hong Kong is, by eyeballing, the largest negative outlier and China, South Korea, and Japan all have negative residuals. That makes me hesitantly question how wonderful Chinese culture is.

He does note a different drawbacks of the Chinese language: "it is also true that having to learn thousands of ideographic characters . . . has forced Chinese education into a deep, narrow groove . . . relying on memorization. . . . There is less creative thinking in the schools as a result . . ." (Note the irony there vis a vis Friedman.) I'm a little skeptical of that claim given what I know (very little) of the linguistics literature on the subject. They also say Chinese people have a hard time thinking of counterfactuals because of the structure of the language, but given the importance of thinking up counterfactuals to science and the plethora of good Chinese scientists, I'm skeptical.

Mathews gets to the crux of the issue later in his essay, though he never asks the key question. He cites a source that says learning Chinese fluently takes 1,300 hours but notes that a more realistic estimate is probably 2,200 hours. That is a massive investment of time: the average top-tier (UC, Duke) college student spends about 2,250 hours to earn their degree, and at MIT students at expected to spend about 12 hours per class a week (on average they spend about 9) and it takes about 14 classes in computer science to get a B.S. from MIT. In other words, if you spend 2,352 hours studying computers you've probably learned about as much as an MIT grad (well, not quite since MIT-people learn fast).

So here is the trade-off for policy-makers and students: what is a better use of time, learning Chinese or leaning computer science. Friedman think the next iPad will come from throwing different colored people in a room and practicing vodoo engineering. I think it will come from teams of techno-wizards hammering out code and designing circuits. You decide which path is better for our growth prospects.

* - This is my guess for the source of the confusion. Being open to immigrants and tolerant of different religions is probably correlated with institutions that promote new ideas in art (e.g. movies) and technology (e.g. computers).

Useless Research

There's a new book out on the Lord's Resistance Army (HT: Chris Blattman, who authored a chapter).

The book is meant to set the record straight about the Lord's Resistance Army (hence the subtitle), and based on the quote from Chris they're particularly taking aim at the coverage Invisible Children and CNN have done. (I've never seen anyone else do a story or documentary on the Acholi's plight.)

Personally, I find the tone kind of smug. Invisible Children does a lot to help people. It's possible their account is very misleading and I'd like to read the book to get the facts. But I don't think reading the book is going to give me or anyone else much insight into how to end the war. I've never seen any academic research on foreign policy (non-military strategy) that is in any way useful.

For that reason the tone is offputting. Invisible Children, even if its just a propaganda documentary, inspired thousands of (mostly) high schoolers to raise money to help thousands of (mostly) kids get a better education. It also entertained a lot of people (8.0 average rating on IMDb). From a utilitarian perspective it was an "ethical" movie, however misleading. This book on the other hand, has little ethical value if it can't help end the war, and probably won't even entertain many readers.

You can file this post under the theme "unimportance of fact/reality" which I consider a central theme on this blog.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ice Cream and Pizza

The New York Times reports on the outrageous prices of "homemade ice cream." Boston, they note, is a mecca for this shit:
In Boston and Beverly Hills, not surprisingly, but also in Columbus, Ohio, and Arroyo Seco, N.M., a small cone or cup now often costs more than $4 — and that’s without the toppings of organic whipped cream, sustainable strawberries and French bittersweet chocolate chunks
Who goes to an ice cream shoppe asking for organic whipped cream and sustainable strawberries. That reminds me of the time I went to Four Burger in Central Square. The lady at the counter asked me if I wanted that "with a whole wheat bun." After taking a few seconds to recover from the shock, I just told her "maybe... maybe not... maybe fuck yourself." Maybe that isn't quite a true story.

But it's not really Boston metro as a whole that's the problem, it's specific neighborhoods. In Cambridgeport people actually like Toscanini's (which is mediocre but charges a criminal $5 for a cup) so much they raised $23,000 to pay its taxes. Honestly, ice cream from a grocery store is the best you're going to get in Cambridge.

And while I'm on the topic, I should mention how similar, but worst, the situation is with pizza. In "hip" parts of town all the hipsters enjoy dumping a pile of shit on a cracker and calling it a pizza: enter Emma's, The Upper Crust, Zing! and South End Pizza. The plethora of dog-shit restaurants crowds out space for good ones.

Quote of the Day: Dan Airley Edition

But is this really the case? Before you make up your mind, let’s see what the empirical evidence shows.
Dan Airley in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality. How sad it is that he (rightly, I think) has to remind readers not to make up their mind before seeing the evidence?

Update: Another quote from a discussion of why we care more about things "we make" as opposed to just buy:
A would-​be baker would hardly be willing to consider herself (or publicly admit to being) someone who makes birthday cakes from “just a mix.” Not only would she feel humiliated or guilty; she might also disappoint her guests, who would feel that they were not being treated to something special.
This is probably an example of how I'm a hyper-ratonal person. I'd never want someone to bake me a birthday cake instead of buying a better tasting cake. I'm also not sure why people assume baking a cake from scratch takes more effort than baking a cake from mix: the time it takes to mix the ingredients and put them in the oven is trivial compared to other circumstances. For instance, if you don't have the mix and you have to walk through the rain for 30 minutes to get it (true story, that happened once) then all the sudden making a cake with a mix is vastly more time-consuming. Or suppose that someone's birthday is on Sunday and you spend a few hours baking a cake before church. Compare that with a birthday on Friday where you spend Thursday night (when you have something due the next day) baking from a mix. Most people would say giving up the time on Thursday night was a bigger sacrifice.

Random Thought

Here's a thought on why it's so hard to think about trade-offs between health and happiness: people think about different risk very differently depending on the situation. An increased chance of death from 4% to 5% this year is very different from an increase from 1% to 3%. Or consider:

Fishermen (think "Deadliest Catch") have a 1.1% chance of dying on-the-job each year (granted that's not really an increased risk of dying by quite 1.1%) and they make about $13 an hour, which is next to no premium over many other unskilled laborers. But suppose they make $5 more per hour and work 2000 hours a year more than someone at Wal-Mart. That means they'd being compensated for the risk by $10,000.

Now consider that you've been impressed into the English army for an amphibious landing in France. Your risk is dying that day is 2% (ignore non-fatal injuries) and they say they'll let you go after they establish a beachhead. How much would you be willing to escape 2% chance of sudden death? If they above scenario is any guide (or this valuation from speed limits) you should be willing to pay about $20,000 but no more.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Quote of the Day: Ozzie Guillen Edition

This is a pretty good, though long-winded commentary on Ozzie Guillen's suggestion that Asians are treated better than Latinos in the MLB. The short version is that the author notes that it's a product of (1) class, the Japanese players are rich and can play in Japan, the Latino players have no where else to go (well, they could play in Japan but . . .) (2) the Japanese players are, on average, better because only Japanese superstars come to the states and (3) Hispanic immigrants, with support from a host of advocacy groups, are making a credible threat of turning the U.S. into a dual-language country. I don't have a big problem with that because I don't mind spending tons of time and money for no gain, but other people have a legitimate concern.

So with that said, I feel bad for singling out this statement as my quote of the day:
A year ago, in the White House "Beer Summit" among President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley (the white policeman who arrested Gates for breaking into his own home), the roiling class animosities between the "real Cambridge" and the "Harvard Cambridge" could not be underestimated.
The arrest report said Gates was arrested for "exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place." Reportedly he quipped "yeah, I'll speak with your mamma outside" when questioned about why he was breaking into the house.


This is an interesting story. A group of Southern heritage promoters, with unknown sources of funding, have filed to build a "Southern Culture Center" in Birmingham, Alabama, just a few blocks from the old 16th Street Baptist Church.

The group says that the center will celebrate the culture of the antebellum South, including sections of food, music, religion and history. Reports say that the center will hang a Rebel flag out front, though the group will only confirm its presence inside. The New York Times, based on claims from an unidentified source, has suggested that some of the funding from the center is coming from White supremacy groups, but the builders refused to disclose their backers.

The NAACP has condemned the center as a symbol of bigotry, but the builders retort that the center is meant to promote diversity and inter-racial dialogue. They insist that the center will help to improve the image of traditional Southerners in the eyes of the Black community and African-Americans are invited to the many events, such as barbecues, that the center will hold. A number of Democratic politicians, including Jim Clyburn and Bernie Sanders, have also voiced concern with the project.

The city's planning commission will vote on whether to approve the center next week.

Wait, sorry, I got the whole story wrong. A Muslim group that won't disclose it's funding is building a center near Ground Zero. Are you still for/against approving the center?

Descriptive and Normative

I will never understand why the difference between descriptive statements and normative statements is so hard for people to understand.

David Berri once wrote a post on The Wages of Wins blog about who was widely considered an "MVP-candidate" but wasn't actually playing well. He was obviously making the normative statement "if you're not playing well, you don't deserve the MVP award. These guys aren't playing well [... you infer the rest]." But commenters objected, writing that Dave shouldn't title "Who is not the MVP" if he wasn't making a descriptive point about who is not the actual MVP. Yet we know that is a disingenuous point because if you take the title "Who is not the MVP" literally when the MVP won't be award for 5 months, then you expect the post to include every name in the NBA.

Still, you might be willing to cut the commentator some slack since writers often try to pass off normative statements for facts. Nicholas Krisftof wrote the worst op-ed he's ever written a few days ago. It's an opinion column celebrating wider availability for an abortificant that is very safe to use. It's obvious he's pro-choice and celebrating this fact because of the way he places facts in the article and the language he uses: "Up to 70,000 women die from complications of abortions . . .  last year the World Health Organization expanded it's uses as an 'essential medicine.'" But it's painful to read because, while this is an opinion column, Kristof is trying to hide his opinion and manipulate the reader by telling the story of a pill (with selectively chosen facts) as if it were a news story.

One of the most painful areas where people mix up normative and positive statements is when they talk about the arts. A third of the time when people say "that was a great movie" they mean that lots of people like or that on average people like it (descriptive), another third of the time they mean "I like it" (normative) and another third it's hard to know what they mean but it's something along the lines of either "this movie is widely praised by the elite" (descriptive) or "I think this movie will be widely praised by the elite for its structural properties" (normative). When I tried to write all of that I started to understand, just a little, why people can be so confused about whether people are saying something about what is or what should be. Look at this story where the author makes a statement of fact "Inception is ranked #3 on IMDb" but presents it in a warped way "Inception is the third greatest movie of all time." It certainly is not the third greatest movie of all time by any reasonable metric, so does he really just mean he liked it a lot? Or does he think IMDb is a representative poll? (This would make a nice post on why people need to learn statistics in high school.)

The most painful area, though, where people confuse the normative/positive distinction, is ethics. People often use "legal" as a proxy for moral, as in "well it ain't illegal" which is meant to imply it's acceptable and you shouldn't complain. To this day, despite being reminded a hundred times, my dad still thinks that say "the Supreme Court ruled [insert ruling, say that abortion is legal]" is a good argument for why I should think killing an infant is acceptable. Philosophers often confuse what is "natural" with what is right. This comes up often in relation to utilitarianism, where philosophers argue that because utilitarianism places too much of a burden on people to do the right things all the time that it's the wrong moral philosophy. If ethics had a low point of complete intellectual abdication in the past 50 years, it might be that debate. Yet, somehow, a related debate is starting to drag things down even further. As scientists have understand more about people's moral intuitions and it's become clear that, like how all languages are related and share a similar structure, all the rules different societies develop to regulate behavior share similar structure. Someone this has evolved into "morality is a product of evolution" becoming a catch-phrase that is meant to be taken as a normative statement--whatever your brain tells you to do is acceptable because your brain evolved to know right from wrong. Or something. It doesn't make any sense to me, but I've heard people I'd consider pretty smart and reasonable try to make that point.

All of that was cringe-inducing to write.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quote of the Day

In only two years . . .  more than 122,000 Floridians have saved $5 million dollars in prescription drug costs.
That is Charlie Crist's webpage on his big achievement in health care: the Florida Discount Drug Card. Many seniors are using the $20.49 a year savings to fulfill lifelong ambitions like visiting Vatican City or attending a game at every MLB park.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Snob Test

Yesterday I asked whether J. K. Rowling should get the next Nobel Prize in Literature.

The answer, obviously, is yes. No author is more widely read and enjoyed than Rowling. She also uses her books to promote human rights causes (see: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) which, some say, figures into the discussion.

But something that trivial isn't the point. The point is that that question is one part of my patented "Quick Check, Self-diagnostic Snob Test." If you answered "no" you might be a pretentious fuck, or you could just be under the influence of one.

I'm not sure when I'll publish the full list. I'm actually not even done with it, and I feel it needs to be calibrated with a set of people who refer to soccer as "football" or "futbol" by which they mean "I'm a refined cosmopolitan" which is code for "I'm better than you."

Agricultural Development

I've never been that interested in agriculture in relation to development. But I started reading about the history of agricultural extension on Wikipedia and the World Bank's website--it's surprisingly interesting. The page introduces a framework toward the end that is useful for organizing thoughts about any kind of technology transfer/behavior change.

That said, I'm still skeptical of claims like this (quote from this paper):
The role of agriculture in sustainable development and poverty reduction for the vast majority of developing countries cannot be overemphasized. Forty-five percent of the developing world's population lives in households involved in agriculture, and twenty-seven percent in smallholder households, and most depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. The agricultural sector generates on average twenty-nine percent of gross domestic product (GDP), employs sixty-five percent of the labor force in agriculture-based countries ...
It seems obvious, right. Most poor people are farmers, so the key to reducing poverty is generating more income on farms. The problem with that reasoning is that assumption that people can't shift what kind of work they do. In fact, people can and are very rapidly moving from agriculture to manufacturing all over the world. Most of the poverty reduction world-wide can be attributed to growth in China and (without looking up he statistics) I'm fairly certain very little of China's growth has been driven by agriculture. The fact that "industrialized" and "developed" are nearly synonymous is telling.

Another problem is the potential for immizerating growth. Say farmers in Africa expand the supply of cotton dramatically. That supply shift should lower the price for cotton (e.g. harm Ghana and Togo's terms of trade). If the price effect is large enough it could wipe out most, all, or more than the gains from increasing quantity.

That said, agriculture is still crucial to improving people's quality of life. Millions of kids around the world are malnourished and a bumper crop can be used for, among other things, free school lunches. And for small-scale projects, you don't need to worry about general equilibrium effects, thus agricultural investment will often be a good candidate for a "project."

Update: Nature weighs in with an editorial. It's interesting that they think growth and trade won't solve most of the problem. By 2050 the average American family will have an income close to $100,000 and poor countries like China and Mexico should have incomes comparable to Europe today. Do they really think there will be that many poor people to feed? (And what, beyond supply and demand, caused the crisis in 2008?)

Favorite Movies

I always wondered if there were a poll of Americans that asks what their favorite movie is, like this one for England. It turns out there is one, from 2008, and contrary to my claim in an an earlier post, Gone with the Wind was #1.

Star Wars, the favorite in England, is #2. I think a response of any of the Star Wars movies counted for Star Wars, or many people who consider the trilogy their favorite and just said "Star Wars" because it seems odd that Star Wars was #2 and Empire didn't make the cut.

What is very surprising is that The Godfather comes it at #9. That may be a product of The Godfather - Part 2 siphoning off votes. Many people consider these two movies their favorites, but they are strongly divided about which is better (The Godfather is il migliore.)

Also revealing is that The Shawshank Redemption didn't make the list, but Forrest Gump did. I've long thought that IMDb and other sources were biased in favor of Shawshank because young people like it but old people don't. Given that Shawshank is #3 in the English poll, I suspect that there is a big divide between Americans and foreigners too. It's probably not that shocking, though, that Gump, which crushed Shawshank at the box office, is more popular. (I think it Gump is a vastly superior feel-good story.)

The box office, which I've long championed as an underrated measure of people's tastes, is also a good predictor for other films such as The Sound of Music. Gender, touch on in another post, biases most polls--with that bias removed The Notebook leaps into the top 10.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is another notable absence. My guess is that is because while everyone (all age groups, both genders) like Raiders, I don't know many people who consider it their favorite.

Would The Dark Knight make the list if another poll was done today? If it did which movie would lose the most ground? My guess is The Lord of the Rings, which was #4, might drop a few spots but would stay on the list.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Quote of the Day: Hair Edition

Blondes have around 140,000 hairs, brunettes 110,000, and redheads only 90,000
I don't know if that's true. I also don't know why black hair is ignored.

Update: I think this is the 200th (undeleted) post on this blog.

Great Speech

This is great.

More on why journalists need to study math

Usually when I write about why journalists need to make more math it's to correct a misleading statement about a statistic. This time, in a new twist, it's to correct Jeff Jacoby's subtle error in reasoning.

If you didn't read the Op-Ed, he's criticizing the National Popular Vote Compact, which will ensure the winner of the popular vote wins the presidential election when enough states ratify it. It's hard to understand Jacoby's argument because his point is (to translate) "you Democrats are so dumb, like I once was, then I became a conservative" with an imitation of Buckly-Hitchens flair.

But what I think he's saying is this: "Suppose the Democrat wins the popular vote, then MA will give it's electoral votes to them. But they almost certainly would have won the state. Now suppose the Republican wins the popular vote. There's a good chance that the Democrat won MA, so the outcome is to flip MA's 12 electoral votes in the Republican column." This is how the compact "nullifi[es] of [voter's] vote[s]."

That almost sounds like it makes sense. The compact, most likely, will make MA voters have less say in the election because it increases the chances that Republicans will win. Except that it doesn't.

What Jacoby forgot is that, while it's true that under the compact MA's electoral votes will never swing to a Democrat, it's possible votes in MA could swing Texas into the "D" column. In 2000, for instance, Gore's 787k margin of victory in MA also gave him a 545k margin of victory in the popular vote. If the compact were operative in Texas that would have flipped Texas' 34 electoral votes from Bush to Gore and Gore would have been president--thanks, of course, to MA Democrats. But under the compact, Jacoby assures us, MA Democrats would have nothing to gain.

(That only applies to a state's vote as a whole. The issue for a single voter is the probability that without their vote, under the compact, the popular vote is a tie or, under current law, neither candidate has 270 electoral votes without their state and the election in their state is a tie. For MA it's obvious the  tiny, tiny probability of the former is many, many orders of magnitude larger.)

James Franco

If I have a guilty pleasure it's reading human interest pieces. I stumbled on this one about James Franco, who is a surprisingly interesting character.

A comment on the writing: I like the style of most magazine writers, but they always throw in a few howlers that irk me. Take, for instance:
. . .like [his life is] some kind of gonzo performance piece: a high-concept parody of cultural ambition.
That's only about a third of the sentence, but the use of "high-concept" makes it mush. I also think the article could be improved by cutting out some of the more bizarre claims (see quote above). They aren't very interesting, a cardinal sin in a human interest piece.

About Franco: I've been saying the past few weeks that one of the two things that could have improved Inception is if Franco played Arthur. (He was Nolan's first choice.) Franco has an aura that could have helped reconcile the fact that Inception is dominated by DiCaprio but built on an ensemble cast. Franco's Arthur could have been Cobb-lite; Gordon-Levitt's Arthur is just part of the team. That said, Gordon-Levitt delivers some of the lines a lot better than Franco could have managed.

To find out that he's been wasting he life writing about dumb shit instead of immortalizing his career with Inception, it's a pity. But an interesting one.

Picture of the Day

"Would you consider role-playing a rape fantasy with a partner who asked you too?" 
(Green = yes, Red = No)

More here.

Wyoming might be driven by a small-sample size effect. Nevada makes a lot of sense. Florida, though, is far and away the big state most interested in rape fantasies. I wasn't that surprised. Also note the legacy of puritanism is alive and well in New England.


I wonder why people care if something is an original, or "authentic."

Someone says "this is authentic Sicilian music" and people are primed to think it's better. But if you wouldn't know the difference between--someone had to tell you, after all--an old Sicilian song and one written by an American last year, why would you care?

In some cases, it makes sense to say "authentic" as a signal. A pizza palor in Boston is called "New York Pizza" and I think they advertise as "authentic New York style." Why? New York Pizza is the best kind of pizza, so it's a signal the product is good. It's also a costlessly cheap signal to send, so you shouldn't trust it. But a lot of people, who wouldn't know the difference between some shit baked in New Haven and a real New York slice, would care if it was "real" New York pizza. Why?

Authenticity makes people particualrly irrational in the art world. Few people can tell the difference between an authentic Picasso and a good replica by looking at the paintings. Maybe no one can. So why doesn't any care if they're buying a forgery? If you're an investor you should. If someone finds out, that investment is going to plummet in value. But suppose you're just a collector. All you can do with a painting is look at it.

You find the same kind of irrationality with new paintings. Someone says they discovered a lost Monet. Everyone looks at it and they form their opinions about how it looks and whether it's "real." Shouldn't the painting be valued based on how it looks? What kind of nut case cares who painted it? (If you get the utility from your paintings by using them as a signal that you're rich, as a way of saying, without saying it, that "look, I'm better than you because I can buy this expensive paintings" then I understand why you care. But you've got a lot of more serious problems. And why can't you just tape diamonds on the wall next to a replica?)

Sometimes I wonder if I'm crazy for just enjoying food, songs, and paintings I like instead of using (and changing) my tastes to project an image of who I want people to think I am. It's most people's revealed preference (at least among the rich) to do the later, so there's got to be something good about it? Then again, when you mention it this behavior to people, they deny it. I guess maybe they aren't so proud of it.